Wednesday, December 15, 2004

I'm not a true geek Boy Scout

Yet another lesson learned today: a prepared geek always carries his own calculator. About 15 mins before my final exam today, I realized I hadn't brought along my calculator, so I sprinted around campus trying to borrow one before the exam started. One of the folks in the Endy lab was kind enough to lend me his, a high-falutin' graphing calculator, namely a TI-89. My misgivings started when I pulled it out of its sleeve -- it looked insanely complicated, with way more buttons than I really needed, but beggars can't be choosers, so off I ran to the exam.

About 30 mins into the exam, I needed to use a calculator and that's when the trouble began. I had to figure out something like the square root of 2000, so I typed in '2000', 'sqrt', '=', which produced the output '2000sqrt('. Not what I was looking for. Hmm, ok, looks like I need to type in 'sqrt','2000', ')','=' ie give it a well-formed expression 'sqrt(2000)'. Doing that gave me the incredibly useful message 'Syntax error. Hit Esc to cancel'. I tried a couple more variations, none of which worked, so in the end I resorted to good ol' memory [for some odd reason, I know that the square root of 2 is 1.414 and the square root of 10 is 3.162 so the square root of 2000 is 1.414*31.62], and got an answer that way.

Unfortunately, the next hurdle wasn't so easily surmounted -- I had to calculate the natural log of a number. I'm a geek, but memorizing natural logs is a bit much even for me, so I tried extracting the answer from the calculator again, with a similar lack of success. In desperation, I threw dignity to the winds, went up to the professors and asked 'Uhm ... do you know how to use this calculator ?'. That provided a bit of comic relief -- they went through all the same steps I'd gone through and finally had to admit defeat as well, which made me feel like less of a retard. Luckily, at this point one of the TA's offered me her calculator, which was a nice simple one that just did what you asked and didn't try to get fancy, so I used that for the rest of the exam.

It turns out that the calculator tries to do everything symbolically [ie it doesn't evaluate anything] unless you tell it to quit being so smart and use real numbers, which can be done by pressing the one button on the entire friggin' thing that doesn't have a label on it [believe me, I looked for a 'Just do it !' key ...].

The good news is that I'm now truly done with my first semester at The Institute, with all my limbs intact. [Random aside, on the subject of intact limbs: some people have asked the question "Is suicide at MIT a Poisson process ?", with inconclusive results. Other articles have claimed
that MIT's suicide rate is higher than at other schools, but this has also been debated.]

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