Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Perimeter Institute is looking for a Scientific IT specialist

Two years ago, I organized a conference on Science in the 21st Century, focusing on topics at the intersection on science, society and information technology. (I wrote about the conference here, a summary is here and a brief write-up of my own talk is here.) There are three aspects to the changes that the use of information technologies are bringing to science. One is the improving communication with the public - this blog is an example for such a change. The second one is that advances in hard- and software allow us to better understand the process of knowledge discovery and the dynamics of the scientific communities itself - the Maps of Science are an example for this. The third aspect, and probably the one most interesting for the scientist at work, is the development of new tools that support research and researchers in their every day work.

As I learned the other day, Perimeter Institute is now looking for a person who works at exactly this intersection. The job description reads as follows:

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) is looking for a Scientific IT specialist -- a creative individual with experience in both scientific research and information technology (IT). This is a new, hybrid, research/IT position within the Institute, dedicated to helping PI’s scientific staff make effective use of IT resources. It has two clear missions. First, to directly assist researchers in using known, available IT tools to do their research. Second, to uncover or develop cutting-edge IT resources, introduce and test them with PI researchers, and then share the things we create and discover with the worldwide scientific community.

By "tools", we mean almost anything. Coding techniques are an obvious example. Collaboration and communication technologies are another: tools for peer-to-peer interactions (such as skype), virtual whiteboards, video conferencing tools, platforms for running virtual conferences (that can do justice to talks in the mathematical sciences), and novel ways of presenting research results such as archives for recorded seminars, blogs, and wikis. Further examples include tools for helping researchers organize information (e.g., specialized search engines and filtering schemes), and end-user software that facilitates bread-and-butter scientific activities like writing papers collaboratively, preparing presentations, and organizing references.

We are seeking a person who brings an independent and ambitious vision that will help define this vision. The job is as yet quite malleable in its scope and duties! We're looking for someone who is inspired by the possibility that new IT tools can improve or perhaps even revolutionize the way that physics research is done, and someone who can take full advantage of a mandate to create and implement that vision.

Some Duties and Responsibilities:

- Act as a knowledge broker among Researchers. That is, find and test new programs and practices, advertise them, and be prepared to train others in their use.

- Participate in the creation of a high quality “standard" Researcher IT environment (desktop hardware, software set-up), built from a mix of open source software and popular commercial packages.

- Help with High Performance Computing demands.

- Maintain expert level knowledge in the use of the main packages used by Researchers, including Mathematica, Maple, LaTex, etc.

For the official job ad, go here.

[Via Rob Spekkens]. The deadline for applications is Friday, July 2, 2010. The Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam meanwhile offers an almost identically sounding position. I've been told PI was first, but their posting is not dated.

I very much like this development. My requirements on IT staff these days are however very modest. I am happy when the printer spits out my paper without chewing up some pages or leaving them blank. My biggest wish would be not a virtual whiteboard but an actual whiteboard with a plugin to my computer so I could use the board for equations and figures during a skype call. The equations are usually cumbersome but still doable, in the worst case by typing them in LaTex into the chat interface. But diagrams are a disaster. Drawing with a mouse yields no sensible results and the drawing pads that I've tried weren't too convincing either, even neglecting the problem on how to incorporate them into the call. On occasion I've thus drawn on a paper and held it into the camera. This however only works for figures with few details and necessitates plenty of additional explanations.

What is the software or hardware you dream of for your research life?

37 comments:

msleifer said...

I want something like an Entourage Edge http://www.entourageedge.com/ but that actually works well and I want Mendeley to write an app for it.

I also want wireless connectivity between mobile devices/tablets and projectors so that I don't have to bring my laptop when traveling. Ideally, this would work without having to carry a dongle, as I am always losing those.

Steven Colyer said...
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Steven Colyer said...

My biggest wish would be not a virtual whiteboard but an actual whiteboard with a plugin to my computer so I could use the board for equations and figures during a skype call.

Me too. Could Steve Jobs help? If he's too busy making profitable tech for lowbrows, I know you know at least 2 Electrical engineers, George Musser and Andrew Thomas, and probably more. I'm sure the technology to do what you wish already exists, the thing just takes doing. If Lazaridis doesn't bite, see if Carl Gustav can come with the small change required. Sell it as another feather in Sweden's cap, and make a profit on it. :-)

In any event, I had the random thought that Peter Woit may actually be the ideal candidate for the IT job, assuming you could lure him away from Columbia Math, and convince him that Waterloo is as least as half as exciting as New York City (push the fact that Waterloo has movie theaters as well). A specialist in BRST Cohomology Toy Modeling using Langlands would be a plus, to give Peter someone to talk to. Perhaps Langlands himself. British Columbia is "just a spell" down the road, yes? Probably too far to commute.

Barry said...

See www.teamboard.info for an example of a blackboard plugged into a computer that both acts as a projector, and records everything written on it as a screenshot.

It is used quite commonly in schools. This is not unique technology, and is available from a number of vendors.

Steven Colyer said...

Another quick thought for the Perimeter IT candidate: the highly respected hard sci-fi author Greg Egan of Perth, Australia. He knows Math, he's dear friends with John Baez, he knows Computers, he knows Science.

OK, that's enough ideas for one day. I'm fairly certain the person who actually lands the job will be not be a "name", but rather a very astute 24-year old with an ink-wet Comp Sci PhD and a deep interest in Quantum Gravity.

Or ... perhaps the person who holds the same position at IAS-Princeton? It never hurts to raid the competition. ;-)

Plato said...

Sounds like a good job for you Bee.

The white board is a fascinating piece of work. Although not be it from a scientific researcher point of view it did make for nice picture drawing capabilities between my grandson and myself.

Bee said...

Barry: I know, I've seen these things. But I want one on MY wall!!

Bee said...

Plato: Definitely not a job for me. I have no patience to fiddle with computers and figuring out what damned part of the stupid thing now refuses to work. I do what I have to, but I get no inspiration from it, and it's nothing I want to do for a living if avoidable. Best,

B.

Plato said...

Just a reference link to another Backreaction article: Web Science

Best,

chimpanzee said...

Your query falls into the category of "Interactive Computer Graphics", & there is the big annual ACM SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) conference this July 25-29 (Los Angeles Convention Ctr). I myself am going.

It attracts scientists since "Scientific Visualization (of data)" is a topic

PI might want to send some people over there (& list their job advertisement in the Career center). Might even want to setup a "Birds of a Feather" session:

"Informal presentations, discussions, and demonstrations for people who share interests, goals, technologies, environments, or backgrounds. Birds of a Feather events are proposed by SIGGRAPH 2010 attendees. They must be free of charge, related to computer graphics or interactive techniques, open to all SIGGRAPH 2010 attendees, and non-commercial in nature"

There are some physicists who have migrated to this field like A. Hanson (L. Motl was interested in using his multimedia presentations). I ran into him in SIGGRAPH 2008, my coverage is here

chicken said...

Who has the post at AEI?

Sundance said...

I find it slightly absurd that the PI is advertising for someone to perform this role, when I (and I'm sure many other postdocs) would frequently try to tell the IT and admin staff about just these kinds of technologies only to be ignored.

So in that vein - the "technology" I'd most like to see is an admin staff that understands the value of crowd-sourcing!

Mathqq said...

Drawing is a major problem, but a $80 Wacom tablet can provide some decent use with Skype along with iDroo.

Skype has screen sharing these days. You get to it with "Call/Share Your Screen" when you're in a call.

There's also http://idroo.com, which is a whiteboard sharing plug-in for Skype. It's vector based, so it doesn't capture every little wiggle of your pen, and it's free. Being vector based, even using a mouse can make it draw better than other stuff such as Microsoft OneNote.

I'm studying math with a guy. We make contact with Skype. I show him my screen through Skype so we can look at the same documents, and occasionally I'll draw something on the iDroo whiteboard. It has its use.

With a $1000 pen tablet PC, I think that drawing on a PC screen would be good, but I don't want to spend $1000.

Rose Ippolito said...

Get Garrett Lisi to do it. He's the perfect man for the job. (If he would.)

Bee said...

Chicken: I don't know.

Sundance: They have a new IT Chief

Steven Colyer said...

Well then there you have it: mission accomplished.

Cheers.

Bee said...

? The position that is currently open is not that if the IT chief.

Steven Colyer said...
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Steven Colyer said...

Sorry, Bee. Then perhaps they should promote from within?

I'm sorry Bee, but it really depresses me when organizations hire from without, when the very best candidates are more than likely sitting right under their nose.

And you should know what I'm talking about regarding noses, Bee, right? That blog article of yours a bit back about famous physicists' noses was quite entertaining. I remember. :-)

Bee said...

Steven: A lot of physics departments hire their IT staff from the researchers, both from the students and the postdocs. I've seen that in many places. That can be a lucky choice, or it can be a disaster, I've seen both. I don't think PI is excluding internal applications, but I think it's kinda unlikely to happen. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Mathqq: I have a drawing pad with a label saying "Bamboo," that I'm not very convinced about. (It's not mine actually, it belongs to the institute.) It works fine for straight lines, but is a disaster for curves. I'm not even sure if it's the hard- or the software that's the problem. Either way, to draw straight curves I don't need a drawing pad. I've been thinking about getting another one several times, so I'll keep your recommendation in mind. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

An interesting job posting, now if I only had a PhD, was twenty years younger and with a few more neurons I’d be tempted to send in my CV. Perhaps I should anyway since if I did secure an interview with Rob Spekkens I would get to ask him if he truly believes the moon is only there when he looks at it:-) Levity aside, anything that can meaningfully increase useful communication in any endeavour is certainly worthwhile. The key of course is to concentrate on improving the quality with not mistaking that to mean simply improving the access and quantity of information.

Best,

Phil

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

I would like to have too something like a handwriting interface not only for formulas. And this should be too a black board. I mean Latex is great, but with such a black board interface one could enter talks directly into the computer.

Best, Kay

Plato said...

Just thinking out loud here...


Actually I wonder if latex commands can be voiced into, or as was shown previously, the substance of the concept can be mathematically produced?

Wouldn't this corral the mind to speaking those concept models toward everyday language much more intune with the mathematical framework?

Best,

Plato said...

Actually organizing events as you do Bee puts you in a unique position to overseer all aspects of the conference, and principals of the institution set in its mandate, to IT all aspects of those within and those linking within the institute to access info and make available.

This doesn't mean you stop your research.



I was thinking "dragon speaking," or some such voice program for latex.

Best,

Steven Colyer said...

Plato, a computer science job in this day and age (unlike the late 70's) likely leaves no time over for research, and precious little else. I could see it requiring 45 hours per week, at minimum.

Mathqq said...

Staying low tech as possible is sometimes the best solution.

With screen sharing, if you have a scanner (Canon LIDE80 is portable and costs $80) and you've done all the experimenting you need to do to get a good scan with a small file size, it only take 20 seconds to scan a 8x11 piece of paper, which the other person will be able to see with screen sharing.

If they want what you've drawn, and the file size is reasonable, you email it to them, or send it to them through Skype.

Low tech, you gotta love it sometimes, or at least hate high tech that don't deliver the goods after costing you dearly.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Sundance,

With the talk going these days about whether all information and applications should be moved to the “cloud”, you are proposing they should instead look more to the “crowd”. Perhaps the administration is confused as to associate this with being mob rule or perhaps they simply feel this lies outside the expertise of the average boffin:-)

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I just noticed you switched on comment moderation and suspect it the result of the latest spam storm. I appolize for posting duplicate comments before realizing this. It is indeed ironic just when you put up a piece dealing with better communication this would happen and serves to remind for me the foundations of things always need the closest attention. Perhaps it’s time for a skill testing question being necessary to be able to post comments as opposed to copying some distorted letters.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Oops, sorry. I indeed turned on comment moderation yesterday because sometime in the afternoon I started getting some dozens of spam comments which fell into the unmoderated 30 day window. I totally forgot to change the settings later, thanks for reminding me! Best,

B.

N K M said...

This will definitely increase the efficiency of the research staffs.

I wonder if the incumbent would be able to fulfill all of the
"I want this ... and I want that..."

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Well it looks like for now the spam storm is over. The reason I was aware of it of course is it shows up in my inbox, Speaking of showing up in my inbox I just received a reminder from Perimeter that Stephen Hawking will be visiting there in a few weeks and on the 20th of June will be on TV Ontario with a program where he speaks about his life and research. The notice doesn’t reference how it can be accessed over the internet so perhaps this could be something the new Guru they are to hire can address; for after all TV, what is that¬ :-)


”Professor Stephen Hawking is a Distinguished Research Chair at Canada's Perimeter Institute and, on June 20, 2010, he will be officially welcomed to Canada by the Honourable Tony Clement, Industry Canada Minister, and to the province by the Honourable Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario. The greetings will be followed with a special presentation by Prof. Hawking about his research, life and times. The activities will be broadcast on TVO on Sunday, June 20, 2010, at 8:00 pm EDT. You can view TVO across Canada on Bell TV channel 265 and Shaw Direct channel 353. In Ontario, TVO is also available by antenna and cable on channel 2 in most areas."

Best.

Phil

Oh sorry I just realized this could also be considered as being spam, yet at least it is somewhat relevant spam :-)

Arun said...

The job is a curious mix of visionary and mundane functions.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arun,

”The job is a curious mix of visionary and mundane functions.”

Yeah that’s exactly what I thought, as it appears to be more like a real job:-)


Best,

Phil

Sundance said...

Hi Bee and Phil,

It's interesting that PI is getting a new IT head, as this may change the dynamics somewhat, but only if a sympathetic person is selected to be IT head, and/or scientific IT specialist.
Phil, I don't think the admin view it as mob rule, or outside the expertise of the average boffin, but I do think they're stuck in an "efficiency mindset", where requests for new/upgraded hardware/software from researchers (esp. young researchers) tend to be viewed as frivolous requests for new toys.

Looking more to the "crowd" is IMHO precisely the right thing to do. Who knows better than the researchers what the researchers want/need? Introducing a scientific IT specialist may help the researchers get what they want/need by providing someone who can serve to legitimise and advocate for the hardware requests the researchers make. Or it may simply add an extra layer of complexity to a growing hierarchy. A simpler and more elegant way to proceed is just to make admin better at recognising that researchers often come up with legitimate ideas about what newly-emerging technologies would be useful to them.

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Sundance,


Just as you said this new position may act as a conduit between the researchers and the administration that could prove to be quite useful. I think you hit the nail on the head with reminding of the average age difference between the two groups as being perhaps the reason for part of the current problem. There is also a chance if they find the right person they may bring to the table ideas that neither side had thought of. Then again with the job description being so vague it’s hard to get a handle on just what it is they are looking for. I noticed however Rob Spekkens being centrally involved in this and thus at least from the generational perspective I see him more as one of you then one of them.

Now if they could only do something to improve and enhance their public outreach program, like actually appointing a director after the job being left vacant for so long. As it stands they have left the head of PR with having this responsibility and I think it’s wrong to confuse PR with outreach, well at least that’s the humble opinion of this long standing observer of the house of boffins:-)


Best,


Phil