If you want to know the best place to buy Oreos at Columbia, ask Nathan Miller.
For a computer science class, Miller and a classmate created a database that lists the contents and prices of every vending machine on campus. Want the cheapest machines around? Try the Mathematics building. Just want to avoid overpaying? Then steer clear of the expensive Uris Hall machines.
“Let me tell you, there were a lot of interesting things to learn,” he said.
Miller is a computer science major, but his interests don’t end there—he’s also a Talmudic scholar, a published crossword puzzle maker, and an avid member of the little-known Columbia University Bowling Club.
A native of Houston, Miller came to New York to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, through the combined program at JTS and the School of General Studies. He said he’s not very observant when it comes to Judaism, but he has enjoyed studying Talmud—a collection of ancient commentaries on Jewish law—from an academic perspective.
“It’s just very interesting, I mean, in terms of the logic that these rabbis had, let’s say fourteen hundred years ago, and how that plays out into their decisions,” he said.
But Miller said his real passion is for computer programming. He has been a self-described “computer guy” for years, building websites for several companies and taking computer science classes in high school. He experimented in a few other fields at Columbia, but ultimately came back to computer science.
“This is what I know, and this is what I love,” he said. “And you’ve gotta do what you love, otherwise you’re not going to have a good life.”
For another computer science class, Miller and a classmate created a programming language that uses statistics about teams and players to predict the outcomes of baseball games. Miller—a longtime Houston Astros fan—said the final project was somewhat successful, but had difficulty predicting the outcomes of close matchups.
Miller will soon return to Houston to start a job as a software designer at JPMorgan Chase, but that won’t stop him from doing crossword puzzles on the side. Miller’s first published puzzle appeared in the Los Angeles Times last May, and was syndicated nationally.
Miller said he tries to make crosswords that appeal to his generation.
“I think that one of the major problems with most puzzles … is that they’re written by older people for older people,” he said. “And that’s not realistic. There are a lot of very intelligent people our age.”
Miller is currently working on a puzzle loosely based around the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He hopes to sell it to the LA Times.
When he wasn’t programming or puzzle-making at Columbia, Miller might have been at hanging out at Harlem Lanes with the bowling club. The approximately 20-member group, which meets once a week, received Columbia funding this year as a club sport. Miller was the club’s secretary—“which, in a bowling club, means nothing, or very little” he noted.
“It’s easily the most accessible club sport,” he said. “You don’t have to be athletic at all to bowl with us.”
Miller hopes the club continues to receive funding next year, but he won’t be around to see what happens. He leaves on Saturday for Houston, where he hopes to spend the rest of his life.
One factor in his decision to leave New York was the weather—he called the city a “frozen tundra that’s not fit for human habitation”—and another was its high cost of living.
But while New York is an expensive place to live, Miller doesn’t recommend that Columbia students always choose the least expensive options—at least when it comes to vending machines. He said that for a great vending experience, students should try trekking to an out-of-the-way machine he discovered on the bridge between Pupin and the Schapiro Center.
“It’s the same price as the rest of them,” he said. “But it’s a pretty radical place to get a Coke.”