Wolfram Markdown, also called Computational Essay

June 9, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

I was reading Stephen Wolfram’s blog and came across this post:

People are used to producing prose—and sometimes pictures—to express themselves. But in the modern age of computation, something new has become possible that I’d like to call the computational essay.
I [Wolfram] have been working on building the technology to support computational essays for several decades, but it’s only very recently that I’ve realized just how central computational essays can be to both the way people learn, and the way they communicate facts and ideas. . . .

There are basically three kinds of things here. First, ordinary text (here in English). Second, computer input. And third, computer output. And the crucial point is that these all work together to express what’s being communicated. . . .

But what really makes this work is the Wolfram Language—and the succinct representation of high-level ideas that it provides, defining a unique bridge between human computational thinking and actual computation and knowledge delivered by a computer. . . .

Computational essays are great for students to read, but they’re also great for students to write. Most of the current modalities for student work are remarkably old. Write an essay. Give a math derivation. These have been around for millennia. Not that there’s anything wrong with them. But now there’s something new: write a computational essay. And it’s wonderfully educational.

A computational essay is in effect an intellectual story told through a collaboration between a human author and a computer. The computer acts like a kind of intellectual exoskeleton, letting you immediately marshall vast computational power and knowledge. But it’s also an enforcer of understanding. Because to guide the computer through the story you’re trying to tell, you have to understand it yourself. . . .

Wolfram gives some examples, and it looks pretty cool. It also looks just like R Markdown, iPython notebooks, Jupiter notebooks, and various other documents of this sort.

So I posted a comment:

You write, “what really makes this work is the Wolfram Language.” I’m confused. How is your computational essay different from what you’d get from Markdown, iPython notebooks, etc.?

Which elicited the following response:

The Wolfram Language underpins our technology stack, creating one cohesive process. Our notebooks offer a complete production environment from data import, prototyping, manipulation and testing which can all be done in the same notebook as deploying to the cloud or generating final reports or presentations. It doesn’t need to be bundled with separate tools in the same way that iPython notebooks need to be, making our notebooks are better suited for computational essays since you don’t need to set up your notebook to use particular libraries.

On top of that, since our language unifies our tech stack, there’s no issue with mutually incompatible interpreters like with Python, and even when you move to Jupyter which can take on multiple language kernels, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure you have every needed package for each particular language. Markdown is useful in a notebook, but Markdown in iPython notebooks aren’t collapsible and that makes them difficult to structure.

One additional key feature is our built-in knowledge base. Across thousands of domains, the Knowledgebase contains carefully curated expert knowledge directly derived from primary sources. It includes not only trillions of data elements, but also immense numbers of algorithms encapsulating the methods and models of almost every field.

I don’t quite understand all this but it sounds like they’re saying that notebooks computational essays are particularly easy to do if you’re already working in the Wolfram language. I don’t really have a sense of how many people use Wolfram for statistics, or would like to do so. Should we have a Wolfram interface for Stan?

Regarding the “computational essay” thing: my inclination would be to call these “Wolfram markdown” or “Wolfram notebooks,” by analogy to R markdown and Python notebooks. On the other hand, there’s no standard terminology (is it “markdown” or a “notebook”?) so maybe it makes sense for a third term (“computational essay”) to be added to the mix.

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