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Re: Useful Dumb User Questions

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: [mg9027] Re: Useful Dumb User Questions
  • From: weber at (Matthias Weber)
  • Date: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 00:05:25 -0400
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

I appreciate that sort of discussion. I would be possible to write a
front end with  a nice interface (graphical, whatever you want)
which however restricts the input to simple expressions. That is,
only input would be accepted with intuitive meaning such that a
beginning user could solve his/her problems. The design of such a
front end would be the hard part, and probably one should indeed
pick some hundred people from the addressed user group to test
it out. 
This way only a subset of Mathematica´s abilities would be
available, but it would be instantly to use. 
I myself would welcome such a front end very much for educational
purposes -- we have just given up the idea of using Mathematica
for teaching undergraduates because of that sort of difficulties.

However, I consider another problem more dangerous for the evolution
of the Mathematica dinosaur: It fails to be reliable. I am horrified
by the bugs in version 3.0 some of which have been reported in this
newsgroup in the last months. Suppose your work requires the evaluation
of finite integrals, and Mathematica comes up with obviously wrong
answers? You report the bug, and that´s it. If you get an update
(poor guys who are not so happy to have spent the little fee for the
premium service or are even students), you can check whether the bugs
are still there, but what does it help you?

I have come to the conclusion that I can only use Mathematica safely
with the well defined elementary functions like Differentiate, Together,
Apart -- all the stuff I could easily program by myself if I had the time.

Ideally, one would like a formal proof of Mathematica´s claims.
This being too much (really ? I don´t know.), it would be nice
to be able to get some sort of information what the more complex
functions of Mathematica were doing in a special situation. I figure
that Simplify uses certain sets of rules, and it would be nice if
one would be notified about which sets were used.

I know that I am asking in fact for a more complicated system,
one which would be even more difficult to understand and to program.

Another issue is efficiency. Recent posts indicate that in some cases
Mathematica 3.0 is slower than 2.2, and even if there are workarounds,
options to turn off and whatsoever, this cannot hide the fact that
for some problems, Mathematica can be amazingly ineffective. This does
not mean that WRI is using slow algorithms, it means in many cases
that the user has chosen the wrong way to solve his problem. In Mathematica,
there are many ways to solve a problem, and it is not obvious to the
user why one way should be more efficient than the other. I have found
that Do loops are less efficient in many cases than constructions using
Map and Table, which looks also more professional but is hard to explain
(for me).
(Structured programming languages like Pascal were so successfull because
they only used efficient concepts, Algol 68 where every syntactically
possible statement had to make some sense was dead from the beginning.)
Also the new notebook concept is a very slow one -- I have the impression the
kernel falls asleep any time I evaluate a new cell.

Maybe Mathematica will split into different products for different users.
A simple, easy-to-use version for students and non-professionals, a reliable,
thoroughly tested version for professionals (I hope the military scientists
are using something else!), and maybe a development version for the 
experts. WRI shouldn´t forget that they rely on the users for finding
bugs and improvements.

Matthias Weber

In article <61cog3$4in at>, Mark Evans <evans at> wrote:

> 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!
> When you pick up a hand calculator, you know immediately how to use it. 
> The only issue is whether it is reverse Polish or plain input.  Once you
> know that, you are essentially finished figuring out your calculator.
> Wouldn't it be nice if Mathematica were that way?  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.
> 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.
> 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.  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.
> 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.
> Best regards,
> Mark Evans

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