Category: Computing


By John Conway | March 18, 2007 9:15 pm

A very interesting lawsuit was handed a very interesting judgment the other day in Colorado, in the case of a woman, Suzanne Shell, who filed suit against an internet search engine spider which “crawled” her site, indexing, as these spiders do, its contents. As discussed over at Information Week, the suit alleges everything from breaking and entering, theft, racketeering, and breach of contract.

It all got thrown out of court, except the breach of contract part.

Huh? Well, she has a warning on her site, that entering it and clicking on links etc. constitutes acceptance of her terms of service, which include not indexing it or downloading the contents, etc. You get the idea.

She sounds like something of a s**t diturber, anyway, refusing at one point to surrender a .38 in her carry-on, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I am gaining growing respect for the disturbers out there in this strange world. But, you know, pick your battles.

But to the issue: *do* internet search sites have the right, no matter what, to index you and send readers your way? Or index you and use the information for something else? Is it a bad thing to respect someone’s declared intent for you to not do that?

I think the whole argument about whether computer programs or agents or spiders or whatever are sentient is stupid. They are not, but someone hit that return key somewhere, and they are the ones responsible.

There is an informal agreement that robots should obey the restrictions in a robots.txt file on a site, but it’s no more than that, an informal agreement. So that’s not a good argument against the suit.

What happens if she wins this one all the way? Then, any time a site wanted to avoid being indexed, they could simply declare this on the page. The vagaries of our language being what they are, it would be hard to program a robot to be sensitive to any such disclaimers anywhere on a page. But, supposing that can be overcome, what uses might this be put to?

I suppose those might include online stores that don’t want their prices advertised elsewhere, because they are so high! It also might make it easier to protect copyrighted material. It certainly would put something of a damper, in the end, on the open and free nature of the web. But perhaps our diligent readers can think of other evil to do with such a new restriction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Internet

Rumor Has It…

By Mark Trodden | July 17, 2006 6:31 am

It seems like only a blink of an eye ago that I was on the job market, scared silly about the future and hoping to establish the knowledge, skill set and track record (and have enough plain luck) to land a faculty position. For a young physicist, during one of possibly several postdocs, those are both exhilarating and terrifying times, during which one has precious little else to do apart from one’s research, but has absolutely no job security whatsoever.

For many people in this position (most of us, let’s be honest), part of their “free time” is spent trying to figure out who among their peers is being interviewed for which jobs, and, if it is a job for which they themselves have interviewed, whether the job has been offered to someone else yet.

Once, this might have been a lengthy task, involving surreptitious phone calls, sometimes through intermediaries, to glean whatever information one could from the organic “rumor mill”. However, by the time I started looking for jobs, the process had become much easier thanks, naturally, to the Internet.

The prime source for information about jobs in theoretical particle physics groups is the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill, which was the main site I would visit for gossip when I was on the market. I think it was somewhat later that the Astrophysics Jobs Rumor Mill came along, which was also occasionally relevant to me and certainly involved a lot of people I know. Since then, rumor sites have sprung up in Austria/Germany/Switzerland/Denmark, Greece, New Zealand and the U.K.. Other subfields have also followed suit, in Nuclear Physics and Condensed Matter/AMO Physics.

The rumor mill sites elicit mixed reactions in the community. Most people who are on the market seem to like them and find them to provide a desirable service. Among search committee members feelings are less homogeneous; some are unperturbed about their, and others’, shortlists being public, while some clearly feel they have a right to keep the information secret.

There are a couple of different worries that I have heard some candidates and more people on the other side express about the rumor mills. The first is merely that the deliberations of hiring committees and the resulting offers they make are the private business of the universities and the candidates and nobody else’s business. They understandably don’t like the idea that, for example, if they make an offer to their first choice candidate and are turned down, then when they make their next offer it will be to someone who knows they weren’t the first choice.

The second worry is that there is a fear of a herd mentality developing, in which once it becomes clear that a couple of universities have decided on the same number one choice, this may influence the decisions at other institutions. After all, several fine institutions can’t all be wrong about a particular person being the best choice, can they?

From my perspective, having been on both sides of the hiring process, there is some merit to each of these worries. There is often very little separating the exceptional people who make it to an ordered list of people to whom a position will be offered, and if one is, say, third on the list and is ultimately offered the job, it is seldom a reflection on your absolute talent. I think the rumor mills can make it harder to see past that, when the information is clearly out there for anyone to see.

A herd mentality can sometimes develop, it is true. Often its only effect is to slow down the process as one person garners multiple offers and then sits on them for a while negotiating with the various institutions. Sometimes, however, this can derail the hiring process at some places. On the other hand, if an institution does not follow the herd, the information provided by the rumor mill can be invaluable, enabling the hiring committee to make an attractive offer to someone else, and to snap them up while other institutions are tied up playing the waiting game.

However, my attitude to the rumor mills has always been that the various pros and cons I’ve identified above are, at the end of the day, irrelevant. If one thing is clear on the Internet, it is that information that is out there will be made public whether one likes it or not. All that technology does in this situation is to formalize, simplify and make very efficient, the dissemination of the kind of gossip that people have always shared in the community. Like it or not, one just has to live with it – what are you gonna do?

This week, I learned from my friends at Berkeley – cosmologists Martin White and Joanne Cohn – that rumor mill technology is taking another leap forward. Joanne and Martin have set up an Astrophysics Job Rumor Mill wiki which, rather than individuals emailing in their information to a moderator, as they do now, can be directly edited by all contributors. As Martin put it

The idea is to take some of the burden off of the person(s) running the Astrophysics Job Rumour Mill by letting lots of different people edit a Wiki. A successful Wiki could result in an accurate and up-to-date page with little work for any one person if the community embraces it.

If you’re interested in how our rumors get propagated, take a look; and if you’re in the field and use the rumor mills, I’m sure Martin and Joanne would be interested in any feedback you might have.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Computing

Adium for IM with LaTeX

By cjohnson | March 19, 2006 9:59 pm

As many of you know, the Mac OS X platform is just a gift for those who want cross-platform adaptability, good and clever design, elegance, fun, and serious tools all combined. Forgive my enthusiasm, but it’s just perfect for the kind of job I do and I can’t get over how well stuff works even after a number of years of using it…..Ok, better stop there, since I’m bound to annoy someone.

Anyway, I just learned of another excellent tool. Many of you may know of it already, but those of you who don’t might find it a major boost to communications. I use Instant Messaging a lot to communicate a lot with collaborators, students, and friends and family. I use iChat for IM, adding iSight for video sometimes.

Well, my undergraduate student Jeff Pennington IM-ed me last night to tell me about Adium X. It is a new (at least to me) IM program for Mac OS X, and if you have Equation Service installed (don’t tell me you don’t have Equation Service installed!!!), when you type an equation in LaTeX (enclose it inside double dollar signs, e.g., $$LaTeX$$), it shows up fully processed in the IM window!

Here’s a screen shot of a chat I did with…er…. myself, which explains the repetition in the dialogue (well, nobody else seemed to be awake when I wanted to generate the test chat….sigh):

adium chat

This is just so great for those more technical collaborative conversations…..cuts down on faxing equations, or trying to point your camera at your notebook (especially if you don’t have it with you on your travels, etc….) And of course you can save the whole conversation. I’ll bet there are a lot of other features I don’t know about…but the instant LaTeX-ability just makes it click for me. Now if only they’d allow me to connect my iSight camera into it as well….

(Oh, yes, I’d be very happy if someone wrote in and told me that LaTeX works just as well for iChat too…. if so, how do you switch it on?)

You can get Adium X (and read more about it) here.




The ultimate showdown

By Sean Carroll | February 20, 2006 7:50 pm

Things have been far too busy recently for me to do any substantive posting. But I have noticed that our discussions of topics such as race and gender and interpretations of quantum mechanics are far too genteel and rational for my tastes. (Seriously, why is it that people just cannot resist the temptation to argue with people who say outrageous things, even if they know perfectly well that those people are absolutely immune to reason?)

So I’d like to broach a more controversial topic. I’m thinking of buying a new laptop. Tell me: Mac or PC? I’ve used both quite a bit, so I’m not a fundamentalist either way. The Macs are of course Linux FreeBSD-based, which is useful if you’re a scientist. And there’s the fight-the-evil-empire business. But one cannot deny that there is useful software that isn’t available for Macs. And the variety of laptop hardware is much more diverse in the PC world, including attractively thin ultralights. So — reasonable cost-benefit analyses on either side? Your thoughts are welcome.

And play nice.


ATLAS on a G5?

By Risa Wechsler | August 5, 2005 3:36 pm

Have any of our lovely and astute readers sucessfully gotten the ATLAS libraries to work on a G5 running Tiger?
(i.e., sucessfully linked the LAPACK libraries from the ATLAS distribution)

Progress understanding the fate of the Universe lies in your hands! Thanks in advance for any advice.


Aspen Report: New Strides on the Road to a Quantum Computer

By cjohnson | August 4, 2005 9:38 pm

Just got my beautiful Brompton wet in a sudden downpour on the way home. Yes, I dried it off, and now I’m sitting here with a cup of warm wet-chalkdust-tasting tea listening to the rain and waiting for last night’s chicken pilaf to warm up. It’s always even better the day after I make it! (Some of the things mentioned above will mean nothing to you if you did not read this earlier post.)

Yes, I’m still here at the Aspen Center for Physics, attending the SuperCosmology workshop. I’ve been attending some Cosmology discussions, but also doing some computations on another project (which I ought to tell you about some time) and thinking. This has been helped a lot by the Aspen Music Festival and School, since I’ve gone and sat in the nearby giant music tent in the mornings where the student orchestra is rehearsing pieces they’ll play in the concerts later in the evening. I love listening to orchestras rehearse. Especially large orchestral pieces (such as yesterday’s Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony) where the rehearsal entails deconstructing certain difficult passages by section. So you hear all the strands of a chord played separately by different bits of the orchestra and then put back together. You really appreciate a chord constructed by a master when you’ve heard it this way. Often more fun than going to the concert.

The Center is a wonderful place to do physics for so many reasons. One of them is the fact that there is a weekly colloquium given by one of the physicists from one of the workshops going on. You learn so much about what is going on in other fields.
(and they have really good cheese, wine, crackers and conversation after.)

So I’m supposed to sit here and write a second installment about stringy cosmology, following on from the first installment I gave here. Since there did not seem to be that much in the way of interest in it, as far as I can tell, I’ll instead tell you about this great colloquium I went to. “Topological Quantum Computation”, by Chetan Nayak.

Chetan told us about new ideas and approaches in quantum computers. So those of you who might know Chetan might wonder what on earth he’s doing talking about that stuff. Was he not working on matters to do with condensed matter physics, and topological quantum field theories showing up in strongly correlated electron systems? Yes, but that’s the point!

Let me back up (and turn off the pilaf).

First, what is a quantum computer? Well, such a thing does not exist, as far as we know. It is a dream that physicists would like to turn into a reality. The idea is often attributed to Feynman, and significant key refinements in the important concepts towards making it a reality were made by Deutch, and by Shor. You might start (as Feynman did) by wondering how well an ordinary computer will do in simulating a quantum system, and you quickly realize it would be highly inefficient. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Computing, Science

The Blog as a Sharp Tool for Research

By cjohnson | July 23, 2005 6:17 pm

Please let me share with you an idea I had a while ago. It emerged in a conversation with John Ellis when I was visiting at CERN giving some string theory training lectures. I was commenting about how great the QuantumDiaries experiment is, having a wide variety of physicists blogging from around the world for the World Year of Physics.
You will recall my mentioning about being reluctant to get involved with blogging, and I may have mentioned there that I did not want to reproduce already good effort out there, and so began to think of new ways to contribute using the medium. Well, as you read, I found some reasons to give it a try and here I am.

Well, a number of things did come up as interesting and fun to try, and the following is one of them. I’ve already said on this blog that our particular field (string theory and related topics) could do with more ways of having discussion, both general and specific. We have already accelerated the primary way in which we exchange research results (revolutionizing scientific publishing in the process) by establishing the Archive (see writing about this by Paul Ginsparg), and it undeniably helped drive the field’s rapid developments in the middle 90s while also democratising it by enabling serious papers from the traditional large and famous institutions to be seen on everybody’s computer screen right alongside the serious papers from smaller less well known institutions, often within minutes or hours of the completion of the work.

Imagine if we could do the same with discussions. How might a blog help? Well, of Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Computing, Internet, Science

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