These Precious Days

We had a car – but you needed to learn how to drive it. We had enough stuff to decorate our Port Hope apartment. We had some savings thanks to all the Italian folks who gave us cash at the wedding.

We were debt free – out of student days, but mortgage and home ownership still to come. When you started working that September we were making close to $18,000 a year.

We dodged Hurricane Agnes on our wedding day. It rained in the morning but it was fine when we came out of the church. We had a two week honeymoon – one in PEI, and one in Toronto where you started your French teaching course for elementary school.

You left home, moved, got married, started a job – all in a couple of months. Mind blowing change. But you coped.

We were young, we loved each other, we took it one day at a time. 50 years later here we are – older, arguably feebler, moving closer to December on the calendar of life. But I still love you.

We have no big celebration planned for Friday. Just pizza with Dave and the grandkids I think. That suits me just fine. These precious days, I’ll spend with you.

Three Figures

One of the “features” of being an old guy is that I remember how to use a slide rule. My university days and in fact my early career with General Foods were filled with slide rule calculations. There was no other way unless you used a desktop sized transistorized calculator or a Friden mechanical crashbox based in the analytical lab.

Well I suppose there was always longhand multiplication and division. I remember my times tables after all.

But the slide rule was king. I learned all the scales and techniques for trig calculation and logarithm addition. I had a really good Pickett aluminum slide rule. Still have it, for that matter.

Of course that has all gone the way of the dodo. A lovely instrument and a finely honed skill made obsolete by a two buck computer chip and an LED. After 1974 there was no need for it.

Something else went away too. The concept of “three figure accuracy.” It was important to keep in mind back in the 1960s because the best you could do with a slide rule was three figures. For example my slide rule couldn’t calculate any closer than 4.25 42.5 or 425 so the number of digits in your answer determined how many decimal places you could write accurately. A number like 4250 presumed an accuracy you didn’t have, so the scientifically correct thing to do was write it in exponential form e.g. 4.25 X 10^3.

This may have seemed like a limitation but for all my university years I had only one situation where three figure accuracy wouldn’t do – and that was a spectroscopy experiment that required 7 figure calculations. Today we’d use a calculator but then I had a set of 7 place log tables. Go figure.

In the food labs we almost always went with three figures or less. A lab balance couldn’t weigh much more accurately than that. A typical package of Jell-O weighed 56.7 grams – three figures. Our lab color and texture instruments were mostly analog and not all that accurate either.

Nowadays we can calculate to eight figures easily, and probably 15-17 with a computer. But that doesn’t mean all those extra decimal places mean anything. Certainly the machines that fill packages of noodles can’t do it any more accurately than 5 decades ago.

The only place where we wrote a product formula to 4 decimal places was for product costing. Some of the numbers there purported to be accurate to six figures, and others like a colouring or a vitamin maybe only one. But it was totally an accounting trick. Nothing actually got weighed or added to a product that way.

In engineering, airplanes like the B-52 and Boeing’s early passenger jets were designed to three figure accuracy. You needed a bit more precision for long range space navigation, but Buzz Aldren took a slide rule along to check the final calculations to land the lunar module. The big picture for getting to the moon was also calculated with slide rules.

In short, we can calculate much more quickly and efficiently with today’s computational resources but does writing an answer as 4.2496667 mean anything more physically than 4.25? I don’t think so.

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