Short Story Title: Computer Science Majors

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Four of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 1, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 1, 2019


I stopped at Josh and Albert's dorm room. Josh Cistern wasn't around, but Albert Rose and Bruce Brown were using Josh's Vic-20. I figured they had permission, and I remained impressed how freely Josh let his friends use his computer. Bruce was at the keyboard. He had his David Ahl book of BASIC games out and open. Bruce had typed something in, but it wasn't working. Albert was suggesting corrections.

Bruce said, "That did it! 'Trek' is working! Josh'll be impressed when he gets here."

Albert told me, "Joel, come look at this."

Albert and Bruce showed me this version of the game "Trek." It was a turns-based strategy game.

I remarked, "It's nice, but I'll bet Josh will add sound, color, and different graphics."

Bruce said, "Of course. I look forward to see what he does. I'll bet this game would run great on the mainframe, but I'm not going to make that mistake again!"

Albert announced, "Now that this works, why don't you two come down to the first floor with me. There's a new student you need to meet."

I asked, "A new student starting in January?"

Albert replied, "Darnell Priest transferred in from Bill-of-Rights University. Come along. He calls his dorm room number five."

Albert locked up his own dorm room on the fourth floor, then we headed down to the first floor. I knew the room numbers there started at 100, so there was no five. Albert stopped at room 101 and knocked. I knew enough to get the joke. 101 in base 2 means 1 in the 4's place, 0 in the 2's place, and 1 in the one's place, so 101 in binary means five in base 10, the normal decimal numbering system.

Albert knocked, and a young man opened the door. He was a medium sized guy of average weight. His brown hair was not too long, but very curly.

Albert said, "Darnell, this is Joel Kant and Bruce Brown."

Darnell replied, "Welcome to Room Five. It's five because?"

"It's binary," I interrupted.

"I got it too," added Bruce.

Darnell invited us in, and then I noticed another man in the room. I had seen this other guy around campus, also medium height but moderately overweight, but I did not really know him as I shared no classes with him.

Darnell said, "This is my new roommate, Gerald."

Gerald took a drink for a strange-shaped beer can and said, "I've been in this room since August. You just moved in, so you're the new roommate, Darnell."

Darnell bowed dramatically and said, "As you say, sir."

Albert asked Gerald, "What is that you're drinking?"

Gerald held up the can that looked more like a steel oil can than a beer can and said, "It's a beer from Australia."

I forgot the name of the brand although it was much more unusual than just being Fosters. I looked at Gerald's side of the room. It was filled with many foreign beer cans covering shelves, top of the dresser, and top of his bolster. I looked over them.

I said, "I've seen only a few of these cans before."

Gerald asked in surprise, "Where have you seen any of them before?"

I replied, "Back when I was in high school, some of my peers had beer can collections. The hobby rapidly filled up space, and parents seldom approved. The better collections only had very unusual and exotic cans, like this can over here and that one there. Nobody I knew had as many unusual cans as you do."

Gerald nodded.

Albert said, "The only other people I know who collect cans around campus due it for recycling."

Gerald shuddered at that, then said, "As you can see, my new roommate has different tastes than beer. I'll be right back. I'm going to rinse out this can."

On Darnell's side of the room were an impressive of hard liquor bottles. These were vodka, rum, whiskey, and so forth. None were empty, although some where open and half-empty.

Darnell spread a hand across his bottles and asked, "Want something to drink?"

Albert answered, "Not now. Bruce and I got that game of 'Trek' working that I told you about."

Darnell had clearly talked to Albert before because he asked, "On your Sinclair or your roommate's Vic-20?"

Albert said, "On the Vic-20."

Bruce remarked, "Only the Vic-20 has the needed memory, and even then only with the memory expansion."

Albert declared, "I could get a similar memory expansion for my Sinclair, but I'm saving up for a better computer."

Gerald came back in with his rinsed out can, heard the end of this, and stated, "I heard the Vic-20 is nothing but a toy."

Bruce countered, "No, it's quite powerful for the money. Besides, any computer really depends on what you do with it. Albert's done some impressive stuff even with his Sinclair ZX-80."

Darnell claimed, "Up at Bill-of-Rights University, the only operating system considered worth using is UNIX. Home computers like the Vic-20 cannot run that."

I asked, "What is UNIX?"

Darnell replied, "It's a multi-tasking, multi-threading operating system."

Albert said, "I read about it."

I wondered, "Darnell, you know computers well. Is your major electrical engineering?"

Albert Rose, Bruce Brown, Josh Cistern, Tom Anderson, and I were all in EE.

Darnell answered, "No, I'm a dual major of Math and Computer Science."

Back when I had looked at EE programs, both the EE and the CS program at Bill-of-Rights University was rated around fifteen or so according to the Peterson's Guide and to the U.S. News College Guide. Cornfield University's EE program was almost brand new, so could not be rated for another five years or so to evaluate graduates in it, but other fields of engineering at Cornfield University made it in the top hundred list. While the Computer Science program of Cornfield University had existed for a couple decades, I never looked nearly far enough down the list to see if it was even there. To me, it seemed for Computer Science, transferring here would be a step down. I could not think of a polite way to ask about it, so kept quiet on the matter.

Gerald put in, "My major is Computer Science. Not dual major like Darnell. Just CS."

Addressing Gerald, I asked, "Do you need Calc-based Physics for Computer Science?"

I was in that class now, and I found it difficult yet fascinating. There were two sessions of it, so not seeing Gerald in my session did not mean he wasn't taking it. Bruce, Tom, and Josh were in the same Physics I class with me, but Albert was not in either Physics I session for an embarrassing reason. Albert had not passed his Calculus class last semester, and it was a pre-requisite.

Gerald replied, "Nothing Calc-based is needed, nor any Calculus class, for Computer Science. I only need Business Math courses. Those are easy."

Darnell said, "You'd need Calculus One, Two, Three, and Differential Equations and Calc-Based Physics in Computer Science at Bill-of-Rights University. I've already passed all of that, so am using those courses here to get far along into my Math major."

I remarked, "It sounds like the requirements of CS and EE for the first couple years are about the same at Bill-of-Rights University, but not here. If Dr. Silver hears of your background, Darnell, I think he'll try to talk you into changing majors to EE."

Darnell laughed and said, "If so, Dr. Silver won't convince me. I prefer typing at a keyboard to circuit building. Have you tried the PDP mainframe here? Lord, it's the worst I've ever seen for trying to touch type! It's so slow!"

Gerald shook a water droplet out of the rinsed strange can, then said, "I hear a new mainframe will be bought soon."

Darnell replied, "Good! I hope it is a powerful UNIX machine. There is a great videogame on the UNIX mainframes at Bill-of-Rights University that I miss."

Albert asked, "What is it?"

Darnell answered, "'Rogue.' It's inspired by D&D. It works even with dumb ASCII terminals."

Bruce stated, "Don't run something like that here! I'm having to re-take Computer Programming for Engineering this semester merely because I put Tic-Tac-Toe on the PDP mainframe last semester."

Albert asked, "Since you like a D&D-inspired videogame like 'Rogue', do you play live-action D&D?"

Darnell replied, "Of course! My favorite character is tenth level."

Gerald added, "My favorite character is ninth. Know any good games here?"

I had been too busy and too scared of the academic hit to spend extra time last semester to play D&D at all, but I knew Albert Rose, Josh Cistern, Tom Anderson, and Bruce Brown sometimes played. Yet, I had played D&D the previous summer before starting college. My character had only been a sixth-level thief when I had gone off to college in August. So far, this semester was not as intense for me as last semester. I still had a lot of work, but not where I couldn't take an evening once or twice a week off for a D&D game if I worked hard the rest of the time.

Bruce said, "While there are a few games being run around the dorms, my favorite Dungeon Master is Robert Knot. Another good DM is Simon William. Robert and Simon tend to play in each others' game, so tend not to run on the same nights. Robert's my favorite DM, although Simon's good too."

Albert gave an invitation, "Robert's running a game Saturday night in my room. Why don't all of you come up? Bring your character sheets, as around ninth or tenth level fits his game. Maybe Robert will let you keep your characters."

Gerald asked, "Does Bob Knot run a low, medium, or high-magic world?"

Albert said, "Robert doesn't like using a nickname. Don't call him Bob or Rob, just Robert. I'd say medium."

Bruce thought and said, "I'd say medium or slightly higher. Not easy games, though! Robert doesn't run any Monty Haul adventures!"

On Saturday, I came to Josh and Albert's room after supper at the cafeteria. A big man both in height and breadth that I didn't know was seated at Josh's Vic-20 computer, which was on. Both Josh and Bruce stood behind the big man.

Josh said, "Now push Enter, and the photon torpedo will launch, Robert."

Robert did so. I concluded this had to be Robert Knot, the DM for later tonight. When he pushed Enter, there was a whoosh sound, then an explosion. I looked over at the red explosion. I realized in just a couple days, Josh had added color, sound, and small amount of animation to "Trek."

Robert had won the game, so then Albert introduced me.

Josh said, "Joel, we aren't not doing computer stuff tonight. Robert's running a D&D game, and I'm playing in it."

I replied, "I know. Albert invited 'all of you' to this game, meaning Gerald, Darnell, and myself."

Robert asked, "Got a character?"

Josh seemed surprised as I handed over my character sheet to Robert.

Robert looked it over and said, "You named him Spruce?"

I blushed and said, "Yes, like the name Bruce, but for the type of tree."

It seemed a silly and stupid name now, but I had not thought much of it back playing with high school students last summer.

Robert nodded, then got out a pencil and said, "We'll artificially raise him a couple levels for this game, then he'll be fine."

Holding a Vic-20 cartridge, Tom Anderson suddenly showed up. Robert still needed to worked on my character sheet, so we moved over to Albert's desk. Robert explained to me what changes he was making to my character so suitable for his game. While this was going on, over at the Vic-20 on Josh's desk, Tom showed the cartridge game "Shamus" to Josh and Albert.

Robert had just finished my character sheet when Darnell and Gerald showed up. Robert spent much less time looking over and changing their sheets then he did mine as those were mostly fine as is.

Just as Robert finished giving those back, Bruce Brown showed up. Bruce had played in Robert's games before so did not need his character sheet checked. Behind Bruce came in two others, a man and a woman. The two held hands, so I assumed were dating. The way Robert reacted, he knew this couple well, and no character sheets needed checking for them.

Noting my confusion, Bruce said, "Joel, this is Simon and Lori. Simon often DM's himself."

Robert announced, "This is too big a crowd for a dorm room. Let's go play in the lounge."

Josh was doing very well in the videogame "Shamus," but made no complaint as he shut it down mid-game. "Shamus" was a top-down shooter game that in some ways reminded me of "Castle Wolfenstein" on the Apple II, but the protagonist here was a detective rather than a solider and some of the enemies looked like robots rather than Nazi scientists. It was one of the best arcade-like games that I had ever seen on the Vic-20, so I could see why Tom was excited about getting it and wanting to show it off. Still, now was time for live-action D&D.

Some hours later in the lounge, Tom complained, "There should have been much more gold than that!"

Josh looked from Tom to Darnell and then to Gerald, frowned and suggested, "I think there was, but not anymore. It's been hidden from us. Hidden from a few of us, anyway!"

I looked over at Robert who had a mysterious grin. As DM, he knew what was going on. I looked down at my character sheet. In D&D, characters have what is called an alignment. It has two words. The first word is whether one obeys laws all the time, most of the time, or only when convenient. The first word was therefore either Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. The second word applied to a simplistic moral judgement and was Good, Neutral, or Evil. My sheet said Neutral Good. I had been in some games where players liked Neutral Neutral or even Chaotic Neutral as they claimed it was less restrictive. I had never played in a game where a character had chosen an Evil alignment; until now, that is! I found it annoying, almost a betrayal of my expectations, but also fiendishly clever. I realized that Robert had read the character sheets earlier tonight, and done it without me or the others having a clue to the new characters' evil alignments!

Simon flat-out stated, "I think I can guess the alignment of our newcomers' characters!"

I said, "What do you think Spruce's alignment is, then?"

Simon did a brief double take, then said, "I didn't mean your character, Joel. Granted, Spruce is new to this game as well, come to think of it. Yours is either Lawful Good or Neutral Good."

I nodded.

Lori commented, "It might be fun to play with characters like those of Darnell and Gerald."

Robert stretched, then said he was taking a break to get a drink. People left, and then came back. Drinks were allowed in the lobby, even alcoholic drinks, so players brought those back.

As we waited for the game to resume, Darnell described the videogame "Rogue" to Albert and to Tom, both of whom seemed interested. Josh came back with his own drink, overhearing this, and asked, "Could a game like that run on a Vic-20?"

Darnell replied, "I doubt it would have the memory."

Josh said, "The memory of a Vic-20 can be expanded considerably. You might be surprised."

Darnell then said, "There are only 22 columns on the Vic-20, which is not enough to make 'Rogue' much fun. With enough memory, a Vic-20 might do well on other UNIX games converted over like 'Colossal Cave Adventure' and 'Hunt the Wumpus.'"

Josh looked at the D&D books and papers that Robert had left behind and remarked, "It'd be nice to have all that in a computer instead of on paper and in books."

Robert was just coming in when Josh said that and seemed to agree.

Robert asked, "Could all these tables and so forth be put into a computer?"

Josh said, "With enough memory, it could."

Simon William put in, "I think a disk drive would help because then data could be swapped in and out to make more tables that could fit even if one had 48 kilobytes of RAM. D&D requires lots of tables."

I asked, "Simon, what's your major?"

Simon replied, "Computer Science."

Darnell and Gerald explained that was also their majors. I reflected that there seemed little overlap between Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Cornfield University as I had encountered none of them in any of my classes, whereas I ran into Josh, Tom, Albert, and Josh all the time.

On the Wednesday after the game, I was walking down the hallway in the engineering building when ahead of me I saw a big man talking to Josh. As I got closer, I could see the big man Josh was talking to was Robert Knot.

I commented, "This is the first time I saw you in the engineering building, Robert. I never did find out your major."

Robert said, "Oh, it's Business. I came to this building just to find Josh. I picked up a Vic-20 like he has, now I want help to make a Dungeon Assistant Program for my D&D games."

I remarked, "I didn't think anyplace in Cornfield City sold Vic-20 computers or any other type of computers."

Robert remarked, "I drove up to Irate City to get it."

Josh elaborated, "Robert has a car."

I asked, "Even with a car, didn't you have to miss some classes to drive all the way to Irate City?"

Irate City was about eighty miles away, and all of that on two-lane county highways where the maximum speed limit was fifty-five mph, but dotted with many small towns that posted 25 mph limits. Given all the small towns where it seemed the 25 mph was a speed trap, doing that eighty miles could easily take two hours, each way.

Robert gave me a look as if wondering what missing classes had to do with anything as he replied, "Sure, but I learn better outside the classroom. I hate lectures, and that's all my professors do. Come and see my computer!"

Josh looked at Robert, then at me, and replied, "Robert, both Joel and I have a class in about fifteen minutes. We can both come see it after that. Promise."

I countered, "I can't go after class. I told Bruce that I would meet him at the Computer Center as soon as class is over."

Robert seemed to expect Josh to drop everything and come immediately, but this wasn't happening. Robert gave me a glare like I was a bad influence on his buddy, then left the building.

As Josh and I took desks in the lecture hall, I asked, "Did Robert get a memory expansion?"

Josh said, "He said that he got a three-kilobyte expansion. I don't think that's nearly enough to do what he wants to do. I have an idea how to make even that small amount useful, though."

After the lecture, Josh headed off to find Robert while I went to the Computer Center to find Bruce. When I walked in, Bruce was looking at the sign-up list for the VT-100 dumb ASCII terminals. He was frowning. I glanced around. Every terminal was in use, and some guys were seated in the hallway doing homework while waiting. Tom Anderson had somehow gotten onto a VT-100 as I saw him typing on it.

Bruce noticed me and remarked, "Looks like the punch card machines again."

I nodded and said, "Gerald said that Cornfield University is getting a new mainframe soon."

Bruce replied, "It can't be soon enough! I love using a home computer where the response to the keyboard in instantaneous. When you run a program, you know if there is a syntax error in less than a second. That's so much better than this nonsense! Speaking of home computers, I was over at Simon William's apartment earlier. You should see the home computer that he just got. Josh will be jealous."

I asked, "Simon?"

Bruce explained, "He was in the D&D game on Saturday. He brought his girlfriend Lori."

I replied, "Oh, yes. He said that he was a Computer Science major, so a home computer would make sense, I suppose. Any idea what Lori's major is?"

Bruce told me, "No idea. Anyway, Simon's machine is a TRS-80. Not one of the small ones that you hook to a TV. This is the large unit with self-contained monitor and twin disk drives. He said that he is going to write a Dungeon Masters Assistant program, then sell it to make back what he spent buying his computer system."

I said, "That's a coincidence. Josh and I saw Robert Knot in the engineering building about an hour and a half ago. Robert bought a Vic-20 system like Josh's, and said that he's going to make a Dungeon Masters Assistant program. Josh is over there now."

Bruce speculated, "I think what Simon comes up with will be better just because his computer has disk drives, and probably a lot more RAM as well."

I replied, "I suspect you're right. However, none of that will help us come up with the FORTRAN program we need to compute the determinant of a complex number matrix."

Bruce nodded, then said, "I've got a program here that's fully debugged for doing it with real numbers."

From my backpack, I pulled out some papers and said, "I wrote something based on what I read in the textbook."

Bruce remarked, "I want to get this done so I have time on Friday and Saturday night. Robert's running his D&D game this weekend on both nights."

I said, "Seems too fast to get his planned Dungeon Masters Assistant computer program working."

Bruce remarked, "You said that Josh went over, so there might be something working by then. Josh codes faster than anybody I know. Let's see if we can get our own coding done."

Bruce and I spent the next few hours typing punch cards, then trying them out, finding errors, and repeating the process. At last, we were getting what were the expected answers.

That Friday after supper, the whole big crowd met in the lounge. Robert already sat in front of a Vic-20 computer with TV as a monitor. The computer had been set up before I had arrived.

Bruce asked, "Is that your new computer?"

Robert said, "No, it's Josh's. It's easier to carry it down the hall then from another floor."

During the game, Robert had software that through a random number generator simulated dice rolls rather than actually making them, but the rest of us rolled dice the normal way. Robert still used his books and papers often, but it seemed he had the main combat table that used a d20 attack roll into the computer already. Much more could be done like some of the many other tables used in the D&D game added into the computer program, but I was impressed by how what had already been done sped gameplay.

Once, the program did something Robert did not expect. Josh went over, and they soon resolved the issue. The rest of the time, the computer program seemed to work flawlessly.

Later in the game, our party had to battle giants. It looked bad for the party. Albert seemed particularly frustrated when his character rolled badly several times in a row. However, Simon's character got a double-natural-twenty, which means rolling a twenty on a twenty-sided die, then rolling it again to get another twenty. Back home when my brother Tim ran, he didn't run this option called a critical hit. The rulebook even listed it as an option, not a requirement. Since Robert does run the critical hit option and Simon achieved it, that bit of luck turned the tide of the battle.

It was around three am when we gave up for the night, with the main battle successfully over. I joined the others in praising Robert Knot for running an excellent game. Both Simon and Darnell wanted lots of specific details about the software that Robert and Josh had put together, but both Robert and Josh pleaded tiredness.

Darnell suggested, "How about we discuss it tomorrow afternoon? It's Saturday."

Josh insisted instead, "We can discuss it Sunday afternoon."

Robert elaborated, "I've got a few tweaks to put in then try out in the game tomorrow night. I'm not quite ready to show you more."

Simon and Darnell accepted this.

While others then left, I helped Josh by carrying the TV for monitor back to his room while Josh took the Vic-20 and tape recorder, and Albert carried the power supply and cables. Josh wasn't going to leave his computer system sit in the lounge.

As we put the equipment back in the room, I noticed that Albert looked as disappointed as if his favorite D&D character had just died. Yet, nothing like that had happened in the game!

Josh saw that I was about to ask Albert what was wrong, so gave a slight shake of his head.

Josh came over and said, "Can you stop by tomorrow? Say, come over before lunch, and we'll all go to the cafeteria together."

I agreed to do that, wondering what was going on.

On Saturday at the appointed time, I arrived at Josh and Albert's room. Only those two were there. Both computers were off.

Josh let me in, shut the door, and explained, "My roommate's thinking of quitting electrical engineering."

I said, "That's not what I expected. Albert, you have such great skills with electronics. You wired up the RS-232 interface to your rubber cup modem, and it works great. You've got more electronic parts and tools than any other EE student I know."

Albert despondently said, "I suppose so."

I had learned Albert's closet was full of briefcases. He got them cheap at garage sales. One briefcase was devoted to soldering gear. Another briefcase to mechanical tools like small socket set, crescent wrenches, and the like. Another briefcase was filled with parts related to his ham radio hobby. Another briefcase had extra computer and digital electronics gear. It was the best organized and most complete system that I had seen for any EE student. I had a soldering iron and some tools, but in a red metal toolbox of the ordinary sort.

I indicated the closet and said, "I wish I had even half the stuff for electronics that you have."

Albert remarked, "None of that will help me pass Calculus. I'm taking it for the second time, which is why I'm not in Physics I with you, Bruce, Tom, and Josh. I got my first Calculus test back. I flunked. Not a D, a genuine F. That's even worse than last semester."

I said, "Why don't you come to the Math Science Learning Center to get math tutoring?"

Albert looked over at Josh and said, "Josh does fine without math tutoring. He's never at the MSLC."

I said, "Yes, but not everybody can do what he can do. Josh is unusually skilled. I'll bet Josh wrote most of that program that Robert used last night."

Albert said, "That's obvious."

Josh protested, "Robert did write some of it. That's not the point, though. Albert, you have a ham radio license. Neither Joel or I have one of those. Why abandon electrical engineering when you are so good at electronics?"

I remarked, "I hope you're not going into Industrial Technology."

At Cornfield University, that seemed to me a consolation prize degree for those who could not handle actual engineering. Some guys I knew who had flunked nearly everything last semester were this semester in Industrial Technology. They bragged how it was incredibly easy, laughing at how much harder those of us still surviving in engineering had it as if we were fools to work so hard.

Josh seemed to catch my thought as he said, "I heard the Industrial Technology program is so easy that I don't think the students can be learning too much. Students shouldn't be able to regularly skip classes, come to class hung over when they do come, and still get C's or better. I know some in Industrial Technology who do just that."

Albert responded, "I'm not thinking of that major, but of Computer Science. Darnell, Simon, and Gerald are all in Computer Science."

I suggested, "Computer Science seems a good major, but why not try coming to MSLC first to get help with math? I'm there several times a week. So's Bruce Brown and Tom Anderson. The best math tutor is Karen. Almost as good is a guy named Joe."

Albert said, "I don't like working with a tutor. It's humiliating. I'm changing my major to Computer Science."

Josh remarked, "I know Computer Science at Bill-of-Rights University has the same Calculus and Differential Equations requirements as EE."

I said, "Darnell told me the same thing. How do you know, Josh?"

Josh said, "My Dad's an anthropology professor up there. I spent much of my childhood and high school years roaming around Bill-of-Rights University. I wish we had UNIX mainframes down here like they do rather than this awful PDP!"

I remarked, "I knew you grew up in Irate City, but I had no idea what your father did, Josh."

Josh waved a hand at me and said, "That's not important. The point is Computer Science here is mainly about accounting, payroll, billing, and financial stuff. There, Computer Science is about creating operating systems, optimizing compilers, and hooking computers together in networks. That's why the math requirements are stronger at Bill-of-Rights University than Cornfield University for a major of the same name."

Albert said, "I'm going to get through Computer Science as a major here, not there. However, once I get a job, I'll have my new employer pay for graduate school classes. Once I get a masters degree in Computer Science, few will pay much attention to what I did as an undergrad other than that I got a bachelors degree in CS from somewhere."

I confessed, "I haven't given any serious thought yet to education after this. I am swamped enough just trying to get the bachelors degree."

Josh looked thoughtful and responded, "Your plan should work. I still think you should try what Joel suggested with the math tutors first."

Albert replied, "No, I've decided. I'm dropping Calculus, and switching my major to Computer Science."

Josh prophesized, "I think you'll do fine in it."

I asked, "How is Business as a major here? I don't know anybody in it other than Robert Knot."

Josh said, "It's a good major, but Robert's a terrible student. He skips classes as much as he makes it to them. If he worked in his classes even one third as hard as he worked with me on his Dungeon Masters Assistant computer program this week, then he'd be a Dean's List student like you, Joel!"


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