Conclusion of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

<<GOTO PART 1.0 

There was silence as I climbed the stairs of the Fleetfoot. I expected to find the place empty, but they were there. Zee. Alanna. Billy. All of them. Even members I had never met. Nicholas knocked an empty mug against the wood of the table. So there would be no small talk.

“Attention members of the collective, Christopher Salvatore comes before us.  Christopher, have you fulfilled your duties?”

“I have.” This was true. I accepted that I would be banished but I saw no reason to make this easy for them.

“Have you mastered the art of the code?”

“I have.”

“Have you learned the principles of the collective?”

“I have.”

“And to you my brothers and sister I ask now, has Christopher demonstrated the requisite hatred for inelegance?”

There was a pause.

“He has,” Zee said.

“Shall we consider Christopher for the exalted rank of Magnus?”

“We shall,” several of the Magi said tentatively, but this only opened the debate. “What is the consensus of the collective. Has Christopher served the Order or the Chaos?” Again there was silence.

“The Chaos,” Billy said.

“The Chaos,” others agreed.

No one had ever been said to serve the Chaos. The BAC as an organization was meant to serve the Order. We never called ourselves hackers. We were not black hats. We were computer scientists, servants to Zee’s vision of the future. I had broken the rules. I had created, and unleashed a virus. This, I knew, was immoral. It was forbidden.

“He should never be one of the Magi,” Nicholas said. This drew protests. Some were not happy about this proposal. Alanna’s eyes were fixed on me as if she was waiting for me to say something. Did she think I would defend myself?

“So be it,” Zee said, interrupting the debate. “Christopher is not to be a Magnus. His powers are greater than that. He has gone further than others have dared. And who is to say that the Order shall not benefit from his labors.”

“Benefit?” Billy asked, “He made a damned virus!”

“I finished his virus,” I said more to give credit where it was due than to defend myself.

“It was like he was back,” one of the graduate students said from the back of the room. “He was always tricking us into playing that damn song he wrote.”

“If you left your computer open for a second,” someone else added, “He would get into whatever you were working on and write a poem right in the middle of your code.”

“Now we know what he was working on at the end,” a recent graduate who I had never interacted with before said. I looked at him, he was African American and he wore a familiar earring and black hat. I recognized him. He, more than anyone else was in Christopher’s photographs.

“I thought,” he went on, “I thought his mind was gone and he was just filling his last hours with an empty task. He couldn’t speak in the last few months. And then yesterday he was there. His words were there. He called me his beloved noob again.” A tear fell down the man’s face. “I felt like you brought him back from the dead.”

“He did. He brought our brother back from the dead!” The sentiment echoed around the room.

Zee banged his mug on the wood table and lifted it out to me. “Then let it be known that henceforth Christopher is a master. He is adeptus. He is a re-worker. He is a worker of Chaos but a servant of the Great Order nonetheless. He is…”

“The Necromancer,” Alanna said, referring to the dark wizards that haunt the corners of fantasy novels—the ones with the power to summon the dead.

“Whoa!” several members yelled in approval. Others protested loudly, one decreeing that an undergraduate, of any skill, was unworthy of such a badass name.

“More like the Net-cromancer,” Billy said, earning something of a reluctant laugh. And this name, perhaps because it was sufficiently ridiculous, was acceptable.

“To the Netcromancer,” Zee said. They raised their cups and drank.



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7h15 p463 h45 b33n h4ck3d by chr1570ph3r c4rp3n713r1.

m3m3n70 m0r1. 

The Resignation

Part 21 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

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My awareness of the outside world was limited to the possibility that it might have still been Spring Break. “Ruiner” by Nine Inch Nails had been playing on repeat for so long that I could no longer perceive it. My head ached, but the old welding goggles above my eyes seemed to put just the right amount of pressure on my forehead. It had been at least 24 hours since I had had any kind of sleep. In that time, I had delved into the depths of the internet to find the final answers, going places where the faint of heart do not tread.
Pulling back the curtains, I was surprised to find that it was a pleasant morning. I paced my floor, flipping my coin, searching for clarity. None came. I had not eaten in a long time. I walked down to Forest Avenue, amazed at the calm in the air. At the Bright Spot, a tiny breakfast counter, I order eggs and coffee. The proprietor stared at the imprint the goggles had left on my forehead while she took my order. Conversation filled the space around me, but I tuned it all out. I had a decision to make.

When I got back I found the draft email still waiting for me. I knew the ramifications of my choice would be far reaching. I might just be throwing away everything I had worked for over the past three years. I didn’t care. I may never have met him, but Christopher Carpentieri was still my friend, and death had taken him too early. This was his due.
I clicked ‘send’.

Anxiety surged within me—the kind of alarm that accompanied an action that once done could never be undone. And now my emails were racing through networks, being sliced up into digital packets and reassembled at their destinations. They were manifesting in the inboxes of the BAC. Many would have already seen the subject line, “My Resignation.” It was unheard of. No one had ever resigned from the BAC. They would find my vague statements in the body of the e-mail completely insufficient to understand my motives.

That is when they would open the attachment. Some would, wisely, scan it for security. That wouldn’t matter. Nothing resembling the Memento Mori Virus had ever existed before.

At that moment, it was already working its way deep into their systems while simultaneously sending out hundreds of e-mails to every recipient it could scour from their address books. Some of these would read, “Remembering Christopher Carpentieri.” Others would contain the subject lines, “An interesting thought,” or “A poem I wrote for you.” Christopher’s words, his images, his thoughts—his will—had escaped into the digital wild. He was multiplying, expanding, and invading. It was a quiet revolution. But soon, thousands of people would have the chance to know him. To curse him. To hate him. To love him.


I walked into the lab at 9:40 AM Sunday morning, the day before the first day back.
There was a sign on the door. “Lab Closed.”

I entered. All of the computers were turned on. I could hear the cacophony of several of them playing Christopher Carpentieri’s electronica. His face looked out from several of them, fading into a slide show of his favorite images. Some of them had his poetry slowly scrolling up the screen. They had all been infected. Every single one.

These were only the most obvious manifestations of the Memento Mori. For the user, it would be as if they had shared their computer with a friend who had moved away. Every so often, you would stumble onto some hint that he had been there—a random photo of him in a folder you rarely check, or a poem written into one of your documents. Or, it would send you an encouraging alert or e-mail. It was a virus that would never be vanquished because a small minority of those infected by it would welcome it, would support it, and would, ultimately, improve it.

But that morning standing in the lab, I felt a chill of fear for what I had done. And I was beaming with pride.

As the lab workers looked at me. I couldn’t read their faces.

“We’re going to have to take this thing off of them you know.”
I nodded.

“Any idea how we do that?”

“You might not need to get rid of it.”

“Why not?”

“He’s just showing off,” I said looking at my watch. “He’ll quiet down…just about…now.”
And all at once the computers rebooted themselves.

“They said that, if you showed up, to tell you to go to the Fleetfoot.”

I nodded. I had expected as much. It was time to present myself for excommunication.



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Where to Plant Your Lever

Part 17 of 22 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

<<GOTO PART 1.0 

In the days that followed, I did what I promised. I stayed out of Billy’s way. It was easy. I had someone else to spend time with—Christopher Carpentieri.

I was soaking in his music. Surrounded by his poetry. Steeping in his code. Every night I spent hours on the Memento Mori programs.  His style was by now familiar. I understood all of his tiny little flourishes, unique as fingerprints. Even his programming seemed poetic to me. But after months of this, I was still like the proverbial blind man holding the elephant’s tail—trying to understand the nature of this thing before me.

I wondered if Billy was right. Maybe this was unhealthy. Perhaps that’s why I stopped telling people (even Alanna) what I was working on. Maybe I was the only one who could understand it. Maybe he and I shared some unique essence that would let me glimpse his purpose and complete his work. Yes, that was what I was trying to do—complete his work. I can’t tell you what a relief it was when I realized that.  Before that it seemed that I needed to understand him. But how would I ever know that I understood…enough? That goal was a vortex that could swallow me forever. But, complete it—yes, I could complete it. And when it worked–when I ran the program at it did what it was designed to do—then I would know that I had not failed him.

I had, by this point, mastered all the commands and concepts that he was using. I had learned much from him, techniques that I might never have thought useful had I not seen how he employed them. Slowly, pieces of the pattern began to emerge. I found clues to how some of the programs were supposed to link together. These formed larger islands in a sea of separate fragments. It could access. It could look up. It could insert. It was a kind of a repository of his poetry and his thoughts. It could display images. It could even create documents. And so much more. But why? To what end? Why would anyone need all of these programs that replicated what the user could do anyway? It reminded me of one of those comical machines that employed belts and tracks, electric fans, pool cues, and rolling balls all to accomplish a simple task, like making toast. An interesting spectacle perhaps, but ever so inefficient.

“So are you free?” Rally’s voice rang in my ear. I realized I was holding the phone against my shoulder.

“For what?”

“For dinner silly. It’s important. We haven’t seen each other all week. I need to see you. We need to talk.”

“Of course. When?”

“Saturday,” she sighed. Obviously she had already said this.

“Let me check.” I opened up my desktop calendar. There was an item listed for Saturday. I looked at it. It said, “Memento Mori et Carpe Diem.” I flipped rapidly through the days and found that every so often there was an event in my calendar that I had not put there.

“Today,” one read, “remember that you are the product of billions of years of evolution. Try to fucking act like it!”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“What?” Rally asked concerned.

“Christopher is writing in my calendar.”

“Are you talking about yourself in the third person again?”

“No. Not me—long story. I’ll tell you about it later. But, yes. I’m free.”

She provided me with the time and place of our date.  And then the dial tone was poking me in the ear.  I wondered if I had said a proper goodbye. Then I felt a stab of anxiety. I could, if I chose, use this meeting to  break up with her. But I didn’t care about that now. I had stumbled onto something more important.

I was going through my calendar looking for more notes. There weren’t many but they were there. When I had run one of his programs it wrote the notes in my calendar.

“Today, my beloved Christopher” another note read, “You are going to have some difficulties. That is to be expected. Life is rarely kind. But rather than wilt and wander, focus on what you do have control over—what you can change. That is where you need to direct your attention. That is where you need to plant your lever and exert your will. Invadoria.”

I looked up Invadoria.  It meant ‘invade’.


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Memento Mori

Part 13 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

<<GOTO Part 1.0

For better or worse, we did have the largest social gathering outside the Fleetfoot that any of us remembered. It was not the romantic evening that either Billy or I was hoping for. It did not advance my cause. In fact, it made things worse. Alanna’s fan club grew, and I lost the ability to monopolize all the shifts in the lab that she was working.
As my junior year progressed, it felt like I was stuck in a painful stalemate. I spent at least a few wonderful minutes with her every day, in the full knowledge that in my absence she was having heart-to-heart talks with other members.

As a result, I was particularly broody one November day in 1995 when I was relegated to working alone in one of the smaller satellite labs, blocks away from where Alanna was. The students were all busy at work, leaving me alone with my thoughts. Eventually, I forced myself to read to make use of the time.

“Can I ask you a question?” a student asked. “I don’t get how you can just sit there. There aren’t enough computers. You see us waiting for seats. Yet that computer in the corner has been out of order all semester. Aren’t you guys supposed to fix it? Or replace it?”
“Well, that’s a different team,” I said, “but I’ll take a look.”

I walked over to it and sat down. The window behind afforded a lovely view of a Manhattan corner. Windblown pedestrians beneath. Remembering my purpose, I noted down the tower’s number. A yellowed and crinkled piece of looseleaf was taped to the front of the monitor. “Out of Order,” it read. In the corner of a sheet was the tiniest sketch of a hamster with massive headphones on. It really did look like the computer could have been like this for months. Then I checked the work orders. There was no ticket entered for it. In fact, the computer wasn’t even on the master list. Weird.

I turned it on, watching the green light pulse as the fan whirled and the hard drive chattered away. But the login screen never appeared. Someone had reconfigured the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. I only made it so far before I was prompted for a system administrator’s password. I had one of those, but it was rejected. Instead, I tried a few of the passwords that the BAC typically used. After a few tries, I was in. I wondered why one of us would have done this. Then I saw that the desktop was filled with documents, music, and pictures. Someone had made themselves quite comfortable here.
I clicked through one of the photos and Christopher Carpentieri’s face appeared before me. He was smiling, holding a fat hamster in his hands, his black baseball hat on crooked, a tattoo of a star adorned the side of his neck.

This was his computer. He had rigged it so the BAC could get into it. Did he want to hide these files? That made no sense. He could have locked these files away where no one would have ever been able to access them. Did he want these files to be found or did he just not realize that he wasn’t coming back for them? I wondered if any of the senior members knew this was here. There were still many people active in the BAC who would have known him. Did they leave this computer in a state of perpetual malfunction as a kind of monument to him? Or was it that they couldn’t bring themselves to clear off his files?

Well, I wasn’t going to leave it untouched. I made copies of every file on the desktop. And then I found something on the C drive—a folder entitled, “Memento Mori.” It was enormous, taking up a full third of the available space. The next day I came prepared and copied everything onto four zip drive discs. That night, as I took the ferry back to Staten Island, I cradled the discs in my hands. I felt like I was the bearer of something sacred.

When I got home I scanned the files for viruses and installed them.

“What a mess!” I said to the empty room. There were hundreds of files. School papers. Poetry. Logs of AOL instant messenger conversations. And programs—lots of programs! I tried to run them—eager to see what they would do. But they didn’t do very much. Many of them required the program to access another program—but the references all pointed to incorrect locations. Some of the programming was extremely complex stuff—more advanced than anything I had ever worked with. It irritated me how sloppy it all was. I don’t know what I was expecting—some great work of genius perhaps. But what I found was like a jigsaw puzzle, and I had no idea what the completed image was supposed to be.

“What were you trying to do Christopher? I don’t understand this!”
I had been nervously twisting the railroad spike I kept on my desk in anticipation. But the more of the files I read, the more confused I became. Sometime in the early morning, I thought to check the dates. Many of the files were created at the end of the Spring semester of 1993—just before the summer he died.

“Fuck!” I screamed. I threw the railroad spike across the room. It gouged a chunk of plaster out of the wall. The programs didn’t make any sense because his brain was failing him when he wrote them. Whatever he was trying to do…he had run out of time.
I leaped out of my seat, frustrated that I had wasted a whole night on what seemed a lost cause. I paced the room, unable to even try to sleep.

I opened up WebCrawler and searched for ‘Memento Mori’. Very quickly I found its meaning: “Remember—you are going to die.”




The Order and the Chaos

Part 9 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello

<<GOTO PART 1.0 

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?”



Initiation by Ale

Part 7 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello


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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Email for the Beloved Noob

Part 5 of the Netcromancer by M.J.Miello


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.”


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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