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Goals verses syntax in MathML

From: Andrew Mathas <mathas@maths.usyd.edu.au>
Date: Thu, 7 May 1998 13:56:53 +1000 (EST)
Message-Id: <199805070356.NAA29378@milan.maths.usyd.edu.au>
To: www-math@w3.org, mailing@maths.usyd.edu.au, list@maths.usyd.edu.au
Dear All:

I have just been reading about the proposed MathML solution to
displaying mathematics on the web. I would like to echo the
comments of others that the proposed solution is absurdly
complicated.

For example, the present syntax appears to require that the font of 
every symbol be explicitly declared; would it not be more sensible 
to have a default font for every symbol inside a mathematics mode? 
Common features of mathematics, like subscripting and superscripting,
plus (+) and minus signs (-), etc. should also have reasonable shorthands.

Amongst the laudable goals listed for MathML at
     http://www.w3.org/Math/Activity.html
we find the following:
     1. Simple math should be easy to edit by hand (in particular
        by School children!).
     2. HTML Math should handle the meaning in math.
The complexity of the example given for displaying x^2+4x+4=0 shows
to my mind that the designers did not read their own specifications.

The specifications also state that the language should be rich enough 
to handle real mathematics;  given the complexity of the above example 
I would estimate that some of the *one-line* formulae in my papers will 
require at least 100 lines to represent in MathML. This long syntax first 
takes a long time to parse and, second, a long time to transfer across 
the net. Is this really what you want? 

It has been said that these objections are not really valid because 
(i) people will not have to write MathML by hand, and (ii), MathML needs 
to be compatible with a large number of different types of users. I don't
see either of these objections as being valid: (i) at some point people will
have to enter something by hand, if you have to write 6 layers in order to
let people be able to do this is, is this progress? For (ii), the simpler 
the base-level syntax the easier it is to meet the needs of different user 
groups. For example, default fonts in mathematics could easily be changed
by <mathfont>-commands and specialized fonts could be inputed as needed 
(eg.  with <em>-like commands). Since this is the way HTML functions already, 
I think you really need to justify *not* doing it this way.

Interestingly, in a rebuttal 
     (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/www-math/msg00022.html) 
to a post in a similar vein, we find Robert Miner retreating from 
the easy to read goal to one of being easy to *edit*. However, if MathML is 
not easy to read (at least with simple expressions), I think it unlikely that 
either of these goals will be met.

Best regards,
     Andrew Mathas
Received on Wednesday, 6 May 1998 23:57:49 GMT

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