Words and Numbers 1

A few weeks ago I was given time off for good behaviour and allowed out from school to go on a training course. Myself and another chap [resplendent in short black skirt, long hair and make-up: it is interesting how quickly the brain adapts and within half an hour it seemed perfectly natural that the man sat next to me was in a skirt] spent the day learning more about using school management software to manipulate pupil data – I know, not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoy the challenge that this often presents and had to put much of what I learnt into immediate use due to the absence at school of the systems manager, a veritable IT god, due to serious back problems.

The course was in Cirencester, some way from sleepy Suffolk, so I had booked a room for the night just outside the town in a funny little hotel-cum-spa-cum-gym. It reminded me of the intro by Michael Flanders, of Flanders and Swann, to the song The Bedstead Men: “Traveling around England, staying in anything from an ordinary decent family hotel right the way down to ‘AA recommended’ we have – honestly, it seems a shame to intrude on the privacy of some of these hotels.”

The day before my departure, Alex Bellos [mathematician, author, journalist, all-round multi-talented and multi-faceted sort of guy . . .] tweeted that he was to give a talk at the Bath Literary Festival the following evening.  Having chuckled briefly at the likely paroxysms of the retired Colonels and blue rinse brigade at “Maths” appearing in a “Literary” festival, I then did a little mental geography before looking up Bath on a map: yes indeedy, well within range. A brief exchange of tweets then followed with the aforementioned Mr B, mostly as it happens about trousers; I would say that “you had to be there” and “it made sense at the time” but actually, truth be told, it never made sense.

Fully carb-loaded with traditional school lunch I set off in the old jalopy [whose mileage is now nearly three-quarters of the way to the moon] and made it to Bath in time to get lost in the one way system and take part in the desperate search for a parking space somewhere in the same county [whichever county Bath happens to be in this week]. With just enough time for a fortifying coffee and sarnie and chat with the friendly locals, of which more later, I navigated the staircases and corridors of the Bath Guildhall to find the right room. Usual classroom rules clearly applied as early arrivers had filled the back rows so, like a teenage groupie, I eagerly bagged a seat at the front, also dropping the average age of the audience by several years. I settled back to fiddle with my phone for a few minutes when one of the friendly locals appeared to say that a wallet had been handed in down in the café; a quick retrace through the building and sure enough it was mine, having fallen out of my jacket whilst wolfing down my quick supper. There was much thanks to the friendly local who then went off to a talk on the history of the Ordinance Survey, which was apparently packed; is there really nothing else to do of an evening in Bath?

Back upstairs it was time for the show to begin. The real pleasure of this sort of event is the opportunity to hear and see round and beyond the content of a book. Two highlights stand out: firstly, the amazing footage of Japanese pupils who can visualise an abacus in their head to such an extent that they can either calculate extremely fast or even compute at the same time as playing a word game [more on this in my next blog]; secondly, an astonishing marvel of miniature engineering the Curta mechanical calculator. This is an amazing piece of miniaturisation and has a fascinating back story that is worth the time to research.

Once the talk was over it was a quick shuffle down the corridors and stairs again to the book signing. Back in groupie mode I fished out my copy of “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland” and after a brief conversation about trousers and ties, left with my book duly inscribed. Off back through the Bath streets to find the jalopy and away to the hotel, ready for the data course the following morning. I did manage to avail myself of the pool and gym before breakfast, a thoroughly decadent way to start the day.

All in all a rewarding and stimulating few days and all without any marking!

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