Wolfram's Computational Document Format

Wolfram, makers of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, unveiled
a new set of tools today
for embedding mathematical formulas and
charts into documents–formulas and charts that the reader can edit
and play with. With these tools, Wolfram takes a leap into the modern
interactive publishing and educational market. You can create a
document that contains a chart, say, about the current relationship
between publishing ad revenues and subscriptions, but let the reader
carry out experiments such as “Suppose we accelerate the trend in
subscriptions a little bit…” Simply by dragging a line on a chart,
the reader can cause the graph to recalculate relationships according
to an underlying formula. Wolfram calls the output the Computable Document Format.

Wolfram’s tools create documents that can be shared on the Web, and
are free for use by people who publish free documents. The tools can
be licensed by organizations that charge for documents. Access to the
tools can be on the Wolfram site (Software as a Service), or licensed
and installed on your own server.

These tools look to me like a boon to educators, and I predict that
all manner of publishers in the sciences and social sciences will
license them. Other researchers and policy-makers may also find them
useful because the demos make them seem easy to use. Conrad Wolfram,
Managing Director of Wolfram Europe, said that embedding an
interactive CDF was as easy now as creating an Excel macro, and that
they were aiming to make it as easy as an Excel chart.

Publishing is already proceeding at a fast trot toward interactive
documents. Web developers in particular can choose from such winning
tools as Processing, JavaScript
with HTML 5, and even the <a
href="http://processingjs.org/"Processing.jscombination of
Processing with JavaScript. Flash also remains a stalwart. None of
these seem to create mathematical interactions as cleanly and easily
as Wolfram’s CDF tools, but they can create a whole lot of other types
of interactions in addition to mathematical ones. That’s why I think
Wolfram’s proprietary and strictly constrained solution will have an
important place for certain types of publishers, but it’s an open
question whether web developers or general publishers will choose it
over the more open, standard, well-established tools.

Wolfram offers a demo
whose contents can be investigated with a special CDF player. You can try
out demos as fun as creating a Mandelbrot fractal drawing or as useful
as interactively investigating the effects on ROI of changes in
investment parameters.

My impression of the demos, however, was that few had the power to
affect real decision-making. For instance, I don’t see how moving
points around a graph can teach you analytic geometry; it doesn’t tap
enough into the abstract thinking that you need to grasp the concepts.

Wolfram plans to release the format itself as what they call a “public
standard.” This is not the same as an open standard. Typical CDF looks

I assume Wolfram will keep strict control over the format, which draws
a lot from the Mathematica language, and I doubt other companies will
want to or be able to catch up to Wolfram in the sophistication of the
tools they offer.

In short, I think Wolfram has a winner if it can be used by educators,
policy-makers, and other serious purveyors of information to use it to
help readers answer important questions along the lines of, “How does
the world change if I revise my assumptions?” If CDF becomes just a
competitor to existing technologies for eye-catching and amusing
displays, it won’t contribute anything new.

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  • Mathematica’s demonstrations and the its free demonstration player have been around for several years. In the past, the demonstrations had to be explicitly loaded then run in their demonstrations player. With this version, they have provided the glue to run the demonstrations straight in the popular web browsers. The other big difference is on the authoring side: while Wolfram will continue to maintain and grow its curated collection of CDF files, Mathematica users can now author CDF files on their own.

    It’s certainly possible that demonstrations can be used to make business decisions, but I don’t think that’s their primary value. Demonstrations have their value where the author already understands some physical principle or abstract dynamic and uses the CDF file as a means of allowing others to gain the same insight. For me the most fertile territory is for published technical papers: authors could either embed or provide a URL to a CDF file; readers of the paper could then run the mini-simulation on their PC. If everything works well, an Aha! moment (or maybe several Aha! moments) will occur.

    Textbook writers could craft dozens or hundreds of CDF files to go with a particular book. I personally would love to see Buckminster Fuller’s 1970s book “Synergetics” retrofitted with a bunch of demonstrations. A deeper layer of learning is possible where students using the full-blown Mathematica modify or create their own CDF files.

    To me, the greatest shortcomings of CDF seem to be the lack of social structure. I know of no open forum where those wanting a particular demonstration can request one. There’s also no crowd-shaped discussion to help people find particular demonstrations. The demonstrations also remind me a bit of Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”: older demonstrations are calibrated to run on ancient hardware; the best demonstrations will take full advantage of the hardware. FInally, there is no curation of lists of cool demonstrations to run. This last one is easy: bloggers could make playlists of cool demonstrations.

    Finally, Wolfram has been hinting that a CDF Player may be available for the iPad at some point in time. I asked them in their latest blog about CDF; their response was to stay tuned for future announcements. Being able to run demonstrations on the iPad (and then other tablet machines) would be stupendous.

  • Fernando

    Qué cara de verga erguida que tiene el chabón de la foto de arriba, encima habla pelotudeces, wolfran CDF es una cagada, porque no viene con plantillas potentes, y uno no quiere ponerse a hacer plantillas de mierda.
    CARA DE VERGA, CAMBIÁ LA FOTO, desvergonzado.