Paul Interviews Ryan Somma, Software Developer and Amateur Scientist Ninja

By Paul

In January, eight Extreme Biology students will travel to Science Online 2011, an international conference where scientists, educators, journalists, and students come together to discuss the way the web is changing science and science education. As part of their preparation, the students have conducted interviews with conference organizers, presenters, and participants. This is the third in the 2011 series.

Ryan Somma (@ideonexus) is computer scientist who writes on his blog about technology issues, computational thinking, and the philosophy of science.  He cleverly describes himself as a “mild-mannered software developer by day, and an amateur scientist ninja by night.” He has an outstanding collection of science images on Flickr.  At Science Online ’11 he will be leading a demo session on the use of MemexPlex, an open source blockquote/meme and reference management tool.

The image of Ryan was taken with WireGoogles, an Android app written by Brian Nenninger. It’s available on the Android Market.

Why have you chosen to attend this year’s Science Online Conference?

I attended a Science Online conference four years ago, and was immediately hooked. I write a blog on science, technology, and whatever other geeky things catch my fancy, and that drew me to my first conference. Then I kept coming for the fascinating discussions I got to enjoy. There are some very challenging topics about the role of media and the ethical questions presented by new technologies on which I enjoy hearing different perspectives. I also get introduced to all sorts of new developments in Internet technologies as well. I find it more enlightening about what’s new in online discourse than my membership to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

As a professional in a computer-related industry, what programming languages do you use most frequently and which do you find to be the most useful?

I’ve worked with some very obscure technologies, such as a programming environment called Edify, which was like playing a video game where, instead of writing code, you put logic blocks together on a grid representing the flow of logic. Because my work focuses on web applications, I have worked primarily with VBScript and PHP for server-side application functionality. I also work heavily with JavaScript for front-end functionality, which I have watched mature into a wonderful language for making interactive Web interfaces. It’s really amazing the things web sites like Netflix, Google, and others are doing with JavaScript, but most of my peers dislike JavaScript because you have to account for the ways different web browsers interpret it. JavaScript that works on Google Chrome may not work in Internet Explorer.

As for what languages I find most useful. I find anything that supports object-oriented programming is best. I started out programming procedurally, just one big block of code from start to finish; however, I became a convert to object-oriented programming three years ago, and it has really made my life easier. With OOP, you greatly increase the reusability and maintainability of your code. You also abstract away the complexity of your code as well, so you don’t have to think as hard about the problem immediately in front of you. I’ve been slowly converting all my JavaScript code to the object-oriented paradigm.

My wife and I attended the Random Hacks of Kindness event in Washington DC, where programmers volunteer to take part in a weekend coding marathon for charity, and almost all the projects there used Python, so I’ve wanted to learn that language when I get the time. Once you learn one programming language, it’s pretty easy to learn others.

What revolutionary technological innovations do you hope to see appear in the near future?

I have a lot of hope for the semantic web (SW), if it can get off the ground. SW offers a fantastic potential for bringing us search engines that answer questions directly instead of giving us a list of websites that may or may not have what we are looking for. It also provides the possibility of linking data online in a meaningful way, allowing us to customize our searches in more detailed fashion, like with the Freebase database, which allows you to query Wikipedia for specific results, like getting a list of all computer scientists born before 1950 who attended Harvard.

Wolfram Alpha has also been a fascinating example of a semantic search engine; although, I don’t think it’s a semantic web application, but rather a really advanced algorithm and database allowing you to ask questions like, “Where is the ISS?” and get an answer on the International Space Station’s current position.

What is the most interesting software development project that you have been a part of?

Professionally, the most interesting project I’ve worked on has been an ongoing effort to modernize the United States Coast Guard’s aviation logistics systems. I’ve been tasked with developing new software development standards and applying the latest cutting-edge solutions to the intranet application. It’s very challenging because I have to do a lot of research to keep on top of the best practices, but the challenges keep things very interesting. Each day brings a new puzzle to solve.

There is also a great deal of responsibility that comes with working on information systems. Last week we had a new software release go out, but a serious bug had slipped through testing, which resulted in pilots not being able to sign for their aircraft. Our help desk phones rang off the hook all day Monday and pilots had to resort to paper records until I was able to figure out where the problem in the code was and get an emergency fix released.

Although, I got off pretty easy. PC Pro just did and excellent article, “When Computers Go Wrong” about famous examples of programming errors causing disasters. It really stresses the responsibility that comes with working on important information systems.

As a personal project, I’ve been working on an application called MemexPlex ( and .org), which I wrote to manage all the little blockquotes I collect from the different books I read. I’m currently working the bugs out of it so that the public can start using it too. It’s my first time setting up an open-source software application, so I have a lot of documentation to write so other developers can understand the code I’ve written. I’m hoping to have it ready to go live in time to present at the conference. What I have online right now is very unstable.

Thanks for your questions. I love the opportunity to talk IT. : )

Looking forward to seeing your class presentation at the Conference!

Ryan Somma


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