## Abstractmath

I built my website abstractmath.org during the years 2002 through 2006. After that I made sporadic changes, but medical operations and then teaching courses as an adjunct for a couple of years kept me from making much progress until 2010.

This post is an explanation of the tools I used for abstractmath, what went right and what went wrong, and my plans for redoing the website.

## Methodology

My previous experience in publishing math was entirely with TeX. When I began work on abstractmath, I wanted to produce html files, primarily because they refloated the text when the window width changed. I was thinking of small screens and people wanting to look at several windows at once.

In those days, there was no method of starting with a LaTeX input file and producing an html file that preserved all the math and all the formatting. I have over the years spent many hours trying out various systems that claimed to do it and not found one that did not require major massaging to get the look I wanted. Most of them can cannot implement all LaTeX commands, or even most of the LaTeX formatting commands. (I have not looked at any of these since 2011.)

In contrast, systems such as PDFTeX turn even very complicated (in formatting and in math) LaTeX files into nearly perfect PDF files. Unfortunately, PDF files are a major impediment to having several windows open at once.

### Word and MathType

My solution was to write abstractmath articles using Microsoft Word with MathType, which provides a plugin for Word.

The MathType interface was a very useful expansion of the Equation Editor in Word, and it produced little .gif files that were automatically inserted into the text. MathType also provided a command to create an html file. This file was produced with the usual “_files” folder that contained all the illustrations I had included as well as all the .gif files that MathType created. The html file contained code that put each .gif file in the right place in the typeset text.

That combination worked well. Using Word allowed me tight control over formatting and allowed floating textboxes, which I used freely. They very nicely moved around when you changed the width of the window.

I had used textboxes in my book A Handbook of Mathematical Discourse for apt quotations, additional comments, and (very clever if I say so myself) page indexes. The Handbook is available in several ways:

• Amazon. The citations are not included.
• The Handbook in paper form. A pdf file showing the book as it appears on paper (all the illos, textboxes and page indexes, no hyperlinks), plus all the citations. (This paragraph was modified on 2013-05-02).
• A version with hyperlinks, This includes the citations but omits the boxes and the illustrations, and it has hyperlinks to the citations. The page indexes are replaced by internal hyperlinks.
• The citations.

That book was written in TeX with much massaging using AWK commands. Boxes are much easier to do in Word than they are in TeX, and the html files produced by MathType preserved them quite well. The abmath article on definitions shows boxes used both for side comments and for quotations.

There were some problems with using MathType and Word together. In particular, a longish article would have dozens or hundreds of .gif files, which greatly slowed down uploading via ftp. I now have WebDrive (thanks to CWRU) and that may make it quicker.

## Rot sets in

Without my doing anything at all, the articles on abstractmath began deteriorating. This had several main causes.

• Html was revised over time. Currently it is HTML5.0.
• Browsers changed way they rendered the html. And they had always differed among themselves in some situations.
• Microsoft Word changed the way it generated html.

Two of the more discouraging instances of rot were:

• Many instances of math formulas are now out of line with the surrounding text. This happened without my doing anything. It varies by browser and by when I last revised the article.
• Some textboxes deteriorated. In particular, textboxes generated by newer versions of Word were sometimes nearly illegible. Part of the reason for this is that Word started saving them as images.

## Failed Forays

The main consequence of all this was that I was afraid of trying to revise articles (or complete them) because it would make them harder to read or ugly. So I set out to find new ways to produce abmath articles. This has taken a couple of years, while abmath is a big mess sprawling there on its website. A mostly legible big mess, and most of the links work, but frustrating to its appearance-sensitive author.

### Automatically convert to a new system

My first efforts were to find another system with the property that I could convert my present Word files or html files to the new system without much hand massaging.

I tried converting the Word files to LaTeX input. This was made easier (I thought) because MathType now provided a means for turning all the MathType itty bitty .gif files into LaTeX expressions. I wrote Word macros to convert much of the formatting (italics, bold, subheads, purple prose, and so on) into LaTeX formatting — although I did have to go through the Word text, select each specially formatted piece, and apply the correct macro.

• Converting the Mathype images files to LaTeX caused problems because it messed up the spaces before and after the formulas.
• I worked with great sweat and tears to write a macro to extract the addresses from the links — and failed. If I had presevered I probably would have learned how to do it, and learned a lot of Word macros programming in the process.

The automatic conversion process appeared to require more and more massaging.

I made some attempts at automatically converting the html files that Word generates (instead of the doc files), but they are an enormous mess. They insert a huge amount of code (especialy spans) into the text, making it next to impossible to read the code or find anything.

It was beginning to look like I would have to go to an entirely new system and rewrite all the articles from scratch. This was attractive in one respect: in writing this blog my style has changed and I was seeing lots of things I would say or do differently. I have also changed my mind about the importance of some things, and abmath now has stubs and incomplete articles that ought to be eliminated with references to Wikipedia.

## Go for rewriting

Meanwhile, I was having trouble with Gyre&Gimble. The WordPress editor works pretty well, but two new products came along:

• MathJax was introduced, providing a much better way to use TeX to insert formulas. (Note: MathType recently implemented the use of MathJax into its html output.)

• Mathematica CDF files, which are interactive diagrams that can be inserted directly into html. (My post Improved Clouds has examples.)

Both MathJax and CDF Player require entering links directly in the html code the WordPress editor produces. The WordPress editor trashed the html code I had entered every time I switched back and forth between “visual” (wysiwyg) and html.

I switched to CKEdit, which preserved the html but has a lot of random behavior. I learned to understand some of the behavior but finally gave up. I started writing my blogs in html using the Coffee Cup HTML Editor — that is how I am writing this. Then I paste it into the WordPress editor.

My current plan is to start revising each abmath article in this way:

• Write html code for the special formatting I want, mostly the code that produces the header, but also purple prose and other things. Once done I can use this code for all the abmath articles with little massaging.
• Start with the Word doc file for an article and use MathType to toggle all the MathType-generated gif files into TeX.
• Generate the html file in a way that preserves the TeX code with dollar signs. (There are two ways to do this and I have not made up my mind which to use.)
• Start revising!

I have already begun doing this. My intention is to revise each abstractmath article, post it, and announce the posting on Gyre&Gimble or on Google+. If an article is heavily revised I expect to post it (or parts of it) on Gyre&Gimble. Some of these things will be ready soon.

## Last minute notes

• I used WinEdt, a text editor, to write the Handbook of Mathematical Discourse. It is a powerful html editor, with an extensive macro language that in particular allows rearranging the menus and adding new code to call other applications. It is especially designed for TeX, so is not as convenient as it stands for html. However, its macro language would allow me to convert it to a system that will do most of what Coffee Cup can do. I might do this because Coffee Cup has no macro language and (as far as I can tell) has no way to revise or add to menus.
• It is early days yet, but I am thinking of including pieces of Abstracting Algebra into abstractmath.org.

Posted in abstractmath.org, exposition. Tags:. No Comments »

## Definition of “function”

I have made a major revision of the abstractmath.org article Functions: Specification and Definition.   The links from the revised article lead into the main abstractmath website, but links from other articles on the website still go back to the old version. So if you click on a link in the revised version, make it come up in a new window.

I expect to link the revision in after I make a few small changes, and I will take into account any comments from you all.

### Remarks

1.  You will notice that the new version is in PDF instead of HTML.  A couple of other articles on the website are already in PDF, but I don’t expect to continue replacing HTML by PDF.   It is too much work.  Besides, you can’t shrink it to fit tablets.

2. It would also have been a lot of work to adapt the revision so that I could display it directly on Word Press.  In some cases I have written revisions first in WP and then posted them on the abmath website.  That is not so difficult and I expect to do it again.

## Expository writing in the future

I have written a lot about math exposition in the past. [Note 1.] Lately I have been thinking about the effect of technological change on exposition.

Texting

A lot of commentators have complained that their students’ writing style has “deteriorated” because of texting, specifically their use of abbreviations and acronyms.

Last January I resumed teaching mathematics after an exactly ten year lapse. My students and I email a lot, post on message boards, hand in homework, write up tests. I have seen very few “lol”s and “cu”s and the like, mostly in emails and almost entirely from students whose native language is not English. (See Note 1.)

As far as I can see the students’ written language has not deteriorated. In fact I think native English speakers write better English than they did ten years ago. (But Minnesota has a considerably better educational system than Ohio.)

Besides, if lol and cu become part of the written language, so what? Many Old Fogies may find it jarring, but Old Fogies die and their descendants talk however they want to.

Bulleted lists

I have been using Powerpoint part of the time in teaching (I had already given some talks using it). People complain about that affecting our style, too. But I think that in particular bulleted and numbered lists are great. I wish people would use them more often. Consider this passage from a recent version of Thomas’ Calculus [1]:

$latex \displaystyle \int_a^bx\,dx=\dfrac{b^2}{2}-\dfrac{a^2}{2}\quad (a< b)\quad\quad\quad(1)&fg=000000$

This computation gives the area of a trapezoid. Equation (1) remains valid when $latex {a}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b}&fg=000000$ are negative. When $latex {a<b<0}&fg=000000$, the definite integral value … is a negative number, the negative of the area of the trapezoid dropping down to the line $latex {y=x}&fg=000000$ below the $latex {x}&fg=000000$-axis. When $latex {a<0}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b>0}&fg=000000$, Equation (1) is still valid and the definite integral gives the difference between two areas …

It would be much better to write something like this:

Equation (1) is valid for any $latex {a}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b}&fg=000000$.

• When $latex {a}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b}&fg=000000$ are positive, Equation (1) gives the area of a trapezoid.
• When $latex {a}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b}&fg=000000$ are both negative, the result is negative and is the negative of the area…
• When $latex {a<0}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b>0}&fg=000000$, the result is the difference between two areas…

That is much easier to read than the first version, in which you have to parse through the paragraph detecting that it states parallel facts. That is not terribly difficult but it slows you down. Especially in this case where the sentences are not written in parallel and contain remarks about validity in scattered places when in fact the equation is valid for all cases.

This book does use numbered or lettered lists in many other places.

The future is upon us

Lots of lists and illustrations require more paper. This will go away soon. Some future edition of the book on an e-reader could contain this list of facts as a nicely spaced list, much easier to grasp, and could contain three graphs, with $latex {a}&fg=000000$ and $latex {b}&fg=000000$ respectively left of the $latex {x}&fg=000000$-axis, straddling it, and to the right of it. This will cost some preparation time but no paper and computer memory at the scale of a book is practically free.

I use bulleted lists a lot in abstractmath, as here. Abstractmath is intended to be read on the computer. It is not organized linearly and a paper copy would not be particularly useful.

By the way, since the last time I looked at this page all the bullets have been replaced with copyright signs. (In three different browsers!) Somebody’s been Messing With Me. AArgH.

The Irish mystery writer Ken Bruen regularly uses lists, without bullets or numbers. Look at page 3 of The Killing of the Tinkers.

Some people find bulleted lists jarring simply because they are new. I think some are academic snobs who diss anything that sounds like something a business person would do. See my remarks at the end of the section on texting.

Notes

1. You can see much of what I have said on this blog about exposition by reading the posts labeled “exposition” (scroll down to the list of categories in the left column.) See also Varieties of Mathematical Prose by Atish Bagchi and me.

2. Foreign language speakers also write things like “Hi Charles” instead of “Dear Professor Wells” or using no greeting at all (which is probably the best thing to do). Dealing with a foreign language requires familiarity with the local social structure and customs of address, of being aware of levels of the various formal and informal registers, and so on. When we lived in Switzerland, how was I to know that “Ciao” went with “du” and “wiederluege” went with “Sie”? (If I remember correctly. Ye Gods, that was 35 years ago.)

References

1. Thomas’ Calculus, Early Transcendentals, Eleventh Edition, Media Upgrade. Pearson Education, 2008.

## How "math is logic" ruined math for a generation

Mark Meckes responded to my statement

But it seems to me that this sort of thinking has mostly resulted in people thinking philosophy of math is merely a matter of logic and set theory.  That point of view has been ruinous to the practice of math.

with this comment:

I may be misreading your analysis of the second straw man, but you seem to imply that “people thinking philosophy of math is merely a matter of logic and set theory” has done great damage to mathematics. I think that’s quite an overstatement. It means that in practice, mathematicians find philosophy of mathematics to be irrelevant and useless. Perhaps philosophers of mathematics could in principle have something to say that mathematicians would find helpful but in practice they don’t; however, we’re getting along quite well without their help.

On the other hand, maybe you only meant that people who think “philosophy of math is merely a matter of logic and set theory” are handicapped in their own ability to do mathematics. Again, I think most mathematicians get along fine just not thinking about philosophy.

Mark is right that at least this aspect of philosophy of math is irrelevant and useless to mathematicians.  But my remark that the attitude that ”philosophy of math is merely a matter of logic and set theory” is ruinous to math was sloppy, it was not what I should have said.    I was thinking of a related phenomenon which was ruinous to math communication and teaching.

By the 1950′s many mathematicians adopted the attitude that all math is is theorem and proof.  Images, metaphors and the like were regarded as misleading and resulting in incorrect proofs.  (I am not going to get into how this attitude came about).     Teachers and colloquium lecturers suppressed intuitive insights and motivations in their talks and just stated the theorem and went through the proof.

I believe both expository and research papers were affected by this as well, but I would not be able to defend that with citations.

I was a math student 1959 through 1965.  My undergraduate calculus (and advanced calculus) teacher was a very good teacher but he was affected by this tendency.  He knew he had to give us intuitive insights but he would say things like “close the door” and “don’t tell anyone I said this” before he did.  His attitude seemed to be that that was not real math and was slightly shameful to talk about.  Most of my other undergrad teachers simply did not give us insights.

In graduate school I had courses in Lie Algebra and Mathematical Logic from the same teacher.   He was excellent at giving us theorem-proof lectures, much better than most teachers, but he never gave us any geometric insights into Lie Algebra (I never heard him say anything about differential equations!) or any idea of the significance of mathematical logic.  We went through Killing’s classification theorem and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in a very thorough way and I came out of his courses pleased with my understanding of the subject matter.  But I had no idea what either one of them had to do with any other part of math.

I had another teacher for several courses in algebra and various levels of number theory.   He was not much for insights, metaphors, etc, but he did do well in explaining how you come up with a proof.  My teacher in point set topology was absolutely awful and turned me off the Moore Method forever.   The Moore method seems to be based on: don’t give the student any insights whatever. I have to say that one of my fellow students thought the Moore method was the best thing since sliced bread and went on to get a degree from this teacher.

These dismal years in math teaching lasted through the seventies and perhaps into the eighties.  Apparently now younger professors are much more into insights, images and metaphors and to some extent into pointing out connections with the rest of math and science.  Since I have been retired since 1999 I don’t have much exposure to the newer generation and I am not sure how thoroughly things have changed.

One noticeable phenomenon was that category theorists (I got into category theory in the mid seventies) were very assiduous in lectures and to some extent in papers in giving motivation and insight.  It may be that attitudes varied a lot between different disciplines.

This Dark Ages of math teaching was one of the motivations for abstractmath.org.  My belief is that not only should we give the students insights, images and metaphors to think about objects, and so on, but that we should be upfront about it:   Tell them what we are doing (don’t just mutter the word “intuitive”) and point out that these insights are necessary for understanding but are dangerous when used in proofs.  Tell them these things with examples. In every class.

My other main motivation for abstractmath.org was the way math language causes difficulties.  But that is another story.

Posted in math, proof, understanding math. Tags:. 2 Comments »