Wednesday, November 30, 2011

get unstuck: write the way you talk

In my regular job, I teach a wide range of students who run the gamut from fourth grade to adulthood. Much of what I do involves teaching writing, and it's common to hear some form of the complaint that I can't think of anything to write. While it's tempting to say that there's a single magic formula to cure all writing problems, the sad fact is that no universal solution to the problem of stuckness exists.

My own in-class approach is to get students talking about topics that interest them, or to get them thinking along lines they might not have explored. But one of the most frequent pieces of advice I give is to write the way you talk. I don't give this advice because I think my students' prose should sound as ungrammatical as their everyday speech ("I think I did good on my test yesterday" often makes me cringe), but because it's a way of becoming unstuck. Talking something out is often a great strategy for idea-generation, or for fleshing out previously-generated ideas. I've told some students that, if they have voice recorders, they should try talking to themselves and listening to the recitation of their own ideas. A lot of it will be lame, but buried among the bad ideas will be several good ones, and that's all a person needs, really, to start writing.

As Robert Pirsig notes in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, no one can remain stuck forever. Stuckness is best thought of as a starting point, a blank slate, a field of potential. Stare at the empty page long enough, and your mind will begin to move of its own accord. Just let it happen peristaltically. And try talking-- to yourself or to others-- as a way to generate ideas.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

exponents: multiplicative property

It's inconvenient to write exponents in HTML; you have to use the "superscript" command. What's easier is using the circumflex (^) to indicate "raised to the power of." That's what I'll be doing in this post as we cover one interesting property of exponents.

First, some vocab.

The term exponent refers to the tiny number that sits above and to the right of another number or variable. It denotes the number of times that the big number next to it-- called the base-- should be multiplied by itself. If, for example, we have something like this:

x3 (hereafter written as x^3)

--this means we multiply x times x times x (written as x*x*x). The variable x is the base; 3 is the exponent.

What would 34 be? (hereafter 3^4)?

Multiply: 3*3*3*3 = 81.

If two exponential expressions have the same base, you can do interesting things with them.

(x^2)*(x^3) = (x^5) Notice that, when you multiply these two quantities, the powers add! The general rule, then, is

(x^a)*(x^b) = x^(a+b)


(2^2)*(2^4) = (2^6) = 64

CAUTION: Be careful not to confuse an expression like 2^3 with 2*3!! Students often make this mistake. 2 cubed is 8, but 2 times 3 is 6.

How do we know that multiplying exponential expressions with the same bases means adding exponents? We can work it out the long way.

This equation

(x^2)*(x^3) = (x^5)

can be rewritten as

(x*x)*(x*x*x) = x*x*x*x*x (associative property of multiplication)

...which is x^5!

Remember, though, that if the bases are different, you can't multiply two exponential quantities together and expect to add the exponents. Doesn't work.

OK... more later!


Sunday, November 27, 2011

the GRE Analytical Writing section

I've taken the GRE twice this year and have scored a 5.5 out of 6 on the Analytical Writing section both times. That puts me in the 96th percentile, i.e., I've consistently done better than 96% of people who've taken the GRE.

And yet... I wonder how much it matters. Many universities don't even look at the AW score when evaluating you as a candidate for graduate school. I think that's too bad. But for the purposes of this post, I'm assuming my audience is people who are hoping to score a 5.5 or 6 on the AW section because they know they're applying to a school that views AW as important.

If you're taking the GRE, I can safely assume you're an adult, so the advice I'm going to give you here is adult advice: work your ass off. What that means, in practical terms, is that you need to be writing, writing, and writing some more, and you need to be doing what you can to get better at it. Specifically, you need to sharpen your essay-writing skills, because Analytical Writing isn't creative writing: it's about engaging in logical argument and identifying flaws in other people's reasoning.

In a previous post aimed at high schoolers, I wrote on writing logically and clearly. You might want to give that post a visit, because it applies to at least one of the two AW tasks that await you on the GRE: the Analyze an Issue subsection. (The Analytical Writing section is composed of two subsections: Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument.)

Let's focus, then, on the second subsection: Analyze an Argument. In this section, you'll be given an argument that contains flaws, and you'll have 30 minutes to note as many flaws as possible while also suggesting ways in which to repair them. Here's an example from my Kaplan manual (Kaplan New GRE Verbal Workbook, 7th Edition; New York: Kaplan, Inc., 2011), and I can vouch that this example conforms to what you'd see on the actual GRE:

The following is a letter to the editor of a psychology journal:

The data collected from a variety of studies now suggest a relationship between the medicine Hypathia and the heightened risk of anxiety in patients afflicted with bipolar disorder. In 1950, before Hypathia was widely used to treat bipolar disorder, relatively few patients were diagnosed as anxious or had symptoms that suggested anxiety. However, in five studies published between 2005 and 2010, more than 60 percent of the subjects with bipolar disorder who took Hypathia demonstrated symptoms of anxiety or reported having episodes of heightened anxiety.

Write a response in which you discuss one or more viable alternatives to the proposed explanation. Justify, with support, why your explanation could rival the proposed explanation and explain how your explanation(s) can plausibly account for the facts presented in the argument.

The nice thing about Analytical Writing is that you're not required to name or classify the fallacies you detect. You won't have to talk about post hoc, ergo propter hoc or tu quoque or argumentum ad ignorantiam (and so on ad nauseam). It'll be enough to spot the flaws and identify them in plain language. Let's try spotting a few of them now, shall we?

1. As a general comment: I notice the entire argument falls prey to a massive "correlation is not causation" flaw (this is, by the way, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: event B happened after event A, so A must have caused B!).

2. There's a faulty diachronic comparison between "relatively few patients" before 1950 and "more than 60 percent of subjects" between 2005 and 2010.

3. Sticking with the faulty comparison for a moment, I'll also note that the time periods aren't being rigorously compared: we seem to be matching up (a) a vague, pre-1950 era with (b) a more clearly-defined period. If "pre-1950" means something like "1900-1949," then wouldn't it make sense to compare that era with, say, 1960-2009? And what if the data from 1950 to 2009 undermine the writer's argument?

4. The relationship between "more than 60 percent of the subjects" and "five studies published between 2005 and 2010" is unclear. One gets the impression that the writer is saying that 60 percent of all the subjects in the five studies, taken together as a single group, experienced some form of anxiety after/while taking Hypathia. But what if some of the subjects in one study were also involved in one or more of the other studies? Or: what if the percent figure is hiding a real disparity in raw numbers (e.g., if the five studies all had very different numbers of patients, with Study A having 20 patients and Study E having 10,000)? Or again: what if four of the five studies showed only 20% of patients suffering anxiety, while the fifth study had radically skewed results, thus leading to the 60% figure? If one study is an outlier, then we need to take it with a grain of salt, don't we? At the very least, that study makes it dangerous to lump the five studies together in the service of some general claim.

5. Doesn't a distinction need to be made between patients who begin suffering anxiety and those that suffer increased anxiety? Is the writer conflating causation with exacerbation?

Can you find any other flaws in the writer's argument? Think about it for a bit, but now let's turn to the question of offering solutions, because you need to do more than pick out argumentative flaws in this subsection of the GRE.

1. How can we fix the correlation/causation problem? If you're a David Hume partisan, then you know that the best you can come up with is a "regularity theory" of causation (event B regularly occurs after event A). Because this flaw permeates the writer's entire argument, we really need to focus on how to fix problems (2) through (5).

2. For (2) above, it would have been good to see less ambiguity about the number or proportion of patients being compared. A raw-number comparison might have made for a stronger case.

3. For (3) above, it would have been nice for the writer to have been clearer about the time periods being compared. Why is "pre-1950" being compared with "between 2005 and 2010"? A more rigorous comparison would have noted (and related) trends between corresponding time periods.

4. For (4) above, well... a lot needs to be done. It would have been nice had the writer both spelled out the number of patients involved in each 2005-2010 study and offered similar figures for a corresponding pre-1950 period (say, 1945-1950). The writer would also have strengthened his/her case by noting whether there had been any patient overlap between/among studies.

5. For (5) above, the writer should have been at pains to discuss what s/he feels Hypathia does. Does it cause anxiety? Does it increase anxiety? Is there some sort of equivalence between causation and exacerbation?

It occurs to me that I've missed one rather obvious flaw in the writer's argument. Can you guess what it is? I'll write it below in white font between [brackets]; just highlight the space to see my thoughts on the matter. This flaw may, in fact, be one of the very first ones that you thought of.

[The writer never considers the possibility that something other than Hypathia might be causing the anxiety. Even if only to dismiss the possibility, the writer should have at least raised the possibility that the anxiety's etiology might stem from a different source.]

There are doubtless other flaws to be found, but if you were able to pick out the ones that I picked out, you'd be on your way to getting a 5 or a 6 for this essay.

Remember that this is an essay you're writing. You might be asked to write it as if it were a letter to the editor, but it's an essay all the same. The quality of your organization counts, as does the quality of your writing ability in general. Avoid typos, poor grammar and mechanics, misspellings, and all the other pitfalls that come with writing under pressure on an unfamiliar computer keyboard.

Based on my own experience with the AW section, I'd recommend going for at least five paragraphs-- more if you're a fast and competent typist. Organize your paragraphs this way:

1. quick intro
2. flaw #1 & #2 detected; solutions to patch them
3. flaw #3 & #4; solutions
4. flaw #5 & #6; solutions
5. quick conclusion

[NB: the Kaplan instructions call for a bit more than just finding problems and proposing solutions, but the question as written will still allow you, more or less, to craft an essay along the lines of the above-suggested template.]

For both of the AW subsections, leave yourself time to proofread your essays. You'll be embarrassed at how many mistakes you can make when typing in furious desperation.

Apologies for concentrating so heavily on the Analyze an Argument subsection, but I feel that the skills needed for the Analyze an Issue subsection have already been adequately covered elsewhere (and here as well).

In the meantime, get writing! Start up a blog; write letters to the editor; append detailed, well-argued comments to blog posts and news articles, and watch how your arguments get picked apart by the ensuing commenters. Learn from these experiences; strive constantly to improve your writing until you feel confident that you can "argue on command." Grad school involves plenty of discussion and debate: you'll often be required to think on your feet, so the GRE isn't a completely unrealistic simulation of that sort of pressure.

Good luck!


I'm available via Skype!

If you're new to this blog and haven't had a chance to explore the tabs underneath the banner image, you should know that I'm available via Skype if you want to talk face-to-face. My contact information for email, Skype, and Twitter is located at the bottom of the "About" page (see "About" tab!). Email me a note saying you want to talk via Skype and we'll arrange a day and time. I'll wait no more than 10 minutes, however; time is precious, so please be punctual.

I mention the Skype thing because you might be hesitant about signing up to be tutored by someone you haven't vetted. That's perfectly understandable, so if you want to chat via Skype for a bit to sound me out, I'm game.

Skype allows for long-distance tutoring, by the way: we might be thousands of miles apart, and separated by two or three time zones, but that doesn't mean I can't be your tutor. Multimedia distance learning is all the rage these days; educational paradigms are changing rapidly, and many students now prefer to learn from the comfort of their own home. Skype plays right into that scenario... and it saves you the extra cost of paying my gasoline bill! (If you've visited my rate chart, you're aware I charge extra for long drives. Sorry, but that's the economy we live in.)

So hit me with some Skype action!


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

There might not be any updates until the weekend. Have a great Thanksgiving, and be sure to hug someone.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

reading and taking notes

When you have to write an essay, the recommended SOP (standard operating procedure) is that you brainstorm first, outline next, then write a series of drafts. My feeling is that, if you're reading and you need to understand the material, you can work the process backward and try reverse-engineering an outline. This technique is especially good if you're reading something completely uninteresting: the creation of an outline is an analytical process; by creating an outline based on the reading material, you're forcing yourself to break the material down into parts and organize those parts correctly.

Let me show you two examples of this technique. The first example will be the more straightforward one: we'll be outlining text of an obviously academic nature. The second example, however, will come from a work of fiction, and will demonstrate that narratives, too, can be rendered in outline form.

FIRST PASSAGE (from SparkNotes, here):

The Italian Renaissance followed on the heels of the Middle Ages, and was spawned by the birth of the philosophy of humanism, which emphasized the importance of individual achievement in a wide range of fields. The early humanists, such as writer Francesco Petrarch, studied the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration and ideology, mixing the philosophies of Plato and other ancient thinkers with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the influence of the humanists, literature and the arts climbed to new levels of importance.

Though it eventually spread through Europe, the Renaissance began in the great city-states of Italy. Italian merchants and political officials supported and commissioned the great artists of the day, thus the products of the Renaissance grew up inside their walls. The most powerful city-states were Florence, The Papal States (centered in Rome), Venice, and Milan. Each of these states grew up with its own distinctive character, very much due to the different forms of government that presided over each. Florence, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, grew powerful as a wool-trading post, and remained powerful throughout the Renaissance due to the leadership of the Medici family, who maintained the city's financial strength and were intelligent and generous patrons of the arts. The Pope, who had the responsibility of running the Catholic Church as well, ruled Rome. As the power of the northern city-states grew, the Papacy increasingly became the seat of an international politician rather than a spiritual leader, and many pontiffs fell prey to the vices of corruption and nepotism that often accompanied a position of such power. Nevertheless, Rome, the victim of a decline that had destroyed the ancient city during the Middle Ages, flourished once again under papal leadership during the Renaissance. Venice and Milan also grew wealthy and powerful, playing large roles in Italian politics and attracting many artists and writers to their gilded streets. Venice was ruled by oligarchy in the hands of its Great Council of noble families, and Milan by a strong monarchy that produced a line of powerful dukes.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Renaissance was the furthering of the arts, and the advancement of new techniques and styles. During the early Renaissance, painters such as Giotto, and sculptors such as Ghiberti experimented with techniques to better portray perspective. Their methods were rapidly perfected and built upon by other artists of the early Renaissance such as Botticelli and Donatello. However, the apex of artistic talent and production came later, during what is known as the High Renaissance, in the form of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michaelangelo, who remain the best known artists of the Renaissance. The Renaissance also saw the invention of printing in Europe and the rise of literature as an important aspect in everyday life. The Italian writers Boccaccio, Pico, and Niccolo Machiavelli were able to distribute their works much more easily and cheaply because of the rise of the printed book.

Alas, the Italian Renaissance could not last forever, and beginning in 1494 with the French invasion of Italian land Italy was plagued by the presence of foreign powers vying for pieces of the Italian peninsula. Finally, in 1527, foreign occupation climaxed with the sack of Rome and the Renaissance collapsed under the domination of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The economic restrictions placed on the Italian states by Charles V, combined with the censorship the Catholic Church undertook in response to the rising Reformation movement ensured that the spirit of the Renaissance was crushed, and Italy ceased to be the cradle of artistic, intellectual, and economic prosperity.

The Italian Renaissance isn't the most exciting topic for most American high schoolers (and at a guess, it's probably not that exciting for Italian high schoolers, either), so let's do this as quickly and as systematically as possible.

First, I see there are four paragraphs, so these will be our I, II, III, and IV. Outlines shouldn't be essays: every part of the outline should be succinct, containing only the very essence of the information that's relevant for study. Students will be delighted to know that they should avoid complete sentences when taking notes or outlining. Personally, I encourage students to rely on whatever shorthand works best for them to get the job done... even if that means relying on (gack! barf!) online-style English.

Here's the skeleton:

Italian Renaissance = IR

I. IR's origins

II. IR's spread: where & how

III. IR's prominent features

IV. IR's decline

Textbook-style prose makes it easy to figure out how to write your outline: the people who wrote the information were probably using outlines to begin with!

With the skeleton in place, it's time to flesh out the outline by hunting down and listing main ideas.

I. IR's origins
    A. followed Middle Ages
    B. arose from humanism
    C. ascension of lit and arts

II. IR's spread: where & how
    A. began in Ital. city-states
    B. cities that were major centers
    C. papacy's role

III. IR's prominent features
    A. furthering of arts
    B. advancement of new techniques & styles

IV. IR's decline
    A. French invasion (1494)
    B. sack of Rome (1527-- foreign powers?)
    C. Charles V's final nails in coffin of IR

The final bit of fleshing-out means the addition of meaningful, relevant details:

I. IR's origins
    A. followed Middle Ages
    B. arose from humanism
        1. humanism emphasized indiv. achievmt.
        2. early humanists (e.g. Petrarch) studied Gk.& Rom. classics
            for inspiratn. & ideology
        3. classical ideas were mixed w/Catholic thought
    C. ascension of lit and arts

II. IR's spread: where & how
    A. began in Ital. city-states
        1. merchants & politicians supported & commissioned great artists
        2. "products" of IR "grew up" inside city-states
    B. cities that were major centers
        1. Florence
            a. birthplace of IR
            b. was wool-trading post
            c. remained powerful thanks to Medici family (big art patrons)
        2. Papal States
            a. centered in Rome; Pope ruled
            b. papacy gained power, became seat of intl. politics; corruption, nepotism
            c. Rome flourished under papal leadership
        3. Venice & Milan
            a. grew wealthy & powerful
            b. attracted many artists & writers
            c. wielded great political influence
            d. Venice = oligarchy, noble families
            e. Milan = monarchy, powerful dukes

NB: For Section II above, did you see that I changed the outline slightly to reflect the information I had gleaned upon rereading?

III. IR's prominent features
    A. furthering of arts
        1. refinement of technique of perspective (painter Giotto, sculptor Ghiberti)
        2. followed by those who built upon their work
            a. Botticelli
            b. Donatello
        3. High Renaissance = apex of talent & production
            a. Leonardo da Vinci
            b. Raphael
            c. Michelangelo
    B. advancement of new techniques & styles
        1. invention of printing in Europe
        2. rise of lit's importance in everyday life
        3. easy distrib. of works of Boccaccio, Pico, Machiavelli

IV. IR's decline
    A. French invasion (1494)
    B. sack of Rome (1527-- foreign powers?)
    C. Charles V's final nails in coffin of IR
        1. econ. restrictions of Charles V
        2. censorship by Catholic Church in response to Protestant Reformation

The above outline takes a bit of work to make properly, and it requires you to sweep through the text several times in order to put everything in its proper place. But the effort is worth it, because you'll have looked over the text several times, and will have had to decide where, exactly, the various details should be tucked into your outline. The outline itself, once made, can now serve as a useful tool for review when it's quiz or test time.

Let's try the above technique with a bit of fiction, now, shall we? Below, I quote from an online classic: Terry Bisson's science fiction short story titled "They're Made Out of Meat." Enjoy the story, then look at the outline that follows it.

SECOND PASSAGE (from here)


"They're made out of meat."


"Meat. They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

"We're supposed to talk to meat."

"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"

"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

"I thought you just told me they used radio."

"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

"Officially or unofficially?"


"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

"I was hoping you would say that."

"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

"That's it."

"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

"They always come around."

"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

Reverse-engineering an outline from a piece of narrative fiction is, in some ways, harder than pulling the same stunt with a more academically-toned text. But because stories normally move in phases (think about the distinct scenes in a typical stage play), outlining is possible. So-- what are the phases in Bisson's story? You might analyze it differently, but here's what I see:

I. They're meat beings!

II. They've got brains and thoughts? What do they want?

III. What should we do about this discovery?

Those are the three major phases of the story. By now, you realize that the two interlocutors are unbelievably ancient aliens (they measure time in galactic rotations; the Milky Way rotates once every 250 million years, making Earth only about 20 rotations old!), and the meat-beings in question are human beings. That's right: we're the thinking meat! We're the ones making squishy meat sounds by flapping and squeezing air through our meat, the ones projecting our meat-thoughts via radio, the ones looking for other life out in the void. It's enough to make you wonder what the alien scientists are made of. In Arthur C. Clarke's fictional universes, superior aliens are often like gods-- incorporeal after having shed their material bodies aeons ago. Are Bisson's aliens like that? Or are they made out of a much tougher form of matter-- something that isn't as susceptible to the ravages of time? Perhaps these aliens are a bit naive; they do seem capable of surprise, despite being so well-traveled.

Fleshing out the above skeletal outline will involve adding a bit of detail. With a story this short, it shouldn't be hard to fill in the gaps. Here's my attempt:

I. They're meat beings!
  A. really made of meat
  B. not made of something else?

II. They've got brains and thoughts? What do they want?
  A. talk to other life
  B. explore the universe
  C. contact other aliens
  D. swap ideas
  E. they use radio to transmit meat sounds which represent meat thoughts

III. What should we do about this discovery?
  A. officially? contact them
  B. unofficially: leave them alone and remove all evidence of our existence
  C. contact other intelligences in this region of the galaxy

That wasn't too hard, was it? Just follow the narrative flow, and you'll be able to outline any story more or less systematically.

The point of all this, though, isn't that you should embrace only one particular note-taking technique. The deeper point I'm trying to make is that it's necessary to spend time with a text if you truly hope to understand it. Outlining a given passage is simply one good method for making you stop and analyze the information at hand-- to see how all the parts relate both to each other and to the whole. And as I mentioned above, an outline, once made, is an indispensable study tool for quiz or test time: it's a quick summary of the essentials.

You may be tempted to think that you can simply pick up a text, read it, miraculously commit everything to memory, and somehow manage to ace your tests. If you've got a photographic memory and a highly analytical mind, you might just get away with such laziness. But for most of us normal folks, it makes more sense to buckle down and do the hard work of reading actively and intelligently, taking notes as a way to organize and retain information.

There are no magic solutions, I'm afraid. As has been true over the millennia, study has always been an exercise in time, effort, and focus.


this week's MGRE Math Beast Challenge

From MGRE:

This Week's Problem: "Modern Banking"


An online bank verifies customers’ ownership of external bank accounts by making both a small deposit and a small debit from each customer’s external account, and asking the customer to verify the amounts. In 70% of these exchanges, the deposit and debit are within two cents of one another (for example, a deposit of $0.18 and a debit of $0.16, or a deposit of $0.37 and a debit of $0.38), and the deposit and debit are always within five cents of one another. During one week, the online bank attempts to verify 6,000 accounts in this manner, but 0.5% of the transactions do not go through, and thus no money is transferred. What is the maximum amount, in dollars, that the account verification system could have cost the bank that week?


(A) $165.30
(B) $173.40
(C) $174
(D) $256.71
(E) $258

Go to it. My answer will eventually appear in the comments, although another commenter's answer might appear there first. One remark before I go, though: that's got to be a pretty weird bank if the debit doesn't exactly match the deposit. I certainly wouldn't let any agency take two cents out of my bank account merely to verify that the account is mine!


Monday, November 21, 2011

sharpening your TOEFL listening skills

For students looking to improve their TOEFL listening skills, the TED Talks website is a wonderful tool:

TED Talks ("TED" stands for "Technology, Entertainment, and Design") are brief, entertaining lectures under 20 minutes in length, given by innovative thinkers from a variety of fields-- lab science, information technology, the arts, and business among them. Some of the lecturers speak at a blazingly fast rate; others lecture a bit more slowly and naturally.

Because the TOEFL exam involves a large, academically-themed listening component (even the Integrated Writing section involves listening), the importance of developing good listening skills cannot be stressed enough. The short TED Talks offer TOEFL students a marvelous opportunity to watch and listen to-- repeatedly if necessary-- the sorts of lectures that would occur on the TOEFL as a way of developing their note-taking and listening comprehension skills. But how? you ask. How can I use TED Talks to help me on the TOEFL? Here are several suggestions.

Method A: Note-taking

1. Watch a video. TED Talk videos are almost always less than 20 minutes long.

2. Wait a couple hours, then re-play the video, this time taking notes, BUT DO NOT WATCH: merely listen to the video (cover your monitor with something). On the TOEFL, as you know, you will hear extended lectures with no video; you should simulate those conditions at home.

3. From your notes, try to distill three or four main ideas from the presentation.

4. Write a paragraph that succinctly summarizes the talk you just heard.

Method B: Transcription

View the video once without doing anything else. Wait a few hours, then view it again, using one or both of the following tactics:

1. Try transcribing the first two minutes of the video you've selected. As accurately as possible, write down every word the speaker utters, adding appropriate punctuation. Ignore any stammering or random utterances (such as "uh..."). The result of your efforts should be a script. Or, alternatively:

2. If you feel you've caught a lot of information from your first viewing, find the most interesting part of the video, and try transcribing two minutes from that section. Check with me to verify the accuracy of your transcription. (Tutoring rates apply!)

The TOEFL exam's primary focus is on academic speaking and writing. TED Talks-- even the more artistic ones-- are all academic in nature, which makes the TED website a marvelous resource for TOEFL students. But keep in mind that the Net is large: TED is not the only website with material. YouTube is a perfectly good source as well; type a topic into YouTube's search window, and you'll find plenty of professorial lectures there, too.

There's no way to improve language skills except by using language. Practice speaking, reading, and writing, and be clever in finding ways to practice listening. Ask yourself the "Five W" questions as you listen: who, what, when, where, and why? Who is the lecturer?* Who is his/her audience? About whom is the lecturer speaking? What is the speaker lecturing about? What are three major points the lecturer makes in his/her presentation? As for when: is the lecturer talking about the present? The future? A moment in history that is somehow relevant to our present and/or future? As for where: what parts of the world does the lecturer reference? Does geography or environment play a role in the speaker's presentation? Does the speaker's talk have local or global or cosmic or even metaphysical implications? Why is this talk important? In what way is it relevant to the audience and/or humanity in general?

Listening is not merely a passive activity; you need to be engaged and questioning while you're listening, not merely nodding your head. Be proactive so that you can succeed on the TOEFL, and consider using TED Talks (or other online resources) as a way to study.

*You may have to do some outside research to figure this out.


Saturday, November 19, 2011


While this service is primarily for Korean academics needing a bit of polishing for their research papers and articles, it's also for anyone else who thinks their writing might need help.

A bit of background:

While I was living in Seoul, South Korea, I worked as an English (and French) teacher, but also did plenty of proofreading and editing work. Sometimes this meant helping students out; sometimes it meant working with college professors and corporations; once, it even meant working for a major Korean business magazine for several months. I have plenty of experience as both a proofreader and an editor, and in my current day job, I have helped many high-school students with their college-admissions essays.

The process:

Once the schedule and payment have been figured out, the client then sends payment first and emails me the document(s) in question (MS Word format, please— .doc or .docx are both OK), and I will proof and/or edit them in the allotted time (I take no action until payment has been received). This phase will involve some back-and-forth with the client, as I'll probably have several questions regarding the client's intended meaning. By the end of the allotted time, I will have sent the client a final copy, along with any notes and commentary, if the client has opted for such.

For those needing lengthier papers proofed, the first thing I need to know is how much time I'm being given. If the job must be done in less than a week, I consider it a "rush order," and I charge more for such work. Basic rates are as follows:

Proofing only: $20 per 250 words.
Proofing plus critical assessment (no editing): $22 per 250 words.
Proofing plus editing: $30 per 250 words.

See the "cheaper options" listing, below, for more details on rush jobs and package deals.

For jobs under 1000 words, I calculate word count and price without doing any rounding or estimation; above 1000 words, I round down to the nearest 500 (e.g., a 2999-word document will be treated as a 2500-word document for pricing purposes; a 2499-word document will be treated as a 2000-word document, etc.).

Proofreading and editing: what's the difference?

While these two terms have somewhat overlapping definitions, I take proofreading to mean the correction of errors in style, grammar, mechanics, spelling, etc. Content is not changed; the main point of proofreading is to allow the author to speak in as clear a voice as possible—a voice untrammeled by distracting mistakes.

Editing is more. To edit means both to proofread and to alter content with the purpose of making a work internally consistent. If I, as a proofreader, see a flaw in the logic of an argument, I won't correct it. As an editor, however, I will concern myself with logic, wordiness ("can this paragraph be merged with another or dropped altogether?"), tone, and other matters that affect a work's content.

For this reason, I don't edit research papers. Academic papers must be written entirely by the original author(s). If I intrude in this process by altering content, I essentially become a co-author, which is highly unethical. I am willing, however, to provide editorial feedback on a separate sheet of notes, which the author may use or ignore as s/he pleases. In the meantime, I merely proofread research papers.

NB: I do not double-charge people who have paid for critique and who re-submit their papers to me for a second evaluation after they have made revisions to their first draft. Second-round proofing and critique are free.

Cheaper options:

If you're planning to be a repeat customer, I have cheaper payment options available. Here are some package deals.

Proofing only:

The basic rate for this service is $20 per 250 words.
RUSH JOB: $25 per 200 words, plus a $30 one-time fee.
(One-time fee still applicable with package deal.)

1. The 25,000-word proofing-only package:
    $1600 for what would normally cost $2000 (save 20%).

2. The 50,000-word proofing-only package:
    $2800 for what would normally cost $4000 (save 30%).

3. The 100,000-word proofing-only package:
    $4400 for what would normally cost $8000 (save 45%).

Proofing plus critical assessment (no editing)—for writers of research papers:

The basic rate for this service is $22 per 250 words.
RUSH JOB: $27 per 200 words, plus a $30 one-time fee.
(One-time fee still applicable with package deal.)

1. The 25,000-word proof-and-assess package:
    $1760 for what would normally cost $2200 (save 20%).

2. The 50,000-word proof-and-assess package:
    $3080 for what would normally cost $4400 (save 30%).

3. The 100,000-word proof-and-assess package:
    $4840 for what would normally cost $8800 (save 45%).

Proofing plus editing:

The basic rate for this service is $30 per 250 words.
RUSH JOB: $35 per 200 words, plus a $30 one-time fee.
(One-time fee still applicable with package deal.)

1. The 25,000-word proof-and-edit package:
    $2400 for what would normally cost $3000 (save 20%).

2. The 50,000-word proof-and-edit package:
    $4200 for what would normally cost $6000 (save 30%).

3. The 100,000-word proof-and-edit package:
    $6600 for what would normally cost $12,000 (save 45%).

The above packages mean that I'll proofread several of your papers, articles, etc., up to the 25,000- or 50,000- or 100,000-word limit. Beyond that, I have to charge extra for any "spillover." You have the option of buying another package, of course; once you engage my services, I'll maintain an "account" to keep track of how many words you've used up. Note that being a repeat customer is, ultimately, much cheaper than consulting me sporadically.


Friday, November 18, 2011

a little lesson in religious attitudes

Below are four major religious attitudes, with explanations, presented in "mug design" form. Three of these attitudes-- exclusivism, inclusivism, and (convergent) pluralism-- were put forth as a three-part typology by religious thinkers Alan Race and John Hick several decades ago. Not everyone agrees with this categorization; some scholars nowadays feel we may have outgrown them. I, for one, use them with caution, but I do use them.

Ah, yes: the fourth category, divergent pluralism, represents a response to convergent pluralism. I hope the "mountain" metaphors are helpful for you as you ponder these ways of thinking about religious diversity.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

more French basics: le verbe PRENDRE

The verb prendre means to take. It's an irregular verb, conjugated like this in the present tense:

Je prends
Tu prends
Il/Elle/On prend
Nous prenons
Vous prenez
Ils/Elles prennent

Some sentences:

1. Ça va prendre du temps. (That's going to take some time.)

2. Va prendre ton bain. (Go take your bath.)

3. Jacques prend le train. (Jacques is taking the train.)

4. Tu prends ton sac? (Are you taking your bag/purse/pack?)

5. Ils prennent le meilleur. (They're taking the best one.)

6. Vous prenez des photos? (Are you taking pictures?)

This is another useful irregular verb. There are plenty more.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

the power of etymology

In a previous post, I talked about how etymology can be helpful in figuring out a word's meaning. In that post, I mentioned how often I came across that Latin root anima, which means "soul" or "mind." Here's another anima word:


Can you figure out its meaning?

equa-/equi- = even, balanced, level, equal

anima = mind, soul

A person who evinces equanimity is "of an even mind." In plainer language-- level-headed.

Lightsaber in hand, Kenobi faced the hulking, fanged beast before him. The monster bellowed and readied itself to charge, but the Jedi was the picture of equanimity.

Or how about:

onus = burden (straight from the Latin)

onerous (same root) = burdensome

exonerate = take out from under a burden-- specifically, to remove from under the burden of guilt

Carter was exonerated when the court determined that no evidence existed to implicate him.

Make etymology work for you.


dangling and misplaced modifiers

Do these sentences look and sound right to you?

1. As a child, it was difficult to study.

2. The young girl was walking the dog in a short skirt. (credit here)

3. Unable to come to an agreement, it was decided that Congress should adjourn for the day.

4. While sleeping, someone knocked on my door.

5. The grandmother was talking to her five-year-old grandson who liked Cuban cigars.

6. Looking over the cliff's edge, Josh felt queasy.

Only one of the above sentences features correct grammar; the other five contain either misplaced or dangling modifiers. By the time you finish reading this blog post, you ought to be able to go back to these sentences and pick out (1) which sentence among the six is correct, and (2) what type of error is found in the other five sentences. Let's talk about dangling and misplaced modifiers.


A modifier is basically a word or phrase that modifies a noun. At the most basic level, an adjective is a modifier. But a modifier might also look something like this:

At seven feet tall, Brian looked like a basketball player.

The italicized portion of the above sentence is the modifier, and it modifies Brian.

Here's an erroneous version of the above sentence:

At seven feet tall, people were awed by Brian's height.

See the problem? The modifier no longer has anything to modify. The subject of the independent clause, people, isn't the noun that should be modified-- the necessary noun is missing! So as the sentence stands, the modifier's left dangling: it's got nothing to latch on to. That's why we call this a dangling modifier. Here are some other examples, with suggested corrections.

WRONG: Screaming into the phone, the coworkers were startled by Janet's sudden rage.
RIGHT: Screaming into the phone, Janet startled her coworkers with her sudden rage.
WHY: The coworkers aren't the ones screaming into the phone, so the subject of the clause should be Janet.

WRONG: Radiating kindness, E.T.'s glowing fingertip healed Elliott's bullet wound.
RIGHT: Radiating kindness, E.T. healed Elliott's bullet wound with his glowing fingertip.
WHY: E.T., the being, is the one radiating kindness; the fingertip merely radiates energy.

WRONG: At a mere twelve years old, people marveled at little Melissa and her two doctoral degrees.
RIGHT: At a mere twelve years old, Melissa-- with her two doctoral degrees-- was a marvel.
WHY: The people aren't the ones who are twelve years old.


Misplaced modifiers represent a somewhat a different problem. In such cases, the modifier and the thing being modified are both in the sentence, but the modifier has been poorly placed, thereby altering the sentence's meaning, often in an inadvertently humorous way. Example:

The police chased the dogs in their police car.

Who's in the police car? Given that a modifier should be placed as closely as possible to the thing it's modifying, the above sentence might be read as: "The dogs got in the police car and drove it away; the policemen gave chase on foot."

A better version of the above sentence might be:

In their police car, the police chased the dogs.

Some more examples, with corrections:

WRONG: I had to take down the shutters painting the house yesterday. (credit here)
RIGHT: Painting the house yesterday, I had to take down the shutters.
WHY: The shutters weren't painting the house. (Unless this is a Disney cartoon or something.)

WRONG: On her way home, Jan found a gold man's watch. (credit here)
RIGHT: On her way home, Jan found a man's gold watch.
WHY: The man isn't made of gold; the watch is!

WRONG: The patient was referred to a psychologist with several emotional problems. (credit here)
RIGHT: The patient with several emotional problems was referred to a psychologist.
WHY: Who, exactly, has the emotional problems?

Ready for your quiz? Look at the six sentences at the beginning of this post. Can you tell which sentences have dangling modifiers in them? (Highlight for the answer: 1, 3, and 4.)

Can you tell which sentences have misplaced modifiers? (Highlight for the answer: 2 and 5.)

Can you tell which sentence is correct? (Highlight for the answer: it's Sentence 6.)

Think about how you might correct the erroneous sentences. Remember that more than one correction may be possible; the point is to eliminate the error while preserving the intended meaning. Good luck!


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fairfax County Math League problems

I brought home with me a copy of the Fairfax County Math League challenge problems that a student had shown me. Feast your eyes:

Feel free to try your hand at this set, and if you're especially brave, try to answer all the problems in the allotted time (36 minutes).

Good luck!


Monday, November 14, 2011

don't let the SAT Critical Reading section
make your head explode

At my day job, I often help students familiarize themselves with the SAT. Many of them dislike the Critical Reading section, which is composed of two parts: Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension. Here's a bit of advice for how to handle each of those parts.

I. Sentence Completion

1. Know your vocabulary. You have to know what a word means if you want to understand it. You might be able to guess a word's meaning in context, but while you have time in the weeks before you test, you should think about learning the definitions of as many SAT-level words as you can. Myriad publishers have created myriad lists of the so-called "1000 words most likely to appear on the SAT." Strangely enough, every publisher seems to have a different idea as to what those 1000 words are, which means you might want to study more than one such list.

Vocabulary words are the most basic building blocks of a language. Without knowing words, you can't even think about more complex notions like grammar. Vocab is fundamental. You know what the deadliest moment on the SAT is? It's when you've got a selection of five words... and you don't know what a single one of them means.

Here-- from the College Board's website:

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine _____ : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.

(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur

Do you know the above words? No? Then you're toast. But surely you can at least figure out that a braggart is someone who brags. Choices (B) and (E) are loan words from French; if you've studied French, you may or may not be able to figure these words out. Choice (C) is of uncertain origin, but probably French; choice (D) is derived from Latin.

The above question is ridiculously easy to answer, however, if you know these words. A braggart is someone who brags; a dilettante is a dabbler who engages in many activities, but none of them deeply; a pilferer is a thief; a prevaricator is a liar; and a raconteur is a storyteller. It should now be obvious, if it wasn't before, that (E) is the correct answer.

If you're an avid reader, take advantage of that tendency: read around. Read works that interest you, but be sure to include works that challenge you. Reading older works can be useful, too: many words on the SAT have a venerable pedigree; they've been in use for centuries. If you're not an avid reader, then you need to get reading, but try sticking with subjects that interest you. Find books about your favorite subjects that aren't written for kids. Interested in sports? There are tons of books about your favorite sport-- memoirs, books on technique, etc.-- and they'll all use SAT vocabulary at some point. Don't give up by uttering a lame, "I'm just not a reader." Well, too bad: the SAT tests reading skills. If your skills suck, don't be surprised if you end up with an execrable score.

2. Study etymologies. The two most basic etymologies to study would be Greek and Latin, but German can also be useful. I often tell my students about the Greek or Latin origins of a given word; alas, very few students actually write down what I say! But I'd recommend that you do so: print out or photocopy some etymology lists and look them over. See whether you can use those lists to help you guess at word meanings.

One root I've seen repeatedly in my tutoring sessions is anima: it's Latin for "soul" or "mind." An animal is an "ensouled" lump of matter: it's animate: because it has life, it moves. When something moves as opposed to sitting still, it's animated, like an animated cartoon or an animated keynote speaker (as opposed to a boring, lifeless keynote speaker). If you and a group of people have to vote on something, and your vote is unanimous (uni + anima), this means you've acted with one mind. A magnanimous person is generous because he or she has a great (magna) soul (anima).

Studying etymologies won't guarantee that you'll successfully decode every unfamiliar word you come across. Some roots can mean different things, so you have to be careful. Take the Latin root di-, for example: in the word dioxide, it means "two." But in the word diurnal, di- means "day," and is in fact from a totally different Latin root (dies, day). This happens sometimes: two similarly-spelled words will prove to be from two totally different roots. A harpy has nothing to do with harps, for example.

But don't let the fact that etymologies aren't a foolproof weapon discourage you: the more test-taking techniques you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to score higher on the SAT. Knowledge of etymologies is but one tool in your arsenal.

Visit for more etymological information. Wikipedia also has a pretty impressive list of Greek and Latin roots. See here.

3. Understand the sentence you're reading. Here's an example straight from the College Board's website:

Although some think the terms "bug" and "insect" are _____ , the former term actually refers to _____ group of insects.

(A) parallel . . an identical
(B) precise . . an exact
(C) interchangeable . . a particular
(D) exclusive . . a separate
(E) useful . . a useless

Very quickly, you need to understand that the word Although indicates a contrast. It also helps to realize that you're probably reading a sentence from a biology textbook, or some bio-related article. Plunge into the miniature "universe" of each sentence you encounter. It's a bit like flipping channels on TV: in a fraction of a second, you can understand whether you're looking at a movie, a game show, a commercial, a drama, a comedy, the news, etc. In the same way, as you leap from sentence to sentence in the Sentence Completion section, try to grasp what each sentence is about as quickly as you can.

Since we know the sentence is hinting at some sort of contrast, it's a good guess that the two words you'll need will either be opposites or else just very different in their meanings. We can eliminate (A) right away: "parallel/identical" isn't a pair of opposites. Same for (B): "precise/exact" isn't a pair of opposites, either. (C) is a possible candidate: the word "interchangeable" implies sameness, whereas "particular" implies distinction and difference. With (D), we're back in the swamp: (D) doesn't work because "exclusive" and "separate" may actually be synonymous, or at least notionally similar, in certain contexts. Think about an exclusive party. Is that a party for the general public? Hell, no-- it's for a group of people who are separate from the mainstream. Choice (E) is interesting because it is a pair of opposites, but once you plug those words into the blanks, you see right away that "a useless group of insects" is a hilariously ridiculous phrase. Of all of our choices, (C) seems to be the best, and (C) is indeed the correct answer.

4. Classic tip: try filling in the blank(s) with your own word(s) first. This advice follows hard on the heels of what we just talked about. Once you have a good grasp on what the sentence is saying, where the writer is coming from, it's possible to make some educated guesses as to what might go in the blanks. You can use the process of elimination discussed a paragraph ago, but you can also try guessing like this:

Although some think the terms "bug" and "insect" are [similar, synonymous] , the former term actually refers to [a different/specific] group of insects.

Notice that the guesses I wrote in the blanks don't use sophisticated vocabulary. The point, here, is to get your mind into the correct notional ball park so that, when you do finally look at the answer selections, you're mentally primed to see the correct answer right away.

This method often gets you to the correct answer more quickly than does the method described in (3.) above. But the two methods are so interrelated that you may find yourself using both nearly simultaneously. That's good! It means your brain is doing some furious parallel processing to get you to the correct answer.

II. Reading Comprehension

One thing I've learned in tutoring students the Reading Comprehension section is that attitude affects comprehension. If a student has decided that he or she hates a particular reading passage, then from that moment on, it's a struggle for the student to stay focused. The advice I have to give in this section is a bit more holistic and less technique-oriented.

First, come into the SAT session well-rested and well-breakfasted. If you're tired and hungry, there's a good chance this will affect your focus. Come in awake and alert and ready for war, not sleepy and sluggish like a doomed security guard in an action movie.

Second, practice scanning the reading passages for information. Many test prep companies recommend reading through each passage first; my own advice tends to be, "Go with what works for you." If you're a fast enough reader, then go ahead and read the passages; familiarizing yourself with them that way is very effective, and your brain, which will be operating on several levels simultaneously, may form connections that become evident to your conscious mind once you turn to the reading comp questions.

One of the best scanning methods involves reading the questions first and isolating where, in the passage, you think the answers are most likely to lie. As a rule (there are exceptions, of course!), the questions follow the flow and sequence of the passage itself: the answer to the first question is likely to be located in the first part of the passage; the answers to the ensuing questions can probably be found in the middle, etc. While not as comprehensive a method as reading the entire passage through, this strategy might save you time, and might even be your preferred method if you consider yourself a slow reader.

Third, if you have access to an SAT manual with an answer key, use the answer key to your advantage: after you've checked your answers and determined which ones you've gotten wrong, look at the correct answers to those problems, then re-scan the text to determine why those answers are correct. Find, if you can, the line numbers where the evidence is located. If the question itself provides line numbers, then write yourself a brief sentence to explain why a given answer is correct: "B is correct because the passage says..."

The point of such an exercise is to help you improve your ability to scan for information. If you initially got the problem wrong, this is because you failed to find the information you needed. Now, post-test, you have the luxury of scanning the passage at a slower speed. Do so. The cognitive skill you're learning here isn't one that can be taught directly by any teacher. As you practice scanning over and over again, you'll find yourself getting better at it.

In the meantime, practice active reading in your daily life. Don't simply scroll through an article when you're online; ask yourself questions to stimulate thought. If you're reading an article about, say, the economic crisis in Europe, ask yourself whether you know who the major players are, what historical forces have contributed to the crisis, what different solutions have been proposed, and which ones seem best. Get curious! Don't let a negative attitude affect your ability to comprehend something. Approach all texts with an open, inquisitive mind. Do what you can to develop your scanning skills, and while you're at it, build your vocabulary by noting words you don't know, defining them, and writing sentences with them. Don't be afraid to Google words and see how they appear in various sentences. You can learn a lot that way.

III. Conclusion

People who do well on the SAT are those who practice this sort of global mindfulness: they're awake, alert, and curious about whatever they're reading. They care about their futures and are proactive in their attempts to master the SAT. They energetically strive to build vocabulary, understand words in context, think logically about conceptual interrelationships, and ask questions about whatever they're reading. You can do that, too. It means a lot of work, but now is the time to be doing such work.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

this is too cool for words

Here's an article (with video) about a superhydrophobic coating. Do be sure to watch that video-- it's amazing, especially when the guy pours chocolate syrup on a treated shoe.

Imagine the stuff you could waterproof with that product! Imagine the ridiculous new rain gear you could create-- or the (temporary) kitchenware, like bowls, made out of materials that you'd normally never use as bowls!

This is also a good opportunity to learn some vocab: Superhydrophobic breaks down to the roots super (Latin super, exceeding/above the norm), hydro (Greek hydros, water), and phobia (Greek phobos, fear or dread). Something that's superhydrophobic, then, is abnormally "afraid" of water. Obviously, in science, inanimate or abiotic objects aren't described as being literally fearful; the idea, in this case, is that a hydrophobic surface will repel any water that comes in contact with it. According to the video, superhydrophobic materials don't merely resist water: they shoot water away from themselves.

(Soft contact lenses, meanwhile, are described as hydrophilic. The Greek philia means "love.")


Friday, November 11, 2011

the fundamental question of religious studies

What is religion?

That's the most basic question fueling all inquiry in the field of religious studies. For such a seemingly simple word, definitions of religion are devilishly hard to come by. One of the first grad-school courses I took during my MA program at Catholic University began with this very question. We students were asked to take a few minutes to write down provisional definitions of the term, and then to share them with the class. Some of my classmates came up with very elaborate, often over-precise definitions. My own definition was threadbare:

Human response to ultimate reality.

I didn't want to say that religion involved belief in a higher power or a deity; that would have excluded atheistic and nontheistic Buddhists, and possibly even advaitic Hindus, whose God-language refers to something ineffable. I didn't want to specify whether religious practice was private/individual or public/corporate, since both forms of practice exist. I didn't want to restrict my definition only to those who self-identified as religious: atheists, after all, also have some sort of orientation toward (and opinion about) ultimate reality, whether they define it as synonymous with the physical world or deny that ultimate reality is a reality at all. I didn't want to say whether religions must include ritual; I'd argue that some religious responses have nothing to do with ritual.

The professor smiled a pained smile and called my definition "cagey." She was right: it was. It didn't, and doesn't, seem like much of a definition at all. But most of my classmates' definitions sucked, quite frankly, because they were too provincial, and because it was too easy to think of exceptions. I like to think that the only real challenge you can mount against my definition is that the animal and plant world also participate in ultimate reality, so it's unfair to restrict my definition to human responses. But the charge of anthropocentrism doesn't make me lose any sleep. If it turns out that squirrels and piranha and viruses are recognizably religious, then I'll revise my definition accordingly. No sweat.

A Korean Zen master once told me his own definition of religion-- one that was even simpler than mine:

Religion is deepest teaching.

I've grown to love this definition over time, and I've had years to think about it. I love the definition for what it says as well as for what it doesn't say. The word deepest takes us, in true Zen fashion, right to the heart of the matter. Nothing less than deepest will do! The word teaching implies relationships and interconnection: that Deepest Thing, unnameable but at the core of our being, is passed lovingly from heart to heart.

But what do you think? What, in your view, is religion? Feel free to use the comments section to provide your own answer.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

French 1 basics: interrogative pronouns and
question formation


The 5 Ws in English:


And we need to include How, which doesn't begin with a W, but is nonetheless included in the roster of so-called "WH questions." (The word how has both an h and a w, n'est-ce pas?)

In French, it gets a bit dicey. One of the above pronouns has more than one French equivalent, based on context. Here, first, are the straightforward pronouns:

Who = Qui

When = Quand

Where = Où

Why = Pourquoi

How = Comment

What is expressed differently in French depending on context. See here:

Qu'est-ce que tu manges? (Qu'est-ce que = what in front of a standard question)
Que manges-tu? (Que = what at the beginning of a question in inversion form)
Tu manges quoi? (Quoi = what at the end of a standard question)

All three of the above express the question "What are you eating?" There are some nuanced differences in meaning, which we won't discuss here, but the main point is that all three questions use different forms of what to convey essentially the same interrogative.

One last form of what borrows from comment:

A: Qu'est-ce que tu manges?
B: Comment?

In the above exchange, "Comment?" doesn't mean "How?" It's a polite version of "What?" (Sort of like "Pardon?" or "Excuse me?") In ruder French, one might use "Quoi?" in place of "Comment?"

Try your hand at inserting the proper word into the following declaratives, questions, and dialogues.

1. _____ tu fais? (from faire, which means to do)

2. Tu vas _____ ? (from aller, to go)

3. _____ est cet homme?

4. Tu t'appelles _____ ?

5. _____ étudies-tu le français?

6. _____ est-ce qu'il arrive?

7. Tu fais _____ ?

A: _____ ?
B: J'ai dit que tu es belle! (I said you're beautiful!)

Answers below. Highlight to see.

1. Qu'est-ce que tu fais? (You can't use quoi at the beginning of a question, and que would require inversion grammar.)

2. Tu vas où? (You're going where? Where are you going? Other pronouns might be possible, such as comment or pourquoi, but the question would need to be rephrased to something like Tu y vas...?)

3. Qui est cet homme? (Who is that man?)

4. Tu t'appelles comment? (You learned this during the first week or so of French 1!)

5. Pourquoi étudies-tu le français? (Why are you studying French? Comment might work here as well, but wouldn't sound as natural. Don't overthink! Go for the most obvious answer.)

6. Quand est-ce qu'il arrive? (When is he arriving?)

7. Tu fais quoi? (A different version of Qu'est-ce que tu fais? Remember that quoi comes at the end of a non-inverted question.)

8. Comment? (Excuse me?)

In the above examples and exercises, you've already had a glimpse of what we're going to discuss next: question formation in French. Before we leap to that section, though, I'll note one other interrogative pronoun that's rather important: Combien. It means How much/many? Examples:

Ça coûte combien? (How much does that cost?)
Combien d'élèves y a-t-il dans la salle? (How many students are there in the [class]room?)
Combien peses-tu? (How much do you weigh?)
Tu en veux combien? (You want how many of them?)


There are three ways to form questions in French:

1. the "standard" form with "Qu'est-ce que" (or another interrogative locution) at the beginning

2. the "inverted" form

3. the "standard" form with an interrogative pronoun at the end

Here's the question "What do you think?" rendered three ways, per the above:

1. Qu'est-ce que tu penses?
2. Que penses-tu?
3. Tu penses quoi?

Here's "What's he doing?" done three ways:

1. Qu'est-ce qu'il fait? (que + il = qu'il)
2. Que fait-il?
3. Il fait quoi?

Here's "Where do you work?" done three ways:

1. Où est-ce que tu travailles?
2. Où travailles-tu?
3. Tu travailles où?

Use the verb manger (to eat) to write "What are they eating?" three different ways. Use the feminine plural pronoun elles for they. Try it first on your own, then highlight to see the answers.

1. Qu'est-ce qu'elles mangent?
2. Que mangent-elles?
3. Elles mangent quoi?


The third person singular inverted form can occasionally get weird. You can't say, for example:

Que pense-il?

To the French ear, the above sounds incomplete, so you need to add a consonant sound between the pense and the il. The French use "t" for this. The proper form, then, is:

Que pense-t-il?

If a verb ends with a d in the third person singular, no extra t is necessary. Example:

Que prend-il? (What's he taking?)

WRONG: Que mange-il?
RIGHT: Que mange-t-il?

Try making questions with the following words.

1. tu/étudier/que (quoi, etc.)

2. elle/penser/que (quoi, etc.)

3. nous/aller/où

4. vous/arriver/quand

5. elles/travailler/où

6. tu/frapper ton frère (hit your brother)/pourquoi

Stick your answers to the above in the comments section, if you want. I hope this exercise has been helpful! Study hard!


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

who/whom redux

Here's a poser for you. See if you can fill in the blanks with the correct words for these sentences:

1. This is a woman _____ I feel is capable of handling the job.
(a) who
(b) whom

2. This is a woman _____ I consider capable.
(a) who
(b) whom

At first blush, it might seem to you that the answer in both cases is "whom." But you'd be wrong to think so. Look carefully at sentence #1, and you'll see a nearly-hidden parenthetical expression there: the phrase (actually a clause) I feel. You can imagine that phrase surrounded by commas, yes? Which means, further, that you can imagine that phrase being removed from the sentence without changing the sentence's basic meaning. Try it out:

This is a woman _____ is capable of handling the job.

By now, it should be obvious that the relative pronoun who-- answer (a)-- belongs in the first sentence:

This is a woman who I feel is capable of handling the job. (original version)
This is a woman who is capable of handling the job. (without parenthetical)
This is a woman who, I feel, is capable of handling the job. (parenthetical with commas)

With the commas in place, it's a lot easier to see why we should use who, right?

Let's turn to sentence #2. Do you see any such parentheticals? No? Then the relative pronoun whom belongs in that blank, because whom is the object of the verb consider. To wit:

This is a woman whom I consider capable.

You can't remove the phrase I consider without doing considerable damage to the sentence:

This is a woman whom capable.

Freakish, mutant sentence. I consider is not a parenthetical.

See whether you can figure out what belongs in each of the following sentences. Answers are listed after the exercises; highlight to see them.

1. She's the only team member _____ I trust completely.
(a) who
(b) whom

2. Harold and Kumar are the ones _____ ate the Christmas cookies.
(a) who
(b) whom

3. Harold and Kumar are the ones _____ I'm convinced should run for president and vice president.
(a) who
(b) whom

4. Of all the people _____ I consider to be possible replacements, Alfredo strikes me as the most qualified.
(a) who
(b) whom

5. I won't go out with a woman _____ thinks I'm an idiot. Unless she's rich.
(a) who
(b) whom

6. I won't go out with a woman for _____ I'm a mere love slave.
(a) who
(b) whom

7. He's the one _____ , after I hit his cousin, chased me across the country on a riding mower.
(a) who
(b) whom

ANSWERS (highlight to see): 1 = B; 2 = A; 3 = A; 4 = B; 5 = A; 6 = B; 7 = A.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

writing an essay for the SAT I

On the SAT I (which we old-timers knew simply as "the SAT," back when it had only two sections), you've got Math and you've got Verbal sections. The Verbal subdivides into Critical Reading (which further subdivides into Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension) and Writing-- each considered a section in its own right. The Writing section contains a Multiple Choice portion (error identification, sentence improvement, paragraph improvement) and an Essay portion. This post focuses on the Essay portion, which counts for one-third of the total Writing score (Multiple Choice counts for two-thirds). To be honest, I consider this-- the Essay portion-- a rather minor part of the SAT; some colleges apparently ignore the Writing section altogether in their evaluations of a student's portfolio, and the Essay portion itself, being only one-third the total value of the entire Writing section, isn't something I'd worry too much about if you have to budget your time and energy to study for the entire SAT I. Still, it's important to keep in mind the following tips:

1. The Essay section is graded according to a commonsense notion of good writing, so WRITE WELL.

You'll have 25 minutes to write an entire essay. This really means you have about 15 minutes: 5 minutes to plan (brainstorm and outline), 15 minutes to write, and 5 minutes at the end to proofread like the wind. Practice writing quickly and neatly; get to a point where you can squeeze a lot of ideas into a limited amount of space. Don't worry about your hand cramping; bear the pain and keep on writing.

The scoring scale for the Essay portion is from 0 to 6. Here's a link to the College Board's scoring guide for the Essay. Two raters will rate your essay; their scores will be added together for a total from 0 to 12. If you're in the 10-12 range, you can be proud of the job you've done. If you're in the 8-9 range, you've done fairly well, but not great. If you're below an 8, then you've got problems, and it may be too late to teach you how to write. People scoring at that level have already developed too many bad habits to unlearn in a short time.

If you're the type of student who bothers to read a tutoring blog, you're not likely to get a 0, so we won't worry about that. Most students need to worry about scoring higher than a 6 (i.e., a 3 and a 3 from two raters), which is, as you can imagine, a mediocre score. Remember that SAT scores aren't about passing or failing, however: different colleges will look at your scaled scores and assess you according to their own standards.

What is "good writing"? If you followed the above link to the College Board site, then you learned that the College Board's notion of good writing isn't far removed from what your own teachers have been telling you for years and years: you need to demonstrate clarity, organization, logicality, and persuasiveness. Reason and emotion, which together form the grounds of rhetoric, are your guardian angels. Heed them well. You need them both.

I've already written about writing logically and clearly; feel free to peruse that blog post at your leisure. Note, however, that with only 5 minutes to brainstorm and outline your essay, you can't expect to be making detailed outlines. At the same time, you'll want to avoid the mistake of simply rushing into writing your essay with no thought as to what details you'll be using to support your argument. Running out of ideas, while the clock is ticking, is deadly on the SAT. The clock stops for no one, and no one at the College Board will care about your excuses for being unable to come up with any ideas. You're just a student number to them; the raters have no clue who you are.

So: be organized, be clear, be logical, be persuasive. While you're at it, if you're looking to earn a 6, avoid making silly mistakes in spelling and grammar, and for goodness' sake be sure your penmanship is legible. The old rule, croaked by every teacher in every subject you've ever taken, is: If I can't read it, it's wrong. That applies as much to the SAT Essay as it does to math, science, or any other subject. SAT Essay raters will take only about 2 or 3 minutes to evaluate your essay; they've been trained to perform such analyses very quickly. I know: I was trained by ETS to be a TOEFL essay rater, which involves much the same skill set. Essay raters won't take any time to marvel at every single point you make; they have to rate holistically, i.e., their ratings are based, not merely on the details they see, but on their overall impression of the whole essay. Did they have to struggle through your horrible handwriting in order to understand your point? If so, you're certainly not getting a 6. Did they trip repeatedly over bad grammar and careless spelling? That's another point gone. Did they have trouble navigating your slipshod logic? Well-- sloppy writing equals sloppy thinking, so there goes another point. And so on. Help the raters out by giving them a smooth ride through your argumentation.

2. Budget your time wisely. If you have to choose between preserving overall structure and writing an incomplete essay, go for preserving the structure.

You've probably had the notion of the five-paragraph essay drummed into you: intro, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Here's the problem, and I've noticed this with a lot of my students: people will start writing SAT essays that have beautiful, top-heavy introductions... and then they won't be able to finish in the allotted time. If I were a rater reading such an essay, there's no way I'd be giving it more than a 3... and a 3 would be generous! I hear you asking: Why not show a little compassion to the student who has begun well? Two reasons occur to me right off the bat: first, the student hasn't demonstrated any ability to pace him-/herself, so why should I reward that inability? Second, the student hasn't done the most basic thing, which is answer the question. Again-- as a rater, why should I reward the student for not having met the most basic requirement?

So what should a student do in that situation, if s/he knows that s/he is a slow writer, and won't be able to write a full, five-paragraph essay in the allotted time? I say to you: cut your losses. Go for a streamlined intro and conclusion, and use only two body paragraphs. A score of 6 is possible with only four paragraphs; the College Board has acknowledged this. All the same, I wouldn't consider a 6 likely if you write a shorter essay, but the point is to write something complete, something that'll allow you to aim for a 5. Don't leave the essay rater hanging by turning in an essay that begins beautifully, then coughs, sputters, and dies well before the finish line. A fair-to-poor score on the Essay section can exert an evil gravitational pull on the rest of your Writing score. That's precisely the fate you want to avoid.

Learning to budget your time is something that comes with practice, practice, practice. Find a list of typical SAT Essay topics and just start churning out essays. Get an honest friend to critique your efforts. Ask your English teacher for help in this area. (And hey-- I am a tutor, so think about registering with me if you want my help!) There's simply no substitute for hard work. Don't be disappointed if your first few efforts go awry-- if you find you're still writing when time is called, or that your essay is a logical mess. As long as you practice mindfully and have someone to help you, you will improve.

3. Adopt a clear position.

There's little use in doing any of the above if your strategy is to write as neutral or wishy-washy an essay as possible. You need to take a firm, clear stance that directly addresses the essay prompt. The prompt itself is usually in two parts: a quote from a famous thinker, followed by a starkly-worded yes/no (or Choice A/B) question. Here's an example, straight from the College Board site:

You have twenty-five minutes to write an essay on the topic assigned below.

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

Many persons believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget the past, repress it, and relinquish it. But others have just the opposite view. They see old memories as a chance to reckon with the past and integrate past and present.
--Adapted from Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, I've Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation

Assignment: Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Assuming five minutes to plan your essay, you need to do several things at once:

a. Be sure you understand what the essay prompt is asking for.
b. Figure out your stance.
c. Get brainstorming and outlining!
d. Write!

I've had a few students who failed to understand the question being asked, and they went on to write essays that completely missed the point. Quite a few students seem uncomfortable with SAT essay prompts, because the prompts tend to be about Big Thoughts-- ideas and notions that are philosophical in nature. While Big Thoughts may seem intimidating to you, rest assured that the College Board isn't asking you to wax philosophical: the expectation is that you'll present the SAT Essay raters with a narrowly focused thesis and equally focused essay. Yes, the prompt is cosmic in scope; no, you don't have to write cosmically. Quite the contrary: write specifically.

Let's look at the above block-quoted example. Do you get what it's asking for? The issue of success seems important here, but success is a vague, general notion, so you need to decide what your idea of success is. Is success about financial/material gain? Is it about being satisfied with where you are in life? Is it about the attainment of fame? Spiritual enlightenment? Being able to look in the mirror, and liking what you see? You need to figure this out within the first 30 seconds, because success can mean a host of different things. Without locking down your view of success, you risk writing a loose, potentially incoherent essay. NB: The Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot quote seems to lean toward an equation of success with personal achievement. Still vague, but possibly something to work with.

The prompt doesn't stop there, of course: success is linked with how we handle the past. Does the past (i.e., our memories) help or hinder us on the path to success? The prompt writer is actually trying to help you here by offering you two clear choices: (a) the past can be helpful on the path to success; (b) the past can hinder us on the path to success.

You'll need to decide very quickly what your stance is. Yes or no? Pro or con? A or B? The essay prompt has presented you with stark choices, and it's often best to follow one of those choices. But, I hear you asking, what if I find the extremes ridiculous and want to adopt a nuanced 'middle' position?

That's an excellent question, and the wisdom on this is varied. Many test prep centers (the company I work for says this, too) recommend that you avoid taking a middle position because of the high risk of sounding wishy-washy. Hogwash! I say. A middle position is perfectly respectable... but this doesn't exempt you from the obligation to be clear and firm in your stance. An essay filled with a series of "I believe X, but on the other hand Y" makes for an awful-- not to mention frustrating-- read. The SAT Essay rater needs to have a clear understanding of your position in order to give you the high score. Keep all this in mind as you figure out where you stand.

[NB: The College Board strongly implies that an essay that adopts a middle position won't be penalized. Click this link to see an essay that received a 4; it received that mediocre score not because it took a middle path, but for other reasons. In fact, the rater complimented the student for adopting a nuanced position: "This essay provides adequate reasons and examples to support both aspects of its point of view..., thus demonstrating competent critical thinking."]

And now: this is the moment to start brainstorming. Our memories: a help or a hindrance as we strive to succeed? Rewording the prompt in this way can help make it clearer in your mind. Draw a quick chart, if that helps you; label one side "HELP" and the other side "HINDER," then start listing examples of each. You're brainstorming, so don't waste time using complete sentences. Just jot down words and phrases that come to you, no matter how lame-sounding they might be.

Strangely enough, it may not matter what your actual opinion is: if you find you've gathered more ideas on the side of the chart that you weren't leaning toward, you should stick with writing an essay about that. Example: your personal opinion is that your memories can help you on the path to success, but as you brainstorm, you realize that you've got five examples in the "HINDER" column and only one example in the "HELP" column. If that's the case, then stick with "HINDER" as your thesis. Why? Because, quite simply, you can't write an essay without ideas to fuel it.

Let's say you've got six or seven quick ideas under the "HINDER" column. That's more than enough. Pluck out the best of those ideas, and start outlining.

I. intro-- THESIS: hinder

II. body
  A. attchmt to past = not cnstructiv
  B. memories ≠ PLANS
  C. lookg backwd = usu more pessimistic thn lookg fwd

III. conc

Notice anything missing from the above outline? Oh, yeah: actual, concrete examples! We'll deal with that next.

4. Choose your examples wisely.

You're pressed for time. You really need to start writing. My hope is that, while you were brainstorming, you thought of some good examples to fit into your outline. (You may, in fact, have to brainstorm and outline simultaneously! Five minutes isn't a lot of time, after all.) In case you're not sure where to look for examples, here's a list of possible sources:

1. Your personal life. Yes, it's perfectly OK to mine your own life for details, although I wouldn't recommend over-using this option. You can, in fact, fabricate an episode from your life; no one on the College Board will be the wiser. Lying is perfectly OK, as long as your example remains within the realm of the plausible. (Don't write about how your dog was able to talk and do higher math after the aliens dropped it back in your yard.)

2. Literature, TV, and other pop-culture sources. Is there a character on TV with whom you can relate? Has that character been in a situation where putting aside/dismissing memories of the past was crucial to that character's success/fulfillment/etc.? Can you think of a character whose attachment to the past proved destructive, e.g., someone so hell-bent on revenge that s/he ended up destroying him-/herself? (Captain Ahab certainly comes to mind. Hamlet arguably loses his sanity, then loses his life in his quest to avenge himself upon his uncle Claudius.) Literature and pop culture are rich with such references. Just make sure you get the story facts straight, or you'll end up embarrassing yourself. (Don't write about Hamlet fighting Grendel, for example.)

3. History. Real-life personalities are arguably better examples than fictional characters. Surely you can think of any number of successful people, be they businessmen or politicians or military leaders or religious figures-- or even successful writers and orators who defied the odds to become great. All those years of taking history class after history class should stand you in good stead at this moment on the SAT. (If you're using an example from history, don't fictionalize!)

With all these sources at your disposal, I find it hard to imagine that you'll completely blank out during the test. If you do blank out, it's probably because you (1) haven't properly understood the essay prompt, and (2) haven't bothered brainstorming and outlining. Some talented students think they can tough it out and just start writing. If you know yourself well enough to try such a trick, then go for it with confidence! You'll definitely save time by not having to pause and plan. But most students need to take those crucial five minutes to formulate some sort of plan of attack. In all probability, you, Dear Reader, belong to that crowd. Start writing!

To sum up, then-- these are the four crucial tips to help you maximize your score on the SAT Essay.

1. Write well: logically, clearly, persuasively.

2. Budget your time and pace yourself.

3. Adopt a clear position, and show it in your essay's thesis.

4. Choose your examples wisely: make them cogent and relevant.

Good luck!