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!

Cost of Nearly All of Physics Since the 1990s? 30 Bucks.

Via the arxiv API google group, I see that the arXiv now has made available process PDFs for bulk download from Amazon’s Simple Storage System.  I haven’t had a chance to play around with it, but according to this webpage, the cost is about 15 cents per gigabyte downloaded and the complete set of PDFs is about 200 gigabytes.  Cool, all of physics (and some math and CS :)) for 30 bucks.  (It would be nice to have the source as well as the PDFs, but this is a good change over their prior policy of zero bulk access to the entire corpus of PDFs.)  Anyone had a chance to play with this?

First arXiv Paper?

I was under the impression that the arXiv was started in August of 1991.  For example, navigating to the hep-th category and pulling up a listing by dates will list the first paper as hep-th/9108001 by Horne and Horowitz. Indeed wikipedia tells us that

The arXiv was originally developed by Paul Ginsparg and started in 1991 as a repository for preprints in physics and later expanded to include astronomy, mathematics, computer science, nonlinear science, quantitative biology and, most recently, statistics.

However…with the arXiv api one can perform searches for papers by the date they were last updated.  Here, for example, is how to search for arXiv articles prior to the one listed above[000012310900+TO+199108150000]&max_results=100&sortBy=lastUpdatedDate.  Whah?  Lots of hits, including many papers by Knuth 🙂  Note that these papers do not have arXiv numbers below the one listed above…but they have date stamps that are prior to the August 1991 date!  By this account the first updated paper is physics/9403001—a, uh, paper of some note—that was updated on Fri, 25 April 1986 at 15:39:49 GMT!
The moral?  Well there isn’t one, but those who play with the arXiv api may need to consider this date oddity.

What To Do With Scirate?

One interesting thing about quantum computing is that because it is a very new field, a large amount of the research in the field is on the arXiv (interestingly the worst users have historically been computer scientists.) Back in 2006 whenever I would sit around BSing about the arXiv with other quantum computing people, the idea of improvements that would bring the arXiv more up to date would come up. After hearing repeatedly about such ideas, in January 2007, I got fed up of hearing about these ideas and so I sat down and wrote, a Digg-like front end for the arXiv. Okay well mostly I did it to learn PHP and Python. Oh, and because coding is fun and I can actually succeed at it as opposed to opened ended research which if hard. Also I did it because I hated spending time filtering through the arXiv each day and wanted to use the power of group knowledge to help save me time. I figure if I add up the time Scirate has saved me versus the time spent reading it I’m pretty close to having gained time. What you didn’t know the point of this blog is to slow down all you competing quantum researchers and thus effectively increase my own effective research speed? 🙂
After some initial development, however, I mostly stopped working on Scirate. Why? Well first of all because I didn’t think I’d succeeded in a very elegant way. Second there was never much traction: there is a group of quantum computing theorists who use scirate fairly often, but outside of that it is not widely used (though there are around a thousand users signed up.) Probably this is also because the development of scirate was essentially closed, consisting of me, hacking away in his spare time. Third, well this thing called a “real job” called (but I keep getting this “hold” music, heh.) I am, however, very proud that until last week, I basically haven’t had to touch the website in any way (last week my host moved Scirates server and didn’t copy over my crontab jobs, thus there is a day missing where I didn’t catch this) besides fixing a few double votes (that occur via a mechanism I’ve never been able to track down.)
So now the question is: what should I do with Scirate?
Some things I’ve been thinking about.

  • One problem with Scirate is it’s closed nature. Thus it seems that it would be useful to open up an API for Scirate, allowing for its integrated functionality in other Science 2.0 websites. Indeed I’ve been thinking a bit about a very general framework for the type of functionality Scirate provides, but haven’t mapped the idea out fully.
  • I’d like to learn more about Google App engine. Seems like what I do next would be a good opportunity to achieve this.
  • One thing that was clearly missing was the ability to use Scirate for some sort of social networking. I’m a bit of a skeptic of “scientific social networking” sites, simply because I don’t see how scientists are all that special in their needs for social networking. Or to say it another way I don’t quite see how a more general social networking tool can’t be “extended” to be useful for scientists, but also be very useful across a wide swath of society. This would imply that I should investigate integration into other social networking sites. But does anyone really want Scirate on Facebook? (Farmville proves to me, however, that I have no idea what people want with Facebook.) And something like LinkedIn doesn’t seem to me to be as widely used as a social networking site (it’s more of a contacts / job site) nor does it allow for extend-able apps as far as I know. Actually this makes me realize that there is a huge hole in the professional social networking genre, though I’m sure that there are people out there attacking this problem. Anyone have any leads?
  • There are rumors that the arXiv will soon be accessible in “the cloud.” What sorts of functionality would this allow that it currently missing?

Anyway it seems that I’m due to be working on something new…and yes I know I need to update my iPhone apps as well 🙂

Hybrid Research/IT Position at PI

Rob sends me information about an interesting new position at the Perimeter Institute (more info here):

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) is looking for a Scientific IT specialist — a creative individual with experience in both scientific research and information technology (IT). This is a new, hybrid, research/IT position within the Institute, dedicated to helping PI’s scientific staff make effective use of IT resources. It has two clear missions. First, to directly assist researchers in using known, available IT tools to do their research. Second, to uncover or develop cutting-edge IT resources, introduce and test them with PI researchers, and then share the things we create and discover with the worldwide scientific community.
By “tools”, we mean almost anything. Coding techniques are an obvious example. Collaboration and communication technologies are another: tools for peer-to-peer interactions (such as skype), virtual whiteboards, video conferencing tools, platforms for running virtual conferences (that can do justice to talks in the mathematical sciences), and novel ways of presenting research results such as archives for recorded seminars, blogs, and wikis. Further examples include tools for helping researchers organize information (e.g., specialized search engines and filtering schemes), and end-user software that facilitates bread-and-butter scientific activities like writing papers collaboratively, preparing presentations, and organizing references.
We are seeking a person who brings an independent and ambitious vision that will help define this vision. The job is as yet quite malleable in its scope and duties! We’re looking for someone who is inspired by the possibility that new IT tools can improve or perhaps even revolutionize the way that physics research is done, and someone who can take full advantage of a mandate to create and implement that vision.
Some Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Act as a knowledge broker among Researchers. That is, find and test new programs and practices, advertise them, and be prepared to train others in their use.
  • Participate in the creation of a high quality “standard” Researcher IT environment (desktop hardware, software set-up), built from a mix of open source software and popular commercial packages.
  • Help with High Performance Computing demands.
  • Maintain expert level knowledge in the use of the main packages used by Researchers, including Mathematica, Maple, LaTex, etc.

For the official job ad, go here:

Handwriting to LaTeX?

Anyone tried out MoboMath?

MoboMath lets you work with math on a computer exactly as you learned it — by writing it. MoboMath translates your handwritten math input into a formatted layout that can be used in Microsoft Word, Maple, and many other popular applications.
Instead of struggling with keyboard and palette input, you can create and edit math expressions for technical documents, calculations, presentations, and web pages in your own handwriting. It’s fast, simple, and intuitive.
Using a tablet PC or an external tablet, just write your expressions as you normally would with your tablet’s pen. Then convert them to a formatted math layout with a single tap and copy or drag them into your documents or worksheets.

Don’t have a tablet right now or I’d test it out.

ArXiv in the Cloud Coming?

Via the arXiv api newsgroup comes the rumor that soon, perhaps, the arXiv will be available for full download sometime in the future:

or a full copy of (or particular subsets of) PDF for arXiv papers, we are in the process of setting up a service in the Cloud, which will offer the option for bulk download. I’ll let you know when that
becomes available.

Cool! All of physics since recorded arXiv time on my hard drive 🙂

Novel Torrent Technology For arXiv Archives?

Since it seems that the “arXiv on your hard drive” is dead I’ve been thinking a bit about if there is a better way to achieve the goal of distributing archives of the arXiv.
One thing I liked about the “arXiv on your hard drive” was that it used BitTorrent. This could alleviate some of the bandwidth pain associated with distributing the arXiv widely. But of course, one of the problems with using Torrents to distribute the arXiv is that, well, the arXiv changes daily! One solution to this is to update the torrent periodically, but in these go-go times this seems wrong. It seems to me that what we need is a BitTorrent-like protocol for collections that periodically get updated. A seeder could then update its collection and propagate only these new results to other hosts. Does anyone know if such a technology exists? A quick scan didn’t locate anything.
Of course then one would have to convince the arXiv folks to go along with this, but it would seem to me that the bandwidth costs for them could be made really fairly minimal.

The Great Firewall of Collaboration

A fellow quantum computing researcher of mine recently joined FriendFeed. Along with another researcher we got involved in a discussion about a paper concerning a certain recent claimed “disproof of Bell’s theorem.” (arXiv:0904.4259. What it means to “disprove a theorem” like Bell’s theorem is, however a subject for another comment section on a different blog.) But, and here is the interesting thing, this colleague then made a trip to China. And FriendFeed, apparently, is blocked by the great firewall of China, so he had to email us his comments to continue the conversation. Which got me thinking.
China is a country that has been, historically, a great power. It is, by all accounts, returning to that status with the a wave of lifting of its people out of poverty (numbers I’ve seen are from like over 60 percent below poverty a few decades ago to 10 percent recently, though it’s not clear to me that the poverty level (a few dollars per day) used is the really relevant number.) It has, even more interestingly, achieved an amazing increase in the production of people with a large amount of education. From under 10,000/year PhDs a decade ago to nearly 50,000/year recently, there has been a huge increase in PhDs in a very short span of time. In some minds, the rise of China is the dominant story of the coming decades. This is equally true in academic circles where the productivity of science in China has been rising rapidly.
But my colleague’s experience made me wonder a bit. Suppose that you take at face value the idea that online tools are going to change how we do science (through any of the numerous forms that such tools can now take.) If the Chinese government is banning tools that allow for collaboration (in our case, just a mere discussion) then, despite all they do, I wonder if this might cause a severe lack of bang for their Ph.D buck. Do we really believe that the kind of large scale data sharing or online collaborating, for example, that characterize Science 2.0 will be easy to carry out under the probing eye of the Chinese government? Of course, I’m as far from an expert in China and Science 2.0, so I can’t even begin to approach this question. But it did strike me that there are some fairly strong preconditions assumed by those pushing online tools for science that don’t seem to hold for numerous countries around the world, including China.
Or, in other words (executive summary), those of you doing Science 2.0 can now think about yourselves as modern freedom fighters. Hazzah!

Detexify Squared

A friend sent me a link to Detextify2:

What is this?
Anyone who works with LaTeX knows how time-consuming it can be to find a symbol in symbols-a4.pdf that you just can’t memorize. Detexify is an attempt to simplify this search.
How does it work?
Just draw the symbol you are looking for into the square area above and look what happens!
My symbol isn’t found!
The symbol may not be trained enough or it is not yet in the list of supported symbols. In the first case you can do the training yourself. In the second case just drop me a line (danishkirel[[[at]]]!
I like this. How can I help?
You could spare some time training Detexify. You could also look at the source on GitHub and if you want to contribute you’re welcome.
Who created Detexify?
Philipp Kühl had the initial idea and Daniel Kirsch made it happen.

Pretty cool. One step closer to the day when I write an equation on a piece of paper and the LaTeX just automagically appears for this at equation.