Changing the Old Ways

Peter Keller
Folklore 100
Dec 7, 1997

I am investigating the Undergraduate Projects Laboratory's movement from an esoteric world view to a more exoteric view. This movement has its roots in a metamorphosis among the Coordinators (student volunteer management) and Users (the clients for which we provide service) within themselves and with the culture outside of the UPL. This change of the internal structure exposes itself with the opening of a set of blinds covering the main window that have been closed since living memory and only opened on special occasions, such as new user meetings. It must be noted that I am a full member of the UPL, a Coord, and that I have been a Coord for a few years now. This has allowed me to track the changes as they have occurred, and also given me the freedom to be given honest answers by my fellow members during my interviews with them. Before we begin the actual analysis, the history of geeks in the UPL and the backgrounds of the people I interviewed must be explored as to give context for the change that is occurring. As a convention in this paper, I am going to reference all of the people I interviewed with their usernames, the matchings from the usernames to the real names can be found in the bibliography.

The UPL was founded in 1984 by our faculty advisor Bart Miller, a professor in the Computer Sciences. He selected 12 student volunteers to become "Coordinators" and manage the machines, the userbase, and our room that all of our machines sit. It was designed to be a location where people interested in programming and UNIX system administration could come and do completely extracurricular programming without faculty supervision projects. As dturner points out, "There is no organization for geeks to meet, and the UPL forces a meeting arena because we have a room and a place to gather on a more than regular environment." The UPL can be, if it so chooses, completely autonomous from the Computer Science Laboratory, but at this moment there are happy relations between the UPL and the CSL, so we allow them to support one of our machines. Other than the twelve Coords, there are no other forms of delegation of control, with of course, Bart himself--and he tends to stay out of the equation. So, armed with this knowledge that the UPL is an organization that is completely free to find its own path and make its own laws, we begin our analysis.

The Coords and a core set of users that hang out in the lab all the time make up the inner members of the UPL. Even though we have over 300 users, only about 40 of them plus the Coords actually stay in the lab and play an very important role in how things get done. Sitting above the ideas of the users are the Coords. Literally, the Coords are all powerful and can do anything in the lab, sometimes with incoherent and unwanton abandon. Users could be deleted for any and no reason -- really, it is in the contract that new users sign, policies can be created or destroyed, and the Coords control when the machines are up or down. This influence and power of a Coord come from the skill level of that Coord in his or her chosen field, be it programming, system administration, or public relations. The more adept the person is, the more respected they become in their social structure (sagamore 1997).

Often, things can change very quickly in the lab usually annoying a few people who get in the way. This seemingly random method of management comes from the general nature of geeks, who are highly intelligent and creative, and well, sometimes egos fly and egos are part of the reason why things happen the way they do. In fact, hartmann says about the issue of management:

I've also realized that the UPL is in a constant struggle about *something*. When we first got the Vax, or were discussing it, three or four Coords were absolutely against it. When we wanted NT, some people were dead-set against it. There's always an issue that's got us divided. And when there isn't a real issue, we'll just in-fight about holy wars, like vi vs. emacs. Just accepting that any recollections of a general peace are false. It's our normal state to be bitterly opposed on *something*. Funny, but true.

The "*" around the word "something" is dialect used by geeks in text messages to mean emphasis. This is because I interviewed hartmann while he was in Seattle over a real-time computer link. The session was fully recorded and the only changes I made are spelling corrections.

Now this constant internal struggle sets the stage for a change of an era here at the UPL from an old, and powerful, set of Coords, to a new younger set that has tried, and in many ways succeeded in making many changes to the fundamental structure of the UPL. Each time a Coord graduates, or for whatever reason leaves (once you are a Coord, you are until you leave or graduate, so the replacement time is about once every 5 years, a new user gets chosen to replace him or her. Generally, this user has gone through the "larval stage" (frantically learning vast amounts of knowledge in an extremely short amount of time, usually at the loss of diet, sleep, and hygiene) and knows well the ins and outs of how the UPL is admined and run in addition to gaining the skills necessary to become a respected member of the UPL. The ideas brought forth by the new Coord are tempered by the fact that there are 11 other important views to be taken into consideration, and so usually changes are not that great. But in the case of the last era change, an era being defined as a long management period by a group of Coords, a huge fraction of Coords left and many new ones came in to replace them, causing a lot of turmoil and infighting as new ideas were immediately introduced and allowed to pass (sagamore 1997).

Knowing how Coords replace themselves, we now enter the situation where the reasons behind the opening of the blinds begin to unfold. This context takes place in the previous era, before the large fraction of Coords had left. It is the opinion of many of my interviewees, with the noted exception of sagamore, that the old Coords were socially introverted, highly cliqueish, and bred an air of stagnation in the UPL because no production of code or projects was taking place (stanis, kilroy, and ender 1997). Also, during this time, the UPL was a filthy sty and not well kept at all with old food wrappers strewn about and many people quite often sleeping in the lab at night, the blinds were kept down and never opened during this period.

The old Coords were there for many years and had a long a full career, being highly respected, setting up the policy, and creating the history as I now know it. It must be noted though that they were intensely bitter and increasingly angry at school, which had dealt a fair majority of the old Coords a very bad hand, forcing them to suffer incredibly long hours of pure frustration and little sleep. That fact alone contributed for much latent animosity and edged feelings in the room for a relatively long period of time. The importance of this is paramount, because it sets the environment for the users that will soon become the future Coords. This time of stagnation began before my time(1995) and ended only about a year ago. A harbinger of what was to come was given by hartmann when asked how his view of the UPL has changed since he has become a Coord, "I have more of a view of what keeps the UPL going: new people, new ideas, new technology. Without new people and stuff, we won't have a place in the UW". This was the scene as new users, the future Coords which I have interviewed, I included, made their way into the UPL.

The new future Coords were now well into their larval stages just as the large fraction of old Coords left. Suitable candidates, about 6 during this time, were chosen from the users who had increased their skills greatly or showed promise of doing so. These users were made into Coords and brought into the fold. To the remaining old Coords though, the new ones had just begin to learn the old traditions, but not completed them, and this caused a great dysfunction in the UPL. (sagamore 1997) For many months, great political wars were fought over who had what responsibility, and where the power of decision should come from. Since a large majority of the new Coords were not of the skill level that demanded respect, and those old Coords that were left were at the low end of the pecking order of the old way, the fighting was endless. This transition was a time of great pain to the internal structure of the UPL. Then some more of the remaining old Coords left and the were replaced with even newer users that had not even gone through the larval stage. These completely virgin Coords did not know of the Old Ways or why things were the way they were. There was no time for them to learn the oral traditions of the UPL or gain the necessary skills in order to be respected before they were thrust into the circle of those who had influence over the normal userbase. This sudden upheaval changed the entire spectrum of the UPL and how it reacted with itself and the external world.

The resultant situation of a large sect of brand new, basically non-initiated, Coords was ripe with change. The new Coords, fearful of the old ways (brought upon by the memories of embittered and introverted past Coords) decided it was in their best interest to reanalyze and reconstruct the internal workings and external image of the UPL. Luckily though, things finally stabilized when a few Coords gained the necessary skills to become respected people who began to get listened to by the other Coords. These leaders had a much different view of how things should be run. More openness to the outside, attraction of new users, and restoration of our stained image(from the time of the filth and stagnation) became top priority. The new Coords desperately didn't want a repeat of the old bitterness and angst that used to be so prevalent in the UPL.

Some time had then passed while things seemed to be changing, though ever so slowly. Then, during one of our recent, but before the blinds were opened, Coord meetings, kilroy became very incensed and yelled a great deal at the rest of the Coords, proclaiming them a "closed" society where nothing ever gets done. He talked about how the UPL was an incestuous clique that scared people away. I knew, though that kilroy had been spending less and less time there over the last 3-4 months and that sometimes he wouldn't come in for a week or two straight. In my judgment of his outburst, I really think that he did not see the changes that were being wrought by the newest crop of Coords and was subsequently late in voicing his observations. Either way, it had a fairly drastic effect. Some new policies were immediately created to try and rectify the situation, things such as the UPL door must stay open at all times when a Coord is present, and we must be courteous and filled with goodwill to any who may enter, whatever our feelings. And then, ender walked over to the blinds and the nopened them, and we stared in disbelief. The blinds had never in all recorded time been opened for any other purpose than a new user meeting. Immediately there was controversy and infighting, especially about privacy in the UPL and the fact that people don't like to be stared at when they are writing programs. But his time, the infighting was not so barbaric and personal as it was during the previous era. The discussions were logical and eloquent and it came to pass agreements about when and how the blinds should be opened.

So now comes the ramifications and meaning behind the blinds being opened. Some Coords thought that the opening was a way to cover up the fact that the Coords were (once again) an incestuous tight knit network of people and we were trying to appear more open to the outside world (increasing our public image). Other Coords thought that it was done in order to attract attention from non-users and hopefully attract them to membership. And yet still other Coords viewed it as just a symptom of a greater and more underlying change in the philosophy of the current body of Coords. In effect, all of them are correct. The blinds signify the willingness for change in a time of need by people who could work out their differences (though not without a price). The UPL as I view it is a more structured and coherent society, though not necessarily hierarchical -- we are still an oligarchy, now that new blood has been infused into the ruling body with visions of interacting with the "outside" in beneficial ways, and for that matter, interactions within ourselves as well. New things such as Special Interest Groups, talks, seminars, and even a planned multi-university convention in the near future stand as a testament to the radical change that is currently occurring to the members and societal outward bound viewpoints of the UPL members. These views and events would never have been done under the old Coords and it is worth mentioning that even though some traditions have been lost a fair trade has occurred from the old ways to the new ways. Albeit, some Coords might not be happy now, but things are smoothing out and looking up, to a new more powerful and influential UPL as a whole.

wonko: I think as a postscript to the closing of the blinds, you should add the real reason they were closed in the first place: to prevent the security staff from seeing carley sleeping on the floor. Until Dave started crashing there on a regular basis, we'd left the blinds open on a regular basis.

Some mention should be made of the cushions. Those giant, comfy pillows* that Craig Peeper's mom made for us. The ones that unfortunately were available in deep red and leaopardprint, which gave the UPL the look of a brothel.

kimuchi: [This seems] is rather one-sided and offensive. It seems as if it was written by someone who had never set foot in the UPL before 1995. I feel like it makes the UPL sound like it was a well of shit until suddenly the class of 1997 moved in, when in fact I remember it more like a cool place with a bad year around 1995-96.

If the UPL hadn't been open and accepting of new people in 1993 or so, I never would've come in in the first place. But, hey, quick turnover and lack of institutional memory is the bane of student organizations.

I also think it unfairly sweeps a lot of the gender issues of the less pleasant 1996ish time under the rug. Some of those hot-shit light-bringing new coords were really rather unpleasant to the existing female coords, as I remember. Caitlin got pissed off first and then I got fed up (despite what I like to think of as a slightly thicker skin).

I remember being really surprised that there were female coords after us at all, since in my opinion the UPL was more hostile to women when I left than when I arrived (despite the classic stories about Blumie getting all tongue-tied and brusque with girls and Turner's general lechishness).

psilord: I showed up in Fall 1994, and to me, the upl was definitely *not* a welcoming place.

I wrote it from my point of view as that is a method of folklore work, and it is well known that first person views suffer from bias. That is why I made a point of saying how I was affiliated with the UPL at the start. The problem with first person reporting is that you don't even *know* what your bias _is_.

I knew about it, but didn't put it into the paper because I couldn't say anything meaningful about it. And to me, it didn't appear to be important as it related to why the blinds went up. It was more important that the oral tradition wasn't smoothly transferred when so many old timers left.

I can't say one way or the other if the upl was more hostile toward women after you'd left. We tried to have it open to women, but not many came for whatever reason and they always felt odd-man (such the phrase) out regardless of what we did.

And you'd be surprised, it REALLY WAS a big deal about the blinds, we fought about it _constantly_ and it caused serious schisms. It was kinda of like a forgotten child some divorcing parents were using against each other, blinds go up, blinds go down, blinds go up, blinds go down. It was the biggest display of passive aggressive savagery that I'd ever seen. Since most of this happened after you left, maybe that is why you think it is misrepresenting how things were. When you were around, they weren't like that, but things changed faster than reason would expect.

I took it around to the usual suspects(coords, active users) present in the upl when I had written it(before I made it official by submitting it as my homework), and everyone seemed happy with my representation of the issue. If the current people(then) had complained, I would have reconciled their objections in the paper. Since noone did, what you see is what was made. I didn't write it in a vacuum.

wonko: True, but becasue there were sources does not entirely mean it was accurate or unskewed.

But this was a folklore paper, so accuracy isn't necessarily warranted. Keeping in mind that most of the coords you'd interviewed had come on the scene approximately during the reign of SUFFER, it's easy to see why their view of the UPL would be one of contention. The SUFFER project split some very deep and old personal bonds, and that schism unfortunatley spilled over from personal disagreement to political. When the majority of the senior coords suddenly stop talking to one another and can't agree anymore, this is going to certainly look like a dysfunctional organization. Which it indeed was. However, this was a blip - this was for a short time period and was not a consistant state. Pre-SUFFER, just about everyone had worked well together, and had accomplished some impressive things, like the JugIt video, the Id contract, etc.

SUFFER and its aftermath gave the UPL a bad year. But one bad year does not a lifetime of dysfunction or stagnation make.

Additionally there are some bits that are simply inconsistant with UPL history. For example, the state of the UPL's cleanliness. Ok, sure, there were several sty-moments - this is bound to happen when computer geeks congregate for prolonged periods of time. It's happened then, it happened under Abe, it happened pre-Abe, it happens now. But it was almost always computer parts that were the source of the mess. I distinctly remember pissing off Mitch by saying "if you don't get those goddamn appleIII parts off the floor, I'm throwing them out." We were not wallowing in our own filth and food wrappers. We couldn't - then, as now, as always, Bart would not have allowed it. We had several UPL-cleanings.

Until the folklore was written, nobody had thought much about the blinds. They'd been up, they'd been down. We occasionally put them down to keep a crazed ukranian undergrad from coming in and asking Me and Nick Wagner questions about 564 homework (well, mostly Nick). We'd had them up so people could see we had a shiny new dax. We'd had them down to hide the sprawl that was an exhuasted Dave Carley under the TTY's. We'd had them up after a UPL cleaning to prove to Bart that there were no longer vax parts on the floor. They were never an indicator of the UPL zeitgeist, nor were they ever in a constant state.