Has it really been a year?07 Aug 2012
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searched for Stefan Geschke on the internet, you would find his FU Berlin profile page, which provided some basic but outdated information about him.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!