Monday, June 23, 2008


Slate has a cute article today about the disappearance of the semicolon. It reminded me of something funny that happened to me once.

I was at Houston Community College, taking an English composition class to satisfy some general requirement. Our essays were graded based on this rubric where you got points in various categories, one of which was Punctuation. On my first paper, I got less than full credit in this category, which I found rather astonishing - I had surely not made a punctuation error. But it seemed that in order to get full credit, you needed to show sophistication.

"More semicolons!" I told myself. I was careful to include a couple in my next paper.

And, sure enough, I got the credit.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Environmental Science Paper

Today I have to do a little "minilab" for my environmental science class. I had to go outside and find some plant and figure out what it is and write 800 words about it. Fortunately, now that I've identified the plant I photographed, it seems to be dalmatian toadflax, which is an invasive species. I'm putting the pictures I took here so that I can link them in my online paper.

These are from my new digital camera, which is giving me much better pictures than my old one.

Friday, June 06, 2008

GRE Prep

On July 12, I'm scheduled to take the GRE, which these days consists of a couple of essays you have to write, a verbal section, and a quantitative section. I am most interested in my quantitative score, though I plan to do well on the other parts as well, of course. I am generally good at standardized tests, and did well on the SAT back in the day.

One interesting thing is that the GRE uses adaptive testing, where the questions you get depend on how you answered the questions that came before. It's all on the computer, of course, and there is no going back to previous questions. In the beginning of a section, you'll get a question of medium difficulty, and then they move the difficulty up or down depending on whether you answer it correctly. So it's especially important to get the earlier questions correct so that you move quickly into the more difficult questions. My understanding is that once you reach a point where you are answering about half the questions wrong, that level of difficulty determines your score.

I took a sample test for the quantitative section and scored a 690 (out of 800 total), which is pretty bad. I feel like I need a 750 to be a credible candidate for a science-based graduate program. (I'm calling this a "feeling" because I don't know or can't remember where I may have picked up this magic number, if indeed I didn't invent it completely.) Granted, when I took the sample test I wasn't giving it my full and complete attention, but then I wasn't stressed as I might be under actual testing circumstances either.

I had a particularly hard time with the geometry problems, as always. And in general I think I have a hard time accessing my cleverness to solve the problems, which is what they require. (The math GRE questions are a pretty low level of math - basic algebra and geometry - but they often have a "trick" to them.)

My tendency is to employ brute-force methods, which is a terrible strategy when you don't have a calculator and you're under a time crunch. Take this question, for instance:

If the average of six consecutive numbers is 18.5, what is the average of the first five of those numbers?
This can be solved by brute force, as was my initial inclination. Letting x stand in for the first number, you know that
((x) + (x+1) + (x+2) + (x+3) + (x+4) + (x+5)) / 6 = 18.5
It's pretty easy (though arithmetically annoying) to solve this for x, and then take the average of just the first five in the series. But there is a very easy way to solve this problem with a little bit of thought instead, and that's the way I need to remember to do things on the GRE.

So, to that end, I bought a GRE Math Workbook, specifically the Kaplan one. The first part is large review sections on Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry. These are divided into sections, each of which ends with a test with easy, medium, and hard GRE-style problems. Each test has an answer key with descriptions of how to solve the problems, sometimes with several methods described. The second part is divided according to the three question types used on the GRE, with several practice tests for each question type.

I haven't been reading the actual review sections, because I basically do know math, of course, but I have been taking all of the tests, even the ones in the Arithmetic section. (It's not basic problems, but GRE-type tricky problems.) I feel like this process is making me more clever and definitely more ready to kick the GRE's ass.

A part of me rebels against the idea of preparing for a standardized test. What am I, some kind of goody-two-shoes who has to work hard because I'm not that bright? Fortunately, that part of me has been hastily stuffed into a sack and sat upon.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I don't goof off anywhere near as much at this job as at my old job, but when I do get some down time, it is major, serious, heavy-duty down time. Right now, for instance, there is simply no work. I finished a couple of projects (one small, one larger) for our president earlier, and now she has left to attend a conference. The senior tech is also on vacation. I have spoken to the other techs and none of them have work to delegate to me (or, for the most part, work at all). I haven't been here long enough to have files that need organizing or a particularly messy desk. So I can goof off with a completely clear conscience.

The truth is, I hate seeking out new work, but I love it when I have work. If people would give me 10 long projects with no deadlines, I would be as happy as a clam, knowing I could come in for many, many days without running out. I much prefer showing up to work in the morning, rather than coming in between projects.

When I do have work, I have to work pretty solidly. They're billable hours, after all, and I'm not willing to have my company bill other companies for my time if I'm half-working, half-surfing the Internet. So I stay pretty focused and only take occasional short breaks. We bill down to the quarter hour. It's...rigorous.

So I am enjoying today's (hopefully) brief respite.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Durable Goods Moratorium

I am declaring a moratorium on purchases of durable goods, starting now and effective through August. This means no new clothes, furniture, kitchen supplies, toys, etc. - basically anything that is not consumed. (Obviously it would be much more radical to try to survive without groceries, paper products, cleaning supplies, etc. I'm not that radical.)

I think I have everything I need at this time, so I hope I can stick to this.