Burying the hatchet: computers versus calculators

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kirby urner

Feb 1, 2011, 6:46:17 PM2/1/11
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In my nerdy days as a high schooler, a chief joy
was to visit with my friend M, brother to N, and 
program his dad's HP65, one of the first Hewlett-
Packard programmables.  My dad taught me how
to use his slide-rule (PhD/Planning), which I found
fascinating and brilliant, but when it was time to
send me on my way, it was the HP45 we got in
Portland, that graced my suitcase.

M's dad was a road engineer in the Philippines 
and he used his HP65 for real at work.  We just
did little things, like maybe a Sieve of Eratosthenes
and some Fibonaccis or like that.

Fast forward and I'm somewhat behind the times.
My peers are all server-side programming, totally
up on MVC web frameworks in PHP back ending 
into Mongo DB, or even ZODB wrapped with 
Python.  I huff and puff in the middle of the pack
with computers, and I've tended to kvetch about
calculators, as having too long a tail, keeping us
in the land of the Great Dinosaurs (with little 
mammals among us, using real computer 
languages in the course of learning maths).

The peace I'm making with myself involves 
continuing to appreciated calculators, especially
those vintage HPs.  I know what happened next:
the hub of HP innovation in those days was 
Corvallis (Oregon) and the very same building 
planned to service HPs, has been converted to
a nanotechnology lab.  They're trying to figure
out about portable dialysis machines and better
filtration and detection systems, both vital to 
industry.  That's a noble fate for a great sub-
culture. There's been some continuity in staffing.

So today I raise a toast to the calculator culture
and its many victories on the ground.  The world
of silicon (and germanium arsenide) should not
become a house divided.  We celebrate our humble
beginnings and recognize the valuable diplomacy
the calculators represent, in making maths more 
accessible to everybody.  Having a crash course 
in math, perhaps a free one on TV, that did nothing
but exhaustively cover each key and their uses in
combination, would be a waste of no one's time
(if you don't want to watch, then don't).

One of our first exercises on the digital math 
track should be to emulate a simple scientific
calculator on screen, using some event-driven
model.  I've seen it in Java, in wxPython, in 
Javascript.  What better way to make the 
transition?  Never mind, for the moment, that
this isn't how it's taught.  Imagine the way it 
could be.  Now imagine it's not "all or nothing"
as in "every school or no school".  The need 
for experimentation is obvious.  That's the basis
of science.  Those decrying "guinea pigging" 
should read up on "Guinea Pig B" (one of our
chief students).  Even if you're a pious Xtian,
it's as one of "God's experiments" that you 
achieve your purpose and glory, so grin and
bear it in your faith.

To summarize:  I resolve to tease the calculator
users less and focus on emulating their subculture
more.  I salute my peers and wish us both luck at 
making STEM more of a joy and less of a tiresome 
running the gauntlet, emulating automatons.

Let us together cultivate the lifestyles occasioned 
by the freedoms that our technologies provide.  We
seek not to enslave humans, but to give them the
tools whereby they might thrive, not just survive.


Maria Droujkova

Feb 2, 2011, 9:52:59 AM2/2/11
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On Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 6:46 PM, kirby urner <kirby...@gmail.com> wrote:

One of our first exercises on the digital math 
track should be to emulate a simple scientific
calculator on screen, using some event-driven

A good advanced exercise is to build an analog calculator using, say, gears. The history of such devices, starting from shockingly ancient times, is fascinating. And if you have 1k hours and 10k dollars or so you can build an analog differential analyzer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmX151Jd3_o

We just discussed the feature of being breakable (or not) from the keyboard. For example, a car is very much breakable from its "keyboard" (you can stir it into a wall or use breaks wrong or...) - it's keeping it from crashing that's challenging! You can easily mess up software and computers in general from keyboards, but not calculators.

This issue is important for curriculum design: power vs. stability.

Maria Droujkova

Make math your own, to make your own math.

Mike South

Feb 2, 2011, 10:37:46 AM2/2/11
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