Archive

Archive for the ‘Mathematicians’ Category

Innovation anxiety

December 28, 2022 3 comments

I am on record of liking the status quo of math publishing. It’s very far from ideal as I repeatedly discuss on this blog, see e.g. my posts on the elitism, the invited issues, the non-free aspect of it in the electronic era, and especially the pay-to-publish corruption. But overall it’s ok. I give it a B+. It took us about two centuries to get where we are now. It may take us awhile to get to an A.

Given that there is room for improvement, it’s unsurprising that some people make an effort. The problem is that their efforts be moving us in the wrong direction. I am talking specifically about two ideas that frequently come up by people with best intensions: abolishing peer review and anonymizing the author’s name at the review stage. The former is radical, detrimental to our well being and unlikely to take hold in the near future. The second is already here and is simply misguided.

Before I take on both issues, let me take a bit of a rhetorical detour to make a rather obvious point. I will be quick, I promise!

Don’t steal!

Well, this is obvious, right? But why not? Let’s set all moral and legal issues aside and discuss it as adults. Why should a person X be upset if Y stole an object A from Z? Especially if X doesn’t know either Y or Z, and doesn’t really care who A should belong to. Ah, I see you really don’t want to engage with the issue — just like me you already know that this is appalling (and criminal, obviously).

However, if you look objectively at the society we live in, there is clearly some gray area. Indeed, some people think that taxation is a form of theft (“taking money by force”, you see). Millions of people think that illegally downloading movies is not stealing. My university administration thinks stealing my time making me fill all kinds of forms is totally kosher. The country where I grew up in was very proud about the many ways it stole my parents’ rights for liberty and the pursuit of happiness (so that they could keep their lives). The very same country thinks it’s ok to invade and steal territory from a neighboring country. Apparently many people in the world are ok with this (as in “not my problem”). Not comparing any of these, just challenging the “isn’t it obvious” premise.

Let me give a purely American answer to the “why not” question. Not the most interesting or innovative argument perhaps, but most relevant to the peer review discussion. Back in September 1789, Thomas Jefferson was worried about the constitutional precommitment. Why not, he wondered, have a revolution every 19 years, as a way not to burden future generations with rigid ideas from the past?

In February 1790, James Madison painted a grim picture of what would happen: “most of the rights of property would become absolutely defunct and the most violent struggles be generated” between property haves and have-nots, making remedy worse than the disease. In particular, allowing theft would be detrimental to continuing peaceful existence of the community (duh!).

In summary: a fairly minor change in the core part of the moral code can lead to drastic consequences.

Everyone hates peer review!

Indeed, I don’t know anyone who succeeded in academia without a great deal of frustration over the referee reports, many baseless rejections from the journals, or without having to spend many hours (days, weeks) writing their own referee reports. It’s all part of the job. Not the best part. The part well hidden from outside observers who think that professors mostly teach or emulate a drug cartel otherwise.

Well, the help is on the way! Every now and then somebody notably comes along and proposes to abolish the whole thing. Here is one, two, three just in the last few years. Enough? I guess not. Here is the most recent one, by Adam Mastroianni, twitted by Marc Andreessen to his 1.1 million followers.

This is all laughable, right? Well, hold on. Over the past two weeks I spoke to several well known people who think that abolishing peer review would make the community more equitable and would likely foster the innovation. So let’s address these objections seriously, point by point, straight from Mastroianni’s article.

(1) “If scientists cared a lot about peer review, when their papers got reviewed and rejected, they would listen to the feedback, do more experiments, rewrite the paper, etc. Instead, they usually just submit the same paper to another journal.” Huh? The same level journal? I wish…

(2) “Nobody cares to find out what the reviewers said or how the authors edited their paper in response” Oh yes, they do! Thus multiple rounds of review, sometimes over several years. Thus a lot of frustration. Thus occasional rejections after many rounds if the issue turns out non-fixable. That’s the point.

(3) “Scientists take unreviewed work seriously without thinking twice.” Sure, why not? Especially if they can understand the details. Occasionally they give well known people benefit of the doubt, at least for awhile. But then they email you and ask “Is this paper ok? Why isn’t it published yet? Are there any problems with the proof?” Or sometimes some real scrutiny happens outside of the peer review.

(4) “A little bit of vetting is better than none at all, right? I say: no way.” Huh? In math this is plainly ridiculous, but the author is moving in another direction. He supports this outrageous claim by saying that in biomedical sciences the peer review “fools people into thinking they’re safe when they’re not. That’s what our current system of peer review does, and it’s dangerous.” Uhm. So apparently Adam Mastroianni thinks if you can’t get 100% certainty, it’s better to have none. I feel like I’ve heard the same sentiment form my anti-masking relatives.

Obviously, I wouldn’t know and honestly couldn’t care less about how biomedical academics do research. Simply put, I trust experts in other fields and don’t think I know better than them what they do, should do or shouldn’t do. Mastroianni uses “nobody” 11 times in his blog post — must be great to have such a vast knowledge of everyone’s behavior. In any event, I do know that modern medical advances are nothing short of spectacular overall. Sounds like their system works really well, so maybe let them be…

The author concludes by arguing that it’s so much better to just post papers on the arXiv. He did that with one paper, put some jokes in it and people wrote him nice emails. We are all so happy for you, Adam! But wait, who says you can’t do this with all your papers in parallel with journal submissions? That’s what everyone in math does, at least the arXiv part. And if the journals where you publish don’t allow you to do that, that’s a problem with these specific journals, not with the whole peer review.

As for the jokes — I guess I am a mini-expert. Many of my papers have at least one joke. Some are obscure. Some are not funny. Some are both. After all, “what’s life without whimsy“? The journals tend to be ok with them, although some make me work for it. For example, in this recent paper, the referee asked me to specifically explain in the acknowledgements why am I thankful to Jane Austen. So I did as requested — it was an inspiration behind the first sentence (it’s on my long list of starters in my previous blog post). Anyway, you can do this, Adam! I believe in you!

Everyone needs peer review!

Let’s try to imagine now what would happen if the peer review is abolished. I know, this is obvious. But let’s game it out, post-apocaliptic style.

(1) All papers will be posted on the arXiv. In a few curious cases an informal discussion will emerge, like this one about this recent proof of the four color theorem. Most paper will be ignored just like they are ignored now.

(2) Without a neutral vetting process the journals will turn to publishing “who you know”, meaning the best known and best connected people in the area as “safe bets” whose work was repeatedly peer reviewed in the past. Junior mathematicians will have no other way to get published in leading journals without collaboration (i.e. writing “joint papers”) with top people in the area.

(3) Knowing that their papers won’t be refereed, people will start making shortcuts in their arguments. Soon enough some fraction will turn up unsalvageable incorrect. Embarrassments like the ones discussed in this page will become a common occurrence. Eventually the Atiyah-style proofs of famous theorems will become widespread confusing anyone and everyone.

(4) Granting agencies will start giving grants only to the best known people in the area who have most papers in best known journals (if you can peer review papers, you can’t expect to peer review grant proposals, right?) Eventually they will just stop, opting to give more money to best universities and institutions, in effect outsourcing their work.

(5) Universities will eventually abolish tenure as we know it, because if anyone is free to work on whatever they want without real rewards or accountability, what’s the point of tenure protection? When there are no objective standards, in the university hiring the letters will play the ultimate role along with many biases and random preferences by the hiring committees.

(6) People who work in deeper areas will be spending an extraordinary amount of time reading and verifying earlier papers in the area. Faced with these difficulties graduate students will stay away from such areas opting for more shallow areas. Eventually these areas will diminish to the point of near-extinsion. If you think this is unlikely, look into post-1980 history of finite group theory.

(7) In shallow areas, junior mathematicians will become increasingly more innovative to avoid reading older literature, but rather try to come up with a completely new question or a new theory which can be at least partially resolved on 10 pages. They will start running unrefereed competitive conferences where they will exhibit their little papers as works of modern art. The whole of math will become subjective and susceptible to fashion trends, not unlike some parts of theoretical computer science (TCS).

(8) Eventually people in other fields will start saying that math is trivial and useless, that everything they do can be done by an advanced high schooler in 15 min. We’ve seen this all before, think candid comments by Richard Feynman, or these uneducated proclamations by this blog’s old villain Amy Wax. In regards to combinatorics, such views were prevalent until relatively recently, see my “What is combinatorics” with some truly disparaging quotations, and this interview by László Lovász. Soon after, everyone (physics, economics, engineering, etc.) will start developing their own kind of math, which will be the end of the whole field as we know it.

(100) In the distant future, after the human civilization dies and rises up again, historians will look at the ruins of this civilization and wonder what happened? They will never learn that’s it’s all started with Adam Mastroianni when he proclaimed that “science must be free“.

Less catastrophic scenarios

If abolishing peer review does seem a little farfetched, consider the following less drastic measures to change or “improve” peer review.

(i) Say, you allow simultaneous submissions to multiple journals, whichever accepts first gets the paper. Currently, the waiting time is terribly long, so one can argue this would be an improvement. In support of this idea, one can argue that in journalism pitching a story to multiple editors is routine, that job applications are concurrent to all universities, etc. In fact, there is even an algorithm to resolve these kind of situations successfully. Let’s game this out this fantasy.

The first thing that would happen is that journals would be overwhelmed with submissions. The referees are already hard to find. After the change, they would start refusing all requests since they would also be overwhelmed with them and it’s unclear if the report would even be useful. The editors would refuse all but a few selected papers from leading mathematicians. Chat rooms would emerge in the style “who is refereeing which paper” (cf. PubPeer) to either collaborate or at least not make redundant effort. But since it’s hard to trust anonymous claims “I checked and there are no issues with Lemma 2 in that paper” (could that be the author?), these chats will either show real names thus leading to other complications (see below), or cease to exist.

Eventually the publishers will start asking for a signed official copyright transfer “conditional on acceptance” (some already do that), and those in violation will be hit with lawsuits. Universities will change their faculty code of conduct to include such copyright violations as a cause for dismissal, including tenure removal. That’s when the practice will stop and be back to normal, at great cost obviously.

(ii) Non-anonymizing referees is another perennial idea. Wouldn’t it be great if the referees get some credit for all the work that they do (so they can list it on their CVs). Even better if their referee report is available to the general public to read and scrutinize, etc. Win-win-win, right?

No, of course not. Many specialized sub-areas are small so it is hard to find a referee. For the authors, it’s relatively easy to guess who the referees are, at least if you have some experience. But there is still this crucial ambiguity as in “you have a guess but you don’t know for sure” which helps maintain friendship or at least collegiality with those who have written a negative referee report. You take away this ambiguity, and everyone will start refusing refereeing requests. Refereeing is hard already, there is really no need to risk collegial relationships as a result, especially in you are both going to be working the area for years or even decades to come.

(iii) Let’s pay the referees! This is similar but different from (ii). Think about it — the referees are hard to find, so we need to reward them. Everyone know that when you pay for something, everyone takes this more seriously, right? Ugh. I guess I have some new for you…

Think it over. You got a technical 30 page paper to referee. How much would you want to get paid? You start doing a mental calculation. Say, at a very modest $100/hr it would take you maybe 10-20 hours to write a thorough referee report. That’s $1-2K. Some people suggest $50/hr but that was before the current inflation. While I do my own share of refereeing, personally, I would charge more per hour as I can get paid better doing something else (say, teach our Summer school). For a traditional journal to pay this kind of money per paper is simply insane. Their budgets are are relatively small, let me spare you the details.

Now, who can afford that kind of money? Right — we are back to the open access journals who would pass the cost to the authors in the form of an APC. That’s when the story turn from bad to awful. For that kind of money the journals would want a positive referee report since rejected authors don’t pay. If you are not willing to play ball and give them a positive report, they will stop inviting you to referee, leading to more even corruption these journals have in the form of pay-to-publish.

You can probably imagine that this won’t end well. Just talk to medical or biological scientists who grudgingly pays to Nature or Science about 3K from their grants (which are much larger than ours). The pay because they have to, of course, and if they bulk they might not get a new grant setting back their career.

Double blind refereeing

In math, this means that the authors’ names are hidden from referees to avoid biases. The names are visible to the editors, obviously, to prevent “please referee your own paper” requests. The authors are allowed to post their papers on their websites or the arXiv, where it could be easily found by the title, so they don’t suffer from anxieties about their career or competitive pressures.

Now, in contrast with other “let’s improve the peer review” ideas, this is already happening. In other fields this has been happening for years. Closer to home, conferences in TCS have long resisted going double blind, but recently FOCS 2022, SODA 2023 and STOC 2023 all made the switch. Apparently they found Boaz Barak’s arguments unpersuasive. Well, good to know.

Even closer to home, a leading journal in my own area, Combinatorial Theory, turned double blind. This is not a happy turn of event, at least not from my perspective. I published 11 papers in JCTA, before the editorial board broke off and started CT. I have one paper accepted at CT which had to undergo the new double blind process. In total, this is 3 times as many as any other journal where I published. This was by far my favorite math journal.

Let’s hear from the journal why they did it (original emphasis):

The philosophy behind doubly anonymous refereeing is to reduce the effect of initial impressions and biases that may come from knowing the identity of authors. Our goal is to work together as a combinatorics community to select the most impactful, interesting, and well written mathematical papers within the scope of Combinatorial Theory.

Oh, sure. Terrific goal. I did not know my area has a bias problem (especially compared to many other areas), but of course how would I know?

Now, surely the journal didn’t think this change would be free? The editors must have compared pluses and minuses, and decided that on balance the benefits outweigh the cost, right? The journal is mum on that. If any serious discussion was conducted (as I was told), there is no public record of it. Here is what the journal says how the change is implemented:

As a referee, you are not disqualified to evaluate a paper if you think you know an author’s identity (unless you have a conflict of interest, such as being the author’s advisor or student). The journal asks you not to do additional research to identify the authors.

Right. So let me try to understand this. The referee is asked to make a decision whether to spend upwards of 10-20 hours on the basis of the first impression of the paper and without knowledge of the authors’ identity. They are asked not to google the authors’ names, but are ok if you do because they can’t enforce this ethical guideline anyway. So let’s think this over.

Double take on double blind

(1) The idea is so old in other sciences, there is plenty of research on its relative benefits. See e.g. here, there or there. From my cursory reading, it seems, there is a clear evidence of a persistent bias based on the reputation of educational institution. Other biases as well, to a lesser degree. This is beyond unfortunate. Collectively, we have to do better.

(2) Peer reviews have very different forms in different sciences. What works in some would not necessarily would work in others. For example, TCS conferences never really had a proper refereeing process. The referees are given 3 weeks to write an opinion of the paper based on the first 10 pages. They can read the proofs beyond the 10 pages, but don’t have to. They write “honest” opinions to the program committee (invisible to the authors) and whatever they think is “helpful” to the authors. Those of you outside of TCS can’t even imagine the quality and biases of these fully anonymous opinions. In recent years, the top conferences introduced the rebuttal stage which is probably helpful to avoid random superficial nitpicking at lengthy technical arguments.

In this large scale superficial setting with rapid turnover, the double blind refereeing is probably doing more good than bad by helping avoid biases. The authors who want to remain anonymous can simply not make their papers available for about three months between the submission and the decision dates. The conference submission date is a solid date stamp for them to stake the result, and three months are unlikely to make major change to their career prospects. OTOH, the authors who want to stake their reputation on the validity of their technical arguments (which are unlikely to be fully read by the referees) can put their papers on the arXiv. All in all, this seems reasonable and workable.

(3) The journal process is quite a bit longer than the conference, naturally. For example, our forthcoming CT paper was submitted on July 2, 2021 and accepted on November 3, 2022. That’s 16 months, exactly 490 days, or about 20 days per page, including the references. This is all completely normal and is nobody’s fault (definitely not the handling editor’s). In the meantime my junior coauthor applied for a job, was interviewed, got an offer, accepted and started a TT job. For this alone, it never crossed our mind not to put the paper on the arXiv right away.

Now, I have no doubt that the referee googled our paper simply because in our arguments we frequently refer our previous papers on the subject for which this was a sequel (er… actually we refer to some [CPP21a] and [CPP21b] papers). In such cases, if the referee knows that the paper under review is written by the same authors there is clearly more confidence that we are aware of the intricate parts of our own technical details from the previous paper. That’s a good thing.

Another good thing to have is the knowledge that our paper is surviving public scrutiny. Whenever issues arise we fix them, whenever some conjecture are proved or refuted, we update the paper. That’s a normal academic behavior no matter what Adam Mastroianni says. Our reputation and integrity is all we have, and one should make every effort to maintain it. But then the referee who has been procrastinating for a year can (and probably should) compare with the updated version. It’s the right thing to do.

Who wants to hide their name?

Now that I offered you some reasons why looking for paper authors is a good thing (at least in some cases), let’s look for negatives. Under what circumstances might the authors prefer to stay anonymous and not make their paper public on the arXiv?

(a) Junior researchers who are afraid their low status can reduce their chances to get accepted. Right, like graduate students. This will hurt them both mathematically and job wise. This is probably my biggest worry that CT is encouraging more such cases.

(b) Serial submitters and self-plagiarists. Some people write many hundreds of papers. They will definitely benefit from anonymity. The editors know who they are and that their “average paper” has few if any citations outside of self-citations. But they are in a bind — they have to be neutral arbiters and judge each new paper independently of the past. Who knows, maybe this new submission is really good? The referees have no such obligation. On the contrary, they are explicitly asked to make a judgement. But if they have no name to judge the paper by, what are they supposed to do?

Now, this whole anonymity thing is unlikely to help serial submitters at CT, assuming that the journal standards remain high. Their papers will be rejected and they will move on, submitting down the line until they find an obscure enough journal that will bite. If other, somewhat less selective journals adopt the double blind review practice, this could improve their chances, however.

For CT, the difference is that in the anonymous case the referees (and the editors) will spend quite a bit more time per paper. For example, when I know that the author is a junior researcher from a university with limited access to modern literature and senior experts, I go out of my way to write a detailed referee report to help the authors, suggest some literature they are missing or potential directions for their study. If this is a serial submitter, I don’t. What’s the point? I’ve tried this a few times, and got the very same paper from another journal next week. They wouldn’t even fix the typos that I pointed out, as if saying “who has the time for that?” This is where Mastroianni is right: why would their 234-th paper be any different from 233-rd?

(c) Cranks, fraudsters and scammers. The anonymity is their defense mechanism. Say, you google the author and it’s Dănuț Marcu, a serial plagiarist of 400+ math papers. Then you look for a paper he is plagiarizing from and if successful making efforts to ban him from your journal. But if the author is anonymous, you try to referee. There is a very good chance you will accept since he used to plagiarize good but old and somewhat obscure papers. So you see — the author’s identity matters!

Same with the occasional zero-knowledge (ZK) aspirational provers whom I profiled at the end of this blog post. If you are an expert in the area and know of somebody who has tried for years to solve a major conjecture producing one false or incomplete solution after another, what do you do when you see a new attempt? Now compare with what you do if this paper is by anonymous? Are you going to spend the same effort effort working out details of both papers? Wouldn’t in the case of a ZK prover you stop when you find a mistake in the proof of Lemma 2, while in the case of a genuine new effort try to work it out?

In summary: as I explained in my post above, it’s the right thing to do to judge people by their past work and their academic integrity. When authors are anonymous and cannot be found, the losers are the most vulnerable, while the winners are the nefarious characters. Those who do post their work on the arXiv come out about even.

Small changes can make a major difference

If you are still reading, you probably think I am completely 100% opposed to changes in peer review. That’s not true. I am only opposed to large changes. The stakes are just too high. We’ve been doing peer review for a long time. Over the decades we found a workable model. As I tried to explain above, even modest changes can be detrimental.

On the other hand, very small changes can be helpful if implemented gradually and slowly. This is what TCS did with their double blind review and their rebuttal process. They started experimenting with lesser known and low stakes conferences, and improved the process over the years. Eventually they worked out the kinks like COI and implemented the changes at top conferences. If you had to make changes, why would you start with a top journal in the area??

Let me give one more example of a well meaning but ultimately misguided effort to make a change. My former Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom once decided that MOOCs are the answer to education foes and is a way for CA to start giving $10K Bachelor’s degrees. The thinking was — let’s make a major change (a disruption!) to the old technology (teaching) in the style of Google, Uber and Theranos!

Lo and behold, California spent millions and went nowhere. Our collective teaching experience during COVID shows that this was not an accident or mismanagement. My current Governor, the very same Gavin Newsom, dropped this idea like a rock, limiting it to cosmetic changes. Note that this isn’t to say that online education is hopeless. In fact, see this old blog post where I offer some suggestions.

My modest proposal

The following suggestions are limited to pure math. Other fields and sciences are much too foreign for me to judge.

(i) Introduce a very clearly defined quick opinion window of about 3-4 weeks. The referees asked for quick opinions can either decline or agree within 48 hours. It will only take them about 10-20 minutes to make an opinion based on the introduction, so give them a week to respond with 1-2 paragraphs. Collect 2-3 quick opinions. If as an editor you feel you need more, you are probably biased against the paper or the area, and are fishing for a negative opinion to have “quick reject“. This is a bit similar to the way Nature, Science, etc. deal with their submissions.

(ii) Make quick opinion requests anonymous. Request the reviewers to assess how the paper fits the journal (better, worse, on point, best submitted to another area to journals X, Y or Z, etc.) Adopt the practice of returning these opinions to the authors. Proceed to the second stage by mutual agreement. This is a bit similar to TCS which has authors use the feedback from the conference makes decisions about the journal or other conference submissions.

(iii) If the paper is rejected or withdrawn after the quick opinion stage, adopt the practice to send quick opinions to another journal where the paper is resubmitted. Don’t communicate the names of the reviewers — if the new editor has no trust in the first editor’s qualifications, let them collect their own quick opinions. This would protect the reviewers from their names going to multiple journals thus making their names semi-public.

(iv) The most selective journals should require that the paper not be available on the web during the quick opinion stage, and violators be rejected without review. Anonymous for one — anonymous for all! The three week long delay is unlikely to hurt anybody, and the journal submission email confirmation should serve as a solid certificate of a priority if necessary. Some people will try to game the system like give a talk with the same title as the paper or write a blog post. Then it’s on editor’s discretion what to do.

(v) In the second (actual review) stage, the referees should get papers with authors’ names and proceed per usual practice.

Happy New Year everyone!

What to publish?

September 9, 2022 4 comments

This might seem like a strange question. A snarky answer would be “everything!” But no, not really everything. Not all math deserves to be published, just like not all math needs to be done. Making this judgement is difficult and goes against the all too welcoming nature of the field. But if you want to succeed in math as a profession, you need to make some choices. This is a blog post about the choices we make and the choices we ought to make.

Bedtime questions

Suppose you tried to solve a major open problem. You failed. A lot of time is wasted. Maybe it’s false, after all, who knows. You are no longer confident. But you did manage to compute some nice examples, which can be turned into a mediocre little paper. Should you write it and post it on the arXiv? Should you submit it to a third rate journal? A mediocre paper is still a consolation prize, right? Better than nothing, no?

Or, perhaps, it is better not to show how little you proved? Wouldn’t people judge you as an “average” of all published papers on your CV? Wouldn’t this paper have negative impact on your job search next year? Maybe it’s better to just keep it to yourself for now and hope you can make a breakthrough next year? Or some day?

But wait, other people in the area have a lot more papers. Some are also going to be on a job market next year. Shouldn’t you try to catch up and publish every little thing you have? People at other universities do look at the numbers, right? Maybe nobody will notice this little paper. If you have more stuff done by then it will get lost in the middle of my CV, but it will help get the numbers up. Aren’t you clever or what?

Oh, wait, maybe not! You do have to send your CV to your letter writers. They will look at all your papers. How would they react to a mediocre paper? Will they judge you badly? What in the world should you do?!?

Well, obviously I don’t have one simple answer to that. But I do have some thoughts. And this quote from a famous 200 year old Russian play about people who really cared how they are perceived:

Chatsky: I wonder who the judges are! […]

Famusov: My goodness! What will countess Marya Aleksevna say to this?

[Alexander Griboyedov, Woe from Wit, 1823, abridged.]

You would think our society had advanced at least a little…

Who are the champions?

If we want to find the answers to our questions, it’s worth looking at the leaders of the field. Let’s take a few steps back and simply ask — Who are the best mathematicians? Ridiculous questions always get many ridiculous answers, so here is a random ranking by some internet person: Newton, Archimedes, Gauss, Euler, etc. Well, ok — these are all pretty dead and probably never had to deal with a bad referee report (I am assuming).

Here is another random list, from a well named website research.com. Lots of living people finally: Barry Simon, Noga Alon, Gilbert Laporte, S.T. Yau, etc. Sure, why not? But consider this recent entrant: Ravi P. Agarwal is at number 20, comfortably ahead of Paul Erdős at number 25. Uhm, why?

Or consider Theodore E. Simos who is apparently the “Best Russian Mathematician” according to research.com, and number 31 in the world ranking:

Uhm, I know MANY Russian mathematicians. Some of them are truly excellent. Who is this famous Simos I never heard of? How come he is so far ahead of Vladimir Arnold who is at number 829 on the list?

Of course, you already guessed the answer. It’s obvious from the pictures above. In their infinite wisdom, research.com judges mathematicians by the weighted average of the numbers of papers and citations. Arnold is doing well on citations, but published so little! Only 157 papers!

Numbers rule the world

To dig a little deeper into this citation phenomenon, take a look at the following curious table from a recent article Extremal mathematicians by Carlos Alfaro:

If you’ve been in the field for awhile, you are probably staring at this in disbelief. How do you physically write so many papers?? Is this even true???

Yes, you know how Paul Erdős did it — he was amazing and he had a lot of coauthors. No, you don’t know how Saharon Shelah does it. But he is a legend, and you are ok with that. But here we meet again our hero Ravi P. Agarwal, the only human mathematician with more papers than Erdős. Who is he? Here is what the MathSciNet says:

Note that Ravi is still going strong — in less than 3 years he added 125 papers. Of these 1727 papers, 645 are with his favorite coauthor Donal O’Regan, number 3 on the list above. Huh? What is going on??

What’s in a number?

If the number of papers is what’s causing you to worry, let’s talk about it. Yes, there is also number of citations, the h-index (which boils down to the number of citations anyway), and maybe other awful measurements of research productivity. But the number of papers is what you have a total control over. So here are a few strategies how you can inflate the number that I learned from a close examination of publishing practices of some of the “extremal mathematicians”. They are best employed in combination:

(a) Form a clique. Over the years build a group of 5-8 close collaborators. Keep writing papers in different subsets of 3-5 of them. This is easier to do since each gets to have many papers while writing only a fraction. Make sure each papers cites heavily all other subsets from the clique. To an untrained eye of an editor, these would appear to be experts who are able to referee the paper.

(b) Form a cartel. This is a strong for of a clique. Invent an area and call yourselves collaborative research in that area. Make up a technical name, something like “analytic and algebraic topology
of locally Euclidean metrizations of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifolds
“. Apply for collaborative grants, organize conferences, publish conference proceedings, publish monographs, start your own journal. From outside it looks like a normal research activity, and who is to judge after all?

(c) Publish in little known, not very selective or shady journals. For example, Ravi P. Agarwal published 26 papers in Mathematics (MDPI Journal) that I discussed at length in this blog post. Note aside: since Mathematics is not indexed by the MathSciNet, the numbers above undercount his total productivity.

(d) Organize special issues with these journals. For example, here is a list of 11(!) special issues Agarwal served as a special editor with MDPI. Note the breadth of the collection:

(e) Become an editor of an established but not well managed journal and publish a lot there with all your collaborators. For example, T.E. Simos has a remarkable record of 150 (!) papers in the Journal of Mathematical Chemistry, where he is an editor. I feel that Springer should be ashamed of such a poor oversight of this journal, but nothing can be done I am sure since the journal has a healthy 2.413 impact factor, and Simos’s hard work surely contributed to its rise from just 1.056 in 2015. OTOH, maybe somebody can convince the MathSciNet to stop indexing this journal?

Let me emphasize that nothing on the list above is unethical, at least in a way the AMS or the NAS define these (as do most universities I think). The difference is quantitative, not qualitative. So these should not be conflated with various paper mill practices such as those described in this article by Anna Abalkina.

Disclaimer: I strongly recommend you use none of these strategies. They are abusing the system and have detrimental long term effects to both your area and your reputation.

Zero-knowledge publishing

In mathematics, there is another method of publishing that I want to describe. This one is borderline unethical at best, so I will refrain from naming names. You figure it out on your own!

Imagine you want to prove a major open problem in the area. More precisely, you want to become famous for doing that without actually getting the proof. In math, you can’t get there without publishing your “proof” in a leading area journal, better yet one of the top journals in mathematics. And if you do, it’s a good bet the referees will examine your proof very carefully. Sounds like a fail-proof system, right?

Think again! Here is an ingenuous strategy that I recently happen to learn. The strategy is modeled on the celebrated zero-knowledge proof technique, although the author I am thinking of might not be aware of that.

For simplicity, let’s say the open problem is “A=? Z”. Here is what you do, step by step.

  1. You come up with a large set of problems P,Q,R,S,T,U,V,W,X,Y which are all equivalent to Z. You then start a well publicized paper factory proving P=Q, W=X, X=Z, Q=Z, etc. All these papers are correct and give a good vibe of somebody who is working hard on the A=?Z problem. Make sure you have a lot of famous coauthors on these papers to further establish your credibility. In haste, make the papers barely readable so that the referees don’t find any major mistakes but get exhausted by the end.
  2. Make another list of problems B,C,D,E,F,G which are equivalent to A. Keep these equivalences secret. Start writing new papers proving B=T, D=Y, E=X, etc. Write them all in a style similar to previous list: cumbersome, some missing details, errors in minor arguments, etc. No famous people as coauthors. Do try to involve many grad students and coauthors to generate good will (such a great mentor!) They will all be incorrect, but none of them would raise a flag since by themselves they don’t actually prove A=Z.
  3. Populate the arXiv with all these papers and submit them to different reputable journals in the area. Some referees or random readers will find mistakes, so you fix one incomprehensible detail with another and resubmit. If crucial problems in one paper persist, just drop it and keep going through the motions on all other papers. Take your time.
  4. Eventually one of these will get accepted because the referees are human and they get tired. They will just assume that the paper they are handling is just like the papers on the first list – clumsily written but ultimately correct. And who wants to drag things down over some random reduction — the young researcher’s career is on the line. Or perhaps, the referee is a coauthor of some of the paper on the first list – in this case they are already conditioned to believe the claims because that’s what they learned from the experience on the joint paper.
  5. As soon as any paper from the second list is accepted, say E=X, take off the shelf the reduction you already know and make it public with great fanfare. For example, in this case quickly announce that A=E. Combined with the E=X breakthrough, and together with X=W and W=Z previously published in the first list, you can conclude that A=Z. Send it to the Annals. What are the referees going to do? Your newest A=E is inarguable, clearly true. How clever are you to have figured out the last piece so quickly! The other papers are all complicated and confusing, they all raise questions, but somebody must have refereed them and accepted/published them. Congratulations on the solution of A=Z problem! Well done!

It might take years or even decades until the area has a consensus that one should simply ignore the erroneous E=X paper and return to “A=?Z” the status of an open problem. The Annals will refuse to publish a retraction — technically they only published a correct A=E reduction, so it’s all other journals’ fault. It will all be good again, back to normal. But soon after, new papers such as G=U and B=R start to appear, and the agony continues anew…

From math to art

Now that I (hopefully) convinced you that high numbers of publications is an achievable but ultimately futile goal, how should you judge the papers? Do they at least make a nonnegative contribution to one’s CV? The answer to the latter question is “No”. This contribution can be negative. One way to think about is by invoking the high end art market.

Any art historian would be happy to vouch that the worth of a painting hinges heavily on the identity of the artist. But why should it? If the whole purpose of a piece of art is to evoke some feelings, how does the artist figures into this formula? This is super naïve, obviously, and I am sure you all understand why. My point is that things are not so simple.

One way to see the a pattern among famous artists is to realize that they don’t just create “one off” paintings, but rather a “series”. For example, Monet famously had haystack and Rouen Cathedral series, Van Gogh had a sunflowers series, Mondrian had a distinctive style with his “tableau” and “composition” series, etc. Having a recognizable very distinctive style is important, suggesting that painting in series are valued differently than those that are not, even if they are by the same artist.

Finally, the scarcity is an issue. For example Rodin’s Thinker is one of the most recognizable sculptures in the world. So is the Celebration series by Jeff Koons. While the latter keep fetching enormous prices at auctions, the latest sale of a Thinker couldn’t get a fifth of the Yellow Balloon Dog price. It could be because balloon animals are so cool, but could also be that there are 27 Thinkers in total, all made from the same cast. OTOH, there are only 5 balloon dogs, and they all have distinctly different colors making them both instantly recognizable yet still unique. You get it now — it’s complicated…

What papers to write

There isn’t anything objective of course, but thinking of art helps. Let’s figure this out by working backward. At the end, you need to be able to give a good colloquium style talk about your work. What kid of papers should you write to give such a talk?

  1. You can solve a major open problem. The talk writes itself then. You discuss the background, many famous people’s attempts and partial solutions. Then state your result and give an idea of the proof. Done. No need to have a follow up or related work. Your theorem speaks for itself. This is analogous to the most famous paintings. There are no haystacks or sunflowers on that list.
  2. You can tell a good story. I already wrote about how to write a good story in a math paper, and this is related. You start your talk by telling what’s the state of the sub-area, what are the major open problems and how do different aspects of your work fit in the picture. Then talk about how the technology that you develop over several papers positioned you to make a major advance in the area that is your most recent work. This is analogous to the series of painting.
  3. You can prove something small and nice, but be an amazing lecturer. You mesmerize the audience with your eloquence. For about 5 minutes after your talk they will keep thinking this little problem you solved is the most important result in all of mathematics. This feeling will fade, but good vibes will remain. They might still hire you — such talent is rare and teaching excellence is very valuable.

That’s it. If you want to give a good job talk, there is no other way to do it. This is why writing many one-off little papers makes very little sense. A good talk is not a patchwork quilt – you can’t make it of disparate pieces. In fact, I heard some talks where people tried to do that. They always have coherence of a portrait gallery of different subjects by different artists.

Back to the bedtime questions — the answer should be easy to guess now. If your little paper fits the narrative, do write it and publish it. If it helps you tell a good story — that sounds great. People in the area will want to know that you are brave enough to make a push towards a difficult problem using the tools or results you previously developed. But if it’s a one-off thing, like you thought for some reason that you could solve a major open problem in another area — why tell anyone? If anything, this distracts from the story you want to tell about your main line of research.

How to judge other people’s papers

First, you do what you usually do. Read the paper, make a judgement on the validity and relative importance of the result. But then you supplement the judgement with what you know about the author, just like when you judge a painting.

This may seem controversial, but it’s not. We live in an era of thousands of math journals which publish in total over 130K papers a year (according to MathSciNet). The sheer amount of mathematical research is overwhelming and the expertise has fractured into tiny sub-sub-areas, many hundreds of them. Deciding if a paper is a useful contribution to the area is by definition a function of what the community thinks about the paper.

Clearly, you can’t poll all members of the community, but you can ask a couple of people (usually called referees). And you can look at how previous papers by the author had been accepted by the community. This is why in the art world they always write about recent sales: what money and what museum or private collections bought the previous paintings, etc. Let me give you some math examples.

Say, you are an editor. Somebody submits a bijective proof of a binomial identity. The paper is short but nice. Clearly publishable. But then you check previous publications and discover the author has several/many other published papers with nice bijective proofs of other binomial identities, and all of them have mostly self-citations. Then you realize that in the ocean of binomial identities you can’t even check if this work has been done before. If somebody in the future wants to use this bijection, how would they go about looking for it? What will they be googling for? If you don’t have good answers to these questions, why would you accept such a paper then?

Say, you are hiring a postdoc. You see files of two candidates in your area. Both have excellent well written research proposals. One has 15 papers, another just 5 papers. The first is all over the place, can do and solve anything. The second is studious and works towards building a theory. You only have time to read the proposals (nobody has time to read all 20 papers). You looks at the best papers of each and they are of similar quality. Who do you hire?

That depends on who you are looking for, obviously. If you are a fancy shmancy university where there are many grad students and postdocs all competing with each other, none working closely with their postdoc supervisor — probably the first one. Lots of random papers is a plus — the candidate clearly adapts well and will work with many others without need for a supervision. There is even a chance that they prove something truly important, it’s hard to say, right? Whether they get a good TT job afterwards and what kind of job would that be is really irrelevant — other postdocs will be coming in a steady flow anyway.

But if you want to have this new postdoc to work closely with a faculty at your university, someone intent on building a something valuable, so that they are able to give a nice job talk telling a good story at the end, hire the second one. They first is much too independent and will probably be unable to concentrate on anything specific. The amount of supervision tends to go less, not more, as people move up. Left to their own devices you expect from these postdocs more of the same, so the choice becomes easy.

Say, you are looking at a paper submitted to you as an editor of an obscure journal. You need a referee. Look at the previous papers by the authors and see lots of the repeated names. Maybe it’s a clique? Make sure your referees are not from this clique, completely unrelated to them in any way.

Or, say, you are looking at a paper in your area which claims to have made an important step towards resolving a major conjecture. The first thing you do is look at previous papers by the same person. Have they said the same before? Was it the same or a different approach? Have any of their papers been retracted or major mistakes found? Do they have several parallel papers which prove not exactly related results towards the same goal? If the answer is Yes, this might be a zero-knowledge publishing attempt. Do nothing. But do tell everyone in the area to ignore this author until they publish one definitive paper proving all their claims. Or not, most likely…

P.S. I realize that many well meaning journals have double blind reviews. I understand where they are coming from, but think in the case of math this is misguided. This post is already much too long for me to talk about that — some other time, perhaps.

How I chose Enumerative Combinatorics

June 12, 2022 1 comment

Apologies for not writing anything for awhile. After Feb 24, the math part of the “life and math” slogan lost a bit of relevance, while the actual events were stupefying to the point when I had nothing to say about the life part. Now that the shock subsided, let me break the silence by telling an old personal story which is neither relevant to anything happening right now nor a lesson to anyone. Sometimes a story is just a story…

My field

As the readers of this blog know, I am a Combinatorialist. Not a “proud one”. Just “a combinatorialist”. To paraphrase a military slogan “there are many fields like this one, but this one is mine”. While I’ve been defending my field for years, writing about its struggles, and often defining it, it’s not because this field is more important than others. Rather, because it’s so frequently misunderstood.

In fact, I have worked in other (mostly adjacent) fields, but that was usually because I was curious. Curious what’s going on in other areas, curious if they had tools to help me with my problems. Curious if they had problems that could use my tools. I would go to seminars in other fields, read papers, travel to conferences, make friends. Occasionally this strategy paid off and I would publish something in another field. Much more often nothing ever came out of that. It was fun regardless.

Anyway, I wanted to work in combinatorics for as long as I can remember, since I was about 15 or so. There is something inherently discrete about the way I see the world, so much that having additional structure is just obstructing the view. Here is how Gian-Carlo Rota famously put it:

Combinatorics is an honest subject. […] You either have the right number or you haven’t. You get the feeling that the result you have discovered is forever, because it’s concrete. [Los Alamos Science, 1985]

I agree. Also, I really like to count. When prompted, I always say “I work in Combinatorics” even if sometimes I really don’t. But in truth, the field is much too large and not unified, so when asked to be more specific (this rarely happens) I say “Enumerative Combinatorics“. What follows is a short story of how I made the choice.

Family vacation

When I was about 18, Andrey Zelevinsky (ז״ל) introduced me and Alex Postnikov to Israel Gelfand and asked what should we be reading if we want to do combinatorics. Unlike most leading mathematicians in Russia, Gelfand had a surprisingly positive view on the subject (see e.g. his quotes here). He suggested we both read Macdonald’s book, which was translated into Russian by Zelevinsky himself just a few years earlier. The book was extremely informative but dry as a fig and left little room for creativity. I read a large chunk of it and concluded that if this is what modern combinatorics looks like, I want to have nothing to do with it. Alex had a very different impression, I think.

Next year, my extended family decided to have a vacation on a Russian “river cruise”. I remember a small passenger boat which left Moscow river terminal, navigated a succession of small rivers until it reached Volga. From there, the boat had a smooth gliding all the way to the Caspian Sea. The vacation was about three weeks of a hot Summer torture with the only relief served by mouth-watering fresh watermelons.

What made it worse, there was absolutely nothing to see. Much of the way Volga is enormously wide, sometimes as wide as the English channel. Most of the time you couldn’t even see the river banks. The cities distinguished themselves only by an assortment of Lenin statues, but were unremarkable otherwise. Volgograd was an exception with its very impressive tallest statue in Europe, roughly as tall as the Statue of Liberty when combined with its pedestal. Impressive for sure, but not worth the trip. Long story short, the whole cruise vacation was dreadfully boring.

One good book can make a difference

While most of my relatives occupied themselves by reading crime novels or playing cards, I was reading a math book, the only book I brought with me. This was Stanley’s Enumerative Combinatorics (vol. 1) whose Russian translation came out just a few months earlier. So I read it cover-to-cover, but doing only the easiest exercises just to make sure I understand what’s going on. That book changed everything…

Midway through, when I was reading about linear extensions of posets in Ch. 3 with their obvious connections to standard Young tableaux and the hook-length formula (which I already knew by then), I had an idea. From Macdonald’s book, I remembered the q-analogue of #SYT via the “charge“, a statistics introduced by Lascoux and Schützenberger to give a combinatorial interpretation of Kostka polynomials, and which works even for skew Young diagram shapes. I figured that skew shapes are generic enough, and there should be a generalization of the charge to all posets. After several long days filled with some tedious calculations by hand, I came up with both the statement and the proof of the q-analogue of the number of linear extensions.

I wrote the proof neatly in my notebook with a clear intent to publish my “remarkable discovery”, and continued reading. In Ch. 4, all of a sudden, I read the “P-partition theory” that I just invented by myself. It came with various applications and connections to other problems, and was presented so well, much nicer than I would have!

After some extreme disappointment, I learned from the notes that the P-partition theory was a large portion of Stanley’s own Ph.D. thesis, which he wrote before I was born. For a few hours, I did nothing but meditate, staring at the vast water surrounding me and ignoring my relatives who couldn’t care less what I was doing anyway. I was trying to think if there is a lesson in this fiasco.

It pays to be positive and self-assure, I suppose, in a way that only a teenager can be. That day I concluded that I am clearly doing something right, definitely smarter than everyone else even if born a little too late. More importantly, I figured that Enumerative Combinatorics done “Stanley-style” is really the right area for me…

Epilogue

I stopped thinking that I am smarter than everyone else within weeks, as soon as I learned more math. I no longer believe I was born too late. I did end up doing a lot of Enumerative Combinatorics. Much later I became Richard Stanley’s postdoc for a short time and a colleague at MIT for a long time. Even now, I continue writing papers on the numbers of linear extensions and standard Young tableaux. Occasionally, I also discuss their q-analogues (like in my most recent paper). I still care and it’s still the right area for me…

Some years later I realized that historically, the “charge” and Stanley’s q-statistics were not independent in a sense that both are generalizations of the major index by Percy MacMahon. In his revision of vol. 1, Stanley moved the P-partition theory up to Ch. 3, where it belongs IMO. In 2001, he received the Steele’s Prize for Mathematical Exposition for the book that changed everything…

Are we united in anything?

February 10, 2022 5 comments

Unity here, unity there, unity shmunity is everywhere. You just can’t avoid hearing about it. Every day, no matter the subject, somebody is going to call for it. Be it in Ukraine or Canada, Taiwan or Haiti, everyone is calling for unity. President Biden in his Inaugural Address called for it eight times by my count. So did former President Bush on every recent societal issue: here, there, everywhere. So did Obama and Reagan. I am sure just about every major US politician made the same call at some point. And why not? Like the “world peace“, the unity is assumed to be a universal good, or at least an inspirational if quickly forgettable goal.

Take the Beijing Olympic Games, which proudly claims that their motto “demonstrates unity and a collective effort” towards “the goal of pursuing world unity, peace and progress”. Come again? While The New York Times isn’t buying the whole “world unity” thing and calls the games “divisive” it still thinks that “Opening Ceremony [is] in Search of Unity.” Vox is also going there, claiming that the ceremony “emphasized peace, world unity, and the people around the world who have battled the pandemic.” So it sounds to me that despite all the politics, both Vox and the Times think that this mythical unity is something valuable, right? Well, ok, good to know…

Closer to home, you see the same themes said about the International Congress of Mathematicians to be held in St. Petersburg later this year. Here is Arkady Dvorkovich, co-chair of the Executive Organizing Committee and former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia: “It seems to us that Russia will be able to truly unite mathematicians from all over the world“. Huh? Are you sure? Unite in what exactly? Because even many Russian mathematicians are not on board with having the ICM in St. Petersburg. And among those from “all over the world”, quite a few are very openly boycotting the congress, so much that even the IMU started to worry. Doesn’t “unity” mean “for all”, as in ?

Unity of mathematics

Frequent readers of this blog can probably guess where I stand on the “unity”. Even in my own area of Combinatorics, I couldn’t find much of it at all. I openly mocked “the feeling of unity of mathematics” argument in favor of some conjectures. I tried but could never understand Noga Alon’s claim that “mathematics should be considered as one unit” other than a political statement by a former PC Chair of the 2006 ICM.

So, about this “unity of mathematics”. Like, really? All of mathematics? Quick, tell me what exactly do the Stochastic PDEs, Algebraic Number Theory, Enumerative Combinatorics and Biostatistics have in common? Anything comes to mind? Anything at all? Ugh. Let’s make another experiment. Say, I tell you that only two of these four areas have Fields medals. Can you guess which ones? Oh, you can? Really, it was that easy?? Doesn’t this cut against all of this alleged “unity”?

Anyway, let’s be serious. Mathematics is not a unit. It’s not even a “patterned tapestry” of connected threads. It’s a human endeavor. It’s an assorted collection of scientific pursuits unconstrained by physical experiments. Some of them are deep, some shallow, some are connected to others, and some are motivated by real world applications. You check the MSC 2020 classification, and there is everything under the sun, 224 pages in total. It’s preposterous to look for and expect to find some unity there. There is none to be found.

Let me put it differently. Take poetry. Like math, it’s a artistic endeavor. Poems are written by the people and for the people. To enjoy. To recall when in need or when in a mood. Like math papers. Now, can anyone keep a straight face and say “unity of poetry“? Of course not. If anything, it’s the opposite. In poetry, having a distinctive voice is celebrated. Diverse styles are lauded. New forms are created. Strong emotions are evoked. That’s the point. Why would math be any different then?

What exactly unites us?

Mathematicians, I mean. Not much, I suppose, to the contrary of math politicians’ claims:

I like to think that increasing breadth in research will help the mathematical sciences to recognize our essential unity. (Margaret Wright, SIAM President, 1996)

Huh? Isn’t this like saying that space exploration will help foster cross-cultural understanding? Sounds reasonable until you actually think about what is being said…

Even the style of doing research is completely different. Some prove theorems, some make heavy computer computations, some make physical experiments, etc. At the end, some write papers and put them on the arXiv, some write long books full of words (e.g. mathematical historians), some submit to competitive conferences (e.g. in theoretical computer science), some upload software packages and experimental evidence to some data depositary. It’s all different. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal.

In truth, very little unites us. Some mathematicians work at large state universities, others at small private liberal arts colleges with a completely different approach to teaching. Some have a great commitment to math education, some spend every waking hour doing research, while others enjoy frequent fishing trips thanks to tenure. Some go into university administration or math politics, while others become journal editors.

In truth, only two things unites us — giant math societies like the AMS and giant conferences like ICMs and joint AMS/MAA/SIAM meetings. Let’s treat them separately, but before we go there, let’s take a detour just to see what an honest unrestricted public discourse sounds like:

What to do about the Olympics

The answer depends on who you ask, obviously. And opinions are abound. I personally don’t care other than the unfortunate fact that 2028 Olympics will be hosted on my campus. But we in math should learn how to be critical, so here is a range of voices that I googled. Do with them as you please.

Some are sort of in favor:

I still believe the Olympics contribute a net benefit to humanity. (Beth Daley, The Conversation, Feb. 2018)

Some are positive if a little ambivalent:

The Games aren’t dead. Not by a longshot. But it’s worth noting that the reason they are alive has strikingly little to do with games, athletes or medals. (L. Jon Wertheim, Time, June 2021)

Some like The New York Times are highly critical, calling it “absurdity”. Some are blunt:

More and more, the international spectacle has become synonymous with overspending, corruption, and autocratic regimes. (Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic, Aug. 2021)

yet unwilling to make the leap and call it quits. Others are less shy:

You can’t reform the Olympics. The Olympics are showing us what they are, and what they’ve always been. (Gia Lappe and Jonny Coleman, Jacobin, July 2021)

and

Boil down all the sanctimonious drivel about how edifying the games are, and you’re left with the unavoidable truth: The Olympics wreck lives. (Natalie Shure, The New Republic, July 2021)

What is the ICM

Well, it’s a giant collective effort. A very old tradition. Medals are distributed. Lots of talks. Speakers are told that it’s an honor to be chosen. Universities issue press releases. Yes, like this one. Rich countries set up and give away travel grants. Poor countries scramble to pay for participants. The host country gets dubious PR benefits. A week after it’s over everyone forgets it ever happened. Life goes on.

I went to just one ICM, in Rio in 2018. It was an honor to be invited. But the experience was decidedly mixed. The speakers were terrific mathematicians, all of them. Many were good speakers. A few were dreadful in both content and style. Some figured they are giving talks in their research seminar rather than to a general audience, so I left a couple of such talks in middle. Many talks in parallel sections were not even recorded. What a shame!

The crowds were stupefying. I saw a lot of faces. Some were friendly, of people I hadn’t seen in years, sometimes 20 years. Some were people I knew only by name. It was nice to say hello, to shake their hand. But there were thousands more. Literally. An ocean of people. I was drowning. This was the worst place for an introvert.

While there, I asked a lot of people how did they like the ICM. Some were electrified by the experience and had a decent enough time. Some looked like fish out of the water — when asked they just stared at me incomprehensively silently saying “What are you, an idiot?” Some told me they just went to the opening ceremony and left for the beach for the rest of the ICM. Assaf Naor said that he loved everything. I was so amused by that, I asked if I could quote him. “Yes,” he said, “you can quote me: I loved absolutely every bit of the ICM”. Here we go — not everyone is an introvert.

Whatever happened at the ICM

Unlike the Olympics, math people tend to be shy in their ICM criticism. In his somewhat unfortunately titled but otherwise useful historical book “Mathematicians of the World, Unite!” the author, Guillermo Curbera, largely stays exuberant about the subject. He does mention some critical stories, like this one:

Charlotte Angas Scott reported bluntly on the presentation of papers in the congress, which in her opinion were “usually shockingly bad” since “instead of speaking to the audience, [the lecturer] reads his paper to himself in a monotone that is sometimes hurried, sometimes hesitating, and frequently bored . . . so that he is often tedious and incomprehensible.” (Paris 1900 Chapter, p. 24)

Curbera does mention in passing that the were some controversies: Grothendieck refused to attend ICM Moscow in 1966 for political reasons, Margulis and Novikov were not allowed by the Soviet Union to leave the country to receive their Fields medals. Well, nobody’s perfect, right?

Most reports I found on the web are highly positive. Read, for example, Gil Kalai’s blog posts on the ICM 2018. Everything was great, right? Even Doron Zeilberger, not known for holding his tongue, is mostly positive (about the ICM Beijing in 2002). He does suggest that the invited speakers “should go to a ‘training camp‘” for some sort of teacher training re-education, apparently not seeing the irony, or simply under impression of all those great things in Beijing.

The only (highly controversial) criticism that I found was from Ulf Persson who starts with:

The congresses are by now considered to be monstrous affairs very different from the original intimate gatherings where group pictures could be taken.

He then continues to talk about various personal inconveniences, his misimpressions about the ICM setting, the culture, the city, etc., all in a somewhat insensitive and rather disparaging manner. Apparently, this criticism and misimpressions earned a major smackdown from Marcelo Viana, the ICM 2018 Organizing Committee Chair, who wrote that this was a “piece of bigotry” by somebody who is “poorly informed”. Fair enough. I agree with that and with the EMS President Volker Mehrmann who wrote in the same EMS newsletter that the article was “very counterproductive”. Sure. But an oversized 4 page reaction to an opinion article in a math newsletter from another continent seem indicative that the big boss hates criticism. Because we need all that “unity”, right?

Anyway, don’t hold your breath to see anything critical about the ICM St. Petersburg later this year. Clearly, everything is going to be just fantastic, nothing controversial about it. Right…

What to do about the ICM

Stop having them in the current form. It’s the 21st century, and we are starting the third year of the pandemic. All talks can be moved online so that everyone can watch them either as they happen, or later on YouTube. Let me note that I’ve sat in the bleachers of these makeshift 1000+ people convention center auditoriums where the LaTeX formulas are barely visible. This is what the view is like:

Note that the ICM is not like a sports event — there is literally nothing at stake. Also, there are usually no questions afterwards anyway. You are all better off watching the talks later on your laptop, perhaps even on a x1.5 speed. To get the idea, imagine watching this talk in a huge room full of people…. Even better, we can also spread out these online lectures across the time zones so that people from different countries can participate. Something like this World Relay in Combinatorics.

Really, all that CO2 burned to get humans halfway across the world to seat in a crowded space is not doing anyone any good. If the Nobel Prizes can be awarded remotely, so can the Fields medals. Tourism value aside, the amount of meaningful person-to-person interaction is so minimal in a large crowd, I am struggling to find a single good reason at all to have these extravaganzas in-person.

What to do about the AMS

I am not a member of any math societies so it’s not my place to tell them what to do. As a frequent contributor to AMS journals and a former editor of one of them, I did call on the AMS to separate its society business form the publishing, but given that their business model hinges on the books and journals they sell, this is unlikely. Still, let me make some quick observations which might be helpful.

The AMS is clearly getting less and less popular. I couldn’t find the exact membership numbers, but their “dues and outreach” earnings have been flat for a while. Things are clearly not going in the right direction, so much that the current AMS President Ruth Charney sent out a survey earlier this week asking people like me why do we not want to join.

People seem to realize that they have many different views on all thing math related and are seeking associations which are a better fit. One notable example is the Just Mathematics Collective which has several notable boycott initiatives. Another is the Association for Mathematical Research formed following various controversies. Note that there is a great deal of disagreements between these two, see e.g. here, there and there.

I feel these are very good developments. It’s healthy to express disagreements on issues you consider important. And while I disagree with other things in the article below, I do agree with this basic premise:

Totalitarian countries have unity. Democratic republics have disagreement. (Kevin Williamson, Against Unity, National Review, Jan. 2021)

So everyone just chill. Enjoy diverse views and opinions. Disagree with the others. And think twice before you call for “unity” of anything, or praise the ephemeral “unity of mathematics”. There is none.

Just when you think it’s over

August 2, 2021 3 comments

The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” memorably wrote William Faulkner. He was right. You really have to give the past some credit — it’s everlasting and all consuming. Just when you think it’s all buried, it keeps coming back like a plague, in the most disturbing way.

The story here is about antisemitism in academia. These days, in my professional life as a mathematician, I rarely get to think about it. As it happens, I’ve written about antisemitic practices in academia and what happened to me on this blog before, and I didn’t plan to revisit the issue. After thirty years of not having to deal with that I was ready let it go… Until today. But let me start slowly.

The symbolism

In American universities, the antisemitism was widespread practice for decades which went out of fashion along with slide rule and French curve. This is extremely well documented. The world at large can be going crazy wild in their Jew-harted, but within confines of a good US university what do I care, right?

The symbolism is still there, of course. If you squint a little you see it all over the place. Like a long-abandoned tombstone in the town center everyone averts their eyes when passing by, a visual reminder of the past nobody wants to think about. Think of a mass murderer Vladimir Lenin very prominently featured in the Red Square and still lauded all over. Or and an even greater mass murderer Joseph Stalin who still has some streets named after him, some statues still standing in front of a museum at his birthplace in Gori, Georgia, and who is buried just a few meters behind Lenin. Thousands of tourists pass by these symbols. Everyone’s happy. Same with past antisemitism — nobody cares…

The news has come to Harvard

When it comes to antisemitic symbolism in academia, it’s worth mentioning Harvard University which stands tall in its obliviousness. For example, a rather beautiful Lowell House is named after Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, who was famous for instituting Jewish quotas. In 2019 the issue was brought up much too often to be ignored. In its infinite wisdom Harvard addressed it by keeping the name but taking down Lowell’s portrait in the dining room. Really! How evenhanded of them — Jews can now feel welcome, totally safe and protected… Not that Harvard learned much of anything from this sordid episode, but that’s to be expected I suppose. After all, Harvard never apologized

Or take the Birkhoff Library at the Harvard Math Department (where I got my Ph.D.), which is named after George Birkhoff, well known for his antisemitic rhetoric and hiring practices, and whom Albert Einstein called “one of the world’s great anti-Semites.” If you don’t know what I am talking about, read Steve Nadis and S.-T. Yau’s book which is surprisingly honest on the matter.

Of course, some things are too much even for Harvard. James Conant was a Harvard President who followed Lowell both as a president and in his love of Jewish quotas. He is also famous for being a Nazi sympathizer. Although still occasionally honored by Harvard (check named professorship there), apparently this is a source of embarrassment best erased from history and not discussed in a polite company. Other educational institutions are much less skittish, of course. Wikipedia helpfully points to Conant Elementary in Michigan and Conant High School in Illinois. I guess these places are ok with Conant’s legacy.

And now this

Consider the present day case of Yaroslav Shitov which was pointed out to me last week. Shitov is a prolific mathematician lauded by Gil Kalai, by Numberphile, by AMS News blog, and on the pages of Quanta Magazine for his recent work. Turns out, he is a rabid antisemite (among other things). The screenshots below (in Russian) taken from his social media account are so odious I refuse to translate them to give them more credence. In fact, if you can’t read Russian, you are better off — even reading this dreck makes you feel dirty.

I don’t have much to say about this person. I never met him and have no insight into where is this filth is coming from (not that I care). I do have a suggestion on what to do and it’s called shunning from the math community. Please ignore this person as much as possible! Never invite him to give talks at seminars or conferences. Refuse to referee his papers. If you are an editor, return his submissions without handling them. Don’t speak to him or shake his hand. If he is in the audience refuse to give a talk until he leaves. If you must cite his papers, do that without mentioning his name in the main body of the paper. He represents the ugly past that is best kept in the past…

The problem with combinatorics textbooks

July 3, 2021 Leave a comment

Every now and then I think about writing a graduate textbook in Combinatorics, based on some topics courses I have taught. I scan my extensive lecture notes, think about how much time it would take, and whether there is even a demand for this kind of effort. Five minutes later I would always remember that YOLO, deeply exhale and won’t think about it for a while.

What’s wrong with Combinatorics?

To illustrate the difficulty, let me begin with two quotes which contradict each other in the most illuminating way. First, from the Foreword by Richard Stanley on (his former student) Miklós Bóna’s “A Walk Through Combinatorics” textbook:

The subject of combinatorics is so vast that the author of a textbook faces a difficult decision as to what topics to include. There is no more-or-less canonical corpus as in such other subjects as number theory and complex variable theory. [here]

Second, from the Preface by Kyle Petersen (and Stanley’s academic descendant) in his elegant “Inquiry-Based Enumerative Combinatorics” textbook:

Combinatorics is a very broad subject, so the difficulty in writing about the subject is not what to include, but rather what to exclude. Which hundred problems should we choose? [here]

Now that this is all clear, you can probably insert your own joke about importance of teaching inclusion-exclusion. But I think the issue is a bit deeper than that.

I’ve been thinking about this when updating my “What is Combinatorics” quotation page (see also my old blog post on this). You can see a complete divergence of points of view on how to answer this question. Some make the definition or description to be very broad (sometimes even ridiculously broad), some relatively narrow, some are overly positive, while others are revoltingly negative. And some basically give up and say, in effect “it is what it is”. This may seem puzzling, but if you concentrate on the narrow definitions and ignore the rest, a picture emerges.

Clearly, these people are not talking about the same area. They are talking about sub-areas of Combinatorics that they know well, that they happen to learn or work on, and that they happen to like or dislike. Somebody made a choice what part of Combinatorics to teach them. They made a choice what further parts of Combinatorics to learn. These choices are increasingly country or culture dependent, and became formative in people’s mind. And they project their views of these parts of Combinatorics on the whole field.

So my point is — there is no right answer to “What is Combinatorics?“, in a sense that all these opinions are biased to some degree by personal education and experience. Combinatorics is just too broad of a category to describe. It’s a bit like asking “what is good food?” — the answers would be either broad and bland, or interesting but very culture-specific.

Courses and textbooks

How should one resolve the issue raised above? I think the answer is simple. Stop claiming that Combinatorics, or worse, Discrete Mathematics, is one subject. That’s not true and hasn’t been true for a while. I talked about this in my “Unity of Combinatorics” book review. Combinatorics is comprised of many sub-areas, see the Wikipedia article I discussed here (long ago). Just accept it.

As a consequence, you should never teach a “Combinatorics” course. Never! Especially to graduate students, but to undergraduates as well. Teach courses in any and all of these subjects: Enumerative Combinatorics, Graph Theory, Probabilistic Combinatorics, Discrete Geometry, Algebraic Combinatorics, Arithmetic Combinatorics, etc. Whether introductory or advanced versions of these courses, there is plenty of material for each such course.

Stop using these broad “a little bit about everything” combinatorics textbooks which also tend to be bulky, expensive and shallow. It just doesn’t make sense to teach both the five color theorem and the Catalan numbers (see also here) in the same course. In fact, this is a disservice to both the students and the area. Different students want to know about different aspects of Combinatorics. Thus, if you are teaching the same numbered undergraduate course every semester you can just split it into two or three, and fix different syllabi in advance. The students will sort themselves out and chose courses they are most interested in.

My own teaching

At UCLA, with the help of the Department, we split one Combinatorics course into two titled “Graph Theory” and “Enumerative Combinatorics”. They are broader, in fact, than the titles suggest — see Math 180 and Math 184 here. The former turned out to be quite a bit more popular among many applied math and non-math majors, especially those interested in CS, engineering, data science, etc., but also from social sciences. Math majors tend to know a lot of this material and flock to the latter course. I am not saying you should do the same — this is just an example of what can be done.

I remember going through a long list of undergraduate combinatorics textbooks a few years ago, and found surprisingly little choice for the enumerative/algebraic courses. Of the ones I liked, let me single out Bóna’s “Introduction to Enumerative and Analytic Combinatorics and Stanley’s “Algebraic Combinatorics“. We now use both at UCLA. There are also many good Graph Theory course textbooks of all levels, of course.

Similarly, for graduate courses, make sure you make the subject relatively narrow and clearly defined. Like a topics class, except accessible to beginning graduate students. Low entry barrier is an advantage Combinatorics has over other areas, so use it. To give examples from my own teaching, see unedited notes from my graduate courses:

Combinatorics of posets (Fall 2020)

Combinatorics and Probability on groups (Spring 2020)

Algebraic Combinatorics (Winter 2019)

Discrete and Polyhedral Geometry (Fall 2018) This is based on my book. See also videos of selected topics (in Russian).

Combinatorics of Integer Sequences (Fall 2016)

Combinatorics of Words (Fall 2014)

Tilings (Winter 2013, lecture-by-lecture refs only)

In summary

In my experience, the more specific you make the combinatorics course the more interesting it is to the students. Don’t be afraid that the course would appear be too narrow or too advanced. That’s a stigma from the past. You create a good course and the students will quickly figure it out. They do have their own FB and other chat groups, and spread the news much faster than you could imagine…

Unfortunately, there is often no good textbook to cover what you want. So you might have to work a little harder harder to scout the material from papers, monographs, etc. In the internet era this is easier than ever. In fact, many extensive lecture notes are already available on the web. Eventually, all the appropriate textbooks will be written. As I mentioned before, this is one of the very few silver linings of the pandemic…

P.S. (July 8, 2021) I should have mentioned that in addition to “a little bit about everything” textbooks, there are also “a lot about everything” doorstopper size volumes. I sort of don’t think of them as textbooks at all, more like mixtures of a reference guide, encyclopedia and teacher’s manual. Since even the thought of teaching from such books overwhelms the senses, I don’t expect them to be widely adopted.

Having said that, these voluminous textbooks can be incredibly valuable to both the students and the instructor as a source of interesting supplementary material. Let me single out an excellent recent “Combinatorial Mathematics” by Doug West written in the same clear and concise style as his earlier “Introduction to Graph Theory“. Priced modestly (for 991 pages), I recommend it as “further reading” for all combinatorics courses, even though I strongly disagree with the second sentence of the Preface, per my earlier blog post.

How to fight the university bureaucracy and survive

June 27, 2021 Leave a comment

The enormity of the university administration can instill fear. How can you possibly fight such a machine? Even if an injustice happened to you, you are just one person with no power, right? Well, I think you can. Whether you succeed in your fight is another matter. But at least you can try… In this post I will try to give you some advise on how to do this.

Note: Initially I wanted to make this blog post light and fun, but I couldn’t think of a single joke. Somehow, the subject doesn’t inspire… So read this only if it’s relevant to you. Wait for future blog posts otherwise…

Warning: Much of what I say is relevant to big state universities in the US. Some of what I say may also be relevant to other countries and university systems, I wouldn’t know.

Basics

Who am I to write about this? It is reasonable to ask if any of this is based on my personal experience of fighting university bureaucracies. The answer is yes, but I am not willing to make any public disclosures to protect privacy of all parties involved. Let me just say that over the past 20 years I had several relatively quiet and fairly minor fights with university bureaucracies some of which I won rather quickly by being right. Once, I bullied my way into victory despite being in the wrong (as I later learned), and once I won over a difficult (non-personal) political issue by being cunning and playing a really long game that took almost 3 years. I didn’t lose any, but I did refrain from fighting several times. By contrast, when I tried to fight the federal government a couple of times (on academic matters), I lost quickly and decisively. They are just too powerful….

Should you fight? Maybe. But probably not. Say, you complained to the administration about what you perceive to be an injustice to you or to someone else. Your complaint was denied. This is when you need to decide if you want to start a fight. If you do, you will spend a lot of effort and (on average) probably lose. The administrations are powerful and know what they are doing. You probably don’t, otherwise you won’t be reading this. This blog post might help you occasionally, but wouldn’t change the big picture.

Can you fight? Yes, you can. You can win by being right and convince bureaucrats to see it this way. You can win by being persistent when others give up. You can also win by being smart. Big systems have weaknesses you can exploit, see below. Use them.

Is there a downside to winning a fight? Absolutely. In the process you might lose some friends, raise some suspicions from colleagues, and invite retribution. On a positive side, big systems have very little institutional memory — your win and the resulting embarrassment to administration will be forgotten soon enough.

Is there an upside to losing a fight? Actually, yes. You might gain resect of some colleagues as someone willing to fight. In fact, people tend to want being friends/friendly with such people out of self-preservation. And if your cause is righteous, this might help your reputation in and beyond the department.

Why did I fight? Because I just couldn’t go on without a fight. The injustice, as I perceived it, was eating me alive and I had a hunch there is a nonzero chance I would win. There were some cases when I figured the chances are zero, and I don’t need the grief. There were cases when the issue was much too minor to waste my energy. I don’t regret those decision, but having grown up in this unsavory part of Moscow, I was conditioned to stand up for myself.

Is there a cost of not fighting? Yes, and it goes beyond the obvious. First, fighting bureaucracy is a skill, and every skill takes practice. I remember when tried to rent an apartment in Cambridge, MA — some real estate agents would immediately ask if I go to Harvard Law School. Apparently it’s a common practice for law students to sue their landlords, an “extra credit” homework exercise. Most of these lawsuits would quickly fail, but the legal proceeding were costly to the owners.

Second, there is a society cost. If you feel confident that your case is strong, you winning might set a precedent which could benefit many others. I wrote on this blog once how I dropped (or never really started) a fight against the NSF, even though they clearly denied me the NSF Graduate Fellowship in a discriminatory manner, or at least that’s what I continue to believe. Not fighting was the right thing to do for me personally (I would have lost, 100%), but my case was strong and the fight itself might have raised some awareness to the issue. It took the NSF almost 25 years to figure out that it’s time to drop the GREs discriminatory requirement.

Axioms

  1. If it’s not in writing it never happened.
  2. Everyone has a boss.
  3. Bureaucrats care about themselves first and foremost. Then about people in their research area, department and university, in that order. Then undergraduates. Then graduate students. You are the last person they care about.

How to proceed

Know your adversary. Remember — you are not fighting a mafia, a corrupt regime or the whole society. Don’t get angry, fearful or paranoid. Your adversary is a group of good people who are doing their jobs as well as they can. They are not infallible, but probably pretty smart and very capable when it comes to bureaucracy, so from game theory point of view you may as well assume they are perfect. When they are not, you will notice that — that’s the weakness you can exploit, but don’t expect that to happen.

Know your rights. This might seem obvious, but you would be surprised to know how many academics are not aware they have rights in a university system. In fact, it’s a feature of every large bureaucracy — it produces a lot of well meaning rules. For example, Wikipedia is a large project which survived for 20 years, so unsurprisingly it has a large set of policies enforced by an army of admins. The same is probably true about your university and your department. Search on the web for the faculty handbook, university and department bylaws, etc. If you can’t find the anywhere, email the assistant to the Department Chair and ask for one.

Go through the motions. Say, you think you were slighted. For example, your salary was not increased (enough), you didn’t get a promotion, you got too many committee duties assigned, your sabbatical was not approved, etc. Whatever it is, you are upset, I get it. Your first step is not to complain but go through the motions, and email inquiries. Email the head of the department, chair of the executive committee, your faculty dean, etc., whoever is the decision maker. Calmly ask to explain this decision. Sometimes, this was an oversight and it’s corrected with a quick apology and “thanks for bringing this up”. You win, case closed. Also, sometimes you either get a convincing explanation with which you might agree — say, the university is on salary freeze so nobody got a salary increase, see some link. Again, case closed.

But in other cases you either receive an argument with which you disagree (say, “the decision was made based on your performance in the previous year”), a non-answer (say, “I am on sabbatical” or “I will not be discussing personal matters by email”), or no answer at all. These are the cases that you need to know how to handle and all such cases are a little different. I will try to cover as much territory as possible, but surely will miss some cases.

Ask for advice. This is especially important if you are a junior mathematician and feel a little overwhelmed. Find a former department chair, perhaps professor emeritus, and have an quiet chat. Old-timers know the history of the department, who are the university administrators, what are the rules, what happened to previous complaints, what would fly and what wouldn’t, etc. They might also suggest who else you should talk to that would be knowledgeable and help dealing with an issue. With friends like these, you are in a good shape.

Scenarios

Come by for a chat. This is a standard move by a capable bureaucrat. They invite you for a quick discussion, maybe sincerely apologize for “what happened” or “if you are upset” and promise something which they may or may not intend to keep. You are supposed to leave grateful that “you are heard” and nothing is really lost from admin’s point of view. You lost.

There is only one way to counter this move. Agree to a meeting — play nice and you might learn something. Don’t record in secret — it’s against the law in most states. Don’t ask if you can record the conversation — even if the bureaucrat agrees you will hear nothing but platitudes then (like “we in our university strive to make sure everyone is happy and successful, and it is my personal goal to ensure everyone is treated fairly and with respect”). This defeats the purpose of the meeting moving you back to square one.

At the meeting do not agree with anything, never say yes or no to anything. Not even to the routine “No hard feelings?” Just nod, take careful notes, say “thank you so much for taking time to have this meeting” and “This information is very useful, I will need to think it over”. Do not sign anything. If offered a document to sign, take it with you. If implicitly threatened, as in “Right now I can offer you this for you, but once you leave this office I can’t promise… ” (this is rare but does happen occasionally), ignore the threat. Just keep repeating “Thank you so much for informing me of my options, I will need to think it over.” Go home, think it over and talk to somebody.

Get it all in writing. Within a few hours after the meeting, email to the bureaucrat an email with your notes. Start this way: “Dear X, this is to follow up on the meeting we had on [date] regarding the [issue]. I am writing this to ensure there is no misunderstanding on my part. At the meeting you [offered/suggested/claimed/threatened] …. Please let me know if this is correct and what are the details of …”

A capable bureaucrat will recognize the move and will never go on record with anything unbecoming. They will accept the out you offered and claim that you indeed misunderstood. Don’t argue with that — you have them where you want it. In lieu of the misunderstanding they will need to give a real answer to your grievance (otherwise what was the point of the meeting?) Sometimes a bureaucrat will still resort to platitudes, but now that they are in writing, that trick is harder to pull off, and it leads us to a completely different scenario (see below).

Accept the win. You might receive something like this: “We sincerely apologize for [mistake]. While nothing can be done about [past decision], we intend to [compensate or rectify] by doing…” If this is a clear unambiguous promise in writing, you might want to accept it. If not, follow up about details. Do not pursue this any further and don’t make it public. You got what you wanted, it’s over.

Accept the defeat. You might learn that administration acted by the book, exactly the way the rules/bylaws prescribe, and you were not intentionally discriminated in any way. Remain calm. Thank the bureaucrat for the “clarification”. It’s over.

Power of CC. If you receive a non-answer full of platitudes or no email reply at all (give it exactly one week), then follow up. Write politely “I am afraid I did not receive an answer to [my questions] in my email from [date]. I would really appreciate your response to [all issues I raised]. P.S. I am CC’ing this email to [your boss, boss of your boss, your assistant, your peers, other fellow bureaucrats, etc.] to let them know of [my grievance] and in case they can be helpful with this situation.” They will not “be helpful”, of course, but that’s not the point. The CC move itself has an immense power driven by bureaucrats’ self-preservation. Most likely you will get a reply within hours. Just don’t abuse the CC move — use it when you have no other moves to play, as otherwise it loses its power.

Don’t accept a draw. Sometimes a capable bureaucrat might reply to the whole list on CC and write “We are very sorry [your grievance] happened. This is extremely atypical and related to [your unusual circumstances]. While this is normally not appropriate, we are happy to make an exception in your case and [compensate you].” Translation: “it’s your own fault, you brought it on yourself, we admit no wrongdoing, but we are being very nice and will make you happy even though we really don’t have to do anything, not at all.” While other bureaucrats will recognize the move and that there is an implicit admission of fault, they will stay quiet — it’s not their fight.

Now, there is only one way to counter this, as far as I know. If you don’t follow up it’s an implicit admission of “own fault” which you don’t want as the same issue might arise again in the future. If you start explaining that it’s really bureaucrat’s fault you seem vindictive (as in “you already got what you wanted, why do you keep pushing this?”), and other bureaucrats will close ranks leaving you worse off. The only way out is to pretend to be just as illogical as the bureaucrat pretends to be. Reply to the whole CC list something like “Thank you so much for your apology and understanding of my [issue]. I am very grateful this is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. I gratefully accept your sincere apology and your assurances this will not happen again to me nor anyone else at the department.”

A capable bureaucrat will recognize they are fighting fire with fire. In your email you sound naïve and sincere — how do you fight that? What are they going to do — reply “actually, I didn’t issue any apology as this was not my fault”? Now that seem overly defensive. And they would have to reply to the whole CC list again, which is not what they want. They are aware that everyone else knows they screwed up, so reminding everyone with a new email is not in their interest. And there is a decent chance you might reply to the whole CC list again with all that sugarcoated unpleasantness. Most likely, you won’t hear from them again, or just a personal (non-CC’d) email which you can ignore regardless of the content.

Shifting blame or responsibility. That’s another trick bureaucrats employ very successfully. You might get a reply from a bureaucrat X to the effect saying “don’t ask me, these are rules made by [people upstairs]” or “As far as I know, person Y is responsible for this all”. This is great news for you — a tacit validation of your cause and an example of a bureaucrat putting their own well-being ahead of the institution. Remember, your fight is not with X, but with the administration. Immediately forward both your grievance and the reply to Y, or to X’s boss if no names were offered, and definitely CC X “to keep your in the loop of further developments on this issue”. That immediately pushes bureaucracy into overdrive as it starts playing musical chairs in the game “whose fault is that and what can be done”.

Like with musical chairs, you might have to repeat the procedure a few times, but chances are someone will eventually accept responsibility just to stop this embarrassment from going circles. By then, there will be so many people on the CC chain, your issue will be addressed appropriately.

Help them help you. Sometimes a complaint puts the bureaucrat into a stalemate. They want to admit that injustice happened to you, but numerous university rules forbid them from acting to redress the situation. In order to violate these rules, they would have to take the case upstairs, which brings its own complications to everyone involved. Essentially you need to throw them a lifeline by suggesting some creative solution to the problem.

Say, you can write “while I realize the deadline for approval of my half-year sabbatical has passed, perhaps the department can buyout one course from my Fall schedule and postpone teaching the other until Spring.” This moves the discussion from the “apology” subject to “what can be done”, a much easier bureaucratic terrain. While the bureaucrat may not agree with your proposed solution, your willingness to deal without an apology will earn you some points and perhaps lead to a resolution favorable to all parties.

Now, don’t be constrained in creativity of when thinking up such a face saving resolution. It is a common misconception that university administrations are very slow and rigid. This is always correct “on average”, and holds for all large administrative systems where responsibility is distributed across many departments and individuals. In reality, when they want to, such large systems can turn on a dime by quickly utilizing its numerous resources (human, financial, legal, etc.) I’ve seen it in action, it’s jaw-dropping, and it takes just one high ranking person to take up the issue and make it a cause.

Making it public. You shouldn’t do that unless you already lost but keep holding a grudge (and have tenure to protect you). Even then, you probably shouldn’t do it unless you are really good at PR. Just about every time you make grievances public you lose some social points with people who will hold it against you, claim you brought it on yourself, etc. In the world of social media your voice will be drowned and your case will be either ignored or take life of its own, with facts distorted to fit a particular narrative. The administration will close ranks and refuse to comment. You might be worse off than when you started.

The only example I can give is my own combative blog post which remains by far my most widely read post. Everyone just loves watching a train wreck… Many people asked why I wrote it, since it made me a persona non grata in the whole area of mathematics. I don’t have a good answer. In fact, that area may have lost some social capital as a result of my blog post, but haven’t changed at all. Some people apologized, that’s all. There is really nothing I can do and they know it. The truth is — my upbringing was acting up again, and I just couldn’t let it go without saying “Don’t F*** with Igor Pak”.

But you can very indirectly threaten to make it public. Don’t do it unless you are at an endgame dealing with a high ranking administrator and things are not looking good for you. Low level university bureaucrats are not really afraid for their jobs. For example, head of the department might not even want to occupy the position, and is fully protected by tenure anyway. But deans, provosts, etc. are often fully vested into their positions which come with substantial salary hike. If you have a sympathetic case, they wouldn’t want to be featured in a college newspaper as denying you some benefits, regardless of the merit. They wouldn’t be bullied into submission either, so some finesse is needed.

In this case I recommend you find an email of some student editor of a local university newspaper. In your reply to the high ranking administrator write something like “Yes, I understand the university position in regard to this issue. However, perhaps [creative solution]”. Then quietly insert the editor’s email into CC. In the reply, the administrator will delete the email from CC “for privacy reasons”, but will google to find out who is being CC’ed. Unable to gauge the extend of newspaper’s interest in the story, the administrator might chose to hedge and help you by throwing money at you or mollifying you in some creative way you proposed. Win–win.

Final word

I am confident there will be people on all sides who disagree collectively with just about every sentence I wrote. Remember — this blog post is a not a recommendation to do anything. It’s just my personal point of view on these delicate matters which tend to go undiscussed, leaving many postdocs and junior faculty facing alone their grievances. If you know a good guide on how to deal with these issues (beyond Rota’s advice), please post a link in the comments. Good luck everyone! Hope you will never have to deal with any of that!

Why you shouldn’t be too pessimistic

May 13, 2021 2 comments

In our math research we make countless choices. We chose a problem to work on, decide whether its claim is true or false, what tools to use, what earlier papers to study which might prove useful, who to collaborate with, which computer experiments might be helpful, etc. Choices, choices, choices… Most our choices are private. Others are public. This blog is about wrong public choices that I made misjudging some conjectures by being overly pessimistic.

The meaning of conjectures

As I have written before, conjectures are crucial to the developments of mathematics and to my own work in particular. The concept itself is difficult, however. While traditionally conjectures are viewed as some sort of “unproven laws of nature“, that comparison is widely misleading as many conjectures are descriptive rather than quantitative. To understand this, note the stark contrast with experimental physics, as many mathematical conjectures are not particularly testable yet remain quite interesting. For example, if someone conjectures there are infinitely many Fermat primes, the only way to dissuade such person is to actually disprove the claim.

There is also an important social aspect of conjecture making. For a person who poses a conjecture, there is a certain clairvoyance respected by other people in the area. Predictions are never easy, especially of a precise technical nature, so some bravery or self-assuredness is required. Note that social capital is spent every time a conjecture is posed. In fact, a lot of it is lost when it’s refuted, you come out even if it’s proved relatively quickly, and you gain only if the conjecture becomes popular or proved possibly many years later. There is also a “boy who cried wolf” aspect for people who make too many conjectures of dubious quality — people will just tune out.

Now, for the person working on a conjecture, there is also a betting aspect one cannot ignore. As in, are you sure you are working in the right direction? Perhaps, the conjecture is simply false and you are wasting your time… I wrote about this all before in the post linked above, and the life/career implications on the solver are obvious. The success in solving a well known conjecture is often regarded much higher than a comparable result nobody asked about. This may seem unfair, and there is a bit of celebrity culture here. Thinks about it this way — two lead actors can have similar acting skills, but the one who is a star will usually attract a much larger audience…

Stories of conjectures

Not unlike what happens to papers and mathematical results, conjectures also have stories worth telling, even if these stories are rarely discussed at length. In fact, these “conjecture stories” fall into a few types. This is a little bit similar to the “types of scientific papers” meme, but more detailed. Let me list a few scenarios, from the least to the most mathematically helpful:

(1) Wishful thinking. Say, you are working on a major open problem. You realize that a famous conjecture A follows from a combination of three conjectures B, C and D whose sole motivation is their applications to A. Some of these smaller conjectures are beyond the existing technology in the area and cannot be checked computationally beyond a few special cases. You then declare that this to be your “program” and prove a small special case of C. Somebody points out that D is trivially false. You shrug, replace it with a weaker D’ which suffices for your program but is harder to disprove. Somebody writes a long state of the art paper disproving D’. You shrug again and suggest an even weaker conjecture D”. Everyone else shrugs and moves on.

(2) Reconfirming long held beliefs. You are working in a major field of study aiming to prove a famous open problem A. Over the years you proved a number of special cases of A and became one the leaders of the area. You are very optimistic about A discussing it in numerous talks and papers. Suddenly A is disproved in some esoteric situations, undermining the motivation of much of your older and ongoing work. So you propose a weaker conjecture A’ as a replacement for A in an effort to salvage both the field and your reputation. This makes happy everyone in the area and they completely ignore the disproof of A from this point on, pretending it’s completely irrelevant. Meanwhile, they replace A with A’ in all subsequent papers and beamer talk slides.

(3) Accidental discovery. In your ongoing work you stumble at a coincidence. It seem, all objects of a certain kind have some additional property making them “nice“. You are clueless why would that be true, since being nice belongs to another area X. Being nice is also too abstract to be checked easily on a computer. You consult a colleague working in X whether this is obvious/plausible/can be proved and receive No/Yes/Maybe answers to these three questions. You are either unable to prove the property or uninterested in problem, or don’t know much about X. So you mention it in the Final Remarks section of your latest paper in vain hope somebody reads it. For a few years, every time you meet somebody working in X you mention to them your “nice conjecture”, so much that people laugh at you behind your back.

(4) Strong computational evidence. You are doing computer experiments related to your work. Suddenly certain numbers appear to have an unexpectedly nice formula or a generating function. You check with OEIS and the sequence is there indeed, but not with the meaning you wanted. You use the “scientific method” to get a few more terms and they indeed support your conjectural formula. Convinced this is not an instance of the “strong law of small numbers“, you state the formula as a conjecture.

(5) Being contrarian. You think deeply about famous conjecture A. Not only your realize that there is no way one can approach A in full generality, but also that it contradicts some intuition you have about the area. However, A was stated by a very influential person N and many people believe in A proving it in a number of small special cases. You want to state a non-A conjecture, but realize the inevitable PR disaster of people directly comparing you to N. So you either state that you don’t believe in A, or that you believe in a conjecture B which is either slightly stronger or slightly weaker than non-A, hoping the history will prove you right.

(6) Being inspirational. You think deeply about the area and realize that there is a fundamental principle underlying certain structures in your work. Formalizing this principle requires a great deal of effort and results in a conjecture A. The conjecture leads to a large body of work by many people, even some counterexamples in esoteric situations, leading to various fixes such as A’. But at that point A’ is no longer the goal but more of a direction in which people work proving a number of A-related results.

Obviously, there are many other possible stories, while some stories are are a mixture of several of these.

Why do I care? Why now?

In the past few years I’ve been collecting references to my papers which solve or make some progress towards my conjectures and open problems, putting links to them on my research page. Turns out, over the years I made a lot of those. Even more surprisingly, there are quite a few papers which address them. Here is a small sampler, in random order:

(1) Scott Sheffield proved my ribbon tilings conjecture.

(2) Alex Lubotzky proved my conjecture on random generation of a finite group.

(3) Our generalized loop-erased random walk conjecture (joint with Igor Gorodezky) was recently proved by Heng Guo and Mark Jerrum.

(4) Our Young tableau bijections conjecture (joint with Ernesto Vallejo) was resolved by André Henriques and Joel Kamnitzer.

(5) My size Ramsey numbers conjecture led to a series of papers, and was completely resolved only recently by Nemanja Draganić, Michael Krivelevich and Rajko Nenadov.

(6) One of my partition bijection problems was resolved by Byungchan Kim.

The reason I started collecting these links is kind of interesting. I was very impressed with George Lusztig and Richard Stanley‘s lengthy writeups about their collected papers that I mentioned in this blog post. While I don’t mean to compare myself to these giants, I figured the casual reader might want to know if a conjecture in some paper had been resolved. Thus the links on my website. I recommend others also do this, as a navigational tool.

What gives?

Well, looks like none of my conjectures have been disproved yet. That’s a good news, I suppose. However, by going over my past research work I did discover that on three occasions when I was thinking about other people’s conjectures, I was much too negative. This is probably the result of my general inclination towards “negative thinking“, but each story is worth telling.

(i) Many years ago, I spent some time thinking about Babai’s conjecture which states that there are universal constants C, c >0, such that for every simple group G and a generating set S, the diameter of the Cayley graph Cay(G,S) is at most C(log |G|)c. There has been a great deal of work on this problem, see e.g. this paper by Sean Eberhard and Urban Jezernik which has an overview and references.

Now, I was thinking about the case of the symmetric group trying to apply arithmetic combinatorics ideas and going nowhere. In my frustration, in a talk I gave (Galway, 2009), I wrote on the slides that “there is much less hope” to resolve Babai’s conjecture for An than for simple groups of Lie type or bounded rank. Now, strictly speaking that judgement was correct, but much too gloomy. Soon after, Ákos Seress and Harald Helfgott proved a remarkable quasi-polynomial upper bound in this case. To my embarrassment, they referenced my slides as a validation of the importance of their work.

Of course, Babai’s conjecture is very far from being resolved for An. In fact, it is possible that the diameter is always O(n2). We just have no idea. For simple groups of Lie type or large rank the existing worst case diameter bounds are exponential and much too weak compared to the desired bound. As Eberhard and Jezernik amusingly wrote in the paper linked above, “we are still exponentially stupid“…

(ii) When he was my postdoc at UCLA, Alejandro Morales told me about a curious conjecture in this paper (Conjecture 5.1), which claimed that the number of certain nonsingular matrices over the finite field Fq is polynomial in q with positive coefficients. He and coauthors proved the conjecture is some special cases, but it was wide open in full generality.

Now, I thought about this type of problems before and was very skeptical. I spent a few days working on the problem to see if any of my tools can disprove it, and failed miserably. But in my stubbornness I remained negative and suggested to Alejandro that he should drop the problem, or at least stop trying to prove rather than disprove the conjecture. I was wrong to do that.

Luckily, Alejandro ignored my suggestion and soon after proved the polynomial part of the conjecture together with Joel Lewis. Their proof is quite elegant and uses certain recurrences coming from the rook theory. These recurrences also allow a fast computation of these polynomials. Consequently, the authors made a number of computer experiments and disproved the positivity of coefficients part of the conjecture. So the moral is not to be so negative. Sometimes you need to prove a positive result first before moving to the dark side.

(iii) The final story is about the beautiful Benjamini conjecture in probabilistic combinatorics. Roughly speaking, it says that for every finite vertex transitive graph G on n vertices and diameter O(n/log n) the critical percolation constant pc <1. More precisely, the conjecture claims that there is p<1-ε, such that a p-percolation on G has a connected component of size >n/2 with probability at least δ, where constants ε, δ>0 depend on the constant implied by the O(*) notation, but not on n. Here by “p-percolation” we mean a random subgraph of G with probability p of keeping and 1-p of deleting an edge, independently for all edges of G.

Now, Itai Benjamini is a fantastic conjecture maker of the best kind, whose conjectures are both insightful and well motivated. Despite the somewhat technical claim, this conjecture is quite remarkable as it suggested a finite version of the “pc<1″ phenomenon for infinite groups of superlinear growth. The latter is the famous Benjamini–Schramm conjecture (1996), which was recently proved in a remarkable breakthrough by Hugo Duminil-Copin, Subhajit Goswami, Aran Raoufi, Franco Severo and Ariel Yadin. While I always believed in that conjecture and even proved a tiny special case of it, finite versions tend to be much harder in my experience.

In any event, I thought a bit about the Benjamini conjecture and talked to Itai about it. He convinced me to work on it. Together with Chis Malon, we wrote a paper proving the claim for some Cayley graphs of abelian and some more general classes of groups. Despite our best efforts, we could not prove the conjecture even for Cayley graphs of abelian groups in full generality. Benjamini noted that the conjecture is tight for products of two cyclic groups, but that justification did not sit well with me. There seemed to be no obvious way to prove the conjecture even for the Cayley graph of Sn generated by a transposition and a long cycle, despite the very small O(n2) diameter. So we wrote in the introduction: “In this paper we present a number of positive results toward this unexpected, and, perhaps, overly optimistic conjecture.”

As it turns out, it was us who were being overly pessimistic, even if we never actually stated that we believe the conjecture is false. Most recently, in an amazing development, Tom Hutchcroft and Matthew Tointon proved a slightly weaker version of the conjecture by adapting the methods of Duminil-Copin et al. They assume the O(n/(log n)c) upper bound on the diameter which they prove is sufficient, for some universal constant c>1. They also extend our approach with Malon to prove the conjecture for all Cayley graphs of abelian groups. So while the Benjamini conjecture is not completely resolved, my objections to it are no longer valid.

Final words on this

All in all, it looks like I was never formally wrong even if I was a little dour occasionally (Yay!?). Turns out, some conjectures are actually true or at least likely to hold. While I continue to maintain that not enough effort is spent on trying to disprove the conjectures, it is very exciting when they are proved. Congratulations to Harald, Alejandro, Joel, Tom and Matthew, and posthumous congratulations to Ákos for their terrific achievements!

2021 Abel Prize

March 17, 2021 2 comments

I am overjoyed with the news of the Abel prize awarded to László Lovász and Avi Wigderson. You can now see three (!) Abel laureates discussing Combinatorics — follow the links in this blog post from 2019. See also Gil Kalai’s blog post for further links to lectures.

My interview

March 9, 2021 1 comment

Readers of this blog will remember my strong advocacy for taking interviews. In a surprising turn of events, Toufik Mansour interviewed me for the journal Enumerative Combinatorics and Applications (ECA). Here is that interview. Not sure if I am the right person to be interviewed, but if you want to see other Toufik’s interviews — click here (I mentioned some of them earlier). I am looking forward to read interviews of many more people in ECA and other journals.

P.S. The interview asks also about this blog, so it seems fitting to mention it here.

Corrections: (March 11, 2021) 1. I misread “What three results do you consider the most influential in combinatorics during the last thirty years?” question as asking about my own three results that are specifically in combinatorics. Ugh, to the original question – none of my results would go on that list. 2. In the pattern avoidance question, I misstated the last condition: I am asking for ec(Π) to be non-algebraic. Sorry everyone for all the confusion!