xThink Calculator March 4, 2006Posted by gordonwatts in computers.
I have a Table PC and I don’t think I could live without it. My six large logbooks are now a single computer. I can easily import peoples PDF’s and write on them — especially helpful when taking notes during talks. And I think think with the written pen (I’m old; it is the way my brain works). And I can even search my notes — though I don’t do that too often.
One thing I find myself constantly doing is switching my PC between tablet mode and pen mode for quick things — like a quick calculation. When I’m writing up HW solutions, for example. I write them out long-hand, and then swithc to regular PC mode and fire up Excel to do the calculations, then flip back to hand-writing mode and transcribe the answers. Using the built in Window’s calculator is horrible. I don’t even own a real calculator any longer; I’m not sure I could use it unless it had one of those multi-line displays similar to the modern graphing calculators (that all my students have!).
xThink’s calculator attempts to fix that problem. They give you a sheet of "paper" and you can write down a calculation and it will do the work. There is a great video demo by a blogger to talks about tablet stuff. In it he makes the comment "every student should have this." I don’t see it. Handwriting applications are hard to write; they are a totally new user interface and I don’t think programmers are used to dealing with a wide open sheet of paper yet.
First, it fails (for me) on basic hand writing. Look at an enlarged version of the picture and you’ll see. If I accidentally connect the "c" and "o" in "cos", it fails. It has lots of trouble with my "5". Handwriting is hard; and it isn’t all their fault; they are using algorithms provided by Microsoft (though I suspect they’ve not tuned them as well as they could be tuned). So using this becomes fairly frustrating — you keep writing the same expression over and over (or trying to correct one that it didn’t recognize): it is fast to flip your tablet around and use Excel. There is one cool thing. Writing "5/(2*3+1)" is much more natural with xThink: you do it as a fraction. For Excel you have to write it as I’ve just done.
The second place this fails for me is in design (which is certainly not xThink’s fault). I am teaching honors freshman physics right now. The homework I assign is almost all multi-step. You want to use the results from one part of the problem to solve the next part. You’d like to write "V=5" and "R=2", and then "I1=R/V" and perhaps a little later "P=I^2*R" or similar. With the windows calculator or a simple hand one, you have to keep re-typing your answers in each step. With Excel (and most modern good hand calculators) you just reference your previous result. Sweet! So, for me xThink also fails because it is too much like the simple GUI calculator supplied by Microsoft with the operating system.
I know what I want. I want a tiny little interface to Excel. It would sit closed in my system tray most of the time. When it opened up it would have something like 5×10 cells or similar. I could type "x=5" into it, and it would put "x" and "5" in two cells. Then I could type "=x*2" and it would put "10" in a cell. And if I changed "x" it would also change the cell. And if I’m in tablet mode it would have a handwriting recognizer tuned to the most common Excel formulas (like sin, cos, etc.). And if the recognizer messed up, I could use the TIP (or similar) to adjust the letter or two it messed up on. Oh well.