English, Mathematics

The Importance of Math for a Writer

STEM and the Humanities can get along once in a while. And this is one of those time – I believe frequent math problem solving can help a writer become more methodical (and math is also just good for your mental ‘strength’ in general).

There are browser tabs that I have open at all times – Duolingo, Lingq, and KhanAcademy. They all serve the same purpose in different way: to help me continue to learn now that I am out of college and to prevent the atrophy of what I spent the last two decades learning.

The first two are language learning tools – I have to maintain and improve my three modern languages and two ancient. This is not an easy task and sometimes I can go weeks without improving, but merely maintaining. But that is far better than regressing over those weeks.

The second service, however, I use almost exclusively for improving. I’m fully willing to admit that I not only paid little attention in high school and college math, but that what I learned then, I have now forgotten. At this rate I cannot imagine the state my mathematics education would be in in a decade or two of negligence.

However, this degradation is insidious. It’s like rust. Perhaps you see a small spot on the door of your car, but it’s hard to see so who cares? Well two winters later the inside of your door has rusted out and you need to get a whole new one. It is the same with mathematics for me; one day I realized I didn’t know an obscure integration rule, the next I forgot the lion’s share of my calculus!

Calculus is one of the crucial discoveries in the history of man. Knowing it is something to be proud of even if it is not particularly useful in day to day life. Further, once your calculus has rotted out, the rust proceeds to even more basic maths like trigonometry and geometry. At this point it can actually start to affect you.

This is a realization that I had all at once, I had completely ignored the rot of my mathematical learning for several years in university. I was focused on the humanities and my geology research required comparatively little math outside of a few specialized formulas. But when I was preparing to apply to business school, the curtains were thrown wide open and the view was ugly.

I aced the written and verbal sections of the GMAT, almost perfects scores. My math scores, however, left a lot to be desired. And when I say a lot to be desired, I mean basically everything was left to be desired. I was in the 34th percentile.

The disparity between the two was huge and I knew I had to close it before I could start applying to schools. So I laid those plans aside and decided to move abroad to work, study, and gain experience.

And to study math.

Starting from the ground up (as I don’t know what I don’t know) I am rebuilding my mathematical skills. Perhaps building would be more apt as every day I realize just how little attention I paid in math class.

Having always preferred reading, writing, and language (you know, the things that can’t help you get employed!) I massively neglected my math learning. And now that I am righting this wrong, I see how much I missed out on. And I’m not talking about grades.

Routine math practice has made me more methodical and driven to solve problems. With a math problem you know that there is a solution, but you might have no clue how to get to it. But you know there is a solution. It’s not much different than writing in that regard, you might know what you are trying to say or have a blurry outline of the direction you want to go in, but you don’t know what tools will get you there (or even if you have those tools).

Large math problems also cement the idea of small steps toward a far away destination. you can’t rush math (usually) the way that you can rush writing. If you want to get the correct answer to a complicated problem you can’t skip steps or hurry through them and still succeed. It’s impossible. Math makes you slow down.

With writing, one could in his excitement run through an entire scene or even story in a very short period of time. But with horrid description, poor character development, low style, etc. You might get to the end, but the end result is worthless. Solving long math problems forces you to take your time because there is no there is no other option.

If you develop this mentality and take it to your writing, the results are going to be much, much better.

So do your daily math even if you’d rather be reading. At the very least you’ll never have to embarrassingly admit you forgot how to do long division. Everything else is icing.

English, Uncategorized, Writing

Reviving Obsolete Words and Antiquated Phrases

No I will not be filling this article with shoehorned obsolete words.

Nowadays there is a propensity to say things like ‘languages changes this is no different’ in the fact of the slow collapse of English learning in the lower and middle class in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France (I can’t speak to others but I suspect that the situation is similar).

Vocabularies are shrinking and comprehension of grammar is slowly eroding. Nowadays students need side by side translations when reading the classics of their own language. This is absurd. One of the best things about English, and by far the greatest argument for grammatical prescriptivism, is the fact that one can go back and read very, very old literature. An educated English reader can read the unadulterated works of most major writers that follow Chaucer. Perhaps a dictionary is needed but that is all.

Even Chaucer can be read with a few hours of instruction and an edition with ample and quality footnotes on the first stories. After this it is only on occasion that the reader needs to be taught something new.

Now you might be saying ‘Oh that can’t be right, so much has changed over the centuries.’ Well you’d be right and wrong. A lot has been added to the language since Chaucer’s time but comparatively little has been removed or changed into an unrecognizable form.

This is the real patrimony of English, by just being an educated speaker there is six centuries worth of literature that is available to you!

Despite this obvious advantage there are still those that declare ‘oh a living language changes get over it.’ Well kindly va te faire voutre if you believe that. These people are willing to cut their children off from their cultural patrimony, and for what reason?

We live under the real threat of becoming something like the modern day Greeks – a people with an incredible literature, but none of them can read it. Well, the few that bother to study Koine or Attic can but that is all. The Greeks can’t read Plato or Aristotle or even the Bible because they made a decision to normalize the degenerated peasant speak because it was ‘more democratic.’ This is a degeneration that the Japanese have been experiencing since 1945 and are trying to reverse.

The opposite is the Icelanders, they, through carefully managing their language have managed to avoid letting it simplify and wander as so many European languages have. Icelanders can read the Viking sagas (Old Norse) with greater ease than English students can read Shakespeare despite the extra centuries in between!

However, we can fight this trend. Word that are obsolete and ‘old fashioned’ can be refashioned into something new and exciting. Or at least reintroduced as a literary flourish. Anything we can do to begin reversing the trend of shrinking vocabularies (Grammar will require actual work by teachers. They could start by actually teaching grammar.).

So use old words, antiquated phrases, complicated (but hopefully not unwieldily) sentence structures – in the end our progeny might thank us.

Now if only we could get people to start reading again.

English, France, Literature, Writing

I Believe in Fairies

Well I just returned from an excellent meal on Montmartre (de Leopold if anyone is interested) this evening, and I consider myself to be at the perfect level of contentment to write this article. How’s that for a title, eh?

I’ve long had a semblance of an idea in the back of my head that, to me, seems relatively novel. And like all ideas that seem novel to the individual, it is likely an idea that someone has articulated far better than I ever could (and is quite famous to boot). Regardless of the fact that it is likely not novel in the slightest, it certainly seems uncommon. That is, I rank my beliefs by how much I believe in them. It doesn’t seem that strange at first but think about it. If someone said ‘I believe in God but not as much as I believe in gravity’ it seems odd. Or at least it ought to. If you believe in God at all, that is, the omnipotent God. Then by saying that you believe in God less than you believe in gravity, then you are more or less denying the existence of God.

To say I believe in Hell but less than this apple is to damn yourself. Frankly it is ridiculous, if a single shred of you believes in an eternal pit of fire (eternal – try to imagine an eternity), then you damn well better believe in it more than the apple you hold in your hand – or at least hold it equal, as most people have a binary view of existence (real or not). This is a concept with which I have always struggled – if one is truly Christian and believe that there is the possibility of eternal torture because of things that you have done on earth – then the only logical thing to do is become a monk and devote yourself wholly to being holy. In comparison with eternity, the human lifespan is non-existant. With such a brief trial and such a long, long, long reward, why would ANY believer be anything but a devout hermit praying every waking hour?

This is kind of a demonstration of the ‘levels of belief,’ sure one many believe in God, but manifestly not so much as he believes in what is in his hand or right before him.

This is something that my mind ran with as a child. I stratified my beliefs – and by doing so I was able to believe in things that many people found ridiculous without putting them on par with my core or observable beliefs. In some cases it runs along the lines of provability or how ridiculous I would sound if i shared it with someone (although ever since one of my English professors at University told me that he believed wholeheartedly in fairies, I have had a much easier time with this belief).

So here is how this works for me – at the highest strata I have things that are core to my existence or directly observable. Here you find the belief in God (more on this in a minute), gravity, evolution, apples, etc. In the next level you have things that seem likely to exist or possible but we haven’t confirmed it yet – things like aliens and other civilizations falls under this category (I mean there are trillions of galaxies, we can’t be that special). Just below this is the eponymous level: here I have fairies, dryads, fauns, elves, etc. Then there is the level of larger things, things that I can’t tell myself ‘oh they’re hiding from us’ and that would be larger things like dragons, griffins, etc. Then there is non-belief.

If you were to ask me: ABlaine, so do you believe in God? I’d say yes, then if you asked me if I believe in fairies, the answer would be the same. I believe they both exist. It is the fact that I believe in the former that that I can believe in the latter. And as someone raised Catholic, it is very hard to just become wholesale atheist. As I said earlier, if a single fiber still believes, you may as well go for it all the way. In a way this is something like Pascal’s wager. And if an omnipotent god exists and he made us, why couldn’t these other things exist?

An it makes life so much more interesting to read Arthurian legends or Ovid’s Metamorphoses as though they actually happened (although Ovid was quite clear that he did not believe in the things about which he wrote). And there is a strong western bias here, for example I don’t believe in voodoo and the like. I am a product of Western culture, what can I say? When I go to Brittany to visit Merlin’s Tomb, the Mirror of Fairies, or Morgan Le Fay’s home – it is inexplicably more exciting for me than others.

And this is an excitement that can be found in gardens, forests, plains, mountains, the sea, anywhere really. I don’t expect to see any of these things in my life (much like the lost devout Christian would go to their shrink if they heard God speaking directly to them). But such beliefs color life in an extremely interesting way – and they give you insight into how our ancestors lived for millennia.

English, Literature

Middle English- A Fading Tradition

Less than 40 years ago Chaucer was still a critical part of the progression of an English student. At the very least there would be the expectation of having studied ‘The Canterbury Tales’ if you went to a relatively good school in the UK or a private academy in the US. If you studied English in University you could expect to also read ‘The Parliment of Fowls’ and ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ of Chaucer, ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, and ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ by an unknown poet today called ‘The Gawain Poet’ or ‘The Pearl Poet.’ These are magnificent and hugely influential writings that have been slowly forgotten by modern English speakers. And, although they are seldom read outside of academic settings, their influence is still felt in the literature. Old poetry like this doesn’t die, the tales and themes live on in the works of men who had read them.

This is one of the greatest arguments for studying Middle English (beyond the fact that it is really easy to pick up), you will begin to see the influence that ME works had and still have on English today! It is almost as eye opening as when one reads the bible for the first time and starts to see biblical themes everywhere in literature. The influence of poets like Chaucer is difficult to shake!

In the old way, my school still required public recitation in class. And one of the things that we had to memorize was the first lines of the Prologue of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ These are lines that have been studied for over 700 years and used to be common knowledge among all educated adults. Please listen to them read aloud, the are really quite beautiful:

It sounds foreign and difficult to understand but read read the beginning here:

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

It really isn’t the difficult to understand, and with a well annotated reader, one could be reading it as easily as Modern English by the end of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ People who haven’t read ‘The Canterbury Tales’ tend to think that they are rather short, but these are not tales in the vein of Grimm rather these are short stories – some 40 pages long. Unfortunately fewer and fewer people are reading these wonderful stories. And the few that do read them on translation! A real shame because ME is so easy to pick up with a little effort.

If you are at all on the fence about learning this wonderful poetic and literary tradition (a tradition you are a part of as an English speaker), please read the Miller’s Tale. It is as funny as South Park, but you’ll also be able to brag about it.


Computers, English, Writing

Handwriting and Touchtyping

Having good handwriting has long been one of the hallmarks of a well educated and well bred individual. And for good reason, it is a wonderful proxy for judging attentiveness – if one can’t be bothered to write well and legibly what else can’t he be bothered to do? Indeed, handwriting is an art in itself, much like framing is an art as much as painting, and an attractive, well made frame is going to add to the view experience. Attractive handwriting is a pleasure to read and facilitates reading in self in ways beyond just legibility, if one enjoys merely looking at writing he is far more likely to actually read it.

Bad handwriting is not just the chicken-scratch that your grammar school teachers hated so much (ans probably acquiesced to after a few weeks), no it is also overly wrought handwriting. This famous example is an excellent compromise between legibility and decoration – the goal is unique legibility.

This is unfortunately a skill that has become entirely disregarded especially as people increasing type everything that they used to write by hand. But even today when one looks at a friends writing, they will almost always make a comment if it is above our very low par. This new, democratic skill, typing, has replaced handwriting in both teaching and usage. However, like handwriting, very few bother to develop the skill. The skill to which I am referring is touchtyping and when someone can actually do it properly (a rare sight indeed), it is usually very impressive.

That is impressive, at that kind of speed there is no barrier to thought, the words are getting down onto the paper significantly faster than he could write them by hand. This is the main benefit of touch typing: speed.

However, it is usually taught in grammar or elementary school as a thirty minute class that goes on for half the year at most. At this point children have already begun using keyboards, in fact, they have probably been using them for quite a long time. Those habits are already in place and they are NOT easy to undo. As such, considering almost everyone finds touchtyping to be difficult at first, most people quit and never learn to type properly. Even when they grow up and have to type all day at their jobs, hardly anyone puts in the effort.

Until my hand was forced by switching to a new keyboard format, I steadfastly refused to go through the pain of having to learn to touchtype… Now that I have to relearn to type anyway I figured I may as well learn to type correctly. And it has been difficult but extraordinarily rewarding – everyone ought to relearn to type properly (or, better yet, switch to the Dvorak keyboard). There are plenty of good sites out there for relearning to type. So get to it and, while your at it, do something about that handwriting.

English, Uncategorized

Learn New Words, Dammit!

According to the Economist, the average adult native speaker has a working vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words. The vast majority of these words are learnt in school with acquisition ceasing almost entirely after the completion of University. This is further compounded by the fact that barely 60% of Americans read at least one book per year! Readership is slightly higher in countries like France but the decline in readership is something that can be noticed throughout the West.

Reading was once the domain of the very educated, wealthy elite. Having been democratized by movable type and the public education, reading became one of the greatest leisure activities of the modern age. Now, in the face of bright, loud, and flashy competition such as Television, the internet, and, especially now, video games, reading has faced a sharp decline. And a little mentioned side effect is the drop off this is the negative impact this has on the working vocabulary of the populace. People are not likely to encounter a new word traversing the vast Sahara of video game blogs and BuzzFeed articles. In fact I’d expect that, over time, their working vocabulary shrinks as many words are only used in a literary context. A simple way to illustrate this point is to look at so-called SAT words.These notoriously difficult and rare words ought to be second nature to someone in his 30s; however, oftentimes they are long forgotten.

Your vocabulary is not a static thing, you don’t get to wrote a word in the mental lexicon and expect it to be there five years later when you are trying to pull it out at a meeting to look a little better educated than Stephen. No, if you haven’t encountered it in five years, it’s likely long gone. You might recognize it in writing but you will be hard pressed to use it in conversation.

The best way to care for your vocabulary is to water it often. Read, both a lot and carefully: If you encounter a word of dubious meaning: for the love of God, look it up! There is no excuse with electronic dictionaries – it will take one minute at most. However, if you read frequently, there is a good chance that you rarely run across a new word. In order to keep improving, you should specifically target difficult and rarely used words. One of the ways I do this is by language learning (Latin is particularly wonderful for this) but the other is via a daily email called A.W.A.D. or A Word A Day. It is a tiny email that is sent out daily (and for me is the only non-annoying daily mailing list I’ve ever encountered) containing, well, one word per day. The word itself is included in the subject so if you already know it then there is no need to waste your time. Within the email all definitions are listed and the historical examples of usage are given, which really helps insofar as understanding where to use it.

At the end of the week a digest is sent out containing all the words of the week as well as poetry and reflections from other people the mailing list.

And finally, WRITE down every new word you learn. As a native English speaker new words should be uncommon so this is not much of a hassle. Review your list once in a while and you might be shocked how many new words you’re learning.