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In Which An English Major Proposes a Solution to a Common Core Math Problem

March 26, 2014 5 comments

I’m sure by now many of you, dear readers, have seen the story about the Common Core math problem that not even a person with training in higher math could solve. In this post I’ll lay out some background involving the story, and then propose a simple solution for the problem in question. I’ll conclude with a brief note about why I think problems like this are important.

First off, a bit about my background (for new readers). I earned my bachelor degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, which required almost no mathematics courses. I did elect to take a number of science courses with complex math, as well as statistics courses, and communication studies classes that required an understanding of statistical analysis. It can hardly be argued that I am a math expert since I’ve never really taken much beyond calculus.

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when I first came across the story not too long ago. According to Elise Sole of Yahoo’s Shine network, Jeff Severt, a frustrated parent who has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering, couldn’t solve his child’s homework problem. I think I can sympathize with that. Right around the time I hit fourth grade my parents failed to be of any help with my own math homework, and the frustration of that helplessness was pretty evident on my father’s face, especially.

I’d like to note that Elise uses words like “elaborate” to describe the method the fictional “Jack” character uses to solve the problem, which I believe is misleading. I think with some thought it’s actually quite simple, but that might be the training I’ve had in logic and critical thinking as an English major. I do have to admit, however, that the answer to this problem suggested itself to me fairly quickly.

Now, I’m not saying this makes me a better mathematician than Jeff Severt, and I’m not intending to write about my grand intellect (which, honestly, could probably be about as grand as an old saltine for all the good it does me–that was a bit of humor). I am saying that, just maybe, the issue here isn’t with the method that Common Core is using here. Indeed, I think the general goal of trying to teach different methods of solving math problems, as well as teaching the logic that underlies mathematics, is worthy. Perhaps, then, the issue is with critical thinking skills.

The problem has all the information one needs to solve it. It requires a bit of logical inference based on the information that is given and the ultimate goal you need to reach. I think this is a good way to teach people how to use critical thinking and logic to solve problems instead of just using the algorithm that Jeff uses to get it over and done with. Perhaps it’s just my inner-geek speaking, but I actually like problems that make me think like this one. The method outlined in this problem is not the quickest, certainly, but it does present a real problem that requires a bit of thinking to reach the solution.

Anyway, what is the solution?

The first thing you note is that Jack was trying to solve the problem 427-316 by using a number line to count out the numbers he was subtracting. Built into the question is the information that Jack reached the wrong answer, and on the number line you see that his erroneous answer is 121. To show the process of counting from one number to another, he uses arcs that sweep above the number line.

The first three arcs, starting from 427 and working backward, are groups of 100. Under the number line, after each arc, you see that Jack correctly notes the number that is reached when he works backward in groups of 100. The order is this: 427–>327–>227–>127. When the three groups of 100 are combined into 300, you should start to get a feel of where the logic is going in this solution. Jack is making groups of numbers that add up to 316, to make counting back from 427 to 111 simple when showed graphically on a number line.

With 300 numbers accounted for, and with the number 127 reached, Jack then needs to account for 16 more numbers to add up to 316. The number line shows that he starts to count by one with smaller arcs. There are six such small arcs that you can count, bringing the number down to 121. That leaves us with 306 of the 316 we need. This is where Jack makes his mistake. He stops at 121.

The answer to the question, then, is to show that Jack had the right strategy for this method of solving the problem, but he didn’t go far enough to reach the 316 he needed to get the right answer. A suggestion about fixing these problems in the future could be to add up the groups of numbers he counted off on the number line to make sure he has taken away the correct number from the starting total. The difference between 121 and 111 is 10, the exact amount needed to get from 306 to 316.

What I think that Jeff, and many who sympathize with his frustrations, miss is that this is a problem that wants children to explore different methods of thinking about numbers. Sure, when you write out the problem the way that Jeff did, it is trivially easy to solve. However, Jeff’s difficulty in solving the problem, especially with a background that suggests math intensive studies, underscores why we need to teach these methods.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Common Core one way or another, but I am a fan of teaching the logic of numbers and different ways of thinking about them. My training as an English major, which included critical thinking and logic (plus a bit of old-fashioned pattern recognition) helped me to see the solution to this problem relatively quickly with no headache involved.

I would caution those who are critical of these methods, and argue that this is making math too confusing and complex, to slow down and think about how we’re teaching our children to think. Teaching methods like this are relatively unfamiliar to a lot of people and will be prone to problems, but I think the long-term payoff will be greater than the bumps along the way. Critical thinking skills are vital to understanding the world and all of its complexities, and this certainly challenges the thinking skills of people used to simple algorithms to solve math problems.

So, gentle readers, I hope this was a useful exercise. I certainly found it an enlightening experience.

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Personal Reflections on Atheism

March 18, 2014 4 comments

Hello, my dear readers.

There aren’t many things so hard to write about, or laden with emotion, as religion. Being an atheist in America is to be seen, by a majority of people, as being as morally untrustworthy as rapists. While I dispute the methodology of the study and find it highly flawed, it nonetheless fills me with apprehension. What have I personally done to deserve such prejudice? I am no more flawed or perfect than any other random person on the planet. I have a very strict system of ethics and a morality that, I think, is based on solid logical foundations based primarily on the premise that pleasure and fulfillment is preferable to pain and suffering.

This post is meant to be introspective, and covers a sensitive topic that I’ve spent a great deal of time and cognitive energy trying to resolve. I do not wish, in any way, to denigrate the perspectives of others, nor do I wish to insult anyone. My hope, and ultimate goal, is to express myself and, perhaps, have a dialogue on this topic so that the prejudice against atheists can, in some small way, be combated.

I’ve mentioned in passing on this blog that I’m an atheist. This is in need of clarification. It is more accurate to say that I’m an agnostic atheist, which to people who haven’t been in this conversation long can seem like a bit of a contradiction, in part, because of how the words are commonly used. Agnosticism itself is a label that refers to knowledge; the root word comes from the greek word for knowledge, gnosis.

In this sense, there can be gnostic and agnostic Christians (some who claim to know there is a god, and some who don’t know for sure if the Christian God exists, but believe all the same). As an agnostic atheist, I don’t argue that there is most definitely not a god of some sort; instead, I argue that any god claim hasn’t yet met a burden of proof.

It’s true that some might see the bar that I’ve set for evidence and proof as being unrealistically high for what they might consider a transcendent or supernatural entity. Can the natural sciences, for instance, be extended into such domains? Some proponents of scientific naturalism will say that, no, it cannot. Others will contend that if the supernatural can effect the natural world, we should be able to detect these changes and study them, which would possibly render the supernatural discoverable through some form of superempiricism (my term, which I just invented, but is essentially meaningless).

I’ve been asked why I don’t consider “ontological evidence” as sufficient proof of god. It isn’t because I’m biased to one epistemology or another (although I am a staunch advocate for empiricism), but because this ontological evidence, as well as much of metaphysics, may or may not actually describe reality.

In much the same way that theoretical math may describe reality if certain assumptions are true and certain conditions met, this ontological evidence works if the underlying assumptions and presuppositions are correct. This creates a firewall between statements of what reality “could be” or “must be” and what reality actually is because it isn’t entirely clear how you determine which assumptions and presuppositions are correct and which are not. While uncertainty is a natural part of the empirical epistemology and the scientific methodology, that firewall gives me pause.

I am convinced that the only reliable ways to determine the truth value of the assumptions and presuppositions is the rigorous and ordered study of reality through the scientific method. For a very long time I couldn’t completely grip the value of metaphysics in the face of the natural sciences. “What distinguishes metaphysics from fiction?” I asked, seriously looking for an answer. “Why are act and potency still relevant concepts when we have modern physics?”(Side note: I don’t think that they are relevant.)

Sometimes I would come across an argument that was, essentially, semantically incoherent. It isn’t entirely clear that anyone who argues for a timeless and spaceless entity has given a meaningful definition of “timeless causality,” or what I would call untime, that doesn’t rely on the language of time. For instance, does it make sense to say that something came before something else (or timeless A caused timeless B) outside of time as we understand it? I’m certainly not convinced, and in fact would argue that this causes an inherent contradiction in the argument that isn’t ever resolved. Causality as we understand it occurs only within time, and the language used to talk about causality in untime reflects that.

Timeless causality, you say?

Timeless causality, you say?

It was another blogger, Tristan Vick of Advocatus Atheist, that convinced me that I was essentially wrong about the uselessness of metaphysics. Kant, he said, argued that all empirical questions boil down to metaphysical questions. And that actually makes sense. Assumptions are made at the foundation of any philosophy or belief, and methodological naturalism has its fair share. Some of them are metaphysical in nature, but even the majority of these assumptions tend to have referents in reality that give them a fairly solid foundation as far as that can be determined.

With that said, science is not absolutely objective, but the methodology is designed to eliminate the biases and limitations of perspective that often cloud our vision. I find such methodologies useful for looking at metaphysical questions and natural phenomena and ascertaining their relationship to reality.

So let’s get to the heart of the issue: why don’t I believe that there are gods? I suppose answering this question would require a bit about my own experiences. This story starts, as many do, when I was very young. I was raised as an Evangelical Lutheran, part of the Wisconsin Synod. I attended a private Lutheran school where I was exposed to my erstwhile religion every school day and sometimes on the weekends (we had a spotty record of attending Sunday church service). Friday was a special day of worship which involved sauntering to the chapel in the single-file line and doing your very best not to get scolded for bad behavior.

To me, then, my beliefs were obvious. We learned the stories from the Bible, though admittedly they were watered-down Disneyesque representations. The unpleasant aspects of the Old Testament, like child sacrifice and slavery, were omitted (and I have no recollection of discussing the story of Job). When it came time to learn a bout Noah and the story of the flood, the lessons focused on the fairytale aspects and paid little heed to the darker more sinister consequences of a global flood. Even so, the fact that children and animals were killed didn’t escape my notice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to having some lingering emotional issues relating to the kinds of punishments the school implemented for misbehavior (or what they defined as misbehavior). Two instances stand out in my memory. The first incident occurred when, as a second grader, I was punished for play-acting as an animal with other children (in a game we invented and during a time set aside for play) by being forced to crawl on my hands and knees and barking like a dog in front of the class as they were made to watch. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that this was humiliating and emotionally traumatizing, and that it took me a long time to be able to do anything in front of audiences without becoming a nervous wreck.

The second memory is also tied to humiliation in front of my peers. Often we would be forced to learn songs to perform in front of the congregation during church services. After the incident described above I was content to dissolve into the background of the choir, participating but not standing out. The teacher, however, was not happy with this arrangement. Without allowing me to explain my reticence, he demanded that I walk to the front of the choir and stand beside him, facing them. He began to play the melody of the song on the piano, and asked me to sing it aloud in front of everyone, on my own. My voice cracked and my lips quivered as I strained to maintain my composure as I was silently laughed at and he criticized my singing as too quiet but, in the end, I managed to hold it together even if my singing wasn’t satisfactory.

Still, I sang the hymns quietly to myself and believed with all of my heart in the Christian God (or, at least, the Lutheran conception), despite the misgivings I harbored about the content within the Bible. My family gave me the nickname “preacher boy” because I would often talk about the things I learned in school. I still have the five different Bibles I collected during that time, as well as a red Lutheran hymnal that I had to keep with me at all times. They are now artifacts of my past that I occasionally explore, mostly for nostalgia and sometimes for curiosity.

The turning point in my perspective actually came from within the school. Despite the fact that religion was a major part of every school day, the school had a relatively decent math and science curriculum, and they kept it separate from the religious concerns. I can’t say for sure if this was intentional or not, but I do know that I was introduced to evolution and geology unfiltered by the religious teachings.

Eventually my family moved and I transferred to a public school. My belief waned over the course of a few years after having learned about these sciences that, on the surface, didn’t seem to contradict my religious beliefs. However, upon further consideration of the facts of science, I was confronted by a very simple fact: I had no belief in God at all anymore. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old when it had first occurred to me. I clung desperately to labels like agnostic, and even tried to square away a desire to believe in an absence of belief with different ideas about what a god might be that satisfied emotional yearning and some base fears relating to damnation, but not anything intellectual.

But my curiosity and hunger for knowledge wouldn’t allow me to fool myself for long. I continued to learn and gain knowledge in as many fields of study as I possibly could, and I had a particular fondness and aptitude for biology and chemistry. I explored passages from the Bible, and it felt like for the first time I was actually comprehending them and not just passively reading them or being hearing them. There are horrors in the Old Testament that I couldn’t rationalize. Slavery. Genocide. Many of the accounts fly in the face of history, such as the exodus (there just isn’t enough evidence to believe it actually happened), or the story of the flood.

I had no knowledge of Christian apologetics until about a year ago (good thing, too, because I’m not sure I’d be able to critically respond to it back then), and unfortunately nobody around me could articulate reasons to believe that were satisfying to me. I decided it was better to play the part of a believer. I was confirmed into the Lutheran church as a member, going to catechism classes and taking communion, even when I didn’t believe in it. It was hard to live that double life, and I still feel guilt about not being honest about it. The thought of someone finding out about my disbelief, however, only result in feelings to terror.

When I was a senior in high school I felt more comfortable talking about it, and over the course of the next six years I slowly introduced my disbelief. I’m more or less accepted for who I am in my family now, even if they disagree with me. I can’t even begin to describe the relief I feel that my fears were unfounded (and this fear even outranked my former fear of Hell).

Now I’ve gone many rounds with believers and nonbelievers of different philosophical persuasions, learning philosophy and history, and challenging my own views along the way. I enjoyed the challenge of learning uncomfortable truths about my own biases, and more importantly, finding my own weaknesses in understanding. Of course, my conclusion is still atheism, and maybe it’s an even stronger conclusion now.

Without getting into sticky questions about the historicity of Jesus and the contradictions in the gospels, what is the foundation of my disbelief of not only Christianity, but other gods as well? It is fairly tempting to talk about the lack of evidence that is non-subjective and non-anecdotal. Perhaps I could point out that any miracle claim I’ve come across was essentially indistinguishable from fantasy or coincidence. Apologies to a certain Southern Baptist, but I’ve never had a subjective personal encounter with God, even when I believed.

But putting all of that aside, the answer comes down to this: honesty. I don’t believe because I haven’t been convinced. This is not a choice, as I know some would like to claim. I’m not actively rejecting knowledge, or any kind of truth. I’m not arrogantly dismissing arguments or personal claims about an encounter with god. I am upholding a consistent standard for evidence and rationality that apply to everything.

Regarding honesty, I’d like to briefly address Pascal’s Wager. My criticism is not novel, but it is pertinent to my situation. If I regarded belief in god or gods as a bet on my eternal existence (disregarding the Wager’s original Christian framework), and I took the bet that a god existed in an effort to save my soul and claimed to believe and acted as such, it would be a lie. I do not think that a lie about a belief would be greeted with acceptance by the Christian God. Instead, I would argue that being honest and open about my reasons for disbelief is not only more ethical and moral, but more understandable to a deity like the Christian god.

This is the expanded version, which includes the world’s major religions in place of the Christian-only framework. Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/09/23/pascals-wager-expanded-edition/

Getting back to the main topic, I’m not entirely comfortable staking out specific claims on the nature of reality, mostly because I’m not certain what that nature is. Is materialism right? I don’t know. I’m convinced that functionalism is a decent model for understanding consciousness for now, and I don’t see that a soul is a necessary layer to add on to it. But what it always comes down to is that we just don’t know enough about the universe and our existence within it to make many definitive claims about what can’t exist. I suppose I’m predisposed to certain philosophies like materialism or physicalism given what we have learned through science.

In the end I have many questions and comparatively few answers. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for evidence that I can access, test, and reproduce for any god. I don’t think it is unreasonable to accept the null hypothesis if the positive truth claim is not demonstrated. Does the supernatural exist? I think the more relevant question is this: if the supernatural exists, does it matter? If, based on our current investigations of the universe, we can’t find any good reasons to assume its existence, why is its existence or nonexistence relevant? I think that’s an altogether more interesting question.

The point of all of this is to get at something I think is very important: my position on atheism is predicated mostly on uncertainty, not blind arrogance. One of the hardest things to admit is that you don’t know. “I don’t know.” Say it. It just rolls off the tongue wrong. And the truth is that I find that scientific skepticism and freethought are much more productive endeavors than dogma and tradition.

Where does the evidence take us? That’s my guiding light–the most important question to ask when thinking about what is real and what is not. I think there are facts we can acknowledge, such as gravity and evolution, and we can gain some measure of certainty because of that. It will help us build models to understand reality as best as possible, based on evidence and critical thinking, and will weed out those ideas which do not stand to scrutiny.

I would like to end this post with an obvious observation and some thoughts on it. The universe is a wonderful and beautiful place, and exploring it through scientific study is deeply fulfilling. If there is some kind of rapture one can experience from some sense of spirituality, studying the realm of existence in which we reside provokes that emotion within me. My life is rich and vibrant because of the knowledge I have gained. I feel no inner emptiness, no void that I need to fill.

I remember that when I finally understood how to properly read the Periodic Table of the Elements, I realized that it wasn’t just a logical way of ordering the elements; it was a description of reality that is clear, concise, and of a remarkable and widely unrecognized beauty. And more than that, there are so many amazing ways to represent it and connect it to the world.

When I gaze through my telescope at the stars that speckle the clear night sky I feel a stirring sense of awe. There are many poetic things that can be said about being made, as Carl Sagan so eloquently said, of “star stuff.” We are the universe, not just inside of it. Part of it. Connected to it. We borrow the energy and matter and return it when our time is up. We leave an indelible mark upon the universe, forever changing it, even if those changes are so small they seem insignificant.

And I find these thoughts more comforting than the religious beliefs that I once had because I don’t have to think that people I don’t know will be punished for making the wrong bet. They matter, as you or I matter, and not just because we are matter. Their lives are not wastes because they believe in the wrong god, or because they didn’t live the right kind of life.

If you find yourself feeling isolated because you don’t believe, just remember: you are not alone, and do not deserve denigration.

March Miscellany

March 13, 2014 5 comments

Nameste, my fellow geeks, bloggers, a ne’er-do-wells (well, som’time-do-wells)!

I keep track of the things I want to write about on my blog in a small Moleskine book that I bought because it had Snoopy and Woodstock on it (I’m an old-school Peanuts fan). I don’t always write about the things in the notebook, but I try to keep track of the ideas that pop into my head. Most of the time keeping track of them is a game I lose (like playing Modern Warfare against my fifteen year-old cousin…she’s brutal) but it’s an attempt to remember some of the best ones.

How can you not like Snoopy?

How can you not like Snoopy?

Well, I’ll have to retire this notebook for the entire month of April. I’ve decided to participate in the “Blogging from A to Z April Challenge” and write a blog post every day (except Sunday) for the month of April. From what I understand, every day for twenty-six days I will be writing a post starting with the letter “A” and going through the alphabet until I reach the letter “Z.” I foresee that the letter “X” might be a problem, but I’m sure a person with as large a “word hoard” as mine will be able to deal with it (and not resorting to X-Rays or Xylophone like I did in elementary school).

In other news, I might have to rethink my “no new video game consoles” proclamation. There haven’t been many games that I’ve wanted so far from the latest generations, and I haven’t had any motivation to get a new system because of that. Well, that was until I saw the trailer for “Quantum Break” (warning: age gate).

“Quantum Break” looks, frankly, amazing. I’ve always been a fan of other Remedy games like “Max Payne” and “Alan Wake,” but “Quantum Break” is in a league of its own. It’s not the first game to make use of time manipulation (“Prince of Persia” springs to mind), but it looks like the most promising. The graphics are gorgeous and the plot is definitely intriguing. I’ll really have to reconsider not getting an XBOX One.

I have some exciting news for science fiction geeks: “Amazing Stories” is back! Now it’s a “social magazine” for fans, and it has a lot of great content. They’re not accepting submissions for fiction and poetry yet, but they say they’ll be making announcements when they’re ready for that. I’ll certainly be looking forward to that.

On the topic of science fiction, there are two other great websites. The first is called “SF Signal” and it’s a great resource for keeping track of free book giveaways on amazon.com, as well as reviews of science fiction and fantasy books, and interviews with authors.

The second website is “SF REVIEWS.NET” and is a great resource for reviews on new science fiction novels. The website also has a companion YouTube series hosted by Martin Wagner.

I don’t often talk about the random things I do in my life, but I do have some interesting things to share. The first is that a few weeks ago I went out to eat with some friends at a new restaurant in East Lansing called “HopCat.” My first impressions were that it would be a great place for young people to hang out and be noisy because, well, that’s what was going on. But the food was great and they have 100 beers on tap. Also, they have a great menu design.

I get the feeling that the Dude would approve.

I get the feeling that the Dude would approve.

I spent the last weekend in Ann Arbor, hanging out with my t’hy’la , Anastasia, for International Women’s Day. She creamed me at Air Hockey and Ski Ball, but I’d like to think I put up a valiant effort. We also stopped by our friends’ apartment to celebrate a birthday, and it was great to catch up with them.

I encountered this on the way to Pinball Pete's. It's the Graduate Library and I thought it was pretty cool.

I encountered this on the way to Pinball Pete’s. It’s the Graduate Library and I thought it was pretty cool.

Going to Ann Arbor is always bittersweet for me. I love the city and I miss living there, so leaving is hard. It’s kind of funny, actually, because when I first moved there when I started college I didn’t like it. It took about two years for it to really grow on me, but when it did I just wouldn’t leave.

This little fella was climbing a tree and looked like he meant to jump on me.

This little fella was climbing a tree and looked like he meant to jump on me.

Well, dear readers, that’s all for now. But before I end this post, I’d like to thank all of my readers and all of the people who stop by and comment or like my posts. It gives me some measure of validation, and it’s really nice to know that I’m part of a community here. And, as an added treat, a bad little joke I made, playing off a well-worn meme.

Ewoks!

The Secret Inner Life of a Bibliophile

March 12, 2014 Leave a comment
Four new books to add to the collection.

Four new books to add to the collection.

I love books.

From the time I first picked up a battered copy of The Hobbit to the time when I discovered a deep affinity for science fiction when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, books have been the center of gravity that my life has orbited around. I spent five years studying English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan for that very reason, learning how to grapple with the difficult ideas that literature often forces you to face.

Books are more than just literature, though. They’re more than just allusion and framing and metaphor. They’re human, and because of that, they represent us. Our hopes and aspirations. Our fears and malevolence. Sometimes it is easy to forget that books are more than just bound pages with ink. They’re the voices of people echoing through time. Who was the first person to tell the epic of Beowulf? How many times did the words “Hwaet! we Gar-Dina…” pass between the lips of a poet, strumming an Anglo-Saxon lyre, while people huddled around a fire, captivated by the stories of a Geat who defeated a horrible monster and later became king of the Geats?

We’ll never know, but these questions have always inspired me. I learned how to read Old English and that act, inspired by images of a tradition of poet-actors who passed the story down orally, opened me to more worlds of thought than I could ever have imagined. Kennings, which are particular to Old English, helped me to see how flexible language can be. Why adhere to a rigid understanding of words and definitions when our language was so adept at using words like heofon-candel, or sky candle, to mean sun?

There aren’t many ways to see just how powerful Old English is when spoken anymore. I was lucky enough to come across two videos by Benjamin Bagby, the opening lines of Beowulf and the battle scene with Grendel, which do a magnificent job of showing how the epic poem might have been performed.

Books are also physical. Holding a copy of an old book and feeling its weight is, to a bibliophile, an affirmation of life. The smell of the fragile, often yellow pages invokes a sense of wonder. We want to collect the books we love. I tend to collect different editions and printings of the same book if I can find them. Some time ago I started to catalog my books so that I could keep track of the different editions.

That's a lot of books.

That’s a lot of books.

I think I missed the deadline by a few...decades.

I think I missed the deadline by a few…decades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things that’s absolutely wonderful about cataloging books is that not only does it allow me to show off a huge stack of slips that detail the books, but it also allows me to feel and hold each one. I have to open the book to get the information to put on the slip for the catalog, so even if I never get around to reading it (I do have a life outside of books and I do enjoy living it) I can take the time to appreciate it. The picture above and to the right is from a copy of David Starr, Space Ranger that I had recently purchased. Little things like these old order forms make me smile.

One of the drawbacks with book collecting is space. I have personally cursed the laws of physics more than once over the years as bookshelves were filled to capacity and storage containers to bursting with books. So now they exist wherever I can find room for them: under the bed, in multiple closets, and in various rooms.

Books next to the games

Books next to the games!

Piles of books on the nightstand...

Piles of books on the nightstand!

Despite the lack of space for the books, I don’t ever imagine I’ll stop collecting them. Every time I go to a bookstore I have to stop myself from grabbing up stacks of books (lest I drive myself into bankruptcy) and carting them to the counter. Collecting books isn’t just a hobby or a passion, though. In many ways it is like the accumulation of money; a kind of cultural and intellectual currency to expand the mind and enrich the soul. They allow you to connect and communicate with people that may be long dead, adding their ideas and perspectives to your own.

The search for books is the search for knowledge. Fiction can teach us about the perils and pitfalls that we must face by our nature as humans, just as nonfiction can guide our learning on history and science. We become more than what we were after we learn. We improve ourselves and we pass that on to those that come after us. And that’s the open secret we bibliophiles know. Books, like ideas and knowledge, are precious.

The Challenges of Writing Part 2; or, Why Did I Ever Decide to Do This? (The Reckoning)

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment
This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts

This sea of red is a familiar sight on my rough drafts.

Okay, hyperbolic titles aside (for now), the last few weeks have seen me mired in pages of rough draft material in need of either a red pen or an X-ACTO knife (for when something has really got to go). The above picture is illustrative of the plight of the poor author. The story, which I had originally written a few years ago as a “writing exercise” in a creative writing class, is called “Fiction.” Before I took my red pen to it, the story focused on a technique called “framing,” which ask.com defines as “the usage of the identical distinct action, scene, event, setting or any element of significance at both the beginning and end of a creative, musical or literary work.”

In the case of “Fiction,” the framing technique makes use of an unfinished short story to drive the main narrative in the real story forward. I borrowed the idea from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Captain Walton creates a narrative frame through the use of his letters, which itself is called epistolary form. Seeking to add my own unique twist to the framing technique was only obvious, and I feel as if I pulled it off convincingly enough.

The red ink you see in the picture comes from the lack of good characters and a sensible plot within the narrative. And that was the main problem with “Fiction.” It didn’t have believable or interesting characters. I’ll be uploading the finished version of this series of rough drafts (I completed three, each with less red ink than the one before) to my fiction blog “Fictional Heuristics” soon.

I have a love/hate relationship with the editing process. I love writing, from putting the words on the page to making a polished final product. I hate that I have a compulsion to seek perfection in a work. There’s always one more thing that can be tweaked. One more sentence that can be improved. I’ve worked over the years to let it go, and I’m getting better at declaring a story finished. Still, the novel-writing process has stirred new concerns in my editor’s soul.

I was recently making notes for a review I’ll write eventually about Jacqueline E. Smith’s debut novel “Cemetery Tours.” I was jotting notes about writing and narrative style when I realized that one of the constructive criticisms I had made applied to a recent draft of the prologue of my novel.

This isn’t that unusual. Editing your own material is hard work, and I don’t often spot my own mistakes in style. One of the traps that writers fall into is becoming complacent with their word use. Things like beginning multiple sentences in a row with the same word, or using so-called telling words instead of properly describing a scene. In the case of my novel, I was using the word “she” too many times, and didn’t even realize how often I had used the generic word “smiled” at various points in the eight page, 2,500-word prologue.

There are a few ways to catch things like this in your writing. To avoid the repetition of words, keep a list of commonly used words like “some,” “said,” or different kinds of pronouns at the start of sentences, and within sentences. It’s a lot of work, but it really does help reveal how often you use certain words.

Describing a scene properly usually involves avoiding to be verbs like “is,” “was,” and “are” in any tense. For instance, a sentence like “He was concerned about his friend” has the effect of dragging the reader out of a narrative because you’re just passing on information. Keep the reader grounded in the narrative by changing that sentence to something like, “He pursed his lips and swallowed hard as his friend recounted…” By showing the emotion, and not just telling the reader “he was concerned,” you keep them grounded in the novel and allow them to empathize with the character.

Of course, describing the emotion and trying to avoid labeling it is hard work, especially because we often just associate facial cues with the emotion without describing what’s happening to the face. When someone is “angry” you have a pretty good idea about what they look like. If you write about how “his face, red and contorted, threatened violence” you might need more context for the reader to understand the emotion you’re trying to convey.

You’re looking mighty angry there, Spock. Guess Vulcans have the same facial cues as humans.

Another issue that comes up fairly often is the lack of grounding in the setting. You’re creating a world, full of exciting characters and challenging problems and…you forget to keep the reader in that world by neglecting to describe it or forgetting to use the setting after you’ve set it. There’s a world of difference between “She looked him in the eye, tears streaming down her face” as the whole sentence, and grounding the characters in their setting: “Her gaze met his, and he was unable to hear her whimper over the noise of the cappuccino machine and a customer dropping loose change.”

So maybe that’s not the best example, but it illustrates the point well. Your characters live in a world. Use it.

So what’s the point of doing all of that extra work? It’s arduous, thankless, and more than once it’s driven me to consider taking up the noble art of smashing things with hammers.

I believe that the ability to look back and see your evolution as a writer is paramount in the ongoing struggle to constantly improve your writing. Keep the rough drafts with all of the red ink, and keep the lists of words and the notes you’ve made about your mistakes and stylistic shortcomings.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It's useful to go back and look at them if I'm curious to see the pattern of a story's development or old writing mistakes.

This handsome volume contains rough drafts that have been rewritten. It’s useful to go back and look at them if I’m curious to see the pattern of a story’s development or old writing mistakes.

When I'm currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They'll eventually go into the binder when I've retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it's top secret.

When I’m currently working on a draft, I keep them together with paperclips. They’ll eventually go into the binder when I’ve retyped the draft. I flipped the top one over because it’s top secret.

Don’t let a passion for writing and telling stories decay into lazy sentences. Make your characters vibrant with adjectives, make their emotions empathetical by describing them instead of labeling them, and bring your world to life by constantly grounding the reader in it. Holding your own feet to the fire is a constant challenge, and sometimes writing something just the right way can distract from ultimately telling the story, but a reader will appreciate the extra work.

And in the end, you’ll see your skills improve.

Literally, the Best Grammar and Language Series You Could Aks For

March 5, 2014 2 comments

Note: the “aks” in the title is not a spelling error. More on that later.

Back in the before time, when I was getting my undergraduate degree in English from the University of Michigan, I took a class by the intelligent and sassy Anne Curzan on the history of the English language. It was a wonderful and informative class, and I still study the text, A Biographical History of the English Language.

For the past few years, Anne has been recording videos on grammar and language for the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Youtube channel. At last count there are 24 parts, which can be found here.

The videos cover many topics in grammar and language, including the “new” use of the word “literally” as an informal and emphatic substitute for the word “figuratively” (apparently it has been traced back to the 18th century and the OED has had noted that usage for one hundred years). A large number of the videos coincide with things we talked about in her class, and one of the videos even references a conversation the class had.

Whether you’re interested in what the Old English word Ymbsittend means or what the heck a linguist means when they talk about reduplication, these videos are sure to fascinate and educate.

What I’d like to do now is to post three parts of this series and talk briefly about them, hopefully to whet your appetite for more knowledge. Well, I assume if you’ve gotten this far you’re already a fan of knowledge and weird language trivia, so that’s probably covered.

In Part 1 of “The Word on Language and Grammar” Anne talks about “-ize” words like the word problematize.

Anne defines problematize as: “to render something problematic.” From there, she focuses on a discussion of general “-ize” words and a brief history of criticisms of the words, including a bit with a letter Ben Franklin wrote to David Hume in which he claimed he was going to strike the word “colonize” from his vocabulary.

I like this video because it shows how preferences about word usage changes from generation to generation. This is actually relevant in a lot of conversations about modern English being “dumbed down” because of the ways that young people use it. Some people blame Twitter, or Facebook, or cell phones, and the concerns about shrinking vocabularies are valid. However, languages are living, and they do change. The “lol” of today could be the “colonize” of Ben Franklin’s yesterday, and could eventually be seen as normal, accepted usage.

The second video in the series focuses on a linguistic phenomenon called metathesis and how it has changed English words over the centuries. Metathesis, according to the font of knowledge wikipedia, is a rearrangement of the sounds or syllables in a word.

This video should elucidate the spelling of “aks” in the title of this post, and Anne begins by talking about the difference between the modern spelling of asterisk and how it is often pronounced (as asteriks). Later in the video she talks about the transposition in the “k” and “s” in the older word “aks” to make the modern word “ask,” and notes that Chaucer uses the “aks” pronunciation in The Canterbury Tales.

Well, dear reader, I have to be honest. This video is relevant to me because of Futurama. In the episode “Xmas Story,” Fry is having a hard time adjusting to the peculiar celebrations and culture of the future. The humans of the year 3000 had replaced Christmas with Xmas in light of the maniac Santa robot that brought murder and mayhem instead of presents. Leela, realizing that when Fry is talking about Christmas he means Xmas, says that he’s using an archaic pronunciation, “like when you say ask instead of aks.”

Now that I know about metathesis and the history of the pronunciation of the word “ask” I find this joke even funnier, because in the future it reverts back to its original form. What? That’s not funny to you? Well, you don’t know what funny is, mister (or madam…I’m not judging).

Jumping ahead to part 6 in the series, Anne talks about whether or not the pronoun they can be used as a singular pronoun.

Anne, like myself, argues that it can be used as a singular pronoun. The English language lacks a neuter third person singular pronoun, and as such, is open to all sorts of weird sentence constructs like she/he or just the use of “he” or “his” when the gender of the person in question is unknown. In speech I have no problem using the plural pronouns they, them, or their, as singular third person neuter pronouns. Even in writing, especially in dialogue, my issues with this kind of usage are almost nonexistent.

Anne counters some common arguments against such usage, such as the impossibility of a word to exist as a singular and a plural in the English language (the example of the use of “you” for both individuals and groups, for instance). More importantly, she notes that most English speakers use the singular form of they already, and I’m inclined to think that as time goes on this will become increasingly regular until we take it for granted.

Does this represent a degradation of the English language? Of course it doesn’t! It shows that speakers of a language are very crafty at finding ways to solve problems their language encounters as it is used over time. If people understand that the word “they” can be both singular and plural depending on context, the meaning of “they” as it is used is perfectly clear. It’s really quite a fascinating development in how we view the progression of the English language.

So please, watch more of these videos to learn more about the history and use of the English language.

I promise it won’t hurt.

…Well, it might.

Fictional Heuristics

March 3, 2014 2 comments

So what’s all this business about “Fictional Heuristics” and why should I care?

Well, gentle reader, I’ve decided to start a new blog that is separate from this one to post my fictional work. I thought about just posting it all here, but after consulting a few people I decided it would be wiser to create a different blog. I’ve been tossing around the idea of writing a semi-regular fictional series just for the internet and I already have a rough plan about what that would be. I think with a new blog that would be easier to realize.

Of course, this just adds another layer of work on top of all of the other projects I’m doing. A little crazy and reckless, yes, but in the end I just want to dedicate as much time as I can to this work because I love doing it.

I hope that you take the time to check it out because the primary motivation behind this enterprise is to improve my writing ability. And, of course, the only way to do that is to stick your neck out and hope that you can find people willing to critique your writing and give constructive criticisms.

I’d really like to become part of a larger writing community as well, because I like to help people improve their writing and I’m a fairly decent editor (having a degree in English and all). So lets see how this whacky experiment works out on Fictional Heuristics and whether or not I’ll actually manage to make my posts here more regular.

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