Adventure Time: Kings Dominion

Honestly, this next post was devolving into a tirade about parents and report cards until I realized that its summer and frankly I just don’t want to go there.  Everything is electronic and online nowadays so parents and students can track the student’s progress weeks before they receive their report cards by mail.  Not all parents are comfortable with the program or forgo checking until June.  As such, I’m still receiving emails from parents asking how their daughter received this grade instead of that grade in this subject.  Some even request meetings, which can erode into the parent venting their frustration at the teacher.  I received one such email on Tuesday, and dread crept a little into my heart.  Conferences like these are part of the job, sure, but once summer commences, even one additional second worrying about grades or fretting over angry parents becomes an intrusion, like a car alarm in the middle of the night.

In order to recall my missing mojo, Kevin, Bree and I decided that yesterday we would have an adventure.  Thus, the next day, we drove to Northern Virginia to spend the day at Kings Dominion, one of Virginia’s premier theme parks and roller coaster factory.  Most theme parks choose two paths when attempting to draw in summer crowds.  The first involves creating a ‘world’ or an ‘adventure.’  Disney does this rather well, creating a traditional thrill ride but attaching a story or theme to heighten the emotional experience.  Hollywood Studios’ Twighlight Zone Tower of Terror is a good example.  By linking the idea of the Twighlight Zone and ghosts to a simple freefall ride, you create suspense as guests become part of the story.  They relish the thrill, and as such buy more T-shirts.

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The rumors concerning our sanity have been greatly exaggerated.

Coffee cup

The motivation behind all scientific discovery begins here . . .

October found me eager and excited, brimming with confidence and creativity for my work . . . at least during weekends. However, Monday mornings broke with the din of a funeral march, disturbing those few early morning dreams and ushering me upstairs upon the family couch while reruns of Law and Order painted visions of murder and desperation before sleep-filled eyes.  Waiting to leave the house proved the most trying, as my imagination, planting visions of screaming children and growling soccer moms, tried its damnedest to wrack my body with anxiety, upset my stomach and basically ruin the whole of my week.

Thankfully, I had Dunkin Donuts and their wonderful battalion of iced coffees to attack my flagging spirit and sleep deprivation.  Truly, the smell alone had a soothing effect; the extra-large galleon-sized container of liquid energy, a balm to my worries.  My imagination, drowning in legal stimulants, learned to behave, and I drove to school, happily contemplating Thanksgiving and Christmas break, only three months away.

The fallout from the field trip befell us the following Monday when Dr. T took us in the conference room for lunch. Slowly Ms. P spilled the story, downplaying our absence at the deli (a little) and deleting the abusive pot-smoker entirely (to be fair, the kids were not involved at all). Continue reading

Database Delirium

“Ok everyone,” my professor instructed us on the first day of class. “This course will not involve much lecture. My philosophy is that we’re a team here. I’m only going to give fifty-percent of the material. If we are going to master this material, I expect you to contribute the other half. You see, I might not know everything about databases and programming, but together, we will support and teach one another.”

As we looked over the syllabus, my classmates and I nodded our heads as our professor glided around the room with a smile and a friendly laugh. She seemed like a pleasant and amiable lady, approachable and ready to answer questions. Gazing over the projects, papers, and homework, nothing appeared unusual or odd. After all, this was a Masters level course, and we were accustomed to reading and studying outside the classroom, absorbing the necessary materials by ourselves. Therefore, her speech concerning “contributing fifty-percent” and “I don’t know everything about databases and programming” worried us not; that is, until the second week of class, when we began to suspect that she truly and honestly did not understand half of the material . . .

“Ok, does anyone know what an Object-Relational DBMS is? Or what it does? I’m not sure myself. It has something to do with virtual objects? Did anyone read their chapters yet? I can never understand the programming language . . .”

“Ma’am?” one of the students asks, raising his hand above a laptop. “According to Wikipedia, it has something to do with user interaction with databases. Like the emergence of GUI and early user-friendly interfaces.”

“Ah,” my professor ponders. “That sounds about right . . . I think. I don’t know, maybe we’ll come across it later . . .”

At first I interpreted his whimsical personality and ignorance to a teaching style, a method of feigned cluelessness in order to encourage participation. Yet such a performance – if in fact genuinely manufactured – only pushed us into greater confusion and heightened our irritation.

“Now,” she asks me. “Who interacts with the books in a library? What carbon-based life-forms use the books?”

I scratch my head at that, flummoxed by the simplicity of the question. Obviously the patrons and users would access the database to the books, but surely there must be some deeper meaning behind this question. A series of circles and squares connected like a toy railroad to thick lines served to illustrate her model. I sighed. Last year my previous professor had likewise relied heavily on shapes to relay relationships between information systems and society. One year later and the method still seemed rather silly and superficial. Thus, unlike most in the class, I felt ready to state the obvious – that is until her ‘carbon-based life-forms’ comment which left me a little bewildered.

“Um, I suppose, the uh . . . users?”

“Absolutely! Now I wonder what users do with books at a library? Now users perform some operation on the books in a library. We should consider what operation or action this is.”

These last few questions are more statements than questions; so obviously, most of the class is stymied. Our professor continues to dance around actually asking a question: “Hmm . . . I don’t know. What operation could this be? I wonder.”

Finally some brave soul raises her hand to spit out the answer to this riddle: borrow. Users borrow books. She of course is delighted, and scribes the three words in the circles on the board: users — borrow —- books. We should grow accustomed to this style of model mapping, she explains. Every object has an operation that affects another object. She then continues her lecture, delving into the history of the database and computer systems.

The lesson is a good one, but it takes us nearly thirty minutes to arrive at the punch-line, as she intermittently pauses to consider, wonder and ask questions in the form of statements.

“The database stores information. Information needs to interact. There is word that signifies this interaction. How data table can reference each other. One table can affect another table’s data. They interact in a specific way . . .”

“Uh . . . ma’am, do you mean they relate?”

“Excellent!” she shouts. “Tables relate to one another . . .”

Between consulting the clock and these frequent tests of our common sense give me cause to reconsider our professor’s knowledge. Her whimsy and confusions seems more authentic as the lesson draws to a close:

“Ok, so hierarchical models are built like upside-down trees. However, though organized well, they are much slower . . . no wait. This [her powerpoint slide] says it’s quite fast. Hmmm . . . I thought it was slow. Oh well . . . so you see hierarchical models are much faster than previous models . . . ”

Those cannot be her slides, I realized as we pack to leave. She borrowed or pilfered someone else’s presentation. Suddenly my regard for my professor deepens; she obviously must be quite skilled in improvisation and the ancient Irish art of malarkey. It seems I have much to learn from her after all.