I Learned to Read in Graduate School

I didn’t learn to read until I was in graduate school. Because of Noam Chomsky.

Sure, I was in the highest reading group in first grade, and I certainly had to read books in high school and write essays about them.  In college I was reading my textbooks and passing my classes and I thought I was doing pretty good.

But it wasn’t until my second year of gradschool that I actually learned how to put knowledge written on the page into my brain.  Before that, I had been reading negligently.

My mama tells a story about how when I was very little, less than two years old. I used to guess long words by the first few letters, and then relative length of a word.  So once when I was waiting in the car, I read a sign in the parking lot of the old Point Tavern in Tumwater and got scared.  The sign seemed to read “CHILDREN TO GO” and I immediately asked my mama, “where’s dad, I want to go get him.”  My mama, because she is hilarious, told me I couldn’t go in there, because Russians.  The thought of Russians terrified me, what with their insane recursive dolls and their unnatural love of literature.

The chicken was really good there. No actual children to go. Also, no actual Russians.

There were no actual Russians at the Point Tavern in the mid-1970s, they were just a boogyman token, meant to keep me out of the Point Tavern. A few minutes later, my dad came back to the car with a bag of fried chicken, and my mama told the story to my dad about how I had misread the CHICKEN TO GO sign.

Another time, in high school Honors English, Mrs. M had a test question based on READING, something she hadn’t gone over with us in class.  The question was, what were peering at us in the night like red eyes in the Red Badge Of Courage? The answer, of course, was enemy campfires.  Everybody had gotten it wrong except for April W. (and maybe Jonothan C.) April gave some ridiculous explanation for her correct answer; she said she remembered the image from her reading.

Remembered it from reading? Gross! red badge of courage

Teenagers are disgusted by things they don’t understand.  Anyway, I wondered if remembering something you read was a learnable skill.  For most of my life I had been reading everything and remembering nothing. I used to laugh when I’d get reading assignments, because I would do the reading, and understand nothing about what I had read until we discussed it in class.  That’s how I scraped by.

Finally, I found myself in my second year of graduate school, in an advanced syntax seminar, reading Chomsky’s Minimalist program.  Our prof asked each of us to lead a discussion on a chapter.  This is a terrifying task to someone who has gotten through life without any retention. I needed to find a way to retain what I read.

So what I did was to fire up my Microsoft Word and set it to outline mode.  I numbered each paragraph on a page with a pencil.  Then  I would read a paragraph from the Minimalist Program, and summarize each paragraph with a single sentence, carefully noting the chapter and paragraph number.   Occasionally I’d have to add a second sentence to include more detail, but the premise was this:  every paragraph has a point.  My job is to paraphrase that point.

The process was tedious at first, but the effect on my comprehension was IMMEDIATE.  When I got to seminar, I went from being the guy who was faking it to the guy who had understood the reading.  My classmates would later tell me that I seemed thoughtful and well-prepared for each seminar; something I had never been accused of before.

Eventually, I got pretty fast at summarizing paragraphs that I had read.  My mindset shifted; reading was no longer something I did with my eyes.  I came to think of reading as something I did with my fingers on a keyboard.  If I hadn’t outlined a passage I didn’t consider the passage as read.

At the time, I never had time to review my reading notes outline. I would type out the outline and then hit save and then never see it again  I was always too slammed to find time to open them again.  However, my retention had improved so much that I didn’t actually need to look at my notes a second time, and I was aware of this.  Apparently processing the information a single time by summarizing each paragraph was enough to make it stay in my brain.  I had finally learned the secret of retention, six years after April W.’s enemy campfires glowing red like eyes in the night.

Discussion questions.  What the hell is the point of reading if you can’t retain?  Also, why hadn’t anyone taught me to take reading notes before?  Also am I a total freak show for needing to summarize and type in order to understand Chomskey?

Ask me later about how I learned to take notes.

How I Spent My Monday Morning


Monday Morning Project

Click through to see complete slide show.

Today is Monday, right?

I spent my morning staring at some numbers.  A few years ago, a friend of mine had a certain conversion table committed to memory.  He wasn’t doing an operation mentally; there was no multiplying or subtracting, which I hate.  Instead, he said he had memorized it one day in an airport lounge during a layover.  I was dazzled by this talent.  Dazzled.

I thought, if he can do it, then I can do it.  So I started trying to commit the table to memory, because if my friend could do it, I can do it too, right?  Well, I’m almost there.  But in the mean time, I discovered this shortcut.  Click through to see the complete slide show.


fear is false


fear is false

Dear Amber told me this years ago; I’m still tripping on it.

Lifeskill: How to Avoid Wasabi Lumps

Years ago… oh it’s ancient history now… we used to argue about the value of diversity.  A lot of people saw it as a social justice issue; a matter of equality.  Or a matter of historical justice.

That’s great.

But I was always the one pointing out that different cultures have different perspectives, different knowledge sets.  That means we approach challenges differently.

So it follows that a culturally diverse team has a problem solving advantage over a heterogeneous team. And a culturally diverse classroom has an academic advantage over a heterogeneous one.

And a culturally diverse social group… has a gastronomical advantage of the heterogeneous one.  Where would we be without the Palestinian family that makes kick ass bakava, the Korean neighbors who send you home with kimchi from their private stash.  The Chinese friend that orders off the secret menu and gets you the best stuff; the Salvadoran friend who knows the tamal lady personally; the Mexican friend who can always eat.  We know things.

Me, I seem to be the pinoy that will come to your place and make adobo, as I’ve grown past the lumpia-making phase of my life.

Anyway, before I get too impressed with myself, here’s a video with some cultural knowledge that some of you can stand to assimilate: how to avoid wasabi lumps.  It’s knowledge that I myself acquired from some Japanese-Hawaiian friends in college.

Now it is inevitable that I will receive comments about this video; shrill protests about how adding wasabi to your shoyu is an atrocity against nature and a grave personal insult to the itame, and against the IMMUTABLE LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE and punishable by death.

What can I say, some people like rules a lot.

For those of you with the gall to dare to choose more wasabi, this video will show you how to avoid lumps.  If, after watching this video, however, you decide that you like it lumpy, then please by all means enjoy it lumpy.  My aim is not to ban all wasabi lumps from existence, but rather to offer an alternative to those who don’t enjoy them.

Lifeskill: How to hate bad coffee

It always amazes me how people are addicted to bad coffee.

I’ll get to the point, lest I get too negative and start hurting people’s feelings.

Here’s your coffee drinker’s bill of rights:

  1. Your coffee should not taste sour.  This sour taste in coffee, we call “ass.”  The vast majority of American coffee (as well as Mexican coffee, yes I said it) tastes like ass.  If you ever have any doubt about what ass tastes like, buy a cup of any coffee or espresso from Seattle’s Best Coffee.  That is ass.  Tim Horton, that’s some ass.
  2. Your coffee should not taste burnt.   Your coffee tastes burnt because Starbucks taught us all that charcoal = strong, dark, and complex.  The truth is that Starbucks is a huge McWallmart that wants uniformity in it’s product.  Since the taste of beans naturally varies due to region, roasting, age, and other factors, the way they ensure uniformity is by over-roasting them.  You’ll notice what once your charcoal-tasting Starbucks goes cold, it starts to taste like ass (see rule #1).
  3. Your coffee beans should not be chemically flavored.  Which coffee beans do you think they set aside to soak in a chemical solution so that it turns out smelling offensively like hazelnut or vanilla or whatever?  That’s right, the ass-iest beans.  They know that even the most coffee-ignorant people will spit this coffee out, so they flavor it after roasting and sell it as gourmet to idiots.  Newsflash:  no hazelnut smells or tastes like that.
  4. Your coffee beans should not be multi-colored.  Praxis Language had this problem; they had beans delivered from Shanghai City Shop.  Good God that coffee was bad.  Some beans were dark, others lighter, others pale, almost yellow. I think they roasted the beans in an Easy Bake Oven. When I pointed this out to someone, they told me it was a “blend.”  If I haven’t told you before, people in that company were prone to pulling bullshit explanations out of their asses and telling it to me like I’m stupid.  Blend, my ass.  I am from Seattle, Washington, bitch.
  5. Your coffee beans should not be oily.  Roasted coffee beans get oily as they get OLD.  Older beans have a tendency to go assy.
  6. Your coffee should not be muddy.  If there is sediment at the bottom of your cup, you ground it too long, too fine.  Fine ground is fine for espresso, because the steam blasts through, and that’s its only contact with the grounds.  Fine grounds shouldn’t be soaking in your French press; you probably noticed that coffee was so strong it might have given you a stomach ache.  The longer the beans contact the water, the less you should grind it; for a French press, that means grinding them coarse, like bread crumbs.
A lot of people try to mask their bad coffee with cream and sugar.  Cream doesn’t actually cover the ass taste, it just thins it out and makes it colder.  Sugar does mask the ass taste, but then congratulations, you now have sweet, palpable ass.  Ass is ass, children.

Your coffee should taste good black.  Then, when you add cream, you’re not thinning it out, you’re adding the taste and feel of fat.  It only takes a drop of cream to add that fat dimension to good coffee.  Now odds are that if you managed to get good-tasting black coffee, you spent a few bucks on the beans; adding sugar will give you the sweet you want, but it will cover up all the complexities of your coffee.  Remember how the guy at the roasterie said that there would be overtones of blueberries in your Ethiopian beans?  You want to taste them, don’t you?  There’s sugar in your doughnut, you don’t need it in your coffee.

Buying fair trade and/or organic beans will make you feel better if you’re one of those people that worries about how your luxuries oppress people.  Buying fresh roasted beans from a non-corporate roaster, and using them within 14 days of their roasting will get you non-ass tasting coffee.  Grinding your beans right before brewing, and grinding them appropriately (course for French press, fine for expressed) will give you a dark liquid without mud, that won’t hurt your stomach.  Brewing good coffee will allow you to use less creamer, so go ahead and buy the heavy whipping cream; adding a tiny bloop of it will give you that rich fat taste you’re after.  And good coffee means you can use less sugar, so you taste complexities instead of getting, you know, Type II adult onset diabetes.

I know most of you don’t put a lot of thought into your coffee; many of you have grown dependent on and have learned to like the taste of charcoal and/or ass.  In fact, I fully expect at least a couple of you to leap to the defense of your atrocities, either in person, in the comments, or on Facebook.  I understand.  This post is about how to hate bad coffee; the bottom line is that you can’t hate bad coffee if your heart’s not in it.

Lifeskill #2: How to keep dry erase markers juicy

Another riveting post in my wildly popular “lifeskills” series:  how to keep dry erase markers juicy.  Sit down at my feet and be regaled by my dry erase wisdom.

It’s a gross feeling when you go to write something important on your whiteboard and you get nothing but streaks.  So years ago I learned how to keep my markers juicy indefintely… by storing them TIP SIDE DOWN.  Gravity drains the ink toward the tip.

I started buying flowerpots for my classrooms to store my markers in… tip side down, of course.  No, you don’t necessarily see what color you’re grabbing, but what use is getting the color you want when your markers are dead?

Tangent:  who are the knucklehead teachers that don’t throw out dead markers?  What exactly is the point of NOT throwing them out?  I have very little tolerance for dead markers.

I digress.  I moved to China in 2007, and put up with inferior Chinese dry erase markers for a year.  On a trip home to Seattle, I brought back two sets of juicy American markers, yes I’m sure they were probably made in China.   One of the sets was for the SpanishPod team (which I kept tip-side-down in a flower pot), and the other set was for the bosses.  Not that I cared to give anything to the bosses; I just didn’t what their dumb asses borrowing our juicy SpanishPod markers.  Occasionally they did borrow them, and I always hunted down the missing marker and snatched it smugly off their table.  Idiots.

Anyway, the bosses lacked the tip-side-down-in-a-flower-pot technology, so their set of pens dried out with little use after a couple of months.

The SpanishPod markers, however, lasted longer than I did in that office…. Those pens were still juicy on my last day of work there, over a year and a half after I had deployed them.

Now that I’m back in the classroom, my pens don’t last quite as long as that, but they do last much longer than the markers stored horizontally.  In fact, I rarely have to chuck a marker into the garbage; more often than not, they just wander off inside someone’s pocket… either that, or someone pushes the tip too hard, and jams it into the cylinder.

I made a smug remark earlier this year that MY pens stayed juicy, and a student said “yah, because you keep them upside down.”   So I know that others must know of this technology, if only from observing my own brilliant behavior.  I’m not sure why so many people don’t do it… those markers are not cheap to keep replacing all the time… but there but for the grace of God go I.  It’s satisfaction enough that I always have juicy markers, and one more thing to be smug about.

Recipe! How to make Kimchi Fried Rice

Kimchi fried rice with chicken.

Back in Shanghai, Amber, Leo, and I would walk one block from the Factory to to my apartment for lunch.  I would make kimchi fried rice in my screaming hot wok and we’d eat it and wonder how we got stuck in China.  This is back when we behaved like poor people out of habit.

I used chicken in this photo, but pork is better, and spam is best.  Yes.  Spam is best.  Absolutely.  Use a big fistful of meat for every two people.

Fry up some bite-sized chunks of meat in your screaming hot wok with a good gloop of oil; extra points if you manage to give the meat a good sear.  While that’s happening, chop up a fistful of two of some leftover kimchi into pieces the same size as the meat (if you’re eating with a spoon) or strips (if you’re eating it with chopsticks).  Put aside the kimchi juice; drop the chopped kimchi into the wok with the meat and stir fry it.

Wet your hand under the faucet and crumble your leftover rice in your fingers.  I used my brown/wild rice mix; you can use whatever leftover rice you have.  You’ll need a big fistful of rice (or more) for each person.  Toss the rice around with the meat and kimchi until the rice looks coated with wok juice.  JP’s SECRET:  walk away for the minute and let the rice toast and sear in the screaming hot wok.  Today I could smell the rice toasting, and almost start to burn, and that’s the moment I knew to scrape the bottom and toss it around.  (If you’re really hardcore, you can lower the heat a little, cover and then walk away for a little bit; this will get you a hard-core toasty rice crust.)

This is a great time to start your egg, covered under a low flame.  Keep it runny.

You can repeat the toasting a time or two, depending on how toasty you like your rice to be.  When you’re ready to continue, pour in some kimchi juice (whatever was left on the cutting board, plus a gloop or two from the container) and toss the rice around again, the juice will make it heavier and stickier.  When the juice is distributed evenly, turn off the heat.  At this point you can drop in a tablespoon (max!) of sesame oil and give it a good mix.

Dish it up into a big bowl.  Top with your sunnyside up egg, garnish with roasted seasoned seaweed.

To eat, mix the egg into the rice; the runny yolk mixed into the hot rice will create a rich sauce.

That’s it.  It might not look like much, but damn it’s tasty.

Lifeskill #1: Sort Silverware INTO the Dishwasher

So you have a bunch of dirty silverware that you want to wash in the dishwasher; you rinse each one off one by one, you run the dishwasher, and then when the silverware is clean and dry, you have to sort each piece into the drawer.

Here’s the lifeskill:  when you’re putting each individual piece of silverware into the dishwasher, sort them as you go; put forks with forks and spoons with spoons.  They’re going in one by one anyway, so it doesn’t take any extra time at all to sort them into separate cubbyholes.  Once the load is clean and dry, you grab all ten forks from the fork cubbyhole all at once and drop them together into the drawer.  Life is better.

Here is what the detractors say:

  • “OMG, it makes absolutely no difference.” Or the variant, “Putting stuff in the randomly is SO MUCH EASIER.” The people who make these arguments have obviously not tried it, they didn’t even bother to think it through.  In any case, don’t listen to them.
  • “All the like silverware will NEST, food, particles will be trapped and then everybody dies of food poisoning due to dirty silverware!  Will somebody PLEASE think of the children!” This argument is invalid because left to their own devices, silverware will not nest with each other unless you force them to.  Nesting while vertical does not occur in the wild, with the one tiny exception of Chinese soup spoons.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first edition in this blog’s new category called “lifeskills.”  I intend to make this ongoing series of lifeskills, which I continue to gather over the years.  Some of the topics will be trivial, like this one, because face it, no one has ever died from sorting clean silverware into the drawer.  Some topics may be specific to me, like “how to make JP lose all respect for you;” over the years, I’ve become quite an expert at this through close observation.  Then again, some topics might actually improve your life, like “how to ask someone’s ethnicity” or “how to get out of a speeding ticket.”

Come to think of it, I might not know the answers to all of these questions, so maybe if you have a lifeskill you’d like to share, you can email it to me at jpv206 (at) gmail(dotcom).