Saturday, June 30, 2007
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Now, I have a question for the young people (below 30). Do you know what is a slide rule?
If you have never heard of a slide rule, do not feel embarrassed. I once put this question to my nephew, a polytechnic graduate, and he too did not know what it was. To my surprise, so did a few other young people I put the same question to.
Here’s another question. You must watched documentaries of the 2nd World War and seen some of those amazing fighting machines like air craft carriers, submarines or even Hitler’s inter-continental ballistic missile, the V2. In fact, at the time of the Korean War, in the fifties, when the jet fighter started to be used, or during the early part of the space race in the 60’s, the electronic calculator had not arrived yet. To design, produce and operate these engineering marvels must have required an immense amount of mathematical calculations and data crunching. How on earth were they able to do it when they did not even have a simple electronic calculator? Has this question ever occurred to you?
The answer is the slide rule and its cousin the log book (which we learned to use in secondary school). According to my dictionary, the slide rule is “an old-fashioned instrument that looks like a ruler with a middle part that slides, used for calculating.”
Do you know that the ubiquitous calculator that even the vegetable seller in our wet markets use nowadays was not around until the 1970’s. I remember my university days in the early seventies. We had to use the slide rule for all our calculations. Although, the scientific calculator was available by then, we were not allowed to use them for our exams. The reason is that they were simply too expensive and very few students could afford one. For example, did you know that an HP scientific calculator cost more than $1,000! I had the chance to use one courtesy of my brother-in-law who worked as a refinery technologist.
(Well, actually at that time, he was courting my sister, and maybe wanted to impress me by lending me his precious HP scientific. I remember bringing it to class and getting my class mates all envious.)
Although, I have been advising my readers to get rid of things they do not need (in my other blog ), I am really glad that I did not throw away my slide rule. In fact, it is still in very good condition complete with protective case and instructional manual. Mine was an expensive model from Faber Castell. It was made of 'Geroplast' and cost slightly more than $30. The cheaper ones were usually made of bamboo and imported from China.
The slide rule is one of those human inventions that was seen as an essential tool one day and then became obsolete practically overnight with the arrival of the pocket calculator. Here’s an interesting snippet about the slide rule from Wikipedia:
“Throughout the 1950's and 1960's the slide rule was the symbol of the engineer's profession (in the same way that the stethoscope symbolized the medical profession). As an anecdote it can be mentioned that German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun brought two 1930s vintage Nestler slide rules with him when he moved to the U.S. after World War II to work on the American space program. Throughout his life he never used any other pocket calculating devices; slide rules obviously served him perfectly well for making quick estimates of rocket design parameters and other figures. Aluminum Pickett - brand slide rules were carried on five Apollo space missions, including to the moon, according to advertising on Pickett's N600 slide rule boxes.”
How to use the Slide Rule? Sorry to say that apart from simple multiplication and division, I have forgotten. And I am too lazy to read up the instruction manual just to explain it here. But if you are really interested, I have listed a few websites below which explain in detail how to use the slide rule.
Still, I hope you learned something new today.
Wikipedia Slide Rule Site
Eric’s Slide Rule Site
How a Slide Rule Works
Another great slide rule site
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
I think this problem is quite universal. Right from school boy bullying, which we experienced from our younger days, up to big nations bullying smaller ones in world arena, the mode is the same – taking on the weaker ones. This dastardly immoral act even led to many students taking their own lives in Japan. The educational authorities there are wringing their hands in despair, and unable to tackle such problems effectively. In Singapore, I think parents are more assertive and our education authorities are quick to act. Hence bullying problems here are less severe. For this topic, I can only speak for myself.
During my primary school days, I too feared bullies, because I was by nature a timid fellow. But one thing was towards my advantage. I was unusually tall for my age. I was told by teachers to sit at the back of the class or stood last in a row. Still, there were children who tried to bully me when I was alone. Being a loner put me at a serious disadvantage.
One day when I was in Primary one, in Serangoon English School, I was standing on top of a slope when someone me gave a hefty shove from behind, causing me to roll down to the field. I didn’t even know who did it, but heard a group of boys laughing away. I just let the matter rest.
Even in the kampong, I wasn’t spared. A group of kampong boys, usually in threes would wait for me at a kampong path, some distance away from my home. They laid an ambush, stones in hand, and when I appeared alone, they would taunt me and threw the stones in my direction. Again, I think because of my height, these boys dared not physically handle me. After some time they gave up when I put up a false front, as though I was not afraid of them.
I remember another incident which happened just before I left the primary school, when the school holidays were about to begin. There was no lesson, and everyone was in holiday mood. Then there was this short mischievous boy in the class (he later became an RAF pilot) suddenly decided to shove me and threw me off-balance, without any rhyme or reason, just trying to create problems. I saw him coming and before he could do something I gave him counter push. He fell instead. I was surprised of my own strength, probably due to tree climbing and my unusual height.
But, generally, there was little bully in my school, simply because our principal was an ex British Army officer who would not tolerate any breakdown of discipline. Luckily the shoving incident was not reported, otherwise the principal would hang us onto the first tree he found.
One day after a swimming session, my uncle and I were travelling on board a bus heading home. It was crowded, and as I was alighting, a huge guy shoved me purposely near the doorsteps and acted as though he had the right of way before anyone. I lost my balance and nearly fell. My bespectacled uncle intervened and shouted at that guy: “Hey, what are you doing? You want a fight? Let us settle after going down the bus!” My uncle handed me his Sunday Times and was ready to confront this guy who chickened out on seeing how fierce my uncle was. He quickly walked away. This lesson taught me that if I am right, I should stand firm. My uncle was the type, to take action first, and talk later. This type of action seems reckless, but it works when facing a bully.
My uncle used to lecture me: “Do you know that when I was about your age (eleven years old), I used to travel over Malaya in a train alone, looking for my elder brothers. Basing on my uncle’s advice, it is good to have certain amount aggressiveness and self-confidence. If not, we should do something about it.
Footnote: The writer of this article is my brother Chun Chew, not me. I totally do not subscribe to our uncle's philosophy of aggressiveness and settling issues with the fist. - Lam Chun See
Thursday, June 14, 2007
I was studying at the newly set up Industrial and Systems Engineering Department of the then University of Singapore. Our head of department was a Professor Donald E. Morgan from the United States. One day, he made us write an essay, which was quite a novel thing then, maybe because it was generally accepted that engineers ‘cannot write’.
He wanted to know what we thought would be the impact of computers on society. Mind you, this was around 1974 or 75, way before the pc was even invented; when our own computer programs were written in Fortran IV on punch cards fed into our faculty’s IBM1130.
Shy to say, my answer reflected my ignorance and lack of foresight. I said something to this effect. “This computer thing is nothing special. It’s just another of man’s many inventions; no different from the bow and arrows that our ancestors used.”
I will always remember Professor Morgan’s comment when my essay came back. “But this is something that is going to have a huge impact on our society. A time will come when the computer will impact practically every aspect of our lives.”
I think at that time, the wise professor himself did not realize just how accurate his prediction was.
Next time, I will share with you what Professon Goh Thong Ngee wrote in our graduation magazine .. if I can find it that is.
Footnote: Through the power of the computer that Professor Morgan spoke about, I learned that he has just passed away about 2 weeks ago at the age of 90. Read his obituary here.
1) IBM 1130
2) Punch Cards
Monday, June 11, 2007
Like the Tong Choi Jar, the Longlong is made from a discarded food container; in this case the humble tin can. We usually used a condensed milk can. Simply put a few pebbles into an empty can with the lead removed. Then seal the opening by either stamping on it (with you shoes on of course, to avoid getting cut by the sharp edges), or banging it flat with a rock or brick.
This game is actually a variation of Hide-and-Seek. You need at least 3 to 4 people to play it. Here’s how you play the game.
Draw a circle on the ground and place the Longlong in the centre. Then pick a loser by drawing lots or what in Singapore is known as Oh-bey-som.
One of the players will pick up the Longlong and hurl it as far as he can. The loser will then have to chase after it to retrieve it and replace it in the circle. Meantime, the rest will run and hide. He will have to look for them. As soon as he spots one of them, he will yell out his name and run as fast as he can to pick up the Longlong and rattle it. At the same time, the player who has been spotted will try to beat him to the Longlong. Whoever is slower will become the loser for the next round of the game. The game is then repeated.
That as far as I can recall is how the Longlong is played. If any of the ‘oldies’ reading this blog remember differently, please enlighten us.
By the way, you must be wondering why I have removed the sticker/label of the tin can. I too was wondering why my memory of the Longlong was a shiny tin can without the label/sticker. I think it was because at that time, the condensed milk manufacturers had a promotion exercise whereby if you collected a certain number of stickers, you could exchange it for some gifts or cash.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
We spent a great deal of time at the then RAF Changi Officers Club swimming pool (still there, but now I think the Junior Sailing Club) and would see naval ships cruising past Pulau Ubin on their way to the naval base at Sembawang. One day, it was early 1962 I think, we were particularly excited by the arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, huge and impressive and very close to our beach.
But not close enough of course for myself and my friend Kerry who persuaded his parents to drive us to the naval base for a closer look a few days later. I am not sure what security was like then, maybe service personnel could easily visit other bases, for Kerry and I were soon on the dockside, cameras out, with the aircraft carrier and all its aircraft looming over us, just waiting to be photographed!
But not for long! It was perhaps only a few minutes before we suddenly became aware of a Sikh military policeman and his colleagues bearing down on us. Our excuses were useless and we were bundled into the back of a police Land Rover and taken at speed to the guard room.
There we found ourselves transferred to a concrete walled cell, open to the sky with a wire grill for a ceiling. We had plenty of time to contemplate our position, presumably whilst they discussed what to do with us – 14 years old and banged up for espionage!
Eventually we were brought out, Kerry’s parents had been found and were there, and our arresting officer gave us a very angry talking to. Our film was confiscated but not our cameras – that would indeed have been a severe punishment. Eventually our talking to over, we were released.
I remember well as we staggered into Kerry’s parent’s car, hands shaking – indeed so sorry did his father feel for us that he offered us a cigarette each - I think I refused but if I recall correctly Kerry took his!
Friday, June 01, 2007
First, we survived with mothers who had no maids. They cooked/cleaned while taking care of us at the same time.
They took aspirin, candies floss, fizzy drinks, shaved ice with syrups and diabetes were rare. Salt added to Pepsi or Coke was remedy for fever.
We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention.
As children, we would ride with our parents on bicycles/motorcycles for 2 or 3. Richer ones in cars with no seat belts or air bags.
Riding in the back of a private taxi was a special treat.
We drank water from the tap and NOT from a bottle.
We would spend hours on the fields under bright sunlight flying our kites, without worrying about the UV ray which never seem to affect us.
We go to jungle to catch spiders without worries of Aedes mosquitoes.
With mere 5 pebbles (stones) would be a endless game. With a ball (tennis ball best) we boys ran like crazy for hours.
We catch guppy in drains / canals and when it rain we swim there.
We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and NO ONE actually worry about being unhygienic.
We ate salty, very sweet & oily food, candies, bread and real butter and drank very sweet soft sweet coffee, tea, ice kacang, but we weren't overweight because......
WE WERE ALWAYS OUTSIDE PLAYING!!
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, till streetlights came on.
No one was able to reach us all day. And we were O.K.
We would spend hours repairing our old bicycles and wooden scooters out of scraps and then ride down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem .
We did not have Playstations, Nintendo's, X-boxes, multiple channels on cable TV, DVD movies, no surround sound, no phones, no personal computers, no Internet. WE HAD FRIENDS and we went outside and found them!
We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and we still continued the stunts.
We were never at birthdays parties till we are 21,
We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and just yelled for them!
The idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of. They actually sided with the law!
Yet this generation has produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever!
The past 40 years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas.
We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned
** He forgot to mention that we had to shit into ponds or buckets, and bathe from well water or public taps. :)