Thursday, May 13, 2010

Everything and More

LEFT: "David Foster Wallace with Friend," by Marion Ettlinger

I. Electrified Paté

I started reading DFW because he killed himself.
I'm interested in smart people who suicide.

But I kept reading him because I recognize him as one of my tribe--not because of his affliction (which runs in my family but mercifully has not lodged in me) but because of the acrobatic way he thinks [thought].

--sample of DFW thinking--

"We 'know,' as high-school graduates and readers of Newsweek... a near infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. ... [We know] that our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified paté. That we are mostly water, and water is mostly hydrogen, and hydrogen is flammable, and yet we are not flammable."

--end sample--[1]

The books of DFW are almost always checked out from the library--like those of David Sedaris and other popular essayists (or of those people whose personal pain made public has bumped them, at least temporarily, into celebrity status).
You have to request the books be held for you.

I'd gotten and enjoyed Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Yesterday I thought I'd just check and see if any of DFW's other books might be on the shelf.

The only one that was was Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
Call number QA 9 .W335 2003.

Here's why it wasn't checked out.
It sits right next to QA9 .W52:
Principia Mathematica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913), by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.

Still, I'm somewhat interested in the philosophy of science (along the lines of "Why wouldn't Star Trek's transporter really work?"), and I trusted that DFW would tell an amusing story, so I checked it out.

After writing about war all day (painful), last night I started reading the book. [* re writing]

Reading it was weirdly restful the way a new pain is, because it gives you a rest from an old pain.
Not that the book is actually painful.
DFW truly does make it an amusing story; but following it requires brain work, especially for someone like me who barely knows the language of mathematics. That work feels like, maybe is a relative of, pain.

--sample of me thinking--

Last night I was about to stop reading on page 70, out of 305 pages, and I thought,
I should blog about this, and I should mention what percentage of the book I have read so far.
But I don't know how to figure out the ratio of 70 to 305.
So I kept reading until page 97, and now I can say that I'm close to one-third through.

Even if I didn't know that 97 x 3 = almost 305,
I could physically see the ratio by looking at the scrap of paper (with "QA W335" written on it in stubby library pencil by me) marking my place in the closed book.

(From what DFW says, I'm doing math the Egyptian way--they always related it to physical realities.
You don't need calculus to build a pyramid.)

--end sample--

Anyway, the book is very interesting, if you're interested in thinking about thinking.
I am, in a lazy sort of way;
but the thing that excited me most about the book so far was the paragraph on p. 52 that justified my still living sense of injustice at the way Mr. Dresen, my ninth grade algebra teacher, answered the one question I ever asked about mathematics.

In the early days of the semester, my first in high school,
I asked Mr. Dresen WHY algebra worked.

I didn't know it then, but I--not gifted intuitively in math--was struggling to make the huge leap from thinking about numbers as representing oranges, even if the oranges are getting twisted and chopped up into weirder and weirder bits, to thinking of numbers as pure abstraction.

And Mr. Dresen said I shouldn't worry about it, but just memorize the formulas.

Women have lots of stories about being put down in math when they were girls, but I'm 100% sure this had nothing to do with me being a female and everything to do with Mr. Dresen being a basketball coach who got roped into teaching algebra because he had memorized the formulas.

I'm sure because while I felt like a victim of injustice at the time, I also intuited:

Well. This poor guy. Now I know how hard it is to know why algebra works and how even harder it is to explain it.

So now along comes DFW, who does know and can explain.
And who says to my outraged thirteen-year-old self --quote:

"The trouble with college [(or high school)] math classes
––which classes consist almost entirely in the rhythmic ingestion and regurgitation of abstract information, and are paced in such a way as to maximize this reciprocal data flow––
is that their sheer surface-level difficulty can fool us into thinking we really know something when all we really 'know' is abstract formulas and rules for their deployment.

"Rarely do math classes ever tell us whether a certain formula is truly significant, or why, or where it came from, or what is at stake.

[DFW's footnote to above sentence:

"And, of course, rarely do students think to ask––the formulas alone take so much work to 'understand' (i.e., to be able to solve problems correctly with), we often aren't aware that we don't understand them at all.
That we end up not even knowing that we don't know is the really insidious part of most math classes.]"

--end quote--[2]

*fist pump*

Or, if you're someone like me, you know you don't know,
...AND you don't even 'know' the formulas because you simply balked like a mule and refused to learn something so boring as symbols and rules that you, at thirteen, mistakenly thought (and no one corrected you) were without meaning.

Final note on DFW:
Depression gets a lot of press these days; but I still hear people who don't understand that it's more like, say, cancer than like a bad hair day.

But even though I do know it's like cancer, I still look at pictures of DFW with his dog friends (he liked dogs!) and ask,
How could you do it?
You had everything and more.

And therein, in trying to answer that, lies is the use of abstract brain work.

Trying to understand other people is like the higher maths:
you (that is, I) just have to suck up the fact that other people's experience, their reality, won't necessarily match up point to point with yours (mine).

And that we can't understand it by plunking formulas onto it, like cookie cutters onto a batch of cookie dough.

We're not adding oranges anymore.

Understanding other people, which is maybe another word for loving other people, is way harder than that, way weirder, way, way more abstract,
and, ultimately, if your brain doesn't explode, more rewarding.

II. * Re writing

[This could/should? really be a separate post, but I was writing stream of consciousness and I actually had veered off in the middle of the above stream to write this, so I decided to pull it out and give it its own B-head, but leave it as part of the whole.

I also just want to note that I can see here what a sponge I am (or what spongey material words are?).
If you've read DFW you can probably tell I've absorbed some of his odor, like a cheese next to fish in the fridge.
That's one reason I don't usually read a lot when I'm in the middle of a writing project---all of a sudden I'll start writing in a different style. ]


"Writing" is too active a word for what I do with children's nonfiction.

Because of severe limits on word count and reading level, what I do mostly involves choosing what not to write about, so it's often more like "erasing" than writing.

The more I do this, the more I realize why people who write children's nonfiction (and human beings in general) often just recycle formulas.
I mean, writing well at grade-school level requires being an incredibly well-informed and thoughtful kind of poet of prose.

Once I took (some might say wasted) the time to learn more about smallpox, for instance, I'd just made the work harder on myself.
Now, instead of "writing" (recycling) that comfortable sentence we've all read before about how Europeans brought the disease to the Americas, I have to discern what I really want to say about what is, of course, a much broader and deeper story.

The thing is, though, the old formulaic sentence is factually true, and compact,
so I'll end up writing something very similar, thus reinventing the wheel;
but now knowing WHY and HOW, which pleases me but makes little difference to the book.

It does make some difference... but quite possibly for the worse.
I mean, it's really hard to write clearly and briefly about complexity.

(I'm getting better but I'm not good at it. My earliest geography books are muddy, my latest ones less so. Blogging is good practice.)

I'm motivated to keep trying to express complexities in a clean, clear and short way,
not just because understanding the material makes the work more interesting
but because I remember being outraged as a child by how formulaic nonfiction was.

I mean, really remember.
I can see the dirty surface of the light-wood, round library table where I sat in sixth grade working on a report on Russia.
And I remember my anger and frustration with the geography book in hand (the same kind I used to write--possibly, in fact, by the same publisher). Specifically I was angry that the list of Natural Resources was just a list--it didn't tell you what any of these things (molybdenum?) were.

Well, now I know why--the extremely limited word count means you, the author, have to choose between writing a list or using the space to explain ONE thing.
Not only does efficient use of space (facts per inch) dictate writing the list, but it's also easier and faster because you don't have to know what molybdenum is to write it down.

(It's a mineral used in steel alloys.)

I've heard children's nonfiction writers called hacks (in the literal sense of being a conveyance for rent to take anyone anywhere) and sausage makers.

This is often true, in my experience. But not because we are stupid or uncaring.
On the contrary. The field is full of nice, bright women with BAs in English who love books.

But children's book publishing is an industry, like children's education is, and like education, it's unbelievable poorly paid. (OK, better than McDonald's, but it's a white collar equivalent.)

Everyone from the publisher on down is under incredible economic pressure to publish or perish--not in the academic sense, but in the sense of debt collectors coming and taking away your printing press.
And even scarier these days, when books themselves are looking more and more like a horse and buggy.

So we get algebra teachers who may be geniuses at coaching basketball but sure aren't good at teaching algebra.

P.S. Whoah. Was that an abrupt ending?

Soon I'm off to visit my auntie in Milwaukee, Land of Cheese Cows, so adieu for now.

[1] "We 'know', as high-school graduates..." from DFW's Everything and More (W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 22

[2] "The trouble with college classes..." ibid., p. 52


ArtSparker said...

Algebra was "my" math subject because it was like words to which one didn't know the definitions, like code, I mean because the letters stood for something other than what they were.

Fresca said...

Yes. I can see that now.

While it is not my gift, I think I could have enjoyed algebra a little bit with HELP when I was thirteen.
Instead I just went off and tried to read Proust.

The next year, a lovely patient and wise chemistry teacher helped me grok the atom.

Fresca said...

So, can you tell me how to figure out what percent 70 is of 305?

ArtSparker said...

I almost flunked chemistry. I had an uncle by marriage who actually was in films we watched in high school chemistry, George Pimentel. My parents twisted the teacher's arm about this, I don't know if this had anything to do with eventually passing. The difference? Algebra was a language, I just could not bring myself to memorize the periodic table, a static set of hieroglyphics. 70 divided by 305 times 100.

Margaret said...

Everything AND more! Fascinating stuff!

I asked a parent the same question a couple years ago. (No luck.)
Math, could I really grasp it, I think would show itself to be monumentally meaningful in how it connects to everything else; I can't grasp it, so I decide I don't like it.

I had a great Math teach last semester who explained very thoroughly WHY you can't divide by zero. Mind-boggled. It was incredible, (wish I could remmeber how it worked....)

Milwaukee - the Trader Joe's often leaves perfectly scrumptious food in carts next to their dumpster to throw away the next day.
I'm just sayin.

bink said...

I have to take issue with DFW saying "we are not flammable"... what about Spontaneous Human Combustion?!

I'll always remember Dickens description in Bleak House of SHM: as the greasy ash floats and coats London. A wonderful "yuck" tactile piece of writing.

rr said...

Whoa. I've always wanted to read DFW for a number of no doubt entirely obvious reasons. If and when I ever have the ability to read a book again he'll be high on my list. I wonder if there are audio books? I can cope with them.

Re other people, yes. It's a subject I've been thinking a lot about recently. The inability to convey the nature of personal experience to another. Ie the agony that is unseen. Even the agony that is seen. I mean, take childbirth. You could be round it and learn about it til your nads wither and still not have any idea of what it's like. We can't enter into others' experience so I suppose we have to try to allow them to have it on their own terms and accept that we don't, can't, know what it is. (And the corollory often is that we have to allow other people to be on their own terms rather than on ours. I have a friend whose mother has alzheimers. He knows that it was her dearest wish that should she ever suffer from dementia she be helped to shuffle off the mortal coil. He knows that, but he wants her to live on for him, crazy, distraught, disintegrating, without dignity. Several hundred miles away. He can't let her go and he has the power. Of course she no longer knows what the situation is most of the time and euthanazing your rellies isn't easy so he's got quite a lot of self-serving justification going on there. But he also knows, and is distressed by the fact that, he's being selfish at his mother's expense. As it were. Not a good situation to be in, particularly if you have insight. I think assisted suicide is probably more acceptable and discussed in Europe than the US though.)

Damn. I've forgotten the other thing now. Perhaps it was algebra, which I love. But yes, the whole "just learn the formulas" thing is SOOOOO bad. Such an appalling example for anything at all. Maybe knowing about people is similar. There's the surface "do this / be this and this other thing happens" formula. And then there's trying to get to grips with the underlying awesomeness. I feel I'm absolutely crap at the formulas with other people - shy, introverted etc, can't play the social game, don't know how the social lube works - but am actually rather good at "seeing" individuals. Of course I could be entirely wrong both about myself and everyone else :-)

It's very annoying that there's no spell check since my spelling is so shit. Ah well. You'll probably be able to guess what the words are even if they're unorthodox in letter order.

Right. Back to my sewing. Yes, sewing. Inexplicable.

Clowncar said...

A marvelous post. I'll try not to go on at length. Ha.

I find math beautiful and practical in much the same way I find language beautiful and practical. It explores and defines relationships between things. Dividing 70 by 305 gives you a percentage by allowing you to compare the number you wanna measure (70) with the number you wish to measure it against (305). It's not a memorized formula, it does a real thing.

The better example: we're trying to build a human sundial (analemmatic), where you stand in one spot and your shadows points to a stone that has the hour on it. The design involves drawing an oval (where the stones go) and a figure 8 (where the person stands, depending on the time of year). Getting the curves just right involves some pretty complex math, but the part I find bewilderingly beautiful is that the figure 8 is a mirror image of the shape the sun makes in the sky, if you were to take a picture of it an noon every day. You are bringing something from the heavens down to the Earth. With math.

I'm not describing it well. The point is you are using math to replicate a real thing happening in the sky. The fact that it tells you the time is gravy.

Okay, one more thing and I'll stop. You should explore doing a kids book about Tycho Brahe and Johann Kepler. Brahe was a egotistical data geek (with a silver nose!) who amassed tons of data about the movement of stars and planets in they sky, but because he had preconceived notions of how it all worked, couldn't figure it out. He kept the Earth at the center of things rather than the sun. His assistant, Kepler, took the raw data and teased from it the three laws of planetary motion, some of the most elegant math ever conceived. He figured out that planets didn't orbit in circles but ellipses. And suddenly the whole sun-at-the-center thing made sense.

Okay, I'm done.

But again, a wonderful and thoughtful post. I'll try to read Infinite Jest one of these day.

Fresca said...

Quick replies before hitting I-94...

THANKS, Sparker!
I 70/350 was something easy! The answer is 22.9.

Yeah, the periodic table was a bore, but the movements of electrons in the atom was way cool.
Of course it's "wrong" in these quantum times, but it's still cool.

M'GET: Me too: didn't get it = didn't like it.
But I still like the math and science when explained in words---like your teacher did for zero.

BINK: Heh. I thought you'd be on that like a duck on a bug. If DFW were alive, I'd write and ask him about spontaneous human combustion, for sure.

RR: I'm sure I saw audio books of DFW's stuff at the library---maybe read by him?
I haven't tried his fiction.

This that you say has been one of the hardest challenges of my early life:
"we have to allow other people to be on their own terms rather than on ours"

Through much head bashing, I have at least figured out the CONCEPT, which is a huge help.
Abstractions help.
(I see Buddhism as a kind of abstract math about being human.)

Assisted suicide in the USA, are you crazy lady?
We here in M'rka are God Fearing types, by gummy, and we don't go fer no puttin' our mammies and pappies on ice flows.
No, we stick 'em in concentration camps, I mean right nice Assisted Care Facilities for Seniors.

Knitting looks VERY mathematical to me.
Yours is as gorgeous as the Golden Mean and the Fibonacci Numbers and all those other beautiful math thingies.

C-CAR: A sundial! How wonderful. Seems you're using Math of the Ancients too!

DFW points out something neat-o about the applicability of math--(You probably know this, but I didn't):

In the 1600s when mathematics became more and more a matter of calculating the relationships not between abstractions (like numbers) and the physical world but the relationship between abstractions and other abstractions,
the results actually were extremely useful for (and supported by) practical applications such as navigation and engineering.

..."because he had preconceived notions of how it all worked, he couldn't figure it out."

Thank you for that, Clown.
I see it in our lives all the time---it's what I call cookie-cutter thinking---we "know" what the end shape should be...
But what to do with all this leftover dough?

iloveyoumauralynch said...

Bink and I had no discussion about this post prior to me reading it just now, and all I can say is that my first thought on his comment that we're not flammable was also, 'what about spontaneous human combustion?' So. Great minds...:)

momo said...

Many things spark a response from this post. some day I'll read DWF. I do have a math discouragement story. I understand what it feels like to not be able to overcome the hideous dispair that makes everything seem completely out of reach. I'm glad my medical intervention worked.

I do hope you have the chance to see the Santiago Calatrava Burke Brise Soleil in action a the Museum!

Lill said...

"Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe." Galileo Galilei

I remember you saying that once as a kid you looked at a page of equations and were taken with how beautiful they were. If math were taught visually somehow a lot more people would get it. It wasn't until I had to take algebra to get into grad school (and retake it because I failed it) that I had an appreciation of the beauty of math. I didn't turn into a mathematician from a wordsmith, for sure, but I actually experienced some enjoyment of math in it's beauty.

In that course we worked a lot with percentages. They are division, and so are fractions, ratios, and decimals. All of these describe the same question "How much, that is, what fraction, of the whole is this part?"

So to get "What part(fraction) of the whole book have I read?" you divide the part by the whole -- 70 divided by 305 is 0.23 (rounded to the nearest hundredth). Since 0.23 is "23 hundredths" another way to think about it is 23% (23 parts of the whole 100).

There is a bit more to equating fractions, ratios, decimals and percentages -- that's why there are months and years long courses on such stuff. But since we don't have to pass any tests on it anymore, thank goodness, this working definition serves very well.

When you want to know a percentage of the part to the whole divide the part by the whole and translate the decimal you get to a percentage. Such as: I have spent an enjoyable 15 minutes discoursing on percentages. This is 15/120 (where 120 is the minutes I have been up this morning) or 15 divided by 120. My calculator tells me 15/120 = 0.125. Rounding to the nearest hundredth (the first two numbers to the right of the decimal) and translating into a percentage I see I have spent 13% of my morning in this activity.

I hope you enjoy your visit with your auntie!

Fresca said...

LILL: Thanks for the explanation.
I'm sure you're a teacher who would never tell a kid to shut up and memorize facts!