Where Have All the Emails Gone?

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

By Gene Wilburn

Things come and go in the computer world. Recently I’ve heard the term “post-browser era” to describe the way we use the internet, accessing the net via apps on our phones, tablets, and media players, rather than from Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or whatever Microsoft is offering at the moment. I don’t mind this at all. I use apps on my iPad for Facebook, Google News, Flickr, and Gmail, switching over to a browser when needed. I watch Netflix and YouTube via apps on my Apple TV. Even so, I never thought we’d drift into a “post-email era.”

Email, one of the earliest services developed for the internet, has been my primary communications medium with friends for years. Getting an email address on the internet was once a rite of passage — if you had one, you were part of something big, worldwide big. If you were in early you used character-based email programs like mutt, elm, or pine, or, if you were really geeky, emacs. If you were on a communications system you might use the email programs from AOL or Compuserve. From early days these “apps” provided ways to organize emails into folders so you could move things from your inbox and store them for later reference.

Later, as graphical interfaces became popular, there were email client options like the lovely Eudora, the workaday Thunderbird, the unexciting Mac Mail, and the deplorable Microsoft Outlook.

As the web grew, browser-side email clients like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo Mail became popular. I still use Gmail to this day, and access it either through a browser or through the Gmail app on my iPad. And local email clients such as Mac Mail, Outlook, and Thunderbird can be configured as front ends to the webmail services.

The thing is, I have conversations going back to the early 90s in my email archives. Decades worth of correspondence. It provides me with a kind of conversation diary of what we were doing when and where, and what we all thought of it. In the mid-90s there were a lot of conversations about setting up the Maplepost and Cdnfolk listservers and how to deal with Novell network issues. I was helping people set up web sites, and I was corresponding with musicians and promoters as I was putting together the book Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music on CD. I was in contact with various computer magazine editors about writing articles for them. My email archive contains an enormous amount of personal history.

Is there such a thing as personal history in things like Apple’s Messages or Facebook’s Messenger? Kind of, sort of, maybe, but not really. And do you have any way to organize discussions? Will it even be there in ten years?

Don’t get me wrong. Messaging is great for quick messages to someone waiting for you — “The train is running late” sort of thing. But I suspect we’ve lost a valuable methodology by switching from email to messaging. The irony is that email is still there, as good as ever, and the world is largely ignoring it for personal communications.

It makes me pine for the days of pine.

God and the Slingshot

God and the Slingshot

By Gene Wilburn

My main passion as a kid was baseball. In Rock Falls, Illinois, in the early 1950s, we lived in a mixed blue-collar white-hispanic neighourhood and my best buddy, Felipe Gallegos and I pored over the box scores and the statistics of the Chicago White Sox every day in the daily newspaper. His parents took a paper and mine didn’t so I spent a lot of time at his house. What intrigued me about Felipe’s bedroom, where we lay sprawled on the carpet with the sports page spread out under our faces, was that he had a little chapel sort of thing in the corner.

It housed a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a rosary crucifix hanging from it, and a lit flickering votive candle in a red glass container. It was rather beautiful and I’d never seen anything like it. I knew that it was Catholic, though, and because I’d occasionally overheard white Protestant grownups mumble disparagingly about Catholics and their statues and symbols, it seemed slightly illicit. It was also the first time I had seen religious objects in a home, rather than in a church, and that felt a little spooky.

I can’t remember ever being especially drawn to religion as a youngster but one day some of my mom’s faith rubbed off on me. She was a first-generation Swedish-American who didn’t speak a word of English until she went to her one-room country schoolhouse. Unto her last she was Lutheran, which she always pronounced Luteran. She was quietly but deeply religious and I respected her for it. My step-dad, I think he was vaguely religious, more to please my mom than anything else. There was no Lutheran church near us though so we went to a local non-denominational Protestant church that was relatively mild, plain, and homespun.

On that day mom got talking to me about God, and how through the power of prayer, if you had sufficient faith, God could make your prayers come true. She quoted a Bible verse to the effect of if you had as much faith as the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains, or some such.

I thought it marvellous that He (always referred to as masculine) would grant your prayers, so I decided to put it into practice because there was nothing I wanted more than a slingshot. Some of the neighbour boys had made them from a red-rubber inner tube found in a vacant lot, and they let me try it out. The sheer joy of finding a good stone, aiming it at a fence post, and watching it arc through the air toward the target was one of the greatest pleasures I had yet encountered, and I desperately wanted to be member of the slingshot club.

So I went outside to a shady spot in the back yard where I sat down to pray. In the history of Christendom, I’m certain no little boy ever prayed harder or more innocently. I concentrated on praying so hard I got dizzy from the effort. Just deliver it to the side door step, I requested, as politely and believingly as can be. I prayed so hard that if I were to do that at my age today I’d likely have a stroke. I rose from prayer feeling holy and I just knew that slingshot was sitting on the porch waiting for me.

I was already plunking fence posts in my mind as I went to retrieve my miraculous slingshot. I was stunned, and confused, when I didn’t find it there. I checked on the ground around it in case God missed the step itself. He must have to hurry to make all his rounds of prayers, I thought, ot maybe he put it on the wrong step, so I checked the step at the front of the house and the back of the house, and all the yards, but no slingshot could I find.

I distinctly remember thinking “well … that didn’t work” and shrugging my shoulders. It was nearly time to visit Felipe anyway, and I wondered how the Sox had fared against the Orioles. Maybe Minnie Minoso had driven in Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox again. Or hit one of his occasional home runs.

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Englische wel singest (th)u cuccu

Had I an ear for foreign tongues, French would fizz through my synapses in an embrace of lilac and elegance. The wine would be good too. Anglo-Saxon would flood my veins with tribal bonds and hard sinews, and roast meat, when you could get it. Icelandic and Old Swedish would carry me home to lands of ice and sea and foam and goddenknowing — the home of my ancestors. The gods know I hate mead. It’s a good thing I’m stuck in English, the earthy, quirky, surprising language mashed together from an Anglo-Celtic-Danish-Norman-Latin-and-less-Greek parentage. Stir in an industrial revolution, an electronic revolution, not to mention a few wars and the threat of the BIG bomb, pop some guys to the moon and back, joystick a rover on Mars, and whaddaya get? English. Hey, kiddo. Ya still with me? English is the best ride in the linguistic universe. Death-defying, roller-coaster spelling. Split into pools of speakers around the world who all think it’s the others who have an accent. And from the fifth grade when the first time you tried to spell antidisestablishmentarianism and got it right and can still do it but damned if you can remember how to spell covfefe without looking it up — I mean it’s an adventure, this English. One lifetime devoted to it is scarcely enough. To thee, or not to thee, English is the Hamlet of languages.

— Gene Wilburn, 6 Jun 2017

Confessions of an Avid E-Reader

Confessions of an Avid E-reader

By Gene Wilburn

“When I was young, I was reading anything and anything I could lay my hands on. I was a veracious-to-the-point-of-insane reader” ~ Neil Gaiman

Whether you became a reader type of person right off, starting with the Dick and Jane books at school, or developed into a reader later in life, as I did in my teens when I discovered science fiction and fantasy, once in, never out. Becoming an avid reader is one of the blessings the universe can bestow upon the receptive mind. Reading is a gateway drug into imagination, knowledge, philosophy, and the great narrative stories of the past and present.

Some readers prefer factual narratives, in the form of history and biography or science, while others prefer to dive into imaginary adventures of literature, sleuthing, romance, space travel, or imaginary landscapes where the rules of the universe are different. To travel with Hobbits, to visit aliens, to enter magical woods where coyotes talk to you, to share Woolf’s pleasure in a room with a view, to madly hunt a great white whale, to fit into respectable 18th-Century society while grinning at its foibles, or to bandy words with Socrates. There is no limit.

One thing many readers prefer is a physical book, hardback or paperback, and I’d never argue with this point of view. The texture, the smell, the feel of a book in hand — these are all wonderful things. But, for some of us, an electronic book, read in a dedicated ereader or ereader app, serves just fine, thanks, especially for books with few illustrations.

What I like about ebooks in general is their convenience, plus the ability to adjust font size, and margins to my liking. That they’re searchable is a bonus, not to mention being able to mark passages and copy them if desired. The latest readers and apps allow you to choose the kind of background you prefer, from white to sepia to inverted black and white.

The other major thing I like about them is that I can borrow ebooks from the public library from the comfort of my home — in the middle of the night, quite often. Although I purchase a fair number of ebooks, especially from authors I try to support, I rely on the library for casual fare such as murder mysteries and police procedurals, or to try out new authors.

And then there’s portability. My main library goes with me everywhere. It’s on my Kobo Aura One, my iPad Mini, and my iPhone, and I frequently read from them if I’m on the commuter train or waiting in a medical office. I have significantly reduced the amount of shelf space needed to house my remaining paper books. By now I’ve replaced most of my favourite reads with e-editions.

The physical form factor of the ereading device is important. It’s tedious to read a book on a PC or Mac screen. Dedicated ereaders from Kobo and Amazon (Kindle) are a good hand-holding size, fairly close in size to a paperback novel. Small tablets, such as the iPad Mini or Kindle Fire are also easy devices to hold. The full-size tablets make good ereaders, but are more tiring to hold, though their larger size makes them better for reading PDFs.

And then there’s the ereader secret weapon: the ability to read a book in the dark. This makes them ideal for reading in bed. If you fall asleep while reading, the device will simply shut itself off in fifteen minutes or so of inactivity.

Different e-readers and e-reader apps have different personalities. The dedicated e-readers, such as the Kobo Aura One or the Kindle Paperwhite, that use e-ink technology are notable for being easy to read in bright light or sunlight. Because they’re reflective rather backlit, like a tablet, many people find them easier on the eyes. All the current models of dedicated readers have lamps built in that illuminate the page of reading in dim light, but they shine on the surface rather than lighting the device from behind the words.

Dedicated e-readers are linked to online bookstores where you can purchase books and have them delivered to the device in seconds via built-in wi-fi. The Kindle devices are linked to Amazon while the Kobo devices are linked to the Kobo Store, which, as near as I can determine, is associated with Indigo-Chapters in Canada. The dedicated readers include a sizeable selection of reading fonts in both serif and sans serif styles. I’m partial to the Kobo readers because Kobo began as a Canadian company before being bought out by Rakuten, a Japanese firm.

Most people, however, prefer to use e-reader apps on their tablets rather than adding a separate device to their collection of electronics. The Overdrive Media application used to obtain library ebooks is a singularly fine reader with only one major drawback: you can’t copy text or mark passages with it. This limits its use for academic work, though it’s fine for reading a murder mystery.

The Kindle app is, in my opinion, the best overall ereader app. It not only allows you to highlight or copy text, but is flexible enough to allow you to select text that flows over to the next page, something that Apple’s iBooks app can’t do. Moreover, it saves your highlights in the cloud so you can access them from the web at the Amazon site. This is useful if you’re researching a topic or want to access your highlights for inclusion in, say, a Word document.

The iBooks app, for iPads, is a solid ereader app and has the advantage that it can read .epub format, the industry standard for ebooks. (Kindles read .azw and .mobi formats.) Apple has included a fine feature in the iPad Safari app that lets you convert long webpage articles into a PDF which are sent to iBooks.

The Kobo app on the iPad is a little disappointing, but is serviceable. One thing it’s very good at, though, is making suggestions for other ebooks based on the ones you’ve been reading. Available from the Kobo Store, natch. And Kobo also uses .epub format.

Anyone getting into an ereader for the first time should first visit the Project Gutenberg site where you can download hundreds of out-of-copyright classics for free, and in either Epub or Mobi format. Think Plato, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare and you get the idea.

Between Gutenberg, the public library, and the ebook stores, you’re set for life. And as a bonus, you’ll need no more Ikea bookshelves.

Happy reading!

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

On My 72nd Year: My Ten Fundamental Beliefs

By Gene Wilburn

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in” ~ Kenny Rogers

Every year around birthday time (June 10 for me), I like to take stock of what I believe in. Where do I fit with the cosmos? What are my bedrock, fundamental assumptions? This year’s thinking mirrors very closely what I’ve thought for several years, but age has perhaps lent them more clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning. As Terry Pratchett once wrote, “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.” For each of us our cosmology starts somewhere, and for me it starts with the Big Bang, which I’m told was not really so much an explosion as an expansion — a very dramatic expansion in which a primordial soup of plasma emerged that was so hot not even atoms could form. As it expanded it created space and time. The universe was born. About 13.7 billion years ago, if our measurements are correct.

If it helps you to believe that this was a result of God breathing across the waters, so be it — we each have our favourite narratives. The question of how something can come of nothing is a profound one, and physicists have some thoughts about this: that there really is nothing such as nothing. Particles and antiparticles evidently come into and out of existence billions of times per second and usually annihilate one another, but, at least once, it is possible that particles accumulated faster than antiparticles forming a singularity and, well, boom!

So, that’s belief number one: the universe came into existence. This had implications. Chemistry was born. Eventually particles changed into quarks as the plasma cooled, and later, hydrogen atoms formed. Concentrate enough hydrogen atoms together and what do you get? Fusion. The birth of stars. Then, over time, some stars die in a spectacular explosion called a supernova in which most of the rest of the naturally-occurring chemical elements are created, spewn forth as stellar dust and ice. As these clouds of stellar material concentrate and condense, new stars form, with planets around them. One of these we call the sun, and the planet we live on, which we call earth, formed about 4.5 billion years ago, give or take a million or two.

Which brings me to belief number two: Out of inorganic matter, life began. How is still unsolved, but researchers are exploring the tantalizing possibilities of RNA and other life-critical molecules developing in places like deep-sea vents and evolving into a self-replicating thing that we might call first life, or even protolife — ancestors to the prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms without a nucleus, like bacteria and archaea. Somewhere along the line a bit of luck (for us) happened: two prokaryotes combined to form nucleated cells, which we name as eukaryotes.

Which brings me to belief number three: life evolved. Over great periods of time, eukaryotes developed along plant and animal lines, oxygenating the atmosphere, and eventually some pioneering life forms ventured from the oceans to the lands to colonize the barren geology of earth, turning it into large organic ecosystems.

Belief number four is that, for the most part, the universe is random. It is not willed, or fated, or progressive, though randomness can lead to increased complexities. Using some basic structural parts, nature evolved through random genetic changes into extraordinarily rich organic landscapes and seascapes, filled with the plants and animals of its day. The PreCambrian Explosion, various extinctions, and random events, such as comets crashing into the earth, diverted the path of life several times, until, after eons, the great age of reptiles was over and land mammals had the chance to fill the empty ecological niches.

Belief number five is that the emergence of human beings, in the form of Homo sapiens, was not preordained. We’re a branch of primates that evolved in particular ways to adjust to our environment and we had cousin species, Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc., who did the same. We’ve only been on the planet a short while, in geological terms, but we’ve become a new force. After nearly perishing from extinction ourselves, we made it, and we developed a complex brain that would allow us to discover agriculture, mathematics, and art. Not to mention learning how to sew reindeer hide into warm clothing for the Arctic.

Belief number six is that we originated in and emigrated from Africa. Down deep, we’re all Africans and, living in a very warm climate, we were all probably dark skinned because extra melanin in the skin protects against overpowering UV radiation. Those of us who migrated to colder climates lost some of our melanin because whiter skin helps absorb the sun’s rays better in colder conditions and not as much protection against UV radiation is required.

Belief number seven is that we developed into a language-oriented species that loves narratives. We acquired strong imaginations to accompany the impressive encyclopedic knowledge of our environment we learned through hunting and gathering. Tales around the campfire, stories of our ancestors, legends, myths, and, of course, gods. We’re a species that wants to participate in its own narrative, even if that narrative is unreliable.

Belief number eight is that this narrative of human history is important to study in all its facets, including science, the humanities, and the arts and music. Physically, humans haven’t evolved much in the past 100,000 years or so, but mentally we’ve evolved through many great civilizations in ways that are fascinating and that contributed to our rise as a species.

Belief number nine is that, mentally, we went through our ‘teen’ years between Galileo and Einstein. We began to mature toward mental adulthood by rigorously questioning, observing, measuring, and testing our premises. We bent the planet to our wants and needs with an industrial and scientific revolution.

Belief number ten is that we’ve reached, borrowing from an Arthur C. Clarke title, Childhood’s End. We now possess the ability to destroy the planet for mankind, as well as other species. As adults we must learn to be stewards of our planet and treat it with respect.

I realize I’ve said little about the human condition itself. That is left to explore and think about in the context of the first ten beliefs, but I suspect it will always remain a personal, and sometimes communal, journey for each of us. This is why I write essays — to see what I think about life. We are all part of the overall narrative of mankind and each of us expresses it in a personal way.

To be sure, if we reach mental adulthood intact, the greatest history of Homo sapiens could just be starting. As we look at our current state, we see automation trending ever forward, with artificial intelligence waiting in the wings. We may create a new kind of life form. We may, if wise, develop eco-friendly attitudes about our home planet and change how we obtain energy and food. Our journey as mental adults has just begun. We may even prosper, as long as a random comet doesn’t smash into us again, and as long as we don’t self destruct. Fingers crossed, humankind!

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

A Brief Meditation on Solitaire

By Gene Wilburn

“Patience’s [Solitaire’s] design flaw became obvious for the first time in my life: the outcome is decided not during the course of play but when the cards are shuffled, before the game even begins. How pointless is that?” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Napoleon Bonaparte and I have very few things in common. He was short, I am tall. He was an extrovert, I’m an introvert. He was a brilliant military strategist, commanding great armies. I’m a quiet essayist with, maybe, six regular readers. He, evidently, ate arsenic. As far as I know I’m arsenic free, but we do have one shared passion: we both love to play Solitaire, or as he called it Patience, with a French accent.

Where the game originated is in question, but it seems to have emerged either in France, or in the Balkans, some time in the 18th Century. Called Patience, with an English accent, in England, it spread to Canada and the United States and became famous during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Canadian Yukon Territory as a game called, unsurprisingly, Klondike. One imagines lone miners stuck in their huts, whiling away the hours with the cards, or maybe two miners betting on the games, listening to the gales of the Arctic winds dampen their enthusiasm for finding riches. The rules of Klondike proved popular and are the basic rules of the game most of us now know as Solitaire.

Solitaire enjoyed its biggest boost ever by being included as a free computer game in early Microsoft Windows. As a consequence it is now played world wide by millions of devotees, not to mention bored office workers, but nowhere is it as enjoyable as on an iPad or other tablet where it has the feel of real cards without all the bother of shuffling, moving around, and occasionally dropping, small pieces of laminated cardboard.

For me, Solitaire is not so much a game as a centring process. When the world is too much with me, late and soon, as Wordsworth said, I turn to Solitaire for a time out and an active mindful meditation. I don’t so much play to win as to observe what different patterns of randomness can do. In order to make this more interesting I tweaked the rules of the game: I redefined what a Solitaire “win” means. Getting all the cards up to the top is the standard definition of “win” but if you play Solitaire by the three-card-up option, as I do, you very seldom win, or even come close to winning by these rules.

The Solitaire game I play on my iPad is called Real Solitaire HD, by EdgeRift. It keeps a running numeric score of the game as you play it and through playing hundreds of games I finalized on a score of 150 as “beating the odds.” Under my rules, if you beat the odds, you’ve “won.” Of course you may do much better than that and any game in which you score 200 points or more is a very decisive victory. (Your game of Solitaire may score points differently, so you may have to do your own calibration to determine a reasonable score for winning.)

David Mitchell’s complaint in the opening quote about Solitaire being decided at the moment of the shuffle is mainly true, but there are nuances. Part of the fun, for me, is looking at the initial deal and, based on lots of play experience, gauging the odds of beating the odds. If you’re dealt a set of cards that are all red or all black, you can just about kiss your chances of winning goodbye. I play the game anyway because there can be surprises lurking hidden in the deck. It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile an unexpected chain of sequences occur that changes the odds during play. It’s like watching an unseeded underdog win a tournament. Exciting. I should probably note that I’m easily amused.

There are various patterns of Solitaire games that I’ve noted. The ones that are totally doomed from the beginning with no useful cards turning up are almost as interesting as wins, in terms of the odds. Then there are those that start well but die before reaching the magic 150-point mark. And the exciting ones that look doomed, but come through with a burst at the last minute that carries it to victory. Or the agony of games that end up at 145, just 5 points shy from winning.

In a way, it’s like the odds in life. People may start well, emerging from a good family and educational background, yet fail to achieve their full potential. Others may have a hard start, but through perseverance pull through, beating the odds. Some are golden — only good things seem to happen and they reach a “perfect” game. And then there are those who never had a good start and never achieved a second chance.

Like life, Solitaire is all about randomness. And randomness can be streaky, with long runs of good games and bad games. Just like life. You play the cards you’ve been dealt. The odds are difficult to predict, or as Winston Churchill said, “It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” Yes, life is very much like the odds of Solitaire: unknown, but hopeful.

Algebra Redux

Algebra Redux

By Gene Wilburn

“On Algebra — We’re a month into it, and I’m planning to start a real protest movement, one to have X and Y removed from the alphabet. Z is also suspect as far as I’m concerned…Damn it! They put a man on the moon; can’t they find some way to end the scourge of Algebra?” ~ Huston Piner, My Life as a Myth

“I can explain to you why algebra is useful. But that is not what algebra is really for.” He moved his fingers gently on my temples. “It’s to keep what is in here healthy. PE [exercise] for the head. And the great thing is you can do it sitting down” ~ Mal Peet, Tamar

It pains me that math gets so little cred as a form of mental satisfaction. Oh, everyone respects it, in the way you respect quantum physics — good stuff, yup, the stuff of the universe, yup — just don’t get it near me! Crikey, there’s a horse that can count better than I can. I mean, are you serious? Mental satisfaction?

I don’t mean the satisfaction of the accountant whose books balanced, though there is likely a smattering of it there as well. I mean the pure pleasure of climbing the mountain of numeric relationships and reaching an understanding, and a point of view, you never thought you could. It doesn’t have to be advanced calculus. Mere algebra will do.

But first, a disclaimer. I really like algebra, though I’m aware that many of my friends would consider this a personal failing on my part. Yet when I was in grade school I deeply disliked math because I found arithmetic, such as doing long division on paper, indescribably boring. And frustrating, because I’ve never been very good at arithmetic. I’d nickel and dime myself on tests, making little arithmetic errors here and there even though I knew how to solve the problems. And I’ve never been very solid on the times tables either. Some part of my brain just doesn’t take to arithmetic, and those were the days before electronic calculators were invented. All arithmetic was done by hand.

So, what happened to make me like algebra? Two things: the math itself, and a fantastic high-school math teacher. When it’s introduced to you by an articulate, witty and cool teacher, algebra becomes almost electric.

I just got it, right off. It was ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ used symbolically to store values. Just like numeric variables in a computer language (though I didn’t know about them at the time). That plus the sheer power of the equal sign (=). If you can determine equality in some mathematical relationship, you can then solve for its components.

And you can do anything to the equation and it’s still true as long as both sides get the same treatment. Factoring is just a way of simplifying the equation. And sometimes when two equations are related, you can work out the variables in common based on some tricky, but nifty logic. And then there are inequalities like “<”, “>”, “=<”, or “=>”, not to mention getting involved with “nots” and “ands”. Talk about sharpening up your logic circuits.

Of course algebra was considered an essential skill for anyone going into science or engineering. I thought, like many others in the late 50s, that I was Cape Canaveral bound as an engineer or scientist. There were two kinds of teenage boys when I was one: those who wanted to be James Dean, and those who wanted to be a younger version of Werner Von Braun. Alas, I was one of the latter. I was not one of the cool kids.

But, it was not to be. As Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” I spent a year in engineering, studying calculus among other challenging studies, but the tidal currents of my mind pulled me to the Humanities, especially literature, philosophy, and art, and I never saw advanced math again. At least not for many years.

Then I retired. Casting about for things that could challenge my brain to keep it healthy during retirement, I began doing sudoku and crossword puzzles, and although I liked them, I didn’t feel I was getting the right kind of challenge. A small tendril of memory teased my brain into thinking about math again and I began to wonder if I could get back into it. So I tried it.

My favourite book series in math and engineering is the Schaum’s Outline series. They’re terse but full of problems to be solved. They guide you through the first steps in solving equations after every new concept, then leave you on your own, only providing the correct answers. You learn a lot trying to reason out why your answer isn’t right, and feel good when you’re on target. It’s totally hands-on learning. So I started with Schaum’s Outline of College Algebra, regaining familiarity with math and undoubtedly growing a set of new neurons.

What I noticed, parenthetically, was that the more I studied algebra, the sharper my mind felt. It’s as if my brain highly welcomed a return to this side of its operations. But then, after a couple of years, for reasons I cannot remember, I drifted again, and quit studying math.

Recently I’ve begun to feel mentally sluggish, beyond just forgetting things and wondering why I’m staring at the pantry shelves. I’ve started to feel not as sharp. Then another new tendril of thought got through to me — I think tendrils may be how the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind — and I remembered how good studying math made me feel.

And so, the arithmetically clumsy me is going to return to studying algebra. Completing the square, here I come.