Math Software’s Arch Enemy: The Number Two Pencil - Reader Reactions

July 3, 2006

13 Min Read
Math Software’s Arch Enemy: The Number Two Pencil - Reader Reactions

My editorial on a recent survey by Maplesoft concluding that pencil and paper reigns supreme as the most popular design and analysis tool used by engineers drew plenty of responses, though I was disappointed that no one responded by actually putting a trusty Pentel to paper!

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Here’s a sampling of what loaded up my inbox:NOTHING BEATS A PENCIL!

Your editorial on the Math Software's Arch Enemy (DN 06.26.06), which reported the results of a Maplesoft survey concluding that engineers prefer pencil and paper to software, was terrific. Engineering is not all operation at a computer station.The operation down in the trenches requires the knowledge and experience with a good pencil: Number 3 or 4 as number 2 is to soft--smears.

Marv Krause
Manitowoc, WI


The results of the Maplesoft survey were not surprising, though I disagree with your interpretation of the results, at least for myself.  I am a heavy user of math tools, including Matlab, Maple, and others.  However, good old paper (or a whiteboard) has a vastly superior user interface, leading me to prefer those tools when I'm thinking. Paper is much cheaper, more flexible, more comfortable to use, more durable, more portable, doesn't crash, and doesn't require me to get the syntax exactly right. Collaboration is easy, as is expanding my work surface.  I think more freely with a pen in my hand, so I can cover a lot more mental ground.  Later I transfer my refined ideas into the tools to try things out.  Since much of my work is done with the pen, I would call it my primary tool. When any math tool maker can provide all of their very useful functionality in a pen-and-paper form factor (with all of the above-listed benefits--especially cost!), then software will become my primary tool.  Perhaps there are others that feel this way as well.Joe Porter
San Antonio, TX


One thing that proves the engineer or scientists understands the practice they are supposed to be competent in is to be able from memory and reference tables evaluate the problem and come up with good approximations.  You don’t need software if you understand the fundamentals.  The computer can be good for precise answers with good data input.  The output can never be better that the input and calculation operation.  It’s called flaw detection. This is also the means we use to evaluate the reality of a computer/software output. Most of us are sufficiently cautious to not trust the computer-generated answer without back of the envelope evaluations.

Any error in software or input into same produces garbage.  This pencil and paper method is the smell test to determine when the garbage must be taken out.

Larry Lang
Spanish Fork, UT


The reason the pencil is still used so much is that most of the "software for engineers" isn't written by "true engineers." Oh the authors may possess engineering degrees, but that doesn't make them true engineers. They need to have 20 years of engineering experience under their belts before they can write decent software.Another shortcoming is that most software is not simplistic enough. Some of the really jazzy programs can't do the simplest things. Further more, the most difficult portion of engineering is formulating or posing the problem and doing this task correctly. Solving the problem itself is generally the easiest part.

Here is a huge "for instance" that will set software developers on their heels: For centuries engineers have made three views of a machine part for the machinist to make. Once a good drawing was handed to the machinist, the part was made. The drawing was all of the information the machinist required to make the part. Now, jot down on a piece of paper with a pencil the number of companies that offer 3D CAD packages for making engineering drawings of parts. Dozens, right? If the CAD software developers had their heads screwed on right, they wouldn't ask the engineer to learn a new 3D program to draw parts. They would develop a program that takes existing conventional 3 view flatland drawings and turns them into 3D CAD drawings at the push of a button. Now that would be software worth buying!

John Archibald
Northfield, Minnesota


Good editorial. I totally understand the paradox of Maplesoft: reasonable price, many features, but can't compete with a No. 2. I think our society has become too technological about the formerly simple things in life: I got a new cell phone recently--before using it, they suggested reading the 40 page manual and viewing a CD. All I want to do is send and receive calls--no pictures, no text messaging, no internet, no ringer options. The CD is still shrink wrapped. Our TV, VCR, DVD, and Satellite system requires three remotes and come with three separate, large manuals. Our refrigerator, stove, microwave, washer, dryer, and security system are NOT easy to use, but are fully featured. I think people become overwhelmed with learning how to re-do formerly simple things, and it spills over into the workplace. Don't get me started on the electronic hand towel dispenser in the restroom at work.

Bob Spofford
Troy, OH


I was intrigued and relieved by your editorial regarding the apparent winning streak of lead over laptop.As a 53-year-old quality engineer, I often need to do calculations for tolerance stack ups and gage designs.I frequently pull out my hand held calculator, a clip board, Machinery's Handbook, and my trusty Pentel 0.5mm automatic pencil (I have evolved from the wooden pencil mainly because most are made in Asia and don't possess the quality of their predecessors).I frequently wish I had my old drafting table back.

I agree with the viewpoint that many engineers ARE too busy to learn all the new stuff that flies in from all directions.I also believe that most of us are comfortable with our tried-and-true methods and don't see any reason to change.There is also a satisfaction that comes from knowing that I figured out a problem the old-fashioned way without the help of a "software package."I think it's worth the extra time it may take to find that satisfaction.It allows me to think logically and accept the notion that I may be worth my pay...a self-esteem boost. Perhaps the hesitancy to accept every new "high tech" answer is what makes engineers so valuable and trustworthy.

Robert M. Aschliman
Indianapolis, Indiana


I couldn't agree more with your comments. Writers of these advanced software products just don't get it. MathCad, for example, insists that a peculiar input method be used for inserting equations instead of using something that the whole world already knows. The result is a level of frustration akin to having to learn a foreign language to say something that you can
easily say in your native language. It is always faster to use pencils, calculators and Excel or even a full programming language that you already know than to take the time to learn one of these packages.Dr. John H. Olsen
Kent, WA

Readers reacted to a recent survey by Maplesoft that proves the pencil is mightier than the software—at least for many engineers.


I read with great interest, your article about the reluctance to use engineering software. In my opinion, it's not only the learning curve that is the problem. It’s that just about any software you get today is frustrating to use.For example, there are too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are touted in the "Users Manual" in lieu of the essentials. Many important steps are hidden in the "HELP" menu rather than being clearly stated in a tutorial section, or even omitted entirely.

A user manual should be written in three sections: The first should contain practical examples on how to use all essential basic functions. The directions are to be written in a clear, concise, step by step "cook book" procedure so that the software can be used almost immediately. The second section should cover useful, but not essential functions. The third section should cover all the bells and whistles. Finally, writers should spend a year at Atari, to learn how to write good user manuals.

Walter Manka
Honeoye Falls, NY


Your editorial made a really intriguing "point" about the preference of pencils over calculators and math programs. I would like to hazard an untrained guess as to the reason why: that the act of writing the numbers and equations is both familiar (from childhood) and permits a physical association with the outcome that better commits the result to memory. But I'll leave the rest of this discussion to the behavioral psychologists.

What I would like to suggest is, that instead of smarter programs, perhaps we need a "smarter" pencil/pen. The "Leap Frog" brand has already created the "Fly" PenTop Computer. It allows a child to draw the calculator on paper and solve problems by tapping the pen on the keys and functions. It can even remember your own "inventions." So how much of a leap would it be to expand on this idea and put in conversion, trigonometric and  calculus functions that can be derived simply by the same algorithms that allow the infrared LED scanner in the Fly Pen to recognize a number or division sign?

I would like to add that as an engineer I actually enjoy doing the brainwork required for most of the simpler math; it keeps my "coprocessor" sharpened, plus the act of holding the pencil just feels more grounded than hitting keys and clicking buttons.  But if math programs could actually follow my pen strokes and work problems onscreen as I wrote them, I would be so very much more inclined to use them. Wouldn't you?

John Wyatt
Wyatt Technical, S.P.
Raleigh, NC


Thank you for your editorial on the command of the mighty pencil in the real world of engineering design. I agree with you that the learning curve with these programs prevents them from being an engineer's first choice for mathematic calculation. But I do believe you overlooked some critical compounding factors.

First is the perennial problem of program upgrades. Every year the math platform that I originally tried to use, would be preempted by a new, better, more complex version of the software. It had been a struggle to free up the capital funds to cover the arm and a leg of my initial purchase. The annual charge for upgrading of a leg for no apparent improvement became untenable. I realize that this is a natural consequence of the computing paradigm, Moore's Law, but none the less this is a problem.

The second problem has to do with porting. Long ago computer programming chose a text based source file format. This permitted others to view, review and if needed edit the source code--even those who didn’t have the compiler required to produce the final product! The software package I initially chose generated very pretty hardcopies that clearly explained my thought process. But the file itself was a proprietary configuration meant to be read only by the product that generated it. Eventually, locked files of printouts (PDF, JPG and embedded objects) permitted others in my group to view my results. But the only medium that permitted editing by those without the software was paper printouts.

Last is the learning curve. Most of us learned the complex mathematics behind these programs from a teacher writing on a board. We were then required to prove our knowledge using pencil on paper in a fixed period of time.

It is true that unrealistic classroom problems were typically carefully crafted to permit solving with paper and pencil and that occasionally real projects cannot be simplified enough to permit quick easy hand calculations. But finding the perspective to simplify a complex problem into one solvable by pencil and paper is a hallmark of a good engineer.

All hail the mighty pencil, and the mind that wields it.

Barrett T. Clay
Upton, NY


Interesting article.Here is my view: Engineers are rather spontaneous when working on initial design concepts, or when they want to check out a simple design calculation that can easily be done with three strokes on a hand calculator.I keep my TI 30 X calculator in front of me all the time.Let’s face it: If one needs to do a simple math calculation to quickly check an idea or whatever, it is simply faster to do it by use of paper, pencil and hand calculator.

Software has its place but it doesn't replace everything and it usually isn't efficient in doing the simplest things. Software people tend to "oversell" their product.

George C. Schmidt P.E.
Port Lavaca, TX


Most musicians, whether amateur or professional have experienced their music simply flowing effortlessly out of their fingers.The mind can soar and roam free.The pencil provides the same type of intuitive ease, especially when equipped with an eraser.Take up the

ball point pen and you will immediately feel somewhat restricted. Many fresh ideas are sketched out on napkins, backs of envelopes and even quadrille paper because of the looseness and ethereal quality of inspiration before it becomes a concept set in stone.Some newer "old-timers" still prefer to use the ancient ACAD 10 command set over more recent versions, probably for similar reasons of comfort, familiarity and freedom from the additional imposed processing distractions of new materials. Maybe someday Maple 10 will be looked upon as an intuitive tool employed by some future practitioners as is our number 2 pencil.

Emil Toth
Chapel Hill, NC


Enjoyed your article about math software versus the No. 2 Pencil. There is a limit to how many programs an individual can learn. I've seen reluctance even in younger engineers to change the tools they already know. Also, the software is constantly changing. We've been barraged with so much hype over the last fifteen years that we've become jaded by the claims made by some of these applications. Just looking at the MathSoft site, it looks like Mathematica, MathLab or MatLab. I prefer writting programs in Visual Basic for my own needs. I can barely fit another thing into my brain.

Karl Hanson
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