Thursday, November 29, 2007

the birth certificate

Well, it is finally official, little Annie has a birth certificate.

As we checked out of the hospital on Saturday, they told me to return on Tuesday regarding the birth certificate. We left, wondering about the process of procuring a birth certificate in India, where the paperwork is illegible and inconsistent and plentiful. I returned on Tuesday to hear the hospitable hospital lady tell me that everything would be all taken care of by the hospital, I would just need to go over to the city board in two days and give them the names of the parents.

"I know who the parents are now, could we just send... that information... with the..." I felt myself trailing off, weakly wondering if the irony of such an errand would occur to her. The very idea of a Mussoorie city government had my palms sweating. I did not know what or where the city board was, but I was immediately certain that somewhere in Mussoorie, within the thick walls of a crumbling building, there was a dank little room full of battered registers and purple stamps and eddies of beedi smoke wandering through the dirty window beams that illuminated the musty offices of the City Board. A room full of papers and paperclips and little pots of glue for fixing stamps to official papers whose letters had been fused together and worn smooth generations ago by the photocopier. A room full of paperwork, full of circular queues that would have me wasting my hours, full of self-contradictory rubber stamps that would have my family stuck in immigration with our baby (that any idiot could see had been born) as our plane flew toward loving relatives and baseball games and hamburgers. I hate paperwork.

So I gritted my teeth and smiled and asked directions to the city board before stepping out of the hospital toward the unknown. The differences between a step of faith and a stride of sheer resignation are few and sometimes invisible. I found the city board, and an alarming number of my predictions were accurate, including the part about the directions being a kilometer off.

When I was fairly certain I was on the premises, I asked where to go, stood in the only line I found, and waited. A kind man pointed me in the right direction, and I found a room full of ancient seven-foot-tall enameled cabinets and desks with blotters and windows of wavy glass.

There were four men leaning on a desk over a few papers, so I waited. I explained my desire to get a birth certificate, and I showed them the form from the hospital. With no English and in spite of my own ignorance of Hindi, one of the men was able to show me that I needed to copy down a hand-written request for the issue of a birth certificate, as submitted by the previous father. I idly wondered if mine would go unprocessed until it had served as the model for the next father.

When the letter was done, I was taken to a different room and asked to wait. This small room contained two large desks, several of the looming cabinets, and no less than seven wall calendars. Eventually I was asked how many copies I would like. My mind went wild with the temptation to ask for five hundred copies of little Annie's birth certificate. I mustered the restraint to say that two copies would be sufficient. I probably overcompensated from my initial impulse, maybe three or four would have been good planning. They asked for ten rupees and told me to come back in two days.

I went back today and received the birth certificates, which were hand written (translated into English even though I didn't ask--I guess I still come across as a foreigner) and duly substantiated by the purple stamp of Indian paperwork. The process was in no way miserable, and I was even able to be thankful for the chance to live in India.

Pictures of Annie:

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Esther Anna Elisabeth

This is our new baby girl! She was born this morning at 8:05 AM. Mother and Annie are healthy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

wallet paradox

Two people, Andre and Erik, are going to play a game. They are going to take out their wallets, count the money in each wallet, and give all of the money to the person whose wallet contains the least. Assume for the sake of the problem that they do not know anything about the other person's cash habits.

Andre thinks about it and concludes that if he loses, he will lose all of the cash that he has, but if he wins (meaning that Erik had more), he will win Erik's money, which was even more than he would have lost. With equal chances of winning and losing, he decides that the advantage is his.

Likewise, Erik has the advantage. With equal chances of winning and losing, he would potentially win more than he would potentially lose, so the advantage in the game is his.

Can they both have the advantage?

This puzzle was found on, and is apparently attributed to Maurice Kraitchik.

jigsaw paradox

If both of the figures are assembled with the same shapes, why does the top one have a hole in it? Verify that shapes which are shaded the same have the same area. This one had kids staying after class on a friday afternoon.

Friday, November 9, 2007

what you've all been waiting for

Here is the webpage I just completed to show off all of my hard work with Geometer's Sketchpad, a program that few of you have which concerns a subject that few of you enjoy.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

an oldie but a goodie

Okay, so these three guys walk into a hotel. They ask how much a room is, and the manager tells them that they can get a triple room for $30. They each pay the man $10, and they are seen to their room. A little while later, the manager, who is exceedingly honest, realizes that he has overcharged them men, and the room should cost only $25. He asks the bellboy, who is not exceedingly honest, to quickly go and give the men the $5 that has been overpaid. The bellboy wonders how the men will decide to split $5 amongst themselves. He then realizes that the men do not realize that they have overpaid, and they certainly do not know the amount of money involved. He decides to do them a favor by refunding them only three of the dollars. He knocks on the door, gives them each $1, and returns to the desk with $2 for himself. The men have now paid a total of $27 for the room, and the bellboy has taken $2, which makes $29. What happened to the other dollar?

Monday, November 5, 2007

gunpowder treason and plot

I recently spent a week in the village of Sarab Talla. Three hundred people living on a mountainside by growing handfuls of corn and mustard. Each field is a narrow terrace of land, cleared and leveled with decades of sweat and toil and a profound hope in a future without promises. Some of the fields were only as wide as the swath of a small tractor, but they are all plowed by bullocks and sown by strong and sinewy hands.

Before coming to India, I could not have been sure that there existed these little corners of forgotten people that time does not touch. The people of Sarab Talla certainly appear protected from those winds of change that seem to drive the rest of the world. They plod behind their bullocks, guiding wooden plows that leave a dusty wake of stones that their grandfathers plowed. They cook simple food over fires of sticks that they gather patiently from a heartless mountain that always gives enough but no more. They chop grass from the mountain to feed their animals, they send their boys to chase the goats over stony paths that drape the mountain like a fishnet. They also watch satellite television, and some of them have cell-phones.

Our hosts in the village offered to catch some fish for us when we hiked to the bottom of the valley to spend a day on the Aglar. They intended to use dynamite to stun the fish so that we could pick them up as they floated downstream. When we expressed concern about this technique, they offered to use a different method that consists of dumping bleach in the water and picking up the poisoned fish as they float downstream. This also seemed like eco-terrorism rather than eco-tourism, so we declined the bleach as well as their final offer of poisoning all of the fish in one area of the river with a certain root that is crushed and thrown into the water. In the end, they tried unsuccessfully to net us some fish. Environmentalism is a lost art in India.

The village of Sarab Talla has a government school. Not every village has a school. Sarab Talla only has a school through grade 8, and the older kids have to walk 10 kilometers to school, if their parents can spare them. The kids who walk to school are poorly educated for their efforts. India has a big problem with public school teachers skipping class. The school we visited has three teachers for eight grades, but the teachers take turns coming, one month working and two months off. They are supposed to come all at once, which they do when there is a government inspection. If there is a holiday, and there are many, the teacher usually takes off a couple days on each side of the holiday. There is a free-lunch program in place, but the teachers have been known to take the food for themselves.

I think that seeing the problems with the school made me feel even less optimistic about India as a 'developing' nation. I am starting to suspect that India may simply be more fully developed than most nations.

I have posted some pictures from Sarab Talla here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

feigned facetiousness

Our school is having a 'sports day' on Saturday, which naturally means that we just received an all-staff email informing us that a large number of children will be missing class on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, in order to participate in so-called pre-determined events, such as javelin, which is supposedly a huge sport here. On the annual sports day, I mean. And by 'the annual sports day', I really mean during school on the Tuesday preceding the annual sports day.

The annual sports day is the biggest and best track meet of the year here, which means merely that it is bigger and better than the other track meet of the year, inter-house sports day. We take the kids down to the field, hand them a giant metal ball that they do not know how to safely throw and say, "Throw this," and the shot put event has begun. We line up the hurdles and explain, "You jump over them, climb over them, kick them over, anything to get to the end. It is best if you can clear them by about a foot so they don't bite you. The harder you fall, the tougher your friends will think you are." Then we give them medals and the season is over as quickly as it began.

I am currently battling the temptation to send an all-staff email of my own:

Please excuse my math students from 'extra-curricular' activities which take place during my math classes for the week of October 15. They have all qualified for participation in our current units on two-variable data, applications of differentiation, and number concepts. This is a unique learning experience, and it will not interrupt their regularly scheduled class. They will not be needing a bus ride or shiny jackets.

Some questions about "Sports" "Day" that I would ask if I thought there was an answer:

If so many of the events are "pre-determined", why do students have to participate in them?

If they have not thrown a javelin since the last "Sports" "Day", why is it worthwhile for us to bus them around the city to show off their skills? Are they really export quality?

If the sports are "extra-curricular", why do they all take place during class?

Why are 6 of the 16 kids on Academic "Probation" missing class to represent our school at these events?

Friday, October 12, 2007

prevention & blame

So another school shooting. The headline I see is "Lesson of shootings: Schools act too late". I am always amazed to hear bad news accompanied by accusations like that.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, the finger pointing began and it was decided that the university officials should have responded to early signs of a student's mental trouble. How? By sharing concerns with the kid's parents? The school would have been sued for violating his privacy. By jeopardizing his place in school just because he was a demented rascal? That would be stifling his freedom of expression. If we got rid of all the demented rascals, where would they go? Who would get to decide which people fell into that category? How many people display some level of mental distress, and what kind of society could effectively regard them as future mass-killers?

Who gets the blame for a hurricane? The federal government. Until we find out that the local government actually did receive federal funds for a levee project that never happened. So we blame the local government. Then we might blame the people who knew that living in a swamp near a boisterous gulf could lead to problems. We have to blame somebody, because a hurricane doesn't just happen. It was probably global warming, so we should blame the auto-makers.

After the fact, people act like these events were foretold and they blame the lack of prevention. If the prevention had been in place, they would have resented the insinuation that evil thoughts lead to evil deeds. They would have resented the insinuation that they could not stay in their home, and against government orders, they would have stayed. They would have resented the insinuation that Koreans could put themselves and others in danger by travelling to a warring nation full of political strife. Any congratulations to the Korean government for telling them not to go? Of course not. Instead we blame whatever army has been antagonizing those peaceful terrorists.

The accusations really imply that all organizations of every color, shape, and size should have a well-rehearsed plan in place to deal with pandemonium. There is a need for a scapegoat capable enough to foresee everything and protect us from it. But how much of our resources should be dedicated to dealing with astronomically rare disasters? How paranoid can we afford to be? Should we be so paranoid that we want to prohibit school kids from being part of a cult? Apparently not. Should we be so paranoid that we want to take away a nation's ability to wage nuclear war if that nation supports terrorism? Apparently not.

The need for a scapegoat to deal with societal problems that nobody really affords to prevent is universal. This is because we each are secretly devastated as we fearfully fathom our own personal depths of guilt. If we could only agree to pin it on someone... because the only way to really live this life is to know that my sins are gone.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

joys of calculus

I have had a number of mathematical epiphanies lately in calculus. A few years back, when I was hacking my way through calculus at the U of M, I never imagined that the derivative of a parametrically defined function would ever make sense to me. I also never found implicit differentiation to be all that exciting. I figured out how to move the numbers and get the answers, but there was no beauty to it. I guess both of those topics seemed like untidy little loose ends that were clumsily dealt with by the big-haired math guys from days of yore. Boy was I wrong. I now feel like I can understand the necessities and the mechanisms for each of these concepts, and I really can appreciate the utter inspiration.

Here's what had been missing: In both cases, we are able to find a derivative dy/dx in spite of the fact that there is not the traditional relationship between independent and dependent variables. In the case of parametric functions, x and y are both dependent variables defined in terms of t, the parameter. In the case of relationships which are implicitly defined, there is not a proper arrangement between independent and dependent variables. In both cases, the graphs of the functions, the patterns of ordered pairs that satisfy the equations, exist on the x-y plane and therefore have slopes which are defined as the change in y compared to the change in x, or dy/dx. The ways in which this quantity is obtained are remarkably clever.

Anyway, most of the people who read this will be the more grateful to be finished with math forever. The rest of them will wonder how I never figured this out until now.

Today for two of my calculus sections, I delivered (with relish) the third installment of the power rule for differentiation. We are now justified in using the rule when the exponent is rational. For my efforts, I got a bunch of unimpressed stares and one "that's the same result we got the first time". Of course it's the same result, isn't that great? But now we have shown that it works for rational numbers. The first time, we were only able to algebraically show that the rule worked whenever the exponent was a positive integer, and our proof made no sense for other powers. After that, we used the quotient rule along with the positive power result to show that negative integer powers give the same rule. Now we have used implicit differentiation and both previous results to show that the exponent can be any rational number! Next class we'll prove it for the reals!

Uhhh... Mr. Burchell, why didn't you just tell us the real number thing at the beginning?

From my point of view, we are using our elementary tools to construct bigger and better tools, creating the amazing structure of Calculus from simplicity itself. Some of the students wonder why we don't just start with the awesomest tools. Because if we did, it would not be awesome.

Monday, September 24, 2007

the real thing

Saturday night I saw a leopard about 10 km outside of Mussoorie, on the road from Dehra Dun.

I know that people see leopards all the time. I have watched them on the nature channel, closely enough to see their pupils dilate, but for the time and space between us. I have seen them in zoos, just as close, but they are fake leopards in zoos, elaborate products of sophisticated taxedermy, big tabby cats born in other zoos. In nature reserves, there are wild leopards, but the wild freedom which we perceive in them diminishes when we hear that they have names and regular veterinary appointments.

For that reason, I think that seeing one in nature carried a sort of surreal sensation of unanticipated familiarity. I knew right away that it was a leopard. The real thing was, in many respects, an exact replica of its artificial counterparts that had already been introduced to me. Yet that is backwards... the artificial leopards are replicas of the real thing.

The reality of the leopard, its authenticity, somehow made it undeniably more special than any other leopard that I have seen. I will probably always be able to see that imperfect picture, in sweeping headlights, of an enormous cat flowing across the dirty concrete barricades on the side of a twisting mountain road before gracefully and casually cutting off down the hill into the immense darkness. It was not an amazing picture, even if we had been given enough time to snap it on a camera. It was dark and the car was bumping and the situation was not altogether ideal for watching wildlife. The authenticity, though fleeting and poorly resolved, made it a priceless moment.

I have been reacting to this sensation, not to the leopard only, but to the feeling of being in awe of something so wild and true. I have thought, in my endless considerations of the properties of analogy and metaphor, of God's Love.

Love is a favorite concept of this world that we live in. The love of God is often intimated, sometimes imitated, but never perfectly and completely duplicated in the people around us. And yet we catch glimpses of it, so familiar and thrilling that we do not doubt it is love, but revel in the perfection and warmth of it. We know it because it is the ideal that we have heard so much about. When we see it, we do not spend a moment wondering if it is love, but rather, we spend the entire wild-eyed experience recognizing it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

my day job

School has been a cruel master lately.

I don't think I was cut out for this job. I do really believe that mathematics is worthwhile. It is a practical necessity for some jobs in the modern world, and it is a beautiful thing in its own right. I really do believe that every kid I come across can benefit from a little math. And yet... I feel that I am often at cross-purposes with my students, who come to me for test scores and good grades and college acceptances, and rarely for math.

I feel like there is a fundamental flaw in this system of making kids learn math. We tell them they need to learn math and they do not believe us. Obviously a math teacher needs math everyday. You've chosen a stupid job, that's not my problem. I'm going to be a fashion designer, I won't need math. I'm going to be an artist, I won't need math. I'm going into business, I won't need math.

There is an artificial demand for math. When a person aspires to something which they realize demands math (and not just math grades or math classes) the teaching and learning is smooth and enjoyable and amazing. I have seen it. I have seen that sort of interest and determination that transcends class credits and points on tests. But rarely. Most students, and I myself have occasionally done this, settle into the role of a blindly trudging, artless mercenary.

Unfortunately, by the time the student acknowledges a necessity for math, their only hope of success seems to depend upon how far they were dragged along unwillingly during the years preceding their epiphany. And I guess that's where I come in.

Dejectedly and contentedly, and with a scrap of renewed purpose, I suppose that I have always really put myself here to sell a bit of vision, or maybe soften the soil for it. Time will tell if I can make a living on that.

Friday, September 14, 2007

dubiously used books

Joie and I finished Treasure Island, and last night at study hall I checked out The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I enjoy the urgently soothing flow of his writing.

The book is relatively thin and the writer is highly regarded in a literary sense, which means that this particular copy of the book has been abused by a fair number of AP English students. As one begins reading the book, it is difficult to ignore the penciled brackets that surround (and ironically fail to emphasize) the most deeply significant seven out of every eight paragraphs. I patiently waited for it to end. Sure enough, after the first twenty pages or so, all of the papers had been written with sufficient profundity and an artful, playful vagueness to hint at the wonder of the piece without getting bogged down with details like the people and places in the book, and without giving away anything about the last 250 pages or so.

I wonder if those people ever ask themselves why people enjoy reading.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

same thing we do every day, pinky

I have recently volunteered to help out with the Model UN here at Woodstock. Next weekend I will be going to a conference at Doon School, located in Dehra Dun, the dusty metropolis at the bottom of our mountain.

The students are all researching the countries and committees they will be representing at the conference. So far, I have been able to contribute that I lived in Italy as an infant and I saw what I believed to be Indonesia from Singapore. My connections to Peru, South Africa, and Panama are even less noteworthy, if you can believe that. Taking inventory, I can already see myself grasping for respect in a tight situation and playing the only cards that I have for those countries. My sister lives in Colombia, which I am almost certain is next to Peru; I attended a talk by Desmond Tutu, who has been to South Africa; I know a palindrome about Panama.

Part of me is very interested in world politics, but admittedly a silent majority of me is much more interested in pirates. As a form of government, I mean. Like 'Model Mutineers', wherein a group of students stages a heartfelt debate over important commodities like rum and gold, which, contrary to all pretensions of our sophisticated governmental proceedings, really do keep the world running.

I am also in favor of a 'Model Illuminati' conference, for those students who really plan to go far. The 'Model Anarchy' club has been not meeting regularly for years.

For now, I shall try to content myself with the study of civilized governments, though I have a sneaky suspicion that they are all run by pirates and elitists anyway.

At this point I am reminded of a comment of mine (that I have forgotten) which evoked the response from Victor's dad: "You read too many story books."

Yes... Yes, I do.

My deliriously insincere apologies, this entire entry got away from me. I actually intended to express my newfound interest in MUN and instead I probably earned myself a file in the pentagon. I guess my proper appreciation of politics fits about as well as the neck tie that I will have to learn to affix by Friday.

I think that this quote might be the best explanation of my interest, my contempt, and my stake in politics:

"The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."
-- C. S. Lewis

Thursday, September 6, 2007

born to not run

As my sister's blog sometimes includes inspirational accounts of exhilarating running experiences, I thought that I would take a rare opportunity to describe my own recent fitness endeavor. I ran yesterday.

It hurt like mad. My legs hurt and my arms hurt the entire time I was running, and they still hurt now. It was not enjoyable in any way. I had not run since last year at this time. I can only remember some of the scenery, besides all of the other people in pain.

I noticed the white dog at the chai shop at the bottom of the hill near a sort of saddle of the mountain. That dog always seems to be crazy and mean, but they keep it tied up so it cannot attack people walking by. I will never understand the people around here who raise dogs to be wild, starving, and crazy beasts. I think my experience in India has significantly decreased my ability to understand the need for pets.

I noticed a string of Buddhist prayer flags hanging across the road. The flags are colorful sheets of cloth about the size of a piece of A4 paper. They never cease to remind me of the plastic flags at car dealerships and fireworks huts in the states. They have prayers printed on them with ink and a big woodcut stamp and a roller. We saw some old men making them in McLeod Ganj, at the temple where the Dalai Lama spends most of his time. When the prayers are completely faded off, they will be answered, the Buddhists believe. Some of the flags are bright and new, and others are tattered and gray.

I noticed a streamer of brown cassette tape twisting in the wind. I remember that because I have always wondered how that stuff gets caught at the top of a telephone pole. I think I remember wondering that during last year's race at the same curve in the road. It's the curve on the downhill stretch right after the turnaround by flag hill. Right before the black plastic squatter shack with the donkeys outside.

I noticed a little rivulet of water coming down the side of the mountain right by the road. The locals will find a big flat leaf and bend it like a taco shell and use rocks to weigh it down inside the miniature stream. This makes the water spout outward from the side of the mountain rather than trickle down the rock and dirt, and they use it to fill buckets or wash hands or get a drink. I think that's clever.

Monday, September 3, 2007

my morning person

Most mornings, Will wakes us up about 45 minutes before we want to be awake. Sometimes his first scuffs on the tough coconut fiber mat in the living-room are enough to wake me up, and I can hear him carefully pick a path around the furniture in his dim journey to Mamma and Pappa. He smells worse than most things his size, and at that time of the morning, he has a formidable aura indeed.

Recently, he has been bringing his belongings with him: a blanket, a stuffed dog and two stuffed bears--all fake of course, the pillow from his bed and the one from the floor next to his bed, where we hope it will save him from another smack on his head after a short fall. Needless to say, this often takes him two trips. He sometimes comes in with the first load and unceremoniously dumps it on our bed, and without so much as a glance at us turns around for the remaining pillows and animals.

After he is settled in our room, he finds the flashlight that Joie keeps near the bed and proceeds to make shadow puppets. Since his pappa only knows how to make a pretty sad looking dog and a five-legged spider, Will's shadow puppets are appropriately pathetic even when his wildly wagging fingers are in the beam of the light. When this gets boring (as it soon does), Will climbs all over us or dumps out his toys or carries the dirty clothes around the house. Anything that keeps him quiet keeps us very happy and we find that in the early morning we are exceptionally supportive parents.

Sometimes we talk about breakfast, and Will gets very excited. If he hears the word 'chai' or 'tea' or 'coffee', he holds us to it. He can say all three words, though he seems to make no distinction. He just knows that Mamma will give him a warm and milky mug of good drink.

About 7:30 AM, EVERY DAY OF THE BLESSED WEEK, the garbage guys come to graciously remove our previous day's garbage, which we keep topically separated in two pails. When Will hears the doorbell, he sits up and says, "Babbage!" I have always been amused that Will thinks Charles Babbage has come to visit, and it makes me smile knowingly to think that old Chuck has been dead for a hundred and thirty some years now and Will is none the wiser. But we always correct him and tell him that it is the garbage, and then he slides down off the bed and lumbers over to the kitchen with the same manly air that any boy has the first time he helps to carry a piano or cut firewood or stare at a greasy engine. Will's deep breathing and his steadfast gaze during the task speak of his dedication and sense of duty. He is really very proud to contribute in this way.

Usually Joie gets up to open the door for him. If she is slow in finding the keys, I can hear Will yelling "Keys! Keys!" and urging her to hurry. Sometimes Joie comes back into the room to put another blanket on me and shut the door so I can sleep a few more minutes, and I think that at that moment I feel like the most loved man that there ever was. Eventually Will, to whom every day is a summer vacation Saturday morning, bashes through the door to excitedly welcome me to the day.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

yo ho ho

My study hall duty a couple of days ago came after a very long day. School had already drained me of more than its fair share, and I could not be bothered to spend the time shuffling papers and scheduling the learning that has to happen. Being in the library, I started perusing the eclectic collection of books that finds its way to an international school.

In recent months, I have read three books by Hemingway, but his writing is often much better than his stories. I have spent at least as long being partway through Seven Years in Tibet, but Heinrich Harrer's story is often much better than his writing. While I am willing to track a dying Kudu with Hemingway in exchange for the occasional gem, it is a telling test of my fortitude to climb an un-described mountain with Harrer in exchange for an unknown sensation that feels very much indeed like seven years.

I read Hemingway with a certain double edged fear. I think that if I were a writer I would tend toward and aspire to certain of the same strengths.

Anyway, when my eye caught on Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, I felt an unexpected invitation to return to something that I had counted among the lost. I think that when the book first ended and I had to close it knowing that Long John Silver is toiling away to a pirate's freedom without even a goodbye, I was more than a little sad to have finished it at all. I would rather, almost, have left them all on the Hispaniola, bound for treasure and intrigue. I have since learned that this was one of the books that can stand to be read again. I have read it three or four times, and it is still a solid story with excellent dialogue. Young Hawkins can return to the Admiral Benbow Inn and start it all over again. The aging monster Billy Bones can stamp around on the cold beaches of England yet again in his tormenting anticipation of Flint's men. And Long John Silver can play once again the master pirate that he surely was.

This is the first time in a few years that I have read it. I suppose that I read the book differently after having seen a few more ports, having met a few more people, having walked a few more roads, and having passed a gazing night on a cold and crashing Cornish beach.

This time I was on page 72 when study hall ended and I restarted reading it so I could read it aloud to Joie, and we are on page 38.

An excerpt, from the opening of the dead man's chest...

A strong smell of tobacco and tar rose from the interior, but nothing was to be seen on the top except a suit of very good clothes, carefully brushed and folded. They had never been worn, my mother said. Under that, the miscellany began--a quadrant, a tin canikin, several sticks of tobacco, two brace of very handsome pistols, a piece of bar silver, an old Spanish watch and some other trinkets of little value and mostly of foreign make, a pair of compasses mounted with brass, and five or six curious West Indian shells. I have often wondered since why he should have carried about these shells with him in his wandering, guilty, and hunted life.

This text can be found in its entirety at the project gutenberg website.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

eternity on my mind

"He has also set eternity in the hearts of men..." -Ecclesiastes 3:11

I have been pondering this verse lately. When I first read it some years ago, it really jumped out to me as a pretty bold assertion. All of us, it says, are hard-wired with a certain fixation on the idea of eternity. All of us, not just Christians or Good Christians or people who were born to philosophize.

I was skeptical of this at first, because it seems that eternity is a certain inaccessible topic in certain religions that would only be pondered by some of the people some of the time. I was pretty sure that there were a great many people who didn't care about eternity any more than I care about Bertrand Russell's paradox of the barber who does and does not cut his own hair.

In one sense it is very ironic to say that eternity is important to such fleeting creatures as us. Nothing we see is eternal, not even the heavens and the earth, according to the Bible. If we do have any paradigm of eternity, it must be insufficient indeed. And yet... we are undeniably found spending ourselves on what we think matters, what we think will last beyond ourselves, and what we think is bigger than the problems of our days... eternity.

After I started paying attention, I began to notice that people do indeed grapple with eternity an awful lot. It's everywhere, really. The strongest curse we can speak is to damn someone to hell, to eternity. The most we can promise is forever. We want to be remembered, we want to associate ourselves with famous people for that minuscule link with forever. We want to own a diamond and see our name in black and white and we want to linger in the unarticulated serenity of a graveyard. We want to understand the past, present and future of the universe. We want to know what the genome scientists are figuring out about mortality. We want to go to historical places and read a famous book and leave our initials in wet concrete and take every chance to make our lives something more than a vanishing mist. We are all preoccupied with eternity. We think about it, we wonder about it, and we hold it closer than our breath.

All I really need to know...
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind

- Rich Mullins "Hard to Get"

Monday, August 27, 2007

mutterings of a former newsie

When I was growing up, we never really took the daily paper, except when there was some sort of promotion and it was free. At one time we had two paper routes in the family, and we delivered Janesville Gazettes to around a third of the Brodhead subscribers, but we never got one for ourselves. In the winter, when the slush piled up against the idea of biking, we would walk the paper routes, and sometimes, in the minute-long familiar trudge between two houses, I would read a few paragraphs of one of the front-page articles. Then I would deliver the paper and read on from the next paper, sometimes wondering if anyone would be bothered to receive used news. This never had the same feeling as sitting at home with a paper.

The Sunday paper was much different from the papers the rest of the week. It was thick. The comics were longer and in color, and there were more of them. There were colorful glossy advertisements spilling out, there were coupons for local stores, there was an entire section for sports. We usually bought the Madison paper when we got a Sunday paper, and it was $1.50 instead of the daily cost of 50 cents. My dad always liked getting the Sunday paper.

From the delivery standpoint, the Sunday paper was about five times thicker and a bit more challenging to deliver. You could throw one onto a porch as long as it went fold first, otherwise the outer layer would stop and the insides would keep sliding across the porch, creating a visual treat akin to rolling out a red carpet or fanning a deck of playing cards. Then you had to go push it all back together before the customer saw it.

Joie and I just started taking 'The Times of India' recently. There are some very interesting features of an Indian newspaper.

The cost is ridiculously low. Getting the paper was not a major decision for us, as the newsstand price is Rs. 2, or about 5 cents per day. It is only slightly more to have it delivered, and I believe that this makes newspaper quite a bit cheaper, kilo for kilo, than firewood. The discussion was short. I said, "I think I'd like to start getting the newspaper, it's a hundred rupees per month." Joie said, "Okay". Now where I come from, the paper is considerably more expensive and you have to decide if you could read it enough to make it worthwhile. This consideration inevitably ended in my admitting to myself that I really only wanted the crossword puzzle, the sudoku, and the comics, and it was stupid to pay for those. I have decided that 2 rupees a day is a forgivable indulgence. I just checked, and the price of a Sunday Times is Rs. 3.40 (3 rupees and 40 paisa), which is a little over eight cents and essentially means Rs. 4 in most places, since paisa are not really in use.

The daily comics are in color. The papers seem to take it upon themselves to colorize them, so the colors are not really in tune with what the artist may have intended. Snoopy, for example, is brown. Dilbert's funny hair has been perceived by Indian comic painters as a hat, which they decide to paint blue. Calvin sometimes has dark hair because hey, doesn't everyone?

The Sunday paper is nothing special. It is decidedly different, but neither bigger nor better. There is a matrimonial section on Sundays, and only about half of the comics, which are not in color. There was no crossword puzzle or sudoku in my Sunday paper, though the daily papers were always very faithful to me in that respect. There is a one-page glossy insert called "Life!" which is full of sensational rubbish about fashions and celebrities and lifestyles.

There is a matrimonial section in the Sunday paper. Now American papers have a 'personals' section that seems full of sleazy people searching for sleazy people by posting thinly veiled appeals for casual romantic relationships offering some degree of anonymity and adventure. In India, many marriages are arranged, and matching people up is big business. Many of the ads seem to be posted by parents, referring to a "boy" who might be 31 years old. Some ads are quite specific about what is offered and what is sought, while others are very basic appeals with no information.

The phrase "Caste no bar" occurs commonly and means that the family does not object to marriage between castes. Though the caste system has been long abolished, it is still a pervasive dynamic within many Indian communities. People who marry outside of their caste can risk being rejected or killed by their villages and even their families.

The matrimonial section and the industry of arranging marriages is becoming increasingly relied upon as many areas in India are experiencing a severe shortage of women. While India does not restrict the number of children you can have, a girl needs a dowry, and is therefore perceived as a financial liability. It is illegal for doctors viewing an ultrasound to disclose the gender of a baby because so many people will abort it if they know it is a girl. Even so, infanticide is a popular option in some regions, and the Indian authorities occasionally discover some village well that is full of dead baby girls. This, I believe, is one of those heinous crimes that too clearly betray a savagery that no nation wants to admit. Like evil on the face of the picture of Dorian Gray.

There is a memorial section. I am used to obituaries or personal notes for people who have just died, but the Indian papers publish little pictures and personal notes to people who have been dead for years. The notes often commemorate the anniversary of the date of death, and contain a little note written to the loved one to show that they have been missed. I personally suspect that if the dead can see us, they will be able to tell if their families miss them without reading the 'Times of India', but I do appreciate the implied notion that each edition of the newspaper is perused expectantly by recent generations of India's dead.

Friday, August 24, 2007

nerd jokes

If I manage to come up with something to write today, I can tie my record of seven posts in one month, which was set in May.


I have noticed in the last couple of days (although it has really been a defining aspect of my entire budding career as a purveyor of fine mathematical skills), that I feel an obligation to occasionally tell jokes in class that I do not expect very many people to understand.

Today my ninth graders were learning the area formula for a circle, so I told them "pi r squared", and then said, "actually, they're round". The American girl laughed. They don't really have pies here, so I'm telling myself that the cultural barrier electrocuted the joke.

Even telling a joke like that makes me groan inside. Why do I feel the need? Because these students would be a poorer man if they never saw an eagle fly. I mean that these students would miss out on a really great thing: nerd jokes. Nerd jokes are funny because (for those of you who have never understood a nerd joke) if you get the joke, then you are a nerd. You see, it is a special brand of humor in which the listener gets tricked into laughing, at which point THEY, in the act of laughing at a nerd joke, become worth laughing at; they then find themselves unable to keep from laughing at themselves, though they started laughing at the joke and they want to laugh at the teacher. I am truly sorry if this explanation takes the beauty out of it all.

While I do enjoy getting my students to laugh at nerdy jokes, I also enjoy the blank stares.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

eschew obfuscation

Teaching students to communicate with concise clarity is a doomed trade.

I stayed up till 1:30 last night designing an Excel project for my AP Stats class. The fact is, histograms are not within the realm of possibilities for Microsoft Excel. You can make a bar chart with--I checked on this--two clicks of the mouse. Excel allows people to make a wide variety of graphs very easily. I have come to believe that this is a misinformation campaign by our future emperor, Bill "A-nation-of-stupid-people-could-be-very-lucrative" Gates. The fact is, Excel's user-friendliness only extends to those users whose graphical intentions are purely aesthetic.

To make a histogram in Excel, you actually have to install an 'Add-In' called 'Analysis ToolPak' in order to obtain a tool called 'Data Analysis'. Now one might think that a spreadsheet would come standard with 'Data Analysis', but then one would be wrong. One would also think that any major corporation with the arrogance to introduce gangster words like 'ToolPak' would have the wherewithal to include those words in the spelling dictionary so that Word doesn't do the red underline thing when you try to explain the whole convoluted process to other people. But no.

In the end, the histogram option (the word 'option' is a euphemism for 'terrifying ordeal') is really no more than a clumsily adapted bar chart, the histogram's less mathematical and more easily perverted cousin. All visual evidence of this fact seems to be removable except that the x-axis labels always appear in the middle of each bar, as they would on a bar chart.

I find all of this very ironic. To me, a histogram seems fairly basic as far as graphs go, and fairly feasible as far as Microsoft programmers go.

If I had a nickel for every meaningless graph that has been dragged onto a power-point slide this year... I would build one long staircase just going up and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere, just for show.

Monday, August 20, 2007

athletic travesty

[inspired by a story about Michael Vick which looks like it might be true]

After a couple of years of paying only marginal attention to the state of professional sports, I believe that I can offer a pretty doggone objective opinion here:

The height of competitive sports in the world is being threatened by the moralists. We want to see a man hit hundreds of home runs, yet he is told he must do it without drugs. We want to see a tenacious and aggressive quarterback, but we forbid him to nurture his nature with the fury of pit-bulls locked in mortal combat. We worship a basketball player who looks, talks, and acts like a hateful criminal, but we repress his persona by subjecting him to humiliating suspensions when it all comes out in court. We want to see someone sprint faster than anyone ever has, but we will not allow him to have an 'edge'. We want to see a snowboarder fly with confidence and style, but they are not allowed to be high.

We should stop crimping their style.

Beijing 2008 is the perfect arena. Why not have a juiced up Olympic Games, in which the world can witness the horrifying greatness of steroids? Rather than tempt a handful of the less scrupulous good runners into a few doses of physical augmentation, let's blow the whole thing wide open and legalize it. Chemistry might very well be the ticket to the three-minute mile. I think that the Greeks and Romans would approve.

We should stop moralizing and let intimidation, violence, and substance abuse play its proper role in athletics. The world of athletics is at cross-purposes, and the sooner we sort it all out, the sooner we can get the gladiators back.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

my little town

Well, I just finished my weekly perusal of the Brodhead police reports. I think that any news from a small town (or maybe a hometown) has a certain melancholy about it. Good news makes me wish I had never left, and the other news makes me feel like the whole place has gone to pot. I guess I still care about the place.

I scan the records for names, and the names are getting younger and younger. Some kids who were in middle school when I left are getting booked and locked up for things like drunk driving and disorderly conduct. Sometimes it is guys older than me, guys who were track champions or basketball stars in high school. I suppose that I used to think only criminals did bad things and got themselves put in jail, but it turns out that pudgy little middle school kids do it too. When they are older, I mean. When I have been gone too long.

I suppose that the old timers in the community barely notice it any more. To them, the bad little kids and the dangerous criminals and the dirty old men are all one and the same, and maybe they are not surprised when the new generation matures to a life of alcoholism and domestic disturbance. For me it's still a weird feeling.

Reading it all might be a bad thing to do, due to its depressing nature, but I sort of feel like I need to know. I told another teacher about this once, an art teacher from some town in New York. I asked him if he ever looked at the police reports on the internet to see which of his classmates were in jail this week. He just said that yeah, he always looks.

Monday, August 13, 2007

hook of the day

In the absence of inspiration, and in my utter inability to provide you with the wit that I so desire should permeate your day, I will instead refer you to words which have already been written. This selection is brilliant, in my humble opinion. And after all, what is the fun of having a blog if I cannot subject my readers to my literary whims? It is also about a pirate.

From J M Barrie's Peter Pan:

Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze; but as those who read between the lines must already have guessed, he had been at a famous public school; and its traditions still clung to him like garments, with which indeed they are largely concerned. Thus it was offensive to him even now to board a ship in the same dress in which he grappled her, and he still adhered in his walk to the school's distinguished slouch. But above all he retained the passion for good form.

Good form! However much he may have degenerated, he still knew that this is all that really matters.

From far within him he heard a creaking as of rusty portals, and through them came a stern tap-tap-tap, like hammering in the night when one cannot sleep. "Have you been good form to-day?" was their eternal question.

"Fame, fame, that glittering bauble, it is mine," he cried.

"Is it quite good form to be distinguished at anything?" the tap-tap from his school replied.

"I am the only man whom Barbecue feared," he urged, "and Flint feared Barbecue."

"Barbecue, Flint -- what house?" came the cutting retort.

Most disquieting reflection of all, was it not bad form to think about good form?

His vitals were tortured by this problem. It was a claw within him sharper than the iron one; and as it tore him, the perspiration dripped down his tallow countenance and streaked his doublet. Ofttimes he drew his sleeve across his face, but there was no damming that trickle.

Ah, envy not Hook.

There came to him a presentiment of his early dissolution. It was as if Peter's terrible oath had boarded the ship. Hook felt a gloomy desire to make his dying speech, lest presently there should be no time for it.

"Better for Hook," he cried, "if he had had less ambition!" It was in his darkest hours only that he referred to himself in the third person.

The entire text can be found here on the project gutenberg website.

Friday, August 10, 2007

new year

Well, school has sprung. Today is the third day of classes, and I am exhausted. The student and staff turnover at this school is pretty substantial. The new preps complete the disorientation of Nate Burchell.

I am teaching Calculus now, which I am excited for. I like calculus because of its utter genius. The simplicity of the elemental ideas involved contrast nicely with the powerful complexity of the results. I enjoy sharing that, and if one or two students walk away with a deep appreciation of this beauty, I will have done something well.

Ninth grade math is an adventure for me right now. Many of the students are new to the school, and all of the students are timid and well-behaved. In point of fact, they scurry through the crowded halls in furtive fear of high school. Yesterday one quiet girl saw me in the hall and said, "Good morning, sir," which made me feel a little sad. I wanted to say, "Don't be polite to me, I won't even know your name for another month and even then I'll screw it up and embarrass you!" After one class, about eight students came up to thank me. I guess I do not know how to react. They seem to get over it by eleventh grade, I have learned.

Statistics class is better now that I have taught it for a year, but I am the most boring in that class.

Update on the card game: I was showing off my cool card game to my calc class and drew {6, 7, 9, 22 | 3}, which does not have a solution that I have found. I didn't want to lose their interest, so after repeating the step about staring blankly, I drew another set, {7, 11, 15, 3 | 12}. In both cases, I have not yet come up with a solution, and behold, the hubris of the newly-entertaining math teacher has been laid low. My faith in the card game is also on the line. Feel free to tell me if you find a solution, but know that I will not sleep well until this is resolved.

Friday, August 3, 2007

a game with no name

Preparing for the new school year, which begins Wednesday, I made myself a deck of cards for a math game that I intend to play with my students. My brother-in-law Justin told me about this game.

You have 48 cards, two each of the positive integers 1-24. I made my deck from some old card-catalogue cards that I pilfered from an enormous boxful in the library. On the back they say things like "FIC Trollope, Anthony." I'm pretty sure that's a fine way to find cards, but you might want to check with your local librarians. Make sure that your numbers are unambiguous or you will wrestle with temptation to interpret them favorably and the lack of integrity will rob you of the joy of solution.

Shuffle the deck and draw 5 cards. Now arrange the first four in such a way with appropriate math symbols so that you have an expression which equals the value of the fifth card.

I drew five cards to come up with an example, wondering if I would be able to figure out an answer or if I would have to lie so that you think my game is cool. I did find an answer, but you might think that I am lying anyway.

I drew: 6, 10, 4, 21, and 16.

I stared blankly at the cards for a minute... [this step is critical]

21-10/(6-4) = 16.

Justin has told me that they have yet to find a group of cards with no solution.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

motivational speaker

I have been listening to motivational speakers spew forth all of the buzzwords that I have forgotten how much I do not miss. They each begin by mentioning their trendly predecessors and explaining why their idea is not just a trend, but an enduring principle that is the new wave of education.

The workshops so far have discussed a holistic approach to focus issue objectives through collaborative learning communities, which basically means that we will do everything better all the time. Last year it was about some trend, whose name escapes me but whose acronym was PMS, which is based on a fantastic idea to do everything better while collaborating holistically on comfort zones and objective initiatives. Now we are learning how to make institution wide goals that are attainable and measurable and, of course, holistic.

NB: Any permutation of the words in that paragraph would mean the same thing.

Holistic is a word that has been chosen for its length, novelty, and Greekness. It is also chosen because it does not carry the same sting of daunting reality that we find in a phrase like "every aspect of this child's life". When I hear the word holistic in reference to teaching, I feel myself becoming unable to listen. It is very similar to the way my brain shuts down when I hear the phrase comfort zone. What they really mean by using such words as holistic, is that they would rather chase down a sophisticated corporate image than address the everyday actions that define the education process. It is a shame to see such a respectable word "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools" (Kipling, 1910). Keep it too abstract to mean anything, and I guess we will all feel better about it.

I keep expecting someone to run to the front and tell us all we are on candid camera and don't we feel stupid for listening to computer-generated gibberish as though it were meaningful.

Boy, what a negative and offensive entry.

Monday, July 30, 2007

us men

Joie just returned from a weekend in Delhi, leaving Will and I to fend for ourselves in the wilds of Redwood Cottage. Will was a handful. We walked into the bazaar, where he was happy to find plenty of horses, dogs (gogs), and motorcycles (hykols) to identify. There are many difficult decisions to make in the education of a young child. For example, these critters that we call motorcycles are actually a pretty good mix of motorcycles and scooters, but from where Will is coming from, it is hardly worthwhile to make a distinction. Furthermore, he can say "horse" and "donkey" beautifully, but when push comes to shove, Mussoorie's equines are generally mules, and it simply does not seem fair to be overly pedantic when the kid only knows a few words. He calls himself "Gull" for cryin' out loud.

Since Joie was gone, we watched man movies, sometimes with our shirts off, and always with food. Will watched "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", and was delighted to point out every horse he saw. When The Man with No Name blew up the bridge, Will said, "Ooh, wow!" with wide-eyed appreciation.

The cinematic gem that I first noticed in this most recent viewing of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly": when Blondie (Clint Eastwood) gives Tuco (Eli Wallach) a cigar for the first time, Tuco eats it. What a fine film...

Friday, July 27, 2007

mumbai waves

This is a picture that I took near the 'Gateway of India' monument in Mumbai. I took very few pictures of Mumbai, but I found this particular scene positively compelling. Mumbai is surrounded and permeated by a particularly filthy piece of the Arabian Sea. Following a barrage of heavy rain, I was intrigued to see a large crowd of Indians standing near the sea wall, waiting in ecstatic abandon for the warm waves to wash over them. I think the spontaneity and freedom of it epitomizes something I very much love about the Indians. Where I come from, I am used to people rushing about grumbling and swearing and worrying about their hair when it rains. In India, they do not seem to complain about the weather, and I often see people drenched and given over to the sensual pleasures of a thick monsoon storm. I naturally missed the best of the pictures, and I was drenched to my chest before it was over.

Monday, July 23, 2007

monsoon monday

School is starting again already. I had hoped to write about Singapore, Manali and Dharamsala, but I never really got around to it. I also considered writing about Amritsar, but I can not think of anything nice to say about that particular city so I might not say anything at all.

When we got back from our recent trip through Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, I learned that one of my students was killed in a car accident in the mountains of Nepal. I was pretty stunned, to say the least. I think that teachers usually feel as though they are watching people begin life, prepare for careers, and muster their potential for a burst into the future. Apparently sometimes we are watching the final details being engraved in a mature life. I guess mostly I am failing to comprehend it.

Friday, July 6, 2007


I am really far too tired to be writing this. I have been sinking into the fern-fringed depths and heights of a mountain monsoon. The past week has been impressively quiet after the madness of my first year of teaching.

Following the merciful cessation of school, Joie and I packed up the kid and hopped on a taxi down the hill to catch a train. Will threw up three times on the long and winding road to the train station, which we reached about 5 minutes before our train left. Actually, he did not throw up on the long and winding road, he threw up on the floor of a taxi which was no stranger to such. Thirty hours later, we arrived in Mumbai.

Mumbai is the same as Bombay, if you were wondering. According to the almanacs, Mumbai is the largest city in the world, with 11.9 million souls. I have no idea how they presume to estimate this number, but it is indeed big. Mumbai possesses a certain grandeur that Delhi seems to have escaped. As the ancient nation swallows up the memories of its conquerors, the British designs on India are slowly crumbling, slowly becoming curious ruins blatantly foreign to Hindustan. Parts of Mumbai felt very European, but nonetheless rumbled with the thrashing wild of Indian traffic. The stately buildings and boulevards echoed of princely goings on, but more loudly reverberated with raw and unmuffled noise.

Being in an Indian city is like staring at a Where's Waldo picture. The sheer variety of the people makes the whole scene feel like an elaborate hoax. Your twenty-five-year old taxi might pull up between a shining new Mercedes and an ox pulling a cart of melons. For Indians, I suppose that this is not ironic, and I am beginning to see why. Here culture does not progress, but rather, it accumulates. In years to come, when the wealthiest Indians are zipping around town at the speed of light and living lives of heretofore unimagined pleasures, there will still be someone driving an oxcart full of melons, and he will not be the poorest.

The scorpions are more these days. I have killed 8 so far, and Joie has killed 6.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

taxi driver

This is old, from among my first impressions of India...

The driver buys rupees
With safety and speed
A skilled man for hire

With a family to feed

With a hand on the horn
And a foot on the brake,
He calculates well

The next move he will make.

Three inches to spare

Is two inches too many,
And his petrol is precious

So the shortcuts are plenty.

His fares share a faith
In their silent old guide,
And a rickety grace

Seems to govern the ride.

With awe in their eyes
And sweat on their brows,
He narrowly misses
The fat sacred cows
   And the thin mangy dogs,
   And the slow walking men,
   And the multitude starving
   On their mats in the fen.

He deftly turns left
And with might makes his rights
On a greasy black course
Marked by faint amber lights.

Through today's stagnant smells
And tonight's unseen sights
His cab rattles and veers
Through the hot Delhi nights.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

going down

Well, today is 'Going Down Day'. School is finished and the majority of the students will be herded onto buses and driven down the long and winding road to Dehra Dun, where they will be herded onto the Shatabdi Express train to Delhi. The bus ride is about an hour long, and last time at least 4 kids on my bus threw up. From Delhi, the kids will disperse to locations all around the world. Some of them I will never get to see again, and others I will never have to see again. Just over half of my students will be in my classes again next year. Some of them even had other options! There, that takes care of my 2007 exclamation point quota. Factorials don't count.

The results of the evaluation forms that I made for the kids to fill out were pretty straightforward. Mr Burchell is boring. Mr Burchell should give us more free time. Mr Burchell is very good at explaining things. Tough crowd. One form had the following bit of encouragement:

[question:] What should be changed about the class? [answer:] the teacher

[question:] What should not be changed about the class? [answer:] the students

It was a generally anonymous survey, except that the people with hateful little ungrammatical pink pens are already known to me. If there had been a name on that one, I would have done everything in my power to see that the student was granted their desire to go back to Precalculus next year, which is indeed being taught by a different teacher.

Yesterday I walked to the bazaar for groceries and overtook a few of my graduating seniors embarking on a bittersweet farewell trek to the filthy maze of greasy pavement and familiar strangers and colorful Indian vivacity that is the Mussoorie bazaar. One of the students asked me if they were allowed to call me Nate, now that they were graduating. I don't really know. I could only wonder if I would ever call any of my teachers or professors "Ken" or "Peter" or "Roxanne" or "Graham". It seemed so strange to imagine it. I guess I have colleagues who are much older and more distinguished than myself, and first-name familiarity has never felt awkward... But then, I have never been very gifted in the area of social etiquette.

I have been a math teacher for one whole school year now.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

pearls before swine

I proctored a two hour exam today. It was immensely boring. For two hours, I had to watch students take a test. Out of the 60 students, 18 were wearing Converse All-Stars. A year ago at this time, the same students were in ninth grade, which meant that probably 58 of them had 'Chucks'. Their individuality is really beginning to show itself. Out of the 60 students, 30 of them were girls. I calculated the probability of exactly 30 girls out of 60 students to be 60C30*(.5)^60, and spent the rest of the test trying to estimate that number.

After the exam, I had a class. My morning class has been making polyhedra. One student completed a truncated icosahedron (soccer ball) just this morning. They keep them on shelves, and I can't always lock the room because I share the classroom. Anyway, today when I came to my afternoon class, I noticed that the paper model had crushed by some knucklehead. Another mostly finished model was also smashed.

I feel so bad. Two girls will probably be crying tomorrow, thinking they have enemies, thinking about all of the time and effort it took to make something nice, and some mean little boy with no soul will have already forgotten the savage pleasure of doing it.

It breaks my heart every time that happens. I have a similar paper model that has been broken by students several times. [Similar to the other paper models, I mean, not similar to my heart, and not mathematically similar, just sort of... also a paper model of a polyhedron.] A window was broken once. They scribbled on my neat fractal drawings. It is such a discouraging thing to make something nice and put it in your classroom to give the place some atmoshpere and have some cowardly little imp come and wreck it. Things like that make me hate teaching. Swine.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Saturday was a big day for killing in our house. Mere minutes after waking up, I found a tick in the bathroom and killed it. I killed three large spiders. Two of them were carrying around giant egg sacs full of future little spiderlings that unfortunately were sent to a watery grave before eating their first silverfish. The spiders are three or four inches across, and as fast as mice. While I was stalking one of the large spiders, Joie was panicking and cheering me on. Then she got bored and went to get something out of the closet and I heard, "Hey, there's an old dead scorpion in the closet. I'll pick him up, I'm not afraid." I wished that she would kill the spider instead. It takes some quick reflexes to kill these spiders and I have seen them collect themselves from a decent blow and race off pretty quickly on as few as four legs. By the time I had killed the spider, I found Joie still waiting to pick up the dead scorpion so that I could look at it. I looked close, and it looked like it had been there awhile, all dried and dusty and shriveled up. She reached down to grab it with a piece of toilet paper and it crawled away. Quickly it crawled away, unfolding itself like a transformer and waving its poisonous little stinger around. That was unexpected, to say the least. It was our first encounter with a live scorpion, and I was able to kill it with a flip flop. My first scorpion.

I was thinking that it does not seem very fair that a scorpion should have crab pinchers and a big stinging poisonous tail thing. We expect that one cool trait is enough. For example, bears are very strong but not graceful. Humans are very intelligent but can't take care of themselves until they are well past 12th grade, by the looks of it. Lichen has longevity, but no personality. It's like a law. It's why earwigs can't fly and clams can't walk and venus flytraps have roots. Comic book superheros all have weaknesses or vulnerabilities to offset their strengths, because even the most imaginative of us learned a long time ago that it would be boring to watch a bunch of invincibles duke it out for all of eternity. There is always a give and take. The scorpion seems to be the exception, with these two great features, where one would be ample. It hardly seems fair that nature should have to deal with this. The only other animal that comes to mind with such an unfair advantage is the vampire bat, which can fly in the dark AND suck blood. Nobody should be allowed to do that.

Anyway, I killed the scorpion.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

settling in

Since moving to India, I have felt generally unwelcome. Not in a bad way, nobody seems to want me to leave. I am not negatively received, just somewhat unreceived. I feel like our life here has to be carved out of old stone. It will be years before we could belong here, years before we could feel familiar, and even then we would be surrounded by the old group. The old group, who has lived on this mountain for generations, whose forefathers were here to see what Gandhi was so uptight about, and who will always chuckle and think of us as silly westerners. The old group has severed ties with foreign lands and expect to die right here in Mussoorie.

The unwelcomeness means that I see the daunting and yes, impossible, task of settling in to any place. I will never be a local here, and anywhere else we go we will be new until we settle, which simply cannot be to the extent of those who are most settled. Even in Brodhead, I feel like a newcomer just because my family has only lived there about 17 years now.

Today I was looking out a particular window in our house and realizing that there are things that only settled people have. Things like rusty sheds full of rotting boards, lawns, stand-alone houses that they can yell in and lock up and invite people to. We have all of those things. The thing that made me notice it first was flowers. Our back yard, a small patch of dirt crossed by a couple of low clotheslines, has a few crumbling stone walls on the mountain side. They form a few crude terraces, and offer a home to dozens of little lizards. We imagined that the overgrown flatter areas had held flowers in some former age. We are far too busy to plant flowers or weed beds or even find out where one buys flowers around here. Yet this morning when I looked out, I saw that we have several beautiful flowers starting to bloom. I noticed a tiger lily, or at least an Indian flower that does the trick. Joie had a tiger lily in her wedding bouquet. I thought that it was really not very fair that we should have such a colorful flower garden in this borrowed house of ours. It is becoming our home, in a very tentative manner, but I suddenly felt very welcome. I felt like we were allowed to have a real yard, that I was able to put a fire pit in, and that has flowers, even though we are very temporary residents, reluctant and unable to settle in. We even have ivy growing on the front of our house.

Anyway, the whole sensation reminded me of a passage from the Bible, Moses speaking to the wandering Israelites about, of all things, settling in:

Deuteronomy 6:10 When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, [11] houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, [12] be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Anyway, I am familiar enough with my attitudes that I figured I had better write this before the flowers were eaten by monkeys or destroyed by hail. I am probably the only one left in the school building, and it is a very lonely place to be alone.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

je pense

Yesterday I tried to find this page on Google and I learned that there is another blog with the same title, though the other one seems to be some sort of radical political rant which for some reason unknown is related to Latin phrases from math books.

After spending a great many hours trying to trisect an angle, I am reminded of the great many hours that I have spent scribbling hopeful little candidates for 5-color maps, and the great many hours that I have spent searching tirelessly for an algebraic pattern to betray the secret behaviors of integer factorizations. Indeed, I feel compelled to work on the hopeless problems, those that can be stated in a sentence, those whose solution, should it ever appear, could be explained to children, those that have been fruitlessly pondered by the masters and are introduced to me shrouded with whispers of impossibility millennia old. And it somehow seems worthwhile. I am not sure what inspires this. I cannot quite tell if I am satisfying a gawker's curiosity for an impossible problem, or if I harbor some insane hope of being the lucky individual upon whom the inspiration is finally thrust. I must officially claim the former.

I am also reminded that at one point I was not very enthralled by the topics of mathematics. I actually prayed that I could have an appetite for the math, and that I could really truly think it was interesting. And I do.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


The first AP class of my career took their exam today! I am probably more anxious than they are about the results.

Lyric of the day:
"Is a dream a lie that don't come true, or is it something worse..."

Monday, May 7, 2007


I woke up today to an entire troupe of monkeys running back and forth on the roof. That was about 6am. They jump from trees onto our tin roof and chase each other around. Then the bread guy came at about 6:10, which is far too early for anyone to be loafing around the hillside. Joie graciously got the bread, one loaf of brown bread that is usually pretty good. A while later the garbage guys come. We get door-to-door garbage pickup every day of the week. We do not know enough Hindi to say "Please do not come on weekends", so we usually lock the gate to our yard and they get the hint. The garbage guys are part of a program called CLEAN that serves the school environs by collecting garbage to discourage the default Indian solution of throwing it down the cud. Garbage is just a part of the scenery most places around here, but the school makes an admirable effort. Where I come from, the problem is addressed by convincing kids from an early age that littering is wrong because it destroys the environment and eventually you might have to pick it up as part of a school project. People take some ownership and generally acknowledge that rotting refuse is not very nice. Here, that argument will go nowhere with middle class kids who know they will never be asked to pick up garbage. Here, there are entire populations in each town that make their living by picking up garbage and recycling it (and wearing it and eating it and making their homes out of it). Anyway, the CLEAN guys come every morning.

Will, our eighteen month old, has made a habit of barging into Mamma and Pappa's room about half an hour before we would really like to get up. Although he can climb onto the couch, the chairs, and his own bed, he is still too small to make it onto our bed without assistance. He asks Joie, and if that doesn't work, he comes to my side. We have been working on "Up, please, Pappa" but I usually settle for "Up, Pappa" or "Peeze Pappa". Joie's side of the bed is Francophone, so he has to say "S'il te plait" which so far sounds like "tee tee bah". He's coming along.


Use the factorial formula to prove that nCr is an integer whenever n and r are positive integers such that n > r.

Show that the sum of the numbers in any row of Pascal's Triangle is a power of 2.

Friday, May 4, 2007

no title today, sorry.

My silent tendencies are being aggravated by the responsibilities of having a blog. I am inclined to never write or say anything, but I am tiring of being that way. Sort of. As of now, my dear wife is the only one who knows that I write publicly, so it is still mostly an illusion for myself. There is something in the blog that thrills a need, not to be heard, but to speak. I guess it is not necessary for anyone to ever read this, but it somehow is necessary that I write.

Yesterday I used compass and straightedge to construct a pentacle inscribed in a regular pentagon, the symbol of the Pythagoreans, if I am not mistaken. I can do it very easily on the computer, but on paper there is an aspect of the problem that makes the error in the angle multiply. The whole exercise furthered my appreciation of those ancients who were able to perform with greater precision and less technology, the calculations that fascinate me so. After a few tries, I was able to get a very nice construction, with two unnecessary circles that I have chosen to forgive.

The students are even starting to enjoy the compass and straightedge unit. A few have even begun to pay homage to a few characteristics of what we in the business call 'nice workmanship'. Half my kingdom to the one who trisects the angle...

Monday, April 30, 2007


I feel thoroughly uninspired today.

Saturday we had hamburgers for lunch and I worked at a hot dog stand in the evening. Both the burgers and the dogs were made of chicken, of course. Joie prepared the burgers with a beef bullion cube and I trekked to the top of the mountain to invest in a small bottle of French's Yellow Mustard, real from the States. The store at the top is run by a fellow named Prakash and the sign outside says "Prakash's for all your needs". Indeed, the man has a plethora of imported goods, as well as a few imported bads.

When I returned, I started a fire in our back yard and gave the burgers that black crusty coating that can only be applied by a fire full of varnished fragments of junked furniture. The school sells us firewood that comes with a history. We live in a forest, but so do a few thousand other people, most of whom cook every day over a wood fire. Firewood is a rare find. I mangled the rack from our brand new oven in the process, but the hamburgers turned out. Between the mustard and the ashes, we could almost imagine it was beef.

The hot dogs were less satisfying.

Friday, April 27, 2007

bloggin' it up.

Here I am, world. I have created a blog to entertain the time-fritterers and procrastinators and internet junkies of the world. I chose a mathish name for the blog because I intend to post my latest greatest theorems and breakthroughs here. Or at least my favorite GSP sketches and pictures and rants about being a mathematics teacher in India.

So here I sit, wondering anxiously if my color scheme is intellectual enough and if my title conjures the necessary mystique to succeed with the readers.

To occupy you til next I post:

-Fold any piece of paper into a golden rectangle.
-Use Excel to list the prime factorizations of the integers from 1 to 10,000.
-Trisect an angle using only a compass and an unmarked straightedge.

I was able to do the first two.