I was editor of mathNEWS twenty years ago. mathNEWS has changed remarkably little since then. The typesetting is a bit better, but it's still printed on 8.5"x11" paper, and still contains a mix of crude graphics, half-baked opinions, amateur science fiction, parodies of popular songs created by buzzword substitution, and, of course, in-jokes.
There has always been at least one (and often several) aspiring writer, artist, or designer on staff, and many editors (including me) have attempted to raise the level of quality. But none of these attempts have borne fruit. The choice isn't between entertainment and depth; publications like Private Eye (England), Le Canard Enchaine (France), or Spy (U.S) have been quite successful at blending wit and insouciance with serious impact, making governments tremble and sometimes even fall. Frank magazine, Canada's pallid imitation of these, is perhaps proof that in Canada we just don't do things that way.
There's an even simpler explanation, offered by a character in the movie Dazed and Confused. "I keep getting older," he says, leaning against the wall outside a pool hall, "but they stay the same age." Of course, he wasn't referring to mathNEWS editors, not male ones at least. But no one in their right mind, or even slightly out of it, would consider working on the paper for more than a few years. There's graduation to consider, a real world out there. By the time new blood thinks of something besides old ideas, they're already on their way out.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. As I write, the '70's are being revisited, in movies, in music, in fashion. You would have to have grown up in that decade, as I did, to realize how horrible this is -- I had no choice, after all, but today's youth does. In the midst of this, mathNEWS is the ultimate retro: it was never discarded and rediscovered. It never went away. It never changed. It's not a symbol of any one time; it's timeless.
So here's to mathNEWS at 500. It had modest aspirations, and it realized them. That could be its epitaph. But there'll be no tombstone to carve it on, for mathNEWS will never die.
Prabhakar Ragde lives physically in Waterloo but spiritually in Toronto, the San Francisco Bay Area, Paris, and northern Italy. He has done little of note since graduation, except to play a small role in the creation of two wonderful children.