Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Repressed Memories Day: The Math Emporium

We shall build a utopian society where students will voluntarily come to take advantage of free Macintosh computers loaded with math software. Students will regularly revel in the bursting joy of mathematics.

This could have been the mission statement for the Virginia Tech Math Emporium, that ridiculous pork barrel project nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains that continues to harass students to this very day. Maybe it looked good on paper, or maybe they just had a bit of spare change they needed to spend before the next budget, but either way it just didn't work. I would like to meet the building planner who thought that this concept was a good idea and strongly suggest to him the medical benefits of testicular radiation therapy.

After a couple months of construction and liberal dipping into the Music Department's budget to cover overruns (despite news reports that it was done quickly and under budget), the doors to the Math Emporim opened with great fanfare in 1997. Administrators patted themselves on the back and waited for those math-hungry students to make their appearances. For some reason, they never showed. Perhaps it was the many paradoxes that made up the Emporium. It was billed as a campus building, yet you had to take a bus or walk a mile away to a shopping mall that made the malls in Newport News look urban. It sat next to a Pizza Hut, yet you couldn't have food inside. Its industrial warehouse look made it feel like a Costco or a Target, but the only thing you could find in bulk on the inside were the little red cups of doom.

Beer pong was frowned upon, but by placing the red cup on top of your workstation, you were supposed to gain access to smart graduate assistants who could help you solve problems or figure out how to use Mathmatica. Generally though, this was a bad idea, because the assistants rarely spoke English, often crashed your program while trying to fix Mathmatica, and would fall back on "Well, we can't do the work for you" if they hit any situation where they were clueless.

With the dearth of students, the Math Emporium was really just a big cold black hole full of user-friendly operating systems. You could have sat the entire football team in front of computers (after showing them which side the front was) and still had enough computers left over for all the children Britney Spears intends to have in the next decade. The mandate came down from someone up high to make it a more popular place to be. I was personally backing the plan to install the exotic dancing booths with the open bar, but unfortunately the staid Math Department chose to make visits mandatory instead. From 1998 on, almost every 1000 - 3000 level math class had problems that could only be done with Mathmatica. And to prevent the inevitable pirating of said software, they also decreed that every student had to spend at least two hours per week in the Math Emporium. This required you to punch in and out like you were working in a Mac Factory and present your signed timesheet in hard copy to your professor every week. Apparently they were smart enough to have a timekeeping system, but not smart enough to just look up all the student timings online.

So now the place was packed, but just as useless as before. Photographers were quickly called to the scene to get pictures of the filled up Emporium so the moment could be preserved as the "normal state of things". On some afternoons there was actually a line to use the computers.

Being a math minor by default, I had more than my share of Math Emporium time -- hours spent sitting in front of dysfunctional computers, crowding around a table with antisocial majors who never bathed and always smelled of curry, or waiting for lab partners who never showed up, but I finally found a great solution by the time my third year rolled around. I'd simply wake up at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning when the entirety of the campus was sprawled in an alcohol-induced stupor and mosey into the empty Emporium where I would lie back and take a nice two hour nap before going home to do my laundry.

Happy Birthday Emily Spellerberg and Christy Kull!

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