Saturday, 31 August 2013

MIX: Writers Make Good Teachers

A mixed post: Writing and Teaching
This post has been percolating since February 2013 (the end of Semester 1), back when I wrote Writers Make Poor Teachers. As I said then, I don't mean writers teaching about how to write. I mean writers in the profession as a teacher. Now, it's time to look at the flip side - it can't be all bad.

First, a recap: My main lament in the BAD post referred to the marking (aka grading) aspect. Writers need to pay attention to detail. They also need to justify why certain events occur, to avoid ending up with a character at the mercy of the plot, or a "deus ex machina" ending. And this kind of careful consideration is GREAT... if you're a tutor.

If you have 30 tests to slam through, at four pages each, spending a mere 5 minutes per page means (30x4x5) 600 minutes, or 10 HOURS. Picture getting home from work and then spending 2 hours a night, every night, for the week. Oh right, that's just one class of three! NOT SUSTAINABLE.

Except that's what I do. Because I feel the need to justify the reasoning of the student, before assigning the 72% versus 75%. It's torture, but trying to turn off that aspect of myself is SO HARD. Perhaps I'm getting better at it though.


Sonal Champsee commented on that previous post, talking about trusting your instincts. That, I think, is what it comes down to, and Scott Delahunt's thought on the same post offered a way of building up that self trust. There are (naturally) two immediate problems with the whole idea.

1) It requires time. Teachers new to the profession, and for that matter older teachers new to this style of marking, need time to build up their experience, in order to gain confidence. NOT Professional Development, which saps time while providing little experience. I find it ironic that teachers are told "Diversity is Important! All People Learn Differently!" ... "Here's an Hour Lecture on how ALL OF YOU can implement diversity." (It's okay, if you don't understand the lecture, they'll repeat it ad nauseum...)

2) It requires feedback. I'm fortunate enough to work with colleagues who provide it - because on the student side, you'll tend to hear nothing (so I guess I'm doing it right?), or something negative ("why did I lose 5% here?!"). Notice this is EXACTLY like writing: You post up a piece of fiction and get no comments, or someone saying you made some spelling errors. Thanks, uh, so what about the characterization...??

The upshot then (in theory) is that the grading problem can be solved by doing a lot of it, and assuming that you're doing it right unless you're told otherwise. Except there isn't time for the former, and the latter can be hard for me personally to accept. It might be because I'm effectively my own editor for my writing, so I KNOW there are times I don't get it quite right. It might be a general lack of confidence in myself, on account of my habit of making unfair comparisons to others. It might be something else entirely.

Still, that is only one aspect of the job. I didn't include delivery of curriculum in the prior post for a reason.


As a teacher, every day you're writing, then delivering another short story. (More than one story in a day, in fact.) There are actually tons of posts out there comparing teaching to storytelling. The "Three Act" lesson model (Entry, Analysis, Answer/Sequel) is also a form of this, arcing over multiple days - though in a sense, the tale ALWAYS arcs. All the lessons (chapters) need to tie into the unit (book) to make a course (series) making for a complete volume of work. Which then invites fanfiction, maybe.

The beauty of it is that different teachers will have different styles of presenting, and different students will pick up on different aspects of the plot. So one story can end up being seen in multiple ways. Notice that, just because you might know the conclusion in advance, doesn't mean that the path to get to it is as clear. (Think "Columbo".) There's an element of choose your own adventure within every single math problem, as well as over an entire course. Certain people will also prefer different story genres, and as the teacher you have to try to appeal to all of them at once.

If that sounds hard, it is, but those two problems from above? Not problems here. You're in the class every day, and usually the feedback is both clear and immediate. In fact, depending on the audience (class), the narrative can even be adjusted as you go, to follow one group of characters (functions?) over another. Little edits and rewrites as you go can make the story better.

Consider also, as a writer, there are times when a character will do or say something unexpected. Perhaps it even changes the climax of your story on you. What to do? Well, you run with it, you adapt, the same way a student question can completely change the landscape of your lesson plan. To do otherwise would be to deny the character their autonomy. Again, it doesn't mean you can't reach the same conclusion in the end - you're a writer, you'll figure it out.


Observation. As a writer, you need to see what's going on in the world, to get ideas for your writing. Could be for characters, for plot, what have you. As a teacher, you need to see what's going on in the classroom, to know what students are understanding, what students are not understanding, and what students are using their cell phones.

Communication. As a writer, you need to clearly express what you mean in your writing, so that readers can follow it. You also need to know when to repeat things that might have been forgotten, and when to assume the reader knows what's going on. Finally, you also need to be able to express your intentions to editors. For teacher, replace "writing" with "teaching", "readers" with "students", and "editors" with "parents".

Researching. As a writer, you need to make sure you know what you're talking about, in terms of geography, professions, races... even in fiction, which vampire traits will you use, which will you ignore, and why? As a teacher, same thing, you need to understand the material - and even if it's an extension beyond your expertise, hopefully you can offer up a website to those students who do want more information.

Perseverance. As a writer, you need to keep at it, even if you're only writing for yourself. As a teacher, you need to keep at it, even if some days you're not sure if you're getting through. There's also the fact that it's so much extra work if you're sick one day.

Finally, creativity. Creating resources from nothing, and making it all interesting and engaging. All of these have connections to the teaching profession, regardless of subject.

So yes - writers make good teachers. Of course, a lot of those skills can be applied to other professions too! But I'll argue that very few of them (outside of the entertainment industry) involve playing to the same audience, day after day, trying to keep your story interesting. Claim: Your writing abilities will help with that. Which may relate to why a lot of teachers keep blogs... heck, it can work the other way too. I wonder how many teachers have published books.

Did I miss an obvious skill, or make a mistake in my analysis? Then let me know below!

Monday, 26 August 2013

ETC: How to Cope

Closing off my three part discussion today. Post 1, "We Fear Fame" looked at why it's bad to stand out, leading to a society accepting Status Quo. Post 2, "Cliques are Inevitable" looked at how finite resources and the ingroup bias pushes groups into becoming cliques, or at least to the groups being perceived as such from the outside.

Cats:  They may not be helpful here.

So if being an individual invites undue criticism, and joining a group is a problem, what's the third option? Honestly, I'm not sure. The topic for Post 3 is "How To Cope", if we assume reality and society is as defined in those prior posts. Which might just as well be called "How I Cope", though I have a few thoughts below which I don't personally put into practice.


In part 2 I made the claim that "Now that we know, awareness will help, right?" The implication was no. The truth is a bit more grey. While I don't think awareness of the problems gets you that far, again, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT goes further. It's the difference between knowing you're not going to vote, and debating whether that decision is in your best interests. Or between knowing that someone is in the room with you, and actually going to them and saying, "Thanks for coming out!".

Preach what you practice
Awareness is passive. Acknowledgement is active. It also runs both ways, in that when there's an opening on your end, you need to engage. Don't wait for "the right moment" or "until I have more time", because we all know those events are never going to occur. Send that email to your MP, comment on that blog post, whatever. Incidentally, I am terrible at doing this, which is why I think I'm much better as an impartial observer.

A group collective may also need to acknowledge the "clique" problem as a whole. Perhaps deliberately shuffle people back and forth among regional groups that have been together for a while. Yes, it can break synergy, so take care, but there are times when we might welcome a change of pace, or need to be shaken out of our complacency. (Teachers who use groups, think about it.) Perhaps there's also some need for a gatekeeper. It doesn't need to be a person, and it's not because there's any sort of test, but if something exists to give the feeling of "belonging", it helps. Even convention badges can act as this form of acknowledgement, when at an event.

Finally, if you DO get acknowledged by one or two people... don't simply brush it off as being "ONLY one or two people". Look at it this way, if one or two people were mean to us, that would have a negative effect, so why can't we let the reverse be true?


Writing Tip: Secondary characters
may believe they are the stars.
You should also bear in mind that things aren't actually as bad as I've made them out to be. It takes a lot to stand out enough to get a spotlight on you, and maintaining contact with a small circle of friends is actually more important than shouting in a full room. Large groups and cliques be damned. We're all the stars of our own story. Besides, clique circles overlap, and people can and do belong to a bunch of different "clubs" at once.

Another thing, it's easy to see negatives if you're looking for them. That thing you oppose, be it the guy who was promoted ahead of you, or that group of teachers constantly putting down what you think are great ideas - is there really nothing worthwhile going on there? No merit to their argument? We can easily become victims to Confirmation Bias, where we only see things that support our current beliefs. I like the concluding bit from that link: "In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well." Google certainly doesn't help, often "suggesting" more things within our existing reality, instead of pushing on those boundaries.

Related to that, we need to consider the other side, WHO that person really is, and how WE appear to others. This is even more important if we're only talking about the internet, because many of the social cues we need are now missing. It's not just about empathy either, I think there's a connection to this recent article on "Bad driving", which includes such remarks as 'We believe we can see everything happening around us, yet we also think other drivers can't see us'. Yeah! I see everything you're posting up, stop ignoring my blog! Wait, really? You're sure you can see everything? Exactly why are you sure they can see you?


That's my final tip. In a world where everyone is doing X, because that's the norm, don't do X. Maybe even do Y. For instance, I don't use a Reader. Not part of that "clique", if you will. (Follow me, I'll follow you back! Sigh.) At first it was because I didn't know any better, now it's more of a conscious decision. This means I wasn't troubled when Google shut down their reader some months back. I'm also not having to frantically keep up with a select group of posts. There ARE about a dozen blogs I track through Blogger, and beyond that I click on whatever link looks interesting in my Twitter feed that day.

Am I missing out by doing this? Probably. Is it really that important to my everyday life? Doubtful. It also gives me something to blog about, something different, which may be interesting to others.

It's not like a major change is needed to be unconventional either. Shake up your routine one morning every month. (A different morning, otherwise it becomes routine!) Does the very thought of that make you uncomfortable? Good, it's supposed to. The problem with status quo is that we're not going to be faced with challenges. We're not going to make enough mistakes.

What, me Worry?

Oh, right, you will probably screw up. Did I forget to mention that? Heck, maybe I've screwed up a few times in the process of writing these posts. I'm sure I have in terms of my failed promotion abilities. But since I'm not popular enough (yet?) to have any sort of spotlight on me, I'm just going to keep on posting. Keep on living my life. Keep on noticing, and keep on wondering.

Oh yes, and then articulating, inviting you to do the same.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

ETC: Cliques Are Inevitable

Even though I'm going for another three parter here as summer winds down, you don't need to have read the first part, "We Fear Fame", in order to follow along. It's only referenced in passing.

Here's my second point: Cliques are Inevitable.

Note that by cliques, I'm referring to groups of like-minded people... except I chose the term "clique" deliberately, because such groups are not necessarily a good thing. Because I'm talking about groups with an agenda, or ones that appear closed to outside opinions. APPEAR. It might be deliberate, or it might be a necessity due to sheer size, or other related concerns. (Looking a bit at you there, MTBoS.)

If you can immediately identify this episode, you win.

I'll first explain why the groups are inevitable, then delve into why I'm calling them cliques.


Groups exist because as individuals, it's dangerous to stick your neck out. If you don't buy that, here's where I'll tag you at my We Fear Fame post from the other day. Again, I'm not saying we don't WANT to be noticed and appreciated (we do!), I'm saying it invites public criticism and other responsibilities when we do it all on our own.

Groups provide the necessary buffer. *I* didn't mess up, we ALL did. Alternatively, if I *did* mess up, the group can reassure me and help me to restore my confidence, so that we can all move forwards. (Assuming I haven't been a total jerk to them, at any rate.) Similarly, if the group succeeds, we all get to benefit from it, and the media can't turn that dreaded spotlight on only me. Heck, there may not even be a group spokesperson to single out.

"They can't ignore ALL of us... can they?"
Groups provide more than just a buffer or a sanity check though. I'll claim they're more likely to shake up the status quo in the first place. That one guy shouting on the steps of city hall, he looks a bit like a lunatic. That group of people, that's a media story. You write a letter of complaint to a company, or to the government, and they don't care. You post it to a message board with a decent following, and now they'll pay attention. Even superhero movies seem to be going for the "team up" angle of late.

One more benefit is that, unless there's a spokesperson, the outside negativity doesn't have a target any more. Politics in particular has become all about striking down the leader... at which point someone new gets appointed, and there's a new target, repeat ad nauseam. But if this is a fairly homogenous group, who can the opposition aim for? They'll HAVE to attack what the group STANDS for, and THAT'S a lot more difficult. Unless the group can be ignored (tricky), or - and here's what I think is becoming the norm - you are able to create your own group of like minded people to oppose them.

And now we're starting to run into problems.


I cry "clique!" because the group, after it's formed, will start to close itself off. In some cases, it's paranoid suspicion. Is this new guy someone from THAT OTHER GROUP trying to infiltrate? (Quick, take out a patent!) But really, it's more than that. It's an insidious effect called the "Ingroup bias". This results because oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, simultaneously helps us to forge tighter bonds with those we know, while making us fearful of those we do not yet know. Put another way "people tend to be more helpful to members of their own group, rather than to those of other groups".

That's a direct quote from this site: "Evolution of in-group favoritism", which has a lot of analysis that I admit I haven't fully read. I first came across the phenomenon in this io9 article listing reasons why humans fail to be rational. At the least, I'm thinking teachers might want to be aware of this phenomenon, if they're the type to use the same groups all semester long.

Printed in DC Comics. For the
hundredth time, what the hell, DC?!
I feel bad just having it here!
Now, I'm not saying new members CAN'T join the group. I'm saying it's almost like they have to PROVE themselves first, even though the group itself has no hierarchy. Oh, hello "geek girl phenomenon", this is partly why you exist! Because some short sighted individuals decided to actually illustrate the ingroup bias, after which their "Yeah, girls can't be geeks" implication was taken up by idiots. (Yes, I know the issue is bigger than one event. But seriously, how can people - male or female - still be arguing whether it's even a problem? It's a problem.)

Intermission. Go watch the Doubleclicks video "Nothing to Prove", and resolve to be more inclusive. Pretend for a moment like it's just that easy.

Okay, back to reality, where regrettably, there's other forces at work as well. Groups are empowering, and when people feel powerful, they ignore new opinions. Or perhaps worse, the individuals may NOT ignore the new ideas, merely undervalue the supposed outsiders to the extent of making microaggressions ('You don't look like a...'). Which, to be clear, is NOT an attack. Coming out of the "Fake Geek Girl" phenomenon again, "The person delivering [the remark] may be well-intentioned and non-threatening in nature, maybe not even aware of their own biases."

I dare say the problem is our own brains trying to sabotage us, to force us back into tribes. But hey, now that we know, awareness will help, right? We can eventually correct the problem and be less exclusive? Well, as The Doctor might say... "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."


"Hey internet! Stop talking all at once!"
How many people can you cram into a room before it becomes unwieldily? How long before "too many cooks spoil the broth"? 10? 20? 100? At what point does a peaceful demonstration get hijacked, becoming a mob? At what point does the outsider CALL it that, regardless of internal appearances?

I'm going to use Twitter as a concrete example here. What do you think is your max-out point, in terms of the number of people you would be able to follow? I've heard prior rumblings within the "Math Twitter Blog O' Sphere" (MTBoS) that it's 100. For me, it turned out to be 280. It became harder and harder for me to justify adding a new person, given I had gone from reading every tweet to scanning every tweet to scanning every tweet that stayed in my buffer. Is it really beneficial to add one more voice, no matter how brilliant, when it's just making the others that much harder to see?

Once I hit 280, for every person I added, I began to remove someone else. The first few choices were easy. It's getting harder. It doesn't help that I don't only follow teachers, but also friends and writers. In fact, I fear the 280 itself is not sustainable once I go back to school. I'm reminded of Fawn Nguyen, who at "Twitter Math Camp" spoke about keeping her top 5 lesson ideas for a topic - and if something new and great comes in, it replaces an older one. Replaces. Still 5. Otherwise you go nuts. NOTE: If you're following over 300 people, I'd love to hear about your system in the comments!!

Twitter is additionally insidious in that, if you add a new person, you're not just adding their tweets. You're adding all the @ conversations your current followers have with them. Going beyond Twitter, I'll make a similar argument for joining a "Play by Email" (PBEM) roleplay group. You don't just get roleplay email. There's discussion about times people are away, character motivations, and other relevant "off topic" discussions.

I ask again: At what point do you have to cut yourself off just to stay sane? 100 people? 280? 500? 5,000? You can't include EVERYONE which means there ARE people you're excluding. The thing is, to those people, you now look like you're part of a clique. Someone in the "100 followers" group tweets, "Wow, so many posts in my reader! How am I going to catch up??"... and you feel a type of microinvalidation. Since if they're busy with all their internal reader posts, they're not going to have time to read what you just put up externally.

It's not about having to PROVE yourself. It never was ("Nothing To Prove")... it's about getting ACKNOWLEDGED. There's a huge chasm between acceptance, and actual acknowledgement. I wonder if minority groups know it all too well. The thing is, acknowledgement can't come from any one person, because it's a homogeneous group. So if it only comes from one or two people, is that enough?

Here's the kicker - the natural way for a group to include tons of additional people in their fandom/committee/community, without overwhelming the existing structure is (correct me if I'm wrong), to create offshoots/subcommittees/subcultures. But that means you have to acknowledge at least one of:
1) A hierarchy with some set of people at the top (granted the Head Geek may change over time) OR 
2) The fracturing of the initial set into equal subgroups. Creating cliques. Or at the very least, creating something that will be SEEN as cliques, whether that was the intent or not.

You can always shift into reverse.


Summing up! We don't want to be singled out, because notoriety is a problem. But we do want to be recognized. So in a world where STATUS QUO is God, we seek validation by becoming part of a group. However, groups that already exist are suspicious of us, or appear to be cliques. This means we either have to work at making inroads, or have to work at creating our own group (perhaps to fight against, or alongside, those cliques). Is there no other option?

There will be a third post. In the meantime, I invite your comments.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

ETC: We Fear Fame

Going for another three part post series as summer winds down. About, well, I'm not entirely sure. Things I've noticed about society, I guess.
Part 1: We Fear Fame
Part 2: Cliques are Inevitable
Part 3: How to Cope

Here's my point to start out: People fear fame. Or if we don't, perhaps we should.

Stop laughing at me!!!

It begins with an individual desire to not get noticed by society. Maybe it even starts in school, where if you stand out, something bad will happen. You'll get teased, or you'll have to live up to unreasonable peer expectations, or you'll end up receiving a lion's share of the work. Which could be athletic work just as much as academic.

Then again, you don't have to attend formal schooling to see the negative results of becoming famous. People will start to look for your flaws, in order to get a scoop, or so that they can believe themselves to be better than you. Corporations will try to take advantage of you for their own material gain, perhaps even outright stealing your ideas. All you do is blog? Spammers will see you as a tool they can exploit. In general, fame ensures that you won't be able to live quite the same way you're accustomed to any more.

The trouble is, we are in the digital age, where "everyone" is connected. But within that connectivity, the government is suspicious of terrorism, the corporate world is scared for their profit margins, and still more people merely want to find a scapegoat for their psychological problems. In short...


Back to the high school analogy. If you get a phone call home, it's usually bad news. I know as a teacher I wish I made more good news calls, but I'm usually too wiped out after the bad ones, not to mention doing the job itself. Plus I hate phones. I think part of the reason parents of "good" students come in on interview night is because that's the only time I manage to talk to them all semester.

But consider the workplace too. If you're singled out there, it's probably because something went wrong, either with you, or with someone else, which is now creating a lot of extra work for you. Why? Well, if things are going RIGHT, that's the way things are SUPPOSED to happen, so people don't check up on you then. What's to notice?

Troublingly, the attention we give to corporate workers is becoming akin to the attention we give to inanimate objects. You don't think about how you use the faucet in the kitchen either, until it stops working properly. (Mine's acting up.) One could apply the same reasoning to government too... as long as officials aren't hugely screwing up, we ignore them.

Personally, I think there's some backlash here from the past few decades of "everyone is a beautiful snowflake", and giving trophies to the losing teams. Since everyone is now "special", NO ONE is special. Unless there's some problem, in which case, what's WRONG with you, idiot?

That guy from "The Matrix" beat me up!

Well, okay, that's a bit unfair. Sometimes a person rises above. They're doing amazing things, and they're singled out for something good instead! Except that's just as bad, because...


Someone tosses out a remark on twitter, and with enough momentum, suddenly they (or worse, someone with a similar name!) are being told they'll get raped, or that they're a Nazi, or some other horrible overreaction. Even outside the digital world, when someone gets a promotion at work, there can be resentment, or they're told it wasn't for their skills, or they're now simply seen as someone to beat or take down.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...
Being that supposed "overachiever" means you're now in the spotlight. People are now waiting eagerly for your next great idea - or for you to screw up. This can be a source of additional stress, making it harder to continue on as you were before this momentary fame was thrust upon you. Then if (when?) you can't live up to such "larger than life" expectations, people wonder why you changed, what happened to your abilities, what went WRONG?

This is especially bad because, as humans, we'll remember negative events more easily than positive ones. So chances are we'll forget all that the good stuff that got you noticed, just the bad thing you did once all eyes were on you. Heck, we even do this TO OURSELVES. You have a really GREAT Monday to Thursday, but then Friday afternoon goes badly and BAM, the whole weekend is shot as you try to rebuild your self esteem.

I feel like mentioning Dalton McGuinty here. He did a bunch of good things for Ontario education, then decided one day to legislate teachers back to work before they were even in a legal strike position, using a "Putting Students First" Act. The hell? What went wrong there?

By the way, the "negative events" article I linked to above has another bombshell - we tend to see people who say negative things as being smarter than those who are positive. (Supposedly our primitive survival instincts rank bad things as being the items requiring more urgent attention.) Meaning, those people who are POUNDING on the guy who's stuck his neck out with a brilliant idea? They'll be seen by the majority as the more intelligent choice.

Still, you're resilient. You're forward thinking, you have a grasp of the big picture. You rise above the pressure, keep doing what you're doing, and follow up with other great ideas! That's STILL a problem, since...


Congratulations! You're famous. You've graduated from spotlight to lightning rod. Now half of everyone aware of you (in education, say) will be all "OMG Dan Meyer is totes my hero!!!oneonetwo" and the other half will be more "Dan Meyer is teh sux, I don't like his weird new maths!!factorial". (With apologies to Dan Meyer. Sal Khan could have been used as an example there instead.) This is more of a problem when actual media is involved, as they may want the lightning rod's opinion on every new thing, regardless of relevance, even as they comb through every bit of online history for that one time the public's new darling got drunk at a party.

It's a Thor thpot.
The famous person also been pigeonholed. People will expect more of the same - or better! Think movie stars getting roped into sequels. Or as implied above, even the public might expect their hero(ine) to be just as good at topics outside their field - even if there's no evidence to support that thoery. Consider JK Rowling made the conscious effort to separate herself from her own name, and that didn't work out as planned. Heck, I'll argue that if you really are worth your salt, fame itself probably wasn't your goal to begin with, so you won't be satisfied to keep doing the same thing over and over... but damn it, the public wants more Sherlock Holmes, so he's back from the dead.

Granted, sometimes the criticism of one single individual is justified. But not often. So would you agree that fame is not something we're seeking? Because here's where it gets worse. Our chosen alternative to fame ISN'T obscurity. No one really wants that either! We still have a psychological desire to be noticed, and to be recognized for the good things that we do. So what is the choice instead of fame?


Routine. Stay the course. Don't rock the boat. Only stick your neck out if you know it won't get cut off - and don't leave it out there too long, that's dangerous. Hey, times are tough, I need this job! I can't afford to screw up anything, and you'd better not screw up anything for me either!

Frankly, there's very little real leadership anymore. We aren't blazing new trails, we're maintaining the existing ones while getting people to jump on that bandwagon. Worse, to "lead" politically these days doesn't mean to come up with a visible plan, it means attack the OTHER side. And not their plan either, because as I said, no one plans, to attack their CANDIDATE. Convince the public you're less Meh than the alternative. And then stay the course - or at least appear to do so. We are stuck in a world of STATUS QUO, because the alternative, to stand out in this world of critics, is horrifying - whether what we stand for is good OR evil.

Way back in November 2012 I blogged about how Democracy is Broken, and I think this is at the heart of it. These days we're all "Oh, the government hasn't majorly screwed up lately? Whatever then, don't care." Meanwhile, the people who DO get in gain a sense of entitlement. They'll do whatever they like, and we must have been cool with that, because we picked them, right? I'm thinking a bit of the Canadian senate scandal, but I think it stretches beyond that. Beyond even government.

I suspect the next great things in the world are either going to come from someone who doesn't play by these rules... or they will come from a group collective. (Our corporate darlings!) Because notice how at the beginning I said that it was an individual desire, to effectively blend in with society.

It's a lot safer for a GROUP to gain fame and notoriety. There's strength in numbers, and the ability there to push forwards with new ideas... but there's also a danger. Which is the topic for my second post: Cliques are Inevitable.

Before we delve into that, any thoughts so far?

Saturday, 17 August 2013

MAT: Credit Beats Cash

Buying on credit is cheaper than using cash. At least in Canada, where we don't physically spend pennies any more - we round off to the nickel. Yet cents are still tracked on credit. In other words, if your total is $5.99, your credit total is the same, but with cash, you'll pay $6.00!
Of course, I'm assuming you're paying off your balance...

Conversely, if your total is $5.92, your credit total is the same, but with cash you'll pay only $5.90. The idea is that it balances out. You have to pay a bit more at .99, .98 but a bit less at .97, .96... so if it balances, why am I making the claim that credit is, in fact, cheaper?

Well, I could be wrong. But I think there's an argument to be made regarding pricing, and the number of items you typically buy.


First, let's face it, any individual item is going to end with a 9. There's been studies done on this... psychologically, people are more likely to buy something worth $19.99 than something worth $20. It "feels cheaper", or as noted in one of those articles, feels "less expensive" when compared to something worth $24.99. The exception to the 9s being anything you purchase by weight, which varies too much for me to want to consider.

This means that if you buy two items, the total will end in .-8, three will end in .-7, and so on. Before we cash out though, a brief word on taxes. I'm going to illustrate with 13%, which is the total rate in Ontario and some Atlantic provinces. (Whoa, looks like Alberta has no provincial tax? I thought that was only true in the far north! Only 5% Goods & Services Tax? Huh. Anyway.)

We're looking at (price)*1.13 = (new price). Going to make a quick chart here. The decimal termination pattern obviously repeats after $10, but if you look closely, you'll see the savings pattern actually repeats every $5.

Of course, that assumes you just ran in to buy one item. Let's adjust the chart slightly for the case where you buy two.

Same pattern - it's simply moved. Moreover, within the $5 repeat, your savings and your excesses do cancel out. In other words, if your two item total is $17.98 today, so you actually SAVE two cents, next time it could be $14.98, causing you to pay two cents MORE.

Thus, given the impossibility of knowing what it is you're actually buying, I'm going to assume that (on balance), the taxes themselves aren't going to be a major player from this point on. If you would like to make a case for why YOUR total is more likely to trend to $14.98, enjoy yourself. If you could like to make a case for why anyone's total in GENERAL is more likely to trend to $14.98, that might be interesting.

By the way, I also ran a check using the Alberta 1.05 tax system, aka GST. Taxes aren't a factor there either, but it's because the rounding doesn't change after taxes.


So at this point, we assume that your receipt ending in 0.99 is going to lose you money - on balance. Meanwhile, your receipt ending in 0.97 is going to save you money - on balance. We're also assuming that a total of 0.97 means you bought three items (aka the number of pennies to take you up to a dollar).

So, at what item amounts do you lose money?

You lose out if you buy 1, 2, 6, or 7 items. (And 11, 12, et cetera.) I now claim that you are more likely to buy at those numbers. Because barring those big shopping trips on the weekend, you're probably just running in to buy one or two things. Or you're buying a few - but stopping at six, so that you can get into that "six items or less" lane! (In some stores that's "ten items or less" but at ten you're back at par, so the method of checkout wouldn't matter.)

Conclusion? If you pay cash, you are more likely losing money over time, rather than not. Barring any sort of credit transaction fees.

If you think I've screwed something up here, please let me know in the comments. Finally, why was I even thinking about this? Because I saw the following sale on chocolate milk:
Lots of 2L left by the way. Few 1L.

The 1L is listed for $1.99, the 2L for $3.99. My brain quickly clicked in, and I realized I could buy two of the 1L for equivalent volume, and pay only $3.98. Yet even as I went to do that, I realized... if I pay cash, it doesn't matter. It's $4.00 in both cases. Well, damn. Worse, the store is actually gaining TWO CENTS from me on the 1L deal instead of ONE CENT. Is that clever, or merely a fluke?

On top of that, I call shenanigans. The 2L milk is regularly $5.19. I'll now leave you with this last question: What percentage discount was necessary on the larger milk, to create the "equivalent" savings on the smaller?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

WRI: Character Diversity Problem

This post is a bit mathematical, but more about writing, along with being a cry for help.

But let's start with a relatively simple question. You're writing, so will your main character be a male or a female? Or for that matter, neither of the above? (I'm not talking aliens here, humans can and do diversify beyond those two simple categories.)

He is also gender flexible

Then again, your main character(s) might be a given, depending on your personal experience and how you see your plot progressing. Or perhaps you were picturing fanfiction, so those roles become predefined for you. So let's look beyond that. Let's talk about the more secondary characters you create.

The wise mentor. The henchman (henchwoman?). Even the clerk in the store for that one scene you need. Why is that guy male? Or is he? Now, go further. What race? What religion? Do those things matter too? I think they do.

But maybe not for the reasons you think.


The problem, frankly, is that I'm a white male. I like to think I have enough of a feminine side to be able to write female characters, but I can't say I really understand what it's like to be a woman. So when we progress to race, or religion, we've gone right outside of my comfort zone. It feels like too much of a stretch for me to be able write about those differences properly. So I don't.

'It doesn't matter!' you might protest. 'We're all human! Deep down we all have the same passions and desires! Colours, beliefs, they don't matter!'

How would this look be for a man?
Don't answer that.
No. I'm sorry, but no, to write realistically, it matters. Or it matters to me. And not for plot reasons either, I'm talking simple characterization! If your main character is female, won't that change how they walk through an unlit park at night? If the clerk in the store becomes black, isn't it possible that s/he could have an effect on what your characters are saying? Note that I'm not saying such impacts are RIGHT, I'm saying it's our current REALITY.

Which is also a reality that I'm not sure I can address. This seems to leave me with two options as far as the fantasy goes.

Either (A) I write a story including diverse types where "it doesn't matter" - not realistic, potentially offensive - or (B) I write a story where everyone looks white and acts like a liberal with only minor religious ties - which in some ways seems more offensive, but tends to be my default.

Quick aside: If you risk the third option, and write for realism, I applaud you. Do it. And if as a reader, you find yourself highly offended by an author's interpretation, take a second to ask yourself if they offended intentionally. (By which I mean a genuine misinterpretation as opposed to believing that some archaic stereotype is actually valid.) Because constructive criticism could be the difference between an advocate for your cause, and someone who decides they'll never write again.

Okay, back to what I've been personally struggling with.


Here's where I need your help. I write a web serial about the personification of mathematics. (Yeah, I bring it up constantly. Sorry.) Gender, at least initially, was nicely covered off in that XX=1 is female, XY=1 is male, and from there functions and their inverses were branched to opposing genders. When I first started out, I also hand waved the all white cast as "this is the caucasian branch of a much larger canvas". Implying there's other versions of these characters out there.

But the story is evolving. My canvas is growing. My hand waving is starting to feel like, well, hand waving.

Thing is, while my serial is a fantasy, it's is based on mathematics. On reality. As I generate new characters and situations, the fact that I'm still working with an all white cast is starting to unsettle me. The last thing I want to do is exclude demographics from mathematics! So I think I've got four options. Which of these do you think is the best?

1) I keep going as I am. Someone once posted that they hadn't thought about race until I pointed it out. And maybe I'm the only one truly unsettled by the general lack of race or religion in the serial. It's just a story, right? I'm often overthinking things. Perhaps I just need reassurance.

2) I start to mix it up. Some new characters are black, or latino, what have you. Heck, I've already started taking liberties with gender, to the point where "Gaston Julia" and "Karl Weierstrass" might be rolling in their graves. And from the very beginning, I did make some of the characters left handed (anyone notice that?). Trouble is, I don't want to pigeonhole a mathematical construct as being "a black function" or "a native american function" - in fact, how would I even decide? Also, it feels like maybe it's a bit too late to pull this off elegantly.

3) I actually pull in a set of racial counterparts. White Para meets Black Para, et cetera, due to some plot convenience. Space-tearing convoluted parallel-world track, whatever. My main problem with this one goes back to my earlier feelings of them not being the same individual, even though mathematically, they are. There's fundamental differences here, ones that I'm not sure I can properly express. But maybe I can attempt it as a short story arc within a series? Is that worthwhile?

4) I create an allegory in my mathematical world. I've got a bit of a wedge for religion there already, in that most of them worship TPTB (Transcendental Pi-Type Beings), while others could prefer a single deity. For race, I'm not really sure - continued persecution of the step functions? As they are immigrants into the standard world of high school math relations? Or is that idea even more wildly offensive than option (1)? Contrarily, perhaps a story arc where Root magically becomes oriental, and functions start treating him differently... worse idea? Better?

Admittedly, somewhat more boring as well.

Two additional things to keep in mind here: First, the fact that I illustrate my own work. So not only do I have to get characters' motivations right, I have to draw them reasonably too. My anime-style cramps that, but since it's what I know, there's no going back now. Do you think that limits me? The second thing to bear in mind is the fact that I am a teacher.

As a teacher, I feel the need to be careful about what I'm broadcasting. If I were to write anything perceived as racist, some jerk out there might find a way to twist it back at my day job. Related to that, I grapple with mental diversity in my classroom all the time, so deliberately adding in personal thoughts on physicality and spirituality feels less than advantageous to me. Oh, and teaching doesn't allow for a lot of spare time to do the proper research. But maybe now I'm simply making excuses?

Race and religion. It feels like a controversial line to cross.

Am I wrong?


I know, I know, I've put WAY too much thought into a serial that only a couple dozen people actually read. But I'd appreciate any insights or thoughts about my concerns, along with which option you think might be best. Or least offensive. You can comment below. For those of you reading who are fellow writers, maybe this is also something for you to think about, if you're planning a long-running work, with an ever-expanding storybook universe.

Let me leave you with this final thought: Our world is diverse. It feels to me like our writing should reflect that.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

MIX: Yi Am Your Second Choice

Hence both my writing and math avatars
Time for another Yi entry, installment 4. This post is relevant for both writing and teaching. Picture the following, you see a message asking for help with 'X'. You think, hey, I can do 'X'! I've done lots of 'X'! But when you go to the comments, you see that everyone is plugging that OTHER guy you know who does 'X'. And so you wonder if you should even say anything.

In some sense, I find my Yi series uses my past to explain my present. If that's the case, then I predict that given a list of options (blogs maybe?), with me being an option on the list, it's unlikely that I will be your first choice. Because personal history shows...


I don't stand out.

Let me be clear up front that constantly being second (or for that matter third, fourth, etc) is not necessarily a bad thing, nor something I'm bitter about. It simply seems to be a characteristic that defines large pieces of my life. Perhaps even who I am! In other words, while I am often in the running, I'm rarely on top - unless the top choice is not presently available.


I referenced this in my prior entry, Yi teach. For while I was the top choice for a number of extended occasional teaching positions (in that I ended up teaching for them), the one that actually led to my contract was one where I was the second choice. I had interviewed for a certain math position to start the Fall of 2005. Didn't get it.

But then the guy who did get it had to leave the position; something had become available at a school closer to where he lived, might have even been a contract, I don't recall. Phone call to me to fill in, as I'd (apparently) been the next best choice. The thing that sticks with me the most is coming into a class of Gr 11, in trig, after they'd done a test. But they couldn't tell me precisely what they'd already covered.

Artistic representation of Trig.
Anyway, this turned out to be the event that put me in a position of being able to apply (in June) for a contract position at that same school the following year (in tech). Which I got. So, in a sense, I owe my career to a guy who had to leave this job. And to being second.


There is a theatre group on the campus where I went to University called FASS (Faculty, Alumni, Staff and Students). Every year, they'll spend eight months writing an original comedic play, one month (January) rehearsing it, and then three nights performing it. Involved with them since 1995, I was a Representative member in 1999, and decided to apply for Chief Scriptwriter (CSW) 2000-01. Didn't get it.

But then there were some problems with the guy who did get it; he wasn't in the area as much as expected in the summer to coordinate meetings, and his humour in preliminary drafts was offbeat. I was the Secretary at this point (having dropped my application down to that level), and after the summer retreat, was approached by the higher-ups. The CSW was stepping aside, would I be able to take over?

Thus, in what was probably closer to six months, I, along with a much more talented group of writers, pulled together a script on the theme which had been previously chosen. (I think SciFi, because the result was "2001: A FASS Oddity".) I spearheaded the writing for the closing scenes to Act I and Act II, because I'm good at tying up threads... and then there were the final rewrites to include extra characters.

I was later cast as the punster, Mel O'Dee. (Lie in the bed you make, people.) One of the last times for me to play my flute, come to think. Point being, I probably owe my greatest writing/editing achievement to date, to my inheriting that job. Because I came in second.


Some people can track their life back to a single point, to an event that defines what they do and who they are today. I am one of those people.

Shad Valley is a Canadian program for students in senior grades. It takes place in July at many Universities across the country (in parallel), involving themes of technology and entrepreneurship. I do not think I would make the cut today. But then, I didn't make the cut back in 1993 either.

You know where this is going.

I got a call a week before the program started - they left a message on voicemail. There was now an opening, was I interested. To this day, I have no idea why there was an opening. Someone else had a travel problem, a sickness, a change of heart? Blind fate? I think I know why they called me, at least. In addition to my living not far away, my dad had previously insisted on my giving follow-up calls to ask about the process and show my interest. I hate phone calls. But I did it.

So when they offered this spot to me... I turned it down. Provisionally. Boy, life is funny sometimes, isn't it?

At the time, I was part of my high school band, and while we normally have our end-of-year banquet during the school year, in June 1993, our teacher, Ms. Wallace, was sick. So it had to be postponed to just after school ended. Meaning I had a conflict, because the first night of Shad Valley was also the night of the Music Banquet.

So I told the Shad people I'd love to participate, and could be there for the necessary afternoon, but could I please have that evening to return home? That was also through voicemail. Got another call, a couple days before the program would start. Given the timelines, that was okay. My life is truly defined from that point on.

Because of Shad Valley:
-I had my parents get a modem, in order to keep in contact with everyone else. I became more interested in computers.
-I played my first Roleplay game, online, as Piel ran "Travellers". Also wrote my first "online" reviews (of Star Trek Voyager episodes).
-I made social excursions outside of the city where I grew up, to meet other Shads. I also met more when I got to University.
-I met my wife. Yeah, she was a friend of a friend who's a Shad. And she's also a Shad. Say what you will, this is pretty life defining!

On a lesser note, I still use Ed Jernigan's idea of "fruitspace" when I teach permutations and combinations today. Though I grant I'm just lining them up, not running pattern recognition. All this, collapsing back to one single event.

An event which wasn't even meant to be mine. The opportunity had originally gone to someone else.

Now, I'm pretty sure the reason that I'm never your 'first' is a mix of my eclectic hopping back and forth between interests, along with my inability to self advocate. Still, I often find myself reflecting on my place in the world, particularly when I see others lauding the skills, posts, and the abilities of people who are not me - despite me knowing that I HAVE DEMONSTRATED those very same abilities. I simply have to accept the truth. Those other people do it better.

That's why I am your second choice.

We are all at least partly defined by how others perceive us.

Final takeaway? Even if you don't think you're qualified for something, keep trying for it anyway. Post up that comment! You may not come in first, but someday, just maybe, it will still put you in a place that you wanted to be.