Column
May 27, 2015

Calculating mischief

By Daris Howard

I was a junior in high school when the first calculators came out, and they did little more than add, subtract, multiply, and divide. By the time I graduated from college, Hewlett Packard had advanced calculator technology a lot. The testing center at the university I was attending was given some calculators to try out in that environment. The calculators were programmable, and made so people could beam information and programs to each other. The one problem that came out of this experiment was that students were cheating on exams, beaming test answers clear across the room. HP, in response, reduced the range so calculators had to be right next to each other to make contact.

Later, when I became a teacher, these calculators became a mainstay in my math classroom. David, one of the most brilliant students I have ever had, had shown incredible skill in programming. I wasn’t surprised when he took and interest in these calculators and came to me with some questions.

He showed me the one he had purchased. “Professor Howard, do you know how these transmit data?”

“Yes,” I replied. “They transmit by infrared rays.”

“Like a laser?”

“Kind of. But they are not amplified like a laser.”

“But why do the calculators have to be so close to talk to each other?” he asked. “Doesn’t a television remote use infrared? You can beam it clear across the room.”

I told him the story about HP’s experiment at the testing center when I was a student, and how they had to reduce how far the calculators would transmit.

He smiled. “Good. That is just what I wanted to know. I was sure they had to be capable of it.”

I made him promise that if he found a way to increase the signal that he wouldn’t use it for cheating. He laughed. “Oh, I won’t do anything like that. I need it for something more important.”

“What?” I asked.

“I’ll let you know when and if I get it figured out.”

David almost immediately took most of his calculator apart. I would come into the computer lab and find him working hard at it. He read and studied the manuals and other things he could get hold of. He analyzed each piece and considered what it did. Meanwhile, I kept reminding him to do his class work.

One day I saw that his calculator was all put back together. “Did you get it working?” I asked.

He nodded. “I think I’ve got it so it will beam about 30 yards. But I have to write a program to do some testing. I’ll let you know once I have finished.”

Again, I reminded him to do his classwork.

A few days later he came to me and was absolutely excited. “It worked! The whole thing worked!”

“Good,” I replied. “Now tell me what you did.”

“Well,” he said, “when I try to study in my apartment, my roommates have the television blaring so loud that I can’t think. So after I increased the infrared range, I wrote a program that would record any infrared signal. I then beamed the television remote and captured its signal into my calculator. So, now, if they start watching television, I change the channel, turn down the volume, or anything I want. My roommates have decided our television is possessed by an evil spirit, and now they go somewhere else to watch.”

“You did all of this to make your calculator into a television remote?”

“Yeah, isn’t it great?”

I smiled. “I suppose. But maybe it would have been easier to have just gone to the library to study.”

Daris Howard, award-winning, syndicated columnist, playwright, and author, daris@darishoward.com.

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