Thursday, August 25, 2011

RYFM revisited

If you can't follow instructions...

Once upon a time computers and software programs were bundled with books—actual hard-copy sheafs of bound paper. You were supposed to read them. On-line help was limited (if you even had on-line access) and fellow computer nerds would cheerfully offer advice in times of distress by suggesting that you “read the friendly manual.” (I do, however, recall that not everyone agreed that the F stood for “friendly.”)

Learning to read instructions is a survival skill. If only I could get more of my students to take it seriously. (It sure helps on word problems!) I wish all students would take it more seriously! As a senior faculty member, I am often called upon to adjudicate the earnest petitions of the college's desperate students. It's educational for me, but I think I've learned as much as I want to. It's depressing.

I'm talking about those petitions known as “challenge forms.” Every college has something equivalent. My school's challenge forms are usually submitted in hopes of getting a prerequisite waiver. For example, a returning student wants to enroll in precalculus but gets bounced because his academic record doesn't include a passing grade in trigonometry. He files a petition with documentation demonstrating that he's been doing field work for a surveying company for several years, along with actual samples of trigonometric calculations done on the job. We sign the challenge form to indicate approval of the waiver and he gets to enroll in precalculus.


But no. Most students file challenge petitions that are cleverly designed to waste our time. (I nearly said, “and theirs,” but there's not much evidence they actually put any time into it.) For example, one student wanted to take intermediate algebra. The evidence he provided in support of his petition was a high school transcript showing he had flunked elementary algebra. I mean, surely if you fail Algebra 1 in high school you must be ready for success in Algebra 2 in college, right?

Petition denied.

The instructions for the challenge forms are quite specific: It is the student's responsibility to provide “credible evidence” that he or she is prepared for success in a class despite not having passed the prerequisite class. An amazing number of students seem to think that “credible evidence” consists of writing a personal note saying things like:
  • I could have passed if I tried, so please give me credit for having taken it.
  • I plan to transfer to Big U next fall and I can't if you make me take the prerequisite over again, so please don't make me.
  • The teacher was awful and it wasn't my fault I didn't pass the prerequisite.
  • I promise to work really hard for a change.
Yeah, it's depressing.

Strangely enough, though, my most negative reactions are reserved for the padded petition forms full of time-wasting chaff. While we don't consider personal promises to do better as credible evidence, we do give rather more weight to successful completion of math placement tests. Want to take Algebra 2 even though we have no record of your having taken Algebra 1? Take the placement test and earn a score that suggests you're ready to take Algebra 2. We'll let you in!

But many times I've seen challenge forms plumped up with material from the placement test—because students have included the booklet of sample placement test questions. What a waste! Those pages are useless. Just give me the one-page print-out with the test results. I have waded through forms that included (a) the instructions for filling out the challenge form (with no evidence that they read it), (b) instructions for taking the placement test (I already know those), (c) sample test questions (even if you marked them up I don't want to see them; only if you take the proctored test do I know it's your own work), and (d) a personal statement in which the student promises to do better (fine, but that's not really evidence). My colleagues and I peruse these bundles of futility, shake our heads sadly, and sign on the “petition denied” line.

Really. If you can't follow the instructions and give us credible evidence, you're probably not cut out for a successful educational experience. Better take care of that first, before you try to move on.

We're hoping that word gets out that the math department is a hard-nosed place that requires real evidence before it will approve a challenge form. The record of several years suggests that we hope in vain.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Do-it-yourself yourself

So many books, so little space

Some of my friends and acquaintances keep flaunting their electronic book readers at me. They're confident I will eventually be assimilated. I'm confident I won't be—at least not to the degree they believe. Sure, I expect that one day I will acquire a Kindle or something similar. If I were more of a traveler, I'd probably have one already. However, I've had a life-long love affair with real books and my eventual e-reader will augment them rather than replace them. Trust me on this.

Of course, a love affair with real honest-to-gosh books is both time- and space-consuming. This summer I resolved to get my monotonically increasing collection under better control. It's been years since the last time I sorted and arranged all of my books into something approaching a rational system, and entropy has been steadily working its randomizing magic. Unfortunately, I discovered I had achieved grid-lock.

Are you familiar with the classic Fifteen Puzzle? The goal is to slide the numbered tiles about until they are all in numerical order. The tiles reside in a four-by-four grid, one square of which remains empty. That's what allows you to slide the numbered tiles around. Without the empty square, you cannot budge.

And that's what happened to my out-of-control library: It had grown to fill all available spaces and thus I was left without a staging area—a blank space—to use as a temporary storage niche while unshelving and reshelving books. You really need some elbow room if you're going to do a wholesale sorting of your books—instead of a painfully slow and incremental tweaking. I was reminded of RAM-poor computers trying to run programs that ate up all available memory and then ground to a crawl because of the lack of available working space.

Like I said: grid-lock.

My keenly-honed intellect began to consider options: (1) I could free up some space by tossing out a bunch of unneeded books. (Oops: no such thing!) (2) I could shift more of my math books into my office at school. (Ha! My office is worse!) (3) I could replace many of my books with electronic editions and an e-reader. (Too early! See above.) (4) I could magically create more space by cleaning house. (Huh? What is “cleaning house”?)

In a way, I did choose (4). My residence has a storage room attached to one side of the building, integral to the structure. It's where the lawnmower used to live (long gone; that's what gardening services are for). I went exploring and discovered it was full of old boxes (anyone need the shipping carton for a Gateway 2000 computer?) and some obsolete electronic gear (would you believe an original IBM PC monochrome monitor from 1983?). I began to clear it out.

The storage space is 44 inches deep and 108 inches wide. Room! I nosed about Home Dept and Lowe's and found a 5-tier shelf unit that was 42 inches wide. It would fit perfectly—but the shelves were rather farther apart than I might have wished. The paperback volumes I intended to stack on it needed much less clearance than the standard unit would provide, and the shelves weren't adjustable. (Adjustable-shelf units were also available, but they were all 36-inches or 48-inches wide.)

Of course, the fixed spacing of the shelves assumed that I would follow directions and mount the shelves on the built-in flanges provided on the support poles. Ha! Instead of following directions, I bought five shelving units (with an aggregate of 25 individual shelves) and created three eight-shelf units (one shelf left over).

After a bit of exploration and experimentation, I discovered that the toner cartridge box for my HP LaserJet printer was as wide as the shelf spacing I desired. After installing the bottom shelf, I placed the toner cartridge box in the middle of that shelf and slipped the next shelf unit onto the support poles and let it drop until it rested atop the box. The shelf didn't match up with the mounting flanges (of course), so I serenely drilled holes at the four corners and secured the out-of-place shelf with nuts and bolts. After extricating the toner cartridge box, I tossed it atop the new shelf, grabbed the next shelf, and dropped it atop the box. Occasionally, of course, I had to install the extensions of the support poles.

The results were stunning. The storage room has now sucked up two thousand paperback books and opened up several feet of shelf space in the house proper. Books that were stacked on end tables and floors and the piano (which I can now see again—and really should consider having tuned) are now being spirited into shelves. Hurrah!

I must admit, though, that they are not yet as meticulously sorted and grouped as I had planned. But soon, I'm sure. But first I have to put away some tools.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Root, kit, or die

Don't go there!

You might not realize the extent to which you're living the Google lifestyle until suddenly you can't any longer. It happened to me over a week ago. Google stopped working. The search engine seemed okay, but clicking on a result entailed unpredictable consequences. Most of the time I would not get the webpage I had selected. The results seemed random. It was perplexing. More than perplexing. It was maddening.

If you're technologically savvy, you know that weird computer behavior is a good indication of a viral infection. It wasn't long before I realized that some weird bug was affecting the way Google behaved. Naturally, I quickly resorted to ... Google to figure out what was wrong!


It took a few moments to find a work-around. Google was, after all, doing a perfectly fine job of finding websites related to search-engine viruses. Instead of clicking on an individual result and trusting Google to take me there, I instead copied and pasted the URL directly into the browser. Success! After visiting several sites, I learned that my computer had contracted a form of the “Google redirect virus.” Google referrals were being hijacked and directed to sites that were benefiting from extra hits from infected computers.

Example of a rogue page from a redirected Google item

Some of the rogue pages that popped up were plausibly connected to the original Google search, even if it they weren't the pages you asked for. But tell me, would you trust a supposedly anti-virus program that offers itself as a solution to the Google redirect virus if the virus itself suggests it to you? Sorry, Stopzilla, there is no way that I am trying you!

The virus in question creates a “rootkit” problem, where a “rootkit” is a program that gives privileged access to the functions of a computer. Rootkits can be damnably elusive. I've tried ferreting out my computer's infection with utilities from Norton, AVG, Sophos, Zookaware (SpyZooka), Enigma Softweare (SpyHunter), and Kaspersky. Lots of adware cookies were demolished in the process of scanning my computer, but the redirect virus was not caught. Damn. I was especially disappointed when Kaspersky's vaunted TDSSKiller did not track down and kill the lurking rootkit.

My new problem was keeping track of which anti-virus scanner I had used and then disabling or uninstalling those that wanted to fight each other. (You can definitely have too much of a good thing, and anti-virus programs are not fond of polygamy.) I've discovered that Anti-Malware from Malwarebytes is the most active combatant in the battle with the rootkit virus. It often (but not always!) detects attempts to redirect my clicks on Google results and prevents them. I'd much rather, of course, expunge the rootkit entirely and go back to clicking with abandon. But so far it is not to be.

Suggestions, anyone, on the best way to smash a rootkit virus on a PC running Windows 7?