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I am not sure if it's proper to bring this here, but I'll take my chance.

Our FAQ says: Be nice.

Yesterday, Math came out of Area 51 and the Beta phase began. Today I posted a question and there is a person who has been continuously writing insulting comments: Harry Gindi.

Below I'm posting the screenshots of all the relevant posts. He's obviously violating our rules with his insolent words and behavior. Other than flagging his posts, what is the mechanism to warn/prevent this guy from insulting people? If he's a member of this community, he must obey the rules. Thanks for any help.

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P.S.: Thanks everyone who is interested in my question for their pretty valuable advice, answers and comments.

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If it helps any, I've had run ins with him as well. First he criticizes, and then he call you names; I think the last part is 'you win'. Or at least, someone named Gandhi thought so. –  George Stocker Jul 21 '10 at 11:12
@George Stocker: Thanks for sharing this. –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jul 21 '10 at 11:15
Funnily enough, he says here on Meta in a comment: The reason why MO is different in this regard is that we have a lot of professional mathematicians, who, if harassed by jerks on the internet, would leave and offer their expertise elsewhere. –  Pëkka Jul 21 '10 at 11:55
I do not see why this question was downvoted. In my opinion, it is actually a good question that addresses a basic issue on SO sites. –  mafutrct Jul 21 '10 at 11:59
@Mafutrct @Mehper it was probably downvoted because normally this sort of thing would be sent to the team in private. I hadn't mentioned anything to the Stack Overflow team about it because I just thought Harry didn't like me. Now that I see he acts this way towards others, I won't be so forgiving of his behavior in the future. –  George Stocker Jul 21 '10 at 12:11
Although I agree with George that Harry's behavior where they had a run-in was unacceptable (and indeed I expressed as much, note that he hasn't been back here since), I would like to state for the record that George's behavior in that thread (which he has since wisely deleted) was equally offensive, rude, and mean-spirited. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 18:18
+1 Noah. I too agree with Harry Gindi vis-à-vis George Stoker, though not with his manner of expression. George Stoker's viewpoints were unacceptable to the generic MO user, which I consider myself to be. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 20:20
@Noah By disagreeing with the MO position on migration (and stating my reasons) I was 'offensive', 'rude', and 'mean-spirited'? I always thought academics welcomed debate and differences in opinion. I did not ad hominem attacks. Disagreeing with your position doesn't make me any of those three. –  George Stocker Jul 21 '10 at 22:51
@George Stoker. Academics are also people and can be just as nasty and wilful as programmers or engineers can be. About your points: You summarily dismissed all of the plans of Mathoverflow-ers. You showed a complete lack of understanding of how universities and research is done, when you outright dismissed the notion that a site could be ran via grant money. Also the confrontation could have been a result of difference of political views. Just because you have high reputation here, you cannot try to force your right-wing views(such as belief in the Austrian school) on Mathoverflow. –  MO-er Jul 22 '10 at 11:43
@MO-er 'Summarily dismissed'? dismissed, yes, but only after inspecting and discussing each argument. That's far from 'summarily'. 'lack of understanding of how university research is done'. I admitted an ignorance in the specialized nature of that area; but one thing I did do is point out that it isn't sustainable, especially in our current economic climate (which is utterly keynesian in its cause). "Force" my views? Economics play a vital part of my argument - I cannot make it without including economic factors. 2) 'Right wing'? I wish the right wing listened to Austrian Economists. –  George Stocker Jul 22 '10 at 13:05
@MO-er both the Democrats and the Republicans are firmly Keynesian, unfortunately. Bottom line: The current modus operandi of funding for academia is not sustainable, and my answer includes that. However, none of this is related to the present topic before us. –  George Stocker Jul 22 '10 at 13:07
@Stocker: We are not economists. We do not know sustainability and other issues in the longterm. We know about the existing model, and it is easier to use it "as is" than to get into worries about economic revolutions or catastrophes. –  MO-er Jul 22 '10 at 19:21
@George @MO-er this sounds like a very interesting discussion (seriously), but it's indeed a bit off topic. :) –  Pëkka Jul 22 '10 at 20:15
@pekka Indeed! Back to xkcd.com/386 (Is it bad that I know that URL by heart?) –  George Stocker Jul 22 '10 at 20:39
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6 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

In your specific case, Tim's post is an excellent overview.

In general,


  • Insult them back.
  • Become accusing.
  • Assume they are jerks.
  • Assume you know anything about why they behave this way.


(in roughly escalating order)

  • Downvote the post (if it is a post).
  • Pretend the insult didn't exist, attempt to respond to their concern in a civil manner. This sometimes calms people down, and they'll continue the discussion in a perfectly acceptable tone.
  • Comment and inform (in some way) that politeness is encouraged. Use positive language. "@whomever, in the Stack Exchange community, we appreciate polite constructive criticism". Understand that this may cause them to belittle and mock you.
  • Leave if you find yourself getting drawn into a fight.
  • (IF applicable) Flag the comment. (NOT for when you think they are being rude, only for when they are being offensive)
  • Flag for moderator attention, explain who made the comments, and why you think they are inappropriate.

If you get all the way to flagging the post, then you are done and there isn't anything else to do. You should understand that everyone has a different idea of what is acceptable, so it won't always turn out that the moderator feels it necessary to do anything. However, at that point you will have maintained a positive presence in the community by not contributing to the rudeness in any way.

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Very sensible suggestions. These should be put up in the FAQ somewhere. –  Pëkka Jul 21 '10 at 11:56
That is a fantastic synopsis of what I was trying to convey (before and after the original question was edited). +1 –  Tim Post Jul 21 '10 at 13:11
I'm also thinking of just changing my name to "Tim's Post" for general hilarity. –  Tim Post Jul 21 '10 at 13:14
@Tim Post: If you do, make sure to edit my post to include your full name. "Make sure to check out Tim's Post's Post" –  devinb Jul 21 '10 at 13:28
I agree with these suggestions, these are pretty much the same guidelines I have been trying to follow in dealing with him. –  Larry Wang Jul 21 '10 at 13:59
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I have some advice for you.

First, it looks like you were, indeed conducting a breaching experiment to see if math jokes would or would not be entertained or appreciated. It's hard to say exactly, you provided screen shots only of the comments (which show many people voting to close) and most of us aren't able to see the question since the site is in private beta.

Second, please consider that some people just have blunt, if not abrasive personalities. That doesn't mean they are trying to be deliberately mean, or harsh, it just means they say pretty much whatever is on their mind. On very technical sites, you'll run into this quite a bit.

Third, Your thoughts are worthless to me .. isn't exactly a productive way of ending an argument. It takes two to tango.

If you really feel like someone is being consistently abusive, flag them for moderator attention or e-mail team@stackoverflow.com (suggest the moderator route first). But, be sure to check yourself and your own behavior as well :)

Sometimes, it's just better to not get in a debate. If the community wants your question, it will leave the question open. During the beta period, this is the kind of thing that should be discussed on the associated meta site.


I can see why some would have adverse reactions to that. If someone insults you, flag the comment and move on. Let the community decide if the question is appropriate. These kinds of 'experiments' are bound to annoy some people, and that is a consequence that you have to be prepared to deal with.

Finally, he was not calling you stupid, he was referring to the question. A more appropriate response would have been no response at all, or (if you must):

@whoever - wow, that was a little harsh. Noted. Lets see what everyone else thinks of it, we're supposed to be determining what is and is not acceptable here and this type of thing is bound to come up.

A little diplomacy even in the absence of the other party using it goes a long way.

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+1. I remember getting dragged into a pointless argument on SO once because I thought one particular user was being rather unnecessarily abrupt to the OP and I was just sticking up for him really. Anyway someone flagged for moderator attention and all the noisy comments got deleted because they don't add anything useful to the thread - the same thing should happen in this case too. –  Andy E Jul 21 '10 at 10:01
Still, it must be possible to conduct experiments in the starting phase of a Community to define borders and test the waters, without being called names. I can't help the impression that the guy is acting like a bit of an asshole, and needs some feedback. (I don't have access to Math Overflow so I can only go by the screen shot posted, and the other comments here in the question.) –  Pëkka Jul 21 '10 at 11:18
@Pekka - Breaching experiments are fine. "How to move the turtle in LOGO" was one such experiment on SO. However, if someone offends you, flag the comment and don't get into a debate. You also have to realize, a consequence of conducting these experiments is possibly annoying other users to the point that they make it known, just hopefully with a bit more discretion than was shown here. –  Tim Post Jul 21 '10 at 12:20
@Tim very good points. However, after reading some of his Meta.MathOverflow posts, I'm thinking this user may be a really tough case comparable to Rich B. –  Pëkka Jul 21 '10 at 14:11
@Pekka - Perhaps, but all the more reason to just avoid interaction and use the 'flag' link, or contact the SO team directly (if, indeed the objective is to avoid frustrating confrontation). –  Tim Post Jul 21 '10 at 17:28
@Pekka - it comes down to "Will interacting with this person enhance, or diminish the quality of my experience here" .. and that remains our choice, no matter how obnoxious the trolls may become. –  Tim Post Jul 21 '10 at 17:29
@Downvoters - Care to explain? –  Tim Post Jul 22 '10 at 17:13
@Tim it's only one downvoter as far as I can see? (Not me) –  Pëkka Jul 22 '10 at 20:15
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The person mentioned by the OP was the most problematic user at MO(Mathoverflow). What kind of person he is, is well-known to every reader of meta.mathoverflow.

The moderators baby steps at MO (short suspensions, deleting comments, etc.) were wildly insufficient, their decision not to ban him was completely irresponsible, and resulted in the common user suffering. His behavior had caused considerable bad reputation for the site. Note that even the mods wouldn't deny this last statement.

But here if you want a more pleasant atmosphere, nip the problem in the bud and ban him. Do not repeat the erroneous ways of the creators of Mathoverflow.

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I think "encouraged and sheltered" is unfair. I certainly think it's a reasonable position that he should have been banned at MO a while ago (though I think his behavior has improved substantially, I no longer consider him the most problematic MO user), however, the moderators did use the tools at their disposal to discourage his bad behavior. It's not fair to them to say they encouraged him. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 17:27
@Noah. You are defending the said user even now, citing more recent improvement. But it is a fact that the moderators didn't take sufficient steps during the times of trouble. It is a feeling ingrained into my mind over many months. Why you were so lackadaisical, only you know. But you cannot change my feeling. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 17:36
If you'd just said "didn't take sufficient steps" and "should have banned him" I'd totally agree with you. However you said "encouraged" which I really don't think is fair or accurate. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 17:44
Well, you let him have his bonfire without obstruction. That is encouragement. That the rampage continued for many months is enough evidence for your toleration of such things. If you had willed stronger, it wouldn't have happened. Either you didn't care, or you allowed it. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 17:45
Also, I'm not a moderator. I'm not sure why you're certain about what my opinion was on the very difficult question and contentious question of when banning a user is appropriate. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 17:47
He was suspended repeatedly! His offensive comments were deleted. He was reprimanded in public and in private. Maybe he should have been banned, but "encouraged" is simply false. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 17:49
You are not a moderator; but I imagined that you were speaking for them as you were an "insider", according your own admission from elsewhere. Letting the wrong things happen for long without taking sufficient action is encouragement for the wrong, if you look at it in a certain way. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 17:56
That is not what "encouragement" means at all! Furthermore, saying they "encouraged" him works directly against your point. Your point is essentially "he should be banned because other tools of discouraging his behavior don't work." Whereas by saying they "encouraged him" people's natural reaction is "well the new site doesn't need to ban him they just need to not encourage him." –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 18:03
Ok, perhaps "sheltered and encouraged" is an overly strong description. The correct phrase might be "guilty by inaction". The culpability of this is a discussion I am not qualified for. Let me leave such to the lawyers/jurors. But I have clearly stated my feelings above and you cannot change a person's feelings by trying to convert me to your viewpoint. The reasons I have such feelings are my own experiences and what I have seen. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 18:22
I'm not trying to change your viewpoint. I largely agree with your viewpoint. What I'm trying to make clear is the facts of what happened so that people can determine what sort of moderator behavior would be effective for the new site. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 18:27
For example, for the sake of accuracy you could change "The moderators at MO were completely irresponsible and they encouraged and sheltered him as the common users suffered." To "The moderators baby steps at MO (short suspensions, deleting comments, etc.) were wildly insufficient, their decision not to ban him was completely irresponsible, and resulted in the common user suffereing." I'd disagree a little about the strenousness (I don't think it was "completly irresponsible" though it may have been wrong) but your free to express your opinion, what you shouldn't do is state incorrect facts. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 18:32
Well, it is completely normal for both of us. I felt it was my duty to state the "J'accuse!", and since you are here in a sense in the role of the counsel for the accused, you are supposed to prove that there is nothing to accuse anywhere, or anyone. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 18:32
I've got to agree with MO-er for the most part. When you have the power to easily stop something bad, and you continuously choose not to, you are an accessory to the wrongdoing. If you want to use the word 'encouraged' that's minor stretch. –  Chris S Jul 21 '10 at 18:52
It's worth keeping in mind that banning isn't always a totally easy fix (though it may have been in this case, my hunch now is that Harry in particular probably wouldn't have tried to get around it). It's not like MO can IP ban the University of Michigan's math dept!! –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 19:15
(-1) Especially for the last line. "Nip the problem in the bud and ban him" If the problem is still a "bud" then banning is an extreme over-reaction. I'm not saying you that people should never be banned, but your answer indicates that they should always be banned. –  devinb Jul 21 '10 at 20:28
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By reading this thread on mathoverflow's meta it appears that Harry Gindi is trying to erroneously apply mathoverflow's standards to the new math website.

He probably didn't understand that they are two different websites with two different audiences and standards. Several people on both websites already asked him to stop, let's see if he listens..

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He won't stop. Here is another thread: meta.mathoverflow.net/discussion/191/redacted –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jul 22 '10 at 11:04
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Either flag his comment as offensive, flag one of his posts for moderator attention, bring it up in meta (best would be meta.math, I guess), or write to the team. The team's email address is at the bottom of each page.

Moderators can ban a person for a certain while.

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Putting aside Harry for the moment (which is really an issue for meta.math.stackexchange, not for here) I think there's an important general question which is how are new sites supposed to make difficult decisions (like how to deal with problematic users) before moderators exist? This is one of the points of "community ownership" that has never quite made sense to me. Is the idea that Robert Cartaino needs to make the decisions? How aggressive do we want Robert to be at snipping things in the bud?

For example, I think it'd be totally reasonable for Robert to be very aggressive in banning people for the duration of the beta period (but letting them come back after beta is over and lines of authority and rules are more finalized). The beta is a sensitive time, and losing one user might be worth making sure that the initial setup phase happens smoothly. Furthermore I expect that many difficult users would be a lot less problematic once clear rules and lines of authority have been established.

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It is an issue for here. If this discussion were in MO, then the moderators would have immediately clamped down on any voices such as mine using their powers. How many meta threads were closed over there to protect this person, with not much action being done to stop the problems? This discussion in stackoverflow exposes a problem in the handling at Mathoverflow and I wouldn't have gained this freedom of expression over there. Now the issue spilled over to other stackexchange sites, and the information from a previous SE site is best shared via meta.stackoverflow. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 19:54
Anton's opinion (which I disagree with, but it's his site) is that discipline issues should be dealt with in private by emailing the moderators, not by discussing them in public on meta. He said as much several times during those threads. –  Noah Snyder Jul 21 '10 at 19:57
Well, if his method is effective one cannot object. But it is a fact that the election at MO had a more sobering effect on the person we are discussing, than any amount of "private emailing" he might have done. –  MO-er Jul 21 '10 at 20:07
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