Friday, August 26, 2011

Dirty Tricks My Teacher Played

I must once again apologize for the lack of substantial updates. Two long-term projects have been occupying my time over the last month or so. One is a short story I began writing on a whim. (Do not presume putting together a good short story is easy because it doesn't have to be as long as a novel. I've never really tried writing them because they're unbelievably difficult.) The other is going to be a new site with a new weekly webcomic. That's not gonna go up until I have at least two months of comics locked and loaded, but it is on its way.

In the meantime, I have a story and a fun activity for you.

I've taken a break from pushing forward in my astronomical studies (not that this has prevented me from going out to look for Messier objects or gawk at Jupiter's moons* whenever the sky is clear) to take a few steps back and embark upon a tangential detour.

I have had only one recurring nightmare over the last few years. I am back at my high school building and I have to get to math class. I'm unaware of the subject -- calculus? trigonometry? statistics? -- but it is definitely a full-on math class. Unless I pass this class, I have to say in high school. I am twenty-seven years old, bigger than all the other kids, have no idea what a cosine is, and can only stammer when my employer calls to ask why I haven't come to work in four days.

Fuck this dream. I am going back to face my demons and master all the material that destroyed my grade point average from grades eight through twelve. To this end, I've purchased SAT and GRE prep books, am working my way up from functions, and finding that solving equations can actually be a lot of fun when all the pressure is off. (It tickles the brain the same way a crossword puzzle does.)

While working on a few last evening, I was struck by a recollection of an incident in one of my high school math classes. I guess it must have been first-year algebra** -- I remember the teacher, but I can't say the same for his name. He had a goatish look about him and, if I remember correctly, moonlighted as a Lutheran priest. One afternoon he must have gotten fed up with a student, and chastised the entire class for our inattentiveness. We daydreamed in class too often, made too many careless mistakes in our computations, allowing the five-minute bell to distract us from learning the methods for solving the most difficult problems of a given section, and so on. Honestly, I don't recall most of what he said. I wasn't really paying attention.

And so he warned us of a "surprise" quiz coming up in the next week. Unless each of us got his act together and paid close attention to the material, we would fail for certain.

Naturally, I spent the week drawing pictures in class and playing video games at home.

The quiz consisted of three questions. I got a zero.

Being an obsessive-compulsive packrat, I've held on to pretty much every notebook I used for anything since 1998, and actually dug up the portfolio I carried around for this class. I've reproduced the problems on the quiz I bombed and am reproducing them here. It's only algebra I, so this shouldn't be much of a challenge. Please, take a stab at it!

It's basic stuff, but you can see how well it's built to screw someone with my shoddy study habits.

* When Jupiter began appearing in the night sky again, I discovered my fancy binoculars could resolve the Galilean satellites. I wish I could articulate how fucking cool I think this is.

** Fun fact: the English term "algebra" comes from the medieval Arabic al-jabr, which means something like "reunification." The Persian mathematician Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi uses the term in his treatise Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala ("Rules of Reintegration and Reduction"), which details methods of solving equations with unknown quantities. This is only one lexical legacy of the golden age of Arabic/Persian science -- familiar astronomical names and terms such as "zenith," "nadir," "Vega," "Rigel," "Fomalhaut," etc., are others.


  1. Well that's kind of irritating. Maybe my algebra is rusty, but it looks like two have no solution, and the other is true for all but X=1.

  2. My algebra is very rusty too, but I think the "dirty trick" is that the right part of the equations is simply the solution to the left part of the equation. I.e. To find X you only need to work with any one half of any given equation. Inattentive students would just start swapping Xs and numbers back and forth between the halves of the equation, likely ending with such a confusing mass of operations that the end answer would be wrong.

  3. While they do work out to similar forms, only B winds up actually being identical on both sides (and still has the division gotcha).

  4. Oh, just wanted to note that al-Khwarizmi's name itself became "algorithm".

  5. Math's not my thing.

    How is the novel coming anyway? Also, whats it about? Also, what are you going to do with the short-story?

  6. Adam's got it right. They're all borked. The solution to "A" ends up making you divide by zero, which is verboten. "B" breaks down to x^2 - 2 = x^2 - 2 and is, again, satisfied by all values of x except for 1. And "C" breaks down to 2x - 4 = 2x - 5, which means no solution.

    I had no idea that "al-Khwarizmi" became the English "algorithm." That's so cool.

    Zade: Which novel? The first one is waiting to be converted into an e-book (or for go with some pay-per-print service), but neither can happen until(1) I have a platform from which I can promote it (2) I am absolutely, 100% certain every typo has been eliminated.

    The second novel is on hold until the first one is out of my fucking hands.

    The short story? Well, I plan to finish it, for one thing. After that I'll probably start throwing it at magazines.

  7. Do you think you could post a blog elaborating on the point you made about short stories being really hard to write?

  8. There's an idea. I'll get on that.

  9. I hear ya. Short stories are hard work. All that economy can makes me nuts because there's only so much space to show something and if it's not obvious, people'll miss it so it feels like I should harp on it a bit more but I don't want to shout PAY ATTENTION TO THIS DETAIL.

    I've actually chopped up my stories into paragraphs and then made notes about each in the margins. What does this say? Is this necessary? Why? Will people understand that? Is it vivid? Is it humorous? Is it fresh? I get through about an hour of work then take a break and realize I've only done six paragraphs or two pages and yet have hardly made any changes.

    And it's hard to "forget" the story because it is short. If I want to look at it with fresh eyes and be objective, sometimes I have to let it sit for a week or a month and in the mean time I'm obsessing about it.

    I hear ya.