As Seen in Real Life

Behold, an actual, real live ad that I received along with my weekly update from Science magazine
(“Unpopular Science”, as my good friend Reggie Ratcliff once quipped):

Stop Cloning Around …
Discover Stratagene’s Next Generation Cloning Reagents

Regardless of your starting material we offer a solution that will
help guarantee the success of your cloning experiments. Our next
generation cloning reagents include: Accuscript™ High Fidelity
Reverse Transcriptase – the most accurate RT. PfuUltra®II
and Herculase® DNA Polymerases – providing the highest
fidelity and yields respectively. StrataClone™ PCR Cloning Kits
– the new, more affordable topoisomerase-based cloning method.

I shared this with a good friend, and he wondered if it was a hoax. No, the whole magazine is like that, just brimming over with enough actual science to make your head spin.

Hey, and you can get a subscription for only $75/year, if you’re a student.

Fall 2004 Grade Gloat

COMP 615, Computer Science: Advanced Theory of Computability: A

I murdered the curve in this class: my 92.5% on the final was a full 9% higher than the closest competitor. The median was 58%.

My cumulative score for the course was 87%, which was 8% higher than the second-place finisher. The median was 53%.

I was the only “A” in the class — the others in the top 4 had to settle for an “A-“, and there’s tarnish there.

The Prof. makes no effort to try to tune the tests to the 90-100=A, etc. rule, but just makes them super hard (“to separate the men from the boys”) and then curves as needed to get the letter grade, presumably picking the grade breaks based on his qualitative assessment of a student’s achievement. I like to try to make it to 90%, all the same. I did it on the final, but missed it by a few points on the cumulative score.

The great thing is, this subject is one that I never studied in school at Georgia Tech (well, minor parts were touched on, but nothing remotely near this depth), so I’m not cheating by using any greybeard knowledge — I just flat-out out-competed them at learning new stuff.

Question 1 was in two parts, and the Professor had given us a hint in the second part: we could answer the question by adding two non-terminal symbols to the generative grammar from the first part. I couldn’t figure out a way to do it in less than three, but we weren’t required to do it in two, so I just answered the question and moved on, because finishing the test on time is one of the hard parts of this class.

Later, at home, I looked at it some more, and finally wrote my Prof. an e-mail, asking him how he could possibly be doing it in two — wouldn’t (a certain bad thing) happen? He wrote back to say that I was right to be skeptical, because the way that he’d been thinking of doing it wouldn’t have worked with two symbols — you needed three. But then (perhaps because he’s as insanely competitive as myself) he felt that the gantlet had been thrown down, and figured out a way to do it with only two new symbols.

I laughed out loud when I saw his solution: he’d added a rule that said if one of the symbols was duplicated and adjacent (e.g. CC) then it would act like a different symbol (e.g. D). So he had to kludge it in very slightly, but he was able to meet the letter of the requirement.

COMP 595VAV, Software Engineering: Verification and Validation: A

I’ll be forever grateful to CSUN for breaking my once-crippling fear of Public Speaking. I was in good form for my individual presentation in this class, and the Prof’s notes were actually pretty great:

Excellent presentation. Interesting paper and ideas were well-explained.
Well organized. Good presentation style, but spoke a little too softly.
More eye contact would help.

Content:      10/10
Organization: 10/10
Visual Aids:   9/10
Delivery:      9/10

Total: 38/40 = 95%

I had realized about 7/8 of the way through the presentation that I wasn’t making eye contact — too late to fix it. I was surprised by the “too soft” comment; I had thought that I was really belting it out. So that’s valuable feedback.

The median score that I received from my peer reviewers was 92.5% — not bad. Several students went out of their way to tell me how much they’d enjoyed it, one even running over to be sure to tell me.

I had had the highest grade in the class on the mid-term, but felt weirdly logy and off my game during the final exam. In the end, I came in 4th place on the final exam, earning an 89% (there was one 90% and two 91%).

For the course overall, I had the top score of 91.25% (the next-highest overall score was 89.00%).

Cal State Northridge Honored

From the CSUN Alumni Newsletter…

America’s Best Colleges List Ranks Cal State Northridge Among Top 50 Undergraduate Engineering Programs

Cal State Northridge’s College of Engineering and Computer Science has ranked among the nation’s best undergraduate engineering programs, according to the new 2005 “America’s Best Colleges” list released by U.S. News & World Report magazine.

The honor marks the second straight year the university’s engineering college has earned its place among the nation’s 50 best undergraduate programs in engineering. Northridge is one of only six California State University programs in the top ranked tier of engineering programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. “It is exciting that our college has once again made the list of the best undergraduate engineering schools,” said S.T. Mau, dean of Northridge’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. The college, ranked 39th, tied with seven out-of-state institutions in the magazine’s survey of public and private engineering schools whose terminal degree is the bachelor’s or master’s.

Northridge was also rated among the nation’s top five master’s level colleges and universities whose undergraduates go on to obtain doctoral degrees in science and engineering, according to a 2003 National Science Foundation survey.

Computer Science Yes, Math No

I received my graduation evaluation in the mail today, and as feared, there was a crucial piece of paperwork missing that connected my Georgia Tech Mathematics courses to their Cal State equivalents, at least for the purposes of the Math minor. That could have been corrected easily, but more seriously, the Math minor requires that 6 hours of upper-division mathematics be taken at CSUN, and I only had 3, having transferred in the rest.

I wouldn’t particularly mind taking another Math course, but remaining an Undergraduate for another Semester would put a crimp in my ability to register for Graduate classes. So, alas, I’m sending them a FAX to blow off the Math minor. At least I completed the coursework to my satisfaction, brushing up on my Calculus, and the Numerical Methods course was extremely worthwhile.

“The Best Gloat Ever!”

Here are the highlights from my final Baccalaureate Semester, and a nice surprise at the actual ceremony:

MATH 481a: In my Numerical Methods class (a class that covers how to use computers to estimate high-precision answers to higher math problems such as boundary problems in differential calculus), my Math professor achieved something I would have never thought possible, namely publicly praising me in class so many times that I actually became embarrassed. Literally 10% of the classes included special Tom-praising sections. He sent me this note to tell me that the A was a lock, even before he’d graded our finals:

“Tom! it was a pleasure to have you in my class. I have earmarked you for an A. I don’t care how you did in your take-home or your final exam. Your interest in the course and your participations during the semester has already earned your a grade that you deserve. Congratulations, I’ll keep in touch wherever I go.”

COMP 429: Even though I work at a networking company, I actually learned quite a lot in my Computer Networking class. I have managed to slip by all these many years without needing to write any code at the socket level, except for a small RMISocketFactory that I wrote at work in Java. But the last several weeks of the Computer Networking class were all about socket-level programming, and we had to write an assignment that did a good job of covering the basics: TCP, UDP, concurrent services, simple protocol design, etc. Here’s the note that my Computer Networking professor sent me:

“Tom, you did very well for the course. Your grade for COMP 429 is A.

Your project was done exceptionally well. I gave you extra credit for the efforts you put into the project. I think you should go on and design/writing code for Alcatel switches, but getting a Master’s degree is the right step toward that direction.

If I can be of any help, please let me know.”

Aren’t these nice letters? I was in heaven.

Then my Commencement was Thursday, and I won an award! I had known that I was up for it — I got a call from one of the professors to let me know that several of the professors had mentioned my name — but during the interview he had asked me about any special things about me, “They like it if, for example, you’re the first person in your family to get a degree.” I considered mentioning that my father was a Doctor of Medicine, my mother was a Registered Nurse, and my sister and her husband both have Master’s Degrees in Education, “…so how about being the last person in the family to get a degree? That’s still pretty special!” But I didn’t. So, maybe no award.

One thing that I had thought went well in the interview was that the professor asked me, “I see that you took Spanish. Did you have it in High School?” “No, I took that course to satisfy the ‘appreciating other cultures in our country’ requirement.” “Well, yeah, but there are probably much easier ways of satisfying that requirement than taking a college-level language course in a language that you’re unfamiliar with?” “Oh sure, but all of the other courses were things like, ‘Diversity in America,’ ‘The Chicano in America,’ ‘The Chicana in America,’ ‘The Black Man [Woman] in America,’ and so on, and I just felt like it would go a lot further towards understanding another culture in America if I took a step towards actually being able to communicate with them — especially living in Los Angeles.”

I had decided on a strategy of doing everything I could to forget the possibility of a delicious, resume-enhancing award. I really, really wanted it, but was afraid that I wouldn’t get it, so the best thing was just to never think about it. And of course this was completely impossible, because I had told people about the phone call, so just about every week, someone would ask, “What ever became of that award…?”

But, pretty early in the ceremony, the President of the College of Engineering and Computer Science announced that the Computer Science Department’s Academic Performance Award, given to one student in each graduating class, went to…me, ha ha, yes! My campaign of not thinking about it had worked! I beat out 188 other Computer Science graduating Seniors.

A few days later, I received the award in a nice cover
(click to see inside):

I called up my Mom in North Carolina afterwards to tell her, and she had seen the whole ceremony on live Internet feed! She had even figured out what the problem was when the screen saver made the screen go blank during the middle of the ceremony, and moved the mouse a bit to bring the picture back. My sister Jan in Indiana missed the award, but got her copy of QuickTime updated in time to see me receive my diploma. What an age we live in!

Afterwards, Sean, his girlfriend Malarie, and some of my best friends and I went out for Mexican food and (in the case of the adults) Tequila. A lovely day.

I start my first day of COMP 588, Software Engineering Economics (Summer Session) on Monday. Two more years or so, and that Master’s degree will be mine, all mine!