The Geekoff Intensifies

Orac is refusing to surrender and acknowledge the obvious fact that he simple *is not* as much of a geek as I am. So I am obligated to point out several further facts in my attempt to make him surrender the crown of geekiness.
First: compare our professsions. Orac is a cancer surgeon: a person whose professional life is dedicated to *saving peoples lives*. There are people living today who would be dead but for the efforts of Orac. It is an honorable profession, deserving of nothing but respect.
In contrast, I am a software engineering researcher; aka a professional computer geek. I spend my life designing and writing software (most of which will never be used) for other people to use to write software.
Back in high school, I spent most of a year saving up money to buy a super-cool pocket calculator that was programmable in Basic. Then after I got it and used it for a while, I decided to switch. To a slide-rule.
Because it’s *faster*.
I still own a [K&E log-log duplex decitrig slide rule.][sliderule] (And know how to use *all* of the scales.) It’s a beauty. I look forward to teaching my children to use it. (Using a slide-rule gives you a tactile sense of how a lot of things fit together in simple math.) Here’s a pic I found of the same model that I have:
Mine’s a lot more beaten up than this one; it’s thoroughly yellowed up the full length; the view slide is a bit scraped up and missing the top-left screw. But it’s still in great working condition.
Let us, for a moment, consider my name. Mark Chu-Carroll. Where do you suppose “Chu-Carroll” came from?
Obviously, it’s a combination of the last names of me and my wife before we got married. But why “Chu-Carroll” rather than “Carroll-Chu”? Is it for aesthetics? No. The real reason is *far* geekier than anything like mere aesthetics.
No. The real reason why we chose “Chu-Carroll” is… Bibliographies.
When we were married, my wife had more publications than I did. And so we decided to use “Chu-Carroll” so that people doing literature searches for *her* name would be more likely to find her papers, because “Jennifer Chu-Carroll” would appear immediately after “Jennifer Chu” in any bibliographic listing likely to contain her work; whereas “Jennifer Carroll-Chu” would be separated by some distance, and would be more likely to be missed.
So my last name was chosen based on how it would be alphabetized in bibliographies.
Let’s take a look at genetics for a moment. My parents recently went on vacation, and brought back gifts for my children. One of the gifts was a set of pens with their names on them. Give a new pen and a stack of paper to a three year old boy, and what do you *think* that he would do?
*My* three-year-old son took the pen apart. He’d never seen a “click” pen before, and he wanted to know how it worked.

0 thoughts on “The Geekoff Intensifies

  1. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    No, it was a Casio. A bit of web-searching, and I *think* it was a PB-200, but I’m not sure.
    In college, I switched to an HP-15C, which was the greatest calculator I ever used. Still slower than a slide-rule for doing basic stuff, but if you’re using a lot of logs and exponents, the HP was faster. I’ve still never seen a non-RPN calculator that you can use as fast as a slide-rule for much of anything.

  2. Thomas Winwood

    I never understood how a slide rule could be faster than a calculator for anything. I mean, rulers are for measuring lengths and for being straight so you can draw along them, not for doing maths. Would you be so kind as to make an entry detailing how to use these mysterious entities, for the benefit of the younger generation?
    RPN, on the other hand, is just perverse.

  3. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I’ve been thinking about writing some articles about simple computing devices – slide rule, abacus, etc. The main problem is, it’s hard to do the images for a slide rule with a graphic program; and it’s hard to make photographs come out legibly – the numbers on a good rule are just so small that at the focal distance of any camera I have access to, they’re impossible to read.
    But slide rules are really wonderful things. The basic idea is:
    – Take a pair of rulers with a normal scale. To add 3+4, you put the left edge of upper ruler against the “3” mark on the lower one; then slide a vertical guide over to the “4” mark on the upper one, and look at where it lines up on the botton scale. It’ll line up with 7, obviously.
    – Now, what happens if you make the scales on both rulers logarithmic? That kind of linear addition on a logarithmic scale is multiplication; subtraction is division. The main scales on a slide rule are logarithmic.
    – The real trick to using a slide rule is, it really works in scientific notation. It doesn’t do powers of 10. You do 20 * 31400 the same as 0.2*3.14. So you have to do *approximate* stuff in your head, to figure out what’s happening with the powers of 10. It also doesn’t normally do addition(!).
    – A really good slide rule is “log-log”, which means that it has multiple scales (ruled lines of numbers); the “standard” logarithmic scales, a normal linear scale, and a double-log scale. So you can do addition (by using the two linear scales), multiplication, division (using the regular log scales), exponentiation (by using the log scale together with the linear), and exponentiation (the regular log scale with the double-log).
    – Even better ones are “trig”; they’ve got scales for doing trig functions.
    – The duplex part means it’s got scales on both sides.
    My K&D has ten scales on each side, for a total of 20 scales; but the basic C&D scales (C is the fixed logarithmic scale, D is the sliding log scale) are reproduced on both sides, so it’s got 18 unique scales.
    What makes the slide rule so cool is just that it makes the meaning of logarithms *tactile*; and it makes you really grasp the way that multiplication and addition are related. It also brings the idea of significant digits into play in a big way. And finally, there’s the fact that an idiot can’t use a slide rule. You need to be able to track the computation in your head to use a slide rule. It’s not like punching digits into a calculator, which obviously anyone can do; it requires you to actually do part of the math in your head.
    One fascinating thing that I’ve noticed is that people who only use calculators often *won’t notice* if they made a typo along the way somewhere, and get an answer that’s obviously wrong; because they’re used to relying on the calculator. If you used a slide rule enough, you’re automatically always doing approximations in your head, and you’ll notice obvious errors.

  4. KeithB

    While slide rules may be *quicker*, they certainly don’t have the precision, though admittedly, 3-4 places is generally all you need.

  5. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That’s what I meant about the way they make significant digits more directly meaningful. When you’re working with a slide rule, you *know* how many significant digits you’re using. No one with a sliderule is ever going to come up with the result that (21/2)2 = 1.999999.
    One of my pet peeves about calculators is how many people just *believe* that the calculator knows what it’s doing; and so if it says the answer is “1.3248752789”, then even if that number is based on a measurements of 1.2 and 3.15, the correct result is “1.3248752789”.

  6. Jonathan Lubin

    If geekiness is measured by slide-rule capability, I think I may have you all beat: in college lo these many years ago I had an eight-inch diameter circular slide rule. Since the effective length was more than 25 inches, it was somewhat more accurate than a standard rule. I used it in chem and physics courses, but since I majored in math, it didn’t actually get much heavy use.

  7. Peter

    I think I had that very slide rule! I don’t know what happened to it.
    For my bar mitzvah, though, I got a really cool calculator. It had four functions AND A MEMORY (WOO HOO) It weighed about 10 pounds, was the size of a large hard-bound book, needed AC power, and cost $100 (in 1972!)
    Slide rules are cool.

  8. grad

    when i was in middle school (maybe 9-10 years ago) i had a watch that had a slide rule on the bezel. I don’t think it did all that much, and the numbers were way to small to use without taking the watch off and squinting at it. I must admit that I didn’t realize that it was a slide rule until the watch broke, and I was looking at the papers that it came with.

  9. grad

    Mark you could probably just screen cap a slide rule simulator. I haven’t tried any, but the wikipedia article for slide rule list a bunch in the links at the end.

  10. Xanthir, FCD

    Man, I always wished I learned how to use a sliderule… I saw the Sci American article about them a while back, and it just intensified my longing.

  11. SusanJ

    You get my vote!
    I still use my hp15C because it is faster than finding the virtual calculator on my 3Ghz Dell. I’m sorry if you lost yours.
    I’m old enough that a slide rule was the only option in college and I think everyone should learn to use one. However, I prefer an electronic calculator.

  12. John Marley

    Here’s my entry (such as it is) into the geek-off:
    I high school I wrote a program to draw the Mandelbrot Set on my HP-20S calculator. In English class, because I was bored.

  13. Thony C.

    Knowing how to use a ‘slap-stick’ is geeky. Being an expert on the life and work of William Oughtred (1574 – 1660) the man who invented the slide rule is definitely geekier! I even do Edmund Gunter (1581 – 1620) the inventer of the Gunter scale the predecessor of the slide rule!

  14. Daniel Martin

    Although I’m also too young to have been learning math before the advent of cheap electronic calculators, (b. 1975) I’ve got my log-log duplex decitrig slide rule too, though it’s not as good as yours – the indicator is a cheap plastic thing that’s constantly slightly out of alignment. Nothing ruins a good slide rule like a crappy indicator with a hair line that’s not strictly perpendicular.
    Oh, and as for teaching it to the kids – it can be done; I learned to use a slide rule because of my dad’s collection. One word of advice, though: try to find through some surplus store a bunch of crappy, low-precision cheap plastic slide rules for the kids to practice on. My dad lost at least two (of the cheap kind) to us as we were growing up. The wonders of growing up with a geek father… (other wonders learned by such a childhood: unused punch cards are just the right size for a D&D character sheet if you write carefully, and the big plastic containers people used to store reel-to-reel computer tape in make only so-so frisbees)
    A real geek for analog computing technology would also have a planimeter. (when I posted to my livejournal about my new-via-Ebay sliderule, I was outgeeked in the comments by a friend from college who’d just bought one of those)

  15. speedwell

    I have a sweet baby slide rule, the Pickett N600-ES log-log (according to its bright yellow self) in near mint condition. I originally got it for my dad on the day of his retirement as a gag gift, but he handed it back to me and laughed and told me to learn to use it myself. Well, now I work with engineers (who all laugh when they see it) and I want to be an engineer (I’m not-quite-40 and going back to school next fall), and I would dearly love to have someone walk me through how to use this mysterious mathematical magic wand. Any ideas, guys?

  16. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I’ll write a post about using a sliderule. There seem to be plenty of people in this comment thread who’d enjoy it.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson

    FWIW, the comment explaining the slide rule clinched the geekiness question fror me. I don’t think Orac can compete – if he explains cancer surgery, he may even save lives. But *no one* needs to know how a slide rule works anymore. 😉
    BTW, for the article perhaps there are slide rule animations on the web. Severe geekiness doesn’t seem to be so rare after all.
    “if it says the answer is “1.3248752789”, then even if that number is based on a measurements of 1.2 and 3.15, the correct result is “1.3248752789””
    Those people may work under the assumption that accumulated errors are bothersome to keep track off, and that the result may be input for further calculations. After all, you wouldn’t spend your valuable time optimizing speed and memory for nonrepeated algorithms on a main frame, would you? That would be perverse… or perhaps geekiness.

  18. JimMcG

    I don’t think that your son’s obviously high geek quotient can be considered a contributing factor to your geek score. I know that my parents and my daughter believe that geekiness skips generations (in my daughter’s case it’s more of a passionate hope).

  19. Bob Munck

    I have exactly the same slide rule you do, the K&E pictured, but I also still have the hard leather holster AND the leather thong that I attached to its lower end so that I could strap it to my thigh. If you just let it flap loose from your belt, it was very difficult to draw it quickly.
    Yes, walking around high school with a quick-draw slide rule could subject you to some ridicule. Fortunately, I was also an all-state football tackle and state heavyweight champion in wrestling.

  20. Mark C. Chu-Carroll


    Yes, walking around high school with a quick-draw slide rule could subject you to some ridicule. Fortunately, I was also an all-state football tackle and state heavyweight champion in wrestling

    Walking around highschool with *any* slide rule could subject you to ridicule 🙂
    I also wasn’t built big, so I took a *lot* of abuse. In fact, at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I weighted 100lbs, and was 5 foot 1. By mid senior year, I had grown to 5 foot 11 and put on another 30 lbs or so, which only managed to change me from “98 lb weakling geek” to “tall skinny weakling geek”.

  21. Bob Munck

    at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I weighted 100lbs, and was 5 foot 1.

    I was 155lbs, 5 foot 9 — in seventh grade.

    Also in 7th grade, they put me in a math class that did everything in duodecimal. We even had base-12 slide rules. I wish I still had that rather unique artifact, but misplaced it in the interveining 50 years. Hexidecimal, years later, was a snap. (The hex was on my second computer, btw. My first, an IBM 7070, was decimal.)

    On a similar subject, do you know about the Curta calculator? It plays a part in William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition.

  22. Peter

    Oh god, don’t remind me of HS
    I was the sort of dorky geeky who took the math book home and read it. Then asked kids why they were so stupid when it was so easy…..yeesh
    Add in severe myopia, extremely late puberty, and being so skinny that some people thought I was a victim of starvation….

  23. Julia

    Coming waaaay late to the party —
    I have 2 slide rules. One is a circular slide rule small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, and has a reference card you can pull out of the back with conversion charts. On the actual back is a periodic table, with elements up to 103. It was my father’s. The other was also my father’s, and is scraped up from when I used it as a teething object on a regular basis.
    So, I literally cut my teeth on a slide rule. 🙂

  24. arosko

    Let’s take a look at genetics for a moment. My parents recently went on vacation, and brought back gifts for my children. One of the gifts was a set of pens with their names on them. Give a new pen and a stack of paper to a three year old boy, and what do you think that he would do?
    My three-year-old son took the pen apart. He’d never seen a “click” pen before, and he wanted to know how it worked.

    I was just like your son. I remember that when I was little my parents gave me a teddy bear containing a music box that played lullabies, and were upset that I started to take it apart rather than be content with just listening to it. For awhile I wanted to take everything in the house apart.
    In my case, neither of my parents are very interested in science and technology (my dad is more into it than my mom, but still just an “interested layperson”). However, one of my mom’s brothers is a computer programmer, and one of my dad’s brothers is a biology professor, so there is something in the family.


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