Poking Things

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As I write, the dog is periodically hurking gently from his bed after a decadent chicken breakfast, and I am indulging a procrastinatory urge, the scene of which borders on the ridiculous.

I am taking the PE exam on the 26th of October - 'Principles and Practices of Engineering'..for my New York State license to practice engineering. It's sort of like a CPA or a bar exam sort of thing in terms of the professional status (although only 8 hours, not four 8 hour exams, like the NY bar). I get a stamp to stamp things with. All very official. Which is why the current arrangement of my home office room is a bit silly.

My computer sits about six feet from me and the keyboard - 'away' from the desk so I can study with a distraction-free desk and room for books. Except that I have a deep-seated and childish need to have some self-directed unproductive time at the beginning of a weekend day. I fought it yesterday and sat down to study at about 9am and was both fog-headed and cursed with the attention span of cat in a butterfly house until about 4pm, when my inner child gave up and sat in the corner while I was able to get some decent studying done.



                                  This legendary image by Asher Sarlin of elephantitis of the mind.

Beating the inner child will take more time and therapy than I have room for in my study schedule, so a morning of dilly-dallying it is. 

I'm too lazy to move the computer back to the desk for 'playtime' hence the slightly absurd scene of a man in his pyjamas browsing the internet and writing a blog post at the squinty range of six feet, twisted away from a desk piled high with books while a chihuahua belches happily in the background. I have coffee. 

This exam is supposed to be easier for the practicing engineer than the all-topic-slugfest that I took last autumn, because practicing engineering is what it's about. That's the theory, anyway. In practice, I read a question, think, I know how to do this, I've done it a dozen times...come up with an answer, and then discover that there is a much more mathematically involved method the book was expecting, which, incidentally, gives a slightly and subtly more accurate answer. The only significance in the marginal difference comes from the fact that the multiple choice answers are framed exactly so you are liable to fall victim to and be punished for the temptation of simplicity.

Other times it is gratifying to skip whole sections of a study plan...because of hard-won experience. It's not a great deal, but I'll take it. I get the benefit now, but if I am able to completely skip study of a particular topic, it means that some time in the past, I *had* to know that because someone somewhere had messed up a bit of a building or tunnel and I needed to fix things before a site foreman exploded with their particularly expensive brand of rage. (Yay construction industry)

The study is rewarding and tough in variable measure. I am constantly surprised by my own capacity to draw mental boundaries. I am an innately lazy person (he says, squinting at the computer screen) physically, but I like to identify myself with a bit of mental flexibility and verve. 

Then I come to study and I struggle to shake off the same sort of attitude I once scorned in schoolmates at the age of 14 or so - fractions? when am I gonna need fractions in real life? - this attitude of 'I'm done, I kinda know how to do this, that's enough learning, surely' settles on my shoulders like a welcome entitlement.

It's an emotionally driven personal justification for drawing a boundary between what is in the world and what is in your brain, and, when I have self-awareness enough to recognize it, it is anathema to me.

Then last weekend I took a trip out to the Poconos with a bunch of guy friends, for barbecue, cigars, scotch, 80s video games and some shooting. I was in two minds about the prudence of going, due to the proximity of the exam, but I needed a break and a bit of fun. It was an awesome weekend, with more culinary virtuosity than you'd expect, and a great bunch of friends.

We had a great scotch (thanks Luke) and a cigar each (thanks Jen and Lavina) around a fire, telling jokes in the dark in the stand of tall trees behind the lodge. And Harry showed me how you can heat copper pennies in a fire, poke them when they get soft, and drain out the zinc inside.

Impromptu Metallurgy


So despite having instant access, in this digital age, to the metallic composition of all US coinage and the melting points of same, we threw all the different types of coins in our pockets, and some aluminium foil, and a paper clip... into the fire and poked the living hell out of them for a while.

It was a different sort of spark that leapt from the real world, where I rarely get the chance to poke things with a stick, actually or metaphorically, and the world of my exam and work, where the reality of engineering is paper based and a little dry (unless you need to fix something before a foreman explodes). A new experience where my knowledge was real and applicable - albeit loosely. Rather optimistically we were trying to melt nickel (2,647 F or 1,453 C melting point) in an orangey-yellow wood fire (between 800 or 900C), but it was a lot of fun.

When are you going to need a rough handle on metallurgy or spectrography in real life?

I think the lesson here is that your life experience has to vary and expand and change in order to stop you getting stuck in the trap of settling, mentally, where you are. 

I just changed jobs and that has rings true there too, a little. As soon as I'm done with this exam I am going to pull off a few more changes, I think. Do some different stuff.

Speaking of the exam, this has turned from an honest dilly-dally into an avoidance exercise, so I'm heading back to the books.

Be well and take care.

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