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Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!

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  • Subject: [mg130786] Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!
  • From: "djmpark" <djmpark at>
  • Date: Tue, 14 May 2013 03:18:08 -0400 (EDT)
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I don't believe the "training wheels" model can really achieve the
objective. Are these people preschoolers? The situation is rather something
like this. Suppose all education was conducted orally until the junior year
in college. No or little writing. Then the students are to get into some
serious writing work. They are to write a critique of Marcel Proust's
Remembrance of Things Past. They do get some powerful tools to do this: a
computer with Microsoft Word, which has spell checking and some passable
syntax and grammar checking; a dictionary and French/English lexicon, and
French and English versions of Proust's work and maybe a couple  grammars.
And since the students have never written much before, Word has been
augmented with training wheels. A little button always appears at the start
of a new paragraph with choices 1) Would you like to type a new sentence? 2)
Would you like to enter a sentence in free spoken form? 3) Would you like
Literary|Alpha to search for ideas on some topic? 4) Would you like to start
a new Section? At the end of a paragraph a Suggestions box will appear with
something like "Would you like us to add a sentence on Marcel's health
problems in relation to the topic?" Gee, I never thought about health
problems. So nice to remind me of that. Several weeks of this and they
should be up to speed. 

Do you believe that method would achieve some worthwhile objective? Isn't it
rather that it usually takes years for a student to become really good at
expressing and manipulating ideas in written form? It's not surprising that
some students, without much experience, would become terrified at a blank
sheet of paper. Now add in mathematics and all of the new active and
dynamical possibilities for expressing and manipulating mathematical ideas
and don't we have a considerably greater learned skill? You can't replace
extended education and practice by software. It's the failure to get
Mathematica into early education that is the problem and getting it there is
the remedy. 

As far as the development of Applications goes I don't see why WRI couldn't
buy or commission good ones and incorporate them as standard add-ons.
Remember that a good application might have many specialized convenience or
display routines for the subject matter and it would really be somewhat of a
burden to have all of these in the core Mathematica, both for WRI and for
users who would have thousands and thousands more routines thrown in their
faces. If WRI tries to ameliorate the situation by a truncated set of
routines then they end up with unpolished and inconvenient capabilities.
Most users might use only one or a few Applications.

The major problem with Mathematica Applications is that they are a new
medium and we are still learning how to write them. Unfortunately,
mathematical skill and skill at writing Applications seldom go together. I
won't even begin to explain all the quirky things that happen! Yet a good
Application needs both good mathematics and good design.

David Park
djmpark at 

From: Murray Eisenberg [mailto:murray at] 

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

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 documentation.

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