Page Created: 7/29/2014   Last Modified: 3/12/2016   Last Generated: 1/16/2018
After beginning a major in Computer Engineering, I failed calculus for the second time in my life. I simply could not work out 8 pages of problems in the 50 minutes they allotted for the test. As a systemizer, I never memorized the problems directly or memorized the formulas or tables, but memorized how to create the formulas and tables from simpler constructs. I received awards when I was younger due to my fast calculation and accuracy, but I didn't have time to do this on Calculus tests, as Calculus is a higher-level abstraction of Algebra, not just functions, but functions OF functions. It takes time to "decompress" Algebra, so to speak, and decompress Trigonometry, and then apply those rules to Calculus as you decompress it too. I didn't realize it at the time, but my mind had hit the barrier of the space-time tradeoff, and I had not yet figured out how to bypass it.
The teacher was Bulgarian and had a strong accent which made it difficult for me to understand, but it was even more difficult since high-level math uses aberrations of normal English--it is a very "compressed" language, assigning different meanings to the same words and symbols, depending on context, which can get significantly complex. In later years, this has come to be called Mathematical English↗ but nobody told me at that time.
I took Calculus for the 3rd time hoping for a better instructor, but was shocked to get the instructor's wife, also Bulgarian with a strong accent. I failed it again for the same reasons.
Being disillusioned, I switched to one of my strengths, English, then later got depressed and dropped out.
But I didn't withdraw from the classes, I just stopped going to class, stopped taking the exams. I was no longer on the track & cross-country team, stayed alone in my dorm room doing advanced computing on my Commodore 64, reading books on fractals and physics, writing letters, and left with a 0.0 GPA. My roommate had left, and even my teammates rarely stopped by. I rarely went to my cafeteria, and subsisted on ramen noodles and tea. People were drinking and having fun in dorms around me, but I didn't drink, and I had no car and little money. It was 1989 and I managed to get out at night and walk to the nearby Streetside Records and bought CDs such as Sinead O'Connor and This Mortal Coil. My social outlet was frequenting the local BBS systems.
I was done with college. I was done with professors that never showed up to class but had their student assistants do the teaching, I was done with professors that couldn't spell, that could not teach, but felt that their status in the field exempted them from any critique of their teaching ability. I was done with an English professor that marked me down on what I thought were my best literary works. I was done with my only computing professor that assigned lengthy work on mundane tasks, tasks that were so far beneath my abilities. I was done with a college that would never let me work on computers, a college where the computer labs were always full, a college where I had to piece together how their network operated by gathering bits of information and using logical deduction. I was done with a college where I had just recovered from mononucleosis, was running cross-country 9 miles races in 50 minutes, running two times a day, mile repeats under 5 minutes, and at the end of the day was too tired to work on my homework.
In my Ethics class, I decided I would set the bar so high as a big middle finger to college education, receiving perfect scores on all of my tests and even the extra credit. The instructor wanted to see me outside of class and go for a walk. I did so, but it wasn't about my work. She said I was far beyond the other students but thought I was depressed. I told her she made her tests too easy. I criticized one of the games she had us play as being non-objective. She said "Perhaps it was too easy for you, but the other students did not find it as easy." I then detected the teacher was psychoanalyzing me, perhaps well-intended, but the transparency of her manipulation made her words turn disingenuous, so I broke off the conversation. What she did not seem to understand, that is as true 25 years later as it was then, was that I had lost all hope in the University system.
My grandfather, a Masters graduate of Washington University↗, had instilled in me a great respect for education and institutions of learning, and a good work ethic. Universities were magical to me, like the academy in Dead Poet's Society or Harry Potter's Hogwarts. There was a feel to them, that went beyond one man. They remain after the graduating class has left them, and they remain after generations have perished from the earth. They represent the transferring of human knowledge throughout time, the pillar that supports civilization. There was a Twilight Zone called "The Changing of the Guard" with Donald Pleasance that captures this feeling.
And I was suddenly out of the magic and into the convenience store, getting my A like I was filling up a soft drink.
I realized that there were no magical places, that I would have to set out on a solo journey, to seek out that VendingMachine of knowledge in the desert.
The last day of class, I turned in my final test (exceeding 100%) and walked out.
I saw no objectivity, no standards, just marks professors assigned using their own methods and whims. There was nobody that seemed to realize how badly the system was broken.
My cousin convinced me to stay in college, so I did, and made a 4th attempt at Calculus. This time I had a wonderful instructor, a retired chairman of the math department from a popular engineering college. He explained to us how wonderful mathematics was, and one day brought sets of blocks to show us that there was nothing difficult about imagining multiple dimensions, that they were just natural progressions of lower dimensions. He gave me 2 hours to do the test, instead of 50 minutes, and this gave me the time I needed to create my mental constructs. He put the magic back in mathematics.
I not only passed, but received an A. Because of this I went on to pass Calculus II, Calculus III (after two tries), and Linear Algebra.
I later received a B.A. in communication, and also the equivalent of a minor in mathematics, but the university would not award me the minor, since they required that I get my math credits before my B.A., not after. In my information technology class, I did a report on my phone system that I had created years prior, but my skills were so advanced that neither the instructor nor the students knew how to approach it. The instructor simply wanted us to do a report on an existing communication technology, and did not expect that I would do a report on a technology that I built myself. I got the feeling that people were wondering why I was in their class and not engineering instead. Instead of receiving acknowledgment for my accomplishment, I was further ostracized as some kind of anomaly or freak.
I was getting perfect 4.0's at this new college, but they carried over my previous college's GPA, and my low math scores at that college, combined with my 0.0 drop out semester, kept my GPA low.
Again, I began to be very disillusioned. No matter what I did now, the university was keeping me down.
Because of my love of computers and science, I made a final attempt to go back for my Computer Science degree at the new college, but it was very different than Computer Engineering, in that this degree program was mostly mathematics as there were only a few computer courses. So I had to take even more math, Statistics, Differential Equations, Modern Math (the new version of "new math"), but this time I was working full time and taking out a loan to pay for it. Just like during my running days, I was tired and could not keep up with the math.
So I put all of my energy into my computing classes instead. In my graphics class, we studied how to algorithmically create graphical primitives from scratch and format them to various raster and vector displays. This was interesting to me, as I had programmed bitmaps and sprites on my earlier 8-bit computers. The professor assigned a project for us to create a graphical calculator on DEC UNIX workstations in C language using a library of graphical primitives called SRGP↗. I was supposed to already have completed courses in C language, but I had taught myself the basics months before while trying to solve another problem at home.
I set out to beat the rest of the class, but it was difficult for me to do my work in the computer lab as it was overcrowded, and I didn't get enough time at the UNIX workstation, similar to my old college. Some days there were no workstations available. So I began trying to run UNIX at home, on an old 386 that someone gave me. I found Minix, but it was too limited. I mentioned Minix to another classmate and he said, "Have you heard of Linux?". I had not but downloaded Slackware piece by piece over a modem and got it running. This was 1996--Linux was very new.
I then created and compiled a beautiful graphical calculator in Linux, but when I brought it to class, it would not compile due to some differences in dependencies between the two systems. The teacher did not care that the school's system would not compile it properly even though it worked perfectly on Linux, and gave me a 0% on my project. He then made me stand around and look at other people's inferior calculators while the teacher congratulated them for it. Nobody ever saw my calculator in operation. It was demoralizing.
Not only did I create a better calculator, I also had no formal training in C language, installed and used a new OS I was not familiar with and most people never heard of (Linux) on a platform (386) that I was not familiar with, since I used an Amiga, and even managed to transfer it to the school's network.
And I got a 0% for all of my efforts. Here is the source code.
It didn't matter that I had built my phone system a couple of years earlier, that my classwork was better than my peers, academia would never recognize me for it. They would always do the opposite--deny my unique achievements, yet reward mundane tasks.
I then called it quits again, stopped going to class or taking tests, attained another 0.0, paid off my student loan, and vowed never go back.
My experiences eventually led to my interest in CyberPunk. I could very much identify with being an outcast in a dystopian technological future where the status quo tries to destroy individual creativity.
In later years, I worked in academia, business, and government, and realized they, like all human systems, are partially corrupt by design, only kept from total corruption by precarious checks and balances.
But somewhere in the nexus between these worlds, not being part of any system but standing InTheDoorway, you gain a perspective into life that you wouldn't gain if you were the most accomplished professor, popular politician, or successful businessman. This is the cyperpunk core, which came out of the hacker subculture which eventually created the free software and Linux movements that are so important to the world today.
But there are those that were not disillusioned, that carried on. In my first Calculus attempt in high school, before I had to retake Calculus 3 more times, sitting behind me to the right, was a rather friendly, mild-mannered guy. When the teacher would call on him, he would be almost sleeping, as if the class was so easy for him that it was wasting his time, and he always had the right answer. He later became a test pilot and NASA astronaut↗, becoming Chief of the astronaut office. In 2008, I watched him live on NASA TV installing the Dextre robotic arm on the International Space Station as he orbited above. I told everyone I knew, but they were unfazed. They did not understand the significance.
The stories I wrote when I was young, about men pushing the boundaries of possibility, were not fiction. He was living the story.
He demonstrated that the world we think it can be, the world we want it to be, can sometimes, actually be.Comments