In the MTL tool crib, there is a window where the on-duty tool guy sits, and at that window is a stool. It’s an unremarkable object, as these things go, just a few bits of metal and a wooden disc manufactured, as the logo on the underside of the seat reveals, by Angle Steel, Inc., of Plainwell, Michigan. There is only one real problem with it:
It’s not very comfortable.
Last week, noting that I didn’t seem to be enjoying it much, Joel (my boss, the machine tool instructor, and the MTL building manager) asked if I’d prefer something a little more substantial and padded. I said I would, and he said it was OK with him if I got in touch with Disabled Student Services, since they handle special-furniture requests on campus, and made such a request in the department’s name. So I did.
Monday I came in for my night lab shift and found… a second, identical Angle Steel stool, with a tag on it saying “FOR BEN HUTCHINS, MTL CRIB”. Apart from the tag and a label with the international accessibility symbol on it (see above), it was exactly the same as the one we already had.
So I sent a note to the grad student in charge of furniture at DSS, apologizing for not being clear enough in my initial email and noting that we had one of those already, what we were hoping for was something a bit more upholstered. His response was very polite, but basically boiled down to, “That’s what we’ve got. Talk to your department’s purchasing person if you want something swankier.”
Today I got in for my afternoon shift, when, unlike in the evenings, Joel is here, and we got to talking about the Stool Situation. I said I’d found a couple of likely candidates online, but then I said, “It’s a little silly for us to pay $200 for a heavy-duty padded stool, I mean, this is a machine shop. Why don’t we build one?”
He went away to help a couple of the afternoon students cut some threads, I dispensed tools, and we both thought about it for an hour or so, and then he came back and said, “OK, let’s give it a shot.”
The first thing we decided was that we didn’t need to start from scratch. The Angle Steel stool’s metal structure is plenty adequate for our purposes; it just needs a better seating surface. So we dismantled one of the Angle Steel stools, which was a simple matter of unscrewing the wooden disc from the top of the frame.
Then Joel went and found a donor chair somewhere else in the building (he’s the MTL facility manager, remember, he can do that). This was a regular wooden chair, like you would find in a kitchen. We actually looked at a couple of them and decided that one would come apart more easily, and yield a part more suitable to the purpose, than the other. So Joel knocked out the stretchers, to make getting the drill in there easier, and we unscrewed the seat base from our donor chair. Then it was a relatively simple matter of marking out a radius (that’s what’s going on with the big metal ring and the square board in the photo above) and trimming the corners of the seat base a bit.
The result is not much different from the old version, but with a more substantial seating area, and provides a better platform for adding upholstery later, which Joel is rather keen to do once he has a chance to assemble the materials.
(You may notice that it’s turned so that what was the back of the seat when it was part of a chair is now facing toward the tool window workbench, at right. This is because it’s actually more comfortable that way; we didn’t radius the front corners enough. But we may not bother, since it works fine backward, the extra corner area provides more rear support, and once it’s padded the slight contour planed into the wood, from when it was a chair, won’t be relevant any more.)
I’m sitting on it right now for my night lab shift, and I have to confess it’s not that much better than the old version. I mean, it’s still hard and there’s still not much of anyplace to put my feet. Still, it does offer better support, and once it’s upholstered it should be very nice indeed. And besides – it’s an engineering project!
As I’ve previously noted, this past spring I managed to post a 4.0 semester GPA. This was as much a function of the classes I was taking as of any academic exceptionalism I may possess, but I was still reasonably pleased with myself. I looked forward to seeing my name on the mysterious and elusive Dean’s List.
Except… as the summer went on, it began to appear that the University does not publish a Dean’s List any more. Or if it does, it keeps the whole thing very quiet, which would seem to be to miss the point slightly. High schools far and wide were trumpeting their honor students in the area newspaper, but not a word appeared about anything to do with the University of Maine. I confess I was a bit disappointed by this.
Then, one day in early July, a letter appeared, all unheralded, in my mailbox at home.
As you might imagine, I found this slightly puzzling. I mean to say, it’s nice hearing from one’s state senator (I had to look him up and determine that he is my state senator – they’ve rejiggered the senate districts so that the senator representing Millinocket no longer has to be from anywhere near here, and indeed Senator Thomas is from somewhere over in Somerset County), but this was the very first I’d heard of the matter. It strikes me as slightly strange that the University evidently makes its Dean’s List available to the state legislature but not the students who are on it.
Whichever, I tucked Senator Thomas’s nice letter away for posterity (my mother wants to start a scrapbook, egad) and went on with my summer, until, almost exactly a month later, a second letter appeared.
I had heard of the Presidential Scholar Award, but I didn’t think I qualified for it because of my uneven performance the previous semester (that inexplicable D in astro lab, which rankles me yet). There it is, though. I understand why this was a little later in arriving, since Paul Ferguson had just started his tenure as university president at that time (he took over from Robert Kennedy in July), and one can hardly expect a new president’s very first order of business to be sitting down and sending notes to students.
So that was a nice surprise. It didn’t come with a check, but one can always dream. There’d be something slightly unseemly about that anyway. Shades of payola. It did come with a little pin I could wear in my lapel, if I wore suits.
(The photo makes it seem bigger than it is because of the lack of scale references. It’s about the size of a dime – a little ostentatious, but it wouldn’t be too showy on a blue suit.)
What I wonder now is, if you win this thing, and then you utterly tank in some subsequent semester, can someone from the university come and take it away again? Does your name get sent to the Legislature on a list of Manifest Disappointments to be chided by their state senators for slacking off and letting the side down? Is there, as it were, a stick to go with the carrot?
Probably not – that would clash with the everybody-gets-prizes mentality of modern education – but I’m vaguely amused to picture it happening.
Also, it occurs to me that through all of this, I never have heard from my college’s actual dean. I’m not even sure if it’s his theoretical list or that of the university’s overall Dean of Students. Either way, not a word. I guess they figured the president trumps whatever notification they might have been thinking about.
I mentioned last time that I’d seen MATLAB before, many years ago. Oddly, that was not the only encounter with an old friend I had this week. The other one was more surprising, because it was a friend I knew from civilian life, not one of my previous times as a student.
For reasons discussed earlier, I ended up in the online section of the AST 110 laboratory course. This means that the actual curriculum of the course is very different – there isn’t, for instance, any direct exploration of optics, because the students can’t be expected to have optics labs at home. The observation project still applies, so those who live too far from campus to visit the observatory have to make some other arrangement (the university helpfully provides a list of people around the state who have telescopes and are willing to help remote students with their obs projects), but apart from that, things are different in online-land.
The most significant difference: Instead of futzing around in the optics lab in Bennett Hall and/or visiting the planetarium during lab hours, the online students have to do simulated observations using a piece of astronomical software. And, weirdly, it’s a piece of astronomical software I’ve used before.
It’s called Starry Night, and it’s hugely cool. With it, one can simulate the view of the sky from anywhere in the world, at any time of day, on any day within a ridiculously wide range of years (4713 BC to AD 9999, according to the website). In fact, one can simulate the view from places other than anywhere in the world. Which is where I know it from, so to speak.
See, a few years ago I was working on a story that was set on a (perhaps improbably) terraformed Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, and I wanted to know what the night sky would’ve looked like from there on a particular evening in the early 25th century. On the face of it, that’s perhaps not information the average citizen could reasonably expect to have available. Nor would it have been a big deal if I’d just made it up – this was a story set on a terraformed Titan in the early 25th century, after all, so it’s not like scientific realism was a high priority – but for some reason it annoyed me a bit, and I grumbled about it in the online chat room where most of the brainstorming and collaborating got done.
“Oh,” said my friend Phil, “you need Starry Night, then.”
I tracked it down, and indeed it did do exactly what I wanted. This was deeply gratifying. We even used a screencap as the backdrop for an illustration connected with the piece that Phil drew.
Fast-forward, oh, ten years or thereabouts, and there I am downloading a much newer version of Starry Night for an online astronomy lab course. The interface has changed quite a bit from the old days, but the visuals are familiar.
I do still want to get to the planetarium, though. The display is bigger.
Well, Week 2 is behind me now. It took me a bit of scrambling around (and a fair bit of pestering people), but I got my class schedule stabilized – and, more or less coincidentally, my work load somewhat reduced – by midweek. I’m carrying 12 credit hours now, which is the minimum for full-time student status but about what I feel comfortable tackling after so long away. I’m taking care of a little unfinished business in the form of the Intro to Astronomy lab I skipped, for reasons I still don’t remember, back in 1993. And I have the time freed up to attend the live lectures for my online math class, which has already started paying off after a single session.
I feel pretty good about the prospects of this little exercise right now. I didn’t when I first started, and I still have moments where I stand on the street corner of life and think, What the hell am I doing here? My last class, CMJ 103 on Friday morning, was one of those moments. We did our first speeches to the class over the second and third lectures of the week, and my number came up during Friday’s session.
Standing behind the lectern at the head of the room, surveying the startlingly young faces of my classmates – and my instructor, who’s a grad student and must be all of 23 – I felt a very powerful but brief wave of utter alienation, the strong sense that I really didn’t belong anywhere near that room. I feel that way when I’m trudging from class to class, too, watching all those young, fit people dashing about the campus – that sense that they’re supposed to be there and I’m not.
Those moments are getting shorter and further apart as I settle into the routine, though. And there are upsides to being such an atypical specimen. It removes a lot of the pressures that “normal” college students experience, leaving me with that many more resources on hand to deal with the pressure of the coursework itself. Time will tell if this is enough.
After CMJ 103 finished, I adjourned to the library, where I found a table way at the back corner of the reference room, set up my stuff, and spent a happy hour or so of diligence on my math homework, which (as I have previously noted) made considerably more sense after just the one live lecture I’d attended. The professor’s a terrifically helpful chap who actually likes it that someone from his online class is coming to the in-person lectures. (He also bears an eerie resemblance to DC Terry Perkins from The Bill, which is a bit odd.) I am now more convinced than ever that dropping Chemistry was the right call.
As I was working, I paused for a moment and surveyed my surroundings, and it struck me suddenly how much stuff I had around me that I hadn’t had the first time I attempted college. Not only didn’t I have most of it, a lot of it didn’t exist, even in primitive form.
– Laptop computer: I didn’t have a laptop when I was at WPI, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have taken it to the library with me. Portable computers were expensive, heavy, fragile, and didn’t work very well. There wouldn’t have been anything to do with it at the library anyway, because a) there was no such thing as wireless networking and b) the Web hadn’t been invented yet, so I would hardly have been doing my math homework online.
– Smartpen: No such thing existed in 1991. Even if someone had thought of it, the technology of the time wouldn’t have supported it.
– iPod: Ditto.
– Calculator: Okay, I did have a similar calculator – it was a TI-82, which, although much less powerful and flexible than today’s TI-89 Titanium, was an easily recognizable ancestor. Calculator technology hasn’t advanced as rapidly as, say, laptop computer tech – though it’s interesting to note that the CPU in my TI-89 is a Motorola 68000, the same microprocessor to be found at the heart of such well-known pieces of equipment as the original Apple Macintosh and the Sega Genesis.
– Smartphone: Well, cell phones did exist in the early ’90s, but they were gigantic, cost a fortune, and didn’t do much of anything. They weren’t even very good telephones. Certainly nothing akin to the Droid had even been envisioned, except possibly by sci-fi writers, much less implemented.
I had all these things that had either not existed or not been within an average student’s reach 20 years ago, and I’m not even particularly well-off. Not poor, by any stretch, but compared to those kids I see out in the motorcycle parking area firing up their brand-new customized Harleys at lunchtime, my means are pretty modest. But there I sat surrounded by all these things, doing my homework on the Internet, listening to music, recording the jotted workings of my math problems with the pen I was using to scribble them, and coordinating a rendezvous with my mother for lunch by SMS. And it occurred to me that Stephen Fry was right. Nostalgia for the style of an earlier age is all well and good, but warts and all, right now is the peak of history’s pyramid so far.
For reasons that are not yet clear to me (I suspect it has more to do with the later years of the program), the EE program at UMaine requires all students to have a laptop computer. They provide a list of specifications to the on-campus computer store, Computer Connection, which then makes arrangements with various manufacturers to make available hardware that fits the requirements. In EE’s case, the most suitable system for the purpose that CC offers is a special version of the Lenovo ThinkPad W510 – not quite the top-of-the-line W510 spec, but more capable than the standard “middle grade” version thanks to some customizations. I ordered mine on August 5 and was told it’d take three weeks to arrive, which would have had it arriving comfortably in time for the semester to begin.
Until the containerload of them mine was in got hung up for a week at Customs in Alaska, that is. It actually arrived yesterday. But that was okay, because, as I said, nothing has come up in the first week of the freshman curriculum that called for it. I unpacked it last night and have spent the morning getting it squared away. Now I’m writing this post on it by way of getting used to the keyboard.
I’ve had a ThinkPad before, back when they were made by IBM (if memory serves, it was an i1400 series), and I still have fond memories of it. It was the first laptop I had with a DVD-ROM drive in it, and it had a pleasant air of indestructibility about it. This one is much the same – it has the same black slabbiness, the same sense of solidity, and the same terrific keyboard touch. And it’s a ThinkPad, so it has the nice little TP touches like the TrackPoint mini-joystick mouse thing (which they’ve made a bit wider and flatter since my old one) and – my personal favorite – the little lamp at the top of the screen that illuminates the keyboard in dark rooms.
Another tech toy that’s come my way this week, but will probably only be really necessary in future semesters, is a Texas Instruments TI-89 Titanium calculator. This thing is a calculator in the same way that the Saturn V was a rocket. It comes with a fat paperback manual, and closer inspection reveals that that’s just the “Getting Started” guide. The rest of the docs are on a CD that came with it. I have no idea how to get it to do anything, but the docs claim it can do pretty much anything but bake bread. (And there might be an app for that.) And when I say I don’t know how to get it to do anything, I mean I can’t even figure out how to convince it to divide. Doing what my intuition says is the right thing – figure one, division sign, figure two, enter – produces only a helpfully prettied-up fraction, which is frankly less than helpful. My math skills have atrophied over the years, yes, but even I recognize at a glance that 5280 divided by 27 is 5280/27. That’s not really what I’m asking for.
I’m sure it can do proper division. The fault is entirely in me. This is rapidly becoming a familiar theme this semester. Pretty much all my classes (apart from the public speaking one) assume you already know how to do a fair bit of algebra, which is unfortunate for me in that I, uh, really don’t. The fact that I achieved a passing score on the math placement test (and thus got into Precalculus) says I do, but my gut feeling of utter bewilderment when various algebraic concepts – particularly those involving exponents and/or fractions with variables in the bottom part – come up in class suggests otherwise.
I wouldn’t be so preoccupied with this except that I ended up in the arm’s-length online MAT 122 section. The professor has noted on the class’s inevitable FirstClass conference that those of us within striking distance of Orono are welcome to attend the classroom lectures of his regular version, as it’s held in one of the huge lecture halls and there’s plenty of room – but the Tuesday one overlaps my chemistry lab and I question the usefulness of just attending the Thursday one. Annoyingly, no video or audio version of the lectures appears to be available for us distance students – just PDF packages of the prof’s PowerPoint slides, which are of less than ideal usefulness without any sort of context or commentary.
I spent most of Thursday night and yesterday grappling with this, and eventually I concluded that there were three possible courses of action:
1) Drop Chemistry and start going to the Tuesday and Thursday Precalculus lectures. Advantages: I won’t have a class at 9 AM any more; I’ll hopefully be able to get more solid math instruction; my credit load for this semester (which I tend to suspect was a bit too ambitious for a first returning semester anyway) will go down. Disadvantages: I won’t have Thursday off any more; my credit load will actually go down a bit too much, dropping me to 11 hours for this semester (12 is the threshold for being considered a full-time student) and angering the financial aid gods; I need Chemistry to fulfill a degree requirement, so I’ll have to take it sometime.
2) Try to get switched to a different chem lab that meets at some other time. Advantages: accommodates math without making it necessary to drop chem. Disadvantages: might not be possible, as almost all the other chem lab sections meet at times that conflict with some other class I have, and the one that doesn’t is full. Also, it eliminates my day off without getting me a later start time on the others.
3) Just keep trying to make it work as it currently stands. Advantages: I keep Thursday off and don’t cause a lot of potential scrambling around in future semesters. Disadvantages: I’m really not sanguine about my chances of making it happen in math this way.
Because yesterday was the last day I could do it, I added a one-credit-hour course – AST 110, the laboratory component of Introduction to Astronomy, which I took the lecture part of back in 1993 – to address the sub-12-credits problem dropping Chemistry would cause. That means I’d be on campus late into Tuesday evening. OTOH, dropping Chemistry would mean I no longer had the recitation that kept me there late into Wednesday evening any more, so it’s kind of a no-op on that front. I have a couple more weeks to drop without penalty, so in either case (I decide to drop chem, or I don’t but don’t want to go up to 16 credits this semester) it’s not a permanent commitment yet.
I suspect I need to talk to my advisor and the math prof about this before making a final decision, but yesterday was the Friday before a holiday weekend, so neither one was to be found by the time my last class ended at noon. Annoyingly, my first class when school resumes on Tuesday is the first chem lab, which I’ll have to attend before I’ve been able to decide whether I’m even keeping the class. So I guess I can add the pre-lab to the pile of stuff I need to do this weekend.
Speaking of which, I’d best be about it. I don’t want to fall into my old bad habits, like leaving everything until 1900 or so Sunday (or, this weekend, Monday) before starting. I may not have a solid grasp of math yet, but I can at least try and cultivate some good working habits at last.
Oh, and speaking of math and problems, in the course of researching alternatives yesterday I discovered that one of the standard EE classes for the first year’s spring semester, ECE 177 (Intro to Programming for Engineers) has MAT 126 as a prereq. That’s… a problem, since I’ll be taking MAT 126 that semester. But then, I don’t want to take a programming class anyway. Another reason to consider switching to Electrical Engineering Technology: it doesn’t have programming classes. (In fact, looking at the course descriptions from the EET sample curriculum, this semester’s classes look much more interesting than what I’m actually doing. I’m not sure how that failed to come to my notice last month. I did look at this stuff before.)