Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Math is Hard... and Then You Die: Chapter 4


So I started at Cal State Hayward as an English major. I took all the required courses a freshman must take, basic science, Italian as my foreign language, history, math, etc. I took at least one or two English classes a quarter, which left room for a lot of other stuff. I decided to take a computer class from the math and computer science department, which is still the way the department is set up at Cal State, an unusual set-up these days, but not so much in the 1970's, the stone age of computer science education.

This was fun. Even having to write a program on punch cards, waiting a half hour to an hour to have some technician take the stuff upstairs to the mainframe, getting your output back and seeing if the instructions you gave the computer were actually what you wanted to say or if you had a bug in your code, there was a real sense of accomplishment. I was enjoying programming from the very first. (In contrast to the picture above, I would like to say that I didn't drink beer while programming, and back in college, I would have been drinking Olympia or Henry Weinhard's.)

And then there were English classes. Sometimes I worked on stories in creative writing diligently, with only marginal results. Sometimes I tossed something together the night before class and got an A. I didn't get into any rhythm.

If creative writing was hit and miss, my first literature class was more like warning shot across my bow. I liked the teacher well enough, I was involved in the class discussion (just try shutting me up!), but when we got to Goodbye, Columbus, my teacher and I had our first big disagreement. Not to throw in any racial stereotype, but Mr. Ratner was Jewish and from the East Coast, and I think having disagreements with an 19 year old California goy boy over what Philip Roth was trying to say wasn't something he relished.

My point was that for a working class kid from Newark, the life of the rich family of his girlfriend from Short Hills was almost godlike to him. Yes, they were Jewish like his family, but instead of having a bump in her nose, his girlfriend has "a diamond", in Roth's words. Fruit magically always appears from their refrigerator. I made the metaphorical comparison that Short Hills was like Olympus, and if Short Hills fell short, well, Newark wasn't exactly Athens, either. I was adding too many non-Jewish ideas to an essentially Jewish story, and my criticism didn't go over very well.

That was the quarter I decided to switch from English to computer science. To take more computer science classes, I would have to take linear algebra and calculus, so I started to learn the first math in a class that I would never have been able to pick up on my own.

Coming tomorrow: Ted Tracewell and the Glory of Group Theory.


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Now playing: They Might Be Giants - I Should Be Allowed To Think
via FoxyTunes

4 comments:

dguzman said...

I love learning about you and your paths to math-godness. Keep 'em coming, and remember that all English professors became a-holes automatically once they earned their PhDs. That's the only explanation I could ever come up with during my MANY arguments with my professors.

FranIAm said...

Thank you.

Splotchy said...

I have been confronted with more than one teacher who has knocked the enthusiasm for a subject out of me. I wonder what it would be like if I got a different teacher instead, would I have gone down a different path.

Still, I guess the choice is always inside ourselves, and a bad experience maybe reveals things about our interests that we may have not been fully conscious of.

That said, enough with the sucky philosophy teachers already!

Distributorcap said...

boy you have a interesting math past....

and considering i grew up right next to Short Hills