Archive for the ‘Sink, Swim, or Just Tread Water?’ Category

Well, That’s Not at All Ominous

November 28, 2011 3 comments

A message posted to my history class’s electronic notice board by the professor during Thanksgiving break:

For reasons which I will not go into, [REDACTED] will no longer be a t.a. for this class.  He may continue to offer his assistance, but please know he has no formal affiliation with this class and it is my advice that you do not seek his help or accept his offers to help if he makes them.

This message, particularly the warning at the end, was reiterated in class today, with the added notes that Sacked TA might actually be dangerous to seek further assistance from, and, “You all know my other TA, he is not crazy and will continue to help you out.”  Pressed for further details, he would say only, “I’m a doctor, but not a medical doctor.”

All I can think of now is the scene in Real Genius where the guy just loses his shit in the common room.


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

So Much To Do

November 15, 2010 4 comments

Hi!  Um.  There’s been a lot going on the last little while.  Where to start?

First, I suppose, with a Most Recent Progress report.  I mentioned an upcoming math exam and my third CMJ 103 speech in the last couple of posts, so let’s go over those first.

The speech received almost full marks; I got dinged slightly for going over time and for completely omitting visual aids, having somehow failed to notice that the assignment called for at least one.  That won’t be a problem in speech #4, as I’ve already got a plan for at least six.

In mathland, things went… not quite so well, but at least better than I thought they’d gone when I left the exam.  Seventy-three percent is not a spectacular grade, but it is a passing one, and my quiz and homework averages remain strong.  Couple that with my 83% on the first exam and I can still manage a respectable showing in MAT 122 with a decent performance on the final.  (In fact, if the calculations I just did using a spreadsheet the instructor provided are correct, I’m currently averaging about 84 for the course as a whole, which I will certainly take.)

I’m essentially finished with AST 110, having completed all but a handful of questions in the online assessments in a fit of completionism over the weekend.  The ones I’m missing are predicated on owning a copy of the AST 109 textbook, which is a bit of a problem, since I took that class in 1993.  I don’t still have my copy of the textbook handy, and even if I did it would be the wrong book.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that.  Obviously buying a copy of the textbook for a class that I’m not taking in order to answer a handful of questions in a single quiz on an online course is absurd.  They might have a copy handy in the university library; I meant to check on that today, but forgot.  Thanks to the weather, we haven’t had an observing session on Monday in at least a month; we still need at least one more to reach the target number of observed objects, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate before the end of the semester, which is really not that far away now, the targets will be adjusted accordingly so we don’t all get screwed by Forces Beyond Our Control.  Which is nice of them.

ECE 101 proceeds.  Let’s Call Him Matt and I are still wire-wrapping on our robot in lab where the rest of our lab group has moved on to messing around with the motors, and the lecture portion of the course has moved into the rudimentary C programming necessary to make the robot work, which fills me with loathing and dismay.  I knew I hated C, but I had forgotten just how much.

Which brings me neatly around to the fact that I’ve changed major.  After meeting with a number of persons in different departments last week, discussing things with my father, and doing a fair bit of soul-searching, I filed the paperwork last Friday to change from EE (in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering) to Mechanical Engineering Technology (in the School of Engineering Technology), with the possibility, once I meet with my new ET advisor, of doubling up with Electrical Engineering Technology down the line.

I did this for a number of reasons which don’t easily bear articulating, as I discovered while fumbling witlessly through an exit interview with the chair of the ECE department this afternoon.  Part of it does have to do with my hatred of C in particular and computer programming in general, although, as Prof. Musavi pointed out during our talk, everyone is doing everything with computers nowadays and you can’t study any technical field without having to do some.  Even in MET, to my utter facepalming dismay, there is a computer programming class required next semester, though I believe the one MET students have to take is in Visual BASIC, not C or – believe it or not, the straight Mechanical Engineering students still have to take this – FORTRAN.  Part of it is because I think working with machine tools and making metal things might be more interesting and less vague than what I’m seeing in the intro electrical material.  And part of it is because power engineering – the thing in engineering that really interests me, if anything in the field can genuinely be said to do so – is sort of a hybrid of mechanical and electrical, and is mostly being pursued on the Engineering Technology side of the fence, leaving the ECE department to work primarily with computers, microelectronics, nanoelectronics, and other things that don’t particularly turn me on.

He didn’t come right out and say it in so many words, but it was fairly apparent that Prof. Musavi thinks I’m basically just bitching out.  Engineering Tech has easier math requirements and is a lot less theoretical than straight-up engineering, at least at UMaine, and it’s evident that most of the engineering faculty view it as a jumped-up vocational-technology program.  Which it is, to be honest; it started as a two-year associate-degree program back in the ’70s and evolved into its current four-year form more or less by default, as the university’s mainstream engineering program became more heavily academic and research-focused.  Both Prof. Musavi and the SET director, Dr. Dunning, have noted to me during this process that if you go for an ET degree, you can basically forget about graduate school.

Which I did consider during my deliberations on the change, but, well… as my father pointed out with all the bluntness that makes him simultaneously such a social trial and a valued source of input, is that even on at my age?  I’d be approaching 50 by the time I burst onto the job search scene as a newly minted PhD.  How ridiculous is that?

What Dr. Dunning didn’t mention while we were meeting – and what Prof. Musavi only mentioned in a casual sort of by-the-way fashion after the paperwork was filed and the die was cast – is that, if you have an ET degree, you can also basically forget about qualifying for a Professional Engineer license in most states.  The State of Maine’s licensure board treats UMaine ET graduates the same as regular engineering grads, but those of most other states view the ET program as… well, as a jumped-up voke-tech program.  People Who Bitched Out of Calculus III Need Not Apply.

I’m not saying it absolutely would have changed my decision if I had known that?  But it would have been nice if someone had mentioned it at any point before that of no return.

Ah, well, hell with it.  I’m laying even odds I piss off back to the liberal arts where I belong at some point in the next calendar year anyway, even though my mother will probably smother me in my sleep if I do.  (It’s refreshingly straightforward, if a bit less than unconditionally supportive, to have one’s parents tell one to stick with a spiritually unrewarding but documentably lucrative field of study because they’re getting old and one will have to pay for their upkeep fairly soon.)

So, uh.  That’s how I spent my last week or so.  There was another thing, too, but that’s its own convoluted and somewhat bitchy story, so it should get its own post with its own tags and whatnot.

Is It That Time Again Already?

November 1, 2010 5 comments

The second MAT 122 exam is coming up on Wednesday evening (why they schedule these things from 6 to 8 PM I really couldn’t tell you).  Oddly, I have so far found the material we’ve covered since the first exam to be easier than what we did in the first section.  OK, yes, I did fall down rather badly on this week’s quiz, but that’s because I got complacent and tried to intuit transformations to the graphs of trigonometric functions on the fly rather than actually working them out.  That works fine with sine and cosine graphs, but not so well for secant/cosecant and really not so much with tangent/cotangent. Result: that’ll be the quiz that gets thrown out at the end of the semester, and a lesson is learned.

Apart from that little difficulty, I’m feeling more sanguine about this exam than the first one.  On the other hand, I managed to pull an 83% on that one despite a feeling of utter impending doom upon leaving the exam room, so what do I know about taking tests?  At any rate, there’s a review session in the morning, and then I must rush home and vote.  This will probably be more futile than the math review session, since – as usual – no one is running who I particularly think should be holding public office in the first place – but it must be done.

Over in ECE 101, things are… odd.  We just finished what Andy insists was the hardest part of the course, which I suppose is the good news (although this week’s homework, which Andy says is easier than last week’s, might as well be in Amharic as far as I’m concerned, so don’t go by me).  The bad news is, that means we’re on the doorstep of the part of the course that’s all C programming.  The last time I tried to program in C, the year started with a 1 and the first President Bush (remember him?) was running for re-election.  And it sucked.  It sucked so much I abandoned computer science rather than ever have to do it again, only to discover, to my considerable dismay, that it’s followed me to electrical engineering (all the CS kiddies program in Java now).  I really don’t want to do that again.

But really, I should feel fortunate, I suppose.  I mean, I only have to come up with enough C to get our maze robot to work, and perhaps my lab partner – who started out as a computer engineering major and has already changed his major to computer science – will do some of that.  It’s next semester that I’ll have to take an entire course in the damn thing, ’cause that’s when ECE 177, Introduction to Programming for Engineers, arrives.  And, as I may have previously mentioned, it doesn’t matter if you’re not a CE major, or want nothing to do with computer programming ever again; in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, we all float down here.


In the short term, though, maybe the programming section will re-engage Let’s Call Him Matt a little.  Since he informed me a couple of lab sessions ago that a) physics sucks b) wire-wrapping sucks and c) Wednesdays suck (and for the record I can’t really argue with any of those), and that as a result he’s changed his major, his participation has been a bit… desultory.  He doesn’t technically need ECE 101 any more; it’s not going to do him a lick of good as regards his eventual degree in computer science.  He’s still trying to finish it, because this late in the semester it’ll still affect his GPA, but other than that it’s not that important.  He’s not explicitly punting, for which I am grateful, but he’s certainly neither bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed.

I sympathize.  His Wednesday schedule is such that by the time he arrives for our three-hour lab at 2 PM, he’s been going since 9 AM, and he still has one more class to go to before he’s done for the day at 8 PM.   Judging by the state of him when he gets to lab, he doesn’t seem to have time for lunch, either, as he’s always starving.  I had a Wednesday that looked like that myself, at the start of the semester, but I dropped the class that would’ve had me in at 9 and out at 8 because, well, I had the leisure to do it.  I’m carrying the bare minimum of credit hours required to maintain full-time student classification, because unlike most of these kids, I’m not really fussed about finishing in four years.  It’s rather liberating.  I can see where it wouldn’t be an option if you’ve got your parents to answer to, though.

Anyway, I wish Let’s Call Him Matt well in his new field, and I hope it’s what he’s looking for and that the reduced science requirement means he no longer has to take any sucky physics courses.  (I’m scheduled for the one that’s kicking his ass this semester, next semester.)  I just hope he doesn’t check out entirely before the semester’s over, ’cause I’m a fairly slow worker and, left to do it all myself, would probably have our robot working in time for graduation.

Speaking of scheduling for next semester, I mentioned last time that I’ve done it on the school’s "wish list" course reg tool (since I can’t actually register until the 10th).  Well, it’s not shot day +1 now, and I can tell you that I still don’t much like what I see there.  Picking up only the three courses required on Semester 2 of the current EE curriculum (for a minimum 12-credit load again), I’m still on campus a lot more than I have to be in this 12-credit semester, for some odd reason.  Worse, I couldn’t arrange for any blank days during the week at all, something I very much wanted in the winter semester, what with every day I’m on campus representing a 120-mile round trip, 4-6 gallons of gas, and all.  But no, it appears there’s no way to take MAT 126 that doesn’t require appearing on campus every single day.  Feh.

(And why does PHY 121, Physics for Engineers I, start at 5 PM?  Has the prof got a day job or something?)

I remain very tempted to change programs myself, though not until semester’s end, but I’m not sure where to go.  EET is a possibility, as is ME, though in both cases there are introductory classes that are only offered in the fall semester, so I’d spend the spring taking electives (which wouldn’t be so bad, actually) and then basically start over again next fall.  And there’s still part of me that would very much like to just get the hell away from anything that requires advanced math, but that part has so far been stayed by the grim realities of the graduate employment picture in the humanities these days.

I know I keep coming back to this subject here, and I apologize for that, but it’s because I keep circling back to it in my mind as I consider my future.  Because it’s a real Scylla/Charybdis sort of situation for me, knowing that I have the ability to pursue a technical career, but doubting whether I have the passion for it.  You know all the hearts-and-flowers talk high school guidance counselors give you about following your heart and money isn’t everything?  If my 19 years stumbling around in the private sector without any real qualifications taught me anything, it’s that, uh, yeah, actually, it kind of is.  And so I eye the exit wistfully but know that, practically speaking, I’m better off doing something that doesn’t really turn me on.

Premature Jocularity

October 17, 2010 5 comments

You may recognize the above term from old episodes of SportsCenter; it’s a term they used when covering athletes who celebrated some achievement before it was, technically, complete, and in doing so either endangered it or actually kept it from happening.  Canonical examples include that soccer goaltender who was too busy doing the “I am the man” dance to notice that the ball he’d just deflected was, in fact, rolling into the goal anyway, and that one snowboarder in the 2006 Winter Olympics who was leading a race by such a huge margin that she decided to do a showboaty stunt on the last jump – and promptly stuffed it and had lost quite resoundingly by the time she extracted herself from the snowbank.

I don’t like to risk premature jocularity, because a) it’s obnoxious and b) it leads to a particularly agonizing sort of embarrassment when it all goes wrong as a direct result of showing off.  Besides, it constitutes a very specific type of tempting fate.  I’m as superstitious as the next guy, and the last thing I need is to jinx myself by some round declaration that I’ve got something surrounded.

But all the same, I have to say… last night I sat down and, having accumulated a bit of a backlog of online-math-class homework sets owing to illness, fall break, and a bit of losing track of time, undertook to catch up.  I approached this task with a measure of dread, because in addition to having fallen a bit behind on the homework, I also haven’t managed to make it to lecture for a couple of weeks.  That’s not actually a problem, administratively, because I’m technically in the online class and am not expected to show up for the live lectures at all, but as previously discussed, I think I do a lot better when I make it to them.  But between one thing and another, I haven’t been able to attend since the exam, which covered through Chapter 4.

This meant that I had the homework sets for all the sections of Chapter 5 we’ve covered to do – six of them, plus a quiz on 5.1 through 5.4 – and no live instructor face time for any of it.  Just the “see an example” button and the little videos and animations the online course tools provide.

And… it wasn’t that hard.

Mind you, it took a long time – something like four and a half hours to get it all done – and I felt pretty crispy at the end, because I didn’t actually intend to do all six sets and the quiz in a single day.  I figured I’d do two of them yesterday, two and the quiz today, and the remaining two tomorrow afternoon, between ECE seminar and (touch wood) the observatory opening.  Instead it was like the math homework equivalent of one of those occasions where you sit down to have a cookie and discover yourself, an indeterminate time later, covered in crumbs and clutching an empty cookie bag.  (Or does that only happen to me?)

It took a long time and it left me slightly reeling, but… and again I have to stop and glance furtively around – it really didn’t seem that hard.  It was all to do with logarithms and exponential equations, and the relationships between them, and I’m sure I could still do with some reviewing on the purely rote parts of the process (which bits of an exponential go where in a log, for instance – can be worked out from context in a lot of cases, but it’s presumably easier to just learn by rote which number goes where), but overall it wasn’t nearly as agonizing as, say, rational functions.

In a perverse way, I almost hate it when I start to feel like I’m getting something.  It always places me in danger of pausing too long to admire what I’ve just learned and then finding myself running behind the school bus as it plows remorselessly on to the next stop on whatever route the class is taking.  I think my tattered old brain would like college better if it ran on about a ten-year timescale.  Still, I get what I’m expected to get this week, and that feels pretty good.

Mind you, I’m still not sure where e comes into it over in ECE 101 – I know it’s involved in the calculation of a capacitor’s voltage over time, but why that particular bizarrely irrational number should come into it I’m not all that clear on… but one epiphany at a time.  At least I know what to do with it in that context.

Ha Ha Ha No

October 2, 2010 1 comment

Remember when I said I was going to crash at Dad’s Wednesday night, get up and go home first thing Thursday morning, and have a nice leisurely day to finish up the ECE 101 homework I’d gotten a nice early start on the previous weekend?  I sounded so cheerful and optimistic there, despite having just tripped over a math test and bumped my head.

So, naturally, when I climbed into Mom’s MINI (which I’d borrowed because it had gas in it) Thursday morning, it wouldn’t start.  For no reason anyone has been able to determine, the battery had gone stone dead overnight.  So dead that the guy AAA sent couldn’t get it started with one of those portable jumpstart battery pack things, but had to go back to his garage for proper jumper cables and start it off his truck.  So instead of heading home bright and early to finish up my work, I spent the morning taking the car to the Foreign Car Center in Hampden so that they could try and figure out what the hell was the matter with it.

This was a tall order, and one they couldn’t fill right away; electrical problems are always hard to track down, and the MINI’s is apparently particularly subject to the Automotive Defect Uncertainty Principle.  Its electrical system blinked innocently and asked, “Who, me?” when queried by the tech tool.  I waited around for Mom to pick me up, and was then trapped running a million and one errands around Bangor with her all afternoon, because, she declared, gas is too expensive to waste it on a round trip just to pick me up.  I got home at nightfall, worn out and pissed off.

The homework… didn’t get finished.  I got the big ol’ current/voltage analysis done, which I consider an accomplishment given my frame of mind, and I already had the first and last questions finished, but I ended up making several blundering attempts at the others with the distinct sense of unmeshed gears spinning fruitlessly inside my head.  Eventually I ran out of time and cope at about the same time, and ended up scribbling a rather pathetic note to that effect on the page where the answers for questions 4 and 5 should’ve been.  If I were my instructor, I’d probably dock me a couple more points just for being a whiner.  (And at least one for having had part of one of the missing questions personally explained to me in a one-on-one meeting Tuesday afternoon, and managing somehow to uncomprehend it within 48 hours.)

The only plus side is that I did manage to perform one act of prioritization.  By the time I got home, I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have enough time and energy to get everything done that I needed to do.  So instead of starting with the remainder of the ECE 101 work, which would’ve taken me all of the time and energy I had and still wouldn’t have been finished at the end, I started by completing my outline and notes for CMJ 103.  Cutting my losses, you might say.  So at least I was ready (more or less) to deliver the speech.

And then today, once I got all that done, I had to spend the afternoon stranded in Bangor with more of Mom’s strangely multiplying errands, because they’re keeping the MINI over the weekend to keep scrutinizing the mysteriously nonchalant electrical system.  And I had to go and wrangle with the homecare people about the problems with New Nose Machine, which it occurs to me that I haven’t actually written about here because it’s not directly relevant to the college thing.  Or at least it wasn’t until having to take care of that this afternoon, on top of everything yesterday, made me blow my first newspaper deadline… um… ever by being unable to put together a piece I owe the Campus this week.  Not that I have the mental bandwidth to have gotten involved with a newspaper anyway now that the technical half of my semester’s course load has started fraying in the slipstream.

I know this post reads like it’s basically just a litany of excuses for lousy performance this week.  But it’s not really about excuses.  They say that one should be able to overcome all the difficulties and inconveniences life unexpectedly throws at us all and get one’s work done anyway; it’s one of the central premises of the College Experience because, they say, it’s what the Real World will expect of us when we get there.  Failing to meet one’s responsibilities because of unexpected life screwups is like being the car behind in a collision – it’s your fault regardless of the circumstances, because you should’ve been paying more attention.  And in that respect, I’ve simply not been on the ball enough.

The thing is, I don’t think it is just a question of Trying Harder.  I was trying as hard as my shrunken old  brain could at those last couple of ECE 101 questions, and they just weren’t happening.  I consulted my own notes, notes I took with my very own hand in class, and they might as well have been in Martian.  And I’ll be honest with you, that scares me more than a little.  Some say certain neurological conditions which normally have overtly physical effects can occasionally cause subtler harm, slowing thought patterns and making it harder to concentrate or recall.  I’m starting to wonder if that’s what’s going on here… or if that’s just some part of me looking for another excuse.

So, uh, yeah.  This hasn’t been my most impressive week.  Like I mentioned a while back, test pilots talk about being “behind the airplane”, a situation that usually ends in a fiery crash.  They say you can feel it happening.  This week, I really know what they mean.