Awkwardness in the Checkout Lane

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shopping cartIt was a beautiful early afternoon, and I was standing in the checkout line in the Wal Mart across the street from church, patiently waiting my turn to buy my stuff while I pondered my plans for the half-day ahead of me and rejoiced at the thought that it was finally warm enough that I would be able to open my dorm room window. Then it happened. I saw some people who I knew. In fact, I had been talking to them quite recently, since the context of our acquaintance was church.

I borrowed this picture from Google.

I borrowed this picture from Google.

Despite my long-held conviction that it is awkward to meet people I know at places such as Wal Mart, my first thought was that I should wave and call out a friendly greeting. This idea already presented some awkwardness for, as many people who know me would attest, I am not a calling-out-friendly-greetings-in-public-places kind of person. I have objections to this practice on account of my inherent tendencies towards awkwardness. It would look silly if I were to yell “Hi!” and they didn’t hear me, which is a significant likelihood, as I apparently have a fairly quiet voice, and people often don’t hear me. Besides, these people who I knew were pretty far away. I could, of course, have gone over to talk to them, but that wouldn’t have been any less awkward, because it would have either required me to abandon my shopping cart, which is a strange thing to do, or to abandon my place in the line. Considering the fact that the last time I had talked to these people had been at most twenty minutes ago, I didn’t have anything other than “hi” to say to them. It seemed to me that it would be incredibly awkward to go out of my way to talk to them for no reason other than the fact that it is the social convention to be friendly when you see people you know. In short, the only safe and non-awkward thing to do was to not announce my presence to them. If they happened to notice me and say hi, that was fine.

Or was it? Even that would have been a little awkward, because, in our recent conversation, none of us had happened to mention that we would be stopping at Wal Mart on the way home. Since the church is so close to Wal Mart, our mutual presence there wasn’t exactly an astonishing coincidence, but it was a coincidence, anyway, which made the situation awkward. Either awkward or funny, I wasn’t sure which. When one is as socially inept as I am, there is a very fine line between awkward and funny, and it is generally quite difficult to know which is which.

I looked into my shopping cart to see if I was purchasing any embarrassing items, and the answer was yes. To clarify, the reason for my embarrassment was not so much the items themselves as the fact that I am easily embarrassed. The only way to avoid embarrassment would have been if I was only buying a loaf of bread or something like that. The embarrassing merchandise in question was pantyhose and facial cleanser, nothing that other people would have been likely to consider embarrassing.

This is not the brand or the kind I got, but still, this gives you an idea of the disturbing merchandise I had in my shopping cart.

This is not the brand or the kind I got, but still, this gives you an idea of the disturbing merchandise I had in my shopping cart.

There are several reasons that I find pantyhose embarrassing, the main one being that “pantyhose” is an aesthetically disturbing word. (That is to say, it’s ugly.) I generally call them “tights” even though they aren’t tights, and when I need to make a distinction, I call them “nylons”, but in this context, the word “pantyhose” is the only word I am allowed to use for them, because they came in a cardboard thingy that clearly said “pantyhose” on it. In accordance with my disdain for postmodernist rejection of labels, I am compelled to accept the terminology that has been officially assigned to a product by the manufacturers for as long as said product remains in the packaging. I also find “pantyhose” somewhat embarrassing because I sort of think of it as a category of underwear, and because the fact that I was buying it was clearly related to the fact that the “pantyhose” I was wearing at that time had several conspicuous holes and runs. This was indeed the reason that I was purchasing more “pantyhose”, for the “pantyhose” I was wearing at that particular moment had been the most complete “pantyhose” in my dresser.

Really scandalous stuff, right?

Really scandalous stuff, right?

The reason that facial cleanser is embarrassing, obviously, is that I don’t want people to know that I wash my face. Actually, that’s not really true. I have no logical explanation for why facial cleanser is embarrassing. But I’m not always logical about such matters.

Given these considerations, I reevaluated my options. I could call and wave to the aforementioned people I knew. I could go over and say hi to them. I could abandon the shopping cart to go run and hide, despite the fact that these people are nice people to whom I enjoy talking. Or I could continue buying my stuff as planned without making any attempt to make the aforementioned people I knew aware of my presence.

I opted for the last of these options. A few minutes later, I was in my car leaving the store, and the rest of my day occurred more or less normally. (That is, it was as close to normal as any day can ever be for a weirdo like me.)

Unedited Ramblings, Episode One

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I would like to propose the theory that there are four different types of ideas, which I shall refer to as the concrete real, the abstract real, the concrete unreal, and the abstract unreal.  The concrete real consists of material objects and specific events, whether these events be historical occasions or what I had for lunch last Friday. (It was pizza, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.) The abstract real is things such as mathematical principles, the laws of physics, and philosophical and theological truths. For the sake of this description of my classification, I will not discuss at length the question of whether truth is objective, but since that question is already implied by the use of the word “truth” in this context, I will acknowledge that I am assuming the existence of objective reality and objective truth. I don’t think that point is actually all that necessary to this system of classification, though, because it isn’t necessary to take into consideration whether something is objectively true or observed to be true. For example, ethical rules fall under this second category whether those rules are innate or socially constructed. Basically, this category that I call the abstract real is made up of things that exist, but not in a tangible or directly observable way. We can only use these ideas by representing them with words and numbers, which technically are arbitrarily designated signs and sounds with no inherent meaning of their own.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

The third category, which I am calling the concrete unreal, refers to fiction or to any game or form of entertainment that involves pretending. It is the things that don’t actually exist, but can be imagined to exist because they follow the same rules of being as things that do exist. We can imagine that it would be possible for these things to be true in the objective reality in which real things exist. Even magic and science fiction fall into this category, despite the fact that they disagree with reality in some ways, because we’ve all experienced many situations that seemed to defy those rules of reality to a small extent. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to use the ideas of invisibility or magical mental powers or technology beyond the scope of our own. However, it’s much more difficult to imagine a world in which two plus two equals five (not because “two” or “five” have been redefined, but because numbers actually work in a different way) or where there are fifty dimensions in coordinate space instead of three, or where there is no such thing as time. These types of concepts are not only outside of the realm of reality as we know it; they can’t even be explained with the words and numbers that work just fine to explain things within reality. These types of ideas are what I am calling the abstract unreal.

It may be fairly obvious that I started writing this blog post in my head while doing the reading assignment for my class in postmodernism. In general, I disagree with postmodern ideas and even find them kind of disturbing, mainly because of the underlying principle that everything is subjective and there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T. The books that we’re using for this class stress that you can’t boil postmodernism down to a simple description, but they only say that because it is so anti-postmodern to think that you can classify ideas under a label. I disagree; I think that you can classify ideas under a label as long as everyone using the label agrees about what the label means. That’s the whole point of labels. If they don’t always work, it’s because people misuse those labels, either out of ignorance or out of a postmodern-inspired inclination to mess up the validity and reliability of description. I agree that shapes on a piece of paper or a computer screen have no inherent meaning, and that language only is capable of communicating because we have assigned certain meanings to certain sounds and shapes. But once those meanings have been assigned, I think that we’re supposed to stick to the rules in order to ensure that the rules continue to work.  Despite the oft-repeated statement made by a couple dolls my sister and I used to have, you can’t redefine words to suit your present needs.

So, on those counts, I disagree with postmodernism, but I think that there’s still much to be said for the distinction between that which is being signified and that which signifies. Just as a portrait of a person is not that person and a photograph of a mountain is not a real mountain, a word is not an idea, just something that represents an idea. To read or even to listen to someone speak is to decode a system of metaphors that represents ideas (whether they correspond to reality or not, and whether they are concrete or abstract) with arbitrary sounds. As weird as postmodernism is, it’s right about the fact that every medium of communication, whether by word or by image, only has meaning because we assign meaning to it.

BoFor example, my sisters who live at home sometimes email me pictures of the cat or post pictures of him on tumblr. When they do so, they’re sending me a two-dimensional visual digital image of him that technically has no more in common with him than does a picture of asparagus, for example, despite the fact that Bo himself has very little in common with asparagus. But when I see those pictures, they make me think of him and they remind me of what an awesome cat he is. That is not the way I would react to a picture of asparagus. Most likely, if any of my sisters were to email me a picture of asparagus, I would be completely baffled, because I have fewer connotations with asparagus than I do with the cat. (It is now extremely likely that I will get at least a couple asparagus emails from my sisters in the relatively near future, and if that does happen, I won’t be very baffled after all. I have just added a connotation to visual representations of asparagus by mentioning it in this context.)

Gone with the WindTo relate this back to my four categories of ideas, the cat and the asparagus belong to the concrete real. This computer in front of my face is concretely real, and so are the books stacked behind it. Directly in front of my face, I see my linear algebra textbook. If I was to pick that up and open it right now, I would see a bunch of numbers, equations, and algorithms for solving those equations. The things in that book are abstractly real. The mathematical theorems described in the book are true, but they can only be described and explained by words and mathematical notation printed on a page or written on the classroom blackboard or spoken by my professor or written in my notes. Behind me, there’s another bookshelf where I keep most of my non-school books. A lot of them are fiction. For example, I could pick up Gone with the Wind, open it up, and start reading about the Civil War. The book is concretely real, the Civil War was concretely real, but the life of Scarlett O’Hara isn’t real. It never happened, but it conceivably could have. Most of the historical events in the book really happened, and there really were people very much like the characters in the story. Just as the words on the page represent the story, the experiences of Scarlett O’Hara represent the experiences of people who really lived in Georgia in the 1860s. Thus, the story of Gone with the Wind is concretely unreal. That book is the obvious example because it has so many historically verifiable facts, but the same goes for fictional stories that are less solidly based in reality. Most of the books on that shelf are set in places that really exist, or have characters with believable and realistic personalities, or make some metaphorical statement about the real world. For most of those books, all of those things are true. And in none of them do the rules of space and time work significantly differently than they do in real life. (With the possible exception of my Douglas Adams books. And also the possible exception of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, because I still have absolutely no clue what that book is saying, even after having read it three times.) The line between what I call the concrete unreal and the abstract unreal is quite a bit fuzzier, but I still think there’s a distinction. To use the terminology from my postmodernism class, the concrete unreal can be described and expressed using the same signifiers as the concrete real. A drawing of a fictional character doesn’t necessarily look different from a drawing of a real person. But the abstract unreal doesn’t make sense when expressed with the signifiers that we use to talk about reality.

The question that it would make sense to ask here is why I think there’s any significance to making these distinctions. The short answer is that I love making distinctions; making distinctions is fun. Inventing a system of classifying things or ideas is a very entertaining hobby. The longer answer is that I think that these four categories I have just labeled correspond to different types of intelligence. The concrete real is scientific, the abstract real is mathematical and/or philosophical, the concrete unreal is literary, and the abstract unreal is artistic. An intelligent person is someone who has some grasp of all four types of ideas and who excels in at least one. A genius is someone who has a good grasp of all four types of ideas and who is able to express the ideas from one category in the terminology of another. That’s what’s so impressive about great theoretical physicists like Einstein; they build real concepts out of thought experiments that start as abstract unreal ideas.

Since this blog post has been slapdashly written and probably has not followed a logical and organized structure, I am not going to bother coming up with a good way to conclude it.

 

In which I use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time googling things

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valentine's dayToday, my news feed on facebook and my dashboard on tumblr seem to be mainly composed of posts relating to four categories: 1) Expressions of affection for a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/other family member/best friend, etc. 2) Expressions of sadness  that the individual writing the post in question is “celebrating Valentine’s Day alone” 3) A statement that either praises the customs associated with Valentine’s Day or condemns the holiday as overrated/corny/stupid/commercialized, and then often goes on to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree, and  4) Philosophical musings about the definition of “Love”.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone on the internet say anything about Valentine. That word is generally used to refer to the type of card that people give or receive on Valentine’s Day, or to a person to whom one would give such a card. But the word Valentine is actually a name, and the holiday Valentine’s Day is named for a person named Valentine. So I decided that this would be a nice time to write a blog post about Valentine, but I had a little problem. You see, I know absolutely nothing about Valentine. (Except that he is presumably a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, because that is the likeliest explanation for why he has a day named after him, and why it is occasionally called “Saint Valentine’s Day”) So I have enlisted the help of Google and Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary in order to bring you some information about Valentine and the history of Valentine’s Day.

Saint ValentineThere are in fact multiple significant historical figures named Valentine, although the internet doesn’t seem to be quite sure how many. Three seems to be the most common suggestion, but I am finding references to what seems to be a lot more than three distinct people. One person named Valentinus was pope for forty days in the year 827, according to the biographical dictionary, which doesn’t give any other information about him. Another Valentinus was a second century Gnostic heretic. Then there were three Roman emperors by the name of Valentinian. The famous two Saint Valentines (who may or may not actually be the same person) were/was a Roman priest who was martyred by Claudius II in 269 and a bishop of Interamna, which is now called Terni. Thanks to Google maps, I now am capable of informing you that Terni is a province in central Italy, 106 kilometers away from Rome, and that if you were to drive from Rome to Terni, that route would have tolls. (Just a heads-up. You’re welcome.)

Saint Valentine’s association with romance seems to be mainly a thing of legend. One story that I saw online says that Valentine was in prison and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, thus beginning the customs associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the fact that we don’t even know how many different people this guy was, I find this story to be somewhat unreliable. But it is true that the list of things of which he is the patron saint includes “love” and “happy marriages”. I don’t know enough about the way the Roman Catholic canonization process works to know whether or not that might be a result of traditions that later became associated with his holiday.

Saint ValentineEvidently, the actual origin of the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day was a Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15, and it was a pagan festival of fertility, associated with the god of agriculture and with the legendary founders of Rome. When Rome became Christian, Lupercalia was outlawed because it was pagan, but when February 14 became a holiday in the late fifth century, it would seem that some of the pagan associations with that particular time of the year gradually became associated with the new holiday. Our idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday originates in medieval France and England. The oldest known Valentine’s Day card was made in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was to his wife, whose name was Bonne d’Armagnac, a piece of information that required an additional google search on my part. Charles wrote this valentine from the Tower of London, where he was in prison for being French and getting captured by the English in the Battle of Agincourt.

Esther A. Howland

Esther A. Howland

Valentine’s Day was commercialized by a woman named Esther A. Howland, who began making mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. One final google search reveals that Esther Howland lived from 1828 to 1904, although she retired in 1881, and that one of her contributions to the traditions of Valentine’s Day was putting red paper behind the white lacy part of a valentine.

The other really important Valentine’s Day tradition originated when someone once wrote a “recipe” for a cooking magazine that my mother used to get, which pointed out that if you combine un-jelled red jello with un-set pudding (both made from boxed mixes) and then put that combination in a pan and stick it in the refrigerator, then cut it with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, you get red jello-pudding hearts.

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

Today is not a holiday; tomorrow is

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Mardis GrasI didn’t know what Mardis Gras was until I was twelve years old. You see, before that, my family had lived in The Land Where People Don’t Put Sugar In Their Iced Tea, aka not the South. It’s not that non-Southerners are in general completely ignorant of the existence of Mardis Gras; it’s just that it isn’t a major part of the culture, and so it didn’t happen to be something that had ever come up in my own experiences up to that point. And then we moved to the South, where Mardis Gras is a fairly noteworthy holiday associated with specific traditions and connotations. (I’d rank it somewhere between Saint Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day in cultural prominence) I’m sure that Mardis Gras here is nowhere near as big a deal as it is in New Orleans, but it still is an important enough occasion to be the topic of many facebook statuses, the theme in the cafeteria today, and the reason for various parties. That wasn’t the way things were in the Midwest. Don’t get me wrong; I love the South, (and I prefer my iced tea to be sweetened) but I’m really not a fan of the whole Mardis Gras thing.

Mardis Gras is, by definition, the day before Ash Wednesday. (Although, depending upon the context, Mardis Gras doesn’t necessarily refer only to the one day) “Mardis Gras” is French for “Fat Tuesday”, which, along with “Shrove Tuesday”, is an alternate name for the occasion. The original point was that the last day before Lent should be a day of feasting and celebration because of the fasting that would occur when Lent started. That already seems like a kind of silly idea to me. It’s comparable to deliberately eating unhealthily right before starting a diet, but even less logical because a diet is something you do for the sake of bettering your health, not because it’s Lent. (Although I hear a lot of people talking about going on a diet for Lent because they want to lose weight. They’re kind of missing the point; giving something up for Lent is not the same thing as a New Year’s Resolution.) What makes the observance of Mardis Gras even sillier, though, is that there are people who celebrate it who aren’t Christians, don’t observe Lent, and don’t think of Mardis Gras as being religious in any way.

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine's Day

Pictured: How to celebrate Valentine’s Day

I do understand the argument that just because an observance had a religious origin doesn’t mean that it is still a completely religious occasion. After all, we observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating secular notions of romantic love and by eating red jello, and we observe Saint Patrick’s Day by celebrating Irish culture and eating green jello. That isn’t sinful, even though those days were originally religious observances, and so I suppose it technically also isn’t sinful to observe the last day before Lent by wearing colored beads and eating whatever color jello we think should be associated with Mardis Gras. (Yellow? Purple? Actually, as far as I know, Mardis Gras isn’t a jello holiday, but perhaps it should be, since it has so much in common with the other jello holidays. Maybe I’d like Mardis Gras better if it was a jello holiday.) Of course, some people would argue that the religious/secular shift goes both ways; they claim that Christmas and Easter weren’t originally religious holidays. Actually, it is more accurate to say that they are religious holidays that happen to coincide with pagan holidays, and that our current culture has a tendency of blending traditions with different histories and ignoring the fact that some of them are Christian and others are pagan. And yes, in the case of Christmas, it’s true that our observance of the holiday probably doesn’t fall very close to the time of year when it actually took place. But that’s something of a tangent because I’m really just talking about Mardis Gras.

Mardis GrasMardis Gras is more or less unique in being a holiday that I dislike; in general, I am in favor of any reason to treat any day as being special, to use it as an excuse to celebrate, and to associate it with enjoyable traditions. Basically, my objection to Mardis Gras is that it takes away from the significance of the beginning of Lent. For all of the fuss that people make over Mardis Gras, Ash Wednesday gets so little attention that some people think it only exists in the Roman Catholic church. (As a Lutheran, I can’t help feeling a little indignant when people ask me if I’m Catholic.) I haven’t heard my classmates talking about Lent, but I’ve heard an awful lot about Mardis Gras and about the Mardis Gras parties that will ironically be held this weekend after Lent has already started. The only reason that I’ve even seen much talk about Lent on the internet is that I know a lot of cool people who post religious things online. Even then, I think I’ve seen a lot more Mardis Gras themed things.

Because I’m a little short on time, I’m not going to continue this blog post in the logical direction (which would be to say something about Lent) and I’m also not going to try to justify the fact that I actually do like Halloween, which is also a secular holiday that was originally observed as the day before a religious holiday. I don’t think I really need to justify that anyway, because this really is just my opinion; I’m not trying to make any kind of moral statement. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about Mardis Gras, it’s just that I’m not used to observing it, so I am a little bit bothered by its cultural prominence. And also, if we’re going to celebrate it, we really ought to assign a certain color of jello to it. I’m voting for yellow.

Why I’m a Math Minor

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knotsAfter the end of classes on Friday, I attended a riveting talk by a guest mathematician who was in town for some sort of conference. He was a knot theorist, and in his talk, he introduced us to the beautiful and extremely interesting mathematical principles of knot theory and topological graphing as related to knot theory. I admit that a good deal of it went over my head, mainly because of unfamiliar terminology, but I still found it fascinating. It was a great way to spend the first hour of my weekend. That may sound like sarcasm, but it isn’t. I truly did enjoy the talk, and I truly did leave it feeling much happier and much more motivated about life in general than I ever have after having heard an inspirational speech. (Inspirational speeches, in my opinion, are quite corny and fairly irrelevant despite the fact that they are specifically trying to be universally relevant.)Despite the fact that I didn’t understand everything the speaker said, I now am interested in finding books and online articles in order to learn more about knot theory. And I almost find myself wishing that I had another semester or two left after this so that I could take more math classes and become a math major instead of a minor.

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

The cool elevator in the math building at my college

People are always surprised when I tell them that I’m minoring in math. In part, this is because I already am a double major and I’m in the honor’s program, and this situation has led to the need to take ridiculous course overloads several semesters. Adding another minor on top of all of that does seem a bit excessive. Besides that, my two majors are dance and English, and both of those fields seem to be very distinct from mathematics. At my college, it seems like most of the English majors hate math with a passion, and most people who have non-humanities majors dislike English almost as strongly. The dance program is actually somewhat of an overlap area; I’m aware of several people who have graduated with a dance/English double major in the past few years, and I’m aware of several current or recent dance students who have also taken a lot of math classes, either as a math major (or minor) or as a business major. In fact, considering how few dance students there are, it’s interesting just how frequently I have had a classmate in an upper-level academic class who is also a classmate in dance. But I don’t know anyone else who has taken upper-level classes in all three programs.

My decision to be a math minor is even stranger in light of the fact that I myself am one of those kinds of English majors who hates math with a passion. I always have. When I was little, math was the bane of my existence, and it only got worse when I got into algebra. I couldn’t wait to get to college, where I could take classes only in things that interested me and never do any math ever again. If someone had told my little-kid self or my high-school-aged self that I would voluntarily take five mathematics classes in college, (not to mention a logic class and a couple of science classes that required mathematical knowledge) and that those classes would be among my favorite college courses because of their structure and objective logic, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Yet I somehow did become the kind of person who appreciates mathematics for its precision and its order and its sheer usefulness.

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

The cool stairs in the math building at my college

My hatred of math stemmed from the fact that I just wasn’t any good at it. This wasn’t entirely a case of stupidity; I was homeschooled and my parents used a very difficult math curriculum. They still insist that those math books are wonderful and that my siblings and I benefitted greatly from them. I still insist that those math books were evil and that they caused much emotional trauma in my childhood. I blame them for all of the problems in my life, from my social ineptness to my concerns about paying for college to the way my Achilles tendon sometimes makes a disturbing snapping noise in the middle of dance class because of an ongoing case of tendonitis. I’m not quite sure what this has to do with childhood mathematical trauma, but it surely does.

When I started college, I knew I was going to have to take a math class at some point, and I wasn’t happy about it. I took calculus I during the spring of my freshman year, and I went into that class expecting that it would be miserable and that I would do terribly. I resolved to put a lot of time and effort into that class, but I wasn’t optimistic that it would pay off. But it did. In fact, once I somehow managed to get through the first few weeks, it stopped being particularly difficult, and by the end of the term, I was consistently getting perfect scores on homework and exams. That semester was a very frustrating time for me in regards to dance, and it was very reassuring to be doing well in academics. That class ended up being stress-relieving rather than stressful. When I took statistics in fall of my junior year, it was just because I had to take one more math or social science, but it turned out to offer the same comforting stability in my life that calculus had. I didn’t do quite as well in statistics, but I still ended up getting an A with plenty of room to spare. In the meantime, I felt as if my dance and English classes were being graded on a subjective scale according to a secret rubric. It was at some point during that semester that I decided to get the math minor by taking three more math classes over the next three semesters. I took calculus two that spring and am now taking calculus three and linear algebra.

A cool wall in the math building at my college

A cool wall in the math building at my college

It’s too soon in the semester to be making judgments about how well these classes are working out for me, but I feel like things are promising. After struggling in calculus two, I’m not counting on getting spectacular grades in these upper level classes, but then again, my schedule is so much lighter now than it was then, and I’m a year older and smarter, and I’m sure I gained some mathematical proficiency by fighting my way through that course. In fact, my calculus two professor encouraged me towards the math minor because he thought that I was sufficiently competent to do it. So now I have found myself living in a world where advanced mathematics are a major part of my everyday life and I am learning to solve problems that would have terrified me out of my wits not long ago.

When I started studying from my linear algebra textbook for the first time, it struck me what it is that I’m doing. The book occasionally uses phrases like “later in your career”, as if anyone who’s taking that class will go on to be a mathematician or something. Of course, math majors don’t take that class in their second semester of senior year; they’re more likely to take it as juniors, and then they still have several higher –level math classes to take. Those are classes that I’ll never reach, and so my linear algebra book isn’t really talking to me when it defines its audience as future professional mathematicians. Still, these math people are my fellow classmates. I’m taking classes that would be well beyond the scope of my abilities or interest if it wasn’t for the fact that I just couldn’t resist the urge to take on one more thing.

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

The cool ceiling window (aka Solar Lumination Portal) in the math building at my college

That doesn’t really answer the question of why I would be a math minor. After all, my career plans don’t involve math, and if all I wanted was the sense of logical comfort that I don’t find in an English class, I would have been better off not taking the extra math classes and finding logical comfort in some aspect of life that doesn’t involve the stress of tests and grades. Maybe I was also motivated by the desire to get as many majors and minors as possible in order to feel smart and successful, but I don’t think that played a very large role in my desire to minor in math, because I am well aware of the fact that things don’t work that way. People who graduate with double majors are no more intelligent or accomplished than people with one major, and throwing a minor into the mix doesn’t really make me a better person, either. I think I had another motivation for going for the math minor. It’s that math is hard and it’s made me very unhappy at times, and I can’t let it win.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren't generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I would like to point out that this is an incredibly awesome book. It explains simple principles of interesting mathematical topics, such as probability and topology, that aren’t generally taught at a grade school level, and it does it all with a tone that is sympathetic to the math-hating child who nonetheless finds it fun to play with numbers.

I generally enjoy helping my younger sisters with their math. There are several reasons for that, including the obvious facts that they appreciate it and that it makes me feel like I’m clever. The main reason, though, is that I have survived those very same math books, and so I am glad for the opportunity to go back and gloat in their evil faces. My poor innocent sisters now must suffer the same hardships that I did, but here’s the cool part. When I’m helping them with their math, I have the privilege of saying that the math book is stupid, pushing it aside, and doing the problem my way. When I was little, I was never allowed to say that the math book was stupid, and my parents got mad when I insisted that the math book was to blame for my failure to understand certain concepts. But now I’m allowed to look at the book and say, “This doesn’t make any sense. No wonder you don’t get it. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was in this book.”  And then comes the part where I call the book stupid and explain the problem my own way. There have been a number of times that I have succeeded where the book has failed in explaining a concept to my sisters. In other words, by figuring out how to do math, I am defeating my old enemy, the odious math book. I think that’s good motivation for getting a minor in mathematics.

There’s this book I’m reading, episode 4

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1984I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.

When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future.  This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)

I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.

The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.

OrwellThat’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific.  You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”

Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood.  This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”

Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.

As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.

I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful.   It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.

Rules of Life

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My life is so adjectiveIt’s the first day of the week and this coming Tuesday is the first day of the semester, and that means it’s time for me to reorganize my schedule. Actually, this entails organizing and planning more than just my schedule. For example, as my blog post from yesterday shows, I have recently rearranged my dorm room. It is necessary that I do this at the beginning of each semester. In this particular case, it was especially needed because, over the last couple of months, my room had become messier and less ordered than I usually allow it to get. This state of affairs in my room has been fairly reflective of the state of affairs in my schedule and the way my brain works. The time has clearly come, not to make changes necessarily, but to clearly define the way things sort of are already and should be all the time.

Approximately three months ago, I spent a fair amount of time writing down lists of my life priorities, my opinions about various important things, and my life rules. I further summarized these lists into a few principles so concise that they had the appealing quality of a simple algorithm.  Thus, I concluded, I had clearly defined my personal rules of life, and everything would make sense, and I would be completely capable of solving any problem easily and neatly. It didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, I would say that between then and now, my life has made very little sense and has been generally uncool in several ways, some of them very specific and others very abstract.

ListThe fault did not lie with my life rules, which were sufficiently logical and axiomatically accurate. The problems lay with my life, which is too complex and too unpredictable to be governed by such a simple set of rules, and my brain, which doesn’t always follow my own rules. You see, I’m so obsessive about organizing and planning things that I feel a need to even script out my thoughts before thinking them. When my brain goes off-script, it’s confusing and disorienting, but this is an inevitable occurrence, because life itself goes off-script all the time.

There are two ways to respond to this conundrum. I could just accept the fact that life is unpredictable, illogical, and full of surprises. The only way to deal with it is to learn how to improvise a little, to be capable of changing my mind or altering my plans, to tolerate change and to accept the fact that sometimes I don’t know what to do or what to think and I need to just take a guess. Alternatively, I could stick with my conviction that everything is quantifiable and that I could make sense out of life if I just had more data.

I've got life down to a scienceTherefore, here are the new rules of my life. My values and priorities will follow the system laid out a few months ago, which is no different from the less specific system I already followed. My schedule will be consistent from week to week and will follow the plan that I wrote a few days ago. This schedule, of course, revolves around my classes. In the meantime, I will be obsessively collecting data on everything. I have developed methods of quantifying cognitive efficiency and emotion, which I will be tracking on a multi-daily basis. I will keep records of time spent sleeping, eating, dancing, studying, and sitting in class. I will be noting the music I hear, the food I eat, the degree of my health, and the weather patterns. Furthermore, each day will be evaluated on a scale measuring it against normality according to a specific standard set forth by my daily schedule. All of these factors will be noted and evaluated for the purpose of discovering any correlations. For example, does less sleep lead to decreased cognitive functioning? Do certain kinds of music motivate me to study more? To what extent does weather affect my emotional state? Am I correct in my presupposition that normality in my schedule leads to a maximum mental ability, good health, and positive emotions? These are all things that I feel a need to know in order to develop successful life algorithms in the future.

Pictured: an actual nutcase

Pictured: an actual nutcase

Anyone who is sufficiently versed in psychological theory, either real or as-seen-on-TV, will probably have come to the conclusion by now that I feel a need to document and record everything in my life in order to compensate for insecurities that stem from a fear of lack of control. Very observant, psychological people. But you haven’t really noticed anything that I don’t already know and wouldn’t have been capable of explaining. I am, in fact, a complete nutcase who is just trying to find a way to make statistical sense out of the confusing, stressful, and frequently unpleasant situation known as life.

Whatever works, right?

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