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MathGroup Archive 2005

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Re: Getting a pure text widget?

  • To: mathgroup at smc.vnet.net
  • Subject: [mg61384] Re: [mg61355] Getting a pure text widget?
  • From: "Steven T. Hatton" <hattons at globalsymmetry.com>
  • Date: Mon, 17 Oct 2005 02:29:52 -0400 (EDT)
  • References: <NDBBJGNHKLMPLILOIPPOAEIIELAA.djmp@earthlink.net>
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at wolfram.com

[I'm not sure what the fate of this mail will be.  I just subscribed to the 
mailing list.  I had been using the usenet interface exclusively.]
On Sunday 16 October 2005 13:46, David Park wrote:
> Steven,
>
> I am going to take a different position on this. I think that Mathematica
> has a perfectly good user interface, which is the Mathematica notebook.

I suggest you read this through before commenting.  There are two levels of 
ideas presented here.  One has to do with how the Mathematica document 
concept could be improved.  That is really secondary to my current objective.  
My current objective is to have a GUI that works.  The current GUI 
distributed with Mathematica 5.2 for Linux is obsolete and broken.

The Notebook itself is something of a nebulous concept.  We have the document 
class called Mathematica Notebook which typically has a filename extension 
of .nb.  We also have the runtime instance which is represented by an 
instance of the Mathematica FrontEnd window.  The FrontEnd window could be 
considered as a superset of the actual runtime instantiation of a Mathematica 
Notebook.  For purposes of this discussion I will try to distinguish between 
the textual entity stored persistently on a harddrive, the runtime 
representation of that entity, and the GUI used to control that runtime 
instance.  I believe all three of these classes are flawed in their own way.

Mathematica Notebooks are stored as monolithic entities with both program 
generated data and user produced source code intermingled.  For example, 
graphics data is stored in the same file as user source code.  There are 
significant disadvantages to that.  It's more difficult to decouple input 
from output when transferring informmation.  Sourcecode becomes vulnerable to 
corruption of output data, etc.  The syntax in which the sourcecode is stored 
is very hard to read because of the nesting of quotation and other escape 
characters.  Ideally content should be decoupled from presentation as much as 
possible.  That is currently not how notebooks are structured.

> The Mathematica notebook follows a tradition of technical publication that
> goes back at least to Euclid. The interface is the blending together of
> expository text, equations and diagrams. This is what one sees in
> mathematical, scientific and technical journals today. It is what one sees
> in textbooks. One might call it the classic text-equation-diagram
> interface.

I've stated in the past that the facility for typesetting mathematical 
notation, and also processing that notation is very impressive.  That is one 
of the features I am eager to maintain in any UI I happen to create (though 
from the looks of things, I don't believe I can achieve my objectives with 
the tools available.)

> But the Mathematica notebook is a revolutionary advance over the classic
> interface. It is so new that only a few have absorbed its capabilities and
> made effective use of them. With the Mathematica engine behind it, a
> Mathematica notebook follows but becomes much more powerful than the
> classic interface. A short notebook can generate calculations, graphics and
> animation. A reader can modify any of these elements. A notebook can
> include routines and tools that a reader can use to check or extend the
> material in the notebook. A reader can add calculations and also add
> comments and text. In other words a Mathematica notebook is an active
> text-equation-diagram document.

It would benefit greatly from a formal document definition facility, as well 
as document definitions based on that facility.  The current stylesheets mix 
structure and presentation in ways that make it difficult to decouple.  Also, 
the existing stylesheets are poorly documented.  That is, unless there is 
documentation I am not aware of.

> A Mathematica notebook, if handled properly, is already far superior to
> classic techincal papers and instructional material.

I do not believe Mathematic is the superlative mathematical editing tool.  
Support or XML DTDs, or other formal document definition formats would 
greatly improve its usability.  A stylesheet definition along the lines of 
CSS would also be of value.

> In my limited experience I have observed that most users do not bother to
> learn how to use the notebook interface. They don't know how to use Text
> cells, or enter mathematical expressions in the text cells. They don't know
> how to use the Section/Subsection organization of a notebook. They often
> opt for Manual Grouping, which practically destroys the notebook concept.
> Manual Grouping destroys the reader's ability to easily add material to a
> notebook and that's one of the revolutionary advantages! They put in a
> rainbow of colors that has no meaning to the typical reader and that only
> distracts from the presentation of the material. Instead of using Titles
> and Subtitles at the top of the notebook they put them anywhere and
> sometimes use them for comments! They don't know how to use graphics and
> animation. They generally slight textual exposition, which is just as
> important as the calculations.

It may also be the case that the current implementation is unnecessarily 
difficult to work with.  It doesn't help that the stylesheet implementation 
on Linux is simply broken, and does not function as documented, nor does it 
function in a coherent fashion.  This has been broken for a long time.

> I believe that we are still learning how to use the notebook style. Perhaps
> the great Masterpieces of 'Classical Mathematica' have yet to be produced.
> It's a metter of good material, good writing, good style and elegance.

Mathematica does not have a monopoly on structured document formmat.  I find 
XEmacs, PSGML, and the DocBook DTD to be superior to Mathematica for 
producing structured documents.  The biggest limitation is the ability to 
fromat mathematical expressions as they are input.  

> As for widgets and palette interfaces - I'm generally opposed to them for
> several reasons.
>
> 1) It is extremely difficult to make an interface that is as versatile as
> the text-equation-diagram interface. Non-notebook interfaces usually end up
> being limited choice devices and are therefore quite restrictive.

The current FrontEnd GUI on Linux doesn't even allow the user to paste a 
string into the search dialog when doing search and replace.  The help 
browser truncates the display of long section titles, and offers no way to 
scroll the display, nor to change the size of the displayed window.  The file 
access widget is extremely painful to use.  The property browser is 
non-functional 50% of the time.  For some reason it rebuilds the display 
while the user is making modifications.  The users modifications are 
therefore reset to the values they had when the dialog was opened.  The 
commands described in the Mathematica book for opening and otherwise 
controlling notebooks do not behave as documented.  Not even the scrollwheel 
for the mouse works.  And imwheel is not an option.

My current objective is simply to create a GUI that works correctly.  The one 
provided for Linux is broken.

> 2) People already understand the text-equation-diagram interface. (Actually
> many don't but they are in a preliterate state.) Each new pallete or widget
> interface presents a new learning challenge. It's true that the
> introduction of Windows type GUI computer interface from PARC was a vast
> improvement on the old command line computer interface. But it only brought
> us back to the possibility of an active text-equation-diagram interface.

Pallets are useful in presenting the user with a range of options which would 
be difficult to present using only the document interface.  The most valuable 
pallets tend to be the ones which show the alternative methods of inputing 
the same information.  Pallets are, for the most part, pedagogical devices.  
I don't use them very often.  Nonetheless, I just looked at the available 
pallets and discovered new features of Mathematica's diffeq support.

> The Mathematica notebook already incorporates this. It may be possible to
> come up with something different and better - but it's going to be very
> difficult.
>
> 3) Is the widget going to completely replace notebooks or is it going to be
> some kind of extra palette tool? Competition to get your widget on the
> desktop is fierce. Desktop space is precious. One will have to come up with
> something really good to get one's widget on very many people's desktops.

How 'bout a Mathematica Notebook interface that works as documented?  The 
widget I want is almost identical to the one you get when you type in 
`mathematica' in a xterm.  The only difference between that and what I want 
is the one I want will not have any Motif functionality.  I will provide my 
own file browser, etc.

-- 
Regards,
Steven


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