Monthly Archives: August 2012

A virtual Kaffehaus on g+

So that went well.

Two weeks ago I tried to do something that I always wanted to do and that Sam had done a couple of times with a more specific focus. That is, use google+ hangouts to simply meet people.

If you don’t know them by now (go read Sam’s posts!), google+ hangouts are really the only reason to be on google+ for me. I know, I know, there’s tons of mathematicians on google+ and really for a research mathematician it’s probalby the best social network. But that’s besides the point.

For me, the key feature are the hangouts. The hangouts are the first, free video conferencing system that works, in fact amazingly well, with a wealth of features (screensharing, collaborative writing and, of course, pirate hats), with the on air feature, it even allows you to record your hangout and have it on youtube afterwards. In short, it is a pretty good deal (you pay in privacy, of course) and you see a lot of fantastic people using it for all kinds of stuff, e.g. very prominently Barack Obama but also scientists such as Bad Astronomer Phil Plait doing Q&As or virtual star parties, hooking up a telescope to look at your favorite planets. It’s fantastic stuff.

So what would I be doing with the hangouts? I just moved to LA, which means I left a good deal of friends and contacts behind (yet again) and I have the need to literally hang out with friends. Then there are also other people I always wanted to get in touch with. That is all these fantastic bloggers that I got to know on twitter, on their blogs and in other places, that are doing interesting stuff all the time — I would love a chance to talk to them.

Finally, two weeks ago, I tried to have a hangout. I didn’t announce it until it started — and (surprise!) it didn’t work at all. The simple reason was: nobody was around! Desperate that I was, I even made the hangout “public” (which means anybody can join in) which quickly got really weird. Thankfully, my connection immediately crashed when random people showed up and tried talking to me. (I should’ve known better, actually since there are websites that list public hangouts — be careful what you wish for…)

How could I create a hangout as I had wanted? A hangout where you actually want to be open for people to join but not demanding it from them. You don’t want to be open to everybody, but you want to be open to a lot of people, people you may have never met in person but know by some form of communication or another.

Last week, I tried to do it a little bit better and I specifically invited people to an “event”, another google+ feature (as on other social networks) which annoys people with invites to random events that they don’t care about.

To be less offensive, I did this last minute, i.e., the evening before the hangout, and explained the point of this in the “invitation”. Mostly, I wanted to give people ample opportunity to ignore the “invitation” because I wanted to keep the hangout light, informal, no strings attached.

And it actually worked. I got a chance to hook up with one American and two English mathematicians and bloggers that I actually quite admire — Christian Perfect, Vincent Knight and Patrick Honner. All four of us where there for only half an hour but it was wonderful: I had my morning coffee, talked to interesting people in person for the first time and just generally enjoyed being able to connect.

And that’s what I would like to have. The equivalent of a Wiener Kaffehaus, a place where interesting people gather and you’re essentially sure that you’ll run into someone, even though you might not know who exactly or for how long. But when you do, you can sit down, sip your coffee and have a decent conversation.

But any good experiment requires reproduction, so yesterday I followed the same pattern and chanced upon Patrick Honner, Vincent Knight, Dana Ernst, our own Sam Coskey and even Andrew Brooke-Taylor (on g+) stopped by for a few minutes before going to bed (in Japan). Arguably, I talked too much (nobody who’s met me will be surprise), but it was a lot of fun.

Well, that’s three data points. But it has again strengthened my conviction that hangouts/videconferencing will have a huge impact. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not there yet. For example, when Andrew jumped in, I would have loved to “get up from the table” and sit down with him privately to catch up. But nevertheless, hangouts go in the right direction. As a video chat room they are not yet as flexible as a Kaffeehaus, but it feels like we’re almost there and that it’s not the technology per se that’s holding us back anymore (10 video-streams are almost certainly enough for my purposes).

Soon enough, we might get a real Kaffeehaus, where you can sit at a single table following a single conversation, step away for a nice quiet chat (yet overhearing the ongoing conversation) or wander over and meet some new people at some new table.

For mathematics (and research in general) this is a great opportunity, to be able to connect with other researchers (or even the great unknown “public”) in yet another crucial way. If MathOverflow becomes the common room, then video-conferencing could become the coffee shop.

I look forward to trying this again next week. If you want to drop by, just let me know.

self-publishing, the academic community and LaTeX fanboyism — a comment at Devlin’s Angle

Yet another one of those “Peter babbled too long on somebody else blog”-posts. This time at Keith Devlin’s MAA column/blog Devlin’s Angle

A few comments.

About your reply to Corey’s comment. “That will surely change very quickly” is something I’ve been hearing all my (academic) life but nothing is happening — academia proves highly conservative. The main problem is that the young researchers willing to seriously experiment will often not gain enough “traditional” merit compared to those who just play the game — and those who successfully play the game will rarely see the need to experiment later.

This is a serious problem that would deserve much more effort from the few established researchers that are both influential, established, and open to new ideas: help young researcher get the credit they deserve with their experiments such as self-publishing (can’t help but add: and publish open-access or even open-source). Or in other words: it’s great to hear that self-publishing worked for you, this time, but can somebody else reproduce it?

Finally, LaTeX (as a binary) is nice for producing print output — but practically incapable of doing anything else (and actually, professional typesetters will easily complain about the quality of TeX’s output).

As Peter Rowlett and yourself pointed out, even the best reflow-PDF viewers (Kindle, Nook) are quite limited. However, that is actually the author’s fault. It’s like trying to build an iPad with manufacturing equipment from 1978 (or for that matter, teaching a MOOC in 1978).

So instead of using LaTeX to do what it can’t do — produce content for an html environment — authors need to take the next step and switch to authoring systems that can produce both good print and good html. That’s hard right now, but worth an experimental effort (good keywords: pandoc, asciidoc, restructured-text, sphinx-doc — and I’d volunteer right away to help actually.)

After all, with the adoption of MathML3 in two critical standards (html5 and epub3) and with technologies like MathJax, mathematical content in html finally makes sense.

(Disclaimer: I’m involved in the MathJax development)


Thanks to this discussion on g+, here’s I just had to add another comment

One small addendum. Here’s such an experiment going all the way to XML: Rob Bezeer’s Linear Algebra book http://linear.ups.edu/index.html which (due to it’s flexibility) is part of IDPF’s official ebpub3 sample repository https://code.google.com/p/epub-samples/

Has it really been a year?

This is a joined post with Sam — go comment at his place!

Almost exactly a year ago, the two of us (Sam and Peter) sat down to talk about what we could do together to help mathematicians using the internet.

A few months earlier, we had started a small project we called SetTheoryTalks, a simple wordpress.com blog that announces and aggregates set-theoretic talks from around the world. Even though it has grown to its own website, STT is, at heart, a very simple service, and we wanted to take another step.

Essentially, we just wanted to do a better job with our professional home pages. Sam for example was quite simply sick of ssh’ing in to the server — it’s not the way professional web pages are updated anymore, and it certainly isn’t conducive to displaying the most up-to-date information. (Peter on the other hand just wanted some cool and shiny stuff that hid his incompetence at web design).

But while we were at it we thought: why can’t we do something that helps everybody? There are all of those weird and sometimes laughable “home pages” that we constantly come across when we search for mathematicians and articles. Can’t we do something about that?

We basically saw two major problems with math home pages. The first is what we called “the Geschke problem”. (We hope Stefan won’t take offence — in fact, his problem has since been fixed.) Until recently, if you searched for Stefan Geschke on the internet, you would find his FU Berlin profile page, which provided some basic but outdated information about him. At the bottom of the page there was an inconspicuous link which said “This page now lives at Boise State” and took you to another wonderful homepage of Stefan Geschke at BSU. Again, scroll to the bottom of the page and lo and behold you found a link saying “This page now lives at the Hausdorff Center” and took you to his true (current as of 2012) home page. It’s nothing new, but like all researchers, mathematicians move around a lot, and their web sites shouldn’t have to hide behind their institution.

The second issue we wanted to tackle we called “the Zeilberger problem”. The root of this problem is that mathematicians have been using the internet for a very long time. Since the early nineties we have actively used the web for preprints, for notes, for lecture notes, for research material and so on. But meanwhile, the internet has been changing and we have not changed with it. A Mathematician such as Doron Zeilberger can get away with that because of his stature. But other researchers really have no excuse when their web site looks as if it was written in 1992—and moreover makes it extremely hard to interact with the researcher, i.e., uses none of what modern web technology has to offer in terms of interactivity, exchange and generally presentation of content. The web is much more than just hand-written HTML with GIF-tiled backgrounds.

And so we registered a domain and set up shop embracing the wonderful wordpress. It took a while to come up with a name but we chose Booles’ Rings and boolesrings.org.

It’s been quite a ride in the last year. We started out with a group of really just three, including the two of us and Katie Thompson. We slowly expanded to arrive at roughly 10 users, which is not too shabby considering that set theorists aren’t exactly known to be the most outgoing of people. And while we could not have predicted how it would look today, the outcome exhibits exactly what we had hoped: the members of Booles’ Rings are using their sites in quite a diverse fashion.

First of all, a good deal of academic progress has been disseminated on Booles’ Rings. For instance, Joel Hamkins has an incredible academic output and he continually posts his talks and papers. Others like Vika Gitman have followed his lead, posting long summaries of her latest research.

Then you have people like Saf who write detailed notes on research-level mathematics, piling through Todorčević’s lecture notes, and making a serious contribution to the amount of of information that is available on the web. And yet another style can be found at François’s site where short posts with just a quote, a comic, or a problem meet serious academic research and an overflow of ideas from his work at MathOverflow.

Of course, we also had a few positive discussions about blogs, publishing, and interactive home pages in general. While Sam covered everything from refereeing to experimental math-hangouts on G+, Peter went all the way from the ongoing publishing debate to experimenting with a format he calls the “micro-contribution” (a nugget of research that shouldn’t be kept secret but which is too small for a formal journal).

Overall we are very happy with this small ecosystem of articles. But there are still many more things we wish to accomplish. First and foremost, we want to introduce the concept of a dynamic web page to a much wider audience. To do this, we plan to build a repository of documents and tools to help others reproduce our experiment. We also plan to create a version of the site that is open to the public—a version which is more stable and which learns from the Booles’ Rings experiment.

Finally, we want to make Booles’ Rings even more useful to academics by adding more features. While we have developed a few plugins and scripts to help with dissemination and collaboration on boolesrings, a lot more can be done. For instance, we plan to develop a plugin to use your home page as courseware for teaching.

We hope we can count on you to help us get us to the next stage and we look forward to the second year in the life of the Booles and their Rings!