The Journey to The Fishbowl

Author note: This one is from the archives. Hope you like it.

Glitches in code, or bugs, are the bane of a CS student’s life. Debugging a program can take even longer than getting a package from JWW . Often the long-suffering CS students resort to seeking the help of more experienced coders — the TAs. The TA hours for most Brown CS courses are held in CIT 271, fondly called the Fishbowl. This is the archetypal tale of a CS student’s journey to the Fishbowl.

* * *

The problem begins, as all coding problems do, in the Sunlab. Our humble hero, Sam, has just encountered a nasty bug that is causing his program to crash with a NullPointerException. The error message printed in virulent red would scare ordinary students, but Sam is a hardened CS veteran; he has duelled with this bug before. “ So we meet again,” he solemnly tells the screen. The girl sitting next to him gives him a strange look, but Sam has entered a focused trance and the outside world has temporarily ceased to exist. The Sunlab is silent except for the gentle murmur of typing.

* * *

Sam blinks and looks away from the screen. He glances at the clock, two hours have elapsed without any progress on the bug. There are only 5 more hours till the deadline. Sam knows there’s only one thing left to do — he must journey to the Fishbowl.

The Fishbowl, so called for its peculiar shape, is located on the second floor of the CIT. In order to get there one can either take the elevator or climb the stairs. Being of lazy disposition Sam decides to wait for the elevator. For the uninitiated, the elevators in the CIT are powered by the fervent prayers of the waitees. Unfortunately they seem to lack any other form of motive power. Sam finds himself growing impatient as the indicator light remains unchanged at the 5th floor. He (reluctantly) decides to take the stairs. These are situated at the entrance of the building and lead directly to the Fishbowl. Sam trudges up, cursing the elevator along the way. However, he is rewarded with a glimpse of his pilgrimage’s end, as the Fishbowl comes into sight. Sam runs to the door and pulls the handle. The door refuses to budge. Sam remembers that the doors automatically lock at 5 PM . He puts his face to the glass, his features in comical despair and looks for a kind soul to let him in. There is a small group of students squatting outside the Fishbowl, however, most of them are peering into their laptops. Sam taps on the glass pane. The student nearest to the door sees him, puts down his laptop and with an expression of resignation walks to the door and pushes it open. Sam stumbles into the Fishbowl and rushes to the whiteboard to sign up for help. His head begins to hurt as he scans row after row of names. The TA gives him a sympathetic nod as he walks by. Sam scribbles his name and walks outside. He slumps on the floor and takes a book out of his backpack. It is for a comparative literature class. He desultory flicks through some pages but his eyes soon glaze over, he yawns and a sudden drowsiness envelopes him.

“ Is sr15 here? sr15?” Sam wakes up when he hears his login being called out. He raises his hand and drags himself to his feet. “Come on over.” Sam smiles and walks into the Fishbowl. The room is crowded and noisy. Students and TAs are vociferating and gesticulating. Some TAs have taken to making obscure diagrams on the whiteboards. To the sleep deprived Sam they looks surprisingly like his RISD friend’s abstract art paintings. The TA motions Sam to take a chair and outline his problem. Sam starts to explain and pulls up the error description. The TA smiles sympathetically and with a few clicks she narrows down a certain segment of his code. She points at a particular line. Sam leans forward to examine it closely. Suddenly the solution seems glaringly obvious, as visible as the SciLi on a cloudless day. Sam rapidly types some code and runs his program. The bug has been fixed! He profusely thanks the TA and rushes out of the Fishbowl, practically skipping down the hallway.

* * *

Sam is back in the Sunlab, there is only one major component of his program left and he still has 2 hours left before the deadline. He types in a block of code and presses the ‘run’ button. The program window appears, briefly, and then the program spews out some more red lines. Sam leans in, and places his hands on both sides of the monitor (for strength). He looks closely at the error description, it reads NullPointerException.


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