Maria Holland

How China is Like a Meth Lab

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I just spent a few hours of my afternoon in the basement of Kep, the engineering building at TU, locked in a death struggle with Mathematica.  And it reminded me of my life in China more than anything else I’ve done since I returned to the US.

Mathematica is a computational software program used in many of my engineering, physics, and math courses.  It’s like a graphing calculator on steroids.  It can solve anything, graph anything, and put anything into a table.  It is perfectly capable of doing all these things, but the average person is hard-pressed to perform a calculation like 2+2 on the first try. 

(Sound familiar?  China is the most populous country in the world, the second largest economy, and I couldn’t successfully check out a book from any library in my city.)

When using Mathematica (or any other programming software), the user must master a certain syntax to communicate with the software.  Mathematica is case-sensitive, freaks out over punctuation of all kinds, and even requires a special combination of buttons to evaluate an expression.

(In this analogy, syntax = red stamps on paperwork.  If you’re missing one, don’t even bother.)

My roommate and I were working on homework for our Introduction to Numerical Methods class.  (We call the class “Meth”; thus our assignment is a “Meth lab”.)  We had to use the bisection method to find the zero of a function.  This basically consists of choosing a range on either side of someplace you know is a zero, dividing the range in half, figuring out which half the zero is in, and repeating until the ranges are tiny enough that the error is within a given tolerance. 

Alli was both more familiar with Mathematica and further ahead than me from the start, so she finished while I was still struggling with it.  She helped me decipher error messages, redefine functions, clear variables, etc. 

It was getting pretty frustrating.  What could possibly be wrong in my 5-line Do[If[ ]] statement??  I double-checked my square brackets, counted by squiggly brackets, and was still flummoxed.

Finally, Alli leaned over and, pointing to the {n,1,nMax} statement that was closing my Do loop, said I was missing a comma.  I added it in, pressed shift+enter, and a table of values appeared below, converging on the zero of the function at 0.31706. 

The feeling I had at that moment – the combination of the exhilaration of victory and the annoyance at how hard that victory was to come by – was so familiar to me from my year in China.  I kind of hate that feeling, but I also kind of like it – because, seriously, doing calculations in Excel is so commonplace that I barely get a high from it at all anymore.  In the same way, ordering food or making a phone call in America is nothin’ but doing the same (successfully!) in China is an indescribable rush. 

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  1. Error messages are actually decipherable? I always thought they were long pages of nonsense meant to make you cure and swear.

    Thanks for the post- it was fun revisiting those long-forgotten emotions (mostly of anger) caused by Mathematica.

  2. So, not much of a high from calculations in Excel…hence the Meth lab. Moderation in all things…

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