Bhutan, Meditation, Bread, Learning, Friends, Family, Music, Books, MT

Sunday, February 28, 2010


In my mailbox there are 489 emails from Don. And that only goes back to September 2008. I know when I met Don. That was in late 2006, at a workshop on a new mathematics text book for Bhutan. Don's wife, Marian, was the main person behind the book. Don came as unaccompanied luggage. At the time, Don was a mathematics professor. Over the course of the workshop, we had a few conversations. Later, Don and another mathematician came over to Thimphu. They generously shouted me out to a meal at a posh hotel. Don still has notes he took on his napkin. We talked more. Meditation came up. Other things came up. Not the food. We exchanged email addresses. The emails started soon after. Daily.
When we agreed to send each other an email every day, we thought we would soon run out of things to say. These mails are not small twitters. We are not twits. It was fascinating for me to get a real insight into the thoughts of a working mathematician. Teaching mathematics is not the same as doing it. Don teaches it too.
So, we can talk about mathematics and maths teaching. We found there was much more that we had in common. Spectacles. Reading. Cycling. Walking. Computers. Spirituality. Learning. Music (Don plays the flute). It was as if Don was another version of me. A higher level though.
Just to test himself, Don uses a different keyboard layout on the computer. He changes that every few weeks to keep up the challenge. He has been working on speed reading. Now he is learning the piano, still with the normal piano keyboard. I have read about the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman; Don has worked with him. At least in the same building. While I try to teach my classes how to write equations, Don is inventing new ways to solve them.
If not much happens during our days, we have to resort to writing about rather humdrum matters. Today's post from Don had a very long paragraph about buying a new pair of waterproof boots. The thing is that his writing about such a mundane event can be so riveting. Not that the rivets came in to the story. If one really pays attention to the small details, there will be something interesting. For example ...
"Friday I decided I needed waterproof boots but the boots that were not watertight were too wet to use. They get very cold when they are wet and also they feel smaller. It is very unpleasant to put them on. Think of putting
on a wet bathing suit. Something like that. I found some boots of Marian's in the closet. They are watertight to well past the ankle. They looked unused. They are a bit big on me. I thumped as I walked and I thumped to the mall and bought waterproof boots."

Did I say that Don was Canadian?
I have a truly marvelous proof that Don is the most interesting person I have ever met. The margin is too narrow to contain it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Above Average

Last night I was talking with someone. Someone younger than me. In Bhutan, there should be respect for someone older than you. I like that when I am the elder one. If I am younger, I go back to my NZ habits. That led me to ask what is the average age of people on the earth? How many people should be showing me more consideration because of my more mature years?
Instead of Googling the answer I Alphaed it. Or should that be Alphed? Wolframed? Wolfram|Alpha started up with a fanfare on May 15, 2009. It was going to be the next greatest thing in search engines. Wolfram was a name I had come across. They make mathematics software. When I have a maths question, I use their site. Alpha is not the same as Google though. Not worse. Not better. A different kind of beast.
I typed "average age of living people in world"  and I got back this:
"Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure how to compute an answer from your input"
Using Alpha can be rather frustrating. 
The language you enter does not have the same flexibility as Google. But I did get some hints and quickly pulled up some numbers.
All countries average age. (Click if you want to see)
The median age of people in the world is 27.5 years. That is 867,200,000 seconds. Monaco was the country with the highest median (45.5) and Japan was second (43.8). Uganda was the lowest, only 15.
That puts me well above average. For once.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Meeting Matthieu

I first met Matthieu Ricard's photos in a book called Journey to Enlightenment. A book about one of Ricard's Buddhist teachers, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Ricard, born in France, started his career as a biologist, then made a paradigm shift to become a Buddhist monk. His father Jean-Fran├žois Revel was a prominent philosopher. They wrote a book together called The Monk and the Philosopher. It is about a monk and a philosopher. I read that some time ago.
His book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, did not have very good photos. There were no photos, apart from a picture of his face on the back flap. The words were great though. The book contains valuable information on how to be happy, and some startling results from scientific research into meditation. Some people believe that we need to experience some sadness and suffering to make us appreciate the good times. Not me.
Early in 2008, Ugyen and I were waiting in the departure lounge at Paro airport, on our way to Bangkok. Ugyen told me not to put this photo as she looks "sagay". That means like the village idiot. Ugyen's affectionate name for me is "sagay". If you pronounce it differently it has a different meaning. At least, that is what Ugyen told me.
As we lined up at the baggage counter, I noticed the wine-coloured maroon of monk's robes in front of us. Not so uncommon here. This was a large white monk though. He looked a little like the man on the inside flap of that Happiness book. Before making a fool of myself, I checked the name on his travel papers. It was the man on the flap. With the rest of the body.
I introduced myself. He did not know of me. Yes, he was happy and looked about 40 years old. Some people would say that if you spend your life in a monastery just having to sit around saying prayers and meditating, then you would be happy. Not me.
He has a new book out titled The Art of Meditation. My birthday is coming up.
The following link has an article by an initially skeptical writer discussing happiness with Ricard and Lord Layard, an economist. The happiest men in the world - Times Online.
You can find some of Ricard's photos here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meet the Meat

Yesterday we went to get chicken.
The meat shops have improved since I was first here.
But still the meat looks like animals. A useful reminder.
"Om Mani Padme Hung."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

School Assembly

Every school day in Bhutan starts with assembly. Classes line up, male and females separately. The class captains stand up the front, trying to maintain some kind of order. The school captains at the back. If the vice-principal is around, things go very quickly. He was not around during the picture above. Teachers float in at various times during the assembly, and line up in front.
Our school did not have a hall, so the basketball court was the assembly ground. Students fell like flies on hot days. Dominoes.
One of the school captains would call the school to assembly, then the prayer would start. The prayer captain would set the pace with a small bell. What a nice way to start the day.
On completion of the prayer, there are two speeches by students. The first in Dzongkha, and the second in English. Speeches are memorised. All students are required to give a speech. A traumatising experience for some.
"Respected Madam Principal, Vice Principal, teachers, and my dear fellow students ... today I would like to deliver a short speech on ..... on...."
A small scrap of paper is hurriedly pulled from inside the gho (male dress) before we learn the topic. Bhutanese men lay claim to having the largest pocket in the world.
Next a teacher, TOD (Teacher On Duty), would speak. Sometimes a more senior teacher or the principal would have to harangue the students. The first domino would fall then.
Then the head scout would unfurl the national flag and the national song was sung.
While the students marched off, a class at a time, there was often a check of hair length and other uniform matters.
You notice that some of the staff are wearing Western style clothes. The Bhutanese nationals have to wear traditional dress. The Indian teachers, and me, wore non-Bhutanese dress. The young guy, nearest to the camera, is a gelong (monk). I might tell you more about him later.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kitchen Kaos

For those who have not seen a Bhutanese meal, now you have. Red rice (small serving there), dried beef, chili and cheese, and a pork dish (with extra fat).
Now you know what to expect. Expectations cause us grief.
When I cook, it is hard to free myself from the imagined product. The outcomes in the kitchen over the last few days have been beyond imagination. Nightmares.
First was a no-knead pizza recipe. Looked fantastic. By Jim Lahey, the guy who got the no-knead bread revolution started. The dough was very easy, and very good. My production of the potato topping was ... not good. I blame the oven. Thin slices of potato, soaked in salty water to dry them out. Then mixed with onion and olive oil. Placed on top, then baked. After ten minutes, the base was done. Smoking. Hot. About to turn to charcoal. The potato slices were nowhere near done. When I reached for the fish slice, to try to prize the pizza away from the pan, it was gone. Things often move around in the kitchen. So I had to improvise with a knife. Bits of the pizza flaked off. Others remained, doggedly attached. So much for dinner. Waste not, want not though (Dad would be proud to see me forcing it down). If I had expected a very crispy, black bread wafer with chunks of raw potato, I would have been delighted.
Dessert was my self-saucing chocolate pudding. What was left after most of it dribbled over the sides of my too-small dish. We scraped some nice pieces off the bottom of the oven. The cream was meant to be whipped, but refused to cooperate.
Was I silly to try sticky buns the next day?