Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Historical Word Medley

Considering my recent entry and participation in the first ever Middle School National History Bee, it makes sense that I would be intrigued by historically related words. Studying words of historical importance can benefit a speller twofold -  not only will they improve one's spelling ability, but they will also better one's understanding of history. The same can be said for words with complicated etymologies; the journey a word takes into the English language is often thanks to historical events. 

Webster's Third is chock-full of wonderful historical words, but finding them isn't always easy. Here is a compilation of historical words I have encountered in studying for both the history bee and the spelling bee.

CONQUISTADOR



Main Entry: con·quis·ta·dor
Pronunciation: kschwa]n|k(w)istschwa|dodot(schwa)r, (primarystress)kä], (primarystress)kodot], (primarystress)komacr], ]eng|k(w)-, -k(w)emacrons-, -|domacr(schwa)r, -|dodot(schwa), -domacrschwa
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural conquistadores \-|dodot(schwa)rz, -domacr(schwa)-, -|dodot(schwa)z, -domacrschwaz; -|dodot(secondarystress)remacronz, -domacr(secondarystress)-, -(secondarystress)ramacrs\; or conquistadors \-|dodot(schwa)rz, -domacr(schwa)rz, -|dodot(schwa)z, -domacrschwaz\
Etymology: Spanish, from conquistado (past participle ofconquistar to conquer, from conquista conquest, from feminine ofconquisto, past participle of conquerir to conquer, from Latinconquirere to search for, bring together) + -or -- more at CONQUER
CONQUERORspecifically : any one of the leaders in the Spanish conquest of America, especially of Mexico and Peru, in the 16th century

Citation format for this entry:

"conquistador." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (19 May 2012).



The conquistadors(Spanish for "conquerors") were, as mentioned in Webster's Third, leaders of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Famous conquistadors include Francisco Pizarro,famous for his conquest of the Incas, Hernan Cortes, who was one of the first to explore the Americas, and others. 

TORQUEMADA


Monday, July 2, 2012

Other Options for Middle School - Academic Comptetions

One question that I have been asked about Rahul is this, "What else was he up to this year?" to which I would reply, "Plenty!"  I have mentioned before in my blog that realistically aiming for the Spelling Bee Trophy pretty much precludes anything else other than studying the dictionary all day and all weekend but doing so intelligently.  However, if you are at all interested in an all rounded Middle School experience that does not potentially label you as an Über Spelling Bee Nerd, then you might want to explore other things that are out there.  If you did not know about the alternatives out there, then this post might perhaps point you in the right direction.  I was kidding about the Über Nerd part of course!
 

Rahul tried out for the second stage of Kids Jeopardy Contest which means that he was among the 400 odd contestants who moved beyond the online written qualifying rounds that consisted of thousands of kids.  Next, Rahul continued to represent his Middle School as the MathCounts Team Captain for the third and final year at the State level.  The next competition that Rahul tried out for and emerged as the Regional Champion is the National History Bee that debuted for the first time on National Television on the History Channel.  He was a finalist at the competition after he competed in the elimination rounds in DC. 

Finally, had it not been for potential scheduling conflicts and the fact that he was maxing himself out, he might have tried out for the National Geography Bee.  WOW! That is a lot of potential opportunities out there for interested kids (like you!) and a lot of exciting things that you can do besides spelling.  As Rahul will attest, going to all of these tournaments is a lot of fun and extremely educational too.  However, unlike the Spelling Bee, they offer one challenge that makes the Bee more attractive than them - their study material is VAST!  Extremely VAST!

There is one competition though that might make it just worth your while compared to the Bee despite the vast material that you might have to deal with and that is the National History Bee!  Why?  The Prize Money!  The National History Bee offers an astounding prize money that has no parallel - $50,000!  If you are interested in History and have a knack for trivia stuff, you might just like it and to be truthful, it is great stuff for the average adult as well since we can relate to what is being offered up to the contestants.  However, Spelling Bee parents are unique in that we can relate to what our kids do at the Spelling Bee since we work with them and therefore we can understand the nuances of the Bee.  However, the History Bee is different - it is kind of like Jeopardy and justifiably so since it has been conceptualized by a former Jeopardy contestant.  David Madden is a former 19 day Champion at the Jeopardy competition so he designed this to be a buzzer based contest.  Be warned that to have a good chance of doing well at the History Bee, you must be very well versed with using the Buzzer as well as have a comprehensive understanding of US History and World History.   So, it might really not be as easy as the Spelling Bee (now, that is a laugh, isn't it?).

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Dicey Question - What is Hardwork Worth?

Right after she won the trophy and during the Awards Banquet on June/01/2012 and afterwards on news media, we heard Snigdha Nandipati proclaim that she studied 6 hours or more during the weekdays and 10 hours or more during the weekends.  Additionally, right after she won the trophy, Snigdha replied to the question - "What does it take to win the Bee?" with, "a lot" and then followed up with the details about her studying habit. Along with many others in the audience, I said, "Wow" and applauded away.  It did not register in my mind at that time that this so called "revelation" by Snigdha might have a bigger impact in the minds of other contestants as well as their parents and coaches in ways that might not have been immediately apparent.  I never thought that Snigdha's remark might reflect somewhat negatively on the similar efforts by other contestants.  Sitting at the Banquet table with me that evening was another parent whose child had made it to the Semifinals.  The parent who observed my reaction (and that of others in the audience), quickly quipped, "She was not the only one to put in that many hours you know?"  The father further expanded to explain to me that his own son had put in similar hours as well.  I did not give much thought to the statement until after I had received feedback from other parents as well expressing similar sentiments.  I will elaborate on my own thoughts on this topic in this article.

Over the years, I have heard some Champions boast about their study habits and I have not given much thought to it.  My own life experiences have led me to enormously discount so called "hard work" in the academic realm.  I reject the traditional notion of - one should put in unearthly hours to achieve success! I do not believe in that concept at all. One does not need to spend every waking hour studying to achieve academic success including the Bee trophy.  I know this from personal experience.  When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to have enormous and quick absorbing powers along with a photographic memory.  I somehow learned how to read rapidly as well, almost skimming pages and yet absorbing the same amount of content as my peers who would spend hours upon hours studying the same thing.  My parents would always chide me for not "working hard enough" or "studying hard enough" because I was not putting in the five to ten hours a day studying each day as the next child.  Sounds familiar?

This type of study regimen runs in many Indian families where you literally and figuratively burn the midnight oil to achieve academic success at the cost of everything else.  It helps that there is also the Hindu GOD of Learning - Goddess Saraswati.  In addition to studying, every Hindu child worships and prays to the Goddess for success and incorporates a faith based approach to learning which is a very powerful thing.  You could argue that in some ways, in a brutally competitive world with limited resources this is necessary.  Due to a variety of factors including never ending affirmative action programs, many middle class and upper "caste" children need to get a perfect score to even get a college education.  This means that many Indian parents are hyper vigilant in making sure that their children do nothing but academics just so they can even get a college seat.  The same holds true for children studying for collegiate entrance exams which is an additional effort in addition to school work.  Televisions are shut off, guests are told that they should defer visits until after the exams are over and food is brought to the study table any time it is needed.  About the only thing the child is expected to do when at home is to go to the bathroom and sleep as little as humanly possible!  No wonder, India never does anything even remotely worthwhile at the Olympics except for one or two medals.  On the other hand, if there is ever a academic Olympics of any sort, guess who will get the most if not ALL medals?  India!

I survived despite not studying all hours of the day and I did as well in school as the next guy (or gal).  But, I still got chided because the feeling was that I could have done better if I had just studied harder!  What nonsense!  I did fine, thank you! To give you an example, back in the 1990's, I was instrumental in literally saving the career and aspirations of a fellow graduate student.  This so called outstanding top meritorious student from one of the most prestigious schools in India almost got thrown out of the prestigious school in the USA that we both attended because he was alleged to have allowed a classmate to cheat on the exams.  The premise was that he made some money out of this arrangement.  The University wanted to throw him out.  He was asked to write a plea to explain himself and perhaps defend himself before the disciplinary board and he did.  The result was a letter that prompted his International Student Advisor to tell him - "go find someone else who can write better than you.  If you turn this in as your defense, you will most definitely get rusticated."  That student approached me through my roommate who knew about my writing skills and the rest is history.  I wrote a very compelling defense that left him not only as a student at the University, but also with his fellowship and his reputation intact.  This guy studied all day except for 4 hours of sleep!  This guy was a top notch student but could communicate for zilch!

Well, I digress.  My point is that there is really no correlation between how many hours one studies and the impact that it can have on academic success.  Just because someone put in X number of hours a day towards a particular academic goal means nothing.  There might be other areas in life such as physical sports where practice makes perfect and the number of hours that you practice counts.  Even there one would need to work with limits on how much one would push the envelope.  In education however, including extracurricular study type activities or sports like the Bee, the rules are different.  Each person absorbs material at a different pace and each person studies differently.  It all depends on the comfort level and pushing oneself one way or the other can be detrimental to the development of one's natural style.  Some children like to be quizzed as one method of studying while others like to read the book back and forth on their own time and schedule.  Some understand the pronounciations instinctively based on the diacritical marks in the dictionary while others need to hear it verbalized.  There really is no single way, method or approach and none is superior to the other.

The main reason for the post is this - I do not want to create the impression that Snigdha won because she studied extreme hours of the day (or night) because other contestants failed to do.  This is not the case as the other parent pointed out to me.  There are many children who put in hours similar to Snigdha but did not achieve her level of success.  However, that does not negate their study strategy nor is it a reflection of their intelligence or their ability to grasp or absorb study  material.  The Bee always has been and always will be a competition with an enormous degree of luck involved in more ways than one.  For someone to claim that their study habits had anything to do with their success is to disrespect the study process.

Unfortunately for the Bee, LUCK is a huge factor!  It is present at every stage of the competition and in several unimaginable ways.  For example, I learned that Stuti Mishra was feeling woozy and dizzy from lack of proper food during the final stages of the competition and the lateness into the night.  Stuti was from the East Coast and Snigdha was from the West Coast.  For Snigdha's body clock, it was still 6:30, West Coast time!  For Stuti, it was time to go to bed!  Don't you think this made some difference in how it all turned out?  Stuti lost on a word that has been asked at the Bee before at a prior year.  You don't think Sruti studied that and had it pat down in her memory bank somewhere?  Just for a split second, Stuti failed to remember a word that every child who goes to the National Bee is expected to know and that changed history!  Who would you fault?  You don't think that Stuti studied hard enough?  Bottom line, it was LUCK at the very end.  If Stuti had won, perhaps she would have had the bragging rights to N hour days and weekends! One cannot seriously take that kind of stuff to heart.  Instead, we have the 2012 Champion brag about the software that her father wrote for her and how it was instrumental in her success.  The father in turn brags about how he plans to sell his software to customers in Ghana and China - software whose very origins could be illegal in nature!  Go figure that one out!

However, before I close out this article, I still want to recognize and applaud what I mentioned in my other article about one contestant's view and that is, "luck favors the prepared mind." What does this mean?  It means that just because LUCK is involved, it does not mean that children should not do any work.  Study smart, not hard! Use whatever method works for you but don't use the barometer that more hours is better - it isn't!  But study you must.

Good Luck!


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Getting to The Top 50 at The Bee

BY RAMESH MALAYAPPAN

There are anywhere between 250 and 300 contestants at the National level of the Bee each year from all across America and several other countries.  Each contestant has bested local competition to come to the Bee as regional champion and according to the Bee, over 10 million children participate each year.  For those 250 odd spellers, that is indeed an incredible achievement.  However, true to the human spirit and aspirations contained within, there is much more to come!

There is a dramatic increase in the scale of the competition from the regional level to the national level and it is unpredictable each year.  Luck plays a huge factor from this point on, but as one contestant said this year, "luck favors the prepared mind".  This quote comes courtesy of a young lady by the name of Sruti Akula, the 2012 regional champion of The Leader Corning, New York.  Here is the link to the complete article -

What an impressive quote from such a young person!  It is true.  However, one also needs to know what is required to get to the top 50 because that will determine as to who will be at the Semifinals and thus get to be on National TV from that point on.  Interestingly enough, there was something new for 2012 - the preliminary oral rounds were also broadcast live on ESPN3, which also qualifies as National TV, so every child got his or her chance to showcase their appearance at the Bee for those from their hometowns who were watching.  This was not always the case until last year and many first time contestants who did not know that they would not be on the national stage until they had made the Semifinals cut were sorely disappointed.  The preliminaries in prior years were however available on ESPN online using qualified accounts with preferred cable and satellite TV providers.  I believe that it is still possible to access ESPN online this way.

Now, what does it take to make the cut?  The official rules say, "no more than 50" meaning 50 or less!   That is more or less a matter of how the results turn out after the preliminary rounds that consist of a written round (or computer round) plus the oral rounds.  In 2011, the Bee had a written round with pencil and paper with Dr. Bailly pronouncing the words live and the children writing out the words on paper.  Parents also got to watch.  It was therefore instantly known or shortly thereof as to how anyone fared.  However, in 2012, the Bee reverted back to the computer rounds as was the case in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  The difference is that Dr. Bailly no longer pronounces the words live, the audio instead is in the form of recorded playback (which Dr. Bailly records beforehand) and contestants get as much time as they need to go back and forth on the test to the extent of their own satisfaction.  This test is held on an honor system.  Contestants are NOT allowed to reveal the words to either their fellow contestants or their own parents and siblings until a specified time.  Obviously, mostly no one knows how they did simply because there are 50 words that are presented on the test and only 25 are "contest" words.  The other 25 "non contest" words are different for each child which makes it difficult for children to compare notes and perhaps also prevents cheating.

Each of the 25 words count for ONE point each so a contestant can get a maximum of 25 points on the written test.  This year, a 10 year old contestant from Olathe, Kansas, Vanya Shivashankar got the full 25 points as divulged by the Bee.  Vanya is the sister of Kavya Shivashankar who is the 2009 Bee Champion.  The Bee does not divulge any individual scores and only decided to divulge the score of Vanya in order to recognize her extraordinary achievement.  If you are wondering how LUCK plays into all of this, recognize the fact that the 2012 Champion - Snigdha Nandipati DID NOT get the full 25 points.  You do not need to be PERFECT to win the Bee.  You just need to study hard and leave the rest up to LUCK.  That is a fair enough shot.  Here are some articles on Vanya.



There are then two oral rounds - Round 2 and Round 3 that consist of a different word given to each contestant and counts for 3 points each.  The total of these two oral rounds can potentially add up to 6 points bringing the combined total of the written round as well as the oral rounds to 31.  Vanya got the perfect 31, but did not win the Bee, so there you go - Perfection is NOT necessary to win as proved by Snigdha.  In 2008, Sameer Mishra the Champion that year got one of the oral round words incorrect, losing 3 points and he still made it to the quarterfinals, but that year was quite different.  That year had Quarterfinals before the Semifinals and 90 contestants were allowed to move forward.  The cutoff was quite low and let me explain how the cutoff works.

The Bee starts off with the premise that there can be no more than 50 contestants for the Semifinals.  That means they start working their way down the totals for each contestant until the pool of contestants having the same score adds up to no more than 50.  What does that mean?  Take this year (2012) as an example.  Obviously Vanya got 31 points, so she counted as one contestant and there were then 49 left to go.  Let us say there was 5 contestants who got 30 points.  Adding that up leads us to 44 contestants left to go.  Let us assume that there were 10 contestants who got 29 points.  That leaves the Bee with 34 more to select.  The process continues until the Bee reaches a pool of contestants who have a score that would put the number beyond 50.  At that point, they STOP!  Let us for a moment consider what would have happened if the next pool of contestants had individual total scores of 25 points each and there were 20 of them at that score level.  That would have brought the total of Semifinal contenders up to 54.  Since the Bee has rules stating that there can be no more than 50 Semifinal contestants, the Bee puts the cutoff at 29 points.  The Bee officials will stop looking for any more contestants at this point.  Only 34 Semifinalists would have made it at that point.  Now, in 2012, exactly 50 made it, an exceedingly amazing statistical achievement!

The Bee alluded to the fact that the only 6 year old contestant this year - Lori Anne Madison had nearly made it to the Semifinals and had performed remarkably well despite her age and the fact that this was her first appearance at the Bee.  The Bee did not divulge her scores (at least not to the audience), but somehow the news got out that she had a total of 20 points.  The cutoff this year was 23.  People instantly started saying that had Lori gotten 23 points, she would have made it to the Semifinals.  That is NOT TRUE and let me explain why because it is really important to understand the process so that children can keep their expectations realistic.

Let us consider how it would have panned out if she had indeed achieved 23 points instead of the 20 that she obtained.  The pool of contestants with scores of 23 would have put the number just above 50, making the entire group ineligible.  Lori would not only have disqualified herself, but also the entire pool of contestants who had a score of 23 points!  Those Semifinalists who had a score of 23 in 2012 must be thanking their stars, their incredible luck and whatever else there is out there that Lori did not get 23 points because, otherwise they would have not made it to the Semifinals.  I need to repeat this - If Lori had obtained 23 points, she would have disqualified every other contestant with a score of 23, including herself!

How could Lori have made it to the Semifinals?  Easy, by getting a total of 24 points!  In this case, Lori would have done something amazing - first, she would have qualified for the Semifinals.  Second, she would have still disqualified every other contestant who had obtained a total score of 23!  We would then have had less than 50 contestants this year with Lori amongst them at the Semifinals.  However, we have no idea how many would have been eligible because we don't know and will perhaps never know how many contestants got 23 points.  The Bee won't divulge the scores of individual contestants and does not encourage the contestants to divulge it themselves either.  It is quite astounding how this works.  It would not have mattered whether Lori had gotten 24 points or 23 points.  In either case, she would have ended up disqualifying every contestant with a score of 23 points.  It is really as simple as that.

Therefore, I hope this process being quite clear now, it is understood that the only way to guarantee appearance at the Semifinals is to get as close as possible to a perfect score and when I say that, I mean it.  In 2011, a contestant needed 29 points to secure a place in the Semifinals.  Imagine the disappointment of those contestants who got 28 points!  Quite painful, isn't it?  Does it mean that a child who got 28 points that year would not have had a clear shot at the Championship?  NO!  Luck plays a huge role, but we need to follow Sruti's advice and be as prepared as we can be since "luck favors the prepared mind."  Again, it is useful to remember the experience of Sameer Mishra in 2011.  He got a word wrong at the preliminary oral rounds and still got the trophy.  If I remember correctly, the rest of the finalists who competed with him all had perfect oral rounds until then.  Did that little fact matter to Sameer?  NO.

Such is the nature of the Bee process, so study up and prepare to ace the preliminaries to the best of your abilities.  All you have to do is to outlast every other contestant at the Bee and success will be yours!





Saturday, June 16, 2012

It is The Big League Now - Forget Third Party Products!

BY RAMESH MALAYAPPAN

Well, this was bound to happen...instant graduation from little league to big league or in other words, bringing the full force of the entire Merriam Webster Unabridged Dictionary.  It looks like many contestants have taken my 2011 advice on studying the entire dictionary as the only guarantee of success.  It looks like I underestimated how determined young children can be when they are motivated enough to win the trophy.  Many children are reading the entire dictionary and that is a good thing.


In the article I exhorted children and parents NOT to fall for the exaggerated hype presented by third party product makers who purport to guarantee a trip to the "promised land" by providing word lists that work.  Trust me, they don't!  For the Bee the entire dictionary is now fair game because the quality of the contestants has grown dramatically in the space of a couple of years by leaps and bounds.  So much so that the Bee has felt compelled to reduce the time on the mike to two minutes (from two and a half minutes before), and scaling up the difficulty level of words dramatically from one round to the other.  Too many words in the dictionary do not follow traditional word rules of construction and many have faulty pronunciations (in my humble opinion) that could trip up native speakers of the language from where the root originated (think VETIVER or BASMATI or SATYAGRAHA).  The only way out is to study and if at all possible, master the entire dictionary. If you decide to ignore my advice and go for the ever proliferating number of third party products by so called coaches, past spellers and any one else who can call themselves "experienced", then heaven help you!

Up until as recently as 2008 and somewhat into 2009, a contestant could go all the way into the semifinals after having prepared only from the Consolidated Word List (CWL) and maybe some extra words from the dictionary.  Additionally, many successful contestants found a way to get word lists from all previous bees and prepare from them also since the Bee does tend to repeat many difficult words from time to time.  However, those lists were difficult to find or hard to compose and took a lot of time individually and despite the spirit of camaraderie at the Bee, sharing word lists is not really common for obvious reasons.  Third party products filled the void by creating and distributing such lists that included words from the CWL.  Unfortunately, when large sections of the contestant population figured out the value of the CWL and started studying it enmasse, the Bee perhaps caught on to it and words come straight out the dictionary (instead of the CWL) at early stages of the competition.  The CWL must still be mastered and memorized however because every serious contestant has it pat down - all 700 odd pages of it for sure!  In fact, it is interesting to watch contests such as the North South Foundation Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee where you could literally have dozens of perfect rounds where only the CWL is used! Believe me, perfect rounds are incredibly exhausting and although it wows for a while, it tends to wear on you.

However, such products have a huge problem.  They cannot possibly mimic in every way what is contained in the Merriam Webster dictionary without without violating their copyright.  Third party products provide pronunciation guides that do not use the same diacritical marks as the dictionary.  What does that mean?  It means confusion and more confusion.  Mastering the Merriam Webster diacritical marks is tough enough.  Why would one want to complicate the educational process further by learning another set of pronunciation marks that may or may not be the real thing?  It is a waste of time and surely it is a waste of money.  The money that I spent on third party products in 2010 was money down the proverbial drain.  I could have done some many other useful things with that money!  Instead, I chose to throw my money away and that I regret.

Contestants should realize that the Spelling Bee has one huge advantage over other similar academic sporting competitions.  The source comes from only one book - the dictionary!  If a contestant can study and master and if possible memorize the entire book, then success hinges only on two other things.  One is the endurance factor - can the contestant endure the hours of waiting to spell and the long days on stage?  The other is the recall factor - can the contestant recall the word at the time it matters most - in front of the mike? Studying the entire dictionary means nothing if a word cannot be recalled in the heat of the moment.

This year, many contestants had read and claimed to have mastered the entire dictionary, but only one made it to the top - Snigdha Nandipati.  Was that luck or was her method of preparation superior?  Believe me, it was LUCK!  Once you have mastered the dictionary, it is nothing more than LUCK.  However, don't you want to give yourself that advantage?  Don't you want to know that you have studied the entire dictionary multiple times like the contestant sitting next to you?  Do you really want to go up against other competitors who have mastered the entire dictionary that every regional champion gets for free while you have been studying up some random third party products that make exaggerated claims of success?  Do you really want to flip a coin and take the risk?  Is it not worth it if you are prepared to make the investment in time and the sacrifice in everything else to make it worth your while and study the Bee's only official product that you already get for free for becoming a regional champion?  Think about it!




Thursday, June 14, 2012

Merriam Webster - Are You Listening?

BY RAMESH MALAYAPPAN

Okay, I never heard back from Merriam Webster.  I am thinking that they either do not care or think it is not worth their time responding to my request.  It could also be that they are so embarrassed by the way spelling bee preparation using "custom software" panned out this year that they are unable to respond.  Either way, silence is neither the answer nor the solution.  One interpretation from the silence unfortunately could be that it is now a free for all for those out there who wish to hack their software.

Well, it is not surprising how others are able to hack their online version and very adeptly at that.  In this post, is one example how it is possible to access the online version of Merriam Webster using a script written in Linux.  Note that this type of access is illegal according to Merriam Webster's own terms and conditions.  I am providing these links as an example and I am not encouraging anyone to use the methods and tactics or programs showcased.

I have no idea what type of access was used by Mr. Krishnarao Nandipati, but judging by the screenshots that media has shared with the world, and judging by his professional background, I can speculate to the type of software he used.  The SQL statements that he wrote shows that he is using the Oracle database but the front end program is unclear.  In fact, it could be anything.  Note that Oracle software is not free either and there are substantial license fees involved with obtaining and using it.  The software is available for a free download for developmental use, but once you start using it in "production", fees have to be paid to Oracle Corporation.  What exactly is "production"?  Well, one example is Snigdha using it to prepare for the spelling bee!

http://www.4sd.signonsandiego.com/news/2012/jun/07/san-diegos-super-speller-back-in-school/?ap

The interesting question is this - if Merriam Webster chooses to NOT enforce their rights, do they still retain them? That is a debatable question.

Here are two links.  One is the actual link and the other is the printed PDF available for download.


Visiting Some Spelling Bee Myths!

BY RAMESH MALAYAPPAN

Well, I thought it would be fun to visit some Spelling Bee Myths and then dissect them to see if they hold any water when held up to close scrutiny.  Keep in mind that most Spelling Bee attendees (at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in DC) don't talk about these Myths - but most know that they exist.  For the first time I bring it all out into the open and discuss them.  This is the first part of the series (isn't it exciting to know that there are more than just the few here in this post ?).

MYTH (1) - WEAR WHITE FOR SUCCESS IN THE FINALS

Answer - MAYBE

Take a look at the past champions of the Bee, especially the last four consecutive contestants - they were all girls, but wait..  They all wore white too!  Does it mean that wearing white tips the scales in one's favor? Maybe, maybe not.  In 2008, Sameer Mishra wore an off Orange color and he still won.  But look at Champions before that year and you will notice that they wear white which was of course a Bee provided white shirt.  I think, starting from 2008, the Bee no longer provided shirts to wear on stage, but in 2012 they went back to the theme by issuing special "SPELLEBRITY" shirts to just the contestants.  The color was Orange and many contestants wore it on stage although none wore it to the finals.

I have an interesting insight into the color - white has special significance for Hindus as well as other religions.  All four of the girls who won the Championship for the past four years were all Hindu and the first time I noticed the trend, it actually boggled my mind because I was unable to ascertain why the girls chose to wear white.  White has mixed connotations across religions where in all cases it is the sign of purity (which is why brides wear white in Christian weddings) while in other situations it is the sign of tragedy and death (which is why Hindus wear white at funerals).  So, when religions have mixed views on something, I believe that it is difficult to take a hard stand on what something actually means.  Things on which all religions agree upon can be easier to understand.  For example, sneezing is taken as a bad omen across many religions.  Hindus believe sneezing before an important event is a bad omen and I see Christians say "bless you," every time someone sneezes.  So, there might be something to the sneezing aspect.  However, the color thing is somewhat nebulous. 

In the case of the four Hindu girls winning the Bee during four successive years, I think I hit upon the real reason they liked the color!  The Hindu Goddess of Knowledge is Saraswati who is always shown wearing white.  Hindu children are taught to worship and revere Goddess Saraswati from when they are very young and perhaps this had some significance for these four Hindu girls? I always tell people when they ask me about the academic success of Hindu children - when someone worships knowledge, and it is part of the religion, success is just second nature!

Here are few links -

http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/9776/1/The-History-Of-Colour.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saraswati
http://hinduism.about.com/od/hindugoddesses/p/saraswati.htm


By the way, from Merriam Webster -

Main Entry: neb·u·lous   
Pronunciation: primarystressdoublehyphendoublehyphenlschwas
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin nebulosus, from nebula mist, cloud + -osus -ous, -ose -- more at NEBULA
1 archaic : full of clouds : CLOUDY, FOGGY
2 a : lacking clarity of feature or sharpness of outline : HAZY, INDISTINCT <nebulous memory> <nebulous line between confidence and overconfidence -- Wall Street Journal> b : vaguely defined : poorly grasped : dimly realized <nebulous hopes and fears> <nebulous social values -- A.H.MacCormick>
3 : not transparent : TURBID, CLOUDED
4 : of, relating to, or resembling a nebula : NEBULAR
- neb·u·lous·ly adverb
- neb·u·lous·ness noun -es 


MYTH (2) - GIVEN JUST ONE SHOT, YOU WILL DO YOUR BEST 

Answer - TRUE

Last year (in 2011), I noticed something unusual.  10 year old, first time contestant, Divya Senthil Murugan of Colorado went all the way to the finals, something that amazed me.  I was actually rooting for her, especially after her parents thanked for the insights available to them through this blog and it was immensely gratifying to learn that I was able to help somebody.  However, what mystified me was how a little girl could get so much motivation to achieve something so spectacular.  The sad part is that the media totally ignored her, perhaps because they were blindsided.  The media made a much bigger deal this year in 2012, of a 6 year old contestant, presumably the youngest contestant at the Bee on record (as the Bee says..), but they had time to prepare to showcase her.  But, Divya?  No!

I was looking forward to Divya coming back to the Bee this year and I was disappointed.  Instead, we got Frank Cahill, a 14 year old first time contestant who made it all the way to the finals and the media did make a big deal about him!  What gives?  I was mystified.  However, I was surprised from what I learned about Colorado State Spelling Bee contestants this time around.  They get just one shot at the Bee, meaning that they will never, ever get to come back!  No wonder they are so motivated.  It is human enterprise at its essence after all - if you get just one shot at something in life, you will give it everything you have, just about everything! 

Go back as far back as 2002 and you will find Champion Pratyush Buddiga, from Colorado, a first time contestant.  Given his only shot, he made the best use of it and won! However, nobody really cares whether you got the Championship at your first try or your last try, just that you did.  It does showcase the difference in rules all over the country and the fact that the Bee is as flexible as it can be and tries to accommodate a variety of differences in local competitions and I think that it is only reasonable given that over 10 Million children participate across the USA and abroad.

MYTH 3 - CHAMPION SPELLERS FOCUS ON OTHER THINGS TOO

Answer - FALSE

One year, I watched with amazement while a 14 year old Championship contender demonstrated her so called "mastery" of the Violin to showcase the fact that she was an "all rounded" candidate along with her other multiple interests in classical dancing and a multitude of other activities.  Remember, this was all in addition to her spelling bee studies as well as her school studies, homework and associated school related activities. Why was I amazed?  Was it because I was amazed by the talent on the Violin shown by the contestant?  NO! Actually, I was amazed by the lack of talent or to put it more correctly, lack of advanced talent on the Violin by a 14 year old.  I am not musically inclined, but I could instantly recognize the piece the girl had played as one that my own son, Rahul was playing at age 9 and had mastered at age 8.  Rahul was then playing much more advanced pieces and I was somewhat taken aback by the piece that the girl had played.  Either she had chosen the wrong piece thinking the audience would not know the difference (this was part of the commercial that ESPN aired between rounds) or that was the extent of her mastery!  Keep in mind that the piece she played is not easy to play and requires quite a bit of sophistication.  It is just that it is not enough to show to the world that, "look, I am as much a master at playing the Violin as I am at spelling and everything else."   Needless to say, this girl was the Champion that year!

The Bee loves to showcase the fact that spellers are as "all rounded" in life as their peers who did not make it to the Bee.  It is a commendable effort to show that children who make it to the Bee Finals in DC are strong, all rounded kids in multiple spheres of activity such as sports, academics and other extra curricular activities, but what does that really mean?  It just means that these are extraordinarily bright kids who will do extremely well in life, but they most likely will never win the Championship!  The Championship Trophy is reserved for the those who chose the single minded, narrowly focused pursuit of the Bee trophy and do nothing else other than their mandatory school academics and that too only if they are in organized school.  That means, I am discounting those kids who are home-schooled because they can actually skate around their regular schooling without anyone else knowing about it.  If a child decides to do anything else apart from academics and Bee preparation, that child will most likely, if not definitely NOT win the trophy!  I guarantee it.

Snigdha Nandipati, the 2012 Champion honestly blurted out the truth right away when asked for the reason behind her success.  She studied 6 hours or more a day during the week, preparing for the Bee and studied 12 hours or more a day during the weekend.  Later on, realizing that this was sending the wrong message about an intensely focused Über Nerd, there are now stories going around (guess who is putting them out?) about how she is equally skilled at all the other activities that she is involved in, including the fact that she maintains a honor position at her school. In fact, the 2011 Champion, Sukanya Roy said pretty much the same thing - she did her homework and spent the rest of the weekday and all of her weekends studying the dictionary a few times!  There are no two ways about this.  Either you spend the rest of an entire year (or years) doing pretty much nothing but Bee preparation, or you resign yourself to a visit to DC and still have a great time.  Don't fool yourself.  You will never be a Championship swimmer or a Violin Maestro and still expect to win the trophy.  It might still happen because stranger things have been known to happen before, but that is just pushing your luck!  If you want to win the Bee and the Trophy, reserve single minded, intense focus on just one thing - Bee preparation.  Don't forget School either - that is if you go to a real one!

Here are a few links - 

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/may/30/local-spelling-champ-aces-words-round-2-3/
http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jun/07/san-diegos-super-speller-back-in-school/
http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2012/jun/07/san-diegos-super-speller-back-in-school/
http://golackawanna.com/stories/Spelling-champ-shares-advice,123256?category_id=31


I used three words in the above paragraph, Über, Nerd & Maestro.  The context of the usage should have given you a clue as to what they mean.  Also, Nerd is a colloquially used word, and  Über is getting there.

From Merriam Webster - 

Main Entry: über-
Variant(s): also uber- \primarystressübschwa(r), primarystressueligaturemacron-\
Function: prefix
Usage: sometimes capitalized
Etymology: German (as in übermensch superman), from über over, beyond the limits of, from Old High German ubari -- more at OVER
: being a superlative example of its kind or class <übermayor> <überthermometer> 

Main Entry: nerd  
Variant(s): also nurd \primarystressnschward, primarystressnschwamacrd, primarystressnschwaid\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): -s
Etymology: origin unknown
: an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person ; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits <computer nerd>
- nerd·ish \-dish\ adjective
- nerdy \-demacron\ adjective -er/-est  

Main Entry: mae·stro   
Pronunciation: primarystressmimacr(secondarystress)stromacr sometimes primarystresse(-
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural maestros \-romacrz\; or mae·stri \-remacron\
Etymology: Italian, literally, master, from Latin magister -- more at MASTER
: one who is accomplished in a specialized field; especially : a master or teacher of an art (as music) <when the maestro was active as one of the world's more famous operatic conductors -- Claudia Cassidy> <contributors include some maestros in the delightful art of the spoof or parody -- Atlantic> <that did not always mean that the maestro himself had actually painted the picture -- H.W.Van Loon>  

Well, the point is that one cannot do all things at once and still expect to achieve the pinnacle of achievement in something.  Something has got to give as the saying goes.  I specifically say this because studying like Snigdha Nandipati or Sukanya Roy is NOT for every child.  I don't want kids to get the wrong message from what Snigdha said about studying 6 hours or more during weekdays.  Instead, children should take away the right concept from her statement and that is that is the message of FOCUS.  If you want to achieve anything in life, you have to be focused on on it and work hard to achieve it at all costs.  That could mean NOT doing other things that are important in life such as exercise or spending healthy, quality social time with others.  However, you should know that if you have other interests that you want to spend time on as well that is okay also!  Just remember that if you try to have a balanced life, you should also keep your expectations tempered.  The Bee is not like the days of yore anymore.  You are not going to get LUGE, like the Championship word of 1984 ever!  Choose what is healthy and satisfying for you because in the end, the journey is all that matters!  Every child who makes it to the Nationals have the potential to become extraordinarily successful in life, not just the Champion.  And, every child among the more than 10 Million who competed in the Bee preliminaries this year has the same potential as well. 

I used another new word in the paragraph above that should be of interest - YORE.

From Merriam Webster - 


Main Entry: yore   
Pronunciation: primarystressyomacr(schwa)r, -odot(schwa)r, -omacrschwa, -odot(schwa)
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): -s
Etymology: Middle English, from yore, adverb, long ago, from Old English geamacrra, from gemacronar year -- more at YEAR
: time past and especially long since past -- usually used in the phrase of yore <prize the region less highly than of yore -- R.A.Billington> <the finishing school of yore is just about finished -- H.R.Allen>  

The Championship word, LUGE is a well known word now, especially after the unfortunate mishap during the winter Olympics of February 2010 in Vancouver, Canada, resulting in the death of a LUGE contestant.  Here are a couple of links - 


From Merriam Webster - 

Main Entry: 1luge   
Pronunciation: primarystresslüzh
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): -s
Etymology: French, from French dialect (Savoy & Switzerland)
: a small sled used for coasting especially in Switzerland 
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"nebulous." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).
"uber-." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).
"nerd." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).
"yore." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).
"luge." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).
"maestro." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (14 Jun. 2012).