Interview with Open SciCal creator Matt Stack

By Tech Powered Dad | August 6, 2010

Open source graphing calculator Open SciCal

Earlier this week, Matt Stack made headlines when he announced he had created an entirely open source software and hardware graphing graphing calculator. For those unfamiliar with the concept, “open source” means that the programmers who write the computer code make it public for anyone to tweak, improve, or customize. This differs greatly from commercial software efforts where code is a carefully guarded secret. The news of Matt’s creation, Open SciCal, was quickly picked up and reported on by Wired and Gizmodo among others.

Yesterday, Matt gave Tech Powered Math an extensive opportunity to speak with him and get his thoughts on calculators, learning math, his passion for open source hardware, and why he created Open SciCal.

TPM: Thanks for your time. It seems like there’s been a lot of buzz around your project.

It’s been kind of a busy past couple of days–a lot of emails, and a lot of interest this little project. It’s fun. I get my “15 minutes” I guess. I took a look at your site. It’s very cool. You know (calculators are) one of the things I have always been such a big fan of ever since I was in middle school really, and that was a lot longer ago than I care to remember sometimes. When I picked up my first calculator, I was really inspired by my math teacher, who was just a total nerd and proud of it. He, even more than my parents, steered me into this interest in hacking devices and making better calculators. I remember in high school I had found a way to accelerate a TI-82 calculator by swapping out a capacitor and making the processor run 1 12 to 2X the speed. I guess the bar was lower in high school. That certainly made me pretty nerdy. But I loved doing it, and I taught myself a lot about electronics then and that’s really what started it.  I’ve just been teaching myself more and more all along.

TPM: How long did it take? How long were you working on this?

Stack: It was about 4 months, start to finish. I’ve been hacking it together. It was a little tricky. It was definitely not a solo effort. I had a lot of help from guys on the web I’ve gotten to know over the years that are more on the software hacker side. I guess I like to think of myself as a hardware hacker.

TPM: How much of what you did with your design was from scratch and how much was built on prior work?

Stack: Probably 33% existing work. There were 3 really tough parts to the project. The first part was the chip that would do the processing. I used this board called the Beagle Board for that. That’s the 33% that was done for me. The second part was actually building the screen and the interface and putting the memory on it and giving it a little bit of I/O and a graphical interface. That’s what I did mostly by myself. The third piece was porting R to it. Porting R to it, that was a very difficult task, and I had a lot of help on that from this guy in the Netherlands called Thom. He just found a way to port this entire R statistical and mathematical environment, which is open source software, onto the hardware that I was playing around with. And that kind of closed the loop–that made it all happen.

TPM: Can you talk a little bit more about open source hardware and why it appeals to you so much?

Stack: That’s what I love to do. I love making open source hardware.  It’s kind of a tricky thing.  Open source hardware is basically when somebody builds a device or a gadget, and they give the schematics out with it so that somebody who picks up the gadget, instead of having to reverse engineer the schematic to know which chip does what, you’re actually told what it can do. The simplest example is that if you want to wire in a different memory chip, you don’t have to reverse engineer the whole board, you can just plug in a new memory chip. If you thought open source software was a little obscure because you needed to know programming, open source hardware is certainly a level more obscure because in addition to programming, you typically need to know how to hack circuits  So I don’t think it’s for everyone, but it’s really picking up.

One of the most popular mods for the TI-82 and 85 was putting a backlight on the calculator, which I had on mine too when I was in middle school. In fact, I credit that as to why I have to wear glasses these days. I used to stay up late at night, and this is the nerdiest thing you’ll ever hear, with a calculator and a flashlight, and I would program TI-82 basic games after the lights were out so my parents wouldn’t know. The side effect is I now wear very strong glasses. The benefit is I learned a lot about math. Having the backlight on that actually made it doable.

Well, nowadays, if you have an open source schematic, and you want to boost up the memory on a calculator, I think you should be able to. If you have a soldering iron and want to hack your device, you bought it, shouldn’t you be able to modify it? It’s kind of like the car guys in Detroit. They have their engines; it would be crazy to think they can’t get the part diagram for their cars so they can work on it. That wouldn’t fly. People wouldn’t like that, and yet that’s kind of what happens with these electronic gadgets. I think there’s a presumption of ignorance. The guys who make calculators are saying they don’t want people screwing around with it because it’ll void warranties and make it do things it wasn’t supposed to do.

TPM: Why did you decide to create Open SciCal? What makes it different than a calculator you buy off the rack?

Stack: I kind of stumbled into this observation a little while ago when I was hanging out with friends of mine in New York. I live in Boston, so I try to avoid New York when I can, but every once in a while I have to go down there to see my old friends. A lot of them are in finance or the government or military information systems groups. We used to all go to high school together. We were saying, ‘Nobody carries calculators any more.’ Outside of education and teaching, the calculator as a device is like an endangered species.  

You’ve got these emulators on the iPhone and Android. The emulators on the one hand, they really want you to use the calculator on the phone, and then you’ve got the other end, which is these laptop computers where people analyze their big data sets crunch them with R or Matlab. And then you’ve got this disappearing middle where the calculator used to be. That kind of struck me as an interesting problem to think about. I started thinking, ‘What would my ideal calculator be?’ It would be something that could still crunch online accessed data sets in my hand, rather than having a laptop.

The thing is, Android is a great thing, and so is the iPhone, but you just can’t hack them. If you want to crunch a data set on sunspots because some guy just mentioned, ‘Oh, there’s a solar flare storm,’ you have to spend 6 months writing an app, and then maybe it’ll get in the app store. It’s just not the right approach. It also doesn’t really help people learn anything about math. They just click. All these apps that people are trying to make to emulate calculators, I worry about them because they are trying to obscure what calculation is actually happening. Rather than exposing the math and the elegance of the function, they want you to press little 3D shadowed buttons.

Why don’t we carry calculators any more? One of the big reasons we all agreed on was that one of the trends that’s happening right now is that the size, the amount of data and information about something, has just exploded.  In the engineering domain we’re talking about millions and trillions of data points, and no one’s ever going to enter that stuff into a calculator. All the useful answers to questions worth asking having seen an explosion in the number of data points that drive them, and I think that that is the real problem that calculators have. The biggest difference between (Open SciCal) and what I think the future calculators are and the calculators you can buy off the shelf is that this one is designed to be on the internet. It’s designed to grab megabytes worth of data files, and it’s designed to crunch them, as opposed to the current calculators, which are designed for you to key in the data, and then crunch it on the calculator.

For more information on Open SciCal, visit Matt Stack’s blog

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