The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: What I Learned


I’ve in the past done essays about what I’ve taken away from an A to Z project. Please indulge me with this.

Summer 2017 Mathematics A to Z, featuring a coati (it's kind of the Latin American raccoon) looking over alphabet blocks, with a lot of equations in the background.
Art courtesy of Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comic Newshounds. He has a Patreon for those able to support his work. He’s also open for commissions, starting from US$10.

The big thing I learned from the Summer 2017 A To Z, besides that it would have been a little better started two weeks earlier? (I couldn’t have started it two weeks earlier. July was a frightfully busy month. As it was I was writing much too close to deadline. Starting sooner would have been impossible.)

Category theory, mostly. Many of the topics requested had some category theory component. Next would be tensors and tensor-related subjects. This is exciting and dangerous. Neither’s a field I know well. Both are fields I want to know better. It’s a truism that to really learn an advanced subject you have to teach a course in it. That’s how I picked up what I know about signal processing and about numerical quantum mechanics. Still, it’s perilous, especially when I would realize the subject asked-for wasn’t what I faintly remembered had been asked for, and that I’d been composing an essay for in my head for a week already.

Also, scheduling. The past A To Z sequences were relatively low-stress things for me. I could get as many as six essays ahead of what I needed to post. That’s so comfortable a place to be. This time around, I was working much closer to deadline, with some pieces needing major rewriting as few as fifteen hours before my posting hour. More needed minor editing the day of posting. There’s several causes for this. But the biggest is that I wrote much longer this time. Past A To Z sequences could have at least a couple essays that were a few paragraphs. This time around I don’t think any piece came in at under a thousand words, and the default was getting to be around 1500 words. I don’t think I broke 2,000 words, but I came close.

That’s fine, because the essays came out great. This has been the A To Z sequence I’m proudest of, so far. They’re the ones that make me think my father’s ever-supportive assurance that I could put these into a book that people would give me actual money for can be right. Still, the combination of writing about stuff I had to research more first and writing longer pieces made the workload more than I’d figured on. When I get to doing this again — and I will, when the exhaustion’s faded enough from memory — I will need more lead time between asking for topics and starting to write. And will need to freeze topics farther in advance than I did this time. I still suspect my father’s too supportive to say I could get money for this. But it’s a less unrealistic thought than I had figured before.

Also learned: hire an artist! I got a better-banner-than-I-paid-for from Thomas K Dye for this series. His work added a snappy bit of visual appeal to my sentence heaps. I’d also gotten from him a banner for the Why Stuff Can Orbit sequence, which I mean to resume now that I have some more writing time. But the banners give a needed bit of unity to my writing, and the automatically-generated Twitter announcements of these posts, and that’s helped the look of the place. Something like nine-tenths of the people I know online are visual artists of one kind or another. (The rest are writers, my siblings, and my mother.) I should be making reasons to commission them. For example, if I want to describe something too complicated to do in words alone I should turn it over to them. Remember, I don’t do the few-pictures thing because I’m a good writer. It’s because I’m too lazy to make an illustration myself. A bit of money can be as good as effort.

Speaking of effort, between the A To Z essays and Reading the Comics posts, and a couple miscellaneous other pieces, I wrote five to six thousand words per week for two months. That’s probably not sustainable indefinitely, but a slightly lower pace? And for a specific big project? It’s good to know that’s something I can do, albeit possibly by putting this blog on hold.

Learned to my personal everlasting humiliation: I spelled “Klein Bottle” wrong. Fortunately, I only spelled it “Klien” in the title of the essay, so it sits there in my tweet publicizing the post and in the full-length URL to the post, forever. I’ll recover, I hope.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

3 thoughts on “The Summer 2017 Mathematics A To Z: What I Learned”

  1. Why not make a request for topics now, way in advance of next summer? However, it would be good if you wrote a post listing all the previous years’ topics from A to Z so none of us duplicate a topic that has already been done. Besides, if you get 5 different requests for the letter Q, you could pick the one you most wanted to write about. Seems like a win-win to me.

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    1. Requesting for now ahead of next summer might be too far ahead. I know the way I work and if I don’t leave a TextWrangler window open with the subject I’m never going to get back to it. But maybe I need a two- or three-month lead (suggesting I should maybe start asking for things now, or at least at the start of November). And an explicit rule that in the case of multiple requests I’ll take the one that feels most interesting; I’ve defaulted to first-come first-served except when there’s a clear reason.

      Strikes me I ought to make a permanent page with past A To Z topics on it, too. That’d make it easier for people to find stuff, and avoid duplicating requests. And they’re also my best writing projects, so they should be better-highlighted.

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