Quick Overview Edit
Use English and normal ASCII. UTF8 is just about acceptable, but note that this reduces the number of people who can understand you. If just plain english will not do, see sensible notation for how to write mathematics on IRC.
The channels are for the discussion of mathematics. No warez, $$$ ads, etc. Please keep all discussion in channel: People generally do not want to be messaged and do not want to give private tutoring.
All areas of mathematics (topology, analysis, probability, mathematical phyiscs, etc.) are of interest, no matter how basic or advanced. Topics of little to no interest are mathematics software (octave (see #octave), gnuplot (see #gnuplot), mathematica, maple, TeX (see #latex), etc.), non-mathematical physics, having your homework done for you, computer programming homework ("how do i implement the quicksort algorithm in C++"?), chemical equations, chess, piano, etc. Illegal activities, even if somehow related to math, are not welcome.
Stay On Topic Edit
Within reason, stick to discussion of mathematics, and if someone asks you to discontinue off-topic conversation you should do so. Some people are under the unfortunate impression that #math is a channel devoted to homework enthusiasts, and that any homework (chemistry labs, physics problem sets, computer programs, even English essays) is worthy of discussion. This is not the case.
Different people will react differently to off-topic discussion at different times. Various reactions might be:
- Absolutely nothing.
- Requesting that the discussion be moved to #not-math or a more appropriate channel (e.g., #physics, for physics discussion)
- In extreme cases, channel operators (ops) may kick or ban one or several of those involved in the off-topic discussion from the channel. Depending on the size or content of the discussion, this may be the first warning.
Freenode is different from many other networks in that channel operators do not stay op'd until they need to use those privileges; you should always assume there is someone with the ability to remove you if you are detracting from the quality of the channel. If there are no ops around and someone is being annoying, please alert a freenode network oper (try someone listed in '/stats p' output: all freenode staff members have ops in #math). In any case #not-math has been created for discussing subjects off-topic in #math: if people want to talk off-topic they will be in there, and if not they are probably not interested.
Since this is a sensitive topic with a lot of people more should be said about it. Relevant factors are:
- Time of day. What is acceptable at 4am when only two people are active is often different from what is acceptable at 8pm on a busy night.
- Whether there are any mathematics discussions going on. Off-topic discussion is more likely to be discouraged when math is being done on the channel---but not always. People may discourage off-topic discussion even when no math discussion is taking place. As "unfair" as this may seem it is just a fact of life on #math. Because of its dedication to a single topic (mathematics), #math is not like a lot of other IRC channels. Also, #not-math exists.
- Whether those involved in the discussion seem to know or care that they are on a mathematics channel. If you and a friend join the channel within 5 seconds of each other and immediately begin talking about something random, you will almost certainly be dealt with more harshly than somebody who has been working on a mathematics problem in the channel.
- The sort of response that any request to return to a mathematical topic produces. It is not a good idea to curse at people, or attempt to argue some kind of case for off-topic discussion.
- The amount of the off-topic discussion, or the rate at which it is generated.
- The subject matter of the off-topic discussion. Issues that are likely to generate a lot of random "chat" from random people (such as computers, politics, sex, whether a movie or band is good or sucks) are more likely to generate a harsher response. Off-topic discussions that are unlikely to generate large-scale conversations are usually ignored.
- Whether those involved in the discussion are regulars, or new to the channel. As "unfair" as this may seem it is just a fact of life on just about any IRC channel.
Despite this long and fascist-sounding list, #math is meant to be a friendly and tolerant channel, and indeed most #math regulars are generally sane people and if you make even a minimal effort to respect their sensibilities you will probably not be kicked or banned for anything.
Don't Ask to Ask Edit
When people join the channel, they often ask whether or not they can ask a question, for example:
- Can anybody help me with this problem?
- Can someone check a calculation I did?
- Is anybody awake who can help me with my homework?
Although this might seem like the polite thing to do, it is important to keep in mind:
- The channel usually has a lot of people on it. If everybody did this, these kinds of questions and their answers would cause any math that people might be doing to scroll away too quickly for anybody to read it. See People are Often Busy.
- There is no way for anybody to know whether they can help you until you have said what it is you need help with. See also Don't Ask Vague Questions.
Things run more smoothly when people don't ask to ask and just state their questions. It is not impolite to do this on #math!
Don't Ask Vague Questions Edit
People often ask general questions whose purpose is to find an audience for their more specific questions. These often sound as if somebody is taking a survey or looking for one-on-one help, for example:
- Any linear algebra whizzes in here?
- Has anybody taken differential equations?
- Is anybody good with related rates?
- Can somebody help me with a calculus problem?
- Does anyone know about simplicially-enriched category theory?
These seem like logical questions to ask, but consider the following:
- It is rare that someone will commit themselves to helping you with your question before they know exactly what it is (just as it was in Don't Ask to Ask), even if you loosely describe it.
- Quite frequently, the majority of the active people on the channel are looking for math help of their own or are otherwise busy (see People are Often Busy). The odds that you can get a help from a busy person go up if the only question you ask them is the one you want the answer to, not a general-interest "survey" type question.
- Subject names (for example "calculus," "differential equations") give very little information. There are easy calculus problems and very difficult calculus problems--- without more information, there is no telling how much calculus one needs to know to answer the question "can somebody help me with my calculus homework?"
- Subject names can mean different things in different places. For example, most high schools and most math graduate schools offer (very different!) classes with the same name: "Algebra." What you call "Calculus 2" may be "Calculus 3" or "Calculus 1B" or "Math 43B" at another school. See We're Not You and We're Not at Your School.
- Unless you have a certain amount of mastery of the subject, you might not be able to describe the problem well enough for this kind of general question to work. For example, what you think of as a "calculus problem" (because it comes up on your calculus homework) may really be a problem in algebra. Because of this, the potential audience for your problem may be larger or smaller than the one you attract with a vague question.
- Many people may not think of themselves as "whizzes" even though they are capable of answering your question.
- Many people may think of themselves as "whizzes" even though they are more clueless than you are. See People are Often Idiotic.
- Many people (for whatever reason) are more interested in saying how easy something is than they are in helping anybody.
- In light of this reality, inviting people to comment on their own abilities with a question like "Who here knows geometry?" is just a waste of time.
So ask a specific question.
Don't "Challenge" the Channel Edit
Some people feel that their question is more likely to be answered if they pose their question as a challenge, for example:
- I bet nobody in here can solve this really hard problem: (the really hard problem)
- Who here is so intelligent as to solve this? (the really hard problem)
When this is ignored, these people often elaborate on why nobody has answered their challenge:
- I knew it. None of you are smart enough to solve this.
- Gee, isn't anybody able to do it? It's supposed to be easy.
- There must be one of you who is able to do it.
This is idiotic, tends to prompt responses from the more clueless members of the channel, and wastes everybody's time---especially if you do it with a question that you already know the answer to. Don't do it.
Enthusiasm for mathematics and enthusiasm for puzzles/contests/quizzes/challenges are very different things.
Ask Complete Questions Edit
A question can be incomplete in a lot of ways:
- Pieces of information necessary to solving the problem are left out. For example:
- The triangle in your problem statement is supposed to be a right triangle.
- You say "solve xy = ab + bz + cx," but do not specify what you want to solve for.
- The some parameter in your problem statement is of a certain type (for example, it is positive, or it is an integer, or it is an even integer) that you neglect to state. This can be a big problem or a small problem, depending on what is left out. In the worst cases it can mean:
- Nobody can make sense of your question.
- An equation that is supposed to have solutions doesn't have them.
- An equation that is supposed to have only one solution actually has five.
- A problem that is supposed to be easy becomes really hard or impossible.
- A problem that is supposed to be hard becomes really easy. Most of the time, one doesn't know what information is necessary to a problem until one has solved it. So don't leave anything out! If you state a problem in what you think of is a complete way and people in the channel still find fault with the statement, try not to get upset.
- Lots of people on #math are unnecessarily picky; but
- What is "picky" and what isn't is a matter of opinion. So many hours have been wasted on incompletely stated problems in the channel over the years that many regulars automatically assume the worst--- not because they are trying to annoy you, but because they want to be absolutely sure that they will not waste their own time (and yours). Once again: don't leave anything out!
- A problem is unnecessarily general, and presented without background information that makes things a lot easier. This is a special kind leaving information out that deserves separate mention since it involves deliberate generalization of the problem. For example:
- People come into the channel and ask how to express all complex solutions x to the cubic equation ax^3 + bx^2 + cx + d = 0 in terms of a, b, c, and d; ie, they want the "cubic formula." (Such a formula exists, but it is quite complicated, and it is unlikely that any homework assignment given in a calculus class, for example, would require its use.) After 20 minutes of such discussion, it becomes apparent that the person really only wanted solutions to x^3 - 1 = 0, or x^3 - 6x^2 + 11x - 6 = 0, or some other equation that is easy to solve with simpler methods.
- People come into the channel and ask for a general algorithm to determine whether two arbitrarily given groups are isomorphic. (There is no such algorithm.) 10 minutes later it turns out that the student only wanted to know whether two concretely given groups were isomorphic. Keep in mind: by asking a more "abstract" version of your question, it is possible that you will make the problem
- Impossible to solve;
- Impossible to solve in any reasonable amount of time;
- Impossible to solve without a lot of extra mathematical theory that you might not be familiar with. If you ask a question and get an answer involving a lot of complex-sounding theory that is unfamiliar to you, it is possible that you have unwittingly omitted the information that allows your problem to be solved with simpler methods.
- The problem asked is not the problem you want an answer to. The following happens all too often: a person works on a problem for a long time before getting frustrated and coming on IRC. He then asks the channel a question about the last 5 minutes of his work, instead of the original problem. As always, some examples:
- The original problem was about calculus, but involves tricky algebra. The person working on the problem does 2 pages of algebraic manipulations and then asks the channel a question involving the last equation he was working on before he went on IRC.
- The original problem was some general theorem. The person working on the problem comes up with a different statement that this theorem is equivalent to, and asks the channel about the modified problem. Half of the time there is nothing wrong with this. The other half of the time, a mistake has already been made before the person gets on IRC, and any discussion of the modified problem is completely useless. Often it takes a long time to figure out that this has happened, and a lot of time and energy is wasted. In general it is best to ask the complete question as it was originally given. If you have reduced it to another problem, by all means mention it (as in Mention What You've Done)... but only after stating the original.
Mention What You've Done Edit
If you have tried working on a problem and a particular method didn't work, let the channel know. There are many reasons for doing this:
- People are more likely to help if they get the sense that you have worked on the problem, and aren't just asking for an answer.
- Frequently people will suggest methods of solution without actually trying them themselves. If there is some "obvious" approach to your problem that doesn't work, mentioning that you've tried it will keep such people from suggesting the obvious approach to you, and force them to actually think about the problem.
We're Not You, We're Not At Your School Edit
Consider the following questions:
- Has anybody taken Calc 3?
- Is Differential Equations hard?
- How easy is it to major in mathematics?
- How hard is it to get into grad school?
The answers to all of these questions depend to some extent on who you are and where you are. The odds are that we are not you and we are not where you are.
What your school calls "Calc 3" may be called "Math 145" at another school. What another school calls "Calc 3" may not even be offered at your school. Unless your question is "Has anybody ever taken a class that went by the name of Calc 3 or studied material that you might think of as appropriate for a class with Calc 3 as a name," you are not likely to get useful answers. Even more specific course titles, such as "multivariable calculus" or "mathematical analysis," take on different meanings depending on where you are.
Differential equations might be hard, or they might not be hard. This is a highly personal matter, influenced by the professor or TA you might have, the attitudes of your fellow students, the books you might or might not be reading, and your own feeling of how relevant differential equations are to your life. Most people who ask "is differential equations hard?" do not want this kind of answer but this is the only honest answer one can give. More specific questions ("Is Prof. Smith easy to deal with?", "If I've taken Math 119 will I know enough to take Math 156?") might have more specific answers but the odds that somebody on the channel will know what you are talking about are slim to none.
Here are some other consequences of the fact that we are not you:
- We may not understand the notation you use unless it is very common or you explain it. See Explain Your Notation.
- We may not understand the entirety of your problem until you tell it to us. See Ask Complete Questions.
People are Often Busy Edit
Most regulars on the channel are not glued to their IRC screens. Many are also engaged in other activities (doing their own work, writing email, watching TV, listening to music, drinking, etc) and glance at IRC only occasionally. It is important to be sensitive to this when you ask a question. Bear in mind:
- If your question is not answered within 30 seconds, you should not lose hope. You should probably not berate the channel for not answering. You should probably not re-post the problem until 10 or 20 minutes have gone by and there is a genuine chance that new people will see the problem.
- Because people are busy and only look at the channel occasionally, it is not in the best interest of those who want questions answered to start or participate in off-topic conversations while they are waiting for an answer. It does not take much idle chatter to scroll a math question off of everybody else's IRC screen; thus, Stay On Topic. Most people, being busy, are not going to search through pages and pages of scrollback that they missed looking for questions to answer. This is one of the most important reasons to not Ask to Ask or Ask Vague Questions.
People are Often Idiotic Edit
If you are on the channel a long time, you may develop a sense of which people are a regular visitors to the channel and which people aren't, which people tend to know what they are talking about and which people don't, and so forth.
If you are new to the channel, you probably don't have a good sense of these things, and so it is important to bear in mind the following.
- IRC contains many people who have nothing better to do than give incorrect or wrong information. Most of the time these people are removed from the channel. Other times they are not. It is difficult for ops to tell whether a person is being deliberately misleading or is just making an honest mistake.
- People make honest (and less than honest) math mistakes all the time.
- Occasionally the most vocal members of the channel are those with the least idea of what they are talking about.
If you ask a question and get an incoherent answer from somebody, it is important to think critically about the experience. It would be a mistake to conclude any of the following things:
- Everybody on #math is an idiot.
- I am an idiot, since I don't understand the expert advice of one of #math's gurus.
- Because that solution was incoherent, the problem I am working on is incoherent.
- Because that solution was incoherent, the entirety of mathematics is incoherent.
If necessary, ask other questions, at other times, to other people on the channel.