MIT is best known as the top engineering school in the world (yes I know there are a variety of close seconds…) and traditionally as a place where kids of blue-collar families went to increase their prospects in life through science, math and engineering. I fit into that category particularly well. Most MIT students did not have family who could help with homework in high school, let alone elementary or middle school. Getting an education at MIT involved more than just the classes, the professors, the Nobel prize winners who were freshman advisors and the laboratories or problem sets. MIT students were known to produce and execute hacks, accomplished by “hackers”. From the MIT website on hacks:
Aren’t hackers the people that break into computer networks? Maybe to the rest of the world.
Many of us at MIT call those who break into (crack) computer systems “crackers.” At MIT, a “hacker” is someone who does some sort of interesting and creative work at a high intensity level. This applies to anything from writing computer programs to pulling a clever prank that amuses and delights everyone on campus.
I am not going to spend this blog highlighting the most interesting hacks from the MIT history books, the link above can entertain you there. What I am going to highlight is that in my four years in Cambridge, I perpetrated a few hacks and was the subject of many others. Each of those hacks were enlightening back then, but looking back a quarter century, each hack has a meaning today, something relevant to us all.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I am a big foodie. Who would have thought that back in the day I would be protesting for better food quality in the dorms at MIT. Today we would call this a first world problem, but back then this was a matter of excess energy and fun. As a hack I joined up with a few other folks to protest that quality of the food and to organize/boycott cafeterias across different parts of campus. We were a small invisible group, but had a large impact. We would organize food fights in our dorm (very childish when I look back). In fact one very famous food fight right up there with the likes of John Belushi in Animal House was where two dorms organized a food fight at a third dorm. We ended up getting a lot of attention along the dorm row next to the Charles River. We reached critical mass and decided to organize hundreds of students bringing their food-laden trays to the president of the university’s office and leaving the slop there.
That event received much attention at the top of the university. The hacker group made the campus newspaper and professors around campus wanted to know who the ringleaders were. Be careful what you ask for, as the five leaders were invited (I don’t remember how they found out who we were) to a special meeting with the president of the university. Well it was clear that were were not the riffraff of MIT (are there riffraff at MIT??) but good students and highly invested in the social aspects of the university. We were able to make our case for better food with some middling success as viewed by the menu’s post protest results. What struck me was that when I introduced myself to President Gray, his exact words to me were “So you are the famous Wayne Greene….”. To the young chemical engineer, the lesson was clear. If you are going to be a hacker or protester, the powers that be will know who you are. If you make a good case we will listen, and you need to work within the system, not just dump trays at the commander in chief’s door. You have to be part of the solution. Relevant in 2016.
Move Your Roommate to the Floor Lounge
hack was not traditional, but this next one was. I lived in a triple and that is always a challenging situation navigating two other roommates. There was always someone on the outs; you were in the majority or voted off the island. One day my roommate and I decided to move all our roommate’s stuff into the hall lounge. This included everything he owned and all his furniture. They say in college that you have work, friends and sleep—pick two. At MIT, sleep always lost out. We thought it was especially cute how this roommate loved his pet and we prominently displayed all his pet pictures in the lounge. The lounge was quite a popular gathering location in our dormitory. You can imagine our roommate’s surprise passing by the lounge and not really noticing it was his stuff until he saw the empty part of our dorm room. At first he thought it was very funny but then that humor turned into resentment considering how much time it would take for him to move himself back.
I honestly don’t remember if we helped him move his stuff back in, but I do remember ultimately regretting the whole incident. Over time, reflecting back on this hack, even though I got caught up with the fun of the idea and making it happen, I found myself wondering why we as humans enjoy these pranks at the expense of others. Does the fun and surprise outweigh the drama and the long term impact? I ultimately lost touch with this close friend from both high school and college days. Did the hack contribute to our lo
osing touch? Relevant in 2016.
The Dorm Secretary With a Printing Press
Participating in your social community through a leadership position is one of the best things you can do to contribute and make connections. When a group of my friends started to participate in the Baker House dorm leadership committee, I was intrigued and volunteered to be the dorm secretary. Much to my surprise this involved not just taking notes, but also publishing them through actually printing with a printing press that looked similar to this. I had never used a printing press and it was quite involved, with typing on a stencil, mounting it on the drum and smearing ink. If everything worked well I might get a few dozen good copies in one run and then I would have to fidget with the machine or ink or stencil. After taking notes during the meetings, I would transcribe the notes and type on the stencil and print out 200 copies and have them distributed to all the dorm room mailboxes. After all that logistical and technical work in printing, it made it all worthwhile to see my hack distributed to 200 rooms. I am not much of a fiction writer, but my hack on the minutes was to create this
science fiction story for each issue of the minutes.
At first, everyone was amused and wondered what the heck was up with those stories and odd characters, but after a while I had quite the following of people who were looking forward to the next installment. What people started to realize was that the characters in the story corresponded to the players on the executive committee, in a very irreverent way. Funny how the internet goes, I was able to find these minutes scanned in here. Reading my minutes many years later is amusing (what was I thinking?) and the lesson for today is to take on new challenges, be impactful, make a difference, and be different the rest. Relevant in 2016. Also be careful what you publish, it’s amazing what has been scanned and published on the web.
Stay tuned for future blogs where I will continue this series.