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People Who Are Unclear on the Concept

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Also:

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.)

The Strange Joy of Making Chips

February 21, 2011 3 comments

MET 107 lecture today was a bit stressful, but  that was more my own psychological baggage than anything to do with the actual class.  Heck, I pulled a 92 on last week’s exam (#1 of 3), and I know what I did wrong on the questions I missed, so things are, touch wood, going well.

But it’s a crowded lecture, 48 students in a room that could comfortably hold about 40, and some days there’s a lot of noise and chatter.  There was today, so much so that Professor Anderson had to yell – literally, not figuratively – at everybody to quiet the hell down:

"OK, fellas, let’s get started.  Got a lot of stuff to get through today.  Settle down.  …  … HEY! THIS ISN’T A PAJAMA PARTY, IT’S COLLEGE, FOR CHRISSAKE!"

(shocked silence)

"In 15 years I’ve had to yell at a class three times, and now two of them have been you guys.  Work a little harder on impressing me.  You’re not paying thousands of dollars to listen to each other talk."

Now, I like Professor Anderson, and for the record I think he was entirely justified in taking this course of action.  (Indeed, in his position I’d probably have used much stronger language in a couple of places, and possibly opened with a gunshot into the ceiling, which is why I am not and should never be allowed to be a teacher.)  And his wrath had nothing to do with me – I wasn’t talking, because I’m 37 and frankly I got that shit out of my system in the ninth grade.  And yet, when that happened, I spent the next minute or so grappling internally with a powerful instinctive flight reaction.  I very, very much wanted, on some entirely anti-intellectual level, to just go home and lie down.

I guess that’s a scar from all those rancorous school board and town council meetings I had to cover.  I just cringe at the thought of being in the presence of authority conflict, even when I’m not in any way involved.  It was deeply – and surprisingly – uncomfortable, because so entirely irrational.  I was just sitting there waiting for class to start, and suddenly my lizard brain was going Flee, flee from this place, the gods are angry! Very disconcerting.

Anyway, once we got into the lab, things got better.  For one thing, there are only a dozen of us in the Monday afternoon lab session, and the room is much larger; for another, there was plenty to do, and Professor Anderson had regained his good humor, despite the absence of his tool crib guy and his regular TA (who had to go off to a doctor’s appointment, and did look like he felt truly dreadful).

So we went out and got to work, and after working on it for three weeks, I finished the last of my tool checkoffs, which means I’ve advanced to "novice machinist" and am no longer just some dude who wandered into the machine shop.

To be clear, they aren’t actually trying to make professional-grade machinists out of us in a single semester.  As mechanical engineering tech majors, we’re expected to end up designing things that the real machinists then have to make, so the idea is to give us some exposure to the machine shop environment and the capabilities of machine tools, so we’ll hopefully have that in the backs of our minds as we design things that may or may not be a royal pain in the ass for some other person to make.  So "novice machinist" is probably too generous; realistically, it’s more like "semicompetent dabbler".  But it does mean I’m not as likely to burn the place down or cut my own fingers off as a random civilian would be.  In theory.

In slightly more technical terms, I had to demonstrate a set of what marketing people would call "core competencies" on the four basic machine tools in what the University rather haughtily calls the laboratory: the pedestal grinder, the vertical mill, the engine lathe, and the band saw.  Once, and only once, those tasks were accomplished was I cleared to work on the actual parts required for my semester project – which I believe I now have seven weeks to make and get working with the rest of my team’s parts.  So no pressure there.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with machine tools, as indeed I was until recently, here is a quick rundown of what those four things are.  If you’re not interested in that kind of thing, that’s cool – come back in a day or two, I’ll be talking about CAD.

Now then.

The pedestal grinder – This is the machine tool people who’ve never been in a proper machine shop are most likely to have seen someplace, I suspect (with a couple of caveats I’ll get to below).  It’s just what it sounds like – an abrasive wheel attached to a big ol’ electric motor on a stand.  Actually, most pedestal grinders have two wheels, one on each side of the motor.  Waste not, want not, after all.  This apparatus can be useful for a number of things, but mainly what it’s used for is shaping smaller bits of metal into shapes suitably complex as to be hard to achieve on the other machines, and/or that don’t require a ton of really exacting precision.  For example, it’s possible to sharpen up drill bits and correct worn-out flathead screwdriver blades with it.  Or you can do what we did and actually make another tool, in our case a toolbit that is then used on the lathe.

All the animals in the machine shop are equal, but the pedestal grinder is a little more equal than the others in terms of how dangerous it is.  It does have a great heavy abrasive wheel spinning at some ridiculous number of revolutions per minute, after all, and if that should happen to, say, come off, you could be in for an exciting time.  In normal operation, though, it’s nothing to worry about as long as you don’t trip and fall face-first on it.  Unless you do what my dad did when he was around 25 and use one without eye protection, in which case you will never be allowed to accompany your son into a room with an MRI machine in it later in life.

The vertical mill – Also known as a "Bridgeport" after the most commonly known manufacturer.  Someone not familiar with machine tools, but knowing someone with a reasonably well-equipped garage, would see a Bridgeport and think, Damn, yo, that’s one big drill press.  And, in fact, that’s pretty much what a vertical mill is – a drill press with a college degree.  It can do a hell of a lot more than just drill holes, but the basic principle is the same.  What makes a vertical mill different is its adaptability.  It can be set up to run at a wide range of different speeds and equipped with a variety of different tools, and the table can be moved around in all three axes, often with power feed in at least two of them.  With that capability and the right tool mounted, you can trim a piece of metal to a precise size, put a nice finish on a part, put a chamfer on something – you can even drill a hole if you’re feeling really audacious.  Or cut threads into one you’ve already drilled.

The surprising thing about operating a vertical mill, from the standpoint of someone who had worked with drill presses before but never seen their bigger cousins, is how much stuff there is to keep track of.  For instance, what speed you run the machine at matters – a lot.  A home garage drill press is usually either on or off, but the RPM setting on a vertical mill is something that requires some foreknowledge and thought.  You need to know what the material you’re cutting is, what your cutting tool is made of, and the maximum cutting diameter you’re dealing with, at the very least.  Once you have all those things, if you have the appropriate tables handy or have memorized them, you can calculate the best speed, and then you look at the plate on the front of the machine to see how close you can get – and then you have to open it up and fool with the belts to set it up.  It’s all very old-school, and somehow strangely satisfying.

The engine lathe – This is another tool that looks something like something people with reasonably-well-equipped wood shops will be familiar with.  With a wood lathe you can make fancy table legs and whatnot.  A metalworking engine lathe works on the same principle, and looks similar, but – as with the metalworking equivalents of many woodworking tools – is a lot beefier and more complicated.  The basic principle is similar to the vertical mill’s, except sort of reversed and standing on its head – the workpiece rotates but is otherwise stationary, instead of the toolbit as in the mill, and the toolbit can move around relative to it on a complicated carriage mechanism.  You can face stock to a desired length, turn bits of it to different radii, drill a hole in the end of it – you could even make a fancy table leg if you wanted, though it would be pretty heavy.

The lathe is my favorite machine tool.  It’s also the one with the most complicated set of dials, levers, and buttons.  These two facts may not be entirely unconnected.  Once you’ve worked out the RPM setting (which is the same sort of thing as you have to do with a vertical mill), there’s also the feed setting to consider.  Again, there’s a reasonably complex little formula that involves looking stuff up on a table, particularly if you’re cutting outside threads, and then there’s another chart on the machine itself which tells you how to set the levers and dials for the feed gearbox to achieve the desired result.  This is a little like cracking a safe and invariably makes me feel like I’m starring in my own very short little caper movie.  Very satisfying.

The band saw – This is, well, a band saw.  Not really that exciting, except for the size of it: The horizontal band saw in our shop is about five feet long.  Cutting stock with it is a fairly straightforward procedure.  It doesn’t have speed settings or any futzing around with feeds; you just put the piece you’re trying to cut in it, make sure it’s properly supported if it’s too long to fit on the table, make sure you’ve put something in the other end of the vise to balance it if it’s too short to go all the way across, start it up and let gravity do the work.  Cleaning it up afterward is the hardest part, because it makes tiny little chips and they get all covered in cutting fluid.  Nasty.

So yeah, I’m enjoying MET 107, for the most part.  As previously noted it trips my hate-being-bad-at-stuff response quite often, but the instructor and his TA are patient and my checkoffs went well.  I got my first piece of for-real stock cut today, too, but ran out of time before I could do anything more to it than file off the burrs.

Now that I have my credentials on the tools, so to speak, I (slightly annoyingly) get to not use them for three weeks, because that was our last meeting before spring break.  I could go in for one of the evening sessions this week (probably Thursday) and try to get some stuff done; we’ll see.

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.

Boy Howdy, I Dunno About That

September 29, 2010 6 comments

Sat the first of three exams in MAT 122 tonight at 6.  Immediately preceding this, I had endured a three-hour ECE 101 lab session that involved Wire-Wrap® technology.  As electronics construction methods go, Wire-Wrap® is some way beyond quaint.  It’s what they used to build the Apollo Guidance Computer.  My partner and I were at it for the full three hours and still couldn’t get our robot’s master LED to come on, which means we’ll have to go back during open lab next week and try to finish.  This was not a relaxing way to prepare for a major test, and I suspect my performance will reflect that.

Ironically, we had to present a photo ID at the end of the session, in order to prove we really were students and not, say, paid ringers.  All I can say is that if the real Ben Hutchins hired me to take that test for him, he got what he deserved, the cheating bastard.  I won’t know for sure until the grade gets posted, of course, but I strongly suspect that I made a complete crock out of the test.  In that sort of math there are a lot of this-or-that interpretation rules – not hard, just fiddly – and at many times in the course of the test I found myself looking at something I could have sworn last night I knew cold, and thinking, Fuck, does that mean it’s inverted relative to the X axis or the Y axis?  You don’t do as much guessing as I did and do well on a test.

On the other hand, I seem to be over my problem with factoring quadratic equations.  Or, rather, I’ve remembered the quadratic formula, which means I no longer have to.

I was right about the online homework/quizzing model not translating very comfortably to an old-school proctored paper exam, too.  Not because of graphing; we did have to do a bit of that, but it wasn’t a problem.  The problem was simply the lack of context for everything.  In an old-fashioned exam you don’t have the luxury of looking up the fiddly rules you’ve suddenly realized you no longer remember.

Personally, I don’t think this method of assessment is valid any longer in terms of preparing students for the Real World.  Maybe it never was.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I spent a good bit of time in the private sector, and while they did (as Ray Stantz once observed) expect results, they didn’t expect me to know everything about the field I was working in off the top of my head.  That’s what references are for.  As such, closed-notes testing just doesn’t make sense to me any more.  It’s just not realistic unless you’re, I don’t know, an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

On the plus side, I did manage to hit an impossible deadline for a Campus article today.  When I discovered that the professor I needed to speak with for vital background could only see me today at noon, with EE lab from 2:10 to 5, a critical math test at 6, and deadline at 8, I figured well, so much for that gig – but I filed that sumbitch at 5:15, having written most of it at my lab station in Barrows 221 between 1 and the start of lab.  A deserted circuits lab is actually quite a restful place to do a spot of writing; I shall have to remember it for personal use in future, if Andy’s around to unlock the place for me.  (Also, I enjoy being trusted to hang around in there unsupervised; they keep the room locked so the kids don’t wander off with the equipment or put an eye out with the soldering irons.)

Also, because of the evening exam, there’s no class in MAT 122 tomorrow morning.  I’m at Dad’s tonight because I didn’t feel like driving all the way home in the dark, but in the morning I get to get up and go home instead of back to campus, which should give me plenty of time to finish this week’s ECE 101 homework and finish up my cue cards and visual aids for Speech #2 in CMJ 103, which I’m due to perform on Friday morning.  That should be… interesting.  (More about the speech’s content later.  In fact, if it goes well, I might just post the video.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll edit this graf and deny I ever said anything about it.)

Super-Lab-a-Rama

September 7, 2010 2 comments

Today was lab-a-riffic.  Nothing but labs as far as the eye could see.

Step 1: CHY 123, the first of the Intro Chemistry labs (last week’s lab period was taken up with a safety briefing).  Met the TA (a young woman named Virginia who looks oddly familiar – she reminds me of, but isn’t, a person I worked with at one of my tech jobs many years ago), completed the little test designed to find out if one was paying attention in the previous week’s safety briefing, received equipment issue, acquired lab partner more or less by default, had first serious equipment problem.

You see, approved safety goggles are required at all times in the chemistry lab.  This is a wise precaution and I do not cavil at it.  Unfortunately, the approved goggles have a small problem, to wit: If you wear eyeglasses and tend to sweat from the hairline, they fog up in a stuffy room pretty much instantaneously.  Performing careful calculations and delicate laboratory operations like pouring precise amounts of liquids into graduated cylinders under poorly lit fume hoods – hard enough as it is when your vision is as poor as mine – become quite impossible under those conditions.  Clearing one’s goggles requires leaving the lab, which is not hard – there’s a breakout room right next door, where bags are left and pre-/post-lab discussions carried out – but one does need to be able to spend enough time in the lab to actually perform the experiment.  This can be challenging.

Still, my lab partner – whose name, I’m ashamed to admit, I almost instantly forgot in my standard fashion, except that it started with J and his surname was Brown (he is so recorded in the “lab partner” box on that page of my $80 lab notebook, “J. Brown”) – was pleasant enough, and the experiment itself was interesting once all the fiddly business with tareing our graduated cylinders (three times each for eight teams of two in a room with only three balances – that took a while) was over.  We were combining 4% solutions of polyvinyl alcohol and sodium borate, which causes a polymerization that turns the two liquids into a fairly stiff gel.  In this particular exercise, the point was not so much what the chemicals themselves were actually doing as what we were doing to (and about) the chemicals.

Also, I am, it pains me to confess, a pretty poor laboratory glassware washer.

After that, it was off to ECE 101 lab.  That’s usually on Wednesday for my unit, but because of the Monday holiday this week (and the fact that we spent so much time getting familiar with the setup last week that no one actually got the first lab done), all the week’s remaining lab section times were declared Open Lab.  My partner We’ll-Call-Him-Matt and I decided last week, when this was announced, that we’d go in today and see about getting it finished so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it for the rest of the week.  He had to leave after an hour to get to another class, but we were well along by then, so I finished up without him.  I was the last one out, which makes me suspect that I rather held up the instructor and TAs, but nobody said anything about it, and the period was scheduled to go for another hour or so after I got done.

I have been informed that I am now officially an electrical engineering student, something one is not until the first time one commits so egregious a foul with a soldering iron that one blurts “Ah!  Goddammit!” and drops the instrument on the table.  Admittedly, I may have earned this honor more cheaply than some of my colleagues, simply because my threshold for pain is fairly low, particularly when heat is involved.  I don’t appear to have done myself any actual injury, though I did have an interesting conformal patch of lead on one fingertip for a while.

Also, there was a lab within that lab today, as Andy brought his dog with him – a large, friendly black Labrador retriever who works as a hospital therapy dog in her spare time.

Then I moved on to the Astronomy 110 lab I signed up for on Last Day To Add last week.  Except that I didn’t.  Or maybe I did.  It’s hard to tell.  Remember what I said earlier about the university’s plethora of online coursework systems?  One thinks I’m in the Tuesday lab section; the other thinks I’m supposed to be there on Monday.  I stuck around long enough to complete the preliminary test (another one designed to see if you’d read the syllabus) and the pre-lab for exercise 1, then informed the TA that I had the wrong day and bailed, because I prefer to believe the system that thinks I’m supposed to be there on Monday.  It would suit the rest of my schedule a lot better.

One of the items on the syllabus-reading test said that AST110 satisfies the General Science w/Lab graduation requirement if passed concurrently with or after AST109, the lecture component.  I passed AST109 in 1993, and I’ve still got the credits on my transcript to prove it.  Now, I think CHY121/123 is only on the engineering curriculum because it’s the most straightforward way of satisfying that same requirement.  If that’s the case, I might be able to drop Chemistry this semester and not be under any particular pressure to pick it up later on at all.  And if that’s the case, then I think I’ll seriously consider it, because though I had fun in lab, I’m clearly not cut out for that sort of work.  (I wonder, if you’ve already locked down the lab science requirement, if you can unlink 121 and 123.  Not if you intend to move on to 122/124, obviously, but… well, anyway.)

Tomorrow I meet with my advisor to talk about the failed-dependency issue with MAT126 and ECE177 next semester.  He told me in the email exchange we used to set up the meeting that he didn’t think it would be a problem, and my ECE 101 instructor said pretty much the same thing, after having a short and puzzled meeting with his TAs about it.  (“Did you even use calculus in 177?  Why did Rick flag it as a prereq then?  What are they doin’ over there?”)  I grumbled some more about having left CS because I didn’t want to program the damn things; Andy asked if I had any credits from programming classes in the old days, because I could probably get out of ECE177 with them, but unfortunately although I took several programming classes in the old days, I didn’t pass any of them.  That’s kind of why I stopped signing up for them.  Christ.  A man just can’t get away from it nowadays.

After class I popped over to Kmart and picked up a wifi router (why Kmart? because I could put it on my Sears card) for Dad’s house, so that I can use my laptop in the spare room he’s kitted out for me without having to go uncable his DSL modem from behind his desktop computer and bring it upstairs every time.  I had to talk him through the security system and how it means that roving Sudanese terrorists won’t be able to park their van in front of his house and hack the Pentagon in such a way that the FBI will come and shoot him, and it did the usual thing that wifi equipment always does where it pretends it’s not going to work for the first couple of attempts and then magically starts working, but now all is well.  It’s quite a nice room, actually.  Good view of the river.  And it’s much closer to the university than my house, which makes it a handy fallback for the times when I have a late evening and am expected back early the next morning (when my AST110 observation periods actually start next week, for instance, at which point I’ll be at the observatory from 2000-2200 on Mondays, weather permitting).  The only downside is that, between laptop, books, a change of clothes, various toiletries, and Magic Nose Machine, I have to travel with more gear than a friggin’ Everest expedition.

This blogging-before-bed thing is giving me a serious Doogie Howser, M.D. vibe.  If they were making that show now, he would totally be updating his blog at the end of each episode instead of just reflecting in a WordPerfect document.

Day Three: Decrepitude, or, Old in a Young World

September 1, 2010 3 comments

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, I have three classes in a row from 9 AM on.  Morning classes at the University of Maine run from the hour until ten minutes to the next one.

When you are an old, slow beast like me, ten minutes is not sufficient time to pack up your books and notebooks and such in your wheelie suitcase (and believe me, you would use a wheelie suitcase if your chemistry book weighed as much as mine), make your way out of one building, trudge across a large expanse of space, enter another building, find the room you want, and get yourself and your possessions squared away in a new space.  Particularly on a gaspingly, sidewalk-softeningly hot day like today, you will find yourself dragging into class at X:05, despite not having dawdled in any way.

I’m not sure what can be done about this, if anything, apart from doing everything I can to arrange my schedule next semester so that I don’t have any adjacent classes.  (I’m not sure that’s even possible, but perhaps it’s worth a try.)  I accept that I am older, slower, and fatter than the timetable designers probably had in mind, but still, I can’t figure out how students with actual mobility problems can possibly manage it.  The buildings my classes in aren’t even that far apart.  The furthest I have to go is from Little to Dunn.  God help me if I had to get from, say, Dunn to Nutting.  (Those unfamiliar with the UMaine campus can get an idea of what I’m talking about from the campus map.)

Apart from creative hydration and involuntary tardiness, today’s core experience was the first of the ECE 101 lab sessions.  Unlike my General Chemistry I lab, ECE 101’s lectures and lab sessions are all part of the same course, with the same instructor.  Our instructor in ECE 101 wants us to call him by his first name; I’m old-fashioned enough that this goes against every dealing-with-teachers impulse I possess.  So far I’ve escaped having to deal with the problem by avoiding situations in which I would have to call him by name.  One of these days, though, I’m going to have to either bite the bullet and call him Andy, or cement my status as the ancient fuddy-duddy of the class by sticking with “Prof. Sheaff”, which is incorrect as he’s not a professor, but does at least err on the side of respectfulness.

Anyway, the ECE 101 labs are held in one of the old laboratory rooms on the top floor of Barrows Hall, the EE building since time immemorial, and there we all found ourselves – 16 of the 60-odd students in this semester’s ECE 101 class, our instructor, and three graduate TAs.  Our task for the afternoon: get started on the semester’s project, which is building a little robot that will ultimately be asked to navigate a maze.

We’re building these from scratch, pretty much.  I mean, we’re not expected to go out and mine the silicon, extrude the wires for the resistor leads, and whatnot, but we’re starting with a piece of perf board and moving on from there.  Today’s session involved gluing component layout diagrams onto both sides of the board, fitting 64 Wirewrap pins, and starting on the soldering-on of the components, which was interesting, since most of us had never handled a soldering iron before, and at least one of us who had (hi) possessed a track record approaching “disastrous”.

Let me just make this part absolutely clear: There were 16 of us (20 if you count Prof. – uh – Andy and the three TAs)  in a room on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building dating (I would guess) from the 1950s, on a muggy 95° day, soldering.  Yes.  This was one of the occasions when the comedy flop sweat never stopped coming.  And let me tell you, it’s hard to work with any confidence on tiny electrical components when sweat keeps dripping on the table.

Now, here is a fact worth considering: When you have a class of 16 people, and you (as the instructor) direct them to break up into eight teams of two each without providing any sort of guidance as to how this should be done, you will inevitably end up with one team, all the way at the back, made up of the two shyest guys in the room, who find themselves together pretty much by default.  So today that was me and a soft-spoken 20-year-old we’ll call Matt.  (Matt hasn’t actually done anything that would call for him to be anonymized, but he also isn’t aware that he’s featuring in some old guy’s blog, so it’s only common courtesy.)

Yeah, I did say that.  It might not seem like it on the Internet, where everyone’s free to be as big a loudmouth as they like, but I can be paralytically shy under the right conditions.  I’ve more than once received poor marks for in-class participation because I didn’t like to make a splash, and I’ve always been an especially lone wolf in practical tasks like laboratory classes, on the premise that it’s more work, but at least if I screw up, the people around me will only learn about it after the fact.  Sadly, there is no place in the modern educational context for lone wolves; Group Learning and Teamwork are in, especially in the engineering disciplines.  I suppose that’s reasonable enough.  Not many bridges or power stations get designed by one guy working alone in a darkened office at night.  Alas.

Matt and I actually worked pretty well together, despite both being so reluctant to impose that we sat and quietly watched each other commit egregious mistakes rather than risk giving offense by pointing them out in time to prevent them.  Perhaps as the semester progresses we’ll get more comfortable in the roles and stop that.  And we only had to pry out two of the pins and replace them after soldering the wrong component to them, so that’s not too bad for a first attempt, right?  (I was obscurely satisfied to notice that some of our soldered joints actually looked nicer than the one the TA did during his demonstration for us.)

We did make a little conversation toward the end of the three-hour lab period.  It came out in a chat with one of the roaming TAs that Matt’s a computer engineering major.  The two disciplines are slowly merging; in another 20 years there will probably only be “electrical and computer” engineers.  Right now you still have to pull a double major to get both degrees, but even the straight-up EEs (like me) have to take at least one programming class and do a bunch more coding along the way in some of the others.  Later in ECE 101 we’re going to have to do some C programming in order to make the robot work once we’ve built it.  I grumbled that if I’d wanted to be a computer programmer I’d have stayed in computer science, I came to EE to get away from the damn things, and offered to do all the hardware on the robot if Matt would do all the programming, but I think he thought I was kidding.  The TA certainly did, though he did sympathize with my loathing of programming and microsystems in general.  We agreed that Victorian electrical technology was the high point.

Speaking of micro-, I discovered another drawback of being an elderly person in a course of study designed for those freshly ejected from high school: I can’t see anything as small as a resistor resting between two Wirewrap pins well enough to solder it on without coming away from the afternoon with a kinghell case of eyestrain, and it wasn’t just because sweat kept dripping into my eyes.  (And that was with brand new glasses; I picked them up during my lunch break.)  I asked the TAs if they had a magnifying glass and they gave each other dumbfounded looks, indicating that no one had ever asked for such a thing before, but now that I brought it up it would be awfully handy, wouldn’t it?

(Did you know that it’s against University policy for one student to provide any pharmaceutical to another, regardless of said pharmaceutical’s legal status?  I didn’t, until I went to pop some Advil and asked – because it’s only polite – if anyone else wanted some.)

I’m still having my doubts that this is quite the right direction to be going in, partly because I still don’t have any kind of confidence in my math skills.  Of all the classes this semester to end up doing in a vague, arm’s-length, correspondence-school-style fashion, it would have had to be MAT 122, wouldn’t it?  Regardless, Friday is the Add/Drop deadline, so if I’m going to make any changes I’d better be about it.  I foresee spending a good bit of tomorrow groveling around the online course catalog and playing Pauli Exclusion Principle Bingo with section times.  What I have now represents the very best efforts of a very nice lady in Prof. Musavi’s office before the semester began, but perhaps other students have dropped things and opened up some fresh options now.

Oh.  And I think I’ll be looking into getting something along these lines, particularly if I’m going to be doing any more soldering.  Which I am, if I stay in this program or anything like it.

Tomorrow’s my day off, for values of days off that include doing a bunch of online homework and spending some quality time with the course registration tools.