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Day Two: I Drove All This Way For This?

August 31, 2010 1 comment

On Tuesdays this semester I have only one class: CHY 123, General Chemistry I (Lab).  For no obvious reason, this is a separate course in the class registration system from CHY 121, General Chemistry I (Lecture) even though you can’t take one without the other, which is why I initially failed to buy the book that goes with it.  This turned out to be a blank graph-paper notebook with pressure-sensitive duplicating pages (like a checkbook) and a periodic table printed on the back, for which, along with yet another access code for yet another discrete online content delivery system, I paid the nominal sum of $82.16.

Today’s initial session was somewhat underwhelming.  We obviously couldn’t do a lab assignment, since we’ve had only one lecture period so far and it was primarily taken up with administrative tasks.  So instead we did… more administrative tasks.  We had a safety briefing in which the laboratory supervisor explained the various crimes for which we can be instantly failed (refusing to wear goggles, playing with the safety equipment, hot-glassware horseplay, etc.), were told about the grading system, and then spent an hour taking a standardized chemistry competence test called the Toledo Exam.

I’m sure my answers on this test were… interesting; the outcomes on standardized multiple choice tests tend to be when the testee has no idea what the questions even mean and is guessing randomly.  My last exposure to chemistry as an explicated science was in my junior year of high school, 1989-1990, and only for the first half of the school year did we actually have a chemistry teacher.  He was dismissed shortly after the mid-year break and we spent the rest of the year starting Chapter 8 (Organic Chemistry) over and over again with a succession of clearly-out-of-their-depths substitutes (“Well, I’m not sure how far you got with your last teacher, so why don’t we start at the beginning of Chapter 8?”), until finally the school administration gave up and sort of tacitly made the period a study hall.

Ironically, the final exam in Chemistry that year was also a standardized test, based on the textbook publisher’s expectations of what students should have learned since the midterm exam.  I think, from the above, you can work out for yourselves where the punch line is here.

Anyway, not a hard day’s work by any stretch, but I’m left feeling a bit nonplussed, I mean, it’s a long drive to fill out a few forms.  Oh well.  Next week’s should be more interesting, since (I’m told) we’ll be doing some actual science.

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Day One: Very Mixed Feelings

August 30, 2010 6 comments

Well.  Um.  That was Day One, then.

Academically, nothing much happens on the first day of the semester.  Syllabuses (the built-in WordPress type-as-you-go spell checker insists that this is correct and syllabi isn’t, though, oddly, it doesn’t recognize “WordPress” either) are handed out, instructors make their preferences known as regards classroom conduct and the like, and… that’s basically all they have time for.  As a student, you get lost a lot, particularly if it’s the beginning of your freshman year.  You bumble around looking for rooms, building entrances, in my case elevators.

In those respects, then, today was entirely typical (with one exception to the bumbling-around which I’ll get to in a moment).  In others, not so much.

For starters, the temperature here in northern Maine today was somewhere just shy of 100° F, with a humidity that (for whatever reason) felt a lot higher than the indicated 31%.  For those of you who are not materials scientists, 100° F is just barely not hot enough to melt lead.* This meant that I arrived at each and every one of my several destinations on campus today in a full comedy flop sweat, which only abated 10 or 15 minutes after entering the building – except in my first class, where the lecture hall was not air conditioned and the flop sweat abatement never happened at all.

OTOH, parking was not as horrible as I was afraid it would be.  There’s a lot with a nice row of handicapped spaces right near the building where my last class of the morning is, meaning that I can park up there and make a nice big triangle, with the least distance to cover at the end.  Not as good on lab day, I admit, but I can always go to lunch and then snout around for a better parking space when I get back for the afternoon stuff.  On Friday, when I have only morning classes, this will do nicely.

I’ve met all but two of my instructors, and one of them is teaching an online class, so I’m probably not actually expected to meet him in person.  I obtained permission from my chemistry instructor to use my smartpen in the lectures despite the syllabus-specified ban on recording devices, with the understanding that I will not use the recordings for evil.  (She doesn’t want to end up being mocked on YouTube, which I can fully understand.)  I had a quick meeting with my advisor, to let him know that I was in fact in a math class after all and that all appeared to be well.  (WP’s spell checker doesn’t know advisor either.  It thinks I should use adviser.  That is, to use a technical term, wack.)

So I’ve accomplished a few things today.  I made the interesting discovery that the Memorial Union has a food court in it these days.  Last time I was there, there was one of those Taco Bell Express carts and… that was about it.  There’s a smaller one over in the Wells Center, at the other end of the Mall, which is nice because that’s much closer to where I’ll be at the beginning of lunchtime on days when I don’t need to go to the bookstore (which is also in the Union) and get a book that I missed the first time.  And I learned a few important lessons, such as:

1) I don’t care what Mom says, I do too need a canteen.

2) And I probably ought to carry a towel as well, because, damn.

All in all, then, not a bad day.  And yet, in any quiet moment, and on most of the drive home, and since I’ve arrived, my emotions have been very mixed and variable.  I had a massive mood crash an hour or so ago in which I came to the conclusion that this whole thing is an enormous mistake.  There were many points during the day today at which I felt a greater sense of not belonging than I have in a good long time.  And why did I choose a technical discipline again?  I’m like a dog running into a screen door.

I’m really not sure what I feel right now.  A lot of it is just that I spent the day hot and sweaty and arrived home feeling grubby and miserable and tired.  And that I had many moments in which I felt (and probably was) conspicuous and absurd, imagined the people around me wondering what the hell I was doing there, and not having any clear idea myself of the answer.  And I haven’t even done any actual coursework yet.

Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe it’ll all make more sense when I’m actually working, as opposed to slumping around a roasting-hot campus figuring out where rooms are and wondering every few minutes why the publishers of Burge’s Chemistry, Second Edition felt compelled to make the covers out of (based on the volume’s weight and price) gold.

The high point of the day came when I ran into a group of students looking bewildered in the hall on the third floor of Boardman Hall and realized that they were in my ECE seminar.  The reason I knew that was because I had scouted the room for said seminar the previous week and knew it was in a strange place.  My classmates were standing in the hall between rooms 309 and 311 looking puzzled and bereft.

“You guys are looking for 310, aren’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, do you know where it is?” asked one of my classmates, who bore a startling resemblance to my friend Eric Reuss.

“Go down to – … follow me, it’s easier,” I said, and led the way down the hall, around a corner that, from the hallway, looks like it just leads to the stairwell, down a semi-hidden side hall, past several rooms not anywhere near 310 in the sequence, and to a pair of double doors marked “310”.

Where we found a sign that said, “ECE 100 MOVED TO ESRB (BARROWS 165)”.

So much for my moment of glory.  It’s a long slog to Barrows 165 (which is also nowhere near where you think it should be based on the numbers you see when you first enter the building) from the third floor of Boardman.  By the time we got there, my younger, fitter classmates had left me far behind (Not Eric Reuss paused at the top of the stairs leading down to the ESRB wing to give me a jaunty “this way, in your own time!” sort of wave) and I was in such an advanced state of sweatiness that Prof. Musavi asked concernedly if I was all right when I flopped into the lecture hall and dragged myself to a seat.  (The seats in Barrows 165 are armless desk chairs of the sort office supply catalogs call “task chairs”.  I think the one I sat in has a permanent sweaty assprint on its cheap fabric upholstery now.)

Tomorrow’s not going to be much better on the not-much-work-to-do front or the alienation one; I have only one class, but it’s the chemistry lab, and we’re going to spend the semester’s first lab period taking something called the Toledo Chemistry Placement Exam.  I would have thought that after the class begins was the wrong time to be giving placement exams, but that’s why I don’t run a university, I suppose.  Either way, it’s another opportunity to feel utterly unprepared and out of my depth, and I’m not looking forward to it.

On the plus side, I did get to read through the lab manual this evening, and it had many satisfying references to the safety showers and what to do if you set yourself on fire.  Nothing like a whiff of potential disaster to spice up an academic experience, I always say!

(* For values of “just barely” that include “531.43° F”.)

Deep Background, or, The Story So Far

August 29, 2010 1 comment

In 1991, I graduated from high school with what I like to think of as “undistinguished honors”.  I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, but high school wasn’t very hard.  Most of the time I didn’t have to try – so I didn’t.  I skated out of old Stearns High School with a GPA in the high 3s and early-decision acceptance to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where I’d spent a couple of interesting weeks as part of a summer program the year before, and when I arrived in Worcester that fall I figured it wouldn’t give me much trouble.  I wasn’t quite so full of myself as to assume it’d be a walkover, but still, I wasn’t expecting significant difficulties.

Of course, I found them anyway.  I was not in any way prepared for the college environment, much less the demands of performing to a sufficient standard in coursework of that level.  Plus, I had gone ahead and declared my major (not actually required until sophomore year in those days) in computer science.  I realized fairly early on that this had been a mistake, as CS meant programming and programming didn’t interest me.  Computers did, networks and systems did, but WPI didn’t have an information technology degree program (it would launch one the following year, something which still annoys me slightly to this day), and I had no fallback plan – had no plan of any kind, really.

I had some good times at WPI, make no mistake; I made (and, in one surprising case, renewed) friendships that still endure today and began, in a real sense, the never-really-ending process of finding my voice as a writer.  I still think fondly of the campus, the city, and even the school’s rather endearingly crazy administration.  What I did not do – not even a little bit – was succeed academically there.  I simply wasn’t prepared for the pressure or the need to maintain some kind of academic rigor.  I must have, because I did manage to pass several fairly challenging classes (like Calculus I and II), but I cannot now remember ever actually working or studying while at WPI.  I never really knew how to do it.  After two undistinguished terms, one mostly disastrous one, and one that I more or less wrote off entirely in week 3, the university pulled my financial aid in the spring of 1992 for poor academic performance, and that was the end of me as a WPI student.

Interestingly, I managed this academic flameout without ever once falling prey to the usual causes of freshman failure.  I didn’t drink at all, never so much as experimented with drugs (and believe me, they were all around me if I’d cared to give it a go), didn’t even have a serious girlfriend (not that avoiding that was any great challenge at WPI in the early ’90s).  I came by my academic probation the old-fashioned way: by just plain being a lousy student.

I returned to college the following year, having spent the 1992-1993 school year doing everything from construction to power loafing.  This time, I figured, I’d stay away from the technical disciplines, figuring that it was the heavy math and general science-y-ness of WPI that had tripped me up; so I entered the University of Maine in the fall of 1993 as a history major.  Not for me the private sector of technological arcana.  I would happily spend the rest of my life safely ensconced within the cocoon of academia.

That lasted until March, when a friend from my WPI days called me up and told me that the computer manufacturer he worked for, a PC-clone company headquartered out in Westborough, was hiring technical support people.  This was at the very beginning of the great high-tech boom, and the money they were offering was startlingly good considering how not-picky they were about qualifications; so I withdrew from UMaine (properly this time, the one thing I did right in those days) and headed south, chasing the paycheck.

I would, though I didn’t know it then, be at it for seven years, jumping from company to company like a rat having a very bad day during a major naval battle, scrambling constantly from ship to sinking ship.  I made what, in retrospect, were really shocking quantities of money for a double college dropout, and I didn’t really have to do a whole lot to earn it, either.  I managed to spend even more money than that, ruining my credit and making myself a lifelong object of scorn to the tax services of two states and the federal government, and generally conducting myself with the sort of cheerful abandon that characterized that interesting period in our nation’s history; and then the tech bubble burst in early 2001 and the ride was over.  The last high-tech company I worked for went under so quickly and quietly that I found out I’d been laid off over the phone.

Marooned on the shores of a sea of bad life decisions, I moved back to my hometown in Maine and, through a series of curious incidents not all of my own making, found myself a reporter at the local newspaper.  Eventually I found myself editor of the local newspaper, in which capacity I had the interesting experience of working much, much harder for considerably longer hours than I’d ever clocked in high-tech, for about a quarter the pay.  I still miss that job.  The paper closed up shop in 2005, a victim of the usual sort of shady-but-legal small-business cutthroatery that you get in places like this.  For the next few years I explored the equally interesting, but not particularly lucrative, field of the freelance copywriter who doesn’t get much business.  Things seemed set to go on in like vein pretty much forever.

Then one day, back in the middle of July, I was sitting here in my fortress of solitude and thinking about all the points in my life where I’d made the wrong call, and it suddenly burst upon me what I should have done when, long ago at WPI, it dawned on me that computer science was not going to work for me as a course of study or a lifepath:

Switch to the Electrical Engineering Department.

In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious, but from the late winter of 1991-92 to that day in July 2010, it never once crossed my mind that that’s what I should have done.  Let some other schmuck program the damned things; I could be one of the guys who builds them.  Or makes the electricity they use.  Or gets it to the house.  Or any number of other things that have to do with technology and matters electric, but don’t have to do with algorithms, or syntax, or making sure all the parentheses are closed (one of the programming courses I bombed at WPI was in Scheme, a dialect of LISP(so there was a lot of stuff like this(which gets old (pretty fast)))).

Things started happening pretty fast after that little epiphany.  I applied for readmission to the University of Maine and filed a financial aid application in the middle of July, figuring, what the hell, the worst they could do was say no.  At best I expected them to say something like, “Do you have any idea how much you’ve missed the deadlines by?  Call us back in the spring semester.”

Instead, they said*, “Hey, great!  Welcome back!  You’ve missed the deadlines by a fair bit, but we can offer you enough financial aid to pay for your classes, anyway.  And you’ll have to take whatever class divisions we can shoehorn you into, so your schedule is probably going to be pretty wacky.  But we can handle it if you can!”

Which is how, after six weeks of really quite startlingly rapid bureaucratic processes, I find myself beginning classes tomorrow.  I’m a slightly odd case, neither fish nor fowl: I’m beginning right at the start of the EE curriculum, a member of the class of 2014, which technically makes me a freshman; except I’ve been there before, so I’m not subject to the various weird and arbitrary rules to which freshmen are subject.  I don’t have to live on campus the first year, for example, which all normal freshmen who live more than 30 miles from Orono are required to do.  (I actually kind of wanted to – it’s a long drive – but the money didn’t come together, so I had to cancel my room assignment.)

So in the morning, I’ll rise at what for me is a truly absurd hour, drive for a bit longer than I’d really care to drive, find a place to park in one of the University’s gargantuan commuter lots (which are roughly as far from the useful parts of campus as is, say, Denver), hike down to Aubert Hall on the campus mall, and report for the first lecture of the school year – CHY 121 (General Chemistry I), with Dr. Rowe.  I don’t know why first-year electrical engineering students have to take Chemistry I either, but they do.

I’m 37 years old.  My classmates will, I realized after a quick mental calculation the other day, have been born right about the same time I was dropping out of WPI.  Most of them will never have seen a Walkman, used a computer with a monochrome display, or known their parents to have a car that didn’t have air conditioning or electric windows.  Bill Clinton will have been the president at their earliest awareness of the office (mine was Jimmy Carter).  I’m not quite old enough to be their father unless I’d been much more, er, enterprising in high school than I was, but it’s close; when my dad was my age, I was in high school.  They will have only the vaguest recollection of the world before the World Wide Web or having to take your shoes off at the airport.

This should be interesting.

At least I hope it will be.  It’d be a bit silly starting a blog about it otherwise.

(* They didn’t actually say this.  It was just implied in the results of those applications I filed.)