Archive for January, 2011

If I Know Vaguely What’s Going On, It Must Be Week 4

January 31, 2011 2 comments

I mentioned last time that this semester was getting off to a weird start.  As the first couple of weeks went on, it only got weirder.  There have been three snow days already this semester, which I’m told is well above the average.  (Annoyingly, one of them was on a Friday, when I don’t have any classes anyway.  I felt vaguely cheated by fate.)  Weirder still is the way my class schedule ended up working out.  Last semester I had two Proper Classroom Classes in a row on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, some stuff on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, and an optional lecture on Tuesday and Thursday mornings that was tied to my online math class.  If I went to the optionals, I never had a day that started later than 11 AM, but on the other hand, except for lab day on Wednesday, the rare Monday nights when the observatory was open, and ECE 100 seminar on Monday afternoon, I was done by 1 PM.

This semester is almost exactly the opposite.  I only have one class on any given day, and none at all on Fridays, but 1 PM is the earliest I start – on Monday – and on the other three days nothing happens before 3 PM, but by the same token, I’m never done before 5 (on Wednesdays I’m actually done at 7:30).  It’s all kind of disorienting.

Not, admittedly, as disorienting as crashing my car on my way home last Tuesday was, but I can’t really blame my afternoon class for that.  (I’m OK, and Dad’s more or less nailed the car back together.  Black ice on the Interstate.  I ended up doing a 280 into the snowbank off to the right-hand side of the road and having to be fished out by a tow truck.  More embarrassing than anything else, though while I was waiting to be rescued, I did have a nice view of the overpass I’d have hit if the ice patch had been 200 yards further south.)

Anyway, week 4 is underway, and things seem to be settling into a rhythm.  I’m not behind on anything but a bit of reading at the moment, which is nice.  A quick rundown of my classes as they presently stand:

MET 107: We’ve been in the lab three times now (we missed a week because there were no classes on the second Monday of the semester).  I’ve done the lathe orientation (twice, because of an odd scheduling issue last week) and the beginning of the one for the vertical milling machines, and today I used one of the bench grinders to make the toolbit I’ll eventually be using to turn stuff on the lathe.  My neurologists faffed around a bit on whether I should even be taking the class, and finally copped out with, "Well, that’s your decision.  Wear goggles!"  So I’m committed now – I can’t add anything to replace it with if I drop it, and it’s too late to drop for a full refund anyway – and I’ll have to put up with being X-rayed before MRIs from now on.

This class really, really trips my hate-being-bad-at-stuff breakers, but at the same time, I find there’s something kind of oddly fascinating about machine tools.  Every time I look at one of the lathes, particularly, I’m struck by how beautifully made the parts of the machine itself are.  And there are all those levers and knobs and dials (most of which I know the uses of now, though I have yet to actually turn anything).  There’s something oddly alluring about them.  Bench grinders, not so much, and in the course of getting my checkoff on "table alignment" for the milling machines today, I’ve learned that I am too short to operate parts of a Bridgeport vertical mill comfortably, but I’m developing a weird fondness for lathes.  Let’s hope that survives my first actual use of one.

MET 121: We’re still in the manual-drafting-overview phase of this class, and will be for this week and, I think, next.  Again, hammering my bad-at-things button pretty hard.  The last time I did any drafting was in eighth-grade Industrial Arts class, and I distinctly remember being informed that I wasn’t very good at it.  Again, though, I have an odd fondness for the tools.  Part of that is because that’s what Dad used to do.  My earliest memories of him at work involved the big drafting room at the old Great Northern Paper Engineering & Research Building (now, like the rest of GNP in Millinocket, a derelict hulk).  Guys with ’70s sideburns and wide ties stuffed into their white short-sleeve dress shirts between the second and third buttons, drawing big machine parts with those lighted pantograph drafting arms.  Not a lot of that going on in industry any more (particularly the sideburns).

In a couple of weeks we’ll have a test on what we’ve covered so far and then move into learning the Solid Edge CAD package (which I already have the academic version of on my laptop here).  I’m looking forward to that.  I’m enjoying the old-fashioned phase too (for all that I’m not very good at it, particularly lettering), but the room we’re doing it in is a CAD lab, so the facilities are not what you would call optimized for manual drafting.

COS 120: In my original two-strikes college career, I failed no fewer than three computer programming classes – one in Pascal, one in Scheme (a dialect of LISP), and one in C.  My penance for being such a hopeless numpty is having to take COS 120, a class in the computer programming equivalent of pig latin: Microsoft Visual Basic.  I want you to understand, I don’t object to this because it’s a Microsoft product.  I don’t object to it because the programs it makes only work on Windows.  And I don’t have a problem with the fact that it’s allegedly a descendant of the Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.  BASIC, back in the Timex-Sinclair 1000/Apple II days, was good to me.  I passed the BASIC class I took (in high school).  I even used to read those cheesy books that were like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, except instead of branching page number routes, they had little BASIC programs you had to key into your Apple and debug before you could move on.

No, if anything, I think my problem with Visual Basic is that it’s not BASIC.  So far, it’s about as much like BASIC as my mom’s Cadillac is like an 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen which doesn’t sound so bad, but I only ever learned how to drive a Motorwagen, if you follow me.  Anyway, so far the programming hasn’t been terribly taxing.  Programming itself never particularly is for me.  It’s algorithm design that eventually leaves me by the side of the road.  Maybe things will be different this time.  My biggest challenge with this class so far has just been that it happens from 5 to 7:30 PM, and my body would rather be getting dinner about halfway through that time period.

CLA 102 (online): This one is… interesting.  It involves reading selections from, as the course’s title suggests, Latin literature in English translation, digesting it a bit, and then posting an essay on the selection just read to a sort of clumsily implemented blog that’s part of the course’s Blackboard page.  Then one must read other students’ blog entries on the same selection and make a minimum number of intelligent comments.  There have been no flamewars yet, though one of the other students was, I think, possibly looking to start one regarding my thoughts on Lucretius and his (I thought pompous and superior) musings about death and the fear of death – but I wasn’t particularly bothered if he thought I had totally the wrong idea, so that didn’t get any traction.

I’m enjoying the class, but I’m not quite certain I can take it entirely seriously.  I mean, two of our assignments involve reviewing multiple-episode blocks of Rome, the HBO drama series about the fall of the Roman Republic, which, I mean, what?  I’ll grant you it’s fairly serious television, as these things go – it’s not Caligula – but reviewing a TV program in a course on classical literature?  Still, it beats taking a feminist theoretical perspective.  I don’t even know what that means.  And I very much enjoyed the poetry of Catullus, even if my assertion that he was basically the first century BC’s equivalent of a teenage LiveJournal Dramaturge is likely to wind up that same guy who thought I was totally wrong about Lucretius.  Or maybe especially because of that.

Tomorrow: MET 121, handing in the homework on section diagrams and… I think we’re doing dimensioning?  And then there’s another major snowstorm heading in Wednesday, although right now it looks like it will probably arrive just in time for me to already have reached campus when evening classes are canceled.  Sigh.  Being a commuting student is a much bigger pain in the ass in the so-called "spring" semester.

Stumbling Toward… Something

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Remember how I said last time that I wasn’t ready to go back to school?  Well, the way this week has gone, it appears that school wasn’t ready to go back to school either.

First I swung into the department office on Monday morning to talk with the admin assistant about my waitlisted math class.  She saw my point as to why I wanted to change to MAT 126, but said I had very little chance of getting into it with a waitlist more than 10 deep.  However, she said it’s usually offered in the May term, which is a sort of pre-Summer Term summer term.  As a May/summer course, it happens every day, but only takes three or four weeks, and I think that would be OK if it was the only class I was taking.

The upshot of that was that we dropped TME 152 and 86ed my waitlist slot for MAT 126, and now I’m not taking any math class this semester… which means that, since none of my other classes line up, there is now no day of the week on which I have more than one class (if you don’t count MET 107 lecture and lab as separate classes).  This is… weird.  Hell, two of my classes, MET 107 and COS 120, only happen once a week!  (There is a version of COS 120 that meets on two days, but I didn’t sign up for it initially because it conflicted with TME 152 – and I didn’t switch to it this week because, possibly in a deliberate attempt to be as inefficient as possible, they scheduled the lecture for Monday morning and the lab for Friday afternoon.  I mean, what?)

Also, while I was there, the admin lady looked at my course list and said, "That music class isn’t going to do you any good, you’ve already met the fine art requirement with one of your transfer credits from Worcester."  I’m not sure how any of my transfer credits from WPI could possibly have met the fine art requirement, but the Computer says it’s so.  So she handed me a list of courses and said, "Find something on that which meets at least two of Ethics, Population & the Environment, and Social Context & Institutions."

There aren’t many of those, and most of the ones I found aren’t offered in the spring semester or have prereqs I can’t meet, but upon closer examination of my degree progress report, I found a different combination of requirements that I could hit with a class that a) was being offered and b) I was actually interested in taking, which is how I find myself enrolled in CLA 102, "Latin Literature in English Translation".  (CLA is the University of Maine’s course code for Classical Studies – basically, the kind of thing that used to be all universities did, 150-200 years ago.)

I considered Introduction to Women’s Studies – it would have hit Social Context and Ethics – but the syllabus for the online version, the only one I could fit into my schedule, gave me the Fear.  Understand, I generally approve of women, and I’ve got no problem with their situation in the modern world being viewed as a topic of academic investigation.  That’s perfectly legit with me.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I could meaningfully interact with an instructor who takes the following position on the matter in the syllabus, before the word "go" has even been uttered:

This course takes a feminist theoretical perspective on many of the topics covered and utilizes the extensive feminist theory that has developed over the past thirty years to analyze women’s ongoing oppression in our society.

I mean, call me an unreconstructed cad, but if you’re going to throw down "oppression" in the introductory paragraph, I’m thinking the whole scene is going to be way too adversarial for my liking.  I’m all for barging out of one’s comfort zone.  It’s why I’m taking a class in the operation of machine tools this semester.  But I have to draw the line someplace, and I think there is as good a place to draw it as any.

So, yeah, anyway.  Before I’d even made my first class, I ended up, with the active encouragement of my department office, paring my schedule down to four days, each of which, weirdly, only has one actual course in it.  Then it was off to the first meeting of MET 107, Machine Tool Laboratory – what we would be calling Metal Shop if this weren’t Srs Unvrsty Bsns rather than high school vocational training.  I sound like I’m cutting vocational training down there, but that’s not where I’m coming from.  It’s just that the university will have its academic pretensions about what is, after all, a class about making metal things by hand on big machines.  "Laboratory" indeed.

Regardless, the first session was interesting, if a bit dry – there was a tour of the shop, which gave me mighty flashbacks to the metal shop in the Engineering Resources Department my dad used to run in the local paper mill when I was a kid, and an extensive safety briefing with slides of people who had gotten their Loose, Floppy Clothes and/or Long Hippie Hair caught in lathes.  As Professor Anderson puts it, "I spend the first three weeks scaring you half to death about these machines and then the rest of the semester trying to make you comfortable with them."

I won’t be back in the machine shop for a couple of weeks, because I’m in the lab session that immediately follows the lecture on Monday, and there’s no school next Monday.  That gives me plenty of time to line up safety glasses with side shields, get a pair of steel-toed shoes (ironically, when Dad and I bought the shoes I’ve been wearing back in August, we considered the steel-toed version and then decided I would never need that), and call my neurologists to ask, somewhat belatedly, whether I should actually be taking a class that involves the operation of metalworking machinery, what with me having to get a head MRI every six months until further notice.  I, uh, probably should have thought of that sooner, but I haven’t actually cut any metal yet…

Then yesterday I missed the one class I had, which would have been the first session of an introductory mechanical drawing course, because at the time it was being held, I was at the campus health center trying to find out whether the cold I’d had since the previous Tuesday, and which had prevented me from getting a decent night’s sleep at any point in that week, was in fact some sort of entrenched sinus infection that would require antibiotical intervention to shift.  (I can’t sleep if there’s nasal congestion going on.  It just doesn’t work.)  After a very long wait, I was examined and informed that no, it was just a bad head cold, and if nothing else I had tried had worked, I should go and buy a nasal rinse bottle and take some Benadryl.

"Even if it doesn’t help the congestion," the nurse said pragmatically, "it’ll put you to sleep anyway."

(I’m actually vaguely in awe of the sinus rinse.  I’ve done jala neti for a while, but the gravity feed technique doesn’t work very well vs. impacted sinuses.  The squeeze bottle method, on the other hand, boy howdy.  It feels really weird, but I feel perfectly fine right now, where I spent yesterday afternoon staring into space and wondering why the people around me in the waiting room weren’t visibly reacting to my freakishly swollen forehead, which, I was sure, must have been at least 44 inches in diameter.  Could be just a coincidence – that I was in the last four hours of the cold anyway when I bought the bottle – but damn, yo.)

And then today what would have been the first session of COS 120 was canceled because the University as a whole packed it in at 2 PM on account of the snowstorm.  Which means, assuming there are classes tomorrow (which there should be), and assuming I make it down to the one I have (which I expect I will), I’ll have finished up the first week of the semester having attended two whole classes, and then, thanks to my newly blank Fridays and the holiday Monday, it’s straight into four days off.  Well, apart from homework and whatnot.

All of which adds up to me feeling like the semester hasn’t really started yet, except for a vague sense of time pressure – that feeling I always get when there are deadlines involved, even if, as with MET 107’s project deadline, it’s four months away and I’m not even expected to be checked out on the machines yet.  One thing I can already see is that the way my classes have ended up laid out this semester is going to make it hard to get into a rhythm.  But that’s as may be.  I’ll just have to ride it out and hope next fall comes together more cleanly.  And that the new congressional overlords don’t kill the Pell Grant program.  Which reminds me, I need to get next year’s FAFSA in ASAP, speaking of deadlines.

Semester 2: Non-Electric Boogaloo

January 9, 2011 2 comments

My new groove as a mechanical engineering technology major begins tomorrow, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I’m not ready to go back to school.

Oh, I’ve got my books – well, most of them, anyway.  My schedule is straightforward enough, even if it does involve rather more being out in the wilderness after dark than I would really prefer.  I have plenty of lovely woolly socks from Christmas, four new blank single-subject notebooks for my LiveScribe smartpen, a 2011 organizer, fresh ink cartridges, all that jazz.

What I don’t have is much sense of having rested over my vacation, primarily because for the last week or so of it, I haven’t.  I’ve had a cold, or the flu, or pneumonic plague, or some damn thing.  I came down with it while I was visiting my grandparents just after New Year’s and it’s dogged me all week.  In fact, classes start in 11 hours (well, mine don’t, I wasn’t daft enough to schedule an 8 o’clocker, but) and I still have it.  I think it’s starting to taper off a bit, but I’ve thought that before over the course of this week and then been cruelly disabused of the notion a few hours later, when my sinuses slam shut like a book again and I’m up out of bed and pacing the floor (I can’t sleep if I can’t breathe through my nose).

This has been going on since last Monday, and it isn’t conducive to that tanned, rested and ready feeling that’s so essential for going back to school with a smile, or at least without a foot-dragging spectre of dread.

Also, I’m entangled in the usual bureaucratic hassles.  I tried to switch from the somewhat-more-basic math course the department automatically signed me up for this semester back to the main calculus sequence, thinking it would provide more flexibility later on, but the Calculus I section that meets at the same time is full.  The system automatically waitlisted me, but it informed me as it did so that I’m #11 with a bullet, which is not too encouraging – and I’m not sure if it automatically removed me from the other math course at the same time.  If it did, well, that’s not good – I need to be taking something.  So I guess I’ll have to pop into the department office in the morning and see if we can sort that out.  And ask someone if what I heard last month about licensure in other states is true.

Also, I got an email yesterday morning from the instructor of the machine tool lab class I’m taking with a reading assignment for the first class in it (which is tomorrow).  Uh?  Call me a tad bit petulant, but I’m not down with the semester starting before the bit on the calendar that says "semester starts".  Elsewhere in the course materials for that class there’s an offhanded note to bring your steel-toed shoes and safety glasses to the first lab (which is also tomorrow in my case).  If I can work out a diplomatic way to do it, I might point out that they should probably make a note of those things being required in the course’s catalog description, so people know about it before the day before class.  As it happens, I’m not going to be able to comply with that one, as my boot shop isn’t open on Mondays.  So that should be interesting.

Also in tomorrow’s campus chase, I may try once again to get hold of the physics department office and inquire as to how in the name of Zarquon the Redeemer I managed to get a D in AST 110.  I realize I had my disagreements with WebCT (mentioned previously), but was my observation project really that bad?  I thought that half of the class went quite well.

Oh, yeah, I’ve been meaning to post about that for a while, I don’t think I ever actually shared my grades from last semester.  Apart from AST 110, which was rather worse than I was expecting, the others were all either as expected or pleasant surprises, thus:

  • AST 110 (Intro to Astronomy – Lab): D (?)
  • MAT 122 (Pre-Calculus): A (!)
  • ECE 100 (Intro to Electrical Engineering Seminar): P
  • ECE 101 (Intro to Electrical Engineering w/Lab): A-
  • CMJ 103 (Fundamentals of Public Communication): A

Even with the D in AST 110, that gives me a semester GPA of 3.6mumble (it was only a 1-credit course).  Annoyingly, because of the F I pulled in COS 220 (Intro C Programming) in 1993, my overall cumulative GPA is now 3.22, which is .08 below the threshold for the dean’s list.  But hey.That A in MAT 122 is the main reason why I tried to swap out TME 152 (Technical Mathematics II, half of which would just be a recap of MAT 122 anyway) for MAT 126 (Calculus I) – if I managed to stay ahead of the curve in that class, maybe proceeding into the main calculus cycle isn’t as crazy as it seemed like it was going to be back in November.

My performance in MAT 122 and ECE 101 also brings to light an interesting phenomenon, that being: I apparently have no idea when I’m doing well in a class.  I spent most of the semester thinking that both of those courses were veering between mediocrity and certain doom, only to discover when the smoke cleared that I’d aced one (there must have been a grading curve involved – how else could I possibly have gotten an A in a class where one of my three exam scores was a 76?) and nearly so the other.  I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or makes me nervous, knowing that however I feel like I’m doing, I probably have no real idea.

This semester’s schedule has appeared here already, so I won’t bother with that again, but just to recap, the courses on tap for this time around are (as of the beginning of Add/Drop Week):

  • COS 120 (Introduction to Programming I) – yes, it’s another godforsaken computer programming class.  No matter where you go nowadays, there it is.  This one’s in Visual Basic, of all things.  Also, for no reason I can discern, it meets once a week for two hours starting at 5 PM.  Has the prof got a day job?
  • MET 107 (Machine Tool Laboratory I) – making things out of metal!  Involves more enforced teamwork, oh joy, but at least the teams are preselected, so we won’t have the awkward-milling-around phase on day 1.
  • MET 121 (Technical Drawing) – once again, this is a field that has been consumed by the all-devouring maw of the Computer.  There is unlikely to be any actual drafting with nifty tools and a nice slanty table here; my guess it it’s all CAD stuff, just as they no longer teach you how to work a slide rule in Calculus.  Involves three textbooks, one of which has the slightly dubious title Modern Graphics Communications, and a piece of software called Solid Edge, which sounds like an off-brand fighting game.
  • TME 152 (Technical Mathematics II) or MAT 126 (Calculus I) – we’ve covered this.
  • And possibly MUY 101 (Fundamentals of Music), an introductory music theory course, which satisfies one of the general education requirements and looks like it might be interesting.  Unfortunately, I ended up in the online section, and after my experience with AST 110 I’m not sure I’m eager to repeat that.  It’ll probably get dropped if I do make the switch to MAT 126, because that’s worth one more credit and requires more in-class time than TME 152.

I have to say, this all looked much more stimulating when I was signing up for it.  On the other hand, I’d had a lot more sleep over the previous seven days then.  Hopefully once things get rolling again, a rhythm will develop, as it did last semester, and everything will be fine.  Although I’m still concerned about the winter commute.  I’ve gotten rather deliciously used to not driving 140 miles a day.