Calculators were never meant for just math

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TI versus programmers, the truth

Posted by Admin on March 22, 2011 at 9:14 PM

            I have been working long and hard on preparing this editorial. This segment will discuss multiple facets of the TI-calculator community, in a non-biased way, forming a conclusion based on indisputable facts.

            First, let me introduce myself. I am a Queens College student, having graduated from Archbishop Molloy High School two years ago. I have spent four years as an active webmaster for Blast Programs Incorporated, a non-profit organization designed to bring the merits of calculator programming to every student who uses calculators by Texas Instruments. In this time, I have, not only produced software, but have also debated within and outside the community about the usefulness of programming for TI calculators. Recently, I have undertaken a very bi-partisan project. While working on full-length Legend of Zelda and Star Trek battle clones for the calculator, I have simultaneously added a “Teacher’s Section” to my website, and plan on producing and adding tools to the page that teachers can use. Now, I use my knowledge and skills as an advocate for the TI-programming community. Beyond that, I am interested in pursuing some sort of career in public relations. What better way to start, than in publishing something like this. This started as a paper for a class, but it seemed like pretty good material to publish, so I made a few tweaks and here it is.

            Let us start with where TI’s business comes from. The greatest source of profit for TI is the community of students. Each year, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of student purchase graphing calculators from Texas Instruments, ranging from the TI-83+ family, the TI-86, the TI-89, and the TI-Nspire. The body of students can be further divided, based on their preferred usage of the calculator. There is the general student body, and the programming community. While the programming community is less extensive, numerically, they give TI roughly the same amount of business. How, you may ask. The programming of your calculator is extremely sensitive. When changing this, or writing your own programs, the slightest mistake can cause instability, crashes, or a complete destruction of the operating software. While most of this is reversible, if done properly, some of it is permanent. Brandon Wilson once bricked (damaged irreversibly) one of his calculators. Several others he broke, but was able to fix. I, on many occasions, have made mistakes in coding that have led to operating system instability. When we do this, we then need to purchase new equipment. So, in the time that an average user has one calculator, we may go through two or three.

            I am unaware where the stigma of programming being a hindrance comes from, but it seems to be present in all; that programming one's calculator is, not only a waste of time, but also a keen way to cheat on exams. I will grant that many students do not care at all about the merits of calculator programming and use programs to store cheats, but to embrace just this one group of students as the reason "spoils the bunch", so to speak. There are many of us out there who use programming not to cheat, but rather to hone in on one's own skills and to grasp a higher understanding of the topics presented. The nature of a program, when constructed as such, is not to cheat. I have always been taught that the best test of whether or not you understand the material is to see if you can do it yourself. But, what better indication is there that you know the material so well than that you can give a calculator fool-proof instructions on how to carry out a given calculation, have it explain why that calculation was made, and account for margins of error.

            If that is not convincing enough, allow me to present this. I myself will admit to having used pre-made programs on tests in the past. Not for reference on information, but merely for computational assistance…the ability to perform multiple calculations at once. On average, I performed the same, if not worse, on the exam, leading me to the conclusion that regardless of what you bring into the test, not even a program can help you if you do not know the material. All the program does is help you answer the question faster, if you already know what to do.

            Then, there is the issue of gaming. One of the chief arguments against playing games on calculators that I have heard is that they mess around with the lists (L1through L6), which are used by the calculator to graph regressions, as well as other system variables. The truth: Very few calculator games actually interfere with important data used in class. In fact, 95% of the games I have reviewed create their own storage locations, and then destroy them once they are no longer needed. This takes away strength from the most powerful downside to games: students play games during class. Well, outlawing games on calculators does not solve the problem, as students will just find other ways to not pay attention. The fact is that you need to trust your students to have the maturity to say "there is a time and a place for everything, and class is not the time for playing games".

            I have heard that Texas Instruments holds conventions for teachers, and at these conventions they speak about the programming community. Judging by the industry's treatment of our support requests, I can assume that their statements about us are negative. Well, here is the truth about TI. TI releases new software that is (1) buggy (means prone to crashes and other errors; in fact the TI-84+ OS 2.55MP is known to have crashed while calculating 1+1.), (2) designed to cause incompatibility with our programs, such as xLib, Omnicalc,and others, and (3) contains no new features. Many members of our community have contacted TI about why they design these new, pointless features, while their older ones still don't work properly. We have gotten the run-around, links to the documentations that do not address our questions, or just completely ignored. All the while, they claim to support educational advancement.This is not true. For the version of this paper that was being submitted to class, I wrote in to Texas Instruments, requesting some simple information on which calculator model sells the most, and clearly stated that it was educational, for a paper. TI blatantly ignored my message.

            As if that isn't bad enough, TI has posted takedown orders against several more prominent members of our community, who have reverse-engineered key parts of TI's operating system software. We have used this information to port our own OS software and run it on our own calculators; we have not used this information to edit or redistribute TI's software and claim it as our own. Instead, we use it to fix the mistakes that TI refuses to. When we released the “fixed” OS’s, we even give TI credit, clearly indicating on the free download that it is software belonging to TI. As TI makes its operating system available, in print, on its website, this is all that is legally required for a redistribution. Yet that did not stop TI from attacking our members for copyright infringement. To my knowledge, at least one of these cases went to court, and a judge threw out the case. Yet, TI tells anyone who will listen that we have warped priorities. Well, we aren't the ones who spend money needlessly ,filing cases against software developers who try to improve software, instead of producing better software themselves.

            This is an era of computers. Everything that we do, from schoolwork to socializing, is done on computers. With the widespread usage of the TI graphing calculators,and their increasing analytical power, TI has come to the forefront of a rapidly evolving society. TI has a responsibility to fill this social “niche”by fostering, not only programming capability, but programming knowledge as well. This means making resources on TI-Basic and z80 assembly available to the public. It also means to get rid of the downgrade protections on the Nspire models, which seem curiously timed to outdate our releases of Nleash. Finally,it means encourage teachers to foster, even utilize, programs in class, rather than spread propaganda about how programming is an unnecessary evil.

            Representatives from TI have said that z80 assembly is not needed for good math or science utilities. Rather, they say, the available variants of TI-Basic are more than sufficient to produce quality programs. TI is missing the point. They are suggesting, borrowing from a relative scenario, that I should forgo my computer and type my paper on a typewriter simply because it is sufficient. You do not need technical expertise to see how preposterous that is. A computer is, by far, easier to use and much more powerful in terms of formatting than a typewriter. To return to the point, programmers will want z80 support because it is a much more powerful tool with which to program.

            However, we cannot honestly expect TI to take these steps unless we, the programming community, meet them halfway. This means that we need to take effort to produce utilities that are beneficial to an academic curriculum and spend less of our time on games. The fact that, on most sites that host calculator programs, the games section is the largest is a testament to this imbalance. Don’t get me wrong, nDOOM, Zelda, Pong, and Tetris are great programs, but they don’t help in class. Having games on your calculator is not a crime. Using them in class, however, is counter-productive.

            In conclusion, it is obvious to me that TI and the programming community are, and will always be, at odds until the two sides can meet at a middle ground. This middle ground is composed of several key points. First off, the programming community must focus less on games and more on utilities that can be used in class. Secondly, the community must be less offensive when addressing TI’s motives. Remember, correlation does not equal causation, just because something can be true, it does not necessarily follow that it must be true. In exchange, the programming community can reasonably expect increasing z80 support and less opposition to its own development.


Signed proudly,

Anthony Cagliano

-TI calculator software designer

-Member of and

-Administrator of Blast Programs Inc.


Categories: Editorials

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