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Why Are Graphing Calculators So Expensive?

In today's world of high-tech gadgets, Texas Instruments' relatively low-tech calculators stand out. Since the ‘90s, laptops have gotten faster and thinner, phones have become more powerful, and watches can pick up Wi-Fi—but the TI-83 graphing calculator, which was launched in 1996, essentially remains frozen in time. With a 6 MHz processor, no rechargable battery, and a screen like an old Game Boy, the TI-83 is far from impressive.

One would think that such outdated technology would eventually become affordable, but the price of a TI-83 or its successor, the cumbersome and only slightly upgraded TI-84 (launched in 2004), cost roughly the same as they did 10 years ago. A TI-83 will set a student back around $100, while the TI-84 still costs more than $100. Most obsolete gadgets lower in price (consider this $10 flip-phone), but the humble graphing calculator continues to boast a hefty price tag. What gives?

It's all about supply and demand.

Graphing calculators are still widely used by students, and schools have strict boundaries for what these gadgets can do. Many curriculums in American math classes require the use of a TI-83 or TI-84 graphing calculator (or its equivalent). The reliable calculators have been part of the classroom for so long, it’s hard to shake them. As Mic reports, many lesson plans revolve around just learning how to work the things—Pearson textbooks feature illustrations of Texas Instruments graphing calculators to help students better understand how to use the devices.

Public school education is notoriously slow to change methods, but even forward-thinking classrooms struggle to escape the grasp of the graphing calculator. Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have strict rules about what devices students are allowed to use. When trapped within these small confines, teachers have no choice but to teach using the outmoded technology.

According to the College Board, here is a list of graphing calculators allowed into an SAT testing room:

Laptops, phones, and devices that connect to the Internet are obviously prohibited to prevent cheating. While other companies make slightly cheaper approved calculators, most students are pointed towards the TI-83 or TI-84; it's a lot easier to teach with one device instead of many.

When students have no choice but to purchase a calculator from a finite list of options, the sellers can feel free to set their price. According to The Washington Post, Texas Instruments took home 93 percent of U.S. graphing calculator sales between July 2013 and June 2014.

Barclays analyst Blayne Curtis told The Washington Postthat, "[c]ompared to other electronics this day and age there is very little content [in a TI-84 Plus]... Plastic case, small black and white screen, two semiconductor chips. The batteries are even not rechargeable like a cell phone." Curtis estimated that each calculator costs about $15-20 to make. Due to the high market price caused by high demand, he guesses that the company can boast a profit margin of over 50 percent.

As Mic reports, Texas Instruments maintains their monopoly with services like 1-800-TI-CARES and workshops that teach teachers how to use the devices. By cultivating their product as the norm in classrooms, the company is able to keep its stronghold in the market. Smartphones have successfully managed to edge out other gadgets like watches and cameras, but they have no place in a testing environment. For the time being, it looks like students and parents will continue to cough up big bucks for these clunky old calculators.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

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