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    I first heard of calculators in the third grade when my teacher gave everyone the task of adding the numbers 1 through 100.  After failing miserably for several days to get the answer, it dawned on me to ask the teacher how to do it.  I think she had pity on me because I was the only child that had not enlisted his or her parents to help them.  I knew that they were all getting help because they came with long strips of paper that had emanated from something called a calculator.  My teacher explained that along time ago another teacher had a very hyper young student named Gauss that always needed extra work to avoid annoying her (I assume female because I never had a male homeroom teacher in elementary school).  Thinking that this addition would be the ultimate solution, she was shocked to see that little Gauss was finished in a mater of minutes.  Apparently Gauss made a career out of his rapid solution:  1 + 99 = 100, 2 + 98 = 100, therefore 1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 98 + 99 + 100 = 49 x 100 + 50 + 100 or (first + last term)/2 x number of terms in the series = 5050.  Boy I felt stupid but not as much as all those kids with parents with calculators that could not get the correct answer because of input errors.  No one ever got the answer.

    In junior high school I remember my brother and I sneaking into my mother's office (the other side of my bedroom) to look at her Rockwell calculator with glowing red light emitting diodes (LED).  Of course at $70, it was off limits to us.  I think the next year I begged my mother to let me use all my birthday money to buy a tiny (about the size of a pack of cards) Commodore calculator with glowing turquoise LEDs.  I remember that it often only answered something like Error... to indicate that I had asked it to multiply something too large.  This encouraged me to learn to multiply large numbers in my head.  Thus I participated in number sense but never calculator or slide rule competitions throughout high school.  The only time I ever won at one of these math or science meets was the times that I had no expectation (or pressure) to win anything and thus I would go home only to find out at school that I had won third place.  I really appreciate the teachers that drove us to those meets although I could tell that I lived in a poor part of town because our school was represented by the same three students traveling in one car (as apposed to the buses from other schools) and we never had team tee-shirts or coaching or mini pep rallies before entering the competition room.

    In the summer between my eighth and ninth grades I was invited to attend a two week engineering camp.  It was great, two weeks of seeing what engineers do for a living, competing against more affluent kids in town, and getting to solder our own calculator.  This experience had me thinking for four years that it would be great to be an engineer.  I tended towards electrical engineering because most kids could not understand why we were surveying the heights around the parks on campus or spent a week building structures out of popsicle sticks and glue to hold up a soda can (a simulated water tower).  My water tower consisted of putting the soda can on top of a rolled up piece of paper.  It was enough to win a tee-shirt because of the simplicity and inexpensiveness of my design.  Things change and things stay the same considering that we were exposed to lead solder and strobe lights without thinking of the consequences, and we spent time building solar cookers and visiting solar houses in Las Cruces because we were in the middle of an energy crisis because oil was going to run out soon.  I also remember that we were told to design an experiment for the upcoming space shuttle which seemed to take for ever to arrive.  My proposal was to make vacuum walls in space and ship them back to earth, because as we all know, vacuums are perfect insulators, perfect insulation means less energy needed to heat or cool an environment.  I know my chronology is correct because I enjoyed listening on the radio to the background song of this page, "Feel So Good", dozens of times as a rode to and back on the bus from the camp in 1977.

    In high school I was disappointed to find that the U.S. was not the calculator capital of world.  I remember regularly borrowing the calculator of a Finish foreign exchange student just to hear it say the numbers out loud.  Being a world traveler, she acquired it in Hong Kong.  Using her calculator, I also discovered that 1 x 8 + 1 = 9, 12 x 8 + 2 = 98, 123 x 8 + 3 = 987, etc.  Believe it or not I actually spent a few days in graduate school proving why 123456789 x 8 + 9 = 987654321, although it would be years later that I would have a calculator that could do the math.  Try 13579 x 8 + 2 x 5 or 147 x 8 + 3 x 3.  A true nerd activity.

    My true love in calculators was a Casio graphing calculator that I could also program.  I used it through college and graduate school though it was eventually donated to one of my nephews before realizing that my children could someday use it (It was that good!).  Over the years I have tried reverse polish notation graphing calculators, and I have succumbed to buying my daughter the graphing calculator that her seventh grade teacher insistent on but for half the price I still recommend buying the Casio color graphing calculator (or just get a computer) which amazingly can now also do algebra.  My Casio and my future wife had an interesting first meeting.  To show how romantic I was, I proceeded to show off that it could draw flowers in polar coordinates.  My girlfriend proceeded to scratch the screen in figure eights with her nail because she correctly predicted that electronic devices should someday have touch screens.  I fondly remembered the event for years every time I looked at the screen.


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Friday, April 20, 2018

jsal at utep dot edu