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Squiggly Lines Aren't Good Enough

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I was recently speaking with a business development manager, trying to explain the problems associated with on-line dialog when it comes to mathematics.

Most sites today don't really support the ability for average college students to create and send e-mails and notes involving mathematics.

Recent products provided by Design Science will hopefully expand that landscape, but the point I was trying to make with this 'business guy' is that opportunities exist  to develop an entirely new set of services that focus not only on publishing (distributing content), but on interactive dialog (a social component).

After listening to me opine about the problems facing students engaged in college level mathematics (and science, and engineering, and physics), he stopped me and said: "Can't we just give them a mouse to draw their squiggly lines?

"Sure. And we can give your dentist a hammer and chisel", I thought to myself.

I terminated the conversation as politely as I could, resisting the temptation to  jam my fist through my skype window and flick his ear (just like the nuns used to do while I was in Catholic elementary school - whenever I said something really stupid).

'Talking' about math and science is hard, even in a personal setting where folks can share a whiteboard, or even a piece of paper. The issues of dialog become more significant when placing a mouse, keyboard, and monitor between communicants.

Not only does one have to master some differences in syntax (the meaning and structure of sentences), but there is a different set of symbols and layout rules that don't easily fit with the left-to-right  progression (for western users) of keyboard typing, (or the resolution and fidelity of mouse-dragging).

I tried to rationalize why someone would think 'squiggly lines' are good enough - and the only reason I could come up with is that some people just don't get it. They are either ignorant of the problem, or in some way biased - thinking that the problems of communicating for students, engineers and scientists aren't important enough for them to be bothered with the topic. 

As a society we keep whining that we need to develop better tools for the next generation of engineers and scientists and engineers, but those who control access to resources (money and time) are often business folks whose idea of integration goes no further than the history of the Civil Rights movement. Meanwhile, those whose mission is to make possible improvements in how collaborative teams understand complex problems and solve technical issues are left to their own devices. 

It is, as they say, what is is.

For the record, to all those companies moving forward to make life easier for everyone from freshmen college students struggling with advanced math to today's engineers conducting collaborative design - please carry on - the world needs more than scanned images of formulas, pasted PNG images and static PDF files.

And no, squiggly lines aren't good enough.