Where the wild things are

The first rule of the Computer Science Zoo: You do not talk about the Computer Science Zoo.

Here are the animals I saw last night at the Zoo: penguin piñatas, a caterpillar doll, some stuffed quadrupeds I couldn’t quite identify and — yes, even though they wouldn’t they like me to say it — some beastly computer science students, communing with the animal spirits of the 38 multiprocessors with names like “ladybug” or “scorpion” or “dolphin” or “perch” (it’s a species of fish, apparently).

Rewind to a few days earlier. The WEEKEND editors took a latté break from their Kant and whispered, like the urban jungle explorers they are, about the strange rumors they’d heard about Watson Hall, the computer science building. Apparently students spent nights there, in a study space called “the Zoo.” Rumor had it there was even a kitchen, a few showers … a pingpong table, even. Who would be the young Columbus to chart these barbarian waters?

Bored of writing for the A-section about customer satisfaction on the Metro-North, I jumped at the opportunity to write the article. This would be my big journalistic break, I knew. Growing up by Carnegie Mellon University, which houses one of the world’s top Comp Sci departments, I’d heard echoes of some crazy shit: apparently, incoming CS students at CMU were given a crash-course on hygiene and small-talk. A few years back, I heard, they’d even been forced to log their showers and conversations. Now, a friend in that program tells me students submit pictures of themselves in scenic locations around Pittsburgh, to prove that they go out.

So, you can’t blame me for putting on a gas mask and flak jacket when I went to the Zoo the other night. I could already taste the success of this blockbuster ethnography.

But I’m sorry to report that the wildest — and foulest — thing about the Zoo was the coffee creamer in the cabinet when it should have been in the fridge. And even then, strictly speaking, the Zoo comprises only the cluster of computers on Watson Hall’s third floor. The lounge and kitchen, both on the second floor, don’t have a name.

Far from the pigsty I anticipated, a sterilizing panic hangs over the Zoo. It’s clear enough from the bolded, all-caps sign someone tacked up on the bulletin board —“Don’t Panic” — and from the fixed grin on a cartoon that says, “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” There’s an exercise resistance band, for late-night release, lying around the stuffed animals. In the kitchen, “Tension Tamer” tea and not much else: Old Bay seasoning, a can of Maxwell House coffee, but lite, with only half the caffeine, funny considering the kitchen and coffee are presumably for the benefit of night owls.

“Do you spend a lot of time at the Zoo?” I interrupt Kwabena Boateng ’14 at around 1 a.m. on a Tuesday night, as he scrambles to finish a problem set.

“Yes,” he heaves. “I’m a computer science major.”

“How many nights a week would you say you spend here?” Obviously, by this point, I’m determined to disturb his problem set as much as possible.

“Aaah, it’s kind of rough. Maybe five nights a week.”

“And do you ever sleep here?”

“No, but I have spent an allnighter here. And I guess I pass out … I nap here on occasion.”

Once, he says, “I came into the Zoo at two in the afternoon and left at 9 a.m. the next day.”

I ask Boateng if there’s some sort of competition to see who can spend the most time at the Zoo.

No, he laughs, “You come in, you take care of your business and then you leave.

“I’m not nearly as intense as some people are,” he explains.

Ethan Li ’13 says the most time he’s ever spent in the Zoo was “30-something hours” — not consecutive, I’m guessing (hoping) — three weeks ago, when he had a problem set due for CPSC 323, “Introduction to Systems Programming and Computer Organization.” It’s a notorious class, by the way — I heard about it before I even came to Yale (and, frankly, I still don’t know what the class title means).

But Li isn’t attached the Zoo at the hip.

“I actually only do programming here, because the computer’s all set up and it’s easy to work here,” he says. For non-CS classes, you’ll find him studying in the library or his room.

“I don’t understand,” I say to Ethan. “You’ve got a checkers set here, backgammon, a lounge, not to mention a ping-pong table. Don’t you like hanging out here?!”

But the thing about computer science work, Ethan says, is that there’s never a good time.

As long as you’re programming, you’re in a flow — it’s really easy to be engaged in it and actually think and focus. You’re too busy for ping-pong. On the flipside, in the polishing or “debugging” stage, you’re too bugged to play ping-pong, too antsy: you’re working against a deadline and you can’t figure out where you made the minor error that’s screwing with your entire program. And in most cases, Ethan says, debugging takes even longer than programming itself.

Jake Albert ’16, a potential computer science major currently taking CPSC 201, also goes to the Zoo almost every night — for the soothing “pitter patter of keyboards,” yes, but for the camaraderie and assistance as well. Sometimes, he says, TAs will hang around the Zoo during the day and offer their assistance.

The other group that’s there to help is the Computer Science Departmental Student Advisory Committee (DSAC), a group of five Comp Sci majors elected by popular student vote to be managers of the Zoo. Daniel Tahara ’14, who sits on DSAC, says their current project is to put together a library of technical manuals at the Zoo, to compensate for Yale’s dearth of programming print material. The group also hosts regular pizza parties for problem set crammers, and an annual social event at the start of the school year.

I imagine that event as a massive kvetch-sesh, but even if the wildest thing at the Zoo is a mind-bending p-set, I’m inclined to think there’s something right about a community built around some sweat.

“There’s definitely a community,” Boateng says. “Last year, when a couple people [from CPSC 223] were here working on a really difficult problem set, one of the student managers of the Zoo ordered pizza for us. We noshed and then went back to work, but chatted about life — life outside of computer science – and then got back together and worked on the problem set together. It’s a fun place.”