COLM O'REGAN: Days spent looking at digital displays

After years of waiting it’s finally here. There have been numerous false alarms but within nine days the real thing is going to happen. October 21 2015 is officially the actual date that Marty McFly travelled to in the film “Back to The Future 2” – probably the most famous day in futuristic history.

As we approach the date much of the talk has been about whether the movie predicted things that came to pass. But the main thing I remember from the film is the digital clock. The one that Marty McFly used to measure the speed in order to get to 88 miles per hour so that “something something flux capacitor something something time-travel.”

As anyone who has ever tried to overtake while driving a Micra will understand, getting the car to achieve this speed was part of the tension of the films.

It seems like we spend a lot of our time staring at digital displays tensely. There are those of you who remember your first digital watch with which you did one of two things to pass the long summer days:

a) Timed whether you could hold your breath longer than your friend. Or b) if you had no friends around, you could try to press stop and start on the stopwatch as fast as possible to see did you have kind of reflexes that could knock the knife out of the grip of a bandana-wearing juvenile punk on a TV cop show. My record was 0.08 seconds by-the-way-what-was-yours-bet-I-win?

In 1987, when Stephen Roche won the Tour De France and youngsters were out launching attacks from the peleton on the Big Hill near their house, EVERYONE watched the clock on the time trial on the penultimate stage to see whether Roche could catch his Spanish nemesis Pedro Delgado. The country was fixated with the 20 seconds that needed to be gained and listened as Jimmy Magee uttered one of his era-defining pronouncements as he said of Delgado: “He must know, the game is up”

Less tense but still time-trially are the Dublin Horse show competitions where a horse with some name like Lord Falconboy My Monseigneur is well in the lead timewise and just has a tricky combination fence to clear to win. Then the horse doesn’t bother its hole jumping the last fence and instead just barrels through it, sending its rider, German aristrocrat Doctor Klaus Jodhpur into a hedge.

It doesn’t have to be time. All throughout our lives we gaze at digital displays. Some are harbingers of greater forces. Getting a fill of petrol becomes a race between the capacity and the money. If the litres haven’t gone to 38.9 and the cost is still ticking merrily past 60 euro I’m convinced the world is going to hell in a handcart.

We were up in the hospital recently as my wife was giving birth to our first child. With these kinds of procedures, there can be a lot of digital displays. Over the course of a few incredible days last week, we were fixated by numbers. Before she was born, the child’s heart trace was the worst to watch, then it was the best then the worst again “and oh ... oh hang on it’s gone back to normal now”. It was like watching the sky to see whether a shower of rain was going to clear. The hearing test gave us an agonising wait as the digital display delayed before the most pleasing beep we’ve ever heard. And if you think that a pH reading would never make you weepy with relief, you’d be wrong.

Now though we’re all home and the magic number is three. So for us, it’s back to the future too.

You’d press stop and start as fast as possible to see did you have reflexes to knock the knife out of the grip of a punk


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