Not all of the e-mail that we get here at mathNEWS is critical of our articles. In fact, large sections of it seem to be unaware of our articles at all. We get a lot of e-mail from people who think that we're some kind of weird information service. For example, a few weeks ago, when I was finishing up the previous article with this title, we received an e-mail from someone wanting to know when people started dying their hair.
Now granted, there was a single article last term about dying one's hair, or more specifically annoying one's roommates to no end by dying one's hair. However, I at least consider it odd that someone, upon reading this article, would consider mathNEWS to be a bastion of historical knowledge of the subject. It seems, well, unreasonable to conclude that.
The most common clueless questions, though, are the result of confusion about what we do here. There's rather a lot of people who seem to feel that any publication entitled "mathNEWS" should have something to do with math, aside from being published by students studying it. This leads to all kinds of confusion. The most recent e-mail of this sort ran:
hello. i'm a 13 year old girl with a problem. i have been getting bad marks in math and my teacher said if i wanted to bring up my grade i would have to find some articles about math. while i think you are doing an excellent job, i have not yet found any "real" articles about math. if you could write me back with any information, i will be very thankful.
In general, we try to be kind to these poor souls, who are suffering from honest confusion rather than malicious idiocy. For instance, about a year ago, we received an e-mail asking if we could provide the author with an example of Mary Fairfax Somerville's work in Algebra. Offhand, of course, the answer is no. However, a quick web search turned up some biographical information which proved to be helpful.
We've also gotten requests for mathematical results, people seeking suggestions for their high school independent studies, and students wanting copies of old CMC problems. Naturally, we can't help most of these people. That doesn't always stop us from trying, but when people ask us strange questions in the middle of a production cycle... well, the results aren't always pretty.
Of course, there's a related class of correspondence which we receive on a regular basis, which also seems to stem from name confusion. However, it's a sufficiently bizarre story, that I'm going to wait until next issue to talk about the Iranian Cult of mathNEWS.
Matt "So-Krates" Walsh