Thursday, July 08, 2010

TheoryOverflow: An Update

Now that I'm done with SODA (any word on number of actual submissions?), I thought I'd do a brief update on the proposed theoryCS Q&A site (currently laboring under the inelegant name of TheoryOverflow). I've had various questions from people, and have wondered about others. So rather than force you all to trawl for answers, I thought I'd dish them out here.

  • I want my TO site ! When is it coming ? 

    The site is going through what is called a 'commit' stage. The StackExchange overlords (the people providing the service) have in their infinite wisdom decided that the success of such sites is predicated on people committing (with their names and email) to participating, and so we're slowly building up enough commit mojo to get into a trial stage

  • But we have more commits than the average attendance at STOC !
    Ok. firstly, that's rude ! Secondly, there's a complicated formula by which the system determines whether we have enough commits to move into a beta stage. it's also being throttled right now at 90% of its true value because the software for making the sites is still being tested on the few sites that are already in beta.

  • At this rate (248 commits, 27% progress), we'd need 1000 commits to get to beta. That's larger than the attendance at STOC, FOCS and SODA put together !

    Say after me three times: theory conferences are all fine, and we don't have to do anything to change anything about them. Feeling better now ? So the process by which commit progress is calculated is very complicated, involving your reputation on related sites, the number of "badges" you've earned, how friendly you are with Lady Gaga, and other such mysterious parameters. So while there's some correlation with the number of commits, high-reputation users on related sites can bump up the progress meter, under the rationale that people used to Q&A sites are more likely to help this site get off the ground.

  • But my mathoverflow rep doesn't appear to count ? 
    No it doesn't. there appear to be technical complications involved in this, because MO used an older version of the software. I personally question this approach to the commit phase, but it's not my software.

  • This is silly: why can't we all just go over to mathoverflow ?

    This is a tricky point. The MO folks have been more than welcoming to theoryCS, and they've explicitly said that they'd be happy to have us over at their site. While I personally would not mind at all if we just started using MO more regularly, I feel that we might get drowned out in the much larger universe of MO, and if we can get our own site, it might be easier to navigate and find interesting questions/answers. But it's always an option.

  • We're computer scientists, aren't we ? why can't we roll our own ?

    Um, well, ... we're THEORETICAL computer scientists, so theoretically we could. Oh wait, you actually want us to do it now ? how annoyingly practical !

    More seriously, there is actually an open source system called OSQA that's powering the new machine learning Q&A site called metaoptimize. I didn't hear about this till a few days ago, but it's definitely something that we can consider if the theoryoverflow site appears to stall.

  • So what now ?

    For now, we (that means YOU!) continue to drum up support and commits for theoryoverflow. In terms of average number of commits/day, we're still doing quite well, and the StackExchange folks have indicated that they're likely to change the formula for commit progress based on how the sites already in beta are doing. If a few more weeks go by and things look stalled, we can revisit the matter.


  1. I think we could get lost in MathOverflow, but perhaps there is a way to organize a useful sub-site there?

    Is there a procedure for deciding on a name? TheoryOverflow is very bad.

  2. Suresh,

    I saw sometimes ago a video of Joel Spolsky where he mentioned that the new sites could only get traction because a certain subset of the committers were from an already successful *overflow site (in the discussion stackoverflow). So I am a little annoyed at hearing that MathOverflow credentials don't apply because at that point you are really looking for more programmers (stackoverflow) to commit to theoryCS and I am not sure the subsets have that many people in common.

    One avenue would probably be to ask Joseph Turian about hosting the TheoryCS if the commit stage on Overflow is taking too long.

    Am I the only to think that getting a Q/A running in the summer is not a bad thing ?



  3. Another open source alternative is Shapado; of course, you could run it on your server, but it has the nice feature that it will host your group for you:

  4. Joseph Turian here (guy who launched MetaOptimize Q+A for ML+NLP and scale.metaoptimize).

    Actually, several people have approached me about setting up I am curious, what would be the correct method to disseminate this announcement within the theory community? Are there any theory-wide mailing lists?

    Also, OSQA does not yet support LaTeX or math. How tolerant would the theory community be if the site didn't have math or LaTeX support?

  5. Hi Joseph
    Theorynt is one such mailing list, and this blog and many others are also useful places to post an announcement.

    The lack of math display is in my mind a dealbreaker though - based on the frequency with which I use the math displays on mathoverflow. That site uses jsmath for displaying math, and is also thinking of shifting to mathjax. Is this too hard to install within osqa ?

    While you are of course welcome to start up theory.metaoptimize, maybe you could wait a bit while we see what happens with the SE proposal ? Things are beginning to move a little faster now wrt beta testing, and it would be a pity to lose the momentum we've generated thus far.

  6. So, basically I chose shapado because it supports LaTeX and it would host my group for me; as it's already been mentioned, OSQA does not support LaTeX yet.


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