Thursday, December 4, 2008
Last day of classes this semester.
My students are in desperation mode as the exams draw near and they start to care about their grades. I have enjoyed playing a different role in exams these past few years. As a teacher, I am on the side of accuracy and validity, and that role comes with its own responsibility and stress. The student objective in the situation is to somehow or other obtain a grade which favorably misrepresents their skill level. This desire for an A transcript with C work leads to many of the crises that dominate my interactions with students lately. They are not genuinely worried about seeing an unfair exam, but the idea of a fair exam has them all a little jumpy.
In a few of my classes today, the topic of negative marking was brought up by students. Part of their exam will be multiple choice, so they are concerned about negative marking. Anyway, negative marking was a hot topic because I quickly told them that it is a great idea, which made about three more of them look up with terrified eyes at the teacher who might take away their not-so-secret weapon on multiple choice tests: blind luck. I find that topics involving grades are fertile ground for effective discussions about math. Students care about their grades more than they care about most of the other topics we discuss, which is ironic, because if they paid attention to the other topics... but that's only my humble teacher opinion.
Negative marking represents another one of those badly misunderstood tools of education that bring out the irrationality of students.
I once wrote a monograph on the subject... a mere trifle, really. The subject of negative marking, that is, not the irrationality of students. And it's not really a monograph, but a handout. I am still researching the irrationality of students.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Sherlock Holmes is built around a supremely powerful principle of writing that is rarely used to its full advantage. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes is bigger than the stories which define him. There are constant references to other cases, some of them which can only be hinted at by Watson, as their exposure would even now topple kingdoms. Stories frequently include some casual introduction to an unknown chapter of the detective's experience, an offhand comment about the most obscure of specialities, which implicitly releases our imaginations to wonder what the fellow does not know. I once wrote a monograph on the classification of the thirty-seven most common types of pencil lead... a mere trifle, really. We get the impression that we are seeing the slightest sample of the character. We are afforded a portrait that is less than comprehension.
A couple of years ago I inherited a fat book of Hercule Poirot short stories from some friends as they were moving. The book contained some fifty stories, and although I read them all, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Agatha Christie was supposed to be a great mystery writer and Poirot made for a poor introduction. I think that she went to such pains to make him the antithesis of Sherlock Holmes that he escaped without any personality or finesse. With Hercule Poirot, I was pretty sure that I saw the whole character and it was not very interesting.
Anyway, I just read Agatha Christie's story called 'The Witness for the Prosecution", and while it did not contain much in the way of impressive detective work, it did reveal an originality and imagination that was so wanting in poor Hercule's cases.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Usually we can see the nearby green mountains, but all summer long you would never guess there was a looming range of snow capped giants a little further out. We always feel like they 'come up' during the cool months, and it seems to challenge our sense of object permanence to admit their presence when we can detect no trace of them. We stand there and fill our lungs with the freshest air that this here subcontinent can offer, and it feels like it is rolling off the cold rocks and snow drifts.
These days are beautiful here in the mountains, and the evenings are sweet times of tea and woodfires with my darling, and sometimes a book. Last night it was full of grading calculus tests, and that was not as sweet.
Monday, December 1, 2008
The suicide bomber has on occasion shaken the Western spirit of security by its very foundations, reminding us to have a fear that we have long ignored. Our typical suicide bombers in the West have lost all reason, we say, we hope. Things have ended badly and as their tormented spirits cry for revenge, they kill their classmates or coworkers or families. In chilling contrast, the religious suicide bomber experiences no such breakdown of reason. They are meticulous and resolute, planning for months and proudly serving a purpose. Their actions are not viewed as a desperate departure from their upbringing, but rather as a focused culmination.
Their victims are helpless, fearful and passively accepting of the fate that may be hurtling toward them in the next rickshaw.
A killer gazes lucidly,
Plunging toward eternity,
Pleased with opportunity
And brazen with impunity,
Through trudging masses tired by fear,
Unaware he's finally near.
Rickshaw goaded through the crowds
To die in stillness with two shrouds,
Of smoking canvas painted gold,
Of burning hatred ages old.
Twisted bicycle, bloodied silk,
Crumpled cans and muddied milk,
Petrol in the drainage ditch,
Swirled with blood of poor and rich
Ignorant in blasting death,
Of piety that stole their breath.
Seeing nothing, feeling less,
Wander through the filthy mess.
Wonder if the brilliant flash
Of flesh and flame and pain will pass
From memories of sons and wives,
From streets and markets and the lives
Of people in the ancient land
Who always knew the heavy hand
Of seething war and slashing hate,
And all surpassing fear of fate.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
I realize that piracy is a big inconvenience for some people, and I am not saying that I would really be a pirate. I think that making a living by striking fear and terror into the hearts of people who wish I had never come into their lives is (while oddly similar to being a math teacher) probably not what Jesus would want me to do. Yet from an academic standpoint, I find it exceedingly interesting.
Evidently the perfect combination of factors has come around again to give the world a high seas piracy problem that is not easily solved. The US Navy was established to fight pirates off the African coasts, was it not? And the legitimate world approached the problem by employing unsavory characters to fight the even less savory characters, and there were official boats and captains in the Queen's employ, and some of them were practically pirates themselves and it was such a rich subject of history because: the best laid plans of the world's strongest nations were at the mercy of a few renegades.
And perhaps it does go further than the academic perspective.
The pirates make us dream because they are rich as kings and free as birds, and we in proper society only have experience with poor birds and burdened kings.
And for that reason, I think that there is within the human soul something that loves a pirate. They stir our hearts and remind us of the things that we were created to desire, a freedom and a treasure that surpasses the 'cold comfort' that is offered to those who fall in line with this world's priorities.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The BJP is a political party, and a pretty strong one (at least in this area of the country) from what I can tell. So apparently the governing forces themselves call for institutions everywhere, school buildings full of teachers teaching and students studying, to cease business and take a day to appreciate the inanity that is Indian government. Of course, most of the government school teachers probably weren't going to come today anyway...
Our school actually had no reason to strike, and from what I can tell, the strike itself had nothing to do with education. Our school closed as a safety precaution because a strike is invariably accompanied by roving hordes of discontents, and it is not impossible that trouble could occur and our students could be at risk. I wonder if closing the school to protect the students was, in effect, working in the best interest of our students on this the day of the strike, and therefore perhaps we actually were working and struck the strike. Irregardless, nobody connected with the BJP was likely to notice our loss of productivity, so I'm not even sure it was productive. Or unproductive, or whatever it was supposed to be. (Being blindly submissive and following unknown procedures for a strike that one does not comprehend but has an obligation to join is a task not without its perplexities, and it does not seem to testify of that raging spirit of revolution that one would hope to see within the strikers.) I suppose that our school was closed down for the unlikely event that a government inspector should come around to check that we were upholding our part of keeping the children from learning. Because boy would it be terrible for the elections if the literacy rate slipped above sixty-one percent.
Now I am surely missing some of the information, but the fact remains that I and my students lost a day's progress for this unknown cause. Anyway, my confidence in the democratic process makes me certain that my sacrifice was not in vain, and I trust that the honest politicians, those bastions of integrity, were able to calmly discuss their differences (over whatever topic might be at the root of this heroic defiance) and come to a compromise. And to think that the negotiations were all made possible by shutting down schools across the region.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
If and when the Riemann Hypothesis is finally proven, there will likely be a dozen people on the planet who understand the proof, a few more who pretend, and an excited population who believes. Is this mathematical rigor? At the very frontiers of mathematics and logic itself, we as a society, as a scientific community, are persistently and ironically burdened with the yoke of deference to an authority. On the simpler end, things are just as bad. I have a respectable degree in mathematics, and I will not pretend to follow the proof by Russell and Whitehead that 1+1=2. If I copied down their stupefying sequence of symbols from 'Principia Mathematica', I would not consider that I had proven the momentous result that 1+1=2. Nor would I consider the Riemann Hypothesis proven to me if I was expected at some point to 'take the professor's word for it'. I suspect that an argument presented as a rigorous proof is only rigorous by its delivery and is only a proof by its reception. But of course, I couldn't prove it.
Monday, October 20, 2008
On Will’s birthday, Will and I hiked up to Sisters Bazaar and bought a few things from Prakash's, where we also bought a cold bottle of orange juice to share as we sat on the wall by the side of road. They have built short stone two-foot tall walls along the road right at the top of our trail as barriers to hold the road together and keep the cars from falling down the mountain. If you could go on the other side and look at Will, he would look just like Schroeder in one of those peculiar but nonetheless frequent Peanuts comics where a couple of the characters are just having a conversation so Schulz draws them awkwardly sitting or standing behind a stone wall and you wonder how tall the wall is and what they are sitting on. I think Charles Schulz was embarrassed about the way he drew legs. But I digress. We had a lovely time sharing our bottle of orange juice and we both enjoyed the fresh air and the view of the snowy mountains.
A few days ago Will was remembering our trip. "We went to Prakash's and he gave us orange juice." It was then that I realized that Mr Prakash was the hero of his story, not his poor father who bought the orange juice. I was just a fellow freeloader, and possibly resented for not requesting more bottles of juice, and bigger ones. Without comprehending the money thing, Will is only able to conclude that the shop keepers are very kind people who give us anything we have the presence of mind to request. Will is surely perplexed that his stupid parents do not make better and more frequent use of these institutions. Why do we leave so much good stuff in the shop? He must think we are so inept.
The day after that revelation, Will was listening to Joie order some provisions from Mr Prakash. "Can I place an order please? We would like it delivered to Redwood Cottage" Here Will was probably wishing more than anything that he knew how to use a phone. "Some boxes of milk... two boxes of cranberry juice... one yogurt... some chicken..." and Will could contain himself no longer. I could see the wheels turning in his pert little head, and he was visibly excited by the potential of such an interaction. He waited for Joie to pause between items, and in the same bold but cautious voice with which he first called me 'Nate', he chipped in "A soccer ball."
It is a delight to watch Will sort out the details of our strange life.
Friday, October 17, 2008
The nature of such a system is full of interesting considerations. Interesting from an academic standpoint, concerning if you have to live with it. To design such a system, we have to keep altering the mechanism based on our ability to sense different things. We can ponder this and similarly inferior logic that explains the way smoke alarms beep when supper is ready, the way a forgetful person becomes locked out of their email account, the way a medical test produces false positives (sometimes much more frequently than real positives), the way an auto-flash sometimes wrecks your photograph, the way some algebra generates extraneous solutions, and the way homework grades and test grades correlate poorly. So here is the gist of the dilemma and the reason I slept badly enough last night to spend time writing something like this.
We want a home-security alarm that sounds when:
A bad person bent on evil enters my house... but this is impossible without an omniscient system that guards every conceivable point of entry, including the kitchen drain. So we settle for an alarm that sounds when:
A bad person bent on evil enters my house through the door... but this is impossible without a system that understands thoughts and intentions, and besides, the system might be confused if anyone ever wanted to hurt us and take our things with a pure motive. So we settle for an alarm that sounds when:
Any person enters my house through the door... but this is impossible for all but the most sophisticated machines. It will also require that we take the responsibility to disarm the system while innocent people are entering through the door. So we settle for an alarm that sounds when:
A door opens... this is getting more feasible, but we are suddenly unable to say with confidence that there is a person involved, or which direction that person is going through the door. Boy would it be annoying to have an alarm system that sounded when you exited your own house. The door opening seems like a simple mechanical motion, but desiring to detect it with one simple boolean variable and one simple electronic sensor will force us into a simpler condition for setting off the alarm. So we settle for an alarm that sounds when:
A small magnetic sensor on the door detects that the door has been opened... but the sensor cannot tell that the door has been opened, it can only detect the presence or absence or change of some electrical impulse. So in the end we settle for an alarm that sounds when:
A small magnetic sensor on the door detects a change in the strength of a magnetic signal. This is possible, so we install the thing and turn it on and learn that the condition that sets off our alarm is true much more often than there is a bad person with evil intentions entering my house. Ironically, we didn’t even turn the system on last night because we didn’t want to mess with it, and it still woke us up thrice.
Monday, September 29, 2008
...they supposedly sting, but I haven't checked yet. We see a fair number of moths, and some of them are shapes which seem unusual, but then I am not a mothist. This one seems to have antlers:
The ferns leave as quickly as they came. They are dried and brown in these pictures, but they are falling off the trees and soon all but the thicker Christmas Ferns will be gone until next monsoon.
Below is a small lizard of the skink type. I'm fairly sure the Latin name might be skinkus skinkus. They are soft little lizards, kind of a pewter grey with a copper shine. Their tails break off in an emergency, so sometimes we see them with crisp little cuts where their tails were. I caught one the other day and let Will try to catch it. He almost killed the poor thing, but we discussed gentleness with creatures and it was a learning experience. Skinks are pretty resilient. Today Will told me that story as I laid on the couch recovering from parent conferences. "Once a pon time... I caught a little lizard and Pappa caught a little lizard. "
And now that it is warm, the Burchell kids go for an occasional swim. They each get their own tub, and here Will is donating some of his water to Annie's tub while Annie tries to chart a course into Will's bigger tub. These two are most of the wildlife around here.
There are only a few people alive who know for sure why the whole thing works or if it works. If the $700 billion bailout still leaves people feeling desperate, why don't they just double the amount? It's all pretend money being pulled out of a budget that doesn't exist and creating a debt to nobody which will never be paid. There is something distinctly pretend about the world economy.
I have a sneaky suspicion that the Bernankespan guy could fix the whole thing by saying, "It's fine, guys. I fixed it." Everyone would relax and give a nervous little laugh and go about their business and it would be fine.
Friday, September 26, 2008
I thought that I would take a few pictures of the building site. Much of India is under construction at any given time, so this is not an entirely new experience for us, but people in other countries can not perhaps imagine what this implies, and we do not often take pictures of every project that we see.
If I had heard a few years ago that a gym was being constructed, I would have pictured men in hardhats and neon vests taking control of the situation and making the elements submit to the technology of mankind. They would level the site with a heavy machine and they would use a crane to lower each finely engineered steel beam into place. There are some fundamental differences when construction occurs in India.
To begin with, as seen in the picture below, the construction crew has set up shacks to live in right here on the building site. Such projects rely heavily on manpower, and India is simply teeming with that. To use a bulldozer in such an endeavor would deprive people of jobs. The bottomless supply of labor creates a very different economic situation than what we see in the Western world. In the US, salaries and availability of labor make it critical to find an efficient method--an earth moving machine is used to do a job quickly if it will save a crew of men a day of toil. Here a fundamentally different economy makes it much cheaper to be inefficient, or perhaps redefines efficiency.
The next picture shows some of the large mounds of dirt. Some is sand for concrete, carried in on the backs of mules. The nearest road access is a few hundred meters away. The materials are dumped in piles from a truck and hauled the rest of the way by mules. The brown dirt has been dug out of the holes. All of the digging is done by hand, and some of the holes are 14 feet deep, according to Nigel, the man in charge. In this picture, you can see a few of the circular pans covered in sacks that a person uses to carry gravel around. Also visible are the steel reinforcing rods that came in a few at a time on the shoulders of lines of men stepping carefully and feeling the heavy spring of all that metal.
This picture again shows the mixing process. Also visible is an amazing little trick that can be observed near any road project all over this fair land. The two-man rope-shovel. A rope is tied to a shovel near the blade and a second man holds the other end of the rope. The man with the wooden handle of the spade stabs it into a pile of gravel, but the lifting is done by the other man using the rope. The arrangement seems like it would prevent a few back problems, but perhaps it only addresses a shovel shortage.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Someone just came to my blog after googling 'porcupine ancestry'. This very blog was evidently on the second page of results, which means that someone somewhere in this big world of ours at 5:56:49 pm on September 16 2008 had already been disappointed by the first few search results and was probably uttering words to the effect of "Lan'sakes-alive! They say this inner net is so great... I can't find ennathang about porcupine ancestry." or "Blast! Confound it all. My plan is coming to ruination in the critical moments. I shall be ruling Europe within a week if only I can establish this beast's lineage." or "Pay up, man, not even Google says they're related to sea urchins." I will be amused for the rest of the day as I speculate about the webpage that could have satisfied such a query. I'm mostly sure that my blog didn't clear anything up.
Monday, September 1, 2008
These are the nice monkeys, the langurs. The brown monkeys that backhand their little ones are called rhesus. The langurs are lean and graceful, beautiful creatures that are an asset to the community. They enjoy eating nuts and leaves and giving humans a respectful distance. They keep their fur clean.
The rhesus are filthy stinky beasts. They are aggressive toward humans and they enjoy eating garbage and stealing from shopkeepers and pooing on the center of the trail. They fight with each other and screech and chatter from the trees. They are the ridiculous bandar-log from 'The Jungle Book'.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
This was a lucky picture taken from Will's bedroom. A rare action shot of a big monkey rejecting the playful affection of a little one. I wonder if baby monkeys have feelings. The monkeys like to sit on our shed and sun themselves and pick bugs out of one another's fur. I have to be careful lately when I take pictures of monkeys. Once I was shooting a couple right outside our door and they started grunting and chattering to the big male, who came tearing across the yard to lunge at the door and bark at me. There is a very large male monkey in the troupe recently, and rumor has it he is a renegade that was kicked out of a different troupe. He is incredibly large, probably around a hundred pounds and built like a pit-bull, so I would be scared to see the monkeys that chased him away. Yeah, we have rumors about local monkey politics.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
This picture was taken in Shimla. I didn't ask if I could take his picture, but he wasn't exactly going to come down and beat me up. I do not generally approve of taking pictures of people, as I think it is mean and invasive. But I also thought it was a very vivid picture that might look neat. So here it is.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Two recent news items have grabbed my attention. Brett Favre is with the Jets now, and I hope he does well. I suppose there are people in Wisconsin who do not like him any more, but I think that the Packers really made a mistake by not begging him to stay in Green Bay. He is by many measures the best quarterback who has ever played the game, and last season he was not exactly washed up. I would not mind seeing Brett Favre and Bubba Franks in the Super Bowl after the Packers don't make the playoffs. So that really annoyed me.
The second news item was the bit about the two guys in Georgia not finding a bigfoot. They sold the thing and it turned out to be fake. If you lie about something like that, aren't you supposed to produce vague and intriguing but not disprovable evidence? A blurry photo? A list of excuses that are tempting to believe? You are supposed to carry the secret to your death and become a legend or else confess (right before you die) that the picture was fake and go down as a fraud who really made a good run... You can't sell a fake bigfoot so that they figure out you were lying a day after you lied. I'm so confused. I will regard this news item as a rare and brilliant treasure for anyone who has an appreciation for the study of human nature. Under the lens of game theory, there are some intriguing decisions being made here.
A list of possibilities as far as I can see it:
1. The two men behaved irrationally. This is highly unlikely.
2. They faked their identities and they are having a good laugh over it with whatever money came in and they think that they will not be caught.
3. A more subtle mechanism of the fraud really did work, like driving people to webpages full of spyware. In this case the payoff would have to be huge and all but guaranteed.
Now if they pulled it off under fake identities, that would be pretty sweet, I guess. The only other explanation that occurs to me is that the bigfoot guys hoped to gain much more than they were certain to lose, which I imagine to be their jobs, their credibility, their self-respect, and their awesome bigfoot costume. Stupid or short-sighted is common enough, but most people avoid being completely irrational.
Sherlock Holmes would classify this under 'the grotesque'.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Here is Mussoorie, cloaked in the monsoon fog, as seen from Sisters Bazaar.
This is a picture I took on the taxi ride back to Mussoorie after our summer traveling.
Here are some ferns growing on a tree branch near our house. When the fog sets in, we we can look down from our little yard and see nothing but murky whiteness mixed with a few of the closest trees. It is so strange to look down to see white.
I am spending a rainy Saturday trying to sort out my lesson plans for the next week or so. We are settling back into our little cottage, fighting back the mold and the scorpions for our little bit fo elbow room.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Joie and I are slowly reacting to this new development in our life. We never imagined that we could handle such a thing, but life goes on. I don't really have more to write for now, but I thought I would throw that out there because it has certainly been consuming many aspects of my life for a while now.
Monday, July 7, 2008
We got our happy little family out of Redwood Cottage and down to the Woodstock School gate by 7am to meet our taxi. Our taxi took us down the hill to Dehra Dun, where we boarded a train for Delhi, where we made our way to the Indira Gandhi International Airport, where we waited eight hours to fly to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Omaha. I think we were traveling for about 48 hours. Here are the young'uns on the first airplane.
Some time passed and we got Will into a boat on a small lake way up in Northern Minnesota. He didn't like the idea at first, but Will is a very good sport with not nearly enough fear. We saw some big fish and 'willy pads' on that lake.
More recently, we had a fourth of July with my whole family and I got to take pictures with our new camera.
Last night I went to a Brewers game to top off my dose of America for the summer.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Will was nine months old when we got here, and now he is a well-established toddler. He walks, talks, laughs, scowls, jokes, and is very nearly housebroken. For as long as Will can remember, power outages, monkeys, mountain climbing, and the absurdities of an Indian bazaar have all been facts of life.
Being caring parents in India means that we have to be careful about what we eat and drink. We rinse our produce in a potassium permanganate bath, and we never drink the water at restaurants. Thus, I have found myself saying to Will: "No, don't eat that, it hasn't been poisoned yet!" and, "No, you can't have any water. Drink your Fanta." Crazy, this life of ours.
In two years of living in India, I think I have learned a lot about being culturally sensitive, but there are still some things that I cannot leave unsaid:
Desserts should not taste like cumin. Not nearly as many things should taste like cumin as actually do.
I will never pay to get a full body massage from a creepy old man on a street corner.
I will never pay to get my ears swabbed by a waxy looking fellow at Connaught Place.
Un-enforced laws against plastic bags are stupid.
Nobody really believes that the traffic cops are ever going to use those massive machine guns that they tote around. We're pretty sure they are not even loaded. The guns, I mean.
If the garbage can is just going to be emptied out the door of the train, quit installing garbage cans on trains and I'll just throw my trash out the window like everyone else. Cut out the middle man.
If your country plays cricket against the same country every day for two months, it at some point stops being front-page news.
Rose is not a flavor. A flower, a color, and a scent, yes, but not a flavor.
Monday, May 5, 2008
Rearrange these letters to give the name of a popular singer:
HE TALKS ANAGRAM
Now I enjoy anagrams as much as the next guy, (unless the next guy is blind, as Jordan would say), but this one took my feeble mind a few minutes. After failing at Mark Knopfler and Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole, my patience was running thin and I gave up in an understandably dejected manner. That's the kind of attention span I have these days. The answer is in the comments for this post.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
A main source of the Ganges, the Gangotri glacier, is melting faster than it is being replenished. Global warming is blamed for this. The glacier, they say, has been receding rapidly since about 1780, presumably the first time it was carefully surveyed. As a glacier recedes, it exposes more and more rock that heats up in the sun and melts the glacier even faster. For this reason, the recession that we witness today could be the advanced stages of a very natural melting process that has been in motion for ages. For example, 1780 falls toward the end of a period known as the Little Ice Age, which would presumably foster the growth of glaciers that were doomed to melt in the warmer weather that followed.
I am aware of a few different assessments of the glacier situation. If you read a few of the most visible sources on the web, the Gangotri glacier contributes somewhere between 25% and 75% of the water in the Ganges. The glacier is melting in an upriver direction at a rate of somewhere between 10 and 30 meters per year, and the rate is either decreasing slightly or increasing dramatically. I have no desire to join the numbers game here, since the only measurements I can access are second-hand and wildly inconsistent with one another, leaning in directions that support either of two agendas. I guess you don't get a Nobel Prize for Global Warming by being skeptical.
I am befuddled to find precise graphs of temperature dating back a thousand years. How many people have looked at this graph and never wondered how we know the average temperature of the entire earth (to the nearest hundredth of a degree or so) a full seven hundred years before the development of an accurate thermometer? Any process that leads to this graph must certainly rely on some assumptions big enough to nullify it.
To many Indians, the Ganges is not just a river, but the goddess Ganga, a giver of life and purity, possessing the ability even to wash away sins with a single drop of the holy water. Why do so many people want to worship something that washes sins away? Sadly and ironically, the water of the Ganges is hopelessly toxic and its use is linked to millions of deaths each year.
In the video, the scientists struggle to encourage a distinction between the 'symbolic purity' and the 'actual purity' of the river. Can such a distinction be? Surely a river gains human worship as a supernatural being by existing naturally as a conduit of life... might it not lose its deity by turning poisonous or by drying up? Many people who devote their lives in worship to the river are daily tainting it with their filth. The river receives the sewage of cities like Varanasi, the mortal remains of the devout, and the personal and industrial garbage of the very people who depend on it for life. They have the power to corrupt and destroy the object of their worship.
We find ourselves in a rather desperate position when once we realize that we can save or destroy our god.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." -Isaiah 44:16-17
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Dirk - Well, that does it for all the boss's enemies and the barrels of green radioactive slime. So we're supposed to dump these old subway cars right about here?
Al - Yeah, that's what the boss said. I feel kinda bad about the environment though.
Skippy - U.S. COAST GUARD! PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!
Dirk and Al - [this quote censored]!!!!
Skippy - Hey guys, whatcha doin'?
Dirk - Um...
Skippy - Wow, were you fellas just getting ready to convert these old retired subway cars into artificial reefs? That's fantastic! The world would be a better place if more people like you would step up and take some responsibility. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I am very tired to be writing this, so I don't know if it will work.
I recently taught a quick unit on probability for my Math 9 class. At one point I was explaining that Probability and its evil twin Statistics are very important to the industry of insurance. While I generally regard insurance with a bitter resentment worthy of tax-forms, customs officers, and the guy who broke into my truck to take the radio, my students are all ears when it comes to 'real life' topics. They were actually asking questions about insurance.
I was able to explain that insurance is placing a bet that you will die, or that your house will burn down or that your car will explode. The insurance company smiles and says no, we don't think you'll die. We bet you will live. And of course the odds and rates are all different if the probability changes, like if you are old and have seven kinds of cancer and enemies in the mafia. You answer a bunch of questions about how many cigarettes you smoke and how many ailing relatives you have and how often you go spelunking in volcanoes. I imagine that at some point in the analysis, a person at a computer looks at a number with a bunch of decimal digits that measure your life expectancy to the nearest minute. Of course they don't tell you what it is or you would breathe a raspy sigh of relief and schedule an extra trip down the volcano.
In one sense, it is utterly fascinating that insurance, a product with such an absurd premise, can take root and even stabilize an economy. The presence of insurance in a society gives almost everyone a substantial financial motive to burn down their own house, crash their car, or kill themselves. That is twisted.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
This is my son's first music video, in which he uses his new blue guitar (made from the milk case) for an inspiring rendition of "Porcupine a Zoo", which is presumably inspired by a porcupine we saw scuttling along the road once on the way to Dehra Dun. We do not talk about porcupines very often, so it is a bit of a mystery to me. You all think our family is weird.
This is a video of Will playing his bear like a guitar. We finally broke down and made him a guitar out of a milk box (what, your milk doesn't come in boxes?) and during the process he was jamming. Once he switched teddy bears right in the middle of "Jesus Loves Me", like some sort of guitar snob who thinks that their Clapton-esque talents demand two different guitars for a song. We never suggested that he use a bear, but we are happy that he is thus far content with a guitar that makes no sound.
Monday, March 31, 2008
I have (naturally) decided to focus on the bright side of this societal threat.
iPods, whose capitalization and pluralization is confounding me at the moment, do create stable citizens. The electronic device satisfies all of a person's emotional need for originality and romance and art and rebellion without allowing them to become original romantic artistic rebels, which are a serious threat to any society.
iPods present a thrilling business opportunity. How far are we from subliminal advertising via iPods? The people who glide through their lives of enchanted oblivion with wires hanging from their ears certainly represent a customer base (of ample proportions) waiting to be fleeced. And could we get a little video implant for a person's eye? Or both eyes? The most advanced model will plug directly into your brain and tell you what to think in pure binary.
iPods could allow politicians to amass support almost effortlessly. Is it possible that a couple of strategic podcasts from Steve Jobs could turn all of my high school students into a lethargic global army of iComrades? Are podcasts even necessary?
While a person who has read Vonnegut and seen The Matrix feel may not feel great about submitting to technology in this way, the modern high school student does.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Shimla is trivially interesting because Rudyard Kipling lived there. In fact, his father designed a mural which was once in Christ Church. We went to Christ Church, but the mural is gone, painted over or stolen or lost or destroyed somehow. The church is a giant yellow cathedral full of brass and marble memorial plaques to British officers who died in naval battles or epidemics or wars around the world. There were a few stained glass windows left, but it seems like one breaks every couple of decades and it is replaced with a cheaper window of a lesser splendor. The organ pipes were painted matte silver like the scratch-off portions of lottery tickets. The ceiling was a fortress of hefty timbers nicely finished and well-preserved and strongly arranged--built like the inside of a boat, as my dad once pointed out to me in a church when I was little. Inside, we had to take our shoes off, like in a Sikh temple.
We were in Shimla during Holi, which is a Hindu holiday that brought back my memories of Carnivali in Italy, which in turn brought back my fear of clowns. Upon reflection, the people of this world (and often enough in the name of religion) throw themselves into the celebration of a good many holidays which exist to glorify the fleshly passions.
Anyway, Holi is celebrated by throwing colors on one another. The colors are stained water or brightly colored powders. People get drunk and stoned and do their best--and encourage their youngsters--to abandon themselves to the holiday. The bazaar was full of colorful characters, and while we declined most of the glassy-eyed invitations to have ourselves smeared with the most vivid greens, pinks, oranges, and purples you have ever seen, we did not escape unscathed, and my jeans have some faint stains.
While wandering around Shimla we found a tourist map, which we stared at for a few long minutes before discussing with one another, doubting ourselves and each other and finally, doubting the map itself. Admittedly, certain contextual cues had me doubting the map a bit anyway, but I didn't imagine it was quite as erroneous as it actually turned out to be. Maps of mountain cities are difficult, to be sure, because the terrain is rather three dimensional and does not offer any proper projection to two dimensions except through the aerial view, which distorts the distances and deprives the map of any depiction of altitude, which is a rather weighty consideration for us pedestrians. For that reason, I did not expect to make sense of the map right away. After a few minutes, however, we realized that not only was the map distorted or poorly marked, but it was entirely reflected horizontally. North was at the top and South at the bottom, but West was at the right, which only really provides a worm’s-eye view of the town, as Pete said. The transformation, though preserving betweenness, made it almost impossible to learn anything.
The map was painted onto an enormous concrete sign, and it appears to have been there since Rudyard Kipling left. How the fearless Shimlite leaders lack the pride or self-respect to fix or deface such a thing is beyond me. The map is right next to the local and state government buildings, and right across from a hut for a well-armed traffic cop who likely only pretends to possess a geographical instinct.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
My limited-but-thus-far-sufficient understanding of thermodynamics has been experiencing a difficulty lately. This all began in June, when I went from my Redwood Cottage in the hills to a swanky flat in Singapore to visit Vic. Redwood Cottage is primitive as can be (like Robinson Crusoe) and we make no very modern attempts to control the climate. In Sweltering Singapore, however, I noticed the air conditioners, probably because I had not seen them for so long. It is very nice on our mountain and though we do heat in the winter, there is no need to cool in the summer.
My understanding of air conditioners and machines that make cold has been facilitated by a fundamental idea that we do not make cold, we simply move heat. Because of the inevitable enthalpy (or entropy?) of the mechanism, it has to dispose of not only the heat being removed from the room/refrigerator but also of the heat that is produced in doing so. This means that your engine runs hotter when you run the air-con, the back of the fridge warms your dorm room, and the big fancy central air system is not possible without a ferociously warm blower outside. The outside of the fridge can be hot or the bulk of the box AC unit that sticks out of a bedroom window can be hot. It is a process that is doomed to producing heat, which is acceptable as long as the heat is released elsewhere.
Anyway, I just realized that I never did come to peace about the air conditioning in Singapore. The machines were about a foot tall by three feet wide and about 7.93 inches deep and they were mounted to the wall near the ceiling of a room. The part I can't figure out is what it does with all of the heat that it removes from whatever part of the machine is becoming cold. It must produce even more heat than it is taking out of the room, and if the entire machine is inside the room, how does that work out?
I guess I am mostly fascinated by the idea of Hot and Cold (or Light and Dark) being a presence and absence thing. Dark and Cold do not exist, which was an example from a very stirring part of a C.S. Lewis book, if I recall.
Question of the day: If I could invent a flashdark, what could you do with it?
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Will and I are about to walk down to the front gate of the school to meet Joie so that we can walk to the bazaar, maybe for some tandoori chicken and naan bread. Mmm. Will wants his hands washed because he just finished eating some Kurkure, an Indian snack that can be adequately described as vomit-flavored Cheetos. I have stalled him by getting him to bring his toys in from outside, and I have given up my right to today's newspaper so that he can search the pages for "funny pitchers". So far he has found a bus (driving down a smoking street in Lhasa) and two race cars. Auto-racing seems to have recently joined the list of 'sports' that India boasts about. The others are field hockey, cricket, and chess. Of course, cricket is the closest thing to a real sport among these, but only because it might be enjoyable for aging or injured baseball players.
Will finally knows all of the spices that go into masala chai. Joie asked him this morning, "We've got cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, what else do we need?" Will answered, "Ginger!" That's my boy. Yesterday Joie taught Will to say, "Happy Pi Day!" That's my girl.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
By the way, a little bit of trivia for you: AltaVista, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, and Lycos are all still up and running. Whoda thought? Google is probably maintaining them in order to avoid the legal frustrations of a monopoly. In the four years since I've heard of any of them, AltaVista has found a new aerodynamic logo and Jeeves has disappeared entirely. Now it's just "Ask". The people who still use sites like these are probably the same people who listen to vinyl records (or eight-tracks or cassette tapes) and play Atari and wish they had an El Camino. Because it's a cryin' shame to see it die.
I have put sitemeter hit counters onto my blog and my math webpage. Officially, it is a way to make sweeping generalizations about the unfortunates who stumble into my little corner of the wide world web, so that I can cater to their probable interests. (Thus far I have learned that most of them are my relatives, so I will continue to write boring things about my life, because relatives enjoy that sort of thing.) More realistically, it is yet another way to waste time between visits to friendlystegosaurus.com and indreg.com, (a twice-weekly webcomic and a weekly hometown newspaper that are each updated monthly, but I check them multiple times per day to make sure). These fits occur sometimes when my brain is too fried to grade the next math test. That happens a lot lately.
The sitemeter allows me to see how many people have recently been disappointed to find that I have or have not written today. It also allows me to see the referring URL if they came from a search page, and that brings me to the purpose of this post. Okay, so 'purpose' is a bit strong in this context. People searching for these things have found my blog:
"why a d in calculus"
"every day at my job i do the same thing"
They--you--my gracious readers--also find my page by searching for less entertaining phrases like "nate burchell", but the four mentioned above caught my eye. Thankfully, I do not have access to any measurement of their satisfaction with my page.
I enjoy the first two, which suggest that a few desperates are finding my scrawlings in their search for an uplifting moment at the hands of an anonymous internet junkie. I fear that I likely inspired two derisive snorts, an "I was right, calculus IS for losers", and a "Well, at least I'm not a math teacher!" But in my better moments, I just smile and imagine making a difference to a couple of people. Then I go to see if the Independent Register has posted the bird-watching column or the police reports.
For some reason, my blog shows up on Google as the 10th result of about 532,000 for "nerdy jokes". I don't really spend all of my time checking this sort of thing. It's research. Anyway, I doubt anyone has ever found this page by searching for "cool jokes". As one of the desks in my classroom used to say, "math teachers tell stupid jokes". Yes we do.
The last of those searches, "bleach gunpowder", was a chilling little sight that makes me wonder if I am an accessory to a crime or a revolution of some sort.
For reasons that are unclear to me, my Geometer's Sketchpad website is never found by Google, though sites which talk about my site can be found on Google. My strategy for getting people to see it is word-of-mouth. So if you know any math teachers, please tell them it's there.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Today I helped to lead a trip to the top of Top Tibba, a local hill. In spite of all of the musings that ensue, I managed to have a peaceful walk. I even came home with three more rocks for the Redwood Cottage Rock Garden. I also took a picture of some mountain top flowers that were dusty and wilted looking but perhaps in their prime.
We pointed out some ripply rocks that are fossilized remains of a pre-historic beach. Geologists figure the Himalayas are products of a collision between two continental plates, and the rock that has been thrust so high was once a beach of northern India. In geological contexts, these ideas are all discussed as though they were sound conclusions from solid evidence, but the mathematician in me cringes at the muddy waters of this proof. Not that I doubt the point, but that I loathe the argument.
Now I in my ignorance might assume, upon finding a rock that looked like a beach, that since the rock was about as far from a beach as ever a rock was, maybe there were other ways for rocks to become rippled. Maybe the beachy appearance was misleading. I might ponder whether or not sand would fossilize without losing its ripples, but I would not conclude that the ripples constituted irrefutable evidence that the particular rock was once a beach. Assuming such a thing implies that there is no other possible process that would result in such a formation, and I would feel naive to assume that.
The geologists' response, while accepting an idea that is superficially far-fetched (a rock moving from a non-existent ocean to a mountain top), rejects an idea that is scientifically cautious, that maybe within the vast plentitude of what we do not know there lies an arrangement of forces besides water which could produce such a visual effect.
I do not particularly doubt this theory, much less do I have a better idea, but the brand of logic that seems to tie together our understanding of geology makes me grateful to have chosen mathematics.
As long as I have the can of worms opened, I have wondered about academic attacks on creationism. Science has a foundation of organizing knowledge that can be observed, measured and replicated entirely within the physical realm. This excludes the considerations of any interactions, if ever they have occurred, between this world and a supernatural one. My question is this: If there is a supernatural world and if it has ever interacted with our natural world, would our Science do a sufficient job of interpreting such an interaction? Upon interacting with the natural world, does a supernatural force not become natural? Or even worse, does the natural world not become supernatural?
At one point mathematics, which was once only concerned with real numbers, was unable to deal with certain problems. When complex numbers arrived, they provided an articulation of something not altogether different, but more complete. The complex numbers include the real numbers, it was found. The world had been dealing in special cases, and it was no wonder there were unanswered questions. While most people may never go beyond using real numbers in math, the pesky truth remains that they are simple cases of complex numbers, and they always have been. There are questions which are asked in terms of real numbers, but can only be answered using complex numbers.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
A textbook example (too literally) of reductio ad absurdum or 'proof by contradiction' is found in a proof that √2 is irrational. To prove directly that there is no whole number ratio equal to √2 would involve a thorough investigation of an infinite number of fractions. This would be time consuming, to say the least. Instead, we will assume that we are wrong and prove the impossibility of that sad state of affairs.
So here we go.
Assume toward a contradiction that √2 is a rational number. Then there exist two integers p and q such that √2 = p/q. Furthermore, Without Loss Of Generalization (WLOG), we can demand that p/q is a fraction in reduced form, so that p and q have no common factors. Now:
√2 = p / q
2 = p² / q²
2q² = p²
This means that p² is even, which in turn means that p is even. If p is even, then it has a factor of 2 and p² has two factors of 2. Therefore p² = 4k² for some integer k. This gives us:
2q² = 4k²
q² = 2k²
Therefore q² is even, which in turn means that q is even. Recall that p is also even, as we demonstrated above. But p and q cannot both be even because we said that they have no common factors. Therefore, we have reached a contradiction, and we must conclude (since our algebra was sound) that our initial assumption was impossible, namely that √2 is a rational number. Therefore √2 is an irrational number. End of Proof.
Ah... I enjoy that every time.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
My dad only had to learn Jefferson Davis.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
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I made this with one of my photos using this webpage: http://www.degraeve.com/img2txt.php
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
At least they do not have to comply with Indian building standards.
In India, the hot water pipes must circumnavigate the outside of the house three times from the water heater to the kitchen faucet. This assists with global warming.
The outside doors must be too big to shut for six months and too small to remain shut for the other six. This encourages air circulation. Additionally, no inside door shall have a knob that allows the door to be simply "closed". Rather, each side of the door should have a bolt, and it must not stay closed without the bolt. This develops a deep sense of patience/defeat in a person who gets to walk through three rooms to go to the other door of the bathroom after I realize it is locked from the other side.
In Mussoorie, we enjoy the pure solitude of a national forest of some sort. Besides only being able to chop down trees in the dead of night, we are not allowed to build any new structure except directly onto the foundation of a previous building. If your house is made of sticks and tarps, this law usually slides a bit. If you 'know a guy', the construction codes seem to be somewhat negotiable.
The chimney should be carefully routed to fill the attic with smoke. This gives the rats lung cancer, and they die quickly within 83 generations.
If a wood stove is being installed in a classroom, the stove should be placed adjacent to a window and the chimney should be routed out of the window as directly as is convenient without thinking, in order to avoid Major Improvements to the Room Through Heating (MIRTH). This allows the infrared radiation (a.k.a. heat) to escape harmlessly without thawing my toes. Careful removal of the window pane is forbidden, as its structural integrity has been compromised. The window pane must be bashed out with a chunk of wood, and the shards are to be left on the window ledge as an example to others.
Each electrical outlet must be fitted with a Safely Unsafe Plastic Device of Untimely Death by Electrocution (SUPDUDE) which covers the holes except when the outlet is in use. These jam by design and annually drive millions of frenzied but previously rational adults to stick foreign objects inside an electrical outlet. To plug in an Indian extension cord for example, you must stick a pencil or screwdriver into the grounding hole of an outlet in order to slide the plastic guard away from the holes. The pencil does not need to be removed, since the extension cord is not grounded. Also, the extension cord is just two wires.
Yeah, those Americans should be glad they don't have all of our rules to follow.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Anyway, here is mine. Bob Dylan had a lot of really lousy music, and his writing was almost as bad as his voice at times. However, those 465ish songs listed at http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/index.html (some were not written by him and others were re-released habitually) are peppered with brilliance, and being the sunshiny optimist that I am, I will focus on those. Why? Because it is my blog, and having a blog is all about subjecting people to your literary whims, even if they are only echos of lame observations forty years old. This list only involves a few different albums, and it omits a handful of songs which are more obviously worth a listen.
A few Bob Dylan songs that might be better than what you are listening to right now:
Shelter From the Storm. The first time one listens to it, it seems to contain a beautiful or tragic story of some sort, and that's about as far as it gets. The unfinished thoughts and hazy imagery epitomize the poetic ambiguity that was Bob Dylan. A better Bob Dylan fan than myself would know which woman was being discussed and who the one-eyed undertaker is and all that. A better art appreciator than myself would tell me that the song is about someone or something in my own life and that I am really Bob Dylan. That's deep. But it's a great song. Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. This is a ballad like a Sherlock Holmes story. I think that it would make a smashing music video with rustling silks and curling smoke and subtle distrust in eyes. But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts.
Black Diamond Bay. This song is a snapshot of drama cut short, evoking National Geographic images of fear itself entombed in Pompeii. In a few short verses, Dylan efficiently and ruthlessly developes a handful of tragic characters.
Her passport shows a face
From another time and place
She looks nothin' like that
Romance in Durango. This one is cheesy, but I like it.
No llores, mi querida
Dios nos vigila
Desolation Row. If you are a confused college student, this one makes you feel like you really understand life, but then you may realize that profundity and incoherence are not the same thing. Or you may not.
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row
Idiot Wind, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Standing in the Doorway, Boots of Spanish Leather.
So go to it.