Ask Dr. Math: The Math Doctors' Newsletter

by Ian Underwood

March, 2001

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

Hi Math Doctors,

Once again, the statistics for this month will be a little skewed,
since post-op includes some threads from previous months that have
recently been proposed or accepted for archiving.  But the approximate
numbers look like this:

              Mar*    Feb*   Jan    Dec    Nov    Oct    Sep   
             -----   -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----
  Asked:      8723    6751   8352   5874   8253   9023   8330  
  Answered:   3707    2632   3643   2750   3082   2447   1821  
  Percent:    42.5    39.0   43.6   46.8   37.3   27.1   21.0  
  Per day:     120     105    118     89    103     79     61

We seem to be holding at around 40 percent.  Perhaps it's time to try
making some changes on the input side of the process?  

I'll have more to say about that later in this newsletter.  Even if
you skip everything else, please take a moment to read 'Updating the
submission process' near the end. 

Kudos and new arrivals

Congratulations to newly tenured Dr. Jordi. 

Welcome to new intern Dr. Ann. 

Special thanks

As always, thanks go to every doctor who answered even one question
during March.  But I'd like to extend a special thank-you this month
to the following doctors, all of whom averaged at least one answer per

      15|  Peterson
 Avg    |  Rob
 A's    |
 per    |  Robert
 day    |
        |  Roy
        |  Greenie
       5|  Schwa
        |  Douglas, Jerry, Patti
        |  Achilles, Anthony, Fenton, Floor, Mitteldorf, Paul, Rick
        |  Aileen, Jeremiah, Jordi
        |  Ezra, Jackpo, Jaffee, White, Wilson

As many of you know, the Math Forum had a booth at the recent
conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).
Many of the teachers who stopped by expressed gratitude for the
quality of the answers they've received from Ask Dr. Math... and more
than a few were amazed to learn that it's an all-volunteer effort.

Anyway, in case you've ever found yourself wondering, there are a _lot_
of people out there who deeply appreciate what you do. 

The archives

Some news from our archivists, Drs. Sarah and Twe:

* 243 new question-and-answer entries were added to the Dr. Math
  archives during March of 2001, for a total of 6202 entries.  

* We seem to have eliminated our backlog, and the current plan is to
  wait two weeks before archiving a thread, to allow for follow-up
  questions and answers.

* Having doctors identify the threads that are worth archiving looks
  like a win.  If enough doctors start doing it, we may be able to
  eliminate the traditional process of plowing through every single
  answer in post-op!

* Doctors who have proposed threads for archiving are encouraged to
  look at the follow-up memos posted to those threads.  Using the
  clinic interface to search for 'Not archived' in the subject line
  will turn up threads that were proposed but not accepted.  Each
  thread that is proposed but turned down gets a memo explaining why,
  and you can use these explanations to sharpen your intuitions about
  when to propose something for archiving.

To that last point, I would add:  When in doubt, go ahead and click
the button! 

Improvements to the Clinic

For those of you who haven't tried the new 'clinic' interface,

please give it a test drive.  For those who have been using it, a new
version is online, with the following improvements:

  * The elements of the search form have been rearranged to make the
    form more intuitive to use. 

  * The 'Prev' and 'Next' buttons have been renamed to more closely
    reflect their functions, and they now appear only when a listing
    has been generated.

  * The search form now includes a date search, so you can ignore
    threads updated before or after a particular date.

  * The listing should be less likely to choke on unusually long names
    or subject lines.

  * The listing includes a listing number (on the left), which you
    can use to keep track of how far down you are in a particular

  * When a particular search specification doesn't turn up any 
    matches, you get a message saying so, rather than just an 
    empty 'listing'. 

  * The standard navigation bar in the office now contains a link to
    the clinic (below the buttons).

  * Word wrap has been turned on by default in the scrub room. 

  * The canned answers have been moved from text files into the code,
    which should speed up the loading of the scrub and operating

I hope that these changes will make the clinic/office system easier to

For those of you who are using the clinic for searches but the
traditional office for everything else, please let me know what it
would take to get you to make the switch.  Dr. Schwa has requested
that the checkmark capability be added -- does anyone else use it? --
and that's on my short list, but I'd love to hear what's holding the
rest of you back.  

Updating the submission process

Sometime during April I would like to change the process by which
questions are submitted, in order to accomplish a pair of important

  1. Increasing the chances that a patient whose question has been
     asked a zillion times will find the answer without actually
     adding a question to the queue; and

  2. Reducing the time that it takes for a given math doctor to zero
     in on the questions that are most likely to be of interest to

Currently, in order to get to the actual submission page, the patient
just has to keep looking for the 'Continue' link at the bottom of each
preceding page until the question submission form finally shows up.
This means that there is very little incentive to look at any of the
lists of resource materials contained on the preceding pages.

I would like to send the patient instead to a 'decision' page like the
one I've mocked up here:

In addition, I would like to upgrade the actual submission page to
look like the one I've mocked up here:

The latter is very similar to the page we have now, but it more
strongly encourages the patient to provide some information about
whatever steps he's tried to take to solve his own problem.

Also, you'll note that the 'Subject' line has been replaced with a
field in which a brief version of the question must be entered.  An
initial 'question' word is provided to get the ball rolling, and only
a limited amount of text can be entered into the field.

Over time, each decision page should lead to a secondary page that
will present the handful of alternatives most likely to match what a
typical student will be asking -- or at least require the patient to
make his categorization more precise (e.g., '{simplify:trig}' instead
of just '{simplify}').

How will all of this affect you?  With any luck, you should see three
changes in triage:

  1.  Fewer questions that require little more than looking up
      an existing answer in the archive, or sending the patient
      to a standard site, like the MacTutor Math History Archive.

  2.  More expressive descriptions for most questions (i.e., 
      fewer descriptions that have to be rephrased in memos). 

  3.  A category tag prepended to the beginning of each question

This third change is perhaps the most interesting, since it will let
you use the clinic to zero in on subjects that are of particular
interest to you by searching for strings like '{simplify:trig}' or
'{probability}' or '{proof:calculus}'. 

Of course, this will only be useful if the decision pages lead to the
kinds of descriptions that you'd like to search on!  

That's why I would r-e-a-l-l-y like to hear any feedback that you have
to offer on these proposed changes, but p-a-r-t-i-c-u-l-a-r-l-y
regarding the kinds of categories (and subcategories) that you would
naturally think to search on, since the decision pages should be
designed to produce those categories. 

Okay -- finally! -- that's all the news for March.  Go forth, be
fruitful, and teach kids to multiply...

Dr. Ian
Attending Physician
Ask Dr. Math