"They make so much money selling these devices"
November 25, 2019 7:10 AM   Subscribe

The TI-83 graphing calculator has barely changed in 25 years and yet still costs $105 new, which can be a not insignificant hardship for students taking the advanced algebra, trigonometry, and precalculus/calculus classes where they are required by the curriculum, and when students can't get them, teachers can be forced to step in and foot the bill for a classroom's supply themselves. A brief look at the history and social costs of US high schools' reliance on Texas Instruments. posted by Copronymus (118 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just put some fresh batteries in my Casio fx-7500G (which I bought in 1988 for my A-levels). Still works perfectly, and looks futuristic.
posted by pipeski at 7:31 AM on November 25, 2019 [6 favorites]


And students often don't use these calculators any time after high school. Eg. in university classes we tend to use computer software instead. For university calculus, Maple or Mathematica are more standard, but Desmos (mentioned in the article) is great for basic calculus tasks and everything up to calculus. You can get programs now that lock a student's computer to only be able to use specific programs during class/tests, too.

A larger issue is that data show that significant reliance on calculators in high school pre-calculus or calculus classes is negatively correlated with student success at calculus. (Not necessarily from a "kids these days can't do basic calculations" argument - there is the student algebra skills issue, yes, but significant calculator use also seems to be correlated with a focus in high school math classes on performing computations over conceptual understanding, with students whose high school math courses use calculators more heavily demonstrating a bit less understanding of calculus concepts and thus less flexibility or adaptability as they get to higher levels of calculus/mathematics.) I'm not familiar with the research for algebra/trigonometry, so that may be different. And there's the caveat that a small amount of pedagogically-appropriate calculator use may be helpful. But overall, significant/universal calculator use isn't even necessarily good pedagogy.
posted by eviemath at 7:31 AM on November 25, 2019 [23 favorites]


How is there not a cheap-ass rip-off version of these that works in exactly the same way but costs like $10?
posted by jacquilynne at 7:35 AM on November 25, 2019 [32 favorites]


Maaaan were these fucking things an economic buzzsaw that I ran into when I started undergrad math and physics classes in the early/mid 90s.
posted by COBRA! at 7:38 AM on November 25, 2019 [6 favorites]


After high-school and college, my primary use for such calculators was keeping a running tab if I had to add multiple numbers for my tax return.
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:38 AM on November 25, 2019


And why don't schools offer to buy them back after the course is over for $50 or ask students to donate them, then issue them to the next class? We now have 2 of these sitting around the house.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 7:40 AM on November 25, 2019 [29 favorites]


Can you still use a TI-85? Because if so my TI-85 from 1993 might become a hand-me-down next decade.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:40 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Rumour had it my high school math teacher worked for Texas Instruments somehow, which was why he would be absent for one or two weeks at a time during the school year. It doesn't surprise me at all that TI has a strong lobbying component. I'm an indirect victim of that: I switched high schools and had to re-do grade 11 math at the new one, because the first school didn't use graphing calculators in the course.

I was surprised to see that my community college students still carry TI-83+ and TI-84 calculators, and that the models haven't changed at all. I found my old one the other day, and I'm thinking of donating it to the homework club I volunteer at. I miss playing Pac-Man and Mario on that thing, though.

What I find the most frustrating about their use is the first argument that eviemath makes: you never use these things again after high school. I was a STEM major and we were explicitly forbidden from using these during exams (chemistry actually mandated a specific scientific calculator, and they would have been useless in Calc I and II, anyway.) Maybe an engineer would have gotten more use out of it, I don't know.
posted by invokeuse at 7:44 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Are TI-83s or similar still required for the SAT or ACT? I know graphing calculators with QWERY keyboards are explicitly banned from those tests, but I recall needing to have one when I took the SAT back in... 2001.
posted by SansPoint at 7:44 AM on November 25, 2019


Huh, i just thought about these for the first time in forever, because i was reading this article about a NYC man's journey from and back to homelessness, and one of the pictures of him, captioned: Karim Walker said he spends part of his time studying math and coding in public libraries since becoming homeless. shows him using what appears to be a TI-83 emulator on some sort of tablet.

Unclear if the tablet is his or the library's but it would appear that there should be a lot of ways around needing to physically own one of these things, right?
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:44 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


We offer them for check out at the University library in which I work. Always a popular item during finals.
posted by evilDoug at 7:45 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


jacquilynne: If the US is anything like the UK here, it’s because you can’t use the rip-offs in exams. Anything except a short list of permitted devices is banned.

(The UK has the same issue, but the permitted calculators are different.)
posted by pharm at 7:45 AM on November 25, 2019 [13 favorites]


HP 48! RPN is soooo much nicer to use for everyday arithmetic. Plus, your TI classmates won't ask to borrow it because they can't figure out how it works.

(I also wrote most of my own math software for it, which was a pretty effective way of learning calculus.)
posted by ryanrs at 7:48 AM on November 25, 2019 [11 favorites]


I had a TI-82 that was handed down from my brother, who had gotten it from a neighbor. After graduation, I gave it to a younger friend (might have charged $20, I forget). This seemed pretty common to me, but also, most of my group were the kids that were on scholarship and knew other kids who were on scholarship who would be interested in an older calculator.

BUT the TI-82 was an older version, and didn't quite have the same key setup/capabilities for the standard TI-83 or TI-84s. So part of the fun of high school math was trying to figure out if my TI-82 could do the thing that our textbooks were telling us about, and if so, how to do it. Which might have been the more useful skill in the end, but boy howdy, it did not feel like it at the time.

Good news is that they don't get redesigned half as often as textbooks get republished, but it's the same racket.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:49 AM on November 25, 2019 [8 favorites]


In my high school days, I needed a TI-81 or TI-82 for Algebra II/Trig, and then a TI-85 two years later for BC Calculus. I was the work study kid at my college prep school mopping up classrooms each day to get my hours in, and I remember my parents being flummoxed/PISSED that the math department hadn't coordinated on that.

I just bought my kid the latest and greatest one of these for their freshman year in high school. One of the new changes is a "test mode" that locks out the ability to access any saved programs or cheats, and supposedly in some classes you can't use the calculator on the test unless that mode is dialed in. So there goes the hand-me-down/resale market.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:51 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Mine is sitting on my desk next to me right now. I still use it almost every day. It's faster to do quick calculations on it than a computer or phone, and so much more satisfying with the tactile feedback of physical keys to press.

Wildly overpriced, but I've squeezed every penny of value out of it.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:52 AM on November 25, 2019


They're pretty cheap on eBay.

My mom refused to spring for a TI-series ($80+ in 1993) and I ended up with a Casio instead. I had real calculator envy.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:54 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


An emulator for phones and tablets also exists! I've been using this on my devices (though still needed to break out the one I have from high school for exams in class...)
posted by astapasta24 at 7:57 AM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


I just put some fresh batteries in my Casio fx-7500G

I clicked through and wow, what memories - I totally forgot I used to have one of those! Sadly I lost track of it many years ago.

I saved up to buy a HP48 calculator when they were first released, just before I started college. Unfortunately it stopped working a year or two ago and none of tricks I saw online to revive it were effective.
posted by exogenous at 7:59 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I had some prick in middle school try to steal my ti-82 (along with my Rifts RPG Player's Manual, the fucking nerve) so I etched my name into it with a knife. Still have it in my desk 27 years later. Not that I use it, but I have fond memories of writing extremely primitive text adventures instead of listening in class.
posted by selfnoise at 7:59 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


HP 48! RPN is soooo much nicer to use for everyday arithmetic

Preferred by Yoda, reverse Polish notation is.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:03 AM on November 25, 2019 [22 favorites]


Using purpose-built hardware for calculus is kind of ridiculous at any level nowadays. I think there may have been a better rationale in 1995, but that's not so relevant now.

I bought a new calculator when I started grad school in math, bc the TI-82 wasn't cutting it. I got myself a solar-powered TI-30X IIS scientific calculator and while I've never used it heavily since my TA grading days, it's covered every need I have for such a device, through my PhD and research science career. Of course its price hasn't changed either over the years, but it's a lot better value for $15 than the TI-83 series is for $100, and a lot less to ask every single HS student to buy.

It's a racket TI has going with high school calc, plain and simple.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:03 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


A larger issue is that data show that significant reliance on calculators in high school pre-calculus or calculus classes is negatively correlated with student success at calculus. (Not necessarily from a "kids these days can't do basic calculations" argument - there is the student algebra skills issue, yes, but significant calculator use also seems to be correlated with a focus in high school math classes on performing computations over conceptual understanding, with students whose high school math courses use calculators more heavily demonstrating a bit less understanding of calculus concepts and thus less flexibility or adaptability as they get to higher levels of calculus/mathematics.) I'm not familiar with the research for algebra/trigonometry, so that may be different. And there's the caveat that a small amount of pedagogically-appropriate calculator use may be helpful. But overall, significant/universal calculator use isn't even necessarily good pedagogy.

That's very interesting. Anecdotally, I went to high school in India, where calculators are generally banned until college. I grumbled about this a ton in school, as did my classmates, and we certainly snuck them into lab classes and the like which were heavy on computation (we had to use Clarke's tables instead of calculators - basically converting everything to logs that we needed to multiply or divide, doing the addition or subtraction of logs and then converting back - a giant pain but also something you got really quick at by the end). The teachers understood why this was a pain in lab classes and generally turned a blind eye too.

But they were pretty ruthless about no calculators in our regular classes as well as exams, and it did make a difference in the way we approached calculations. It incentivized both students and teachers in favor of more "elegant" calculations - there was a lot of value in breaking down a math problem into an easy calculation, so it forced you to look for ways to simplify and cancel things out and make clever substitutions. A too-tedious calculation was generally a sign that you were down the wrong path - because teachers liked "elegant" problems and solutions too. I did think that it gave you a "feel" for the numbers and the ways in which they could work with each other.
posted by peacheater at 8:08 AM on November 25, 2019 [39 favorites]


As an engineering freshman in college, they required that we buy these. Did you know that TI graphing calculators are subject to a Blue Screen of Death, completely different from the cause in Windows computers?

How I found out about this: A few days after I plunked down my $100, I parked crooked. My 1970 Impala, besides not fitting in with all the rich kids' parents' BMW M3s, also took up more than its share of a parking space. As I shouldered my backpack and started to walk away, another driver asked if I could straighten out so he could use the adjacent space. I agreed, dropped my pack where i stood, and jumped back in my car.

...and promptly rolled over my backpack.

The Blue Screen of Death on TI calculators is not a software or firmware thing. It's a hardware thing - when the LCD screen is subject to enough stress, the liquid cells break and the fluid covers the screen (still behind the clear bezel.

(I couldn't afford to replace it, so I learned how to graph things in Excel, or in my head.)
posted by notsnot at 8:12 AM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


Grade 12. Late 1976 sometime. I was in what was considered to be a pretty high end math class, the teacher (call him Mr. McPhail) styling himself as a university level prof whose students tended to breeze through their first year of post-secondary math. A fact he was rather pompously not shy about sharing. Anyway, calculators were suddenly all the rage due to their new improved affordability with students starting to bring them to class. This proved proved contentious as not every student was interested in having to buy some tool for bloody math class (me among them -- the equivalent of probably five albums, as I recall).

Much to my shock and dismay, Mr. McPhail decided that yes, calculators would be allowed in class, and in fact, encouraged, as he figured that was the way of things, a man only being as good as his tools. I was pissed and took it up with my guidance counselor who had no interest in getting involved, but he did point out that I didn't technically need Math 12 to get into university ... assuming I didn't mind getting "stuck in the arts". Which was news to me, that I could decide right there and then to never have to study sciences anymore. Good news!

So I dropped Math 12 and replaced it with Foods 11 (an introduction to cooking for boys). A move I've never regretted as I'm now a pretty good cook and ... seriously, how many of us really need any of the math they teach you in school past maybe equations and how to calculate percentages? So thank you, Texas Instruments, I guess.

And thanks too, Mr. McPhail, I guess ... who it's worth pointing out, HATED me after that. As if in dropping his precious class, I'd somehow betrayed not just him but some unwritten rule of some unnamed religion of which he was a high priest. Seriously, I'd pass him the hall and he'd whisper some passing insult. Weird.
posted by philip-random at 8:20 AM on November 25, 2019 [13 favorites]


This is straight up grift, with TI making sure textbooks are specifically written for only their calculators (literally showing their button layouts and using exercises that are tailored specifically for their calculator’s features). It’s obvious grift on a massive scale.
posted by odinsdream at 8:20 AM on November 25, 2019 [24 favorites]


in university classes we tend to use computer software instead

If I had a magic wand, I would make every kid that takes stats in upper school or university take a course in R.[1]

As it is, one of the first books I get every new employee to read is R for Excel users.

I don't have anything against Python, but for us, R is the ticket.

[1] matlab can burn in the deepest pits, while simultaneously be frozen in the coldest ice.
posted by bonehead at 8:27 AM on November 25, 2019 [15 favorites]


it is bonkers to remember how many of us were playing drug wars on a calculator in high school
posted by lazaruslong at 8:32 AM on November 25, 2019 [15 favorites]


How is there not a cheap-ass rip-off version of these that works in exactly the same way but costs like $10?

There is an open source thing called the NumCalc, but unfortunately they want $99 for it. Any hardware folks here want to blow this up? Sell it for $10? You would be a hero!
posted by klausman at 8:35 AM on November 25, 2019


I was the conduit through which everyone got games for their calculators, as the only person who hand-built a parallel interface and understood how to use software to transfer programs to the calculators.
posted by odinsdream at 8:35 AM on November 25, 2019 [8 favorites]


it is bonkers to remember how many of us were playing drug wars on a calculator in high school

I came in here to say just this. I think I put more effort into figuring out how to get really basic ass games on my TI-83 than I did actual graphing functions.

Probably why I got a C in Honors Algebra. Drug Wars takes me waaaay back.
posted by Fizz at 8:42 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


I was so fucking bummed the day my TI-83 calculator finally bit the dust. Used that thing through all of HS and college and several years after that when doing my taxes.
posted by sperose at 8:42 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I've been to and seen schools where the calculators are school property, handed out to students in the beginning of class, and picked up at the end. That means you can't take them home to practice.

But you can pick up a TI 83 interactive calculator emulator for free (hosted on a Google Site, as a 777 KB ZIP file, containing vti83.exe, a ROM, and a SKN file).

And here's an online TI-83+/84+ emulator, which requires a ROM. It looks like you can upload the ROM from the ZIP, but the button mapping is wonky, and I couldn't get it to work on Chrome.

There are also emulators for Android and for iDevices, some that charge a dollar to download. But that's assuming the teacher allows phones in class. Some have a hard-line "no phones" rule, or collect phones at the beginning of class. But some kids have two phones, one to turn in, and another to quietly use during class.

In short, schools and teachers have options to adapt, and still exist within the realm of TI-focused text books.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


I remember spending a lot of time figuring out how to store (and subsequently hide) formulas in the memory of my TI using a homemade parallel port cable.

I downloaded the pinout from a newsgroup, cannibalized an old set of headphone and got a floppy disk copy of some DOS based software.

Next step was writing programs to solve exam problems, the trick being to make it print out the intermediate steps for those teachers that wanted you to "Show Your Work!".

In hindsight, it probably would have been better to learn how to do the actual math, but then again, in the intervening several decades, I have never once been called upon to solve the quadratic equation.
posted by madajb at 8:52 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


I worked at a dental school and at the end of the year, I found one of these in a classroom. Being an old calculator fan (I have slide rules too) I started poking the keys. I found an area with stored text. And lo and behold there were obvious cheat sheets for tests. Lots of them. The naive dentist faculty people who were usually tech adverse, wouldn’t have even thought of this way of cheating. Can’t say I admire the tech savvy dental students either.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:56 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


How is there not a cheap-ass rip-off version of these that works in exactly the same way but costs like $10?

Some standardized test have lists of "approved devices" which are the only electronics allowed. A knock-off brand would have to get themselves on that list before they could really take off.
posted by straight at 8:59 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


Old smart phones that don't have connectivity any longer can still use a downloaded graphing calculator app to allow them for tests and in areas without internet.
posted by Brian B. at 9:01 AM on November 25, 2019


In the finance world it's a similar thing with HP financial calculators. I have a 20 year old 17bII that I use often and change the battery on every 3-4 years.
posted by ShakeyJake at 9:08 AM on November 25, 2019


I had some prick in middle school try to steal my ti-82 (along with my Rifts RPG Player's Manual, the fucking nerve)

Should have let him get away with the Rifts manual. That would have shown him...
posted by Naberius at 9:09 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


but significant calculator use also seems to be correlated with a focus in high school math classes on performing computations over conceptual understanding

This drove me bonkers when even in the advanced finance classes I took at the end of my college career other students would frequently hold up the class because they didn't at all understand the concepts, just the key words and phrases that let them plug the correct number into the correct formula to spit out the correct answer. That strategy tends to work just fine in school where problems are usually presented in a standard structure but applying those concepts to real-world problems almost always works differently.
posted by VTX at 9:10 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


I still have and use my TI-83+!
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:24 AM on November 25, 2019


Oh man. TI-BASIC was my gateway drug into choosing computer science as my major when I went off to college.
I was doing poorly on Algebra 2 tests due to little detail errors, and it soon became apparent that I would score much better if I spent the first 10 minutes of the test just looking over the problem set and programming in the formulas/techniques I would need (also including the "put this on the paper" outputs to show my work!)

It got to the point where I made a program to show a fake "no programs" screen, complete with blinking cursor and a secret sequence of key-presses to unlock it again, because my programs and games had grown so big (bloated with GOTOs) that I couldn't bear to lose them or re-write them. But even the games I coded were during physics class where I'd be applying the lesson in real-time. I used the trajectory formulas we were learning to build my own turn-based artillery game a la GORILLAS.BAS or "Scorched Earth."
TI-BASIC made me want to learn in school again, if only to figure out how I could apply the concepts in code. While I hate the TI racket/grift, I'm thankful for that at least.
posted by onehalfjunco at 9:25 AM on November 25, 2019 [9 favorites]


Obligatory XKCD
posted by kyrademon at 9:34 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


I definitely had the far-cheaper Casio graphing calculator, like these. It was actually kind of cool, because it could plot lines in multiple colors. Unfortunately, I let it sit with batteries in it for years and they melted into it, and ultimately I had to get rid of it. I wish I'd been able to salvage it.

The guy in my class who is now a physics professor had a TI-84 with his own set of unique programs.
posted by limeonaire at 9:37 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


I sometimes teach undergraduate statistics-for-polisci and inevitably the crop of recent high-school graduates with their ti-8x's are unhappy to learn that those are unacceptable because they're too capable.

Nope, you need something that will do exponents and roots, but that otherwise can't be programmed, doesn't have more-than-trivial memory, doesn't have canned statistical functions, and can't be networked.

Because I am not one of njohnson23's naive dental faculty.

I'd feel worse about making them buy another calculator if you couldn't get acceptable calculators for $10.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:37 AM on November 25, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think people are sort of missing the point. Sure there are emulators, sure your phone can do this, sure a million other things can do this.

That is only useful if you only want a device to help you with computation. Workarounds are of no use whatsoever if your school or standardized testing body only allows a short list of hardware, which is pathetically common.

The problem has never been lack of better/cheaper alternatives.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:46 AM on November 25, 2019 [20 favorites]


I guess if some startup tried to disrupt TI's monopoly with a cheap copy, and managed to get on the list of approved devices despite TI's regulatory capture, and managed to avoid leaving any pretexts for a lawsuit, and managed to add any features suddenly required due to TI's influence over school boards, TI might drop the price for long enough to bankrupt them.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:51 AM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


I believe we were required to have the TI-82 for my high school advanced math classes. Or, wait, rather, we were required to have a graphing calculator, except all the lessons were tailored for the TI-82. We didn't have a lot of money (this was back in the '90s) so dropping $100 on a calculator was a lot for my family.

I started with a non-TI graphing calculator and found it hard to keep up so by the next year, we did manage to get me a TI-82 (or maybe my brother passed his down to me since he was done with it by this point. I don't really remember).

I don't have a problem with students using graphing calculators. I do have a problem with how much everything seems to be locked in to "use this specific calculator or fall behind" that's really not cool. I distinctly remember how it felt to have a calculator, that while it probably wasn't inferior (and possibly better in some ways), was different than the other students'. It was just another thing that set me apart -- and not in a good way -- to my peers.

I don't even remember how much we actually used these in class, honestly. I mostly remember everyone (including myself) just using them to goof around with. And to me, that was the bigger problem. We were told we needed these, but we may have only fully used them for about one month out of the school year.

And if I still have mine (which I probably don't), I haven't used it since.
posted by darksong at 9:54 AM on November 25, 2019


Team HP48 / RPN here.

I saved up to buy a HP48 calculator when they were first released, just before I started college. Unfortunately it stopped working a year or two ago and none of tricks I saw online to revive it were effective.

There's an Android app I use that's an effective emulator.
posted by St. Oops at 9:57 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Nope, you need something that will do exponents and roots, but that otherwise can't be programmed, doesn't have more-than-trivial memory, doesn't have canned statistical functions, and can't be networked.

Oh man, this reminds me, I really love my TI-34 ii.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:03 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


As pointed out above, the idea is that the calculator not have the capabilities that could be used to cheat on exams.
When I was teaching this stuff, I let my class use the emulators on their phones because those who would use them to cheat never did well enough for it to make a significant difference anyway.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:12 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


TI-30 4eva <3

I'd have been less annoyed by the required TI-83 if the kid's school hadn't already mandated the purchase of a wildly overpriced laptop. As it is, my ire is reserved for the calc textbook and standardized test publishers that have decreed this is the One Acceptable Device and who cares if you toss it out the window on your way home from the AP test.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:13 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


I still use my TI-85 daily. (My 83 got stolen, which was a huge financial burden and a really big deal at the time.) I've got the rom on my phone emulator, which is great when I'm away from my desk. But, physical buttons are really nice.

It's a great tool. It also probably costs less than $8 to make, and they've recouped their IP investment thousands of times over in the last four decades without making any significant improvements or lowering prices. I can't imagine how people who work in that division of TI feel good about themselves.

In a sane country, the department of education would buy out the rights to the entire line of TI calculators and give them away for free to every junior high student. If you ever needed evidence that the free market is shit at genuine innovation, TI calculators are a pretty good example.
posted by eotvos at 10:18 AM on November 25, 2019 [9 favorites]


As my kids progress through the local school system, I have watched this one single thing not change over the years: the TI-83/84 requirement.

The kids are all issued a Chromebook that outperforms the calculator, so this is solely for taking standardized tests. I think it's a ludicrous product of the testing company in a loving embrace with the hardware vendor. Bah! As a result, every time I see a used one for cheap at the local thrift shop, I snap it up on the off chance that I can repair it and get it into a kid's hands without paying TI their hundred bucks.

So far I have gotten enough of them so my kids are set, plus my wife sold one like two years ago. Another model 83 that I found last Fall couldn't be fixed, but I am still glad I tried. I want to give any more that I find to the local high school math teacher so she can lend them out.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:21 AM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think calculators like this were just being introduced in calculus when I took it in the early 90s. We had the TIs, but they were passed out in class and collected at the end of the class. I seemed to remember only using it once or twice. I did get a Casio graphing calculator (an fx-6300G). I once programmed it to draw a smiley face, but I think that was the closest I got to using the graphing or programming functions for anything useful. I left my original in a classroom one day, and the person that found it decided to keep it, so after school I raced to the Sears 35 minutes away and got a new one before my parents got home (I think they bought me the original).

During my brief career as a research astronomer, I used mostly Mathematica, Matlab, or Gnuplot for graphing and "big" calculations, or Google Search or even the Perl or Python command lines for smaller calculations. I had that Casio for about 15 years before it finally gave out, then got a Casio non-graphing scientific calculator that cost all of $15. I use it once or twice a year for taxes or the like. I've never used any of the scientific functions other than to try them out.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:25 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


They're pretty cheap on eBay.

I feel like this should be highlighted. It’s a product that’s ubiquitous, expensive, and that can last forever. The resale market should be booming.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:31 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


I always used Casios in school, but no-one cares what brand of calculator you use in Socialist Canada. Every time I've seen a story about the TI monopoly in the US it struck me as incredibly bizarre and anti-capitalist. You must use state-approved calculating machine! Or else!

I use a TI calculator at work. A 1975 reverse Polish notation TI-340. Big and bulky and plugs into the wall, so no-one is going to walk off with it on me.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:42 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I feel so basic - used a TI-31 Solar (which died about a year ago (and which I gather was only made for one year?!)). Missed out on all this...

Here is someone's labor of love in this area: MyCalcDB.
posted by Caxton1476 at 11:01 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm really curious about this -- we were never allowed graphing calculators, and not generally allowed regular calculators either. I'm not sure what graphing calculators ADD on exams etc -- if we had to graph something, it was the intersections on x and y axes and whatever relevant local minima/maxima there were, and the question was about finding those points.

I am not intending to be all Luddite, but I don't understand why one needs this. (I know the answer is "students need a calculator because the curriculum depends upon their having one each", but the larger question of "why is high school math dependent on graphing calculators" remains.
posted by jeather at 11:06 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm having trouble verifying some of the stuff in the article, like "calculators are required for the AP Calc Exam". Looks like you can sign a waiver to use no calculator at all, or use a cheap scientific calculator.

(FWIW, a lot of the text in this article is cut-and-pasted verbatim from here.)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:11 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have to say I also have a soft spot for TI calculators as a simple platform for learning programming. ASM/C (on the TI-89) stuff I mean, not just BASIC.
posted by atoxyl at 11:13 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Team HP 4 lyfe … though I can't bring myself to buy an HP Prime, which has slowly climbed in price over the years.

Institutional inertia is the only reason that this dinosaur still makes money. TI's current flagship calculator uses a bearably fast ARM7 yet costs almost exactly the same.
posted by scruss at 11:22 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


but no-one cares what brand of calculator you use in Socialist Canada.

That's not entirely true. Back in the late 90s having a TI-83 (specifically) was required in my high school in Alberta. It turned out to not be a terrible investment as it was on the list of approved calculators when I was an engineering student (at the UofA so not a huge surprise) so it saved me from having to buy two calculators (I still had to buy an approved scientific calculator ...)
posted by selenized at 11:24 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Need a smartphone or tablet app with a "test lock" function - something that puts the device into a kiosk mode until a specific code is entered or after a timeout period has passed.

Kid scans lock code printed on exam; kid gets the barcode that unlocks the phone at end of exam when turning in the test OR the phone unlocks on it's own after a reasonable time period.

Schools often have tablets available for students. A free app (even one that requires school login code to use) would be fine for homework on a personal device. Using a locked-down app on these devices seems like a good idea, rather than continuing to hand TI cash every year.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:26 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have zero memory of using a calculator in Cal AB or BC+ (plus because we did the BC curriculum in six weeks and spent the rest of the year doing random stuff), but if it was required for the exam...? Pretty sure we had the calculators for chemistry and physics, though.
posted by praemunire at 11:41 AM on November 25, 2019


A cheap copy is possible; but it will take a long time to get it recognized by the SAT and AP Calculus exams. The whole thing is an absurd racket.
posted by interogative mood at 11:42 AM on November 25, 2019


klausman: the software OS is free, but the NumCalc is a piece of hardware -- moreover, hardware with a reasonably powerful ARM based computer and a color bitmapped display, which is why it sells for $99.

It's sufficiently open source that they let you download the hardware schematics so you can build your own. I'm guessing this strikes you as a bit hardcore, right?

(It's probably possible to port it to run under emulation on a Raspberry Pi with a small display panel, but you won't save much money. Or run it in the browser on your phone.)
posted by cstross at 11:47 AM on November 25, 2019


I actually have a very tragic secondhand anecdote about the impact of the price of calculators on people without a ton of resources. Back home in India, we had a cleaning lady who was a single mom of one boy. Soon after working for us, she decided to set up her own catering business and by all accounts did very well. She would often come visit us and stayed in touch with me. She saved up quite a bit of money, and was able to send her son to a polytechnic for his undergrad degree, a really big deal. She was super proud of him. But obviously between the school fees and their living expenses, things were still tight. Her son apparently lost the first expensive calculator that she bought for him. Never mind, she bought him another calculator, told him to take good care of it. Somehow he managed to lose that one too, and when he told her, she freaked out at him and got very upset and angry. He was so upset at her reaction that he ran away from home. She spent three days getting increasingly agitated, thinking that he would walk in the door at any moment, and it was only after that that she alerted the police. They were unable to find him and he never did return. The change in her was horrible - she'd always been cheerful and optimistic - now her entire reason for existing seemed to have disappeared.
posted by peacheater at 11:51 AM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


I went to high school and college in the 80s, but even then there was a TI calculator we had to have, for the AP science classes in my high school. And it cost about a hundred bucks even then. So I suppose they've gotten cheaper by not increasing with inflation. Still...
posted by elizilla at 12:14 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


Ha. I had Hp49g! It was metallic blue, it drew graphs when most my friend's calculators could not. To be fair, it was an art high school, there was no calculus, expect i somehow rolled myself in too advanced after hours maths.
I still have it, the parallel cable and the TWO manuals. They did not even bother translating the advanced manual.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 12:43 PM on November 25, 2019


The advanced math curriculum at my high school required TI-82s. Our math teachers would often show up late, and when they did, the ENTIRE CLASS was frantically linking calculators and transferring images and programs that contained the answers to all of the different forms of the tests, invariably gifted to them by older siblings and passed around like some sort of arcane text. Once the teachers started showing up on time, then you'd see the same things happening in the hallways, in homerooms, all via whispernet. It was a blatant overt ring of cheating that literally every single person in the class participated in - nobody was excluded, and not one person ever told anyone in authority that this was going on.

Thinking back on this, as blatant as it was, and as good as our grades were, I find it hard to believe that none of the teachers knew either - I suspect that they knew along, and were ultimately complicit in this, as the advanced program had a reputation for their excellent math performance. I don't see how they couldn't have known. We thought we were being sneaky at the time, but it was all SO overt. I can remember at least one time that a teacher walked in to find a bunch of people frantically hiding linked calculators all while trying to play it cool and failing miserably.

The classes themselves were all rote memorization, which is something I was never good at. We spent very little time understanding how to apply something, what it meant, how it was derived... which was, unfortunately, how I had to learn. So of course I participated in this as well. When I say everyone did this, I literally mean everyone.

I don't think I can blame the calculators themselves for this - I suspect there would have been some other means of accomplishing this if we weren't using calculators, via "wrist notes" or similar... but the speed and ease at which they allowed us to transfer these things around was really something else at the time.

I ended up getting some amount of respect because I was one of a few people who started writing programs to solve things and show work for our upcoming tests and would share them instead, just as a hedge for if we didn't have the tests in advance, or just in case the teacher got a wild hair and decided to make a new test up entirely - which was rare, but until the programming ring was built up, usually would mean that the first few classes would fail catastrophically as a class - with maybe the exception of that ONE person who studied advanced calculus for fun. There was always at least one person (sometimes the same one) who could literally remember every math problem from the tests, and we'd assemble a task force who would meet at lunch to crunch out answers and get them recorded, and a few of us would frantically throw together the contingency program to solve things. The classes who failed usually failed on such a large level that they were allowed to re-take the test, but we'd have to take the alternate version - i.e. if we took version A the first time, we'd have to take version B the second. Of course, by then, we had answers for both A and B versions of the test.

It's really weird to think back on now - I was by no means part of any real social circle in those classes, I was definitely fringe, and there were plenty of other people in the classes together who would never talk to each other under normal circumstances - but when it was test time, we all were on equal footing, and cooperated in this sort of coordinated heist. Everyone had a role, everyone was complicit, and it was widely understood that Omerta was in play if any of us were ever caught.

Anyways, it was really interesting to start actually learning math once I was past high school and I learned exactly how and why this stuff worked and what it was used for. And the calculator was still involved - but I never saw that sort of large scale cheating again.
posted by MysticMCJ at 12:43 PM on November 25, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's an issue here in Canada, too. In high school math we weren't actually required to have a TI-83+, but it was strongly encouraged and at least one teacher openly said, "You can use other calculators, but I'm going to be teaching using this one and you'll have to figure it out on your own if you have a different model."

The calculus portion of the course was essentially a series of "learn how to use your TI-83" lessons rather than an actual math class. This would have been the late 90s/early 00s.
posted by asnider at 12:44 PM on November 25, 2019


The best thing about the HP 41C that my dad handed down to me was letting someone borrow it and watch them get nowhere with the reverse polish set up.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:46 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


The TI-83 graphing calculator has barely changed in 25 years and yet still costs $105 new

Of course, $105 in 1996 dollars when the calculator was introduced is equivalent to $175 in today's dollars. So the price in real terms has dropped 40%.

And the current price on Amazon (and at Walmart) is about $94.
posted by Jahaza at 12:48 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


it would appear that there should be a lot of ways around needing to physically own one of these things, right?

Yes, but also no because you often need to use the calculator during exams and there's no way a school is going to let you bring a tablet into a closed-book exam.

Also, re: my post above, I should point out that this was specifically in Alberta. Education is under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, so what it true here may not be true of other provinces.
posted by asnider at 12:53 PM on November 25, 2019


> but significant calculator use also seems to be correlated with a focus in high school math classes on performing computations over conceptual understanding

Well, I hate to admit it openly (OK boomer . . . ) but I was around when calculators first started making their way into the classroom, and was semi on the Math Teacher track for the better part of a decade right after that.

The hope back then was that calculators could get kids over the whole "arithmetic calculation hump" quickly and easily, precisely so that the students could focus on the big picture of understanding what it all means without having to get stuck on some complicated but ultimately not-very-meaningful arithmetic or algebra problem.

In short, calculators do the drudge work while students spend their time on the high-level understanding.

So it is kind of sad to see exactly the opposite come to pass.
posted by flug at 1:35 PM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


how many of us really need any of the math they teach you in school past maybe equations and how to calculate percentages?

Specific computational algorithms? Sure, not so much. But ways of thinking about problems? That's relevant to all of our major world problems today. Understanding income inequality and just how vastly different being a billionaire is from you and I requires understanding proportions and orders of magnitude. Climate change is all about rates of change, with the problem being not that climate is changing, but that it's changing at too fast a rate. Understanding epidemiology and vaccination effects is about graphs/networks and probability. Recognizing and avoiding conspiracy theories is greatly aided by probabilistic reasoning skills as well as an understanding of emergent behavior or emergent effects (at least on the level of knowing that they exist). Ditto for understanding the spread of propaganda or online hate. Gerrymandering is geometry. Vote rigging involves statistical reasoning. Not all of that is high school level math, but some basic mathematical reasoning principles can go a long way. ('Course, if your math classes weren't taught with such a focus, maybe were just about rote memorization and plug-and-chug computation, then this counter-argument doesn't apply.)
posted by eviemath at 1:49 PM on November 25, 2019 [10 favorites]


Also, I've still got my TI-30 in the drawer right at my elbow. Any time I pull out a 9-volt battery and give it a try, it fires right up, same as it did in 1979.

We used to throw them long-distance down the halls, like footballs, because the reputation was that they were completely indestructible. I don't know if that is 100% true, but mine survived a number of dropped Hail Mary passes and more than one drop down a flight or two of stairs, with no noticeable damage.

But what I came to say, is that the TI-30 was one of the first mass marketed pocket calculators, and it cost $25 in 1977.

In 2019 dollars, that's $106 and essentially the same price as the TI-83.

Which is absurd.

Can you imagine if schools still required students to solely use an Apple ][ computer for schoolwork, and for that reason they are still widely available and used--for the low, low price of $5500. ($5500 in 2019 dollars equal $1298 in 1977--exactly the cost of an Apple ][.)

Now, just like calculators, they have made some upgrades. For your $5500 you don't get the antiquated 1977 Apple ][, but rather the new and updated Apple IIe (1993).

Yeah, that's exactly the world we're living in, for school calculators.
posted by flug at 1:50 PM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


calculators do the drudge work while students spend their time on the high-level understanding.

Students should be good at arithmetic, it's super useful. Having an intuitive sense of magnitude and the ability to quickly estimate an answer is soooo useful. So often I see students making hilarious fuckups with their calculators that would have been immediately obvious if they actually thought about what it means for San Francisco and LA to be -5.89e27 miles apart.
posted by ryanrs at 1:51 PM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]


In my neck of the woods you can get the current model Casio fx-82 for about €10 these days.
posted by farlukar at 2:06 PM on November 25, 2019


If anyone is interested in the thing about calculators impacting conceptual learning (very important to mastery and continued success) vs. rote repetition, I'd suggest reading Range by David Epstein. There is an entire chapter about why this is happening. He doesn't mention calculators specifically, but I can see the same theme.

We learn much better when we are frustrated and have to do that drudge work to understand how the pieces fit together. It appears we learn much better (but don't) when the answers are quickly provided and only the answer matters. Concepts last a lifetime, a method for solving one type of problem only solves that type of problem.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:07 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm totally blanking out on which of my high school and college classes used a graphing calculator. Maybe I'm misremembering, but the most advanced functionality we had to use on it was finding zeroes of continuous functions? Did AP Math/Physics classes even require graphing calculators, or was a scientific one just fine?
posted by polymodus at 2:19 PM on November 25, 2019


Did anyone else's teacher have the overhead projector thing so that the whole class could follow along on their TI-83s as the teacher calculated with their TI-83? or did I hallucinate that whole period of my life?

I recall, at the time, my parents were fully into the idea that all this reliance on calculators would rot our brains and leave us incapable of managing actual math when we hit university.
posted by selenized at 2:20 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


My kid's AP Calc teacher said that the TI-84 is the most common, and the one that he'd be using in class, so that's the one I went with, which means there's one more student using it, which makes it even more common... it would be a hard cycle to break.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2019


Yes, I definitely had a few teachers that used an overhead projector to demonstrate stuff on the calculator.

I agree that students should be good at arithmetic but that's why I wasn't allowed to use a calculator when I was learning arithmetic. By the time I got to advanced enough math that it required a TI calculator (TI-86 gang represent!) I was plenty good at arithmetic and slogging through it wasn't going to help me learn anything.
posted by VTX at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2019


> I recall, at the time, my parents were fully into the idea that all this reliance on calculators would rot our brains and leave us incapable of managing actual math when we hit university

The (terrible) school that I went to for 9th grade made us use log books for that reason.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:27 PM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]


Did anyone else's teacher have the overhead projector thing so that the whole class could follow along on their TI-83s as the teacher calculated with their TI-83?

I'm fairly certain my teacher did that, too. The whole calculus portion of the math curriculum was basically "how to use a graphing calculator, specifically a TI-83+."
posted by asnider at 2:50 PM on November 25, 2019


I remember our teachers in grade 9 handing out graphing calculators to share for those who didn't have their own but I also remember that we didn't have to use the calculators for all that long. I don't remember them being a requirement in upper years at all.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:53 PM on November 25, 2019


HP 48! RPN is soooo much nicer to use for everyday arithmetic.

Good lord, I sincerely thought the last time I was going to encounter a TI versus HP graphic calculator argument was back in 1999 when I was in engineering school, but here we are 20 years later.
posted by MillMan at 3:36 PM on November 25, 2019 [7 favorites]


> Did anyone else's teacher have the overhead projector thing so that the whole class could follow along on their TI-83s as the teacher calculated with their TI-83? or did I hallucinate that whole period of my life?

I just asked a current AP Calculus student I had on hand, and he reports that his teacher used an overhead projector at the beginning of the year to show them what he was doing on the calculator. But now they're mostly memorizing formulas.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:42 PM on November 25, 2019


25 years ago this past September I bought my HP48G, and it still sits on my desk. It's been with me for more than half my life.

It still has formulas and cheat sheets from my final year of college. And it still has my high scores from Diamonds.

But it recently started doing that thing where the power button doesn't work unless you press down on the frame just below the screen, which I hear is a common problem. It will be sad day when it finally dies.

Free42 is a great substitute for iPhone and Android, when you need to do a little RPN on the go.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 3:42 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


I had an HP, and in retrospect it was a huge mistake - at the time I severely underestimated the value of having the same device as my peers so we could learn from each other &c
posted by 168 at 4:01 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]


Can you imagine if schools still required students to solely use an Apple ][ computer for schoolwork, and for that reason they are still widely available and used

Oh yeah, I can't imagine such a (swoons, faints, falls down on a hole puncher which lands in the exact right place to carve out the write-protect notch of the floppy disk in my pocket)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:30 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]


I remember that TI-83/TI-84 calculators were allowed in some of my college classes, but TI-89 calculators were not allowed, but I had a TI-86 which looked like a TI-83/TI-84 but could do calculus like a TI-89.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:12 PM on November 25, 2019


Our devilish trig teacher allowed as much calculator use as you wanted -- it was basically a rope to hang yourself with, since the questions were always designed as clever algebraic tricks. One exam I recall had every answer resolve to the square root of three -- except one, where I got square root of three over two. I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out if I had made a mistake or if he had deviously made one exception just as a gotcha. Finally in the last second I erased the /2 and handed it in...

But I spent most of that class in the back programming my HP48 to plot mandelbrot sets. It took about a minute to draw each pixel, about 12 hours for a complete screen. It really gave a sense you were zooming in on the infinite as those whirls slowly resolved bit by bit.
posted by chortly at 10:38 PM on November 25, 2019


Yeah, but there was that HP48 program that could turn decimals back into rationals, fractions of pi, roots, etc. It was awesome for those "show your work" problems.

I'd actually really like to get this program as a python script or something. It was super cool.
posted by ryanrs at 12:17 AM on November 26, 2019


I am glad to see this being discussed. In 1998 when I was in high school, my family was very poor. We could not afford the calculator. I was enrolled in a few classes that required it that year: physics and geometry. My favorite classes. I got by without it okay. My grades were good. But it was a constant reminder that I was different. And it meant my work was harder than theirs.

About half way through the second semester, my parents got me a ti-83. It was a big deal. I felt like I could finally fit in with the math and science kids I wanted to fit in with. I honestly felt like this one stupid little (expensive) thing might mean that High School was going to be okay. It was stolen from my locker while I was in gym class the very first day I brought it to school.

I left. I walked home, skipping the rest of the day. I finished the school year doing the minimum required to graduate. Which was easy, because my grades were over 100% in all my classes at that point due to extra credit and AP work. I never did homework again. I never went to another class I could skip without losing credit. I never tried to make a friend. The stupid calculator was not really so important, but it did manage to be symbolic of all the reasons it was better for me not to care.

I skipped finals and still managed decent grades, because I had calculated that I could. I enrolled in an alternative school and did my final two years of credits in a semester and got out. Sometimes I think that if that calculator had not been required; had not been such a symbol of how my family was poor and different; had not been stolen, I probably would have gone to college. But my life has been pretty good, so maybe it worked out for the best.
posted by Nothing at 1:20 AM on November 26, 2019 [10 favorites]


I use a TI calculator at work. A 1975 reverse Polish notation TI-340.

Pff. Nothing else than a restyled TI-3500. Compare it for your own.
posted by Naberius at 6:03 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I still use my TI-85 purchased in 1994 on a regular basis, mostly just for adding up student grades, but it will still quickly plot a function if I need one. I tell my students that often, since many of them are super annoyed when they get to college and discover that their math classes use Mathematica and they just bought that TI-83/4 a year or two ago. I also point out that nearly every single thing we talk about in Ecology class can be expressed in an equation as a rate of change, so they understand why having some calculus understanding is useful as a biologist.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:53 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I understand this is about the monopoly, and I don't know at all how graphing calculators are used in class (I'm so old I used a slide rule in college. I got a Radio Shack-branded TI-57 the year it came out, and loved it.), but doesn't there need to be some kind of standard in order to effectively teach a whole class something? (not that it needs to cost $100 - you can get a P & E LL-scale slide rule (with case!) for half that on eBay.)

... a focus ... on performing computations over conceptual understanding
Reminds me of Tom Lehrer- Well, six actually. But the idea is the important thing!
posted by MtDewd at 7:57 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


HP 35s for the sentimental win. Oh the buttons!
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:34 AM on November 26, 2019


All this calculator talk inspired me to dig up my well-loved and beaten up Radio Shack EC-4023, a rebadge of the Casio fx-5000F. I used that calculator from high school through grad school, and it still works today. At some point I scratched off the "128 Pre-Programmed Formulas" badge as I had a class that forbid programmable calculators.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:20 AM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I, an old, nearly failed Calculus I yet again, just one year ago. Computers were not allowed in tests, even at my community college, so it was calculators only. I have not heard of computers with test-lock, but my calculator had it and we weren't required to use it. Now that I think of it he may have allowed phones in airline mode.

I was all stoked to go calculator shopping once I figured out that my 30 year old similar-to-TI-36 was not going to do the job. Taking a special long-distance trip to Fry's for the occasion, I was shocked at the prices of TI calculators, 50%+ more expensive than the Casios! And decidedly continuing to trade on their name. I got a nice Casio, and it was helpful for the class, mostly when checking some quadrants, signs on a graph, whether my intercepts were in a reasonable position (I am not an expert graphing calculator user).
posted by rhizome at 10:03 AM on November 26, 2019


Hello,
Here in France, it’s the same problem.
More, 4 years ago, the government obliges Casio and TI to produced special graphic calculators with exam option.
Once in the exam room, the student must press a button, a red light indicates that there is no access to ram memory and program function.
So parents have been obliged to buy new calculators and previous editions are no more bancable.
A good deal for Casio and Ti.
posted by Olivier at 11:23 AM on November 26, 2019


(The UK has the same issue, but the permitted calculators are different.)
The list of approved calculators at my university is incredibly long, and they'll approve most calculators for exams. They recommend a certain model of Casio and sell it at a subsidised cost in the university shop, so most people have that, but you can use almost any. You just take it to a desk where they'll (presumably) check it can't be used for cheating, and then stick a sticker on the back saying Approved for Examinations.
posted by winterhill at 11:44 AM on November 26, 2019


I have not heard of computers with test-lock

they exist
posted by thelonius at 8:19 PM on November 26, 2019


Reader, I bought one … it was cheap on eBay and appears to be no more than a couple of years old and is barely used. The screen is quite crisp, but the keys aren't as accurate as this old HP user would like. From fit and finish and digging through board and component photos online, it looks like its BOM would be just a shade under $10. That would make its typical retail somewhere south of $50: I mean, it feels like a $50 device. It employs no technology developed in the last 30 years.

So basically, the TI-83 Plus's $100 retail price represents an 100% systemic/educational lock-in tax on the device. Whenever teachers have to fund-raise to buy these calculators or whenever a student is excluded from taking up a public education by poverty, it's purely TI Inc's rent-seeking that causes the problem. There is only one word for this behaviour: evil.
posted by scruss at 1:18 PM on November 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


If you ever needed evidence that the free market is shit at genuine innovation, TI calculators are a pretty good example.

The market doesn't want innovation in this market. The TI-83 is 100% feature complete. What possible improvement could one make besides a lower price?

I always used Casios in school, but no-one cares what brand of calculator you use in Socialist Canada. Every time I've seen a story about the TI monopoly in the US it struck me as incredibly bizarre and anti-capitalist.

Just bought my daughter one of the TIs a few months ago because it is the supported calculator for her classes. She could use what ever she wanted but policy is only the TI is supported (I'm sure teachers being the awesome people they generally are wouldn't let a student twist if they didn't have the official calculator but they sure push the TI anyways).

Also in a different equally annoying tale when I was taking my apprenticeship a decade ago I ended up having to buy two calculators. Because the incensing authority doesn't allow personal calculators at all on our end of four years big final incensing exam. Instead the invigilator hands out a specifiied calculator with our exam books. But between when I bought a calculator in my first year and when I started my fourth year Casio stopped making my original calculator instead "innovating" with from all I can figure out different button placement including moving the exponent button. I probably would have been fine using my old calculator in class and the proscribed calculator on the exam but not really a time I want to be fighting muscle memory and we use the exponent function a lot in electrical. This is the other option.

In's like an extortion racket but one of the things that allows TI to charge what they do it that the calculator does not change in any meaningful way. Which means Bob using a brand new calculator has the same key layout as Alice using a 10 year old hand me down as does the teacher who bought it before her students were born. It also matches the course material produced this year, and last year and 20 years ago. Not having instructors spend hours supporting dozens of different calculators (while all the other students are thumb twiddling) is worth something.

Professionally I often pay a premium for the same sort of reassurance. EG: Cooper will assure me that a particular light fixture is going to be available for at least five years and I agree to pay 50% more for that fixture.
posted by Mitheral at 1:40 PM on November 27, 2019


 What possible improvement could one make besides a lower price?

Symbolic calculation. The higher end TIs have it, HP have had it since the 49G (which was ~$200 when it launched 20 years ago), and I think some of the Casios do too. Until you've used it, though, it's hard to see the value. Instead of giving decimals in the results, it returns algebraically-correct answers. It can do calculus and simplify results. It's bloody marvellous, and if TI were innovating at all, they could easily do it in a sub-$100 calculator.

But, you know, it's fucking TI we're talking about here …

(hey, fair dos: the HP 49G ran symbolic code on a 4 MHz processor. It wasn't just painful to use, … so slow)
posted by scruss at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


Instead of giving decimals in the results, it returns algebraically-correct answers.

My Casio (uhh, which appears to be the top o' their line? it was only $65 compared to TI's $100+)...anyway my Casio will do this, if what you're talking about is √2/2 type answers, and it's one button (maybe shifted) to switch between decimal and symbolic. I don't think you can do an in-place conversion though, IIRC, you have to retype and rerun the equation in the other mode.
posted by rhizome at 3:15 PM on November 27, 2019


No, you won't be able to do an in-place conversion because the symbols will have been lost — but it's pretty neat that it's available under $100. The $150 fx-CG500 PRIZM has full symbolic algebra, which is incredible.
posted by scruss at 5:24 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]


And why don't schools offer to buy them back after the course is over for $50 or ask students to donate them, then issue them to the next class? We now have 2 of these sitting around the house.

I seem to recall pawn shops had a decent selection when I was in HS. That's where I got my Ti 85. I guess eBay / Craigslist now serves a similar purpose; looks like the ti 89 goes for around 20-40 bucks used. (reading the article now, I see it makes that point) If you want to donate, I think goodwill also tends to carry them? Not sure there's a reason for the school to buy / sell given that.

But I admit, I also happen to have some rando TI calcs lying around, that I haven't sold / given away. I also just got back from Microcenter with another Pi Zero W, and now I'm wondering if you can just you know, slap in a Pi instead. Precursory internet research suggests it's been attempted with less powerful components. The hardest parts would probably be instrumenting the keyboard / lcd, since they're so custom and old. Might run out of GPIO pins. Power is also another constraint.

Anyways, I can think of like three ways to break the status quo:

1. Distribute cheap fakes. We know these things are cheap to manufacture, so I'm surprised China's black markets haven't done it already. If they're indistinguishable from the real thing but cheaper, I count that as a win. I assume TI is monitoring aliexpress pretty heavily then.

2. Develop mods like this to where cheating is so easy the College Board has no choice but to ban everything. Might even be a pedagogical win anyways.

3. Recruit a team of CS / math researchers to work with the College Board to develop a not-for-profit competitor. Sell them for a few bucks above cost to cover the risks and donate any profits to a worthy cause.
posted by pwnguin at 10:10 AM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


4. Drive the College Board out of business
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:23 AM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


In trying to get an 83+ to work with Linux, the calculator link software's so old that it's hardcoded to run from ports /dev/ttyS0 to /dev/ttyS3, aka the hardware serial port you might have on your PC's motherboard back in the 90s.

Le sigh.
posted by scruss at 3:55 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


And why don't schools offer to buy them back after the course is over for $50 or ask students to donate them, then issue them to the next class? We now have 2 of these sitting around the house.
The number of college students who have all (by requirement) taken calculus courses but don't own a calculator of any kind suggests they must be doing something with them. My perspective is probably very skewed, as a mathy academic, but the idea that you'd show up for science exam without any sort of calculator seems incredibly weird. You can always borrow a pencil, but using a strange loaner calculator that you don't have experience with seem like an enormous handicap. (And, it shows, in exam scores.)

Drive the college board out of business. Declare imminent domain, seize all of TI's assets, and give $6 government TI-96s to all students. But, don't let people enroll in college without owning a scientific calculator. Being an adult human without a calculator-equivalent is like living in the US without owning a pair of shoes. I'll fight for your right to do it and might go out of my way to be your friend, 'cause you're clearly an interesting weirdo. But, it's going to make many things in life far harder than they need to be.
posted by eotvos at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2019


Every adult human has a calculator equivalent built into their phone.
posted by Mitheral at 9:36 AM on December 16, 2019


...but if you let them use those in an exam, you're also letting them talk to everyone else in the world and also giving them access to every public-facing database in the world.

Which you can do, but it would mean exams that usefully assess student mastery in that context would be *fantastically* difficult.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:08 AM on December 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yes, but that doesn't mean they need a standalone device once they get out of school.
posted by Mitheral at 7:00 AM on December 17, 2019


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