“I’m Not a Math Person” and Other Lies We Tell

Stop Perpetuating the Myth

I’m back! It’s been a while since I’ve really updated anything on this site, but for good reason—my wife and I just welcomed our first child! So far it’s a wild, awesome, sleepless adventure, and I’m so grateful. As I’m re-entering work mode, he’s already inspiring blog posts: One of the first subjects people talk about with a new baby is “What will he be like when he’s older?” Nothing wrong with wondering what a kid might be good at, but the conversations have reminded me of how often we tell kids what they aren’t good at, sometimes in ways so subtle that we don’t even realize it. Take anyone who’s ever said these words:

I’m not a math person.

Ever heard it? Ever said it about yourself? I count all the variants, too: I’m just not good with numbers. Math was never my strong suit. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m better with words. I’m all right-brained. I’m so bad at math.

Lies!

Math is thinking logically, abstractly, and spatially. It’s reasoning with quantities, patterns, and cause-and-effect relationships. Humans do these things everyday. Pouring an appropriate quantity of water into a glass without spilling it on the counter is a mathematical process. We don’t consciously think about the size estimation, velocity, and pour angle, but watch a toddler attempt the same task and it’s obvious that a successful glass of water involves learned skill. Not to mention, neurologists tell us that spatial reasoning is a right-brain activity. So guess what, right-brainers? You can do math!

Hold on, say the skeptics. Multivariable calculus is hard. Not everyone is cut out to be a rocket scientist. Some people really are more talented in math than others.

To an extent, I agree—but that’s missing the point. “Rocket scientist” is an absurd standard to measure whether or not someone is “good” at math. We can say a kid is “good” at basketball without expecting him to be a future NBA all-star. For most situations, especially school teams, good means proper shooting form, competent ball handling, and basic situational awareness. By that definition, anyone can be good with a decent coach and a few years of practice.

Math’s the same way—middle and high school standards build on foundational concepts that mainly need practice and self-confidence. Yet for generations, we’ve implied to our students that mathematical reasoning is based on IQ rather than repetition and hard work. Despite study after study proving that there’s no such thing as a predetermined, innate math ability, the myth continues. Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors is that kids hear adults say these things about themselves. “I can’t do math” is what people say when they’re struggling to divvy up a restaurant bill. Maybe it’s a joke, but kids catch on, and they think there’s this whole category of people who can’t do basic division. Then the first time they see a difficult algebra test, they decide that they must be one of “those” people who just can’t do it.

Change Your Language

  • Instead of saying, “I’m bad at math,” say something like “I need a minute to think about this” or “Let me use my calculator.” Show patience and problem-solving, not defeat.
  • Talk about mathematicians, scientists, and engineers like any other profession. There’s nothing wrong with calling someone brilliant or genius, but don’t inadvertently suggest that people who choose careers in math have some magical ability that others do not. This harms kids who see themselves in the “other” group.

There’s no such thing as a “math person.” Don’t let kids—or yourself—believe the lie.

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Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

The English Teacher’s Nightmare (A Poem)

A Healing Rite When People Don’t Write Right

I grade essays every week, and sometimes the hours of editing stifle my creativity. Here’s a recent exercise I did to bring some of it back. Plus two many typos make me pole my hare out, and I’ve gotta vent somehow.

The high-strung grammarian’s his own class of neurotic;
The affect of such condition lands frankly despotic.
See while some readers forgive that small A so disgraceful,
I’ve recoiled and retched in a manner distasteful.

Oh yes, it slashes me open; I bleed red like a pen
And make punctilious edits with a sigh and amen.
Until a paragraph down when I am offered advise
To relax, smell the flours, and watch the plural butterfly’s.

Perhaps I’ll ignore principle rules or laying in bed
Or the sly whom sneaking off to put a who in its stead.
Yet though I mean not to embellish, I fear nobody sees
What sick, soul-crushing effect that affect has on me.

They say what’s the big deal if y’all know what I mean
Grammers dead, said Nietzsche
and tihs proevs so is splelnig
No1 reads books when tweets R bestselling

Alright then, said me—
if u cant beat em
then join em
2 can play this fowl game

What now? Think puns mark my only recourse?
Iambic pentameter, just missed.

That part in Scarlet Letter
when Elizabeth
and Mr. Darcy
finally share a kiss.

Would that every comma splice, could be so clever
Or it’s maker so certain he placed it on porpoise
riding waves, self-ensured, in this daring endeavor
of creation.

Dreams sustain me.

Look at this haiku!
I am such a daredevil
To end it here.
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Charting Main Characters

A Characterization Resource for Fiction Writers

A few early readers of The Evangelist in Hell told me, “The main character reminds me of you.” These were friends and family members who saw my life on a regular basis and felt smugly convinced that they’d cracked the code, torn back the veil, discovered my secret inspiration for creating lifelike protagonists in the novel. I was always tempted to say, “Well, aren’t you clever? Now guess which character reminds me of you.”

The Stuff (Or People) Ideas are Made Of

The classic advice is “strong fiction is character driven,” but where do these characters come from? No matter how or when the muse whispers, authors will invariably draw on some kind of personal experience to create a realistic character. Most often it’s an amalgamation of faces and events, some firsthand, others borrowed. Knowing what it’s like to hope, love, fail, succeed, embrace acceptance, or face rejection allows writers to create characters in those same situations. Journaling, reading, and even sharing life stories help develop a sense of universal themes and worldview. Writers can ask, what happens to people, and how do they respond? What do they want?

Character Charts

Now to the practical advice—how to take these existential questions and mold them into a character with an actual body and voice. Many writers have similar advice for character charts, some with more categories than others. The idea is to organize physical characteristics, personality traits, and goals, so anything achieving that will work just fine. Here’s what I use:

Age

Pretty self-explanatory here, but I also include the character’s birthday. If the birthday’s coming up or just passed, it might factor into the narrative.

Hometown

Here I describe the setting as much as possible. What drives the economy or culture? What do people do for work or for fun? What’s the education like? What inspires the citizens, and what constrains them? How did growing up here affect this character’s overall worldview?

Physical Description

In addition to height, hair color, eye color, scars, body type, etc., this is a place to chart out the character’s typical wardrobe. Knowing the character’s clothing helps create continuity across different scenes and set pieces in the story.

Personality

It’s important to include both how others would describe the character and how the character would describe herself. Does the character have any quirks or catchphrases? Common archetypes can help describe a character’s general mood or behavior. This is a baseline, and various stressors and events in the story might bring changes here.

Family Background

All the traditions, all the drama, all the loyalties and betrayals. What secrets might come to light in the story? What relationships might feel strain because of the character’s actions or inactions? Family trees are especially useful for historical fiction and epic fantasy so ancestry lines don’t get confused.

Motivation

While motivation can mean what gets the character out of bed in the morning, it’s really about a belief system. It’s the driving force behind every choice. For example, what motivates the decision to order a caramel macchiato instead of regular coffee? What informs the decision to answer on the first ring instead of letting it go to voicemail? Fears and desires fill this space.

Goal

The goal is a more simply stated, measurable outcome. He wants to find his father. She wants to be a senator. The character will either do this or not—no middle ground.

Conflict

What makes the goal hard? Why, internally and externally, can’t the character just have what she wants?

Epiphany

The lesson learned—what the character realizes en route to the goal, or how he’s different after succeeding (or failing) to achieve it.

Making the Acquaintance

A robust character chart can save a plodding scene. Many plot problems originate as character problems: An unclear motivation will stall any narrative. With fleshed-out characters, though, a story writes itself. Well…almost.

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Why I Gave Money To Wikipedia

One Educator’s Defense of the Free Encyclopedia

 

“If everyone reading this gave $3, we could keep Wikipedia thriving for years to come.”

Most of us recognize this appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—and I really do mean most of us. Wikipedia sees millions of unique visitors every day and dominates the page rankings in Google search results. Yet as numerous as its faithful users are its heavy critics, especially among educators. Some blatantly disallow it in the classroom while others treat it like greasy fast food. “There’s nothing wrong with it, kids, as long as you don’t mind a life of morbid obesity and early heart failure. But go ahead, feel free to use Wikipedia instead of your own honest research.”

Even in Wikipedia’s own article about academic use, students are cautioned that “Wikipedia is not a replacement for a reading assignment by your professor.” Any critique of Wikipedia will eventually include the word unreliable, but out of context, that word creates a serious misconception. Asking “Is Wikipedia reliable?” oversimplifies how we ought to evaluate source credibility. In this age of the internet, a very small percentage of web content receives any degree of fact-checking before going public. Rote assignment of “good” and “bad” web domains doesn’t teach someone to critically examine the content itself, and that’s the skill students need.

In a 2005 TEDGlobal talk, Wales claimed that Wikipedia began “with a very radical idea…for all of us to imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” While all human knowledge sounds nice, it’s the idea of all humans contributing to that knowledge that makes people uncomfortable. In its defense, Wikipedia does work to mitigate the risks of dynamic entries:

  • Certain popular and controversial pages are protected so only long-time users in good standing and administrators can make edits.
  • Wikipedia clearly flags articles with factual disputes, subjective or self-promotional tones, contradictions, or no citations. While the page remains available, readers receive fair warnings.
  • Revision histories and references are all publically visible.

In fact, it’s these very features that should make educators love this website. Wikipedia provides the perfect platform to teach about bias, audience, and the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Students can clearly see what citations look like and appreciate their importance. Wikipedia offers translations and a “simple English mode;” its page layout helps students gain a basic understanding of a subject and locate initial resources for further study.

On the flipside, banning Wikipedia from the classroom leads students to the false assumption that anything “not Wikipedia” is reliable. I’ve seen some pretty suspect quote websites (see my article) with accuracy ratings far worse than Wikipedia. Just because something ends in .edu or .org doesn’t mean it’s been updated recently or that it’s written clearly. Consider, a science book from 2002 would still call Pluto a planet. Textbooks can have typos; scientific articles can be retracted. Wikipedia articles are constantly monitored and reviewed. Saying Wikipedia’s not reliable is like saying it’s not safe to leave the house. Sure, some dangers exist, but that doesn’t mean we ought to lower the shades and lock the doors.

Good research should compare multiple academic sources anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a starting point. Here’s the bottom line: Wikipedia isn’t 100% reliable, but I’ve yet to see a webpage—or textbook—that is 100% reliable on the literally millions of topics Wikipedia provides. We shouldn’t aim to find an impeccably accurate source; we should teach students to make their own judgments on a source’s credibility. Do I think a website I use almost every day with the mission to spread knowledge to people all over the world is worth $3? I’ve certainly given more money to lesser causes. Yes, Wikipedia. I read your plea, and I want to keep you thriving.

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Social Media Marketing

Truth, Lies, and What it Means to Win

As a novelist, the two questions I’m asked the most are “What is your book about?” and “How many books have you sold?”

I love answering the first one. Writing was my passion before it was ever my job, and when someone asks with sincere curiosity about something I’ve created, I’m thrilled to share. Yet the second question feels a lot riskier. Part of me wonders what weird rules of society even cause people to ask this—do they also ask restaurant owners how many customers they’ve served?—but I can only assume good intentions. Either they’re excited for me and want to celebrate, they don’t know many novelists and are genuinely interested in the business side of it, or they’re considering a publication of their own and are wondering how lucrative it might be in six months’ time. Maybe a few people simply want to ridicule my low numbers and so-called artistic endeavor, but I suspect most of those are only in my head. Hopefully.

So here it goes: truth, lies, and what it means to win. On second thought, I’ll put the bad news first.

LIES

  • Marketing on social media is easy.
  • I am more interesting than 99.9% of the internet and its users.
  • Tweeting about a book will generate instant sales and dedicated fans.
  • The whole world will immediately know about my book because (a) it’s published and (b) it appears prominently on a Facebook author page.
  • Bloggers make thousands of dollars sitting at home in their pajamas.
  • Any sentence ever uttered that describes a book as “passive income.”

Basically, it boils down to the myth that writers can type a few words, click a few buttons, and watch the money roll in. Sorry, but there is no magic formula.

TRUTH

  • Effective marketing strategies have short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Visibility is only part of the equation. Especially on social media, promotion has to be meaningful, targeted, and interactive.
  • I am one interesting voice among millions (billions, maybe, that sounds more depressing). Rising above the noise is necessary, but it’s not just about being louder than everyone else. Social media marketing is about reciprocity and collaboration. People care about people who care about people.
  • In real life, I don’t say hi to a stranger in the grocery store and then suddenly have a lifelong friend. Just because people follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page, it doesn’t mean they trust me. Building a following is about engagement and consistency over time, not a sudden spike in numbers.
  • We are inundated with people’s online fundraisers and multi-level marketing scams. It takes some repeated efforts for anyone to actually recognize my book in a crowd, but experts will agree that social media users don’t just want a sales pitch. They want quality, enriching content. People need to buy into what I’m offering for free before I ask them to buy what I’m selling.
  • I sometimes wear pajamas when I blog.
  • Behind every “passive income” royalty check are untold hours of writing, revising, editing, and marketing. People who do make decent incomes on YouTube or Amazon Kindle didn’t just wake up one morning and find themselves there. It’s hard work, not magic.

So is writing just a bleak, meaningless wasteland? Absolutely not. While perhaps any art can be defined as “beautiful but impractical,” there are real, useful connections that have come from my social media efforts. Laying the groundwork takes time, and most rewards are not monetary. Yes, I sell books, and I want to keep selling. But winning is realizing that there’s a whole lot of giving that must come before getting.

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Don’t Hate Me

The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care

When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”

I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.

Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1

Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”

To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).

What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.

Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:

Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.

Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.

In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.

Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).

So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:

They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.

1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.

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You Don’t Decide

I thought I’d mix it up from my usual type of blog post. This is a free verse poem (or at least as close as I typically get to poetry) based on a writing prompt I did last year. I was thinking about people’s inherent value and where it comes from, and these words came to mind.

In the beginning,
the Maker stood and shaped the stars.
Whole galaxies set in motion,
ablaze and coruscating,
swirling arms to dance for
eons across the endless void.
White dwarfs and icy comets,
lonely moons and fields of asteroids,
and beneath it all
a single planet
whispered in the dark.

“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You sculpt with finest chisels and paint with deftest strokes,
but the hands that brush a billion worlds should hardly pause for me.
Go fill those gaseous giants or shine those stunning rings.
Why should I boast land and oceans? Why make my air fit to breathe?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

Then he poured the rivers
to fill the jungle tropics
and cast fists of seeds into
the fertile mountain soil.
From clouds spun flocks
of birds awash with sunlight;
On waves rode fish as varied
as the islands of the sea.
Beasts found homes in every corner—
the marsh, the cave, the trench, the hill,
the towering forest canopy.
Yet man
spoke softly in the breeze.


“Stop. I know what you’re doing.
You anoint my soul and craft my heart,
but of all the wondrous creatures, surely I should not appeal.
Go climb with monkeys or sing with whales.
Why should I know self and purpose? Why burden me to rule?”


But the Maker answered, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

A thousand sunsets since we met,
but tonight’s the one that counts.
Humid air and untouched supper
and muddy streaks across the sky.
You speak as if it’s nothing;
you kiss my cheek and say goodbye,
but I block you at the door.


“Stop,” I say. “I know what you’re doing.
You’ll die for me and bear my shame,
but for once, my lord, you’re wrong.
Stand now with me out on the balcony.
Hear the crowds and catch their every slur.
My hands are stained without your bleeding,
my heart will grieve without your leaving.
I’ve cast my nets and found them empty;
I’ve torn seams no mortal hands can mend.
Die for the righteous! Die for the saints!
Die for the name of all goodness and virtue,
but I forbid that you ever d
ie for me.”

Your silence wraps my arms and pulls me down onto my knees.
Walls tilt and crumble, and space itself dissolves to form anew.


The Maker answers, “You don’t decide what you’re worth.”

The rarest painting is but oil on canvas,
and diamonds just stones pulled from the ground
until someone pays the price.

What price is there on man? I wonder.
What price is there on me?

He ascends and cries
My God
My God
Why have you forsaken me?

The terror of his question is
I already know the answer.

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Silent Killer, Mr. Anonymous

The Fake Quote Pandemic
and How to Fight Back

Anonymous.

No, I’m not talking about a computer hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask trying to steal your identity. I’m talking about the single most widely quoted person of our time.

If a quote’s any good, share it on the internet.            -Anonymous

Yes, the word anonymous has long been a convenient place holder to avoid the effort of tracking down an original source or to add some air of credibility to an inspiring text overlay. Yet this seemingly harmless act of attributing quotes to Mr. Anonymous has wide-reaching implications for the way we process information on the web. In the age of Fake News, internet users may be more gullible than they realize, and the problem starts off small.

Inspirational quotes remain one of the most ubiquitous categories of social media posting, garnering likes and shares no matter how many times viewers have heard the line before. Many marketing websites actually recommend sharing quote images as the number one way to engage with new followers, and the practice is not inherently bad—anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I do it too. Yet here’s where Mr. Anonymous makes his entrance. Sometimes anonymous gets slapped on to a popular saying or maxim that doesn’t require any citation. (At least people are making an effort to list some kind of source, even if it’s a meaningless one.) But the ease of anonymous presents a real danger, and that’s a lack of basic fact checking or common sense. While researching for this article, I stumbled upon this gem:

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How is this anonymous? It’s a Bible verse. Matthew 6:34 is in the quote! Unless maybe this person is making a statement here by doubting the authenticity of Matthew’s gospel, but then I’m struggling to reconcile any subversive attack on religion with the clear reference in the background image to the God’s-Carrying-You-Footprints-in-the-Sand poem. Either this is just ridiculous, or it’s part of some Matthew/Footprints conspiracy—we’ll probably never know for sure. (As an aside, “Footprints” has its own raging authorship debate with various claimants to the throne. Check out an article from the Gospel Coalition to see the full controversy.)

The problem, however, gets more serious when people leave out Mr. Anonymous and valiantly look for a real human being to whom they can attribute the quote. Not all wise people are equal, and a quote belonging to the likes of Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, or Abraham Lincoln will see far more shares on social media than those from less notable public figures. In fact, most people trust these names so much that they’ll accept a wise or inspiring quote with one of their names on it, no questions asked.

Consider these quotes, all of which I’ve found published on the internet.

“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
-Albert Einstein

So the great frizzy-haired physicist was really into boats? Although it’s a clever saying, this line predates Mr. Einstein.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt / -Marilyn Monroe

Misbehaving in different ways, I suppose. Sadly, the saying gained popularity several decades after these two women.

“A house divided cannot stand.” -Abraham Lincoln

To be fair on this one, he did give a famous speech in which he quoted this Bible passage. So maybe we could write it like this:

“A house divided cannot stand.” -The Bible -Abraham Lincoln

xByII

Too much of Mr. Anonymous teaches people that they either (1) won’t find a source or (2) shouldn’t bother looking, and these are horrible habits to develop online. It often takes less than a minute to double check a source, whether it’s for a simple quote, a news story, or a compelling infographic. Don’t stop there, either. Comment on posts with misinformation, and respond when people unknowingly share hoaxes or fake stories online. I’ve posted three of my favorite fact-checking sites below, and feel free to join the conversation and comment with more. Before sharing anything on social media, unmask Mr. Anonymous and demand that the source provides its real name.

Some of my favorite resources:

Quote Investigator – Great site for uncovering quote origins
Snopes – investigating rumors in online stories
Politifact – fact checking politics
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17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

its-your-fault-595e49

2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

this_space_for_rent_rectangular_sticker-r78bcd1767df64555b13d09fda9993922_v9wxo_8byvr_324

8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

next-episode-in

12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

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Modern Mayflowers: Global Immigration

aka Where Are You Really From?

I remember watching the 2012 London Olympics and seeing one of my favorite athletes, Mo Farah of Great Britain, capture historic gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In a conversation later that week, someone asked me if I knew where Mo was really from, with a let’s-be-technically-correct sort of voice, the kind people use to explain that tomatoes are actually fruits. I had a suspicion where this was going, but I felt stumped all the same. Farah grew up in London (where his father was born), only ever competed on British teams, and has a decidedly British accent, so…Britain?

No, the person informed me. Mo Farah was born in Somalia and moved when he was a little kid. So, he’s not really British. Britain was only trying to claim him for the London games. (This isn’t just one person’s bias, by the way—the Spanish runner Fabián Roncero infamously argued that Farah’s European records should all contain asterisks.) I was born in Ohio but grew up in Michigan and went to Michigan schools, so should my high school track times have asterisks? Of course not. While I’m guessing that for most of my readers I’m preaching to the choir here, unfortunately, this kind of ethnic prejudice is alarmingly common. Sometimes, it starts with a simple misconception.

For one, some terms that many people use synonymously actually hold different meanings.

Nationality denotes a person’s affiliation to a particular country, most often through citizenship or another designated status (e.g. US Nationals). It’s a little complicated because not all nations have international recognition as states, and different countries have different requirements for citizenship, but in short, nationality means nation in a legal, official sense.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a much wider, looser term that can refer to any number of shared cultural traits, including language, heritage, or religion. Race refers to socially constructed groupings of physical characteristics that can (and do) belong to people of multiple ethnicities. Hispanic is an ethnicity containing people of many races; black could refer to a racial or ethnic identity depending on the context.

So why does this matter? With an increasingly global economy and international events like the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration and resettlement are worldwide realities. While the USA has long prided itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” its foreign-born population is relatively small compared to others. As many as 46 million people living in the US were not born there, but foreign-born numbers in nations such as Canada and Austrailia are even higher by percentage (Pew Research Center). In 2016, citizens from a whopping 143 different countries applied for asylum in the European Union, with Germany receiving the most applications (Eurostat). People have been migrating for all of human history, but it may be happening now more than ever. As first-generation nationals become second- and third-generation and cultures assimilate, narrow definitions of what a person must look like, sound like, and act like to be “from” a particular country must go out the window. Ethnicity entered the English language less than a hundred years ago, and while it’s served us in some ways, it’s also supplied obstacles to those holding multiethnic identities—by some arguments, that’s most of us.

In the coming decades, we’ll debate what it means to be German or Swedish or American with fascinating research studies and dissertations. Essays and artwork will display the beautiful, bewildering intersections of human experience. Starting right now, though, we must teach our current and future generations that people who look different can be from the same places. Nationality belongs to the whole nation, not just the ones who came first.

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