Who should blog in 2013?

The quantum theory blogosphere has seen some great new additions this year:

But this is not enough! Our researchers are legion. And so must it be with our blogs.
There really are a huge number of creative and interesting people in our field, and it would be great if more of them shared their thoughts and opinions online. Therefore, let’s see if the Quantum Pontiff faithful can convince a few people to start blogging in 2013. It doesn’t have to be a lot: let’s say 10 posts for the year.
So leave the name of someone that you’d like to see blogging in the comments section. When we see these people at QIP we can bug them, “Have you started blogging yet?”
I’ll start things off by naming a few people off the top of my head that I wish would blog: David Poulin, Dorit Aharonov, Patrick Hayden. Perhaps we can even goad some weedy unkempt blogs to till their fields again. Matt Leifer and Tobias Osborne, I’m looking at you. 🙂

Quantum Frontiers

As a postdoc at Caltech, I would often have lunch with John Preskill.  About once per week, we would play a game. During the short walk back, I would think of a question to which I didn’t know the answer. Then with maybe 100 meters to go, I would ask John that question. He would have to answer the question via a 20 minute impromptu lecture given right away, as soon as we walked into the building.
Now, these were not easy questions. At least, not to your average person, or even your average physicist. For example, “John, why do neutrinos have a small but nonzero mass?” Perhaps any high-energy theorist worth their salt would know the answer to that question, but it simply isn’t part of the training for most physicists, especially those in quantum information science.
Every single time, John would give a clear, concise and logically well-organized answer to the question at hand. He never skimped on equations when they were called for, but he would often analyze these problems using simple symmetry arguments and dimensional analysis—undergraduate physics!  At the end of each lecture, you really felt like you understood the answer to the question that was asked, which only moments ago seemed like it might be impossible to answer.
But the point of this post is not to praise John. Insead, I’m writing it so that I can set high expectations for John’s new blog, called Quantum Frontiers. Yes, that’s right, John Preskill has a blog now, and I hope that he’ll exceed these high expectations with content of similar or higher quality to what I witnessed in those after-lunch lectures. (John, if you’re reading this, no pressure.)
And John won’t be the only one blogging. It seems that the entire Caltech IQIM will “bring you firsthand accounts of the groundbreaking research taking place inside the labs of IQIM, and to answer your questions about our past, present and future work on some of the most fascinating questions at the frontiers of quantum science.”
This sounds pretty exciting, and it’s definitely a welcome addition to the (underrepresented?) quantum blogosphere.

Could Elsevier shut down arxiv.org?

They haven’t yet, but they are supporting SOPA, a bill that attempts to roll back Web 2.0 by making it easy to shut down entire sites like wikipedia and craigslist if they contain any user-submitted infringing material. (Here is a hypothetical airline-oriented version of SOPA, with only a little hyperbole about planes in the air.)
I think that appealing to Elsevier’s love of open scientific discourse is misguided. Individual employees there might be civic-minded, but ultimately they have $10 billion worth of reasons not to let the internet drive the costs of scientific publishing down to zero. Fortunately, their business model relies on the help of governments and academics. We can do our part to stop them by not publishing in, or refereeing for, their journals (the link describes other unethical Elsevier practices). Of course, this is easy to say in physics, harder in computer science, and a lot harder in fields like medicine.
There is another concrete way to stand up for open access. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has requested comments on the question of public access to federally-funded scientific research. Comments should be from “non-Federal stakeholders, including the public, universities, nonprofit and for-profit publishers, libraries, federally funded and non-federally funded research scientists, and other organizations and institutions with a stake in long-term preservation and access to the results of federally funded research.” That’s us!
But don’t procrastinate. The deadline for comments is January 2.
Here is more information, with instructions on how to comment.
Here is also the official government Request For Information with more details.

In Search of Plugins

Speaking of blogging technology: plugins that I haven’t seen for WordPress but that would be fun (i.e. thing I’d love to do if I were king of infinite time.)

  • A plugin to allow for comments INSIDE of a blog post.  The reader would be able to click at, say the end of a paragraph, and have their comment inserted there.  The comment would display collapsed (as a small icon or such) but when clicked on would expand for an inline comment.  Comment replies could be posted there as well.  An option to display all comments (inline and after the post) should be available as well.  Of course one could apply this recursively 🙂
  • Automagic arXiv linker.  I’m amazed this doesn’t exist.  I should be able to cut and paste an arXiv reference and it should automatically link to this (including maybe the option to add [pdf] after the paper for a direct link to the pdf.)
  • A plugin to list the tweets that have been made about this post.  I have tweetmeme installed, which gives a link to the tweets, but if there is a plugin that lists, inline, tweets, I haven’t found it.

Reimagining Science Networks

Scienceblogs, the science network that was my old (where “old” = “a few days ago”) haunt, is in revolt.  Okay, well maybe the network is not in revolt, but there is at least a minor insurgency.  Yesterday, the amazing force of blogging known as @Boraz, left the network (be sure you have more than a few minutes if you are going to read Bora’s goodbye letter.)  Today, the biggest fish of them all, PZ Myers has gone on strike (along with other Sciencebloggers.)  Numerous other bloggers have also jumped ship (a list is being kept by Carl Zimmer here.)  This is both sad, as I personally think the Scienceblogs network does contribute significantly to spreading the joys and tribulations of science, but also a bit exciting for, as Dave Munger points out, this also represents the prospect of new networks arising and hopefully pushing the entity that is known as the science-blogosphere forward.
I myself am not much of a blogger.  What I write here is for my own personal amusement (so if you don’t like it, well I don’t give a damn, thankyouverymuch) and, frankly, to distract my fellow quantum computing researchers from getting any work done (ha!)  I do enjoy writing (literature major, you know) and also enjoy trying to write coherently about science, and sometimes, as a consequence, I get read by people who aren’t here just to hear about the latest and greatest in quantum channel capacities.  That’s great, but I don’t really consider science blogger as my defining characteristic (my self image, such as it is, is more in the line of a hack who has somehow managed to remain in science—despite being almost a decade out of graduate school without a tenure track position due in large part to being stubborn as hell.  But that’s another story.)
But, even though I don’t consider myself very bloggerrific, having had a seat at the Scienceblogs table gave me an up front look at, to use a silly term, new media, and in particular at the notion of a science network.  So to me, following Munger’s post, the interesting question is not what will become of Scienceblogs in its current form, but how will the entities we call science networks evolve going forward.  Since there are a large number of Sciencebloggers jumping ship, it seems that now would be a good time for a new media science mogul to jump into the fray and scoop up some genuinely awesome bloggers.  So the question is, what should a science network look like?
To begin, I can start with Pieter’s comment a few days ago:

…I never fully understood the need for successful bloggers to join an umbrella organization. Did you get more readers when you moved to Pepsiblogs (good one!)?

That is exactly what I thought when I was asked, clearly by some clerical error, to join Scienceblogs!  Having joined, I can say that yes, it did increase my blog traffic.  But I think a science network also adds something else.
First of all, there is the fact that there is a front page which contains significant “edited” content.  It is edited in the sense that the powers that be have a large say in selecting what appears there in a highlighted mode.  This great because even the best bloggers, I’m afraid, generate a fair amount of posts which aren’t too exciting.  A discerning eye, however can grab the good stuff, and I regularly go to the front page to see what exciting is being blogged about.  I’m not sure that the front page of Scienceblog is the best way of providing an edited version of a blog network, but I do think that it is heading in the right direction.  So in thinking about moving forward, I wonder how one could change this editing and give it more value.  For instance, is the fairly static setup of the front page the right way to go, or should there be a more dynamic front page?
Another important property of a science network is in building discussion, and by discussion I don’t just mean a bunch of people agreeing with each other.  For example, Scienceblogs has a “buzz” where articles on a featured topic are posted on the front page.  Sometimes this content presents a unified view of a topic, but mostly you get a terrific variety of opinions about a subject.  Now I won’t argue that this diversity of opinion is huge: for instance you aren’t likely to find the Christian view on topological insulators, but you are likely to get the opinion of a large number of scientists or science journalists from a variety of areas.  This solves, for me, one of the worst problems with my blog reading: only following blogs for which I am predetermined to agree with the blogger.  Further this content gives rise to a genuine discussion among the bloggers in that they actually will read what others have written as opposed to just sitting on an isolated island (okay well I rarely read what even I’ve written, hence the horrible typos and grammatical gaffs that liter my writing.)
Third a science network like Scienceblogs serves as a proxy for a certain amount of quality.  Despite me trying to bring this quality down, I would say that some of the best science bloggers around have or have had a blog at Scienceblogs and this lets the network serve as a proxy for having to read a bunch of blog posts to see if the person has something interesting to say, or whether they are not worth your time.
So those are at least some of the reasons that a science network is good.  I must say, in thinking about these reasons, however, that I can’t completely convince myself that these amount to enough to justify the science networking idea.  Many high quality bloggers get along just fine without such a network.
Which brings me to the real subject of this post: how would I redesign Scienceblogs?
Well the first thing that comes to mind is better tech support.  Okay, just kidding.  Kind of.
Actually I do think there is a valid point in this dig at tech support.  One of the hardest things for me while I was at Scienceblogs was not being able to dig around and modify my blog in the sort of way I can do on my own hosted server.  Why is this important?  Well, for example, Scienceblogs does not currently have a mobile version of the website.  (Mea culpa: at one point, back when I was writing iPhone apps, I emailed the powers that be at Scienceblogs asking if they wanted me to design an iPhone app for them.  I got crickets back in response.  Later this came up in discussion among Sciencebloggers and the powers that be emailed me asking for more details.  This was in the middle of the impending arrival of baby Pontiff, so I never followed back up on this.  I feel bad for not doing this, but it seems that if the management was really serious about this they could have pursued numerous other, um, really qualified people.  Note that it took me about 30 minutes to get a mobile read version of my blog setup when I moved back here, and yes this is different than an iPhone app.)  But more importantly, technology has that important property that it is constantly changing.  Anyone who wants to build a network of science blogs should probably seriously consider that the infrastructure they are building will be out of date every few years or so and need major upgrades at a fairly high rate.
For instance, Scienceblogs should have been among the first to offer an iPhone app, an Android app, an iPad app.  Scienceblogs should think of ways to incorporate its tweeting members: as it is, as far as I know, Scienceblogs doesn’t even keep a list of its members who tweet.  Scienceblogs, a network about science, doesn’t even have LaTeX support for heaven’s sake, let alone, as far as I can tell, plans for how things like html5 will change what one can do on a website.  What will happen to Scienceblogs when technology adapts? Will it adapt too?
So I think, if I were going to start a new science network I would start with an incredibly dedicated hacker.  A quickly adaptable platform is a prereq and if you don’t start with a good base, well then you are just going to be out of date pretty quickly.
But of course there is more to a platform than just the tech behind the scenes.  There is also the content.  I have a lot of admiration for the people who have been the behind the scenes editors at Scienceblogs and I think this is part of the network that worked the best.  I do wonder, however, if they have enough editorial control: that is it would seem to me that they should have an even more expansive roll in the network.  And it’s not clear to me that there should be as large of a separation between their magazine Seed and the Sciencebloggers.  I would wager that many people don’t even know that Scienceblogs is related to Seed or that Seed exists at all.  And here is where I think one needs to get a little radical.  Seed should (as roughly suggested by Bora), I think, give up it’s print magazine and fold Seed into Scienceblogs.  High quality traditional media pieces like those Seed produces are great.  So why can’t they be part of the network in an integrated way?
Well these are just my silly initial thoughts about re-imagining science networks, when I should be busy changing diapers.  And certainly I don’t know what I’m talking about.  But read the disclaimer in the upper right of this blog.  So don’t say I didn’t warn you!