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Sal Elder

First Place Winner
Scholarship Essay Contest, 2013
Salvatore Elder Jr.
Troy High School

First place winner Salvatore Elder Jr. Troy High School

Programming and Picasso

Some years back, I wanted to be able to program a Texas Instruments graphing calculator, and so I went ahead and called a meeting with my old friend Google. I don’t remember my first attempts at TI-BASIC, as the built-in language is called, but I can guess (with some confidence) that they were largely boring and amateurish and littered with bugs. (To be fair, those things still apply, but not—I hope—to as great of an extent.) Anyway, I found it a fun way to blend one’s logical half with one’s Frankensteinian desire to create.

Programming isn’t really something that you can just start doing without a little bit of help, and so I did some reading to try to get a handle on the—well, the basics of TI-BASIC. I much prefer, however, experimenting with ideas and trying things out to reading how to do something. On a related note, Pablo Picasso stated on at least one occasion, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” I suppose that this could be taken literally: if you don’t know how to do something, then, of course, practice is important in learning. Picasso tends to be thought of as more of an artist, though, than as a stater of the obvious; for this reason, he was in all likelihood referring to testing out ideas without knowing if they’ll go well, or fail miserably. There’s also a clear implication of self-teaching.

Fiddling with my calculator often doesn’t produce the results that I might hope for, but I’ve done some work that I can be proud of. For example, (warning: math incoming) a slope field is something that you can draw to help visualize solution curves of a differential equation, but it can be a pain to draw. Circuitry tends not to mind menial labor, and so I thought it would be a good idea to try my hand at making a slope field grapher program. Fast-forward a bit, and—ta-da!—I made one. A calculator is not judgmental, however, and a program can be as useless as one’s imagination allows it to be. For example, I’ve made a rock-paper-scissors game that always beats the human player, and a program that causes the calculator to tell you to “DO IT YOURSELF” when you type a problem into it.

So far, it may seem that my Picasso comparison is a bit unjustified. After all, it’s one thing to invest yourself in the creation of a complex painting, but quite another to type into a little device during a study hall. Well, dear skeptical reader, I also have a website where I write on occasion about math and programming. (For example, one post discusses some JavaScript code that I wrote that can calculate an irrational number called the golden ratio.) I’ll be honest—I don’t fully know what I’m doing, or even who my target audience is. But it’s fun, and I suppose its main purpose is for me to learn about writing and coding. Furthermore, I get to enjoy the satisfaction, as Picasso must have, of having instructed myself through experimentation and self-motivation.