The self-teaching guide for pre-calculus that I purchased assures me, "Factoring is fun!" (italics in the original).
Factoring, in case you slept through your high school math classes just like I did, is the process of reducing a polynomial into its more basic components. For example, the polynomial
can be reduced to:
This, apparently, is fun.
There are, I’m told, very good reasons for factoring, especially when you get into functions later on in calculus. I vaguely remember trying to figure out functions in high school, and in my abortive attempts to take math classes in college. Looking over my high school transcript, I see that I got a B in that particular class, though when I tried to take Calculus 21B in college, I flunked; perhaps I should have taken 21A first; what do you think?
The reason why I’m going on about pre-calculus and factors today is because I’ve decided to explore yet another potential career direction. I don’t know if this one will end up going anywhere yet, or if it will be another fizzle; we’ll have to wait and see, I suppose.
It all began when I had a conversation with my co-worker B– a month or so ago; that conversation sort of crystalized some thoughts I’d been having for some time: namely, the question of whether I want to do this computer programming thing for a career, or keep it at the hobby level. I enjoy programming computers, and I enjoy building websites and developing them; and I really enjoy being able to build websites that change dynamically with database updates, and so on. After all, this journal page that you’re reading right now didn’t really exist until you clicked on the link on the previous page; then a script on the server is run, and it pulls together information from a database that I built and it builds the page on the fly and sends it to your computer to read. I love doing that sort of thing; I love it even more when I’m doing it on a command line instead of a graphical window, which is why I I prefer Linux to Windows.
And I love learning how to do new stuff. I love learning C, PHP, and Java. I love figuring out how to build our little network at home (my old laptop computer now serves as a primitive web server, and even has an FTP and Tel-Net daemon running on it, so that Jennifer and I can log into our home network even when we’re on the road), and how to keep it running and secure, and how to put more functionality into it. I love this stuff so much that I thought I wanted to make a career out of it.
Well, having done it professionally for over a year now, I’m beginning to have second thoughts. I find myself wondering if I really want to be just another code monkey, working for just another company, on just another project. Certainly, the idea of having expertise and being "at the top of the food chain", so to speak (as B– put it when we discussing why we each want to learn Java), really appeals to me, but there’s a difference between being excited about taking the lead in the development of an infrastructure meant for the distribution of financial account information over some nameless corporation’s network, versus doing something which — I don’t know; which could be more important, or contribute more meaningfully.
And I have wavered for some time about whether I want to stay with the job I’m in, or hunt down something else. I like my boss, I like my co-workers, and the job itself isn’t all that bad, it just isn’t all that exciting. Sometimes the problems that I solve at work are interesting, and sometimes they’re dull, but that’s just the nature of life in general. But do I really want to be in a career which is distinguished by constant relearning of the same thing, long hours devoted to the job, with little variety in what I’m learning and doing? It’s like automobiles; you can either devote your life to building and maintaining automobiles, or you can use your car to achieve other goals, with enough knowledge of maintenance to keep the car going. This isn’t to say that I have no respect for the people who keep the cars running (or the computers for that matter); I’m just not entirely sure, anymore, that I want to be one of them. I’m not trying to disparage anyone or any field. I’m happy that here are people in the world who really enjoy taking care of cars and fixing them when they break; I’m so happy about it, in fact, that I’m willing to pay money to them to do it.
One of the goals I set for myself to achieve before the age of 40 was to get a Master’s Degree in something. I’ve puzzled over what to get a Master’s in, just because I couldn’t think of a field that I wanted to pursue; or, rather, because the fields I was really interested in pursuing I thought I could’t pursue for whatever reason. I’ve pondered a master’s in software engineering, but that didn’t really appeal to me for the reasons I’ve outlined above; and I’ve even pondered going ot and getting an MBA but there’s got to be more than business.
Well, okay, to make a long story belatedly short, I decided to at least look into getting a master’s degree in ecological systems engineering. It’s a field that I was interested in as an undergraduate but which I never pursued because I thought that the math would kill me. Then I thought to myself, "What the hell: I went to Ireland and the UK and wandered by myself for a month or so; I can handle getting an engineering MS." Half the reason I went on my trip was because there was a little guy inside of me telling me that I couldn’t; now this same little guy is telling me that there’s no way I can pull off an MS in ecological systems engineering. I showed him once, I think I can show him again.
I’m interested in ecological modeling, and in using ecological systems to solve ecological problems. At least, I was once; we’ll see if I still am once I’ve gotten exposed to it.
So I went to some professors and to some graduate students in the department and talked to them to try to get a sense of what the field really is, and what kind of work can be expected of someone in the field, and what I should be doing to get there. Each professor I spoke to emphasized different areas: one thinks that biomass is the way to go, another thinks that wetlands restoration is where it’s at. A third is really interested in the future evolution of an ecosystem just west of San Joaqin Valley. All three sound fascinating to me, and all three, to me, are worthy. And all three would involve heavy computer modeling and development.
Of course, all three of the professors I spoke to, after glancing at my college transcript, told me that I really need to bone up on my math. Serious math. Not "Math for Poets", where you look at an equation and marvel at its beauty and ponder its relevance for mankind, but "dirty math": where you have to know why a sine wave is important for modeling the rate of one bacterium’s methane production.
Hence, the research into math classes at local community colleges; and, before that, the review of precalculus and factoring and exponents and so on.
And then, of course, because I am incapable of approaching this sort of thing without a certain level of angst and second guessing, I just can’t stop myself from worrying that maybe what I’m doing is just giving up on my abortive career as a computer programmer, just because I don’t like the way it’s going. Since my wife’s wisdom usually exceeds my own, I asked her what her perception was, and she told me that it didn’t appear to be the case. And the admissions advisor I spoke to said, "Anyone who’s looking into ecological systems engineering because they think it will be easier than web development really needs to increase their medication. You know that, right?" I assured her that I did, and she replied, "All right then," and handed me more paperwork.
If this is the route that I want to go — and right now, it feels right — then I know that I’ve got a few years of hard work ahead of me. I’ve proven that little guy wrong before, and I’m sure that I can again. But there is also a part of me that wishes I knew for sure that this was the right thing to do.
On the other hand, I have the feeling that if I waited for some sort of assurance that this really is the right course to pursue, then I’ll be waiting for a very long time, and I probably wouldn’t get anywhere anyway.
So, in the meantime, I’ve broken out a pencil and some paper and some precalculus books, and I’m somehow working mathematics into a schedule which is already full of things I want to learn and projects I want to work on.
It will work. No, really.