Fairwell to Oliver Twist  

Part 3 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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When the tests were handed back in the following class, mine was nowhere to be found.

“Was there a problem with my test?” I asked Nicholas after class.

“With your test? No. But you are in the wrong class.”

“I am?”

“You’re going to waste a whole semester here.  Zee is putting you in his second level class.  He’s already worked out the schedule for you.  You may have to change your literature class though.”

“He can do that?”

“You can refuse. But why would you?  Zee thinks you have potential.”

“How does he even know who I am? He never actually teaches this class.”

“Don’t let that fool you.  Zee is a great professor and he can do a lot for you—if you are willing to play by his rules.”

“I bought all the books for that Dickens class. I already read 200 pages of Oliver Twist.”

“Return the books and watch the movie if you want to know how it ends. Zee already asked Dr. Kendic to over-tally you into her ancient literature class so that you can take his 2nd level comp-sci class.”

“Do I get a say in this?”

“Of course you do. You’re welcomed to stay in this intro class and spend the rest of the semester learning what you just demonstrated that you already know.” He threw my test down in front of me. “140” was written across the top followed by the letters, “BAC?”

“What’s BAC?”

“That is not something you get to learn in an intro class.”

So I did it.

“You’re behind,” Dr. Zee told me my first day of the second level class as if this were my fault.

“Do the programs you missed and tell me when you are two weeks ahead of where the class is. Preferably you will tell me this next class.” I laughed at this and then I realized he was serious.

I slightly resented this. I mean why did I have to work harder than everyone else?  It wasn’t like I didn’t have other classes. But I was intrigued to see just where this could go. I liked having a challenge to live up to. So I spent that weekend in the computer lab.

“I’m two weeks ahead,” I told him at the start of the next class.

“Good. Keep it that way.”

As the class started I was very confused. Everyone around me was beginning to write the assigned programs—the ones I had already written. What the hell was I supposed to do during the class time? I reached into my bag and pulled out the copy of J.R.R.Tolkein’s Silmarillion I always kept handy.

After 15 minutes Zee appeared behind me.

“Christopher since you obviously have a moment to spare would you do me a favor?” He led me over to another student’s work station. “Mr. Prescott here is having some difficulty. Would you give him a hand?”

I looked over the kid’s program and gave him some pointers. As soon as I finished Zee asked me to help someone else. Then the kid next to that student asked me to help him figure out what they had done wrong. At one point I looked up to see Zee sitting with his feet up on the desk in the front of the class, reading the New York Times.

From then on, I never had a relaxed moment in one of Zee’s classes. I didn’t realize it yet, but I was already working for the BAC.  My days of being a regular computer science major, brief as they were, were over.

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Turbo Pascal

Part 2 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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It began, as many things do, with a test.  This particular test occurring only two weeks into my first semester. The class was Introduction to Computer Science as taught by Dr. Konstantinos Zervos.

Having taken three computer science classes in Staten Island Tech, I had a pre-existing notion of what a computer science teacher would be like. Dr. Zee did not fit my expectation.

Zee was in his early thirties. He wore his long hair in a ponytail and a gemstone earring that was positively pirate-esque.  His rolled up sleeves revealed tattooed lines of unreadable text circling his arms, but otherwise, he dressed like a conservative professor with an antique pocket watch tucked into his paisley vest.

Dr. Zee did not seem to give a damn about teaching this intro class. He looked bored, possibly hung over. He rattled off lecture points as if he was reading names from the phone book. He relied too heavily on powerpoint slides, flipping through them with such rapidity that the class gasped with frustration. I was thankful that he only taught one lecture before letting his TA take-over.

Nicholas, his Russian grad student was, by comparison, a paragon of efficient instruction. Unusually, the first two weeks were a condensed version of what we would spend the entire semester on—a smattering of MS-DOS commands before powering through the basic functions of Turbo Pascal: strings and loops, if-then’s and while’s, fields and multi-dimensional arrays. The pace was far too fast, and the material was presented without illustration—these types of concepts need to be used in order to be understood. We were supposed to be spending our class-time programming, not scribbling down notes. The class was near mutinous.

And then came the “quiz” which was so not a quiz. It was a full period test that would have made a tough final. At the end of the test were five nigh-impossible extra-credit question that would have made the sphynx blush.

“What the hell was that?” Someone asked when Nicholas collected the tests.

“Don’t worry,” the TA said, as the class collectively groaned, “Dr. Zee drops the lowest quiz grade.”

“Then what did you put us through that for?” someone shouted.

I didn’t have much trouble with it.

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Crossing the Harbor

Part 1 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

They say you don’t truly find yourself until you’re in college.  Somewhere between the beer pong, the impulsive hook-ups, and the frat parties, you’re supposed to learn something essential about who you are.  It’s like your adult identity is hidden there, tangled in your dorm sheets with a bunch of Dorito crumbs, marijuana stems, and condom wrappers just waiting for your moment of epiphany.

Well, my college experience wasn’t like that at all. I don’t do much of anything the traditional way. I can’t even fuck things up the way I am supposed to. I had been told a hundred times to go away to school and experience the metamorphic rebirth of dorm life. But I’m an Italian kid from Staten Island. We’re not really raised to fly free of the nest. I was programmed to return to base weekly for carbohydrate-overload and emotional ventilation.

That’s why I was so proud of myself after high school when I was able, with considerable effort, to move out of the parental house and into an attic apartment over the two-family building my uncle owned. This meant I could give up the dangerous past-time of sneaking into my girlfriend’s house when her parents were asleep. It also meant that I was, most mornings, standing at the front of the Staten Island ferry, watching Manhattan rise into the sky before me.

If you were standing right there, you might not have even noticed me—just another lanky malcontent with a black hood over his headphones.  A closer look might have revealed the way my hair twisted angrily around my eyes, or perhaps that my arm was encased in plaster. You probably wouldn’t take notice of the flannel shirt, the Doc Martin boots, or the chain wallet, all of which were standard issue in September 1993. I probably looked like a lost soul drowning in my own apathy, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I had an ax to grind with the world. My chosen field of conquest: academia.

A month before, I had never left the island without my parents. But now I had the subway map memorized and was busily exploring my new environment. It felt like I had reached the next stage in the greatest video game ever created. And then there was college itself—a very different kind of game.  I was enthralled with the never ending discussions, reading, and synthesis. I loved sitting down among a random selection of bright students from all over the world, whether outside Bobst library or in a humanities elective.

No topic was obscure enough. Quantum mechanics, game theory, queer theory, classical economics—I wanted to know, argue and be able to dismantle and rebuild all of them. I particularly enjoyed the inevitable discussion of cultural relativism—all too eager to take on the role of representative white-boy from the suburbs who was enlightened enough to admit his privilege. I lived for the debate—for that moment when the clumsy, impractical words sufficed to surmount the crux of an argument. It was all just another game to me.  But it wasn’t only about winning. I would happily surrender just to feel the fractions of divergent thought come together into a recognizable whole—the group giving rise to a hard-won consensus. For me, that was the highest form of art.

I double-majored in philosophy and computer science and almost fit in a minor in psychology. I wanted to understand the world at the deepest level and master its most essential truths. And then I wanted to break it all down into what could be measured, cataloged, diagramed, and, ultimately, programmed. I wasn’t really there to appreciate the poetry of life. I was there to create an Artificial Intelligence—so that one day the AI could appreciate the poetry of life.

I knew that this was a childish dream—hell, it was my childish dream—just a fancier version of the second-grade assignment in which I wrote that I wanted to build an R2D2 so that “I would always have a friend.”  I suspected that this would not be the identity I found for myself in college. It would just be what I daydreamed about while I worked on something much less interesting. At best, it would be a side project that I kept hidden in the shadows. As it turns out, however, the shadowlands of academia are a bustling place. There is a lot going on just out of view. All you need is someone to teach you how to see in the dark. And, nearly as soon as I showed up, I found just that. They called themselves the Brown Ale Collective.

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