Mon, 22 Jan 2018
A few years ago an se.math user asked why their undistinguished answer to some humdrum question had gotten so many upvotes. I replied:
If you're going to do Stack Exchange, I think it's important not to stress out about the whys of the votes, and particularly important not to take them personally. The karma gods do not always show the most refined taste. As Brandon Tartikoff once said, “All hits are flukes”.
Today I got an unusually flukey hit. But first, here are some nice examples in the opposite direction, posts that I put a lot of trouble and effort into, which were clear and useful, helpful to the querent, and which received no upvotes at all.
Here the querent asked, suppose I have several nonstandard dice with various labeling on the faces. Player A rolls some of the dice, and Player B rolls a different set of dice. How do I calculate things like “Player A has an X% chance of rolling a higher total”?
Mathematicians are not really the right people to ask this to, because many of them will reply obtusely, informing you that it depends on how many dice are rolled and on how their faces are actually labeled, and that the question did not specify these, but that if it had, the problem would be trivial. (I thought there were comments to that effect on this question, but if there were they have been deleted. In any case nobody else answered.) But this person was writing a computer game and wanted to understand how to implement a computer algorithm for doing the calculation. There is a lot one can do to help this person. I posted an answer that I thought was very nice. The querent liked it, but it got zero upvotes. This happens quite often. Which is fine, because the fun of doing it and the satisfaction of helping someone are reward enough.
Like that one, many of these questions are ignored because they aren't mathematically interesting. Or sometimes the mathematics is simple but the computer implementation is not.
Sometimes I do them just because I want to know the particular answer. (How much of an advantage does Player A get from being allowed to add 1 to their total?)
Sometimes there's an interesting pedagogical problem, such as: how do I give a hint that will point in the right direction without giving away the whole secret? Or: how do I wade through this person's confused explanation and understand what they are really asking, or what they are really confused about? That last person was given a proof that glossed over six or seven steps in the reasoning, focusing instead on the technically interesting induction proof in the middle. The six or seven steps are straightforward, if you already have enough practice with logical reasoning about quantified statements. But this querent didn't follow the reasoning that led up to the induction, so they didn't understand why the induction was useful or what it was for.
Some people are just confused about what the question is. That person has a complicated-seeming homework exercise about the behavior of the logistic map, and need helps interpreting it from someone who has a better idea what is going on. The answer didn't require any research effort, and it's mathematically uninteresting, but it did require attention from someone who has a better idea of what is going on. The querent was happy, I was happy, and nobody else noticed.
I never take the voting personally, because the gods of Stackexchange karma are so fickle, and today I got a reminder of that. Today's runaway hit was for a complete triviality that I knocked off in two minutes. It currently has 94 upvotes and seems likely to get a gold medal. (That gold medal, plus $4.25, will get me a free latte at Starbuck's!)
It's one of those easy-if-you-happen-to-know-the-trick things, and I just happened to get there before one of the (many) other people who happens to know the trick.
As we used to say in the system administration biz, some days you're an idiot if you can't explain how to do real-time robot arm control in Unix, other days you're a genius if you fix their terminal by plugging it in.
[ Addendum 20180123: I got the gold medal. Woo-hoo, free latte! ]