Happy Pi Day 2015!

Happy Pi Day 2015!

Hey folks. It’s that time of year again! To celebrate one of the greatest mathematical constants in existence, I took this photo and spent the afternoon at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. I wasn’t the only one either…Special note: today was also 3/14/15, which is the most accurate calendar listing of pi digits you’ll ever see. For another 100 years, anyway!

How’d you get your pi on this weekend?

Daily Prompt: Literature And Caffeine

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about teachers. Specifically, the ones who have had a significant impact – good or bad – on your life. This one’s actually kind of tricky; I was on decent terms with all of my instructors, but few of them ever stood out. I’ve always been an overachiever in academic settings – yeah, I was that kid – so teachers focused more on helping the struggling students. I got the (quite wrongful!) impression early on that they didn’t really care about what they were teaching, and were only there for temp work or couldn’t find employment at better schools. Just show up for class, finish the assignment, get the A, and move on. Nothing personal or mind-blowing.

That all changed when I transferred to a university for my upper division coursework. In my first semester, I had a class on Renaissance Literature. I was expecting the instructor to be an bland, cranky, grandmotherly type just like nearly every English teacher I’d had before. This professor, however, was full of energy, enthusiasm, and cracked tons of jokes throughout the lecture. She was so intense and ridiculously over-the-top, it was infectious. I later found out that she had a venti triple-shot Starbucks concoction before showing up every morning. The caffeine made her the life of the party, and it gave a serious boost to her presentation. Some students don’t like that kind of loopy personality (I certainly would’ve tired of it under different circumstances), but no one could deny its effectiveness. The only time it backfired is when she misread the syllabus and assigned the entire Book of the Courtier to be finished in a single overnight reading. It was insane, but we got it done. As an apology, she dropped the final exam from the course. Coincidentally, that extensive reading helped inspire my current world view.

Woe to anyone who underestimated her, though. There was a good reason she was in charge of the department’s graduate program. As goofy as she was in lecturing, she was absolutely ruthless when it came to grading, structuring, and editing. Not doing an assignment in perfect MLA Format was an insta-fail. Don’t craft an argument well enough? Be ready to get called out on it. I pride myself on my writing, but I wouldn’t be nearly as good without her turning my work into a jumble of red marks and annotations. Some of my finest papers were written in her classes. She challenged me to improve, something no other teacher even tried. This is on top of her bringing in extra books, movies, plays, and artifacts she’d collected over the years. She cared enough about what she taught to make it interesting, and spent plenty of one-on-one time with each of her students. She wanted us to be at our best, and nothing less.

Needless to say, that Renaissance Literature class wasn’t the last I saw of her. I ended up taking her courses in Shakespeare, Milton, 19th Century British Literature, and Critical Writing On Drama. I improved with each passing course, eventually becoming one her top students. She gave me her personal copy of the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, as well as a film version of Hamlet. It eventually culminated on my graduation, as she was the one who shook my hand and nodded as I crossed the stage. That was such a long time ago, but I can remember it so clearly. I miss those strange but oh-so educational times. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to thank her for what she did…maybe with a Starbucks gift card.

A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?

Two Term Papers And A Wedding

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about pressure. Specifically, how well you perform under it. Despite my preferences for planning and making sure stuff gets done, my best work comes when I’m faced with impending deadlines, crazy odds, and possible death. I’ve fought a neighborhood fire and paid for college out of my own pocket, so I know I’ve got a focused, determined streak a mile wide. I’m like that with most projects; once I start writing an article, reading a book, or solving a puzzle, I sometimes won’t stop until it’s finished. But if I know there’s a time limit, I’ll buckle down and bust out something completely on the fly. The results are usually better than my better-paced work; some of my finest reviews were written in a single perfect draft somewhere between 1 and 3 AM. On my second run through NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting, mainly because I was running out of time. When I worked in banking, my end of day closing and auditing procedures were legendary for their speed and accuracy. All because I wanted to catch my train home, and any mistakes would’ve cost me extra time.

The stakes have been raised to ridiculous heights a few times, though. In my senior year at university, my schedule included a combination of of Pre-1800 Literature and Shakespeare courses. They were back-to-back every other weekday, and taught by the same professor in the same lecture room. It was an academic marathon that spanned several hours, but it was very much worth it. Towards the end of the term, we were given instructions on the papers we’d need to write. One covering the Greek tragedies, and the other an in-depth compare/contrast amongst three Shakespearean works. They were pretty long, but nothing mind-blowing. I figured I could do both and have time left to spare…

Then I looked at the due date. Friday.

Oh, no. No. NO. They were both due on the upcoming Friday. The very same Friday in which my cousin was getting married, and that I was supposed to attend. The one where I’d have to stay in a hotel on Thursday overnight? How was I going to get these two term papers written, printed, and handed to the professor in person when I was scheduled to be at a wedding ceremony several cities away?! The professor wouldn’t take emails, and I didn’t want to be penalized for turning stuff in late. When I got back home, I started typing up a storm. There wasn’t time to panic. I managed to get both papers done by late Wednesday night, but it still left me with the problem of printing and turning it in. How could I get this done and make it to the campus in time?

I had a crazy idea.

Before leaving town on Thursday morning, I emailed all the documents to myself. I traveled to the hotel and helped get things set up. I didn’t go out partying with the other guys or anything like that; I needed to be awake and alert in the morning for this to work. Before dawn on Friday, I showered, dressed, and left the hotel. Luckily, I wasn’t that far away from the local BART train station. The ride to the university would take nearly two hours, though. I needed to get there early enough to catch the shuttle to the campus, which is about as serious business as it gets. I barely managed to make it on time, but I knew I had to make this quick. I leaped up the campus stairs, dashed into the library, printed out my documents, and sprinted to the lecture room. I wearily set both term papers down in front of the professor – she gave me an impressed nod – and left the classroom. I raced back down to the shuttle terminal and got aboard just as it was starting its final run back to the train station. I didn’t relax until I was safely riding back to the hotel. I returned to my room, scrubbed up, and got my suit on with just enough minutes to reach the wedding on time.

When I got there, I was faced with another task. One of the people scheduled to be in the procession was MIA, and the ceremony was supposed to start in less a minute. So I – the stressed-out traveling student that had been up since before dawn – was promptly made the replacement. Before I got a chance to protest, the music started. I awkwardly shuffled forward, trying to keep a calm look upon my face. I don’t think my heart stopped pounding in my ears until the reception. By that point, I just wanted to go home. But at least I managed to get everything done. I’d done such a good job as an impromptu processioner, I was volunteered at the last moment a second time at another cousin’s wedding a few years later.

Oh, and the term papers? Perfect scores. I thrive under pressure.

The New Old School

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about school. Specifically, how and what would you change if you could design its entire curriculum. Now, this is my kind of prompt. If you’ve read some of my other entries, you know that education is really important to me. I know it sounds kind of corny, but it’s pretty serious once you start thinking about it. Even without going into all the stuff like terrible salaries and the Common Core debacle – messes I will most decidedly avoid – it’s a great, hard question that every society has had to tackle in one way or another. So, let’s just assume this prompt allows us to have an unlimited budget and focus on the bigger picture. What do you pass on to the next generation? What knowledge is essential to not only the making of a good citizen, but a person in general?

I’d draw my inspiration from history. Ever hear of a classical education? Students were taught the fundamentals of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and pretty much every facet of human activity as they understood it. Once the basics were covered, they’d switch over to stuff like arithmetic, geometry, history, and the sciences. Sound familiar? Even over a thousand years ago amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire, people understood the necessity of a well-rounded education…Except that literacy was pretty much reserved for the uppermost social classes. And technology and the sciences were limited and slow to advance because, you know, it was the Middle Ages.

It was a work in progress.

These days, we’ve got the opposite problem. We’ve progressed so far in technology, there’s literally too much for one curriculum to handle. It’s like trying to find a legit, in-depth scientific article via Google search. You’ve got to dig through pages of junk before finding anything useful. Now, just imagine doing that when you’re trying to create a multi-year plan. You can’t just throw out the essentials like reading, writing, and mathematics. You need those to understand everything else, and all of them need to be emphasized just as much as the others. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could communicate in the adult world on just tweets and texts. I wouldn’t settle for teaching popular works; I’d go with the most influential. Not just Shakespeare, either; Homer’s epics, Aristotle, Thoreau, Austen, Orwell, Marquez, Borges, Doyle, Poe…the potential list is mind-boggling. As for mathematics, the basics would remain unchanged, but pacing and fully understanding the process would be important. I know the consequences firsthand; going into my freshman college year, I tested high enough to be placed in Calculus…but I’d never taken a day of trigonometry before.

Yeah, you can imagine how that turned out.

Once the basics are out of the way, the courses would expand to history, languages, humanities, sports, economics, music, communications, technologies, and the sciences. Well-stocked laboratories, networking with other facilities, and a robust athletic program would be expected. If you want to learn a new language or two, you could use the blackboard computer interface to contact with the corresponding teacher on the other side of the world. After spending a couple of years doing an overview of various fields, students would be allowed to choose what courses they’d like to take as electives. I’d try to avoid any of the watered-down “correct” stuff; kids need to have a greater understanding of the world around them. Mankind’s history is a fascinating, grisly tale of survival and discovery that still impacts us today. Hey, fellow Americans, remember the Declaration of Independence? The freedom we so stereotypically cherish? It’s based on the philosophies of the Enlightenment. You know, that major European cultural movement? The one that helped revolutionize the scientific method? The thing responsible for the evolution of Western society as we know it?

Understanding history and other cultures is kind of important.

Even if every course is somehow perfected and made available, it still only solves part of the problem. It’s not just about the classes, but how the students perceive them. It’s not just because they’re lazy or distracted; it’s because we as adults aren’t encouraging them enough. Anti-intellectualism is still a huge problem in our society; we can’t expect to thrive as a culture if our descendants aren’t as knowledgeable as we are. Then there’s the whole segregation of interests based upon things like gender or sexuality. There’s a reason you hear about women’s lacking education and career presence in the news all the time. And yeah, you’d better believe I’d encourage girls to pursue whatever academic interests they have. However, I wouldn’t do it just for female students. Male students deserve just as much attention, yet their interests are increasingly brushed aside under the assumption that they’re just acting out or can do whatever they want. It’s ridiculously biased and loaded with unfortunate implications; people should succeed based upon their own abilities, not out of adherence to political correctness or underlying prejudice. Wish I had that help when I was clawing my way to the top of the class. Look, I don’t care what you have in your pants; everyone needs help to reach their full potential.

Sigh.

You know, it’s a good thing I’m not actually an educator. If I can get this ticked off by just writing a blog post about education, I’d probably have a heart attack trying to implement it in real life. So, I’ll just stop now and leave you with this quote from Metal Gear Solid 2:

Solid Snake: Life isn’t just about passing on your genes. We can leave behind much more than just DNA. Through speech, music, literature and movies…what we’ve seen, heard, felt…anger, joy and sorrow…these are the things I will pass on. That’s what I live for. We need to pass the torch, and let our children read our messy and sad history by its light.We have all the magic of the digital age to do that with. The human race will probably come to an end some time, and new species may rule over this planet. Earth may not be forever, but we still have the responsibility to leave what traces of life we can. Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.

Think about it.