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Re: [Axiom-developer] RE: [xml-litprog-l] Re: noweb, pamphlets, and TeXm

From: Mike Dewar
Subject: Re: [Axiom-developer] RE: [xml-litprog-l] Re: noweb, pamphlets, and TeXmacs
Date: Tue, 26 Nov 2002 13:46:33 +0000

Hi Michel,

I'm not suggesting throwing LaTeX away, but it was never designed to be
used as an output language for software and in general using it that
way leads to problems.  As a language that people write directly in a
text editor its fine, and speaking personally its still the only system
which I use to write documents if I have a choice, but increasingly few
people write documents that way these days.  Like it or not we're moving
to a WYSIWYG world and the "back-end" representation of the mathematics
will be irrelevent.  However that isn't really relevant to this
discussion - the original question was whether a front-end for OpenAxiom
should use LaTeX or MathML as a rendering format.  Users won't care
because they'll never see it, in the same way that they never see
OutputForm in the shell interpreter.  Now if you want an archive format
then thats a different matter but I don't think that writing a document
in LaTeX is any guarentee that it will be readable in 10 years let alone
100.  Make a hard copy on vellum, thats my advice :-)

Cheers, Mike.

On Tue, Nov 26, 2002 at 02:20:09PM +0100, address@hidden wrote:
> Hello Mike,
> > > LaTex is a defacto standard notation for mathematical
> > > markup but MATH/ML is rapidly evolving as a more
> > > "modern" alternative. Should one attempt to adopt such
> > > a radially different (and some say exceedingly verbose)
> > > approach as MATH/ML in the design of a new user
> > > interface for Axiom?
> > 
> > LaTeX is fine as a rendering language but it does not have a regular
> > syntax and is very hard to manipulate.  I've just spent several months
> > working with XML documents with embedded fragments of LaTeX for
> > mathematics and the upshot is that we're removing the LaTeX and
> > replacing it with MathML.  Also, once you translate to LaTeX, it is
> > very hard to have any degree of interactivity such as cut-and-paste
> > since the structure of the rendered version may have little or no
> > relationship to the underlying data structures.  With MathML/XML you can
> > annotate the presentation form with the content form (and vice-versa) or
> > use xref to link related parts of different structures.
> >From the point of view of software developers you are certainly right, but 
> from the point of view of users and Science, I think you are wrong : 
> TeX/LaTeX is a defacto standard notation for mathematics, as Bill Page 
> noted, and I think that we ought to start from this point, whatever the 
> difficulties, for many reasons, the main one being that software are for 
> users, not for developers, so the user's point of view ought to be 
> prominent (this is a true for commercial software because the aim is to 
> earn as much money as possible, but I think this ought to be also the case 
> for free software). I give a few reasons, why users might have an opinion 
> opposite to yours:
> 1 - One would have tons of work in maths, physics, chemistry, etc. that 
> would go to the rubbish heap or would have to be translated, with the 
> inevitable errors inserted by any translator. Errors of one character in a 
> text can be corrected automatically by humans and software, but error of 
> one character in a formula in a scientific article cannot be corrected 
> (except by reconstructing the proof) and the consequences can be 
> disastrous.  Let just recall that an error of one character in a computer 
> program led to the crash of a NASA planetary probe, cf:
> There are other examples of this type  (crash of Ariane 5, sink of an oil 
> platform etc) and one can imagine easily others, for example the 
> consequences of an error in the chemical formula of a medicine, etc.
> Your argument based on your difficulties is quite valuable, but the 
> question "is a formula in language XXX rendered exactly, today and in the 
> long term ?" is much more important in my opinion - all the more in the 
> long term.  No human can read a Mathml formula except very simple ones, it 
> is too much verbose. So one would be condemned to use software to read 
> such formulas. Could anybody certify that a MathML formula written with 
> today's version could be rendered exactly with a software in hundred years 
> as it is today? TeX formulas on the contrary can be read by humans 
> directly, and moreover TeX is frozen, so this stability and human-
> readability makes it a completely reliable way to transmit math formulas 
> over very long periods. 
> 2 - Let just consider the denomination of plants, animals, anatomy : all 
> are in Latin, since Linne's work more than 200 years ago. This stability 
> in the denomination was a crucial ingredient for the progress of botany, 
> biology and life sciences, etc. because everybody - whether he is British, 
> Chinese,  French or from any country - knows a given living being under a 
> unique name. Botanists can still read descriptions of plants that were 
> written 200 years ago. Of course, this approach is difficult, as botanists 
> have to learn Latin, but this is the condition for scientific exactness 
> and for having a common and stable language, understood by everybody over 
> a very long period. The "sagesse" of botanists, biologists etc. has been 
> to keep this (otherwise obsolete) language to allow their science to 
> progress and to remain rigorous, instead of unceasingly changing their 
> language, which would have restrained the progress and multiply the 
> possibility of confusions and errors. 
> For the same reason, I think we ought to maintain the usage of TeX for 
> documents with mathematical formulas, as the usage of Latin is maintained 
> for description of plants, animals etc, despite all the considerations you 
> give (about your difficulties with TeX) which are, I agree, valuable, but 
> negligible as compared to the bad consequences of abandoning TeX in favour 
> of something else, and then 20 years laters abandoning this "something 
> else" for another "something else", etc., etc...
> If this point of view worries you too much, let us consider that there are 
> people who are working on Scientific OCR, that could reconstruct formulas 
> from scanned articles in scientific journals. This is a very difficult 
> job, but this would be very useful and is worth the study. And it is 
> certainly feasible, as any scientist does it daily with his mind.
> Well, instead of starting from scanned images to reconstruct formulas, let 
> us start from formulas in TeX, to produce MathML output today, and to 
> produce #!??&@ML output in 20 years (the new language which will have 
> superseded MathML at that time among learned computer scientists). This is 
> probably a difficult job, but certainly much less difficult than 
> Scientific OCR. And it is certainly feasible unambiguously also, as one 
> can read formulas printed with TeX without any ambiguity.
> So, mathematicians, physicists and chemists in 100 years could still be 
> able to type their articles in TeX and read the articles that were written 
> in TeX this year. And efforts to build free archives of scientific 
> articles (which might be unimportant for developers but are of utmost 
> importance for many users) would not be ruined, too.
> 3 - Another difference between user's and developer's approaches : 
> learning TeX is difficult for the user, but it is justified because it is 
> error-free and could stay for ever (if we are sufficiently wise to decide 
> it ?). Having to learn a few years later another language is unacceptable 
> for most users, I think, even though it might be more convenient for 
> developers.
> Best wishes,
> address@hidden
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