Today I was working on getting my new laptop set up. I needed the answer to a quick calculation, one that would be *just* a little too annoying to try to do in my head, so I looked for Calculator, and I couldn’t find it. I started looking through all the different folders. Nothing. I knew I could find one online, but I was in the process of getting the wifi working so that wasn’t available either. I had the installer for Excel, but I didn’t have it in yet, and I didn’t know if that would be the most efficient solution…
And in the middle of this long search, I realized - this whole computer is a giant calculating machine. Everything I do on here is probably requiring hundreds of calculations to carry out - each mouse click, each folder I’m opening - and every one of them is probably harder than the calculation I’m trying to solve.
And then I realize - also, my brain is an even *more* powerful calculator, probably doing millions of calculations a second just to allow me to process what I’m seeing and move my hands over the keys. And each of those millions of calculations is probably more complex than the one I want to do.
So I am using one superadvanced computing machine to perform thousands of difficult calculations in order to be able to use another superadvanced computing machine to perform thousands of difficult calculations in order to find a very simple computing machine so I can make it do one very simple calculation in a way I can use.
I am reminded of a story I saw on Futility Closet:
Einstein and Straus had finished the preparation of a paper and were looking for a paper clip. After opening a lot of drawers they finally found one which turned out to be too badly bent for use. So they were looking for a tool to straighten it. Opening a lot more drawers they came upon a whole box of unused paper clips. Einstein immediately started to shape one of them into a tool to straighten the bent one. When Straus asked what he was doing, he said, ‘Once I am set on a goal, it becomes difficult to deflect me.’
Einstein later said to an assistant at Princeton that this was the most characteristic anecdote that could be told of him.
Depending on what OS you’re using, you may have one or more moderately capable scripting language interpreters installed. Most Linux distros come with python, and if you don’t need floating point, bash is okay too.
Linux and OSX have the “bc” command line calculator.
Of course, on Windows you’re probably up shit creek without a paddle…