I’ll be behind the Great Firewall of China next week, so I’ve been thinking about various sites I won’t be able to access. Prominent among them is Dropbox, a service that hosts files online.
What do physicists do with Dropbox? Quite a lot.
For us, Dropbox is a great way to keep collaborations on the same page. By sharing a Dropbox folder, we can share research programs, mathematical expressions, and paper drafts. It makes it a lot easier to keep one consistent version of a document between different people, and it’s a lot simpler than emailing files back and forth.
All that said, Dropbox has its drawbacks. You still need to be careful not to have two people editing the same thing at the same time, lest one overwrite the other’s work. You’ve got the choice between editing in place, making everyone else receive notifications whenever the files change, or editing in a separate folder, and having to be careful to keep it coordinated with the shared one.
Programmers will know there are cleaner solutions to these problems. GitHub is designed to share code, and you can work together on a paper with ShareLaTeX. So why do we use Dropbox?
Sometimes, it’s more important for a tool to be easy and universal, even if it doesn’t do everything you want. GitHub and ShareLaTeX might solve some of the problems we have with Dropbox, but they introduce extra work too. Because no one disadvantage of Dropbox takes up too much time, it’s simpler to stick with it than to introduce a variety of new services to fill the same role.
This is the source of a lot of jury-rigging in science. Our projects aren’t often big enough to justify more professional approaches: usually, something hacked together out of what’s available really is the best choice.
For one, it’s why I use wordpress. WordPress.com is not a great platform for professional blogging: it doesn’t give you a lot of control without charging, and surprise updates can make using it confusing. However, it takes a lot less effort than switching to something more professional, and for the moment at least I’m not really in a position that justifies the extra work.
Lock in is a problem that only gets worse with time. I have about 8250 posts between three blogs at blogspot, and there is no quick and easy way to migrate that to a new platform without losing something worthwhile. The platform I use is certainly not the best one out there, but once you have mastered a platform and are locked into it, summoning the efforts to try something different are difficult.
In the same vein, it is amazing how high up the food chain Microsoft Xcel, with all of its faults, is the dominant means by which mathematical models and databases are managed. Even major investment banks and government financial systems are (inappropriately) run on it.
You guys seriously, seriously need to just standardize on Git. It’s the right tool for the job. It doesn’t introduce any extra work.