Thursday, May 07, 2009

In Code

I picked up In Code, the tale of Sarah Flannery, even though I have zero time to read it. I've found myself making the time... I've really enjoyed the book. It's an exceptionally vivid recollection of how Sarah visualizes mathematical puzzles, something that is seldom taught in the classroom.

Sarah talks about how she delved deeper into RSA and the Cayley-Purser algorithm. One tool she talks about her father recommending was Mathematica - surprisingly apropos reading right now considering all the media attention it is receiving around the release of Wolfram|Alpha. She mentions how easy it was to work with primes & factors within its notepad... and my interest in RSA combined with the latest buzz about Mathematica as some sort of crazy Rete engine made me get the 15-day trial version.

I thought Mathematica was pretty nice, and it included some very robust visualization tools. However its price was a bit steep, even for the home user. It didn't take me long to find comperable tools such as Sage, Octave and Scilab (thanks to

Sage is rather interesting, as its notepad can be run as a web application. That would (in theory) allow you to install Sage on a huge, beefy box (mebbe even a cluster) and grant several people access to a single, huge workhorse instead of investing in several large workstations. I dig that idea, although I was looking for a native desktop app instead.

Both Scilab and Octave were readily available through openSUSE's package repositories (including Packman), so I installed both (including QtOctave) to try them out. They were both fairly straight-forward command line apps, even though Scilab had its own terminal. I was looking for something with a nice IDE wrapped around it however... something that could approach Mathematica's UI. I installed QtOctave, which appears to act like a developer's IDE for the Octave runtime environment. It does an okay job and provides something of a notepad, although it is nowhere as intuitive as Mathematica's interface.

Functionally it appears QtOctave and Mathematica offer very similar functionality, at least for what I want to accomplish. I'll definitely be at a loss once my 15 day evaluation copy of Mathematica expires, but QtOctave should serve as a suitable replacement in the meantime.

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