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.


Music Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave

Music Notes is an idea I’ve had for a while where I will take a relatively famous classical music piece and quickly run through the history of it. These articles should be short and to the point so, I hope, you will be able to get through them quickly. And, perhaps, discover something new!

One of the first ones that I have been meaning to do is Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave.

The Marche Slave (B-flat minor, op. 31) is a symphonic poem written in 1876. A symphonic poem is a short, one movement orchestral piece that is written to evoke the feeling of, well, a poem. Just using music instead of words. A common accessory to Tchikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Marche Slave is something many people could recognize but few could name upon hearing.

The piece was written just at the beginning of the Serbo-Turkish War. The Russians, as was their habit, supported the Serbians in their cause (due to shared ethnic background an religion). The Russian populace was so supportive of the Serbian cause that many Russians ran to go join the war to aid the Serbs. As an aside, this phenomenon is mentioned in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when several characters go off to join the war.

The concert was actually commissioned for the war itself (well, the Red Cross Society), it was not written out of a fit of patriotic glee; glee such as that which drew Russia’s young men into a foreign war.

The piece itself draws heavily from Serbian folk songs and the Russian national anthem of the time (God Save the Tsar). Giving it strong patriotic and nationalist tones that would have been instantly recognizable to Russians and Serbians of the time.

The piece opened in Moscow in 1876 and was conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein.

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.



Habits, Routine, and Writing

There is only one way to succeed as a writer and that is to write. ‘No shit’ you say, but do you really have a scheduled routine of writing? Not many do. In my experience writers write either to meet a deadline or when they feel inspired (with potentially very long period filling the chasms between periods of inspired writing). Writing is a skill, and like any skill, the only way to improve is through practice. It seems like with writing and art many feel as if you can’t improve unless you are working at the height of inspiration or have a particularly excellent idea.

This is idiotic. What would you say to a body builder who said he only worked out when he really felt like it? He’d never improve, or at least he’d only improve very slowly. If he worked out each day despite how he was feeling, he’d improve much quicker. And, better, when he did feel really inspired he’d probably be lifting a lot more than he would have otherwise because he had been slowly improving during the time between fits of inspiration.

It is the same with writing. If you write a lot and write often, you will have more experience and a better developed skillset for when you really want to write. That is, your writing will be much better during those inspired peaks! This becomes a feedback loop: bored but write anyway, inspired and write better than normal, excited about ability, keep writing, etc. it becomes a positive feedback loop of improvement and enjoyment.

So it is important to create habits that lead to this kind of experience. You can start now: no matter how much work you have or how tired you are, write one journal entry per day. Or even write one blog article per day. Even if they are short and no one reads them, you will still be improving and this is what matters! I mean just this week I wrote two articles that no one read but it is important in the development of the habit and the skill!

Journaling itself has a host of benefits outside of skill development that I might write about later. But right now, get to work! Go write a poem, a review, a blog article, a journal entry!


Go – A Game for the Ages

Go (Baduk in Koreq)is one of the oldest continuously played games in the world. Originating in China and coming to the western world through contact with Japan, Go is a strategy game like no other. It is simultaneously one of the simplest and most complicated board games in existence. The rules can be learnt in less than ten minutes but its was the last game to fall to an AI; AIs have been beating the most skilled Chess players since 1997, but only recently has an AI been able to beat world class go players. This is largely because Go has many, many more possible moves and many, many more possible responses than games like Chess. This is because the stones can be placed anywhere on the board that is not already occupied by another stone.

The rules are simple: stones can be placed on the intersection of lines on the board (as opposed to Chess and Checkers where you place the pieces on the squares. The stones cannot move once they have been placed – this is critical. The goal of the game is to gain territory – any intersections that are surrounded by your count as territory – and whoever has the most wins. It is usually played on a 19×19 board but the board vary from 9X9 to even bigger than 19X19, however such games could last a LONG time.

This is a slightly simplified explanation but if you can read the full rules here. It is far simpler than Chess or Checkers and you will likely be enjoying a game within ten minutes of reading the rules. However it will take a lifetime to master. The Japanese, who generally take Go the most seriously, start training as children and after weeding out the majority, those that show promise go live with a master and study for hours per day. The masters do nothing but train students and play Go; Soseki (a Nobel prize winning author) wrote a wonderful book about an old Master’s last game called The Master of Go. so if you’d like a look into this ancient system, read it.

This is a game I play more or less every day, it kills time like a video game but actually increases your problem solving ability.

Here is a wonderful website for playing online.


Sanskrit and the West – Discovery and Loss

Classical learning in the west primarily consists (or consisted if you want to take a pessimistic view of the state of classical learning) of the study of the major ancient languages – Latin and Greek. However, at the end of the 18th century another classical language entered the tradition: Sanskrit. Having always existed at the periphery of the Classical World (from a Western perspective, of course), Sanskrit the other great ancient descendant of PIEĀ  or Proto-Indo-European.

This is something that British scholars quickly realized during the process of colonization – the similarities between Sanskrit and the languages that they had studied in University were too striking. It couldn’t be coincidence. And returning to Europe with the staggering volume of writing that they had found, Sanskrit had something of a renaissance in the West – or rather, a naissance. It was quickly introduced into English and German universities where the similarities between it and the Greco-roman tradition ensued. During the 19th century this cross study of the three major languages led to the development of a whole new field of study: comparative linguistics. As well as the theory of a much, much older origin language, PIE.

Sanskrit verbs conjugation was very similar to that of Greek, though slightly less complicated. What was extremely complicated, and hence very interesting to this generation of European scholars (these were the people that eventually deciphered cuneiform and hieroglyphs) was the complicated rules regarding sound agreement, called Sandhi. These sound changes where significantly more complicated than those found in Greek (sound agreement and elision in Latin is hardly worth mentioning as it is almost entirely relegated to poetry and in the form of small contractions in the active perfect 3rd plural and a few other cases). This, combined with the fact that there was an enormous amount of material to be read led to a huge explosion of academic interest. The results of which can still be seen today as the major centers of Sanskrit studies are in the USA, England, and Germany not India.

However, this interest was not sustained and the study largely died off after the comparative aspects came to be understood. The demise of the classical education (at least as a requirement), began after the first Word War and as fewer men took up the study of their own tradition, even less took an interest in foreign traditions. Western classicist now fear a similar decline of Latin and Greek that they have seen with Sanskrit: that is, it is now relegated to a very small number of extremely specialized academics. And last time Latin and Greek retreated into the monasteries it took centuries for it to return in the form if the Renaissance.

If you have any interest in this study, University programs still exist at schools that still have serious classics programs. There is also something of a Sanskrit renaissance going on in India as the country rediscovers its roots and it’s own tradition resurfaces (it never stopped being used in a religious context). One of the best things about Sanskrit is the fact that the best literature (or what is generally regarded as the best), that of Kalidasa, is much easier to read than the majority of the Vedic works. His writing was mostly drama and truly excellent poetry.

Despite its complicated Sandhi system, the ancient Indians were extraordinarily serious about the study of grammar. Their intense study resulted in the language not changing nearly as much as one would expect over such a long period of time. This work all started with one of the first true grammarians: Panini.

I studied Sanskrit in school for a few semesters and it was extraordinarily rewarding. However I could not maintain three classical languages no matter how related they were!

Here are some resources for those interested.

Literature, Writing

Marginalia: Reading as a Conversation

For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…

I had forgotten my pen.

With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.

Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retainĀ much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.

Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.

Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.