Posts Tagged ‘labor-saving technology is hard work’

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.

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.

The Compound Irony, or Ministry of Transport

November 16, 2010 2 comments

So.  As you’re probably aware from earlier traffic – ha! See what I did there? – I’m commuting in my school adventures.  I live about 70 miles from the University, once you take into account all the fiddling around on access roads and whatnot that it takes to get from my front door to the parking lot at school.  Once the time spent on those access roads and so on is taken into account as well, it’s about an hour and a half each way.

You might be thinking at this point that I ought to be getting quite tired of that by now.  And I am!  But not entirely because of the driving itself.  No, part of the reason for my fatigue has to do with the equipment I have to work with.

For most of this semester, I’ve had regular access to three cars, which sounds more than adequate given that I have only one ass, be it ever so sizeable, to haul back and forth.  They are:

1) My own 1997 Saab 900S convertible.  This is a fine car which has served me well for the nearly ten years I’ve owned it, and to which I’m quite attached, but it’s getting old and arthritic now and has developed a couple of problems.  One is that the roof leaks, but in a particularly strange and esoteric way that has stumped the service departments of three Saab dealerships.  Another is that the clutch has begun packing up, probably because they were cable-operated in 1997 and the cable is wearing out.  This means it doesn’t reliably disengage with the pedal all the way to the floor, which makes shifting into certain gears e.g. reverse somewhat… noisy.

2) My mother’s 2003 MINI Cooper.  Again, a fine car, and very entertaining to drive.  On the other hand, the ride is a bit rock-hard, it doesn’t have cruise control, and it has recently suffered the single strangest design-flaw-inflicted injury I’ve ever personally known a car to have.  A few weeks ago, as I was driving home in the pouring rain after dark, the electrical system went into complete meltdown, causing the absolute strangest behavior I’ve ever seen an automobile exhibit – for instance, a complete disregard for the position or even presence of the ignition key, and, a bit more immediately worrisome on the Interstate at night in the rain, a disinclination to have the headlights and the windshield wipers engaged at the same time.  This turned out to have been caused by – I’m not making this up – a moon roof drain which was so routed that, if the internal tubing became disconnected, all the water it should’ve been conveying to a port on the underside of the car was instead directed as if by design to the car’s central fuse box.  Repairs have just been completed, in time for the car to be removed from the equation completely in a little while.  More on this in a bit.

3) My father’s 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix.  This car is the most mechanically reliable of the three, but makes up for it by being the least economical and least comfortable.  The ride is better than the MINI’s, but the cabin geometry is woeful.  In an effort to make it sporty and rakish, Pontiac’s designers gave it an extremely low roofline, which makes it difficult to get into and out of and means that, in a side impact, the driver’s head will be smashed against the beam running along the top of his door window, which is padded, but in the same way as the arms of an office chair.  Also, until last Saturday, the rear struts were worn out and leaking, which means that the rear tires are now roughly octagonal.  Now that the struts have been replaced, the noise and vibration they create must be experienced to be believed.  Dad, ever an economy-minded soul when it comes to automobile parts*, assures me that shortly we will take all four of them off and replace them – with two brand new snow tires on the front and two that – and I’m quoting – "probably have one more season in them" on the rear.

So we have one car that appears reliable but is costly to run and uncomfortable (and which Dad would really like back because it still gets better mileage than the other vehicle he’s driving while I have the Pontiac), one that’s entering that end-of-life stage when things start to go wrong in ways that aren’t easily diagnosed, let alone remedied, and one that’s probably fine now that it’s been to rehab for its drinking problem, but is being sold.  Why, you might wonder, would my mother sell what is probably, on its face, the best of my three options for school transport?  Well, she isn’t really.  See, it’s actually in her husband’s name owing to some abstruse technicality of the insurance or something, and just yesterday I learned that he has decided, unilaterally and without consultation, to sell it and buy a pickup truck for himself.  In his plan, Mom can drive the hideous Cadillac station wagon he bought last year and then decided he didn’t want, and which has now depreciated so staggeringly it’d actually be more financially rewarding to burn it for the insurance money, get caught, and do the jail time than try to sell it or trade it in.  And I can, I don’t know, walk, I guess.

I’ve been confronting this conundrum for weeks, considering what would be the best way to handle it, and finally I decided that what I needed to do was track down something well-made, old enough that it wouldn’t be too expensive but still a few years away from senescence, not too thirsty, and – most importantly – equipped with all-wheel-drive to get me through the long, long years of commuting to school that I have ahead of me before I can, allegedly, get a proper job and buy that new Jag I’ve been promising myself.  The only problem there was that I had no income, and it’s difficult to pay for a car – even a cheap old one – without one.  So I shelved that plan a couple of weeks ago and resigned myself to the merry-go-round.

But then, out of the blue early last week, I got an email from the Student Aid office saying, in effect, "Hey, remember how we told you you weren’t eligible for workstudy?  We lied, here, have some.  Good luck getting a job on campus with four weeks to go in the semester, one of which is mostly Thanksgiving break."

Hmm, I thought, and poked around the Student Employment office’s website to see if there were any workstudy reqs still open at this time of the year.  And lo, there were a few, one of which was at the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium.  Now, I like a planetarium.  I like a planetarium quite a lot.  The idea of being a planetarium operator appeals to me the way little kids used to want to be locomotive drivers.  So I fired off an application to that one like a shot.  A quick mental calculation of the pay scale advertised told me that I could easily afford a modest (and I’m talking very modest) car payment on that sort of income, if I got the job.

And I did.  Well, sort of.  I got a job at the planetarium.  Unfortunately – and this is where the compound irony comes into it – the regular shows at the Jordan are on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.  When I’m nowhere near campus.  So I didn’t get the job of presenter.  Instead, I started today as the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium’s student computer tech III.

Yes.  That’s right.  After all these years and all these attempts to get away from anything to do with the field, I’m the PC support monkey.  I spent this afternoon reinstalling device drivers in an effort – successful, I might point out – to help one of the planetarium office’s PCs recover from an ill-advised printer install and regain its ability to write CDs and recognize USB flash drives.

Still, I thought, OK, that’s a disappointment in your life, but on the other hand, you’ll at least be able to get out of this car hole now.  Except that’s not the case either, because it turns out that, even in the eyes of the university’s own credit union, workstudy is not employment enough to constitute eligibility for even a small car loan.  Six grand, say, over 48 months at 12 percent – right around $160 a month?  Easily done according to the pay scale figures (or even, and I’ve worked this out as well, with the overrun on a couple of semesters’ worth of financial aid), but sorry, it’s just not on.

So there we are.  I have a job I don’t particularly want, which I was offered because I don’t qualify for the job I did want because I’m a commuter, but which I took anyway thinking it would at least help me to make the commute more tolerable, only to discover that it won’t.  And that’s why this long-winded whinge is called "Compound Irony".



* and anything else

An Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Quite Come

September 2, 2010 1 comment

It’s occurred to me over the last few days that I’m really doing this at the wrong point in history.

Let me explain.  The first time I tried college, in the early ’90s, there was no such thing as “online homework”.  Instructors didn’t put things on the Web (they couldn’t – if it existed at all in those days, it was only in its most primitive bang-the-rocks-together form), textbook publishers didn’t have websites (ditto), and nobody had anything other than the vaguest pie-in-the-sky thoughts about “hypermedia content delivery”.  You went to class, you did your homework, you took it to the next class, and the world kept turning.  Simple.

Today, everyone’s doing that kind of stuff.  The concept of offering things like coursework and class information online (even for regular old-fashioned sitting-in-a-room lecture courses) has reached a stage I like to think of as “immature proliferation” – everybody’s doing it, but no two implementations are the same.  There are no standards.  Every textbook publisher has its own system for offering and delivering such content.  Every instructor has his own preferences.  Quite a few of them have homebrewed systems of their own to add to the mix.  And the university itself has multiple different mutually exclusive online information systems, some of which are preferred by some instructors, some by others.

If, like me, you’re taking four courses at once, it’s maddening.  Some professors use FirstClass conferences to convey vital information about their classes, and wish to be reached through FC’s built-in email functionality.  Others eschew FC and insist on using the older Blackboard system.  One of mine this semester is doing both, and one (my ECE professor) is a Linux snob and so builds all of his own stuff rather than stoop to using any of the packaged systems already on offer.

And that’s before we even get to the access-keyed websites for the coursework itself.  The math section I’m in is technically an online course (it’s mostly populated by “distance learning” students in far-flung places who’ve presumably never even seen the Orono campus), so it has a FirstClass conference and an online homework/testing tool devised by the textbook publisher.  My chemistry course uses a completely different publisher-created online homework system which operates differently from the one used in MAT 122, and there’s a totally separate one for the laboratory section material. I noticed that my Public Speaking book also has a code in it for such a system, but that instructor isn’t using it, thank God.  I’m guessing that’s why the campus bookstore only offers used copies of that book, so that people don’t have to pay extra for the access code – an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture on their part.

Oh yes, they cost extra.  In CHY 121’s case, I paid an extra $70 on top of the already extortionate price of the (massive and unwieldy) textbook itself for the privilege of receiving a small fiberboard card with one of those codes like you get when you buy an EA game (you know the kind, with a string of five-letter nonsense words delimited by hyphens: FLINX-DIVPT-ALEFS-CZART-BLARG-LOLWT).  Between that, the separate laboratory pack (previously described), and a necessary tool for ECE 101 I haven’t actually tracked down yet, my “books and miscellaneous equipment” budget for this semester has overrun the blithe little estimate on the university’s financial aid page by about 120%.

But the cost is nothing compared to the sheer confusion and annoyance of having to keep track of all these separate, differently operated, individually usernamed and passworded, universally mission-critical web widgets.  Understand, I have nothing against the principle at work.  I can understand the attraction of the online homework systems for the instructors: the web engine grades the student’s work as it’s done and provides the instructor with a calm, impartial completed grade at the end.  No more spending all night grading homework papers!  And the homework system my math class is using, in particular, is absurdly helpful – so much so it makes me feel a bit like I’m cheating off the kid next to me whenever I click the “See an Example” button to get some illumination on what I’m working on.

No, what gets to me is the insane proliferation of the things.  I’m taking four classes right now and have to keep track of no fewer than nine different online data streams: FC conferences for MAT 122, CHY 121, and CMJ 103; the CMJ 103 Blackboard page; the publisher-provided online homework system for Precalculus; two online systems (one homework, one lab) for Chemistry; my ECE 101 instructor’s homebuilt course website; and my regular student inbox, where administrative stuff frequently arrives from other sources.  No wonder the university expects every student to own a powerful laptop computer.  You need one just to store the bookmark file for that lot.

This is why I said at the beginning that I’m doing this at the wrong point in history.  Eighteen years ago, none of this stuff existed, except for the occasional hardcore early-adopter CS prof who thought it was cool to make students get handouts from an FTP site.  And in another 10-20 years, I expect the mad bandwagon rush will have died down and some standards will have arrived to make better sense of the matter.  (Or civilization will have fallen and it won’t matter.)  Right now, though, it’s just a mess.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have homework to do… if the website’s up.