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easy vs. powerful OS -- biology again

jahayes at miavx1.acs.muohio.edu jahayes at miavx1.acs.muohio.edu
Sat Mar 16 16:25:33 EST 1991

It seems to me that this discussion is wandering a bit far afield
from the charter of this group. Let me try to bring it back (though
I admire the thoughtful character of the very long post earlier this
week; I extracted it and posted it to our local computer discussion
group to try to stimulate some discussion more useful than the usual
junk...) to something more biological.

The question, as I see it, is how computer platforms serve the biological
research community. In my department here, where I pass for the local
computer whiz (hee, hee), there is (obviously!) a real lack of computer
smarts. And yet, these people need to use computers in their work, and
somehow manage to do so. If they had to tackle something in raw UNIX,
they'd be completely lost. I'm afraid that UNIX has a very slow learning
curve, and most of these people are already preoccupied thinking about
their particular field of work. If you're cloning this and that and
mapping genomes, you simply don't have the time to teach yourself to
be a UNIX user, let alone a guru. What must you do?

1) Hire somebody, or some bodies, to do it for you. This requires being
able to articulate your computer needs in language that your programmer(S)
can understand; finding a programmer who has a solid biology background
is NOT easy, believe me. I am in fair demand, simply because I'm a biologist
who can fake it as a programmer.

2) Ideally, of course, the scientists themselves would do their computer
things. In this light, an OS that allows them to do that in the most
transparent way is clearly superior (no reference to Tandy intended :-).
What OS allows this? Whichever one works for you. No, that's not a cop-out.
In our department, we have largely macs, but that is at least partly
because our building is wired for AppleTalk networking. The PCs in my
lab have ApTalk cards in them to allow access, but it's a kludge (memory
distribution is a REAL PROBLEM).

In addition, of course, it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of
scientific use of computers in my department is for word processing
(preparation of papers, grants, etc) and associated graphics, and statistics,
and to a growing extent, communications (we now have hooked our network
via GatorBox to the campus mainframes...that's how I know how computer-
illiterate these people are, I help them log in and the like.). We have
found that macs are a pretty robust platform for this sort of thing. There
are no unix machines in the department, none, zip. They are prohibitively
expensive by and large (no real powerful macs, either; the best are SE/30s).
They require computer smarts to set up and operate. They're more trouble
than they are currently worth.

This may change. As UNIX becomes unified from its current seemingly 
zillions of incarnations into only a few, as nice clean interfaces are
grafted onto it, as prices drop and network access becomes simpler --
why then, people will move that way.  Until then, however, there seems
little reason to do so, and with the release of the mac's system 7.0
(which I have), several of the nicer features of UNIX are included....
it may be that in five years, all OS's will have pretty much the same

That's MY two cents. But, please, let's try to keep this discussion
revolving around the use of computers and their OS's in BIOLOGY, okay?


Josh Hayes, Starving Post-Doc, Zoology, Miami of Ohio
jahayes at miavx1.acs.muohio.edu, or jahayes at miamiu.acs.muohio.edu

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