Tag Archives: Research Computing

Lunch & Learn: New tools for writing with Professor Emeritus Will Howarth and Jon Edwards



Photo: morguefile, courtesy kumarnm.

Scrivener, an innovative software package for writers, was the topic of last week’s Lunch ‘n Learn, led jointly by Professor Will Howarth, Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton, and Jon Edwards, who has recently retired from Princeton’s Office of Information Technology. Howarth and Edwards spoke of their enthusiasm for this fairly recent tool, with Howarth demonstrating the latest version for Macintosh computers (Scrivener 2.0), and Edwards using the new beta version for Windows (Scrivener Beta 1.4).

The idea for the software, Professor Howarth explained, was conceived in 2006 by Keith Blount, a primary school teacher from England turned self-taught programmer, because he was frustrated by the capabilities of existing commercial word processors. Blount wanted to design a different set of writing tools to support his ambitions for writing fiction. His vision for a new type of writing tool became a reality when the first version of Scrivener for the Mac was released in January of 2007. A beta version of Scrivener for Windows was released in November 2010 to coincide with National Novel Writing month. Blount’s software firm, which now employs 4.5 full time staff members, is called Literature and Latte; Scrivener is its sole product. Although entire documents can be written and formatted in Scrivener, the program is really designed to help with more creative aspects of writing than just typing words and making them look good on a printed page.

Scrivener was described by Howarth as being part “content-generation tool” and part “idea-and-structure processor.” Scrivener deals with all aspects of a writing project from first ideas, to research links and notes, to outlining, structuring, and eventually, composing and editing a document. Scrivener-created works can later be exported to a traditional word processor for final polishing and formatting. Apart from supporting common word processor formats such as .DOC, .DOCX, .RTF and HTML, text can also be translated to e-book formats such as ePub, a standard platform, .MOBI, a non-proprietary format that can be read on the Amazon Kindle, and PDF. It isn’t only this multi-platform flexibility in file types that sets Scrivener apart from other writing tools. By design, the software attempts to follow the creative process that takes place before writing begins, starting with half-formed ideas and sketchy notations; the writer then proceeds with research, composing and organizing, adding to and editing these beginnings into a more complete work.  Although the production version of the Mac edition of Scrivener has only been around for a few years, it has already become the top choice of many professional fiction writers, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Howarth demonstrated the software interface, showing its three-part workspace: there is a binder pane (a collection of all written parts and research material for a particular work), a central editing pane (where writing and edits occur), and an inspector pane on the far right of the screen, where metadata and other information about items in the binder can be entered and viewed. Pre-existing templates for several specific types of writing are included in the software: screenplays, novels, short stories and non-fiction, are several examples of templates that contain formatting commonly required by publishers and producers of such works, particularly those in the UK. The scriptwriting template, for example, has many of the standards required to submit such works to the BBC, as well as being a general guideline for standard script formatting.

Howarth demonstrated many ways to view an existing work in progress in Scrivener, showing both a traditional outline format, as well as one that represented the outline as if each part was an index card pinned to a corkboard. In either view, highlighting and dragging one part of the work to a new position in the outline structure, or on the pin board, caused the document to immediately reflect that change in organization.



Screen shot showing the Scrivener “corkboard” view. (Note: this image shows the interface for Scrivener for Windows Beta 1.4).

Using an e-text version of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, taken from the Project Gutenberg online repository, Howarth showed how easy it was to break an existing long work into component parts. In the case of Walden, Howarth quickly divided the book into its published chapter structure, by using search terms and keyboard shortcuts. He also demonstrated how search results of certain terms (searches that look both in the work’s text and all of the research materials in the binder) resulted in saved collections or smart folders that can be used for later reference. Expanding upon the visual strengths of organizational tools in Scrivener, Howarth even color coded each chapter of the Walden document to reflect the seasons of the year described in the narrative. This resulted in a handy way to group chapters by Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and back to Spring, in the same way that Thoreau organized his account of a year’s life in the woods. Using the same Project Gutenberg file as research material for a new Scrivener project, Howarth showed how he was able to adapt Thoreau’s work into a correctly formatted screenplay, using the templates already built into Scrivener as his guide.

The e-text of Walden and other supplemental files that Scrivener can save in the course of working on a project serves to illustrate how external documents and files can be organized for easy reference and later citation. Research materials saved in Scrivener can include web sites, images, notes and bibliographic references. EndNote field codes (also known as “Cite While You Write”) are placeholders for including properly formatted bibliographic citations in a written work. These codes are supported by Scrivener.

Howarth described his Scrivener workflow– from using storyboarding and notation software on the iPad to capture ideas (the Index Card and Simple Note apps), synchronizing those notes with Scrivener, working on the document in Scrivener, and later exporting to Apple’s Pages software, or Nisus Writer Pro for the Mac (an RTF text editor; Scrivener supports RTF) for final formatting. The end result is a finished file that can be shared with publishers via Microsoft Word. Howarth described how this process helped him to collaborate with co-author Anne Matthews on their latest work Deep Creek, published under the pseudonym Dana Hand. Howarth and Matthews were both able to seamlessly share files and resources using Scrivener in the planning and writing phase
s of their work, and later delivered the finished novel in the .DOC format accepted by their publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Coincidentally, Deep Creek, which has met with great critical acclaim, has recently been named one of The Washington Post’s Best Novels of 2010. What is next for the Dana Hand authors? Howarth showed a glimpse of a screenplay based upon Deep Creek that he was working on in Scrivener. Will this Dana Hand film be coming soon to a theatre near Princeton?

Howarth concluded his portion of the talk by reflecting on how his discovery of Scrivener, coinciding with the extra time afforded by his retirement, has allowed his writing to develop in directions he had never imagined possible in his earlier career. He informed his audience that he could not guarantee using Scrivener would make them all authors of best-selling novels—but that it would certainly help to make their writing projects easier and more enjoyable.

Jon Edwards next spoke of his experiences with the recently released version of Scrivener for Windows, software that is still in beta development. His new book on Gioachino Greco, a chess player active in the early 17th century, is due for publication in February; however, Edwards used parts of the completed manuscript to experiment with the new Scrivener software, and concluded that it might be a valuable research tool for future works.

During a recent trip to London, Edwards extended his experimentation with Scrivener into new research paths. He took the opportunity of his trip to explore the British Library’s extensive holdings on the history of chess, and used the beta version of Scrivener for Windows to begin organizing projects based on several topics in chess-related history.

Edwards described how easy it was to write using Scrivener, noting that for any author with a tendency towards writer’s block, the simple, almost playful, workflow in Scrivener, which captures initial notes, research items, web links, outlines and fleeting ideas, might serve to overcome any hesitation in putting ideas to paper. Edwards used Scrivener to begin outlining and researching a proposed work documenting the chess matches played at the 9th Chess Olympiad of 1950 at Dubrovnik, a tournament in which 480 games took place. Using Scrivener, he was able to save all of his notes, references, and writing about the event, including building a stored collection of photos and biographical information about each team taking part in the competition.

Edwards recalled participating in meetings of the Scholars’ Environment Committee, which took place at Princeton in the late 1980s. The mission of the Committee was to improve research methods for scholars in an environment where computer-based resources were becoming increasingly more important. One tangible result of the Committee’s work that year was an idea for the formation of a project would eventually be called JSTOR, the online resource for archiving academic journals, founded in 1995. However, the guiding phrase for the committee’s goals that year was, said Edwards, was the idea of taking the “search” out of “research.“ Scrivener, Edwards noted, in some sense does that, by allowing all the materials needed for the writing of a serious scholarly work to be gathered in one place; with the split-screen format used in Scrivener, it is possible to write in one pane, while viewing citations and other research materials in another. Cutting and pasting from one workspace to the next is quite easy, and Scrivener makes storage of many types of document and file types possible.

Much of the historical literature on chess, Edwards noted, was published between AD 800 and 1890, which means that many of these text have been digitized and are now available for searching and download via the Google Books interface. Having an entire text downloaded as a resource file in Scrivener is a great convenience for a researcher, said Edwards. Writing clearly about the history of chess involves gathering and presenting many types of information. These might include diagrams of chessboards, and lengthy notations that recount the history of a particular game. As an example, Edwards mentioned his interest in the subject of “The Troitzky line,” a classic series of moves that begin an endgame by using two knights against a pawn. The strategy can take up to 50 moves to achieve; documenting it can require extensive illustrations and explanations. One of the main benefits of Scrivener to him, said Edwards, is that all of his notes, documentations and diagrams are finally captured in a single environment, so that he can keep his supporting documents close at hand and organized by specific topic.

Edwards described his particular Scrivener workflow, at least as far as his experiments have taken him to date.  He uses an online content management system, in this case Princeton’s WebSpace, to save the latest versions of his Scrivener files. He can then retrieve the files from anywhere using a web-based interface, and continue working without worrying about where he left the latest version of his project, or any of its supporting files.(Scrivener also has built-in support for syncing files with the popular Dropbox service.)

It is to be noted that the Windows version of Scrivener is still in beta, and is currently free until certain known bugs are fixed. For the moment, PC and Mac versions of the software don’t recognize the other’s files, and compiling documents into a final format using the Windows version has some documented issues. Still, in the short time the program has been available since November of this year, it has gone through several versions. The latest, version 1.4, said Edwards, shows significant improvements over earlier releases. While Scrivener may still lag behind more familiar word processing platforms in terms of document versioning and formatting, it is a particularly agile tool for the first stages of writing. “It’s an excellent brainstorming tool,” Edwards remarked, noting that other tools such as Microsoft Word, were designed for a corporate environments, and reflect the sorts of tasks required by business. Professional writers have very different aims and needs. Scrivener, thanks to the interests of its inventor, was specifically created for such writers and researchers.

Scriptwriter, poet, novelist, short story author or historian? You may want to check out Scrivener as a platform for organizing your next writing project.

A podcast of this presentation can be found here.

The Mac version of Scrivener 2.0 currently retails for US $45. A 15% discount is available to academic users. There is a growing online community of  Scrivener users who share their experiences and tips for greater productivity. The Windows public beta version is currently free to download, and is available here.

This session is the final Lunch and Learn of 2010. Check out the Lunch ‘n Learn schedule in early February for next semester’s program.

Lunch & Learn: Arts libraries on the edge with Darwin Scott, Sandy Brooke and Hannah Bennett


Decode2009.jpg Where do I shelve that? Photo of Decode, a digital art installation at the V&A, London, December 13th, 2009. Photo courtesy of Rain Rabbit, Flickr. CC license, 2009.

Note: to access resources cited in this blog post, you must either be on a machine on the Princeton University network, or have a VPN or proxy server running on your machine. For instructions on how to set up a VPN or proxy server connection, click here.

“These are exhilarating times to be arts librarians,” said Darwin Scott, librarian of the Mendel Music Library at Princeton. Today’s Lunch ‘n Learn session explored just how exhilarating – and challenging– it is to deal with new modes of delivering various media to library patrons, when the media exists outside the traditional collection of books, manuscripts, disks, drawings and other tangible assets one usually thinks of as library holdings. The presenters represented the three main arts repositories at Princeton; Darwin Scott was joined by librarians Sandy Brooke (Marquand Library of Art and Archeology) and Hannah Bennett (Architecture Library), to discuss their respective collections.

Sandy Brooke began the session by describing the tension between a library’s mission to collect, provide access, and preserve for the future, in an age where digital media seems to be increasingly difficult to quantify in terms of ownership, shared access, and sustainability. “Old literature is good literature for art historians,” Brooke said, explaining that scholars rely upon important documents from past centuries. Marquand’s holdings are still largely print-based, she noted, however, there is an increasing number of digital versions of both text- and image-based references. Art has traditionally been studied through surrogates, whether photographs, drawings or descriptions of works that are either housed in remote places, or may no longer survive.

A new form of art–that which is born digital–presents certain challenges to those who would study it, because the delivery medium is no longer a surrogate for the work, but may be the work itself. Digital art is often recorded on perishable media, the formats of which can migrate to incompatible formats in a fairly short period of time. It might be posted directly to the web, and lost when its link later disappears. The work itself might be a record of an ephemeral event that is almost impossible to capture in its entirety. When offered for distribution by a vendor or dealer, its licensing terms can be extremely limiting and restrictive with regard to how the work can be later viewed, shared, or migrated to more stable digital formats.

Such licensing terms, Brooke noted, are much more restrictive than the terms of fair-use usually applied to educational use of copyrighted materials. Many digital objects handled by dealers and vendors are delivered with the idea of restricting access to them, thus creating an artificial scarcity. Ensuring future access to this media that comprises an original work is uncertain, since access is often provided via an online resource with a fee-based delivery method. If the online resource were to go out of business, its digital content might well be lost.

As an example, Brooke showed an installation by Swiss video artist, Pipilotti Rist (1962 – ). Brooke cited Rist’s  Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), an award-winning 2008 installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, as a problematic example for scholarship. What resources would a researcher today have to study this recent work of art, since it is no longer viewable at the museum?

Brooke showed several still photos of Rist’s work found in ArtSTOR, an online database for the study of art history, but found no images of the 2008 MoMA installation. The artist’s own website contains links to her gallery and some visual references to other video projects, but not the MoMA installation. The MoMA website has some valuable documentary video footage about Rist’s installation, but there is no video that presents a complete idea of what it was like to experience the complete work in situ. A YouTube search offers the MoMA videos again, along with two amateur videos made by people who attended the exhibit while it was at the MoMA; one of these videos, obviously shot with a cell phone, is enhanced by a sound loop provided by the amateur videographer–however it is music composed by the phone’s owner that has nothing to do with the original installation. Since Rist’s works tend to deal in dreamlike, distorted imagery, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the distortions seen in the YouTube clips were intended by the artist, or simply a result of a highly-compressed, low quality copy of the original work. Authorized digital copies of such ephemeral works are typically priced at hundreds of dollars apiece, so collecting them on any scale is beyond the financial resources of most repositories; trying to capture something tangible and complete about such works, as Brooke demonstrated in the searches described above, is no easy matter.

For the moment, Brooke concluded, the sustainability of this kind of digital art is uncertain; questions of rights, of access, of preservation are only partially answered by current means of distribution. Guerilla websites such as ubu.com, a web-based educational resource that operates on a gift economy, posts avant-garde works under an assumption of fair use. Ubu.com was created in protest to the marginal distribution of these elusive works, but the fact that the site sometimes knowingly violates copyright in posting links makes their sustainability tenuous, at best. Many of the sound and video works on the site are represented by highly compressed video and audio files introducing uncertainty as to their accuracy; as with the YouTube video of Pipilotti Rist’s video installation, it’s impossible to say whether the files represent the artist’s vision–or the technological limitations of a bad digital copy. More sustainable solutions may be in the future, however. Brooke mentioned the Electronic Arts Intermix site, a not-for-profit venture that is trying to preserve digital art for cultural repositories such as libraries and museums. An educational streaming solution to providing high-quality copies of video art for art libraries is one licensing model being considered by this organization, which has preservation and sustainable access to video art as its two chief missions.

Architecture librarian, Hannah Bennett, next described some of the unusual challenges faced by those wanting to preserve records of contemporary architectural works. Long gone are the days of architectural drawings being produced i
n drafting rooms, with paper being the medium that recorded a building’s design from first inspiration to the delivery of final plans to builders. Digital rendering of architecture is now the standard method for design, a method that creates a dense stream of information that originates from architectural offices, and eventually results in documents that builders can work with to construct the building. In fact, the transmission of architectural information from architect to builder these days is commonly referred to as BIM – building information management–where the information critical to making the building is captured, but certain aspects of the design process might not be preserved. This partial capture of data creates a new level of complexity for those who would like to study the entire history of an architectural work.

Most information that is ultimately transferred to builders, Bennett explained, is taken by sampling from the complex array of digital data that is generated in the design process. As illustrated, Bennett showed several examples of architectural renderings, including some of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by architect Frank Gehry. Gehry, in common with other architects currently in practice (including many of Princeton’s faculty members in the School of Architecture), developed a pioneering proprietary software program, CATIA, to realize his particular design methods. Other firms have since developed their own software unique to that particular architectural office or project..

Bennett showed some examples of design sketches made by Princeton faculty member, Axel Kilian, and demonstrated the CADenary software that Killian developed for his own design practice. These tools allow for amazing flexibility in terms of drafting complex shapes, but their uniqueness means that it may be a challenge to read the files they produce in the future. Bennett commented on this reliance on technology, saying that “design language has now become internal to tools, rather than to the form.” As enriching as a complex design such as Bilbao is to architecture, preserving the output of many different proprietary software packages presents a set of preservation challenges for custodians of architectural history.

Bennett enumerated the queries posed by these new design tools. “How will they maintain technical currency?” she asked. “How will we archive them?” And, ultimately, “how will we present them to the future scholar?” Bennett concluded her portion of the talk by showing some hanging loops of chain used by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) to explore the catenary curves he often used in his architecture – in a photograph someone just happened to take of that experiment. “Older material can be equally valuable” Bennett said, citing this early architecture experiment exploring forms that are very hard to draw using traditional drafting tools. Today’s computer-generated architectural designs present a myriad of such capture-able design moments – and librarians need to find a way to preserve them for future scholars.

Darwin Scott, librarian at Mendel Music Library, concluded the Lunch ‘n Learn by discussing various online databases used to present digital copies of music and the performing arts. Scott mentioned that rights management is a major consideration in this area as well as in other forms of the arts, even though the resources for presenting them via subscribed services are more numerous.

Rights issues, particularly in the case of theatrical works, become more and more complex as more people (and their intellectual property) become involved in a production. “Most recordings of Broadway shows are illegal,” Scott noted. Older forms of media that preserved works such as concerts, or plays were “collectable objects.” Tapes, disks, LPs and other media at least provided one way that an event could be captured and preserved–and purchased to form part of a collection. By contrast, streaming libraries of musical and dramatic performances provide subscribers with thousands of recordings for an annual fee, but this model provides an interesting challenge for a library collection, since the library does not in fact “own” the content to which it subscribes. This raises important questions about sustainability and preservation.

Several vendors of streaming services promise that they will provide a form of perpetual access to the material in their library to subscribers in the event they go out of business. This usually means that data files will be available in some form for bulk download, but perhaps not with a sustainable model to preserve the user interface that makes it possible to use them. Scott mentioned some commercial streaming services that are available to retail consumers. Until recently, institutional clients had been shut out of the distribution model for these popular services. However, some distributors are now bridging the gap by providing high-quality streaming subscriptions for libraries and other cultural institutions. Scott demonstrated a few of these services, using the Quick Links section of the Mendel Music Library’s home page, and Scott’s own Lib Guide list of links to music and performing arts resources.

The Naxos Music Library, various collections from the Alexander Street Press, and DRAM (The Database of Recorded American Music) were among the collections that Scott featured in his presentation. Naxos, a respected record label, offers a large collection of musical recordings of various genres, including classical, jazz, folk, blues and world music; DRAM also offers streaming music; here, the focus is on American composers and performers. The Alexander Street Press offers a wide variety of sound and video offerings, including Opera in Video, Dance in Video, and Theater in Video. The videos offered from the Alexander Street Press not only will play on your computer, but are captured in a high enough resolution to project on a larger screen. A new service from Alexander Street even allows you to stream some of this content of these collections to your compatible mobile device (currently supported are iPhones on a 3G network or better, and devices running the Android OS) by using a link, a text message containing the link, or a QR reader on the device. These links stay current for 48 hours, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the content. Recent enhancements to the library’s online catalog also allow direct links to many of these digital assets via searches done in Princeton Library catalog.

sendtomobile.JPG Got a QR reader? Get ballet! A screen shot of the ballet Sleeping Beauty, showing the interface to mobile devicesThe video content in the Alexander Street databases come from various sources. For the Theater in Video collection, many of the videos are drawn from performances intended for broadcast television, Scott noted. TV content also accounts for much of the Dance in Video collection, whereas the Opera in Video collection has more access to commercial releases. The quality and range of the works offered are sometimes not ideal, although in some cases, they record spectacular performances. Each vendor also uses their own proprietary user interface – there is no standardization–so it can take some time to familiarize one’s self with each interface in order to get the best results. Links to the resources mentioned in this post–and many more–as well as tips to help users navigate and search these online repositories can be found in this PowerPoint presentation, which Scott prepared for Lunch ‘n Learn attendees.

The session concluded with Darwin Scott’s summation about it being an exciting time to be an arts librarian; the challenges presented by the diversity and volume of new media types also make this a wonderful time to be a subscriber to many online resources that make it possible to experience art, architecture and the performing arts in increasingly accessible ways. The fact that old media has little in common with new forms of delivery presents challenges for librarians and for patron access, but as sources for these materials become increasingly more numerous and more diverse the end user and the scholar can only benefit–and enjoy.

Got bandwidth? Welcome to live performances on a device near you!

Lunch & Learn: Bottom-up social data collection with allourideas.org and Matthew Salganik


How cute is this kitten? Let’s vote!
(Photo: morguefile, courtesy hotblack)

In this week’s Lunch ‘n Learn on Wednesday, December 1st, Matthew Salganik, an Assistant Professor in Princeton’s Department of Sociology, presented some recent research that has resulted in the creation of an open-source polling site called www.allourideas.org. One of the inspirations for Salganik’s project came from an unlikely source– the popular website, www.kittenwar.com, where visitors to the site vote on which of two randomly paired photos of a kitten is cutest. Given two competing choices–in this case photos of two cute kittens—this site rapidly gathers user opinions in a way that makes it easy to track social signals; the site uses a fun mechanism for gathering information, and allows any user to easily upload a his or her own kitten photos, thereby instantly entering new contestants into the competitive arena of cuteness.

Considering the popularity and broad appeal of the kittenwar site, Salganik reflected on standard forms of data collection that have been, (and still are), commonly used for gathering information in the social sciences. For many researchers, collecting information from the general population depends upon using survey mechanisms that have changed little in the last century. In this traditional method of data-gathering, researchers think of the questions they want to ask their survey audience well in advance of any feedback from the actual survey. Participants in the survey either take all of the survey — and have their opinions included–or none—since partial data is rarely considered valid for the final results. Although in the 20th century, the mechanism for conducting surveys evolved from face-to-face, door-to-door polling, to random phone calls, to web-based research, this model of assessment has several unavoidable shortcomings. For example, one might ask “what important questions might the original survey have missed?” or, “how can the final interpretation of data be made more transparent to other researchers?” Focus groups and other open discussions methods can allow more flexibility in gathering input from respondents–as well as revealing why respondents make certain choices–but these methods tend to be slow, expensive, and difficult to quantify. Most significantly, all are based on the same methodology of the face-to-face survey, and are merely conducted with increasingly up-to-date and scalable methods of delivery. Web-based surveys admittedly reach many more people with far less overhead than did canvassing door to door, but are such computer-based surveys really taking advantage of the unique strengths of the World Wide Web? Kittenwar.com suggested to Salganik that there was another, more intuitive way to present ideas and gather data on the web.

Using the model of Wikipedia.org as an example, Salganik remarked upon the internet’s strength in engaging people at their own level of interest. Wikipedia, he said, has become an unparalleled information aggregation system because it is able to harvest the full amount of information that people are willing to contribute to the site. Describing this phenomenon as “the Fat Head vs. the Long Tail,” Wikipedia makes it possible to gather knowledge from people who have vastly different levels of commitment to improving the site. On one hand, there are those (fat heads) willing to spend days or months carefully researching and crafting entire Wikipedia entries — while others, (long tails), are content to insert a missing comma into an entry they happen to be reading at the moment. As such, Wikipedia.org is an example of what might be achieved by an application that truly understands how the internet works best. Traditional surveys can only capture a tiny segment of this range of audience participation and engagement.

So what does the intersection of kittenwar.com and Wikipedia suggest to a researcher who wants to design a 21st-century web-native survey? Salganik’s site,www.allourideas.org illustrates one solution: a model that takes advantage of the most essential quality of the World Wide Web – where, according to Salganik, “an unimaginable scale and granularity of data can be collected from day to day life.” The development of allourideas.org–funded in part by Google.com and the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University (CITP)— uses the same” bottom-up” approach of kittenwar.com, paired with an algorithm developed by Salganik and his team, consisting of a single web developer, and several student researchers. The result is an open-source system where “any group, anywhere, can create their own wiki survey.”

Salganik describes the www.allourideas.org  website as an “idea marketplace,” designed to harvest the full amount of information that people are willing to provide on any given topic. Participants in a survey on the site are presented with random pairs of options, and pick the one they most favor; they then are given a second pair of different options, and vote again. Eventually, the most popular ideas — either provided by the survey author(s), or submitted by any person voting on the site — can be quickly identified.



The homepage of www.AllOurIdeas.org


An early version of the site was developed for the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) at Princeton, as a mechanism to assess the most important campus issues according to Princeton students. Voting began with ideas submitted by leaders in the USG, with additional suggestions submitted by students participating in the polling. In the end, two of the top five ideas that emerged as the most important to the student population were contributed by student voters, and were not among the ideas originally suggested by the USG. The percentage of participation in the poll was also remarkable: 40% of the undergraduate population took part, resulting in nearly 40,000 votes on paired ideas–as well as generating 100 new ideas not thought of by the original authors of the survey. Salganik and his team concluded that using this survey tool on an audience that is already engaged in the issues being presented can result in an incredible amount of quality added to the data generated. “In the old survey method,” Salganik explained, “tons of data are left on the table.” New methods of data collection, such as allourideas.org, are by contrast inclusive, from the bottom up, and reflect the effort, interest, and participation that engaged respondents are willing to contribute to the discussion.

Since its public release, www.allourideas.org has generated 700 new idea marketplaces and 6,000 new ideas, uploaded over the course of 400,000 votes. Users of the free web-hosted interface include Columbia University Law School, The Washington Post, and the New York City Department of Parks. Anyone with a few ideas and a target audience willing to provide feedback can make their own space for collecting and prioritizing ideas on the allourideas.org site. Results are returned to the survey authors with full transparency, including so
me basic demographics about the geographic location of voters, the length of participation in each individual voting session, and the pair of choices at which a participant leaves the voting. (Salganik explained that leaving a session is sometimes indicative of the voter’s perception that their only choice is between two bad ideas, although in other cases, voters leave because they feel they’ve voted enough.) Voting is anonymous, and voters are encouraged to return to vote as often as they wish.

Salganik described some of the mechanics used to keep the voting fresh and current, such as weighting recently submitted new ideas with more frequent appearances in the polling to give them equal footing with older ideas. The polling mechanism is designed to handle a very large number of ideas, and the more people voting, the better the results.In future releases of the code, idea pairs might even be adaptive to prior choices made by an individual voter. It’s important to the success of such a binary voting system, explained Salganik, that voters don’t know previous results, because that ignorance avoids the mentality of the flash opinion. The ideal sized group for polling is at least 20 people, although any number of respondents can be accommodated. The poll currently being conducted by The Washington Post on reader feedback and participation is the largest to date on the site. At the time of this Lunch ‘n Learn, the poll had been open for 3 days, and had already generated more than 40,000 votes.

The concept behind www.allourideas.org consists of a few basic characteristics. The site is simple. It’s powerful. It’s free. It’s also constantly improving. It proves, Salganik concluded, that when information is presented and gathered properly, there is wisdom, rather than madness, in the opinions of the crowd – and there needn’t be a cute kitten anywhere in sight.

Free “idea marketplaces” can be created by anyone on the hosted site at www.allourideas.org. If you are interested in creating a site, come prepared with a target audience and a few ideas in mind — then invite your audience to begin voting and contributing their own ideas.

allourideas.org is also an open-source-code project. The code is available at github.com. You can also follow the project on Twitter and on Facebook.

Lunch & Learn: Computing at Princeton: Short observations and tall stories

von Neumann and the MANIAC

Few people know that Princeton University’s association with computers and computing predates the ENIAC. Jon goes back to the days of John von Neumann, Oswald Veblen, Alan Turing, John Tukey, and winds his way forward through the memorable days of the mainframes to 1985 when Ira Fuchs arrived to create the University’s high speed network and begin the drive toward ubiquity of access and use. His many stories all have one thing in common… they all used to be funny.

About the speaker: 

Jon Edwards graduated from Princeton in 1975 with a degree in history. He got his PhD from Michigan State University in Ethiopian economic history. After a three year stint as Review Editor of Byte Magazine, he returned to Princeton in 1986 to serve as the Assistant to the VP for Computing and Information Technology. He served as the Coordinator of OIT Institutional Communications and Outreach until his retirement on November 11, 2010.

Listen to the podcast (.mp3)
Download the presentation slides (.pdf)
Video clip, featuring Serge Goldstein, Director of OIT Academic Services (.mp4)

Lunch & Learn: Optimizing fusion particle codes for massively parallel computers

National Spherical Tokamak Experiment

The last decade has witnessed a rapid emergence of larger and faster computing systems in the US. Massively parallel machines have gone mainstream and are now the tool of choice for large scientific simulations. Keeping up with the continuously evolving technology is quite a challenge though. Scientific applications need to be modified, adapted, and optimized for each new system being introduced. In this talk, the evolution of a gyrokinetic particle-in-cell code developed at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory is presented as it was adapted and improved to run on successively larger computing platforms.

About the speaker: 

Stephane Ethier

Dr. Stephane Ethier is a Computational Physicist in the Computational Plasma Physics Group at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). He received a Ph.D. from the Department of Energy and Materials of the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Montreal, Canada. His current research involves large-scale gyrokinetic particle-in-cell simulations of microturbulence in magnetic confinement fusion devices as well as all aspects of high-performance computing on massively parallel systems.

Download the presentation slides (.pdf)
Listen to the podcast (.mp3)