A question of mine here was closed for being "not specific to mathematics." I am at the mercy of the moderators of this forum just like everyone else, but I would like to challenge the community on the way this was handled.

  1. First of all, there have been other such questions that are not technically "specific to mathematics" that have not been closed. Sometimes they are even among the most popular on the site! For example: here, here, here, the first of which garnered a lot of rep to one of those who closed my question.

  2. Secondly, unlike the previous "borderline questions", mine was not given time to either catch the interest of the community or fizzle out.

  3. Thirdly, my question is primarily of significance to math folks. While my question could be generalized (with arguably little content lost) to other scientific fields, in practice it seems rather localized to the subject in which pencil and paper is the primary means of communicating to various audience. Would the question be more on point if I asked about how math students communicate with their advisers long distance? Maybe technically, but my question is in the same spirit and arguably better focused.

On here as at MO, there are times when a question that may be against the letter of the law, is within the spirit of the law and the level-headed pleas of a few people of good judgment may keep a question open despite the objections of the finicky. The point of the rules should be, it seems to me, to serve the community. We are not meant to serve the rules.

But I bow down to the will of the various powers that run the show.

One of the highest voted questions on MathOverflow is about where to purchase a special type of chalk. – zyx Mar 5 '13 at 23:39
Here: mathoverflow.net/questions/26267/… Only mathematicians use chalk, obviously! – Lepidopterist Mar 5 '13 at 23:48
Many questions are closed as off-topic by community vote, rather than by moderator intervention. I do not understand the way in which a moderator (or anyone else) can garner "a lot of rep" by closing a question. But yes, your question would have been more on-topic if it concerned remote communication between math students and advisers. Presumably this application is so clear to you, you expect everyone one to read that into your question. I for one did not get even a hint that this was your concern. – hardmath Mar 6 '13 at 0:00
@hardmath, the rep was garnered from the top answer to this question: math.stackexchange.com/questions/193072/…, which he admitted was "borderline off-topic". I did write: "Communicate with an adviser by showing him my tablet scribblings in real-time." What would you have preferred? – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 0:01
The issue there included writing mathematics "with a stylus" using a tablet. You are of course welcome to edit your Question to make some connection with mathematics, either reading or writing or solving. Keep in mind as well that Questions need to be answerable as well as on topic. Discussion of tablets for math classes generally would likely fail as "not a real question". – hardmath Mar 6 '13 at 0:07
My question is perfectly answerable and highly relevant to people who need to present math both to students, colleagues or advisers from long distance. I would be interested in someone addressing my three points. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 0:11
@hardmath, this question also stated that notes will be taken with a stylus. Other things that it mentions are: lectures, notes, note-taking, advisors, advisees, MSE, and MO. In addition, it is posted on a math site. It's hard to see how much clearer the connection could be, or how one question can be of general interest on a mathematics forum and the other not. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 0:16
That other question has 110 revisions on one of the answers. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 0:22
I didn't realize it was standard practice to downvote Meta Questions that you disagree with. I would appreciate an explanation for the downvotes in the comments. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 1:45
We have a thread for requests to reopen, meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/6424/… – Gerry Myerson Mar 6 '13 at 2:04
I wasn't aware of that system, thanks for pointing me to it. That said, I did try to raise some general issues. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 2:05
I think a lot of time and effort could have been saved if someone had said "Yo! Can you make it clear how this question is relevant to maths?". Lepidopterist makes a quick edit, and everyone is happy, and this obscenely long thread would not exist! There is no need to be quite so delete-button happy! – user1729 Mar 7 '13 at 10:53
  1. I did not close the question because of legalism. I closed the question because it was off-topic. The question was about how to use technology to accomplish a particular goal that many people, e.g. academics in non-mathematical fields, might want to accomplish. This is not the place to ask such questions; it could've been asked, for example, on apple.stackexchange.com instead.

  2. You perceive hypocrisy from an entity that is not remotely monolithic. Community norms about what kinds of questions to close change over time, and any given moderator is also not online 24/7 to enforce a particular idea about what to close all the time. Some questions that ought to be closed just slip under the radar.

  3. Popularity of questions is not closely correlated to what the moderators want to see from questions. Popularity of questions is primarily determined by several other factors, e.g. how accessible the question is, whether someone linked to it on reddit, etc. that have nothing to do with what the moderators think. Don't confuse one for the other.

  4. I had absolutely zero interest in gaining any reputation from answering the question you linked to, I'm embarrassed that the answer got as many upvotes as it did, and I resent that you're using the fact that I gained reputation on that answer to suggest that I'm a hypocrite. I've just converted the answer to community wiki. Again, as I already mentioned, that question is borderline, and if it were asked today I might want it closed. I have no investment in that question except that I think the answers currently contains some useful information. If you would like to see it closed, but not deleted, in the name of consistency, I would be happy to do that.

  5. I would have been fine with a slight rewording of the question to make it more specifically mathematical.

For comparison, another category of questions like this that I would close (more precisely, migrate to academia.stackexchange.com) concerns career advice, e.g. "how do I deal with my advisor?"-type questions that are not specific to academic mathematicians. Nevertheless, you will see several such questions here, and part of the reason is that academia.SE did not exist when some of those questions were asked.

I have no interest in throwing words around like "hypocrite." You may not want the points, but you answered the question. That points to a tension in this issue. The fact is that strictly off-topic questions are of quite some interest, some of the time. I point not to your hypocrisy, but your previous judgment, which I'm sure is still shared by others. If you ask me to reword, I can reword, though I fail to see how I can make it much better in this case. Maybe I could garnish it. To me it is plain that this is of particular interest to math folks. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 1:43
And I do not understand the suggestion to go to an Apple forum, unless you are suggesting that Ipads in fact are the answer to my needs. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 1:44
@Lepidopterist: apple.SE was an example of a possible alternative if you wanted to ask specifically about iPad-related solutions. Here is a wording I might be happy with: "From time to time I need to talk about mathematics with my advisor remotely. I would like to approximate writing on a blackboard together as closely as is reasonable. What are some technological options I have for doing this?" This makes the specificity to mathematics clearer. – Qiaochu Yuan Mar 6 '13 at 1:51
Ok, I'll add the garnish. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 1:52
I appreciate restoring the question. Forgive my prickliness, I just strongly believe in the question. Thank you for engaging me here. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 1:57
What would it have taken to get the closure moderator-reversed, without waiting for any more reopen votes and without any edits to the question? The sequence of events was: OP wrote a comment that he will change the text, then 3 minutes later edited the question in accordance with Qiaochu's suggested wording, and 1 minute afterward the question was reopened. The rewriting was sufficient for a re-opening, but was it a precondition? – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 6:55

Sorry but I'm with Qiaochu on this one. It's true that this is of interest to math folks, but a lot of us like beer too, and I think a "best beers" question would be pretty clearly off topic. (If not, someone please correct me immediately.) However, a sufficiently supported "best beers for math" post, asking about which hops help you integrate the best, would be perfectly acceptable.

In case you're not getting my metaphor: why don't you just narrow the question down to ask about specific video lecture issues for math? Ask about whether the resolution support will be good enough to write equations, or whether you can put in TeX, or where the best places are to post your videos so that mathematics students will see them.

It just comes down to refining your question. You don't have to take anything out, you just have to put more math in.

I don't think your analogy is very good. Drinking beer has nothing to do with math as a practice (insert jokes), my question has everything to do with it. If we're going to get expansive, though, I wouldn't mind a good whiskey thread. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 2:00
@Lepidopterist Neither would I. (And for the record: Bulleit.) But my point is, the off topic rule doesn't mean questions must lay within the interests of the community. It means questions have to be specifically related to math. And I mean this specifically in response to what zyx quoted. – Alexander Gruber Mar 6 '13 at 2:05
A question on the afternoon tea in math department lounges could be on topic. And the earlier questions were less specific than this one. The 55 upvotes one only mentioned note-taking with a stylus, something that is a subset of the items in the present question. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 2:05
Math is a field of study, but also a practice. That means the question of what chalk to use might be very important. Of course you could simply purge all such questions of praxis from the site. But why would you? As with all things, of course, good judgment is required. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 2:08
@zyx No offense, but unless there is math-specific tea etiquette I don't know about, I'd vote to close that. I think the ipad question is fine because taking notes for math classes is explicitly different from taking notes in other classes. You need to be able to write diagrams and equations quickly and often. – Alexander Gruber Mar 6 '13 at 2:08
@Lepidopterist If somebody legitimately had a question about chalk specific to writing math I wouldn't object; it just can't be about general chalk usage. But, this is just my interpretation of the rules. – Alexander Gruber Mar 6 '13 at 2:13
I like a good Guinness. It's a shame that in Israel the Guinness is not good. – Asaf Karagila Mar 6 '13 at 2:14
Alexander, it was completely clear that mathematical notetaking was part of the original question, and that opinions were sought from people with experience in such notetaking and other mathematical communication done by computer. The non math-specific chalk question was extremely popular and there was every reason to believe that some math-related element might be posted in answer. There is no way to know unless there is the chance to answer. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 2:25
@zyx I see what you mean, but the original question only asked about video communication with his advisor with an interactive blackboard, which is a common request. The question would have fit in on any forum for grad students just as well (which suggests it should have been migrated to academia.stackexchange if you ask me). I don't think anybody is saying the question can't be asked here, it just needs to be made more clear. – Alexander Gruber Mar 6 '13 at 3:25
@zyx The chalk question was on MO, not MSE. MO functions very differently. The community is much smaller, people asking such questions are expected to have shown their prowess, and whether a question should be open or closed on MO is not just a function of the question ("I don't think there are likely to be more sufficiently interesting answer than the ones already given, so I voted to close".). – Michael Greinecker Mar 6 '13 at 8:55
@MichaelGreinecker, there is no "expected to show prowess" requirement on MO. The chalk question could have been asked by anyone, and I believe it would have been comparably popular. It was a question of likely interest to mathematicians even though not about mathematics, and that was sufficient to not immediately close it. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 11:43
@zyx I'm sure a new user with neither much MO nor real-world reputation would have received a very different treatment. If you look at MO-meta discussions, it is clear that a question by Bill Thurston with a vote count of 155 would have been immediately closed when asked by someone else. – Michael Greinecker Mar 6 '13 at 12:31
@MichaelGreinecker, the number of MO questions kept open that would have been closed if not for the status of its OP, is approximately two by my estimate, and possibly zero. The questions by Thurston and Gowers, if posted by random users, would still have been of considerable interest and, I believe, likely to have survived after (at the worst) some discussion on meta. The chalk question would have been welcome from any user, because it is of obvious and unique interest on a mathematics site. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 14:14
@zyx The chalk question was asked by a mathematics professor who also has a lot of MO rep. Try asking something similar as unknown(google). – Michael Greinecker Mar 6 '13 at 14:22
I'm well aware of who posted it, since I know him from real life, not the internet. Search MO for terms like 'chalk', [math-communication] and similar and you will see that low- and lower-reputation users succeed in asking comparable and less interesting questions. And high-rep MO old guard having some of their soft-questions closed. I think it is done mainly on the qualities of the question, not who posts, and that even the Fields medal effect that you cited is greatly overestimated. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 15:00

"The point of the rules should be, it seems to me, to serve the community. We are not meant to serve the rules."

Highlighting that for those who did not read the whole thing.

The point of a rule is to serve the community as whole, but by nature this means that not everyone will be served. (For an extreme example, the laws against stealing serve the whole, but they do not serve the thief!) – apnorton Mar 6 '13 at 15:53
Of course, but what's the relevance to this issue? Recall I claimed that my original question served the community. – Lepidopterist Mar 6 '13 at 18:16
Rules are a guessed approximation to what will serve the community in the unknown future. This is why in many cases, when that future arrives, it is better (for the community) to ignore, violate, or improve the rules than to obey them. – zyx Mar 6 '13 at 18:17

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