The Bricklayer

So you think you’re bad at math?

It’s not you, it’s…

Uh, anyway. In the Light of What We Know is one of the better novels I’ve read in the past few years, all the more so because it’s a first novel.

I was so taken with this one passage that I copied it and promptly forgot about it until last week:

One bad maths teacher, he explained, can wreak havoc. A bad history teacher, when you’re twelve years old, say, might mean you don’t acquire a very good grasp of the First World War or the Potsdam Conference. It leaves a hole in your education. The next year, you manage. The early deficiency doesn’t hinder you very much when you later study the Russian Revolution, not in those years when you’re not studying any of these things in great depth anyway. But mathematics is different. If you fail to digest the material prescribed for that year, then everything that follows, in every subsequent year, is next to impossible to take in. Right from the beginning, mathematics education is accretive, a pyramid, each layer of brickwork building up carefully on the last. You can’t understand trigonometry if you haven’t grasped the idea of similar triangles. You can’t grasp calculus if you haven’t understood areas and velocities. And you can’t understand anything at all if your basic algebra is poor. It’s why mathematics professors have such a hard time explaining their work to the public. The great majority of students are vulnerable to one bad teacher. It isn’t enough for a child’s mathematics teachers as a whole to be generally just as bad and just as good as his history teachers. In fact, even if mathematics teachers were generally, which is to say as a group, better than history teachers, the presence of one bad maths teacher early on hampers him mathematically if it doesn’t doom the child to mathematical ignorance.

When I first read the above, I taught English; now I mostly teach math.

Rereading it offers what David St. Hubbins calls “too much… perspective.”


Your forbearance please, Gentle Reader: you come here for irreverent irrelevance, but this week it’s hard astern.

My students and I read several worthy obituaries in 2016, including those of:

  • “A swinging cat” (per James Brown)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration
  • A young photographer who went down fighting

Meet them all at Passed Made Present.

More to come this year, both there and here (which will return to normal programming, promise).



Hat Trick


I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been blessed with three very interesting books after a stretch of ones worth finishing if life were a thousand years long.

Wings Level


I was up at the high school for a meeting and, walking through the library, spied Yeager, which enchanted me as a high schooler.

Funny what stands out rereading it a quarter century later. The book now seems wrongly balanced. E.g. the chapter on his childhood in West Virginia – only eight, often startling, pages – I’d now wish to be an entire memoir. His experience in WWII merits its own, lengthy volume. The test flight stuff doesn’t grab me so much.

Anyway, here’s what General Yeager was up to a quarter century after he was feeling supersonic:

I didn’t get involved in the actual combat because that would’ve been too touchy, but I did fly around and pick up shot-down Indian pilots and take them back to prisoner-of-war camps for questioning. I interviewed them about the equipment they had been flying and the tactics their Soviet advisors taught them to use. I wore a uniform and a flying suit all the time, and it was amusing when those Indians saw my name tag and asked, “Are you the Yeager who broke the sound barrier?”

Ashes to Ashes


John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel is another book filled with tales worth telling. I didn’t know this unhappy one:

With the war of 1914-18 came the novelist Somerset Maugham, British secret agent, and by most accounts not a very good one. When Winston Churchill complained that his Ashenden broke the Official Secrets Act, Maugham, with the threat of a homosexual scandal hanging over him, burned fourteen unpublished stories and held off publication of the rest till 1928.

Fourteen?! Sheesh. That’s a whole Ashenden 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Anyway, OSA be d–ned: I happily admit to thieving that ‘thousand years long’ line.

There and Back Again


It was Twyla Tharp, or was it Vic Tayback, who said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

Thursday I found in the mailbox a splendid booklet. My friend Will took a trip to the mountains and wrote about his month there. It’s a heck of a tale. Per the OSA I am not at liberty to disclose details, but verily, I say unto thee, on a scale of Quiet Desperation to #YOLO, Will hews to the latter.




Time Crunch

“The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in.”

– Bob Dylan, Chronicles


Believe me, Bob, when my check for SEK 8,000,000 arrives, I’m out of here too.



Now then.

For me, the defining problem of the modern world – apart from Doom – is this: you sit down to do something, and while trying to get it done you uncover subsidiary tasks, and by the end of whatever time you’ve allocated to have gotten something done, nothing is done and there is now more to do.

There is, of course, no hope. But I just learned this word, which helps:





Editor’s Note: This post was nearly titled “The Unbearable Biteness of Chronophagy,” which, while clever, is undeniably dreadful.



Horizontal Bopp


Up until last week, had you mentioned New Horizons, I’d have figured you were talking about day care or something.

Turns out it’s an interplanetary space probe launched ten years ago. I really need to quit skipping my NASA briefings.



This short New York Times documentary on its mission is both fascinating and cheering.

Plus, it clears things up if you’re wondering whose are the first human remains to leave the solar system, or how to qualify as a planet.



Unhappy Birthday 2


With lots of preliminary throat-clearing about how humor is subjective and etc, this is kind of a funny story.

So, for this other thing, I had searched Twitter for the young adult author Walter Dean Myers. Which brought me to this:



Tweet 1: Just found out that my uncle was killed yesterday night. Now I’m devastated. Not really in the party mood.

Tweet 2: My bday is so rough today because of my uncle’s death.

Tweet 3: Dang, my party is all messed up. But rest in peace Uncle Lee.

And that’s it. Three tweets to the account.


My first thought was: “Some poor soul [for the account was obviously not the author’s] took to Twitter, of all places, to voice grief, and met with the void’s embrace.” I found this saddening.


Second thought was: “This is the Twitter version of Hemingway’s six word novel!”


In fact, I even considered publicly directing attention to the account, I found it so remarkable.

Then I thought, ashamedly: “Good heavens, Peter, this is some poor soul’s grief, not a curio.”


Now, though, I think it’s the latter.

The next day – my mind moves as Earth rotates, if at all – I remembered I’d once taught (!) Walter Dean Myers’ Bad Boy, in which he recounts the above incident.


So, some teacher had probably said: “Today, kids, we’re going to use technology! Tweet thrice The Sorrows of Young Walter!”

N.B. in the event I’m wrong this is not at all funny.


P.S. here’s the first Unhappy Birthday. And the one before that:



Hell’s Bells

1. Apart From That, Mrs. Lincoln

Years ago there was a missile test the Pentagon touted met 16 of 17 objectives. The one it missed was the target.

The ballot I filled out in last week’s election met with similar success.

For whatever reason the one I missed keeps bugging me.



2. La Liberté éclairant le monde

The students I teach this year are immigrants. Wednesday morning I told them they are always welcome in my classroom, and always welcome in our school.

As for beyond, well, I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep.

You’d think with that big green statue out front this wouldn’t be an issue.


3. The Fall

Gentle Reader, you come here not only for wisdom and guidance, but also moral elevation. So, uh, here goes:

  • We are not (yet, anyway) so benighted that we are without autumn. And man alive, the way the light’s hitting the leaves this week…
  • My buddy Owen became a father!
  • One of my students was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, so we had a lovely conversation that consisted – given his English and my Spanish – of almost entirely song titles and grins of approving delight. The subject then switched to Guns N’ Roses, and I was even able to use my illusion to conceal that anything not on Appetite for Destruction is a considerable step down.

Gentle Reader, I leave you with the uplifting words of W. Axl Rose:

Nothing lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change.

Flag Salute

Per (the Rt Hon.) Lord Steerforth, I was prompted to contemplate why Americans love their flag.

Personally, I love it because it’s one of the better looking flags out there.



Yeah, this one swings so cool and sways so gentle:


And respect to Nepal for thinking outside the box:



But global standards are generally pretty lame.

A good first step – indeed, perhaps the first of my planetary reign – would be to forbid tricolors. They look like coding for office folders.

Plus, quick: Ireland or Ivory Coast?


And don’t even get me started on those two-stripers.


Vexillographers of the world, improve! You have nothing to lose, most of you.

Idiot Winds



“Giscard considered the Americans ‘a little naive in an involuntary way.'”

Jimmy Carter in Africa, Nancy Mitchell


I read the above and thought “Voilà le shade!” For whatever reason it recalled this verdict on la condition humaine:


“Yet we are chemosensory idiots.”

The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson


Sorry? What does either have to do with anything? Well, you see:


“One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.”

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill