Podcast #86

by Jeff Atwood

on March 24, 2010

Joel and Jeff sit down with Anton Geraschenko to discuss the unique qualities of a community of expert mathematicians, how to capture a sphere in a knot, and the importance of off-site backups.

  • The Stack Overflow team will be in NYC from April 2nd to the 9th for a planning session. Expect exciting announcements at the end of that period, including some that will affect the podcast. Maybe there will be a Stack Overflow morning zoo crew!

  • There will also be a Stack Overflow open house in NYC sometime that week, so if you're in the area, please keep an eye on the blog!

  • Anton founded Math Overflow, which runs on the Stack Overflow engine via Stack Exchange. Math Overflow might be the largest community of Math PhDs (and PhD candidates) on the internet. Anton, interestingly, is not a programmer so he was outside our initial audience.

  • Anton attributes much of the initial success of Math Overflow to math bloggers, and most notably Secret Blogging Seminar. He also solicited emails from influential members of the math community and invited them to all participate at launch.

  • Interestingly, Anton also cites the importance of a meta-discussion site to the overall success of a community. This is a conclusion we (well, I) had to be dragged to, kicking and screaming, before we finally created meta.stackoverflow.com. I suppose it is analogous to having a government of some kind before you can have a country.

  • The meaning of Joel's oft-repeated phrase "no question is too easy" -- which I would rephrase as "no question should be uninteresting" -- has a whole different dimension on a site like Math Overflow which is intended for graduate level mathematics questions. Per Anton, you should probably ask "Does my community care about that?"

  • We wondered if any Math Overflow question, given the highly specialized audience, could be popular in the broader internet sense. Anton cites Is it possible to capture a sphere in a knot? as a possible example.

  • Math Overflow did some community specific customization by incorporating jsMath markup in their posts. This has always been the vision, to provide tools that tailor the 'wiki' aspect of the Stack Overflow to the needs of particular expert communities. They plan to switch to the newer MathJax soon. And LaTeX is of course a long term standard in this area.

  • I now appreciate the importance of off-site backups. It's unlikely your datacenter will be hit by a meteor, but the odds of something going wrong with the air conditioning is much more likely. How likely? It happened to us! Remember kids, eat your Wheaties, and do your off-site backups! We're also entertaining the idea of a read-only mode for the website for these rare conditions so we don't have to tackle the very difficult problem of synchronizing data when you are running on a live backup.

  • Since we haven't launched the Stack Exchange site on Siberian husky puppies (yet), Joel asks for some listener input on what type of treats his new dog Taco would like.

  • Remember, podcast will be on hiatus for a bit while we retool it -- your suggestions are welcome in the interim, see you in about a month!

The transcript wiki for this episode is available for public editing.

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