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Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!

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  • Subject: [mg130782] Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!
  • From: Murray Eisenberg <murray at>
  • Date: Tue, 14 May 2013 03:16:48 -0400 (EDT)
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Re "clean" notebook interface:

An experienced Mathematica user might well prefer a totally clean 
notebook as starting point for some work. But a new user, or potential 
new customer, might well panic at an essentially blank window. (The 
faint horizontal line with it's "+" icon at the top of a new notebook 
window is at least a starting point.

Similarly for once the new user has typed and possibly evaluated some 
input: what should go there? what's the correct form? what can I do with 
it? So WRI has attempted to provide some guidance directly in the 
notebook, outside the Documentation Center. (Whether it has the intended 
effect is a separate question.)

For example, suppose the new user, or somebody just trying out 
Mathematica, successfully types and evaluates:

  Plot[Exp[-x] Cos[x], {x, -Pi/2, Pi/2}]

And possibly (probably?) the user wants to enhance the graph. How do 
that? Well, the Next-computation Suggestions Bar provides an immediate 
and obvious way to approach it -- without having to look up Plot, wade 
through the long list of Options.

I write the above as somebody who has helped hundreds of university 
students learn Mathematica and who realizes how much more efficient the 
learning would have been over the years had such front end doo-dads been 
available. They're like bicycle training wheels: they can help you get 
started, but you can get rid of them when they get in the way.

Re specialized applications:

One of the things I hated about another technical computing product 
that's very popular, especially in engineering circles, was that to do 
so many things -- at least at one point, even to do symbolic 
manipulations -- you had to purchase separate add-on products. By 
contrast, one of the things I've appreciated about Mathematica from the 
start was the inclusion, in fact, integration, of graphics and symbolics 
with numerics; and increasingly, the migration of add-on packages into 
the kernel. (Surely part of the reason is that software and hardware 
advances permit doing so.)

On the other hand, there are areas of applicability where WRI can expect 
to target specialized products that are, I presume, more expensive than 
plain Mathematica. I see no reason why they should not leverage the 
Mathematica platform to produce such products -- especially if the 
revenue thereby generated can help support maintenance and further 
development of Mathematica itself.

Re maintaining & improving Mathematica:

Nothing I wrote above is meant to minimize the importance of other 
things that need to be done, from fixing bugs to maintaining a stable 
notebook appearance -- e.g., not willfully changing the default font 
family or font color for Section, Text, etc., cells. And by all means, 
make it MUCH easier to produce and deploy packages, including their 

On May 13, 2013, at 3:50 AM, djmpark <djmpark at> wrote:

> That is not the way to gain new customers. It is just adding doo-dads,
> usually in a confusing and insufficient manner. Sometimes less is more if
> the less is workable and the more is not.
> Think of the various types of calligraphy. The tools are very simple and
> limited and yet what beautiful results can be produced! But the tools have
> to work and not be continually presenting problems or unnecessary choices to
> the artist. What even more beautiful results could be produced with
> Mathematica - if the basic interface allows the writer to concentrate on his
> or her ideas.
> Mathematica cannot directly provide all mathematical services because there
> are just too many possibilities and the people at WRI are not expert enough
> in all areas and do not have the time or experience. Many useful
> applications will be specialized in some respects but will have many extra
> convenience routines for the particular application. WRI has to concentrate
> on providing core routines both for mathematical calculation and basic
> presentation constructs. It may be difficult to decide what should be a core
> routine, but just adding on things willy-nilly is not likely to succeed.
> Good add-on Applications should be a basic mechanism for extending
> Mathematica. WRI does an extremely poor job at explaining how to write
> Applications and the Workbench support is only barely adequate. (I do have a
> rather extended discussion on writing Applications in the Presentations
> Application, including where to put them, how to set up folder structures,
> and how to provide certain and convenient access for users - for those who
> might be interested.)
> The entry point for input to a Mathematica notebook should be absolutely
> CLEAN with NOTHING there except what has already been entered and the entry
> point. If the writer needs assistance he should request it. Without
> requesting help it should be invisible. The basic methods for requesting
> assistance should be hot keys or the right click context menu, or possibly
> the Mathematica Menu. Why couldn't Wolfram Alpha be on the context menu
> instead of an in-your-face doo-dad button on every new Input cell, which
> also appears and often gets in the way of text in created windows? Some of
> the choices there are already on the context menu. And there is a
> WolframAlpha routine. And you can also get it just by typing ==. I wonder
> what percentage of Input cells become WolframAlpha? It is a nice but
> occasional feature. It isn't worth sacrificing a clean interface when there
> are so many easy alternatives.
> WRI already makes a fair use of the context menu and they could make even
> better use. In Windows one can right click within a folder and get a New
> entry on the context menu. One of the new items that can be created is a
> Mathematica Notebook. It would be very nice if they could add a Mathematica
> Package to the list. (Maybe Microsoft creates the list from installed
> applications and WRI can't control it? Or can't set .m files as a file
> type?) Once one has set up a proper Application structure it is really easy
> to write packages. Getting the package in the right place is another little
> speed bump that deters writers. In Input cells the context menu has an
> "Insert Special Character..." entry. This would also be useful in Text and
> text like cells, where it is missing. It would be nice if spell checking was
> on the context menu for Text cells and the various Section cells - to just
> check those selections.
> As for the Suggestions Bar after output, I think it is rather dubious for
> most writers to have WRI rewrite their code. But I recall that one poster
> said he liked it because it reminded or introduced him to routines that he
> was unaware of. Which suggests that a really useful feature would be
> somewhat different. Why not have a "See Also" context menu entry for Input
> cells that brought up a list of relevant routines and links to their
> Function pages. This kind of targeted and selected shortcut into Help would
> be quite useful.
> One built-in feature of Mathematica that seems inadequate to me is Grid for
> constructing tables. I wonder how many people use Mathematica to write
> custom tables, say with blocks with different background colors, and special
> dividers and fonts and things like that. Tables are an important method of
> conveying technical information and I wonder if the difficult Grid
> construction dominated by Option programming mitigates against using
> Mathematica as a communication medium.
> It would also be interesting to know how much use the new "add-on" features
> such as units and tensor get. It would be nice to hear positive or negative
> comment.
> Although I'm a heavy user of Mathematica, I may not be typical and my
> suggestions might be off the mark or just plain incorrect. Nevertheless I
> think public discussion of where Mathematica should go can only be helpful.
> From: Murray Eisenberg [mailto:murray at]
> As a possible, simple-minded explanation of what WRI is up to: surely
> they're faced at any given time with a given customer base. To gain new
> customers, they need to add new areas of applicability, whether through
> adding them directly to Mathematica or by creating new Mathematica-based
> products.

Murray Eisenberg                                    murray at
Mathematics & Statistics Dept.      
Lederle Graduate Research Tower            phone 413 549-1020 (H)
University of Massachusetts                               413 545-2838 (W)
710 North Pleasant Street                         fax   413 545-1801
Amherst, MA 01003-9305

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