Diary, 2003-2020

I keep putting off organizing my written material, but with coronavirus I’m feeling more mortal than usual, so I’d like get this out into the world now:

• John Baez, Diary, 2003–2020.

Go ahead and grab a copy!

It’s got all my best tweets and Google+ posts, mainly explaining math and physics, but also my travel notes and other things… starting in 2003 with my ruminations on economics and ecology. It’s too big to read all at once, but I think you can dip into it more or less anywhere and pull out something fun.

It goes up to July 2020. It’s 2184 pages long.

I fixed a few problems like missing pictures, but there are probably more. If you let me know about them, I’ll fix them (if it’s easy).

23 Responses to Diary, 2003-2020

  1. Raphael says:

    The requested URL /home/baez/diary/diary_pdfs/2003-2020.pdf was not found on this server.

  2. Christine Cordula says:

    File not found…

  3. Lana says:

    thank you and greetings from croatia!

  4. Charles Clingen says:

    “We’re only immortal for a limited time.”

  5. Ray Lee says:

    Thank you for this.

  6. Phillip Helbig says:

    Got a copy, will probably read it all someday. Don’t forget volume 2!

    • John Baez says:

      My diary has gone downhill lately… it may bounce back. My next project is to edit the 2610 pages of This Week’s Finds, which Tim Hosgood has converted into LaTeX, and put them on the arXiv in several chunks.

      Happy Holidays!

      • Phillip Helbig says:

        Good luck with that. My latest paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (for non-astronomers: one of the leading journals in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology) was not allowed into the astro-ph category.

        I’ve done some research, and it seems that arXiv is afraid of being sued by crackpots if they white-list good journals (whether explicitly or for all practical purposes), so they reclassify a few good papers to physics/gen-ph and also let a few crackpot papers into that category. That allows them to point out non-crackpot papers to the crackpots in the same category and thus avoid the accusation. I was chosen to make the sacrifice.

        Look at gen-ph: it’s a mixture of papers like mine, which obviously should be somewhere else (in the end, I deleted my paper, which is technically possible, but was later told in no uncertain terms that that is against the rules (even though I was offered the option)—so one is forced to let the paper appear in the new category and doesn’t even get an automatic email when the paper is reclassified); obviously crackpot papers; some papers which really are about general physics; and some which look OK at first glance but were never published or even submitted to a journal.

        I have since heard similar complaints from others, but people are afraid to air things like this in public for fear of getting banned by arXiv. Several people (all full professors of astrophysics and/or cosmology at major research universities) took up my cause, but to no avail. I’ve also heard from senior people that I am far from the first to make such complaints about arXiv.

        The arXiv staff were, as usual, arrogant, unhelpful, and unfriendly. Ever wonder why the email alias for the abstract distribution is “rabble”?

        An appeal is allegedly possible, but they don’t even follow their own appeal procedures. For instance, they say to contact the chair of the corresponding advisory committee, and that was confirmed, but the chair says that he can’t comment on individual submissions. But even if successful, an appeal won’t help much, because, as far as I know, the paper won’t be included in the list of recent abstracts (and even if it is, since the appeals process can take months, it would be much later). For me, and many others, that’s the main reason or even the only reason to submit to arXiv: I have the stamp of approval from the journal; I can distribute an open-access copy on my own and on an institutional webserver; ADS can provide links to those versions.

        My first refereed-journal paper this year (four altogether, with another one essentially accepted provided I make some suggested changes, which I am doing now, and a sixth almost ready to go—all single-author papers while (this is my last year) working full-time outside of academia) was in an arXiv-overlay journal, the OJA. Obviously, those are now longer an option for me. So not only is arXiv broken, it is bringing down arXiv-overlay journals with it.

        Should arXiv really be refusing me the possibility to add the abstract to the list in the astro-ph category? What do you think?

        Alas, I’m pretty sure that nothing will happen unless some really famous person (would probably have to be a Nobel Laureate) were to take up my cause, and even then arXiv would probably have to be strongly criticized in public. Or, perhaps, someone could challenge them legally. They are apparently afraid of being sued by crackpots, so they themselves admit that legal action influences their decisions. Note also that you now have to waive essentially all legal rights if you post something to arXiv. Wonder why that is.

        If anyone would like to help me in my quest to get something implemented which most people believe already exist, namely that a paper accepted by a leading journal in the field can go onto arXiv in the appropriate category (and hence many expect all such papers to be there, at least if the author wants them to be there, and in cosmology/astrophysics/astronomy, probably most papers are on arXiv), then contact me offline. Also, I would appreciate hearing from others with similar complaints against arXiv; I’ll treat the information as confidential unless explicitly told that that is not necessary.

        I’ve escalated this as far as possible within arXiv and Cornell, but it is obvious that the checks and balances are not working. By their own admission, arXiv moderation is less strict than refereeing, yet they reject papers accepted by the leading journals in the field. Go figure.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          It seems that I can’t post a link to my own webserver (the blog software rejects it with no message), but I can post a link to Google where you can easily find my paper (including freely accessible versions) if you want to read it.

        • John Baez says:

          I’m not succeeding in finding a freely accessible version of your paper online. It sounds like the arXiv made a big mistake here, but I guess I should read your paper before saying that!

          I’ll try to post This Week’s Finds in the History and Overview section of the math arXiv, since that’s sort of what it is. I’m not expecting any trouble, but we’ll see.

          I imagine you’re familiar with Peter Woit’s arXiv problems.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          You should be able to find my website, then publications, then refereed, then near the end of that list.

          Peter Woit? I’ve encountered him from time to time in the blogosphere and his “not even wrong” stuff. IIRC, arXiv decided to allow pingbacks only from active researchers, and he was by their definition not an active researcher. A problem, but a different problem.

          Brian Josephson also has problems with arXiv. But also different problems. I usually don’t object to being associated with Nobel laureates, but in this case I do.

          I see a danger that anyone who complains about arXiv will get thrown into the same category, a cheap way to discredit them: “See, you complain about arXiv, and X complains about arXiv, and X is a crackpot, therefore you must be a crackpot.” We shouldn’t let the discussion go in that direction.

          The problem is that arXiv isn’t behaving responsibly, the internal checks and balances don’t work, and the community has no say in the matter.

          This search string should point you to a PDF near the top of the list:
          http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html

          Strange that I can’t post a link to my own website; that has worked in the past.

          [I added the link. I don’t know what’s causing your difficulty. – jb]

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          Another point. It took me several months to even find out why arXiv had reclassified my paper. (Note again that there isn’t even an automatic email, much less a reason given, much less any sort of discussion.) And that happened only because Max Tegmark was kind enough to threaten to complain to the Simons Foundation and other sponsors if my paper didn’t get out of limbo within a week. That finally got some results. But Max was given different reasons from the reason given to me, which indicates that at most one of those statements can be true.

          Yes, any system has bugs, and people can make errors. No big deal. The problem is the arrogance and lack of professionality and the refusal to even discuss things. Chair of the arXiv Scientific Advisory Board? Executive Director of arXiv? Scientific Director of arXiv? Chair of the arXiv physics advisory committee? What is the point of having what appears to be a checks-and-balances system when, in practice, those checks and balances don’t work and, without even investigating in detail, in some cases probably without even reading my paper, the stance is taken that arXiv colleagues can do no wrong?

          This isn’t about just my paper. It is about the fact that most of the community doesn’t realize that having a paper accepted by a leading journal in the field is not sufficient to get it into the proper category at arXiv, even if the author submits it there. It means that arXiv-overlay journals are a non-starter, since the purpose of journals is publication, but arXiv has the say on what is published. I suggested to the Open Journal of Astrophysics that they come to an agreement with arXiv that anything they accept automatically qualifies for astro-ph. It turns out that neither side wants such an agreement. Monthly Notices doesn’t even qualify.

          Most people will ignore this problem until it happens to them, end even then most will keep quiet about it for fear of getting banned completely.

        • John Baez says:

          I read your paper, and I don’t think it should have been prevented from appearing in astro-ph.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          “I read your paper, and I don’t think it should have been prevented from appearing in astro-ph.”

          Thanks for your public support. You’re a brave man!

          I put the paper on arXiv, as I had all of my other refereed-journal papers (as well as a few conference proceedings and so on). When I didn’t notice it in the announcement, I noticed that it had been put on hold. I asked why, but wasn’t given an answer. Then I saw that it had been reclassified to gen-ph. I consulted with some colleagues (fortunately some astronomers work at night, as it was in the wee hours), and the consensus was that it shouldn’t be in gen-ph. I then unsubmitted it. I kept it in this status for several months, until finally Max was able to provoke an answer (whether it is the answer I don’t know; I was told something else). Let me list the people I asked to tell me what was going on and why, and let me note that they all behaved very unprofessionally: Stein Sigurdsson, the scientific director of arXiv, Licia Verde, the chair of the arXiv advisory committee, Robert Seiringer, the chair of the physics advisory committee. Since arXiv is hosted by Cornell, I asked Cornell to look into this as a case of academic misconduct. That provoked a prompt and angry response from the scientific director of arXiv, Eleonora Presani. Dong Lai, responsible for astrophysics within physics, didn’t even bother to answer. Steinn didn’t answer until contacted by colleagues.

          Even before the strong escalation, several colleagues put in a good word for me at arXiv and tried to understand what was going on. One colleague assumed that it must have been some sort of technical glitch. After 8 months, I’ve given up hope of getting this resolved in a sensible manner.

          Yes, that means that I am probably effectively banned from arXiv, at least as long as it continues to be run as it is now. But I think that it is important to speak out. Not one person who has read my paper thinks that it should have not gone into astro-ph, or if so they haven’t told me (with the possible exceptions of the arXiv staff, but then again I doubt that all of them have read my paper).

          This is not about my paper, it is about the credibility of the scientific establishment. Like it or not, papers which are not on arXiv are essentially invisible, and it is absurd that I have to make such a sacrifice so that arXiv doesn’t get sued by crackpots. It is absurd that a paper published in the leading journal in the field is not allowed onto arXiv.

          Fortunately, my livelihood does not depend on arXiv. For others, it does. Imagine a young person, just starting out, who got their first paper published in a good journal, then they get chosen for the sacrifice, and have to suffer what I suffered. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the result were suicide in some cases.

          I hope that others in similar circumstances will speak up, but I can understand it if they don’t. Maybe, somehow, the community can get this fixed.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          “[I added the link. I don’t know what’s causing your difficulty. – jb]”

          Thanks. That is essentially the “official offprint” link. I should have thought of that—I have that link on my own web pages. For what it’s worth, over the years I’ve noticed that I sometimes have problems with WordPress blogs, always with the same symptoms: my comment doesn’t appear and there is no message, but posting the same comment again generates a “looks like you’ve already said that” message, so it is clear that the problem is not at my end and that the comment got as far as WordPress. At other times, no problem with the same blog—sometimes even with the same comment (i.e., the same comment, or a slightly modified version to avoid the “duplicate” message, gets through later). At least in some cases, it lands in the spam trap, though the bloggers say that they don’t see any obvious reason why it should be there. My guess is that the spam filter is some sort of machine-learning algorithm which revises itself over time. In some cases, if the blogger posts my comment by hand, then subsequent comments are no problem. The presence of links probably plays a role, but not in a (at least to me) predictable manner. Of course, if one knows how the system works, one can game the system, so it does make sense for a spam filter to provide no error message. In the case of real comments mis-tagged as spam, it is usually not clear to the commentator why the comment didn’t get through.

        • Phillip Helbig says:

          I think that it is telling that there is not even an automatic email when a paper is reclassified and that one is not allowed to prevent it from being announced in the new category. It is obvious that they need a supply of good papers to recategorize. In my case, I was given the option to delete it completely, but arXiv spun that as a special favour to me (which might have been true) but later chided me for breaking the rules. In any case, it is clear that in the normal course of things it is against the rules to delete a submission (as opposed to withdrawing it in the arXiv sense), even if it is (or was) technically possible.

          At the very least, in the case of some disagreement it would be nice if the author had the possibility to completely remove the paper, but, presumably for the reason mentioned above, that is not the case. That still wouldn’t be satisfactory, though, as arXiv would still determine which papers get through and which don’t.

          Of course, I don’t object to reclassification if something is obviously misclassified, but even then the author should be informed of the reclassification and the reason for it and it should be possible to appeal while the paper is on hold without having to unsubmit it (in which case one has to regularly edit it, otherwise it is taken out of the system after a couple of weeks and one would have to resubmit from scratch). And, again, completely deleting something before it has been announced should be possible. (I agree that papers withdrawn after having appeared should remain in the system with older versions accessible.) (To be sure, one can delete a paper before having submitted it, which is useful for obvious mistakes (uploaded the wrong file or whatever). The problem is that after a paper is reclassified it goes back to “unsubmitted” then goes to submitted again, all without the author being informed. Technically, that is the same state as after the first submission, but the delete is allowed only before any reclassification.)

          The problem is the strange gen-ph category. Google finds lots of stuff on this. Again, the only credible explanation for having crackpot papers in there (which shouldn’t be on arXiv at all), as well as papers which should obviously be somewhere else, as well as papers which really are about general physics, is so that arXiv can point to it and thus avoid being sued by crackpots. It is an open secret that the gen-ph category is (ab)used for this, but as long as there is no publicly available official arXiv policy stating that, they are legally safe. Saying that something should go into, say, some history-of-science category rather than the corresponding main category is a different matter, though even here the author should be informed and an appeal should be possible while the paper is on hold and there should still be the option to delete it altogether.

          There is the story about a person who jumped off of a skyscraper. As he sailed by the third floor, someone asked him how it was going, and he said “so far, so good”. I think that many people who believe that all is hunky dory at arXiv are in the same situation: they think that it is fine until they themselves are affected.

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