The circle is unbroken, though there may be tangential lines

September 30, 2009

Do you recognize this?

No, its not a slide rule - photo by Decrepit Old Fool

No, it's not a slide rule - photo by Decrepit Old Fool

It sure looks like a slide rule, doesn’t it?

The last really grand slide rule I had was a fancy aluminum job that my older brother Wes used at the Air Force Academy.  It was easily worth a couple of hundred dollars, and it had a very nice leather pouch.

Somebody stole it from me in the football locker room.  I never liked football as much after that.

At the University of Utah I got enough ahead to buy a smaller version that still resides somewhere in our house.  I actually used it once in a debate round to great effect — it was cross examination debate (not so big back then), on an energy topic.  The affirmative (UCLA?  USC?  One of those two) had a daylight savings case.  They rattled off some huge number of barrels of oil to be saved, and on c-x I got it out of them that the number was barrels saved per month.  Then I got ’em to confess to how many barrels we actually use in the U.S., daily, and with the slide rule’s help calculated that they were saving one-half of one percent (0.5%), with some rather draconian measures and stiff fines and jail time.

I had the slide rule with me to do homework on the drive to and from the meet across the deserts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico; I was used it only to make sure I wasn’t off by an order of magnitude on the calculation — but when I looked up I feared the eyes of the judge were going to inflate and float out of his head.  We won the round, I won the speaker points that round, and the judge commented about how facile the negative had been with numbers . . .

But I digress.  A little.

Decrepit Old Fool posted that picture.  It’s an iPhone — with a slide rule application (“app” to the technoscenti).

Using electrons to mimic an old slide rule!  It leaves one speechless, and with a tear in one’s eye.

I’m sure I’d have to play with the thing for a few minutes to figure out how to do percentages again.  The slide rule use in that debate round a few decades ago was cutting edge application of the tool at hand.  It was not a fancy calculation, or difficult — it was overkill, really, because we all should have been able to do the calculations in our heads, with little fear of being inaccurate.  The judge in the round was probably a speech or rhetoric grad student, working on a masters or Ph.D., and hadn’t taken a math class since freshman year.  I don’t know if he thought to feel stupid; maybe he hoped the praise for our use of the thing would cover that up.

DOF makes the case that technology shouldn’t make us feel stupid, not if its makers want to sell it.    Maybe that has more to do with the demise of the slide rule than the rise of calculators does.  It’s a great post over there.  Go read it.


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