Code of Silence

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Chapter 5

I waited by the noticeboards, snacking on a chocolate bar I’d just bought from the restocked vending machine. I was struggling to imagine how I was going to get my head around the IT introductory session – I was still trying to figure out how those sweets and snacks worked their way around the vending machine cabinet before dropping noisily to the gaping tin trough below. My brain was especially tired after a long day of more classes and coursework, new students and lecturers and freshly recommended reading materials.

“Hey,” came a voice from the quietening corridor.

I recognised it immediately, but hadn’t heard it since the coffees on the comfy leather couch a couple of days earlier. Alex looked equally tired from another day of new introductions, and was clutching a rucksack full to bursting point with new books.

“How’re you doing?” Alex said, letting the rucksack drop to the floor and leaning against the wall.

“Good thanks. Brain strain and it’s only week two, but to be expected, I guess,” I said, offering Alex some loose change.

“I know the feeling.” said Alex, watching the packet of mints rattling through the machine. “Is there any news on your dad?”

“Doing okay, I think.” I focussed on the noticeboards again, but not on anything specific.

Alex reached for my arm. “Must be tough, let me know if …”

I turned away and crouched to zip up my rucksack. “Thanks, we’re okay. Just dealing with it, day at a time – all those clichés, you know. C’mon, we’d better get going,” I said, hoisting the rucksack to my shoulder. “It’s past six thirty and I haven’t got a clue where the IT lecture room is.”

“This way, I’ve already been for a look around.” Alex winked, and walked past the noticeboards, turning to make sure I followed. “I know, I know … geeking out already,” said Alex, strolling off. “That’s just something you’ll have to get used to with me.”

I smiled and followed along the corridor as we left the main building, crossing the courtyard area into the technology and sciences block. Climbing the stairs, we arrived at the frosted-panelled double doors of the IT lab. A printed notice on the door confirmed that the IT session was starting at seven that evening.

I held the door open, then followed Alex in. As we entered the room our gaze was immediately drawn to the left, and the giant plasma screen on the wall. I’d never seen anything that big, at least not inside a building. It was the sort of thing you’d see at a music festival or sports event. The room was a cool silver grey in colour, with rustic wooden chest-height tables and high bar stools with rugged metal supports. Low tech meets high tech I thought, a pretty cool place to be studying in. Low slung lampshades shaped like bowler hats provided the lighting: some black, some white, each with those funky filament-packed bulbs you see in trendy bars. Alex caught me looking at them.

“Hatters. I bet you they represent black and white hatters,” said Alex, as I paused and frowned, reaching up to tap at one with my fingernails.

“The yin and yang of coding. Black hatters are the bad guys – you know, hackers – the dark web, scammers. The white ones are the good guys.”

Very cool, I thought. Not at all what I’d expected to see in an IT lecture room.

There was a solitary student at the front perched at one of the workstations, multiple devices plugged in through the hole at the top of the desk, wireless ear pods on, and tapping on a keyboard at a furious rate. After briefly glancing over to us he returned to switching attention between the small screen directly in front of him and the gigantic one above. The big screen was divided into quadrants, and there was a stream of complex coding being rapidly generated in the top left one. Alex had seen this approach before back in Moscow, and explained how it enabled developers to use multiple programs simultaneously, sharing and importing data from different sources and streaming live content for web calls or video linking, all on a massive scale.

“Good evening, and thanks for coming along tonight, glad you survived the queues and mass hysteria outside,” said a bespectacled gentleman as he approached from a small office at the back of the room. The voice was low, soft and had a subtle Asian lilt to it. It belonged to a short wiry gentleman, olive skinned with a thick dark beard tinged with grey. He had short cropped jet black hair, greying at the temples and was wearing rectangular framed glasses. “Allow me to introduce myself: Professor Rajesh Khan, Head of the IT and science faculty. Welcome to this evening’s taster session. I assume you’re both taking something IT related, maybe algorithmic coding, applied computer sciences, machine learning … or something else perhaps?” he said, briefly distracted by a few more students hovering at the door.

I remained silent, and glanced at Alex. Although I’d been thinking about the IT session and where it might lead to, I had the feeling I may be out of my depth.

Alex spoke without hesitation. “Yes, we’re both interested. I’m doing cybersecurity and coding forensics,” said Alex, clearly enthused by the new-found environment, “and Joel’s doing … sorry.” Alex paused, arms folded and looking at me.

“Er, maths with computer science,” I said vaguely, looking up at the wall-mounted screen and leaving Alex to continue the conversation with the professor.

“Okay, sounds perfect. Lots of different backgrounds attending tonight, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. We’ll give it a little bit longer and then get started. Please feel free to have a look around,” he said, as he broke away, attention now drawn to the new students who had just entered the room.

“Thanks,” said Alex. I smiled too, and followed as Alex began inspecting the 3D printer equipment on a table to the side, and some of the intricate modelling that had been produced. “Look at these. They’re really cool, aren’t they?” Alex said, carefully rotating a perfect miniature of the London Eye and inspecting it up close. Every detail had been picked out as if painstakingly handcrafted over days and weeks, rather than generated in a matter of hours and minutes by the push of a button. “It’s incredible what technology can do, don’t you think?” Alex was immersed in it all, enthusiasm verging on infectious and beginning to spread to me now.

We found a couple of free stools in the middle of the room as it gradually filled with half a dozen or so more new students, none of whom I recognised.

“More geeks, you’re safe, Alex,” I whispered. I took out my laptop and notebook, then dropped my rucksack to the floor. Alex smirked, choosing to ignore the comment, and focussed instead on the endless coding being generated on the big screen by the lone student at the front.

Professor Khan closed the doors and turned to face the room with a smile, bright white teeth beaming through his dense dark beard. Despite the low turnout he seemed excited, no doubt the small class size would enable him to spend more quality time with each of us, or those that decided to stay the course, at least.

“Good evening, everyone. Welcome, and thank you for coming along tonight.” The professor was now speaking in a more authoritative lecturer’s tone, his Asian lilt a little stronger. “I started these IT sessions for two reasons. Firstly, because it was clear that among most of the students my colleagues and I work with there are some that are a little more interested in technology than others. I’m talking about those who are passionate about technology, obsessed even. These doors are therefore always open and, as long as I’m here, feel free to come in and do as you please, at least as long as it’s computer related. Er, excluding anything pornographic, of course!” he said, clapping his hands together with a nervous chuckle, searching the room for a response. Aside from a couple of embarrassed smirks, it failed to impress, but he held our attention.

“Secondly, ladies and gentlemen, these sessions are for you to get things started, move things to the next stage, to challenge your thinking when the unexpected happens and a clear way forward is no longer there. To do whatever you want or need to do on any subject or project. My role, hopefully, is to help you do that, give you a fresh perspective, help you stand back from it all and evaluate your options.” The professor was slowly walking across the front of the room now, back and forth, glancing between us and the floor as if giving a lesson in pacing with each step he took. “Whether you wish to use our time together on a forthcoming dissertation, for a business idea, or for something you’re already working on is entirely up to you. If I can help you get to where you need to be then that’s good enough for me. Simple really. And, at the end of the academic year, if we have the same number of us sat here,” he paused, his head slowly scanning the room, nodding at each of us and counting, “fourteen, that is, then it’ll be proof that it’s all worthwhile.”

Professor Khan continued, on a roll now he could see that he had our full attention. “So, enough about me, let’s hear a little bit about each of you. What’s brought you here tonight?” I was nervous now, I was definitely out of my depth so I subtly knocked Alex’s knee under the table. There was no holding Alex back. That early experience with the calculator hack had ignited something inside that wasn’t going to go away. The idea that perhaps some bored developer in the overcrowded and underpaid developing labs in China had maybe hidden some other coding that lay out there somewhere just waiting to be discovered, unlocked and unleashed … This was Alex’s chance to explore.

Alex sat upright and raised a hand. “For me, its coding forensics and the impact of AI and machine learning.”

Khan nodded as he listened. “Impressive, although arguably AI and machine learning are one and the same, but an interesting mix of subjects, nonetheless.”

At first I thought it was a bit rude when Khan immediately moved the question on to another student towards the front of the lab, diverting his eyes away from Alex without debate. But he repeated this pattern after most of the answers, and seemed to use it to help him identify the keenest and most eager students, those coiled springs who were ready to pounce and progress intellectual debate to its fullest extent, given the chance. But now was clearly not the time; he wanted everybody to have their say tonight.

“Theodore, your thoughts, please?” said Khan to the student sitting at the front of the room.

“Probabilistic programming languages are an interesting meeting point of several different fields, and an area I’m interested in,” answered the serious student who’d been using the big wall-mounted screen.

“Okay, that’s a new one on me,” Khan announced, hands clasped behind his back, scanning the rest of the room as he moved a step closer to the student.

Theodore continued, eyes fixed on Khan and gesturing now with his hands. “Yes, there are two ways to view probabilistic programming: one is that it’s a language with native constraints for sampling distributions, letting you efficiently evaluate programs with random behaviour; another is—”

“Okay, thank you, got it. But I’m not sure we have time to get into the detail,” Khan said, nodding towards Theodore who, unlike the rest of us in the room, appeared to know the professor. “But thank you, anyway. Let’s keep it brief for now so we can work through the whole room, okay?”

Alex leant in to me and whispered, “I’m sure I know him from somewhere.”

“Gifted geek working on a PhD or something?” I mumbled, quietly stifling a laugh with the back of my hand.

Several other students raised their hands and spoke briefly. It was clear that Khan was in charge, and probably a lot more knowledgeable on our areas of interest than we all were. Alex reciprocated my nudge under the table, encouraging me to say something. I was trying to gather my thoughts but didn’t quite know how to articulate them. Basically, I needed a solution, something that would help fix the biggest problem in my life at that moment.

I’d read about AI and the advances being made, particularly in speech therapy, and wanted to know more. Not to make piles of money, not to win accolades or to prove I was better than anyone else. Just simply to help my dad regain the power of speech. To reconnect with him again, to fix what was broken while the medical experts dealt with the rest of it. How was I going to articulate that without being cut short by Khan?

I introduced myself, raising my right hand slightly to shoulder height as I spoke. I could sense Alex looking at me, then focussing straight ahead and listening closely.

“Artificial intelligence. My dad has health problems at the moment, well, actually he had a stroke. Can’t speak any more, and no one knows if he’ll ever properly recover.” I could feel the warmth of colour rushing to my cheeks. “I’d like to fix that and I think AI can help, based on what I’ve read. Voice synthesis, I guess, is the sort of area I’m thinking about, but I’m not really sure where to go with it.” I looked down, and doodled heavily in the margin of my notebook.

“Thank you, Joel. Actually, I do understand some of the challenges you face, and of course, if I can help in any way then please let me know.” I looked up again, Khan didn’t dwell on it any further. The introductions continued and everyone had their chance to speak. It was an eclectic bunch of ideas and interests, from app and gaming development through to some ingenious concepts in cybersecurity. Khan seemed pleased, and confirmed to the room that it was an ideal mix with plenty for him to get his teeth into.

The event went on until around nine that evening. Two small groups had formed, and we were delving into each other’s ideas and revelations. Theodore, still alone at the front, reverted to his laptop and once again the coding spilled out, only this time he’d switched off the link to the plasma screen so none of us could see it; it was just him on his laptop. Gradually, the other students began to drift away, thanking Khan for his time and confirming they would be keen to return the following week. After tidying away some of the paper cups into the bin by the water cooler, Khan managed to gain Theo’s attention, and tapped at his watch indicating it was time to pack up.

Theodore Varkanopolis was a stocky young man. Mediterranean in complexion and slightly overweight but of muscular build, like a Greek wrestler. Thick cropped black hair and a dense stubbly shadow that belied his youth. He complied with Khan’s request immediately, silently packing his things away, then strolling to the door. A slight nod once again to the professor, who smiled as he held open the door for his student, and then Theo disappeared silently towards the stairs, phone in hand and laptop bag slung over his shoulder.

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