Friday, December 23, 2011

Database Management

I really enjoyed this course. It was a good foundation of database skills, which I have used in multiple jobs. It was also fundamentally well designed, building from basic terminology to practicing part tasks to a final project of our own choosing. I would throw out there the random made-up statistic that half the spreadsheets that exist in the world would be much simpler if created as a database instead. I wish everyone could take this class.

We started out learning the basics of databases. What's a table, row, query, DBMS, join, etc.? Unlike the class I had taken where I should have learned some of these introductory concepts, it was actually clear this time around how they would be used.

We progressed from basic concepts to writing simple queries to create tables, load data into them, and query their contents. From there we got into various types of joins and the dreaded subquery. We did some relatively complex things, but nothing too out of control. For our tests, we could bring a single page cheat sheet (that I still have a copy of) with whatever example SQL syntax we wanted to include. So like you might have reference material in a real world situation, we could have some to remind us of the basics, but you still had to be able to understand the examples well enough to modify them so they would do what you had to do quickly on the test. Of course, as Mike Seaver learned in the classic Growing Pains episode, you learn the material better by making the cheat sheet in the first place. (Just don't let your teacher see the bottom of your shoe if it's not allowed and that's where you wrote it.)

We had plenty of time in class to practice our new SQL skills on our own and in groups, learning from mistakes and celebrating successes. Ultimately the course built up to a culminating project. It had to have a database of some kind involved, obviously. Other than that, it was up to us to determine what we would implement based on the other technical skills we had. I don't remember what my project was other than I worked like crazy on it, and it ended up close but never functioned quite right. Thinking back on it, I doubt the professor spent much time actually using our final projects and checking in depth how well they worked, as long as our documentation was in order and it looked like we had done something big enough, but it was motivating to be able to choose our own project and figure out how to make it work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Meta Blogging

In September, I started a series of blog posts on college courses that I've taken. I wrote a post every day and got through about four or five semesters' worth, depending on how you count it (one year was quarters, plus some AP classes from high school). I haven't stopped but have slowed way down. Between not wanting so spam my (3) loyal readers and not having the time to keep up a post a day, I couldn't maintain that kind of production.

I don't know how the NaNoWriMo people do it. Well, I do know that of the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up, the average number of words written per person is just under 15,000. They're supposed to write 50,000. About one in five finish, which means about two in three write nothing.

I did write a post for every day that one month, which is something I wanted to try, and I have kept up my streak of at least one post a month for the past four years. Interestingly enough, I pulled in a little over 15,000 words in September, which means I beat a lot of NaNoWriMo people.

Something else I have let slip is my RSS reader. I had close to a thousand unread posts in there from all around the web. I unsubscribed from the feeds for a MOOC I stopped participating in, which dropped a few hundred unread posts off. I marked the posts from the You Are Not a Photographer blog, because everything is in there twice and they keep doing weird things with their feed that makes old stuff I've already read show up as unread again. I may end up just unsubscribing, since it looks like they stopped including the picture in their RSS feed, so you have to actually visit the site to make fun of how bad people are at photography. I've been considering unsubscribing from the Freakonomics blog for awhile now, but every once in awhile a post comes along that makes it all worth it.

I finally unsubscribed from Larry Ferlazzo's blog. I'm sorry, Larry. I tried to keep up. I really did. I subscribed when I found several interesting posts related to Bloom's Taxonomy, which I was reading about at the time. Seven posts a day is too much for me, especially if I get a couple days behind. To give you an idea of the volume here, he has well over 500 "most popular" posts. I have no idea how many unpopular posts he has. I was going to maybe suggest that he try Twitter, since his blog posts are mainly lists of interesting site related to teaching a given topic, and Twitter is great at sending out links to people. Of course, I should have known; he's got more than 30,000 tweets. That means that over 3 years on Twitter, he averages 27 tweets a day. Given an average of about 12 words per tweet, that's almost 10,000 words per month, so he's not much off the NaNoWriMo average and doing better than most would-be authors just on Twitter.

One thing I do need to do is go back and fix the pictures in my September posts. I didn't add a picture to every post, but for the ones that I did, I got lazy. I just randomly googled images and grabbed stuff wherever I found it. Normally I use photos licensed with Creative Commons on Flickr. When I use their photo, I will link back to their Flickr stream and leave a comment on the photo I used with my thanks for their sharing and a link to the post where I used it. The bus up there is just a random openly licensed photo I found that kind of popped out at me. Thanks for sharing but not sharing too much.

photo by didbygraham

Friday, November 4, 2011

Business Communication

Business Communication was a great class. I enjoyed it and still use things I learned in it. One great thing about it was that it was a night class taught once a week. I like the extended time less often, because it seems that you can get into deeper conversations given the extra time. I like night classes a lot more than early a.m. classes, since I'd rather stay up late than get up early.

The content of the course was useful. We learned a ton of grammar, which I really appreciated. My spelling and grammar have always been pretty good anyway, but there were things I learned in this class that I had never grasped before. I do purposely break certain rules for various reasons, but it always is for a reason when I do. I do occasionally start a sentence with "And" but almost exclusively on my blog and only for added emphasis. The unfortunate thing about this class is that they have since removed the grammar component. Given my AP and ACT scores, I'd have qualified to skip the grammar pretest and never had to learn any of the rules that I actually appreciate having learned in this class.

A couple examples:

When using conjunctions such as and, because, but, and or, you only put a comma before the conjunction if what follows the conjunction could stand alone as a complete sentence. I raked the leaves and emptied all the garbage cans. No comma since "emptied all the garbage cans" is not a complete sentence. I had previously always used a comma before a conjunction.

You can tack two complete, related sentences together with a semicolon and no conjunction. I will pick up dinner at Pizza Pie Cafe on my way home; they are having a sweet sale right now.

Something I'll always remember about this class was the overhead slides. No, the weird part isn't that the professor used overhead slides instead of computer-based slides, although that was a little strange, too. This was and is one of my favorite professors of all time but for whatever reason had a strange method for displaying the overheads: lay slide on overhead, turn on overhead, talk about slide, turn off overhead, lay slide on overhead, turn on overhead, etc. The overhead projector was turned on and off for every single slide. I remember joking with my classmates that any electricity savings from the two seconds it was turned off while picking up the next transparency off the pile would surely be lost by having the replace the worn out power switch before its time.

I also recall that the final paper for this class had to be cancelled. It was supposed to be a research paper, which we'd write with all our new-found communication skills. The problem was that when you do research, you have to get IRB approval, even if it's a simple survey to ask people about their parking behaviors, which ours was. IRB approval usually takes months, and while there are provisions for blanket IRB approval for class-based research projects in certain situations, it was too late for that process as well. Being the go-getters that we were (and since I was writing a paper about the same topic in my English class the same semester), we already had our research collected by the time the sad news was delivered. We ended up writing and turning in our paper anyway for extra credit. The extra credit should have been reversed, since we threw a bunch of screen beans into it, and that flies in the face of any kind of professional communication which we had been learning about. It's too bad I couldn't have taken some of that extra credit and applied it to the grade in my English class, for which I was using some of the same content.

Friday, October 7, 2011


A strange turn in this class I took was that I had one professor for the first half of the semester and another for the second half of the semester. The first professor delivered a baby halfway through, so they assigned someone else to teach after her baby was born. C'est la vie.

While Macroeconomics is more about a top-down look at the economies of countries across the world, Microeconomics is about the choices of individual companies and people. They are highly related, since government tariffs and quotas obviously affect the motivation of individuals to produce or cut production of affected products.

For example, Haiti used to be a rice-exporting nation. It was their main product. Their people have always been poor due to the policies of foreign governments, corruption of their own government, and frequent natural disasters. But they always had rice. At a macroeconomic level, you could look at the amount of rice they sold to other countries and the policies of various governments that facilitated that. In the 1980s, cheap (or sometimes even free) rice from the U.S., AKA Miami rice, flooded our island neighbor to the point where it was no longer profitable to grow rice. Macroeconomic conditions led to the overabundance of Miami rice. Microeconomic principles led to individual farmers halting production of Haitian rice.

An interesting topic they talk about in Microeconomics is one of monopolies. A monopoly, of course, is a situation where one company controls the supply of a particular product or service to the point that they can engage in unfair practices. They are often highly regulated to avoid problems. Or even more drastic action may be taken as was the case when our phone system a few decades back was split up into several smaller regional carriers.

Interestingly enough, the way the phone systems have evolved over the years since, several of those Baby Bells combined back together, and with the market changes due to mobile phones, we actually find a small number of companies controlling the market. They compete, yes, but to some extent they collude to keep prices high. Take text messaging, for example, which is disturbingly expensive relative to the actual costs. It actually costs more to track and bill text message usage than it does to deliver the messages, so when you pay for texting, you're really paying for them to bill you for texting, not for the delivery of the actual messages. This type of situation is called an oligopoly. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile can't make any huge moves to totally disrupt the market because of the market share of the other companies, but they don't want to either, because they're all sitting pretty if they can maintain the status quo. The potential buyout of T-Mobile by AT&T would actually serve to start tipping the monopoly scale if approved by regulators, so I don't think it's likely.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Business Spanish

Business Spanish was different than any other Spanish class which I have taken in that there was a point to it. I say that kind of flippantly, of course. I have enjoyed the various classes I have taken over the years, but most of them lack a real context of learning a language for a specific reason.

I remember in one of the earlier classes I had taken having a discussion about why we were learning the words we were learning. What's the big deal about learning the words for family relationships, food, types of vehicles, and rooms in the house? We did come to the conclusion that it's probably because those are common things around us in everyday life. You don't go very far without encountering a door, needing to eat, or having to find a bathroom.

In learning a language for a business context, there were reasons for learning more advanced, nuanced words and phrases other than a laying-around-eating-apples-by-the-pool-in-your-cousin's-backyard context. One of the most useful skills would have to be writing an appropriate business letter, which is hard to do in any language.

This class would actually be followed up the next semester by a Business Communication course (in English), which was also very helpful in learning many rules of grammar and writing business correspondence. It's sort of interesting that it's the first course I've ever taken in another language before taking the same course in my native language.

Something more applicable to my college career generally is that this was the first, and only, course I've ever taken as Pass/Fail, if that wasn't the only option. I had learned about the Pass/Fail option long after it would have been really useful to me. I still don't understand why that isn't one of those things they train freshman on in university orientation.

I was enjoying this class. I thought I was learning a lot. The teacher was tough, but it was interesting. Then the midterm hit. It destroyed us. Everyone in the class just bombed it. The professor was not happy about it. Everyone was stressed out about it. I think a few people dropped. I looked into the option to change to Pass/Fail, and it looked like it might work. I talked to everyone I could find in the department to make sure they would still accept the course for my minor in Spanish if it was not graded.

Everyone agreed I could, so rather than fight with my grade in the class, I changed to Pass/Fail. The tricky thing is that it's technically P/D/F, not just Pass/Fail, so if you earned a D, you'd still get a D on your transcript. By this time, I had recovered from my freshman year and had a decent GPA going, so even a B would pull me down, and it seemed worth the switch. I was pretty certain I wasn't going to get a D, but above that I had no idea.

In the end, I totally don't know if it was worth it. I mean, it was, because it caused me a lot less stress, but I have no idea what grade I would have earned in the class. I have no idea what grade my fellow classmates earned. I don't know if she applied any type of curve or graded it straight. All I knew is that I got some peace of mind, and I got to try out the Pass/Fail option.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Legal and Ethical Environment of Business

This course, also known as Business Law, was really a great class. It was hard, but not too hard. It was interesting, but not too interesting. Just kidding. It was just the right amount of interesting, though.

Here we learned the basics of the legal system. We talked about the differences between civil and criminal proceedings. In criminal proceedings, to be convicted, it has to be beyond reasonable doubt. The prosecution has to make the tough case. In civil litigation, however, it's a plaintiff rather than government prosecutor going after the defendant, and judgment is made on a preponderance of the evidence. Basically, throw the evidence in one of those Lady Justice scales, and whichever way it tips, no matter how slight, that's the side that wins.

We talked a lot about land and things like adverse possession, trespassing, and liens. Our professor told us about how he was able to get a piece of land for basically nothing by filing certain paperwork and paying the taxes on a piece of land for a certain number of years, and it became his for only the cost of the taxes. I'm not sure if that makes me want to be a lawyer or not want to be one. I think I'd enjoy doing stuff like that a little too much.

One of the things I liked most about the class was not related to the content (well, slightly related) but more to its administration. Specifically, the administration of tests. I generally subscribe to the belief that tests should be well written. Item analysis should be done to ensure questions are measuring what they purport to measure in a valid way. Garbage or joke answers should be avoided, because they don't add anything and throw off the answer statistics. The only point I can see to those obviously incorrect joke answers on a multiple choice test is that it may serve to reduce some test anxiety for some students.

So the questions on the tests for this class were terrible. But terrible in a good way. They were written by a random graduate assistant or something, not the professor. If they had actually be written by a lawyer that was worth anything, they would have been tight like I would expect them to be. Having such ridiculous questions actually served a purpose, though.

After taking the test, we would get our copy of the test back, and we could go back through everything that night and come back to class the next day prepared to fight for points. If there was a bad question, okay, when there was a bad question, you would be prepared to explain why the answer you chose was right or why none of the answers was correct or all of the answers were correct, or something else. With a page number and a quote from the book, you argued your case. If you had a preponderance of the evidence, you got the point back. Sound familiar? He gave us garbage so we would go through it, analyze every word on every line, become an expert on that item, and hold him accountable for the mistake in the way of compensatory points back.

I also had one of those real life versions of that nightmare that we've all had of showing up completely unprepared for a test. I don't know what was going on that I showed up to one of the midterms and wondered why so many people were there early sitting on the ground outside waiting for the previous class to finish up, until I saw everyone madly skimming through their textbooks. Oh, it's test day! Last minute cramming. I flipped my book open, and got in about 5 minutes' worth before the class started. Luckily, it was one of those classes where you could drop one test. Unluckily, that meant I'd have to take the comprehensive final, which I was looking forward to skipping and dropping the 0.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Principles of Business Information Systems

While the Science Orientation course I took was technically my last orientation course, I'm not sure it's totally accurate to claim that. The Principles of Business Information Systems course I took was probably more accurately labeled a BIS (now MIS) Orientation course. Yes, it's meant for other business majors, too, so they can have a basic understanding of what the IS people do, but that still screams orientation to me, whether or not you're talking to students who will actually major in that field.

The part that was weird was that this was a 300-level course. It's something I never understood. Apparently other people didn't understand it either, because they have since changed it to a 200-level course.

I just never really got it and still don't. If they would change it to a 1 credit 100-level orientation course, I'd totally understand. What are some career options? What do IS professionals contribute to the business environment? Basic terminology related to hardware and software. Trends in the field. Professional organizations. I remember writing a two page paper about my brother in law's business, selling calculators and cables, since back in the 90s, this crazy new e-commerce thing was a pretty big deal.

They actually added some Excel and HTML/CSS to the course. Yes, when they dropped it down from a 300-level to a 200-level course they added more stuff to it. That may have been to keep them from having to drop it to a 100-level course.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Data Communication and Networking

Something I really liked about the Data Communication and Networking course was that it was in the late afternoon one day a week. That was a far cry from my Chemistry class at 8:30 every morning my freshman year.

Something I still wonder about to this day was the deal with the McDonald's cup my instructor would be sipping on every class. It was one of those jumbo paper cups, not a mug, and they don't last that long, so I'm sure it was a new one every time. It made me wonder if he just ate out on days we had class or if he ate at McDonald's every day. Maybe he did just save that same cup and reuse it all the time.

On the first day of class, we took a pretest. We were promised that anyone who received higher than a certain score (maybe 70) could receive an automatic A in the class and wouldn't have to attend the rest of the semester. The test was basically a preview of the final exam, and it was hard. Nobody came anywhere close. It does make me wonder what he did with the test results. I don't know if he used the results to actually determine where we were knowledgeable and where we lacked in aggregate to guide his lectures. I've always thought it was a great idea but have never seen anyone else start off a class this way.

This class covered the basics of the OSI model and various network configurations and equipment. It was a pretty basic intro to get us familiar with all kinds of networking terminology but not to a point that we could actually do much with it, especially given that many of the technologies we talked about were old and not used much anymore, except in legacy environments. For what it was, it was a reasonable introduction to networking.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Survey of Accounting II

The second accounting class I took was more interesting than the first class I took. We had gotten past the endless writing of debits and credits on T charts and started doing some interesting things. It covered topics such as cost accounting, budgeting, and standard cost variances.

Sure those topics sound boring, but this is where you start getting to a point where the accountant can actually help a business make important decisions. By breaking down fixed and variable costs to determine the true price of, let's say, an item you are manufacturing, you can determine the price you need to sell it at to cover all your costs. The accountant becomes a key member of the management team who helps everyone else understand where the money is coming from and where it is going. If I had to be an accountant, I would go into cost accounting.

Something I remember from this class was going to my professor's office to review my tests with him. I was always able to get a few points back by going in and talking to him. I would write notes all over my test paper, but the scantron only records if the bubble you selected is right or wrong. I would go look through the questions I missed, look at the notes I had written to see where I went wrong, and show him how I had maybe just flipped something right at the end, so I was really close to getting it. He gave me back partial credit on several questions like that.

It was in this class and the Microeconomics course I also took during my second semester as a business major that I would hone my craft of estimating my grade on a test. I take multiple choice tests relatively quickly. I'm pretty good at figuring out that type of question, generally. One testing technique I learned early on is that the longer you spend on a question, the more likely you are to miss it. Just answer it and move on. Your first guess will more often be right. If you get through quickly and have one of those professors who likes to lecture after the test instead of just letting you go, you sit around with nothing to do for several minutes while the over-analyzers are working hard at changing their correct answers to the incorrect answers, so you have to find something to do.

The technique I would use is this. Go through the test and count the answers that I just straight up felt confident about. I know it. One point. For questions that I didn't feel as confident about, I would count a percent for how sure I felt I had it right. If I totally guessed, 25%, assuming 4 potential answers. If I had ruled out 2 possible distractors (test item analysis lingo for wrong answers) and guessed between the remaining 2, I counted 50%. Add up the points and divide by the number of questions, and there you have it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Advanced Spanish Grammar

We would all do well to take an advanced grammar course, no matter the language. Before I get too far, though, I'm going to claim that any missteaks I make are here on purpose to point out the need for better grammar and spelling lest I am caught by the cardinal sin of improperly making fun of someone else's grammar.

That said, a blog post comes to mind, which came across Twitter earlier today. With the caveat that I understand that I'm not a perfect grammarian, and I've come a long ways in my learning not to look down on those with poor spelling and grammar skills, I really do like this post that I'm going to share, and I am not making fun of it at all. I have not yet watched the video she cites, but I plan to. The post is great, so if you get a pingback from this and come find my post, Chelsi, please don't feel bad.

I'm just going to say that it's a little funny to write a post talking about students' poor grammar skills and title it Is Texting and Instant Messaging Ruining the English Language? when it should have obviously started with the verb "Are" due to its compound subject. I totally get where she was going with it, thinking of texting and instant messaging (and later tweeting) as a singular phenomenon. Is Informal Electronic Messaging Ruining the English Language? I don't know what else I'd call it, and it doesn't matter. The title is fine, and the article is great. If anyone thinks I'm making fun, I'm not. I'll save the snark for responses on Yahoo! Answers. It's a blog post, which by definition is a less formal communication method. Being less formal, it is more important to get the point across than anything else, and we would all do well to cut each other a little slack. I often specifically choose to ignore certain grammar rules to reinforce a point or to make my writing more approachable. Yes, I am pointing out a grammar mistake in someone's post about poor grammar in order to make the point that she gets her point across well enough that it doesn't matter that she even made the mistake.

Okay, so what does this have to do with Spanish? Well, when you're learning a new language, you often learn many things about your own language that you wouldn't have otherwise. Also, when talking to someone who is a native or at least well-educated speaker, it is much different than talking to someone who speaks in halting sentences and a poor accent. We joke about some foreigners forgetting to use words like "the" or not conjugating nouns properly. It is those little things that make a huge difference in sounding educated or not. That is why this class is so important. It focuses on all the little things that take you beyond being able to find el baño and allow you to have a decent conversation with an intelligent person in the new language.

It goes into proper use of the common prepositions a, con, en, and de (to, with, in, and of). The ever-confusing verbs ser and estar (to be) are covered, as are the tricky pair of prepositions para and por (for). In addition to those words, advanced verb forms and tenses are reviewed, including such favorites as the past perfect and imperfect, reflexive verbs, and passive voice.

My favorite advanced grammar skill is piling on reflexive and direct object pronouns at the end of a verb. You can end up with a two word (Quisiera comprartelo.) sentence in Spanish with what would be eight words (I would like to buy that for you.) in English. Granted, they are the same number of syllables, so you're not saving much.

I'm interested by concepts that are present in one language but not another, such as clusivity. A word I really like in Spanish is aquel. It has a few different forms based on gender and number, plus it can be either a pronoun or an adjective, but on top of that, the concept of aquel is one we lack in English, unless you include "them thar hills". Grouped together, there are éstos, ésos, and aquéllos, meaning these, those, and those way over there, respectively. Aquel refers to not just those things, but those far away things. I think if we had such a construct, McCain may have referred to Obama not just as That One but as Aquél.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


The Psychology course I took as part of general education was a bit strange grading-wise. The content of the course was great. We learned a lot of things about how the brain works, about memorization, careers in psychology, historical figures, and various other theoretical foundations of the field. I remember talking about Bernie Goetz, the Subway Vigilante, as I recall as an example of things people will do under extremely stressful circumstances.

One of the best parts of the course was watching The Mask. Part of the point was observing Ben Stein's role as a clinical psychologist analyzing Stanley's problems that the mask represented (which I unfortunately can't find a video for, but this is a great scene).

Where the course went a little weird, like I mentioned, was in the grading. As we would study each day's material, he would give us a couple related multiple choice questions (but not the answers). By the time of the midterm, we had a bank of questions (but not the answers) that he had given us, from which he wrote the test. In the study session before the midterm, we could ask questions about anything we wanted, so if there were multiple choice questions he had given us that were a little tricky, you could ask some questions about it and know pretty much what the right answer was. Basically, everyone aced the test.

His plan was to follow the same process for the final, and he did, but he let us know that a few people complained that the test was too easy, since he had given us all the possible questions. It was way more questions than would be on the test, and we did have to figure out the answers ourselves, but we had them nonetheless. Some people were apparently frustrated with the fact that you could just look up and memorize all the questions and answers and were worried that other students would pass without really learning anything about psychology. His response was that psychology is largely about the brain and memorization is a big part of that, so there was more psychology in how he gave us the questions than we might have thought. That was the flippant response anyway. The more serious response was that if anyone thought the process was too easy for them, they could get with him to write a paper on an approved topic related to the course content.

I don't know if anyone took him up on the offer. I didn't. I still wonder who was so uptight about a Psych 101 course being too easy. At work we've actually been working on a similar online course, and it's funny because some of the recommendations I made for the course would have turned it into something much more difficult (and I still maintain more rewarding). Thinking back on it, I should perhaps recommend students watch and write a paper on The Mask instead. I wonder how that will go over.


I had mentioned that my daughter has to memorize the Gettysburg Address. What I didn't mention is that she is also memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance, Star Spangled Banner, Preamble to the Constitution, all the states and their capitals, and all the US presidents.

She has until the end of the school year and already has the three short ones down.

I thought I'd be helpful and suggest an entertaining resource to help her memorize the states and their capitals:

It's a great song from a great TV show. The only issue is that the states are not in any particular order other than what makes sense for the song. So Louisiana and Indiana are near each other, as are Alaska and Nebraska and some stretches like Hawaii is a joy and Illinois. It becomes a dealbreaker only for the project they're doing, since the rule is that they have to recite the states and capitals in alphabetical order by state, which is a totally arbitrary measure. (You heard about the patient who came home and announced to his wife the shrink's diagnosis that he had CDO? She asked what that was and he replied that it's OCD but with the letters in alphabetical order, like they're supposed to be.)

I wrote a couple years ago about a book I had read, Everything is Miscellaneous where the author David Weinberger draws attention to the fact that unnatural ordering systems can actually be detrimental. For example, what if every time the federal budget was being decided, money was allocated to states in alphabetical order? Alabama and Alaska might really like that, because they might get more with full coffers at that point. Chances are, by the time we get to lowly Wyoming, there's not much cash left to go around so every year they would get hosed.

The list of presidents to memorize is in an order that makes sense, the order they served as president, which happens to match the order the Animaniacs' presidents song is in (not to mention learning a few additional things like Ulysses S. Grant's supposed drinking problem):

It seems that there might be another order that would make more sense to list the states in, though. The order they joined the union would give them a general sense of history that could be helpful. Population might make sense, although physical size would be less prone to change. Location might work, but could be a little confusing as you try to figure out how to snake across the country, so simply filling in a blank map rather than reciting might be a useful workaround. The point is that there are state orders that are more natural and provide meaningful context so that you gain something additional with the same amount of work as memorizing in alphabetical order.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Billiards was the last PE class I would take in my undergrad program. It was a good class, and I did learn a lot in it, but I didn't have much space in my schedule from there on out for any extracurricular kind of courses.

One of the most important billiards tips I learned was how and when to use chalk. The short answer to when to use chalk is every time you hit the ball. Chalk adds friction to the tip of the cue and makes it stick to the cue ball. If you've ever lined up the perfect shot, all the angles measured perfectly, made connection with the cue ball, and had the cue fly off to one side while the cue ball flies off to the other, it's because you didn't chalk up.

With a well chalked tip, even if you don't hit perfectly in the center of the cue ball, it will grip and not skip off to the side. This is especially necessary if you want to do things like add English or spin to the ball. If you hit the cue ball just above center, the cue ball will follow the object ball. If you want the cue ball to stop as soon as it contacts the object ball, hit it at or just slightly below center. If you want it to actually roll back towards you after it hits the object ball, you hit it even further below center but not so low that you lose control of it. Doing this allows you to make sure after you've hit the object ball into the appropriate pocket, the cue ball will roll to where it should be to line up your next shot. Playing billiards can be like chess where you have to think multiple moves ahead rather than just play the shot, see where the ball lies, and then figure out your next shot. At a minimum, you can make sure the cue ball doesn't follow an object ball that's close to a pocket right down the hole by having it roll back towards you a little.

You can also add right or left English by hitting the cue ball slightly to the right or left of center. If there is an object ball frozen to the right rail (touching the bumper), you have to get that ball to spin clockwise (left English) so it rides the rail all the way to the corner pocket. To get it to spin clockwise, you would actually spin the cue ball counterclockwise (right English) by hitting the cue ball slightly to the right of center. You want the cue ball to hit the object ball on the exact opposite side from where the pocket is, and the opposite English on the cue ball will turn the object ball like a gear in the appropriate direction and hug the bumper all the way down.

In the class, we played a little bit of the standard 8-ball, which everyone seems to know how to play. Whoever gets a ball in first picks stripes or solids, get all yours in, and then go for the 8 ball. Just don't hit the 8 ball in too soon or you lose.

The big game we learned and spent most of our time on was 9-ball. It is a little different, and I think is actually my preferred game. You rack up the balls 1-9 in a diamond shape like the above picture, although the only positions that matter to the non-OCD among us are that the 1 ball is closest to you and the 9 ball is in the middle. Instead of each person hitting in a distinct set of balls, everyone is going for the same set. If you get any ball to drop, you keep playing. The basic rule is that you have to hit the lowest numbered ball first with the cue ball. If you don't or if the cue ball goes into a pocket, it's a scratch, and you've probably given away the game, since your opponent can place the cue ball wherever they like, which will probably be at an angle where they can knock the lowest numbered ball into the 9 ball, sending the 9 ball into a pocket. That's the big difference, though, is that nobody really cares about knocking in balls 1-8. You're always trying to get the 9 in. If you can hit the 1 ball into the 9 ball, pocketing the 9 ball, you've just won the game even if every other ball is still on the table. If you don't have a shot to make on the 9 ball, you just knock in the lowest numbered ball and then aim for the next lowest, trying to get into a position as soon as you can to sink the 9.

Another game we learned, which was the bane of my existence was 3-ball. In this game, you line up any 3 balls in a straight line parallel with the length of the table. The goal is simple: sink all three balls in the fewest shots possible. If you're lucky, one will go in on the break, and you will be able to drop the other two in 2 additional shots. Only one player plays the table at a time. Once they hit 6 or 8 points or whatever the maximum is that was decided upon or sinks all the balls, the next person plays a freshly racked 3 balls. A certain number of rounds is played by each player, and whoever has the lowest score wins. Like golf, it can be addicting, because while you can and do play against others, in the end you're really just competing against yourself.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Economics should be required for all majors, if it isn't already. I know that as a general education and business course, it is required for all business majors, but I think it should be impossible to get out of school without it. It is that important.

Economics is important to understanding how markets work but also to just understanding human behavior and decision making. Ideally, individuals act rationally and in their own self interest. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations points out, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest." While I have been known to occasionally make a loaf of bread for the pure joy of it, bakers bake bread because they know we will buy it from them, not because they're doing us some big favor.

When irrationality abounds (Tickle Me Elmo) people make bad decisions that are not in their own best interest. Occasionally order has to be restored by some outside force, such as government regulatory action, but generally speaking, the invisible hand of the market helps things stabilize on their own. When rare children's toys are selling for $1500 on the black market, it is not sustainable. The company will either start producing more or people will realize that is too much to spend on a doll or something else will give.

Opportunity cost is an important economic principle we would all do well to understand. The principle is that the cost of something is not only the monetary price we pay or the time we spend but also what we could have spent our money or time on instead. When I was in high school, I worked at Dairy Queen and would occasionally not get all my homework done, because I was working late. Once I had brought my book to work to read on my break or while washing dishes but didn't ever get to it. Then I forgot my book at work so was unable to read it when I got home or during my first period class and was thus unprepared for that day's quiz. The opportunity cost or what I gave up in order to work was points towards a grade in a class. Some might say that the money I earned was more important than the grade, as long as I passed the class, since it probably didn't change my GPA much if at all. Others might say that I was a fool and could have lost thousands in scholarship money by getting poorer grades. In the end it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters what I think. And it matters that I have the information I need to make a decision. By understanding the trade-offs involved, I can truly make a decision. I actually did drastically cut back my hours and then eventually quit not too long after that, because I decided that the money I was earning was not worth the things I was giving up in terms of my classes and my social life.

Other important concepts to understand are that of comparative advantage (everyone wins when the person with the lowest relative opportunity cost creates that thing and then trades with others), price elasticity (the extent to which consumers still buy a product when the price goes up; gasoline is inelastic in the short term, because when the price goes up, you're stuck buying it anyway, but in the long term it is elastic, because people will eventually start changing their behaviors and buy more efficient cars if the price gets too high), and the benefits and drawbacks of tariffs and quotas when importing or exporting goods.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Spreadsheets and Databases

Spreadsheets and databases was a good course. It had the potential to be a great course. It didn't quite make it to greatness, but looking back on it, I can see the possibilities. I know it has potential to be a terrible course as well, because I know several people for whom that was the case. Some of that depends on the person taking the course, as databases just don't make sense to some people, but I think most of it has to do with the person teaching.

We had a seating chart, where we had to sit in the same seats every time. We got to pick where but once we picked, it was set, so that the professor could use his map of names and where people sat. I thought it was nice that he was using some type of system to learn our names. I was lucky to have a professor who was actually savvy in the way of databases. Others I know had someone who didn't understand databases at all teaching the course, so instead of spending 50% of the time each on Excel and Access they would spend 12 weeks on Excel and maybe 3 weeks on Access.

I did learn a lot about Excel. I don't know that I ever really "understood" databases from this class, but I learned a lot of the basics. I could perform the various required tasks but didn't have a solid grasp of why you would actually do what we were doing. A roommate of mine sat next to me. I remember him asking one day for the professor to explain how we might use this in real life. It was just too abstract for him, as it was for me and probably most everyone else in the class. Nobody else had the guts to actually ask why we were learning this stuff. I don't remember his answer other than it wasn't a good one.

This makes me think of one of the key principles of andragogy or adult education, which is that adults will do better if they understand why they are learning something. I contend that children and young adults, for whom a pedagogical or teacher-centered approach is traditionally used, would also do better if they understood the why. The difference is in the power relationship we have when teaching younger students. They still want to know and sometimes are even willing to ask how what they are learning will be useful to them. Because of the imbalance of power, we blow them off instead of taking them seriously. Adults simply hold their ground and require you to come up with a good answer while young students who hold their ground are disciplined.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Survey of Accounting I

Once I found myself in my new information systems major in the business college, I jumped right into the business core classes like accounting and economics. My accounting teacher sounded and acted like Kermit the Frog. He looked kind of like him, too, at least until he started growing a beard. I think that's why he did it. He was also way into snowmobiling. Like way into it. Like calm down, it's just driving around on the snow, not bringing about world peace.

We spent a lot of time in the class filling out T-charts. In double entry accounting, you record every transaction in two places. You either debit or credit the asset or liability columns. When you're done, debits will equal credits. For example, if you buy a car, you would reduce the amount of cash you have (credit) and increase your vehicle/equipment account (debit) by the same amount. If you don't have the cash on hand, then instead of reducing your assets you would increase (credit) your liability account to show that you had to borrow the money to buy the car.

It's kind of weird, because it's more natural to think that if you take money away, you're debiting, and if you're adding money, you're crediting. But remember that if you're decreasing an asset account or increasing a liability account, it's a credit. Your credit card is named that, because it's a liability account. The bigger the credit line the more you can borrow (and probably the less cash you have on hand).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Science Orientation and a Change in Major

After three quarters in a row with some type of orientation course, Science Orientation would be my last one. It was held in the business building, for reasons unbeknownst to me. The College of Science is spread all across campus, so with no central science-specific meeting place, I guess a business auditorium is as good as any. They have since built a very nice science building, one in which I worked for 5 years, and it is one of the nicest buildings on campus.

While I can't tell you anything about the course besides where we met, I can tell you the reason I took it. It was becoming clear at this point of my college career that engineering was not going to work out well for me. At that time I still enjoyed programming somewhat and thought that was the direction I would be headed. Rather than change my major immediately, though, I thought I'd take the orientation course to see if it shed any light on whether I would like switching to computer science.

During this same quarter, I ended up dropping the next CS course in the series I had been taking, since I found myself understanding less and less what the CS professor was talking about and not caring that I didn't. You see, after my calculus experience, I had learned something, that it was better to get out of a class you're totally lost in than score a useless D. While the orientation course didn't answer the question about whether the new major was for me, the CS course I dropped kind of did.

When it would come time to register for classes again, my mom would somehow find a major requirements sheet for Business Information Systems, the major of my then-former roommate who liked computers but not programming. She wasn't really sure where she got it from or why, so call it divine intervention or what you will, but that is the major I would set and stick with for my undergraduate degree, making the Dean's List six straight semesters until graduation.

It turns out I could have completely skipped my freshman year and graduated in six semesters. With all the history, English, math, and science AP credit I came in with, that was the equivalent of a good, solid freshman year. I didn't need the credit hours, and other than the Spanish counting towards my minor (which was totally optional), nothing "counted" for anything. That said, I learned a lot and feel like I made it through that first year relatively unscathed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fundamentals of Acting

I took an acting class my sophomore year of high school and really enjoyed it. There were no desks, just a random collection of chairs and couches with a small stage and props strewn about. The teacher appeared in random commercials and low budget movies, including the following public service announcement:

We learned to do monologues, mime, acting for both live and video audiences, lip sync (we chose the song Tequila, and yes I think it actually worked rather well), movie scenes, TV commercials, stage slapping (I'm still sorry about that, Lawrence), and more. It was great.

When I got to college and saw the option to do an acting class, I thought it would be more of the same fun, laid back atmosphere. It wasn't. Almost everything in college is bigger and more intense than high school, and acting was no different. About half the class was going into some type of theater-related major, and the other half of us seemed to be there because we thought it would be fun. It was fun but in a serious kind of way. It was a small class, well under 20 students, one of the smallest classes I've taken at the university. I stuck it out even though we were warned that the class was the third in a three class series that had been going all school year, but the computer didn't enforce the prerequisite, so you could register without having the other two classes first.

We learned all kinds of things from how to project your voice to standing up straighter (those actually went together well) to memorizing lines. I remember getting my wisdom teeth taken out over spring break and after returning having the TA for the class try to get me to open my mouth wider during some of the vocal drills we were doing. Sorry, man, not gonna happen.

There are many memorization techniques out there. For the particular one we happened to learn in that class, you used a partner. The partner had the script and would read the first word. The person memorizing would repeat it. The partner would then read two words, and the person memorizing would repeat both words. This would go on like a kind of non-electronic game of Simon. If you messed up, the partner would stop you and back you up to the last phrase you could repeat without mistakes. I found it to be quite an effective technique, at least for relatively short passages. I may use it to help my daughter memorize the Gettysburg Address, which she has to do for school.

One memorable event was when a girl doing a monologue accidentally lit for real the prop cigarette she was just supposed to pretend light. Between the Clean Air Act and the fire marshal, lit cigarettes inside the building are a no-no. But she was in character doing her act, and she handled it quite well. She didn't really react to it but just sort of flippantly waved it around a little like her character might have done and crushed the burning corner in the ashtray without missing a step. It was one of those things where you knew what she was doing, but if you didn't know, you would have never known.

Naturally, the final in the class was a scene. It was supposed to be more polished and a little longer than anything we had done yet up to that point in the class. Somehow I ended up doing a The Chalky White Substance, a short two-person one-act play, one of the last written by Tennessee Williams who would have turned 100 earlier this year. Other well-known works of his include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I played a young boy watched over by an abusive older protector in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water and women were scarce. My character lets slip the secret that there was an underground stream running under his house providing unlimited access to water, a precious enough commodity that I got to do a dramatic death scene. Sebastian Shaw would have been proud.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Anytime I have a chance to play volleyball, it's a good thing. It comes as no surprise then that another of the best classes I ever took was volleyball. Priority registration was ultra helpful in getting me into this ever popular class.

As I think about this class, I'm reminded of a comment made by someone several months ago on an online story about Western Governors University, my current employer. At the time, they were working to launch WGU Washington, so the news was covering the discussion. In supporting the establishment of WGU Washington, this commenter pointed out that he didn't think it was his responsibility as a taxpayer to subsidize young adults' self discovery. That is a whole discussion in and of itself and one of which I could argue either side (possibly three different sides).

As an institution of adult education, WGU focuses on getting down to business and providing students with what will really help them advance their careers. These are generally older, more mature students who don't need personal enrichment as much as they need advanced skills and credentials. Institutions serving traditional college-aged students have some responsibility, I believe, to help them be well-rounded members of society. Part of that would be encouraging physical activity that will reduce their physical well-roundedness.

Yes, I am now pondering how we could create a physical education program at an online school. I can see a log of hours spent practicing at the local gym, video of running through certain drills, and submission of results from a tournament the student participates in for a culminating experience.

An important part of the class I took was dedicated time for drilling and skill development. Just running out there and playing any sport is not an effective way of doing things (not to say it can't be fun). By taking the time to practice specific skills, when it comes times to use those skills in a game situation, you'll perform properly without having to think about it and with less likelihood of hurting yourself.

The middle of a game is not the best time to try something you've never done before. In low pressure environments like pick-up games with friends, it's a safe place to fail and try new things, and may in fact be encouraged by the group, but it's still not an effective way of perfecting a skill. Of course, outside of sports that's good advice for professional activities like giving presentations or using software to analyze data. Having an environment where it is safe to fail within your team but where everyone is well prepared and polished when working with outside stakeholders provides opportunities both to learn and to successfully perform at a high level. Yes, I'm still trying to justify the online volleyball course.

So let's have it. What are some other ideas for awesome online courses in subjects that don't initially seem like they would fit an online model?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sign Language

I'm not totally sure why I decided to take a Sign Language class my freshman year. I remember there was a football player in the class, wanting to be able to communicate better with a deaf teammate. I don't think he lasted very long in the class. I stayed in the class the whole time but didn't do very well, like anyone learning a brand new language, and having not used it since, I've forgotten most of it. I do know that playing the telephone game in American Sign Language (ASL) gets you about the same results as the whispering version, where you end up with a totally different message by the time you make it around the circle.

Something interesting about ASL that may seem obvious to some and not so much to others is that it is distinct from English. There is Manually Coded English (MCE) which is basically a word for word translation from English, generally following its grammar rules, but that's not what two people signing to each other are likely to use. ASL has its own grammar rules, not to mention some extra features. Obviously body language and facial expressions are important in spoken conversations, but they are even more important when signing.

I find the spatial nature of the language fascinating. Think of the way you might write a paragraph talking about a person. The first time you mention him or her, you would say the name, and generally from then on you would use the pronoun he or she, at least until it starts getting confusing if other hes or shes are involved. You can actually do a similar thing when signing, where instead of assigning a person, place, or thing to a pronoun, you assign them to spaces. So if you're talking about your boss and a coworker, you might sign your boss's name over toward your right side and your coworker's name toward your left side. If the boss gave something to the coworker, you would make the sign for give and move it from the boss' space to the coworker's space. Maybe it was a birthday gift and when your coworker regifts it to you for your birthday, you would then make the give sign and move it from the coworker's space toward yourself while making a kind of disgusted face.

Speaking of signing names, if someone is not Deaf (capital D, meaning they're part of the Deaf culture), they would just have an English name that is finger-spelled. You don't give yourself a name. A Deaf person gives you a namesign. It's kind of like the mountain men. You get a mountain man name from a mountain man as part of being accepted into the mountain man culture. Like mountain man names, namesigns are generally descriptive of a physical characteristic of the person or something he or she does. It may or may not be related to the given English name.

Something I learned not really related to the content of the class but that would be helpful in understanding the workings of college in general is that if you're taking a random elective and not receiving an awesome grade (think C), changing the class to Pass/Fail is a great option to not pull down your GPA. Of course, I learned this after I finished the class, not during it when it could have helped me. That's just another one of those things that an advisor could have told me during orientation instead of all the useless stuff they told us.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Intermediate Spanish

I actually took two in a series of Intermediate Spanish courses in back to back quarters, but I'm going to throw it out there that I don't remember the difference between the two. It seems that they were taught in the same classroom. I have no recollection of who taught the classes, but I do remember that some advanced Spanish students would come in to talk to us so we could practice speaking.

After learning a bit in junior high and high school and dropping my ridiculous AP Spanish class, over two years would go by before I would take another Spanish class. I picked it right back up again, though, and would actually do really well in both classes. These were probably the most important Spanish classes I would take, as they were beyond the basic level of high school Spanish and really prepared me by helping me solidify my grasp of the language.

I would talk sometimes with a girl in my apartment building who spoke Italian, and it was amazing how well we could understand each other. She wasn't Italian, just an American who spoke Italian, so with us both talking to each other in Romance languages and our American accents, it wasn't too hard to figure out what we were saying.

I still wonder what it is that makes so many Americans almost proud of the fact that they can only speak English. Learning another language helps you know your first language better by understanding how the various parts of speech work together. Having to consciously think about how all the parts work together helps you know why you're saying what you're saying instead of just saying what you hear, or think you hear, others say (like 'could of' where it should be 'could have' but who could of known which is right, since they sound the same when you talk fast?).

If you learn a language with a lot of the same Latin and/or Germanic roots as English, it can help you know what some of the more obscure English words mean, because they're similar to a common word in another language (like edifice and edificio, meaning building).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Racquetball was one of the bright spots of my freshman year. It's the only class I've taken with someone I was related to, my sister Christie. I had received a racquet for Christmas and bought some sweet new gym shoes while on vacation with the family in Florida.

I remember an odd couple my sister and I would pair up against in doubles occasionally. There was a younger, student-aged kid who played with an older guy who wore khaki pants and loafers. While playing. I know. I still can't figure that out. I remember that they would sometimes stand right up on the receiving line (the dotted line you stand behind while waiting for the serve) and try to take us off guard by hitting the ball really quickly instead of letting it bounce around off the back wall. Just that you're only surprised after they do it once or twice and then it simply becomes annoying. So you just softly lob it over their heads.

I would play off and on over the next who knows how many years but only really started playing consistently the last few years. It's been interesting as every time I kind of hit a plateau where I have felt like I've learned all I could, I'll start playing with someone new and learn all kinds of new things to try. That's a good metaphor for life. You can always learn something new from everyone you meet.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Multivariable Calculus

In Multivariable Calculus I earned the lowest grade I have ever received in any class in my entire life both up to that date and since (it's the one that isn't really failing but isn't really passing either). It was the nail in the coffin for my budding engineering career.

I still remember sitting there in the middle of the back row in the most uncomfortable wooden desk/chair combos in the H-shaped technology building. It was horrible. The only thing I learned was that I shouldn't go any further with math. The only other math courses I would take the rest of my college career would be statistics, which I would learn to love, but I no longer had any use for calculus.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Honors Orientation

The Honors program never made sense to me. Take harder classes and write extra papers in order to get a note on your transcript and diploma that you graduated with honors. Or you could just take the regular classes, not write extra papers, pull a decent GPA, and graduate cum laude. Yes, "cum laude" means "with honors".

I joined, because I thought it would be useful to get priority registration. At the time anyone could join their freshman year, no matter how well they did in high school, just by taking the orientation course. In addition to the priority registration, I also got a discounted ticket to the Chinese terra cotta warriors exhibit, which was pretty neat.

By the time I finished my freshman year, I was technically a junior with all my AP credits and other courses I had completed. The priority registration wasn't as useful, so it wasn't much of a blow when I got kicked out of the Honors program due to my calculus-laden GPA.

Whatever they talked about in this course (study skills, how to fill out your priority registration form, where the big bowl of candy was located in the honors lounge, etc.) it wasn't enough to make me try to get back in. Oh, I could have. Making the Dean's List every semester after my freshman year was over, I had that part down, but I was starting to improve my understanding about the differences between things that are useful and things that just make you feel like you worked really hard.

With that, I leave you with an essay question from the application to the current Honors program:
You return to your room in the residence hall next fall, and on the floor just outside the door you find a hard hat, a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and one additional object. In addition to revealing the identity of the third object, explain how the hard hat, the book, and the third object got there and their significance.
Leave your response in the comments, and you could be awarded Blog Reader with Honors.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Computer Science II

I remember the room this CS course was in, one that I would later teach computer literacy courses in. We were continuing on in C++, which is what I had primarily worked with in the other programming classes I had taken up to this point.

I remember that we talked about multidimensional arrays, which made sense to me, and pointers, which didn't make sense to me. Which still don't make sense to me, beyond a superficial level anyway. I remember doing a lot more with inputting from and outputting to files rather than just prompts on the screen.

The programming was starting to get harder, and I was dealing with more of the frustration/joy cycle working out bugs in the programs I was writing. I still thought I wanted to be a programmer, and I started to think about changing from Electrical and Computer Engineering to Computer Science. I remember a roommate and I introducing ourselves at some get to know you thing. He went just before me, telling his name and that he was majoring in Business Information Systems, since he liked computers but didn't like programming. I went right after him, telling my name and that I was going into Computer Science, because I did like to program. Yeah, we'll see how long that would last.

July 2, 1986

A photo from 25 years ago, remembering the sad events of 10 years ago.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Calculus II

Having scored a 5 on AP Calculus, I was eligible to jump right into more advanced Calculus when I officially enrolled at the university. No one told me this would be a bad idea on many levels. I guess it's one of those things that advisors could tell you but don't, because they believe deep down that you'll learn better by figuring it out on your own than if they just told you everything up front.

Perhaps if I had been destined for engineering greatness, advanced Calculus would have been more natural for me. Perhaps if I'd worked harder, I would have done better than barely pass.

My professor was actually really good. He was engaging and knew his stuff. Whenever he talked about planes, you know the math kinds, he would switch over to this funny accent and start saying "de plane, boss, de plane!" I don't know if anyone else in the class knew what he was talking about, but I never did.

Until I just looked it up on YouTube and Wikipedia, I had a totally different picture of what he might be talking about. I pictured a deserted island with Tattoo as a humpback, and they were trying to be rescued. It turns out it's a fancy island with nice amenities and guests fly in, paying $50,000 to have their fantasies come true, and Tattoo is a midget. Who knew?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Engineering Orientation

After my awesome Physics class and doing well in Calculus, I was excited to declare as an Engineering major. I attended the summer general college orientation and dutifully signed up for all the courses my new advisor told me to take.

One of the courses new Engineering students take is Engineering Orientation. I don't remember much from it, other than it being in the engineering classroom building which is no longer standing, since it was replaced a few years ago by a new building. I also remember there was a computer lab we had to go to in order to run some special engineering software for some of our homework. It was largely about helping us determine the specific emphasis we would choose based on the types of jobs we were interested in and learning the resources available through the department.

Whenever I think of that now-demolished auditorium, I think back not first to the orientation class I had in it but an engineering test I took in that room during high school. From what I recall, students in certain math and science courses were invited go up to USU to take an engineering test that could potentially lead to a scholarship. I signed up for it, although I didn't know many other people from my high school who did.

The test was over the Thanksgiving break. My sisters were both attending USU at the time, so I stayed at their apartment. The timing was fortunate enough that I was able to participate in a Thanksgiving dinner they were holding for a few roommates, friends, and neighbors. It just so happened that one of my sisters' roommates had a brother who was also in town to take the engineering test. We nervously walked all the way across an empty campus together, found the right location, partook of the cheap glazed donuts that were provided, took the grueling test, for which I have no idea how I scored, and returned back to participate in the festivities.

What makes this so memorable was an ironic event during dinner preparations. The fastest and thus best way to cook a ton of potatoes for that well-loved side dish mashed potatoes is to use a pressure cooker. Maybe you know where I'm going with this already. Older pressure cookers didn't always have safety latches and valves that prevented you from opening a pressurized pot like they do now. As college students, assuredly they owned the oldest cookware you could find, including an unsafe pressure cooker.

As dinner time was fast approaching, the windows of the fishbowl, as their apartment was aptly nicknamed due to the large windows in the front room, were beginning to fog up, excitement was in the air, and the finishing touches of the meal were being, well, finished. My sister's roommate's brother was asked to see how the potatoes were doing. So he opened the pot to check, of course.

Well, he didn't exactly open the pot. It more opened itself, once he loosed the sealing mechanism without first releasing the pressure valve or running under cold water to lower the temperature. The immense pressure inside threw the lid off the pot in a grand explosion of hot water, steam, and potatoes. All eyes were on the budding engineer who had just finished taking a test to demonstrate his engineering knowledge, some questions of which undoubtedly covered such foundational concepts as the relationship between the pressure and temperature of liquids and gasses, possibly while keeping the volume constant.

A quick check and everyone was okay, with no major burns to report, and everyone's hearing quickly returned to normal. They were still finding potatoes in the kitchen for months afterwards. They were delicious.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Computer Science I

For my Computer Science I course, I was in the same large auditorium that I had my Chemistry class in, which meant I spent a lot of time in that room. Just as I can't remember a lot of specific things from my American History class, having had so many classes in it, I've taken a lot of programming classes, so it's hard to remember where one ended and the next began.

I do remember a lot of late nights in computer lab down in the basement of the library trying to get my programs to work. I felt the pain and frustration of repeated failures, followed by the rejoicing that would inevitably come when the program finally worked properly.

I remember being amazed by the video our professor showed in class about the making of Toy Story. Here was this fully animated feature film that paved the way for the movies we see today (although if you trace backwards, you'll find Tron paving the way for Toy Story).

I remember taking tests by writing code on a piece of paper to be hand graded by a grad student, an experience many fellow students and I would repeat throughout several other CS courses, until I led my programming team to develop a system for facilitating computer-based testing and grading of student code-writing abilities in a proctored testing center I managed when I worked in the CS department.

One of the coolest things our professor let us do is see what our grade was without taking the final and decide if we wanted to attempt it or not. If we chose not to, there was no penalty. If we chose to take it, you could possibly have your grade go up or down depending on how you did on it. Gambling for grades. I chose not to take it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Principles of Chemistry

After my AP classes in high school, the first real college course I took was Chemistry. One of the most important things I learned in this class was not to sign up for early morning classes. I guess if you go to bed at a reasonable time, it's okay, but what freshman living in the dorms goes to bed before 1 a.m.? I actually did go to bed early one night, only to find my roommates sneaking into my room with a bowl of warm water. They didn't succeed with their prank, since I hadn't fallen asleep yet, but I had learned the lesson. Stay up late, even if it means you sleep through your early morning classes.

My professor was Scottish, and his TA who taught one day a week was Asian. I had a hard time understanding both of them. The class was in a huge auditorium, which got less and less full every week as people dropped or stopped attending.

Welcome to college.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Spanish and Computer Science

To wrap up the AP classes that I took, I have to touch on the AP tests I didn't take. I passed all the ones I attempted, but I didn't attempt the test for all the classes I had taken.

I mentioned the Physics Electricity and Magnetism tests which I declined to take. I simply didn't feel prepared enough and figured that having already passed the regular Physics test, that would probably get me as far as I needed to go for general education purposes.

I actually dropped Spanish. In New Jersey I had signed up for an optional early morning Spanish class in junior high, which gave us a jump on the language, since you normally started studying foreign languages in high school. My Spanish teacher my freshman year of high school had an advanced degree from a university in Spain.

After moving to Utah, my teacher's experience included going on a 2 week vacation to Mexico once. Having had three years of Spanish classes, I was excited for AP Spanish to begin, until the first day of class when she started teaching us the alphabet. I thought it was ridiculous that she would do that, since there were prerequisites for the course. I was even more stunned to find that the alphabet refresher was actually needed, because there were people in the class that didn't know it. Between the alphabet experience and finding out that maybe two people from our school had passed that test in the last decade, I figured I'd be better off not wasting my time. Two years would pass before I took another Spanish class, and I picked right up where I had left off (unlike Calculus).

Computer Science was a great class. I learned a lot about the logic of computer programming, building a solid basis for several other programming classes I would take in college. I just didn't feel prepared to take the AP test, so I didn't.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Calculus is one of those things that takes awhile to wrap your head around, but if you put in the work, it starts to open the world for you. The problem is that the second you stop maintaining your advanced math skills, it all goes away, and you realize you wasted a lot of time learning something you'd forget quicker than it took you to learn it.

I'm sure there's some change in the brain that remains long after you've forgotten everything you once knew about calculus, which makes it all worth it. I just can't prove it and have no desire to. I subscribe to the movement that statistics is more useful to more people, thus should be taught in place of calculus, even though many people are as scared of stats as they are of calculus. Engineers and others requiring advanced math can study calculus if they need it. We would all do well to know a little stats.

But this is about calculus, so I'll save the stats rant for later. My AP Calculus course was taught by a guy who had been teaching at the same high school since my dad became part of the first class when the school was formed 30 years previously. He was old school. Our administration declared that unlike some of our rival schools who banned hats, they would only follow when it was shown that hats prevent learning. Well, except if your calculus teacher bans hats from his own classroom. There were a lot of hat heads in there.

We had to learn to juggle. It was required. I don't remember if there was a penalty for not doing it, but it was required, even if you had to juggle pieces of tissue paper. I got decent at it as my friends and I practiced. Juggling was always a good diversion from a particularly hard problem, and it was okay, since it was a required part of the class. At the end of the year when it came time to show off our talents, our teacher brought home the object lesson that you can do hard things if you just work hard at it. Then he proceeded to tell us that he couldn't juggle himself. Oh.

A couple classmates had written an awesome program on the TI-85s that we used in class, and which we were allowed to use on the AP test, that automated almost everything you needed to do. I actually had my own graphing calculator that I used, a Sharp, I believe. I was used to mine, so I used that primarily on the test, but they allowed me to bring one of the loaded TI-85s as well, so I actually used two graphing calculators during the test. It worked out, and I got a 5 on the test, the highest of any of the AP tests I had taken.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

English Literature

Near the end of my freshman year in high school, my English teacher asked me if I wanted to be in Honors English the next year. I didn't know or care what that was, so I said no. I didn't realize the alternative was Druggie English.

After a disastrous waste of sophomore English, where I received credit for reading Frog and Toad are Friends onto a tape as my friends discussed the scholarly classics A Tale of Two Cities and Wuthering Heights (neither of which I have read to this day), I accepted the challenge of Honors and then AP English the next two years.

In preparing for the AP test, we read classics such as 1984, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Heart of Darkness. The teacher had a policy that one could skip her final (yes, she still had a final, in spite of also having to take the AP test), if you got something published or won an award of some kind for your writing. I placed in the Utah State Poetry Society contest with a sonnet I wrote named Simple Things.

More interesting than my prize-winning sonnet was another poem I wrote about our teacher, which I now present to you:

The Demon Queen

The light of the new day breaks slowly over the horizon.
As alarm clocks are hit over and over all over the valley,
For just ten more minutes of sleep,
One Demon-Fiend arises ready for the new day to begin.

Teeth gnash one with another, and the jungle hair
Of the beast is pulled from the eyes
To reveal a sinister gleam, a glare, a terrifying gaze.
The Demon-Fiend is ready to capture her victims.

As she travels to the place of hunting,
The evil beast plans the first trap.
Hah, laughed the creature, No one can escape me!
I shall destroy all those who come near my path!

The cruel plan is so fiendishly clever in its intricacies.
I shall lure my soon-to-be victims into thinking
That I am their friend. I shall make them work for me,
But still think that I am working for them.

When they are fully enveloped in my power,
I will move in for the kill. I will destroy their hope.
I will shatter all their trust in others, but
They will still work to gain my favour.

When those hopeless wrecks of human beings are laid to rest,
The fiend will pretend to mourn,
But only to pull others within her grasp.
It is a never-ending cycle of target, capture, destroy, move on.

As the Demon retires for the night from a hard day of hunting,
She is constantly planning new devices of beguilement.
To weaken them, I shall have my fellow demon-creatures
All attack them at once, when they least expect it.

In their time of feast celebration, when all should be joyful,
I shall gather together my legions, and surround my victims.
When they are covered on all sides, they will be forced
To turn to me. I shall use them for my gain, and discard them.

The night slowly falls upon all the land.
A precious few are still awake, trying to thwart the plans of
The Evil One. There must be a way, they reason, but
There is no hope. A faint cry echoes, Nona Eleison.

Our teacher was pretty intense, and we were reading some pretty intense content (although I lucked out not having to read Beowulf that year), so I wonder if she had a large collection of anonymously written works about her slid under her door like the above poem was. I wonder if she knew I wrote it. I wonder if she knew what it meant. There is reference to the large paper due right after Christmas break and the fact that her large papers were often due right when big projects in other classes were due. Then there was the jungle hair. I don't know how to describe it, but there was always a claw in it. This is not the traditional Utah/Idaho claw (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about), but it was a claw nonetheless.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


What can I say about Mr. Jackson and Physics? Wow, there may be enough to write a whole book. I don't even know where to start with him. For someone who didn't know him, I might explain the phenomenon that was Mr. Jackson as similar to the Kinetic King on the current season of America's Got Talent. Take ultra nerdy and mix in stuff blowing up, and you have an exciting show. Unlike the Kinetic King, who is probably the nicest man in the world, Mr. Jackson mixed in a dose of mean, but I think we all knew deep inside he was mean because he loved us and wanted us to succeed. Very deep down. And well disguised.

The AP class actually required an introductory physics class as a prerequisite, but to get around that, they taught both the introductory and advanced class simultaneously. My school had an A/B block schedule, where you'd alternate attending your A classes (periods 1-4) and B classes (periods 5-6) every other day for twice as long as a normal class. It could get tedious, because you were in the same class for an hour and a half or so at a time, but it could be nice, since you were always guaranteed at least two days to do your homework. Not with physics, though, since that was held every day.

The classroom was filled with Van de Graaff generators, magnets, hydrogen and oxygen tanks, batteries, and machines to move balloons around en route to being blown up. We sent an electrical charge from a generator through the whole class, holding hands, to the last two class members who held their fingers over a Bunsen burner and lit it with the spark that jumped between their fingertips. We blew up countless hydrogen balloons by calculating where the balloon would be at the exact moment a flaming ball would be catapulted across the room. To add excitement, Mr. Jackson would put on these old Sousa march records so they'd blow up to Stars and Stripes Forever and other great songs.

Each year the physics assembly was one of the most popular events. There was lip syncing behind huge Fresnel lenses, freezing all sorts of things in liquid nitrogen, and many more fun demonstrations, capped off by blowing up hundreds of hydrogen balloons in the dark to John Philip Sousa.

We made shirts with Mr. Jackson's face on the front and his wacky sayings on the back and wore them to the Physics Day competition at Lagoon, the local amusement park. We would send 20 teams to compete and gather around the single team of the most nerdy students the other schools could find, wearing our matching shirts and cheering each other on.

I took the Electricity and Magnetism class the next year, because I loved physics so much, but it was hard enough that I decided not to take the E&M AP tests, in spite of easily passing the regular AP Physics test the previous year. He inspired me to be an engineering major in college; that only lasted my freshman year before I moved into business, but the impression he left was lasting.

Friday, September 2, 2011

American History

My junior year of high school, I followed up my success of passing the European History AP test by taking the American History course. I have to say the teacher was not quite as dynamic or interesting as my first AP teacher, other than the fact that she looked like Alice Cooper. I say that in a loving way now, although it may have been less loving when we said it at the time.

She actually did know her stuff and did a lot to help us prepare, including several after school study sessions to prepare for the big test. She had essay questions from old versions of the test she would have us practice answering and grade us according to a similar rubric.

To tell you the truth, I don't remember a ton about the content of the course, probably because being American History, it blends in more with the history I've learned all my life, where the European History class covered material that was quite different than what I'd learned anywhere else.

The way the test is set up is that you get a multiple choice section and three essays. If I remember right, one essay was required, and for the other two essays, you could pick among three different questions for both. One of the questions I answered had been almost exactly the same as one our teacher had just barely covered with us in a practice test session, so we were all excited to see that question.

The one I still wonder about to this day is the third essay. I didn't write it, yet I still passed the test. I didn't know anything about any of the three possible questions. I wrote not more than about 5 or 6 words, not even in a complete sentence, as tangential topics or themes related to one of the questions. Maybe the third essay counts less, since they figure you might run out of time when you're working on it. Maybe I did so great on the question our teacher had just covered. Maybe I aced the multiple choice questions. was a miracle. I don't know.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

European History

As I finished PhD coursework awhile ago and am working toward my dissertation, thinking back on some of the classes I've taken over my illustrious college career, two thoughts come to mind. First is the quote from Tommy Boy, "You know a lot of people go to college for seven years", followed by Richard's retort, "I know; they're called doctors". I'll soon enough be a doctor, but the kind that doesn't help people. Second, I wondered if I could remember my teacher, something I learned, or anything at all about every college class I had.

That seems like a tall order, since I've taken close to 90 classes over the last who knows how many years. So I thought it would be interesting to blog something about every college class I've taken. To start off, I took several AP classes in high school, and since those show up on the college transcript, I'm counting them.

The first college class I ever had was European History, my sophomore year in high school. I wondered what I was getting myself into when receiving an assignment to write a paper about the book Ivanhoe over the summer. I like to read, so that much wasn't a huge problem, but analyzing the development of chivalry was probably a bit beyond most of us at the time. I doubt there's any way to find the paper I wrote. It was probably as good as anything the average freshman might hand in, that is to say, not very good, but a good way as a teacher to quickly get a feel for the students in your class.

It was a difficult class, yet entertaining. It provided a lot of background for many parts of my life. I have to wonder if they still cover as much religious content in the class as they did when I took it, but I would think they would have to. So many major events going back several hundred years to a thousand years ago were so highly influenced by the church, that it is impossible to recount the history without including it.

We learned about everything from the Great Schism, to protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, to the dysfunctional royal families of England (okay, most countries, not just England), to the contrasting doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation.

Various political terminology was covered in the class, with the naming of conservative and liberal political groups being based on the French National Assembly, where the differing parties sat in the right and left wings of the chamber, respectively. Related to this legislative body, not to go into all the details, would be the storming of the Bastille, which happened on my birthday in 1789, and the beginnings of the process to dismantle the system of nobility and create a constitution.

Most memorable, for better or worse, may have been watching Month Python and the Holy Grail after the AP test was over. Hey, once the test is done, it's a party until the end of the school year, right? I made some great friends in that class that would last throughout high school and beyond.