The Girl in the Nerd Cave

Part 11 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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I was shocked.  I had been so engrossed in my own work that it never occurred to me that there would be new members—and if it had, would I have wondered if one would be a woman? The BAC, as it existed when I joined, was clearly, thoroughly, shamefully, the exclusive province of the male gender. Was that based on some policy of exclusion? Was it because of the small proportion of women in the computer science classes to begin with? I don’t know. The truth is, I was so uncertain of my own standing that I didn’t even ask. But whatever the cause, Alanna had come to put an end to it.

“As a matter of fact, I do know something about that.” I held my hand out for the e-mail and she let me look it over. “I received a very similar e-mail last year around this time.”

“What’s it all about?”

“Oh, I don’t think I can tell you that. You’ve come so far on your own. You certainly don’t need a hint now.”

“I’m supposed to go into that bar in a few minutes.”

“And what are you expecting to find there?”

“I have no idea. I don’t even know why I’m doing this. I didn’t understand half of the stuff in those e-mails—all that about Master Woz and the promised land…”

“Did you try to figure out who wrote them?”

“Well I looked up—Wait—are you Christopher?”

“Yes,” I said reflexively.

“So you designed all those encryption challenges?”

“Oh,” I realized my error, “No. I’m not that Christopher. I’m Christopher Salvatore. What’s your name?”

“Alanna.”

I shook her hand. Her skin was so smooth it seemed to be composed only of air.

“Christopher Carpentieri wrote the original emails. But I can’t tell you much about him other than he was a student like us, and he died last year. If you are interested, maybe you could help me learn more about him.”

She agreed, and just like that, Alanna Bray was in my life and sharing my quest. Machinations and designs were already forming around her in the back of my—no, they were in the forefront of my mind. I intended to weave her so deeply into the fabric of my days that she would never be able to be untangled from me. I sensed that she and I had a great work to do together, but I didn’t know yet what that was. Marriage? Children? Co-domination of the globe? It all seemed possible. Next to the alliance I envisioned for us, my relationship with Rally seemed a small matter.

These thoughts struck me without irony or humility. It wasn’t that I was presuming that this would be an easy quest—I knew winning her love would be a great challenge. But even so, I was not prepared for the moment when I ushered her up to the second floor of the Fleetfoot and found 22 men looking at her like they had never seen a woman before in their life.

‘And unlike you,’  my ever-so-moral voice reminded me, “most of them are single.’

In time, Alanna would be counted among the greatest of us. She had been programming since she was a 9-year-old with a Commodore 64. She wrote her first game in Basic when she was 11. Before she got out of high school she had taught herself C+, Paradox, and Pascal. Her coder credentials put mine to shame. As if that wasn’t enough, she was a gamer as well. She played every single installment of Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, and Ultima. And she had read just about every fantasy book that I had ever heard of.

She lived with her parents in their brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her father was a math teacher and her mother a medieval literature professor. They raised her to believe she could do whatever she put her mind to—and that was pretty much what she did.  She was the least pretentious genius I had ever met. She had a way of making everyone around her feel entirely comfortable.  She was the kind of person who could make you feel like your trip to New Jersey was fascinating when she had just got back from Africa.

But at that moment at the top of the stairs, nobody knew anything about her other than that she was a beautiful woman who had stumbled into our nerd cave. She stood before the smoldering eyes—an exquisite specimen. A prize to be won. Not since Fëarnor forged the Silmarils or Deagol fished the One Ring out of the riverbed, had such a prize carried such risk of inciting bitter rivalry. And she was standing at my side. A half-smile crept across my face as I mentally prepared for the contest that was to come.

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[Thanks for Reading!  I spent the weekend writing several pieces ahead–so I should be able to get the next few pieces out easily.  What do you think of Alanna?  Let me know! ]

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The Elf Queen of Manhattan

Part 10 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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By the end of my sophomore year, I had just about completed my tenure as an Ap and was looking forward to being named a Lv1 (a third-year member).  The night before the end-of-the-year party I had slept over at my girlfriend’s Columbia dorm room. After a pleasant morning and a very late breakfast, I wandered downtown a bit earlier than I needed to and found myself with a healthy amount of time to kill. It was just dawning on me that once again I was free from all of my academic requirements.

After a few hours of exploring, I walked to a nearby park (really just some benches and bushes in between two merging avenues) and sat.  I looked across to a woman about my age, seated on a bench.  Her legs were stretched out before her. A flip flop dangled from her toe. My eyes were pulled to the green tattoo on her ankle, a swirling arrangements of leaves, grapes, and thorns, gave rise to a vine that traveled up her long cream-colored leg and disappeared under her acid-washed jean shorts, only to emerge again out of her green tank top, slipping over her shoulder and down her slender arm. The final bloom adorned her grateful hand, the fingers of which held a book.

It was the Silmarillion by J.R.R.Tolkien.

My heart beat erratically. She looked up from the book—her blue eyes sparkling luminously through her chunky eyeglasses. Her hair was a flame of orange, radiant in the sunlight.  It was a disordered mess of tight spirals, pulled back.  Her ears which protruded slightly were pierced with what seemed like a dozen small silver rings. She had a purple backpack that looked filthy. It was covered with small buttons.  I saw one that read, “We must be the change we would see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi.”  Another read, “Frodo Lives.”

I felt a sudden urge to plant my knees into the concrete and kneel before her. I wanted to know everything about her—to hear the stories behind each of those buttons on her bag. I wanted my fingers to get lost in the curls of her hair. I wanted to climb her beanstalk.

She looked at her Swatch wristwatch.  I realized she might jump up at any minute and go on with her life before I had time to fully integrate kissing her into my daily routine.

‘You’re not going to kiss her,’ some pedantic part of me corrected.

Dozens of haphazard instructions burst into my mind. I had very little experience at spontaneously communicating with women. In fact, I was usually only able to do so with the aid of a week’s worth of strategizing sessions or with the help of meddling best friends.

‘Will you get a hold of yourself man! You already have a girlfriend!’ my conscious was now screaming.

I reached for my backpack and pulled my own copy of the Silmarillion out of it.  I held it up like it was a piece of the sun that would send a shaft of light toward her. But her eyes had already resumed their reading and I was left holding the book aloft, looking like an idiot.

‘Rally,’ the annoying inner voice was persisting, ‘Your girlfriend’s name is Rally. Do you remember her? Naked? On top of you? About six hours ago?’ 

I began to panic, realizing that I had no choice but to verbally communicate with the Elf Queen of Manhattan.  I had to say something incredibly witty— something that would show her how sophisticated, intellectual, and eloquent I was.

“Oh my god you are so cool!” The words spilled out of me.

She lifted her eyebrow above the frame of her glasses.

“The Silmarillion.  I have never seen anyone reading that…let alone a girl.”

She laughed at this.  More likely she was laughing at me.

“Most people stop at the Hobbit,” she said.

“I know! I love that book.  I have read it so many times.

“This is my fifth time reading it.  I love elves.” The world seemed to only be a series of spinning lights swirling around her.

“Me too!” I said after a period of awe.

We launched into a conversation about elves in their many iterations—about our disdain for Christmas elves or our hatred for any blurring of the line between elves and fairies.  She had played Dungeon’s and Dragons and knew all the games I played with my friends.”

I wondered how quickly I could enlist her as my girlfriend.

‘Shit head you already have a girlfriend.’

“I’ve seen you in the lab haven’t I?” she said.

“You have?” How had this majestic woman who would be fair among the firstborn of the Eldar ever passed through my domain without my noticing her?

‘Probably because you were thinking about your girlfriend.’

“You wouldn’t know anything about this would you?” she said, unfolding a piece of paper. My mouth dropped open. It was a printed email asking her if she was “r34dy f0r 7h3 n3x7 l3v3l?”

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[Thanks for reading!  If you like what you’ve seen so far please let my know my commenting or liking. I am definitely eager for any feedback or questions.  I have to say I am very relieved to finally have a female character in this story!]

The Order and the Chaos

Part 9 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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But I am getting ahead of myself. Declaring my intention to help Zee create an AI was still two years into the future. But something else happened that first night at the Fleetfoot. After the throng had died down, I noticed that there was an undercurrent of sadness woven into this event. Small, quiet conversations broke off from larger tangents. Shared memories brought on laughter of the kind that covered up deep pain.
I realized that these men were still smarting from their loss. Christopher Carpentieri was still very much here. I could sense the fleeting references to the ubiquitous “he” that inhabited their stories. I tried to join the conversations, hoping to learn more about him. But his specter kept dancing away from every group that I joined, with some other topic rising to take its place.
The conversations I could join were all about some obscure bits of hacker trivia, comparisons of the different programming languages, or a theory about what was going to happen on X-files. Sometimes there was some speculation about Zee and his history. There were questions about where his money came from, rumors of his rivalry with the department chair, and reports that the reason he wore a wedding ring was that he had a wife that he left behind in Greece. It was all interesting enough, but I couldn’t help but feel excluded from the reminiscences of Christopher Carpentieri. Inwardly I scolded myself for this morbid fascination. To them, he was a lost brother, to me he was a curiosity. My interest was voyeuristic and base. I tried to push him out of my mind.
“This is all really weird,” Billy said, still holding his nearly full mug of beer. “Isn’t it?”
“Nah,” I said, holding my fifth empty mug, “This is the most normal thing that has ever happened to me.”

***

Over the following year, the BAC was everything I could have hoped it to be. I was put to work in the computer lab that first summer (no more tearing down drywall with my uncle every weekend!). In the Fall, I resumed taking classes and continued to spend most of my class-time “helping out.” I also graded projects and tests. It all felt like I was just hanging out with friends, laughing, making jokes, creating ridiculous acronyms, writing the most absurd programs we could think of, and, in general, making a sport out of trying to master our sacred machines.

But by far, the best part of those years took place at the Fleetfoot. I was fascinated with every word Zee said. The view of the world that unfolded through his lectures was a far broader vista than any academic discipline had ever provided me before. The whole world was an acceptable pallet for cognitive science—as if society was one massive program. Through studying its ebbs and flows we could understand why the world functioned or misfunctioned. We could learn how to see the world—fix the world—make the world over.

Once, Zee had forced us to analyze the functioning of a traffic signal outside the Fleetfoot and propose how we could improve upon it. Then he mercilessly pointed out the flaws in all of our solutions.

“Why does this matter?” Billy asked in frustration. “What could this possibly have to do with anything?”

“These are programmed devices. Stupid as they are, they are following a logic dictated by circuits. They and their kind are affecting millions of lives every day. Who can say what such small inefficiencies can do over billions of repetitions? How many lives needlessly end? Whose fortunes are lost? What fates are swayed? And all determined by these accursedly stupid contraptions—made by men like us. And men like us have the ability to make them better.

“Soon, all human matters will be mediated through the workings of programs. Computers will be involved in all of our interactions from the bank to the bedroom. And therefore it will be the programmers who will ultimately be responsible for the outcome. Men such as you will wield vast power and have profound responsibilities. You will crush human traditions that have endured for millennia and create new ways of living. You will shape the law. Shape the flow of information. Shape the sweep of commerce. Will you be part of the chaos that tears our society apart? Or you will be part of the order that holds it together?”

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When the Master is Ready, the Student Appears

Part 8 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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As the night unfolded I realized that this was not, in fact, a gathering to sell me on the BAC. It was a party for their entertainment—I was supposed to be grateful to be included. And for the most part I was. The beer was cold and pleasantly bitter. The conversations were lively. I enjoyed being the subject of curiosity and speculation.

It felt like a long time since I had been asked about my high school experiences, my favorite video games, and what role-playing games I had played. But wherever I could, I turned the conversation to the BAC itself. The Brown Ale Collective was apparently named in honor of the beverage I was at that moment liberally consuming. It was a small, local, secret society—a totally unauthorized organization that existed within the computer science community of the university.

The privileges alluded to were, in fact, many.  I would be given a job in the computer lab, preferential standing among computer science majors, first choice in getting seats in Dr. Z’s classes, and, in all likelihood, an eventual officer position in the Computer Science Club and internship placement.  If I continued in computer science as a graduate student, I would be granted a teaching assistantship and the associated tuition remission and stipend. Eventually, I could expect a job, assuming that their alumni had anything to say about it. All of these things would coalesce into a prosperous and rewarding career if only I would consent to be an electron orbiting the mighty nucleus that was Dr. Z.

Oh, and there was one more “benefit”—an unheard of boon to any college student—a tab.  Every weekday I could eat and drink whatever I wanted between 10 AM and Noon (when there was a convenient dearth of comp-sci classes offered).  The source of this fabulous bounty was not made clear, except for the fact that it was definitely, certainly, absolutely not originating from our professor, who would never debase himself by providing impressionable students with alcohol.  Nevertheless, most weekday mornings Dr. Z could be found right here imparting his real teachings to his inner circle. While the well-oiled machine of the BAC did most of his busy work for him, Zee was instructing his flock in the dark arts of manipulating computer systems.

I came to see the that my first impressions of Zee were all entirely wrong.  I thought he was lazy. I was wrong. He worked nearly all of his waking hours. I thought he was a drunk. But he was a tactical drinker who imbibed according to an algorithm of his own design which dictated when and how much he drank in order to maintain a perpetual blood alcohol content (that other BAC) of .05. This was the level precision he sought in all things: Maximize productivity while not neglecting a hedonistic preference.

Zee was a renegade in his college world for other reasons as well. He published in the as-of-yet barely respectable area of artificial intelligence. But his pedigree was impressive. He had studied under Marvin Minsky’s artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT, and fully subscribed to his theory of the “society of mind” which held that intelligence, and by extrapolation consciousness, could arise out of the working of non-intelligent components—that is, if our programs could mimic all the little things that happened in the brain, consciousness (the big thing) would just naturally follow.  But more than that, he believed it was humanity’s  destiny to create—no not just to create, but to become—artificial intelligence.

“Do you think it will happen in my lifetime?” I asked him one day.

“You’re lifetime? I have no idea. But it will happen in mine.”

“What makes you so sure?” I laughed.

“Because I am going to make it happen.”

In that moment, I believed him. I knew he would make it so.

“Well, I’ll just have to stick around and watch you do that.”

“Fuck that. If you’re going to standing around you better fucking help.”

“Deal.” I held out my hand to him. He shook it.

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Initiation by Ale

Part 7 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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The day after finals, with my curiosity fully engaged, I presented to the address provided, finding myself at a bar named, “The Fleetfoot.”

Inside, many mustachioed men with gold chains were waiting. I immediately assumed that this was some kind of prank. Had they sent me to a gay bar? But then I realized that the TV screens were broadcasting a soccer game in Spanish. All present were transfixed by the little speck of white that fluttered between the players’ feet. They were all oblivious to everything around them, all except for…

Billy Penchant was standing, awkwardly in the middle of the room, seemingly lost.  His face wore his usual expression of bemused detachment.

“You got the emails too huh?” I asked him.

“Yeah. I didn’t know if we were supposed to talk about it or not.”

“It said upstairs.” I reminded him.

Behind the sign that read, “Private Party” there was a stairway. We could hear the raucous laughter as we climbed.

Upstairs, I saw a host of familiar and unfamiliar faces: The lab techs, the TAs, and a number of graduate students—all men. They were talking, laughing, and drinking beer.  In the midst of it all was Zee himself. For a moment the two of us stood at the top of the stairs waiting to be noticed.

“Doctors!” they called out and cheered.  There were handshakes for us and slaps on the shoulder. It felt like we had won some kind of award.  They poured us each a beer.

“Um. I’m not twenty one…” Billy attempted (and failed) to wave the beer away.

“Drink!” ten voices commanded.

“And listen. And learn,” Nicholas said. “Gentlemen of the BAC. I present to you Drs. Penchant and Salvatore. They have both made it through their first year. Both of them, without having any idea why, have agreed to go above and beyond the duty of a student. They have, almost singlehandedly, instructed four classes between them.”

“Then what the fuck are they paying me for?” Zee asked, earning uproarious laughter.

“They have written their own decoding software,” Nicholas continued,  “and, most importantly, avoided pissing us off for an entire year.”

“To well-behaved noobs!” someone yelled. They cheered loudest for this last point.

“So doctors,” Nicholas was undeterred, “this is your graduation party!  This semester was your last as a mere sniveling, groveling, lowly college student.  If you accept, and you will accept if you are not complete idiots, you will be members of the Brown Ale Collective.”

Again they cheered.

“Is that what BAC stands for?” Billy asked.

I had, by this time, gathered that the BAC was some kind of secret club, and I even realized that I was being primed for membership. But I had no idea that there were so many of them.

“What does joining you entail?” Billy asked, sounding like he was on the phone with a telemarketer. Several people laughed at his directness. But I was glad that he had asked.

“If you join us, you will continue on as you have been doing.  You will go to classes—staying ahead. You will teach when called upon. You will grade projects. You will mark tests. You will design assignments and worksheets. You will, in short, do all the work of college professors other than to set the curriculum and assign final grades. And when the time comes you will do the real work.  You will never tell anyone else about this. In exchange—you will have privileges.

“Privileges?” Billy asked, “What kind of privileges?”

“That, you will be told, when you are ready.”

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Thanks for reading!!  New posts come out on Mondays and Fridays.  There are 25 sections in all.

Email for the Beloved Noob

Part 5 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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Shortly after I met Billy, the emails started showing up in my inbox. They were forwarded to me from M461@BAC—clearly one of the senior lab techs or someone else associated with Dr. Zee. But the interesting thing was that the emails originated from a student account: “CCarpent.” This was not a name I knew. But the date of the original email was four years earlier, so he or she was likely to have graduated anyway. The email started out with the greeting:

My b3l0v3d n00b,
50 y0u w@n7 t0 b3 l33t?
l37’5 533 wh47 y0u 607?

This was my first encounter with the whimsical form of communication known as Leet or, more properly, l33t. But I didn’t know what it was called at the time. Thankfully the word “b3l0v3d” clued me into the idea that all that was required was for the numbers to be swapped with the letters that (sort-of) resembled them.
After this was a challenge to write a program that served a very specific purpose. The program needed to read a large array of letters and numbers and apply several rules, transforming the data into a different array of letters and numbers—most likely decoding it.
I was not happy about this. The challenge was, essentially, homework—homework that wasn’t for any class—as if I had nothing better to do than cryptic assignments. So, of course, I did it. Mostly, I think, I just wanted to see if I could.

Finishing the challenge was anti-climactic. There was no one to show it to. No way to have it graded. I didn’t even have a dataset to use it with. So I sent the file back to both the M461@BAC email address and to CCarpent—whoever the hell that was.
CCarpent, however, no longer had a valid student email address and that email bounced back. A week later M461 forwarded another CCarpent email. This one consisted simply of a long string of letters and numbers.

“What the hell are we supposed to do with this?” Billy said from a nearby workstation. I gathered that he was receiving the same set of instructions, but I decided that if I was going to play this game it was not going to be as a team. I fed the array into the program that the first email had instructed me to write.
The resulting message provided the parameters for a new, even more complicated, program for me to write. I realized that this sort of thing could go on forever. It could eat up hours and hours of my life that would be better spent doing something else. I knew myself well enough to know that there was a risk that I would become hopelessly obsessed with an ever-more complicated set of problems. The best thing I could probably do was to close down the window and delete the email.
I wrote the second program anyway.

“w0w. y0u k1ck 455!” The rest of the message, (translated from the L337) read “If you are reading this you have the makings of an amazing programmer. Keep going. It will be worth it. I promise. You will take your place among the BAC and together we will take our art form to the next level. And there is always another level.”

“Who the hell is C. Carpent?” I asked Nicholas in the lab one day. He didn’t reply. Instead, he kept typing. I stood behind him for a moment feeling quite foolish. I was about to leave when he responded.

“Christopher Carpentieri.” His voice was uncharacteristically monotone.

“Does he go to school here?”

“He’s, ah, no longer with us.” He just kept typing. I knew he didn’t want to answer my questions but I didn’t care.

“Did he graduate?”

“Brilliant kid. One of the first Magi. Mad skills. Unstoppable. Almost unstoppable anyway. He died last summer. Brain tumor. Fucked up shit.”

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Privileges

Part 4 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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By the middle of my first semester, I knew the second level comp-sci curriculum backwards and forwards. I was also getting better at explaining it.  The class was keeping up with the work. There was some satisfaction to be found in that, even if my fellow students didn’t appreciate my labors. Most seemed to resent me.  The girls never flirted back.  The guys viewed my assistance as a degrading insult.  Some saw  me as the uber-nerdy teacher’s pet and others as a kind of servant at their beckon call.

“Hey it’s not like I’m getting paid for this!” I shot back at one classmate when she complained that I was taking too long to attend to her.

“You’re not? Aren’t you like the TA?”

“No!” I laughed.

“So you’re just a kid in this class?”

“That I am.”

“What the fuck?”

I shrugged.

Most students didn’t understand why I tolerated this. I didn’t understand why I was doing it either. As far as I knew all I would be getting out of it was an ‘A’ on my report card and (maybe) a letter of recommendation if I ever needed one.

There was, however, one additional benefit. During the week before finals, when every student in the school had a paper to finish, I made the mistake of counting on getting a computer in the lab so that I could finish and print out a paper two hours before it was due.  The lab was packed—every computer taken. I walked over to the clipboard to sign up to wait. There were already a dozen names ahead of me. I cursed at myself as I realized my paper grade was dropping with every minute I had to wait.

“You can use that one,” a tech said, pointing to a computer in the lab staff area.

“I can?” I asked.

“Yes. Dr. Salvatore, YOU can.”

I had no idea how this lab tech even knew who I was, or why he was calling me ‘Doctor’ for that matter, but I knew better than to question my good fortune. I logged in and immediately got to work.

From that day forward the lab was like my home on campus. I could count on never having to wait and I got to know all the techs. I began to see that there was a complex structure to their interactions.

“Dr. Salvatore,” was what they called me.  But this was a joke. By ‘doctor’, they meant something more like  “noob” or “peon” in their sarcastic parody treatment of academic culture.

“The students with the highest status among them—graduate students, who had previously worked in the lab were called, “the Magnus” or “Magi” for plural—a word I knew from the fantasy role-playing world to mean wizard.  Others who were not quite as high up were called “Ap” which I think was short for ‘apprentice’.”

“Doctor Penchant!” a lab tech, said one unusually busy day early into the Spring semester. I looked up, curious to see someone else who (apparently) had the same rank as me. He stood before the full lab, thoroughly confused.  Circular glasses adorned his good natured face. His hair was long and curly, and he wore a blue button-down shirt with a keyboard tie.

“You can use that one Doctor!” the lab tech said.

“I can?”

And then he took a seat next to me.

“You guys are friends now,” the tech said pointing to us.

“We are?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, “I think so. It’s a whole BAC thing.”

“What’s BAC?” he asked.

“I have no idea. Christopher Salvatore,” I shook his hand.

“Billy Penchant.”

And just like that we were friends and our friendship would last a long, long time, until he put a bullet in me. But that’s a story for another day.

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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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