CalculateThis


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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.

But the following year, in early 1997, to vindicate myself from those soul-sucking experiences, I began a major project to build my own digital, non-linear video editing (NLE) system for use by my friend for a final project at that same university, a film colleague who was still taking video production classes and was required to schedule limited time in their editing suite.

Previously, the only way you could edit NTSC video in a random-access manner was to use an edit controller to get two professional videotape decks up to speed and in precise temporal alignment with each other so that you could record a section of video from one tape to the next using special "insert edit" capable machines and control tracks↗ for synchronization. But, of course, the length of the section that you inserted must match the length of the section you replaced, since it was a "linear" system, and you lose a generation of quality due to the analog copy. And any CGI or transitions were difficult, requiring genlock↗ synchronization.

Curiously, this problem of inserting information into a fixed, linear timeslot on a recording machine is the same problem--like that which I encountered working on my UNIX graphics class homework--that precipitated this project; there was simply not enough time available in the single suite/lab which was time-shared with the entire class, a fact of which I had intimate knowledge years prior when I had to edit my 20-minute film (the longest in the class) from hours of footage in just two hours, and 20-minutes of that precious time could not even be spent editing whatsoever, since, unlike digital data, the analog tape decks had to copy in actual time. While the university taught using the medium of video instead of film, editing is the epitome of the art of cinema↗, and this was an affront to that art, so again, I attempted to beat the university by building my own system, teaching myself what was needed along the way. My earlier battle was with the college of Sciences, but now this was a battle with the Arts.

To the best of my knowledge, it was the first nonlinear video editing system ever used to produce a video at that university, since their suite still consisted only of 1/2-inch VHS and 3/4-inch U-matic video edit controllers (early videotape), Vidicon↗ tube-based videocameras, and a first-generation NewTek Video Toaster↗ (an early Amiga-based NTSC compositing and CGI system) which did not have NLE capabilities.

The native (and expensive) digital DV tape format was just invented two years earlier, and the lower-cost MiniDV camcorders (still thousands of dollars, though) wouldn't be available until the following year. The Mac-based Avid was known to exist (and was even being used for major motion pictures) but was prohibitively expensive, and even the early Linux-based Cinelerra↗ didn't exist yet, so I built my system around a Windows 95 PC which was considered crude and problematic, the underdog of multimedia at that time.

I loved my Amiga 500, even using its native high-resolution NTSC output and older Motorola 68000 processor, along with an audio digitizer circuit I built, to add CGI and real-time audio effects to my earlier videos (the only student attempting such things), but there was no way I could afford an Amiga-based NLE like the Video Toaster "Flyer", a later generation which the school didn't have either. So I built it within the constraints of my limited budget (buying and piecing together all of the parts myself from different sources) and leveraged my technical skills to solve any problems that arose.

Back then, I incorporated a cost-effective Cyrix 6×86L processor (later buying the 6×86MX), Spacewalker HOT-557 motherboard, two $500 Maxtor 5 GB hard drives, and a $900 M-JPEG-based Miro DC30 which captured S-Video from my friend's CCD-based Sony Hi8 camcorder (a high-quality, discounted display model sold at VideoConcepts↗ when it went out of business ). I was working at the time and using all of my paychecks to purchase the parts for this system. It was as close to 480i as I could get (a term that wasn't really used until the advent of digital television over a decade later) exceeding the resolutions the school was using. Compositing, transitions, and CGI were now a moot point, for any effects merely required the appropriate algorithm and rendering time; there was no need for the school's Video Toaster.

I had to overcome all kinds of technical issues, searching Usenet newsgroups like rec.video.desktop for bug workarounds, and decided to risk using lower-cost 5400 RPM EIDE drives instead of the more expensive 7200 RPM SCSI ones that the pros used and recommended. I estimated that the data density of these new lower RPM, high-capacity EIDE drives was high enough, and the EIDE interface was fast enough, to barely give me enough M-JPEG throughput to prevent frame drops as long as the drive was defragmented. I also had a 2 GB file size limitation, and I can't remember if it was related to the partition size being limited by the BIOS (a 5 GB drive was huge back then) or the file system implementation in early 32-bit Windows or Adobe Premiere software. FAT16 had a 2 GB partition limitation and FAT32, that was just released on later versions of Windows 95, had a 4 GB file size limitation. I remember that I was limited on the max length of a clip and partitioned the drives into volumes, and by moving them completely on and off of those volumes, it conveniently eliminated the need for time-consuming defragmentation to prevent frame-drops. And because each volume was only large enough to store around 10 minutes of high-quality video, I had to create a complex, lossless, digital tape-shuffling method of copying the entire volume with relevant B-roll to numerous, cutting-edge $40 8mm Sony Travan QTR-4 4 GB tapes and adding lower-resolution miniature clips to the Adobe Premiere 4.2 edit timeline until final render when the high-resolution clips were loaded back on and then the final result was cleanly assembled to Hi8 tape using the camera's flying erase head.

I taught myself all about transcoding and telecine↗, details of which I encountered in neither my graphics nor my video classes. While there were, of course, differences in resolution and dynamic range between high quality film and consumer video, once the non-linear problem with was solved with NLEs, the final hurdle was slow-motion, a magical effect that was so easy to do in film (run stock faster through the camera, but slower through the projector), yet so difficult in interlaced video with a fixed, electronic time synchronization, and it wasn't until the high-definition television and smartphone era before affordable cameras even started supporting this. But I even devised early slow-motion effects by separating out the 60 interlaced fields of NTSC video and interpolating them into frames and used something like a reverse telecine to convert into 24 frames, before finally performing a pulldown to convert back to 59.94 fields per second, smoothly slowing the speed down by 2.5 times, something that simply wasn't possible with videotape. You didn't have to worry about generation loss↗ since the copies were not analog, but you still had to keep a close eye to ensure that you weren't unnecessarily transcoding something that was already in the correct format for purposes of both quality and time, a form of digital generation loss, since M-JPEG is a lossy compression format.

Then the hour-long, finished Hi8 tape had to be copied back to the school's deck by unplugging the BNC cable and using a phono-to-BNC adapter which I purchased at Radio Shack, losing some quality in the process by converting to NTSC composite (their VCRs lacked S-Video inputs, if I remember correctly), but we still ended up with a very high-quality documentary considering the limited production budget. There was, however, a slight noise in one of the audio channels, a notorious hardware issue with the Miro DC30 that wasn't fixed until the later DC30+.

But the biggest trade-off was with Time; it took an entire month for my colleague to edit the 1-hour documentary due to the additional time needed for capturing, moving files, shuffling the digital tapes around, and rendering/transcoding. And even though I wasn't using 8mm digital videotape like MiniDV, I was using 8mm computer tapes to store digital video way back in early 1997. DVD players were just entering the market and were expensive, and DVD-R was just invented, and it would be a few more years before it would be affordable to convert those videos to an archival optical format.

Like that graphics class, all of my technical work, of course, was unbeknownst to my past professors who never knew what was going on behind the scenes, literally. But by then, I no longer expected my professors to understand, and so the following year, I decided that it was time to make my own film and built even more advanced systems, such as MiniDV, and later HDV.

But my work back then allowed us complete artistic freedom to edit a MotionPicture without impediment for the first time, a freedom that simply didn't exist in the videotape world. Videotape, however, was a wonderful invention that allowed the director to re-shoot and re-record scenes to their satisfaction, an advantage unlike the chemical film before it, and NLE systems now did the same for editing, an advantage long held by those directors of early cut-and-splice films.

My academic 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. The unusual use of the difficult, spatiotemporal photographic technique bullet time↗ in the cyberpunk film The Matrix in 1999 was fascinating to me and solidified that interest, for here, cinematography (the Arts) and technical wizardry (the Sciences) were united into something greater than the sum of their parts, and the characters in the story, whose lives were a duality of technical wizards in the physical world who traverse an artistic dream world of the mind, were a recursive, fractal consistency of this union.

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 named Bob. 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.

And then in 2020, he was one of the first two human beings to fly into space aboard a Commercial Crew Program SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket↗, returning the US to human spaceflight after the shuttle program had ended. Bob even docked and spacewalked around the ISS, achieving 10 for his career, tying a few other astronauts for the most EVAs ever performed by a US astronaut at the time, and then he and Doug successfully de-orbited the Endeavour capsule using a heat shield, parachuting into the ocean, a feat that hadn't been done since 1975, when I was 5 years old.

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.

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