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Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!

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  • Subject: [mg130793] Re: Work on Basic Mathematica Stephen!
  • From: W Craig Carter <ccarter at MIT.EDU>
  • Date: Wed, 15 May 2013 02:55:12 -0400 (EDT)
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Dear David,

I see your point and am somewhat sympathetic, but I agree with Murray's 
training wheels simile and its educational benefits. I also agree with 
Murray's final insight on that improvements to Mathematica, its 
Front-End, Package development and general innovation are equally 
important but need not conflict with the appearance of the "training 

Students of any age face learning curve hurdles. With hints, 
suggestions, and worked examples, the progress is generally faster and 
does produce an additional outside the classroom learning opportunity. 
If there is a range of sophistication of the hints, students quickly 
learn to ignore the ones that become obvious by experience and focus on 
those which lead to helpful or novel directions. My recent experience is 
that the predictive interface becomes "click-pathway" to the 
documentation--which is a good thing.  I typically turn off the 
predictive interface when I am doing my own development, but do turn it 
on occasionally so that I remind myself of the students' experience.

There is some risk that a student will be lead down a path that isn't 
optimal for mastery (here I include the free-form input button).  
However, it is interesting to me that in the last year that there has 
been a shift in my students: they are already users of Alpha and are 
pleasantly surprised that Alpha is incorporated into Mathematica.  
Eventually, Mathematica  becomes a tool of choice in their other 
physical science classwork--but they continue to incorporate Alpha.

Regarding the analogy to writing, you are correct that students should 
develop writing and critical thinking skills by combining practice of 
increasing sophistication with other learning paths. Writing quality is 
weakly coupled to the word processor by increasing the facility of 
editing and the rudimentary grammar checking; these may reduce the 
barrier to the mechanics of writing and free up intellectual bandwidth 
for content.  Is this very much different to Mathematica's syntax 
checking and predictive interface?

I was intrigued by the "Mr. Clippy" suggestion of adding a sentence 
about Proust's health.  Proust was an insomniac and was obsessive about 
creating insulating sound barriers to drown out the sounds of passing 
carriages.  It strikes me that this might have played a role in the 
dreamlike quality of his oeuvre.  I recall one passage in the early part 
of "Temps Perdu" where the first-person has a reverie of being a young 
boy lying awake listening for a locomotive in the distance. Hmmm, 
perhaps that might be good fodder for a critical paper?

As always, David, I appreciate your perspective and viewpoint of the 
importance of elegant presentation, and your continued advocacy of 
including CAS systems as early as practicable in education.


As a post-script that is back on topic:

I believe the blog was an excellent example of the power of combining 
data with graphics.  Regardless of the topic, I can imagine ways I can 
borrow some of those techniques for my own work.  I'm not so interested 
in the social media topic either and, as SW points out, some of the 
results are (satisfyingly) obvious. However, the non-obvious 
observations such as "Icelanders have more contacts", "people from 
Illinois move to California at a higher rate than do people from Ohio", 
"book interest is flat with age group, but music interest declines, 
personal philosophy has a local minimum around 30"  do intrigue me.

On May 14, 13, at 3:18 AM, djmpark wrote:

> 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
> 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 asier
> to produce and deploy packages, including their documentation.

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