September 16th, 2005

krazy koati

So should we all grow straight and tall

I got to a long presentation on the virtues of the new Maple 10. Maple is a nifty symbolic-mathematics package, meaning that you can have it do Calculus problems like int(x^2*sin(x)*cos(x), x = 0..Pi); and it'll return the integral, from 0 to π, of x2 sin(x) cos(x) with respect to x, without agonizing work. In principle, a student who understood this could never get a homework question wrong in all freshman Calculus; in practice, as a TA, we spent all freshman year trying to get students to understand how to type in int(x^2*sin(x)*cos(x), x = 0..Pi);. The program does a lot of mathematics, everything from differential equations to simple graphics to abstract stuff like linear algebra. We swore by, and at, it throughout grad school using features from signal processing to group theory that the freshmen never dreamed existed and that we couldn't get to work right either.

Anyway, Maple 10 -- I missed out everything after 7 -- includes two interfaces, the demonstration claimed. The first was the classic interface, the one they ``always had'' ... which is actually true only back to Maple 7, when they introduced this multi-windows trapped-in-a-giant-frame thing, that the school had dropped on the TA's the first week of class years ago, so we were almost as baffled as the students were. (They also changed the symbol used for ``last calculation's results,'' making all sorts of stock notes instantly obsolete, again, the first week of class when we had to explain the most important parts of using Maple.) I almost quipped that they haven't always had that interface, when it struck me that for eight years, they have; they had it maybe longer than they had the older interface. The second new interface is this odd thing based on making things look more like a word processor document, with more commands called up by contextual menus instead of explicit commands that anyone reading the worksheet could generate, so I'm sure it's going to be an exciting new world of confusion.

The new Maple does have a mighty neat trick in its student packages -- working out the solution to a problem (calculus, algebra, linear algebra, differential equations, et cetera) and showing intermediate steps. That would be such a great tool for students, if it were possible to get freshmen taking Calculus to understand the program at all. At the tea break -- and before they introduced this feature -- I got cornered by one of the presenters who wanted to know what I thought about the new interface, and I tried to get my mild opinion (``it's rather useful, though the particular problems I have it doesn't do well'') to stretch out to the conversation length she wanted to have. (The tea break snacks, incidentally, included shrimp toast, something I love and about the only way I can stand to eat shrimp.)

Robert Wise, director of The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- my favorite of the Trek movies -- has died. Blast it. And it's only reading his obituary that I learned he was the editor for two of my other favorite films, Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster. Forget Google; what we need is a service that tells me of stuff I didn't know, but would think was really cool to find out.

Trivia: Voyager transmitted at 23 Watts. Source: Far Travellers: The Exploring Machines, Oran W Nicks, NASA SP-480.

Currently Reading: Satellite E One, Jeffery Lloyd Castle.