Archive for September, 2010

Boy Howdy, I Dunno About That

September 29, 2010 6 comments

Sat the first of three exams in MAT 122 tonight at 6.  Immediately preceding this, I had endured a three-hour ECE 101 lab session that involved Wire-Wrap® technology.  As electronics construction methods go, Wire-Wrap® is some way beyond quaint.  It’s what they used to build the Apollo Guidance Computer.  My partner and I were at it for the full three hours and still couldn’t get our robot’s master LED to come on, which means we’ll have to go back during open lab next week and try to finish.  This was not a relaxing way to prepare for a major test, and I suspect my performance will reflect that.

Ironically, we had to present a photo ID at the end of the session, in order to prove we really were students and not, say, paid ringers.  All I can say is that if the real Ben Hutchins hired me to take that test for him, he got what he deserved, the cheating bastard.  I won’t know for sure until the grade gets posted, of course, but I strongly suspect that I made a complete crock out of the test.  In that sort of math there are a lot of this-or-that interpretation rules – not hard, just fiddly – and at many times in the course of the test I found myself looking at something I could have sworn last night I knew cold, and thinking, Fuck, does that mean it’s inverted relative to the X axis or the Y axis?  You don’t do as much guessing as I did and do well on a test.

On the other hand, I seem to be over my problem with factoring quadratic equations.  Or, rather, I’ve remembered the quadratic formula, which means I no longer have to.

I was right about the online homework/quizzing model not translating very comfortably to an old-school proctored paper exam, too.  Not because of graphing; we did have to do a bit of that, but it wasn’t a problem.  The problem was simply the lack of context for everything.  In an old-fashioned exam you don’t have the luxury of looking up the fiddly rules you’ve suddenly realized you no longer remember.

Personally, I don’t think this method of assessment is valid any longer in terms of preparing students for the Real World.  Maybe it never was.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I spent a good bit of time in the private sector, and while they did (as Ray Stantz once observed) expect results, they didn’t expect me to know everything about the field I was working in off the top of my head.  That’s what references are for.  As such, closed-notes testing just doesn’t make sense to me any more.  It’s just not realistic unless you’re, I don’t know, an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

On the plus side, I did manage to hit an impossible deadline for a Campus article today.  When I discovered that the professor I needed to speak with for vital background could only see me today at noon, with EE lab from 2:10 to 5, a critical math test at 6, and deadline at 8, I figured well, so much for that gig – but I filed that sumbitch at 5:15, having written most of it at my lab station in Barrows 221 between 1 and the start of lab.  A deserted circuits lab is actually quite a restful place to do a spot of writing; I shall have to remember it for personal use in future, if Andy’s around to unlock the place for me.  (Also, I enjoy being trusted to hang around in there unsupervised; they keep the room locked so the kids don’t wander off with the equipment or put an eye out with the soldering irons.)

Also, because of the evening exam, there’s no class in MAT 122 tomorrow morning.  I’m at Dad’s tonight because I didn’t feel like driving all the way home in the dark, but in the morning I get to get up and go home instead of back to campus, which should give me plenty of time to finish this week’s ECE 101 homework and finish up my cue cards and visual aids for Speech #2 in CMJ 103, which I’m due to perform on Friday morning.  That should be… interesting.  (More about the speech’s content later.  In fact, if it goes well, I might just post the video.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll edit this graf and deny I ever said anything about it.)

How’m I Doing? It’s Hard to Tell

September 27, 2010 1 comment

Week 5 has begun, and I honestly can’t tell whether it’s coming together or the wheels are coming off.

I have a math test coming up in a couple of days (it’s on Wednesday evening for a Tuesday/Thursday morning class, for no reason I can ascertain), and while I’m pretty solid on the stuff we covered in the first couple of weeks, the last week’s worth of material is… nebulous.  I mean, I can get the homework problems right if I keep plugging, and I think I know why the right answers are right once I have them, but it isn’t as automatic as I’d prefer these things to be when I’m going into an exam situation – particularly since the exam is an Old-Fashioned Paper Test, calculators/notes/textbook not allowed, just like in the olden days.  Clearly I need to study more.  The problem is, I’m not sure I know how.

On the plus side, tomorrow’s lecture period will be devoted to test review, so hopefully we’ll be able to get some tips from Prof. Zoroya on things like the exam format itself as well as the material it’s covering.  I expect there will be a significant discontinuity between online coursework and old-school proctored examinations, and that structuring a course to switch from one to the other at an evaluationally critical moment may prove slightly… less than optimal.

For example: Doing a sort of math that involves a lot of graphing (as the area of precalculus we’re in right now does) is a bit odd in an online context, as "graph this function" type problems inevitably become more of a multiple choice "which of these graphs is the one for this function" questions – which is not the same thing at all and can often be intuited without resorting to the techniques that would be needed to produce an actual graph.  And I suspect the latter will be what we have to do on the Old-Fashioned Exam, regardless of what the online homework system has trained us for.  This will be an interesting exploration of the junction of old and new teaching methods – I just wish my GPA wasn’t in the mix.

In other news, I have an appointment to meet with my EE instructor tomorrow afternoon to go over some stuff on this week’s homework and, in all likelihood, do a postmortem on last week’s homework (discussed in the previous post).  I’m ambivalent about this, because while Andy clearly knows his stuff, his teaching style often rubs me up the wrong way a bit.  He reminds me of something someone said about GweepCo back in the old days: "You guys are a tough crowd."  He comes across as a very brisk, sink-or-swim kind of guy, one of the People Who Know What They’re Doing, and he gives a definite sense that if you fall overboard, the boat ain’t stoppin’.  That kind of kein Mitleid für die Mehrheit attitude was fun when I was also one of the cool kids, but now that I’m not sure I am, it’s nervous-making.

(Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – "If this guy has that kind of attitude, why have they got him teaching ECE 101?  The class for people who don’t know what they’re doing?"  I’m not really sure myself, unless their idea was basically, "Let’s give these kids a taste of what the engineering profession will do to them if they show any weakness."  Which, if that is the case, and is anything like accurate, reinforces my growing misgivings about the field I’ve chosen.)

First exam in that course is a week from Friday.  The day before, I’m scheduled to be in Scarborough meeting with my neurologist’s officemate for a third opinion.  Hmm.

As an aside, I was eating a (really rather good) giant pretzel in the Memorial Union caf today when I happened to notice a big banner on the wall proudly declaring that the University of Maine is committed to stamping out discrimination on any grounds.  To drive that point home, the banner’s background image was a mosaic of some grounds on which they won’t discriminate, in various typefaces and colors.  I can’t say I’m on board with the art design – it’s very post-Wired – but one of the words did catch my eye: "Ability".  I’m not sure I follow.  The university can’t discriminate on the basis of ability now?  Does that mean that being crap at math is not going to be an obstacle to a degree in engineering or science?  Because if so, maybe all this self-doubt is needless.

Anyway.  No astronomy this week; the overcast socked in yesterday afternoon and looks like it might – might – break on Wednesday.  Unfortunately, the only time of year when you can really count on that not happening is in the summer, when the class isn’t offered.  I’m hoping this doesn’t turn out to be one of those semesters when the observatory’s only open once in a whole semester of Mondays.  It won’t hurt my grade – the grading system in AST 110 has been calibrated to take the possibility into account – but it will make me a bit sad.

The Sweet, Sweet Taste of Failure

September 24, 2010 3 comments

This morning I managed to fail in two different – in fact, perfectly balanced opposite – ways at the same task.

That task was the evaluation of resistive circuits in ECE 101.  I won’t go into the details lest anybody’s eyes glaze over, but basically there are two parts to this task: visually figuring out the interrelationships of the various bits of the circuit (seeing whether resistors are in series or parallel and in what order they should be evaluated), then doing some fairly basic calculations in order to work out the equivalent resistance of parts of the circuit and/or dope out the voltages across and currents through particular bits (which, if you have the resistances and one starting voltage, can be computed for the rest of the circuit using a nifty little bit of math called Ohm’s law, if you’ve done the analysis correctly).

The way ECE 101 works is, the week’s homework is due first thing on Friday.  Upon arriving in the lecture hall, we’re expected to stack it up on the table at the front; then, just before commencing the class, Andy scoops it all up and stuffs it in his backpack, and the homework train has left the station.  Then there’s usually a very quick one-question quiz about one of the topics covered in that week’s material.  This is usually of the "math trap" sort, where what he actually wants to know is if you understand some basic concept, such that you can either see how it works right away or spend a bit more time than you actually have available trying to do the math the long way.  I always fall into math traps, and today was no exception, but that is not actually part of the failurefest I mentioned above.

No, that came when he passed out the quiz and told us to turn it over, and lo, it was a fairly oblique little resistive circuit, for which he wanted the total equivalent resistance.  I saw through the first part of the trap pretty easily: though the schematic provided had a lot of weird angles in it, it was actually a pretty simple circuit which, once redrawn in a tidy rectilinear fashion, offered itself easily to analysis.  The second part, though, was that the values were set up so that a particular algebraic property of the equation for equivalent resistance was supposed to jump out at us and make it all fall into place at once.  It didn’t for me, and I duly groveled through all the math – which I then, just to add insult to injury, Did Wrong in an embarrassingly basic way.  I knew I’d done it wrong, too, and may – I can’t remember now if I actually did it or just thought about it – have gone so far as to note that I was pretty sure my final answer was incorrect. (Oddly, Andy’s sense of these things is so perverse that I might get a point back for recognizing and admitting that.)

Once the quiz was collected, Andy asked if anyone had any questions about the homework just turned in.  One of my classmates asked if he could take us through the breakdown of the most complicated of the example circuits on the homework assignment, an arrangement of nine resistors in a slightly odd pattern and a 24V DC source with the standard instruction, "Find the voltages and currents on all components and present in table form."

Andy duly began leading the class through the preliminary breakdown of the circuit, at which point I instantly realized that, on the sheets from my notebook he’d just stuffed into his pack, I had completely misapprehended the circuit layout.  I had, I knew, done all the subsequent calculations right, and so I had a comprehensive table of what the voltages and currents would have been if the circuit had been set up the way I thought it was; but it wasn’t, so I’d screwed that problem in the ear before I even started doing the math.  Exactly the opposite of what I did on the quiz.  Two flavors of failure, same topic, same instructor, same morning.

Not one of my finer academic performances, and this is only week 3.  I’m starting to get the Fear.

Okay, That Was Good

September 21, 2010 3 comments

I was a little nervous going into my first AST 110 observation session this evening.  For one thing, I didn’t have one of the essential tools the course wants me to have, a little cardboard wingus called a planisphere.  The online class modules sort of blithely assume you have one, without any particular reference to how or when it expects you’ll have acquired such a thing.  Without one, it tends to be difficult to find things like constellations other than the very most obvious ones.  I asked the first TA I encountered at the observatory where we online students were supposed to have acquired one; she directed me to the other TA, who gave me a what-planet-are-you-calling-from look and said simply, "You’re supposed to order it online."  So I guess that’s one of those initiation-rite sort of things.  I’ll be investigating further tomorrow.  I think you can buy them at the planetarium gift shop, assuming it’s open during the week.

(Ed. note: Yes you can! For $6.)

Anyway, I didn’t have one, and I was a bit worried about that.  Plus, the crowd that developed as the clock edged closer to 8 PM was quite large, large enough that it started triggering my Wallflower Instinct in a big way.  This was made worse by the fact that one of the three expected TAs didn’t turn up, meaning that the 40 or so of us students who were present had to split a pair of them between us, and one was always busy making sure the telescope was pointed correctly.

But all of that sort of melted away when the actual session began, because, well… whatever is going on to complicate the official-bookkeeping part of the exercise, it’s an astronomy lab.  It’s looking at the night sky for credit.  If you have a temperament like mine, it’s hard for any circumstantial encumbrance to mess that up.  I may change my tune as we get deeper into the semester and the evenings turn from chilly to outright cold (they don’t open the observatory if the overnight low is expected to be below 10° F, which still leaves the possibility of an open evening when it’s well below Zerex*), but right now not even the cold or the sore feet value of standing around on concrete for two hours is dimming my enthusiasm for this class.

About the only thing that could do that, I think, is the size of the crowd, and the fact that there are a few people in it who are clearly not taking the whole thing seriously.  I don’t want to come off all Sam the Eagle about this – it’s not as if I’m saying I don’t want people to enjoy themselves in class, quite the opposite – but there are a few people in the Monday group who come off like they’re taking astronomy simply because they figure it’s an easy pass, and they aren’t at all attuned to the… I don’t know, the grandeur of it all.  I’ll take another pass at this in a minute and see if I can make my meaning plainer with an example.

The time-consuming part is pointing out constellations (actually asterisms, but I didn’t want to be That Guy on observation day one) to the TAs through the use of horizon landmarks and rough azimuth-and-elevation headings ("OK, start at the student union chimney and go straight up about 30 degrees to a bright star.  From there, about 10 degrees away at 2 o’clock you’ll see another," and so on until you’ve described, say, all the prominent stars in the Big Dipper).  This is time-consuming mainly because you have to get a TA’s undivided attention for the 30-60 seconds it can take to do all this describing, which is tricky when the ratio is 20:1 and someone has to keep the telescope aimed.

Still, I did fairly well.  We’re expected to have at least 10 constellations logged (we can go up to 15) by project’s end, and I scored four tonight.  Without the aid of a planisphere, you may recall – although I’ll be honest at this point and admit that I did have Google Sky for Android to help me.

An aside: Once you convince the magnetometer in your Droid that north really is over there, and not in whatever direction it noticed the magnet on your Bluetooth earpiece’s carrying case was in while it was in your manpurse, Google Sky is a deliciously handy little app for the astronomically inclined.  It’ll even show you what’s on the other side of the Earth.  Several of my classmates were using it as well, though I was interested to note that apparently none of them realize it has a night mode.  (Why it doesn’t default to night mode, I’m not sure.  You would think that was logical.  It’s an astronomical program, after all.  While using it at lunchtime to show you what stars you would be seeing except for that pesky atmosphere is amusing, one doubts it’s the usual use.)

Anyway, yeah, four constellations, despite the fact that my aged eyes couldn’t pick out most of the stars in Aquila and Ursa Minor.  That is quite good going for an evening as crowded and glaretastic as last night was.  Six to go.  Or 11, depending on whether I want to be Mr. Completion and go for the maximum extra credit.

The other half of the observation project is a bit less tricky, but involves more standing in line.  Basically, during the course of the obs sessions, the TAs will point telescopes at Interesting Sky Objects and then the students will queue up to have a look and draw a little diagram depicting what they see.  That’s it.  You don’t have to identify what you’re looking at – the TAs tell you what it is and where in the sky you’re seeing it.  You draw what you see, draw a horizon reference, and make some notes.  Tonight we did the Moon and Jupiter.  Sadly, we didn’t use the observatory’s Proper Telescope, the one mounted inside the dome – too many students and not enough TAs – so we did tonight’s observations with a Dobsonian reflector telescope that seems to have been built from a big ol’ sonotube (like you’d use to pour the concrete column to hold up a deck).

Disappointment about the Big Telescope or no, it was still the coolest thing I’ve looked at through a tube in a long time.  Jupiter was clear enough that I think I could make out at least one of the darker cloud bands, though it might just have been because I knew they were there.  The real "ooo, wow" feature of the Jupiter obs was the Galilean moons – all four of them strung out in a bright line, two on either side of the planet.  (Alas, we just missed a transit of Ganymede, which happened Saturday night.)   I’d never seen them directly before.  For someone with an armchair appreciation of science history like me, it was a real chill-up-the-spine moment.  I wanted to grab a couple of my more jocular classmates and shake them. "Don’t you realize what that means, what you’re looking at there?  It’s not just a bunch of bright dots, it’s Galileo’s proof that Copernicus was right!  It’s the crowbar that pried the shackles of Aristotle from the wrists of Western thought!  How can you not be excited about that?!"

Ahem.  Do excuse me.  Of course I don’t do any such thing, because they would just shake themselves free and walk away muttering, "Psycho."  But I’m thinking it.  And I think I had a moment of eye contact with one of the TAs that indicated she was thinking it too, but that might just have been wishful thinking on my part.  She was really nice.

Anyway.  Man, I hope we do Saturn later on.  Saturn is my very favorite sky object.

The lunar surface was also impressive, doubly so because the Moon was so close to full.  That was bad in other ways, but it did make for nice crater viewing (though I’m told it’s even better when the Moon is at, say, one of the quarters, and the day-night terminator is right in the middle of the frame, as it were).  I quite clearly saw that one large crater with the bright ejecta rays all around it.  Can’t remember what it’s called right now, and am unable to look it up.  Will get back to you on that.

(Ed. note: Tycho.)

When I say the Moon being nearly full was bad in other ways, what I mean is that the glare from it rather messed up the seeing (as we astronomers say) for the rest of the sky.  When the moon is full, it’s difficult to see anything in the sky other than, well, the Moon.

It must be admitted that the seeing from the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory isn’t too terrific even on the darkest of nights, simply because – as was, I suspect, not the case when it was built – it’s right slap in the middle of campus now, surrounded by take-back-the-night Pedestrian Safety Streetlights, the bus turnaround in front of the cheerfully lit Memorial Union, and particularly the Godawful garish lights of the Union’s loading dock.  (Why the hell does that need to be illuminated at 9 PM?)  it’s all a little bit depressing if you’re trying to get lost in the wonders of the cosmos, or point out the dimmer members of Aquila** to a TA.

I do love the voicemail message that tells you whether the observatory is open that night when you call, though.  Sometimes it’s recorded by one of the TAs, but sometimes a computer does it, and so you get the delightful illusion that you’re being told that the Maynard F. Jordan Observatory is closed tonight due to overcast by Professor Stephen Hawking.

We’re on the hook for eight telescopic objects over the course of the obs project, but we only got two tonight because of the TA shortage.  Hopefully in future sessions either the herd will thin out a bit or they’ll get that third TA back on task.  It’s pretty clearly going to take at least three sessions at this point to get everything in – not that I mind.  As long as the weather holds out, I’m there.  I can’t imagine why I didn’t do this in 1993, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I don’t think I’d have appreciated it as much back then (though I was still an astronomy junkie even then, I wasn’t the full-on Saganite I am now).

It is making me wonder now if I’m barking up the wrong tree with this electrical engineering malarkey and should, in fact, just say the hell with Career Prospects and become an astronomer.  But that’s probably the endorphins talking.

OK, to bed.  Math in the morning.  I’m at Moonbase Dad tonight, since I didn’t clear campus until about 10:15 PM, and he’s shut off the wireless router for some reason, so I won’t actually be able to post this until I get back to school.  Fortunately laptops are welcome in MAT 122, and since I’ll have written it already I won’t actually be goofing off in class if I upload it while I’m pulling up the virtual textbook.

* In WPI gweepy lore, Zerex is the temperature below which John Todd will put on a jacket.  You probably don’t know him, but he had a high tolerance for cold.  Zerex was at least in the low twenties Fahrenheit, if not colder.

** "The dimmer members of Aquila" sounds like I’m being uncomplimentary about a Latin American rock band.

Back to the Future

September 19, 2010 1 comment

One of the consequences of my extremely late start on this school year is that my financial aid package, though adequate, is extremely rudimentary.  It’s basically a big pile of Stafford loans on top of a decent-sized Pell grant, but there are no bells or whistles at all.  I didn’t even qualify for workstudy, which meant that getting an on-campus job wasn’t a given.  Almost all jobs on campus are workstudy-funded, which means the departments offering them have to leave them unfilled if they can’t get any workstudy students to apply.  They don’t have the money to pay for them any other way.

Compounding the frustration here is the fact that the Office of Student Employment’s online job search system isn’t reliable about its listings.  You can search for "non-workstudy only", but of the six interesting jobs I found by searching that way at the beginning of the semester, all of them were misfiled, such that when I sent off messages to the people in charge expressing my interest, I got back only polite expressions of regret.

As such, when I noticed yesterday that the school newspaper, the Maine Campus, was looking for a columnist, I figured that was probably mislabeled as well – but what the hell, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t have writing samples lying around.  So I fired them off my 2004 Better Newspaper Contest entries and a later piece I wrote about the WPI Fountain of Useless Knowledge, along with a copy of my résumé in all its tattered splendor, thinking the worst that could happen was another no.

Instead, I seem to have been hired to write a biweekly column, and invited to attend the regular news agenda meetings with an eye toward picking up some slack (if there is any) in the news department.  Apparently they don’t get many applicants who’ve worked for several years at "real-world" newspapers.

I would not have predicted that I would find myself working for a newspaper again in this setting.  No word yet on whether the new column will be the return of Off the Top of My Head or something new, but the editor-in-chief did say "on the topic of your choice".  We’ll be meeting tomorrow afternoon.  I’m looking forward to it.

In other news, the weather forecast is good (but cold!) for tomorrow evening, so I should be obliged to visit the observatory.  That’ll be my first visit to the facility; I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing, despite having read over the Observation Project spec sheet a dozen or so times.  Hopefully it’ll become apparent once I’m on the scene.  Either way, I’m looking forward to that, too.  I mean, yes, I’ll be freezing my butt off, but still, I mean – observatory!

Unexpected Meetings

September 17, 2010 2 comments

I mentioned last time that I’d seen MATLAB before, many years ago.  Oddly, that was not the only encounter with an old friend I had this week.  The other one was more surprising, because it was a friend I knew from civilian life, not one of my previous times as a student.

For reasons discussed earlier, I ended up in the online section of the AST 110 laboratory course.  This means that the actual curriculum of the course is very different – there isn’t, for instance, any direct exploration of optics, because the students can’t be expected to have optics labs at home.  The observation project still applies, so those who live too far from campus to visit the observatory have to make some other arrangement (the university helpfully provides a list of people around the state who have telescopes and are willing to help remote students with their obs projects), but apart from that, things are different in online-land.

The most significant difference: Instead of futzing around in the optics lab in Bennett Hall and/or visiting the planetarium during lab hours, the online students have to do simulated observations using a piece of astronomical software.  And, weirdly, it’s a piece of astronomical software I’ve used before.

It’s called Starry Night, and it’s hugely cool.  With it, one can simulate the view of the sky from anywhere in the world, at any time of day, on any day within a ridiculously wide range of years (4713 BC to AD 9999, according to the website).  In fact, one can simulate the view from places other than anywhere in the world.  Which is where I know it from, so to speak.

See, a few years ago I was working on a story that was set on a (perhaps improbably) terraformed Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and I wanted to know what the night sky would’ve looked like from there on a particular evening in the early 25th century.  On the face of it, that’s perhaps not information the average citizen could reasonably expect to have available.  Nor would it have been a big deal if I’d just made it up – this was a story set on a terraformed Titan in the early 25th century, after all, so it’s not like scientific realism was a high priority – but for some reason it annoyed me a bit, and I grumbled about it in the online chat room where most of the brainstorming and collaborating got done.

“Oh,” said my friend Phil, “you need Starry Night, then.”

I tracked it down, and indeed it did do exactly what I wanted.  This was deeply gratifying.  We even used a screencap as the backdrop for an illustration connected with the piece that Phil drew.

Fast-forward, oh, ten years or thereabouts, and there I am downloading a much newer version of Starry Night for an online astronomy lab course.  The interface has changed quite a bit from the old days, but the visuals are familiar.

I do still want to get to the planetarium, though.  The display is bigger.

Maybe I’m Starting to Catch On

September 15, 2010 5 comments

And on the other hand, maybe not.

As we approach the end of Week 3, I was just starting to feel a little bit comfortable – not totally on top of things, but at least less like I’ve got no business being where I am, doing what I’m doing.  My first outing in CMJ 103 went well, I’ve got a topic in hand for my second speech in a couple of weeks (and I’m looking forward to doing some research in the process of putting it together), and attending the lecture sessions in MAT 122 was definitely the right call; I feel almost like I might know what I’m doing when I work on that material now.

Even in ECE 101, I was starting to feel like it was coming together for me.  Today’s class period was set aside for recitation; it was optional, but I went anyway, and another guy and I ended up scribbling resistive circuits on the blackboard and having a grand old time figuring out whether things were in parallel or series (it’s sometimes hard to tell from the schematic).  I’m not going to puff out my chest and say I’m on top of the material, but I’m keeping up; I don’t feel like the class is out ahead of me, as it were.  Pilots talk about being “behind the airplane”; that’s the way I’ve been feeling, and this morning that sensation was starting to ebb.

Until I turned up for our ECE 101 lab period this afternoon, and we started getting our introduction to MATLAB.

I should explain at this point that MATLAB is… well, to call it a math program is a bit like saying that the Pacific Ocean is “a body of water”, but it’ll have to suffice for our purposes.  In ECE 101 we’re using it primarily for graphing and working out the answers to hideously abstruse simultaneous equations.  I first encountered it back in 1991, when, like everything else on WPI’s computers at the time, it was a powerful but hilariously primitive command-line tool.  (Nowadays it’s a powerful but hilariously primitive command-line tool wrapped up in some X Window tinsel.  But not very much of it.)

And here’s where the wheels started to come off the bus a little bit.  The MAT in MATLAB, which is one of those Navy-style partial-word acronyms like COMSUBLANT, doesn’t stand for “math”; it stands for “matrix”.  It assumes that any set of variables you feed it represent a mathematical matrix and operates upon them accordingly.  Thus, to solve the aforementioned simultaneous equations (which, in the example we were using, were connected with something called the Kirchhoff current law), Andy explained, you have to use said equations to construct a set of matrices and then goad MATLAB into solving them for you.

Several of my classmates, at the workstations around me, had “oh yeah” moments, and a lively discussion of the ins and outs of pitting matrices against each other ensued.  I sat among them having one of those Hitchcock dolly zoom moments, and when a decent conversational lull occurred, I hesitantly interjected,

“I have no idea what you guys are talking about now.”

Andy gave me a blank look.  “Matrix algebra.”

“Which is… ?”

“High school stuff.  Algebra II, probably.”

And here’s the thing.  I know Algebra II was a long time ago for me.  I took it in my sophomore year of high school, which was several years before most of my classmates were even born.  But even so, I don’t remember a single thing about the topic of “matrix algebra”.  I sincerely don’t believe we covered it.  Maybe it was one of those things that was near the end of the book and we just didn’t get to it before the end of the school year; that happened a lot at Stearns High.  Maybe it hadn’t been invented yet.  Maybe we just didn’t cover it.  I don’t know.  But I’m fairly sure that I was never exposed to it.  If I was, I’ve managed to forget it so completely that I didn’t even remember the term.

Either way, it may not matter, because in the context of ECE 101 it appears I don’t actually have to know how it works, just how to plug it into MATLAB, which I’m now reasonably confident I can do.  But that was the first moment in which I’ve run up against an actual hole – not just a fuzzy spot but a genuine void – in the foreknowledge the curriculum assumes I have.  This doesn’t interact well with that growing sense of belonging-there I was talking about at the beginning…