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...