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.
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.
We’re in the process of getting a foot or two of snow here in northern Maine, and the University has responded with the – I am assured – quite rare step of canceling classes for the day. This would not normally hurt my feelings at all, what with my general distaste for crashing into ditches and freezing to death, except that this is the very last Monday of the semester.
There’s nothing very much doing in ECE101 today, since regular classes ended last week and we’re just doing recitations now, and missing the last of the ECE100 seminars isn’t really a big deal since all we were doing was filling out the course evaluation and receiving some parting remarks. I am annoyed, though, about two things:
1) I was scheduled to deliver my last speech in CMJ 103 today. Speeches are scheduled tightly enough that there won’t be time before the end of the semester to reschedule the five of us who should’ve spoken today into other class time, because there are only two days left (Wednesday and Friday) and they’re both full already. I checked with the instructor and she’s not sure what that means for us, though I suspect it means we’ll have to come in during the time next week when the class’s final exam would be happening if it had one. What kind of audience we can expect for that I’m not sure. Possibly the whole class will have to go in, which is a bit extreme.
2) I had hoped to get into the ECE lab this afternoon and see if I could figure out why our robot isn’t working. The robot competition’s preliminary round is Wednesday and the final is Friday, and right now ours doesn’t do anything. The software we had in it last Wednesday was not complete and it wouldn’t have worked properly as regards navigating the maze, but it should have done something, and it just sat there inert. The probability is some kind of hardware problem. I was hoping to put the image of our code on the production test robot and see if it works. I won’t have time to do this tomorrow because of workstudy, and Wednesday is go day, so… well. Not sure what happens to my grade and Let’s Call Him Matt’s if our robot doesn’t work…
I find myself curiously engaged by the problem of programming the robot. I don’t enjoy programming, and I particularly don’t enjoy programming in C, but trying to get the robot to work is less painful and more interesting than most of the purely abstract tasks put to me in the actual programming courses I’ve attempted in the past. Mind you, I haven’t got it working, and Let’s Call Him Matt doesn’t seem too jazzed by it (which is odd, since he’s changed his major to computer science and you’d think he’d be more up for it than me), but it’s a refreshing change from the simple tedium this kind of thing normally evokes for me.