Sunday, September 18, 2005

Math Rant

I recently read that Dr Norman Wildberger has updated the arcane rules of trigonometry and eliminated sines, cosines and tangents from the trigonometric toolkit. Cool! I mean, I always liked trigonometry but looking at it from another perspective is always refreshing. Yes, I'm a total nerd.

When I was a kid learning this stuff seemed weird and officious. Half of the time I thought the teachers were nuts when they explained how numbers could be used, as though they were trying to convince us to buy Amway. When I was excited to "discover" something about them, something which we would be later taught in some methodical fashion, the teachers would often wonder what I was talking about. This sounds very computationally elite and snobby of me but sometimes I think I understood the nature of numbers better than they did because I didn't have the good sense to be terrified of math.

I thought I would probably stop taking math after high school. It seemed to be more of memorization than anything. It was boring and nobody ever bothered to explain the connections. When I was older, the larger concepts began to unfold more sensibly. I finally saw the grander picture. Why don't more high school teachers encourage kids to think in terms of math? Probably the better question is, why does it have to be such a terrifying experience in grade school?

I think there should be mathematics specialists in elementary schools to make sure kids develop a comfort with numbers and their various uses. Many elementary-level teachers aren't very math savvy. I nearly completed a teaching degree at one point, with the goal of teaching middle school math. For a number of reasons I didn't complete it. While on this path, I took various courses on elementary math instruction and can tell you that a good percentage of my fellow students were on their 2nd time in the classes (after receiving failing grades initially.) Many of these future teachers admitted being terrified of taking these classes because they "always hated math." And they went on to teach. It may be a case of the chicken and the egg.

We've somehow raised generations of math phobics. However, the generation before them is just as queasy about math and so on and so on. As a result, subsequent generations of teachers are often very single-minded in their approach to mathematics education, relying on memorization of formulas and even confusing the use of manipulatives. Too many kids are learning rote methods of computation. If a kid has a question that is not directly dealt with in the teacher's manual, it may not be addressed and a curious child will become a hardened one. They don't get the play with the numbers and see what they can do. No monkey bars with 4, no tag with 7, nothing.

Kids need to learn that it's ok to take their numbers out to play, that there is more than one way to divide or multiply. It freaks people out when I can calculate sales tax AND add it to the price of an item with a single calculation. I use the calculator function of my cell phone to do it in line for the cash register so I can have exact change. If the line is long, I'll just work it out in my head. It's fun and slightly cruel to imply that I knew the total because I am psychic.

Hey, this soapbox is kind of high and I'm a little lightheaded. Time to get off.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sock it to 'Em!

Sept 21st is International Peace Day. It's just one day but peace is important enough to dedicate just one day in a year toward attaining it. This is .274% of a year. That's not much. If you assume everyone sleeps 8 hours a day and, if you further assume that everyone can refrain from violence during sleep (harder for some than others,) this is only .1827% of our lives in which we have to mindfully consider peace. If we can't manage .1827% of our lives without violence in the world, we should maybe consider de-evolution. (There's a Star Trek:NG episode featuring this, you know.) Hey, Miss Beauty Pageant, this is World Peace -- exactly what you've been looking for!

As a parent, I know that you can't simply say "stop it" and expect ancient habits to die. Have you ever tried to get a two-year old to stop sucking on her thumb? Neither have I because I let my kids have pacifiers which I had to break them of by convincing them that their pacifiers were plotting against them. Usually, however, you have to replace an inappropriate action with an appropriate one.

"Taking your sister's toy is NOT nice! Hugging your sister is NICE. No, don't hug so hard. She's turning blue! Go find your pacifier!" But you get what I mean.

Eventually, the kids learn to amuse themselves by making stuff out of anything they can find including your precious 18th century antique spittoon. For example, my daughters have discovered the joy of turning those massive bags of single socks that linger in the laundry room into puppets which they use to give voice to their thoughts and fears so they can feel better about themselves without "borrowing" each other's stuff.

So, in a world where violence, war, and destruction are so common, we'd need a diversionary tactic. Ideally, this would be the precise opposite of the action we are trying to prevent. Like the "hug your sister tactic," I'm thinking "International Hug Your Enemy Day" is not going to go over big, however. So I propose sock puppets.

On this day, people around the world should dig-out a mismatched hole-filled sock and spend the day decorating it. For those who would point out that many people in the world don't have socks let alone leftover socks I say: I can take apart my clothes dryer and find enough to fill-in the gap. Once, when we had to repair our dryer, we discovered not only a huge pile of socks but currency from three different countries!

It is paradoxical that we can aid in the pursuit of world peace and violence reduction through socks since one of each pair of socks is an emotionally unstable clone trying to "off" the other one to gain early retirement. Oh, you know it happens. Do you think we simply misplace one of each pair? Certainly not! If we repurpose these "socks of violence" we may just teach them tolerance and peace. They may learn to discover joy in warming the feet of mankind. They may simply give-up on violence against their brethren and work in harmony with their partners. In this way, they can act as models to the rest of the world, changing aggression to harmony, one pair of feet at a time.

In any case, if the people of the world, like my children, are engaged in alternative acceptable activities like making sock puppets they won't be able to put peanut butter on the dog.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The New Upsidedown School of Flight

Birthday 2: The Sequel

Yesterday was my daughter's birthday. In grand tradition, the celebration continues because my birthday is the day after hers. I'm used to sharing as my twin sister's birthday is, surprisingly, today as well. I put-off renewing my driver's license until the last minute. Last week I was busy birthday shopping and on Saturday I was too gung-ho to blast ahead with painting the kitchen because I knew I couldn't get it done on Sid's birthday. So I figured I'd dash my kids off to school and then go into the city to get that officious errand done. This meant that I could also effectively avoid really getting anything else done the whole of Monday morning and early afternoon.

"Besides," my darling husband said on Saturday, "you are still legal to drive until your birthday. Just do it then." He had looked-up the office hours online so I figured I'd trust him.

It was a good plan, it was a solid plan, it was a poorly thought-out plan. The renewal office is closed on Mondays. Jason will have to take me tomorrow, as I will then be "illegal" to drive. I'll be a renegade. When we're pulled up to a light and there are other drivers waiting their turn I can get their attention, point to my license, mouth "expired" and laugh manically. Sure, I won't actually drive -- that would be wrong, but I could pretend to drive.

If he were more insidious, I would suspect this suggestion to renew my license when I clearly could not as my husband's attempt to make myself dependent on him. If only! Drive the kids to lessons? Sorry, no license. Run to the store for bread and milk? Sorry, no license. It's almost tempting to give it a few days before I do it.

Happily, everyone insisted that I open my birthday haul in the morning. They seem to think I might be too bored today if I didn't have new "toys." As the paper flew, I knew that I had guessed rightly -- nearly everything was entertainment related. It was also pirate themed! I got a couple of packs of the Pirates card game. It's full of little ships you can assemble and battle.

I also got Sid Meier's Pirates! game for the PC. Lolly and I played the video game version at a store last week while Jason and Sid waited to order her new glasses. We were pathetic. At one point we couldn't even effectively shoot each other with our cannons and so each ran into the coast repeatedly, sinking our ships. Hopefully we'll get better now that we've got it for the computer.

Also included among the gifts were a couple of Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West) books, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: A Novel and Mirror Mirror. His books are twists on classic tales done from the perspective of the villan.

Jason also got me a digital voice recorder to take down notes that usually come to me at the least opportune times. The only problem with it is that I have to learn to listen to myself talk. Unlike Sid who never reads her instructions and prefers the troubleshooting-only approach to learning to use an item, I read my instructions. The MP3 player that we got Sid for her birthday yesterday was giving her trouble with various tracks. However, that may be the fault of the player and not the user. When I was reading about the various players online, I discovered that none of them worked perfectly but all had various degrees of annoyances. We selected one that had the features we wanted and seemed to have less of the problematic comments under costumer reviews at various websites.

My pirate-themed birthday is a perfect compliment to the up and coming international holiday Talk Like A Pirate Day, which is September 19th. Jason is quite good pirate-speak. I'm rather crummy. We have also read about the pirate-themed parody religion, Pastafarianism, which was founded as a response to the Kansas board of education's quest to make intelligent design a part of the curriculum. The theory surrounds the existence of the omnipotent Flying Spaghetti Monster According to Pastafarian theory, global warming is, in fact, a function of the number of pirates in the world. Therefore, FSM theory involves the propagation of the pirate population. Seems perfectly valid to me. There are graphs and everything!

Time to get some work done. In keeping with my diversionary lifestyle, I think I'll put in the director's commentary to Pirates of the Caribbean for background noise. The commentaries are my favorite parts of most movies and listening to them as I work or do chores is a common tactic for me.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Today my oldest daughter, "Sid," turned 14. It was surprisingly painless. People continue to remind my husband and I that she'll be able to drive in 2 years, that she'll be going to college in 4 years, that she is legal to drink in 7 years, etc.. These comments seem intended to get us to wince in pain at the thought of our "baby" doing all of these very independent things. I'm reminded of an episode of Star Trek. The geek in me must make these connections...

I remember a Next Generation episode during which the first officer is visited by his father. In it Deanna, the counselor, points out that humans (Terrans, not humanoid species in general) are unique in that parents often regard their offspring as children (and thusly inept) even after they reach adulthood. Once again, Star Trek has nailed it. Maybe we'll evolve by the 24th century.

I try not to act as though I consider my kids inept. I prefer to let them succeed or fail on their own because I know those are the lessons that stick. My husband is in agreement with me that our kids should be expected to handle their own lives. However, I'm still training him to let the kids just do some things themselves. Intervening mode seems more natural for him though. I'm hoping to get him reprogrammed before the kids are in grad school.

Kids seem to catch-on to so many things faster than we do. It may be revenge visited upon us by our ancestors but it's almost a fact that kids assimilate social and technological changes faster than their parents. I like to think of it as a sign that our kids are emerging into the larger world. And it' not just the cheeky know-it-all stuff. How many 8 year-olds have to show their parents how to use their computers? They also bandy about phrases like "social adjustment" and "inappropriate role-model." Questions about how stuff works? Want your VCR programmed, the process of countertransference explained? Just ask a kid. If they could afford VW Beetles and drive they could have their own businesses consulting on these concepts, like Geek Squad but more widely applicable.

I can handle my kids growing up but my husband will never grow-up and leave home for the wide world.

Today was very low key, but that's what Sid wanted. We gave her her gifts, dropped her and a friend off to the movies, and had pizza and pie. We also sang the world's hardest to sing song, "Happy Birthday." Sid sat there waiting to blow out the candles listening to us butchering the classic. However, we suddenly found ourselves being conducted by an errant car alarm. Strangely, it started at the beginning of the song and ended similarly on-time. The connection-maker in me is trying to see this as a "sign" of something but can't figure out what that something may be. She had trouble blowing out the candles through her laughter.

I remember her birthday four years ago. On that day my clock radio, which was most unusually set to a radio alarm (my connection-maker went wild on that day,) failed to wake me up. Instead of waking to beeps, the sounds of the announcers describing events as they unfolded invaded the dream I was having at the time. When I finally woke up I had the sensation that I had just dreamed about Die Hard or some other action movie. I soon discovered that the dream was real, the events occurring on the other side of the country.

We didn't really know what to do or think. Our daughter was turning 10 and the world was turning their heads to the tragedy in New York. It seemed like we shouldn't be allowed to celebrate. However, I was determined to let my daughter have her birthday. We could discuss the tragedy later when we knew more. I tried not to waver in my determination as I was given dirty looks for carrying birthday cupcakes into her school.

We ended up taking her out to dinner to a fun family restaurant. I don't think there was a single table of people that wasn't celebrating a birthday. It was as if we had entered an insulated world in which the birthdays of children were all that mattered. Every adult in that restaurant had been faced with the same paradoxical day. It was probably the first and last time I felt perfectly in sync with so many other people. We poised ourselves to only see the celebrations that we were determined to carry out. We feared that, if we looked beyond that, we would falter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

And Justice for All, At Least Until Bedtime

There is yet another opening on the supreme court. According to the story I read on the web, the position is "wide open." That's terrific. I'd like to submit myself as a qualified individual able and ready to serve my country in comfy, loose-fitting black robes. I don't have a law degree but that's something I can pick-up eventually. However, I do have years of litigation and judicial experience.

I have two daughters, 9 and 13. I've seen my share of bloody fights, claims of constitutional-level injustice, and I have had to balance my children's wants with their best interests. In short, I have experience using a combination of common sense, my wits, and a bit of nearly psychic intuition to make various assorted decisions. I have also worked on interpreting the law of my household based on documents which set forth the principles on which my family is based.

Submitted for your approval, the working copy of one section of our family constitution:

Family Constitution
Articles of Childhood Behavior

1. No teasing.

2. I said NO teasing.

3. No whining. If you whine at a parent, don't be surprised if your parent whines back but harder and longer to show you how annoying it is.

4. The golden rule applies and will be enforced with logical consequences.

5. Yes, writing lines is logical.

6. Yes, even push-ups.

7. When parents aren’t around and children are asked to look after one another, the oldest will remember that peace is the priority and parents will sort out the rest when they get home.

8. Never ask one parent a question and go to the other with the same question, hoping for a better answer. The parents in this family communicate with each other and when they find out, you will not only NOT get the aspired-for privilege but you will lose all others until you forgot what it was you wanted in the first place.

9. No, I can't lock your sister in the basement to live out her childhood or until you are grown-up whichever comes first/last.

10. Watch each other's backs because this is your FAMILY and you're stuck with us as much as we're stuck with you.

11. Parents may respond to logically-posed queries concerning the veracity of our statements/punishments. Refrain from statements of infinite permanence or using blanket statements such as "she always..." or "she never...." These serve no purpose except to prove that you aren't responding logically.
For example: You are grounded until forever because you always tell us that we're unfair and you never use a logical argument to make a point about how unfair we are.

12. We know you're not a Vulcan (see the Articles of Basic Family Knowledge, sub-section: We Are Geeks, Live With It, sub-sub-section: Star Trek) so you are entitled to emotional outbursts but please remember that we're likely to point out the logical fallacies of your statements in the end (see the Articles of Basic Family Knowledge, sub-section: We Are Geeks, Live With It, All.)

13. Be nice.

14. Brush your teeth.

15. Clean that sticky stuff off your bedroom floor.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

And So It Begins...

My kids started school again this morning for the first time in roughly 88.5 days. There were worries about who the teachers would be, where the classes would be located, and what was being served for lunch. Did they have the "right" school supplies or did the "small bottle of glue" on the supply list mean the elusive 4 ounce bottle found behind the pencil lead and the hole-punch in the regular office supply aisle or the 8 ounce bottle that would never fit in a school box but was located with the rest of the palettes of school supplies in the revolving holiday section of the store? But the kids didn't seem bothered at all.

My darling daughters for whom dressing-up means jeans without holes in the knees were also irked because I insisted they wear new, clean clothes for the first day.

"But this is my favorite shirt."

"But you wore that on the first day last year."

"I don't care."

"Do you want your teachers to see that shirt and think we're delinquent parents who don't take care of you and think that education is just an annoyance we put-up-with because it happens to be the law so they don't really need to put in the effort teaching you because they are afraid that you, like your careless, lazy parents, are obviously apathetic, stupid, and a natural troublemaker?"


"Change now or I'll just keep talking."

Really, the first day is about the parents, not the kids. The minute we walk out the door, the teachers let the kids run riot all over the place while they sneak off to the teacher's lounge and share the worst stories of clingy parents who tried to sit in the back row pretending to be a very large fourth-grader.

I remember first days of school when I was a kid. The thing that weighed heavily on my mind for the entire summer was always the question of which teacher I would be assigned. The school I attended had just two teachers per grade. The rumors about upcoming teachers may have varied in details but the essentials were always the same. One of these teachers was perky, engaging, and just so darn excited about her job. The other teacher was just placed on parole from the local prison where she participated in activities meant to hone her well-practiced skills of torturing children under the pretense of educating them.

Of course, I wanted the fun teacher. I could picture myself in her class doing art projects, never being assigned homework, and happily chattering with my friends during long stretches of social time. More than that though was that I wanted my twin sister, who was never placed in my class, to have the teacher harvested from the bad seed. It was the perfect revenge for everything she had ever done to me.

Each year when we arrived at school, we both headed straight for the list next to the door of the "good teacher" for our grade. This class was always easy to spot because of the large cluster of happy students leaping around for joy, chanting, and giving high fives to one another. The formation dancing was a bit much but once we battled our way through it to read the list we could either rejoice as though a conquering hero or otherwise be battle scarred enough to feel perfectly justified in solemnly walking to the door of the other teacher. This door was equally recognizable by the gathering of dejected, somber souls who kept double and triple checking the list hoping that there was some mistake and that their name was not actually there.

Every year it was the same routine. We approached the school, we read the list, and I walked sadly away. Despite it all, I usually discovered by the end of the first day that this teacher's reputation was slightly exaggerated. I would wonder if this was just me being hopeful but in the next week or two I found that some kind of embellishment had taken place. Sure, the teacher was tough. That was a little annoying when you didn't want to practice your times tables. However, when little Jimmy Kopeky kept pulling your hair each time the teacher's back was turned, causing you to react just as she turned around to face the class where Jimmy had switched gears to appear dutifully copying the writing from the board, she somehow knew to keep Jimmy in at recess.

Eventually, I found myself feeling loyalty toward these teachers. I would, instead of feeling dejected by my placement, know that nothing could escape my teacher's notice. Sure that meant that I would have to be well-behaved but it also meant that I would learn a lot and could never be picked on while in class. This did not mean I would willingly share the details of my discovery. The kids in the other class, my sister included, always maintained their insistence that theirs was a wonderful, easygoing teacher. The only kids who hated my teacher were the ones that bullied other kids. Nobody ever admitted to this though. Instead, we stuck to the story and got a little more sympathy from other kids and our parents. This meant that we had to pass along the story of our temperamental, maniacal teacher to the lower grades. They'd find out the truth the way we did. Meanwhile, we got to spend the whole summer terrorizing the siblings of our friends with horror stories about our teacher. We considered this both our right and duty.

Sunday, September 4, 2005


This article was published by National Geographic in Oct. 2004 and describes the likely event of a levee break in New Orleans. I'm not sure if the article was more frightening then or now.

Friday, September 2, 2005


Donate to reputable charities that can help people put their fragmented lives together. The best charity for individual monetary contributions is the Red Cross.


I'm one of those people who thinks sleep, though a lovely state, is 1) kind of creepy and 2) a waste of my time. We prepare ourselves for unconsciousness and then we spend roughly 1/3 of our time in this state, laying there, strangely vulnerable (and if you've ever been to a slumber party, you know what I mean). It just seems kind of odd, when I think about it. I love to stay busy and sometimes I feel resentful of the time I spend unconscious. Imagine everything I could get done during that time! Yes, I enjoy sleep -- I am not depraved. But as a person who has more ideas than time, I have to admit that the only time I truly have free is that which I waste during sleep.

Tonight I'm oddly awake. It may be the residual effect of this cold I seem to have. Every now and again I (luckily) succumb to the lure of insomnia. My husband is the same way. I don't think I would enjoy insomnia permanently, however. The night can seem lonely and not simply because everyone else is asleep. I don't like the feeling of the darkness pressing in on me. I'd prefer the feeling of the open, sunlit sky stretching on for ages. It's odd, isn't it? I like the day because the world seems boundless but I dislike the night because it makes me feel closed-in, despite the fact that it mirrors the darkness found in the most expansive concept conceivable by our little human brains -- the universe itself.

My dog is the polar opposite of me in regards to how she spends her time. I look at her laying around half snoozing in the middle of the day and think "she needs to get a hobby." I just can't imagine being a dog, spending my time waiting for people to play with me or for the sound of the can of food being popped open. It seems so....dependant. She is rarely too busy to lay down for a nap. If I tried that, I'd literally be in for a rude awakening.

When I was in college, I knew a woman who was an insomniac and had been so for as long as she could remember. She got by on just a couple of hours of sleep a night. It sounded intriguing to me when she talked about it but there was a slight problem. She actually slept far less than her parents from the time she was a toddler. Her earliest memories were of playing in her room in the darkness of the middle of the night while everyone else slept. I can't imagine all of the trouble a kid could get into with that kind of sleep schedule!

I remembered this when my kids were small and began skipping their second nap at around 6 months and abandoning naps altogether before the age of two. When my husband was a kid he wasn't much of a napper either. Some well-meaning grandmother types commented that my kids must be somehow sleep deprived or that I was keeping them up despite their need for sleep. Sure, any mother wanting a moment's peace is going to purposely keep her kids awake to do what...torture herself?

I might as well head for bed. I'm finally tired.