Features | Saving the world byte by byte

The Daily ventures into the Burnside basement and gets up close and personal with the McGill Science Computer Task Force

It’s 5:30 on a Tuesday evening and students are flooding out of the Burnside basement. As the usually busy tables and couches are vacated, the warmth and light from the McGill Science Computer Task Force (CTF) office suddenly becomes more pronounced. Take a closer look and you’ll see that inside, it’s buzzing; it’s nearly time for the Task Force’s weekly meeting, and members are returning from a day of classes.

Students seek out the CTF when they have a printer jam, need a staple, or can’t find a computer anywhere. But on this occasion, I’m looking for something else. Sure, I’ve heard that CTF is a one-stop-shop for science students’ computer needs, but against the odds of this often-impersonal institution, CTF also has a reputation for being like a second home.

Any desperate student who has ever stumbled upon CTF in a time of need knows how friendly these folks can be. When students are at their most frazzled, teams of CTFers fix printer jams, offer tech help, and ease the uncertainty of using campus computers on strict deadlines. They’ve even been known to help out the occasional intoxicated Carnival-goer who needs a stapler but just can’t remember why. With 6,468 pages printed on this particular day alone, CTF plays an integral role in many a McGill student’s academic experience.

The Task Force administers 136 computers at various locations on the downtown campus, manages printers in Burnside, and provides web-hosting and other services for student societies and science undergraduate students. These are your Wikipedia-editing, web site-developing, printer-jam-fixing geeks, saving the world one byte at a time.

The returning Task Force members join their compatriots, some of whom have spent the better part of the afternoon playing poker together. CTFers are diligent workers, but the axiom “work hard, play hard” applies in the depths of Burnside as well. I find a chair outside of the tight circle of five guys engaged in a vigorous round of Texas Hold’Em and I am suddenly made aware of my stature and sex. The office is teeming with guys. Unkempt, bedraggled guys who redefine the term “lanky.”

Sundanse Oberman (many of the CTFers go by nicknames) welcomes me to the table. He reminds me of the smartest guys in middle school; the ones who danced circles around me in math class but never quite mustered up the stuff to bump booties to the teeny-bopper hit of the day. But sitting here with Sundanse, I realize that those same guys probably aren’t so quiet anymore.

Sundanse’s enthusiasm for the poker game is clear, but he wastes no time in distinguishing the pastimes in the office. “There are poker players and there are gamers,” he says. Indeed, along the northern wall of the newly refurbished office, other CTFers are engaged in an interactive game of DoTA (geek-speak for a computer game called Defense of the Ancients). The competition is fierce. Before CTF chair Eric Bolo and co-chair Logan Smyth call the meeting to order, many CTF members are defending the world from the other team’s ancients. “Try double fire, ultimate,” someone shouts from across the room. All in a day’s work for the Task Force.

It turns out that gaming isn’t only a self-indulgent pastime. Indeed, the world changers at CTF have found a way to turn their love for ancient ass-kicking into a vehicle for social change. On Friday nights, when the Burnside basement labs lie empty, CTFers and their game-loving pals pile in for LANimal, networking together to play multi-player computer games. The proceeds from these events go to Leucan, the Science Undergraduate Society’s primary charitable partner. The events themselves help build the sense of conviviality that characterizes the Task Force.

In spite of their proclivity for computer games, CTFers know how to have a good time without a keyboard. Many are working furiously on a math problem Zhe Tian recently posted. Zhe wears his passion for mathematics on his sleeve. Literally. His shirt has symbols on it that I’ve only seen the likes of on the chalkboards of empty MATH 263 classrooms. “It may be grade eight math,” he boasts, “but the problem is not trivial.” The whiteboard reads:

X2 + Y2=40


Solve this for donut

Show all work, no electronics allowed.

No one has solved the puzzle by the time I leave, but that doesn’t stop the Task Force from trying. Sliding across the linoleum floor in their rolly-chairs, CTFers help each other out with everything from “non-trivial math problems” to voltages and chloroplasts. Since many of the Task Force members come from the same departments in the Faculty of Science, it isn’t uncommon to find a friend to help you through challenging web work or an impending assignment.

A sense of belonging to the CTF is clear from the moment one steps inside the office. CTF members are drawn to something intangible within these four walls – something beyond the nice chairs and computer games.

When asked what he thinks contributes to the “family atmosphere” of the CTF, Eric jokes, “the mini-fridge.” There may be a grain of truth to this. CTFers come back to the office to share meals, family-style, around their “kitchen table.” When I arrive, it is covered in leftover lunches, chopsticks, and a coffee-table copy of Brownian Motion and Stochastic Calculus.

“More seriously,” Eric says, “I believe one reason for [our family atmosphere] is the sheer amount of time that most of us spend in the office – we really get to know and trust each other.”

Xin Feng echoes this sentiment. When I sit down to speak with him over his dinner, he seems quiet and unassuming. His grey cotton turtleneck is neatly rolled over once, the way your mom might have done back in grade three. His thick glasses fit the “geek” image to a tee. When I ask about his involvement with CTF, his enthusiasm begins to shine through.

“I didn’t know anyone in CTF before I joined,” he says. “But it has become a family to me. I spend a lot of time here.” Xin, with an interest in computers and java programming, has enjoyed the company of other so-called “computer nerds” since joining in September.

Unlike many other McGill clubs, which have a tough time retaining their membership, CTF seems to be pretty successful at keeping new members hooked. So what keeps them around? “I can’t really speak for everyone here, but I stayed because I wanted to learn cool computer stuff, and to work and hang around with a team of fun, smart geeks and feel a sense of belonging,” Erica explains.

Logan agrees. “I think the best part about CTF is the people: specifically, the amazing cross-section of backgrounds and interests that we gather. No two people have the same history, and you get to learn and experience things that you never would have even known you were missing.”

The CTF is also unique in terms of their decision-making structure. Though Eric and Logan were elected by the CTF membership, much of the decision-making for the Task Force is done by consensus. “All major decisions are collective,” says Eric, “So our members feel like they have a stake in the choices we make.”

Fifteen minutes later than anticipated, the office is now packed with CTF members, ready to catch up with friends and attend the weekly meeting. Eric and Logan take to the whiteboard to present the issues at hand. The side conversations begin to die down and the meeting begins.

First item of business: clean the fridge. Members relay tales of woe – soggy leftovers, crusty utensils, and unclaimed lunch bags. One member gleefully claims a salad that has recently celebrated its expiration date, to the amusement of other CTF members. Like any good family meeting, CTFers offer etiquette tips to their peers: “Clean your utensils after you use them,” someone pronounces. The point is well taken.

Second item of business: to great acclaim and applause, Logan announces that he has created a program to restart printing jobs remotely. “Does this mean we don’t have to walk to the lab anymore?” someone asks. “Does it fix a printer jam?” another jokes. Gales of laughter and appreciation fill the basement.

Third item of business: how to prevent students from leaving garbage in the labs. Like most computer labs, CTF’s terminals are meant to be free of food and beverages. Get caught and you’re likely to garner some stink-eye from the members who battle evil on a regular basis. So, will putting a garbage can in the lab support users’ law-breaking habits or keep the place tolerably clean? The Task Force speculates on the morality and behaviour of the average McGill student. Will posted signs do the trick? Are they too lazy to use the garbage cans outside? Someone suggests a poster with a giant eye. Given the variety of opinions on the matter, the Task Force decides to move the discussion online for further debate amongst members.

Final item of business: a new layout for the CTF office. Another enterprising CTF member, Kin Cheng, has a suggestion for a new office layout that will shield visitors from the intensity of DoTA. “This way,” he suggests, “people coming in will just see geeks clicking furiously.” Given the large CTF membership, some are worried about losing precious space. The prospective interior designer offers up some computer-aided designs to better display his ideas, which seems to satisfy the membership.

With this, the meeting is adjourned. Some members warm up their dinner and settle in for a long evening of work, saving the world, and friendly warmth. Others reluctantly pack up their bags and get ready to leave CTF for the night. The day may be winding down at CTF, but tomorrow will surely be as busy as this one. There are printers to fix, computers to save, staplers to offer, and technologically imperilled students to rescue.

Looking toward the future, Eric and the rest of the Task Force are dreaming big: “We want to keep the service rolling. We want students to have continued access to our 24/7 computer labs and printers. This means making sure the equipment is up-to-date and adequate to student needs, as well as transmitting CTF’s technical and organizational know-how,” he says.

On their world-saving mission, CTF will pursue sustainability in the coming months. “We’re looking into more environmental printing services and electricity savings. We also want to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions associated with our activities,” says Eric proudly.

As I pass by the circuit board keyholder on my way out of the Task Force office, I am reminded of the CTF geeks’ sage wisdom: “Being logged-in does not equal being there.” Each of us belongs to McGill in some sense. At the most basic level, our coursepacks and tuition, our student numbers and ID cards, are signs of our existence in this place. And if we want, for three or four years, we can keep our belonging to the bare minimum. We can log in to the system and then swiftly logout. But to do more than just survive, McGill requires each of us to engage. In the nooks and crannies of the darkest corners of this place, we can find folks who help us to be better people, to join together to leave the world a better place, and to hopefully have some fun along the way. The members of CTF demonstrate with nerdy exuberance the value of passionate commitment and whole-hearted devotion. Most importantly, they show that true community can bring light to the darkest corners.

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