The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider


There’s been considerable discussion, particularly in this thread on Michi’s blog about the Carnival of Mathematics.

If you’ve been here from the beginning, you know that I was a contributor to the CoM since its beginning. It’s a great idea, but the execution… well, as time went by it just had more and more to do with brainteasers and education and less and less to do with the meat of the mathematical matters.

It might have had something to do with handing it to a sequence of weblogs that are only tangentially mathematical in their mission, and particularly a streak of explicitly math-ed weblogs. It might just be that the vast majority of people reading and writing weblogs who think of themselves as knowing some math are really computer programmers, physicists, and engineers who use mathematics as a tool and only ever really see pure, unadulterated mathematics in the form of puzzles or tricks; or pre-college mathematics teachers who, by and large, do not spend any time thinking about mathematics that will not help their students learn the material rather than for its own sake.

And so I eventually stopped when for three postings in a row I stuck out like a sore thumb as the only contribution above the level of a sudoku.

Don’t get me wrong. All these lower-level non-technical posts are good, but I started to feel like the 50-year-old guy at a rave. By that point, nobody was coming to the Carnival to read about categorification. And this host couldn’t even spell the g—–n word despite my using it in my submission email, over and over in the linked post, and in the freaking title of the post. It was clear that I was the odd man out here, and that my submissions were only begrudgingly accepted with little care from the hosts.

I think that was the beginning of the end for me. The next fortnight I was in Faro, which gave me a good out-of-line post on Khovanov Homology, but since then I haven’t felt at all interested in writing anything outside my main expository line for Carnival submission. That next Friday came and went and I saw no difference in my hits. Just as I’d thought, nobody was coming from Carnival who wouldn’t have come anyway.

So here’s how I see it. The Carnival of Mathematics has become a de facto carnival of lower-level mathematics, brainteasers, and mathematics education. And I’m fine with that. I’m leaning towards letting it be and just starting a new carnival for actual mathematics. There are certainly many more mathematics weblogs than there were when CoM began, and they could support at least a monthly carnival on their own now. Or maybe this more academic community is inclined to disdain the carnival approach entirely.

Other people have suggested that there’s something to be gained by mixing the levels, and while I agree that something could be gained, I don’t think anything is being gained. People coming from the lower-level and dilettantish weblogs are not reading the higher-level material. And higher-level people can still read the Carnival posts and find what’s new in sudoku-land if they want, whether high-level blatherers submit to CoM or not.

But let’s be sort of scientific about this. A show of hands: who found The UM through a carnival post linked from a lower-level sometimes-mathematical weblog? Who found it through a comment I’d made on another weblog, or through a direct reference on another weblog? Who still finds upper-level weblogs through the Carnival? And what, specifically, do you think will be lost if weblogs like The UM, God Plays Dice, and the Seminars recognize the CoM‘s current state for what it is rather than what it could have been and move on with our lives and weblogs?

I’d like it if you leave a visible comment here, but if you’d prefer to email your correspondence to me privately you know I’m teaching at Tulane now…


August 18, 2007 - Posted by | rants


  1. I can’t argue with anything you’re saying, but for what it’s worth I discovered your blog, and several others like it, through the CoM.

    The carnival may seem to be out of step with the few people like yourself that are doing expository posts on college level math, but if you stop submitting entries then that becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. People do seem to have lost interest, though. For example, Mark Chu-Carroll’s series of posts on graph theory is the kind of thing that should appeal to a broad range of readers, but evidently he didn’t bother submitting any of the entries.

    I still hold out a little bit of hope that things may pick up when school resumes next month.

    Comment by Kurt | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  2. I thought the vedic maths forum issue of COM was especially bizarre, since the website hosting seemed to be trying to sell something…(There also seems to be a post on harry potter and arithmancy now)

    But for what it’s worth, I found this through browsing another blog and not through COM.

    Comment by logicus | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  3. I haven’t read CoM very much, and my intro to it happened to be the vedic maths issue. Which was, yes, bizzare. I haven’t read an issue since.

    I actually found UM from a link on Tao’s blog, I think.

    Comment by nbornak | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  4. I originally found you through the Carnival, but I noticed pretty much the same thing you are talking about and haven’t really looked back at the carnival at all anymore- I simply bookmarked those blogs (such as yours) I found interesting.

    Keep up the good work (even though I don’t understand it all…yet).


    Comment by Eric the Riley | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  5. I’m not certain where I found you – it might well have been the early carnivals, but it might just as well have been a link elsewhere or a comment.

    As for the vedic maths forum, I actually left out a link from them in my carnival edition. It just didn’t seem non-spammy enough for me.

    Comment by Mikael Johansson | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  6. I certainly found this blog through reading a carnival once when I was bored.
    But I added on my subscription list because it was different from all the other stuff on the list.

    However I’m sure I’d found it some week later anyway when I was clicking peoples names on the comments on some post somewhere (something I rarely do).

    I’m all for the splitting of carnivals.

    Comment by Val | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  7. You know, it’s funny that you mention The Everything Seminar and Secret Blogging Seminar. If you’ll go to some of their recent posts, you’ll see comments from me soliciting submissions from them precisely because they’re written at my level (it’s different from your level, but still).

    If you seriously object to the general level in some of the more recent carnivals, you can host in three weeks and solicit more advanced material.

    It’s all about soliciting; I’m pretty sure the shift toward 6-12 math began when Jonathan had sparse submissions because it took me forever to put his email on BlogCarnival, so he soliciting submissions from all the bloggers he knew, which were tilted toward high school math. I thought that it would be a one-time focus, and perhaps a future host would have more advanced stuff; if I’d known what I know now, I’d have begun mail-bombing every grad-level blogger asking him to submit to the next edition. So if Jonathan’s experience is any indication, you only need one edition with 10 posts I wouldn’t have understood two years ago to get the ball rolling… I have a strong feeling it’ll be the 15th edition, but you can also try making it the 16th if you want.

    Comment by Alon Levy | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  8. I found my way here via the n-Category Cafe.

    I like the idea of starting a new carnival. Hey, nothing stops an individual blogger from submitting to both, particularly if they’ve got a post which begins with simple stuff and advances as it goes along. Over on Michi’s blog, someone mentioned hosting the new carnival on the same blog every time round. I’m not so sure about the idea; that sounds an awful lot like rediscovering This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics, and while revisiting an old success is always nice, maybe we should be aiming for something new?

    Comment by Blake Stacey | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  9. If you seriously object to the general level in some of the more recent carnivals

    Alon, do me a solid and read my post again. I don’t object to the level at all, I just think that having both levels together is a lost cause. Here, let me try it slowly.

    People. Do. Not. Read. The. Carnival. For. This. Level. Of. Mathematics.

    Even when I’ve had a post in lately, almost nobody clicks through from there to here. You were on WordPress, so you know that I can tell that sort of thing. This is an objective fact, and we’re not going to be greeted as liberators if we ignore it.

    Comment by John Armstrong | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  10. Well, if it makes you feel any better, the only time I got a traffic bump from the carnival was when I hosted it.

    But anyway, the more grad-level bloggers participate in and link to the carnival, the more people will read it for grad-level posts. If you’re the only one who contributes, then yeah, you’ll get overwhelmed by the high school-level stuff and you’ll want to break away. But if eight different blogs send stuff about category theory and algebraic number theory and noncommutative geometry every two weeks, then yes, you’ll get that traffic bump.

    I’ve asked Jonathan about his traffic experience, and I have a strong feeling his mirrors yours, i.e. very little if any now. The carnival’s slower than it used to be, even leaving aside the question of post level. For what it’s worth, if you host, you’ll definitely get a bump. How big I can’t say because a) it’ll be less than what I got, and b) mine was spread out over three weeks and came right after another bump, so it could be anything from 2,000 to 8,000 additional hits.

    Comment by Alon Levy | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  11. I discovered this blag through the n-Category Cafe. I don’t read the CoM and I think starting another grad-level carnival is not necessary. The number of blags on this level isn’t that great, people who read these probably have most of them, if not all, bookmarked and read them on a regular basis. I just don’t think readers will discover anything new on a grad-level carnival.

    Comment by Grétar Amazeen | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  12. John, I was right: Jonathan stopped getting traffic bumps around the same time you did. So it has nothing to do with focus and everything to do with the fact that GM/BM isn’t linking to the carnivals lately. He also says,

    “Also, my bump from hosting was absolutely tremendous. My weekday pageviews went from 200 – 400 up to 1400 when the Carnival hit to 400 – 600 now, over the summer. The links to Carnival 9 continue to provide a handful of daily hits. And the Carnival itself made WordPress’ top ten posts for two days.”

    Comment by Alon Levy | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  13. And my hits never even went as high as 1400 from the Carnival. More evidence that people click through the carnival for the low level stuff rather than the high level stuff.

    Look, I know you feel so strongly about it because it was your idea to start out, but it just doesn’t work for the high-level math weblogs. There just aren’t enough people out there who want to read it that don’t know about us already.

    Comment by John Armstrong | August 18, 2007 | Reply

  14. No, Jonathan got 1400 out of hosting.

    Comment by Alon Levy | August 19, 2007 | Reply

  15. I think you´’re making a lot of sense. I’ve certainly found most of the Carnival-posts boring lately.

    I’d personally place the non-trivial brainsteasers with the research blogs however. I think they more naturally belong among the research posts, since there actually about doing mathematics, than among the math-ed blogs.

    Comment by Johan Richter | August 19, 2007 | Reply

  16. Back up top, our host raised a point which, I think, hasn’t been fully addressed.

    Don’t get me wrong. All these lower-level non-technical posts are good, but I started to feel like the 50-year-old guy at a rave. By that point, nobody was coming to the Carnival to read about categorification. And this host couldn’t even spell the g——n word despite my using it in my submission email, over and over in the linked post, and in the freaking title of the post. It was clear that I was the odd man out here, and that my submissions were only begrudgingly accepted with little care from the hosts.

    OK, so one act of egregious carelessness does not a trend make; nevertheless, I think this is a legitimate concern. People who volunteer to host the CoM because they care about recreational number puzzles and K-12 math education will probably not have the technical background necessary to organize and summarize posts on n-category theory. Anyone submitting a post which requires at least a few years of university mathematics to understand would have to spell out a lay explanation — and that “lay explanation” would often be, I expect, just a list of the classes one would have to take in order to understand the post!

    Comment by Blake Stacey | August 20, 2007 | Reply

  17. mathbloggers dot com, eh?
    too bad you need a password to see it.
    oooh, “powered by social rank”.
    oh how i *wish* i had as much to be
    a snob about as some people.

    i can’t remember how i found out
    about the unapologetic … but
    i sure wouldn’t rule out th’ carny.

    carnival #14 has had 437 hits
    since i posted it on august 8
    according to wordpress’s counter.

    Comment by vlorbik | August 23, 2007 | Reply

  18. Only 437 hits for hosting the CoM? Crap! Maybe I should talk to Alon and see if I can back out of hosting the next one. (Just kidding, of course. Despite the back-and-forth between John and Alon, I don’t think it’s the hit counts per se that matter.)

    BTW, I have a post at my blog about that pingback up above.

    Comment by Kurt | August 24, 2007 | Reply

  19. Kurt, I’m not scrounging for hits, and (unlike some other commenters) I haven’t even been talking about raw hits.

    What I’m talking about is the number of people who have clicked through to my post from the link on the Carnival post. This measures the number of people who see the blurb on the Carnival and actually want to read the post it refers to. And that number has dropped off dramatically. I’ll see how they like the CEO compensation post, but I’m not expecting much.

    Comment by John Armstrong | August 24, 2007 | Reply

  20. Understood. I was just trying to be ironic, but I guess I didn’t express it very well. The real issue is how best to promote the posts to the intended audiences.

    I know in TCS, there are maybe about a dozen professionals who blog on the subject, and anyone who’s interested in the topic probably already reads them. But there are also probably a lot more student/amateur bloggers that could benefit from the exposure of the Carnival. And there is the benefit from crossover exposure between related communities like pure math, TCS, machine learning and AI, etc. So there may be some value to a Carnival that has a mish-mash of different stuff in it.

    Comment by Kurt | August 24, 2007 | Reply

  21. […] few interested readers are circulating this site, I thought it might be a good time to resurrect a slightly old discussion on the place of research in the mathematics carnival. Some people seem to think […]

    Pingback by Carnivale! « Secret Blogging Seminar | August 27, 2007 | Reply

  22. Unfortunately, I completely missed this thread until now. As I am the one who raised the issue of the split back in Carnival X and pushed the envelope over at Michi’s blog and then again over at mine, I feel I should say something. First of all, I started this dialogue because I really didn’t know for sure how readers felt about mixing homological algebra with discussions of teaching fraction concepts. Thirty five years ago I was more interested in the former, although algebraic topology was never my favorite – I was doing research in algebraic number theory. At this point, I can not claim to be conversant with that level of mathematics (use it or lose it) so, while I can appreciate that level, it would be difficult for me to make more than a superficial comment about such a post when describing it in the Carnival. This is why I asked Alon if we could request (as in require) at the main CoM site that submitters write a short abstract of their work (including intended audience if appropriate). This way the submitter will not feel short-changed, at least the description will be accurate! If the host feels comfortable in making a more profound observation, that’s great. The host could request this at their own site, which I specifically did for Carnival X, but some submit through the Carnival submission form and would miss this.

    John, a couple of weeks ago, sensing a vacuum, I volunteered to move in your direction and even moderate a Carnival of MathEd, while you do your thing. What I was really hoping for was that by raising such a provocative idea, I’d get juices flowing and strong reactions both ways – and I did. Jonathan’s points about summer doldrums and giving the Carnival more time to grow, particularly in the fall, as well as many other reasoned comments, began to sway me, although I still believe there is a clear separation between higher-level mathematics and everything else. I am now back to being the centrist that I am, keeping the Carnival intact, encouraging submissions from both sides and separating them as I did in Carnival X. There is no simple answer here. Notice I have not yet mentioned visits or page views. Suffice it to say that I have not experienced ANY drop-off this summer, in fact, I have seen a steady growth, irrespective of the Carnival. I attribute this to the frequency of and interest level in my posts -it’s all about content! I’m not posting original research at the high end of math, but I am publishing original full-blown investigations for K-14 students that hopefully will enrich their mathematical experiences if educators choose to use them in some way. I absolutely check to see traffic daily because that guides me in my writing. If I don’t publish for 3-4 days, traffic declines. If my posts aren’t engaging to a wide enough audience, my traffic similarly declines. That’s the nature of publishing. One might choose to disregard their audience and blog for other reasons, but I am specifically writing with an audience in mind.

    So, what to do? For me, I will continue to submit to the Carnival and host occasionally if invited. When submitting, I will continue to write a short abstract of my piece and, when hosting, I will request this. I will endeavor to distinguish math ed articles from graduate level mathematics, although the topic usually makes the distinction clear.

    Perhaps, in the end, John,we need to revisit the purpose of the Carnival. Alon made it very clear in the original description:

    And now math bloggers have the Carnival of Mathematics. If you have anything to blog about that’s related to math, it belongs here. Possible topics include,

    – Proofs of theorems and formulas, whether in pure or applied math;
    – Explanations of mathematical concepts, as basic as those on ScienceBlogs’ basic concepts series;
    – Anything related to math education, from complaints about innumerate students to long-winded theories of how to teach math;
    – Debunking bad math, especially when used to bolster bad science, bad economics, or bad politics;
    – How to apply good math to other fields like physics, economics, computer science, and ;
    – Math in popular culture: the TV series Numb3rs, the movies Pi and Proof, any book by Simon Singh, and so on.

    Alon’s conception clearly was to be as inclusive as possible, to invite the widest possible range of submissions. Like all creations, he may want to revise or slightly modify his original idea here, but the consensus seems to be that most readers are satisfied with it. While I may still have doubts about the utility of such a broad spectrum approach, I’m now choosing to remain part of this. Who knows, John, if a host such as yourself chooses to emphasize the advanced end, and there is a dearth of carnival submissions from the other side, there may be a similar concern expressed about slant! The host definitely impacts this by her/his known area of expertise or interest. If I or Jonathan is hosting, I would expect more submissions from the ed side, but, in truth, I had both sides represented. Each host, no matter how objective she/he wants to be, brings a natural subjectivity and their own unique flavor to the Carnival and that’s the way it should be. One final thought here– I think Alon’s attempt to meld advanced graduate mathematics with K-14 mathematics is incredibly ambitious and I congratulate him for it. It is human nature and very common for secondary teachers to bemoan the lack of preparation of their students and university people to bemoan the lack of preparation of their students and so on. Always has been, always will be. For the most part, there has been civility on these blogs, however, I believe it is very important for all sides in this discussion to maintain the highest level of respect when addressing concerns about the direction of the Carnival or this group or that group. ‘Nuf said…

    Comment by Dave Marain | August 29, 2007 | Reply

  23. Dave, you’re falling into the same trap as everybody else.

    First, I’m not complaining about low hits. How many times to I have to repeat myself here? The statistic I’m looking at is the number of people coming through from Carnival posts to my posts. And I’m looking at that to gain insight into…

    What kind of people actually read the Carnival? The host can dance all he wants, but in the end it all depends on the readers. If the readers aren’t coming for the advanced material, then they’re not coming for the advanced material. And at that point you can post whatever the hell you want, but the readers aren’t interested.

    So, does the advanced mathematics blogging community have the volume to support a separate Carnival, or would that even be a good idea? I don’t know. My point is not a normative “we should split”, but a descriptive “nobody reads the Carnival for the high-end stuff”. And all the wishful thinking of the hosts and the submitters just isn’t going to change that.

    Comment by John Armstrong | August 29, 2007 | Reply

  24. John, I didn’t address that point and I should have. Yes, I do analyze how many readers come to my posts directly from the Carnival. I’m not as concerned about those huge ‘bumps’ to which Jonathan refers. I note it and move on since my readership comes from many other sources as well. The Carnival is a new experience for me and I enjoy learning about others’ blogs, particularly new ones. Further, I like commenting on these and alerting my readers to new and interesting content. That’s what it represents for me. BUT I DO UNDERSTAND YOUR POINT. If there’s a scarcity of carnival readers looking for advanced math content, then that is objective reality. That might change however – I just don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see. I hope you give it a few more tries, particularly with posts that explain advanced content in simpler terms. That’s one of your unique talents and I will come back to your blog for that and more. On a much more elementary scale, I’m attempting to bring more advanced mathematics to the 7-12 group. Thus far, it has been fairly well-received for a niche blog with a limited readership. I’m not writing about controversial topics like “What’s wrong with American Education!”, although I occasionally make reference to it. Naturally, most casual readers who fall into my blog are absolutely turned off by the technicalities and I’m not even doing advanced stuff! Oh, well…
    Please stay with us for a while longer. You can always go off in another direction as well. FWIW, I feel your contributions enrich the Carnival and the math blogosphere. Good luck in whatever decision you come to.

    Comment by Dave Marain | August 29, 2007 | Reply

  25. […] of the CoM is up and running at Learning Computation. Despite previous conversations here and here the carnival has not been split. So, enjoy some math ed, some pure math, and some computer […]

    Pingback by Carnival of Mathematics XVI « Continuities | September 9, 2007 | Reply

  26. You said “The Carnival of Mathematics has become a de facto carnival of lower-level mathematics, brainteasers, and mathematics education.” But I still cannot understand why you think so, Hi, My name is John, and My site is mysite

    Comment by John | June 20, 2008 | Reply

  27. […] doing, haven’t hosted a carnival before). So, please submit stuff to it. I know that some people consider it a carnival of lower mathematics, and I’ve looked over the last few and tend to […]

    Pingback by Mathematical Odds and Ends « Rigorous Trivialities | July 5, 2008 | Reply

  28. […] see that it appears to be just a link aggregator site. (For example, as of this writing you can use this post at The Unapologetic Mathematician and scroll to near the bottom of the comments.) There is one […]

    Pingback by Link this, SocialRank « Learning Computation | April 30, 2010 | Reply

  29. […] ed” posts and “math research” (for lack of a better term) posts, for example here, here and here. So as a little experiment, I’ll be grouping the submissions by these […]

    Pingback by Math Carnivalia: Present, Future and Past « Learning Computation | April 30, 2010 | Reply

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