John Simpson is the Digital Humanities Specialist at the University of Alberta. He is also the Digital Humanities Specialist for Compute Canada and WestGrid. Sometimes his e-mail is signed at University of Alberta. Sometimes his e-mail says he is in Toronto. He is truly a man with hats.
John sees three roles for himself: building awareness both on the technical and on the academic sides; training users; and, traditional technical support. On the technical side, most of his clients are used to interacting by e-mail or with machines. But on the academic side, his work takes him out of the office performing outreach. If the work were merely technical support, no one would seek his services. Instead, John looks to provide cradle to grave support. His goal is not simply to help with the machines, but to know about the project as it is being developed, helping with grant applications and the provisioning systems, and, finally, putting away the data at the end. “If there’s no social piece, you’re done.”
An important part of John’s work for his Philosophy doctorate involved using the University’s Linux clusters to run simulations to examine different models of rationality. In academia, the model of rationality is the ideal economic agent who knows all the options, all of his or her preferences, all of the players, all of their preferences, and makes decisions accordingly. He designed a simulation to produce hundreds of thousand of agents who had less than ideal knowledge and ran thousands of scenarios to compare their decision-making to the ideal. He overlaid the simulations much as they do in forecasting the weather. The question was how much worse off are we than the idealized agents. Somewhere between utopia and starvation, less knowledgeable agents perform better than the ideal agents as they are able to take decisions faster and more flexibly as their decisions are more easily coordinated.
John started working with computers when he was five. His mother, a teacher at his school, agreed to take on the computer club. As she was his ride home, he joined the club. He got a new school computer to use every summer that he broke and learned fix going through TRS80s from Radio Shack and Commodore 64s on his way to the U of A’s linux clusters.