Part 2 of 3: My Best Hacks at MIT – Still relevant in 2016


No, my buddies and I did not put the MIT fire department truck on the top of the dome.   One of the most infamous hacks when I was at MIT was the appearance of a balloon under the field at a Harvard University football game in 1982.  While none of my hacks (or hacks performed on me) were ever this interesting, they were meaningful in a way that is still meaningful today.  Read the first episode here first.

Be Careful Expressing Yourself

Well in this modern day, we all know the power and danger of expressing yourself.  In college, we all had very strong opinions especially about our living groups.   MIT had a very strong Greek system in additional to many dorms, all of which had very different reputations.   Our dorm, Baker House, had the reputation as the “largest frat on campus”, an obvious reference to our “work hard, play hard” reputation.  MIT also has one of, if not the largest, intramural sport systems that many students participated in.  Being a nerd in high school who only played varsity golf his senior year, I was very impressed with the breadth of the sporting opportunities. There was even a sport where each living group competed called the Octagon where a team was selected from each residence and played 8 different sports against the other teams.  There was lots of “spirit” involved in this competition.  Well one day my roommates and I thought it was a good idea to hang a sign on our window disparaging the fraternity next door.  Little did we know that this room, because it was on a high floor, had done similar shenanigans before and the fraternity was ready for a response.  I can’t imagine how many eggs were purchased for the attack, but by the time we got to our room, the eggs had dried out in the sun.  We had quite the time cleaning it off.  Lesson learned, one that reverberates even in 2016.

Hacking our Way Through a Hard Chemical Engineering Problem

I had a very close-knit group of Course X (what chemical engineering is called at MIT) buddies.  I have lost active touch with all three of them, but we decided to collaborate on our senior project where we designed a new approach to paper pulping, where a different chemical was used to break down the wood.  This new chemical process (sulfuric acid) had a byproduct which could be recycled—it was sugar.  This was a complicated system as alcohol was added to help separate the sugar from the water.   The key problem as the system progressed through multiple reaction stages (much like distillation column) was that we had to model how the sugar was separating between the mostly water output and the mostly alcohol content.  Did sugar like to be with the water in the mostly water output or with the alcohol in the mostly alcohol output?  Seems like splitting hairs, but this question made or broke our commercial analysis and we needed the answer fast.  Getting the right answer required the use of a ternary plot.  Modeling the serial stages to the reaction required tracking the reaction and changes at each stage on this diagram.  This was not something a calculator or a slide rule did very well as there were minimal changes and we were lost in the noise of the calculation.  Slope was very important and we were not getting it right.  It was before the advent of computers and we were stumped.  Our hack was to create the largest ternary plot MIT had ever seen.  It covered most of a hallway lounge, probably 20+ feet on each side.  Once we had that, we could easily do the calculation on our knees with rulers and pencils.  Most of the dorm had heard of this hack and had to stop by to see these nerds and their paper construction.   I did learn from that day that you should not get stumped by that hardest problems and that sometimes brute force, even if it is 20 by 20 feet, can solve a problem quickly, albeit without the elegance of equations.  Relevant in 2016.

Hockey Game from Hell

Going to college in Boston means that you probably played hockey while you were in school.  I am talking about ice hockey, the kind you wake up at 5AM to get on the ice by 6AM.  Growing up, I used to skate on frozen lakes and was a fast skater, so it made sense for me and my buddies to form an intramural hockey team.  I played defense, much like I also selected defense on the soccer field.  We played C-league, which was where most of the beginners played, but after 4 years we got quite a bit better.   By Senior year, I was my team captain and my really good friend was my goalie. (Today he works in the area Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS), but I digress).  For one of our big games, he was not able to attend and I was left without anyone on the team to play goalie.   Being the team captain, I rose to the occasion and donned the gear, used the big goalie stick and went out on the ice.  Mind you, I had never played goalie before.  One needs fast reaction time, not speed skating on the ice.  Our team played so well that by the last minute of the game we were winning 2-0.  Being the team spirit braggart that I was back then, I played up the fact that I had a scoreless record as a goalie.  My buddies and fellow team members had heard enough and they decided to turn the game around and score on me.  I was completely surprised, majorly pissed off, but after about 10 seconds I went along with the hack and got on board.  It was quite the story in the dorm the next day.  I learned from that experience that you have to A) step up and fill the white space and B) be humble in your successes.  I have used both lessons throughout my career and it is still relevant in 2016.

Stay tuned for the last blog episode, the year I was voted Ugliest Man on Campus….

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