Friday, September 11, 2009

Slide rules ok?

I suppose you have to be “of a certain age” to remember slide rules, though of course that would all depend how certain your age is. It would probably be more accurate to say that people of an uncertain age would definitely not have come across them.
What was a slide rule? God only knows. It was something that we wrestled with in Maths. And not only wrestled with – we fenced with it, rapped people over the knuckles with it and it was great for propelling an eraser through the air at great velocity.
Basically, it was like a normal plastic ruler, split lengthways in three. The middle length could be pulled out, though not all the way, as this would have left you with three separate bits of ruler in your hand. There were markings and notations on all three lengths of the rule and the theory was that you could do long and complicated sums by extending the middle piece outwards until two notations coincided.
Clear? No, it wasn’t particularly clear back then neither. I remember our Maths teacher going prematurely white-haired with the stress of trying to get thirty unimpressed teenagers to use the contraption with any degree of accuracy. A whole autumn term he spent on it and we were still none the wiser.
You could do weird and wonderful sums on a slide rule, in theory. It was supposed to be great at doing multiplication and division and I’m sure that whoever invented the damned thing could use it efficiently enough but whenever we got homework on working out multiplication on a slide rule, I simply worked out the answer on a piece of paper and wrote it down.
The slide rule obviously lent its name to the slide rule pass in football, evidently because it was very accurate but I always got more accurate answers from writing down the sum on a piece of paper. However, the piece of paper pass never found its way into footballing terminology, much to my disgust.
Of course, I tried to get my Dad to explain how it worked but he simply snatched it off me gleefully and used it to retrieve a 50p piece that had rolled under the fridge.
Aside from multiplication and division, slide rules were also great for working out logarithms. Apparently. Of course, if I had ever been able to grasp the concept of what exactly a logarithm was, I might have stood some chance. For years I thought it was a type of small mammal that lived in forests. Even when it was semi-explained, trying to work out a mysterious and incomprehensible formula on a piece of equipment that was primarily used for flicking squares of jelly onto the classroom ceiling was something of a bridge too far.
As it transpired, although we spent weeks trying to get our heads around this bockety ruler and even more weeks using the slidey part as a guillotine on unsuspecting insects, we never had to use the damned thing in the exam. We had to choose five questions out of eight and so everybody plumped for probabilities and sub-sets and avoided the slide rule question like a dose of ricketts. I am sure the teachers employed by the examination board to mark the slide rule question never had such an easy summer.
Remarkably, and I use the word with the utmost sarcasm, I have never had recourse to use a slide rule since slouching out of the school gates for the last time thirty years ago. More than that, I have never set eyes on one and never actually heard of anybody using one. Do they still exist? Has their usefulness been superceded by the pocket calculator? Does anyone in the world still use a slide rule, except to make passes?
All of this brings me around in my usual long-winded way to the point I am trying to make – what is the point of education in an increasingly technological world? Just as we wasted weeks of our lives messing about with slide rules, what is the use of learning Hamlet’s Act III soliloquy off by heart, when we can Google it just as easily? Have I ever quoted it for anything other than comic purposes in the past thirty years?
Where does potassium live in the periodic table? I’m not sure. I believe he had a row with sulphur and moved around the corner but if I really wanted to find out, I could look it up on the computer.
My Dad always maintained that it wasn’t what you learned that was important; it was the fact that you could show future prospective employers that you had the ability to absorb a lot of information on a particular subject and then were able to regurgitate it in a pressure situation.
In that case, why not introduce school subjects that are interesting and relevant? How much more enthusiasm would a boy show for a homework question on the Charlton / Dunphy antagonism in Italia 90 than for the importance of the anchovy to the people of Peru? How much more creative would an essay on Eminem be than on Milton?
Aside from that, I’d say in this day and age, prospective employers would be far more interested in your time-keeping, absenteeism and reliability than in your ability to reel off the notable dates in Charles Stewart Parnell’s life when called upon to do so. In most jobs, you are simply shown what to do and you do it. In this respect, the school roll call would be a much more useful evaluation tool than a grade in a biology exam.
Basically, education has not kept pace with information technology. Children in Greece are being taught on e-books whereas our children still hump three tons of expensive books in and out of school every day. Our curriculum does not reflect the technological advances of recent years. The information is at our fingertips and unless we are training people to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, what is the point in trying to stuff it into children’s brains?
And it doesn’t take a genius with a slide rule to work out that without the need to spend years learning useless information by rote, the available brain space could be turned over to more artistic and creative endeavours, which in turn would produce the individual thinkers that we badly need at the moment.

In praise of Connolly (Part I)

When I go down to James’ Hospital once a month to give platelets, it is the common practice to fill out a questionnaire about my social and sexual history to see if I am eligible to donate. Have I ever had a blood transfusion? Have I ever had sex with a male or female from South America? Have I ever fondled monkeys or handled their bodily fluids? Have I ever had a blood transfusion from a South American monkey?
My answer to all of them is invariably No. I have never had any serious illnesses, never had surgery and never indulged in any lascivious practices. Nor have I ever sold my body for drugs nor spent my hard earned money on piercings or tattoos. The nurses are delighted with me, yet somewhere in the back of my head lingers the thought that I must have led a really boring and uneventful life.
This all changed recently when I had a spot of minor surgery. Forty eight years old and I had never been back to hospital since my mother brought me home at a week old (that’s me, incidentally, not my mother.)
Well, not on my own account, anyway. I’d been there plenty of times for relatives and friends who seem to have a perverse inclination to suffer terrible illnesses or break bones or have babies. To me, hospitals were like New York – okay to go and visit but I wouldn’t like to stay there for any length of time. Besides, when you scan the obituary columns and see how many people die in hospital, it’s probably best to avoid them altogether.
About twelve years ago, I developed a lump on my lower back about the size of a golf ball. It just emerged one night fully-formed, rather like the way JK Rowling describes how the idea of Harry Potter came to her. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a similar way of profiting from my apparition.
Now, I believe in getting my money’s worth from doctors, so I waited until I had a few ailments affecting me before going down to the surgery. The doctor stroked his chin, told me the lump wasn’t harmful and assured me that it wasn’t a golf ball.
So I did nothing about it. The lump didn’t hurt, never changed in size and never really bothered me in any way. However, after a time, I grew rather weary of small children running shrieking from the swimming pool when I was on holiday, yelling about the man with the alien in his back, so I resolved to have it removed.
However, I wasn’t going to give €60 to a doctor for that alone, so I hung on until I had some more things wrong with me. Just my rotten luck – I went for about five years of sickeningly perfect health and never once needed to set foot inside the surgery door.
Then last summer, I thankfully got a nasty chest infection which needed a prescription of antibiotics, so down to the Meridian Clinic in Ongar I skipped. While there, I mentioned the lump on my back, the doctor stroked her chin, had a look and lo and behold, within three months I had an appointment down in Connolly Hospital.
In Connolly, they stroked their chins, had a poke around, assured me again that it still wasn’t a golf ball and told me that if I hadn’t heard from them after six months, I was to phone them up and remind them of my existence.
So about a month ago, after eight months of not hearing from them, I phoned them up and was rather surprised to be told to come in “on Monday week.” It was to be a simple day case and I had to bring in a dressing gown and a pair of slippers.
There are some people who are dressing gown people and some who aren’t. This is the way that many sociologists divide the world and I have always been one of those people who favour the revolutionary idea of “getting dressed” when rising in the mornings. Thankfully my brother in law, who is also a non-DG person, received one of the said items from his mother many years ago, a hideous, multi-coloured specimen that had lived in its packaging at the back of his wardrobe ever since, and so he gratefully delivered the item to me, saving me the frustrating option of having to go and buy a blessed dressing gown in Dunnes or Penneys.
I told them in work that I wouldn’t be in for a week and they asked me did I want to take the time off as a holiday? When I got home that evening, I looked up the definition of the word ‘holiday’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it didn’t quite seem to correspond with the notion of going into hospital. The following morning, I told my boss that I had checked with Budget Travel and that James Connolly wasn’t in their brochure for this year, so I’d be taking the time off sick.
He asked me if my lump was any bigger than the apple-pip sized lump he showed me just beneath the skin of his forearm. I lifted up my shirt to show him. The last I saw of him, he was running into the boardroom shrieking about the man with the alien in his back.
The hospital told me that I didn’t need to fast at all prior to my operation. Personally, I don’t mind fasting, so long as I can eat something while doing it, but as the scenario didn’t arise, I just ate my normal breakfast of sausages and cream, a delicacy picked up from a recent visit to the States.
I bade my wife a tearful goodbye and solemnly gave her my blessing to remarry if the worst came to the worst. She seemed unimpressed by this gesture and reminded me not to say anything in the hospital that might embarrass her.
Even though my son did not believe that there really was such time as seven o’clock in the morning, he nevertheless offered to bring me down to the hospital, doubtless inspired by the thought of driving my car around after he’d dropped me off. And thus, clutching my slippers and 1970s dressing gown, I was driven off to face the unknown...