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Re: RE: Re: Not so Useful Dumb User Questions

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  • Subject: [mg9099] Re: [mg9071] RE: [mg9011] Re: [mg8988] Not so Useful Dumb User Questions
  • From: Mark Evans <evans at>
  • Date: Mon, 13 Oct 1997 23:33:14 -0400
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at

Richard W. Finley, M. D. wrote:
> Hi
> I would have to agree with this response by jpk.... I use Mma, Maple,
> and Matlab regularly and each has difficulties and places where they
> shine.  But none would be considered as "easy" to use as a calculator.
> If all you need is a calculator, by all means use a calculator and not
> Mma.  Would you try to use a 747 to get to the other side of town
> instead of a taxi...and then complain how poorly designed the 747 is
> compared to the taxi?  Mma seems amazingly easy to use considering the
> range of problems it allows you to solve.  On the other hand, there is
> no excuse for ridiculing people who are just trying to learn Mma and who
> ask a question which may be obvious to those with more experience.  But
> I personally haven't seen much of that.
> My kudos to Wolfram for a wonderfully useful product that I have been
> evolving with for the last 9 years!
> RF

Hello Dr. Finley,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  I have a few comments in response to
your remarks and to similar remarks made by others on this topic.

The analogy of the calculator has been misunderstood.  The point is that
here is a friendly technical object which you can pick up without
wondering about how long it will take you to get an answer.  You just
begin, because you know in general what a calculator is, and how they
work, and the interface is not a mystery.  The same thing is true of
word processors, for example.  A word processor may have a million
features, but you can run the program and immediately know what to do. 
If you need an advanced feature, you look at the help and it walks you
through the process.  Usually the advanced feature is just a matter of
answering a few dialogs.  I do not share your opinion that a large
feature set necessitates a difficult or nonintuitive interface.  This is
where we disagree, I think.

Except for the view, the experience of riding an airplane and riding a
taxi are practically identical.  Both modes of transportation are made
very easy for the passenger, who basically sits and waits for the trip
to be over.  One vehicle accomplishes a much more difficult task, but
the user interface, if you please, is the same.

In the one case, you know that the trip is much longer, so you choose
the more powerful vehicle.  On the other hand, if making the plane trip
required you to learn how to fly and get a pilot's license, then you
would probably just drive instead.  This is exactly what my technical
coworkers have concluded about Mathematica.  They would rather drive
than get a pilot's license.

The condescension to which I referred is not so much personal as
technical.  (It can be both.)  There may be a better word for it. 
Technical condescension means attributing a novice's difficulties to
inexperience rather than to the interface of the program.  It also means
assuming that there are no fundamental flaws in the philosophy of the
interface and/or language and/or evaluation structure.

We exhibit technical condescension when we see one novice after another
ask the question, "How come Sqrt[a^2] doesn't yield a?" and forever
return the stock answer that We Must Accomodate the General Case without
thinking about whether, indeed, the novice has a decent right to expect
"a" as his answer, or should have the means to declare a in such a
fashion that "a" becomes the answer to "Sqrt[a^2]."

There was a funny Dilbert cartoon recently in which the boss halts a
passing  employee in the hallway, and says to him, "Wait a
minute...those suspenders...those sandals...that scruffy're
one of those condescending Unix users!"  The Unix guru tosses a coin to
the boss and says, "Here's a nickel, kid.  Go and get yourself a better


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