Short Story Title: The New EE Team

Story Type: Fiction


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

Date Written: July 15, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 15, 2019


Tuesday morning after Labor Day Weekend, I turned in my stack of completed work that I had done on Saturday before driving home on Saturday evening and returning Dad's van. Word seemed to have gotten around about Dr. Silver, because nearly all students turned in at least something. Some of what was turned in were very thin stacks so I guessed students were trying for merciful partial credit. Yet, unlike the last two semesters, there were not loud complaints about how unfair it was to have massive work due the Tuesday after Labor Day Weekend. It just seemed known now this is what Dr. Silver did.

Last week, Dr. Silver had come up with a new and odd lecture habit. He would ask a student a technical question. After the student had answered, Dr. Silver laughed as if amazed and asked, "Are you sure?"

He had done that three times to three students. Twice, students really had been wrong, and had paled as they realized that. They had been publicly shamed. The third time, the student had the general idea correct, but lacked confidence and backed down. Dr. Silver said that we should be both know the correct answer and deliver it with confidence.

I was sitting front row dead center in the second week of class when he directly asked me a difficult question. I answered.

As was his new custom, he asked, "Are you sure?"

"Yes," I replied firmly.

He chuckled as if I were a fool and asked, "You're really claiming this is the correct answer?"

"Yes," I stated strongly.

He waited about a minute, which felt like an eternity as I held his gaze.

Dr. Silver then said, "Good, because you are correct, Joel."

As Dr. Silver went on with his lecture, the quarter of the students in the class who were taking EE 324 Linear Circuits for the second time and knew me as either The Snitch or The Tattler gazed at me in utter confusion.

My former friends Bruce Brown and Tom Anderson were not part of the spectators to see my very minor triumph because they had both passed this class last semester, though. It was those who had failed so were retaking it that witnessed it. I never was sure for the new batch in EE 324 who had been in EE 224 last semester and had heard me being called The Snitch or The Tattler.

After class was over, two students in the class that looked almost old enough to be professors themselves came up to me. I knew one, but not the other. Both had long hair with beards and mustache, although one was black-haired and the other blond-haired. The black-haired man had longer hair and a shaggy beard. He looked like the stereotype of a biker who drove a Harley motorcycle. I soon found out he lived off campus and did drive to campus every day on a Harley motorcycle! The blond-haired man that I knew was Kevin Hector. His blond beard and mustache were neatly trimmed. His hairstyle was a mullet.

I had known Kevin back as a Freshman, but he had taken EE 224 the semester after me, so we had been off sequence for EE courses until now that I was re-taking EE 324. I remember confusion in a math class that some thought his first name was Hector rather than it being Kevin Hector's last name. Kevin was married before starting college. He lived off campus with his wife. He'd been in the Army so was here on the G.I. Bill. He had married his wife that he met in Germany.

Kevin said, "Joel, this is Ted Talker. Ted and I were lab partners last semester in EE 224 Electric Circuits. We worked together on the Spice programs for today, and did get it in, but it was hard with just two of us. Dr. Silver said we could work in groups of up to four. Did you work with anybody?"

I replied, "No, I worked alone. I thought I had a reputation that would keep people from working with me in this class."

Ted said, "I heard about you being called The Snitch. However, I saw how you didn't back down to Dr. Silver today, so I'm not worried about it."

I said, "I didn't back down because I had not the slightest doubt that I was right. That is because it is my second time taking this class, so I did not have to pretend confidence. I was confident! Granted, I would have been very humiliated if I had been mistaken! Which one of the two of you is the oldest?"

Ted said, "I am. Like Kevin, I'm also married. My wife and I live in a trailer court past the football stadium. After a decade at a decent job, I got laid off. I decided to become an electrical engineer to have better job prospects in the future."

Kevin put in, "I'm about five years younger than Ted."

Thus, the two old men of the class and I began working together.

Dr. Silver soon announced another educational innovation beyond the 24/7 terminal room. It was a 24/7 lab room. To this day, I cannot figure out why Dr. Silver thought it would work, and then that it did work so well had me astonished and still has me astonished.

Every one of his EE students got a key to the lab room. This was a physical brass key, by the way. What surprised me is the lab room was filled with expensive equipment like oscilloscopes, signal generators, digital multimeters, and so forth. This was long before video cameras watched everything to record any thieves. I kept expecting to come to see the lab stripped of valuable equipment, but to my utter astonishment, not one piece of equipment ever seems to have disappeared.

Telling us about the 24/7 lab room, Dr. Silver invoked the Student Honor Code, "This policy of a 24/7 lab room will only continue with no thefts and no cheating. You are all expected to obey the Student Honor Code in all ways."

It turned out the Student Honor Code did have rules in their about how students were to treat university property. I knew for a solid fact that many in this room had flagrantly disobeyed the Student Honor Code last semester in regard to cheating by using global-name-change to disguise one working Spice program to as many as half-a-dozen via minor tweaks. Even those who had been in the pre-req EE 224 last semester had Spice assignments and also did that cheating method. Yet, incredibly, almost impossibly, there seemed no violation when it applied to the 24/7 lab room to the best of my knowledge.

A habit for many EE students soon developed that the lab room and the terminal room were the place to be between about eight pm to two-to-three am. These two rooms were just down the hall from each other, so one could bounce between simulating a circuit in Spice on the computer to the lab room to build it in reality on a breadboard. Working this late at night work did not seem as a replacement for bar time because this was ordinary weeknights.

Neither Mrs. Hector nor Mrs. Talker wanted their husbands out until two am on weeknights even if it was doing legitimate electronics lab work. Those two would go to see their spouses for supper, then come back to get to work around six pm, but give it up around ten or eleven pm. I followed their lead as I had a nine am class every weekday.

Being older and experienced, neither Kevin nor Ted would knock themselves out on projects they considered needless make-work. They had an uncanny knack of being correct about which was which. They certainly would work hard, but not insanely hard. Hanging out with them helped me gain perspective on what was worth long hours and hard sweat, and what was not.

I still got glares and occasional mutters from other EE students about my being The Snitch and The Tattler when I was alone, but never if Kevin or Ted were anywhere close.

I came in one day to see a cleanshaven blond-haired man, hair even lighter than Kevin's, talking to both Kevin and Ted, "How are you three doing so well?"

Ted saw me walking up, pointed at me, and said, "We've got superstar Joel Kant on our team! That's how!"

I blushed at that, and it wasn't really true. The other two were older and more mature than me, and contributed their fair share.

The young man said, "I've been staying in the lab or the terminal room until two am almost all the time, and occasionally been doing an all-nighter. I've been working my tail off, and barely ever get more than a C in anything. You guys pack it in around ten, but are the top students in the class."

I pointed out, "We've occasionally been there until eleven.,"

Kevin suggested a reason, "Four years in the Army helps me gauge what really needs to be done from what doesn't. All three of us work hard, but efficiently."

Ted added, "Getting too little sleep leads to muddled thinking. I think most of the time, doing all-nighters is counter-productive."

The young man said, "I'm Jason Miller. I'm sick of all-nighters just to get mediocre or bad grades! I'd like to be on your team."

I said, "Even with me on it?"

Jason replied, "Nobody faces up to and talks back to Dr. Silver like you do, not even Kevin. I don't know how you get away with it."

Ted said, "Joel gets away with it by almost always being right!"

I replied, "We're still covering material that's review to me since this is my second time through, so it is not like I am any sort of genius."

Jason said, "The others re-taking EE 324 never stand up to Dr. Silver like you do, Joel."

I did not reply to that.

Jason joined our team. Our EE team rapidly became a juggernaut. It turned out Kevin was the best of us at Spice and FORTRAN programming, slightly wounding my pride at computer skills, but it was true. Jason and Ted loved building circuits on the lab bench. I ended up digging hard into the theory, thoroughly reading the textbooks, and giving condensed explanations to the others. Since I was also a math tutor at the MSLC six hours a week, I was the math and theory guy!

Jason showed up to meet the other three of us one day and said, "I discovered a bunch of other EE students hate all four of us."

Kevin declared, "I don't have a beef with any other EE students."

Ted asked, "I don't either. What are they mad at us for?"

Jason replied, "They're calling us the curve breakers! On the last test, all four of us got above ninety percent. The average was around forty percent. Some of the other students went to Dr. Silver's office hours to beg him to curve the test, but he claimed with four A's on it, there was no need for that."

I replied, "I had no idea the class average was so low."

Jason said, "The guys were really angry at us for doing so well, but I'm proud of what we've done. They can just lump it. I've never been called a curve breaker before. It feels...good!"

Back in my dorm room, Albert Rose was the ideal roommate. I mentioned this to him one day.

Albert replied, "That's because I go to bed around ten-thirty, and you're just coming back from the lab or terminal room. You're first class is nine am, so you're usually gone before I leave. You're simply not here enough to get into any arguments with you!"

There was much truth in what Albert said. One thing that fell off greatly was using my Vic-20 computer. I still used it for word processing reports now and then, but I was no longer playing games. I was no longer doing magazine type-in programs either. I stopped using the 300 baud modem because with the 24/7 terminal room now open, it was easier to just walk over and use a terminal there with full-speed communication.

I was still working six hours a week as math tutor. One day as I was working as a math tutor and there was a break in the customers, Dr. Richards stopped by. We ended up chatting, and I mentioned the topic of curve breakers.

Dr. Richards replied, "I've not graded on a curve in many years. I think by now I can judge pretty well what to expect on a test. When I first started teaching, I graded on a curve. It seemed the entire class decided to slack off and just trust that the curve would save them."

I asked, "Did it?"

Dr. Richards responded, "For one test, it really did. However, somebody broke from the pack and did well on the next test. He got a lot of flack for being a curve breaker, but it showed me the others had been slacking off much more than I had realized. I didn't like how the smart, hardworking student was treated badly simply for doing what all of them should have been doing all along. I never graded on a curve after that. However, it takes experience and judgement to grade fairly without a curve."

One day, Ted told us he had picked up a microcomputer. Jason, Kevin, and I went to see it. It was a strange brand that I had never heard of before. It had a terrible keyboard and only eight kilobytes of RAM. I showed him some simple tasks in BASIC. It was not a good version of BASIC, very limited compared to Commodore BASIC.

I asked what he wanted to do with it.

He said that he wanted to modem in to check his e-mail on the Vax. He had gotten a 300 baud modem and already purchased a terminal program. He had not gotten a printer. We were able to get his computer to do that much, although Ted was disappointed when he saw how slow communicating with 300 baud really was. Using the new terminals in the 24/7 terminal room had really spoiled us!

I told Ted and the others of the various programs I had for matrix manipulation, graphing, linear equation solving, and the like. Most wouldn't work in the limited memory of this microcomputer even if I converted from Commodore BASIC to this version. Ted decided not to even try those.

Occasionally, Ted used his microcomputer to modem in to check his e-mail, but all of us were on campus so much that there was little need for that. Checking e-mail every day, or many times a day, was just a matter of routine now without any artificially forced mandatory daily e-mail messages by Dr. Silver like last year.

About halfway through the EE 324 class, taking a break from doing huge amounts of Spice that we had been doing, we had to use a polynomial matrix solving program on the Vax. We were working in what is called the s-plane. A polynomial is an expression like 5 times s squared plus 4 times s plus 10. However, we had filled a large matrix with expressions of that sort. That made for a lot of data that took a lot of RAM.

Kevin asked me, "I know Spice circuit simulator is far too large to fit on a microcomputer, but what about this polynomial matrix solver?"

I was intrigued and used my calculator to punch some numbers.

I concluded, "We need about two hundred kilobytes for the data that we've been doing. Not only won't my Vic-20 handle it, neither will my roommate Albert's Commodore 64 nor Bruce Brown's Apple IIe. I think a MS-DOS machine with 640 kilobytes could do it. I wouldn't want to try it on a 256 kilobyte model of MS-DOS machine because there needs to be room for the code as well as the data."

Jason had listened to all this and said, "I read an article that classified computers like the Apple II series, the TRS-80, and the Commodore 64 as eight-bit machines. The MS-DOS machines are not in this category. The article said that the eight-bit microcomputer era is coming to an end."

Kevin said, "If the kind of computer tasks that Dr. Silver is giving us are an indication, then I think that article is correct, Jason."

Ted put in, "I'm certainly disappointed in how little use I get out of my new eight-bit microcomputer."

Jason countered, "That's what you get for buying a discontinued close-out microcomputer that hardly anybody ever heard of before."

I comforted Ted, "Don't feel so bad. It seems the Commodore 64 is such a skyrocket success that Commodore is planning on discontinuing my microcomputer, the Vic-20. Not that it matters much given how I only seem to use it for word processing now."

For the rest of the semester, my new EE team left the 24/7 terminal room or 24/7 lab room no later than eleven pm, and usually as early as ten pm. The other EE students regarded us four badly for this. They seemed to think it proved we did not work as hard as they did. According to them, we lacked dedication. Baffling the other EE students, the four of us consistently kept getting called curve-breakers in Dr. Silver's class!

I had one big vice this semester. It was not playing D&D games, as I rarely played that anymore. When I did, with Simon William running the game, he had to make huge allowances in that my character had been out of the game for a real-time month or more at a time. Instead, my big vice was watching Dr. Who on Sunday evening when it aired on PBS. I almost never watched TV the rest of the week. Some of Albert's friends, especially Darnell, would come by during the week to watch certain shows. Darnell's favorite show was "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," which was a detective show despite that strange title. Albert would record the show on VHS for Darnell, then Darnell would watch it at a more convenient time. I rarely directly was around for this since in the MSLC tutoring, terminal room programming, and lab room building circuits so much of a typical day. I only saw the TV watching enough in spurts to know it was happening. Sunday evening, though, was Dr. Who time for me.

My Mom had given me a hot air popcorn popper. So, lots of popcorn was consumed while watching Tom Baker in his long scarf. Darnell Priest bought a long-knit scarf and a floppy hat that looked just like Tom Baker's that he would wear to come watch the show. The half-length couch and the bean bag chair got heavily used on Sunday evenings.

When Finals Week rolled along, the four in my EE study group all got our A's in EE 324 Linear Circuits. It seemed no other outcome could have happened for us. Back in the papermill town for Christmas Break, even Dad had started acting like my surviving electrical engineering was a natural state of affairs.

Tim had done amazing programming on Mom's Commodore 64 while I had been away that semester. He eagerly showed me his new programs, masterfully using the hardware sprites supported in the Commodore 64 but not the Vic-20. He seemed disappointed that I had done so little on my Vic-20 over the last semester.

While I had slacked off on using my Vic-20, Albert had kept reading the computer magazines and let me know that Josh Cistern was now getting published at a steady clip. It turned out this was increasingly for Commodore 64 programs rather than just Vic-20 programs. Josh had gotten great use out of his two Commodore computers over the last semester.

Albert had used his Commodore 64 a fair amount for Computer Science, but generally for highly technical and esoteric tasks that were of no interest to those who came by just wanting to play the latest Commodore 64 games. As an example, at one point, he had the audio output hooked to an oscilloscope, and used the SID II sound chip to make various waveforms. That's not of much interest to visiting student who came by wanting to play a pirated game of Zaxxon!

Back in the papermill village for the weekend, I decided to give Josh a long-distance call. Mom said that as long as I did not talk for more then about twenty minutes, I wouldn't have to pay for the call. She remembered how much Josh had helped her save on her Commodore 64 system.

I told Josh, "I barely used the borrowed modem this semester because of the new 24/7 terminal room a short walk from my dorm. I can return it. It was very useful last semester when the 24/7 terminal room did not exist."

Josh replied, "No hurry on that. I've got a 1200 baud modem now. I've wanted the extra speed because I modem in to check my own e-mail on the mainframe here. There are also some computer BBS's here in Irate City that I've been too busy to check them out during the semester. I hope to try some over Christmas break, and the 1200 baud should make that much more pleasant. I'm never going back to 300 baud! How you doing in EE?"

I answered, "Just great."

Josh said, "Here at Bill-of-Rights University, we have minor degrees in EE. Do you have minors in the EE at Cornfield University? I was too focused on just surviving EE when I was down there to look into whether minors existed."

I replied, "No minors. Just some choices in electives. For example, there are two Digital Electronics courses I was thinking of taking as electives. Other EE students I know plan to do a couple power distribution classes instead as electives since Wisconsin Power and Light is hiring."

Josh replied, "Joel, people like us are needed in the computer industry! I got a guy that I study with here named Waldo Venter. He and I are going for a minor called Computer Engineering! It has three classes taken through the Computer Science department, but it has a hardware focus for computers that is lacking in those in Computer Science. Computer Engineering is the future, Joel!"

I replied, "I'm in IEEE. I read an article in the IEEE Spectrum magazine that some universities have Computer Engineering as its own bachelor degree distinct from EE."

Josh said, "It's not its own distinct degree at Bill-of-Rights University, but it might be in a few years. Do you have Computer Engineering even as a minor at Cornfield University?"

"Certainly not," I said. "For computers, the choice is taking Computer Science like Albert or taking regular EE with the two Digital courses as electives as I am planning to do. Nothing else."

Josh recommended, "You should transfer to Bill-of-Rights University to get a Computer Engineering minor like Waldo and I are doing. Computer Engineering is the future."

I replied, "Dad's still got his restriction that I got to be out in four years. That gives me just three semesters left. I couldn't do that if I transferred. My brother Tim's starting college in August, so that'll be two of us in college at the same time for two semesters."

Josh asked, "Has your brother chosen a university yet?"

I replied, "No, but he has applications to several places. He's chosen a major, though. He plans on studying Computer Science."

Josh remarked, "At Bill-of-Rights University, the Computer Science major is just as hot as EE. I think Albert's going to have no problem getting a job at graduation even with his CS degree from Cornfield University, and I don't consider that as good as a CS degree from here. The CS and Computer Engineering fields are both just so hot right now!"


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