# Why do Mathematica postings at math.se seem to attract negativity?

I've noticed that Mathematica-based postings made at math.stackexchange.com seem to attract some hostility from at least a small part of the user base.

For example, someone asked how to derive a pdf from a moment generating function, ... the question went unanswered for an entire month ... then I posted a Mathematica solution using InverseFourierTransform which does an absolutely brilliant job of it:

Calculate probability density function from moment generating function

... and subsequently these users voted it down to -3. I don't think my posting is rude or impolite or inappropriate -- it just uses Mathematica to do the grunt work, and it does it very well.

Or the caustic response that this posting attracted:

What's the probability of a set of only three digits appearing in a random 9 digit set?

Am interested to hear if others have noticed same?

• I'm not sure why the first answer has that many downvotes, but a nice mathematical explanation of why you did what you did in Mathematica could have come a long way. FWIW, I have a number of posts in here featuring Mathematica code, and even cartoons, but they seem to have been well-received. – J. M. isn't a mathematician May 28 '13 at 12:40
• For someone criticizing the tone of other users, your own word choice was -- let me stay polite -- questionable at best. To denounce prolific contributors (or really any contributor) as "net monkeys [that] went bananas" is unacceptable. I've reworded it for you. – Lord_Farin May 28 '13 at 12:42
• Interesting: Postings dealing with Mathematica even attract (some) downvotes on Meta.Math.SE... – draks ... May 28 '13 at 12:49
• In any event, I should also say that the unexplained downvotes are certainly quite vexing. – J. M. isn't a mathematician May 28 '13 at 14:02
• My Mathematica answers usually get upvoted. Maybe you're just using Mathematica in situations where it isn't called for. – Alexander Gruber May 28 '13 at 15:39
• @Lord_Farin, "comment commandos" would be the scientifically accurate term, though "net monkeys going bananas" is not a bad metaphor for what is going on. It's not so clear that prolific contributors of hostile comments deserve ordinary amounts of politeness; they certainly do not give it. – zyx May 31 '13 at 4:11
• @Lord_Farin, experience with the "commandos" indicates that the high road does not work well, in the sense that iterated attempts to remain polite are not reciprocated, and nonengagement is less of a possibility when the comment soldiers stalk the answers of those in whom they take a special interest. Because at least some of these folks know how to maintain an appearance of topic relevance (and some other characteristics that prevent comment deletions) there is not necessarily anything for moderators to do if called. I think the OP's vocabulary for this absurdity is on point. – zyx May 31 '13 at 8:15
• @zyx Perhaps I haven't been around long enough to share your conclusions. Our views differ, let us agree to disagree. – Lord_Farin May 31 '13 at 8:17
• @zyx: "Scientifically accurate"? O.o. "Net monkeys going bananas" carries the connotation that a person has no life and is acting in an frenzied, inane way. This is what you wish to accuse people of? – user14972 Jun 2 '13 at 15:36
• @zyx: You seem to be okay with the idea of people acting hostile (or at least inconsiderately) towards people who are behaving in a way you feel is inappropriate. A quick review of the history suggests that is exactly what's happening here; wolfies is posting in a way that Did feels is inappropriate. – user14972 Jun 2 '13 at 15:43
• @Hurkyl, my point was a simpler one: (1) of the two people involved, only one has an ugly and extensive track record of relentless, in-your-face, nonmathematical comment interventions under other users' MSE answers. Which, (2), is a disqualifying trait for etiquette complaints, and a pretty good qualification for the descriptions used by the OP, such as "net monkeys" and "comment stalking". A review of the history does not show anything that justifies the outbursts from Didier that prompted this thread, however he may feel about it. I did not and do not suggest users base anything on "feel". – zyx Jun 2 '13 at 18:59
• @zyx: Coming from a user with an extensive track record of exaggeration and sensationalism, I have to take your assessment with a grain of salt. But Did's lack of politeness is no less justified than the OPs, as his impoliteness is in regard to (perceived) faults and abuse of MSE, rather than straight insulting language. Yet you defend only the OP's impoliteness... presumably because you have a bone to pick with Did, and so are willing to overlook transgressions against Did and rationale favoring Did. – user14972 Jun 2 '13 at 20:42
• @zyx: I'm confused; Lord_Farin and yourself were the ones talking about politeness; which one of you is absurd? I missed where you argued that accusing critics of being crazy and having no life is relevant. – user14972 Jun 2 '13 at 21:19
• Here is a clue for you: Referring to a human being as a monkey of any sort is always pejorative. Hope this helps. – MJD Jun 8 '13 at 20:29
• You do not understand correctly. What I said, and what I meant, was that referring to a human being as a monkey of any sort is always pejorative. Good luck understanding this time. – MJD Jun 9 '13 at 7:40

I think part of the problem is that the solutions are not always "complete" in some sense. The process of solving problems can be just as important as receiving an answer. I don't think that this is enough to warrant downvotes personally, though I can understand why some people might not like the answers too much. In general, I think that computational answers are often well suited to questions, but I think that they would be better received when presented in a "more theoretical" way.

For example, when you use mathematica to calculate the pdf from the mgf, you do provide a solution, but nothing is made clearer to the asker, apart from the fact that they know that mathematica could tell them how to do it. If a problem can only be solved numerically, then there should be no problem, but a key part of the answer should be how to solve the problem numerically, not just what the answer is. If, however, there is a theoretical solution, using mathematica to find the solution doesn't really help the asker if they want to understand the process. From what I can see, mathematica goes through some sort of "thoeretical" process to arrive at the exact answer. If this is the case, I'm sure that a few comments explaining what the program actually does would be much appreciated, even if it's just something along the lines of "generally, one would like to take this approach, in this case it is very involved so I'll just give a basic outline of what the program does and the answer it provide. All of this said, I don't think that the answer should have been downvoted.

With regards to the second question, here the answer is even less "complete" in that you only calculate the probability for a finite subset of the natural numbers. Everything you say is valid, but it doesn't give a total answer to the question asked. I think it is still a nice answer to have though, and it is a valid one. I think that the comment by Did comes across as unnecessarily harsh, and I disagree with the point made, approaching some questions computationally can be a valuable tool. You did respond a little flippantly (though were relatively restrained), and I can't see the "snide remarks" in the edit history of the post, perhaps there was something you said that I can't see that offended Did?

• Personally, I take the route of explaining an algorithm first, and only then presenting a realization in code, with Mathematica just happening to be my choice of language. I note that OP did not explain why he used a Fourier transform instead of a Laplace transform in one of his answers. (I know why; I'm sure the OP knows why, but an elaboration for others should certainly have been in the answer as well.) – J. M. isn't a mathematician May 28 '13 at 14:35
• @J.M. That is exactly the method I would suggest, I will edit to clarify that I think there is nothing wrong with mathematica answers in general. – Tom Oldfield May 28 '13 at 14:37
• @Tom: I wonder where I denied that "approaching some questions computationally" could be "a valuable tool". I do object to persistently using the site to promote a commercial software, to presenting successions of images of M-- code as "solutions", and to belittling real answers. Note that such objections were civilly signalled to the OP, who reacted by sarcasms and attributed them to the unfamiliarity of some poor schmock with modern computational tools. To come to meta afterwards to complain that people are not nice needs some dose of chutzpah. But maybe this is harsh to say so? – Did May 29 '13 at 5:55
• @Did, I would class "super theoretical solution" more as tongue-in-cheek than snide, but I can understand why you'd feel a bit vexed at the phrasing. Unless you and OP had a conversation, now deleted, with nastier words thrown? Anyway, at least you agree that the best route would have been "mathematical explanation + usable code". – J. M. isn't a mathematician May 29 '13 at 6:17
• @J.M. "super theoretical solution" was not addressed at a solution of mine (so no reason to feel vexed) but yes I consider it an example of sarcasm by the OP. // Of course (once again!) I agree that "mathematical explanation + usable code" is cool (seriously, who wouldn't?). Please do not follow the OP on this evading route... – Did May 29 '13 at 6:42
• @J.M. My comment: "super theoretical solution" refers to Mario's solution of the prob of 3 digits in a 9 digit set (link above) ... because Mario's solution is both theoretical and super (I also upvoted Mario's solution at the same time as my post). There is nothing tongue-in-cheek about it whatsoever. As to why user Did thinks it snide, I have no idea. He seems to spend his time stalking my posts (see my activity log) - I'm not sure if that is because he is seeking computational enlightenment ... or just freedom from the tyranny of integration, ... but either way I'm happy for him to do so. – wolfies May 29 '13 at 16:52
• @wolfies: You know what you meant; that makes it hard to see how else your words could be interpreted. If you forget what you actually meant and try rereading your words imagining an irreverent tone (throw in an eye roll and exaggerated voice, if it helps), it shouldn't be too hard to see how others got that idea. If they have reason to expect irreverence (e.g. from past engagements), it's not hard to see that a person would interpret the phrase as being irreverent, rather than as being reverent. – user14972 Jun 2 '13 at 21:02
• @Hurkyl Yes - I know what I meant ... exactly what I said: that Mario's answer is a super theoretical solution. I think it is. Do you not agree? May I enquire: what 'past engagements' do you refer to???? I don't recall seeing you on any thread I have ever posted on. – wolfies Jun 3 '13 at 2:07
• @wolfies I think Hurkyl is referring to Did's strong response to your post, not his own. I agree with Hurkyl's point, though; when I see the phrasing "super theoretical solution", I read it as "super-theoretical solution", in the sense that it was too theoretical, rather than seeing "super" as a synonym for "great solution". (As I said in the comments there, though, I certainly didn't take offense at your post.) I think this is just an example of different dialects of English causing confusion, rather than any true offense by a particular party. – Mario Carneiro Jun 4 '13 at 3:10
• @mario super |ˈsoōpər| adjective 1 informal very good or pleasant; excellent 2 (of a manufactured product) ... a super quality binder. $$----------versus---------$$ super- combining form above; over; beyond : superlunary | superstructure$$..$$ Funny, in a way, how things can be interpreted ... but the fact is: I didn't write supertheoretical ... I wrote super theoretical. Feel free to substitute 'splendid' for 'super', if that helps :) – wolfies Jun 4 '13 at 5:16

Here are a few rules of thumb that might help answers using Mathematica (or any computational system) be better received. To be fair, though, I'm feeling around this very issue myself.

• Focus on the mathematics first.
• Keep code to a minimum - sometimes, just a plot is enough.
• When you do present code, use a copyable code block, as opposed to an image of groovy typeset Mathematica code.
• Emphasize that Mathematica is just one of a number of computational tools that could likely help you achieve your goal.

All that said, I do understand your point and agree that some people will be somewhat biased against answers based in Mathematica or other computational tools. It can be even worse with WolframAlpha.

• Sage advice indeed, if you will excuse the pun. If there is just a single line (or less) of input, I sometimes find that an image works better than a code block, because it makes it clear that it is computer input more transparently than doing this. – wolfies May 29 '13 at 17:05
• Mark wrote: bias .. Mathematica ... It can be even worse with WolframAlpha ... I was surprised to read this. I am not a fan of WolframAlpha myself, in part because I have no need for it (as I have Mma), and in part because it uses heuristics to interpet user input ... which can make mistakes and is not an approach I am comfortable with in working with computers for problem solving. But WolframAlpha is free (at least in some form), whereas those who seem to dislike Mma often refer to the fact that it is not free (or that they prefer free goods) as a basis for their position. – wolfies May 29 '13 at 17:14
• @wolfies Well, folks seem to love it when WA makes mistakes. Here's one comment that's indicative of the type of attitude towards WA that I'm talking about. Here's one of my WA based answers that attracted several downvotes and negative discussion. I understand the points, but I feel folks should account for the level of effort put into the question in the first place. In that context, I think the answer was reasonable. – Mark McClure May 30 '13 at 6:56
• What is the easiest way to ...? is a perfectly reasonable question that does not necessarily imply laziness or lack of understanding. And I don’t consider it legitimate to justify a shoddy answer by pointing to the alleged deficiencies of the question. – Brian M. Scott Jun 2 '13 at 11:13
• @BrianM.Scott As I explained in my comment in the original question, at no point did I intend to ridicule the OP. I'm actually quite sorry if it seems that way. After you read my response there, I would like to know it still appears that way to you and, if so, why. – Mark McClure Jun 2 '13 at 14:07
• @Mark: I never thought that it was intended to ridicule the OP. I was agnostic on whether it was intended to ridicule the question itself, but I think that it does. Why? Because I don’t see it as a serious answer to the question. – Brian M. Scott Jun 2 '13 at 18:51

I realize this is kinda basic, but there is a Stack dedicated to Mathematica. I haven't seen it in this thread and the comments are kinda clogged at the moment so please don't judge the meagerness of this answer too harshly.

• Yes; if you'll notice the posting used to be there, but I (a mod at that SE site) migrated it, since I felt it should be discussed here. – J. M. isn't a mathematician Jun 7 '13 at 1:13