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Re: Useful Dumb User Questions

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: [mg9011] Re: [mg8988] Useful Dumb User Questions
  • From: jpk at
  • Date: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 00:05:09 -0400
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

Hi Mark,

> Hello,
> This is a general message to the Mathematica wizards who populate the
> newsgroup, and also to the beginners.
> >From the various wizards of Mathematica, I see a certain amount of
> condescension toward beginners who ask questions that seem silly --
> broken syntax, awkward program flow, etc.  You supply answers, but
> immediately talk about how wonderful life would be if the stumbling
> beginner would only "get it" and conform to the syntax and rules of
> Mathematica.  As in:
> 	Mathematica Was Designed for X, Not Y; or
> 	This Is the Way You Do It, Silly; or
> 	I Don't Understand Your Question Because It's Dumb.
> I would like you to think about this idea for a moment:  perhaps
> Mathematica should be changed to conform to what first-time users
> expect!

And what education level has Your ``first-time user'' ?
 high school ? under graduate ? master ? 

WRI promote Mma on a wide range of educational levels. The high school
user will probaly expect a level that is different from the research
scientist who had worked with Maple or MacSyma and now switches to

> When you pick up a hand calculator, you know immediately how to use it. 

Yes ? really. 
Why every pocket calculator is a acompanied by 
a nice booklet called ``Manual''. The manual tells 
the user how to use parenthesis, the angle units, the radix base.

> The only issue is whether it is reverse Polish or plain input.  Once you
> know that, you are essentially finished figuring out your calculator.

And if You don't know what is reverse Polish or plain ?
Unfortunatly the TI-38 has not it's own news-group.

> Wouldn't it be nice if Mathematica were that way?  

Yes but than is is nothing more than a pocket calculator. A quit expensive
one. You need a large computer, a operating system and Mathematica.

> Maybe these dumb user
> questions are telling us something important about Mathematica --
> namely, that it is overly complicated and hard to use...except for
> computer science geeks like me who are willing to slave away at learning
> new languages.

Yes it is hard to use, it deals with complicated thinks like

- differential equations
- 3d graphics
- indefined integrals ...

> I consider myself an expert in Mathematica.  However I feel that many of
> the dumb-user type questions are actually very intelligent.  Let me
> offer some alternative responses corresponding to the three given above:
> 	Yeah, It Should Do Y, But At Least There's X; or
> 	That Would Be a Better Way, However The Answer Is; or
> 	Mathematica Is Too Dumb To Know What You Want Here.
> I hope that you will take this comment as food for thought.  There may
> be some clues about how to improve Mathematica in all these dumb-user
> questions.

When I see this type of questions my firts idea is allways to reply
RTFM (``Read the manual) but I can't remember that any one has
get that answer. 

The ``Mathematica Book'' is one of the best manuals I have ever seen.
It is well written and easy to use for a beginner as well as for an expert.
But the problem is that only a few people read it. Ok now it's a bit heavy
and splitting it into a couple of smaller ones may help. However 
if a user doesn't read the manual, he will not be able to use
the pocket calculator as well as Mathematica.

> I certainly hope that nobody on the newsgroup suffers the illusion that
> Mathematica has a reputation for ease of use.  It most definitely does
> not.  

Has any computer algebra the reputation of easy use?

> We can talk all day long about how undeserved its reputation for
> difficulty may be, but perhaps we should instead ponder the dumb-user
> questions as hints about how to give the program the ease of use that it
> presently lacks.
> I recall reading that Microsoft has a policy of taking computer novices
> off the street, sitting them down in front of Windows, and asking them
> to perform certain tasks on the computer.  Microsoft monitors carefully
> all the mistakes made by these novice users, in order to find out how
> Windows could be made more intuitive.  That is the kind of analysis I am
> calling for here.

I use only MS-Windows from Microsoft and it seems that it is extremly hard
to use. Did You ever search the registry ? Fortunatly my MS-Windows manual
(that came with the CD-ROM) has only ca. 20 pages. Unfortunatly the
``Windows resource kit'' (the true user manual) has the same expansion
as the ``The Mathematica Book'' but it is mutch harder to read.

Some years ago I was looking for a computer algebra. Because my nice
old muSIMP where turned into DERIVE and was less powerfull. I compared
Maple, MacSyma, REDUCE and Mathematica (it was version 1.x) and the
clear unifyed design of the programming language and commands let me
choose Mathematica. In fact the beauty of the language design make
Mathematica easy to use. 

It might be a good idea to put some people from the street say 
- a police men
- a house wife
- a school boy (age 9 or 10 years)
- a taxi driver

an let them perform some tasks like
- solving an integral equation
- solving a partial differential equation
- drawing the Riemann surface of a polynom equation of order > 5
- find the eigenfunctions of a helium atom 

monitoring the mistakes will make Mathematica also more intuitive.

> Maybe such analysis is only appropriate for WRI personnel, but I think
> the rest of us would do well to realize that this is a *really hard*
> program to use well, unless you are a gifted programmer.  I also feel
> that it is too easy for technical people to get smug about what they
> know, when in fact life should be a whole lot easier for everyone, not
> just the experts.  Among other things, Mathematica is still a
> command-line-driven program in an age of graphical user interfaces. 
> Palettes and the like are a helpful step.  I am just afraid that when
> the publisher and the users get smug about their expertise and the
> terrific design, the product is going to stagnate.

I am not afraid that Mathematica stagnate. With version 3 it becames 
a serious platform for scientific publishing, it was already a tool
for computer graphics, and for computer algebra and programming. 
This are all large fast developing areas of research. As long as 
Mathematica stays on the top of all thease areas there will be no
 Best regards,
 Jens-Peer Kuska

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