Monday, November 17, 2008

What's New

For more than two years I have been describing application software ("the programs"), and not the operative systems. Sounds obvious? It isn't. I had noticed, in the past, the attempt of a couple of programs (namely the ACD suite and the "NMRnotebook") to substitute the operative system. What they do is to put all your NMR data into a monolithic archive. From that moment on you can't search your files into the normal directory tree: the application program manages everything, substituting for the system. Can they do it better?
I have also seen the opposite phenomenon, that is the appearance of new operative systems that do every kind of things, up to the point to make you feeling that application programs are no more necessary. My preference goes to the latter trend, for a practical reason. When you are in troubles with an operative system, you can find a neighbor or relative that knows it well and that can help you. If you are at work, you can call the IT department. If your troubles arise from the application software, instead, you don't know whom you can turn to. That's why I prefer doing more things than possible with the operative system, if I am allowed.
While I will be describing a specific OS, I am writing for everybody: it's the idea that counts, not the implementation.
Now, in my life I have studied only two OS. The first one was called "IBM-DOS" and the second one "MS-DOS". It happened in an era when the computers included heavy and bulky printed manuals. I have been commuting for half of my life, so I had plenty of opportunities to read paper manuals (over and over again). I am not using those OS any more and I have forgotten what I had learned. I have come in touch with the modern systems, but still feel like a stranger (I haven't found the new manuals yet!). Last week I have begun working with Mac OS 10.5.5. It resembles the old version 7 that I was using in the early 90s, so it looks familiar to me. I have tried to read the installation manual, which shows a few things you can do but doesn't tell how to do them. It only explains how to install the system. I am learning by practice.
The rationale is that customers don't know what to do during the endless installation process, so they are given a manual to spend their time with. Unfortunately, you can read as slowly as you possibly can, but the installation will always be slower than you. To give you an idea, the whole manual, including the unreadable license agreement, weights 94 g.
What has this to do with NMR? Well, this OS seems to be almost ready to handle NMR data out of the box. I want to show you the technologies that I have explored so far, and they are enough to write posts for a week. Mainly I will describe two commands: "Get File Info" and "Find...", that are so ancient I believe they have always been there, with the same keyboard shortcuts (maybe under a different menu). What's new? Now you can install custom plug-ins for those commands. The operative system will instantly become NMR-savvy. Writing a plug-in is not terribly complicated. The Apple site gives you all the tools, libraries, instructions, examples and templates you need. You can write a plug-in in an afternoon. If you have more time, with the same tools you can even write a complete NMR program. No need to look around for the FFT algorithm, it's already a component of the OS. Of course, it has been put there to manipulate sounds, not to process NMR spectra. If you can't write a line of code and want everything ready and free... then you are lucky! What I will be showing during this week can be done with freely available plug-ins. You don't need to know how to write them.
Let me clarify my intent. It's not that I am supporting Apple. I think it's a greedy corporation, no better than Microsoft or IBM. Their products are over-priced in the U.S. and sold at an outrageous price elsewhere. I would rather encourage you to stick to your old hardware and software. (Beware that programs written for System 7 are not compatible with 10.5). Nonetheless, it's nice to be curious about the new technologies. What I have discovered last week sounded new to me, probably is well known to you, surely will become normal practice in the near future. Enough said, for today [continues...].


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