Conrad Wolfram




Phew! New Demonstrations site up...

A little tougher than I thought it was going to be to get everything lined up for release.

Our "knowledge app" site was completely redesigned to use the inline Mathematica 8 or free Wolfram Player plug-in rather than having to open a separate window (alongside various other changes).

This apparently small plug-in change makes a big usability difference and by the same token, it changed the site workflow quite a bit. It also required the latest version of Player--just releasing too--and itself quite a feat of engineering.

One of the complexities has been to work through all the cases of different machines, installations and therefore optimal operation. What should the site show if someone has Mathematica 7 (no plug-in capability) installed? Or they're on an iPad (no Player for now on iOS)? Or it's a complex demonstration that takes some time to compute? Each has its own adjusted workflow.

Hopefully, we've ironed out these cases but with the traffic we get, I'm sure we'll find out anywhere we haven't soon. Getting this optimised is a high priority: Demonstrations is one example of much broader interactive publishing plans codenamed CDF.


Amazing: iPhone app got my father a pacemaker

Last week I had downloaded this heart monitor app, intrigued at how it used a finger placed over a phone's camera to work out your pulse.

My father was visiting so I showed him the app for fun. He's 86 and has had a few issues with walking etc. but that wasn't on my mind. The app read 36bpm--way low (as Wolfram|Alpha confirms). My wife, ophthalmologist Stella Hornby, checked. It really was 36bpm; she was sure he had a heart block. After some effort we pursuaded him to hospital. They confirmed the diagnosis where this morning he had a pacemaker fitted (rather a quick turnaround by the UK NHS, I thought).

This result is all the more amazing as 3 years ago my wife thought my father might have carotid sinus syndrome, and that a pacemaker would be the likely treatment. But on visiting the cardiologist, he couldn't find anything (heart rate was fine while they were measuring it) and so nothing was conclusively diagnosed, and no treatment given.

What an example of the power of interactive apps and the future of self-monitoring!


Why "fair" maths tests aren't fair...

How should one define fairness of testing? There are countless ways to make tests unfair, but achieving fairness surely involves aligning what's being tested with the purpose of the education. And isn't the main purpose of education to give you skills for life?

Yet in the modern US-UK concept of fairness, questions with complete reproducibility of assessment trump questions that more accurately simulate real life but can't always get every marker awarding exactly the same marks.

For example, multiple choice tests can be marked with complete reproducibility, but when in real-life did you last pick from 4 or 5 answers one of which you knew "has to be" right? Rather, questions which need explanation and judgement calls can be much fairer tests of the student's ability at the real-life subject, even if they might garner some subjectivity of marking.

All this was brought up today when I looked at a book which helps testers set tests. Within the narrow confines of how US testing works, it was no doubt very helpful.

But thinking bigger picture, it was deeply frustrating--like castigating a question with "irrelevant information" ie. more than the minimum needed to calculate the answer, because it wasn't solely testing one core ability [doing a manual calculation]. Since when does real life only have exactly the amount of information you need--no more, no less? And isn't sifting information and using what's relevant a crucial, core ability---particularly since the internet?

Something that makes this all worse: today's tests have assumed an importance beyond their capability to judge. And that's had the unfortunate feedback of putting huge emphasis on reproducibility of marking...and therefore questions with definitively right or wrong answers.

Governments, others setting test guidelines, please remember: fairness ≠ reproducibility (and while you're about it, math ≠ calculating (!))

Or as a London cabby put it on not getting a tip "it may be correct but it ain't right".


What you say versus what you think you say

Just put up the transcript of a talk at gave about maths education (similar to my TED talk) at our Technology conference a few weeks ago.

I find it informative to read because I remember saying stuff slightly differently from how I actually did.

I rarely write stuff out word for word for talks. Usually I make headings and fill in in real time. The killer is not having a full text but trying to remember word-for-word what to say...I'm a useless actor.


Manic Monday

It wasn't just my TED talk that got released today but Mathematica 8 and a big redo of our website precipitated by it. Websites are complicated animals these days and including documentation we put up over 10,000 pages. Here's what I emailed around to everyone in our company this morning.


I'm very pleased to say that alongside the release of Mathematica 8, a major revamp of has gone live, including:

- Cleaner homepage that will increasingly represent all Wolfram company activities, not only Mathematica
- Completely revised Mathematica section, including features, customer stories and of course...
-  ...what's new (where for the first time we've added top reasons to upgrade and features by version)
- Different types of video to describe Mathematica, in particular the quick tour and feature spotlights (pop both from pages I linked)
- Solutions page refreshes including major revision of higher-ed and student sites
- Transformed home edition section
- New support center
- And the new, modern navigation style

I hope you like it all, and agree that it puts many, much larger companies to shame!

Please join me in congratulating the many groups that have pulled this together over more than a year--in particular design, tcs, marketing including project management, user experience, web implementation and video productions.

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