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.
In its original coursework form, this was entitled "Futurism Isn’t What It Used to Be".
In looking over the materials for this segment and reflecting on what has gone before, I’m struck – as I have been many times over the course of this semester – by what a pessimistic view of the future many of today’s thinkers have. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I find this annoying, and more than slightly disturbing.
When my grandfather was a boy, the general view in Western society was that progress was good, it had made the present better than it would otherwise have been, and it was going to make the future better still – and this was in an age of widespread economic depression, impending world war, polio and Jim Crow. The 1930s were a decade that arguably didn’t have a lot to be optimistic about, and yet you had massively forward-looking things being done, like the Hoover Dam and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Contrast that with today, when a person can take a college class that is built around a dynamic conference of ideas and innovations like Pop!Tech and find himself bombarded for fifteen weeks by view of the present and future like The Story of Stuff and Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. Message, as I perceive it: Progress is cruel and exploitative, the present isn’t that great and should feel guilty about most of what it has, and the future ranges from bleak to apocalyptic.
This is not acceptable.
Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us is a particularly good example of this delicate balance of daft ideas and general pessimism that seems to embody modern futuristic thought. It starts out with an anecdote about Ray Kurzweil, whom we’d just seen in a video from a few years ago being boldly and far-reachingly wrong about what the distant year 2010 was going to be like. From that shaky basis, the author then asserts that one of Kurzweil’s wackier (though, I admit, refreshingly optimistic) ideas – that we’re very soon to achieve a sort of cyberpunk apotheosis by becoming one with our Internets – is wrong not because the whole premise is absurd, but because it isn’t pessimistic enough. Sure, Joy says, we will reach an age when our computers are as smart as we are, but then they’ll either enslave us or wipe us out. "I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil," he writes. Do us a favor?
I’m sorry that I always seem to be setting myself at odds with our sources here, but it can’t be helped. A great deal of what we’ve been exposed to in the course of this odyssey has been richly, bountifully disappointing. Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us isn’t about technology, it’s primitive eschatology dressed up in a lab coat. One finds oneself surprised that the phrase "if God had meant Man to X, He’d have given him Y" isn’t in there somewhere. At the very least, it’s shockingly timid. Joy advocates abandoning research into several of the most promising areas of high technology because he doesn’t think they’re worth the risk. That’s not the attitude that mastered flint knapping in Olorgesailie, Bill.
Bostrom’s musings on the transhuman/posthuman phenomenon are slightly better reading, if only because they’re a little more balanced – but the whole debate he describes between what he calls bioconservative vs. transhumanist elements on, e.g., the improvement of the human species through inheritable genetic engineering seems more than a little silly when viewed from the perspective of a living room in rural Maine on a chilly December evening. I have a couple of friends who consider themselves "posthumanists", and they are without doubt the most tiresome people on the face of the Earth when they get to talking about how technology will transcend the meaning of humanity within the next arbitrarily chosen number of years. What they really mean is "look how clever I am, and have you seen my brand-new Android tablet?" Having experienced that sort of frivolity first-hand, I find myself extremely suspicious of the whole movement’s intellectual credentials.
What’s really interesting about this to me, though, is that there was almost none of this sort of nonsense in the actual Pop!Tech conference itself. With very few exceptions, the Pop!Tech speakers didn’t preach, didn’t talk down to their audience, and didn’t espouse concepts so lofty and abstract that they served only as illuminated signs saying YOU UNDERSTAND, OF COURSE, THAT I AM VERY SMART. They were people with concrete ideas for improving things, rather than tutting, fretting prescriptionists who only wanted to make it plain that We’re All Doing It Wrong and We’re All Going to Die. The contrast between the tone of the conference itself and the bulk of the supporting material we’ve seen during the weeks when the conference wasn’t happening is startling now that I look back at it.
I’m just having one of those days where everyone I see around me is Doing It Wrong and I want to make them pay. Everything gets on my nerves, even – especially – stuff that would normally just go by me.
UMaine has a campus-wide no-smoking policy. Does that prevent the kids from ambling around campus with cigarettes stuck in their mouths or congregating in the little parking lot between Boardman Hall and the MTL to smoke up a storm between classes? The hell it does. I’ve even seen faculty members hanging around out there having a butt. Way to set an example, prof.
(As an aside, just the fact that there still are normal-age college students who smoke in the year 2011 is enough to rile me up on a day like this. My grandfather’s generation didn’t know any better, but, uh, yeah, kids, we’ve known that smoking is bad for you for quite a while now, and you’re supposed to be the smart ones, you got into college. What the hell is wrong with you?)
Whenever I’m walking to class on a day like today and I meet someone coming the other way who is smoking, I have a very brief but entirely real desire to shoot him (and I hate to seem sexist here, but statistically speaking it is pretty much always a guy) in the head. It only lasts something like a nanosecond – not nearly long enough to be acted on, but long enough for me to recognize that I felt it – but it’s an entirely genuine desire for the instant it lasts. So it’s a good thing I don’t have some instantaneously lethal superpower, like Destructo-Vision or something.
The Boardman lot is tiny and in the center of campus, so it’s (apart from the nebulous and inevitable SERVICE VEHICLE ONLY space) entirely composed of handicapped parking spaces. (Seems funny when written out that way. Like they’re parking spaces that can’t do everything regular parking spaces do because of some illness or injury.) Not that this stops anybody from parking in it. In fact, what it does is make them park more annoyingly than if they’d just manned up and parked in one of the wheelchair-marked spaces illegally. To avoid doing that, they park out in the aisle, or athwart the rear entrance to Boardman, or – my favorite – in the stripey areas between the HC spaces, figuring that if they’re not parked on a wheelchair icon, it must be OK. I want to set these people’s cars on fire.
My favorite, though, was the guy on the motorcycle who pulled up and parked in the stripey area next to my car as I was getting ready to leave. I tried to point out in the most diplomatic way possible (i.e., I did not lead with “hey, jackwad, I know you already know this and are just ignoring it because it would inconvenience you, but”) that that’s not what the stripey area is for, and he offered to do pugilism with me. Seriously. He didn’t sound particularly psychotic or anything, he just seemed to think it was the next logical phase for the discussion to take: “You wanna fight about it?” It was like being back in the third grade, with its matter-of-fact attitude toward casual violence.
If I were a bona fide wheelchair-bound Disabled Person, and I had one of those vans with the powered platform thing that comes out of the side, I would deploy it if someone did that to me. Bad move, brutha! I need that space and I have hydraulics. That’ll buff right out.
Man. I am just in a grumpy mood today. Lingering aftereffect of that physics test, I think. The more I think about the way the instructor grades those, the more annoyed I get. Also, I had one of my Paralytically Shy Mumbling Guy days this afternoon in German class, which is not a class in which one can excel by being a shy mumbler, set off by the fact that I tried to speak up in history class in the morning and there were suddenly no words. I was trying to explain why being bang in the middle of the Med conveyed strategic significance on Malta in the Napoleonic era – which of course has to do with its location as regards sail traffic, as a way station between Gibraltar and Alexandria and/or Sicily and Tripoli, a watering stop, the presence of neutral medical facilities etc., but all that would come out was, “Uhhhhhhhh… well… look. It’s in the middle.”
So basically I’m having the kind of day where I very strongly suspect my teachers all think I’m an imbecile and I’m not entirely certain they’d be wrong about that, and it’s causing me to go into these towering but silent rages about stupid stuff like people parking on the stripes and smoking where they’re not supposed to. And you get to read all about it because this is my blog and this is what I’m blogging today. Sigh.
Also also: It is a bit past 7 PM (I just heard the bell out in Cloke Plaza) and, as far as I can tell from the crib, it is fully dark outside. Speaking as a seasonal affective: Labor Day is a dumb place on the calendar to put the start of the school year. (Yes, I know, relic of our agrarian past, kids needed on the farm during the summer, etc. etc. And our workday is still set up to accommodate the optimal lighting conditions in 18th-century textile mills, too.)