Saturday, February 27, 2010

"If all else fails, write in German"

Via Dan Crow, J.S. Milne has advice for authors of math papers (at least, those who want to seem profound). Some of these tips for obfuscating are quite fresh and potentially useful:
  • Use c, a, b respectively to denote elements of sets A, B, C
  • If, in a moment of weakness, you do refer to a paper or book for a result, never say where in the paper or book the result can be found. In addition to making it difficult for the reader to find the result, this makes it almost impossible for anyone to prove that the result isn't actually there.
  • Begin and end sentences with symbols wherever possible. Since periods are almost invisible (and may be mistaken for a mathematical symbol), most readers won't even notice that you've started a new sentence. Also, where possible, attach superscripts signaling footnotes to mathematical symbols rather than words.
I must mention, in connection with this, a pet peeve and an annoying habit I used to have. The peeve: people quite often use the two kinds of lowercase phi to mean different things; this makes things extremely hard to follow as my brain processes both characters as "lowercase phi." It also makes it difficult to talk through certain arguments because there aren't conventional words for the two kinds of phi. (The latter point also applies to the two kinds of epsilon but these are less problematic because they have fixed, different connotations -- one of them's an infinitesimal, the other is a dielectric constant.)

The annoying habit: I used to write A = B = C when what I meant was B = A = C. These statements are both true in the same contexts (they have the same "reference") but mean different things; the former says A is B [for some reason] and B is C [for some other reason] so A is C; an = sign implies an argument. Rob Benedetto wasn't very forgiving of this habit. What's always struck me as odd, however, is that I'd naturally put the chains of equalities in the wrong order. It seems like one should naturally get the sequence right in the course of making the argument, unless one actively tries to screw it up.

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