Ask Dr. Math: The Math Doctors' Newsletter

by Ian Underwood

June/July, 2002

To: All Dr. Math Doctors
From: Ian Underwood 
Subject: Ask Dr. Math in May

Hi Math Doctors, 

June was a slow month for Ask Dr. Math.  We received only 3218
questions (about 104 per day), of which we answered a 1770 (about 59
per day), or about 57%. 

July was even slower.  We received only 2698 questions (about 87 per
day) asked, of which we answered 1590 (about 51 per day), or about 59%.

So those are relatively high percentages for us, but it raises the
question of what was going on with the unanswered 40+ percent.  After
all, a few months back, in March, we answered more than 4000
questions.  And 39 different math doctors answered questions during
June and July, which is a relatively high number.  So the issue
doesn't appear to be capacity. 

I'll be asking y'all for your thoughts on this in a moment.  But first:
Welcome to new doctors Carbon and Nitrogen!

'Unanswerable' questions?

We'd like to understand more about what characteristics of a question
make it vulnerable to never being answered.

  1.  If a question is unlikely to get answered - e.g., because it's
      difficult to understand, or too broadly phrased ("I don't
      understand math, can you help me?"), or seems to have been
      submitted by a crank - then it shouldn't sit there cluttering up
      triage.  Or, at least, it should be marked in some way that will
      let you avoid wasting time looking at it.  

  2.  If a question is unanswerable - e.g., because it's an open
      research question, or is written in a language none of us
      understands - then it shouldn't be included in the statistics
      that we calculate to monitor our performance.

  3.  If we can find simple ways to characterize the 'problem'
      questions, we may be able to modify the submission page to
      assist patients in phrasing their questions so that they'll have
      a better chance of being answered. 

As of today, you'll start seeing 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' icons
attached to particular threads in the clinic and triage listings.
You'll also see a new 'Rate this question?' box below the listing of
triage questions in the scrub room, which will let you attach these
icons yourself.

Currently - this may change over the next few months - these icons
have the following meanings:

  Thumbs up:    This question is worth answering, and probably 
                ought to be answered by _someone_ (even though 
                it won't be me).

  Thumbs down:  Other doctors probably shouldn't waste time
                looking at this question, unless they can't 
                find anything else they feel like answering.  

To assign a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' to a question, click on the
corresponding button in the rating box.  The 'thumbs down' button is
accompanied by a set of radio buttons that you can use to indicate the
reason that you're downgrading the question.  The choice 'Other' is
accompanied by a text field that you can use to articulate reasons
that don't appear in the list. 

Note that most questions should remain unrated.  In particular, just
because a question isn't interesting to you personally, that's not
sufficient to give it a thumbs down.  The idea is to provide a
mechanism that you can use to save each other time, by helping each
other zero in on the good questions, and steer clear of the bad ones.

Here's what I'd like to find out from all of you:

  1. Is this feature useful?  Is it (or something like it) worth 
     keeping?  If so, what changes would you like to see to make 
     it more useful?

  2. What reasons would you normally have for deciding that 
     a question isn't worth answering?  (You can send them to 
     me via email, or you can enter them in the text field
     next to the 'Other' button as you downgrade particular 
     questions.)  In particular, which reasons should appear 
     as pre-defined choices in the rating box? 

That's it for June and July!  School will be starting before we know
it.  Go forth, be fruitful, and teach kids to multiply...

Dr. Ian
Attending Physician
Ask Dr. Math