Storyblogging Carnival XII – Now Open

Donald Crankshaw at Back of the Envelope is accepting submissions for the twelfth Storyblogging carnival. If you’ve written a story you’d like people to read, this is an easy way to get it out there. Post it on your blog and tell Donald about it.


I should have live-blogged the presentation.

Blogging is cool. Now what?

In sixth grade, we did a report on Bangladesh. But it was 1970, so we didn’t just write a report. We completed a Group Audiovisual Project. (We didn’t have the word “multimedia” when I was a boy. Nor, thankfully, “powerpoint”.) We wrote a report, then took turns reading it into a tape recorder. To present, we played the tape. One of us held up relevent pictures (both audio and visual; get it?), and made faces at our classmates when the teacher wasn’t looking. Well, AV technology was hot just then. As was group work.

Today I went to an informative presentation on blogging in education. The presenter used and recommended Blogger as a starting point, which has been fine for me so far. The technical details of getting everything set up weren’t my main interest, though I did learn several things I didn’t know.

The best part was the chance to kick around a few ideas about how we might use blogs. It’s easier for me to see how English, Philosophy, or Business might do this. For my math course, I haven’t yet come up with a killer idea.

  • We could set one up for staff communication. This would be especially helpful for those of us adjuncts who aren’t in the building every day. I think something is already in the works.
  • I could post the homework assignment more easily, and reply to questions in the comments. There are some issues with getting the math symbols to render well that might limit the utility of this though.
  • I could just blog the whole course; assignments, lecture summaries, announcements, links to utilities and information, maybe some example problems. Of course, they already have a text book. If they don’t read that, will they read the blog?
  • We could have a group assignment done on the blog, or I could have students set up blogs of their own. But to what end?

A class blog has lots of potential, but less substance so far. Kind of like blogging in general I guess. Technology is easy, content is hard. Anyway, the presentation was a good start. There’s another coming up on Hybrid Courses – not traditional, not internet, but a mix. That could be a good follow-up.

Ultimately, some clever fellow will think of some brilliantly innovative use for blogs in math instruction, and we’ll all copy him.

Be, Know, and Do

Christianity and Custom

Joshua Davey at Letters from Babylon writes about The ‘Paper Bag’ of Evangelicalism:

Evangelicalism in America has tended to identify certain ideologies – republican theory of government, democracy, conservatism, premillennialism, teetotalism, and the list could go on – with Christianity itself.


If we simply conclude that our views are right (and we certainly believe they are) without engaging in critical self-examination, what explanations for those views will be available to our children, and our children’s children?

The paper bag motif, from the preceding Life in a Brown Sack, is the idea that “We are each born with a rather limited view of the world, circumscribed by geography, social status, religion, gender, race, and all the rest.” This limitation of view is like a paper bag over one’s head.

Or as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “He is a barbarian, who thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are laws of nature.” Of course, there are laws of nature, just as there are fundamental tenants of Christianity.

I was talking to a co-worker who expressed frustration about his inability to get the boss to adopt some policy. He said, “What do I have to do to convince him?” I said (rather rudely), “You have to be right.” To bring this to Christian apologetics, or to argumentation in general, I would say:

  1. Be right
  2. Know why you’re right
  3. Say why

The man who’s right gets to argue from a position of strength. The one who’s wrong has no business trying to convince anyone. In the long run he’ll fail anyway, granted that sometimes it’s a very long, weary run.

For many, knowing why is the hardest. It means asking hard questions, and thinking critically about the answers. To be able to address someone else’s objections, you need to understand them. It may help to have worked through those objections yourself.

The third point, saying why, I may address at another time. Instead I’ll add a fourth item:

  1. Be nice

Maybe that’s as hard as any of the others. It requires putting one’s self in the background and letting the argument do the talking. To be nice, I have to say what’s honest and effective rather than what’s clever. Or what I suppose is clever.

The Irrelevance of Avian Intellegence

Birds aren’t stupid, they’re crazy. By human standards, they’re not even on the intelligence continuum. Dogs may be smart or stupid. Birds transcend, in a bad way. Watch their behavior over the course of a year.

Take geese as an example. Geese don’t migrate like buffalos or wildebeests or something. They’re not programmed for that kind of purposeful behavior. They’re automatons. Badly programmed, crazy automatons. They no more migrate than the snow migrates; and as far as I can see, they don’t even do that. People say geese fly south for the winter. It’s February; The groundhog’s come and gone. The geese are still here. They never leave. In fall, winter, and spring they form up in V’s and fly…around. In the summer, they fly less.

I could go on and on, but you’ve probably already noticed that.

Use LaTeX

For easier, better-looking math tests

I’ve been giving my algebra students hand-written tests, but they’ve become a nuisance to maintain, especially in multiple versions. I’m re-writing them all in LaTeX, and it’s working really well. I should be able to maintain several versions of the actual test, and a couple of sample tests as well. Plus, they should be more legible and consistent.

I searched Google for ‘latex math test’ and got something to use as a starting point. Then I opened it up in Vim, typed in my problems, and made a few cosmetic changes. I also added some variables and a block of pdf data. Then I compiled the tex file to a pdf with pdflatex, and marveled at the result in Acrobat reader. Later, I’ll use my spiffy new USB flash drive to transport the pdf’s to the college to print out and photocopy. I could encrypt them (extra geek points, with the excuse of test security) and send them over on ssh, but I don’t want to drive out there and have to drive back because something didn’t work.

I’m not a big fan of Pdf files, but it seems like the thing to use in this case. In the past I’ve put practice tests online in html. Getting the formulas to render correctly was a huge pain. I’ll probably get a practice test up for the next chapter. Demand for a practice test is likely to be higher then than it would be for the first test. With a pdf on the website, they can read it on screen and work on a separate sheet, or print it out.

While preparing the tests, I did run into a hitch producing the diagrams. After a lot of fooling around, I finally produced something usable with xfig. I had been trying to include the drawing (two similar triangles; find the unknown side) as a png or eps file or something. Looking at xfig’s ‘export’ menu, I saw ‘Latex picture.’ I gave that a try, and got the raw latex markup to generate the diagram in place. As it turned out, I could just paste this in. Now I can change the diagram in Vim, without using xfig at all. That makes creating different versions of the problem easier. Of course then I got distracted drawing lines and circles with \put(){\line(){}}.

And with that, I’ll get back to work. I’ve got one more version to finish.

Coffee, Tea, and Me

Some Experiences with Caffeine

Doc’s giving up caffeine, and I sympathize. I did something like this last year. From three cups of strong coffee in the morning and a pot of tea in the afternoon, I tapered off to zero over a month, and then didn’t use caffeine at all for a month. Then I tapered back up to one pot of tea in the morning and one in the afternoon. Since then, my consumption has crept back up to as many as three pots of tea a day. I occasionally drink a cup of coffee, maybe once a week or less, instead of the tea.

I rarely drink soda, so I had no trouble there. My parents were strict about soda when I was a boy. I could have, less than once a week, something like orange soda, Squirt, or Mountain Dew; Never cola. In retrospect, I don’t think they knew that Mountain Dew was caffeinated; Certainly I didn’t. Anyway, Squirt was my favorite.

I don’t notice the effects when I’m drinking a lot of coffee, but people around me do. I get kind of obnoxious. At my worst, when I had a long commute and a job doing machine design, I was basically drinking a pitcher full of coffee at my desk in the morning. The local convenience store had a great deal; You bought this giant mug (if you’re subvocalizing, say giant-mug), and got giant refills for a dollar, in perpetuity.

To taper off, I cut down to two cups of coffee in the morning, then to one. Then I switched to tea in the morning. This is when the headaches started. They were never too severe, but they did last for a couple of weeks. After a couple of days, I started having the tea an hour later every morning, and the afternoon tea an hour earlier until they merged. Then I just had one pot. After a couple more days, I stopped altogether.

I’d read that it took at least two weeks for the caffeine on get out of your system, so I stayed off for a total of four weeks to evaluate the results. Drinking way less coffee was a good idea, but being entirely caffeine-free was no big deal. The only obvious change was in my dreaming. The difference was clear, but subtle. After my system was clean, my dreams were somehow flatter. It’s hard for me to say exactly what the difference was; There’s more too it than that, but ‘flatter’ is the best description I can give. I wish I’d kept a careful record of heart rate and blood pressure; there may have been some difference there. And presumably I’m less quick-tempered and impatient than I would otherwise be.

Yesterday I was a little tired, so I had coffee in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Then I was wired and slept badly, but had really interesting dreams. This morning I had a pot of tea. I should note that it’s a small pot, so I get two six-ounce cups from two teaspoons of Lipton loose tea.


Start water to boil, and pre-heat a two-cup ceramic teapot. After the water comes to a full rolling boil, put two heaping teaspoons of Lipton loose tea in the pot. Pour in the boiling water, and let the tea brew for three minutes. Stir and serve. You can pour the tea through a strainer into the cups if you want to, but it’s not really necessary.


My coffee just now is a mixture of coarse Eight-O’Clock French Roast coffee and store-bought Chicory. The mixture is six ounces of chicory and one pound of coffee, in a zip-lock bag in the ice box. I make it in a twelve-ounce Bodum French press. When I want coffee, I put three level Tablespoons in the pot, add boiling water, and brew for three minutes. Usually I drink it black, but occasionally I’ll pour it into hot milk.

When I was sixteen or so, my father said, “Coffee’s an acquired taste anyway, so you might as well acquire a taste for it black. It’ll make your life easier.” For some reason I didn’t ignore this advice, and it’s worked well for me.

An attempt at fiction

In the Telling

Justin was known for his great learning, and the brilliance of his prose. By virtue of his wizardry, he had risen from humble origins to a position of wealth and power; But magic is a lonely endeavor. Justin had never married and had no child of his own. When a certain poor farmer died, Justin adopted the farmer’s young son Eric. Eric was an active child, and something of a daredevil. His blond hair and mischievous antics reminded Justin of the playmates of his own youth. Justin raised Eric as his own son, hoping to teach him magic and wisdom.

Justin took his responsibility seriously, and spent hours with the boy, instructing and correcting. Perhaps Justin was a better wizard than he was a teacher. It may be that while living alone he had allowed himself to become eccentric. At any rate, Eric’s training did not go smoothly. The boy was impatient with imagery and metaphor, and heedless of character development, but he quickly learned a few tricks that impressed his young friends. He could find lost sheep with an aphorism, or lost coins with a zippy one-liner. Reciting a limerick, he could make a fire of twigs burn green or red. Chanting a simple rhyme, he could attract fish to his hook.

Things inevitably go wrong when a young apprentice is learning, in magic as in anything else. At first, Justin saw Eric’s errors as those of inexperience and poor judgement. A few loose ends are common in any tale of mystery; An inopportune rainstorm is of no great consequence; Singed eyebrows grow back. But Eric’s later blunders revealed more of his character than his abilities. As he grew older, his imagery became darker. He learned that he could drive away sheep as well as find them, start a fire in a wood pile as well as in a fireplace, and draw village girls to his room as easily as fish to his hook.

As Eric’s character became clear, Justin sought an opportunity to set his adopted son as apprentice to a village tradesman. Eric could support himself in a respectable trade that would leave him tired at the end of the day, drawing away his energy without harming him or anyone else.

Eric learned of Justin’s plans and schemed to kill his foster father, hoping to inherit his powers with his library. Crafting a tale of adventure, he recounted it to Justin at dinner one night, hoping to ensnare the master wizard in the telling.

But Eric’s confidence exceeded his ability. His plan was discovered. Justin saw through Eric’s crude similes, and ignored his adolescent wordplay. With subtle questioning, Justin turned the tale against Eric, and bound him over to the magistrate.

A few days later, Justin visited Eric in his jail cell to see if anything of the young man could be salvaged. Justin told him this story:

A trap sat on a dung hill. A lark flew by and saw it. The lark said to the trap, “What are you doing here?” The trap answered, “I am worshiping the Moon.”

Then a raven flew up and asked the trap, “What’s that piece of wood that you’re holding?” The trap said, “That is the ash tree upon which I make my offering.

Then an owl, joining them asked, “And what’s that in your mouth?” The trap replied, “That is bread for all the poor who come near.”

The birds said, “We’re hungry; May we eat the bread?” The trap said to them, “Come forward,” and as they approached to eat, it sprang up and grabbed the lark by the throat.

Eric’s head began to ache. He thought deeply, and then said, “Father, deal with me according to your wisdom. Forgive me my sins, for who has sinned like me, and who has been as generous as you?”

Justin looked closely at the Eric and stroked his beard as he thought. After a few moments, he replied:

A serpent was riding on a thorn-bush which floated in the river. A wolf saw the serpent and called out, “Misfortune upon Evil, and a devil guides you both.”

The serpent replied to the wolf, “The lambs which you have eaten, will you return them to their parents?”

The wolf said, “I will not.”

The serpent said to him, “I think that after me, you are the worst of us.”

Sweat broke out on Eric’s brow, and he said, “Please forgive me! I will feed your birds, sweep up the dung of your cattle, and guard your sheep, for I have done evil. Like the serpent! I mean the wolf! But you are wise and righteous. Please forgive me.” But Justin, sighing, said:

0h, my boy! You’re like the tree that, standing by the water, was barren; Its master came to cut it down, and it said to him, ‘Move me to another place, and if I bear fruit, spare me.’ And its master said to it, ‘You shall not be moved.’

Eric held his hands to the sides of his head. Rubbing slowly, he said, “Forgive me, I beg you; I will… always maintain, um, perpetual solidarity, er, I mean solidarity forever with… whoever you say.” Looking up hopefully, he sang, “Sol-i-darity-For-ever…” But Justin sat down before the boy and explained:

When the Sun announced his intention to marry the Moon, the Frogs complained to their king. The eldest of them said, ‘The Sun by himself dries up the wetlands so that every year many of us die. What will become of us if he has children?’

Eric opened his mouth to speak, and cleared his throat, but could for some minutes produce no words. Finally, he stammered, “Le…Let them Fre…Freeze in the dark?”

Justin looked expectantly at Eric for a few moments, then smiled sadly and said, “My boy, what more shall I say to you? Is it not better to do good nearby than to burn incense far away? Is not the thigh of a frog in your hand is better than a salamander in your neighbor’s fire?”

Eric began to drool, and crossed his arms over his stomach. Justin continued, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man; A live fox is better than a dead lion, but a live lion is better yet. A wool shirt is better than one of cotton, for wool retains its warmth when wet.”

And as Eric heard the words of Justin, he began to swell, and became like an inflated balloon. His arms and legs stuck out stiffly, his gut burst apart, his entrails exploded, and he died.

Seeing the mess, Justin said, “0 my boy! We said to the wolf, ‘Keep away from the sheep, for their dust will make you ill.'”

And Justin sadly left the cell, beckoning to the janitor as he went. In spite of his disappointment, there was still much that he might accomplish. The blacksmith’s wife had died, leaving a daughter the big man felt ill-equipped to raise. The girl might make a fine apprentice. She was a lovely child, reminding Justin of a young lady he had known in his youth.

Tom Harrison, 2005

This story started of as a harmless Wikipedia entry, and grew out of control.


Why I’m not a lawyer

When I was seventeen someone gave a dinner for all of us who had earned our Eagle Scout award. The sponsor, maybe an insurance company, paired each of us boys with an adult who held a job we aspired to. That is, the boy who wanted to be a teacher was seated with a local teacher. On the invitation, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a lawyer, so they seated me with a local attorney.

My dinner companion was such an obnoxious jerk that I decided before dessert that I didn’t want to be like him no matter how much money he had. By the time the evening was over, I’d resolved to never wear a pinky ring. He complained that the steak wasn’t lobster, sneered at everyone he wasn’t trying to ingratiate himself with, spent the evening hustling for clients, and thankfully had very little to say to me. Based on that one incident, and without much reflection or planning, I enrolled the next year at state U. in electrical engineering.

After a year I switched to machanical engineering, then took a bunch of math electives, and read a lot of novels. After graduating in the top eighty percent of my class, I enlisted in the Army.

So far, I’m content with how things have turned out. There are very few ways things might have been better, and a great many ways they might have been worse. I might have flunked out of law school anyway, or I might be a successful attorney; Then again, I might be wearing a pinky ring.