Friday, November 28, 2008

student work

I do not precisely remember which topic would have led to a discussion that might have inspired this defacement of a desk in my classroom...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

pirate's life

I find the recent news about Somali pirates to be... well, exciting. I think that rampant economic success is more positive than all the talk about bailing people out of their failed investments. There has always been a romanticism attached to pirates, and the news that pirates have captured the largest vessel ever seized... right here in my own time... I look forward with a mathematical interest as the scenario is played out in the headlines. The economics and game theory involved makes it an intriguing situation, and certain elements are, to say the least, more interesting than the typical news about corrupt politicians and suicide bombers.

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

on strike for... something

Well, I was apparently on strike today. Just as my calculus class was preparing to take another shot at LRAM, the office assistant opened the door and told everyone to gather in the auditorium, where we learned that the school was going to close its doors because of the Bandh (strike) called by the BJP. It should be noted that our doors are usually closed during classes this time of year, but this is mostly because of the chilly Himalayan air. Today their closure was symbolic, an act of independence, defiance, solidarity and resolution against the man. Or something.

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

the problem of proof

[This little rant stems from some of my contemplations of the role of proof in the processes of mathematics education. A detailed scrutiny by a guy like Bertrand Russell would make the best proof look like a pile of unjustified assumptions, which seems to result in a damning sense of futility that nullifies all scientific pretensions. Except, of course, the scientific pretension that identifies and cogently discusses the futility. That one is probably still valid and worthwhile.]

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.