Ask Dr. Math: The Math Doctors' Newsletter

by Ian Underwood

May, 2002

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

Hi Math Doctors, 

As usual, questions tapered off a little as kids got out of school for
the summer.  This month we received 6254 questions (compared to 6662
last year), of which we were able to answer 3250, or 52%.  

33 different math doctors contributed this month, with special thanks
going to the following:

 20/day   |
          | Peterson
  15/day  |
  10/day  |
          | Schwa
          | Jerry
   5/day  | Anthony, Mitteldorf, Rick
          | Douglas, Paul, Tom
          | Jeremiah, Wilkinson
   1/day  | Fenton, Floor, Jaffee, Jubal, Mike, Pete, Rob, Tim, Wolfson
   1/wk   | Achilles, Aileen, Ann, Fwg, Jodi, Pat, Meryem, White, 
            Roy, Smithie, Terrel,

Welcome to new intern Doctor Smithie!

Scientific American Award

Each year, the editors of _Scientific American_ select the 50 web
sites that they deem most valuable to their readers, 5 of those having
to do with math.  This year, partly because of your effort, the Math
Forum has been selected as one of them:

Congratulations to all of us!

Stepping through triage

Some of you may already have noticed a couple of new links that appear
wherever a 'thread tree' appears, e.g., at the top of the scrub room
page.  The links look like this:

    View previous or next in triage.
         --------    ----

Clicking on the 'previous' link will take you to the scrub room, where
you'll see whatever item in triage has the next lowest thread number.

Clicking on the 'next' link will do the same thing, except for the
next highest thread number.  

The purpose of these links is to allow you to step through triage, one
question at a time, instead of going back and forth between the triage
listing and the scrub room.

If you're just planning to answer a question or two in a given
session, this isn't so useful.  But if you've settled in with the
intention of handling several, this turns out to be a very convenient
way to select questions to answer. 

Using the archives

As most of you know, we get a lot of questions whose answers are
already available in the archive.  While we're continuing to work on
making it easier for people to find these answers on their own, we
still need to do something with the ones that come in.

For several months our archivist, Dr. Sarah, has been fielding
between 15% and 20% of the questions in triage by citing answers from
the archive, but it's not the kind of thing that anyone should have to
do alone, so I've made some changes to the office to make it easier
for the rest of us to share some of the load.

1. After submitting a question, each patient is directed (both
   immediately, and by the automatic email confirmation that he
   receives) to a page that strongly encourages him to look for the
   answer to his question in the archive, and provides instructions
   for doing that.

2. The old follow-up form has been replaced by a more general update
   form, which allows patients to cancel questions that, for whatever
   reason, no longer need to be answered.  These questions are removed
   from triage.  (So far, 40% of the patients who have canceled
   questions have indicated that they were able to find an answer in
   the archive, which is encouraging.)

3. The process of citing an item from the archive has been
   streamlined, through the addition of three menus:

   Currently, to cite an item you have to search or browse to find it;
   open it; copy the URL; go back to the question; open it in the
   operating room; and paste the URL into your answer.  This isn't too
   bad if you're only going to do it once or twice; but it quickly
   grows tiresome.

   From now on, whenever you do that, the office will make a note of 
   the item you cited, which it will use to construct two of the three
   new menus.

   The first menu will show you the titles of the 20 items that you've
   cited most frequently.  The menu itself works just like the canned
   answer menu.  Select a title and hit the 'Apply' button, and both
   the URL and title of the item will appear in your answer,
   between your default greeting and closing.

   The second menu works the same way, except it contains the
   20 items that you've cited most recently.  

   The third works the same way, except it contains the titles
   of the various FAQ sections, and some of the most useful links from
   the bottom of the FAQ page.  (If I've left out any links that you
   use frequently, please let me know and I'll add them.) 

My hope is that the combination of these menus with the step feature
that I described earlier will make it easy for us to respond to these
'easy' questions with a minimum of effort. 

That's it for May!  Go forth, be fruitful, and teach kids to

Dr. Ian
Attending Physician
Ask Dr. Math