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Re: [Axiom-developer] Re: AMS Notices: Open Source Mathematical Software

From: William Stein
Subject: Re: [Axiom-developer] Re: AMS Notices: Open Source Mathematical Software
Date: Sun, 25 Nov 2007 23:45:02 -0800

On Nov 26, 2007 12:20 AM, root <address@hidden> wrote:
> > >> >> Third, even if the NSF funded SAGE, how would those funds benefit the
> ...[snip]...
> >> Either the initial grant had principal investigators at different
> >> schools (or one of the PIs moved), or a visiting scientist arrangement
> >> allowed someone on leave to join the project for a while, otherwise
> >> I don't recall other arrangements. However, my experience is quite
> >> limited.
> >
> >I'm not sure what you're saying here, but at least with NSF funds
> >a researcher can pay any US citizen (or person with a soc security
> >number) working anywhere in the US
> >some money to work on a project with me.   They don't have to be
> >officially listed on a grant application or at my university.     That said,
> >the grant budget would have to list that somebody somewhere would
> >be getting paid by the grant to do the specified work (one can't
> >spend NSF money they've received on anything they want -- it has
> >to be explicitly budgeted first).
> I know that we hired students to do work. At CCNY there was an open
> source lab and we hired two people to work on Doyen. But student
> labor is not "any U.S. citizen". It really falls partially under the
> mandate of the University and was not hard to justify.

Yes, I could hire students as long as they are students at the university.
I was just pointing out that it's also possible to pay non-students.

> At IBM we had a specific contract with William Schelter to develop
> a version of AKCL that supported Axiom. I'm not sure that it would
> have been possible to do that under an NSF contract, although you
> know more about that than I do.

I don't know either.

> >> But giving money to open
> >> source is like giving money to the homeless. Even though 100% of it
> >> will go to support direct needs, it appears to disappear.
> >
> >I'm not sure I follow.
> >
> >In any case, here is a very concrete example of the NSF funding open source:
> >
> >
> >
> >The money will go to pay for a postdoc for three years at UW (Clement Pernet
> >for the first 2 years), whose main work will be on open source software.
> >(I can't emphasize how much work it was to get the above grant...)
> Again, this tends to fall into the NSF-University tangle. If Clement
> were hired to sit at home and develop open source software without
> the association to UW I'm not sure the grant would have passed muster.
> I admit I don't know the details.

This is solidly in the "NSF-University tangle".  In fact, a critical component
is that Clement will be a research postdoc at the university, contribute
to the research environment there, write papers, etc.   The NSF really
cared about all that.

> The fact that he is working on open source is incidental, in my view.
> NSF work is government work and is supposed to be freely available
> since it is paid for by tax money.

Unfortunately, that's not at all how things actually work though.
Researchers funded by *NSF grants* are usually under no obligation
to make their work freely available.   I probably wish something more
like this were the case, but it isn't in general.  That's just the current
reality of how things work.

> The distinction I'm trying to draw here is that there is a difference
> between doing NSF work that is open sourced and doing open source work
> that is NSF funded. The former is simply a side-effect of the proposal.
> The latter is fundamental.

I view the Sage postdoc, i.e., what I linked to above, as the latter.  It
was NSF funding a proposal specifically to support some open source
software development.  I'm very appreciate to them for being open
minded and funding it.  The abstract for the award says: "This project
involves creating open source mathematical software that plays a key
roll in research in cryptography, number theory, geometry, and other
area. It promotes the progress of science by making many highly
optimized research-oriented algorithms widely available, and making it
easy to simultaneously create and work with objects defined in almost
any mathematical software package. This project also stimulates new
forms of collaboration between researchers in diverse areas of
mathematics, and between undegraduates, graduate students, and
professors. "

> So getting an NSF grant to develop software for a project and then
> opening the source (see Magnus, one of my sourceforge projects) is
> perfectly reasonable. It happens often. Indeed Macsyma was started
> that way, as near as I understand it. I can see where Sage could
> be funded under this model.
> But doing open source (that is, non-university, non-commercial,
> privately-supported) prior to the grant and getting continued work
> funded is unknown to me. I see that Axiom falls under this model.
> (Curiously, (D)ARPA and NSF funded Axiom when it was at IBM, which
> presumably had slightly more financial resources than me.)

I don't know of anything like that either.


> For planning assumptions, lets look out 30 years. At that point all
> of the previous (and some of the current) crop of computational
> mathematics people will have retired into management or something.
> Wolfram's family might wish to "cash out" and "monetize" the company.
> Maplesoft might have gone public and had a stock failure. In all,
> 50 years is a long time for any company to survive, especially on a
> single product. The loss of both MMA and Maple will leave a hole
> in computational mathematics.
> How do we prepare to deal with such a future event?
> We need to raise our standards. At the moment computational mathematics
> seems to me to be a mixture of 18th century hand-waving-proofs and 1960s
> "whew, got it to work!" software hacking. That was fine during the last
> 30 years as the whole subject went thru birth pangs. But now is the time
> to make this more of a science.

I agree; that's sort of what I David and I were trying to say in the
AMS opinion piece.

> To me that means that we need to classify, standardize, and organize
> the subject.
> We need to have NIST-like categories that cover various domains.
> The CATS test suite (along the lines of Abramowitz & Stegun) would
> have a wide range of problems sets with standard answers, specific
> behavior on branch cuts, boundary cases, etc. This would enable
> everyone to "substitute" one CAS for another with some confidence
> that they get reasonable answers. This is clearly not in the best
> interest of commercial systems but is clearly in the best interest
> of CAS users and of the science.
> We need well-documented, executable literature.  It should be possible
> to select a technical paper from this year's CAS conference that

I think we have pretty different visions for what we want to do with respect
to open source mathematics software.    That's probably
because my horizon is maybe 1 year (if that) and yours is 30 years.

> I believe that if such a system were available now there would be
> much less incentive for Universities to use closed source software.
> And, by implication, more work (more science) would be done using
> open software as a base. Eventually the loss of commercial versions
> that don't meet these standards would become a non-issue. Directly
> competing with heavily financed commercial systems cannot win and
> ultimately leads the science in the wrong long term direction.

Well I'm trying to directly compete with heavily financed commercial
systems.  I think you are wrong that one cannot win.  Linux, Firefox,
OpenOffice, etc., are all examples of direct competition with heavily
financed commercial systems, where they have all won, at least
where "win" means establish a large solid user base and be a viable
alternative to MS Windows, MS Internet Explorer, and MS Office.
There is nothing particularly special about mathematics software that
makes it winning in a similar sense impossible, as much as Wolfram
would argue that (as he often used to do in interviews I've read online).

> >Just out of curiosity does Axiom always have a 30 year horizon, or does
> >it become a 20 year horizon at some point?
> Given the large cost (e.g. $40 Million (although given the U.S. dollar
> that's not going to be much :-) ) and time (100s of man-years, see the
> axiom credit list) it is unlikely that we are going to develop whole
> new CAS systems as complex as Axiom from scratch. Thus we need to
> build on what exists. And we need to build for the long term.
> The 30 year horizon is a philosophy, not a timeline. In fact, it is
> intended to suggest raising our eyes away from the short-term thinking
> (e.g. competition with commercial software) and orient the discussion
> to the long term science. Computational mathematics is a new area but
> it is certainly here for the long haul.
> So "The 30 year horizon" is a sort of Zeno's game. You may get half
> way there but you'll never actually get all the way there. I intended
> the slogan to inspire, not limit.

OK, thanks for clarifying that.   I guess it's exactly intended as a
to my whole approach to mathematical software since I'm primarily
interested in "short-term thinking (e.g. competition with commercial software)".

 -- William

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