Learning to Speak Alien

Not being able to move much, I have spent a lot more time lately in the company of my 11-year-old daughter, and that is not a bad thing. She started Algebra this year and she commented to me,

“You know, when I read this stuff, like Y = 3x +5   and what is Y if x is 2, I get it now, but I know if I went back to myself as a kindergartener, or if I said it to a kindergartener now, they wouldn’t understand it.reading_julia Did you know that math is like a language? I feel like I have learned to speak Alien language or something.”

I stopped what I was doing, which was installing the SAS software depot on the Linux computer in the living room, and said,

“You’re right and it gets better and better from here on out. You got done with the boring part of math where you have to memorize your times tables and stuff and now it is the fun part. There’s lots of other languages you can learn and every time you learn one the next one gets easier.  Some day, you’ll be able to do things and say things in that language you can’t even imagine now.”

So, I feel like she made a major breakthough this week, all on her own. At some point, we will have to have the opposite talk, which is that no matter how good you are at math there is going to come a point where you just don’t get it and you have to struggle through. For years now, when I have looked back on having won the world judo championships in my twenties, it has struck me odd in retrospect that at the time it all seemed perfectly natural, being best in the world. Now, even older, when I look back at graduating from college at 19 or  my graduate courses in statistics and realize that two of my professors gave me an A+ in courses when the grading scale only went up to a 4.0 for an A,  that is all quite odd, too. One of them explained that I had not only had the highest grade, but was a standard deviation above the next student, so he felt he had to do something. At the time, it seemed like just what I did, though and I did not think of myself as particularly good at math or statistics, it was just something I happened to like and the university offered graduate courses in it, I lived a few miles away and had three babies, so it was something to do. In retrospect, I run into my old classmates and they all still remember me as “Oh, you were the statistics BRAIN!

AND YET, there have been so many times when I read something not just once but two or three times before I got it.

There are times to this day when I attend a presentation on say, multiple imputation, and I have a general idea, but I don’t feel like I completely understand it, so I read an article on it, and then another, and it gels. There are other times when I feel completely at sea. The first time I read an article on LISREL (probably the first program that came out on structural equation modeling) and I understood about 10% of it. So, I got Leslie Hayduk’s book on structural equation modeling and read the whole thing and still didn’t understand half of it. I took a course from Keith Widaman, at UCR and then I felt like I understood a good bit, which I am now trying to remember as I get more SEM questions these days.

My point, and I do have one, is that no matter how good you are in math, there are always those bumps in the road. You just have to barrel through. To read the book over and over, read a different book, take a class, be determined to understand it, and you will.  You need to learn not to give up. Then, when you move from matrix algebra to Linux, you learn to keep trying, if


doesn’t work, try

sudo ./Setup_Linux

Eventually, you’ll find yourself talking to the aliens as if you’ve known them all your life.

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