Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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January 2004, Week 3 -- By The Numbers



   How about an $1,800 math program that is used by major corporations and universities and can be purchased by students for only $99?

   It’s Maple 9, from Maplesoft, used by Canon in the design of zoom lenses, by Toyota, for power steering design, for magnetic resonance research at the University of Connecticut, for robotics at the Canadian Space agency, and many more. In fact most of the users are universities and other schools, who use the program for both research and teaching, hence the big price drop for students.

   But for teachers, Maplesoft offers something even more interesting: a program called “Maple TA” (for “testing and assignments”). This program, just developed, both writes and grades math tests. The students take the test on the web, using a standard web browser. The testing software itself resides on a server, which grades the test as soon as the student submits it. This one is expensive: $5,000 for what Maplesoft calls a “site license,” which would be for an entire school, however. The number of tests that can be created is unlimited.


   Maple 9 is about 20 percent faster than the previous version and has a friendlier user interface. The student package contains new tools for studying linear algebra and calculus. The student can also write and test equations, and there is a section for freehand drawing of notes. Check more features at the web site:


  An aside: We’ve talked about student and academic pricing before and it’s a murky area. Many programs, particularly large, expensive programs, are available with big discounts  if they’re bought by students or teachers. How does a company determine if the buyer is in fact qualified for the discount? Maplesoft has a pop-up window where you attest to being a student or not. It then takes you to the order form. Many companies simply take a buyer’s word on student status, and may or may not check up on it. As we said, it’s a murky area, and subject to frequent abuse.


Cataloging books and records


   “Readerware” is a fast, easy and low-cost way to catalog collections of books, music and videos. What really got us was the automatic nature of the process.


   If you enter the ISBN or UPC number or scan the bar code for any book or recording in your collection you can then connect to the Internet and the program will search sites you select from a drop-down list. The program will find and fill in all the details that match: title, author, edition, comments, etc. For example, you could catalog a large collection by choosing Amazon or Barnes & Noble or any of several libraries from a list of  choices. You can log onto the Library of Congress, or the national libraries of Britain, Canada, Australia, etc., and conduct automatic searches. If you scan or enter the code number for a music album, the software will list all the tracks on that album when it finds it on a web site. For books it fills in a summary of each book. It even includes cover art. A bar code scanner comes with the program, as long as their supplies last, the company says.


   The software also collects current and estimated prices for titles. This is particularly useful for insurance purposes. Any person or school with a large collection can obtain an immediate valuation along with their catalog. The catalog will also track books and videos out on loan.


   Readerware is only $40 for Windows, Mac or Linux, and there’s a free trial version at their web site: Seems like a bargain to us.


Internuts A fascinating site that conducts an annual solicitation of new “natural laws” from a variety of people, most of them well known in some field. Here’s one from Gerd Gigerenzer, a behavioral psychologist: “The world cannot function without partially ignorant people.” This is a condensation of observations from many behavioral studies. For example, he notes: “Ordinary people who selected stocks by name recognition outperformed most market experts and the Fidelity Growth Fund.”  My own favorite “law,” not listed on this site but well suite to computers and many other subjects, was iterated many years ago by science fiction author Poul Anderson, who noted: “There is no subject, no matter how complex, which if looked at in just the right way, cannot be made more complex.”  Has “Mathworld Headline News.” (You didn’t know there was such a thing, right?)  Recent headline: “174 Digit Number Factored Into Two 87-Digit Primes.” The site is maintained by Wolfram Research, publisher of Mathematica. It has explanations of principles of algebra, calculus, etc., and biographies of scientists. More than 10,000 pages of science fiction and fantasy, book excerpts, reviews, interviews with authors, discussion forums, news, etc. V and movie reviews, news, bulletin boards, clips and trailers from movies. Huge site..

American Idol  Top site for teachers. Job listings, chat room, free lesson plans, classroom projects, resources, library, maps, and many links to other sites for teachers. Has lots of links to museums.                                                                                          


   “The Official American Idol Audition Kit” is just what it sound like, a kit to put together your own recording for a shot at appearing on “American Idol,” a television show talent contest. The box contains karaoke song software and a microphone, the rest is up to you. Belt one out to the back row, baby! It’s $30 from  You can hear some of the songs submitted by users on the web site.



Photo Retouching


   “40 Digital Photo Retouching Techniques,” book and CD; $17

   A small colorful book showing lots of editing techniques using Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0. A sample version of the program comes on the CD. The book is lavishly illustrated, easy to understand, and describes some unusual techniques, like adding snow to winter scenes, even if it wasn’t snowing.

NOTE: Readers can view several years worth of On Computers columns and tour our library at   You can email Joy Schwabach at  and Bob Schwabach at