I just went on a little spending spree on, mostly for the math and physics shelves of my personal library. It’s a library that needs more shelves; yet, my ten-year-old daughter has already volunteered to catalog it. I am not quite sure she understands what this will mean, but I’m all for it. It’s a big project that will require steady and thoughtful work over a sustained period of time, and it will be good for both of us.

A Quilted. Card. Catalog. I’m not worthy!

My late former husband left behind a computer that will make a perfect “card catalog” — it’s a 2006-era iMac with a hemispheric base. I didn’t even know he had owned one until I was helping to pack up his house after he died. I saw it and was instantly charmed. I have it in storage in another state, so I won’t even be able to pick it up, plug it in, and install any software until the summer. By then, there will probably be several more books to catalog.

It just looks like a kiosk, doesn't it?

It just looks like a kiosk, doesn’t it?

I just ordered five geeky books from Amazon, after I made the remarkable discovery that some people are willing to sell a used copy for one penny that goes for more than $100 new. Try it — search Amazon for textbook, and sort from low to high. Check it out. Amazing, isn’t it? How bankrupt could you be if you didn’t know how to filter?

So I bought…..
• Volume 2 of the study guide for Physics for Scientists and Engineers (Serway et al., 2000) for $0.01 used [as much as $97.60 new]
• Vector Calculus (Marsden, 1976) for $0.01 used [could have paid as much as $106, and the study guide is even more expensive!]
• Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments (Martin Gardner, 1986) for $0.80 used [could have paid, but didn’t, $87]
• and I purchased my personal Holy Grail, Volume 2 of a mid-60s edition of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, for just $16.96 including shipping. Considering I bought Volume 1 for 50 cents from the local thrift store (I am CONVINCED someone is stacking that particular deck) and Volume 3 for a song from Half Price Books Online, I firmly believe I have finally gotten the deal of the century on a matching-enough-for-me three-volume set. [Don’t even guess how much this would go for if “new”.]

I said I bought five items. I did.
On the recommendation of a friend, I also purchased “Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer” for less than $10 including shipping. I trust him, so I’ll check it out.

All items are arriving at random before January 23.

As I think I’ve previously stated, I will need more shelving. And soon.


Slow and steady

Just keep crawling.

…wins the race. Or keeps a woman sane. (Or tries to help in that process. Goodness knows there are other factors involved.)

My course has altered. After I finish this post I will go over to the Physics Department and drop off a Late Drop form for the department chairman to sign so that I can officially drop Physics 180. The workload of learning physics and calculus simultaneously is just too much right now, and attempting it has taught me a lot about how far I can safely stretch myself before hearing the first signs of incipient materials failure. I will now have several more hours a week in which I can focus on doing much better at calculus. While that might be too late for yesterday’s calculus exam, it should pay off in the long run.

My goal, however, is the same — to get a degree in physics. I have changed the pace so that the goal (while still difficult) is more manageable. I’m no longer running headlong; I’m walking. But I’m still beating everyone who’s sitting on the couch.

I might also now have time to do the things that settle, calm, restore, and inspire me. Such as reading, knitting, talking to people, or spending time with my family.

In the middle

Right now I’m in the middle of things in almost every sense of the word. (Well, probably every sense of the word, but I didn’t want to limit myself. Let’s leave room over there for future expansion.)

I should really walk to the stairwell and take my own pictures.

At work we’re in the middle of a move to our new building, Laurentide Hall. Departments are moving in a floor at a time, so as we’re putting the more-final touches on our space in the College of Letters and Sciences Dean’s Suite, Languages & Literatures will be moving in to the floor below us. And as they move, Mathematics & Computer Sciences is packing to be ready to move in two weeks’ time. People are griping, worrying, giving away books (!), looking forward, and leaving old things behind. There is much psychic disturbance in the air, and I’m sensitive to it to a fairly high degree.

I sense tension, Captain.

In calculus we’re in the middle of the course….the second exam will be on Monday covering the rest of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4. I seem to be keeping up with the pack, so although I do need to do some studying, I don’t feel I need to panic at the thought of a test.

In physics we got the results back from our first exam… and my score was the median (I got 60 percent; low was 20 percent and the high was 88 percent). That’s not bad for my first physics exam in my first physics class! I am weak in some areas but doing my best and getting help. Anyway — right in the middle again. If I work hard and stay strong and shore up my vector-component calculation skills I can still finish with a strong B, which is my target.

It feels like the middle of fall. The rainy season has started, the leaves have turned, and the rain is pushing them from the trees. We haven’t had “Indian Summer” yet or the Cold Snap of Doom….all that has yet to come.

Not my barn, but close enough.

I’m feeling more enmeshed at school, too. I’m not sure if that’s due to the student job putting me in the middle of the action, or my classes finally putting me in with other physics majors and math aficionados, but I feel more involved and connected to things.

Ironically, it’s right now that I’m realizing that unless I suddenly receive a winning lottery ticket in the mail, I will most likely have to take a “study break” and make some money for a while and come back to school later. I just won’t be able to pay off this semester in time to register for the next one. I might be able to swing a late add of Calc II in the spring so that I stay enrolled and could keep my student job, with more hours. Or I might have to get a regular job and see how that goes. I’m not sure. I’m kind of in the middle of mulling it over. I want to maintain my sanity and my grades as well as my forward progress.

Aaron’s honest question

Today, in a little time-gap between a three-hour physics lab and the one-hour physics lecture, I was sitting with my lab partner, Aaron, and we were fussing over our calculations for kinetic energy for our lab report.

Well, I thought I was merely fussing. But then Aaron looked me in the eye and asked, “Why do you do physics? You don’t seem to like it very much.”

I was startled. Well, of course I like physics! I thought. (But do I? After all, we only met last month. How well do I really know physics?)

My first answer was that, well, I was having a hard time with it. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I was racing to keep up, this was new to me. But then I realized I was covering for physics. I didn’t want to blame physics.

Yes, this is all new to me. I didn’t take physics in high school, so the last time I had a physical science course (besides a high school chemistry class that reflected the eternal teachings of Rutherford rather than anything learned since 1920, but I digress) was in 8th grade, in 1980 or thereabouts. And a couple of geology classes at Miami in the later 80s. I’m a fan and all, but as far as Actual Education™ goes, this is the first step onto a long path.

Yes, I’m tired. I am old and my brain is fuzzy and I have four kids and a lot of other crap to do besides be in school.

But…that isn’t an answer to an honest question. Once I had time to think about it, my better answer is, or should be, “I do like physics. What I don’t like is feeling confused, feeling left behind when others understand. I don’t like NOT being smart at something. Right now I don’t feel very smart, and it makes me uncomfortable.”

It’s mostly math and chemistry in her world, but yes, it’s confusing!

I’m looking forward to the breakthrough moment when I finally feel able to take on these problems without having my hand held. I sincerely hope that moment comes soon. I have four online homework sets, six written problems, and a lab report due before the first physics exam on Monday afternoon. (That’s just physics; I have a calculus quiz tomorrow and two homework sets for that due over the weekend. But that’s not important right now.) The ground has been broken for the construction of the Horribly Difficult First Physics Exam since, literally, the first day of class. We all understand that the class average will likely be 60 percent. We know it will be challenging, and we may have to make a hard decision about whether to swing away and hope to jack one out of the park, to trade points for hints, or just try to grind out a high-enough pile of partial credit to make it worth our while.

We know, we know, we know. We can’t wait for it to be over, yet we need another couple of months to get ourselves ready. We’re just dreading the Sorting.

When I was little (as in single-digits little), I dreaded meeting new adults because they would always want to know what I wanted to be when I grew up. (I didn’t know yet that they didn’t know anything else to ask a child.) I soon found out that my honest answers (a professional baseball player!) were unacceptable, and from then on all I wanted to have was a safe answer, something I could say to make them smile and move along. A teacher. A vet. Whatever, please leave me alone.

Fast-forward to college, when I was a Creative Writing major. I already knew I didn’t want to teach or work for a newspaper. That’s why I wasn’t in Education or Journalism. So, what are you going to do with that degree? I didn’t have a good answer until I got engaged. What are you doing to do with that degree? Well, my boyfriend is a Decision Sciences major. Oh, well, that’s OK then.

WRONG lesson learned. That was when I should have made a plan of action, learned to rely on myself and figure out my plan for supporting myself with my word skills. I didn’t need to get engaged in order to duck the question of what I wanted to do with my life. I needed to answer the question.

I’m planning to be a technical editor who understands the subject matter, the unusual woman who is an obvious choice to edit Physics Journal or Materials Evaluation or Quality or Scientific American. I can already edit blind; I want to learn to edit with my eyes open and my brain fully engaged, to be able to help chart the editorial course of a journal because I know what’s going on.

That’s why I’m taking physics and calculus, and that’s why I’m going to succeed. And I’ll start by giving Aaron an honest answer.

Trials and error

I’m not really sure what week it is any more. The schedule has been rearranged so many times that it doesn’t matter. I keep revising my deadline dates in my planner, I tilt at the Windmill of the Evening until further effort is useless or needless, then I crawl off to sleep and take up a different lance the next day.

The pace of each course is fast, and I knew that going in. And each week, each professor reminds us as a class, “The pace of this course is fast, and there’s basically nothing we can do about it.” In physics, for example, the goal is to cover all of physics in one year. Then, as Professor Benjamin says, “You spend the next three years covering it all over again.” Keeping pace with it is similar to filing paperwork in a wind tunnel.

Kind of makes you wonder why that cat keeps jumping back on the treadmill, doesn’t it? Motivation towards a goal is often mysterious. It’s quite possible that even the cat doesn’t know for sure. (And if he does know, he’s certainly not going to tell us.)

I haven’t had much time for recreational reading (or recreational much-of-anything; sorry, knitting group!) lately, and to tell the truth I really should be reading physics or studying derivatives right now, but a few weeks ago I found a lovely little volume at Half Price Books called “Einstein and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings” (ed. by Thomas McFarlane, 2002) and I pick it up and read a couple of pages every once in a while. Today I read a pair of quotes that really resonated with me, perhaps because we’ve been discussing the concept of Error in physics lab.

Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we make progress.
—Richard P. Feynman

In our world error is continually the handmaid and pathfinder of Truth; for error is really a half-truth that stumbles because of its limitations; often it is Truth that wears a disguise in order to arrive unobserved near to its goal.
—Sri Aurobindo

I have spent a lot of my life being afraid of Error, and trying not to bump into him in the hallway. I was afraid of what people would say if they saw us hanging out together; I had a reputation to think of! Conversely, I have made a living by finding Error where no one else could. Without him, I had no other marketable skills. Perhaps it is time for Error and I to rethink our relationship to be, shall we say, less confrontational. Maybe we can find a way to work together.

“Umm… Houston…..”


Week 2ish

A wave of lecture-crushing illness brings me this unexpected block of time in which to write about the second week of classes. (Translation: My physics professor is sick and so far this week has had to cancel two lectures and this morning’s lab, so I don’t have much “third week” stuff about which to write.)

I’m running with the pack on calculus, and got an 18 of 18 on the first quiz. The second quiz is tomorrow afternoon, and since today’s class will pretty much be a review session for the quiz, I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m also current on the online homework, and since you get several chances (in many cases) to work each problem, I still have 100 percent on the homework assignments despite a couple of “how the BLANK do you DO this?” moments. I’m getting solid help from online and In-Real-Life friends who want me to do well.

Physics-wise I’m keeping up, but I really need to push myself to keep working on sample problems every day. I can’t trust my memory to remember anything for me — I have to KNOW it, and deeply, before I can access the information. That makes it tricky to acquire new information that’s difficult to understand…. but the “story problems” themselves help make the text something you can apply to real life. Remember how we all hated the story problems in the math book in junior high school? How upset we were when math stopped being a set of written problems and tried to come out into the world and be relevant and useful? Maybe my particular class missed that because of our particular teacher. He wasn’t exactly a cheerleader for applied math…. mostly I remember he was allergic to chalk.

Mr. Miller’s nightmare. Imagine if he could have used a whiteboard!

Astronomy update: my “free times” didn’t work out with the student who needed a tutor, so he’s been hooked up with someone else. But really, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

In other news, the temperature wavered a bit, then finally dropped into the 30s at night. Wisconsin has crossed over into “WINTER IS COMING” even though it’s technically still summer. Tonight will be the night we all change back to the flannel sheets. I’ll probably warm them up in the dryer before I put them on the beds (I cannot tell you how much the kids are looking forward to this). And as soon as I’m done with this post, I will be knitting myself a pair of purple mittens.

That was the week that was

Wow, I packed a lot into one week. In that time I have done four online calculus assignments and one written assignment, and will have a short quiz this afternoon; learned how to compose (and break down, or “de-compose,” I suppose) vectors on paper and with Actual Lab Equipment; and finished the Uncertainty book.

It’s not rocket science. Yet.

In the student job I’ve learned some new procedures for handling the paperwork that we do every day. And at some point in the future, those procedures will change again; and at another point in the future we’ll be moving everything to our new location and hoping everything gets set up properly so we can keep those papers moving.

I was also asked by last semester’s Astronomy professor to be a tutor to one of her students this semester. I think I may have a couple of free hours per week here or there (the current hour being one of them), but I’ll have to see if that aligns with the hours the student is available.

The schedule this semester is definitely heavier, and the content is definitely more challenging, but I do keep telling people, “It’s Week Two and I still want to be a physics major.” Yes, it is challenging material, but it’s very interesting and it inspires me to work hard.

I met the other second-degree Physics major (hi, Nate!)… turns out I’ve been sitting next to him in Introductory Physics. We are two of a kind on the university printout of demographics by degree. We both have the feeling that we have one shot at this and we just need to do our best.

And one funny thing….yesterday I got a call from the Beloit Department of Corrections regarding an open position as a Parole and Probation Officer. It took me half a minute to realize this call came as a result of my scores on the Office Support Test I took in late spring. (I called them back and declined as politely as I could.)

It’s time to do some homework and study up for that calculus quiz. Onward and upward!