College

The One Year Anniversary of the New Me

Even our Amish parents and siblings made it to our beach wedding.

Even our Amish parents and siblings made it to our beach wedding.

One year ago I was working a dead end job and “investing” in a business by going into credit card debt, I was several thousand dollars in debt, I was living in a big house with people I wasn’t getting along with anymore, I had too much stuff, I was addicted to Mountain Dew, I was struggling with personal upheavals related to a fundamental shift in my worldview, and I was dreaming of someday getting a college degree.

I had always planned on enrolling in college as soon as I was financially stable–as soon as all my debts were paid off, the business was doing well, and I could afford to take a several year sabbatical to pursue an education. Then almost exactly a year ago, I was encouraged to enroll in college despite my responsibilities. I was encouraged to enroll in college even if it was just to take one course at a time. I was persuaded to enroll in college and try it despite my constantly-changing plans for the future.

It didn’t take a lot of consideration before I decided to enroll. My life was getting stagnant, and college, it seemed, was exactly what I needed. I enrolled in college, but I did way more than that. I took the opportunity to completely reorganize my life and my priorities.

The first thing we (myself and my fiancee at the time) did was move out of the big house where we lived with 5-7 other people. We moved into my aunt’s nice vacation home and cut some of the toxic personal relationships that had been dragging us down for the past year. I quit the minimum wage dead end job that I had been using to help make ends meet until my online business brought in more sales, and I stopped deluding myself into thinking that I would be able to survive on my business income anytime soon. I quit pumping money, energy, and time into the business. Instead, I began a part-time lawn care job. The work was hard, but it paid way more than minimum wage.

By transferring my time from internet marketing and a minimum wage part-time job to lawn care, I was able to pay off several thousand dollars of debt that I had incurred over the previous three years. In fact, working only 2-3 days a week, I was able to pay off most of my debt and still have the time and money to go to college full time. The only debt I have left is a bit on my vehicle loan (which I had purchased a month before losing my internet marketing job about three years ago). To help support my addiction to higher education, I also sold most of my stuff and cut my expenses as much as I possibly could.

Because my life was changing so much, I decided it was also time to quit my excessive inhalation of Mountain Dew. I quit that without a problem and even cut down on my smoking.

The biggest change in the last year, however, was getting married. When I asked her about 9 months ago, we had been dating for more than 5 years. Why so long? First of all, we lived together for most of those 5 years, so getting married wasn’t something that seemed like too big of a lifestyle change. More importantly, much like college, I had been waiting to get married until I was “financially stable” whatever that means. Enrolling in college without that financial stability forced me to question my justification for waiting to marry. Long story short, we got engaged and had an awesome beach wedding five days ago.

That, in a nutshell, is how my life changed over the past year. Sometimes, you gotta know when to fold ’em and start fresh with a new hand, and that’s what I did a year ago. So far, life is looking much better. My only regret is that I didn’t do all of this when I first lost my job instead of wallowing around for next three years in various entrepreneurial pursuits.

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Breaking Bad: Making Meth… I Mean Aspirin!

Breaking Bad

Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Today I made aspirin. Next up… meth! I kid. At chemistry lab tonight, we synthesized aspirin–it was pretty cool.

I find it amazing how creative and yet utterly logical that chemists have to be to come up with a procedure for synthesizing a specific chemical. In order to arrive at a destination (aspirin in this case), the chemist has to follow a very specific procedure. Well, not necessarily. There are multiple procedures and multiple ways in which each step can be accomplished, and that’s where the creativity comes in.

Let’s say you want to make C9H8O4 (i.e. aspirin). From the formula, we know that each unit of aspirin contains 9 carbon atoms, 8 hydrogen atoms, and 4 oxygen atoms. The problem is, we can’t just take 9 moles of carbon, 8 moles of hydrogen, and 4 moles of oxygen, put it all in a bag, shake it for a few minutes and open the bag to find aspirin. Oh, no! We’d probably be left with a pile of carbon at the bottom, oxygen gas in the middle, and a bunch of highly flammable hydrogen awaiting us at the top of the bag.

The puzzle is, how to we utilize the different properties of different chemicals to create a specific chemical that we don’t yet have? Well, in our case, we mixed salicylic acid (the stuff you put on warts) and acetic anhydride (it’s basically dried vinegar) together and added a few drops of phosphoric acid to speed things up. Then we applied heat, which caused the stuff to magically react to form something that was not in the test tube to begin with. Who would’ve thought? But now our aspirin is contaminated by an excess of acetic anhydride. How can we get rid of it? I know, let’s add water! (I’m trying to think like the chemist who invented the procedure.) That will turn the acetic anhydride into vinegar which can be filtered out of the aspirin crystals. That’s basically the process we used to synthesize crude aspirin. If you’re interested, you can find the full procedure here.

Our class’ synthesis of aspirin was simple by chemistry standards, but it gave me a peek into the mind of a chemist. A chemist is much like a chef. A chef has an extensive knowledge of the properties of different foods and spices. He or she thinks logically–following multi-step procedures in a specific order to create a product worthy of awe. The chef is precise–too much or too little of any spice will ruin the product. The true chef is also creative–the true chef experiments and designs new procedures that yield amazing new products. The chemist, I’ve come to see, is much like the chef. There is careful precision, there is a lot of logical planning and procedure-building, but there’s also creativity and experimentation. If I wasn’t so set on making Star Trek a reality, I would be quite happy being a chemist.

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CourseNotes: MAC 1105 College Algebra

I am your friend! - Calculator

I am your friend!

When I enrolled in college, my placement scores allowed me to skip college algebra. I decided to take it anyway because it had been several years, and I was sure I was rusty. I’m so glad that I took it. I’m currently studying calculus and analytical geometry, and I gotta tell you. If you’re taking algebra, don’t slack. If you do you will seriously regret it when you get to calculus. You can breeze through pre-calculus and trigonometry without being an algebra ninja, but not with calculus. It’s just like my calculus professor said–the hardest part about calculus is algebra. You’ll repeatedly use algebraic techniques that you thought you would never see again. The slope formula? That thing will beat you silly the first week in calculus if you don’t learn it now. In calculus, you will literally use everything you even just glanced at in algebra. Furthermore, your calculus professor will be disappointed that you didn’t see more things in algebra.

I don’t have a lot of advice for students taking algebra, but following are some of my thoughts. I’m sure your professor will drill it into you, but I should probably say it too… good note taking and practice are the key.

Modelling

Modelling problems, otherwise called “application problems” or “word problems” are often the most difficult part of mathematics for most students. It takes me more time to solve a modelling problem than it takes to solve other problems, in fact, I would even say that modelling problems are more difficult than other problems. However, where I differ from a lot of math students is the attitude I have toward them. I like them. I find them challenging. To me, they’re puzzles, and I love solving puzzles. There is a very real benefit to doing modelling problems and that is that it takes all that abstract mathematics and turns it into real, useful, tools.

Most of the modelling problems encountered in college algebra involve geometry, interest calculation, mixtures, uniform motion, rate of work done, or proportions. My suggestion is that you try to figure out a general procedure for each different type of problem. Some of these procedures involve the applications of formulas. For example, for simple interest calculations we use the formula I = prt (interest = principal * rate * time) and for uniform motion we use d = rt (distance = rate * time). For other types of modelling problems, you can learn specific tactics that make it easier to solve any problem of that type. For example, draw the problem if it involves geometry, and for mixtures; make a table. The takeaway here, is that general solutions/equations/procedures are extremely helpful when you’re ready to solve specific instances.

Absolute Value Equations and Inequalities

I’ve always had trouble with absolute value equations and inequalities, and so I think do a lot of other people. I try to remember the specific procedures, for example; |x| = a means x = a or x = -a, but come test time, I end up confused and unable to remember the procedures. The only thing that saves me is to think logically about a given case. It often helps me to draw a number line and then mark it up with interval notation and arrows to show the values that x can take.

When working with absolute value, it helps me to think of it as distance. For example |x – 3| is just the distance between x and 3. Distance is always positive–just like absolute value. If given the problem |x – 3| < 9, I would start by drawing a line with an arrow at each end (my number line). I know that the distance between x and 3 is less than 9, so I mark a spot for 3, a spot 9 units to the left of 3, and 9 units to the right of 3. I know that x must be between those outer two points in order for it to be within 9 units of 3. Then my answer is simply 3 – 9 < x < 3 + 9 or -6 < x < 12. What is |x|, you may ask? Well, it’s just the distance between x and zero.

Your Calculator

Your calculator is your best friend. Learn it well. Your calculator will save your life repeatedly when you’re in the midst of battling an exam… assuming you’ve learned how to use it. You must learn how to graph functions and use the trace and intersection features. This will allow you to double check your algebraic work as you go along. You also need to know how to enter an equation and then use the table and VAR features to try different values for x. These skills are guaranteed to save your ass and to save you time in the long run.

Also, be sure to read my post on avoiding mistakes in algebra.

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Phi Theta Kappa Membership

Phi Theta Kappa Certificate

Phi Theta Kappa Certificate

The other week I received an email from my calculus professor (she’s the advisor for my college’s chapter of the society) notifying me that I qualify for membership in Phi Theta Kappa–the honor society for 2-year college students. Among other eligibility requirements, one must have completed at least 12 credit hours and have a current GPA of at least 3.5.

The eligibility requirements are pretty low, I think, but I still feel a sense of pride for the invitation. Besides, gaining membership had been one of my goals. It’ll look good on my diploma and my resume, and it may get me some fat scholarships depending on the university I apply to in a year.

I went ahead and paid the $75 fee to join–hopefully, it’s worth it. What do you think? Is membership in Phi Theta Kappa particularly beneficial in any way?

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On Being Debt Free

No credit card debt

This is a good feeling!

Having debt sucks! Last year at this time, I had $2600 in credit card debt, $1300 that I still owed on my ridiculously amazing laptop, and several thousand on an auto loan.

In the last year, with a part-time job and being full-time in school, I paid off all of my credit card debt, my laptop, and about $3000 on my auto loan. I accomplished it by changing my priorities, getting a part-time job, cutting down my expenses, selling most of my belongings, and living frugally. It’s a good feeling to be pretty much debt free.

I know that $2600 isn’t a lot of credit card debt, but it hangs over you like a crowd of menacing clouds, and even a small amount like that sucks up interest, and it takes a long time to pay off when your income is limited. At the time, I was spending a lot of time on an entrepreneurial endeavor. A colleague from a former job and I were trying to make a go of it selling Amish furniture online. Like all startups, it took a lot of time. Unfortunately, the sales were not yet at the point where it could support our lifestyles, and so I supplemented mine with credit cards. It’s an investment, I thought. Once the sales really start rolling in, I’ll be able to easily pay of the credit card debt that I used to buy food and pay bills.

Then last march I made the life-changing decision to pursue a college degree. After several years of babying our company, always believing that huge sales were just around the corner, I decided, essentially, to cut my losses. I’m still a partner in the business, and it’s actually doing pretty well at this time, but the commission checks we pay ourselves are nowhere close to covering life expenses. Besides, I’ve always known that I don’t want to do online marketing for the rest of my life–it just doesn’t exhilarate me like studying math and science does. Although I’m still considered a partner, I don’t put much time into the business, and it’s not on my list of priorities for the future. Making the decision to pursue a degree forced me to face reality, and find an alternate source of income.

Now I mow lawns. Seriously. I maintain forty or so lawns, I trim trees, bushes, and hedges on the side, and sometimes I fill in for another lawn care company. I work about 2-3 days a week, and last year I made between 15k and 20k doing this. It’s  not much, but by cutting my expenses, and living frugally, I was able not only to survive, but actually to pay down existing debt. It helps that for much of the year I can live rent free by “house sitting” a relative’s winter home. I don’t like mowing lawns. After years as a white collar worker, it hurts my pride. Sometimes, pride just has to be swallowed for the greater good.

My ridiculously amazing laptop was also one of those “investments”. I thought I needed it for the business, and the manufacturer allowed me to purchase it for monthly payments of $30 or so. The interest was high–like 30%–but I figured I would have it paid off within a month. It took most of a year. Now I know that I don’t actually need an i7 processor, a backlit keyboard, and an extra-large battery. Live and learn.

As for my auto loan, I’ll have that completely paid off in a few more months. I purchased a nice, used SUV about a month before I got laid off from my well-paying job (three years ago). I had money, but my girlfriend (fiancee now) and I were heading to Switzerland for a vacation, so I decided to take out a loan on the vehicle and wait to pay the rest until we were back from Switzerland. Life had other plans. We cancelled the Switzerland trip and swallowed the $1500 or so in tickets we had purchased. I just didn’t feel comfortable going without a stable income. Two years later, all of the money I had planned on using to pay off the car had been spent on food and other bills, and I was falling back on credit cards while we were trying to get rich selling Amish furniture.

Now, two and a half years later, my SUV is almost paid off. I haven’t taken out any student loans–those will probably come when I transfer to a university. As of right now, I am essentially debt free, and it feels great.

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I did the S-word

Public SpeakingI feel almost embarrassed for the lack of updates in the last several months. I’m getting married in a few weeks, and trying to juggle work, school, friends, and wedding planning leaves very little time for writing. I promise to update this blog more often in the near future, but I just wanted to pop in today and share some exciting news.

In my life I have scaled some of the tallest mountains in Montana, I’ve left the oppressive culture that is the Amish, I’ve developed computer software and Android apps, I’ve written a book, I made member of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry (way cooler than Mensa), I landed a white-collar internet marketing job with only an eighth grade education, I convinced a beautiful girl to fall in love with me, but today… today… I stood in front of about thirty people and gave a speech.

To put this feat into context, you should know this–I suffer from debilitating social anxiety, or maybe I’ve just convinced myself of that. Years ago I quit accounting school partially because I couldn’t handle the pressure of the required speeches/presentations, but mostly because I decided I hate accounting.

Here I’ve made a cute little function that illustrates the effect of social anxiety on I.Q.:

Social Anxiety Function

Isn’t it pretty? I call it the Social Anxiety Function, where a is your anxiety factor and b is your I.Q. when you’re all alone. It gives your I.Q. as a function of the number of people that are looking at you.

Given my specific conditions, this function shows that my I.Q. hits zero when there are 5 people watching me. Any more than that, and it goes negative, which seems impossible given how I.Q. is measured, but trust me, it’s very real. If six people are looking in my direction, the speech and behavior that I manifest are not possibly the output of anything with positive intelligence.

Sometimes, when I’m walking down the aisle of a grocery store I start walking funny because I think the person I just passed has turned, and is watching me. I walk funny because I’m concentrating so hard on walking like a normal person. I don’t have any kind of physical disability–when I’m all alone I walk perfectly fine, but have someone watch me and I develop a limp because I’m trying so hard not to.

I would like to see a psychologist, but I’m deathly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to talk. I’m usually okay when it comes to answering questions, but it’s very difficult for me to initiate conversation or to say anything that’s not the answer to a question. I think I suffer from some weird form of mutism.

Hopefully, that gives you some idea of the magnitude of the accomplishment I’ve made today. I stood in front of a class of 20-30 fellow students, and I gave a speech about myself. I had no choice in the topic. But, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared it would be. I ended up with a pretty good grade, although the professor told us that she was going easy on the grading for our first speech.

I practiced my speech over and over again when I was alone at home. I actually did pretty good when it came time to speak. I forgot a few things I had planned on saying, and I fumbled my introduction, but other than that it wasn’t too bad. I attribute my success almost entirely to those rehearsals, and I really appreciate the friends that told me to practice, practice, practice! I only practiced my speech when I was alone. It would’ve helped even more if I would have rehearsed in front of my housemates, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even rehearse my speech in front of my fiancee–that’s how weird it makes me feel to stand up and formally address by voice my fellow humans.

Tonight, I feel exhausted. You’d think I ran a marathon. This speech course is a required course for me, but getting through it will be worth it, I think. The sense of accomplishment I felt after the nausea had worn off was great. Now I know that I can do anything. Who knows, maybe I could even learn to function as a social animal despite my anxiety.

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Whew! Last Final!

This afternoon I had my last final exam for the semester–chemistry. I feel pretty confident with my score. I should get a score around the mid-90’s, which isn’t bad considering that I didn’t review much for the exam. No worries, though… I can score all the down to 76% on the final and still walk away with an A for the course.

Last Friday I had my trigonometry and pre-calculus finals. I faced the same issue that I did with the mid-terms–I had to be at the college’s southern campus (45 minutes south of home) at 4:00PM for pre-calculus, then I had to be at the college’s northern campus (1/2 hour north of home) at 7:00PM for the trigonometry final. This time, however, I was well prepared for both exams and had no trouble. I aced both of them. So far (3 math courses) I haven’t had less than 100% on any proctored math exams. One time, I got one question partially wrong, but weirdly enough, a perfect score results in a score of a few percentage points more than 100, so that time I ended up getting exactly 100%.

I’m glad the semester is over. Toward the end there I was getting bored and having trouble with ambition. That, of course, resulted in some scary procrastination. Now I have about three weeks to catch up on other things before going back to school. This weekend our household (3 adults) is moving to a new place. That’ll be fun. Not. Next weekend, my fiancee and I plan on visiting Florida State University, which is likely to be the university that I transfer to for fall 2015. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to work a little more–save up some of that green stuff that I haven’t seen around much of late. Maybe, I’ll even have time to drink a few beers and do some reading.

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The Day After Beer

alcohol-148993_640The other weekend we had a party at our place. It was a small party–nothing fancy–just some friends and a few of my fiancee’s colleagues. We chatted, had some beers, sat around, had some wine, played charades, had more beer, and so on. I had fun. It had been a while since I’d had a drink so it didn’t take much for me to feel it.

The next day I remembered why I don’t drink much anymore. I had trouble concentrating and my brain felt fuzzier than normal. As I was staring uncomprehendingly at a trigonometry problem, I wondered if this was what being stupid feels like. I was reminded of why I don’t drink and study.

The lack of focus I felt wasn’t due to the classical hangover–I had had that the night before due to stopping my alcohol consumption several hours before going to bed. I didn’t have the classical hangover symptoms, but my ability to study was definitely stunted. This isn’t something new to me–in fact, I drink very little since starting college because I know how dramatically it affects my ability to study. I can’t drink before or during studying because it affects my concentration and comprehension abilities. I can’t drink after studying because I’m asleep–I just have no time for drinking.

Thinking that this phenomenon is probably pretty common, I did a quick search for research on the short-term effects of alcohol on study ability, but I couldn’t find anything. All I could find was a lot of info on the correlation between constant binge drinking and poor GPA. I know it’s just anecdotal, but I find it interesting that my studying ability seems to be negatively affected after consuming alcohol–long before I’ve drank enough to feel a “buzz” and long after any wooziness has faded. I must note that other than study ability, I seem to function normally. I don’t even notice this effect of alcohol unless I’m trying to do something that requires a lot of concentration–like studying trigonometry. Somebody should do a study now that I’ve raised awareness… for science, you know!

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Television: A Student’s Nemesis

tv-46909_640Here I am trying to write, but something keeps distracting me. It’s Chuck. Whenever I try to ignore him and try to get something done, Chuck whispers quietly to me. I don’t even like him that much, but unless I give him my undivided attention, he just keeps bugging me. It hasn’t always been like this. A few weeks ago I had never heard of Chuck. A few weeks ago it was Dexter that kept bugging me.

Yes… I’m talking about television. I have this bad habit of falling for television series. I’m not content watching one episode a week. Oh no. Not when I can watch five seasons in two weeks on Netflix or some darker corner of the web. I really liked Dexter–I think it’s a brilliant show for the most part. Watching Dexter was like taking a voyage into the depths of my psyche. It was like a character study of some dark, eccentric, and lonely portion of myself, and so I was able to wisely spend (i.e. waste) my time without feeling too guilty. I was deeply saddened after I watched the final episode and realized that Dexter was gone forever. Now, I’m watching Chuck. I don’t particularly like it. I think it’s poorly written and not even faintly realistic. I just don’t understand why I can’t stop watching it. Every time I get hungry I use it as an excuse to nuke a TV dinner or pour a bowl of cereal and watch 45 minutes of Chuck. Then I watch another one. Before I know it it’s 4:00AM and I’ve blown most of the day and the next.

When I’m not watching “my show”, whatever it may be at the moment, I have trouble focusing and I experience withdrawal symptoms. If I give in and watch an episode, I feel dirty and guilty for not having accomplished something more productive… like studying for finals. The only solution seems to be to watch every episode as quickly as possible–to get it over with so I can concentrate on studying again. After such a marathon I’m usually good for a few weeks or even months, but eventually I start getting edgy and I begin feeling burned out with my life. When that happens, I examine myself and my lifestyle and try to figure out what’s wrong, and I realize that what I’m missing is a good television series.

Help! I think I need a vacation.

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Course Notes: ENC 1102 Written Communications II

enc-1102
I took ENC 1102 last semester, and finally, here are my thoughts on it.

ENC 1102 is the study of three forms of literature–short stories, poetry, and drama (plays). This course involves the critical analysis of various members of the aforementioned forms of literature. You have to really think about what you’re reading, break it down, analyze it, why this symbolism, why that allusion, and so on. I had to write one research paper during the course, and I chose William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

One aspect of literary analysis that I’m not too fond of is the emphasis on interpretation. For any given classic, there seem to be hundreds of interpretations about the grander meaning or purpose of the work. One person says it’s about the idiocy of the North during the civil war, another says it’s about the silliness of the South during the civil war, another says it’s about the emergence of feminism, and so on and on and on. What if it was just meant to be an interesting story? Huh? Did you think about that possibility? What if the writer never harbored a hidden agenda that can only be teased out after months of speculation and tripping to conclusions?

As for reading drama, I don’t have too much to say about it–it’s just like watching the play in your head. After watching videos of the same plays, I realized that I enjoy the versions in my head better. During this course, I studied Hamlet for the first time, and after getting past the esoteric language, I actually enjoyed it and found moments that made me grin. The favorite play that I studied in this course would have to be Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Talk about LMAOing all over the floor…

What I’m about to say now may anger you and cause you to think condescendingly of me from hereon. This is particularly true if your major is literary in nature. Irregardless… just kidding. Regardless of how your opinion of my digital persona may change, the following things need to be said.

I’ll start in soft and easy…

To me, the purpose of writing is to convey information in an interesting manner. The best writers, then, are the ones that write unambiguously, and interestingly. It is quite the opposite with poetry. Petals on a wet, black bough? Bitch puhleeze! It takes a lot of effort for me to “understand” a poem, and even then, I can’t be sure that my interpretation is what the poet intended. I know that poetry is supposed to evoke emotion, but in me, the only evoked emotion is that of extreme irritation at the writer’s apparent inability to convey information in a clear and interesting manner. Poetry seems to be nothing more than a collection of vague verbal stimuli directed toward those that tend to find patterns in random nonsense. As such, it is more a verbal Rorschach Test than anything else. The fact is, ENC 1102 did nothing to mollify my unabashed hatred of poetry. I accept that I am missing out on a part of human experience that is important to many people, but that’s okay. I’ve come to terms with my condition.</end rant>

The only tip I really have, if you’re taking this course, is; if it’s a classic, and it tells a story; watch the movie.

P.S. Depending on your professor, you better wield your MLA with some serious skill (FYI: that last part included something called “alliteration.” You’ll learn all about that in ENC 1102).

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