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MathML vs HTML math, vs ???
As I have been frustrated about the lack of support for mathematics in
HTML for quite a while, I was quite excited today to find out about the
W3C Math Activity today.
I am a theoretical chemist, so most of the documents I would like
to put on the web are equation-rich environments. I tried latex2html a
while ago, but the output was just too awful to use. So if I want to
distribute anything to coworkers or students, I have to do it as PS.
This is a sub-optimal solution.
Anyway, I was excited. So I started reading the "Activity Statement."
This document confused me. It confused me badly.
As I read I came to the listing of the goals of the activity:
> - Simple math should be easy to edit by hand
I like this one... particularly when it goes on to say:
> For students and school children in particular, HTML Math
> should be simple enough to enter elementary expressions by
> hand. In other words you wouldn't need a special purpose
> editor.
I read this and thought "right on!"
Then I read some of the other goals, and they confused me a bit, but
I'll refrain from commenting on them for the moment, because what
really got me was the statement at the bottom of the page:
>It goes without saying that nobody is expected to write MathML from
>scratch. Unlike HTML which was intended as a mark-up language
>for use by people, MathML is for use by machines, facilitating
>searching and indexing mathematical and scientifc information.
This set my head spinning. I mean, based upon the example given,
this is certainly a true statement, but it seems like it directly
contradicts what was said before.
So why is that first statment "simple math should be easy..."
on the page? It's obvious from the incredibly convoluted structure
of the language that a "special purpose editor" is exactly what
is required.
Let me move on. The second goal of the project is:
> HTML Math should provide for dynamic mathematical
> expressions
>
> HTML Math should be flexible enough to provide for dynamic
> interaction with mathematical expressions, to substitute values,
> apply transformations, draw graphs, animate formulae and so
> on. There is great potential for rich interactive learning
> materials as compared with traditional paper based course
> work.
I do not understand why this is a goal of the project, or what it has
to do with the Web. We already have great tools for doing these things.
Since Waterloo and Wolfram are both involved in the Activity, you
certainly know this. If I want interactive math, I'm sure that I will
be able to buy some kind of plug in from either of these companies.
I'm a user, I'm a scientist, I'm an educator, and I'm computer literate.
I like editing my documents by hand. I like writing HTML in emacs,
because I have control and I know exactly what is going into my document.
I would like a tool which enables me to *display* formulae so that I can
share ideas with other scientists or with my students.. I don't want
to have to use some other program to do this, emacs suits me just fine,
it's free, it's available with exactly the same user interface on every
machine that I use, and I don't have to be running in graphics mode.
If I want interactivity, I can use CGI scripts and dynamically generated
pages, or I can use a plug-in. I'm sure that these things would come
if there was some kind of basic support for the display of mathematics
on the web. This technology is well-established and it works.
Currently there is nothing that lets me display math, and it looks like
what whatever is coming will not address these needs either.
I could be cynical and speculate that the presence of the authors of
the big math packages on the working group is the reason for the
incredibly convoluted syntax. They certainly have a financial
interest in ensuring that special purpose editors are required, but
I will refrain from going there.
So my question to you, the Working Group, is this:
Have you actually talked to any scientists about what they want
in a markup language for math?
Thanks for your time,
-Greg Landrum
---------------------
Dr. Greg Landrum (landrum@hal9000.ac.rwth-aachen.de)
Institute of Inorganic Chemistry
Aachen University of Technology
Prof.-Pirlet-Str. 1, D-52074 Aachen, Germany
Phone: 049-241-80-7004
Fax: 049-241-8888-288
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