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MathGroup Archive 1992

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What should Mma be, part II

  • To: mathgroup at yoda.physics.unc.edu
  • Subject: What should Mma be, part II
  • From: wiscombe at climate.gsfc.nasa.gov (Warren Wiscombe)
  • Date: Tue, 8 Dec 92 13:39:07 -0500

Hello MathGroupers,

  Apparently many people shared my concerns about focussing Mma on
mathematical algorithms and not presentation.  Many members of our group
leaped to support my statements, adding useful caveats in the process,
including the ones about how relatively easy it is to edit the PostScript
Mma produces if you want more artistic graphics.  But then the forces of
artistic presentation, reeling but not mortally wounded, regrouped and
counterattacked.  Why, they say, cannot Mma be all things to all people? 
And they remind us that we in the research community are few in number, so
how dare we try to bend Mma to our special interests?

  My concern now is one of deja vu.  Long ago, in the early 1970s,
Kernighan, Plauger, and the other driving forces behind Unix began
developing the philosophy that a collection of software tools was better
and more versatile than a single giant application [I'm sure you can see
where this is leading, but hear me out].  This philosophy gradually spread
and took root all over the world, in spite of monumental holdouts like IBM.
 Most of us who care deeply about computing consider this a watershed, one
we are ecstatic we have crossed, and we would not for anything in the world
go back.

  Nevertheless, eternal vigilance is necessary to prevent being dragged
back to the days of monolithic applications.  There will always be those
that don't have the energy, the desire, or the experience to put the custom
collection of tools together to do the job right, but rather prefer a giant
application that does everything--but nothing very well.  There are many
examples I might cite, but perhaps one from my own long experience with PCs
has at least the virtue of being first-person and not anecdotal.  In the
early days of PCs, I tried tools like WordStar, and I tried monumental
applications like Symphony that 'integrated' a word processor, a
spreadsheet, and God knows what else.  The tool philosophy quickly won my
allegiance, and that of the vast majority of PC users, while applications
like Symphony are now history.  Walk into any software store and see the
winning philosophy.  Beginners still flock to applications like MicroSoft
Works, but the minute they acquire any experience whatsoever, they leave
them to work with a collection of custom tools.

  The principle of using a collection of sharp tools rather than one blunt
sledgehammer is a triumph of modern computing philosophy.  To roll back the
clock, and ask Mma to be the Symphony of the 1990s, is to betray everything
we have learned about computing.


----------------------------------------------
Dr. Warren J. Wiscombe, DAAC Project Scientist
NASA Goddard, Code 913, Greenbelt, MD 20771







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