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The Ancient and the Modern


The Ancient and the Modern Robert Fulghum Ever seen an abacus ? You know , those centipede-like things with wooden beads in rows . They’re sold mostly in knickknack import shops , for wall decoration . But , in fact , an abacus is an adding machine , calculator , and computer . On second thought , that’s not quite true . The abacus is just a visual record of the computations going on in the mind of person using it. Millions of people in Asia still use the abacus daily . And it has been in use there for a couple of thousand years or more . Not only is it an effective , practical tool , but it is nice to look at . Nice to hold and touch . Wood and brass and ivory . And the older they get and the longer they are handled by a human being , the lovelier they get – smooth and dark and polished . They will last for a lifetime ; they will never need updating ; all the software needed to drive them is between your ears ; and if they break they can be fixed by an eight-year-old with household tools . The presence of the abacus puts some kinds of progress in perspective. I remember a time when a Japanese-American computer conglomerate moved into the Chinese market in a big way . In order to demonstrate the value of its small pocket calculators , it arranged a contest . The great abacus-PC shootout . The guy who won – the one with the abacus , of course – was named Chan Kai Kit . Hong Kong Chinese – a senior clerk for a shipping company . It is true that the operator of the little computer did handle the pile of invoices forty-four seconds faster than Chan Kai Kit and his abacus . But the computer got the wrong answer . Seems the machine operator was in too big a hurry to prove how smart his machine was and fed it fuzzy

facts . Much face was lost . Now don’t get me wrong . Pocket calculators are here to stay , and they have their place . A Luddite I am not – machines are not evil in themselves . And a careful , thoughtful man like Chan Kai Kit might do even better with his own pocket calculator instead of his abacus – who knows ? It’s just that I’m a sentimentalist about the wonders of the human hand and mind . And when I find evidence that it can still hold its own in the face of the wizardry of the electronic circuitry of little chips , I am pleased . It is comforting to know that some very old and very simple ways of getting from one place to another still work . And ponder the fact that an ancient and worn abacus will find its way to the walls of the twentieth century as a thing of art and wonder , made lovely by its usefulness and made useful by its beauty . I have an old wooden bowl and an elderly chopping knife I would stack up against a food processor any day . It’s the same story . 古今较量 罗伯特富尔格姆 见过算盘吗?算盘,就是一串串珠子排成排,给人感觉跟蜈蚣的肢节很像, 一般在进口小商品市场作为壁饰出售。实际上,算盘不单是算术工具,还是计 算器,甚至计算机。可是反复掂量后,觉得也不完全是那样。算盘只不过是把 运算者脑子里的计算过程给视觉化了。 上百万亚洲人至今还在他们的日常生活中使用算盘。在此之前,算盘已经 有了两千多年的历史,甚至更久。这不单是因为它算得快而准,还因为它长得 好看,而且触感也不错——有木制的,有铜制的,还有象牙制的。算盘的历史

越久,使用的次数越多,就越发地光滑,乌亮,更惹人喜爱了。它很耐用,也 不需要什么更新,程序就在你的脑子里,就算被弄坏了,一个八岁的孩子用常 用的工具就可以搞定。 算盘的存在使我们可以正确地看待我们所取得的一些进步。我记得曾经有 一家日美合资的电脑公司大规模地挺进中国市场,为了显示袖珍计算机的优势, 特地举行了一次比赛。于是一场算盘与计算机的大决战上演了。当然了,结果 是某货运公司一名香港籍高级职员——陈佳杰用算盘赢得了比赛。的确,那位 用计算机的选手在计算那一大堆发票时比陈佳杰和他的算盘节约了 44 秒,但是 结果却是错的。看来是那位选手急于想证明它的计算机是多么的聪明,结果输 入了错误的数据,这回可糗大了。 我没有别的意思。袖珍型计算器有存在的必要,也有它自己的市场。我并 不是那种反对自动化的勒德分子,机器无罪。也许像陈佳杰那样一个谨慎细心 的人,用起计算器也许比用算盘效果会更好,谁知道呢?这只不过是我,一个 喜欢发点牢骚的人,面对人类用双手和大脑创造出来的奇迹时,激起的一丝感 慨罢了。当我看到算盘面对那一片小小的但却集合了高科技魔法的芯片时,面 无惧色,我的心算是放下了。一种古老而简便的解决问题的方法至今依然行之 有效,这实在让人欣慰。 想看看这样一个事实:古老陈旧的算盘作为工艺品和珍奇物挂在 21 世纪 的墙上,因着实用而美丽,也因着美丽而实用。我这儿有一个古朴的木碗还有 一把有些年头的菜刀,它们可以媲美任何年代的食品加工器。这跟算盘与计算 器是一个道理。


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