Ah, the computer lab. The bane of undergraduate computer based projects. It is difficult to explain the concept of a computer lab to the uninitiated. It is so much more than just the room or its whirring contents. But let's get a picture in your head first.

A computer lab is usually a large room, perhaps 30 by 50 feet or more depending on your institution's needs and means. Row after row of computers are set up on tables or desks. Cables, once neatly bundled, meander from the back of each machine and monitor to the necessary data ports or power outlets. Each station has a worn mouse pad and a wheelie chair. The floor is either tile or tight pack industrial carpet. Data lines run along the walls to switches, hubs, routers or racks that continuously broadcast the digital world.

At the front of the room is the only desk that looks different from the others. It probably has a bigger monitor and lots of desk space, along with office implements for stapling, cutting or hole punching. Somewhere in or on the desk is a stack of handouts that detail logging into the system, recovering your password, navigating directories and opening up text editors. Everything else is in the man page. This is the station for the lab attendant, or lab monitor. Probably an upper classman undergrad who uses time on the clock to do homework. Their knowledge and helpfulness is variable. The good ones glance disdainfully from their screen to clueless freshmen--they may not talk, but they can damn well get the job done if you ask nicely. Bring them cookies for the tough jobs. Otherwise, they are just there to make sure the machines don't spontaneously combust. Not that they don't care about undergrads combusting, but hey, undergrads pay to show up and workstations cost money.

The computers are usually divided by their type. Standard PCs running Windows XP on one side and the real men's computers on the other--Sun workstations running Solaris. Anyone sitting behind a Windows box is, by default, not doing anything productive. Expect extreme contempt from the lab monitor. If you can't set your path, ask the monitor. If vi isn't good enough for you, switch to Windows. If you forgot your password, go home. Contact systems support later. Oh, and tell your instructor your project will be late.

Computer labs have their own micro-environment. The machines are all black or dark colored. The walls and ceiling will be light or neutral colored. Anything else is variable. The monitors of recently used stations will emit their dull glow until they fade to black like the majority of the other computers. The few people sitting in the lab will be illuminated by their screens; don't expect them to look up. Don't expect to hear talking, just the rattle of keyboards. After all, that is where the code come from. Louder than the rattle is the endless hum of CPU fans, case fans and disk drives spinning endlessly. You do know they're never turned off here, right? And don't ask the monitor about the temperature. It's always warm in the lab, regardless of the season. That's the price you pay for running 60 19" screens with processors and disk drives to boot.

Time for the last piece. Go to the lab at night when it's just you and monitor. Take it all in. Absorb the hums and dull glows. Watch the status lights blink on machines that haven't been used in a month. Pick at the corner of mouse pad. Before now, have you ever felt great potential expiring? That's what this is. Our great digital constructs grant us a power that was not dreamed of one generation ago, but nobody sits down to utilize it. That is the sadness of the computer lab. Your picture is now complete.

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