30 April 2007

No new tale to tell

If I used tags, we'd file this one under "self-fulfilling prophecies."

The son took home a nice (cash) award from the county science fair yesterday.

He's got the knack.

25 April 2007

Sine, sine, everywhere a sine

Back about a million years ago, when things like math weighed heavily on mind, I received a calculator for Christmas. In those days, a calculator was a pretty nifty piece of equipment. It was more portable than the alternatives--abacus, slide rule--and it was utterly cool because it was like holding a computer in your hand (why, yes, this was before the advent of the PC, back in the days when a computer still took up the better part of an industrial park and required its own air-conditioning system).

Calculators, in those days, were not for the masses. They were way too expensive for one thing (in 1978, $25 meant something!), and only serious students of College Algebra and Trigonometry would even think of owning one. Besides, it wasn't like you could find them at the grocery store, or anything.

The seriousness of my own mathematical endeavors was brought home to my parents that winter when, during a horrendous bout with influenza, they found me feverishly trying to solve a trigonometric equation for creamed corn and stewed tomatoes. Hence, a brand new TI-30 was waiting under the tree for me a week later.

I cannot stress enough here that the cost in dollars of that thing was pretty profound for my family. That gift was an announcement to the world that my family believed I was going to Do Something with my life.

And I did. I did really well in both Trigonometry and College Algebra. I did pretty well in Calculus. I did pretty well in Egyptian Calculations. Then I went on to major in Comparative Literature after firmly turning my back on the Foreign Service. Really. No room in this life for math beyond calculating how much paint it would take to paint my dorm room.

Karma and interesting gifts that go underused do have a propensity for turning around and biting one on the rear, however. Some years later, I was reviewing a paper, that luck would have it, revolved around a very precise trigonometric equation, which happened, in this case, to be very precisely wrong. It frightened me that I recognized the incorrectness. It frightened me that I remembered that much trigonometry. It scared the living hell out of me that I was using the one thing I was quite certain I would never use in my entire life--ADVANCED MATH!

At that point it was all over. Not long after, I was working for a science and engineering company, happily pointing out mathematical errors (as well as the logical and grammatical errors running rampant) to the principal scientists and engineers. At least it all involved dust and heavy metals and mold as opposed to creamed corn and stewed tomatoes.

Insidiously, though, it creeps further into my middle age. Recently, the son asked for help with exponents. "Er, go ask your father," I told him, unwilling to admit that yes, indeedy, I could help him with algebra.

"Don't you have a calculator that I could use?" he asked, a little desperately.

"Not one that does exponents," I told him in horror, waving my $6, fashionably purple, solar-batteried, huge keyed only-does-addition-subtraction-multiplication-and-division calculator under his little nose.

Two days later, though, there it was at Albertsons, next to the crayons. The TI-30XA. $15.49, the cost of a large cheese pizza.

Of course, I bought one, and I left it, lying in triumph, on the son's bed. He, too, is doomed.

01 April 2007

Back in the USSR

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn’t get to bed last night

In the car, on the way to dinner tonight, the Beatles sang. I thought about the first time I flew into Moscow--20 years ago--and how surreal the whole thing was. Arriving at night, utterly exhausted, smart assing my way through passport control in Russian.

On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man I had I dreadful flight

The second time I flew out of Moscow, not BOAC, but Aeroflot, 16 years ago, I could have used a paper bag. I remember looking down between the floor and the seats, and seeing parts of the airplane I didn't want to see while I was in the air. Man, it was a dreadful flight. I wanted to kiss the ground when we arrived in Frankfurt. I felt somewhat less affectionate a week later when we left and I noticed that there were military personnel in the airport carrying submachine guns.

Still, tonight, in the safety of our car, we laughed about the old, old song as a spoof of the Beach Boys, when the daughter's little voice piped up from the backseat.

"What is the USSR?"

The spouse and I were momentarily silenced.

It's not as though we haven't explained world history to the children, including the Russian Revolution. When we visited Russia over the summer, we gave them a brief but fairly detailed history of the Cold War. They've visited a Titan missile silo, so the concept is not completely foreign to them. But tonight I realized the extent to which that period of time is not a part of their reality.

"The USSR was the Soviet Union. But now all the countries are separate again. Now we just talk about Russia and Latvia and the Ukraine. The Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore."

Except in the minds of those old enough to remember. And in old, old songs.