Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mac hacks for research

As much as I sometimes want to think that Apple is the new Microsoft, I can't deny that they've got something that the evil empire never had - fanatical users who are loyal not because they have to be, but because they truly love Macs. In fact, they love Macs so much that they often devote their free time to developing stunning software applications that range from the quirky and fun (think Delicious Library) to the "how did I ever live without it?" (think Papers). The enormous array of applications available for Macs, unrivaled in their aesthetics, ease of use, and depth of features, serves to reinforce the Mac's reputation as the platform of choice for trendsetting computer users.

It turns out that this is true in the scientific domain as well. Joel Dudley, founder of MacResearch, gave a guest talk for my lab today on a dizzying array of Mac tips, tricks, and software meant to optimize the Mac experience, especially in a scientific research environment. Some of the applications he mentioned looked truly extraordinary, and I thought I'd describe some of the more notable ones here for those interested in getting more out of their Macs.

For the cell and molecular biologists out there, here's a solution for your image processing needs. Macnification is like an extended iPhoto for microscopy. The full feature set looks impressive - you can track experiments, manage metadata, make measurements, create movies, and generate virtual z-slices through multiple images, all in one sleek application. I don't work with microscopy images, but now I wish I did!

For Python programmers wanting to flex their artistic side, NodeBox allows you to create amazingly complex graphics and animations with just a few lines of Python code. NodeBox is free and open source, with plenty of example scripts to get you started. Just looking through their online gallery is enough to get the "what-if" juices flowing.

Graph Sketcher and DataGraph
If you hate pretty much everything about Excel graphs, you might like everything about these two graph programs. Graph Sketcher is for quick, brainstorming type graph drawing - use their simple tools to draw pretty much any abstract relationship in 2D, with or without data. DataGraph is more powerful and meant to plot large volumes of data. The defaults start out fairly aesthetically pleasing, but there are many many ways to tweak the look of graphs, add or switch data, add additional axes, and plot multiple dimensions simultaneously. Both applications export to PDF for high-resolution figures, with DataGraph allowing export to vector-based formats as well for use in publications.

In addition to these, the Omni group has a suite of applications for boosting productivity, managing information, and drawing high-quality graphics (much more easily than the impossibly hard to use Adobe Illustrator); Journler is a great Mail-like program for organizing notes such as your lab notebook; and, of course, Papers is a must for anyone who reads scientific papers on a regular basis.

Be sure to check out MacResearch for more innovative applications geared especially towards science and research.

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