Best Computing Practices: Climate

This is Part 1 of “Best Computing Practices for Ecologists,” laid out with ecology themes & analogies! I wanted to start with what “climate zone” you live in, and where you might be happiest as an organism. In this analogy, I’m talking about your operating system. This is where you start interfacing with a computer: no matter what remote system(s) you end up using (part 2) you’ll most likely always have your personal computer as a starting place.

Windows: the temperate zone

I assigned Windows to the temperate zone because it’s everywhere: likely in your home, and the O.S. you have the most experience interacting with. It’s the working class wo/man’s computer default, and just out of sheer probability, you probably live somewhere in the temperate zone.

It’s often the default on new desktops purchased for your research project, too, in part because in ecology, we’re still so reliant on ArcGIS and Microsoft Office Suite. Hopefully, times are changing, but a Windows install is still mostly “the rule” in our labs. Also, even us progressives often are supervised by those reticent to give up the old standards, so most likely you’re still collaborating on Word docs with track changes sent back and forth. Again, one day that may change, but for now it probably makes sense for you to have at least a decent-sized Windows partition on your machine. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t potentially exploit more of your Holarctic range…

Linux: the polar zone

I deemed Linux the polar zone, because it probably has the lowest P.C. user base of the “top 3” operating systems (though someone please correct me if I’m wrong). Linux is also probably seen as the “least hospitable” and a daunting destination, until you find out that many species of birds that winter in temperate regions go back to the polar zone to breed (i.e. carry out perhaps the most important part of their life cycle). That’s my research analogy: the most important stuff I do gets done on the Linux side of my desktop dual boot. Also, pretty much all heavy-duty servers that do important things are Linux. So are the supercomputers you might interact with. So basically, Linux is where serious computation happens, and thus it’s a good idea to learn your way around it!

Mac: the tropical zone

Here’s where our effortlessly cool Mac fits in (which is unique in this list because the brand bundles the machine with the O.S.). Its sleek appearance, impressive hardware and cost place it in the luxurious tropics. It also probably has the 2nd highest user base. The downside of Mac is the relative inaccessibility of common programs you might have to use in ecology. The upside is, it hosts a cool operating system that (coolest of all) runs BSD Unix underneath. So, you can drop right into a terminal and do Unix, which is way better than your native options for Windows command line.

My review: I dual boot in Windows and Linux out of necessity. I have to use some Windows programs for my project and collaborators, but I wish I could go all Linux. Again, maybe sometime in the future we’ll get this right, but I understand the need for compromise now. If you like Macs and OSX, there’s nothing wrong with that, and you can even dual boot Windows if you need to (though I don’t know how the pricing would stack up in terms of cost-effectiveness there). The main thing, though, is you should be able to get to some Linux interface, somewhere. Trust me, if you do anything on the command line, you will earn dividends if you scale the learning curve. There are many tasks I can’t imagine doing without it, because of the cumbersome nature of Windows shells and the closed-source/inflexible nature of Windows! Even if I try at times to do something simple in e.g. Power shell, I usually give up because of the hassle and reboot to the other side. The list of advantages in doing simple-to-complex tasks in Linux terminal is too long to list here, but perhaps one day I’ll make it a post of its own to illustrate why it’s worth…not even making the switch, but just adding the option!

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