Monday, March 31, 2008


A couple of evenings ago I was playing volleyball with some students down at the dorms. A handful of students were wandering around in an iTrance with wires dangling and eyes staring. A couple of them were even trying to play sports in this condition, which seemed downright dangerous. I found the whole experience to be slightly unsettling and I wanted to set them all free from their machines and tell them to climb trees and build forts and listen to the birds and smell the pine needles and engage in the world around them. Many students at my school would say they would die without their iPods, and a few of them might believe it. A few of them might be right.

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

holi shimla batman!

We just returned from a trip to Shimla, a hill station located in Himachal Pradesh. The town is much like Mussoorie, but inexplicably far back into the mountains. Considering all of the empty mountains that we had to pass on our way there, one might ask why Shimla was not established closer to the plains. So I did. But I am afraid that the deed is done and no explanation is likely to satisfy me, since the truth of the matter is probably something like 'It seemed like a good idea at the time'. I remember my consternation at reaching the top of my own mountain only to see the villages peppering the mountains further into the range. Robert Frost has a theory about this here.

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

yes, i do think about stuff like this.

Maybe some of the people who read this will not understand why I care.

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

happy belated pi day

Well, the end of the quarter is drawing near, which means that my students finally care about their performance in math class. Or rather, they care about my assessment of their performance in math class. Mr. Burchell, is there anything I can do to pull up my grade? I haven't learned a cotton-picking thing all quarter and now I'm worried that my favorite world-class university will get the impression that I am not a dedicated scholar. I've been hoping so hard for a good grade.

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

still haven't found what i'm looking for

Search engines have grown more sophisticated since I first learned about them. For one thing, you cannot trick them by putting the dictionary into a meta tag of keywords. Google is a bit more discerning than that, and there is an entire industry built around improving your visibility to Google. I was thinking of spending Will's college fund and Annie's dowry on a search-engine consulting service, but then I realized that I wasn't making any money from my websites, so I decided it wouldn't be worth it. Instead I spent the money on a candy bar for Joie. As a result, I'm just tossing my webpage out there and seeing if anyone finds it accidentally.

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 and, (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"
"nerdy jokes"
"bleach gunpowder"

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.