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Barack Obama's Calculator

A commenter at the Daily Telegraph asks why Barack Obama was asked to buy a calculator for his 5th grade class in 1971:

As long as people are starting to read the book "Dreams From My Father," take a gander where he describes his fifth grade school supplies list:

"... there was a list of things to buy -- a uniform for physical education, scissors, a ruler, number two pencils, a calculator (optional)."

Barack Obama and I were born in the same year. The year he graduated from high school was the year I graduated from high school. A calculator for a fifth grader, or any K-12 student, in 1971? Highly unlikely. Yes they did exist, barely, from Wikipedia.

"The first truly pocket-sized electronic calculator was the Busicom LE-120A "HANDY", which was marketed early in 1971. Made in Japan... The first American-made pocket-sized calculator, the Bowmar 901B (popularly referred to as The Bowmar Brain), measuring 5.2×3.0×1.5 in (131×77×37 mm), came out in the fall of 1971, with four functions and an eight-digit red LED display, for $240..."

It's is a version of a question that has been posted around the Internet for some time. The exact context of the phrase can be read here, where an admirer of the president quotes the relevant passage in Dreams, in which the school asks 5th grader Barry to bring along a calculator to class:

I had gone for several interviews with Punahou’s admissions officer the previous summer. She was a brisk, efficient-looking woman who didn’t seem fazed that my feet barely reached the floor as she grilled me on my career goals. After the interview, the woman had sent Gramps and me on a tour of the campus, a complex that spread over several acres of lush green fields and shady trees, old masonry schoolhouses and modern structures of glass and steel. There were tennis courts, swimming pools, and photography studios. At one point, we fell behind the guide, and Gramps grabbed me by the arm.

“Hell, Bar,” he whispered, “this isn’t a school. This is heaven. You might just get me to go back to school with you.”

With my admission notice had come a thick packet of information that Toot set aside to pour over one Saturday afternoon. “Welcome to the Punahou family,” the letter announced. A locker had been assigned to me; I was enrolled in a meal plan unless a box was checked; there was a list of things to buy–a uniform for physical education, scissors, a ruler, number two pencils, a calculator (optional). Gramps spent the evening reading the entire school catalog, a thick book that listed my expected progression through the next seven years -- the college prep courses, the extracurricular activities, the traditions of well-rounded excellence. With each new item, Gramps grew more and more animated; several times he got up, with his thumb saving his place, and headed toward the room where Toot was reading, his voice full of amazement: “Madelyn, get a load of this!”

The president did in fact attend Punahou in 1971.  Since the literary goal of the the passage was to highlight the "wonderfulness" of his new school, the detail could simply be a mistake all too commonly found in writing: an anachronism. An anachronism is "a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain."

In other words, it's like those arguments on the Internet where people discuss the "original video footage" of the sinking of the Titanic. It ignores the fact that nobody had an iPhone back then.

Now it is theoretically possible that the future president was, in fact, asked to bring a calculator to his 5th grade class in 1971. The Vintage Calculators site shows the four-function Sharp EL-8 available in 1970 and notes that it was "very expensive." So while it is possible, it seems unlikely that even Punahou 5th graders were asked to bring that kind of stuff to class back then. The probable reason for the anachronism is that the author of Dreams misremembered something. It inserted itself into the memories associated with that time.

It is extremely hard to recreate a period exactly in fiction. Movies scenes are full of objects that shouldn't be there. But fiction by definition was never intended to be factually accurate. Biographies, and especially autobiographies, are very vulnerable to this error, yet they are supposed to be fact.

My recently deceased brother-in-law was a biographer and understood this problem well. He would compile loose leaf binders of great length in order to create a factual timeline around which to hang the material gathered in interviews. This sometimes aroused the impatience of his publisher. But he argued it was necessary, because the timeline was the only solid hook on reality you have. It tells you who was where, and when. Memory, relied on by itself, was too uncertain.

A framework of facts is necessary because in the very literal sense we don't really remember who we are.  We make up our own self-image as we go along. The larger point of of Tim Stanley's article in the Telegraph was not whether Barack Obama really ate a dog, but why the press never bothered to build up the framework of facts in which to understand the man. They took the candidate Obama's account at face value. They never built up their timeline. Everything he said was true -- even, perhaps, when it wasn't.

But given the mainstream media’s intense study of Romney’s life and its constant regurgitation of its many errors, it’s odd that this shaggy dog story slipped through -- especially given that Dreams from My Father has been gathering dust on the bookshelves since 1995. Where did it come from when it finally broke on Tuesday night? The Romney campaign and the conservative site Daily Caller. That’s right: Republicans have to break and publicise stories themselves if they want to get them heard. The mainstream media either ignores a lot of anti-Obama stuff or dismisses it as inconsequential.

But is it really inconsequential? Or is perhaps that they really didn't really want to know? Memory plays tricks on us and we don't question it much when it tells us we are wonderful. When it tell us something bad about our past, we'd rather forget it. In the movie Memento, the protagonist has no short-term memory so he writes things down, takes pictures, and tattoos himself to remember things. The way you preserve the unpleasant truth about your condition is to write it down.

Memory hold the door. But what might come in through that door should give us pause.  Misremembered things are not always the autobiographer's or biographer's fault. But it is the duty of the "fact checkers" to set up the timeline, to check the collateral, to get at that most elusive of things, the truth. Did Barack Obama eat a dog? Did he bring a calculator to 5th grade in 1971? Who knows? Worse, who in the media really cared?

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