College Decision Time

Tulane Logo

As Decision Day (May 1) got closer and closer, Jeff narrowed his choices to two: Tulane and UC Davis (oddly enough, the last two schools we visited). They were very different in some important ways (especially size), but both of them felt good to all of us, especially Jeff.

But in the end, size mattered, and Jeff chose Tulane this evening.

Though he nearly wasn’t able to close the deal — his school email was down, and that’s where they’d sent his userid and password. Fortunately, when we’d registered for Destination Tulane, they’d sent me a note with a link to the right place, so he was able to log in that way.

Two clicks later, it was my turn to participate. How did schools ever manage admission deposits before credit cards?

And then the deed was done, and Jeff was officially committed. A quick choice of preferred residence halls followed, and that was that.


College Decision Time: A visit to Tulane

Tulane was the first university to accept Jeff, so it’s somewhat ironic that it’s the last place we’re visiting. But it takes longer to get here, so we wanted to wait until he was on vacation, and this year, that meant waiting till nearly the end of April because of the leap month.

We flew in yesterday, arriving at the hotel a little after 9pm CDT. And we got a pleasant surprise — they gave us a significantly better rate than we’d expected, because our trip was Tulane-afflilated.

This morning, we had breakfast and queued up for the St. Charles streetcar just after 7:30am. We were not alone; there were at least three other families who were also bound for Destination Tulane. And the streetcar driver took care of us, announcing when we were at the right place (I thought we were going to go at least one other stop, so I’m glad he did that). There was plenty of signage on campus, and we were met by an admissions person and directed to the right place anyway.

Tulane had laid out a nice spread for us (though someone pointed out the absence of matzah), and had a well-organized program, starting with a short talk by one of the admissions staff, then a long tour of campus, a student panel, lunch at Bruff Commons (on the University), a talk by the Provost, and a tour of a “model” dorm room. Then we sat in on a class in International Relations, wandered through the student union, and eventually took the streetcar back to the hotel.

I’d have to say that this was the best and most informative visit we’ve had; it was also the smallest group (maybe 150 people, tops, versus 400 or so at Willamette, and thousands at UC Davis and UCSB). Well, the tour at UC Santa Cruz was smaller, but it was strictly a bus tour, with very little interaction (no dorm visits, no classes; we didn’t even go to the student union or any food service facility).

Some of the things which I noted here:

  • Students are assigned a faculty advisor (tenured) when they register, and they stay with that person until they declare a major (and many still work with their original advisor). Advising is manadatory freshman year; I think it’s optional after that, though the advisor has to sign certain paperwork (like changes of major).
  • Double (and even triple) majors are pretty common (around 40%), and minors are also common.
  • You’re required to live on campus for your first two year; about half of the juniors do, and maybe a quarter of the seniors. Tulane has on-campus apartments for upperclassmen, not just dorms. Most everyone lives within a mile of campus. There are shuttles to some off-campus destinations; if you want to go somewhere else, you’re on your own (you don’t get free use of the city transit system).
  • Bikes are not nearly as common as on the UCSB and UC Davis campuses.
  • Students are required to have two “service learning” experiences, which are normally tied to a class rather than being standalone “community service”. This is new since Katrina.
  • Professors teach classes and are accessible, both during official office hours and other times. TAs lead labs and grade, rather than teaching sections.
  • The core curriculum includes three semesters of foreign language, history, English, and a lab science, as well as the TIDES (Tulane InterDisciplinary Education Series, or something like that), which is taught by a professor your first year. All majors have a capstone requirement.
  • All undergraduates are members of the Newcomb-Tulane undergraduate college; when you declare a major, you also become a member of the relevant school and department. Each school has additional core requirements, and then each major has specifics.
  • Research opportunites exist for undergrads, even freshmen.
  • There are many study abroad programs (summer, semester, or full-year), some of which can also fulfill a service learning requirement.
  • They do a compatibility survey for roommates (like UCSB, and unlike Davis, which assigns randomly).
  • The food at Bruff Commons was pretty good (they even had matzah available). The meal plan is carte blanche, so students are not limited to a certain number of visits (unlike UCSB and UC Davis), so one can pop in for an apple (say) and not use up a full meal credit.

Some other things that students mentioned:

  • The career center is very good, and available as soon as Freshman year.
  • You can buy stuff at your local Bed, Bath, and Beyond and have it available for pickup in New Orleans (or, presumably, at other colleges if there’s a store there).
  • The optional pre-orientation “New Orleans Experience” is worthwhile.

We haven’t had much time to explore New Orleans; we took a quick walk after coming back from campus, but it was rather warm. So we retreated to the hotel for a bit, then went to dinner at La Crepe Nanou (recommended by the admissions office, and included in the Zagat Guide they gave us). The food was good (though we won’t order Coq au Vin there again — there’s bacon in it, which Diane found out just in time; they switched her order at no charge), though the music was a little loud. And the wines (by the glass) were very nice; I wish I’d written them down (their online wine list is downlevel).

After dinner, we took the streetcar and bus down to Canal Street, then walked over to Cafe du Monde, wandered through a bit more of the French Quarter, and then taxied back to the hotel. We hope to do a bit more touring tomorrow before flying home.

Work on Wednesday is going to be a shock, I’m afraid.

College Decision Time: A Visit to UC Davis

Yesterday, it was our turn to visit UC Davis for their “Decision Davis” event, designed to sell the campus to prospective students.

We drove up on Thursday night, stopping at China House in Vacaville for dinner – while I wouldn’t make a special trip to eat there, I’d be quite willing to go back if I was in the neighborhood. We spent the night at the Comfort Suites in Davis, which lived up to its name. And we had an excellent breakfast at Caffe Italia before going to the campus for the actual event.

We were pleasantly impressed by the campus and by the town. Even though the campus is huge, the relevant parts are walkable (but most students bike — and, like UCSB, bike theft is the biggest crime on campus), and downtown Davis is immediately adjacent to campus. The student government and the town jointly operate Unitrans bus service, which is free to students and has good service throughout town (a good thing, because housing is basically limited to first year students). I had to be careful when walking through campus, because there were bicyclists everywhere, and they weren’t interested in stopping for me — it reminded me of Amsterdam.

Davis has a Freshman Seminar program, somewhat like Willamette’s, but it’s not mandatory. Like other UCs, most lower-division courses have TAs for the discussion sections, so this would be the best opportunity to actually work with a tenured professor for the first year or two.

Some classes are constrained (again, like other UCs); they do a two-pass registration process, and then they have waitlists and “crashing” to get into classes that are otherwise full. *sigh*

Unlike UCSB, Davis invited us to eat in a Dining Commons along with current students; it was a much more pleasant experience than our 45-minute wait for Panda Express last week. There was a good variety of food (even Jeff found things he liked), and the cookies were very good. The dorms weren’t all that impressive, even by dorm standards; the one we toured had been built in 1960. So I guess students aren’t all that unwilling to move off-campus after the first year.

Like UCSB (and, I suppose, other UCs), advising is largely at the initiative of the student — they have a peer-advising program called The First Resort which is available in the dorms as well as in the Academic Advising Center, and which does most of the advising; faculty/staff-led advising is also available, but unlike some other schools we’ve looked at, it’s not mandatory.

Davis also reaches out to parents with the Aggie Family Pack.

The Memorial Union (student union) was a lively place, with good vibes, and Davis itself is definitely a college town, with coffeeshops (other than Starbucks!) and lots of little restaurants and shops.

Downsides? Well, it’s a UC, so it’s going to be under budget pressure. And you can smell cows from some parts of campus (apparently the Tercero dorms are on the ag side of campus).

Everyone we talked to was enthusiastic about the school; it definitely moved up on Jeff’s list (and mine).

Next stop: Tulane.

College Decision Time: A visit to UC Santa Barbara

It’s getting down to the wire for Jeff’s college decision. The schools which are still in the running (I think) are (in no particular order) Willamette, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, Tulane, and the University of Oregon, though he hasn’t given anywhere (UC Riverside and American) an official “no” yet.

We spent yesterday at UCSB’s “Spring Insight”, a one-day open house where they try to have people available to answer your questions and, I guess, limit the disruption to normal activities.

Things I learned about UCSB:

  • Political Science is a somewhat impacted major. History isn’t. In History, AP credits can be used to place out of at least some survey classes, or you can use them as general credits and take the surveys.

  • UCSB offers many orientation sessions throughout the summer, so planning vacations should be no problem.

  • Academic advising is done at both the college and the major levels. A lot of it is done by students (at least at the college level), and you have to pursue it because it may not be required. You should do it at least once a year.

  • Housing is only guaranteed for the first year; most students move off-campus by third year (and a good many move for second year). If you live on-campus, you must have a meal plan (10, 14, and 19-meal options are available) which is good at any of the four dining commons but is not good at the restaurants in the University Center. The dorms (at least the one we saw) have tiny kitchenettes on each hall. Many of the dorms are actually off-campus. Dorms are co-ed by hall; bathrooms are single-sex.

  • Bike theft is the big crime on campus (we were told about it three separate times!). This is the first campus we’ve visited without security callboxes all over the place; they have a well-used escort service.

  • Wireless access is spotty on campus, though they hope to build it out. The library is not 24-hours, but there is a 24-hour study room (often used for groups) on the ground floor of the library.

  • Greek life is a major part of the campus but not dominant.

  • Although UCSB is supposed to have a stunning campus, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the buildings. The view of the lagoon was nice, but that was about it.

  • For future visitors to a Spring Insight event: 7,000 visitors tax the campus pretty severely.

    • It’s best not to follow the herd to parking but to find the first available lot and park. We bailed out on the long line leading to the closest structure and went back to Lot 18; it probably saved us ten minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic and was only a few steps farther away.

    • We made the mistake of trying to have lunch in the University Center at Panda Express. We spent 45 minutes in line. It would probably have been faster to walk to Isla Vista (which we didn’t get to see) and eat at one of the restaurants there.

Next stop: UC Davis.

When “It Just Works” becomes inoperative

Last Friday, I discovered that I couldn’t synch my iPod with my MacBook Pro. The iPod thought it was connected, but the Mac didn’t; oddly enough, I was able to synch my iPhone just fine.

Rebooting the iPod didn’t help, so I decided to reboot the Mac. It didn’t want to go down gracefully for some reason (it kept complaining about programs not ending), so I finally brought up a terminal window and typed “sudo shutdown -r now” to force a reboot.

That was a mistake. I got a big Do-Not-Enter sign on the screen. Repeatedly. So I booted the install DVD and ran Disk Utility to verify the drive — it had no complaints.

Back to booting the disk — this time in Verbose mode (press Apple-V right after the power switch, keep it pressed until the bong sounds). The first attempt was a complete failure; it couldn’t load mach.kernel. But I persevered (it’s not like I had a choice), and got farther — to the point that I started seeing “disk0s2: 0xe0030005 (Undefined)” errors on screen, each of which was accompanied by a long pause.

A quick visit to Google told me that the disk was failing if not already dead (which undoubtedly explained my many spinning beachballs and failures to shutdown over the past few days). So I decided to go home and see if I could rescue any data before taking the machine into the shop.

At home, I connected the system to my Mac mini and brought it up in Firewire Disk Mode (press and hold “T” right after powering on) and managed to recover most of my home directory before it was time for my appointment with a Genius at the Apple Store.

The Genius asked me what I’d done and then suggested I try a reboot while he watched, not in verbose mode. 15 minutes later, the system was up. He then suggested I:

  1. Take the machine home without rebooting
  2. Make a copy of the disk on an external drive
  3. Use Disk Utility to write zeros on the hard drive so that it would assign alternate sectors
  4. Reinstall the OS
  5. Move data back to the machine
  6. Get on with my life

He was half right.

I used SuperDuper! to clone the drive. It took three tries, extending well into Saturday night, before I was able to get a complete copy made.

Then I ran Disk Utility in “secure erase” mode to zero out the drive, reinstalled Leopard, and started the long process of moving things back from the external drive. I was suspicious of the integrity of the copy, so I didn’t move any binaries back, just my data — that meant reinstalling many programs and getting them back up to date (Microsoft Office 2004 was especially pernicious, requiring me to run the updater at least 8 times).

But by late Sunday, I was finished.

On Tuesday, though, I started seeing spinning beachballs again. By Wednesday morning, they were frequent. And a perusal of /var/log/system.log showed more “disk0s2: 0xe0030005 (Undefined)” errors. So I knew I had to have the disk replaced, which was going to be a problem, because the Genius had told me that it would take 4-7 business days, which would extend into an upcoming trip.

The machine was out of warranty, so I could have fixed it myself, but life is too short for that. And since it was the company’s machine, not mine, I really wanted to take it to an authorized servicer. But 4-7 days was unacceptable. Fortunately, there are alternatives to the Apple Store, listed right on the Apple site.

I called the closest one, ClickAway and was speaking to a tech within a few minutes. He said that they’d happily install a new drive (which they’d sell me or I could pick up at Fry’s) the same day. And they’d try to recover the data, or they could sell me a SATA case for $25 so I could do it myself (and then wipe the drive afterwards).

And they did just that. They even installed Leopard for free, saving me the trouble of doing it from the DVD. And they finished two hours earlier than they’d estimated. And the price of the whole process, including the SATA case and a larger drive than I’d originally had, was just about the same as just getting the drive swapped for an identical drive at the Apple Store.

I still had to reinstall and reupdate my software again and put my data back on. But I’ve gotten good at that.

Lessons Learned:

  • Backups are good.
  • Backups before the drive fails are better.
  • Even if all your “important” data is on multiple machines, backups are good.
  • Image backups are very good.
  • Geniuses are not always right.

I now also have a Time Capsule, which is busily backing up my Mac mini as I speak (I’ve already backed up the MBP). I wish the mini were close enough to connect it through a cable, because an over-the-air backup of 300MB takes a very long time.

And I’ve registered my copy of SuperDuper!
to make image backups easier in the future. $27.95 is cheap insurance — and I already have used the program to save my butt, so it’s even retroactive insurance (hey, it works for Warren Buffett, so why not for me?).