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The Simons Foundation and Open Source Software (sagemath.blogspot.com)
76 points by williamstein on Sept 5, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments



I think SMC will evolve to become the backend technology for empowering the textbooks of the future.

At this point in time the state of there is no github for academia. I find it strange that before the ultimately collaborative pursuit of academic knowledge can be done there exists this formality of competing for cash. In contrast I like how the opensource community has become a self organizing system independent and driven by volunteerism. Hope to see the day where academia is more like the opensource community and Sage Math Cloud becomes a platform to transform the competitive academic world into a collaborative and evolving opensource community of mathematical researchers.

I believe the hotspot for discussing academic pursits in math currently is http://polymathprojects.org/ as mentioned here https://terrytao.wordpress.com/category/question/polymath/ That is more like a blog or a forum site then per say a github for academia. So, where is the future of online collaborative academic research?


One of the NSF grants that I mentioned not getting in the blog post was about using SMC as a platform for open source textbooks, just as you imagine. We haven't made the proposal public before, but here it is: http://tinyurl.com/utmost2-pdf


May is not programming, and math is often handwritten, so there is a lot of friction in setting up a DCVS for "scratch work". Polymath was rather awkward, and I would guess it was either (a) an easy problem for the (genius) solvers, relative to regular work, and (b) an annoying data transfer.

But here are certainly room for improvement above Blog Comments as a collaboration UI. Even a google spreadsheet would have been better.


The academic community is much larger, broader, and more diverse than the open source software community. There’s much greater diversity in tools and methods, and less centralization of discussion. It is a community grounded in many centuries-old traditions, has more stakeholders involved (students, university administration, public officials, funding agencies, journal publishers), and moves relatively slowly as a body.

The open source community is in the wonderful unique position of having been mostly built during a time of instant and limitless free communication, and uses a set of tools and practices which are very accessible and not nearly so entrenched.

When you think about it, the speed of change and adoption in the whole constellation of modern software development tools – web browsers, search engines, email, usenet/mailing lists, internet chat, debuggers, profilers, package management, build tools, virtualization, graphical diff, version control and DVCS, blogs, wikis, ticket trackers, Q&A sites, etc. etc. (not even to mention various dynamic language features, coroutines, better garbage collectors, JIT compilers, network APIs, &c.) – has been remarkable, and software development today looks very different than it did 30 years ago.

The speed of iteration and experiment in development of tools is so fast because the people building the tools and the people using them are a similar and heavily overlapping group, and because building new tools can be done relatively quickly and cheaply by small teams, and distribution and marketing of open source are cheap.

Tools for, say, CAD/CAM, architectural design, structural engineering, 3d animation, video editing, chemical reaction simulation, etc. are much slower to evolve, because they take more professional expertise to work on, cost more up front to build, and have a set of users who mostly are not qualified to build the tools themselves and tool builders who don’t necessarily do professional-level work with it. Instead of “build what you need”, there are two disjoint groups whose mottos could be “buy what you need” or “build what you can sell”.

To take the example of a field I’m familiar with, image editing/printing software (along the lines of Photoshop), there are at least 5 disjoint groups involved in any innovation: artists, technical authors, user interface designers, software engineers, and academic image processing researchers. New features are typically developed as a somewhat abstract mathematical model by academic researchers whose incentive is to publish papers with elegant theory, implemented by software engineers whose goals are mostly based around performance and raw function, fit into the existing interface by designers who are trying to match long-established conventions, explained by manual/book authors who want to sell books (which usually means listing recipes instead of explaining difficult abstractions), and then used by artists who usually end up with no clue what the feature does. Along the way product managers, marketing departments, and others also get involved. None of those groups necessarily has the cross-cutting expertise to really understand the needs of everyone up and down the stack, so new features tend to be shallow/gimmicky, mistargeted, poorly designed, poorly explained, and ultimately used haphazardly or ignored.


Sigh, my experience is that academia is still divided on this one. A large, part, perhaps even the majority, support free software, use free software and understand the basic importance of supporting it if possible over closed source alternatives so as to not be hopelessly dependant on an outside entity.

But I've also met many professors who simple trust commercial proprietary software simply because it is enterprise and therefore professional and reliable.

Also in this case I think Simon might feel more empathy towards the fellow business owner building a business around his expertise in mathematics...


I don't really know this area, but this seems unwise politically. An argument that funding him would be good for mathematics (not open source in mathematics) would seem a better tactic. As would a general, positive pitch for funding, possibly with the addendum that many people suggest the Simons foundation, but "unfortunately they turned us down and decided to fund a closed source alternative instead" may have come across better.


Perhaps but I can understand his frustration her as the work he does is tremendously valuable and a relatively small amount of money would be a massive force multiplier for it.


Simons always seemed to be more about attaching the Simons name to superstars' halos, and promoting Simons, than about maximizing the impact of the contribution to science.

"Buying a proprietary license for many researchers is better advertising for Simons name among those academics, then "funding an open source project" which is relatively more anonymous gift (unless SMC tries to sell trademark rights, creating "SMC by Simons" -- maybe a good idea).


Not a mathematician but last year I needed to do some serious (for me) math at short notice (api provider for some complex calcs dropped us in it) and sagemath with ipython notebook saved me as I could convert all the formulas into python and then inspect and graph the output to give me an idea of what was going on, if I'd have had that at school I think I'd have been way better at math the ability to 'play' with formulae is incredibly powerful.


I always felt the principles of science align better with those of open source software. Happy to see the good news at the end regarding funding from Europe: http://opendreamkit.org/about/.

To the author: the "Install LaTeX?" link at the top right is dead.


As a physicist who also consults for wall st, I understand how Simons would conclude (perhaps unconsciously) "free" software is software with no _value_.

"I was frustrated watching how he treated the other participants, so I didn't say a word to him. I feel bad for failing to express myself."

If this is who you are, and I am similar, then you are not the right person to be "selling" sagemath. You need to find one of those lovely but vacuous motor-mouths to do this for you.


> lovely but vacuous motor mouths

That's an odd way to describe people who effectively do their job of selling the product.


Seems like a perfect match for Kickstarter, no?


Patreon is a better fit -- subscription funds from satisfied users. Unfortunately, most users don't pay their own bills, their administrators do. And administrators don't pay for free software -- classic free rider problem. (That's why the grant applications are so important)

Over a million dollars to fund math software? Maybe, but not the demographic/popularity mix I would expect to see at KS. KS is for initial funding of a product that will be profitable at steady state. SMC is already launched, but needs more steady-state funding.


Academia needs some control mechanisms. Otherwise, the scientific research is at risk of becoming completely chaotic. Selective availability of software is one of those mechanisms. In this case, a closed-source software is made available to a specific group of people controlled by highly competent leaders: the US academic community. This increases the prestige of the group, and indirectly the level of competition needed to get there. Moreover, it increases the prestige of the US universities. This also helps the world-renowned science leaders to have more refined control over the direction of scientific research and science policy.


One of the guiding principles of the academy is academic freedom, i.e. the freedom to pursue research in a free and protected way. So academics aren't inclined to embrace "control mechanisms".

Prestige is the concentration of high quality research (as judged by peers) in one place.

I fail to see how making only some software available to US academics (which seems to be what you are suggesting), in any way enhances their prestige or capacity to influence science policy.

I wonder if NASA would get more funding from congress if we told them they were only allowed to use SAT-solvers in planning space missions.

But the notion that the Simons foundation is somehow trying to make software "selectively available", rather than just increase the availability of one particular piece of software they like, seems far-fetched to me.


"making only some software available in US" --- you slightly missed my point. I meant "software only available in US". That would be impossible to achieve with Sage, as Sage is open source. If you support Sage, you cannot control who gets it. (By the way, North Korea would also be able to use it!) The point, I believe, is to only support those projects which are under control and can be used for control. Maybe I am unfair to Simons. It is just hard for me to interpret this in any other way. It is not only about software. Academia has other structures serving the same purpose.


Is your original post above meant to be sarcastic? I can't tell. A basic idea in scientific research (especially mathematics) is that we do NOT need "control mechanisms" like you describe that prevent research in order to avoid chaos. Instead, we have peer review, the scientific method, and rigorous proof (in mathematics). Everybody is welcome to try to prove mathematical theorems and do research, and the more widely we make the tools for doing so available, the better. In mathematics, when a group thinks they have solved an interesting problem, they write up the solution, make it available on the internet (e.g., on arxiv.org), and other researchers read it. If the group has correctly and deeply understood the solution to an important problem, then their work becomes more widely known and everybody benefits. I see absolutely no scientific benefit to restricting who has access to mathematical software, mathematics papers, books, etc. And definitely no benefit to making such tools closed source, thus restricting how they can use that software. One of my inspirations for starting Sage was watching a young Manjul Bharghava (who just won a Fields Medal recently, by the way) give a talk in which he explained how his research had been severely frustrated by Magma being closed source, so he couldn't modify it to do what he wanted.


Dear William, thank you for your great work! My post was sarcastic. I completely agree with what you wrote in your comment. But I do believe that my guess about why your proposal was rejected is partially correct.


Sarcasm doesn't work on the Internet. Say what you mean, to avoid needlessly confusing and upsetting your readers.


On the other hand, if by "specific group" you mean the algebraists who happen to use computers in their research, then yes, increasing the availability of Magma may help them to do better research, which may in turn increase their influence within the academy and ultimately their influence on science policy.

The same case could be made for Sagemath of course.


It has control mechanisms. What it doesn't need is precisely what you describe: a self-appointed, self-styled group of "leaders" who followed the wasteful winner-take-all, judgmental, rank and pedigree conscious ethos of their discipline.


Yeah, throughout history all research breakthroughs have come from academia...


Well, if something is genuinely "useful", the people who find it useful are generally willing to pay for it; unless they choose to spend their resources on something that they deem even more useful. Thus in general I think things should have a price; in order to facilitate the construction and maintenance of said thing. More subtly; this also gives the users of that thing more of a say in how that is built -- i.e in accordance with their needs as opposed to arbitrary design or engineering decisions, etc. In other words, having paying customers keeps you accountable. This is why so much publication-associated academic software is garbage from a usability perspective - no one has an incentive to care about users; therefore people don't.

A curious observation about most users: Most Users often prefer the good/service that works better / easier to use; even if closed; to the open source one that is perceived to be not as good. Many, many programmers / academics (those poor academics..) use mac laptops. They're nice.

Open Source is also great from securing long-term existence, and from a reproducibility, and hackability perspective. Pursuing a commercial open source model, if viable, could really address both short + long-term sustainability.

I truly don't think mathematics departments in the US are "too poor" to pay for software; there are nice offices, budgets for events, very expensive journals, etc. Many universities have massive endowments. It is just that they often choose to spend it elsewhere. I'd recommend charging a higher price to commercial entities and universities, charging students a small fee; and giving it for free to "3rd world", developing, etc. countries. Selling into the library budget, or IT budget, might not be the worst idea.

If your student has a cell phone, they can afford to pay 20 bucks a month for the cloud sage edition; instead of buying more booze, pizza, or another movie ticket. If they are not doing that; it either means they value some other service more highly; or they don't value their education & their time.


Did you read he article? Simoms bought a license from the closed source academic authors, and gave them to every academic institution in the world (but not amateurs). No one is paying for it (except Simons), so there is no voting with wallets happening here. Simone picked a winner. Academics don't really have a lot of funding , and purchase decisions cone from administrative boards (like the folks who buy Enterprise Windows+Office deployments), not the users.

See also: tragedy of the commons, and free riders. People like not paying for things, regardless of quality.


> Simoms bought a license from the closed source academic authors, and gave them to every academic institution in the world

The article only mentions academics from North America in this quote [1]. Where did you find the information about "every academic institution in the world"?

As an academic in Europe I feel quite upset when an academic project is region-locked. Simons Foundation has lost quite a bit a respect from me for this. (My original respect for them was for their frequent posting of lectures on YouTube, which is something more institutions should do throughout the world.)

[1]: "In the backroom during a coffee break, David Eisenbud told me that it had already been decided that they were going to just fund Magma by making it freely available to all academics in North America."


You are right. Parent post misstated the details; the reality is even worse, and along the same lines.


Edit: North America, not whole world, sorry.

My sense of anti-chauvinism prevented me from registering the truth of the matter.


I think they made the right decision. I've seen way too many open source projects run by academics die a sudden death when the two or three professors that were maintaining them decide they didn't want to do it anymore (or retired). In my experience, most academics are using open source tools not because they are better or even "open" but because they are free. Few users (if any) ever contribute code back to the project beyond the occasional bug report making them essentially just as dependent on the core maintainers as they would be on any commercial company.


Sagemath is a gargantuan project with hundreds of contributors from all over the world and tens of thousands of users. In fact, I suspect it is one of the largest open source projects out there. It is not in any danger of dying because "two or three professors" stop working on it. William could stop working on it tomorrow and Sagemath would continue on just fine.

In fact the history of mathematical software shows precisely the opposite of what you claim. Companies go belly up and unless that mathematical software is open sourced, it dies completely. There are many examples of this. Sagemath in fact contains some code which came from a formerly commercial source (Maxima, formerly Macsyma), which was later open sourced.

You also miss that Magma is run by a group of academics at the University of Sydney, and there is real concern what will happen to it when the person running the project retires. Magma is not open source, and it is a very real risk that it will just die.

William Stein's understandable frustration is at the paucity of funding for a project as large as Sagemath, on which so many people are relying. He has written a series of blog posts over the last little while outlining his frustrations. It seems that his last post on the issue led to someone being "100% sure" the Simons foundation would write a cheque. William is demonstrating how very false that is. The assumption is that it should be easy to find a source of funding for such a large and important body of work. But counterintuitively, this has not proved to be the case.


Lots of people contribute to Sage. If anyone here is interested, check out the many SageDays happening across the US and the world. http://wiki.sagemath.org/Workshops


http://wiki.sagemath.org/days69 is a workshop going on right now, which is being funded jointly by a donation from Microsoft research and a donation from a retired Silicon Valley software engineer.




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