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RE: [Axiom-developer] Knuth's literate style

From: Bill Page
Subject: RE: [Axiom-developer] Knuth's literate style
Date: Mon, 14 May 2007 22:47:14 -0400

On May 14, 2007 6:36 PM C Y wrote:
> ... 
> I rather doubt there will be agreement on the best language to
> write CASs in, ever.  My hope is that at some point most writing
> for computer algebra systems will take place in languages designed
> to be close to the mathematics (SPAD/Aldor) and have a solid
> framework which only needs a little tweaking now and then.

Although I am irrevocably committed to promoting Axiom and Aldor
as the appropriate tools for computer algebra, I found Ondrej
Certik remarks on this list concerning his reasons for choosing
Python for SymPy rather compelling. The reasoning is simple: 1)
Python is familiar to millions of current generation programmers,
2) Python is adequate (while admittedly not perfect) for developing
a computer algebra system, 3) To move any open source project
forward it is necessary to attract the interest of a significant
number of potential contributors, 4) There is a considerable
resistance on the part of most people to learn a new programming
language just in order to participate in a volunteer effort.
Therefore SymPy (and Sage).

Perhaps Voltaire said it better: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien."
(The best is the enemy of the good.)

In other words: trying too hard can get you no where. I think
that to some extent both Axiom and Lisp suffer from this sort
of syndrome. But I do not know what if anything should be done
about it.

> ...
> Bill Page wrote:
> > 
> > You might be surprised how many people I work with who want so
> > badly to write their scientific and technical documents in
> > Microsoft WORD. I would say that the number of authors who are
> > LaTeX users in our environment is currently less than 50% and
> > it is falling. :-(
> Gah.  Why is that, do you think?  My experiences with Word have
> seldom been positive.  Sheer mass action and familiarity?

I might be rather biased but I think the main reason is
institutional. Microsoft offers their customers the usual
"security blank": you pay us money, we provide you with some
level of support. There is no equivalent arrangement possible
concerning LaTeX. In contrast it is possible (but still difficult)
to promote OpenOffice to corporate instructions just because you
can pay Sun for exactly the same thing that you get for free in
OpenOffice. It is this corporate "mindset" that keeps a lot of
open source software out of the major instutions (outside the
university environment).

A secondary issue of course is that LaTeX (at least in part by
deliberate design) is not normally written in a WYSIWYG style.
This leads to a steeper learning curve which one might have to
climb more than once depending on how frequently you author
publications of this type. I think it is hard to convince most
people that this effort is "worth it" (although I personally
believe that it is).

Finally a third issue is merely a matter of fashion. It is not
currently fashionable to use "legacy" tools of this kind. Most
people are looking for something new and sexy and easy... even
if the result is not necessarily as good as that produced by
the "pioneers" (like Knuth).

> > Martin Rubey wrote: 
> > > ...
> > > I think it's quite sad that so little documentation has
> > > been provided to the algebra sources yet.
> > 
> > Yes I agree. We should discuss why this is the case.
> ...
> I believe Axiom can achieve a sufficiently strong environment
> that NOT learning it is a bigger inconvenience than learning
> it, but the benefits provided must be major.  We aren't close
> yet.

I have serious doubts that we can ever get "there". I can not
see any real possibility of making the user interface so
seamless, the programming language so "natural", or of obtaining
some new  mathematical result using Axiom so astounding that a
significant number of people will see "MOT learning Axiom" as an

> ... 
> > How can we make doing this attractive to other people?
> ...  
> > How will they obtain appropriate "credit" and peer recognition
> > for this work? What other motivation can we offer them?
> That's a point, actually - has anyone published any papers
> recently showcasing work done in/for Axiom?  That seems like
> the most logical pathway to me, although it would mean writing
> at least two papers - one for the Axiom codebase and one for
> publishing, since those journals generally take copyright...

I find that the Sage developers generally have a very good handle
on how to organize this sort of work. First and foremost I think
was the original decision to "assimilate" other open source computer
algebra projects rather than competing directly with them. (Yes I
do mean assimilate in the Star Trek sense: "Resistance is futile".
:-) But seriously, I think they have done a number of other things
right. See for example

"Submission of Refereed Code to SAGE"

Tim Daly has suggested (more or less) this sort of approach for
Axiom. I believe something similar is in place for GAP and that
was probably the model that Sage is following. If it were somehow
(someday) possible to establish this sort of peer review
"publication" process for Axiom, I think it might go a long way
toward providing a means to "credit" people for their work in a
way that means something to both the average university supported
researcher and the dedicated open source hobbyist.

Bill Page.

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