Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Finding the discussion

Remarkably, over two decades ago I was some guy who decided as a hobby it would be fun to work on old, hard math problems. Needed to talk things out, and found the Usenet newsgroup sci.math was a place that worked. Math ideas I presented would immediately get critiqued by a large number of people, who would also often hurl insults as well, so it was an odd thing. Chasing math ideas is a LOT easier when others help you find errors.

Of course reality can be tough as you see yourself fail a lot. And you can't have an ego about it, as often you look really silly.

My guess is that one of the deep terrors of many mathematicians is looking stupid!!!

If true, then to mathematicians being insulted for looking stupid may be one of the greatest horrors in life, tapping into their deepest fears. While insulting someone for what is seen as stupidity may feel for them to be deeply empowering.

But if my guess is correct that meant that those Usenet people in attacking my ideas may have felt I was the one who looked stupid, so they'd point out errors to show this perceived stupidity, and then on top of that hurl insults with the help! Which explains their motivation. So wacky.

Can you imagine? As you come up with math ideas, people from all over the world falling all over themselves to evaluate them? Day after day for years?

In contrast this blog has an extraordinary peacefulness to it. Though I was briefly intrigued by a burst of discussion recently on one of my posts.

While I pursued several problems during my Usenet posting phase my time focused on Fermat's Last Theorem garnered the greatest attention. For years various attacks on the problem failed, very publicly, and often spectacularly.

But it was so much fun.

That intense discussion hasn't come back, like so far am struggling on Facebook where I last noted that this blog had visits from 441 cities in 65 countries in the last year. That is, I checked in Google Analytics for the previous 365 days. But the thing is, here it's now just math. It's like take it or leave it. No entertainment. And that IS the difference. So I know how it was done, but I like it better to just be some math.

As for the discussions at their height, if you're curious, much of it is still out there. Search!

Did my best back then to be entertaining, as you DO have to work to keep that kind of attention. I think I did ok. That was work! My hobby really turned into a job of sorts given how much time I put into it.

So I think the quiet here is well earned.

James Harris
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