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Well, THAT was a day.

December 20, 2012 4 comments

As previously noted, I was a 3/4-time student this semester, because of the ongoing recovery from my summer medical adventure.  I took three classes; one was online and did not have a final exam.

So, naturally, the finals in the other two – completely unrelated classes in different colleges, one for my MET degree and one for my history degree – ended up scheduled back-to-back on the Wednesday of finals week.  Which was today.

I should note that it started snowing here in north-central Maine on Monday afternoon… and, apart from occasional periods of sleet and/or freezing rain, which is not a helpful change, it hasn’t stopped yet.  For the past two days, the University of Maine has basically been the only school in Penobscot County not closed on account of the weather.

I got up this morning and went outside to find that my front walk and car were covered with around a foot of wet, heavy, hard-to-shovel snow.  It wasn’t until I’d finished shoveling that lot up, and in the process kicking off an asthma flareup that still hasn’t subsided, that I noticed I had a bigger problem: the man who plows our driveway hadn’t been by yet, and the municipal public works plows had left a three-foot-high wall of packed ice across the end of the driveway that there was no way any of our tools around the house were going to shift.  By the time Mom’s husband Vince managed to track down the plow guy and get him to come over and scrape that away, I’d have been running late for my first exam on a normal day, much less on Day 2 of a heavy snowfall.

I emailed my professors and let them know what I was up against, but that I was going to give it the old college try, then set off.  I live 12 miles via State Route 157, a typical two-lane country road, from Interstate 95.  This normally takes between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on (believe it or not) the traffic.*

Forty minutes later, I had just about reached the Interstate when my history professor, whose exam was scheduled to begin fairly soon, phoned me to say that I shouldn’t drive down on account of his class if I didn’t think it was safe, and that he’d get with the TA who’s been in charge of the class subsection I’m in and work out another way of handling my final.  With an extra couple of hours suddenly added to my schedule and the prospect of possibly not having to make the trip at all, I bought a meat snack and a hot chocolate at the gas station by the Interstate exit and made my way slowly back home, thinking I’d at least have time to get some lunch.

I had just about arrived at home when my other professor (Thermal Science), whose exam was set for later in the afternoon, emailed me and cheerfully related that he’d checked his records, and I’d be all set if I chose not to turn up for the final in his class.  With my excellent homework record and decent-to-quite-good range of scores on preliminary exams, I’d end up with a C-, easily clearing the minimum requirement to progress on to his Thermal Applications course next semester.

Please note that he was not being sarcastic or snide with that.  He’s genuinely not bothered about how much you pass his class by, as long as you pass it.  With a perfectly aligned engineer’s mindset, he’d crunched the numbers and determined that the outcome would be Acceptable, and he was pleased to let me know that my troubles were over.

I like Professor Crosby a lot, but coming from a background where I’d be grounded for a month if I brought home a B in math, I find his mindset on grading a little difficult to get behind; and anyway, I don’t think the financial aid gods would have been quite so sanguine about what that’d do to my GPA, so I scratched lunch from my plans and got ready to go out and do battle with the snow again.

It was at this point that Vincent called and insisted that, if I was planning to go back out into the snow, I should take his 4WD pickup truck instead of my poor old Pontiac.  Which meant slogging across the yard to Mom’s house for the keys.  Note that Mom and Vincent were both at home sick with some kind of Arcturan misery virus today, so naturally this would be the day when, while I stood in their front hall trying to breathe as shallowly as possible (already feeling wheezy in the chest) and thinking dark thoughts about swarming pathogens, they couldn’t find the keys.  Protesting that A) I was already going to be late because of this and B) I don’t want bird flu, I tried to leave four or five times, to increasingly plaintive cries of no wait wait I know they’re here somewhere from my mother, before I finally escaped.

Then, in the driveway, I thought hmm, I wonder, tried the door of the pickup, and found that it was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition.  I believe it was last driven sometime last week.

So I shlepped my things across and hit the trail again, feeling marginally more confident.  I was about halfway to the Interstate again when I looked down and found that the truck was nearly out of gas.

OK, don’t panic, I thought, there’s that full-service gas station in East Millinocket, I’ll fill up there and won’t even have to get out of the truck.

You’re not going to believe this next part, but I swear it is the truth.  As I arrived in East Millinocket – literally just as my eye sought out and focused on the lit-up sign showing today’s price at the full-service Shell station on Main Street:

The power went out.

Gas station and neighboring credit union signs suddenly dark, town’s one traffic light goes into blinky yellow “the grid has failed me” mode.  Zap.

I believe I said aloud something along the lines of, “Are you f—king kidding me?!”

I wondered if the power would still be out when I got to Medway, the next and last town before the Interstate.  It was.  The Citgo station and the Dysart’s one, both dark.  Now I have a serious problem developing.  I don’t have enough gas to make it to Orono, and the next town down the line from Medway, Lincoln, is miles off the highway via an access road.  If the Irving station out by the Interstate (where I had, you may recall, earlier bought a meat snack and a hot chocolate) is out as well, I’m beached.  I’ll have to turn around and pick my way back across 157 to Millinocket again, at which point I’ll be so late I might as well not show up at all.

Here, at last, the Force was with me a little, because just as I arrived at the Irving station, the power came back on (giving me the interesting sight of the electronic price sign saying that the per-gallon cost of regular unleaded was ERROR).  Breathing a sigh of relief, I pulled up, went through the usual procedure, pressed the button to select the grade of gasoline I wanted, and received the message, NETWORK ERROR PLEASE TRY AGAIN.

“Oh, the power’s just been out,” said a voice behind me, making me jump slightly.  I turned to see the woman I’d bought the meat snack and hot chocolate from earlier, holding a roll of tape and a handful of signs reading CREDIT CARD READERS OUT OF ORDER PLEASE PAY INSIDE.  This apparently happens often enough that they already had these signs ready to go.

“I don’t have any cash,” I said.

“The one inside works, it has a backup system,” she told me.  “It’s just the ones in the pumps.  Reset it and hit PAY INSIDE and you’ll be fine.”

(Modulo the backup system actually involving a dial-as-required screechy modem somewhere under the counter and about a five-minute wait for authentication, anyway.)

Thermo exam scheduled start time: 2:45 PM.

Speed limit on Interstate 95 today: 45 MPH.

My arrival time in the room where the Thermo exam was happening: 3:15 PM.

Prof. Crosby was startled to see me arrive; having told me not to sweat it and that I’d pass the class if I didn’t show, he figured that’d be the end of it.  Fortunately, since no one else needed the room after us, he let everyone overrun the scheduled exam end time (5:00) a bit, stretching it out until 5:30.  Which was good, because I needed that extra half-hour.  I still didn’t quite finish the exam, but with a little help from Our Lady of Partial Credit, I may yet pull a decent score on it – and since I already knew I had a C- without it, anything I manage to score on it will be gravy in a way.

As we packed up to leave, Prof. Crosby said, “You’re not going back tonight, are you?  Feel free to bunk on one of the couches in the MTL student lounge and head back in the morning if you think it’d be safer.  Nobody will bother you in there.”  This was mildly tempting, but indeed I was heading back forthwith, because – an email from my history professor which had arrived while I was phone-off for the Thermo exam informed me – my history final was waiting in my inbox at home, for me to complete tonight, on my honor, without reference to the textbook.

Which I did when I finally got home around 10.

Phew.  Man.  Some days you get the elevator and some days you just get the shaft.  Props to Professor Riordan and Lee-the-TA for cutting me a break on the history exam, though.  And that’s one more semester in the can.  And I don’t have to go anywhere for the next several days… which is good, because I think it’s supposed to snow again on Friday…

Edited to add: It’s Friday and I have, in fact, got the flu.

* By “traffic” I don’t mean gridlock, but rather that it’s a two-lane country road in an area where the mean age is something like, no kidding, 55 – which means one stands a fairly good chance of ending up behind some aged citizen who lacks any sort of sense of urgency, and if you’re thwarted by oncoming traffic at the one or two good places to pass, one can easily end up having to dawdle along at 35 MPH or worse the whole way, even on a perfectly clear, dry summer day.  This is unspeakably infuriating when it happens, which, naturally, it tends to do when one is running late.  In this case it didn’t happen, but frankly it wouldn’t have mattered if it had, since I don’t think I got about 30 at any time anyway.

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OK, So I’d Make a Lousy War Correspondent

April 29, 2011 3 comments

"We now take you to our correspondent in War-Torn Wherever, Benjamin Hutchins.  Benjamin, what’s going on there?"

"Well, Bob, uh… not a lot, right now.  But the locals tell me things were cuh-razy around here a month ago!  Boy howdy!"

I think what makes me a lackluster blogger is the same thing that’s always made me a poor diarist and an indifferent correspondent: I don’t feel justified in posting or writing to someone unless I’ve got something interesting to report, and often I have a hard time feeling like I do.  This is particularly true at the height of the semester, when it’s basically "Well, uh… went to class, did some homework, went to the next class and turned it in."

Still, the semester’s just about over now (there’s only finals week next week, and by an odd coincidence only one of my classes this semester even has a final),and there have been a few interesting developments to report.

Taking the most recent first, the final engine tests in MET 107 were conducted today.  As you may recall, at the start of the semesters we were split up into teams of six and given a list of required parts (and the prints from which to make them), with the ultimate goal of building a single-cylinder pneumatic engine by the semester’s end.  On the prints it’s called a steam engine, but since we didn’t actually have a boiler handy (for safety reasons), we drove ours with compressed air.  We all got together in the machine shop this afternoon and ran our engines while Prof. Anderson timed them with a strobe.  (An engine that didn’t run would have constituted a major grade deduction.)

The team I was on, Team 2, went into the competition pretty confident.

20110429-met107-team2

Fig. 1 Team 2. From left: author, Ben White, Bill Long, Clark McDermith, Cam Terry. Not present: Mike Peasley. Photo by Herb Crosby

We had all our parts done by the beginning of this week and were doing test runs by Tuesday evening.  Bill, one of my teammates, had access to a deburring mill at his job and had spent a lot of time obsessively polishing all the parts as we finished them and turned them over to him, so ours was by far the shiniest engine…

20110429-met107-engine2

Fig. 2 Engine No. 2. Photo by Herb Crosby

… and once we overcame the fact that I apparently can’t drill a concentric hole in a brass bushing even with the tailstock of a lathe (sigh – I must have scrapped eight of those damn things), it ran as beautifully as it looked.  Bill could actually make it turn over just by blowing into the intake, and since the test pressure was 100 PSI (er, rather more than the average human output, I should think), we had high hopes.

The first run demonstrated that we might actually have done a little too well at the polishing and fettling, as, well, this happened:

MET 107 steam engine test, run #1

 

We actually blew the valve rod bushing right out of the steam chest on the first run.  (Amazingly, this was not the bushing I had so much trouble with.  That one had the piston rod running through it and performed perfectly in the actual test.  For the technically curious, I made the base plate, the columns, the piston rod bushing, and the piston.)

Fortunately, we had time to tear it down and fix the problem before our second run.

20110429-met107-engine2repairs

Fig. 3 Engine #2 down for repairs. Photo by the author

  A couple of false starts, some hurried consultation, a helpful senior, and a few minutes’ work with the scissors in Bill’s Leatherman, some brass shim stock, and the arbor press, and Team 2 was back in business.  By then the other teams had all had their runs, the fastest of which clocked a top speed of 2287 RPM, so Bill and Cam stepped up to the testing bench, and…

MET 107 steam engine test, run #2

 

… 3266 RPM, baby.  The fastest entry this semester, and only 480 RPM shy of the all-time record, 3746.  (Bill’s sure we could get it going that fast if we had more time to futz with it.)

So hey!  Victory.  It’s what’s for dinner.  (Apologies for the crap camera work.  Bit excited.)

More news to come, and it’ll get steadily more out of date as the posts go on…

The End Approaches

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Today opens the final two weeks of classes for this semester.  Once they’re over, there’s only final exams – of which I only have two this semester, so I’ll be done altogether by early on the afternoon of the 14th.

I got the results back today for the two tests I took just before Thanksgiving break; my scores were 88% on the CMJ 103 one (gods damn ambiguous multiple-choice terminology questions!) and ~86% on the ECE 101 one (I may get a point or two back from some omitted work that wasn’t actually omitted, but eluded the instructor’s notice because I did it on the back of the page and forgot to include a TURN OVER FOR WORK-> note on the front – we’re going to talk it over in lab on Wednesday).  Either way, I am reasonably pleased.  There’s no final exam in CMJ 103, so unless I utterly tank on speech #4, I should have no problems pulling an excellent final grade in that class, and ECE 101… well, that all depends on how I do on the final.

In other news, I got last week’s double homework and attendant quiz in MAT 122 finished with more than a full day to spare – even got some of it done from Chapman, which is a good showing, given the lack of really comprehensive facilities there.  There’s one more week’s worth of homework and one quiz to go in that course, then a week of review sessions and the final exam.  Again, unless I completely blow the final (which is conceivable), I should be well-positioned to make a respectable showing there.

I should note that two things of major significance remain in ECE 101: the final exam and the robot testing. (There are also three homework assignments left to do, though they’re fairly short compared to some of the monsters we’ve had earlier in the semester.)  We have two lab periods left; in one we have to complete and program the robot we’ve been building all semester, and in the other there will be a competition in which the robot must navigate a maze and then travel a set distance (not revealed to us until almost go time) in a straight line.  The second actually has potential to be the greater challenge, given that few of the robots, built as they are from recycled parts by fairly cack-handed students, are liable to track all that straight (which makes getting them to travel a set distance and only a set distance not as simple as just saying “proceed forward for $NUMBER motor steps”).

I’m a little nervous about the robot competition.  For one thing, I don’t particularly like competitions in general; for another, Let’s Call Him Matt and I still aren’t finished building ours.  We haven’t slacked off, particularly, but we’re not very speedy builders, and we know for a fact that two of our robot’s four photosensors aren’t working.  We’ve known that for months, actually, but when we first discovered it the TAs said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll have a chance to fix those later.”  Well, it’s later, and they’re not fixed.  Plus, there’s a certain amount of creative programming required (and I strongly suspect the sample code we’ve been given has some deliberate mistakes in it to force us to debug as we go), and – as we have previously established here – I am crap at that.

So I dunno.  I don’t think you actually fail the course if your robot doesn’t perform very well, but I think it does at least have to work

Oh, and the weather has been so lousy this fall that we’re still not finished with all the observations we’re on the hook for in AST 110, which means tonight – which is forecast to be clear and bloody freezing – we’re up.  Which is why I’m in the library on campus blogging, waiting for it to be 8 PM so I can get my frostbite on.  On the other hand, this late in the year, Orion will actually be above the horizon before the session is over, so I can get my favorite asterism on the board after all.  (And then I get to drive to Moonbase Dad in a car whose heater controls packed up earlier today!  Hooray the Mini’s ongoing electronic senility!)

I’ve got more to say about AST 110-0990, but I’ll save that for an after-semester postmortem.

(Where the hell is all that noise coming from?  It sounds like a high school cafeteria in here.  This is a library, for Christ’s sake.  Kids these days.)