Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Death & Rebirth of an American Geek Calculator

The year: 1995. I’m in middle school. I have two calculators, TI-82’s to be precise. Why 2? Because on math tests and quizzes, I found that using Solve() was so slow that I’d start one on a problem, and then use the other while the first got the answer. Calculator-based multitasking in its truest form. The more calculators you had, the nerdier you were. Alpha-nerd, and nerd-cred if you will. It wasn’t just me, I was passing on a long generation of calculator-based nerd credibility:

Something has gone horribly wrong. Fast-forward to the epilogue future-present. The world according to my middle school dreams was supposed to be filled with calculators, and super-man-geeks and “not-men” (aka !men, or "women") were supposed to be walking around, carrying calculators, wearing super calculator watches.

Bling. Bling.

I used to have a tactical vest that I'd wear while programming in high school. Except instead of guns and ammo, my weapons were Sine, Cosine, and Arctangent. Full, semi-automatic Cot()-.45 degree Artangent, nevermind you. I used to use the vest to hold my TI and HP calculators. I dreamed of the day when I'd carry around a brushed titanium briefcase filled with top-secret, uber-hacker calculators for cracking crypto hash algorithms.

But alas, that future never came to be...

In the past few days of revelry while I’ve used my R-based scientific calculator, I’ve come to realize something. This is the first time in years that I’ve actually carried around a calculator again. It got me thinking… and I started to look around as I walked through Boston. No one carries calculators any more!

The calculator, as it turns out, is a casualty of convergence. In other words, the calculator got “OJ Simpsoned” … if it doesn’t fit (in your assortment of devices), you must acquit (and stick it in a box of old gadgets).

The next generation calculator device, and the calc-based society of the future I always dreamed about, never came about. This is why I think that never happened: at the low end, calculators have been absorbed into handheld phones. Blackberry, iPhone, Android devices all have apps that replicate the features of calculators, so why carry around a calculator anymore? At the high end, calculators didn’t have enough RAM or dataspace memory to prove themselves useful or capable as data analysis needs grew. Furthermore calculators were quite a pain to transfer data on and off of, so people just used computers with Excel, Matlab, Mathematica and R. The calculator just got squeezed out.

I collect calculators like some guys collect vinyl records and model trains. It’s a hobby, and it used to be an obsession. But ever since I went on my first date, it’s kinda gone away, sadly. Well, the girlfriend part wasn’t sad, but the diminished level of calculator collecting was.

It is very telling when you find a hobby of yours starts to pop up in museums and historical archives. That means you’re old:

It's even worse when there's a history paper written about it:

But something has changed, and I’m determined to figure out what happened. Since Koen helped me get R running on the BeagleBoard, I’ve been carrying my newfangled scientific programming open source calculator around with me, proudly, and finding reasons to pull it out and get R running. It’s wonderful, inspiring, and totally contagiously nerding out anyone who asks me about it, sort of like a virus spreading and zombifying people in an underground lab ... like these guys did:

I think calculators need to be re-invented, and I think I’ve stumbled on at least part of the equation. The Beagleboard / BeagleTouch – based R calculator is much more than “just a calculator”. It’s a hacker / calculator nerd’s (me) dream come true. It provides exactly what I need: a way to compute randomly sampled arrays, parallel compute transposed lists on the fly.
Instead of calculating the tip at the end of a meal, I can use this thing to calculate tips for the entire freakin’ restaurant!

In the words of Kirsten Dunst: Bring it on.

Naturally, she was referring to the re-invention and rebirth of the Great American Geek Calculator!


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