Desert Island Hard Disks: Daniel S. Katz

Posted by s.hettrick on 29 August 2014 - 9:43am

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 Daniel S. Katz, Senior Fellow at the Computation Institute, University of Chicago & Argonne National Laboratory, and currently Program Director, Division of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure, National Science Foundation.

Following the example of lots of fairy tales, I’ll bend the rules and say that I want a single tool that enables me to do lots of different things: a browser. Yes, this is the equivalent of using my first wish for an infinity of additional wishes. (I wonder how the fable authors will punish me for my conceit in trying to trick them?)

Do I really need a browser? Couldn’t I build my own? Probably, given enough time and effort, but what’s the point? We are social (collaborative) animals, and how we’ve gotten to where we are (a desert island, in my case) is by building on each other’s work.

A browser gives me two things. First, and most obviously, as hinted at above, the ability to download: to find and obtain other people’s work. Whatever I want to do, I don’t have to start from scratch. And, if I see something that almost does what I want, I can ideally get the code and modify it to meet my needs.

The second quality of a browser is the ability to upload and share. At heart, I’m a computer and computational scientist, meaning that I want to understand how to use computers to solve science problems, and to make this process easier. My work is user- and application-driven; I need to know what others are trying to do in order to build the tools and systems that will enable them to do so. I need to see them use my tools to know how to make them better. And I work in a community, not in isolation (on my island). Others can improve my tools, and I can work with and improve their tools, giving them back for the community of developers and users to benefit. In addition to code, I write content: mostly text, some presentations, and far too many emails. Some of this is to get my thoughts in order, but all of it benefits from others reading it and either commenting on it or contributing to it. And along with code, this is how I communicate ideas that I want to influence society.

Overall, the browser lets me collaboratively interact with others by reading their work and uploading and sharing my own. And now I don’t need to worry about the other two wishes (software packages to selected.)

My luxury item is a really effective out of the office message for my email, since the reason to be on a (networked) desert island must be to get away from distractions.