Request: long-distance collaboration June 16, 2008Posted by Ben Webster in Uncategorized.
Nathan Dunfield (a new commenter!) supplies our first request:
How about a discussion of long-distance collaboration tools and methods, beyond just using email and talking on the phone? It seems like there are a lot things that might work, e.g. pointing a cheap webcam at piece of paper, using collaborative text editors (e.g. SubEthaEdit), IM’ing (some clients have LaTeX support, I tnink), virtual whiteboards (e.g. Scriblink.com), but which might also turn out to be useless in practice for all sorts of annoying technical reasons. So it would be interesting to hear from people who have had success or failure with various methods.
Unfortunately, I have nothing insightful to say on this topic (I would be really excited to hear if any one else has exciting ideas, for reasons which will be clear below). This is a little sad, since I’m a perfect candidate for having done something interesting in this area. I’m pretty technophilic, even for a mathematician, and am currently writing two different papers with two different people in Germany, and working on another paper in a group of 4 where I don’t think more than 2 of have been in the same state simultaneously in over a year. Almost all this work has been done over email, or face-to-face, with occasional phone conversations and one video chat on Skype (but with no attempt to write anything on a board or paper, just gesticulation). In particular, the last paper I mentioned has been written entirely while we were all permanently in different locations (me in Princeton and Boston, one in Oregon, one in California, and one in Amherst), and generated an enormous number of emails, I think around 500 (thank Gbus for Gmail).
So, why haven’t I done anything more exciting? Well, as Nathan said, the main reason is I just haven’t found the killer app that seemed worth investing in. There are online collaborative word processing programs, but none which do LaTeX well, to the best of my knowledge, so it’s easier to just pass files around via email.
The other problem is that if I did find a program I liked, I would then have to convince my coauthors it was worth using, and they’re, on the whole, more skeptical about these things than I am. I mean, with some them, getting BibTeX was something of a fight, and I think BibTeX is about the best LaTeX add-on in history. More generally, coauthors disagree about what technology is useful or convenient. I mean, Nick Proudfoot and I still have half-joking arguments about whether emacs or vi is superior (for the record: I’m on the side of emacs).
I think the other issue is my work-style. Even when collaborating on research with someone, I’m a very solitary worker. I prefer to go think on my own for a while, and then meet again if I get stuck or find something interesting (or vice versa), which means that I often don’t find email too limiting. I mean, it would obviously be better to be able to meet face-to-face whenever it felt necessary, but I think it feels necessary for me less often than it does for many people.