Why I Don’t Write in Books

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booksI have heard it said by many professors and classmates that it’s helpful to write in books. At least in the realm of college education, this is considered a normal thing to do, and it seems to me that it’s especially standard practice for English majors. Maybe that’s because English majors are not only trying to commit facts and terminology to memory, but they are also making observations about how ideas are expressed. Word choice, reoccurring themes and motifs, and organization of the material are things that are worthwhile to note, both in literature and in literary criticism. I’m not saying that other fields don’t pay attention to these things, but they certainly don’t focus on them as intensely as literary studies do. There’s a wide variety of things to be noticed and remembered, and it’s convenient to do so by taking a highlighter pen to the relevant passage or by writing specific notes directly into the book.

I myself don’t write in textbooks, though. Throughout four years of college, the closest I got to taking notes a book was taking notes on a sheet of paper that I then folded up and used as a bookmark. There were two classes I took that had workbooks that I did write in, but I would argue that workbooks are a very different matter. They have blank spaces where you are specifically told to write, and you’re supposed to answer a specific question in that space. It’s the things you put in the workbook, not the printed text already in the workbook, that’s important. That just isn’t the same as writing in a book that is complete and functions without any directly tangible interaction from the reader.

That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with writing in books, and I wouldn’t argue that there’s any moral reason not to do so. In fact, students are and should be free to take notes in whatever reasonable way they find helpful. (I specify that it should be reasonable because I can think of a few note-taking methods that I’m not sure should be condoned, such as carving notes into walls or writing them on the faces of sleeping roommates. But as far as I know, neither one of these techniques is common practice.) It is just a personal preference of mine to avoid writing in books. Certainly, anyone should be allowed to write in a book that is their own property, if they so desire.

bookWith that being said, there are three reasons I can think of off the top of my head that I choose not to write in books. The first is that it’s too permanent. If I type something on my computer, I can delete or edit it, whether it’s ten seconds or ten years later. If I write something down on a separate sheet of paper, I can throw it away later or scribble over it or cross out words. I don’t necessarily want to keep every note I took for every paper I wrote because they may not have any significance outside of that assignment. Those ideas have been thought and I don’t necessarily need to have them written out anymore. But if they’re written in a book that I still have and will very likely read again, I’m stuck with them. (Yes, I am such a nerd that I have been known to keep and reread textbooks.) Those notes probably aren’t actually hurting anything, but they clutter up my book, and their lack of insightfulness will annoy me in the future if I wasn’t happy with that paper in the end.

A second reason is that I hate it when my notes are accessible to other people. If they’re written in a book, there’s always a chance that someone else will want to borrow it and will see those notes, and that would be awkward. It seems to me that notes are private and personal things. They don’t reveal secrets, but you created them yourself for yourself, and so they reflect the way you think. Whether you took those notes from class or from a book, you wrote them quickly with the intention of doing something with them later. They are not a finished product that is meant for the eyes of other people who might not be able to understand your note-taking shorthand or the informal rules that govern the way the notes are arranged. (Sometimes, you have to write as small as you can to squeeze something into a predetermined unit of space, and sometimes you just let it overflow to wherever there’s room for it.)

Finally, the third reason that I don’t like to write in books is that I have a sense of respect for books that I feel is violated by adding things to them. Not all books contain great insight and wisdom, but all books are the product of the time, effort, and applied skill of people who felt that the book had some value, and I think that means that every book is valuable in some way. Admittedly, this doesn’t keep me from occasionally storing my books in stacks on the floor. (It’s a perfectly valid storage system in theory, even if it is less traditional and less aesthetically pleasing than the use of bookshelves.) But it does keep me from adding my own words to the pages of a volume that is complete without them. It seems to me that writing notes in a book is like thinking about the Star Wars prequels while watching the original trilogy. Just because they’re about the same things doesn’t mean that they’re of the same quality, and it ought to be remembered that the original work is what ought to be getting the attention.

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Time Travel and Grammar and Pterodactyls and Stuff

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It has suddenly and randomly occurred to me that I know what would make a degree in English a more awesome thing to have. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything against the English degree I do have. I understand and appreciate the benefit of all the different literature classes I took. Of course, I did find some of these classes much more interesting than others, but I don’t at all regret choosing English as one of my two majors. It is a cool thing in which to major, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways it could have been even cooler.

Flaming PterodactylOne problem with majoring in English is that it is very difficult for an English major to be wildly successful, financially secure, and highly accomplished shortly after graduating. I mean, I had intended to become a time-traveling Viking ninja Vulcan pirate princess who rides through the sky on her valiant flaming pterodactyl, saving the world from alien invasions and other disasters. (Except I only just now made up the bit about the flaming pterodactyl, but I like it, so I think I’m keeping it in my official life plans.) But here I am, three weeks after graduation, and my current lot in life is applying for jobs while making plans to attend grad school for library science. Which is, of course, a cool thing to do, but somewhat lacking in time travel and epic interstellar warfare and pterodactyls and stuff, and I don’t even get my own awesome theme music.

Dear Albert Einstein, You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

Dear Albert Einstein,
You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

When I was a small child, I was told that America was the land of opportunity and that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted, but now they suddenly tell me that I can’t. Time travel isn’t possible, they tell me, and it probably won’t ever be possible because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and I can’t even have a pterodactyl because they’re extinct, and even if I did have one, I couldn’t set it on fire because then it would die. I tell you, my dreams are dead. Deal with it, people tell me. Life is tough, they helpfully add. And so now I’m left to live my ordinary non-time-traveling and pterodactyl-less life and to wonder if maybe things would have worked out better if I’d been a physics major or a biology major or something. I guess we’ll never know. Except that I haven’t ever heard of anyone else having time machines or flaming pterodactyls, so I suppose it’s not possible no matter what your major is. This is very sad and clearly means that the entire educational system is flawed and uncool.

I’m not sure if my cool idea would actually help matters much in that regard, but it would be cool anyway, which is all I’m really aiming to achieve right now. And, while it doesn’t actually facilitate time travel, it would in theory be quite useful in the event that science people manage to invent time travel despite the whole speed-of-light thing. My idea is this: English programs should, in addition to fostering writing skills and teaching literary analysis, involve linguistic studies such as etymology and grammatical development over history. It wouldn’t surprise me if some English programs already do so, but that certainly is not widely considered to be a standard element of college-level English education. I think it should be. Here is a list of reasons for this suggestion.

Pictured: Old English

Pictured: Old English

1. If you’re going to study literature, and you logically decide to include old literature because it’s awesome and educational, you ought to be able to read things that were written a long time ago. Granted, as it is, it’s not uncommon for English majors to learn some Middle English in order to read the Canterbury Tales. I did, and it was pretty awesome. (Note: Neither Middle English nor Old English is the correct term for the language of Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any other writing of that time period. That’s still modern English; it’s just old-fashioned compared to today’s colloquial English. Middle English is very different from modern English, and Old English is literally a different language.) But very few people bother to actually become proficient in versions of English any older than that of Chaucer’s time. It would be very interesting to read even older works, such as Beowulf, without modern translations.

2. It would solve various problems related to the issue of grammar. I admit that I am one of those people who gets annoyed every time I see someone else make a grammatical error. A misplaced apostrophe or a “me” when it should say “I” is enough to distract me, and frequent repetition of such mistakes cause me to question the intelligence of the writer. (I admit that such mistakes do indeed happen in my own writing occasionally, usually because of typing errors, and you can be sure that I am even annoyed with myself in such cases than I am with other people when they make mistakes.) Yet I don’t actually understand grammatical rules and terminology that well. I know when a word is wrong because it’s in the wrong tense or it’s singular when it should be plural or something like that, but I can’t explain things like why one preposition fits a certain context better than another or adequately define things like “pluperfect tense” or “subjunctive mood”. I learned grammar by following the example of people and books that used correct grammar, not by actually memorizing grammatical terms. The grammar that I learned through my schoolwork as a kid all went in one ear and out of the other, and it was neither obvious nor problematic because I was already capable of using correct grammar, even without actually understanding it. Even now that I’ve picked up a more detailed understanding of grammar, I still think it’s a confusing and horribly boring topic. But yet it annoys me greatly that there are so many people who aren’t capable of using correct grammar. I realize that the reason for this is that most people were exposed to more bad grammar as children than I was, but still, that shouldn’t have to mean that bad grammar is considered perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, the meaning is actually altered or at least obscured by grammatical errors, and even when it isn’t, they are a distraction. So clearly, grammar cannot be deemphasized in education, even though it’s boring and hard. But I think it would be both more interesting and less difficult if the rules made sense, and it seems to me that they would make more sense if there was historical context. English is basically a muddle of other languages, so our grammatical rules presumably have their origins in the grammar of these other languages.  There must be some interesting and informative stories behind the development of English grammar.

3. On a similar note, it would be an awful lot easier for an English speaker to learn a new language if he/she already had a good grasp of linguistics. There are relationships between languages, and these relationships are interesting and useful, and I can’t see more about them because I don’t really know much about them. But it would be very cool to be able to use knowledge of one language to more easily learn another language.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You're welcome.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You’re welcome.

4. Language and history are just as interrelated as literature and history are. I’m making a distinction between language and literature here in that literature refers to specific works while language refers to the vocabulary and grammatical traditions by which that literature was written. This point obviously relates very closely to the second one. Etymology is interesting and historically relevant. For example, there’s a very good reason why the English words for “cow” and cow meat (also known as “beef”) are different, while the English word for “chicken” and chicken meat (also known as “chicken”) are the same. I first heard this story from my father when I was a young child, but I looked it up to make sure I was getting the facts right. The facts are that the word “cow” has always been in the English language because it comes from the very old Germanic word for the animal, but the word “beef” has only been in the English language since the 1300s and comes from the Old French word “buef”. The word “chicken”, like “cow”, comes from an Old English word which came from an ancient Germanic word. You see, the pre-Norman dwellers of England were Germanic, and they had cows and chickens, but then the Normans came and became the important people in England and continued to speak French for a long time after that. The Germanic English people still had cows and chickens, and they still ate chickens, but dead cow was a food for the richer people, and thus, it was their name for dead cow meat that remained in usage. We hereby see that an event in English history determined the course of the English vocabulary. I would presume that practically every word in the English language has some story behind it that likewise relates the history of that word’s usage.

5. If we ever do invent time travel, we need to be able to communicate with the people of olden times. I seriously doubt that they would be able to decipher our strange modern dialect. Of course, this issue could be avoided if we had a babel fish like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or if we used TARDISes, which automatically translate for you. But seriously, let’s be realistic here. What are the chances that we’re going to get both flaming pterodactyls and magical translation technology? Not to sound like a broken record, but that pterodactyl is really important to me.

PterodactylSpeaking of which, I shall end this blog post by announcing that I am in the market for a pterodactyl (not a toy one, a real, live, full-size, flying pterodactyl) and I would appreciate it if you would all promise to let me know if you find out where I can get one at an affordable price. Thanks.

700 Miles of Fear

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Note: I seem to have developed a bad habit of wasting far too much time writing rambling, introspective, and vaguely depressing things with the general idea that I could use them on my blog. But then I always choose not to post them because they’re no good, or I never quite finish them, or they are a bit too disconnected and jumbled, or they’re too dismal. But I figured I ought to post at least one of them sometime, just so that I could somewhat justify the time I’ve spent on this kind of thing. The following blog post was written between classes early this afternoon, on a sheet of notebook paper that I borrowed from my calculus folder. I can’t say it’s completely unedited, because I did reword it a little as I typed it up, but it’s pretty close to what I originally wrote. If it sounds like stream-of-consciousness, that’s because that’s exactly what it is.

I think that all writers- amateur or professional, poet or novelist, experienced or aspiring- has a few favorite literary passages or lines that they wish they’d written. I know I have a few, and one such line comes from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  It goes, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”.  I know, that’s just one short line out of a long and complex poem, and it’s silly to single out those eleven syllables as being particularly profound. But it’s such a remarkably accurate description of life.

T.S. EliotIn general, I am not a big Eliot fan; in fact I resent him a little for being so famous that I’ve had to read “The Wasteland” a bajillion times. But there are things he wrote that I like, and that one line is chief among them. I could use this opportunity to make a few comments about other interesting things I’ve noticed or been told about my favorite Eliot lines, but I’m not going to do that. In my opinion, the less said about Eliot’s poetry, the better, because much of it is actually quite self-explanatory. Yes, there are many literary allusions and clever metaphors and a lot of symbolism that a literature class could fill up any amount of time trying to analyze. But the central meaning is something so basic and yet so hard to put into words that there is no way to say it better than the line itself does. The coffee spoon line is the prime example. Maybe that’s what I often dislike about Eliot; I love metaphors and allegories that translate neatly into literal language, resulting in a beautifully mathematical symmetry between reality and poetry. But I can appreciate this different kind of metaphor, which isn’t really a metaphor because there’s simply no other way to say it. It’s very true that life is measured out by coffee spoons. (And other seemingly trivial daily things)

roadThis morning, I counted. I counted how many days I have left before graduation,  how many of those days have classes, how many total classes I have left, how many exams I have to take, how many papers I have to write, and how many miles I have left to drive in that time. That last sum was about 700. It’s a frightening number because it’s so large and my car is so rickety. In the eleven months that I’ve had it, it has broken down numerous times and had several repairs, and there are several other repairs that it ought to have, if I could afford them. Every time I drive that car for any distance, no matter how short, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. And I have to drive a lot. Over the course of the last few months, it has gradually filled my life with a general sense of paranoia and dread that I sometimes forget was originally associated specifically with car problems.

booksAfter I counted, I stacked up my books and spent the last couple of hours before class reading from them alternatively. Many of these books and the concepts they discuss have played much too prominent a role in my life lately, and I was in no frame of mind to put the level of focus into each one that they all required. The ideas all jumbled together in my brain- the theorems of linear algebra, the disorienting randomness of postmodern fiction, the masterfully ironic tone of Douglas Adams. (The latter, actually, is one thing that I am not reading for school, but rather of my own volition) There somehow seemed to be common themes between all of them. A sarcastic attitude towards advertising, a few concepts regarding number of dimensions, something about technology and its relationship with people. And somehow they all combined into something very profound that had something to do with something very important, but I wasn’t quite sure what. This is the nature of liberal arts. Everything ceases to mean anything because anything can mean everything. Perhaps it’s all my own fault for taking Postmodernism in my last semester. I don’t know whether or not it makes any sense. To me, nothing makes sense right now, and it won’t make sense for another 700 miles.

Then there are the voices that speak in multivariable integrals. I noticed it one day when I was so tired that I was doing my calculus homework in my sleep while I was awake. In the next room, there were numerous people talking, saying all kinds of things all at once, and I thought that if you added up the area covered by their conversation, one voice at a time- each in terms of the ones you hadn’t done yet, because they were all talking to each other, of course- you could get a single, simple, numerical solution out of all the chaos. But that’s silly, if for no other reason, because it makes no sense to think of other people’s voices as steps in a calculus problem when I’m something different (I’m not even sure what) just because I’m the one who’s not talking.

puzzleFor the last couple months, at any given time, I’ve had a jigsaw puzzle on my dresser that’s never been finished. Every couple weeks, I almost finish one, but there’s always a piece or two missing, and so I put it away and start another one without ever quite finishing the previous puzzle. I’m not particularly prone to losing things; puzzle pieces are really the only things that I have a tendency to misplace, which makes the obvious metaphor even more poignant and a little disturbing. The missing pieces invariably do show up eventually, usually just a day or two later. But by then, they do me no good, because I’m working on a different puzzle and am searching for different pieces.

mileageThat’s what really scares me about the 700 miles. I’m not quite naïve enough to think that a college diploma is the metaphorical last step in a long calculus problem or the last piece in a big jigsaw puzzle. I am well aware that my life will continue to be measured out by coffee spoons after I graduate from college. The next 700 miles of my life don’t lead to a finish line, or even to a place where I can stop and take a break for a little while. They just lead up to an interesting landmark mileage number. And then I have to go on driving just as much in the same rickety old car, both metaphorically and literally.

The Attack of the Evil Interdimensional Psychic Trains

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10:00 PM

Cups of coffee: 0

It’s horrible just how many all-nighters I’ve pulled this semester. What makes it even worse is that the real reason this is necessary is just that the middle of the night is the only time I can get a moment’s quiet. My life is essentially characterized by an incessant cacophony of train whistles, airplanes, sirens, people’s voices, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, running faucets, hair dryers, loud footsteps, and slamming doors. The lawn mowers are the worst. The train whistles are really high on the list, too, and they unfortunately are the one that is still present in the middle of the night. But at least the noise level goes down enough that it’s technically possible to get work done, which simply isn’t true during the daytime. So I’ve gotten into the habit of pulling all-nighters at least once a week, and I think I’m actually in danger of literally going insane. If for no other reason, I’m looking forward to graduation because after that, I’ll be able to sleep occasionally.

 

11:00 PM

Cups of coffee: 1

As long as I’m going to be up all night, I decided that this would be a delightful opportunity to do my laundry. Once upon a time, (until about a month ago, in fact) Saturday mornings were laundry time, but now the universe is falling apart and laundry time has become a movable occurrence. I cannot shake the conviction that Monday night is not a time during which one really ought to be doing laundry, but the fact of the matter is that I didn’t do laundry last Saturday morning because I really, really didn’t feel like it, and so it is necessary that I do laundry early this week. So I put my laundry in a laundry bag and headed to the laundry room, only to find to my dismay that washer number nineteen had someone else’s laundry in it. Now, there’s nothing particularly significant about the number nineteen, (in fact, I happen to intensely dislike the number nineteen) but there is something significant about washer number nineteen. That significant thing is that I always use washer number nineteen. Except sometimes when it’s full of someone else’s clothes, and so I use washer number seventeen instead. But this time, washer number seventeen had someone else’s clothes in it, too. I settled for washer number seven, but this is not the way it should be. This is an even greater problem than the new uncharacteristically mobile nature of laundry time. In fact, the horror of this situation is comparable (although still significantly less) than the trauma of finding someone else in my favorite parking space. For the record, I am a Lutheran and a ballet dancer and I’m OCD which means that nobody had better take my parking spot. When they do, bad things happen, and considering that I’m the one to whom they happen, other people don’t necessarily have an incentive to stay away from my parking spot, which is really a problem. Granted, my parking spot has only been taken from me once in the last several months, but it was a very traumatic experience and will probably haunt me for as long as I live.

 

1:15 AM

Cups of coffee: Technically still one. I just poured the second cup.

This is a book I greatly enjoyed, and its title is very relevant to my life at the moment.

This is a book I greatly enjoyed, and its title is very relevant to my life at the moment.

I have no idea what has happened to the last three hours. Well, actually I do; they were killed by homework, a fate which I fear I may end up sharing. But while they were in the process of slowly and pitifully losing their battle against the overwhelmingly powerful army of my math homework, I was not aware how many of them had fallen. And now the three of them lie lifeless on the battle field, and I sadly stand here staring at their remains and thinking of all the potential they had. I could have used those three hours to read interesting books or to write Doctor Who fan fiction or to play many games of Settlers of Catan or to do any number of other delightful things. But instead, they gave their lives so that I might do my calculus and linear algebra homework, and indeed, they died in vain, for I still don’t understand math. Over the course of this semester, there have been times when I’ve hated calculus but been okay with linear algebra, and there have been times when I’ve hated linear algebra but been okay with calculus. At the moment, I’m not on very friendly terms with either of them. But if I had to choose one as a favorite over the other, I’d go with linear algebra. In calculus, I understand the concepts, but I somehow invariably get the wrong answers anyway, and I have no idea why. In linear algebra, I don’t really understand the concepts, which completely explains why I’m not always getting the right answers. It’s a much less frustrating situation, because it implies the possibility that there shall be a time in the future, perhaps the very near future, that I will understand the concepts and will find correct answers to the problems. Or maybe not. Because that’s just not the kind of thing that happens in my life.

 

2:30 AM

Cups of coffee: 2

I got this picture from Google, but it looks a lot like the train tracks I remember from when I was little.

I got this picture from Google, but it looks a lot like the train tracks I remember from when I was little.

I hate trains. This is a sad turn of events, for I once loved trains. That is, I loved toy trains. The wooden train track set that my siblings and I once played with, which is presumably still in a box in my parents’ garage, was a source of much entertainment and many good memories. I have not had many experiences involving real trains, although last year I read a very fascinating book on the history of the Milwaukee Railroad. That may sound like a somewhat dull subject, but I greatly enjoyed the book for two reasons. First, it was extremely well written, and I found myself admiring the prose in a way that one does not normally do when reading a book about the history of a railroad company. Second, as it turns out, the history of the Milwaukee Railroad is a riveting tale involving many interesting personalities, some very complex controversies, and probably a few illegal dealings. Unfortunately, I do not remember the title of the book and cannot specifically recommend it, but I do wish to express a general recommendation for books about the history of the Milwaukee Railroad. Nonetheless, I hate trains, for they seem bent upon preventing me from accomplishing anything tonight. The train whistles have been going constantly all night long, without so much as pause. I’ve been keeping track; it’s literally true that the train whistles haven’t stopped since I got back on campus hours ago. This has also been the case every other time I’ve tried to use the middle of the night to do homework. In fact, I have had this same problem for my entire college career, although it has been worse since I’ve lived in my current room, which has a window that doesn’t close and that looks out over downtown. It makes no sense for train whistles to blow constantly, so I can only come to the conclusion that this is a deliberate conspiracy aimed specifically at me. Unfortunately, it seems to be working, because I can’t do this anymore and will probably now have to drop out of college, despite the fact that I’m supposed to be graduating in less than four weeks. I can only imagine how odd it will sound when I try to explain to future prospective employers that the reason I don’t have a college degree is that the trains were out to get me. Alternatively, I could make an attempt to stay in college despite the train conspiracy, in which case “train whistles” will be the cause of death listed on my death certificate. This, I can only imagine, will both baffle and amuse many people. Many years from now, historians will have long
arguments as they try to guess what exactly happened to me. I will become famous as the only person to have ever died of sheer annoyance.

 

4:00 AM

Cups of coffee: 3 ½

This was the episode I saw.

This was the episode I saw.

They say that one of the main purposes of sleep- and of dreams in particular- is to organize and arrange new information. It’s an essential part of the learning process. Unfortunately, I’m too busy learning to sleep. This is a problem; college is making me stupid. Fortunately, I’ve recently come up with something that helps a little. Sometimes, watching an episode of Doctor Who is a reasonable substitute for dreaming. I tend to dream in Doctor Who fan fiction anyway, so the only actual difference is that it isn’t my own brain that’s making up this stuff. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty significant difference, but I don’t really have a better option.) Also, Doctor Who only takes about 45 minutes, while sleeping takes a few hours. And Doctor Who involves wearing earphones and deliberately blasting noises into my eardrums, which temporarily block out the train noises. (Which, unfortunately, I can now hear again. This is ridiculous; it’s been at least eight hours since they’ve been quiet.) In case it isn’t obvious by now, trains are not my friends. I prefer weeping angels. Maybe, when I go downstairs to get my laundry in just a minute, there will be weeping angels down there, and they’ll catch me and send me back to a time before trains existed. That would be nice.

 

4:30 AM

Cups of coffee: 3 ½

Pictured: An ordinary, harmless train

Pictured: An ordinary, harmless train

I have a theory. As you may have guessed, it involves trains. My theory is based upon two observations. For one thing, I don’t know where the train tracks are. In the course of my daily life, I drive a total of more than 200 miles each week, and I never ever cross train tracks. Yet these trains must pass quite close to where I am, since they’re so loud and disruptive. The other observation is that I rarely hear anyone else mention or complain about these trains. Instead, other people mention and complain about the birds. It’s true that the birds on campus are fairly loud and have a tendency to sing at all hours of the night. I’ve been hearing them for the past three or four hours now. But I am very baffled as to why someone would be bothered by the sweet, melodious tunes of a little bird when they could be bothered by the loud, mechanical bellow of a train whistle. Evidently, other people simply do not hear these train whistles, which is quite odd, considering the fact that they are absurdly loud and unbearably frequent. So I ask myself, why is it that there are trains without train tracks, and that other people can’t hear these trains? The answer is obvious. Well, not really, but I’m going to go with it anyway. These trains exist in an alternate set of dimensions. They are evil interdimensional trains that cross the void into my own dimensions for the sole purpose of antagonizing me, and their whistles of doom have properties that pull IQ points out of my brain, depriving me of intellectual capacity. That’s why I can’t ever get stuff done adequately. Maybe I should explain this to all of my professors and see what they have to say about it.

 

6:00 AM

Cups of coffee: 3 ½

sunshine‘Tis approaching sunrise, that time of day when the sunshine reappears on the horizon and says in its cheery early morning voice, “Good morning! I’ve just gotten back from having a lovely day on the other side of the world, during which time I provided light and warmth to billions of people and made all the plants grow and brought smiles to many faces. What about you? What have you done in the last few hours?” To which I respond, in my grumpy early morning voice, “Be quiet, sunshine. I’ve done my best, and it isn’t my fault it hasn’t worked out. Don’t criticize me unless you yourself have experienced the plague of evil psychic interdimensional trains stealing your brain from you.”

 

7:00 AM

Cups of coffee: 3 ½

At last, there is some progress being made on my linear algebra homework. In fact, I have suddenly found that I’m nearly halfway done. That’s after working on it for the past nine hours, and it’s due in about five and a half hours. Um, never mind, I guess this isn’t such a good thing after all. Especially considering that I have other homework to do during that time, too. Meanwhile, the city has woken up and the train whistles have been joined by their friends, the ambulance sirens and a lawn mower. Meanwhile, I’m pondering how ironic it is that I once loved the song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”. On an unrelated note, I think it’s about time for me to take a short break to get breakfast and, more importantly, coffee.

 

8:00 AM

Cups of coffee: About 4

My question is what the trains want with my brain anyway. I mean, they’re presumably from some planet with advanced knowledge and technology; otherwise, they wouldn’t be capable of mind theft. I doubt there’s any information in my brain that would benefit them in any way. Even I am not quite paranoid enough to imagine that an alien race would do things to mess with my mind for no other reason than to be evil to me. There must be some motive. If I can come up with a good one, this could be the basis for a decent science fiction story. I would call it “Train of Thought”.

 

9:30 AM

Cups of coffee: About 4 ½

I posted this on tumblr the other day for the purpose of complaining about math.

I posted this on tumblr the other day for the purpose of complaining about math.

I was finally starting to think I was actually going to get this algebra homework done, and even have a couple of hours to spare for other stuff, like, you know, calculus or something. But this last problem clearly just isn’t going to happen.  I hate eigenstuff so much because I have no idea what the camaduka any of it means, which probably is due to the fact that I was in Louisville, Kentucky, presenting a paper, during the time when the rest of my linear algebra class was learning what the camaduka eigenthingies are. Considering the fact that this was a couple weeks ago, you’d think I’d have caught up by now, but the book makes no sense and my notes from subsequent classes contain contradictions. I have come to the conclusion that eigenstuff, like trigonometric functions, have no purpose or definition and exist solely for the purpose of making mathematics more confusing. At some point, some evil genius realized that he was so much cleverer than everybody else that he could make up random things that sounded like math, and everyone would believe him, and some people would even pretend to understand it, just so that they could feel clever. And thus was born a branch of mathematics that doesn’t actually exist. Either that, or I’m too stupid to understand it, and I don’t like that theory much.

 

10:45 AM

Cups of coffee: About 4 ½

The morning has more or less come to an end, and I’m about to go to class. Therefore, I shall now wrap up this blog post with the acknowledgement that I have succeeded in surviving one more night without having my brain taken over by a sinister extraterrestrial psychic train. I can still hear them even now, but their power seems to be diminished slightly in the daytime, or maybe it’s just that I can’t hear them as clearly over all the daytime noises. At any rate, the fact remains that I still have at least some remnant of my mind more or less intact. One more alien invasion survived.

Homework, Coffee, Settlers of Catan, and Color-Coded Stuff: A Tale of a Night When I Didn’t Sleep

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9:39 PM

Cups of coffee: 0

M&Ms: 0

Homework done: None

Games of Catan: 0

 

The pattern is now familiar. I make a list of homework and a plan of attack, I get some M&Ms and make some coffee, and I sit down in front of my computer to document my sleepless night by writing random and rambling things about it, which shall then appear on my blog for all the world to see. Generally, these all-nighter chronicles begin with a remark that I wasn’t expecting to need to do this. That is certainly the case in this situation; I really thought that this semester wouldn’t call for any all-nighters. Academically, this is the lightest semester I’ve ever had. But around midterms, there’s no such thing as an academically light semester.

To be honest, this all-nighter probably isn’t necessary. I think that I could be ready to call it a night by about two O’clock or so. That’s really late for me, but it is much less drastic than pulling an all-nighter, especially since I don’t even need to be up at a reasonable time tomorrow. This semester, I only have morning classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, and tomorrow is a Tuesday. I prefer to be up at a reasonable time anyway, but I could make an exception to that habit if I felt it was necessary.

But, after giving the matter due consideration, I decided to pull an all-nighter. That way, I have all the time I need and don’t have to feel stressed about finishing by a certain time. Besides, it gives me an excuse to eat M&Ms, and it makes it possible for me to take the time for Catan breaks. Anyone who has been reading my blog regularly may have noticed a bit of a pattern lately, which is that I have a tendency to mention Catan quite frequently.

 

I didn't win. Life is tough.

I didn’t win. Life is tough.

11:26 PM

Cups of coffee: 1

M&Ms: 10 blue, 7 red, 3 yellow, 3 brown, 8 green, 8 orange

Homework done: All of my calculus homework and one single-spaced page of a paper that shall be double-spaced later

Games of Catan: 1. I lost. It wasn’t fair. I totally should have won.

 

I would say that I was making pretty good time, except that I’m supposed to have three pages of this paper done by midnight. That is, I’m supposed to submit a three-page draft online. Three pages really isn’t a big deal, especially because this draft isn’t going to be graded. The professor is just having us submit it to make sure that we actually have that much done. Originally, the paper was going to be due tonight, but now it’s due on Wednesday instead. Compared to certain papers from last semester, this will be quick and easy; it’s basically a paper on a project that was already presented in class today. But I’m a very slow writer. For me, any paper is a long paper. That’s a little ironic, considering just how much writing I do, even outside of schoolwork. I’m also very slow at math. I’m slightly proud of myself for being done with my calculus homework for tonight, even though it was a pretty easy homework assignment. It was on the partial derivative. Partial derivatives are pretty simple. Incidentally, I really don’t seem to have many yellow M&Ms here. That’s a little odd.

 

11:57 PM

Cups of coffee: Still just one

M&Ms:  12 blue, 9 red, 4 yellow, 3 brown, 9 green, 9 orange

Homework done: All of my calculus and that draft of that paper

Games of Catan: Still just one. I still think I should have won.

 

An incredible and very good thing as happened. As I logged onto the thingy to submit my paper draft, nothing went wrong. This is rare indeed. My college’s internet system doesn’t like me; whenever I try to log into something that’s through the college, it won’t accept my password the first few times I try. Sometimes, I keep on trying over and over and over and never even get in because it eventually blocks my access because of so many failed attempts to enter the password. This is extremely frustrating. But it didn’t happen tonight, which is good because I submitted that draft at 11:54, which was cutting it pretty close. The uncool part is that it’s a pretty lousy draft, but that’s not a big problem. I still have two days to finish it and clean it up, and I’ll probably be able to dedicate a significant portion of tonight to it. But I do have to concentrate on my algebra homework for tomorrow first.

 

Here's why the number of green M&Ms isn't a whole number.

Here’s why the number of green M&Ms isn’t a whole number.

1:57 AM

Cups of coffee: one and a half

M&Ms: 21 blue, 10 red, 8 yellow, 4 brown, 12 ½ green, 10 orange

Homework done: All of my calculus, that draft of that paper, and practically all of the computer assignment for linear algebra

Games of Catan: Just one. I really want to play another one now, but it isn’t time yet, according to my detailed plan for tonight.

 

Normally, whether I’m staying up all night or just staying up really late, I don’t actually leave my room in the middle of the night. Tonight was an exception, though, because the aforementioned computer assignment for linear algebra required a computer program that I can only use on the computers in the math building. So I headed over there a little after midnight and spent about an hour and a half on that assignment. It was weird being outside at that time of night; for once, it was quiet. There were a few people in the math building, because that happens to be a favorite late-night-studying place and all-nighter place. The assignment in question was actually pretty cool; it had to do with ciphering. I made a slight mistake on a cipher that I was supposed to be deciphering, so it came out correct except for one word in the middle, which said ‘rMOk’. This amused me greatly. But I redid the exercise anyway, and it came out with real words that time. I couldn’t quite figure out how to do the last exercise, though, so I’ll have to do that one later. I’ll probably do it right before class, because that’s the only way I’ll have a chance to ask the professor about it.

 

3:08 AM

Cups of coffee: Two and a half

M&Ms: 31 blue, 14 red, 14 yellow, 14 brown, 22 ½ green, 18 orange

Homework done: All of my calculus, the draft for that paper, almost all of that algebra assignment, and the reading for my postmodernism class on Wednesday

Games of Catan: Still just one. But the time for game number two is near at hand. First, I have some algebra homework to do, but Catan is next after that.

 

Colored index cardsThere are five greatly awesome things that are within inches of my hands right now, all of which I have used quite a bit within the past few hours. The list is as follows: coffee, M&Ms, colored index cards, sharpies, and dry erase boards. A few minutes ago, I was surprised and confused to discover that my fingers were speckled, but a moment’s reflection enabled me to realize that this was because I had been using my fingers to erase numbers off of my dry erase board in order to replace them with other numbers. I love using dry erase boards to keep track of random and inconsequential details of my life. ‘Tis an entertaining thing to do. The appeal of colored index cards and sharpies, of course, is that they allow you to color code stuff, and color coded stuff is automatically cooler than non-color coded stuff. As a matter of fact, this point also can be extended to explain the coolness of M&Ms, and to relate to my interest in keeping track of M&M colors on my dry erase board. But coffee isn’t colorful. The coolness of coffee is independent of its visual appearance. Maybe someone should invent colored color-coded coffee. By definition, that would be incredibly cool, but I can’t actually think of a good purpose for it. I’ll have to think about this.

 

4:06 AM

Cups of coffee: Two and a half

M&Ms: 31 blue, 18 red, 14 yellow, 15 blue, 26 ½ green, 19 orange

Homework done: See above, plus just a couple algebra problems. But those couple that I did took a really, really long time.

Games of Catan: Two and a half. The website’s down, so that last game was aborted. That’s okay; it was making me really mad because I was losing really badly because nobody was rolling fours, sixes, eights, or nines, which just shouldn’t happen. People were basically just rolling tens every single time, which was very much in orange’s favor and did me no good at all. It was really unfair, especially since I had had a very similar problem in the previous game. Sometimes I wonder if other people have discovered ways to rig the dice on internet board games. It seems feasible, since those are just imaginary dice anyway. Presumably, if someone was really good with computers, they could figure out a way to trick the system. I’m not necessarily saying that’s what happens, I’m just saying that it sure seems like it.

 

101_9851Aside from the Catan problems which I have lamented in the previous paragraph, I’m also frustrated that this algebra homework isn’t going well. I still have several hours before class, but I don’t want to spend that entire time on this one homework assignment. At the rate I’m going, that’s how long it’ll take.

The weird thing is that it’s almost morning now, and it really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since I got back from dance class at around eight O’clock. It’s no wonder I always feel tired; apparently nights go faster than days, and so one doesn’t get a lot of sleep by sleeping through the night. But it wouldn’t be any better to sleep during the day, since I have just determined that nights aren’t long enough for doing homework.

The only solution I can think of is that days just need to be longer. Since the length of a day is determined by the amount of time it takes the Earth to revolve around its axis, we just need to slow the Earth’s rotation. I wonder what kind of an impact this would have on the Earth’s climate. Of course, in order to minimize these effects, it is important that the Earth’s orbit around the sun should not be changed at all. I think years are a pretty good length.

Although it would be nice if the number of days in a year was something a little nicer than 365 ¼. That’s such a random number. I would like to suggest 350. That’s close enough to the current year length that it wouldn’t make a big difference, but it’s easier to remember and it has more factors than 365 or 366. We could divide the 350-day year into ten months of 35 days each, which I think is a lovely length for a month to be, and ten is a nice number of months. And there will be exactly 50 weeks in a year, which would be convenient. It would also mean that holidays and birthdays would fall on the same day of the week every year, which is an appealing idea and would make it very easy to keep holiday traditions the same from year to year. And Advent would always be the same length, so Advent calendars could actually be Advent calendars instead of December calendars that call themselves Advent calendars.

It would seem that I don’t feel like returning to my algebra homework.

 

Between various math problems, you can see my M&M statistics.

Between various math problems, you can see my M&M statistics.

5:08 AM

Cups of coffee: Three and a half. Now my coffee is gone, but that’s okay, because I’ll be able to go and get some more from the cafeteria in just a couple hours. It is worth noting that, on days when I sleep, I hardly ever drink more than one cup of coffee.

M&Ms: 43 blue, 22 red, 19 yellow, 24 brown, 38 ½ green, 26 orange. This is a final count; my M&Ms are now gone.

Homework done: All I have accomplished since the last update was another couple paragraphs on that paper.

Games of Catan: Two and a half.

 

It’s still dark and will be for a while, but I hear birds singing. Some people on campus complain about how loud the birds are, and I am puzzled by their annoyance. Personally, I don’t mind the birds nearly as much as I mind the leafblowers and lawn mowers, which are also noises that one hears almost constantly on this campus, and frequently right under one’s window when one is trying to do homework.

I think I’m going to go take a shower now. After that, I have to get back to my algebra homework, and then I’m allowed to take a break to check tumblr.

 

6:26 AM

Cups of coffee: Still at three and a half.

Homework done: See above, plus a couple more algebra problems.

Games of Catan: Still at two and a half.

 

I actually didn’t take a shower shortly after five, like I said I would, because my roommate was in the shower. In my residence hall, we have suites, and each suite has its own shower. I definitely prefer that to a communal bathroom, but it’s more than a little annoying hearing water running when I’m trying to do homework. It’s weird how some noises, like showers and squeaky doors, drive me crazy, while other noises, like ticking clocks and the strangely loud hum of my desk light, don’t bother or distract me at all.

Right now, I’m a little annoyed at the world in general for the fact that it’s morning. I don’t know where all the time went last night. I was expecting that I’d get more done. Now I still have homework to finish and stuff to study for midterm exams later this week, but I have lost the quiet and solitude that the nighttime offers.

 

7:34 AM

Cups of coffee: A little more than three and a half. I just came back from breakfast in the cafeteria, and I brought back a cup of coffee with me. Coffee is good stuff.

Homework done: None since I last gave an update, actually. Unless I’ve done a couple algebra problems since then. I can’t remember how many I’d done before that point. I’m still less than halfway done with what I have due today.

Games of Catan: Two and a half

 

This is what one of my dry erase boards looked like by morning.

This is what one of my dry erase boards looked like by morning.

Today’s sunrise was disappointingly nonspectacular, but that’s okay, because now that the sun’s up, it’s a really beautiful day. Maybe it’s a bit chilly, but it’ll probably be really nice in a few hours.

Next on my agenda is the game I like to play where I use a random number generator to get twenty random digits and then try to memorize them in under a minute. Lately, I’ve only been doing this once a day. I’m on a good streak now, though. I’ve gotten a perfect score four out of the last five times. This may not be an achievement that means anything to anyone besides me, but I am rather proud of it. I just hope I can keep this streak going. Considering the fact that I haven’t sleep in over a day and I’m dead tired, my brain might not be at its best this morning, though.

I really wish I was playing Settlers of Catan right now. And I really wish I was winning.

 

9:13 AM

Cups of coffee: Four and a half

Homework done: More algebra, but I’m still not done with today’s assignment yet. I am actually making progress; it just really takes that long. Seriously, math is hard.

Games of Catan: Two and a half. But I’m getting close to my next Catan break. This excites me greatly.

 

Here is a picture of outside, despite the fact that the picture doesn't look as pretty as it really is.

Here is a picture of outside, despite the fact that the picture doesn’t look as pretty as it really is.

I just opened my window. It’s so ridiculously beautiful out there today. The thing about Alabama is that you never know from one minute to the next what the weather is going to be like. On Sunday, it was nice like this, but yesterday, it was gloomy and wet and rainy and just really ugly. But then it suddenly cleared up in the middle of dance class, very shortly before it got dark. And last night it was pretty chilly. As clear as the weather is now, there’s no telling whether it’ll rain again. For all I know, it could snow tomorrow.

I’m trying to remember what I normally write in my all-nighter blog posts. I seem to recall that they aren’t normally about the weather, but right now, the weather seems to be the most noteworthy thing. I tried to take a beautiful picture from my window so that I could show the beautiful weather, but it didn’t turn out looking very beautiful because most of the trees still don’t have leaves yet. I’m guessing that will happen soon.

 

10:28 AM

Cups of coffee: I’ve stopped at four and a half.

Homework: A couple more algebra problems

 

CatanOkay, I admit it, I just played several consecutive games of Catan; I don’t even know how many because I lost count. Most of those games were ridiculously short because one person got all the luck and won before I’d even had a chance to do anything. It was getting quite frustrating. I mean, here I’ve been awake all night, working long and hard in an effort to learn stuff. I feel like the universe at least owes me a few lucky rolls. So I just kept playing until I finally won.

And now, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to put this on my blog, then I’m going to finish my algebra homework (which is finally almost done), and by then, it’ll probably be about time for me to get all my books and stuff together, go to the cafeteria for lunch, check my mailbox quickly, and then head off to math class.

 

 

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.

Simultaneity Is Relative

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HomeworkToday was the last day of January term, and the course I finished just a few hours ago was about relativity and spacetime and Einstein and physics and stuff. I took this class for two reasons: first, because I am interested in physics to some extent, even though I’m really much more of a literature- and-writing person than a math-and-science person, and second, because it would be cool to actually know what I’m saying when I start talking about the spacetime continuum and making up crazy science fiction theories. I’m not sure that this class has caused revolutionary developments in my science fiction ideas, but I definitely have gotten stuff out of it, and it’s cool that I can now say that I understand the concepts of Einstein’s relativity. Because of the coolness of these topics, I now present a summarized list of stuff I have learned.

1. Aristotle’s observations of gravity led him to believe that each of the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) had a different natural tendency and that the tendency of any object was determined by its proportion of the elements. Earth is heaviest and its tendency is to fall. Water also has a tendency to fall, but it’s lighter than earth, so anything that contains a lot of the earth element will sink beneath the surface of the water. Air is light, so its tendency is to rise above earth and water. Fire is the lightest, and so it will rise even above air. Of course, according to Aristotle, every substance familiar to us is a combination of the four elements. For example, dirt is not pure earth; it just contains a much larger quantity of the element earth than any of the other elements. It is also worth noting that Aristotle believed in the existence of a fifth element called the aether, an idea which is similar to, but not the same as, the idea of the aether mentioned in the following paragraph.  Also, I personally feel that it is worth noting that Aristotle was wrong, because this is something that I like to note as frequently as possible.

2. For centuries, scientists have believed in the existence of a substance called the aether that fills all of space and acts as the medium through which light waves can travel. In the nineteenth century, there were many experiments that attempted to detect and describe this aether, the most famous of which was done by Michelson and Morley in 1887. All of these experiments failed to detect any such thing as aether, but it was Einstein who eventually proposed the idea that the aether did not, in fact, exist. This dissatisfied many physicists, but it made Einstein’s theories work out very nicely, and they turned out to be true.

3. The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second. This is the equivalent of 670,616,629 miles per hour. When I’m driving to or from dance class, I am driving at an average of only 0.00000000894 of the speed of light. (When I’m driving to or from church, I drive a bit faster than that because people drive crazy fast on that interstate and everyone would seriously run right over me if I tried to drive at a normal speed.) Earth’s average speed is about 0.0001 the speed of light, by the way, which is about 67,061.66 miles per hour.

4. This doesn’t exactly count as something new I learned, but in this class, we used a slightly different definition for inertia than what I’ve usually heard. We basically defined inertia as a force that resists change in velocity. (I wrote a bit more about that here.) In discussing special relativity, the terminology “inertial reference frame” shows up a lot. That basically means that you’re either motionless or moving at a constant velocity.

5. The Principle of Relativity (which, by the way, predates Einstein) says that, if one is in an inertial reference frame, the laws of physics work the same way regardless of whether or not the reference frame is moving. For example, if you’re flying in an airplane and you drop a bookmark or something, that bookmark will fall to the floor of the airplane, just as it would if the airplane was sitting motionless on the runway. However, if you’re in a vehicle that is accelerating, decelerating, changing direction, or bouncing because of a bumpy road or air turbulence, it’s not an inertial reference frame, which is why things slide around in a moving car. This is inherent in the definition of inertia, but the implication of the Principle of Relativity is that, if you are in a completely inertial reference frame, you can’t even tell whether or not you’re moving. Even if you are looking out a window and see the view changing, you can’t scientifically prove that it is you and not the scenery itself that is in motion. Technically, relativity says that it’s equally true and valid to interpret it either way; the significant point is not who is moving and who is stationary, but just that the reference frames are not stationary relative to each other.

6. Einstein’s big breakthrough (or, to be more precise, his first postulate in the Special Theory of Relativity) was that the principle of relativity applies not only to forces such as gravity, but also to things such as the way light behaves. It had recently been suggested by various physicists that the principle of relativity didn’t apply to light and to Maxwell’s equations regarding light, so Einstein was basically just disagreeing with that hypothesis. His second postulate, which was really just a necessary result of the first postulate, was that the speed of light is the same in any inertial reference frame. The weird thing, which leads to all of the weirdness inherent in relativity, is that this requires giving up on the assumption that time is a constant. Time has to go at a different speed depending upon how fast the clock is moving relative to the speed of light. (The faster the clock is going, the less time passes, so basically, time goes faster at higher speeds.) But this doesn’t have much of an effect on everyday life because the speed of light is so extraordinarily fast that people never travel at a significant fraction of the speed of light.

7. We defined an “event” as a single point in space and time. In most of our homework assignments, we labeled events that described the emission or reception of a light beam or the collision between two particles or spaceships, but technically, even a point where nothing of interest happened is an event. Unfortunately for my lovely time gravity theory, it turns out that all events are equal, and there’s apparently no such thing as time mass.

I posted this on tumblr a couple weeks ago.

I posted this on tumblr a couple weeks ago.

8. Simultaneity is relative. This is the title of this blog post because the professor emphasized this very strongly and used any relevant occasion to remind us of it. Because of the relativity of time, two events can happen at the exact same time in one inertial reference frame and at different times in another inertial reference frame. It’s weird, but it’s true, and we did a lot of homework problems with spacetime graphs to prove it. The coolest one involved a Klingon ship firing laser blasts at a Federation starship in neutral territory shortly before passing into Klingon territory. From the reference frame of the Federation starship, it was hit while the Klingon ship was still in the neutral zone, which meant that the Klingons committed a crime. But from the Klingons’ reference frame, they passed into Klingon territory before the laser blast actually hit the Federation starship, and thus, they didn’t do anything wrong. Except that they were definitely in the neutral zone when they fired the laser blast, and the Federation starship was definitely in the neutral zone both when the blast was fired and when the blast hit, but for the sake of that problem, we assumed that the law was so poorly written that the only thing that mattered was where the Klingons were when their laser blast hit the Federation starship.

This is what a spacetime graph looks like.

This is what a spacetime graph looks like.

9. On a spacetime graph, if two events are farther apart in space than time, then they are spacelike separated, which means that the order of the events is relative. Depending upon how fast an observer is moving, either one of them could have happened first, or they could have happened simultaneously. It is impossible for one to have been the cause of the other, because they are too far away in space for the effects of one to reach the other in time to have caused it. If two events are farther apart in time than space, they are timelike separated, which means that the first one happened before the second one from the perspective of any inertial reference frame. Therefore, it is possible (but not necessarily true) that the first event caused the second event. However, depending upon the speed of the observer, the events may or may not have happened in the same place. If two events are separated by an equal amount of time and space, they are lightlike separated, and this will be true from the perspective of any inertial observer, regardless of his or her speed.  Incidentally, there is one way of measuring the distance between two events that does not vary between observers. This measurement is written as delta S, and the equation is delta S squared equals delta T squared minus delta X squared where T is time and X is space. Even though delta T and delta X will be different for different observers, delta T squared minus delta X squared will yield the same result for every observer. (You can read more here about the stuff that passed through my brain on the day that we discussed these things.)

10. In addition to affecting the passage of time, high speeds also affect length. For example, in a video we watched, a couple scientists measured time dilation by tracking particles descending rapidly through the atmosphere past a mountain. It would take too long for me to explain exactly how that worked, and that isn’t the point of this paragraph anyway, so I’ll just say that they did in fact demonstrate that less time passed for those particles than for the mountain that was stationary relative to the Earth. But, according to special relativity, the particles may as well have been stationary and the mountain may as well have been traveling upwards. The result is the same, and the result is that the time interval between the particles’ presence at the top of the mountain and their presence at the bottom of the mountain was a shorter time interval for the particles than for the mountain. So, from the particles’ point of view, the mountain is actually shorter than it is from its own perspective. To put this in general terms, the length of a very quickly moving object is contracted. Yes, in this particular case, it was the particles that were moving quickly and the length-contracted mountain wasn’t, but that’s only from the perspective of the scientists observing this incident. (And anyone or anything else that is stationary relative to the planet’s surface) Relativity says that it’s just as true and valid to say that the particles are stationary and the mountain is moving. The question of which object’s length is contracted is a matter of perspective.

11. The Doppler Effect applies to light as well as sound. As explained in high school physics books, the Doppler Effect is when sound waves are perceived as being grouped closer together (and therefore, higher pitched) when the thing emitting the sound is travelling towards the observer, and they are perceived as being spread farther apart (and therefore, lower pitched) when the thing emitting the sound is travelling away from the observer. According to most textbooks, one should learn about this phenomenon by getting someone to drive their car past you while honking their horn continuously, but my parents didn’t do this for me and I somehow still managed to understand the concept of the Doppler Effect. Anyway, it turns out that a moving light source will produce the same effect, except that the perceived pitch of light can’t change, for the simple reason that light doesn’t have a pitch. But the frequency still changes, just as it does for the sound. In the visible range of light, this is perceived as a change in color. The other thing worth noting (in order to avoid disagreeing with the principle of relativity) is that the Doppler Effect works the same way if it’s the receiver rather than the emitter that’s moving. It also works if the receiver and emitter are both moving, but in that case, you have to do actual math to figure out what exactly happens. (But it’s actually pretty simple math.)

Some more stuff from my tumblr page

Some more stuff from my tumblr page

12. Even though we actually spent several days of class time talking about “E equals M C squared” and radiation and subatomic stuff, I’m not going to say too much about that because, to be honest, I find that kind of thing a lot harder to understand than special relativity and its effects on space and time. But I will say this much: I know how nuclear bombs work. Some types of atoms are more stable than others, depending upon the number of electrons, neutrons, and protons. One factor is simply the size of the atom. The most stable kinds of atoms are iron atoms and atoms of similar masses. Smaller atoms are more likely than medium atoms to join together (nuclear fusion) and heavier atoms are more likely to split apart (nuclear fission). Fusion and fission both give off energy, which can be proven by adding up the energy and mass in the ingredients and the products of the event and taking into account that “E equals M C squared”. Uranium 235 (an atom that has 92 protons, 92 electrons, and 143 neutrons) is very radioactive. If you smash a neutron into a Uranium 235 atom, it’ll probably decay into Barium 144, Krypton 89, and three more neutrons which can go on to smash into more Uranium 235 atoms. If you have a critical mass of Uranium 235 and bombard it with a bunch of neutrons, you get a chain reaction that leads to a massive explosion and kills Hiroshima. (Unless, of course, you drop it on someplace other than Hiroshima, but I wouldn’t recommend that. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend dropping it on Hiroshima, either. Nuclear bombs are nasty things.) Incidentally, Uranium 238, which is more common than Uranium 235, is much less reactive, and unless I’ve misunderstood some things, it’s because of those extra neutrons. In really big atoms, larger amounts of neutrons make the atom more stable because the protons are trying to repel each other, and the neutrons are necessary to hold the atom together. Okay, that’s it; that’s the extent of my knowledge of nuclear stuff.

Ooh, here's something else I learned in this class which isn't quite worthy of a place on this list.

Ooh, here’s something else I learned in this class which isn’t quite worthy of a place on this list.

13. Even after finishing this class, I don’t quite get the concept of General Relativity, but we didn’t go into it in great detail because apparently the mathematics is well beyond the scope of this course. (I think that the real reason I decided to be a math minor is because I’m sick of hearing professors end sentences with the phrase “But we’re not going to go into that because the mathematics is beyond the scope of this course.”) But I do have a better grasp of it than I did before. The explanation of general relativity that I have heard many times before is that space is like a cushion. If you put a bowling ball in the middle of it, it will bend under the weight of the bowling ball, and if you put a marble near the bowling ball, it’ll roll down the cushion towards the bowling ball. This, I have been told, explains gravity according to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. When I questioned this, adults would explain to me that this was just the way it was and would give me looks that said, “It’s relativity, Small Child. Don’t expect it to make sense. Don’t be presumptuous and assume that you can understand the thoughts of The Great Albert Einstein.” Okay, it’s just one person in particular who seemed to be telling me this, and I am willing to accept the possibility that I was grossly misinterpreting this person’s lack of inclination to answer my question. My question wasn’t exactly a question anyway; it was more of a complaint. I felt that using this explanation was like using a word in its own definition. The reason that a bowling ball will bend a cushion is that it is heavy and is being pulled towards the Earth below the cushion, and the reason that the marble will roll down this bend is that it is likewise being pulled towards the Earth. And gravity is the thing doing the pulling. I guess I was being a bit too literal and failing to understand that the cushion explanation was merely an analogy. But my professor gave the class a similar analogy that I like better. This analogy involves an ant walking around the inside of a bowl that is empty except for a sugar cube at the bottom. Now, the ant doesn’t realize that it’s inside a bowl; it thinks that it’s walking in a straight line on a flat surface, and that there’s a sugar cube off to one side. As the ant keeps walking, it realizes that no matter how far it goes, the sugar cube stays in the same place relative to it. The ant is kind of clever for an ant, and quickly determines from this that it is in fact circling around the sugar cube. However, it still has no idea that it’s inside a curved bowl, so it can only conclude that there is some force, like gravity, attracting it to the sugar cube and causing it to orbit. In fact, there is no force; the ant is simply following a curved path because it’s walking on a curved surface. This analogy still isn’t perfect because General Relativity does say that mass (the sugar cube) causes space (the bowl) to curve, and the analogy doesn’t explain how that could happen. But it’s still a better illustration than the cushion one because it makes the point that Einstein was making with General Relativity. According to Einstein, gravity isn’t a real force. He came up with the Equivalence Principle, which says that the effect of perceived gravity is the same as the effect of being in a non-inertial reference frame that is accelerating upwards. (The acceleration is why it isn’t inertial) I’m not sure if Einstein literally meant that what we perceive as gravity is caused by acceleration of the Earth; I had thought we were considering the Earth to be an inertial reference frame. And I also don’t quite understand how curved spacetime relates to the Equivalence Principle. Like I said, General Relativity still doesn’t quite make sense to me, but at least now I’ve got analogies that make sense, and that’s progress.

black hole14. In class today, we were talking about black holes, and the professor was explaining why it is that nothing can escape from a black hole once it’s within a certain distance from the black hole, known as the event horizon. (Note to self: remember to use the phrase “The Event Horizon” as a title for something awesome someday.) The common explanation is that the gravitational pull is acting so quickly that you’d have to travel faster than the speed of light to get farther away from the black hole. Unfortunately, travelling faster than the speed of light is impossible. (Yes, I have grumpily accepted this fact, despite having spent years trying very hard to deny it.) There’s another way of explaining this that is both weirder and cooler. If you will remember, one can find delta S, a non-relative measure of spacetime separation between two events, with the equation delta S squared equals delta T squared minus delta X squared. The result of this equation is the fact that, no matter how we move in space, we are unavoidably drawn forward in time at the speed of one second per second. (According to our own perspective, that is. If we are moving at relativistic speeds, of course, our speed through time will be different from the perspective of an observer who is not moving likewise. But even then, we’ll still be moving forward in time from any perspective.) Now, here comes the awesome bit. For some reason that I don’t actually understand, apparently inside the event horizon of a black hole, this equation changes to delta S squared equals delta X squared minus delta T squared. In other words, time and space change places. The implication is that, in this situation, you are drawn into the black hole in the same way that, in a more typical scenario, you are drawn towards the future. The other implication (which is the really, really awesome bit) is that I was right when I wrote a certain passage in a certain science fiction story a long time ago. I didn’t even have any idea what I was talking about; I was just writing random science-fiction-sounding stuff about gravity and time, and I threw the phrase “time gravity” and “black time hole” in there for the sake of awesomeness. But, from what I learned today, it would appear that there was some validity to that stuff. Clearly, I am a genius. Or something like that.

15. I don’t understand quantum physics at all. In fact, I’m not even quite clear on what the word “quantum” means. This is clearly something that I need to learn. You know, now that I understand relativity.

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