Home > Documenting the Process > One Thing About It, There Are Toys

One Thing About It, There Are Toys

September 4, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

For reasons that are not yet clear to me (I suspect it has more to do with the later years of the program), the EE program at UMaine requires all students to have a laptop computer.  They provide a list of specifications to the on-campus computer store, Computer Connection, which then makes arrangements with various manufacturers to make available hardware that fits the requirements.  In EE’s case, the most suitable system for the purpose that CC offers is a special version of the Lenovo ThinkPad W510 – not quite the top-of-the-line W510 spec, but more capable than the standard “middle grade” version thanks to some customizations.  I ordered mine on August 5 and was told it’d take three weeks to arrive, which would have had it arriving comfortably in time for the semester to begin.

Until the containerload of them mine was in got hung up for a week at Customs in Alaska, that is.  It actually arrived yesterday.  But that was okay, because, as I said, nothing has come up in the first week of the freshman curriculum that called for it.  I unpacked it last night and have spent the morning getting it squared away.  Now I’m writing this post on it by way of getting used to the keyboard.

I’ve had a ThinkPad before, back when they were made by IBM (if memory serves, it was an i1400 series), and I still have fond memories of it.  It was the first laptop I had with a DVD-ROM drive in it, and it had a pleasant air of indestructibility about it.  This one is much the same – it has the same black slabbiness, the same sense of solidity, and the same terrific keyboard touch.  And it’s a ThinkPad, so it has the nice little TP touches like the TrackPoint mini-joystick mouse thing (which they’ve made a bit wider and flatter since my old one) and – my personal favorite – the little lamp at the top of the screen that illuminates the keyboard in dark rooms.

Another tech toy that’s come my way this week, but will probably only be really necessary in future semesters, is a Texas Instruments TI-89 Titanium calculator.  This thing is a calculator in the same way that the Saturn V was a rocket.  It comes with a fat paperback manual, and closer inspection reveals that that’s just the “Getting Started” guide.  The rest of the docs are on a CD that came with it.  I have no idea how to get it to do anything, but the docs claim it can do pretty much anything but bake bread.  (And there might be an app for that.)  And when I say I don’t know how to get it to do anything, I mean I can’t even figure out how to convince it to divide.  Doing what my intuition says is the right thing – figure one, division sign, figure two, enter – produces only a helpfully prettied-up fraction, which is frankly less than helpful.  My math skills have atrophied over the years, yes, but even I recognize at a glance that 5280 divided by 27 is 5280/27.  That’s not really what I’m asking for.

I’m sure it can do proper division.  The fault is entirely in me.  This is rapidly becoming a familiar theme this semester.  Pretty much all my classes (apart from the public speaking one) assume you already know how to do a fair bit of algebra, which is unfortunate for me in that I, uh, really don’t.  The fact that I achieved a passing score on the math placement test (and thus got into Precalculus) says I do, but my gut feeling of utter bewilderment when various algebraic concepts – particularly those involving exponents and/or fractions with variables in the bottom part – come up in class suggests otherwise.

I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with this except that I ended up in the arm’s-length online MAT 122 section.  The professor has noted on the class’s inevitable FirstClass conference that those of us within striking distance of Orono are welcome to attend the classroom lectures of his regular version, as it’s held in one of the huge lecture halls and there’s plenty of room – but the Tuesday one overlaps my chemistry lab and I question the usefulness of just attending the Thursday one.  Annoyingly, no video or audio version of the lectures appears to be available for us distance students – just PDF packages of the prof’s PowerPoint slides, which are of less than ideal usefulness without any sort of context or commentary.

I spent most of Thursday night and yesterday grappling with this, and eventually I concluded that there were three possible courses of action:

1) Drop Chemistry and start going to the Tuesday and Thursday Precalculus lectures.  Advantages: I won’t have a class at 9 AM any more; I’ll hopefully be able to get more solid math instruction; my credit load for this semester (which I tend to suspect was a bit too ambitious for a first returning semester anyway) will go down.  Disadvantages: I won’t have Thursday off any more; my credit load will actually go down a bit too much, dropping me to 11 hours for this semester (12 is the threshold for being considered a full-time student) and angering the financial aid gods; I need Chemistry to fulfill a degree requirement, so I’ll have to take it sometime.

2) Try to get switched to a different chem lab that meets at some other time.  Advantages: accommodates math without making it necessary to drop chem.  Disadvantages: might not be possible, as almost all the other chem lab sections meet at times that conflict with some other class I have, and the one that doesn’t is full.  Also, it eliminates my day off without getting me a later start time on the others.

3) Just keep trying to make it work as it currently stands.  Advantages: I keep Thursday off and don’t cause a lot of potential scrambling around in future semesters.  Disadvantages: I’m really not sanguine about my chances of making it happen in math this way.

Because yesterday was the last day I could do it, I added a one-credit-hour course – AST 110, the laboratory component of Introduction to Astronomy, which I took the lecture part of back in 1993 – to address the sub-12-credits problem dropping Chemistry would cause.  That means I’d be on campus late into Tuesday evening.  OTOH, dropping Chemistry would mean I no longer had the recitation that kept me there late into Wednesday evening any more, so it’s kind of a no-op on that front.  I have a couple more weeks to drop without penalty, so in either case  (I decide to drop chem, or I don’t but don’t want to go up to 16 credits this semester) it’s not a permanent commitment yet.

I suspect I need to talk to my advisor and the math prof about this before making a final decision, but yesterday was the Friday before a holiday weekend, so neither one was to be found by the time my last class ended at noon.  Annoyingly, my first class when school resumes on Tuesday is the first chem lab, which I’ll have to attend before I’ve been able to decide whether I’m even keeping the class.  So I guess I can add the pre-lab to the pile of stuff I need to do this weekend.

Speaking of which, I’d best be about it.  I don’t want to fall into my old bad habits, like leaving everything until 1900 or so Sunday (or, this weekend, Monday) before starting.  I may not have a solid grasp of math yet,  but I can at least try and cultivate some good working habits at last.

Oh, and speaking of math and problems, in the course of researching alternatives yesterday I discovered that one of the standard EE classes for the first year’s spring semester, ECE 177 (Intro to Programming for Engineers) has MAT 126 as a prereq.  That’s… a problem, since I’ll be taking MAT 126 that semester.  But then, I don’t want to take a programming class anyway.  Another reason to consider switching to Electrical Engineering Technology: it doesn’t have programming classes.  (In fact, looking at the course descriptions from the EET sample curriculum, this semester’s classes look much more interesting than what I’m actually doing.  I’m not sure how that failed to come to my notice last month.  I did look at this stuff before.)

  1. mechamanx
    September 4, 2010 at 15:07

    I have a feeling that even without a desire to do the prog’ging you wouldn’t get around it in practical application, even as tempting as EET makes it sounds. Unfortunately, I have a feeling the calc is going to be its own language to program in, called ‘the correct steps to call’. Never had a TI though. Thought they looked neat when working with the elder brothers in high school, but couldn’t justify when I went to college.

    IIRC, the manufacturer of the ‘slab’ never changed, IBM just decided to no longer brand/import them.

  2. offsides
    September 5, 2010 at 12:24

    If it’s a standard TI “not just what your average calculator watch can do” calculator, it’s probably defaulted to RPN (reverse-polish notation, aka postfix notation”. Don’t know exactly how to make it work, but try something like “10 = 2 / =” and see if you don’t get 5…

    Good luck with the course juggling and everything, and if you need help with math, there’s probably a bunch of people reading this who could help you out, myself included…

    P.S. Thinkpads used to be actually made by IBM, and back then they were true tanks. Nowadays Lenovo builds “Thinkpads”, but IIRC they only bought the brand name for 5 years and next year they have to give it back. I think they may have built them for IBM for a few years before buying the whole thing, but the Lenovo-built ones aren’t quite as solid as the old IBMs. Still, having an APC for a laptop (instead of a tank) is better than some of the crap I’ve seen made by other companies…

    • Ben
      September 5, 2010 at 12:42

      HP scicalcs use RPN, but I don’t think TIs do. That was one of the selling points back in the day. Still, worth a try.

  3. Chad
    September 6, 2010 at 21:10

    If the TI-89 is anything like the TI-92, or whatever they call them now (“Math Explorer”?), there should be a diamond button somewhere. Push that and then enter, and the calculator will give you what you want. (I think. It’s been a while since I used one.)

    The funny thing about the TI-89 is that it’s optimized for symbolic calculation. Most of the time, you have to force it to approximate.

  4. pfloyd
    September 7, 2010 at 16:19

    On the TI (I have one myself), there’s another button on there you can press… looks like two tildes on top of each other. Tap one of the shift-type keys (the pale green, I think) and then that button and enter, and you’ll get what you want.

    I love my TI… best calculator I’ve had, especially with ME Pro loaded onto it.
    Makes me want to go and break out my old Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Dynamics texts…

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