I’m wearing shorts right now.
Shorts. In March. OK, I wore shorts in March back in Canada—but towards the end of March, when the snow was actually melting. Today it’s so nice that I can go outside and sit in shorts and a T-shirt without so much as a jacket. Crazy.
A few weeks ago, I asked my dad to send me a photo of the snow back home so I could see what I was missing:
I was thinking about how students and teachers back in Thunder Bay had the day off school twice on the same week that I was enjoying a relaxing half-term break—once for Family Day on Monday, and then, as I learned through Twitter, on Friday for a snow day.
For Canadians, snow days are something magical—maybe even sacred—particularly for children. They are a gift: an unscheduled day off school, with a fresh helping of snow, just lying there, waiting to be transformed into a fort, a snowman, or even that elusive, perfect snowball. I relished snow days as a kid.
Last year over here in England, I experienced my first two snow days as a teacher. Now, a snow day in England is slightly different from a snow day back home. It takes a truly intimidating amount of snow to shut things down back home. Here, snow days happen for what we would call a routine level of snowfall—enough to build a snowman, maybe, if you use your resources wisely. That first snow day I was taking the bus into school, and I didn’t hear about the closure until I was already there. Though someone offered to give me a ride back home, I elected to stay and get some work done anyway. It was a good choice; I felt more organized and still made it home earlier than I usually do on a school day.
On the second snow day, we received the call about ten minutes after leaving Bury. (This was after spending ten minutes scraping, de-icing, and warming up the car—actions that are not as common over here as they are in Canadian winters, and certainly seldom as intensive.) We turned around immediately, and I spent the day curled up at home. The snow wasn’t nice enough to make a snowman. And I might have done some marking. Otherwise, though, it was relaxing.
These breaks aside, last year’s winter was nowhere near as severe as any Canadian winter I’ve experienced … but it was still a winter. This year has been an entirely new experience. I haven’t seen so much as a snowflake this winter. Oh, we’ve had our share of inclement weather: wind and rain, and in the west part of the country the floods have been truly staggering. But on my week off, the temperature climbed and the wind let off. Conditions became mild and balmy, almost warm enough for wearing shorts (and yes, socks and sandals). There were a few days where I bought a cup of tea and took a book down to the Abbey Gardens to sit and read outdoors, something I doubt many people would contemplate doing in Thunder Bay right now. This week has brought even warmer weather: the shorts are out, and I spent more time reading outside today.
The snow day tweet back home reminded me of the striking contrast in weather between these two places I’ve resided. I experienced a taste of winter when I was in Thunder Bay over Christmas. It was exhilarating and enjoyable. Some Canadians embrace winter through winter sports and activities. Some avoid it, preferring to hibernate as much as possible. Others hate it but accept it as their lot in life. I love winter, and while I’m not that athletic, I do enjoy a good hour or two of shovelling after a big snowfall.
This year, it seems that I’ll be mostly skipping winter. It seems unlikely, given the weather so far, that we’ll receive any snow here in Bury St Edmunds. Even if we do, I doubt it’ll match up to the pittance we received last year. Some people would call this good luck. And yes, I’d be lying if I claimed that I haven’t cherished the warm weather on my week off. Yet I’m not just skipping winter; I’m missing winter. And it’s interesting to think about how that has affected my mood.
It’s not the specifics of winter’s presence that I miss so much as I miss the changing season itself. England in September was wet and rainy with occasional patches of sun. England in February has been wet and rainy with occasional patches of sun. Yes, it’s gotten colder—but for someone who is used to “colder” meaning “below 25°C”, the difference is hardly noticeable.
One of the joys of having a stable full-time job like teaching is that my work requires a certain routine from me. I know I have to be at work at certain times, and I’ve developed habits that help me stay prepared. These habits are helpful, but the repetition brings a kind of monotony. Seasonal changes bring necessary shifts, transforming the monotony into a cyclic harmony. Without such shifts, my routine goes on … and on … and on … from September to March.
I don’t want to say I’m counting down the days until the summer. (I’m not, though I am very much looking forward to it.) It’s foolish to think that returning home is going to dramatically make me happier, so I shouldn’t fixate on it. My future beyond August is so uncertain. I don’t know when next I’ll have a full-time job teaching. I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now. And despite the challenges of my current position, there are so many good and positive experiences that I’d be a fool to discount them.
Whatever happens between now and August, and between August and next year, I know one thing: I’m looking forward to a January 2015 of shovelling, snowball-making, and snowman-building. Here’s to the snow.
I’m 24 now.
It’s not much different from being 23. I think I’ve changed a lot in a year. Last year I felt far too young to be a teacher. Now I’m jaded and cynical about the world of work!
It’s weird to think I’m a quarter of the way through my likely life-span. I’ve still got so much left to learn.
My birthday was actually on Friday. Another math teacher shares the same birthday with me (same year as well), so we were looking forward to celebrating our birthdays jointly. I arrived at school to find a present waiting for me outside my classroom. It was a brand new bow-tie, covered in pi symbols. Naturally, I put it on.
Another math teacher had brought in some store-bought cake, so we had cake at lunchtime in classroom. Oh, the joys of working on one’s birthday.
That evening I went to Norwich. I’m rather thankful that my birthday is near (but not at) the beginning of the school year: it’s a nice reminder to relax, unwind, and pick oneself up after the first few, heavy weeks of the new school year. This was the first time a number of we Canadian teachers have been out together this year, so it was good. We went bowling, then we walked (and walked, and walked) to a pub where a teacher who had worked at our school last year was DJing. I danced for a little, and then I spent the night in Norwich before going home the next day. It was, all in all, my definition of a good “night out”: not too long, not too loud, not too crowded.
It’s difficult to convey my feelings about this school year so far. I can say with certainty that being on a single site is far better, and I love my brand-new classroom. I’m so happy to have a SMART board again. However, there are a lot of challenges and other issues. I don’t think I fully appreciated the scope of non-teaching-related tasks that suck so much time out of my day. Bureaucracy is a tricky, self-perpetuating machine.
Well, I’m not home yet. As I write this, I sit in the basement of my grandparents’ home in Waterloo, Ontario. They are a nice stepping stone between England and Thunder Bay, and I elected to spend a few days with them before flying the second (and considerably shorter) leg back home.
But I am in the process of going home, which they say you can never do, but I’m a rebel that way. It has been a long schoolyear in many ways. In other ways, it feels like the year has gone by exceedingly fast. I am somewhat in awe that I have finished my first schoolyear as a teacher.
Travelling home begins with a two-part bus journey from Bury St Edmunds to Gatwick Airport. This takes about four and a half hours. I was excited about returning home for the summer, but as the bus pulled out of Bury, I had a slight feeling of melancholy. I’m attributing this to anxiety around travelling itself. This attests to how comfortable I’ve become in England, that leaving it for home evokes both anxiety and relief rather than simply the latter.
I’m not a fan of the entire process involved in getting home, even though, having done it a few times now, I’m starting to feel unusually familiar with it. This time, the ride to Gatwick was improved by running into an LSA who works at the school. She and her boyfriend were going to Gatwick to catch a flight to Rome to kick off the school holiday. I would have happily spent the bus ride reading and listening to music, but this was an equally pleasant way to pass the time that provided a modicum of social interaction without making me feel overwhelmed.
As the bus entered London, the impressive towers of condominiums and businesses confronted me, reminding me how unsuited I am to life in the big city. The prospect of such tall buildings so close together daunt me. (We have very few tall buildings in Thunder Bay and fewer still, if any, that can be called “skyscrapers”. Having never been in any of them, my first experience with a building on the order of 25–50 floors was when I went to Eaton Tower for my visa application appointment.) The city is so paved, so full of people and vehicles and buildings, in a way that smaller towns are not. I can understand why people are attracted to such a busy atmosphere, but I prefer the quieter life of a town that has achieved a more modest homeostasis.
At Gatwick, I checked into Yotel, a minimalist sleeping experience. It’s located within the airport itself, and it delivers exactly what I need: a clean place with a bed and a bathroom where I can sleep for eight hours and get washed up before leaving in the morning. Since it takes so long to get to the airport from where I live, I prefer taking this route rather than travelling early in the morning to catch a morning flight. I slept very well, and then I had a nice breakfast in the airport, at Giraffe. (I have always been disappointed that Giraffe does not serve actually giraffe. I had bacon, sausage, eggs, and toast instead—and two cups of Earl Grey tea.)
The flight to Toronto was uneventful, which is just the way I like it. I met up with another Canadian teacher from my school just prior to boarding the plane—we had checked in online together and managed to secure seats across the aisle from each other. I’m glad I did the online check-in, because it meant I got to walk past a rather long line of people, directly to the baggage drop-off line. My checked suitcase weighed 22.6 kg, just under the 23 kg limit!
Our plane had the individual entertainment units set into the back of each seat, and the movie and TV shows on offer were decent. I watched Argo and Admission during the eight-hour flight. I considered watching Life of Pi or Les Miserables; however, I think I’d prefer to watch the former with someone else, and I suspect I would enjoy the latter more on a larger TV screen. Also, the earphone jack was loose in such a way that I was only getting sound to the right speaker, which probably would have detracted from my experience of a musical…. I enjoyed Argo a great deal, and Admission was fun but not quite as good as some of Fey’s other work.
I’ve had a chance to meet with some of my friends from university who live in this area. I’m here until Sunday, when I will fly back to Thunder Bay and enjoy the rest of my summer.
At the beginning of the month, I moved. I was quite happy with my current roommate and living arrangements at the time, but for reasons beyond my control, I needed a new place to stay. So on my first weekend off in the Easter break, I packed up the kipple of my life here in the UK and moved to a different place in Bury St Edmunds. Happily, the experience has been a positive one—I don’t like change, but this turned out to be change for the better.
My new place is ideally situated. It’s literally in the town centre. The major shopping centre and the high street are less than a few minutes’ walk away, as is the movie theatre and the bus station. The train station is ten minutes, if that, from my house. No more twenty-minute walks into the market on Saturdays! I didn’t mind those so much when it was sunny, but in times of rain or snow it wasn’t that much fun. And now, if I forget something, I can easily walk back to a store instead of wondering if I should just wait until next week.
My new roommate, Julie, is a woman with a nine-year-old daughter, and they are both awesome people. More importantly, their television and book tastes dovetail nicely with my own. They love Doctor Who, Star Trek, etc. Julie has been showing me Red Dwarf, and I have been catching her up on the first two seasons of Game of Thrones so she can jump into season three soon. The kitchen of my new place is well-equipped for my cooking shenanigans. Last weekend, Julie showed me how to make a key lime pie; it turned out delicious, if I do say so myself.
The Easter break was very relaxing. It was a good time to move, because it gave me a chance to get to know my new roommates removed from the hustle and bustle of “hello” and “goodbye” wrapped around our daily comings and goings. We got to know each other’s idiosyncrasies and routines before the added stress of schedules entered the mix. Despite my two-week break as a result of shingles, I still felt like I needed another two weeks off. I was tired. I didn’t do much, no fancy travelling or entertainment. Just relaxed, read—including War and Peace, because I am mad—and recovered.
My first week back went well. This half-term is going to be focused on revision for the Year 11s, who have their exams at the end of it and then leave school. It kind of feels like a make-shift, highly dangerous go-kart that one has started by pushing down the hill, then one has to chase behind it to jump on, only to realize it has no brakes. These next few weeks will be intense, but I suspect they will go by pretty quickly.
I have also booked my flight home for the summer! I’m leaving July 25, the day after the end of school.
Oh, this house has a cat.
It started the weekend before last. I woke up with my right eye slightly swollen and a little irritated. I groaned and worried I was developing conjunctivitis. Every since the half-term, I had been battling an epic cold that just wouldn’t go away, and a few times before, the toll such a cold takes on my hygiene has resulted in a bout of conjunctivitis at the tail end of the illness. I sighed and booked my first appointment with a doctor since I moved here and registered with a surgery, wondering if I would need to take work off on Monday in order to keep it.
Monday came round, and it brought more bad news. When I woke up, the swelling around my eye had turned into a tiny, bumpy white rash. I knew there was no way I could go in to work, so I called in sick, sent in some cover work, and composed myself for my appointment. The doctor saw me promptly, took a look at my eye, and told me I had shingles. Good thing I went to the doctor so quickly after developing the symptoms! He was able to put me on antivirals.
Well, I wasn’t expecting that. I knew what shingles was and of its relationship to chickenpox. I didn’t expect to get it, at least not at this stage in my life. As the doctor observed, it’s not common for someone as young as me to develop it. He wrote me a prescription, and then, he said, “Excuse me, I want to show this to a colleague of mine!”
He returned a moment later with another doctor, who took one look at my eye and said, “Oh, is that ophthalmological shingles?”
“Yes. Fascinating, isn’t it?” my doctor replied, with all the detachment of a medical professional.
I wish I could say I found my situation so fascinating. To be sure, it has given me fresh perspective on the nature of work, life, and suffering (more on that in a moment). But it has also sharpened the issues and internal conflicts I am confronting as a first-year teacher.
Since I would be infective to those who haven’t had chickenpox, the doctor instructed me to take two weeks off work (last week and this work) and furnished me with my first-ever official doctor’s note. I informed my school, accepted the condolences and commiserations from my colleagues, and didn’t go into work the next day. Or the day after. And so on. Having these two weeks to stay home, away from the intensity, stress, and excitement of the classroom while it is still ongoing for others, has given me a new sense of perspective.
I was very lucky with this bout of shingles. In my reading about it, I hear that many people experience terrible, shooting pains in the nerves around the site of the rash. I haven’t had any pain aside from some minor itchiness. Similarly, although my eye didn’t look fantastic for about a week, at least I didn’t have the rash all down my back or on one of my limbs. And I was surprised by how reassured and calm I felt after the doctor diagnosed me. Being certain about what was wrong with me helped me resign myself to the fact that I would have to be off work for two entire weeks. And it definitely could have been worse.
With my lack of pain, and my cold finally departing, I haven’t even spent any time lying in bed. I’ve been reading, watching television and movies, playing Assassin’s Creed III, and programming. Indeed, at the beginning of my absence, I was telling everyone that I didn’t actually feel all that sick. Now, a little more than a week later, I realize I was wrong on that count, because I feel even better now, so the shingles must have been having some effect on me. But the relative mildness of my illness has created its own complications emotionally, because in addition to all those fun activities I listed above, I have also spent time worrying about my classes, my students, my work.
When I learned I would be off work for two weeks, I had mixed feelings. On a base and pecuniary level, I don’t get paid for sick time, so this is a very expensive vacation—it cost me less to fly home and back at Christmas! The timing also sucks—we were at a critical juncture for my Year 11 English class, and I don’t like just up-and-leaving any of my either classes either, especially when we will be going on a term break in two and a half weeks. Finally, there was the fact that I didn’t and don’t actually feel all that sick, which has created a certain amount of guilt, a voice in my head saying, “You’re not really sick. You’re just slacking off. You’re hiding.”
Because, on the other hand, having two weeks off has been nice. It has relaxed me. Yes, I worried about my students and felt bad about the extra work this has created for my colleagues. But I can’t deny how nice it has been to stay home, pursue some of my interests and projects, and not worry as much about work. I’ve made incredible progress on a replacement for this blog, as well as a more general update to my website’s design. I finished Assassin’s Creed III. I’ve caught up on some of the television shows that I hadn’t made time to watch lately. During that one week of work between returning from half-term and my diagnosis, I was constantly looking forward to the two-week break at Easter. Suddenly those two weeks had come all the sooner … and it was nice.
I have tried to rationalize this relaxation as a necessary component of my convalescence. Relaxing and removing stress is good for recovering from any illness, but stress is one of the things that can trigger shingles. (As I understand it, the dormant virus is able to assert itself if the immune system is too rundown to suppress it, which can happen when one is stressed.) Both my doctor and the ophthalmologist whom I saw later in the week asked me if I had been feeling rundown or stressed lately, and I had. The combination of my cold and an intense week at school made me extremely relieved when that first weekend after half-term rolled around—laughably, I had this idea that I would unwind and plan all weekend and be all recovered and ready to take on the rest of the half-term! So obviously I have been stressed, and that was a contributor to my current condition. Hence, I shouldn’t feel bad for relaxing and doing all I can to remove that stress, right? It’s helping me get better faster, right?
Except I still feel bad. I can’t help it. I understand, rationally, that no one is faulting me. I have a legitimate medical reason for my absence. When I return to school on Monday, I am confident that I will be ready to kill it for the next week and a half. None of these reasons assuage my guilt, though.
This is typical of the emotional conflicts I have been experiencing during this first year of my teaching. My job is not like an ordinary 9-to-5. If I’m sick, it’s not a matter of missing some deadlines—it means the students who have been my responsibility for six months are in the hands of someone else now, on short notice. Now, I’m not egotistical enough to think that no one else can help my students (I’m sure many teachers would be much better at it than I am). Nor am I so worried about the duration of my absence—two weeks is a significant part of this half-term, but in the scheme of things, it is not all that long. But as a teacher, unlike many other jobs, I think it is harder to switch off when one is sick—at least as early in my career as I am now. Maybe when I’m older, more experienced (and more cynical?) I’ll be better at decoupling that part of me and not worrying as much when I’m off sick. Or maybe not.
I’m ready to go back to work next week, and I’m going to try to put this all—sickness, stress, worry, guilt, everything—behind me. The focus will be as it always is: teaching well and striving to have a good work–life balance. Some days, that’s easier than others. But I’ll keep going. It’s worth it.
At the very least, I’ve learned how to spell ophthalmological. I count that as a win.
I’ve spent the past eleven days back home in Thunder Bay, enjoying my break and catching up with friends and family. It has been good. I have reconnected with our cats, who began merrily disassembling the Christmas tree one ornament at a time approximately an hour after we put it up. I saw my 3.5-year-old nephew and gave him some gifts courtesy Scotland. I hung out with my mom, watching movies and drinking tea and baking cinnamon buns. And I did much the same with my dad, minus the cinnamon bun part (he did bake two pumpkin pies, though, while I happened to be in the house—does that count?). I saw a few groups of friends, learned how to play Cards Against Humanity, Munchkin, and a few other fun games. Good times.
Now they are over, and I fly back to Toronto in slightly more than four hours. From there, I take an 8 pm flight back to England and a four hour coach trip up to Bury. Perhaps my least favourite part of travelling (aside from the travelling) is how much time it consumes! However, there is nothing I can do about that. I can only make sure I have a good book or two, some movies and games, and my earbuds, and try to enjoy myself.
That has been a familiar mantra for a while now. Teaching makes it hard to switch off. There is always something to do, something to mark or plan or ever so slightly tweak so that it is ready for the next lesson, next day, next week. Plus, I find it so easy to procrastinate. It didn’t help that I had two somewhat contradictory goals going into this holiday: to relax as much as possible, and to get a good grip on my plans for the next half-term. I think I erred on the relaxing side, and that was the right call. I did plan a little, and I am going to get better at this as I go along. (Right?)
Coming home was an excellent tonic for the stress and homesickness that had started to accumulate like a toxin in my bloodstream. I wouldn’t say I was terribly homesick, but I did miss home more than I thought I would. Aside from the usual attractions, such as friends and family, I miss the familiarity of Thunder Bay. I miss being able to set out in any direction and walk around with a confident knowledge of the town. In Bury, I know the route to and from the Town Centre or ASDA, and that’s about it. I haven’t had the time or inclination to explore further—and while that’s my doing, it still speaks to how little of a connection I have there so far. I’ve settled well into where I live, and I like my roommate, and the market, but it still isn’t home.
Being home has also emphasized how much I want to end up teaching in or near Thunder Bay. That had always been the plan, but there was of course that little seed of doubt in my mind, planted there by the knowing smiles of others who seemed convinced that, once I experienced the wider world, I wouldn’t look back. But this is where I want to live, and the Ontario curriculum is what I want to teach. It’s probably going to be a few more years before that becomes possible, but I’m more fixated on this goal than ever.
As for teaching in England, it continues to be a mixture of challenge and reward. I try to dichotomize the challenges into what I can control and what I can’t—and most of them are on the can’t side, at least for now. Perhaps my major challenge is simply my newness—to the school, the students, and to teaching. I don’t have the toolkit of experience other teachers necessarily have, so when I reach into that kit, I often scrape the bottom quite quickly. This amplifies other challenges that might not otherwise be as daunting.
There are rewards though, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. From the smiles that students give me to all of the new things I’ve learned since September, there is a huge set of positives to this experience. The last week of the last term was difficult for staff and students: schedules were mixed up because of ongoing revision, and everyone was ready to go home for the holidays. But that last hour, when the entire school squeezed into the hall to listen to some students perform, that was good. There was a sense of community that needs to be there more often.
What am I looking forward to this term? In Year 11 English, we will finally be done with the English Language exam revision that has essentially been our material for the past four months. We get to move on to English Literature, which means studying A Christmas Carol first!
If you had told me a year ago that I would be living in a foreign country and coming home for the holidays, I would have laughed in your face. I was so determined to stay home—and then almost a year ago, I went to a career fair, and the idea of teaching in England was planted in my mind. It still seemed like a longshot … but here I am. And I’m staying, at least until the end of this school year—July!—and probably next year as well.
I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. I enjoyed Meekakitty’s video on the subject, and I definitely resolve to “be happy” and not stress about what I can’t change. I can’t change the fact that I’m living and working in England, so I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as possible. More trips, funky photos, and hopefully, lots of enjoyable books await me in 2013. Until then … well, I have two plane rides, The Princess Bride, and Neil Turok’s CBC Massey Lectures in literary form to keep me company.
So, my students finally found me online.
Seriously, what took you so long?
Not to boast, but I’m easy to find online. There are few enough Ben Babcocks that my various accounts, not to mention my website, eventually show up sometime on a Google search. So I knew it was just a matter of time.
Knowledge of my online presence has spread quite quickly. I’m not that bothered. Long ago I made a decision to discard anonymity. While it’s a valid option, I found that in my case I wanted to be able to keep my online and offline lives as closely linked as possible. I knew that, with my chosen profession, this might pose some difficulties. However, it also provides a few opportunities as well.
After all, we are still figuring out privacy in the digital age. Having hit its 20th anniversary this year, the Web remains relatively new. My generation is among the first to grow up with it as a professional platform for self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and self-expression. We have to suss out what is private versus what is personal. The bottom line, though, is that we are unquestionably making more information available in public (or to loose enough networks of people that it is, for all intents and purposes, public) than ever before. And it’s not going to stop.
I was already an adult (albeit barely) when Twitter became the new kid on the block. I already had experience constructing my online self and determining what I wanted to share with the unwashed masses. Now we have a generation who are growing up with all these services available. Facebook went from being open to a single university to being open to all universities, and now anyone over 13 can sign up. It is conceivable that parents may begin creating and curating social networking spaces for newborns, so that by the time children grow up, they will already have an online presence, complete with baby photos. Whatever the future holds, we can’t roll back the clock; we can only move forward.
Herein lies the opportunity. Just as with anything else involving safe conduct, it’s up to us, the adults, to be role models for responsible use of social media. There are certainly dangers to social media, but rich use of social media can be a rewarding experience. And as Web-enabled technologies become even more embedded into our lives, the very concept of social media is going to grow, expanding to fill niches that even now we might consider private (or at least unworthy of sharing). That’s going to lead to some interesting conversations about what’s worth sharing (versus what we should be remembering). But social media isn’t going to go away.
I fully expect that once the initial novelty of following the quirky Canadian teacher on Twitter wears off my new student followers will gradually grow bored and drop away. They’ll soon realize that I’m just as uninteresting as I appear to be, and that my tweets are more about technology, books, and culture than they are about all those off-the-chain weekend parties (do we still say “off the chain” any more?). And, hey, if links to book reviews and random 140-character musings on life in England work for them … well, welcome aboard new followers!
Now if you excuse me, I must obsessively catalogue more photos and decide what to release on to Flickr for eternity.
Being sick really throws off my routine. And I love my routine.
I had planned to write one or two more posts about my Scotland trip. But I’m behind, because since last Thursday I have been ill with some kind of chest cold that has since metamorphosed into a head cold. I am feeling better relative to Thursday and Saturday but am still under the weather. I took my first sick day on Tuesday, and I returned today to avoid the compounded chaos of a second day of supply teachers. I don’t regret this decision—I think I did some good—but it was definitely a difficult day. I finally have some ginger ale and Sudafed, though, which helps.
Sickness does not necessitate silence, though, so here I am! Hi. Also behind on book reviews, even though I am still reading quite a bit. I look forward to Christmas break not just because I am happy to visit home but also because I might finally have enough time to get back on my feet, digitally speaking, and stay there for most of next term! Let’s hope.
Anyway, I’m going to relax for a bit now and then go to sleep.
I’ve had a good run. Aside from the last period of Friday last week, my last two weeks have been good. It’s still difficult and exhausting, but I’m still surviving!
I am still coming to terms with the significance of this new chapter in my life, and last Thursday hammered this home. We had an Open Evening, where children from Year 6 and their parents tour the school prior to deciding where to go for Year 7. We teachers were expected to stay there and represent our departments, and so I ended up not getting home until around 9:30. In the hours between the end of the school day and the start of the event, I was hanging around in the staff room and my room, marking and otherwise marking time. And it occurred to me that I was actually a teacher.
Yes, I’ve been a teacher for a while now—at least on paper, and perhaps even in practice. But it still hadn’t sunk in. With these events in the past, even if I were there helping out as a student, I was still a student. I wasn’t privy to the behind the scenes featurettes in the staff room. That evening emphasized how much I am on the other side of the looking glass now (and how I will always be on that side).
This is part of a larger paradigm shift in my life. I’m living on my own (far away from home). I’m responsible entirely for my life in a way I never was before. This is a little scary—and a lot of work!—but it’s also cool. Today I went to Norwich for Thanksgiving dinner with some other Canadian teachers. One of them, Jon, made chicken (we couldn’t find a turkey), stuffing, etc. Josie couldn’t find pumpkin for pumpkin pie, but she used squash instead. We improvised a Thanksgiving dinner. The ingredients might not have been pure, but it’s the thought that counts. I ate it off a pink paper party plate that said, “Princess” and thought: this is my life; I’m an adult now and I eat Thanksgiving my way.
I had to leave immediately after eating to catch a train back to Bury, so I could not stay as long as I would have liked. Still, I’m glad I went, no matter how brief my visit was. It was worth getting out of the house to share some time with people who share my background as well as the experience we’re going through at the moment. I’m not certain what I’m doing come half-term, or even next weekend. But this was a nice way to mark the end of one week and the beginning of the next.
Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be more frequent (albeit probably shorter) updates! I have been meaning to write this post since the beginning of last week, but every night seemed like a good night to procrastinate. My reading is also suffering, as those of you who follow my reviews on Goodreads have probably noticed. This too shall pass.
I’m firmly ensconced in teaching now: school is in session, I’ve learned all my students’ names (much to our mutual surprise), and I have found a few more bow ties. I’m absolutely, incredibly, indescribably exhausted almost all the time. This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. (To be fair, though, it’s not like I’ve done much with my life so far.) I rather expected it would be, and I’m not trying to complain (too much). I’m just not sugar-coating it or allowing myself to have any illusions: this is a demanding, challenging, stressful job. I care a lot, which is good and is what will help me be a great teacher—but it also means I have to be careful not to burn myself out with planning and worrying. The old adage “work smarter, not harder” comes to mind, of course, and I am slowly figuring out how to do that.
This weekend was a good example. I was away on Friday, off to London for a training course in teaching A level literature. It was actually quite nice: the course was helpful, and I feel more confident teaching my AS Literature class. (Now that it’s done from four students to two, however, whether I continue teaching it remains to be seen.) Plus, a paid day off to sit around in a hotel conference room in London? Well, I missed my students, but I think I could do it on occasion.
After I returned to Bury, I resolved not to work too hard this weekend. I planned out what I want to accomplish in each period this week. Of course, I knew that the first few days would be difficult to anticipate, because I would have to deal with the fallout of having a supply teacher (even the best supply days will mean mixed messages and students claiming they never got that memo about homework). Then on Sunday, I made sure I knew exactly what I needed to prepare on Monday morning for the rest of that day. Today, I worked out what I am doing tomorrow and (in a more general sense) on Wednesday. I’m also trying to use my planning periods more effectively so I don’t have to take as many tasks home at the end of the day. This is going to go a long way to relieving stress and inculcating a good work-life balance (I hope).
The life part of work-life is going fine. Not much of a social life, but that’s OK. Ian and Jodie came up from Ely on Sunday to do some shopping, so I met them for lunch, and they came over to watch Doctor Who (I liked this week’s episode, finding a therapeutic penultimate appearance of the Ponds. More on that next week, I suppose). I converted them by watching it while they were around, muwahahah! We’re also enjoying a new series here called Moone Boy, written by and starring Chris O’Dowd. It’s set in Ireland in 1989 and follows a young boy with an imaginary friend. I’m still cooking most of my dinners myself, and my adventures in baking continued this weekend with peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.
Musically, I’ve been enjoying Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra’s album, Theatre is Evil. (Those of you who had Internet connections in the summer might recall having seen some news about this. She’s the musician who raised over $1 million on Kickstarter out of an asked-for $100,000. Yeah.) I’m enjoying it a lot—and I say this as someone who, while admiring and appreciating Palmer’s sensibilities and sensational approach to making music, didn’t really get into her music itself until she participated in 8 in 8 and they produced Nighty Night. I review books, not movies, so it’s difficult for me to find the words to describe why I’m enjoying these tracks so much. (It’s a combination of the lyrics and the melodies, in the same way that enjoying books is the result of a combination of the characters and the plot.) “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)”, “Want It Back”, and “The Killing Type” are just brilliant.
Anyway. I’m going to squeeze in a little bit of reading before going to bed. Tomorrow is a brand new day.
Hello from England!
My flight to Gatwick was uneventful—I kind of knew what to expect this time. Several teachers I had met from my iday experience were on an Air Transat flight the same night, but I flew Sunwing. I met up with another Canadian teacher, Josie, teaching at the same school as me. Unfortunately, this flight was not any better than the last when it came to getting sleep. I’m not supremely tired (it’s 10:20 pm local time as I write this), but I know I will sleep well.
Jodie (not to be confused with Josie), the teacher who put me in touch with my new roommate, is staying here for a few weeks while looking for a new place for her and her husband Ian. Ian is arriving on Tuesday with their dog. I don’t mind having extra people in the house, especially because I’ve already met them, and I think it will make it easier for me to get settled in here. Jodie, having lived for several months already, is certainly a valuable resource. She showed me the way to a nearby superstore (called Asda) so I could stock up on groceries and other items. I spent quite a bit of money, but it was all worth it. There’s also a convenience store located literally at the end of the street.
We left Asda laden with four very heavy, very full bags of my purchases. During the walk there it had been a fine sunny day. As we were leaving, it was raining—not hard, but certainly in the fine English tradition everyone knows and loves. Rather than calling a cab, we opted to walk back anyway. Fortunately, the rain continued to become lighter as we went along. My first British rain shower!
After stowing my various purchases, we walked down towards the town centre of Bury St Edmunds, this time with an aim to acquiring dinner. There were restaurants there, but were in the mood for something more along the lines of fast food. There is KFC in Bury—blech—and also a Subway, where I got a rather tasty steak and cheese melt. I found an episode of Stargate SG-1, albeit not a very good one, and watched that while eating. Then I spent an hour or so online, catching up on my various feeds, before retiring to my room to compose a letter home as well as this blog post.
I miss home. I really do—not in the homesick, “I want to come home right now” kind of way, but the “wow, you never realize just how accustomed you are to a place until you leave!” It’s the little things that matter, from the kettle to the order of the cold and hot taps on the sink! I’m sure I’ll have a great time here, but it will take a while to get settled into my new English home. Fortunately, everyone so far has been welcoming, nice, and helpful.
Tomorrow, Jodie and I are taking the train to Cambridge. She’s viewing several potential places for her and Ian and invited me to come along. I’m looking forward to getting comfortable with the train system, and of course to seeing Cambridge and playing some of the tourist. I hope to update my photostream with a bunch of new photos by the weekend at the latest, thereby giving those of you back home a nice glimpse at where I’m living (as well as other places in England I’m visiting).
It is hard to believe, but in less than two weeks I will be moving away from Canada to teach in England. What started as a possibility in January has swiftly become a solid reality. Over the last few weeks I’ve received my visa, received my Ontario College of Teachers certification, and booked my flights to Toronto and London. I also made a somewhat unwise trip to the library, where I acquired enough books that I have to read about 1 per day until I leave—hence the marked increase in frequency of reviews lately.
I leave for Toronto on August 21 at around 3:45 pm. We land a little after 5 pm, and my flight to London–Gatwick airport departs around 10 pm. There’s at least one other teacher going to the same school as I am on this very flight, although I haven’t met her in person yet. I’m planning to meet up with a few of the people I know from the iday who are also flying on that day, albeit with a different airline.
I should arrive at Gatwick around 10:30 am local time on August 22, where someone from Engage Education is picking us up. I’m not sure what my day will be like from there, but eventually I expect to make it to my accommodations in Bury St Edmunds. One of the other teachers on the iday, Jodie, was already working for Engage on a more limited contract. Both she and her husband, Ian, found full-time positions elsewhere in England, so they’ll be looking for a new place to live closer to their schools. Jodie kindly put me in contact with her current roommate, and I have kind of inherited her place! I’ll be living with one other person in a house in Bury St Edmunds, which is about 25–30 minutes away from Thetford by bus. I’ve seen some pictures and am quite excited—plus, it’s nice to have my living arrangements sorted out before I leave.
Last week, my dad and I went hunting for a light suitcase, since the weight restrictions on my luggage are an issue when I’m moving away for so long. We found a nice, black, hard-shell suitcase that weighs around 4 kg. Yesterday I weighed my clothes and toiletries and discovered that I can actually fit everything within about 20 kg, suitcase included. That doesn’t count the ~8 kg of books I want to bring over as a kernel for my classroom library—I’m going to ship those separately. The rest of my rather comforting collection of books will have to stay on this side of the Atlantic, unless I win some kind of book shipping lottery. That would be cool.
Today I picked up the British pounds I ordered from my bank. I also paid a visit to the TbayTel dealer and cancelled my contract, effective September, and switched my phone to a prepaid plan for when I visit at Christmas and in the summer. There isn’t much left to do. Aside from all my reading and the physical act of packing, I just need to clean and tidy and organize everything that isn’t going with me. I also need to rip my DVDs to an external hard drive, so I can bring my small but useful collection of TVs and movies over without the encumbrance of physical media. Slowly, my ties here are dissolving—but not permanently!
Last Thursday I wrote my final exam as an undergraduate university student. This marks the end of my formal schooling (for now). I have this week off, which is a welcome break and short vacation, and then I begin my second five-week practicum. Come the last full week of April, I will be finished completely. No more assignments. No more tests. I’ll be a transcript and some bureaucratic processing away from being a certified teacher.
I have mixed feelings about being finished school. On one hand, it is a relief. This last term of classes went by slowly. Many of my friends remarked that they were not getting much from their classes this time, that they were anxious to get back out in the field or to be done … and I can see whence this line of reasoning comes, and I agree in part. We had an intense conversation about this in my Philosophy of Education class, about how we would redesign the teacher education program if we could. All of us spoke with the voices of very tired teacher candidates.
On the other hand, it is also terrifying. This is it. When I entered university, I entered as a concurrent education student. I knew I would be doing five years, four of them for my honours degree and one in the Faculty of Education. Now I’m finished. This is the culmination of my five-year plan, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment … and a corresponding sense of “nowwhatedness”. Now what do I do? (I need another five-year plan, of course!) The year before me is a year of transition, a year in which I will redefine myself. I will go from student to teacher in earnest, look for jobs, look for other ways to gain experience. Depending on where I end up—but that is another post—I will be making new friends (and maybe new enemies!) and learning how to live on my own, as an adult, something I have yet to experience. This is going to be a Year of New Things. It is bound to be both intimidating and exhilarating, probably all at the same time.
I get lots of queries about graduate school. I give off, I suppose, this latent sense of academe. I am the stereotypical ivory tower individual: white, male, book-smart, autodidactic, possessed of certain idiosyncrasies, and socially-awkward. (All I’m lacking is the strokable beard. I think I would look terrible with a beard, so I’ve never tried growing one.) Many people I know assume or have voiced an expectation that I will end up in grad school and, ultimately, a university professor. Well, I did my stint of research and know it’s not for me—that is, I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life. Plus, the life of a professor is not as flexible in terms of where I can work: I’d have to go where there are positions, and those would be in large cities, which I want to avoid. Finally, North American society is churning out too many postdocs as it is. Statistically, this is a poor time to to be pursuing a doctorate. That probably wouldn’t stop me if it was something I really wanted (or needed), but it does not sweeten the deal.
But what about a mere masters? After all, many high school teachers have those now; it is close to becoming an expectation. Indeed, this credential inflation is one reason I am avoiding grad school for now. It may be silly, but I’m being contrarian. Also, once I´ve found a stable teaching job, I can do my masters gradually on the side—this is probably more financially sensible than doing it now, when I have no strong source of income. I need to start saving, start putting money away for those rainy days and for retirement, and I need experience. This is the bottom line. In the end, it comes down to one thing: I have no real-world experience.
I went straight out of high school and into five years of university. I don’t think it’s my place to start doing research on how to teach or how students learn when I have no conception of what actually happens in a classroom. And I don’t want to be swallowed up by the (sometimes toxic) culture of academe and the ivory tower … university is a wonderful place of learning, but it is also problematic, and I would like to step outside it for a while and get a chance to learn in other ways. I have book-smarts, and I will continue to acquire book-smarts. But now I desperately need some street-smarts as well. I am very comfortable being an academic student, but I also recognize that this comfort is itself a siren song that could lure me to limit my development and keep my mind on a very narrow path. Now that I have the opportunity, it is time to shake things up—not too much, mind you, but enough to get some practice all up in my theory.
So this is it, the end of this road for now. I will probably return to school at some point, whether it is to get a graduate degree or simply to take more undergraduate courses that strike my fancy. (I will be doing Additional Qualification courses and other professional development workshops too, but I don’t count those as a “return” to university.) As a teacher I should be a lifelong learner, and learning has always been something I just do anyway, so I don’t think I will be able to stay away from university forever. For now, though … other things lie ahead. The world is not flat after all.
So I’m knitting now.
Katie, a friend I have made among my class of teacher candidates, is an avid knitter. (Her teachables also happen to be the same as mine—math and English—how cool is that?) Eventually our conversations about her knitting culminated in an offer to teach me how to knit. I was not digging for this—the thought had honestly never crossed my mind. I used to do some very basic cross-stitching, but my ability to do things with my hands (aside from typing) has always been minimal. Knitting seemed like a daunting skill to learn.
So I said yes, of course. I had an ample supply of yarn left over from my cross-stitching days. When Katie returned to Thunder Bay after the Christmas break, we went shopping for a perfect set of needles and searching for a perfect beginning pattern. We eventually decided upon this hat pattern, which has the advantage of being knit flat and being done entirely in knit stitch (no purling). Another professional year friend, Hélène, deterred me from starting with a scarf: as she put it, a scarf is long and boring and repetitive; I needed a beginning project that was easy enough to complete but challenging enough that I could use it as a scaffold for improving my technique.
(We’re such teachers now.)
The hat did, in fact, turn out to be a good project. Knitting was not as difficult as I feared it would be. Once Katie explained the basics, I got the hang of the motions pretty quickly. “Follow the pattern” essentially means “follow the algorithm”, something we mathematicians are rather good at doing. Aside from the spectres of losing count or dropping stitches, it transformed into an endurance sport. In this sense, knitting is an art that is different for every knitter: beginners like me are little more than human looms, injecting little originality or creativity into our pieces; more advanced knitters, however, have the understanding and skill to create things that are baffling, amazing, and marvelous. I don’t know if I’ve enough talent to ever get to quite such a stage, but I’m sure that with enough practice I can become fairly competent—I might even start improvising a little!
But let’s not get too carried away. With much diligence on my part, not to mention the assistance of Katie and Hélène, and I managed to finish my hat. You can see all the details on the project’s Ravelry page. My hat definitely has that “first project” feel to it: lopsided and uneven because of my varying tension, a little too small because I haven’t yet learned how to judge and adapt a pattern to my needs. Katie has dubbed it a “sarcasm hat”. I think I’ll make another soon.
My next project is a tissue box cover. The pattern represents a good step up in difficulty for me: it involves purling and some slightly more complicated instructions; plus, I need to size it to my tissue box and yarn! I started it on Thursday, and yesterday Hélène showed me how to improve the way I hold my needles so as to help with my tension and speed. Much like knitting, purling is not as difficult as the dramatic music that accompanies the term always made it seem.
Oddly enough, knitting has opened up an interesting dimension in my social life: apparently many of my friends are secret knitters (or crocheters) in disguise! I had known about a few of them, but others are a surprise. When I went to meet Aaron, Jessica, Rachael, and Tim—my friends from my summers of math research—it turned into an impromptu knitting/crochet circle. Aaron and Jessica were crocheting while Rachael and I were knitting; Tim had obviously missed the memo about the cool new activity on campus, so Rachael provided an extra crochet hook, and Aaron taught him the basics.
Finally, knitting gives me something to do while watching TV. I can read for hours at a time, but I find it difficult to watch an entire movie all the way through. I suppose the medium just doesn’t occupy my mind enough, and I feel like I need to be doing something. Knitting gives my hands something to do and demands enough concentration to keep me focused while not so much that I can’t pay attention to the movie. By the same token, I can knit around others when we are having lunch or something, and it makes me seem slightly less rude and asocial! Plus, knitting in public is badass.
I will certainly blog more about knitting in the future. Until then, however, just as you can go to my Goodreads page to stalk my reading, you can find my knitting on Ravelry. Katie and Jessica urged me to join this site. As a newbie knitter I am finding it very useful, and as a programmer the way it is designed and functions is impressive. Once again, the Internet adds a dimension to an offline skill and makes it that much more awesome.
The year is almost over, and unless I finish a book tomorrow, it looks like I will end 2011 with 115 books read. Not too shabby, I suppose. Far cry from my goal, which was to tie with 2009’s best of 156 books. But still pretty good, all things considered. Indeed, from time to time people exclaim their awe at how much I read. I don’t like to draw too much attention to the quantity, which is after all no indicator of quality, because it feels too much like bragging. But today someone on Goodreads asked me how I manage to read so much, and as I was composing my reply, I realized it was getting too lengthy. Lengthy enough for a blog post, in fact.
It’s quite simple. I have a time machine, you see, and that allows me to go back in time and spend more time reading throughout the day….
Well, I wish that weren’t so much science fiction!
Last year, which was a very good year for me, I averaged 2.6 days per book; this year I have been slightly busier, so I took 3.1 days per book. Considering that most people, i.e., people who do not bother joining a social networking site about books, are probably lucky if they read 10 or 15 books in a year, I suppose I do read quite a bit. However, I’m far from abnormal—some of my friends here are up to the 200s when it comes to books, and I suspect they must be speed-readers.
I am nothing of the sort. I probably do skim quite a bit, by which I mean that my reading comprehension has developed to a point where I don’t have to focus my eyes on every single word in order to get the gist of a passage. The way that the human brain and the human eyes interact is really quite amazing and not very much like a camera. I suspect (because I Am Not a Neurologist) that my practice reading means that my brain can predict what words will be before they have fully registered. Indeed, when I encounter an unfamiliar word I do tend to “stumble” and slow down (while I pull out my dictionary!). I know I’m not a speed reader because I still need to focus carefully when I read technical, academic, or legal documents where rigorous attention to the word choice is more important.
My “secret” is a patent-pending formula discovered through years of careful, painstaking research, including an ill-fated expedition to a Tibetan monastery long thought lost to the ravages of time and war. And, for the low payment of $99.95, or three easy payments of $39.95, you can have it too….
I don’t have much of a secret. When people ask me how I manage to read so much, the answer is always the same: I make reading a priority. I allocate a great deal of my free time to reading, more so than almost anything else. And this has been true for a long time. I read a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve continued this habit my entire life. That doesn’t mean you can’t start reading voraciously now—but like any skill, reading becomes easier with experience.
Also, keeping track of your reading helps too. Goodreads has been really good for me in that regard; I’m a lot more aware of which books I read in a year and which ones I want to read next. I’m not saying you need to review every book like I do; you don’t even have to join a site like Goodreads (though I certainly recommend it!). But even just keeping a list of which books you’ve read each year, and looking it over every few months so you can see your progress, might help. You could even develop a goal. You might choose to try to read a certain number of books in a year. One of my friends is working her way through the BBC’s list of top 100 novels as voted by readers.
Of course, I also have to admit that I probably program my life in such a way that I have more free time to read. I am lucky enough to be financially stable right now (I still live with my dad). I don’t find my schoolwork particularly challenging, and with the possible exception of this year, it has never felt time-consuming either. Most people seem to engage in a dazzling array of extracurricular activities, including sports, music, and volunteering. I don’t do many of those things, and while I feel that has sheltered me in many respects, I also recognize that my vast experience reading has opened my eyes to new worlds. So while I don’t have the same experiences as my peers, I wouldn’t necessarily say mine have been of inferior quality. But it’s definitely the case that I make time to read, because for me, reading is a priority.
This year, my final year of my undergrad, has given me a taste of what I might suspect once I get a full-time job. In the five weeks of my practicum I only read three books. Terrifying! And one of my instructors mentioned that most of the teachers he knows only have time to read a few books while they are on break during the summer. I certainly hope my own personal drive to read shields me from such misfortune!
The person on Goodreads whose question prompted this post also mentioned that he reads audiobooks and probably couldn’t listen fast enough to match my pace, even at double speed. When people ruminate on how they can read more, I do tend to suggest audiobooks as a part of the solution. Audiobooks are awesome: you can listen to them “on the go” in the car, while you’re exercising, or while you’re cleaning or cooking. They are excellent for people who just don’t have the time to sit with a book for an hour (or even half an hour) a day. Even so, I tend not to listen to many myself. Even with the ability to alter the playback speed, audiobooks are a little too much like a movie or television show: you go at their pace, not the other way around. Books, among all our entertainment devices, have a marvellous and singular capability to take as long as you desire. You might choose to devour a good book in an afternoon, or draw out the pleasure for a few days. This is one of my favourite things about reading, and it’s the one aspect that audiobooks, for all their advantages, do not replicate.
Some people spend so much time gaming they turn it into a lifestyle, even a career. Others become master speedcubers, or Olympic-class athletes. We all have our talents and our interests. Reading is mine. And at the rate my to-read list has been growing in these years since I joined Goodreads, I wish I could read even faster! No matter how many books you read in a year, however, the fact that you are reading is pretty amazing. Keep it up.
My practicum is over.
But you might not have known it had even started. I kept meaning to blog about my experiences in my “professional year”, and then when my practicum began, about that. Yet I never got around to it. This has been my busiest year in long memory, and my practicum kept me busier than ever. So hopefully a short recap will suffice.
First, professional year—the first nine weeks. I enjoyed most of my classes. There was a lot more reading and many more assignments than I was used to in my previous years, which mostly consisted of weekly math assignments and the occasional essay. But my classes have raised important issues I need to consider as a teacher, and they have prepared me well for teaching. (I still hate group work.)
Now, the practicum. I was lucky with my assignment. I went to a local high school, to the math department. In fact, my associate teacher was the same teacher in whose classroom my group had taught a “mini-lesson” for my math instruction course. So I had already met her, and she had already seen me teach (sort of). This reduced my trepidation as I went into the placement.
My associate teaches two classes of Grade 12 University Preparation Advanced Functions, and one Grade 9 Applied mathematics class. I took over one of the Grade 12 classes at the end of my first week—they were beginning a new unit, and I felt ready. The other Grade 12 class followed in the third week, and I began teaching the Grade 9 class at the end of last week. The subject matter of the Grade 12 classes is definitely closer to my heart; I got to teach both rational functions and trig functions! Both grades presented challenges, though—Grade 12s are not necessarily as mature and independent as I had remembered from my own time in high school, so you can imagine the handful that a Grade 9 Applied classroom might be.
That being said, I had an excellent time. There were no serious issues in my placement, no moments when I said, “What the hell am I doing here?” It was difficult at times, just because of the amount of work involved—planning is so exhausting—but the good far outweighed any of the bad. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of my placement was simply confronting hard truths about being a teacher—the fact that there are times when you do everything possible to help a student succeed, and it’s still not enough. I’m not necessarily a brash idealist, but I’m still young enough and inexperienced enough to have a certain kind of naive optimism that will no doubt temper itself with time.
And of course, there were times when I felt like there is no other place I can be but in a classroom. There were students who were wonderful, who were enthusiastic or simply so earnest in their attempts to learn and expand their knowledge. It’s neither realistic nor productive to require one’s students to love math … I merely need them willing to be there and to listen; we will work from that. And I can’t say I reached everyone, or that I even reached most of them—for all I know, most of them are glad I’m gone! But I’d like to think I made many positive contributions.
Oh, and one student even made me a card! Before I show it to you, however, you need a little context. At the end of a lesson on graphing the trigonometric functions, I put this image on the homework slide:
This is a riff on the “Not sure if…” meme using Fry, from Futurama. I made it myself! Those of you familiar with your trigonometric functions will recognize the humour, of course. For those who don’t, I’ll ruin it with an explanation: owing to its symmetry, cos(x) = cos(-x).
Anyway, now you’ll understand why the student’s card looks like this:
That’s the outside, and here is the inside:
I’m keeping it.
I can’t believe the time went so fast. I enjoyed it, and I learned so much, both from what I did and from observing my associate and listening to her feedback. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a long time—almost as long as I can remember—and after my first student teaching practicum, I’m finally starting to feel like one. Or maybe it’s just the tea talking….
And now I get three weeks off. One week to relax and do Christmas shopping, two weeks to work on those papers I have due in January! Good times.
I keep meaning to write a more general post about my experience in professional year, but other things always seem to be happening. Such a post will happen eventually. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll look back at this blog three years from now and wonder what I thought about learning how to teach—except that, hopefully, the threads of what my nascent personal philosophy of pedagogy will be visible in some of these posts. Now that I am fast approaching that moment when I can call myself “teacher”, I am always thinking about how I am going to teach. And everything I read or watch or see relates to that, in some way.
Take Slutwalk, for instance. We talked about this in my Media, Education, and Gender class last week. We discussed it in relation to violence against women and how to prevent sexual assault, as well as the implications of “reclaiming” a word like slut. Indeed, we asked some very interesting questions: who can reclaim the word, and why would that group want to do so? The N-word was brought up as a comparison. So imagine my surprise when, this weekend, Slutwalk and the N-word intersected again in an extremely dramatic way, as one woman at the New York Slutwalk held a sign proclaiming “Woman is the N-Word of the world” (the sign itself is uncensored).
This prompted a flurry of conversation on Slutwalk NYC’s Facebook page. The conversation has been preserved for comment by Latoya Peterson on Racialicious and has sparked some great discussion about feminism and intersectionality. The Facebook conversation is rather long, but it’s quite interesting, and it’s ultimately some of the comments contained therein that motivated me to write this post.
For the past few years I have more tenuously been exploring a public identity that includes the label “feminist”. I would like to claim that, thanks to some good parenting, access to great books, and a cadre of highly intelligent female friends, I have always had an open mind when it comes to issues of gender and gender relations. However, until recently I haven’t really had the language to discuss those ideas in any way that I would choose to share with the wider world. I took some courses, like Philosophy and Gender, that had feminist themes. I even brought feminism into my Aboriginal Education course by reviewing Feminism FOR REAL as my final project; the book is a collection of insightful essays, including one by Peterson and several that address feminism from the perspective of indigenous peoples. I have read a few other feminist books since then (perhaps most notably The Beauty Myth), but I keep coming back to Feminism FOR REAL because of that focus on intersectionality. It doesn’t hesitate to point out that feminism as a movement or an academic discipline is just as vulnerable to the influences of colonialism, racism, classism, etc., that pervade our social institutions. And that really got me thinking about my position in these institutions, in society, and my personal position in relation to feminism as a movement rather than a very abstract and vaguely-defined term ascribed to an ideology.
Part of the theses of Feminism FOR REAL and the above Racialicious blog post is that there is an unfortunate trend in certain circles of feminist discourse where white feminists appropriate those points of view “for the cause”. In the Facebook thread, Nicole Kubon expresses it eloquently like so:
The fact is that often times white privilege is invisible to those who are white and it is not a one-time self-investigation where you read Peggy McIntosh and then abandon all of your unearned privilege. It is an ongoing process and it is important that we as activists be able to accept responsibility when we realize in retrospect that our lens is limited. We need to teach one another and be willing to learn from one another.
A large part of my journey, if you will, has been to understand what kinds of biases and privileges I bring to the discussion as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual male who identifies as a man. As I have learned in my autodidactic endeavour, this means I have lots of privilege—that is to say, these attributes of mine result in advantages in society that people who differ from me in those areas might not have. I find myself coming back again and again to this concept of privilege; every time I think I’m actually looking at another issue related to feminism, suddenly it becomes about privilege again. It’s a tricky thing, especially because feminism is a movement that is fundamentally about equality. And so the common resistance that people put up to notions of privilege is that, if feminism is about equality, then everyone should have equal abilities to contribute and express their point of view. You might not be surprised to learn that this argument is often advanced by straight white men, usually after they have been accused, directly or indirectly, of having white privilege and not understanding what that means when they open their mouths to speak.
As Kubon says above, there is no quick and easy way to divest oneself of all privilege—and it’s easy to forget this. I’m not going to pretend I have “solved” my privilege or somehow managed to cast aside, but I would like to think that I have reached the point in my personal growth where I understand the role my privilege plays in mediating my relationship with the feminist movement: I can still be a man and be a feminist, but because I am a man, my role in feminist movements is one of an ally. That owes to the simple fact that, for all the reasons I mentioned above, I do not know what it means to be systematically oppressed and marginalized.
I don’t. I happen to belong to a group that has been institutionally favoured by the system. I am privileged. And I think that realization, and acting in accordance with that realization, is key. I can talk about a lot of things related to gender and feminism, but I have to be careful lest I begin over-generalizing or, worse, putting words in the mouths of those who are oppressed and marginalized:
What kills me is that white folks still have NOT moved one inch past telling women of color how to feel or think about anything and everything. Even worse, we are still explaining that we are both BLACK and WOMEN, all day, everyday….There is something just plain sad about feminism and feminist movements that can’t get this basic concept. Regardless of the “intent” or what white folks “think” the sign was supposed to mean, black women in significant numbers are offended, deeply. To make light of those feelings, to keep trying to avoid responsibility for the screw-up, makes the ability to have any kind of positive dialogue about what went wrong impossible.
That’s from Tracey Salisbury in the comment thread quoted by Racialicious. She has really cut straight to the heart of the issue raised by Slutwalk NYC and the N-word sign: a white woman holds the sign, and there is a furor around it. And the people who come to her defence say, “You don’t understand the intent behind the sign!” As if good intentions preclude any possibility that someone might take offence. As if intent obviates the need to apologize. Equality means we don’t get to tell anyone else how to think or whether they should find something offensive. There will be differences of opinion, and sometimes you will have to step up, admit you made a mistake, and learn from the mistake.
This all relates back to what Kubon says above about the need to be willing to listen, to teach one another, to learn from each other. I think that’s good advice in general, but it’s really important I heed it both as a teacher and as a feminist who is a man. In both cases, I am a person in a position of power/privilege/authority of some kind. And so my role in Kubon’s exhortation to teach and to learn is essentially captured by another recovering white male, John Scalzi: “shut up and listen”.
It is difficult to listen to someone when you are talking over them.
That is one reason I have been reluctant to write often or speak too loudly about my evolving views on feminism. They matter to me, and I’m sure others find them interesting, but I also know that the Web and blogging in general is still a very male-dominated space, so I’m not really helping in that respect. My Media, Education, and Gender professor made a similar request at the beginning of our course—specifically, that the people who tend to speak up in discussion consciously try to avoid dominating the conversation and allow other, less outspoken people the chance to contribute. It’s all about attempting to create an environment that is safe, open, and welcoming, an attitude I see as very important in schools and online. I can’t be a good teacher if I spend all my time talking to (or at) my students and never listen to them.
“Shut up and listen” doesn’t mean “don’t talk”, of course. If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this! But it means that when I do talk, it should be because I have something meaningful to say, and not because I merely want to show off how clever I am. I have a little more leeway in this respect, in the sense that this blog is somewhat off the beaten path, and I often do post something only because I want to register my opinion for my future self to recall when he reads these posts years from now. Not posting here is probably not going to influence more women to blog! Nevertheless, when I do post here, I hope the content I post contributes to the overall discussions in a way that is positive … and if it does not, that some kind reader will stop and take the time to point that out. I do have good intentions; however, as the NYC Slutwalk shows us, intent is necessary but not sufficient.
Tonight a friend on Facebook asked me: why do you like math? I knew that any suitable answer to that question would be a long one, and as I was cooking at the time and logged into Facebook chat on my phone, and so I deferred. After dinner I began typing a response on Facebook, but then I realized that this is worth its own blog post. I think it’s evident from this blog that I do love math, but I seldom pause to discuss why I love it.
This is what I said three years ago:
For those who don’t understand how someone can be so excited about math, the best way I can describe it is like being closer to God. I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I imagine that what I feel when I’m exploring mathematical concepts is the same feeling pious people get when they do whatever it is pious people do to feel closer to God. And math truly is the language of the universe. If God does exist, in one form or another, then understanding math helps one understand the universe and, in a way, get closer to God and creation.
Well, in the intervening time I have crossed that dark gulf between agnosticism and atheism, but the metaphor still holds. Mathematics is, ultimately, the most powerful tool we have for understanding and interacting with existence itself. There is mathematics behind anything you care to name: music, art, poetry, prose; there’s math in the swing of a baseball bat or in the spiral of a football. So the idea that we can express the fundamental nature of existence through mathematics is incredibly compelling—and also, I think, incredibly beautiful.
Mathematics is a form of communication. When I tell people that my two teachable subjects are math and English, they almost invariably furrow their brows and say something like, “Those aren’t a common combination!” And that might be true, but the implication—that math and English are somehow polar opposites—is not. Both are languages; both are about expressing ideas using an agreed-upon vocabulary, syntax, grammar. One just happens to be the modern world’s lingua franca, while the other has been placed on this pedestal: “Oh, I can’t do math! I just don’t have that kind of brain!”
I don’t recall any particular event that triggered my love of math. I remember favouring it over many of the other subjects when I played school as a child; and of course, it probably helps that I am rather good at it. It’s true too that some people have a talent for math while others struggle—I’m never going to be a star athlete—but I reject the idea that there is a “mathematical brain” as a social construct rather than a neurological edict. After all, I like to read and write too: there is more to me than my left hemisphere, thank you very much. My ability in mathematics helps, but it’s not the sole reason I love math. I love math for the same reasons I love philosophy or physics—for their deeper thought and what they can say about this world, about all possible worlds—and that I majored in math rather than physics or philosophy is perhaps more of a fluke than anything else.
Of course, even though I laud math for its role in our relationship with the physical world, I make no secret of the fact that I love “pure” mathematics. I prefer the dialect of rings and groups over that of differential equations or probability densities. I love the really abstract stuff, the ideas that verge upon being philosophy of mathematics instead of mathematics itself; I love discussing the theories behind the theories. That sort of love isn’t something you can really justify in words. It’s like asking writers where they get their ideas: we can provide a multitude of answers, but the real answer is that we don’t know. Everywhere, and nowhere.
Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s environmental. Maybe the government put a chip in my head. Why do I like math? I don’t have a damn clue.
I have rewritten my “About Me” page. It has needed some updates for a while now. I focused on making the page briefer while keeping it informative. Now people who come to my site can know who I am in a few paragraphs. If they need to know me more deeply, they will know where to stalk me.
Also, the page now includes an excellent photo that portrays my love of math and silliness. The photo comes from back in May. Our mathematics resource room received new carpet, so Aaron, Rachael, Tim, and I were drafted to remove all the books from the room and store them in our office until the carpet was replaced. Then we reshelved all of the books, and posed for some silly photos. I’ve long wanted to put a photo of myself on that page, but until now I didn’t have any that seemed adequate. I was browsing my Flickr feed in the hope of finding something suitable when this gem appeared; the moment I saw it, I yelled, “Yes!” and laughed maniacally.
This morning, we had two cats. Their names were Marble and Kaylee; they were sisters. I don’t remember exactly when we got them, for I was very young, but they must have been 12 years old or even older. So they have been around for most of my life now, and I have grown accustomed to their curmudgeonly feline ways. Upon moving into our newest residence in 2007, Marble took up the habit of sleeping on my bed, while Kaylee appropriated my new reading chair for herself. These arrangements continued for another three and a half years.
As of this afternoon, we have one cat. Marble died sometime around two o‘clock, by my reckoning. I am sorry to see her go, but she was old and ill, and I suppose it was her time.
For about a year now, Marble has not been well. She was having difficulties using the litter box, but the vet could not find anything wrong with her—our options were, essentially, switch her to some new fattening food or put her down, and I think it’s obvious there was only one option there. We tried this, and meanwhile Marble seemed stable—she did not improve, and despite the new food, she remained underweight, but she did not get any worse either. This changed in the past week, with further accidents. We had switched her litter, and on Friday I even went to buy her a new litter box that would hopefully be easier for her to use—I was worried her arthritis was giving her too much trouble.
So this has been long in coming, but even so it was a shock. Worse still, my dad is out of town on business this week. When I arrived home from driving him to the airport, Marble was lying on her side behind my computer chair. She was still breathing, but otherwise she did not make many responses to my stimulus—ordinarily she would get up and move away if I prodded her repeatedly; but she only rasped. Not good. I called the emergency number of our vet and brought Marble as fast as I could, but it was too late. By the time the vet looked at her, Marble was gone.
Suffice it to say, this has not been the day I expected it to be.
After the immediate tears and grief that I suppose are natural, not to mention the recrimination that I should have acted faster, should have been more attentive to Marble’s suffering, I feel more introspective now than anything. (This is the first time, believe it or not, that I have lost someone close to me, whether pet or human.) Although an inopportune time and certainly something I didn’t want to deal with alone, Marble’s death does mean we don’t have to watch her slowly decline further to the point where we must make that fateful decision.
Of course, I will miss Marble more than I realize right now. I am used to her presence, and it’s odd to think that I’m never going to see her pace into view of my doorway again, never going to have to shoo her off my bed so I can go to sleep, never going to have the pleasure of brushing her while watching some late night television. Because, and non-cat owners might not get this, but cats are most certainly people too.
Kaylee? She is like a Terminator—no, not in the sense that she has been sent back in time to kill John Connor, although I‘m sure she could do that if she wanted to. She just keeps going though (maybe she’s more like a predatory Energizer bunny?). I‘ve never seen her sick, and though she is the same age as Marble, she is healthy, of a good weight (perhaps too good), and always chipper—except when we haven’t fed her in the last hour. She spent most of the afternoon on her chair, as she is wont to do. I don’t think she’s noticed Marble’s absence yet—although it’s weird, because Marble was lying about a metre and a half away from where Kaylee was when I got home, and one would think she would notice and react to Marble’s distress. In any event, I am glad Kaylee is still around. She is a rock of feline normality to which I can cling for the foreseeable future.
Last Friday marked the end of my summer research term. For reasons I don’t entirely understand and don’t need to understand, Jessica made a pie to celebrate the milestone. It was raspberry (my favourite fruit) and, more importantly, it was delicious. This summer feels like it has gone by extremely quickly, and I’m not yet eagerly anticipating school. I have two weeks off now, returning early on August 29 to begin the intense final year of my concurrent education degree. My schedule does not seem all that bad, as far as classes go, but I‘m not sure what the workload will be like—I hear it’s heavy but not difficult.
As far as my research goes, I can’t help but compare this summer to last summer. Overall, I was not as interested in my project this time around—it’s the same project, so it is no longer fresh. Working on it on a full-time basis for 16 weeks was intense. This year was also quieter around the office; Jessica was not around as much, and Rachael had a research project, but it only lasted eight weeks. Aaron came in pretty consistently several days a week, despite not being on any kind of schedule. Aaron and I have been working our way through the Portal 2 co-op levels. It’s hilarious. A typical level involves me dying, followed by Aaron going, “Oops, wrong portal”, and then Aaron dying because I have terrible timing. The levels themselves are really well-designed, though, and I love some of the solutions to the puzzles. The beauty behind the physics engine is a lot more obvious when you can watch your partner go flying through the air (to his death).
This summer my supervisor and I collaborated to write a paper based on my research! Aside from my honours thesis (which is now available in the math section), I have very little experience writing about mathematics for an audience. This was the most interesting part of my research, and I really enjoyed the opportunity. We are polishing up the paper now, and then my supervisor plans to submit it to a few journals. I have no idea if it will be accepted for publication, but it was fun to write anyway.
Using SHARCNET was once again very cool, although the clusters I used this year gave me more headaches. I have begun using Git for managing my own coding projects (including this site), and SHARCNET’s clusters have Git installed. So I’ve put all the code into a Git repo, and you can view it on GitHub.
I‘m experiencing no small amount of trepidation regarding student-teaching this year. However, this summer has reaffirmed my desire to become a high school teacher. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing research! As a thank-you to my supervisor, I gave him a signed print of this xkcd comic.
With two weeks off, what do I plan to do? Read, of course! And get my life in a semblance of order before school starts—that is, I want to tidy up my room and get some other projects finished, started, or just kicked into gear. I have several blog posts I want to write, and some improvements I want to make to my site. Although I intend to drive myself in these next two weeks, my priority goals are relaxation and reading, in that order. All too soon, university will loom again. I know because they took my money last week.
I‘m almost finished my fourth year of university, and with it, my HBA in Mathematics. It doesn’t feel like four years! It feels like barely yesterday I was a nervous first-year student trying to figure out how to get around our campus (which I now realize is tiny compared to other campuses).
I won’t be graduating at the end of the year, because I’m actually in a five-year concurrent education program. For those of you unfamiliar with it and with teaching certification in Ontario, let me give you a brief run down. Instead of completing my mathematics degree and then doing a one-year education program (“consecutive education” or colloquially known as “teacher’s college” around these parts), I have for the past four years been enrolled in concurrent education. As the name implies, I‘m taking education courses concurrently with the courses I need for my math degree. So at the end of the five years, assuming I complete the program, I’ll have an HBA in Mathematics and a BEd. In Ontario, teachers are certified to teach in a specialization defined by grade level. Mine is “Intermediate/Senior,” or I/S, which means grades 7-12. I really want to teach high school, but of course, those with seniority will get to choose what they teach first, and I’ll get what’s left over.
In the I/S specialization, I need two “teachables.” Mine are math, naturally, and English. This is usually where I get odd looks from people and something along the lines of “that’s an unusual combination.” Maybe it is in practice, but I don’t think it is in fact. Mathematics and English share in common a need for clear, precise communication. I love rigorous proofs; I love grammatical constructions. Mathematics is about exploring the beauty of abstract thought; English is about exploring the beauty of our minds, bodies, and hearts. They are complementary.
So anyway, next year is my “professional year,” the big culmination of my education degree. I’ll take courses related to my two teachables, as well as a few more general courses like “classroom management” and some electives. Yesterday I attended an information session run by the Faculty of Education’s Department of Undergraduate Studies (mouthful, that) where they told me about what I could expect prior to and during my professional year. I was sceptical about how useful this session would be, but I actually found it very enlightening. The speakers provided precise information, both written and oral, about what I could expect; I no longer feel like my understanding of professional year is vague at best.
Oh, when I got to the session, the woman at the door asked me what my teachables are. When I said “Math and English,” she looked at the combined teachable schedules she had printed off, and then said, “Email me for your schedule.”
I‘m looking forward to professional year in the sense that I still don’t really feel like I’ve learned much about teaching. My education classes thus far have run the spectrum from “absurdly unhelpful” to “academically interesting, with some practical applications.” Educational Psychology is an example of the former and Educational Law the latter. For the most part, however, I don’t feel like I’ve learned much about the more practical parts of teaching, like preparing lessons and lesson plans, ensuring I meet curriculum expectations, etc. So I’m hoping those tantalizingly-practical titles like “Classroom Management” will indeed contain the golden nuggets of truth that will set me on my way. By which I mean, I know there’s a lot I’m going to have to figure out for myself, but at least this should give me some idea of what my options are.
Of course, the counterpart to these classes is my student teaching, or placement. My year will consist of two blocks of 9 weeks of classes followed by 5 weeks of placement, with Christmas holidays sandwiched between them. I’m very nervous about placement, and the information session went a long way to quelling that trepidation by assuring me that the department offers as much support as it possibly can to teacher candidates, especially in the field. Hopefully, after those 9 weeks of classes, I will feel slightly more prepared to re-enter a classroom, this time as a teacher.
Between now and then, I will once again be researching for the summer. I received another NSERC USRA, and I will be re-revisiting the spreading and covering numbers. Once again, I will miss working with my coworkers at the Art Gallery over the summer, but I’m also excited to spend another summer thinking about math. I start my research on April 26. Until then, I have to finish this year, of course, and try to find time to relax before my summer begins.
This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I attended the eighth annual Combinatorial Algebra meets Algebraic Combinatorics Conference. No, I didn’t record awesome video diaries as I did when I attended the 2010 Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference. I did meet many experts in these fields, listened to interesting talks that I didn’t really understand, and gave a talk of my own!
Combinatorial algebra and algebraic combinatorics are, as the conference’s title and purpose expresses, two sides of the same mathematical coin. They are areas of mathematics that combine techniques from combinatorics and abstract algebra (notably, commutative algebra) to solve a variety of problems in algebra, combinatorics, and even algebraic geometry. Now, these fields are specialized. I got the impression that even among the thirty or so graduate students, postdocs, and professors in attendance, many of them were struggling to keep up with some of the talks, because the topics in this area, as with any specialized field, can get pretty esoteric. One fellow gave a talk on cluster algebras, and the room was rather silent when it came time for questions.
Still, it was exciting to attend the conference even though I, as an undergraduate student with only two courses of basic abstract algebra under my belt, understood very little of any of the talks. I was invited to speak at the conference by Adam Van Tuyl, chair of our mathematics department and one of the conference organizers. He supervised my summer NSERC USRA. I previously gave a talk about that research in the fall, and he felt it would be a good fit for the conference. I was a little sceptical, not to mention a little intimidated by the notion of talking in front of all these learned academics. Nevertheless, I acquiesced—I mean, that opportunity might not come again. I‘m getting a lot of mileage out of this talk.
If you are interested, I’ve set up a page explaining my research on the spreading and covering numbers. Unless you are familiar with abstract algebra or graph theory, most of it will sound like gibberish, but check it out any way. You can also download a copy of the talk I gave, as well as the Macaulay2 code I wrote.
Giving my talk, which was well-received, was one of the high points of the conference, of course. For one thing, I‘m pretty sure everyone there followed what I was talking about, since I was presenting it on a more elementary level than a postdoc or professor would. And that’s fine. More importantly, a few of the attendees had some interesting ideas that might help me in the future. I am currently applying for another NSERC grant to continue working on this project this summer; hopefully I’ll get the grant and be able to put some of those ideas into practice. If anything, going to the conference has made me more excited about working on this problem again.
Another high point was meeting Tony Geramita. He co-authored the paper that introduces the spreading and covering numbers, essentially making him the originator of what I studied. And he knows his stuff; he seemed to switch gears effortlessly between each talk and ask intelligent questions (or at least, from my limited understanding of the topics, they seemed intelligent) whenever he needed clarification. So meeting him, and giving a talk about these spreading and covering numbers in front of him, was kind of a big deal. Plus, my natural tendency toward introversion means it takes me a while to warm up to new people, especially ones whom I meet in an artificial, arranged way like this.
So imagine my surprise and amusement when, at lunch, I brought out my copy of Forest Mage, and he said, “Ah, you’re reading Robin Hobb.” From there we conversed about our mutual love of science fiction and fantasy. Later, we started talking about eBooks, and he spontaneously asked if I had a thumb drive on me so he could give me a 1 GB library of eBooks he has on his computer. I was somewhat taken aback by this random and generous windfall. (I used my phone, since it had 11 GB free on its internal SD card. I should probably get an external one too.) This unforeseen icebreaker made it easier for me to think of him as a person, not just a Smart Math Individual, and much easier to give my talk.
Saturday night, after the conference, we went to the Masala Grille for dinner. Although my dad and I have ordered takeout from this Indian restaurant in the past, I had never actually been there to eat, so that was an interesting new experience. We had the upper room to ourselves, and the food was good (although I made the mistake of putting too much sauce on my plate). I had some interesting conversation with the people at my table about a variety of things, mathematics and non-mathematics alike, including an opportunity to talk to an Iranian fellow who is at Dalhousie for the summer. This was his first trip outside of Iran, and it was cool to hear about the situation in that country from someone who has grown up and lived there.
All in all, I have to admit the conference was a great experience, even though it did have people at it and did not in fact consist of me sitting in a chair reading a book all weekend. Sacrifices had to be made, and they were worth it! But don’t think this means I’m going to grad school just yet, despite the fact that more-than-hints have started to drop! But that is another topic for another blog post. Now I have to concentrate on finishing the rough draft of my honours thesis, for it is due on Thursday.
Back in grade four, something miraculous happened. Our class at Isabella Street School descended down to the library, which was nestled in one corner of the unappealing, rather dingy cement and concrete basement. I already loved the library, and reading in general, by that time. It was through this library that I devoured those Hardy Boys books that my dad did not have, read my way through Nancy Drew, had my first experiences with Tolkien and Lewis and, in later years, Agatha Christie. There were several shelves full of colourful books on mythology when I went through that phase, and even a pop-up book about Star Trek, a copy of which I bought for $10 on Abebooks during a bout of nostalgia in the summer, which has not actually arrived yet, and now it occurs to me I should probably ask someone about that….
But I digress. On that fateful day, my grade four class was not there to browse the bookshelves and sit at our octagonal tables in chairs now much too small for me. No, we instead turned left at the doors to populate the “computer lab.” This must have been 1998 or 1999, so the computers were all still MS DOS, although they had this nifty feature where you could “boot into” Windows 3.1. (Even back then, I was pretty adept at getting the system to do what I want, if I do say so myself.) We had all the cool games back then: Treasure Mountain, Cross Country Canada (both of which I now have on my computer, and play using DOSBox), and, of course, Math Circus. Unlike other visits to the computer lab, however, we were not there to play games.
We were going to learn how to type.
We learned using the Almena method. I think we watched some videos, and there was a retired teacher and expert typist who volunteered at the school and helped our teacher instruct us. I still remember the mneumonics to memorize the placement of keys: “Quick Ask Zoe, What Stops X-rays, Even Dogs Can‘t. Red Fish Vanish, Then Grow Bigger. Yaks Hear Noises, Under Jack’s Mattress. I Keep commas, Over Long periods. Peanuts!”
It sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? But for those of you who used this method, you know what I’m talking about: it really works. And as my rendition above attests, for I did not have to look those up, I still remember those mneumonics after all this time. It is inculcated into my very being. I didn’t realize it then—I did realize how cool being able to touch type was, but I didn’t realize how much a part of me this ability would become.
It’s like having a superpower. That is the only way I can describe it, especially to those few people reading this who themselves have never learned to touch type. On a good day, I can type about 100 WPM (less if I‘m pausing to consider what I shall write, as I am doing now). Like many people, I use a computer every day, and I spend a great deal of time on my computer. So typing is an essential skill for me. Looking back, after a decade more experience, I am very grateful that my elementary school, or the curriculum, or whoever was responsible for that decision, chose to teach me how to type.
Oh, I’ve dabbled with alternative keyboard layouts, like Colemak. But I‘ve always returned to QWERTY, that faithful keyboard mistress. Why? Because it’s a part of me. Colemak is, in my opinion, a much superior layout, and I enjoyed using it. But the QWERTY school got to me when I was young, indoctrinated me, and now I can’t escape.
And it’s only natural, with such a dependency on this interface, that we begin to port it to other devices once they need text-input capability. After all, QWERTY itself is a port from typewriters to computers. Now we have QWERTY keyboards on so-called “quick messaging phones,” as well as smartphones. But is this really the best way to type on a phone? The small screen means either a keyboard with physically smaller keys or a rather daunting, at least at first, touchscreen keypad—and let’s face it, you’ll be typing with your thumbs either way. Given time and practice, people do tend to master it and become proficient. But is there any better alternative?
That’s what Swype offers. I was skeptical at first: so you swipe (hah) your index finger along the QWERTY keypad, passing through each letter in the word you want to spell, then Swype predicts the word you want? Sounds too much like that abysmal T9 software that came on my former phone! But no, it’s completely different. And it’s rather awesome. Watch some of the videos. It is impressive how fast you can get; I’m not nearly that fast yet, unfortunately.
Swype is in beta, and it was just recently released to the general public. I was lucky enough to have it pre-installed on my new Samsung Galaxy S. I was drawn to it for a simple reason: the default Samsung keypad, which replaces the apparently perfectly capable Android keypad on most other Android devices, sucks. Samsung has crippled essential functionality—in my case, a strong need for accented characters and diacriticals. Swype, in addition to its unique input method, restores my ability to use accented characters with ease.
So I switched to it, and at first I just typed on the keypad like normal (because you can do that). However, the keypad comes with a tutorial, and I decided to go through it and see what the hype about Swype was. The idea of swiping through letters is intriguing, and it does seem a lot nicer than thumb-typing. Indeed, Swype shines most in portrait mode—prior to using it, I had a lot of trouble typing on the skinny keys in portrait mode; landscape was and is not much of an issue. With Swype, I just slide my index finger around, and that’s it.
Of course, deliberately smudging my screen while typing seems a little wrong. Then again, “dragging” icons and images around the touchscreen is a perfectly acceptable user interface mechanic, so this is not that much of a departure. The most serious obstacle I have encountered lately is a lack of lubrication on my fingers; if they are too dry, there is too much friction against my screen, so swiping through keys becomes both slow and rather uncomfortable!
Nevertheless, on a conceptual level Swype makes a lot of sense for smartphones. I‘m not sure it would work well for larger devices, like desktop workstations, although you might be able to make a case. It is interesting to see people come up with new input methods that capitalize on the benefits of a capacitive touchscreen (dragging/swiping fingers) to mitigate a disadvantage of the device (small screen size, small keyboards). And Swype is still QWERTY, so the layout of the keys haven’t changed, nor are you forbidden from touch typing as per usual, which makes the learning curve virtually nothing. It may indeed be a good compromise between the backward compatibility to which QWERTY has enslaved us and the need for innovation in input on smartphones.
Anyway, that’s my Android thought for today.
It is snowing outside. This is both wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful because snow is awesome. I love living in a country, and a part of the country, that experiences all four seasons in vibrant technicolour and Dolby Digital surround sound. Winter here means minus forty below, winds, snow in the air and on the ground, and plenty of shovelling. Terrifying because this means I may have to shovel in the future—I like shovelling; I hate contemplating the future acts of shovelling. Once I‘m doing it, I’m OK.
School is over now, for two weeks. I had my last examine a week ago. It went well, I think, though I don’t have my marks yet. I feel good about it (Complex Analysis), and I feel good about the one prior to it as well (Medieval and Tudor Drama). The rest of the week could have been relaxing in theory, but in practice it was consumed by invigilating an exam on Thursday and then helping the instructor to mark said exam on Friday. Oh my. Six hours of that—and yes, I know, I will have to do this when I become a teacher. But I’m not a teacher yet.
As I tweeted on Friday, some of the students have very creative answers:
“The interior angle of a regular polygon with 15 sides is…” Student answered “octagon.” WTF.
My friend Vivike and I have decided that “octagon” is the new answer to everything. Octagons and cats. Together they will take over the world. Or they would if my cats didn’t spend so much time sleeping.
My cats spend so much time sleeping that watching them sleep makes me sleepy, but at the same time, it reminds me that no matter how tired I might be some days, I don’t want to spend so much time sleeping. I genuinely enjoy being awake and experiencing the world (through my comfortable Internet connection, obviously).
I‘m on break now, as I said above, nominally for two weeks. It isn’t really a break, however. I still have to work. Also, this year I am doing an honours seminar project, and the first draft of my paper is due at the end of January, so I need to start reading about the Banach-Tarski paradox and see if I can comprehend the proof. My game plan is to spend this week relaxing, playing Mass Effect 2 and reading Umberto Eco. Then I will spend a few hours every day next week focusing on this project.
Next term I‘m taking Advanced Calculus, Aboriginal Education, Philosophy of the Internet, and hopefully Topology. With only one education course and an online philosophy course, I’m hoping this term will not be as stressful as last term (which wasn’t really that stressful, except for that week in November). By which I mean, I hope I have more time to do other things in between. Because I also have to think about applying for an NSERC USRA again. And my supervising prof from last summer has asked me if I’m interested in giving my talk at a conference the university is hosting in January, so I’ll need to put some time aside to prepare for that if I decide to do it.
I tried tofu last night for the first time! With Vivike over for dinner, I bought tofu (without even asking her if she liked it first). My dad prepared it, as well as pork, so I had both meat and protein-providing substitute. I must say it’s pretty good. The texture is very unusual, and I can’t say I like it better than real meat. But it is not as icky as some people find it, for sure.
After dinner we watched Pirate Radio, talked about books and writing, exchanged gifts (I received a very nice copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections), and even played a bit of DDR. Oh, and many chunks of dried papaya were consumed, because dried fruit tastes like candy but is marginally healthier.
It is still snowing, but the wind has granted us a temporary reprieve. I am going to finish this cup of tea and prepare for work, which is an eight-hour shift today. Hopefully I shall return later this week with more posts about Android and Christmas holiday musings. Until then, stay warm.
As I have mentioned in the past, I am a fan of Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. I’m a fan without having ever owned a smartphone, let alone an Android phone. As of last week, my friends, that has all changed.
My carrier, TbayTel, recently signed a deal with Big Bad Teleco Rogers, in which TbayTel takes over all of the Rogers customer and infrastructure in the area, and everyone gets access to HSPA phones and a 3G network. The upshot of this, as it relates to me, is that TbayTel now has a good many more smartphones, including several running Android. Cue the drooling.
Last Monday, my father and I braved the crazy lineup at the store to purchase me a Samsung Galaxy S Captivate, which was $150 with a three-year contract. It is running Android 2.1, Eclair, and so far it is awesome.
I debated getting a new phone for all of three hours when I heard the news. My old phone, which was my first phone, was an LG 6200. It worked fine, aside from some interesting glitches with the contact management, but there were two drawbacks: firstly, I had no way of connecting it to my computer; secondly, it wasn’t a smartphone.
The reason I want a smartphone is simple: I don’t have much use for a mobile phone. I don’t call very many people. I do use my phone for that purpose, but with a smartphone I envision myself spending more time reading and composing email. What I want is not a mobile phone, but a mobile computing device that also happens to make phone calls. So while I felt bad about discarding my old phone while it still worked, I also felt like the time was right to upgrade.
And I don’t regret my decision. Android is every bit as awesome as I anticipated it would be (maybe even more awesome than I anticipated). Everything I ever dreamed of doing with a smartphone I can now do—or, at least, will be able to do once I figure out how to do it. There is a learning curve, but it’s an enjoyable one.
I’m going to write a slew of blog posts about my experience with my new phone, which I have christened Noether, after Emmy Noether (I like to name my devices after mathematicians—my USB thumb drive is called Leibniz). For now, let me talk about my impressions of the hardware, at least as I have experienced its performance thus far. Keep in mind that I have never had a smartphone before, so I’m still at the “gee golly this is awesome” phase of my experience.
The Galaxy S has a 10.16 cm screen with an 800x480 pixel display. It is a very nice touchscreen interface. The whole front of the phone is flat and covered by the capacitive surface, which makes it look slick and makes the whole screen easy to wipe (because touchscreen, especially now that I‘m using the Swype keyboard, means smudges). The resolution is great. I’ve watched several short YouTube videos with it, and the contrast and tones look as good—or better—than my computer monitor. It helps that the phone also automatically adjusts the screen brightness.
I haven’t done too much reading with it yet, though I have loaded WordPlayer and used it to transfer several eBooks from my Calibre library. Reading blog posts, tweets, or web pages is fine. Contrary to some people’s complaints, I don’t find the backlit screen annoying, and I suspect the most limiting factor when it comes to reading with Noether will be the insane amount of scrolling required. So we’ll see.
If its video capability impresses, audio capability of the Galaxy S does not. The sound quality from the media speaker is poorer than I expected (call quality is fine though). But this isn’t, for me, a big deal—I don’t really intend to use my phone for playing music aloud in a room. That would, after all, drain my battery.
On that note, battery life is about what I’ve been told to expect from a WiFi-enabled smartphone. I was surprised at how quickly it went from fully-charged to 23% just on standby, with WiFi disabled because I was at school. But I won’t really know how significant an issue this is until I’ve developed usage patterns. Then I’ll be able to gauge how often I need to charge it. Just having a USB charger that works with an AC adapter or plugs into my computer is a new thing for me.
The camera, from what little I’ve used it so far, works great. It really emphasizes the fact that megapixels are not the best way to measure camera quality. It is “only” 5 MP. Brightness and contrast control is more of an issue here, since unlike a dedicated camera, the Galaxy S has a limited ability to compensate for various lighting levels. Here’s a photo of my cats on my reading chair—and this is just an amateur snapshot, so I’m sure my ability to use the camera and to take better photos will only improve.
I want to talk about two things when it comes to the Galaxy S software: the default apps and the input methods. Samsung has seen fit to load my phone with various default apps that range from useful to annoying. It is nice to have a Gmail client out of the box—not that I expected otherwise, since it is a Google Android phone. Samsung has seen fit to replace the default Android Contacts app with its own homespun version, and as you might guess from this turn of events, the replacement app sucks. Organizing my contacts is a huge pain, because I can’t control syncing with my Google accounts on a group-by-group basis; indeed, the phone doesn’t even recognize the labels attached to each contact as groups. I hear this has been fixed in Froyo, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get that.
Likewise, Samsung decided to replace the Android keyboard with its own keyboard (or “keypad” if you like, since it is a touchscreen keyboard and not a physical device). At first I had no problems with this, because I didn’t know what I was missing, and the Samsung keyboard worked fine. However, as soon as I started looking for ways to insert special characters, such as letters with accent, I was stuck. Apparently the Android keyboard—at least on most devices—presents accented characters when one long-presses on a letter. That behaviour makes sense. Samsung keyboard? Not so much. Fortunately, my phone also comes pre-loaded with Swype. It exhibits the special-characters behaviour just described.
Now, I was hesitant about using Swype at first. The interface is unusual for all of us who were trained to touch-type in elementary school: instead of tapping each letter, you start with the first letter of a word and drag a continuous path that goes through each subsequent letter (hence the name “swipe”). Swype then uses the magic of software to determine which word you were spelling, and if it isn’t sure, it presents some alternatives to you. It also does automatic capitalization and spacing and whatnot. Plus, if you really want, you can just use it like an ordinary keyboard (and type in words unfamiliar to Swype).
My first reaction was “hmm, that’s odd, but kind of cool.” My second reaction was: “holy wow, this is so much nicer to use in portrait mode than the default keyboard.” In portrait mode, the keys are thinner, which makes touch-typing impossible and hunting-and-pecking frustrating. I tended to just flip to landscape mode unless I was entering a very short phrase. Swype makes portrait-mode keyboard entry painless. However, the touch-typist in me is still kind of leery about this whole “rub your finger against the screen to type” school of thought. Not only does it cause yet more smudging, but it feels weird. And it goes to show how trained I’ve been when it comes to touch-typing (which I am doing now as I type this post) that any other mode of keyboard entry just feels wrong, anathema, to the very core of my being.
Finally, let me close with a reflection on the truly amazing nature of the technology that we put into our devices these days. It is easy to write off smartphones as “Internet-enabled phones” and view them as a bagatelle. As somebody who didn’t have a smartphone until recently, I tended to take that perspective (when I wasn’t busy complaining about how much I want one). With the obsession over touchscreen technology and voice-activated features (which are noticeably absent from my Eclair-powered phone), it is easy to overlook some of the cooler ways in which our smartphones make our mobile experience that much better.
Yes, I‘m talking about you, accelerometer, and you, gyroscope. I never gave you guys any credit until I realized how much you do for me. Sure, you tell my phone when I want it in landscape mode instead of portrait. But that’s expected. What I didn’t expect was how, when I’m on a call, you tell my phone to turn the screen off when I bring it up to my ear and turn it back on when I bring it down so I can enter on the dialpad or otherwise use the phone. This is a very minor but useful trick, and I’m grateful some developers and user interface designers somewhere decided to include it.
So there you have it: my first smartphone, and my first impressions thereof. Tune in next time for thoughts on Android, apps, and being constantly connected.
I always forget that November is a busy month. October lulls me into a false sense of security, for despite its containment of midterms, it never really has much work for me. Then November comes around, and suddenly it’s whoa. Where did all this homework come from? Oh, and I’m working all weekend for a fundraising event at the gallery? Great.
This weekend was probably my busiest weekend of the year in terms of inverse amount of free time available to me. I spent the week working on an essay for my Medieval and Tudor Drama class, which I love. The prof is great, and I‘m learning a lot and reading literature I probably wouldn’t otherwise read. The essay was originally due Friday, but the prof extended it to Wednesday, which is a great relief. I‘m feeling confident about it, but the extra time has helped.
So yeah, this weekend was the art gallery’s annual Christmas House Tour fundraiser. This consists of a self-guided tour of houses decorated by local businesses. Today was the tour proper, so we had to work 9-5 for that. Friday night was the dinner for the home owners, and I worked that with Brittany. On Saturday, people who paid an extra $10 could view the homes by night and come to the gallery for a special reception. That was a long night, and by the time we finished at 11 PM, I was ready to go to bed. After all, I had to get up and go to the gallery by 9 the next morning!
I was giving Brittany and Thea a ride home. It snowed for the first time yesterday, so the parking lot was full of great packing snow. While I was brushing the snow off my car, Brittany and Thea instigated an impromptu snowball fight involving them, myself, and Lesya, another coworker who was also de-snowing her vehicle.
I haven’t had a snowball fight in ages! It was great. Cars provide interesting cover, but we were close enough that my terrible aim wasn’t much of a problem. And Thea threw a snowball that hit me right in the face—which was awesome.
So as we were driving, we decided that instead of immediately going home, we would go for a walk from Thea’s house. Several stops later so that Brittany and I could obtain clothes more appropriate for outdoors, we had conceived of and discarded the idea of building a snowman in Thea’s front yard. Rather, we walked to the nearest Tim Hortons, where we got tea and hot chocolate. I’ve never been in a Tim Hortons so late at night, and it was a little eerie. The building was so brightly lit compared to outside, and it was nearly empty—but not quite.
On the way back to Thea’s house, we passed a house where one of my brother’s friends lives, and my brother was leaving it. So we said hi, and as his massive green truck drove past, we took aim at it with more snowballs. Then Brittany and Thea took aim at me, and I had my second snowball fight of the night.
That’s right: first snowfall of the year, and I’ve already had two snowball fights. If you feel envious, that’s because you are.
I’ve had a long week. There are more long weeks ahead, as the term finishes and this whole Christmas season descends upon us, though I kick and scream the entire way. But all that stress and fatigue drains out of me when I think about how much fun I had tossing some snow at people. It reminds me that I don’t spend enough time doing that sort of thing—embracing the kid in me and just having fun, not because I have the free time, but because the snow and the people are there. We were all tired, but we took a moment to put our essays and our assignments aside, to stop and enjoy the snow and the night, to pause prior to another long day of work.
And that was good.
This is a very belated birthday-related blog post. I started writing about my birthday the day after the fact, but I got sidetracked and never quite managed to finish the post. I need to start blogging again, because I have plenty to say. So we’ll begin with my birthday.
I don’t celebrate my birthday with a lot of fanfare. However, I also don’t sweep it under a rug like the curmudgeon in me is wont to do. I enjoy getting gifts, but that’s true regardless of whether it’s my birthday! Still, I got some pretty cool gifts from my family members. My dad got some books, as well as a whopping stack of Chapters gift cards, which are like candy you can use to buy books. My brother got me a mug with a stylized police badge that says “Spelling Police,” as well as some tea. In particular, he got me a type of South American tea called Yerba Maté; I can’t pronounce that name, so I just call it “panther tea,” because the box has a panther on it. Incidentally, this is also why my brother selected that tea. In his own words: “Panthers are manly.”
I’m 21 now, and it’s just weird. I don’t feel 21, although if you asked me what age I do feel, I don’t think I could attach such a number. It’s just weird how quickly time passes. I feel like it was just yesterday that I graduated high school. No, three years have passed. I‘m well on my way to completing university degrees and becoming a certified teacher. This is somewhat scary. Soon I could be back in high school, but on the other side. And I’ve barely two decades under my belt.
Sometimes I feel old. By “old,” I don’t mean decrepit, or aged, or anything pejorative. I just mean that I’ve been around longer than I thought I have, and in my short time here, the world has changed quite a bit. I miss television shows from my youth, such as Wishbone or Ghostwriter, which are foreign to younger people today. I wonder if I belong to the last generation that will understand what “shake it like a Polaroid picture” means, except outside of a history class. Five years ago, monitors were bulky. Now we’ve all flatscreens and phones with Bluetooth (well, most of us—my phone still doesn’t have Bluetooth, so I don’t have to worry about it conspiring with my WiiMote).
So really, it’s just a matter of time before I’m the old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. See you then!m
Hello September. I have missed you. You might be my favourite among all months, but don’t tell the others. And no, it’s not because my birthday is in September (although that helps). Nor is it because September signals the start of fall television, with new episodes of Castle, Chuck, House, Stargate Universe, etc. More than any other month, even that notorious January, September is a month of changes and new beginnings. For those of us biased in our perceptions by our position in the northern hemisphere, summer will soon be a memory; the leaves will change colour; and I’ll be back in school, where I belong.
I spent this summer doing research and quite enjoyed it. We didn’t make as much progress toward a solution as I had hoped, but I learned a lot, both about mathematics and research in general. I’m comfortable using LaTeX (which is sexy) and have had some experience with Macaulay2 (also pretty hot). I even went to a conference, something that surprised me.
With my research finished, I have these two weeks off before school begins on September 13. Next week I return to work at the art gallery. I don’t look forward to returning to the job that much; my relative solitude of this summer has left me even less eager to interact with people in a customer-service-based position. But I do miss my coworkers, my fellow front desk attendants, so I look forward to returning to them.
I anticipate another great year of school as well. This is my honours year for my math degree, and the Honours Seminar will consist of a sort of research-based project supervised by a prof. We’ll have to write a math paper and give a talk. This is a nice departure from lecture-based courses (I don’t much care for lectures); also, having done research, read papers, and written up results for the past four months, I feel somewhat prepared.
And with summer endings and fall beginnings come changes. My site last had a major redesign over two years ago. I’m still happy with the design in general; however, there have always been certain rough edges I wanted to correct. Now I‘ve done so. A few weeks ago, I rolled out tweaks to the design and significant changes to the backend.
I’ve reorganized the content on the home page. It’s my portal on the Web, something that lets people access my content whether it’s on this site or elsewhere. I‘ve tried to lay it out so that everything is on offer.
You’ll also notice that I have a new background image. Now that is definitely tea. The other image was tea, but ambiguously so, and the berries were an odd addition—it was a very Christmas-like cup of tea. It was the best photo I could find at the time. This new photo is exactly what I envisioned when I originally decided to use a cup of tea as my background image, and I‘m very happy with it.
For a long time, the only real content on this site has been my blog and the About section. Everything else consists of links and a little aggregated content. I have plans to change that soon and add more pages dedicated to original content (or specific aggregated content). For example, you’ll notice that my home page no longer displays my most recent book review from Goodreads. I want to keep my home page compact, and you can easily access my 15 most recent reviews from the books on the sidebar. Instead, I intend to create a new section of the site devoted to my reading habits—not just reviews, but top 10 lists, statistics, etc.
This sort of flexibility is thanks to the new backend. I’ve finally gone over to the dark side and started using a CMS—but not just any CMS. It’s Symphony, an XSLT-based CMS that is both minimalist and developer-friendly. The custom-coded backend I was using was rubbish, and I don’t need anything as powerful as an entire framework. Symphony is exactly what I need, and I highly recommend it.
Hello, my name is Ben, and I am a genre snob. Or at least I was. I‘m trying to quit, but as fellow genre snobs can attest, it is not easy to surrender culturally-inculcated notions of genre and embrace a more nuanced approach. Still, I need to try. For the children!
This week I read Amanda Scott’s Tempted by a Warrior, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway. Had I paid more attention when entering the giveaway, I would have noticed that the book is historical romance, not merely historical fiction, and passed. I didn’t notice, however, and I won the book. As I prepared to write my review, I discussed the book with a friend—who, as it happens, reviews paranormal, romance, and even paranormal romance1 for one of those review sites to whom publishers send books with the eager trepidation marketing people perfect after too many years in college.
I opened the conversation by quoting one of the sex scenes in the book:
Me: There is a list of words that automatically ruin sex scenes for me, and “tempestuous” is one of them.
Her: I can’t imagine why.
Me: Aside from that, this book isn’t that bad.
Her: “Turgid” tops my version of that list.
Me: Yes. And “tumescent.” Lots of T words, eh? “Throbbing” and “pulsating” don’t help either. Sometimes I can tolerate “throbbing”, but if any part of your body is “pulsating,” you should seek medical attention.
To be fair, the sex scenes aren’t actually that bad. There’s two of them, and aside from triggering my list with “tempestuous,” they are tasteful.
Oh, and this was before my friend realized which book I was reading:
Her: Are you reading that romance?
Me: Yes… . I‘m trying to parse everything now and make sure my reactions aren’t biased by the fact that this is romance. The rational part of me knows that there is nothing wrong with “romance” in general, just as there is nothing wrong with “science fiction” in general … but the irrational part of me insists this is not the case.
Me: Maybe it’s just fluff fiction I dislike, regardless of genre.
Sadly, this is wishful thinking, and I know it. Romance is the genre, for me, that belies my claim to be genre-neutral. I am sensitive to genre snobbery, because as a lover of science fiction, I dislike it when anyone shuns science fiction based on a claim that it is not “real literature.” But the moment somebody pulls out a romance, I recoil, and my prejudice rears its ugly head. I‘m worse than a genre snob: I’m a genre bigot!
And then my friend blew the discussion wide open by dropping the elephant in the room:2
Her: Remember, you have to review it as a romance.
Boom, suddenly my mind bifurcates. One Ben (we’ll call him Genre Ben) agrees with this proposition. The other Ben (we’ll call him Agnostic Ben) rejects it. A single sentence summarizes my internal conflict over how I write reviews and how I perceive books in general. It doesn’t help that I read a book about art criticism last week, so the subject is fresh in my mind.
Looking through my reviews, Genre Ben has left his fingerprints everywhere. Of thrillers, Genre Ben writes, “I don’t pretend to hold thrillers to the same standards as great works of art” (from this review). Even worse, when reviewing another romance, Genre Ben comes right out and says, “It’s unfair for me to expect this book to rise above its genre.” Right there, an implication that romance is somehow inferior. Oh, I am ashamed of you, Genre Ben.
The problems with genre are myriad. How does one define a genre? Who decides which genre—or genres, since a book can be more than one—a book inhabits: the author, the publisher, bookstores, the reader? I agree that as a naive labelling tool, genre is useful. For the purposes of criticism, however, Genre Ben makes me uncomfortable.
Agnostic Ben snickers, feeling victory is close at hand. Not so, for he does not hold the high ground. I happen to agree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who laments that she cannot review The Year of the Flood as science fiction. Le Guin respects Margaret Atwood’s desire not to be
… relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers, and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
Le Guin’s point resonates with me, with both Genre Ben and Agnostic Ben. After all, genre influences our expectations. As Genre Ben observes in that earlier romance review, we expect westerns to have horses, outlaws, and guns; we expect science fiction to be filled with difference, whether it’s spaceships or robots. If the author insists her novel is not science fiction, then fine: it’s not science fiction, so all of this unrealistic language must be interpreted without the benefit of the science-fictional lens.
So at this point in my conversation with my friend, Agnostic Ben decides to move the marker:
Me: I only disagree in part. I agree that our conception of genre influences how we perceive a book, and that in turn affects how we write a review. Where I disagree is the premise that genre somehow alters the merits a book must have in order to judge its quality.
In other words, Agnostic Ben’s platform is that we should not condemn a book because it claims membership in a particular genre. My friend had none of it, however:
Her: It’s our job as reviewers to appraise whether or not the book meets the expectations of the genre … and to have a firm enough grasp of the intricacies and indiosyncrasies of each genre and subgenre to judge them as such.
Well said! I did not have an adequate response for this, and so I unfairly segued into an epistemological attack on the concept of genre, and a confession of my own insecurities on this entire issue.
In particular, I examined the fact that books often belong to more than one genre: the book that started this whole debate, Tempted by a Warrior, is historical romance. But is it really two genres—historical fiction and romance? Or is historical romance a subgenre of romance, much as, say, cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction? Or maybe the book is romance, and its setting is historical.
Sometimes when the debate over what constitutes science fiction comes up, I opine that science fiction itself is merely a setting rather than a genre proper. It makes sense, after a fashion. There are many different types of science-fiction stories: action-adventure, comedy, tragedy, even romance—the good old, classic genres, right? Science-fiction books belong to many different genres, sharing only the backgroup of a science-fictional setting in common.
I‘m not entirely comfortable with this argument. It does not seem to address the fundamental point both Le Guin and my friend are trying to make, the role of genre in a reader’s (or reviewer‘s) expectations and criticism. All I’ve done is relabel “genre” to “setting.”
So perhaps we cannot entirely rid ourselves of genre—it is here to stay, in one form or another. Then the question of defining genres becomes paramount. From the beginning, I have to dismiss any notion that genres can be disjoint. As “historical romance” makes clear, a disjoint definition will require so many subgenres as to make one’s head spin. Let’s go easy on ourselves and allow genres to overlap.
I will not attempt a general algorithm for categorizing a story by genre. I am an amateur at this game, and no doubt more learned people than I have tried. However, let me explore what passes for romance these days, since it is the central genre under discussion here.
Romance as a genre has undergone drift over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry for Romance (genre) refers to the traditional definition of epic or heroic narratives, tales of dazzling deeds. In the 19th century, Wikipedia explains, “the connotations of ‘romance’ moved from the fantastic and eerie … to novels centred on the episodic development of a courtship that ends in marriage.” Thus is born the the romance novel, which places its “primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an ‘emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.’” Wikipedia also notes that “the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism, and criticism.”3
That definition comes from the Romance Writers of America, incidentally. The second clause, regarding an optimistic ending, surprised me in its specificity. It makes sense, however, because this clause differentiates romance from every other genre. People fall in love all the time—it is practically a disease—and characters in novels are no exception. The element of romance occurs in almost every story; after all, love is one of the most powerful sources of conflict. Some of my favourite books are love stories, wrapped in hilarious British absurdity. So a book just about romantic love between two people, even one whose primary focus is love, may not be a romance. Unless it has a happy ending. (I am a sucker for tragic endings, so maybe this is why romance and I part ways.)
My goal in this little exploration, in case you were wondering, was to find out why romance is its own genre when love is universal. The requirement of a happy ending is a good reason, but I‘m not sure if it is strong enough to make romance a genre in its own right. Agnostic Ben is shaking his head as I write this, but I want to deny any agenda here. I’m just investigating my own tastes, trying to discover why I avoid romance and whether I can rationalize this prejudice or banish it.
Frankly, I think more men should write romance novel reviews! Because they tend to cut directly to the problems and not gloss over what works and what doesn’t work. Whereas when women (like me) write snarky reviews, other women (hard-core romance lovers) get all bent out of shape—for whatever reason—maybe because they don’t want their novels have any mirror on reality or to be feasible/workable in real life.
While I don’t want to digress into a gender stereotype discussion, the notion that some reviewers (regardless of gender) “cut directly to the problems” instead of giving romance a free pass is an intriguing one. Because I think that was the visceral reaction Agnostic Ben had when my friend told me I had to review Tempted by a Warrior “as a romance.” Although she did not mean it that way, my first instinct was to interpret this admonishment as an instruction to be more lenient because, as Genre Ben would phrase it, “the book is just romance.”
No book is just anything though. Genre Ben and my friend might be right in that we cannot completely decouple genre from criticism—nor would be desirable, I suppose. By the same token, not all criticism stems from genre, and Agnostic Ben wants to give precedence to these genre-independent perspectives when deciding a book’s merits. Alas, it falls to poor, ordinary Ben, a mere mortal, to reconcile these positions and synthesize appropriate reviews. In the past I have often succumbed to genre snobbery; doubtlessly I will do so again, despite my vigilance. Hopefully, however, I will often succeed in going beyond—but not excluding—genre in my criticism.
Thanks to my addictive use of Goodreads, I have written a review for every book I have read since August, 2008—about 300 reviews in total. Many of them suck—more from being rushed without revision—but there are a few gems of which I am ridiculously proud. I like to take my endeavour to review the books I read seriously, and that requires serious thoughts about how I write reviews.
But I don’t want to take it, or myself, too seriously. So here’s a lolcat.
Last week, I discussed how maths is hard, but I spent plenty of time solving a Rubik’s cube anyway. At this rate, you are going to get the idea that I don’t do any work at all. Nevertheless, a desire for accuracy and lulz requires me to remain truthful regarding how I spent this week in the office.
We made a piñata.
We named him Stanley the Resurrection Pig.
I don’t recall who came up with the initial idea. As with all good, crazy plots, it starts off as an innocuous hypothetical scenario: piñatas equal fun, fun equal good, we could make a piñata! This is the last week all four of us will be in the office together—Aaron, Rachael, and I are going to Waterloo next week for a conference, and Jessica is off to Ireland, returning only after Aaron and Rachael’s contracts are finished. So if ever there was a time to set aside the math papers and construct a papier-mâché animal, then savagely beat it to a pulp, this was that time.
None of us are piñata-making experts, and that was probably for the best. Rachael had some experience with papier-mâché—also for the best—so we made her foreman and gave her a silly newspaper hat to go with the title. In remarkably little time, we gathered together the hodge-podge of materials required to manufacture a piñata. We decided on a simple shape, assembled the skeletal structure from balloons, and mixed up a batch of goo to begin the work of creating Stanley.
Over three days, Stanley emerged from a series of colour balloons. He grew stubby legs, ears, and a snout. We named him Stanley because none of us knew anyone named Stanley, and it sounded like a good name for something we would beat to death. (I apologize to all those named Stanley reading this.) Jessica, in particular, was quite bloodthirsty about the whole project. By Friday, however, as we stuffed Stanley full of candy and trussed him in string, we were all savouring the anticipation of Resurrection-Pigpocalpyse.
Stanley met his demise rather quickly. We took him outside, where it was the warmest it has been all summer so far, and suspended him upon a suitable tree branch. Jessica, as the aforementioned most eager participant in this piñata-bashing, got the first swing. I had brought a thin, metal beam that had been propped up in one corner of the hallway outside our office with other thin, metal beams, but we started with a stick to maximize Stanley’s torment. After a few swings from Jessica, however, the stick broke in two. Stanley one, us zero.
So we switched to the metal beam, and Stanley’s death came swift. Jessica pretty much decapitated him with a single, fearsome blow. Aaron, Rachael, and I quickly followed, each of us contributing to his destruction in our own way, until finally he lay on the ground, battered and broken, a shell of his former self.
Stanley was no more. But in his death, he gave us one final gift: lots and lots of candy. Oh, and math riddles. But moreso candy. Really, way too much candy. We had all brought candy, and even though much of the chocolate melted from the heat, there was more than we wanted to take home with us. There is still some of it languishing in the office despite our forthcoming week-long absence.
I could talk about what I‘ve been researching this week, how my supervising prof was in town only for the two days we were dunking our hands in flour-water to make a piñata in the office. I could mention that I’ve started running programs on SHARCNET and it’s awesome. Really, all of these things pale in comparison to spending a week making, and breaking, a piñata.
This was the eighth week of my research. I’m now halfway through my summer job, and it feels like I’ve barely begun. Wow.
Farewell, Stanley the Resurrection Pig. You served but a brief, miserable existence, but you served it well. So long, and thanks for all the fish—er, candy.
I like to joke with my friends about how easy I have it this summer. I‘m sitting in a cozy little office with a fan, proximity to a kettle, and a high-speed Internet connection. Unlike a summer research student in, say, chemistry or biology, I don’t have to manipulate lab equipment or sex fruit flies (Cassie :P). The extent of my experimentation will involve uploading programs to a high-powered computing network and asking it kindly to compute a few more numbers for me. I Google math papers relevant to my problem, try to understand what they say, and see if I can come up with my own ideas. One thing I love about math research, especially in my area of interest, is how much it’s thought. All I really need is a blackboard and chalk, or pencil and paper. (That being said, the high-powered computing network does help when I get to the computation step!)
Of course, it’s not all fun and games (even though I did learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube last week). Maths is hard! And right now, even though I’ve been in university for three years, I feel like an amateur groping around an unsolved problem. I know that research can be like that in general, and I’m still having lots of fun—and learning a lot. Nevertheless, sometimes I feel like a poser. And nothing is worse than a math poser!
I was all excited, two weeks ago, because I had almost finished an algorithm to compute the spreading number recursively. I was tackling the problem as one of finding a maximum independent set. The spreading number is, among other things, the cardinality of the maximum independent set of a certain type of graph. (The covering number is an analogous clique cover cardinality). The general problem of finding a maximum independent set is NP-hard. This means that there likely isn’t a very efficient algorithm for solving the problem (if there were, then P=NP, and that’s way above my pay grade). The best I could hope for was a good algorithm for my specific case; indeed, that was my hope for this algorithm.
After returning from the weekend, I finished the algorithm and happily set Macaulay2 to work, asking it to compute the spreading numbers and compare it with the values we already know. Alas, there were discrepancies, and I quickly understood why: I had made a fundamentally flawed assumption in constructing the algorithm. So while the algorithm did exactly what I wanted it to do, it turns out that what I wanted would not give me the graph’s maximum independent set.
Back to square one!
Frustrated but not very surprised am I. The problem is non-trivial, so I did not really expect such a simple solution. And I have plenty of summer left in which to try new ideas. Right now I am looking at Hilbert series. Most computer algebra systems, including Macaulay2, use Hilbert series to compute the dimension of rings (and this is how my professor’s orginal algorithm computes the spreading number). For larger rings, this computation takes up too much memory.
The easiest solution is, of course, to throw more memory at the problem. We had hoped my computer would be able to compute at least another two or three of the numbers, but this was not to be. Even without any refinements to the algorithm, however, SHARCNET should blow my computer out of the water. This week, I am looking at ways of breaking the computation of the Hilbert series into independent tasks so I can make use of throughput computing.
Oh, and I did learn how to solve a Rubik’s cube. I obtained one in my young adolescent days, but because I have poor spatial skills, I was never able to solve it on my own. Last week I observed Rachael manipulating her cube like a pro. I expressed my admiration and awe, and she just shrugged and mentioned that it was a matter of using certain algorithms (which makes sense). I was doubtful of my ability to learn the necessary algorithms; fortunately, I think I understand enough now to solve the cube reliably. I doubt I’ll ever be a speedcuber, but that is one puzzle down.
Now back to my shiny infinite polynomial series.
Yes, yes, I know. At this rate, my weekly recap will become bi-weekly. I didn’t do a lot the week before last, owing to Victoria Day making for a shortened week. So rather than two very short blog posts, I decided to forbear and write one short blog post instead.
The last two weeks have been more reading, more learning, and a little thinking. I hesitate to ascribe a label like “productive,” since it’s hard to quantify. I think I understand my problem now, but there remains a lot for me to learn in order to start trying solutions.
I tried running the original algorithm for computing the spreading number, which was written in CoCoA, on my computer. I had hoped that my 2 GB of RAM and 1.83 GHz processor would have enough memory to compute some additional numbers. Alas, CoCoA stubbornly crashed (after several long hours) each time I instructed it to do so.
So I ported the code to Macaulay2. It’s even slower, which makes me suspicious that I’m missing something—after all, I am learning both languages, so I‘m sure that in transliterating the code I managed to miss an obvious way to make it more efficient. Still, it looks like the original algorithm won’t produce many more useful results, at least not until I stick it on SHARCNET.
My supervising prof pointed me to a series of lectures he gave on combinatoric commutative algebra. Last week I started working through those, and I’ll continue doing so this week. He’s given me several promising “leads,” I suppose you‘d call them, but at this point, I have to start exploring avenues of interest and seeing if they produce any interesting results. I’ve already toyed with some alternative approaches in Macaulay2, familiarizing myself more with the language, but I think I need more experience with the mathematics first.
Probably the most significant news of the past two weeks would be my decision to attend the Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference at the University of Waterloo and the Combinatorics & Optimization Summer School preceding it. Initially I was reluctant to go, because I don’t like to travel, but Aaron and (maybe) Rachael are going, so I won’t be alone. Plus, I’ll get to visit my grandparents. That’s July 5-10, a few more weeks away. Until then … time for more learning.
Shorter entry this week, as I didn’t do much new and exciting in week 2 of my research project. I‘m still having fun, but because it’s so early in the summer, that fun mostly takes the form of reading.
As tweeted earlier, the secret to reading (and understanding) math papers is simple. First, always read it twice. Then read it again. But to make sure you really understand, you need to take notes. Write down what’s implicit in the paper, the steps the author leaves out because “it is obvious” or “it is clear to the reader” or, even worse, “this has been left has an exercise for the reader.” Once you‘ve done that, the final step is to read the paper again.
I spent all week reading two papers, one of which expands on the findings of the other. The first investigates the spreading and covering numbers in relation to the ideal generation conjecture. Much of the paper goes over my head. Nevertheless, there were some very useful figures, and the use of graph theory in one paper and set theory in another helped improve my comprehension of what these numbers are. The second paper, in particular, was devoted to finding explicit values and bounds for the covering number using a combinatorial/set theory approach.
One of my goals is to improve, if I can, upon the bounds found in these papers. The actual values computed by my supervising prof suggest that there’s room for improvement. I’m a little daunted by this prospect. I feel like I understand the proofs present in these two papers regarding the bounds for the covering number … but I‘m not so sure I understand the procedures well enough to build upon them. Granted, I’ve only been doing this for two weeks. As the summer progresses, I’ll learn more and become more confident. For now, however, I’m just a wee bit intimidated by what I will try to accomplish.
Don’t mistake trepidation for discontent. The best is yet to come! Soon I’ll be playing with CoCoA and Macaulay2. This week, I‘m learning about resolution, which leads to a generalizatio of dimension from ordinary vector spaces to modules. Oh, and I’m having a lot of fun learning how to typeset my proofs in LaTeX. Math is totally the language of the universe, and LaTeX is its markup.
I am now into the second week of my NSERC summer research project. So far, I’m having a lot of fun. The subject of my research is interesting and exactly the type of mathematics that I want to study. The “daily grind,” such as it is, does not grind at all—it helps that there are three other undergraduate students doing research this summer, and we all share the sessional lecturer office. We can distract each other, when needed, and pick each other’s brains for help with particularly puzzling proofs.
So what exactly am I doing? Well, it’s esoteric even for those who enjoyed math up until the first years of university. I‘m going to drop some math jargon in the next few paragraphs, so don’t worry if your eyes start to glaze over. Photos and hilarious video will follow!
Since my prof was leaving town at the end of the week, we met several times so he could give me some lectures and we could discuss my project. The work I’m doing relates to ring theory, which is a course I took nearly two years ago, so I have a lot of review to do. Most of the week, like the next few weeks will, involved preliminaries. I found all of the references my prof recommended to me. I began reading the three textbooks among those references, learning about monomial ideals and simplicial complexes.
These, however, are but means to an end. After I have mastered the secrets of these wonderful algebraic concepts, I can use them toward the eventual goal of finding better algorithms for calculating the spreading and covering numbers. These relate to the maximum and minimum dimension, respectively, of a monomial subspace of a vector space over all polynomials of a given degree such that the subspace fulfils two respective properties.
On Thursday, my prof went over what’s changed since he and his colleagues wrote the paper from which my research project comes. In particular, they’ve learned about a connection between edge ideals and the Stanley-Reisner ideal. In the paper, they showed that calculating the dimension of the Stanley-Reisner ring is sufficient to find the spreading number. (A similiar result makes calculating the covering number possible.)
This connection is really cool for two reasons. Firstly, it makes the connection to graph theory stronger, which gives us another avenue for exploring the problem. Secondly, it might provide an alternative way ofcalculating spreading numbers (graph theory is also useful in this respect). The algorithm in the paper finds the Stanley-Reisner ring and then uses a computer algebra system to find the dimension of the ring. They did this on a Pentium II, so they could only find a few of the numbers before the calculations became impractical given the available computer memory. Computing power has improved considerably since then, so my first step will be to see how my little laptop compares against their Pentium II using the algorithm in the paper. Later in the summer, I’ll be creating alternative (hopefully more efficient) algorithms in Macaulay2 and running them on SHARCNET.
Of the three other students sharing the office with me this summer, Aaron is in the same year as me, and Jessica and Rachael are a year behind us. Aaron and Rachel are working on the same project, which involves fractals and Cantor sets. Jessica is also working on something related to commutative algebra (affine varieties and Gröbner bases). So not only do I get to learn about simplicial complexes and monomial ideals, but I’ll be learning about affine spaces and some more real analysis as well.
And for those of you who wonder exactly what math research looks like, I can attest that it’s pretty much like this clip from The Big Bang Theory. Aaron and I spent a good deal of Friday afternoon staring at my faulty proof regarding prime ideals on the chalk board. I did manage to figure it out eventually, but imagine if we had had a montage!
Last night, all four of us who work at the front desk went out for dinner and bowling. I don’t go out that much—and in fact, I probably spend more time hanging out with these three at work than I do going places with my other friends. But it was Brittany’s last weekend in town, because she’s biking back home to Guelph next week. So we had one last hurrah—and a little bit more.
First we went to Applebee‘s, which is pretty much the baseline measurement for normality on this outing. I had a steak that was supposed to be medium but was rare and soggy French fries. Thea and Dayna had more luck with their pasta dishes, and Brittany made quick work of her sizzling fajitas. Surprisingly, they appeared as advertised and were actually sizzling. There was also spicy rice, which she saved for another friend, because she didn’t like it. More on that later. Many stories were exchanged that cannot, of course, be repeated here. Brittany and I ordered desserts while Thea and Dayna demurred; I got a chocolate chip sundae, and Britany made the better choice of a delectable soft brownie. That was probably the best food part of the meal.
After Applebee’s, the plan was to go bowling. I, being the careful and attentive driver that I am, promptly drove the car forward out of the parking spot, intending to cut through the adjacent parking lot and leave that way. The only problem was the concrete parking barrier standing in my way, small enough that I had forgotten it was there. The front wheels of the car made it over. The back wheels … not so much.
Or, as Thea likes to tell the story, “You just sort of … kept going. And there was a scraping noise.” Thanks Thea.
So I called my brother, who is the car expert in our household. He would know what to do. Fortunately, while we were waiting for him to arrive, someone else stopped and helped us extricate the car from its new perch. We put the car in neutral, and then all of us lifted the rear end and pushed it forward. Manual effort for the win!
Shortly thereafter, my brother rolled up in a very badass manner, his bright green truck as obtrusive as possible as he parked on the grass in front of where I had parked the car (as far from any barriers as I could manage). After a quick look at the underside of the car and an inspection under the hood, he prounounced us good to go.
And so we went bowling.
Thea’s mom and her mom’s friend showed up at the bowling alley at the same time that we did. This, of course, prompted the nth retelling of my already infamous adventure in the Applebee’s parking lot. It will go down in history alongside the phone book story.
The six of us bowled together. I love bowling. I don’t know why. I’m not great at it—good, not great—but there’s just something about the collegial atmosphere, the shared experience of hurling a massive object on a collision course with those pins… . It’s one of my favourite group activities. And my dancing went over well. We all had fun, I think. Despite my excessive posturing to the contrary, however, Thea emerged victorious in both games.
So I had an interesting night, and a good night. It was a good way to celebrate this year at the front desk. I’ve been lucky to have awesome coworkers pretty much consistently for the entire four years I‘ve worked at the art gallery. Trying to compare them would not do them justice. They’re all wonderful, and while I miss some more than others, I have stories to tell about each and every one of them. That is, without a doubt, the best part of working at the gallery: my front desk coworkers.
We move on. This is the one constant in my life with which I will always struggle. I don’t like change, and once I find equilibrium, I am loath to see it thrown out of balance by someone’s absence. It can’t be helped, though, and it’s for the best. None of us will be working at the gallery during the summer, and it remains to be seen who will be back in the fall. We’ll stay in touch, I hope, and continue sharing stories. But I can always celebrate the times we’ve had together.
This year, I got to share and create stories with three great women. I got to see high school again, see the first year of university through an art student’s eyes, and have good conversations about books, movies, and yeah, even art. We made a good team, we had each other’s backs, and we got the job done. I couldn’t ask for more. And if I had to lodge my car on top of a stubby concrete parking barrier, I wouldn’t want to do it in the company of any other people.
This January, I applied for a summer Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) from the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Lakehead University has 20 such awards to give to applicants this year, and on Monday, I learned that I am the recipient of one!
I was (still am) a mixture of elation and trepidation. Part of me is still in a state of shock and can’t quite believe that this is real. I spend a good half hour after learning I got the grant just trying to calm down so I would not run up to everyone I encountered and yell, “I GOT A GRANT!” Another part of me is saying, “What do you think you‘re doing, Ben? You don’t even understand what it is you’re going to be researching!” As anyone who has ever looked at a higher math textbook knows, the language is just scary sometimes.
I applied for the NSERC grant for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a different summer employment opportunity than my default, which is the art gallery. Don’t get me wrong: I love working at the gallery. You can’t beat the hours, and I have an awesome boss—she took the news that I wouldn’t be working there over the summer much easier than I thought she would. Nevertheless, I’ve worked there for four consecutive summers. I‘m not averse to trying something new, particularly something related to my area of interest.
Secondly, since this is a research position, I’ll get a chance to experience exactly what “math research” is all about. Sometimes people will ask me why I’m becoming a high school teacher instead of going on to graduate school and becoming a professor; usually my answer is somewhere along the lines that I‘m not sure I’d like doing “math research” and writing “math papers.” I‘m more in it for the teaching. This grant is a perfect way to see if, in fact, I like or dislike doing research, without committing to something like graduate school first.
So I’m excited about this change, but also just a little bit anxious—it is a big change in how I’ll be spending my summer, and a different responsibility. After four years at the gallery, I’m so used to doing the same thing every summer that it’s hard imagining myself doing anything else.
The position itself is a full-time for 16 weeks. My area of interest in mathematics lies in commutative algebra, so Dr. Adam Van Tuyl has agreed to be my supervisor. He’s come up with a neat project for me, and I’ll try to explain some of it. I don’t fully understand what I’m doing yet myself; for the first few weeks I’ll need to review my ring theory from last year and then work to learn new concepts we didn’t even cover in that class.
Ultimately I’ll be continuing work that Dr. Van Tuyl did on computing spreading and covering numbers for monomial ideals. One of the issues he and his colleagues encountered when they first worked on this problem was a lack of computational power for calculating values for these numbers. Later in the project, I’m going to be writing my own algorithms for calculating these numbers, and I should be able to run them SHARCNET, a network of high performance computers maintained by several academic institutions in Ontario.
I plan to blog about the project as the summer goes on. I start working on May 10, so I probably won’t have much to say on the subject until then. For now I need to focus on finishing the school year!
Some people I know lead off their blog posts with massive photos of the minute and the mundane, photos that set the mood for the entry that follows. So I‘m going to be a copycat and do the same. Muwahahaha.
There are some objects that, against all odds, manage to stay with us through childhood, adolescence, and into our adult years. These objects acquire and then store memories for us, exceeding their original purpose as they become receptacles for our past. And they acquire scars, reminding us that we can’t travel through life unscathed, but we can always somehow emerge OK. In a society renowned for its throwaway culture, these objects might be old, battered, and bruised, yet we keep them still. They have more than a material worth. At the same time, however, they might not have much sentimental value—that is, they haven’t survived all this time because we’re overtly fond of them. They’ve just stayed with us.
This tape measure is one such object—and a surprising one, at that, considering I‘m not especially handy nor prone to measuring things. All the marks on its body tell me a story about my past, and about who I was. I don’t remember who gave it to me or when, but I obviously put it to good—and not so good—uses. The missing pieces at the top are probably the result of one or many ill-fated drops; stress-testing just doesn’t account for the overzealous measuring abilities of a 12-year-old. The black splotches along the top and side appear to be paint. I don’t remember what I was painting, or indeed if I’m even the one who was using it at the time. This tape measure has made its rounds through my immediate family, so I can’t take responsibility for every little scrape and scar.
The shark sticker, though, is all me. I went through this phase where I obsessively decorated my possessions with stickers—I think, even then, I didn’t like acquiring stuff I wasn’t going to use, and I had all these stickers … and one thing led to another. Every so often I’ll come across an artifact of my stickering phase.
But most quixotic and endearing is the fact that this tape measure isn’t particularly valuable, isn’t precious or handmade. It was made in Taiwan, in fact, one of many tape measures identically mass produced. Handmade objects are exquisite, but if there’s anything mass production reminds us, it’s of how quickly two identical things diverge and become unalike. No doubt this tape measure’s extant brothers and sisters have acquired their own battle scars. I hope some of them still have owners who, like me, are grateful more for what they remember than what they measure.
Do you have an object that bears your battle scars?
Tonight Stargate Universe premiered, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it. However, I feel guilty blogging about a television show when I haven’t blogged about arguably more important matters, such as life.
With a month behind me, I feel good about the school year so far. I only have four courses this year: Introductory Analysis, Partial Differential Equations (PDEs), Introduction to Mathematical Probability, and Speculative Fiction. Three math courses and an English course. All of my math courses are interesting, and I was excited to take the English course the moment I saw it offered. I’ll discuss it first, since the rest of the post will be about math.
My Speculative Fiction course is covering only science fiction this section—which is fine. Although I love literature in general and would gladly have taken something like Victorian Literature if this course hadn’t been offered, the chance to read and discuss science fiction for credit is not something I was going to overlook! We’re reading The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, The Left Hand of Darkness, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Neuromancer, Dawn, and Singularity Sky. We also have to watch Blade Runner (a film based on Do Androids Dream).
Of my math courses, Introductory Analysis is my favourite because it comprises my favourite aspect of math: proofs. Specifically, I love algebraic proofs—the more abstract the better. I love math but don’t like numbers so much. PDEs are fascinating and challenging as well; the course is very much oriented toward application, however, whereas I‘m more interested in theory. Unfortunately, my ardour doesn’t quite extend to probability, but I think I’ll survive—so far it hasn’t tripped me up too much.
My involvement in math at the university extends far beyond courses! Last term I marked assignments for a first-year calculus course; this fall I‘m marking a second-year linear algebra course. Moreover, I’m tutoring in the new Lakehead Math Assistance Centre (LUMAC for short). Both of these jobs are paid positions, which is a nice income in addition to my gallery job while also providing me with relevant experience for my future career.
Having spent a few sessions tutoring, I can already say that I enjoy it. We’ll see if it stays that way once the flood of people arrives the week before midterms! For now, however, it’s fulfilling. Plus, it gives me a nice review of first-year courses, like basic calculus, that contain skills I’ll always be needing but don’t always practise as I should.
So I have a very math-filled term, it appears. I like to use the phrase “inundated by math—and I love it.”
Two weeks ago to this day, I broke my favourite mug. I was heartbroken.
I don’t like calling myself a materialist, but we all place sentimental value on certain items when they become important to us. Up until two years or so ago, I rotated among three or four different mugs for my tea—yes, mugs. “Cups” are for prats and amateurs. Hardcore tea-drinkers drink tea by the mug, and the really hardcore tea enthusiasts (I am not) drink it by the bowl in elaborate Japanese tea ceremonies. There’s literature about this sort of thing. But I digress.
Then I started using only one mug. My mug. It just felt comfortable: perfect shape, an attractive colour and calm design on the outside, and a handle that didn’t hurt my fingers. It held a good amount of tea. I’d use it for every single cup, rinsing it, washing it out with baking soda every couple of days. I treated that mug like royalty. But ultimately, I failed it.
We were sitting outside; I was reading and Mug was relaxing on the table next to me, holding some tea. I went to take a sip and was pleased to discover that Mug had allowed it to radiate just enough heat that the tea was now cool enough to drink but not so cool as to be unpleasant. I went to replace Mug on the table … and that’s when it happened. I missed the table, and when my hand released its grasp on Mug, it plummeted to the cement stones beneath us, cleaving cleaning in two.
I was in shock.
My first reaction, of course, was denial. It couldn’t have happened. Anything but this. People in Iran were protesting about the relection of Ahmadinejad, and all I could think about was, “No way, no way, that’s my favourite mug.” Shallow, yes. But it had a certain immediacy that cast a spell over me. I knew that nothing I could do would make it better. I needed a montage, one of those sappy ones where Mug is sitting on a swing and I‘m pushing it back and forth. That kind of thing.
Yes, it was a fairly clean break, but not a perfect one. My brother has glued it back together for me, and now it sits on my desk, a facade of wholeness. I may use it to hold pens or something. Yet never again will I taste tea from its lips.
After rushing inside and pondering how I could fix the situation, I determined I had only one viable option: find a replacement. Now, I realize that this isn’t a healthy response when losing a loved one. You can’t go around replacing children after all, and I can never truly replace Mug. However, I had to find a … successor.
For all I loved Mug, it was completely anonymous. It bore no identifying marks, not even a “Made in China” label (even though it probably was). I can’t remember where I acquired it, or how, or even what company made it. Without any of this information, all I could do was search eBay for “blue mug” and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an identical match to Mug in any of the fourteen pages of search results. It was a long shot at best. However, I did find a mug of a similar size with a picture of Eeyore on it, and that was the next best thing.
Today, my Eeyore mug arrived. I have already consumed several cups of tea from it; it’s the beginning of a beautiful new relationship. Although it can never truly replace my favourite Mug, in time my wound will hurt less, scab over, and I’ll have all those fond memories of Mug and myself, together with tea. Until then, I can only drink more tea to assuage my pain, and stare at my smiling Eeyore (made in Taiwan).
This post is dedicated to the memory of Mug, 2006-2009. Everything a tea-drinker could ask for, and then more.
During the summer, I bike to work. I could pretend that this is because I want to be green and stay in shape, but it’s really because I don’t have consistent access to a vehicle. Although it is good exercise, I must admit.
The ride is about twenty minutes one-way. I usually listen to music on my 1 GB iPod Nano. Yeah, that’s right: I haven’t upgraded to the latest model. Shocking, I know. However, this usually means I end up listening to the same music over and over all summer. I suppose I could create weekly mixes or playlists to help keep things fresh, but I‘m just too lazy.
So this year, I’m going to try something different: audiobooks. It furthers my goal of reading more, and it’s much safer than trying to read a book while biking. Rather than purchase audiobooks, I’m going to try Librivox, a crowdsourced repository of public domain audiobooks. I’ve gone ahead and created a shelf at Goodreads to track my summer listening. Now only one thing remains: to what should I listen?
I‘m open to suggestions. I’m considering some Victorian fiction, thinking that it may be less dry if I listen to it rather than read it. Or should I try some non-fiction? If you have some favourite public domain books, especially ones you think would be better in audiobook form, please let me know.
I’m still alive.1
Actually, when all is said and done, the wisdom teeth extraction was Not That Bad. I went in, the assistant hooked me up to various Machines That Go Ping!, gave me some nitrous oxide to relax, then stuck me with an IV. I drifted off to neverneverland. The next thing I know, the assistant is asking me to come lie down on a bed in a little recovery room. I do so and start to read my book. In about five minutes I‘m fully lucid and feeling quite well.
I won’t rub it in, but I had no swelling, no bruising, and no pain. I took a couple of painkillers on Friday but kicked them after Saturday morning. I had pizza—in small bites—for dinner on Friday, although I stuck with yogurt, Jello, and very soft food until Tuesday. My jaw feels a bit different when I chew, but overall it was a painless procedure.2 All that trepidation….
These past few weeks—I‘d like to say almost all of May as well, but I don’t want to be melodramatic here—have been draining. Or maybe it’s just that today was draining and I’m projecting. Nevertheless, the jumbled sequence of one-off events and above-average activity has left me breathless and tired. I need a vacation, but that was my vacation. Next week I start working full time. Yay.
While I could digress now and talk about how I‘m not all that enthusiastic about working full time this summer, there would be no point. It’s going to happen. And my job isn’t bad at all—I just find it difficult to spend eight hours there, especially on the slow days. So I‘m going to focus on the positives. There’s the money, of course. My fellow front desk attendants are nice people, and I’m essentially being paid to hang out with one of them for eight hours.3
Aside from the money, the other big advantage is that I’ll finally have a schedule again. Now, I’m not a creature of routine. My daily routine has constants, true, but I often vary most of my activities. I am, however, a creature of habit. Hence, May and early June’s dense schedule of stress has played havoc with my habits. Even though working full-time eats up my free time, it at least means I can stop worrying that I’ll be asked to work a bingo or take on three extra shifts at the end of the week….
I’m also feeling creatively unfocused as of late. I have plenty of projects on the go, some of which are in danger of becoming brain crack. Every time I try to sit down and work on one, however, my mind turns to the other projects, and I find it hard to accomplish anything. Even writing blog posts feels lacks lustre; I‘ve some ideas for potential posts but very little desire to actually compose them. This isn’t an “I Suck” phase (thankfully) but a “Why Bother?” phase, and my apathy is beginning to annoy me.
Additionally, I seem to be stuck in a passive-receptive mode when it comes to information. There’s an incredible amount of amazing and cool stuff happening in the world outside the Box That Is My Room. So much so that all I can do is absorb it osmotically. My feed subscriptions push hundreds of articles at me, and Twitter and Facebook push a myriad of other interesting items in my direction. It’s not information overload though. I don’t fanatically check my feeds; I read them once or twice a day. Other people just seem to be producing so much, it only strengthens my apathy toward creating my own things. And that’s just a wrong-headed idea, and I know it’s a wrong-headed idea, and I am severely disappointed in myself.4
About the only thing that pushes my buttons right now is reading (as always). I had to order a couple of books for birthday presents, so I took the opportunity to order everything that was in my Chapters shopping cart, even though I still have plenty of books waiting from my last trip to Chapters! And naturally, I had to buy duplicates when I didn’t own the book I was giving away…. Anyway, I placed the order on Sunday, and the first part arrived on Wednesday. I love Chapters.
Of course, there’s so many books I read and not enough time in which to read them! I’m coming across more and more interesting books that I mark as to-read; it’s staggering. Thus I feel a soul-wrenching, pent-up desire to devour literature at an awesome and terrifying rate. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
I’ve always been an avid reader, but over the past couple of years my passion has only intensified. Part of this is due to Goodreads, of course, but it’s not the sole culprit. I’m not sure why else though. Maybe as I‘ve matured, I’ve started to pursue my interests in a more organized, systematic fashion (and Goodreads facilitates this for my reading). As a result, knowing that I have a plan, knowing that there’s all these books I want to read now, makes me more eager to read as much as possible. Maybe I’ve always been this crazy and my friends were just too afraid to tell me, lest I murder them in their sleep by inflicting a thousand tiny papercuts. I’d never do that, of course!5
Suggestions for how to focus my creativity are welcome, but I’m not interested in GTD evangelization here. My projects are not to-do style endeavours—although I have tried keeping track of them with to-do lists. Aim more toward the area around reconciling your desire to devote time to creating stuff with your desire to drink prodigious amounts of tea while reading books by the truckload.6
- [ 1 ] Although chances are equally good I’m just a component of a massive set of equations which we happen to perceive as the Universe.
- [ 2 ] Aside from the part where I give them a substantial chunk of money, of course.
- [ 3 ] It’s dangerous to get into that mindset, though. I’m actually being paid to work, not socialize.
- [ 4 ] Bad Ben! Don’t make me use the newspaper!
- [ 5 ] I’d hire ninjas to inflict the thousand tiny papercuts.
- [ 6 ] If someone ever installs vending machines that serve “tea and a book”, I will be doomed.
I intended to post this two days ago, but somehow never got around to it. You know you need to blog more when your grandparents remark on your inactivity. So let’s do this!
The past few weeks have been, for the most part, uneventful (and that’s good). I worked a bit more than I would like, but there’s not much to be done. I’ve tried to use all the free time I have as wisely as possible, mostly reading. Now that the snow is gone—even though the frost warnings are not—I like to sit outside the front of the house on the nice days.
Having finished playing Mass Effect a second time, I tried playing Tomb Raider: Anniversary again. Unfortunately, the controls continued to frustrate me as I fell back into the rythym of “No, Lara, jump that way—oh, and you died.” So I tried Tomb Raider: Legend instead. While it’s the same engine, the levels are shorter and more varied, so I’m less frustrated with it.
I’m greatly anticipating Mass Effect 2, and a few days ago I saw the trailer for Assassin’s Creed 2. I enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed, although the story was somewhat weak, and the second one looks like it will be worth picking up eventually. Video games remain a side hobby, however.
Not too much happening in June, but it is a month of firsts for me. This Friday, I’ll be getting my wisdom teeth out (for the first and, logically, only time). Then a couple of weeks after that, I’ll be attending a wedding—my second wedding ever and my first wedding as an adult. So we’ll see how that goes.
Rogers released the HTC Dream and HTC Magic on June 2, the two headsets currently using Google Android. Those of you who aren’t into technology can safely skip this next paragraph; suffice it to say, I find Google Android sexy.
The Apple iPhone indubitably revolutionized the way we see smartphones. Where the BlackBerry and Palm were function, the iPhone was all about design—after all, it’s Apple. Unfortunately, Apple is starting to use its reputation for innovative design (i.e., its coolness) to sell uncool products. Because the iPhone is sort of like the North Korea of smartphones, in that Apple has control of what’s sold through its apps store and ultimately what’s on your phone. That’s why I find Google Android so appealing. Anyone with the coding skills can write Android apps and distribute them to anyone with an Android-powered phone. Thus, you can have all the functionality of an iPhone without any of its draconian drawbacks. The major disadvantage, of course, is that you risk the scorn of all your friends who are slaves to the Big Mac—er, Apple.
So the prospect of getting a Google-powered smartphone is extremely tempting. Yet I‘m not willing to become a slave to Rogers. I don’t need a smartphone. It would be nice to be able to check my email or update my calendar from anywhere, but honestly, I don’t get that much email, and my calendar seldom changes. If the plans were less expensive and Rogers were less evil, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. Fortunately, I just have to wait until tomorrow, and mobile phone prices will be the least of my concerns.
Yes, tomorrow I get my wisdom teeth out. I’m nervous; I’ve never had any procedure like this done before—and would like to avoid them in the future, naturally. My wisdom teeth are fully grown in, and they don’t cause me any pain, so I’m hoping that means the surgery will go as smoothly as such things can go and my convalescence will be short. We shall see.
An interesting week lies ahead of me.
Sometime between November and … now … it became now. I’m not quite sure when this happened, or how it happened1 … but it happened. Now that it’s now and no longer then, that which was must become what was going to be when then became now—which is now.
In that same spirit, the university felt it right and proper to commence a second term of classes following on the heels of the first term. I have six courses this term, three math courses, two philosophy courses, and an English course masquerading under the horribly ambiguous name of “Advanced Rhetoric.”
Two of my math courses, Linear Algebra II and Group Theory, are continuations of two of the courses I took last term. Linear Algebra II is, unsurprisingly, the conclusion to Linear Algebra I. We‘re learning about eigenvalues, eigenvectors, and diagonalization. I’m finding this course easier than the first part, in which I struggled somewhat. Group Theory and Ring Theory are related areas of abstract algebra. “Group theory” always sounds to me like some sort of bizarre sociological phenomenon, but I assure you, it’s a math course—complete with dusty chalkboard, incomprehensible symbols, and theorems named after dead white guys.
The third math course is Vector Calculus, which appears to be the answer to the question, “What happens when you design an art course for mathematicians?”2 Not only do we learn about parametric equations, polar curves, vectors, lines, and planes—we get to draw them too! I signed up to write down incomprehensible symbols, not draw them! :P
I’m taking both Logic and Critical Thinking, which complement each other nicely. Logic also comes in handy with math, and my background in math means the symbolic aspect of the course is easy.
Also complementary to logic is rhetoric, embodied in my “Advanced Rhetoric” course. The name is ambiguous because the particular topic is left to the professor. This year, the prof teaching the course specializes in classical rhetoric, so that’s what we’re learning. We’re starting with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and rhetoricians, particularly Aristotle3 In keeping with the course material, all of our assignments come from the progymnasmata, which is a sequence of fourteen assignments that students would begin at a young age and complete throughout their education. We’re doing a fable, a refutation, an encomium, and an argument. Additionally, we have to keep a “commonplace book.” At the beginning of every class, the prof dictates passages from a book of his choice—we‘ve done Virgil’s Aeneid, Tacitus’ Agricola, and even some I Corinthians. One of the not-so-secret consequences of this exercise will be an improvement in our ability to take down dictation, an ability that was integral to students in ancient Greece and has significantly lapsed since the 19th century.
Edit: Forgot to add my favourite quotation so far from my rhetoric prof:
Aristotle loved to classify things. A platypus would have really messed him up.
But that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you for a moment. Did you know that you may just be a hologram? No? But wait, there’s more! The entire universe may just be a hologram. How unbelievably awesome yet intensely weird is that?
Hoping, as always, to post more regularly—I have some interesting ideas! I just need to find a good, routine spot in my weekly schedule where I can write blog posts.
- [ 1 ] If you know, please do explain it to me.
- [ 2 ] The real answer should be: DON’T.
- [ 3 ] He wrote an entire book called Rhetoric, dontcha know!
Last updated Friday, January 23, 2009 at 7:27 PM
A couple of days ago, I woke up to the a slow but inexorable cracking noise coming from the vicinity of my bedroom door. Sometimes my cat scratches at my door in order to gain entry, oblivious as to my current state of consciousness. This sound wasn’t like a cat scratching, however, which was why I had trouble placing it at first. Unlike the frantic scrabbling noise of claw on wood, this had the deliberate sound of something going horribly, horribly wrong.
Several seconds later, the sight of the hooks on the back of my door falling out, taking my coat with them, confirmed this fear.
I had stupidly placed my library book bag on these hooks. When the bag is empty, this isn’t a problem. Yet as I gradually fill up the bag with each book I read, it becomes heavier, adding strain to the hooks.
My brother originally installed the hooks; he was also the one who affixed them to that dandy little wooden plank. Since I‘m inept at anything involving tools, I had my brother put the hooks back up. This time, I had him add anchors, which he didn’t use the first time around.
Of course, I won’t be putting my book bag on there ever again….
Speaking of books, here is a photo of my brand new shelving:
As you can see, I have much more room to grow as my book collection expands. My DVDs may soon need to usurp part of another shelf as well, unless I find an alternative storage area. The second shelf from the bottom provides a handy spot to house books I intend to read (they previously squatted on the floor and played poker while I wasn’t looking). On the left are library books—currently empty, since I’m reading my last one right now—and books I’ve bought are on the right. A LOTR boxset—touted by Metheun publications as an “authorized Canadian edition of the heroic tale”1 separates these two categories. The boxset originally belonged to my dad, but I “borrowed” it sometime in grade five or grade six to read, and I just never gave it back. Muwahahaha. One of these days I need to repair the binding on the first volume….
But I digress! To answer the question that is burning in your mind at this point: yes, that is an inflatable crayon. I‘ve had it for years, but never has it looked more at home than as a finishing touch on my shelves.
And that’s it for this week’s edition of “Ben has no common sense, but look at all his pretty books.” Next week: why we don’t run with power tools!2