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.