2005-07-10

Calculators continue to suck

At some point, Harold Thimbleby seems to have gotten a bee in his bonnet about pocket calculators. He's been complaining about them for years now. And he seems to have infected his son. A friend mentioned their latest work, "Weapons of maths construction" which seems to have been retitled "Calculators of maths construction" since the 2005-07-07 London bombings.

There's an on-line Java demo you can try if you ask Google. If you used to own a Newton, as I did, the whole experience is pretty familiar. Only the handwriting recognition isn't as good (or general) as the Newton's. If you're a Mac OS user, you'll recognize the icons.

I just don't get the point of what they're trying to do. It seems as relevant to 2005 as making a better orrery would be. Even the motivation in their "why" section sounds silly: "A slip or an unnoticed oddity of calculation can cause disaster, from paying the wrong bills, getting the wrong dose of medicine, to throwing an aircraft off course. It is very important for everyone to be able to do mathematics accurately and easily!"

Who does any of these things with a pocket calculator?

What I'd like to see fixed is the kind of "desktop" (in the GUI sense) calculators that ship with operating systems. I'm sick of them, and I'm sick too of the crappy command-line ones with their hobbled languages and dialects. bc(1) and dc(1) can kiss one of my ass cheeks each.

Mathematica, on the other hand, is cool. It takes advantage of the computer, rather than slavishly imitating what we had before. At the same time, it does a good job of producing familiar-looking output.

I can correctly type an expression into Mathematica tens of times faster than I could fiddle with the Thimblebys' awkward "natural" interface. Maybe there is a use for "interactive whiteboards in classrooms", but I thought the idea in class was to ask the students what the answer was? As for pen-based computers, the real fix for those is to give them keyboards, but if you can't do that, I'd still rather give hand-written input to something like Mathematica that isn't so fussy about exactly where I write each symbol, and doesn't waste my time by incorrectly guessing where to insert each symbol.

And I'm supposed to be impressed by e? The Thimblebys' calculator doesn't even draw graphs!

Drawing graphs is something I can see a classroom use for: "So this is what that function looks like, and if we turn this into a parameter, we get this family of curves (these are just the integer values, but here are a few real values too)..."