Monday, November 12, 2007

Ode upon a calculator

Okay, no poetry. But I've had for a few weeks now a TI-30XS and I would like to make a few comments -- on the calculator itself in this post, and then later some thoughts I have on the dominance of TI gear in the educational calculator market.

As calculators go, I'm decently impressed with it. The appearance shows TI's usual flair for design, with a white and slate-blue case with neon green accents, making it stylish but not childish like, say, the TI-108. The interface is almost identical to the one that TI has been using for years in its low to mid-range graphing calculators going back at least to the TI-81 -- you turn it on, you get a cursor instead of a simple number display. If you wish to use it as such, it's quite easy to do so, but the new thing the XS brings to the party is the MathView mode, in which you can, with a bit of practice, enter the problem exactly as it appears on the page. Fractional and exponential notation both come out quite nice without being crammed into the space of a single fixed line.

I'm not quite sure what I think of this -- certainly by the time you get to a class where you might want to use a scientific calculator, you'll probably need one. In that regard, it's quite functional, though it does lack hex and octal modes and a couple of other things that a calculator being used in the Real World might want. (For that, we'll have to wait until they bring MathView to the TI-34 series next year.) But I'm torn -- is doing this a way of reducing copying errors, or just dumbing down the students by removing one more opportunity to check over their work? I really don't know. I do know that for overall usability, it's a significant improvement over the awkward two-line display used in the TI-30IIX, and a damn sight better than the old-school one-line TI-30Xa.

Another issue I have with this is that it's a TI, which automatically implies a premium price. The peculiar thing about Texas Instruments' calculator marketing is that it comes explicitly through their educational division. If you buy a graphing calculator for a math class, the software your teacher hands out will be TI software (most likely for an 82/83/84 series). I'm a little unsure what's going on here -- one could argue that TI is merely responding to a market, but given that CVS, one of the big three drugstore chains, doesn't carry TI product at all, and that Rite Aid rebrands gear from Chinese OEM builder Karce for much cheaper than TI gear, I'm very curious how TI still manages to command the prices they do for equipment that's not the absolute top of the line for its category. (Hell, HP's HP-50g costs exactly the same as the TI-89Ti and TI-Nspire and includes infrared and an SD slot. The Nspire gives you swappable keyboards, true, but that seems almost as self-defeating as Commodore's 3-system-in-1 architecture for the C128 proved to be.)

So, it's a nice calculator. I may try to replace it with something a little more advanced when the TI-34 gets the new display, and honestly I'll still have my comparatively ancient TI-83 around for games anyway. But the 30XS is a pretty nice calculator for general use, and it looks like the future of scientific calculators, especially since Casio is now shipping a very similar model.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

On ministries for profit

Many years ago I attended an evangelical-dominated high school. It was decent academically, but the bulk of the student body was shooting for middle-of-the-pack Christian colleges and seminaries, not small liberal arts schools or elite public (UMass) or private (Ivies, Boston College) schools. At one of the weekly chapels, we had a minister there to speak about "cults". Now, to those of you who aren't steeped in the evangelical tradition, the term "cult" means, in evangelese, something roughly equivalent to "heretic sect", not the expected definition of "coercive religious movement". As a result, this ministry happily grouped the Unitarian-Universalist Association (one of the least coercive of any churches) and the Baha'i in with groups such as the International Church of Christ (still the Boston Church of Christ at the time) and the Moonies, both of which are known to be quite coercive in their teachings and social structures and which would qualify as cults in most people's books.

Well, I dug up some of the booklets they gave out at that assembly the other night while searching for an old calculator manual, and went to look and see whether the ministry was still in business and whether they'd updated any of the tracts or not. The ministry is still there (and I will not dignify them with a name or a link). The pamphlets are still in print... but not online. They have to be ordered, hard copy only, at a price of $2-$4 each (some of them being no longer than 4 pages in length, plus a relatively elaborate cardstock cover). This flabbergasted me -- even Jack Chick, as reprehensible and outright insane a human being as he is, still posts his tracts online for people to read. They do have books for sale -- that they would not put them online is understandable -- but selling what are essentially short, poorly written FAQ lists for such high prices strikes me as being anathema to the very concept of a ministry. If the truth is so important, why are the curious forced to pay to hear it?

I've always thought the most blatant example of a Christian money grab piggybacking off someone else's work has to be Jason Gastrich's Skeptic's Annotated Bible, Corrected and Explained. Gastrich, a particularly odious minister with a string of false credentials and a marked tendency to ignore "keep out signs" (he is a major nuisance on Wikipedia, having been banned repeatedly but refusing to take no for an answer), has for several years been marketing a CD-ROM that claims to contain a complete refutation of the Skeptic's Annotated Bible (an admittedly somewhat sloppy but indispensable Bible reference for the anti-inerrantist). The kicker: the SAB is open-content. It is free for anyone to reference and costs nothing. The SAB-C&E is not. Whatever Gastrich's refutation is, it is apparently not important enough to him to make sure that as many people see it as possible -- instead, he'd rather make a buck off it. Such are the Elmer Gantrys of our age.

On a larger scale, what are we to do about James Dobson, the "evangelical Pope"? Focus on the Family is a huge ministry, spreading its ideas on childrearing and society far and wide and raking in substantial sums of money tax-free, to the resentment of many smaller commercial Christian publishing houses. Again, why is the money seemingly more important than the message?

I'm an atheist. I do volunteer work for a small Christian homeless outreach ministry, mostly on the TV production side helping out with public affairs programming. I have much respect for that sort of work, because even though I have no meaningful belief in God, I truly do believe it's the sort of thing that would-be messiahs throughout the ages, including most prominently Jesus and Buddha, preached to be done. It's my humanist mitzvah. I do it because getting good information out, with as few restrictions as possible, is something that greases the wheels in almost everyone's life; I'm a supporter of open source software for the same reason. Like I said, Jack Chick -- paranoid, hate-mongering, batshit-insane Jack Chick -- understands this point, even if his message is rotten to the core. What is so hard about this that we apparently can't get rid of the money changers in the temple?

To Lauren

Don't do anything stupid. One day you may realize that people are trying to help. When that happens, all will be forgiven.