Archive for December, 2010

Well, That’s One in the Bag

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

With today’s MAT 122 final over with, my first semester as a comically overage undergraduate is complete.

I had five classes, but since two were only one credit apiece (and one was four), my total course load was a mere 12 credits – the minimum necessary to maintain standing as a full-time student.  Of those five classes, four were graded (A-F) and one was pass/fail; the latter doesn’t count toward GPA.

I haven’t received my grades –the deadline for posting them is December 27 – so I don’t know for certain where I’ll stand once all the scores are in, but neither final exam felt particularly disastrous and my performance in both of those classes has been decent, as far as I can tell.  I’m not one to keep track obsessively of how my coursework is going over the span of the semester, but I think I’d have noticed if I’d gone down in flames at any point, and though there were some dicey moments in ECE 101, my actual graded-work performance has been fairly solid.  And though I haven’t received my score for last Friday’s speech in CMJ 103 either, that same speech won the Oak Awards later that afternoon, so I think I can be excused for being reasonably confident about that one.

So, touch wood, I think I’ve done pretty well.  Especially considering how much rust there was on a lot of those neural pathways, I trust I have not disgraced my clan.

Ironically, the big question mark here is AST 110, and the reason it’s a question mark is because of the way the course was presented.  I had a great time in the observation sessions, despite nearly freezing to death* in the final one, but the rest of the course was an exercise in frustration and annoyance.  You may recall that, due to scheduling problems, I had to take the online version of the course.  This was presented using the University’s WebCT system, and it was, not to put too fine a point on it, infuriating.

The problem with WebCT, at least as regards AST 110, is twofold:

1) Interaction with the instructors is exceedingly minimal.  There are discussion boards, but the instructors don’t appear to monitor them, or at least they’re under no obligation to respond – they’re a little like those boards MMOs maintain, where the GMs read them but you can only expect answers from the other players.  This is often annoying, because

2) WebCT isn’t a good system for presenting that particular course as currently prepared.  This isn’t a general "WebCT is rubbish" complaint – there are specific reasons why it doesn’t work for AST 110.  Basically, a lot of the learning modules, as prepared, involve making eyeball estimates from diagrams and/or charts, then basing some calculations on those estimates.  The problem there is that WebCT is a very stupid multiple-choice system that’s programmed to expect very precise answers – answers it is not likely to get, at least not with the degree of precision required, from students who had to eyeball a diagram on the screen to start calculating them.

The upshot of these two shortcomings was that a lot of the learning modules were as much exercises in engineering what WebCT was expecting as they were about actually mastering the astronomical concepts being presented, and eventually I just gave up messing with that, plugged in the answers I was getting, and let the chips fall where they may.  I have no idea whether the instructors have any override authority to compensate for WebCT’s insistence on precise figures a student can, in many cases, only arrive at by blind luck, nor whether they particularly care to exercise it if they do.  If they do, the damage probably isn’t as bad as I think.  If they don’t, my grade in that course may not be all that good, which is a shame, because I have a great love for astronomy and did usually come out of the learning modules understanding what they were trying to put across to me – I just didn’t have any way of persuading WebCT of that because the assessment were so poorly structured.

On the other hand, it’s only a one-credit lab, so as long as I passed, it won’t do all that much harm to my GPA.  (And yes, I did note all of the above in my semester’s-end course evaluation, for all the good I expect it will do.  I’m not convinced anyone actually reads those, for all that the University takes their administration achingly seriously.)

Right now, thanks to a computer science course I neglected to withdraw from properly in the fall of 1993 and so logged an F in, my GPA is 2.937 – a tiny, tiny bit below the threshold for most, if not all, supplementary financial aid (read "upperclass scholarships").  We shall see within a week or so whether my performance this semester has been sufficient to improve that.  (I’ve only just learned that I could have applied for readmission as a pseudo-transfer student, since I need well over 30 credits to graduate and had been gone more than five years – that would have wiped my old GPA and started me over.  But I didn’t know that at the time, and now it’s too late.  Alas.)


* not really

CMJ 103 Speech #4 (Persuasive #2)

December 12, 2010 1 comment

The videography in this one is not of the best – you can’t see most of my slides because of a combination of camera angle and lighting, which rather damages the effect, and for a good bit of it you can only see me from the nose up, which is quite distracting.  This is the one I delivered to an almost empty room for course credit; the Communications Department did video the Oak Awards version, but did not make that edition available to me.

For this reason, I’ll present a transcript with the slides inlined, but since vocal delivery is important too, here as well is the video of my second persuasive speech, "Our Friend the Atom".

Here’s something we don’t consider normal in the Western world today: the lights going out for no good reason.

In 1965, a mechanical defect at a power station in Ontario blacked out most of the northeastern United States and Canada, including New York City, for up to 12 hours.  They called it the Great Blackout of 1965.  A LIFE Magazine photographer immortalized the eerie scene in this photo.


Forty years later, Californian authorities were doing it on purpose, in so-called rolling blackouts – not because of technical faults, but due to insufficient generating capacity.  Elsewhere in the world, that sort of thing is part of everyday life.  But as technology advances, and individual electrical demand trends downward, collective demand always goes up as more and more people get onto the grid.


This chart, from the 2010 U.S. Department of Energy International Energy Outlook, shows the projected growth in worldwide generating capacity through 2035.  Note particularly the red line, which shows projected growth in the parts of the world that don’t currently have the fully meshed electrical grids that we’re used to here in the First World.

Using information gathered from the U.S. Department of Energy and other authorities and historical documents, I’m going to tell you about one thing that I think we need to do in order to head off the potential energy crunch of the coming decades.  Obviously we need to increase our generating capacity – by 87 percent in the next 25 years, if you believe the Department of Energy.  So how can we do that?  Where will it come from?

Well, we can’t build more conventional power stations, because…


… that will either mean feeding the demon Foreign Oil, or worse, burning more coal, which is messy and harmful.

We apparently can’t build wind farms…

Provision 221007
Protesters from the Castletown and Newcestown Action Group pictured outside Cork county hall yesterday.The group of forty plus protesters are fighting plans to build 16 wind turbines and a bio-energy plant in the West Cork area.
Pic Daragh Mac Sweeney/Provision

busts 2.jpg











… because they mince birds and make an annoying noise.  [Ed. note: In the Oak Awards version I adjusted the delivery of this line to the more Clarksonian "because they make an annoying noise… and mince owls," which got a huge laugh…]

We can’t have more hydroelectric dams, because they inconvenience fish and other…


… wildlife. [Ed. note: … but not as huge as this one got.]

And solar power obviously isn’t going to be much help in places like Maine…

Avery peak from the West Peak

… where the weather is usually like that.

So what’s the answer?


Our friend, the atom.

Nuclear power was the promise of the future in the 1950s, but it’s gone into a steady decline in the public eye since about 1970.  This wasn’t helped by two high-profile accidents, one in the US, the other in the USSR, in the late ’70s and mid-’80s.

As described in the American Chemical Society’s Three Mile Island Accident: Diagnosis and Prognosis, Three Miles Island Reactor #2 in Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown in 1979 thanks to a stuck coolant valve.  The reactor’s containment vessel and other emergency backup systems did their jobs perfectly.  There was no significant radiation release from Three Mile Island, and no one was harmed in the incident.  It should’ve been the case study in why nuclear technology works, not the national horror story it became.

The 1986 explosion of Reactor #4 at Chernobyl in the Soviet Ukraine… was a horror story.  It’s inspired films, video games, and at least one deeply creepy website.  This was a disaster perpetrated by Soviet design, Soviet construction, and Soviet operational standards, all of which were, well, Soviet.  As John Tabak explains in Nuclear Power, the Soviets designed a type of reactor that lacked an inherent safety factor, built it shoddily, and then decreed that a dangerous experiment should be carried out in the middle of the night by the second-string operators.  It’s almost as if they wanted it to blow up.  David R. Marples summed it up in Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR, one of the first books to analyze the accident, when he wrote: "Chernobyl was a badly built edifice, with a demoralized workforce."  That was the Soviet system in the 1980s.  Things have moved on a bit since then.

I believe that with the lessons learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and other, less famous incidents over the 60-odd years of nuclear history, a new generation of power stations – properly engineered, properly built, properly operated – can provide electricity in abundance, without damming rivers, causing acid rain, or annoying people who live near hills.

Of course, nuclear power does have inherent hazards, but there are hazards in any energy technology.  Any coal miner or oil rig worker can tell you that.  But since when have we, as a species, shied away from using things that are dangerous if mishandled?  If that were the case, we’d never have mastered fire or stone tools.  This new generation of reactors must be carefully researched, carefully designed, and built to be as safe as they can be, then operated vigilantly and never handled complacently – but they need not be feared.

My grandfather was once a member of the U.S. Army rifle team.  He taught me to shoot when I was a small boy.  One of the first things he taught me was that a firearm must be respected, but never feared.  I think it’s the same thing with nuclear power: We need to be vigilant; we can’t be afraid.

In my future, this new generation of reactors plays a large role in helping the electric power industry get ahead of the curve – cleanly, safely, and economically.  I’m not saying we need to stop research into alternative energy.  More choices are always better.  I am saying that the atom should play a big part in what we do going forward.

The atom is a tricky little so-and-so, but we – you and me, our society, right now – are the smartest, best-educated, most technologically capable human being who have ever lived.  We can do this.  Here in the defining days of the 21st century, we face a choice.  We’re either heading for a brightly lit golden age… or a sputtering slide into darkness.  Our friend the atom is a powerful but sadly neglected tool that can, in my view, if grasped with authority and wielded with care, help us achieve the better future that I think we’d all rather have.

So let it be known that you support the safe, responsible use of atomic power.  Spread the word that the atom is misunderstood, and should be respected, but never hated or feared.  Insist that nothing be done in haste, but that it must be done.  Throw off your outdated fears and learn to love the atom – for it will set us free.  Thank you.

One Day Summarizes Everything

December 11, 2010 3 comments

Yesterday was the last regular day of the fall semester, and the events of the day have an eerie sort of encapsulating symmetry about them, if you look at them from a certain angle.

The first order of business was the robot competition in ECE 101.  This was held in the big lecture hall in the new wing of Barrows (the same room where ECE 100 seminars were held), and consisted of a showdown in the 4×4 maze for the four teams whose robots had performed best in the preliminary rounds of testing, which were held in the week’s regular lab sessions.

The rules of the ECE 101 robot contest are fairly simple: The robot has to navigate a maze based on 12-inch squares without any outside intervention.  The robot that is consistently the fastest over three complete runs wins.  Grounds for disqualification include manual intervention by the robots’ builders, any attempt by the robot itself to circumvent the structure of the maze (extremely unlikely given the nature of the robots’ construction), and contact with the maze walls.  Keep that last rule, particularly, in mind for the next thing I say:

It may give you some indication of how well the robot Let’s Call Him Matt and I built performed in the preliminary round when I tell you that it ended up being dubbed Harvey.

So, uh, we weren’t participating in the finals.  We did get it to move (the reason it wouldn’t turned out to be a programming problem in one of the header files that was so abstruse even Andy was impressed with its subtlety), but could never find the sweet spot for the sensor gain settings that would lead to any useful navigational abilities.  We ended up just running out of time – the Wednesday lab ended without Harvey having logged a single successful run in the 4×4 maze, and neither of us was able to attend the optional evening session or the Thursday afternoon lab, so Friday morning came with us never having gotten on the board at all.

Regardless, it was fun to watch the finals, and the performance of the robot that won overall was impressive.  The winning team received "production" robots, based on the same design we used for the ones we built in class, but based on a grown-up printed circuit board instead of a forest of Wire-Wrapped pins in plain perf board – not really much more practical than a trophy, since the ECE 101 Maze Robot’s practical usefulness potential is rather limited, but certainly something with more engineering cred when displayed on a shelf.

In the afternoon, I finally managed to deliver my fourth and final speech in CMJ 103 for credit, having done one dry run with it in Zay’s* office on Wednesday evening.  The second run was necessary because the visual aids were unavailable the first time, and it took us quite a lot of fiddling around to line up a room with a working projector.  We did finally get it done, though, and I had the curious experience of delivering an impassioned persuasive speech to an audience of one in what may be the oddest classroom on campus: 44 Dunn Hall, also known as "the airplane".  This gets its name from the fact that it is a curiously long and narrow room that’s been set up as a sort of miniature lecture hall.  It’s got four columns of seats arranged two-by-two with an aisle in the middle and a projector screen at one end, and the entrance is in the middle of one of the long sides, making entering it feel uncannily like boarding a commuter flight.

Even stranger, an hour later after delivering that speech to no one but Zay in a basement room resembling a small airliner cabin, I was on the other side of campus in a big lecture hall, one of the proper auditorium-style ones, delivering it again to a couple of hundred people.  This was because, as I previously mentioned, I’d been selected as Section 003’s delegate to the Oak Awards, a competition among the many (this semester, eight) sections of CMJ 103.

This was… a profoundly weird experience.  I mean to say, performing a set of prepared remarks in a semi-darkened theatre-like room, with my parents sitting at opposite sides pretending not to have noticed each other – it was like being a high school drama nerd again, except there was actually money on the line.  First prize at the Oak Awards is a $500 scholarship.  (And bragging rights for your instructor, who can thus force all the other CMJ 103 instructors for the semester to acknowledge that her kung fu is best.)

I was up second, which I thought was slightly odd since I was representing Section 003, but fine, no problem there.  My slides (or, well, it was actually a PowerPoint presentation, but it contained no clever inter-slide effects, not one single bullet point, and only one font, so my conscience is clear) had been provided to the MC ahead of time, and apart from not being able to control the room lights – which screwed up my planned attention-getting device a little, since it involved simulating an electric blackout – there were no technical problems.  I retired to my seat secure in the knowledge that I had done the best I could do and resolved to let the chips fall where they may.

The other seven speakers were a very mixed bag.  There were two civil engineering students, a nutrition and food science major, a pre-vet biologist, and a couple of others I don’t remember offhand – and one guy who actually was a communications major, who I figured might be trouble?  Except he had that rising intonation thing going on?  That the kids do these days?  Where everything sounds like a question?  Even when it isn’t?  And I may be revealing myself as an ancient fuddy-duddy here, but I just couldn’t take him seriously as a potential rival after that point.

Personally, I think the most interesting one of the seven was the guy who presented some well-reasoned and cogent points in defense of the thesis that recycling paper is a counterproductive waste of time, effort, and energy resources.  Well, I say interesting.  Two of the others were plenty interesting, but not in a "hmm, you know, he’s got a point" way; those would be the two who denounced, respectively, evolution and the Apollo 11 mission photos as scientific fraud.  (The latter actually caused me to facepalm involuntarily, which got me kicked chidingly in the ankle by one of my colleagues in the competitors’ corner.  I suppose it was a bit rude of me, but coming as it did directly on the heels of the evolution speech, I just couldn’t help it.)

So anyway, I won.

(That wasn’t a very dramatic buildup, yeah?  However, it’s roughly equivalent to the way the MC announced it after the judges deliberated.  I’d never seen an award announcement where they started with first place before.  It rather dampens the drama, I have to admit.  Also, while I’m proud of the achievement and the $500 will certainly help next semester, I’m a little disappointed that there’s no certificate or anything.)

So there you are.  In the same day, I – ostensibly an engineering major – failed to even make the finals of a technical competition held as part of an engineering core course, but swept the field and retired covered in glory in a liberal arts competition held in conjunction with a core humanities course.

That, I think, summarizes my whole Weltanschauung nowadays.

On the other hand, I’m not quite done with Harvey yet.  Any further work on the project won’t be useful for credit, since the class will be over on Monday, but I’m hoping to keep fooling with it over break anyway.  It just annoys me to leave the thing unfinished.

This weekend: prep for finals.  I have two, one in ECE 101, the other in MAT 122.  Confidence is moderate for both of them at this time – except I’m not sure when/where the MAT 122 one actually is.  I think the time/place I have in my appointment book is actually the final for MAT 122-0001, the Regular Course with the same prof as the online one I’m really enrolled in; the Office of Student Records claims the one for MAT 122-0990 is on a completely different day, but doesn’t say where it is.  Must email Prof. Zoroya and get that cleared up.



* Her name is Lindzay, making her the first academic instructor I’ve had who prefers to be known not just by her first name, but by a diminutive form of her first name, by her students.  But hey, whatever makes her happy.

Snow Day

December 6, 2010 2 comments

We’re in the process of getting a foot or two of snow here in northern Maine, and the University has responded with the – I am assured – quite rare step of canceling classes for the day.  This would not normally hurt my feelings at all, what with my general distaste for crashing into ditches and freezing to death, except that this is the very last Monday of the semester.

There’s nothing very much doing in ECE101 today, since regular classes ended last week and we’re just doing recitations now, and missing the last of the ECE100 seminars isn’t really a big deal since all we were doing was filling out the course evaluation and receiving some parting remarks.  I am annoyed, though, about two things:

1) I was scheduled to deliver my last speech in CMJ 103 today.  Speeches are scheduled tightly enough that there won’t be time before the end of the semester to reschedule the five of us who should’ve spoken today into other class time, because there are only two days left (Wednesday and Friday) and they’re both full already.  I checked with the instructor and she’s not sure what that means for us, though I suspect it means we’ll have to come in during the time next week when the class’s final exam would be happening if it had one.  What kind of audience we can expect for that I’m not sure.  Possibly the whole class will have to go in, which is a bit extreme.

2) I had hoped to get into the ECE lab this afternoon and see if I could figure out why our robot isn’t working.  The robot competition’s preliminary round is Wednesday and the final is Friday, and right now ours doesn’t do anything.  The software we had in it last Wednesday was not complete and it wouldn’t have worked properly as regards navigating the maze, but it should have done something, and it just sat there inert.  The probability is some kind of hardware problem.  I was hoping to put the image of our code on the production test robot and see if it works.  I won’t have time to do this tomorrow because of workstudy, and Wednesday is go day, so… well.  Not sure what happens to my grade and Let’s Call Him Matt’s if our robot doesn’t work…

I find myself curiously engaged by the problem of programming the robot.  I don’t enjoy programming, and I particularly don’t enjoy programming in C, but trying to get the robot to work is less painful and more interesting than most of the purely abstract tasks put to me in the actual programming courses I’ve attempted in the past.  Mind you, I haven’t got it working, and Let’s Call Him Matt doesn’t seem too jazzed by it (which is odd, since he’s changed his major to computer science and you’d think he’d be more up for it than me), but it’s a refreshing change from the simple tedium this kind of thing normally evokes for me.