Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Great Graphing Calculator Scam

As usual, I’m mad as hell about something, and right now I’m mad about the price of graphing calculators. The anger started building Sunday morning, when my long-suffering wife was perusing the ads stuffed into the State Journal, and announced “look at this….a T-I graphing calculator….they’re still a hundred bucks.” She recalled my ire a decade ago, when we were bullied by our children into buying each of them a $125 graphing calculator for their calculus class at LaFollette High.

We were given to understand that we had essentially no choice in the matter; it had to be a certain type of graphing calculator officially approved by the math-powers-that-be, and it was made by Texas Instruments, and its name was TI-83 or TI-84 or TI-something. One hundred and twenty five dollars a copy, thank you very much. I recall the price quite clearly.

I groused about it to anyone who would listen. When we bought the damn things – I don’t remember where – I recall the price variance among Madison merchants was negligible. And I impressed upon both my young scholars that they’d better take DAMN good care of this investment, because we were not keen on replacing a “lost” graphing calculator.

I also wondered about parents of kids taking calculus who weren’t as economically fortunate as my wife and I, having to cough up that kind of money for an electronic device which, in my estimation, would get approximately 6 to 10 hours of use per week for nine months.

Time passed and the kids graduated from LaFollette and moved on to the UW, and when our daughter, the younger of the two, was packing up to move into Ogg Hall as a Freshman (the old Ogg that was demolished a couple years ago, not the new one), I saw her graphing calculator on the top of a box of stuff which was NOT to be moved into the dorm. I asked her if she ever intended to use it again, and she said “probably not” – so I asked her if I could donate it to LaFollette High.

She said she thought her older brother was no longer using his, and her high school boyfriend probably had his around somewhere, and came up with a few other names. I put her in charge of making the calls and said I’d pick them up if necessary. I called Mike Meissen, who was Principal at LaFollette at the time, and asked if it would be OK if I donated these calculators (we eventually amassed 7 of them), and he said the head of the math department would be DELIGHTED and could quietly make them available to students who were smart in math and short on resources. I cleaned them up, put fresh batteries in them – and each one takes FOUR double-A batteries – and dropped them off at LaFollette.

I relate this tale not to be nominated for sainthood, but to draw attention to the price of technology. In almost every case, the cost of some bit of technology (like a graphing calculator) goes DOWN dramatically over the years, even as minor improvements are made and “new” models come out. Our first HDTV cost us three grand; we replaced it a couple years ago for half that, and got a bigger screen (65”) to boot. When we bought it, it was “last season’s model” and marked down.

I can’t think of a single thing that would explain why the price of a graphing calculator would be essentially the same as it was a decade ago. Texas Instruments has got a REAL good thing going for itself.

15 comments:

  1. xkcd.com had an amusing take on the TI calculator cost issue: http://xkcd.com/768/

    At the Datamath Calculator Museum (http://www.datamath.org/) I was very surprised to find that the TI-83 (which is the calculator you probably bought for your chilluns a decade ago) and the current TI-84 series use the same microprocessor, the Z80. What's even more horridly fascinating is that the Z80 was used in some of the first microcomputers in the late 1970's!!?? My God! The Osborne 1 used a Z80 processor! The Kaypro used a Z80!

    To borrow from xkcd: What the hell, TI?

    The Town Crank
    Neenah, WI

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    1. also, was used in the original gameboy (or at least an almost identical processor, with the same opcodes).

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    2. (edit) also just bought a 200 dollar ti-89 titanium used for 30 bucks :D

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    3. also, was used in the original gameboy (or at least an almost identical processor, with the same opcodes).

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  2. The pricing of scientific calculators is one of the more enduring rip-offs in the technology markets. One reason the racket continues unchecked is because, as our blogger discovered, schools require students to buy the things.

    We have a situation where few companies make scientific calculators, because it is a niche market. Students - a niche within the niche, if you will - usually don't have limitless funds, but the companies have (ahem) calculated the price point for optimum sales.

    It's classic capitalism: Raise the price beyond that point and sales drop. Lower it and they do not appreciably increase. The few calculator manufacturers gravitate - without overtly, and thereby illegally, colluding - to that price point and stay there. They are, as Thomas Pynchon wrote, "charging whatever the traffic will bear."

    Schools and thoughtful parents (kudos to our blogger) could bring the price down by renting the calculators to students, and perhaps charging a security deposit - the better to get the gizmo back in workable condition. If enough of that happened, prices would plummet.

    There's another way to thwart the gougers: Software. Scientific calculator applications are available to be downloaded for little or no money. The complicating factor is that, if the calculations are to be made during tests or class time, a familiar computer or iPad or smartphone of some sort must be available.

    This address http://bit.ly/c27dCs will take you to a series of Macintosh-compatible scientific calculator applications. This link http://www.binarythings.com/hidigit/ points to one of numerous PC-compatible calculator apps. This latter one is shareware: You can try it for a while, but will have to shell out $19.95 if you want to keep it working. Still not a bad deal, since the program can move to as your computing needs change.

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  3. It's very much like the textbook market -- a small group of captive customers with little incentive for new producers to enter the market.

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  4. Jill nailed it.

    It's a Tim Carney topic: Big Gummint and Big Capital fornicating wildly--and YOU get to pay for the bastard children.

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  5. Dad,

    >> Big Gummint and Big Capital fornicating wildly <<

    Oooohh! That sent a thrill up my leg!

    The Town Crank
    Neenah, WI

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  6. I just found 3 graphing calculators when cleaning out my old house.

    Ti 83, 86, and 89.

    Each of these is very useful and could conceivably be quite handy to a kid in class. But have you ever tried to sell one of these things on ebay?

    They retain absolutely no value because there are so many used ones on the market. tells you something about how enduring their value will be to the student as they move on and have access to spreadsheets, databases, and numerical processing software.

    Such a scam, it drives me to madness!

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  7. Pro Game for Pro like me, thanks for share.

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  8. It's like a textbook; they are cheap to make and are inflated hugely to make incredible profits. The school needs a book and the manufacturer charges 200 bucks for six, while they costed about 40 bucks to produce altogether? thats a $160 profit. or 40 bucks per book. but these calcs cost about $15 to manufacture. If you have a broken one and a torx screwdriver, take the thing apart; there's almost NOTHING in the casing! a single board and one or two IC's. If you want to scam people and not get arrested, make stuff for educators.

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  9. Old thread I know but here in the UK we do calculus without graphing calculators. We just sketch what the graph might look like on paper. If a solution is required we just solve it mathematically. In the US it seems that you have courses that teach you how to use a graphing calculator. Weird!

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    1. old thread i know but it is just a silly generalization. lots of colleges in the us don't require calculators for calculus, but might require for some other classes like statistics etc. so it depends on both college and class, i am pretty sure it is the same in other countries around the world

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