Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Constants Aren't Constant, Apparently

So it's really late (4:20am, to be exact), and I am still working on a problem set which I swore-- after reading a few questions-- was going to take me no more than 6 hours to complete. I was way off, and now I'm even more off, because I am taking a break to rant about it on the Internets.

Of course I should have started my work earlier (not the day before it was due as is familiar in my usual routine), but it just looked so easy. And of course the usual excuses (not to mention serious ADD) outweighed my desire to get my work done early this particular week. Those excuses included a move to Southern California, a wine-tasting trip with some newly acquired friends, and the need to help my artistically-challenged boyfriend map out dungeons with an algorithm we invented while playing Phantasy Star 2-- an awesome RPG made for Sega Genesis. (If you enjoy RPGs and you missed this one in the 90s, you should seriously download it. It has the best music ever, too.)

Right, so back to the problem set. It's for one of my courses called Semiconductor Device Fabrication, or something. Basically I learn how microprocessors (and other devices) are built, which includes their physics, technological advancements, and the mechanical/electrochemical processes by which they are made. This is really cool stuff-- and it can be complicated at times-- but really, the problems looked so simple. They were much simpler than anything I was ever required to solve as an Astrophysics major, anyway.

And I was right-- the problems were SO easy. But the rub is that I was given about 1/3 the information required in order to solve them. There was a serious lack of constants, conversion factors, atomic data, and sometimes entire equations. This doesn't sound terrible, but believe me, it is. And I'm one of those people that knows off the top of my head things like, one electron-Volt is equal to 1.602 x 10^-19 Joules . Figuring out constants is not something which is normally a challenge.

I have wasted approximately 8.73 (+/- 0.6) hours of my time looking up this missing information on the Internets. Obscure physical constants are not terribly easy to find on the web, nor do they often appear in the units you desire them to. A simple search for "So-and-So's Constant", or "Blah Blah Equation", will often lead to a plethora of high school science experiment websites, none of which can provide me with reliable information.

A Wikipedia search yields the exact opposite result: topics on Chemistry or Physics are written by know-it-all asshats who can't wait to shout from the rooftops everything they just learned in last week's lecture, so they spew it all onto the Internet in a format not at all dissimilar to that found in their textbooks. While the page-long paragraphs of facts they display are usually quite accurate, there is not one iota of useful information contained in them.

I searched for the equivalent units of amu (atomic mass unit)-- because (*gasp*) I don't remember my high school chemistry unit conversions-- for nearly an hour, because 3 different websites gave me 3 different (and yes, conflicting) definitions. No, this information is not in the course text book. I realize it would not be such a big deal to look this one detail up on the Internet-- but the problem was that there were literally 297 of these little details to look up. Seriously, why is there not a sheet with useful data on it!? I realize this is a graduate class, but having to research constants should not be impeding me from doing the actual work! Sssssss.

The sad thing is that I have at least a dozen wonderful Physics books, each with a plethora of this sort of information contained in neat little tables in Appendices A through C, or sometimes even as far as D. Those books are in boxes which weigh 8 tons each, and are all stacked on top of one another, waiting to move from the sublet to the new apartment. I think this coming week, I will be doing some temporary unpacking.

In addition to the sheer lack of necessary information, some of the questions are just ridiculous. One of the problems from my textbook asks me to "Find the resistivity of pure-silicon at temperatures of 77K, 300K, and 1000K." FIND? Don't you mean calculate? Surely there must be a temperature-dependent equation for resistivity somewhere in the text. No, there was not, nor am I aware of any such equation which doesn't go way beyond the bounds of this course. After scrutinizing the text for several minutes (it was like motherfucking Where's Waldo), I managed to "find" one value for resistivity, which corresponded to 300K, but no where in sight were the values for the other two temperatures. There was also no graph or any other piece of information from which I could derive a relationship or make any type of inference as to the values of the mystery resistivities. My final answer was that the resistivity at 77K was greater than that at 300K, while the value at 1000K was smaller. True, though not so much accurate.

I'm currently working on a problem which features an equation that, based on an example given in lecture, does not equal itself. The units are correct, but the numbers (or clearly something else) are not.

All I can think about is wine tasting in Santa Barbara later today. I think there's a good chance I'll be passing out in a vineyard.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Give Me My Textbooksss, You Bitch

I don't even know where to start. Perhaps I'll start by informing everyone to never, ever order books online through the Columbia University Bookstore if you ever hope to receive them.

I made such an error last Tuesday, when I purchased Wave Transmission and Fiber Optics and Microchip Manufacturing to be delivered overnight via air to my summer address in Chicago. The books should have arrived last Thursday, which was good, because we were set to drive back to California on Friday, and I was excited to get a head start on my reading over the weekend. Well, Friday morning came and as I had still not received my books-- or a UPS slip saying they made a delivery attempt-- I called UPS to track my package. Whichever Drone on the Phone I ended up speaking to informed me that my package was all set to be delivered-- on time-- on Tuesday, September 4th!! There was never any indication of overnight air shipping-- only an order for ground transit UPS received from the CU Bookstore. (Note: the confirmation email the bookstore sent me explicitly stated that my package was set to arrive by next day air.)

I called the CU Bookstore, and after speaking to a manager who made it all too clear that I was "bothering" him, rather than being apologetic-- or god forbid helpful-- I managed to have him agree to call UPS to change the address on the package to my apartment in Berkeley. I called back less than an hour later after not hearing an update from him, and he made sure to inform me that he not only called UPS and had the address on the shipment changed, but that he was nice enough to spend the better part of the last two hours working on this problem. (Since when forty minutes became two hours is news to me. Perhaps there are some things about the space-time continuum they did not teach us in Astrophysics.) Also, asshat (I just added asshat to my spell check dictionary), you aren't being "nice" in fixing my problem. Your department fucked up, so it's your responsibility to correct the error. You aren't doing me a favor, you're doing your job. Stop acting all mighty.

But no matter. I was happy that my package would now arrive in Berkeley on Tuesday, September 4th, even though that was the first day of my online classes. At least I'd have my books on time, and I was able to get the $18 back that I paid for air shipment.

Yesterday, September 4th, my books did not arrive. Now perhaps you're thinking I should have checked online over the weekend to see that my information was correctly updated. There are two reasons I did not do this. One is that my situation was a relatively rare one-- though I'm sure not unheard of-- for UPS, and I did not trust that the information online would necessarily be the information held by the people actually shipping the packages. The Drones on the Phones, too, seem to have access to only this information, so I couldn't be certain that they'd have the correct updates. The second reason is that I was on the road until Sunday night. There was nothing I could do between then and Tuesday, since Monday was Labor Day.

Tuesday I called UPS, who happily informed me (why oh why did I get connected to the singular chipper person who answers the phones in Bumblefuck Texas?) that my package was delivered to Schaumburg, Illinois that very morning. Seriously. There was no record that my address had ever been changed to Berkeley, and there was nothing they could do about this, since-- get this-- someone had signed for it. Who the fuck signed for my package?! It was certainly not the management of the apartment, so it must have been a new (mildly retarded) tenant, whom I have absolutely no way of getting in touch with. I hope this person wants to learn about fiber optics and microchips as much as I do.

Once again, the error did not lie within UPS-- which is surprising, because it usually does-- but within the CU Bookstore's Department of Totally Incompetent Idiots Who Are Obviously Not Columbia Students. This time, I spoke to a different manager, who again acted like I was bothering her. I give her credit at least for profusely apologizing, but she did not seem to understand the urgency of getting my books out to me, nor did she have a plan of action. I was told I'd receive a call back either that night or the next day (which, incidentally is today), and I still have not heard. I am going to call again now, once I get myself geared up to yell, argue, and threaten.

I feel the need to explain that whenever I make calls such as these, I am always very polite and understanding, because I realize that whomever I'm speaking to is surely not the one who screwed up. Unfortunately, though, this never gets me anywhere, because everyone I talk to simply throws the responsibility on someone else, and no one ever cares to fix the problem or help me out. Instead of trying to correct the error, everyone is so caught up on telling me it wasn't his fault, and thus not his responsibility. I'm not trying to blame any one individual (although I know it had to be the guy-who-sent-out-my-order's fault); all I'm asking is that someone-- anyone-- say the bookstore as a whole made a mistake and will do something about it. So I am eventually forced to be a bitch, and I hate this. I'm not a snob or a demanding person, but I certainly do not want to pay for something which I have not yet received when I ordered it over one week ago. All I ask for is for a business to be reasonable. I want my books overnighted to me, and I want a serious discount.

Is it wrong to report your Alma Mater's Bookstore to the Better Business Bureau?