Desert Island Hard Disks: Andrew Treloar

Posted by s.hettrick on 17 October 2014 - 2:00pm

You find yourself stranded on a beautiful desert island. Fortunately, the island is equipped with the basics needed to sustain life: food, water, solar power, a computer and a network connection. Consummate professional that you are, you have brought the three software packages you need to continue your life and research. What software would you choose and - go on - what luxury item would you take to make life easier?

Today we hear from Andrew Treloar, Director of Technology at the Australian National Data Service and Co-chair of the Research Data Alliance Technical Advisory Board.

I still can't quite remember how I ended up on the desert island... It may have been a particularly bad performance review, or possibly my boss just took me a bit too seriously when I said I needed more time to sit and think? In any case, the only bit of the process that is still clear in my memory was having a short window in which to decide which device to take and what software packages I was allowed to load onto the internal flash storage. (Hard disks? Who uses hard disks anymore?)

The device answer was an easy one. Although I am getting more productive with my iPad, there are a whole range of computing tasks for which a traditional laptop are a better fit, at least for me. And while curling up with my laptop in a hammock to read a book, such as Robinson Crusoe, isn't quite as nice as it is on an iPad, it's so much better than not reading at all.

Now, the next question - which OS? Given the lack of tech support on the island, I decided to go for something that just works, and that runs the software I want to take with me - Mac OS X. Yes, Ubuntu is become much more reliable, but I have had enough experiences with package conflicts and badly behaved device drivers to make me a little bit wary in this scenario. As for Windows - are you mad?

So, the hardware was easily sorted - a MacBook Air, running Yosemite. I like to live on the cutting edge! Yet what software, and why was I only allowed to specify three choices? I distinctly remember being threatened with having my internet privileges revoked if I tried to download other apps and install them, so I needed to choose carefully.

The first choice was an easy one, a web browser. This is effectively an infinitely morphable software package which allows me to run a wide variety of apps within it, and I have access to a huge range of information on almost any imaginable topic to divert me. After switching between Chrome and Safari over the last few years, the tighter integration with my chosen OS made me opt for Safari.

The other choices were more difficult - I envy those with the skills to code their own applications, but my last significant software was written so long ago that it was in Pascal, so building my own solutions isn't really an option. The most creative things I do on a computer now are draw diagrams and write. So, that made the decision straightforward.

For diagrams, I chose OmniGraffle. This is now my tool of choice for architecture design, symbolic pictures and process flows - essentially anything where one has to represent something abstract. The software provides that rare and magical experience where it feels like an extension of one's mind - it's beautifully designed, internally consistent and powerfully flexible. I still feel like I have a long way to go to truly master it, but it lets me do things far more easily than Visio or (shudder) Powerpoint.

For writing, I went back to the software I learned to use for my PhD - Framemaker. Yes, I have to run it inside an emulation layer, but it's worth it. It's a document processor done right, ideal for complex structured material. In fact, it shares a number of characteristics with OmniGraffle - versatility, consistency, powerful features for the expert and a sense that the software user and the software creators share the same mental model of the problem space. It's a delight to use, and now that I don't have to collaborate with my colleagues, I can happily discard Word and be far more productive. No more battles with list formatting equals bliss.

Of course, life isn't just about computing, and I also have a choice of one luxury item. I could have taken my 'cello, and I was tempted, but in the end I decided to choose a collection of heritage fruit and vegetable seeds. They will enrich my diet, provide me with something physical to do in the garden, and most importantly, provide me with a problem domain where the weather and a variety of pests make for a endlessly varied set of challenges. I haven't yet mastered the perfect summer tomato, but now I have all the time in the world to try!

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