Written: Dec. 1, 1995.
Mathematics is noble, Organization is not. While it is probably true that mathematical organizations are better than other ones, they are not much better. I am sorry to say that the 3 biggies:AMS, MAA, SIAM, have all some sleaze in them.
The main reason is that they charge dues (and charge for their services, like journals and conferences), hence generate money, and whenever there is money there is sleaze. Perhaps a better reason is that they generate power (for example deciding who is to be editor and invited speaker), and one of the oldest axioms of Human Nature is that power corrupts.
The sleaziest of the three is perhaps SIAM, (Sleazy Institute for Avarice and Money-making), that charges exorbitant fees at their conventions. They are the only ones to enforce that the registration fees are actually paid, and they have bouncers at the door that check badges. Also they are tacky, they offer raffles that are announced like TV commercials. So the Industrial (greedy) component is much stronger than the Mathematics one.
For awhile I believed that MAA was the saintliness, until, awhile ago, I got a phone call from someone who said that they are from the MAA. I got all excited (perhaps they are inviting me to give a talk or something), until it emerged that they are some VISA card company that got my name and phone number from the MAA. When I e-mailed the executive director, Marcia Sward, about it, she admitted that it was arranged by the MAA, and even bragged that it was a `good deal' and that `many members were happy about it'. I am ashamed to be in an organization that sells its members' phone numbers to the scum of the earth: the phone solicitors. So, Shame on you, MAA!
This is not to say that the AMS is any better, they are just slightly more professional. I was shocked the other day, when I was browsing in the Web, that the AMS journals are not available freely for downloading, but charge subscription fees. Some `non-profit' organization! Let me remind you that there are several excellent electronic journals, that are viewable free of charge, for example New York Journal of Mathematics and the Electronic J. of Combinatorics. If you publish your papers there, you would be accessible to the ten millions people who surf the Web regularly. Of course, if you are already a tenured full professor, it is even pointless to publish there, since a publication reachable from your Home Page is equally accessible, although the journals might reach more browsers.
Let's hope that the new medium will destroy the old organizations with their corrupt paper mentality and elitism, or at least reform them. After all, thanks to the Web and E-mail, both journals and conferences are becoming increasingly pointless. Then again, institutions have a very strong inertia, look at established religion, so perhaps, unfortunately, it is too soon to rejoice in the devil's death.
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