Middle of the Night Math Blather


Ah, insomnia. Sometimes sleep is just not an activity that my mind wishes to engage itself in. I thought I was done with journaling after returning from Colombia, yet find myself unable to step back into my somewhat standard methods of disassociative discursive writing. Partly this is due to existing currently in a state of limbo, as well my current dedication to studying for an inane test, the GRE, which apparently was crafted to “weed out” people who shouldn’t be applying to grad school, i.e. people who have better things to do with their free time then study irrelevant things for an unimportant test. I have not intended to neglect writing on this blog, in fact I kind of need it to stay sane and balanced, I just have not had the personal mental space necessary to turn within and get it out. Hence the insomnia.

I am well aware that the details of my personal life holds little of meaning nor interest for the outside world, and I generally cringe from bothering to sit to transcribe my mundane existence onto a blog, except when I am traveling and my mundane existence is somewhat more interesting—but I have little recourse at the moment. This is therapy, in a sense, a salve to my sleepless and seeking self. An attempt to write myself into a stability and stillness necessary for movement onward to hopefully a time when I can write something much more meaningful and applicable to the general populace.

Anyway, I need a topic to write about in relation to myself, so I’m going to write about math, because it’s been on my mind as of late. First, a brief personal history: I have never been “good” at math. I used to explicate this deficiency as a result of the way my brain worked: I was “fuzzy brained”. I didn’t think logically. I was a writer, a draw-er, a right-brainer. But I have since realized that these were simply excuses to cover over my laziness and lack of will to learn something that I believed was useless. I have always been stubborn, and when it came to math (and science), I simply didn’t want to learn it. In my old age, I now realize that I was and am perfectly capable of applying myself to math. The problem is, with math you are supposed to keep building on the foundation of what you have learned, so that one year you learn decimals, and then the next fractions, and then the next ratios, that kind of thing. You are suppose to retain information and then develop your understanding with this foundation intact.

I stopped retaining my mathematical learning in the 3rd grade, when I decided that I didn’t think math had any purpose in my life. This obviously made things difficult in school, as I never really learned how to do much except the most basic of arithmetic. The only way I got through was by utilizing the fact that even when you don’t understand how to do something, there are always examples for each type of problem. So you can look at all the answers to the odd numbered questions in the back of the book, which are essentially identical to the even numbered questions, except with different values. It takes little effort, as it’s basically monkey-see-monkey-do rather than an innate understanding of concepts. That’s how I got through math, up to pre-calc. And then, other than the SAT, I thought that I was done forever with math. This was a more or less accurate assessment, except that I had to ostensibly tutor high schoolers in the subject when I was working as an instructional assistant. However, the math was easy, and my students were all special ed and needed extra reiteration (don’t think for a second that I’m saying they’re stupid; they just don’t generally grasp bullshit standardized subjects very quickly because their brains don’t function in a “normal” manner), which meant that I got pretty good at explaining how to do things just by doing examples over and over again. But other than that, I’ve always been able to do what little math I’ve had to do in my life with the assistance of the handy invention of the calculator.

That is, until I started recently studying for the GRE. I breezed through the reviews of the antonyms, the word comparisons, and the reading comprehension sections. There are a lot of weird words that I’ve never really learned that I’ve got to memorize, such as pulchtritude, or splenetic, but on the whole I find the exercises fairly straightforward, if annoying and snobbily academic. Then I got to the math section. And suddenly I went from swimming in the sea to fumbling in the rocky rapids. My self-confidence dropped to my knees. And I was reminded, harshly, of the fact that I had stopped applying myself to math in the 3rd grade.

So now in my belated adult existence I am attempting to teach myself math all over again. It’s akin to learning a new language for me, and it takes double the effort because I still have an ingrained bias against math in my mind. I keep telling myself that I am fundamentally incapable of learning it, even though I know this is untrue. And I know this is untrue because while I was reviewing the verbal sections of the GRE, I came to a sudden realization of something: analyzing literature and utilizing words effectively is actually much closer to the process underlying mathematics and science then one would think.

I have had this realization before. In college, I had some roommates that were studying engineering, computer science, and pre-med, and inevitably the issue arose in conversation regarding the nature of the different majors, the fuzzies vs. the logical reasoners, the English vs the hard sciences. I was always frustrated that people seem to think that when you are writing an essay about literature, that it is all completely subjective bullshit. Sometimes it is—but then it isn’t good writing. The fact is, all good writing is based quite firmly on what is given and established, just as a scientist proceeds with his hypothesis based on established research. When analyzing a piece of literature, the essayist must thoroughly examine it, and accumulate the evidence that will contribute to his thesis. He then takes all this evidence and ties it all up into a convincing argument, bolstered by flourishes of flow and nifty word placement. It’s like what a lawyer does when he researches past cases and nuances of applicable law in order to write up his case. It’s an effort that is completely logical, and defensible through evidence and a coherence of presentation.

Such literary efforts can always be made through differing points of view—but these points of view must be defensible by what has already been established, or else they hold no water. You can argue, for example, the far-fetched notion that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is really a covert parable of a spiritual science of the seven chakras—but you’d better be able to provide concrete evidence from the movie that corresponds directly to metaphysical literature on chakras. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. In other words, you can posit any kind of thesis that you want, but you have to be able to defend your position, and convince others that your position is superior. If your thesis is confirmed by the wider community of critical scrutiny, then it becomes part of the established canon of literary criticism. Just as the process that occurs when a scientific hypothesis is confirmed as valid and takes its place as established theory until another theory comes along that is more inclusive.

Anyway, so the gist of what I’m saying is that the process of thought that is applied in either the conceptual effort of math or writing is essentially the same. It just takes some rote memorization and a concerted effort on the part of the thinker. So I’m like a little kid again, going back to school. We’ll see if my experiment in applying myself as fully as I can to mathematics will work or not. So far, the outlook is dim, as I still remain just as stubborn in my old age as I was when I was a young whippersnapper. But I’ll give it a go.

Wish me luck and let’s both hope that I am able to not only get some much needed sleep, but that I also eventually start writing some good non-mundane and non-mathematical posts real soon.

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Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

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