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Maxed out - Exposed and going over the edge

"E=MC 2 " Albert Einstein "6.023 x 10 23 " Amedeo Avogadro "Math is hard." Barbie "*#@%!!&" G.D.

"E=MC 2 " Albert Einstein

"6.023 x 10 23 " Amedeo Avogadro

"Math is hard." Barbie

"*#@%!!&" G.D. Maxwell

It really doesn’t matter what happens to time as we approach the speed of light or how many molecules there are in a volume of gas, Barbie pretty much nailed it – math is hard. It’s not that addition or subtraction, or in this case division, or even polynomial equations for that matter, are really difficult. They’re just precise. They’re binary. Right or wrong. Pass or fail. A+ or F-. Until we get to the rarefied world of theoretical mathematics, there just isn’t any fudge factor in math. You can do math right hundreds, thousands of times in a row but sooner or later, your mind will wander, you’ll lose your train of thought and you’ll screw it up.

Of course, most people don’t enjoy the actual experience of standing in front of a class dream-naked and giving their wrong answer. Or printing their answer in the newspaper.

To the many of you who were kind enough to comment favourably on last week’s column and not draw my attention to the gaping arithmetic mistake I made, thank you. I’m sure you too noticed it and were just being kind. As if.

And to those who hurried to bring the error to my attention, thank you too. I’m certain "knucklehead" and "nyah, nyah, nyah" were meant affectionately.

For the vast majority of you who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, take my word for it: 3,000 goes into 300,000 one hundred times, not one thousand. Mea culpa. That correcting the error renders my argument against the insanely cheap amenity swap council is considering more persuasive by an order of magnitude provides little succor because they’re probably going to go ahead and do it anyway, the knuckleheads.

There are, in my house, two computers, one of which actually works at any given time, two Hewlett Packard HP12C calculators, each of which has more number crunching power than the on-board computers of Mercury space capsules, a couple of throw-away, four-function calculators, and a slide rule. Had I used any of them for something more advanced than a paperweight last week, I would be writing today about Zippy the Dog or The Year of Amazingly Little Snow or the Cathartic Effect of Burning Public Figures in Effigy.

Instead, I chose to use my failing eyesight and my increasingly befuddled brain. That is because I am getting old and still denying it. In a little over two weeks, I join the great horde of boomers who have, in the words of a friend already there, "gone over the edge." I will, on February 27 th , celebrate the 21 st anniversary of my 29 th birthday. Yikes!

I am using the occasion of Homosexual Ski Week to publicly out myself. Make no mistake, I’m plunging headlong over the edge with my Perfect Partner and the same sexual orientation I’ve always had – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but I’d rather out myself than open the Pique two weeks from now and find some insanely cute picture of a little blond kid wearing six-shooters, a coonskin cap and a chocolate cupcake moustache, above a caption reading "Guess who’s 50?"

So blame it on age. If I’d have grabbed a calculator instead of squinting at a piece of paper with lots of zeros on it, or if I’d have slipped my reading glasses on and actually been able to see how many zeros I was working with, or, for that matter, if whatever part of my brain that used to be able to do long division without the aid of either paper or calculator hadn’t been frozen into oblivion standing at the top of Whistler Bowl in sub-zero temperatures and gale force winds, none of this would have happened and I wouldn’t be thinking about slide rules right now.

But I am. Thinking about slide rules, that is. I’m marvelling at the things I’ve seen come along in 50 years and the things I’ll never see again. I’m stunned thinking about all the things kids at Whistler Secondary have seen come and go and how much more will vanish into their long-ago memories by the time they reach their own half-century mark.

When I was in high school, the music was better but the math was harder. The math was harder because the most sophisticated calculating device anyone from physics students to NASA scientists generally had to use was a slide rule. Bamboo and plastic with teeny, tiny graduations on various scales, slide rules were things of beauty. Abacuses on steroids. You could add, subtract, multiply, divide, do square roots and calculate the coefficient of friction to six decimal places if you had good eyes and an active imagination.

The first time I laid my hands on a portable calculator, about five years too late to help me with physics, it was half the size of a loaf of bread, weighed about two pounds, cost almost $300 and couldn’t even begin to do the complex calculations a slide rule did. Five years later, slide rules were history. There are more buggy whips made today than there are slide rules.

Two of the most immense pleasures of my childhood are events no child born in the last 30 years has ever experienced. They nicely defined the essence of my early winters and summers. Near the top of my grandfather’s driveway in Des Moines, Iowa, there was something that looked like a manhole cover nestled up against his tiny house. Every so often, in the cold months of Midwest winter, a truck would back up the driveway, open that manhole and dump a ton or two of coal through the hole and down into his basement.

Coal-fired furnaces were, I’ve been told, a royal pain in the butt. Maybe to an adult. But to a kid, nothing in winter was more exciting than watching that coal truck unload, peering into the blazing inferno of that cast iron furnace and "helping" shovel big, shinyblack lumps of coal onto the fire.

Summer’s equivalent was the milk truck. On torpid summer days, we’d lie in wait for the milk truck to make its way up the street. Lacking refrigeration, the milk in milk trucks and the bottles placed in boxes outside people’s doors were kept cold by outsized chunks of ice chipped off of even bigger blocks of ice inside the truck. By my calculations, about half the ice inside a milk truck was doled out to anxious, sweaty children in double fist size hunks that would freeze our fingers, cool our tongues and last for the better part of the afternoon.

Coal furnaces, milk trucks and slide rules seem quaint images of long ago. I wonder what Whistler’s 10 year olds will find quaint 40 years from now. Shape skis? Snowboards? Chairlifts?