Degrees of freedom

At university, Jack and I befriended a talented guy called Adrian. At the time, Adrian knew everything there was to know about terminals and mainframes, things we were only dimly aware of. This was slightly annoying. He often spoke about computers and networks in sentences comprised almost entirely of words we didn’t understand. All the same, we viewed this skill of his as something quaintly foreign and unimportant, like calligraphy. What was more immediately upsetting was Adrian’s gift for mathematics. Jack and I were once interested in a puzzle that required fitting different pieces into a rectangular tray. While we argued about possible solutions, Adrian wrote down what I would much later recognize as a generating function. This beast, he explained, could be used to find the total number of solutions to the puzzle we were fumbling with, as well as others like it. All he needed to do was get to a terminal so he could explain the whole thing to the mainframe.

Perhaps as a direct consequence of his mathematical talent, Adrian failed Applied Mathematics 101, the first half of the first-year Applied Mathematics course. Many lesser people had passed this course, but it was simply too mundane to warrant Adrian’s attention. When he sat for the exam it turned out that there were a few things that even he couldn’t figure out from scratch in the allotted time.

“Plus,” he fumed quietly, “the lecturer is an idiot. He has the mathematical intuition of a forklift.”

“Who’s he?” we asked.

“Morton,” Adrian said with visible disgust. “The t is silent.”

Despite Morton’s efforts to stop him, Adrian obtained permission to continue with the second half of the year’s course, Applied Mathematics 102, taught by a different lecturer, and passed it. Yet, he had not passed Applied Mathematics 1 in its entirety. With special permission, he progressed to second-year courses in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics the following year. In a twist of fate, the Applied Mathematics Department combined Applied Mathematics 101 and 102, and from then on there was a single final exam, presided over by Morton.

At the end of the year, Adrian sat for the Applied Mathematics 1 exam, having first had to overcome the objections of Morton who claimed that as he hadn’t even attended class, he wasn’t eligible to take the exam. But the head of the department, Professor Sauer, liked Adrian and overruled Morton.

Adrian took the exam, and failed.

“Isn’t this moron just marking you down?” we asked.

“No,” Adrian admitted. “I failed.”

“Why?” we wondered. “You’re beyond all that.”

“I know,” he said dryly, “but things look smaller in the rearview mirror than they actually are.”

This pattern continued for two more years. Adrian obtained renewed special permissions to advance. Professor Sauer overruled the increasingly strident objections from Morton. Adrian took the exam without any preparation, and failed. At the end of four years, he had completed his entire degree but still had not passed Applied Mathematics 1.

“It’s stupid,” he moaned. “By now it should be obvious that I can pass it.”

“Sure,” we agreed.

“Plus,” he added, “I’ve passed the important half of it already.”

He wrangled some extraordinary permission from Professor Sauer and was allowed to enrol in a Master’s programme, with the private understanding that he’d pass Applied Mathematics 1 as soon as possible.

“As soon as humanly possible,” Adrian quoted.

“I forgot to mention,” he went on as though it was an afterthought, “Morton has moved up in the world, as all morons do, and is now a PhD student.”

While Morton continued to jealously guard the elusive Applied Mathematics 1, it turned out that he was now also the lecturer for some of Adrian’s Master’s classes. For a few weeks, everything was fine. Then, in what must be a rare superposition of genius and stupidity, Adrian solved the very problem Morton was building his PhD around.

“I don’t know why he’s so upset,” Adrian marvelled. “In fact, he should be grateful. All I did was to prove that his planned approach couldn’t work.”

But Morton didn’t see things this way. He made life difficult for Adrian at every turn and told whoever would listen that Adrian had not even been able to pass Applied Mathematics 1. After a few more weeks, Adrian quit the Mathematics programme and moved to the one-year Master’s programme in Computer Science. This move required a breathtaking combination of extraordinary permissions and begging. Professor Sauer, who had to do most of the begging, was clear. “I had to convince them of your brilliance,” Adrian quoted, “and so it’s now or never. You pass Applied Mathematics 1 at the end of the year, or you’re done.”

Adrian slipped into the Master’s programme in Computer Science against the same low resistance he’d experienced in Mathematics. Things came easily to him. He paid attention to his coursework and his thesis only intermittently. Behind the scenes, Morton worked to sour the Computer Science Department against him, but Adrian was philosophical about it.

“With enemies like Morton, who needs friends?”

On weekends, Adrian assisted in the lab where all the terminals were.

“Shouldn’t you study some Applied Mathematics?” we asked.

“I’m working on it,” he smiled.

“I’m graduating,” he told us near the end of the year. “I’m getting a Bachelor’s and a Master’s.”

“Did you pass?” we asked.


“What do you mean, yes?”

“Actually,” Adrian said, “I took Prof Sauer’s advice.”

“What advice?”

“When he said humanly. As soon as humanly possible, remember?”


“It got me to thinking,” he clarified, “that word, humanly. All that’s needed to pass is that a human says you’ve passed. Actually passing isn’t required, is it?”


“I got Morton to pass me.”

Jack and I looked at one another. “How?”

“Well,” Adrian explained with some relish, “the university admin system has this login screen—”

It was sounding like calligraphy again, but we had to listen.

“—and I made a screen that looks just like it. Each time a session started, my fake screen would show, and someone would type in their credentials.

“What’s a session?” we asked.

Adrian waved this away. “Then I’d save their username and password to a file, and kill my screen.”


“And so they’d curse and log in again.”

While we still didn’t understand calligraphy, it was beginning to look useful.

“And after a few weeks, I found Morton’s credentials,” Adrian beamed. “I logged in as him and gave myself a pass for Applied Mathematics 1.”

A few years later my father became the head of the Department of Informatics. As he was now close to where Adrian’s fraud had been committed, I told him about it.

“Apparently this Morton guy raised a stink,” I said, “saying he’d never passed Adrian. But Sauer had had enough of Morton and gave him an ultimatum to shut up or ship out.”

“I’ve always liked Prof Sauer,” my father mused.

“But aren’t you upset?”

“Why should I be upset?”

“Because you care about the truth,” I countered.

My father tamped his pipe and looked out the window.

“I care about many things,” he said after a moment. He struck a match and puffed on his pipe to char the tobacco, moving the flame around the bowl the way I’d seen him do for as long as I could remember. “I’ve never met this Adrian friend of yours, but it sounds to me like he deserves a degree of some kind.”

The aroma of my father’s tobacco was new. Until recently he’d smoked a locally made cherry tobacco, but now he’d discovered Davidoff’s Danish Mixture. He struck another match and sucked its flame more deeply into the bowl.

“But,” he said between puffs, “I have met Morton.”


My father sighed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. “Isn’t this wonderful?” he said.

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  1. Interestingly, I had just written this memoir.

    Years ago, the VC of the then University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg asked me if I could help out with an “organisation problem” they were struggling with. I said yes and flew to Durban and hired a car up the hilly countryside to Pietermaritzburg. There I met old colleagues, Ken Macgregor from UCT Computer Science and Dewald Roode from UP. We were all HODs in our respective computer departments. Ken’s department was in the Faculty of Science, my department was in our Faculty of Commerce and Dewald’s department was in Engineering and called Informatics.

    I had established the Department of Information Systems specifically in Commerce after an investigation Into how universities across the world were organizing themselves along with a personal investigation during a sabbatical in Australia. My recommendation, accepted by UCT management, was to place the department in Commerce/Business and name the department Information Systems. This approach would follow the American model, along with the Australian approach where computer science courses focus on the technology like hardware, software, programming and networks whereas information systems courses cover these subjects less intensely but focus on business analysis and project management.

    The three of us were appraised of the problem they had at Pietermaritzburg and we were requested to advise the management of a way forward. At that stage their department of Computer Science was hidden inside the Department of Mathematics and the separate Department of Information Systems reported to the HOD of Computer Science. All of them were in the Faculty of Science. We spent a couple of days interviewing academic staff. Feedback was not good. In fact, there appeared to be a mini-revolt taking place.

    Academics are promoted adhominum. Unlike in business where employees are promoted into vacant positions, academics can be promoted in the same job through their prowess in research and teaching. Typically, a HOD is at a professorial rank capable of academic leadership.

    All three of us came to the same conclusions, which itself was an amazing occurrence for academics. We presented our findings to their senior management. The findings were scathing but honest. Swift action was called for. Our number one recommendation was to sack the then HOD of Information Systems who we believed was the main problem. In academia this is not simple as after a successful trial period of three years, an academic is given tenure. A job for life. To get rid of the person is very difficult. The other recommendations required some organizational changes.

    The three of us then went back to our worlds and watched from afar for any changes. Nothing much happened apart from several IS academics who departed creating even more chaos.