administration and economics
This is a copy with slight revisions of a posting I made on June 1
to the PlanetMath google group (email@example.com).
I want to use it to engage you in a discussion of the subjects
mentioned in the subject line.
I'll begin by stating a couple of the issues I have been thinking
about lately. I plan to take the interested reader on a short
excursion through some interesting background material --
but for the sake of those who prefer the cut-and-dried format,
I will put these interesting juicy tidbits in ["square brackets"],
which you are invited -- nay, exorted -- to skip over, if you find
their contents at all troublesome.
1. Administration of PlanetMath.
- What are we going to do to improve the situation?
2. Home(?) Economics of "free math", "open source" etc.
- How can I get paid to do what I love?
Not that I don't love sleeping, but getting paid to sleep is
not a career with much room for personal growth.
[Although -- this morning I did wake up with what was to
me a very interesting thought -- "at least she had a mentor!"
This was with regard to a Theater of the Oppressed (TO)
performance that I saw last night, under the direction of no
less than Augusto Boal. As MIT students DON'T often say:
I love this fucking place! The show was an opener for the
14th Annual "Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed
Workshop", which is taking place here at the U of MN.
The specific performance concerned a student or first-year
teacher who was working at a school that was poetically
portrayed as hyper-military -- "here is your quiz" -- "thank
you sir" -- "try harder next time" -- "sir yes sir". One of
the students in the class was from Guatemala and he
did not speak English well. And so the teacher goes up
the chain of command from her "mentor teacher" to
the "principal", who eventually suggests that the kid should
be put in special education. Now the way TO works is
that members of the audience suggest revisions and
literally get on stage in the place of the actor whose
behavior they want to change. The principle, as Boal
put it, is that the play does, artfully, represent "reality" --
but one of the fundamental things about humans is that
they *transform* reality. Boal set up this premise before
the play was shown, by talking about how when we are
young we are all "born artists" who transform paper with
crayon etc. The point I must have latched onto in my
sleep was that we are as young people transformed by
our parents and teachers -- our mentors, if you will. The
reason this is important is that if we want to change the
young teacher's behavior -- if we want to change the
way she reacts to a "mentor teacher" who suggests
that the student's parents will just be deported soon,
or a "principle" who says that if the school loses funding
when its budget is cut after poor perfomances on
(all-but!) universal standardized testing -- then we want
to go back in time a bit and change her conditioning;
or perhaps we must dig inside and see which parts of
her conditioning are already there, and which lend
themselves to helping transform the "solution" into
a more constructive one. We all have "mentor/teachers"
in our past and present who sometimes we must
confront. But I think a good strategy is to look first
at the things we have learned from others, or from the
same people for that matter, that make us feel some
confrontation is asked for. Loading the mental arsenal
so to speak, or rehearsing the lines. I also had the
impression -- which could be quite unorthodox -- that
another part of the "theater of the oppressed" is that
we are all also "oppressed", but that this is in some
sense a theatrical role put on WRT the society of the
spectacle. Could be wrong. Finally, I noticed how
the TO techniques are somewhat similar to Burroughs's
"cut-up" technique, and I found them philosophically
interesting in a variety of ways sprouting from that --
consider for example the "theatrical" nature of
QUESTION 1: ADMINISTRATION
Let's try to understand the terms better. When I
say "administration", really you could just think of
a live-updating map of what's going on in the project:
but it should be both as detailed and as foldable as
any individual wants, and capable of being viewed from
on at least as many different sides as there are viewers.
In other words, this is what I have been talking about
with the scholium system or "Arxana" all along -- except
that it isn't just some abstract construction -- the
administrative map should of course be filled with actual
details on who is doing what, who is responsible for what,
etc. etc., so that if anyone has a question about the
project, either they will find an answer on the map, or
they will find a good place to stick their question to get
Now despite my optimism that some version of Arxana will
be available and consumable by the end of the summer,
people have administered projects for millennia without it,
and I think it would be very apt of us to look around for
some older technology which we can use to build our
[This is like sort of like finding the other older mentors to
collect your mental arsenal before you engage in a new
I would like to suggest a plain text file, and I would like
to suggest further that that plain text file be hammered
out by email in this group and/or in the PlanetMath forums,
and that this email be taken as the first draft. Sections can
be cut and added, content can be moved around or
changed, questions can be inserted.
One reason for not using any more "high-tech" medium
is that these media do not seem to work for everyone.
(Indeed, these days it seems that the wiki does not
work for anyone!) That is the main one -- but even if
the wiki was working, I would suggest that we used
email and plain text, so that there would be the most
minimal barrier to entry for new thoughts.
Thus, over the last few paragraphs I have done more than
just make an abstract suggestion -- I have kicked off
an actual solution. Let me continue that briefly before
I get on to my second question.
Right now the administrative structure of PlanetMath
is such that:
* almost every web-related issue gets routed through
* almost every financial issue gets routed through
* most practical "beaurocratic" decisions are made by
* many key "social networking" issues are routed
only through Aaron
* less frequently, decisions are made by members of board
* given the fact that the board does not have public meetings
very often, the ability of general members of the community
to oversee or engage the board members vanishes to zero
* various informal decisions and actions are taken by the
quote-unquote "powers that be" around PlanetMath, which
include myself and too many engaged PM contributors to
list here -- but note that these powers are almost universally
"unofficial" powers (all binding decisions must go through
Aaron or, possibly, the board)
* there are some arcane and non-obvious rules and
responsibilities that devolve onto persons with so-called
"admin" status on the website: I do not know the
structure of this continent, so I will not say any more
about it; it may be important for issues like those that
Chi has been talking about, may not be so important for
the actual business of "running the non-profit", but who
* media-wise, most "important" (at least, in the sense
of being at all "persistent" and "public") conversations among
the powers-that-be get mapped through the cumbersome
forum software deployed on PlanetMath's home page
* other than that there are various unofficial and more
(or less, in the case of this email list) transitory media
OK, that's a decent sketch.
Now, what would I like to see change?
* Well, I think that Aaron's current set of responsibilites
made handleable by more people. Not because he has in
any way "done a bad job" -- far from it -- but because the
rest of us have done essentially nothing, due to the
existence of an administrative bottleneck that he just
happens to mostly fill.
* I would like to see somewhere an *official* record of the
things people are working on -- including me. This could
eventually lead into either "job titles" or "volunteer roles"
(such as they have at wikipedia), which I think would do
quite a lot to give PlanetMath more than one "official"
* Extending this (and this is something we have talked
a lot about but I think left sitting for a long time), I would
like to see a clear description of "members rights" --
made with at least some serious participation by members,
* I think that many of the problems around PlanetMath --
probably most of the serious ones in my view -- are properly
administrative in nature (according to my definition above:
we lack a good map!). But I think that this has repercussions
for "morale" (among other things). Participants who don't
have any institutional authority aren't likely to do much in
the way of outreach, for example -- or to be able to do much.
OK, good enough for now.
QUESTION 2: ECONOMICS
This is a question that I have thought long and hard about.
I do not think we can easily come up with much more than
a very abstract statement of a plan yet -- not without
doing more research.
In making this abstract statement, I think we should first
make a brief abstract of the theories and ideas we are
already aware of. Some of these may be quite wrong
and all are certainly subject to further critique.
* The nature of the institution. We describe PlanetMath
as being "a non-proft", "a commons-based peer production
system", and "a community". As the name indicates,
"math" is the main focus. (Although if we follow Marnita's
advice, we may build several spin-off, partner, or
child institutions.) At present, there is no permanent
paid staff retained by the non-profit.
* Legal status. The organization is (not without some
technical snafus, at least potental ones) a tax-exempt
charity *based in the united states of america*; and
the content and code is made available *worldwide*
under some "free" license or other.
* Revenue streams. Subject to limitations placed on
charity organizations, PlanetMath can receive donations,
have financial sponsors, get federal and other grants,
and sell a few things (but not too many).
* Work product. The content of the PM site (encyclopedia,
forms) and the code behind or adjacent to it (Noosphere,
NNexus, Arxana, etc.).
* "The best way to make money related to free content
or software is to sell services." - a common adage.
* "There are no restrictions on selling *copies* of free
content or software" -- another common adage, relevant
to, e.g., the FEM, if we ever get that together. However,
there may be some restrictions coming from our legal
status as a charity organization.
* "Traditional publishing is basically corrupt" - something
most of us agree is true.
OK, that's probably enough of that for now.
Some thoughts and suggestions, related to the case of: me.
[* Motivation. Everyone who hasn't read the "MOTIVATION"
file that ships with Emacs should do so. Motivation can
go *down* when people are paid for certain kinds of work.
If you've ever been in an office where people are slacking
off (or if you've ever slacked off yourself, in or out of the
office), you know what I'm talking about. Motivation is
a complex issue, even when just one person is involved.
Speaking for myself, there are a number of different
things I like to do; and several things I think I am pretty
darn motivated to do. (E.g. enough to make serious
sacrifices, either because I expect long-term pay-off,
or because I get pay-back more or less immediately
in the form of a direct trade-off; or something in between.)
I might not be as motivated if I had to do only one
of these things, however! There is a bundling effect.
* Every connection, every link, is an arbitrage opportunity.
The moment I realized that, I was pretty excited -- since
a lot of what I think about is links. This is why Google
Answers worked (for a while) -- but since they stopped
working, we have to be careful. Not every arbitrage
opportunity is "viable" and one can fail to make money
for myriad reasons, whereas one must wait until the
check clears to actually make any money (and, OK,
even then, there are expenses to worry about!).
* (By the time a link has been made, you might say
that the arbitrage opportunity is already gone -- but
despite that fact, a new link may open up a whole
"plane" of new arbitrage opportunities in the form
of potential links, i.e. annotations, running perpendicular
* Given the business above about my heterogeneous
interests, and my implied lack of business skill
from the item just above, I am concerned that I
am too unprofessional to make money on my own.
I might do better in a job that bundled together a
variety of interests and responsibilities, and that
kept changing a lot -- especially one where I
could define how it changed with a lot of leeway!
* Or it could be a more traditional job that was just
doing some of the things I love, but that left room
for the others.]
Frankly I have not been that thrilled by some of
the money-making schemes that have been
proposed around PlanetMath -- but that's OK,
and I rather like some of the other schemes.
Given that a number of the proposals fall outside
of "PlanetMath" proper, I think that we would do
well to put together a meta-administration that
covered all of the things that we might want to
share work on.
Personally, I am hopeful, that in a time when
"Y-Combinator" is becoming a household word
(see Newsweek Magazine), there *is* money out
there to support even some of our most outrageous
* One idea is to get people to pay us to customize
Noosphere; but an easy complaint is that we have
not been able to pay to customize Noosphere in
the directions we want. The synthesis is to seek
synergistic relationships -- customizing Noosphere
in directions we want, and having someone else
pay us to do that!
In funding matters, I think good things don't come
to those who wait -- they come to those who
ask. And to ask a good question, you need a
good formulation of the question, hopefully together
with an illustrative example, model, or sketch.
I absolutely think that these things should fall
within the scope of our administration too. So,
even though this is a second section, it should
probably be thought of as a sub-section of the
larger document with the subject-line stated.
(Which it is.)
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