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Re: Plato's Academy of Mathematica: Soapbox warning!

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  • Subject: [mg22880] Re: [mg22870] Plato's Academy of Mathematica: Soapbox warning!
  • From: "Steven T. Hatton" <hattons at>
  • Date: Mon, 3 Apr 2000 00:04:10 -0400 (EDT)
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

David Park wrote:

> Steve,
> Yes it does take some effort to learn how to use Mathematica just as with
> any other powerful program. I always suggest the following:
> 1) Read Steven Wolfram's "Suggestions about Learning Mathematica" in the
> front of the Mathematica Book.
> 2) Work through as much of Part I of the book as seems relevant to you -
> which should be most of Part I. Type in the examples and make sure you can
> make them work.
> 3) Then you should be able to frame questions to MathGroup which will speed
> you along in your work.
> As for Linux - it is probably great. But I am one of those timid ones who
> sticks with Windows for the masses and have very little trouble.
> David Park
> djmp at

First off: are you the David Park who wrote the Book on Classical analouges to
quantum physics?  I would love to find time to read that book.

I understand what you are saying.  As Ben Franklin put it "Where there are not
pains, there are not gains."  But he also said "Laziness is the mother of
invention."  There is an extraordinarily powerful editor called emacs.  Emacs
has a GUI decendent called Xemacs.  I realize that a person can do a lot with
such a tool.  I found that I was spending more time trying to configure it,
and learn its arcane idocincracies, than i was writing code with it.  X/emax
is perhaps the most powerful editing tool, per line of code, in the world.  I
found myself using other, less powerful, but easier to use tools.  I have now
found a tool, nedit, which seems to be filling the middle ground.  What I am
saying is that Mathematica seems to be *overly* arcane.  Sure it is different than say
Java or C+-+-, but learning to use it seems far more difficult.  The Java
programming language is a good example of a tool with an excellent support
structure built around it.  It's not just the novelty of the Mathematica language that
presents a problem.  The help system is one example.  As far as I know, one
cannot execute a search with a simple boolean expression using the help

Two years ago people on the SuSE Linux mailing list were telling me that
people who wanted nice "hand-holdy" interfaces where exactly the kind of
people who had no business using Linux.  Now the biggest news in Linux is the
KDE ( ), and the GNOME (  Remember, Einstein begged
his friend Marcel Grossman to help him with tensor mathematics because he
(Einstein) realized that it held the power to solve the problems at hand.
Compare, say, Herman Weyl's _Space, Time, Matter_ to Misner, Thorn and
Wheeler's _Gravitation_.  One of the great achievements of _Gravitaion_ was
its intuitive presentation of tensors.  (Not that I have read all of either of
these books.)

What I am looking for is a better way to communicate the underlying structure
of Mathematica in a way that is intuitive to the person coming to it anew.  I'll be
the first to admit that I am having a hard time grasping the fine points of
using lists and etc.  What becomes more frustrating is when I spend several
hours working homework problems in Mathematica, that is, creating the vector diagrams
to represent problems in mechanics, only to have a system crash destroy all my
work because I failed to back up the work periodically, and Mathematica doesn't do it
for me.

As regards Linux.  I'll give Bill five more years, max, and he will be hanging
out with the folks at Wang Labs.  As I said two years ago, 'there are three
things that lead to the large scale success of a software product: user
interface, user interface, and user interface.'  And what I said the people
who criticized my opinions about this, was: 'if linux is all that powerful,
them it should be the ideal platform for developing a superior user
interface.'  I will say the same thing about Mathematica.  If Mathematica is all that great
(and I believe it is) then it sould be the ideal tool to use to create a
useful mapping between user expectations and underlying computational


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