Monday, January 31, 2011

More Fun With Sculptures

Here's a cartoon I did not know existed. It came out sometime after the Transparent Horizons controversy had blown over...but not before the controversy over Henry Moore's "Reclining Figure" had blossomed. More fun with the Committee for Visual Arts.

Calculator Future Shock, Part 2

There was once a time when an Excel spreadsheet could tax a computer's processing power to the limit. Even before then, though, there were mathematical tasks that produced predictable results...
I also drew this cartoon once before. From January 1975...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Commercial Success, Part 2

In these modern times, there are many ways to sweeten your drink. There are white packets (sugar), pink packets (saccharin), brown packets (Turbinado sugar, which was first marketed as Sugar in the Raw when it showed up in restaurants in 1972), blue packets (Aspartame, which is marketed as Equal), yellow packets (Sucralose - marketed as Splenda) and even green packets (Stevia root). In the ancient days of 1976, an era of spartan living and limited food choices, you had a choice of two kinds of sweeteners - sugar and saccharin. There had been cyclamates, which found their way into many diet drinks - until they were discovered to cause cancer in laboratory rats who drank Diet Pepsi to excess (and I'd say a fair number of Course 7's did). Saccharin was nice and sweet - too sweet, as it turned out, so it couldn't substitute for sugar in baking recipes. A product called Sugar Twin showed up in 1976 that purported to solve that problem; its sweetness compared to sugar was advertised at 1:1.  It looked like sugar, sprinkled like sugar, measured like sugar...and a comic strip was born.

Some of the denizens of Bexley Hall explained to me later that heroin was also a sugar substitute, though not very effective; to quote the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, it "barely made the coffee sweet". We live in a time of plenty; in the '70s, sugar prices went through the roof, and the Freak Brothers were trying to score sugar from dealers on the street corner. Now, you can ingest all the high fructose corn syrup your body can stand...that is, if they don't convert it all to ethanol. And heroin, like disco, has made an unwelcome comeback.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


At MIT, anyone under the age of 18 who showed up on the campus was obviously up to no good. First of all, they were usually Cambridge residents, and we didn't trust the locals (one of the thursday staffers had been mugged on the Student Center steps by one). Second, the Student Center was not only a good place to hang out, drink coffee and play ping-pong, but it was conveniently right off of Mass. Ave., and the bus stopped right there. We had a name for the unwelcome visitors from Cambridge - urchins.

Stanford had its own breed of urchins. These were Paly High students (students from Palo Alto High School) who showed up at the campus parties. They were either looking for alcohol, or (in the case of the underage teenage girls) Stanford men. I dare say a few even found what they were looking for.

A couple of incidentals: the bald-headed dude with the flower is something you no longer see at airports. For one thing, 9-11 occurred, which made it difficult for anyone to hang out at the airport without arousing suspicion. Secondly, the Hari Krishnas had lost a court case in Los Angeles, which allowed every airport in the country to deny them access unless they had a permit. Until then, airports had been a free-for-all between the Hari Krishnas with their books, the Scientologists with their pseudo-scientific psychoanalyses and the LaRouchebags with their beam weapons. Now, airports belong to L.L. Bean, TGI Friday's and Borders.

And the fellow from Harvard is one of the few African Americans ever seen in Stickles. It wasn't discrimination; I just had trouble drawing a dark face. Garry Trudeau was able to get around the problem by using Zip-a-tone, but I didn't have the patience to cut and paste. Which is too bad - I would have liked to incorporate some characters from Chocolate City.

The Built Environment, Part 2 - The Errata Sheet

A couple of things happened in the week since my last post. First, there was a snowstorm that proved just what neophytes drivers in Washington, DC, are. On Wednesday afternoon, a squall line blew through, bringing thunder and sleet, followed by driving snow. At just that moment, every car in the metropolitan region descended on the highway system, determined to beat the weather. They lost. In what may be described as the epic fail of the century (admittedly this century has only had 11 years to it so far), drivers got stranded on the freeways and on some of the crucial side roads. Half hour commutes became four and five hour nightmares. Drivers ran out of gas waiting on the roads and proceeded to abandon their vehicles - which in turn congested the roads even more thoroughly and made it impossible to plow them.

I did the only prudent thing I could do, which is to spend the night in my office. Later, I found out that it was possible to get around town by using the lesser known thoroughfares. Nobody was traveling on them; they were all in that parking lot known as the Beltway. When I did get home, I discovered I was one of half a million customers in DC with no electricity. So no computer. The power outage also zapped my router, denying Internet service to all the computers in the house.

But I digress.  In the interim, I learned from Tim Wilson that New House had six entries, not five. I was going to say six, but a map of the MIT campus led me astray by failing to identify the sixth.

My absence from the campus may have also contributed to a couple of cartoon fails on my part. In 1980, I had heard that one of the new dorms was going to be given the name Ballard House, which led to this strip...
But, as it turned out, there was never a Ballard House. New House retained its name and was joined by Next House just to the west. And in place of the Cains sign, there arose Simmons Hall, better known as The Wheel of Fortune Puzzle Board ("I'd like to buy a freshman double, Pat").  Ballard House appears nowhere in Google. I have no idea where the name came from.

Then there was this cartoon.
Turns out that's the Johnson Athletic Center. Steinbrenner's name is on the track and outdoor stadium next to it. I think at one time, Steinbrenner was supposed to get his name on the building, but there were some controversies that caused a rethink, so another facility bears the name of Steinbrenner - Henry Steinbrenner. As for the price tag, in those days, Dave Winfield was considered to be the most expensive baseball player ever obtained by the Yankees, when he left San Diego for New York. These days, Alex Rodriguez would be the gold standard. And the Texas Rangers, who unloaded A-Rod on the Yanks, seem to have gotten the last laugh...and the upper hand last year.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Built Environment

MIT was a quirky place, and it had nothing to do with the students or the faculty. Even the buildings had their oddities. For one thing, there were floor-level plugs into which the Physical Plant people plugged their vacuum cleaners.
For another thing, the new dormitory that opened to students in 1976 was called New House. It was named New House because it had not been named yet. It was a classic example of '70s Urban Renewal architecture consisting of concrete and glass and concrete and brick and concrete and wood and concrete and...
There were five separate living entries in New House, including one that had been named Vardebedian House by its residents. I'm not sure if the others had names, but I think for 50 dollars you could have had your name on one of them.

New House was soon not the only new house on the west side of campus.  It would be joined in short order by at least two other dorms, Next House and Simmons Hall. I was waiting for them to build the final dormitory at the far west end of the campus - Out House.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Many colleges these days have campuses abroad - in exotic places like Europe, Asia and even the Middle East.  MIT's campus abroad in 1975 was Wellesley.  MIT has had a long, intimate relationship with Wellesley - which can also be said of some of the students at both campuses.  In my day it was possible for students to cross-register for courses at the other campus, which allowed a few fortunate souls at MIT to gain exposure to art, literature and even nature (In exchange, Wellesley students had the opportunity to geek out on some really complex engineering).  Nature had its allures; Wellesley was out in the woods beyond the 128 Beltway, and many MIT students had not seen a single tree in their four years on campus.
MIT and Wellesley undergrads could also be seen at each others' mixers.  In fact, the whole social scene at Boston-area colleges was one big party every weekend.  If you took time to read the flyers on the bulletin boards (and if you had a car), there was something going on at some college somewhere - and that did not include the bars and discotheques on either side of the Charles River.  For me, it was all a blur - which was made embarrassingly clear to me when I chatted up one co-ed at a mixer who told me she went to a college that all MIT men were familiar with.  My first guess was Simmons - and after I had exhausted all the other choices, she told me in a huffy voice that she went to Wellesley.

I was not much for mixers.  Unlike several of my classmates, I never encountered Roxanne Ritchie and Susan Gilbert until after they'd authored the Consumer Guide to MIT Men.  I soon decided that if I were going to appear at a Strat's Rat (a beer and chips mixer put on every two weeks by the Student Center Committee in the Stratton Rathskeller), I preferred to be the DJ.
These days, I understand there are DJ's who get paid tens of thousands of dollars to spin records - especially if they wear a big felt mouse head.

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Any Given Sunday

East Campus - 10 floors, 400 students, 6 washers, 2 dryers.  You do the math.  The trick was always finding a machine that was free.  The second trick was finding enough quarters to dry the clothes you'd just washed.  To make it more interesting, the laundry room was in the basement.  But the TV was upstairs in the lounge, so it was possible to take in an afternoon of NFL football or Star Trek.  And then at 3 in the morning one of the washers and dryers would free up, so you could do your laundry.

When I finally moved out of the dorm, I found out things were no better at the public coin-ops.  But now I own a washer and dryer of my own...which my wife is willing to let me wash clothes in, whenever I please.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Toast to Independent Activities

This is the last week of Independent Activities Period.  In honor of the 'Tute turning 150 years old this year (and qualifying for membership in the AARP three times over) various alumni groups around the world celebrated "a Toast to Independent Activities Period", in a bar or pub of their choosing.  IAP, as it is known, is a one month period of downtime between the Fall and Spring Semesters at MIT when students can relax, take four week non-graded courses on quirky subjects sometimes invented by the undergraduates themselves, or take a few bong hits and play mah-jongg until the sun comes up (which in Boston in January is not until 9am).  IAP can also be used to catch up on a few things...
I once went to Manchester, New Hampshire, during IAP (I may have been the only undergraduate who didn't go there to ski).  On other occasions, I also did cold-call sales in a boiler room in Houston, dug out from five feet of snow and spent time in the Infirmary with a busted ankle.  I even wrote about my experience being laid up with a cast on  my leg in a gag issue of the newspaper we called wednesday.

Hackito Ergo Sum

When MIT students were not thrown things off the campus rooftops, they were generally putting things on the roof.  Things that generally didn't belong there.  It was with some frequency that the Dome over Building 7 would have something placed on it - such as police cars ("One Adam 12, One Adam 12, please investigate a suspicious vehicle...") or phone booths.  One morning, a gigantic pair of eyes was seen peering over Mass. Ave.; someone had covered the entire dome with a tarp.  I figured something else would fit just as well on that dome...
...and that was the first Stickles cartoon the Class of 1981 saw in print.

There have been a great many hacks (pranks, for the uninitiated) perpetrated by MIT students over the decades.  Many of them were germinated by the offbeat geniuses of Third East, East Campus.  Baker House and Bexley Hall have also perpetrated their share.  Stickles did not delve into hacks all that much, which is just as well - truth is always better than fiction.  And we will return that cannon to the nice folks from Cal Tech - for a price...

Good to the Last Drop

A good many things have been dropped from the roof of the Green Building, which is the tallest building on the MIT campus.  Usually pumpkins and fire extinguishers.  The pumpkins get dropped on Halloween, and the other objects can be dropped whenever one of the undergraduates can find a key that unlocks the hatch to the roof.  Other things have been thrown from the roofs of other buildings; the most famous is the piano that was dropped from the roof of Baker House.  Things that hit the ground after being thrown off the Green Building tend to go "splat".  One fire extinguisher, however, hit the ground headfirst, and the nozzle was blown off by the impact.  It was later found partially embedded in the wall of the West Parallel of East Campus.

A great number of new buildings have been added to the MIT campus since I left - ironically, most of them placed there by the company that employs me.  I have no idea if anything has been dropped off the roofs of those structures, although I understand from reliable sources that, in keeping with its whimsical geometry, nothing thrown from the roof of the Stata Building falls to Earth in a straight line.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Numbers Game

To show you what geeks we were, one particular game of skill was being able to recite pi to the nth digit.  I guess this was our equivalent of being able to down a shot of tequila without barfing, although in this case, regurgitation was required.  I always had trouble getting past the 7th digit; for the following cartoons, I actually had to look in the Nerd's Bible, formally known as the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.
I should note that it is not necessary to own a copy of the CRC Handbook to know pi(π) out to the 100th digit.  You can look up a whole etymology of pi on Wikipedia, although in keeping with the Wikipedia tradition of factual reliability, every digit beyond the 39th place is inaccurate.

Pi is not the only number which has a train of significant digits reaching into the infinite.  Among the many different constants in mathematics, there is e.
For those of you who are still in grade school (and those of us for whom senility has started robbing us of our mental knowledge of the trivial), pi is the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter, while e is the point at which the derivative of the function e to the x equals 1, when x is 0.

There is another, more obscure constant...
I should mention that the CRC Handbook is a venerable compendium that is now in its 91st Edition (my copy, which still resides on a bookshelf in my office, was the 54th Edition).  It is known for its functionality and versatility.  And it is entirely indispensable.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pop Quiz

In my day, every class was identified by a number.  The digits to the left of the dot identified the course number, such as mathematics or chemistry, while the digits to the right identified the individual classes.Who can tell me the names of the classes?  I'll give you a freebie - drop cards are what students used to drop a class that they later decided they didn't want to take.  The deadline was usually six weeks after the semester started, which was long enough to have taken at least one exam and turned in a couple of problem sets.

To my credit, I think there was only one class I actually dropped - a class on computer programming offered by Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, you plebes).  Let's just say that Fortran and I were not the best of friends.  There were three levels of Hell that had to be traversed in order to reach Success - 1. The program had to compile; 2. Once it compiled, it had to run; and 3. Once it ran, it had to give you the correct answer.  This was the equivalent of running an obstacle course that's like a game of snakes and ladders.  I didn't have that kind of patience...
I'll post more on computers at a later date.

Plumbing the Depths

You had to love Physical Plant.  After all, they carried pipe wrenches and a bad attitude.  And they were the ones tasked with repainting Transparent Horizons its basic black after the art students of East Campus had decorated it with paintballs.  But Physical Plant was never known for its services (even though they belonged to the Service Employees' union).  When they went on strike in 1976, no one in East Campus could tell the difference (although my Socialist neighbor helpfully tried to show solidarity with their cause by emptying the trash cans of the Infinite Corridor onto the floor).  But if you ever needed them to respond to an emergency, they were always Johnny-on-the-spot.
And you never knew when they would show up.
This is actually based on a true story (well, except for the spraying for roaches part; everyone knew the roaches were immune and bred faster than any topical roach treatment could kill them).  In fact, it is now possible to have cleaning people barge into your room while you're in the shower at some of the leading hotels in the world.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Politically Dreck

The year is 1976.  We are two years removed from Richard Nixon's resignation as president and within the last four months of the administration of Gerald Ford, the accidental president.  It is the Bicentennial Anniversary of the birth of the United States, and political ferment abounded - especially under the Great Dome of Building 10.  The Marketplace of Ideas was humming with the kind of activity usually reserved for a souq in Marrakech, and most of it was of the fringe variety (the fringes frequently being threadbare).  I had plenty of exposure to Marxist thought at times - it was right next door to my room in Bemis and occasionally came over to buy a Coke off of me.  At other times, I could listen to the representatives of Lyndon LaRouche (how could I avoid it?  One of them actually followed me from Building 10 to the steps of the Student Center before I was able to wave him off).  I had actually tried my own hand at politics a couple of times earlier in the year - having engaged in an energetic if futile effort to convince the campus that Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma deserved to be President of the United States. I then campaigned for Ugliest Man on Campus...and came in tenth.

So here's to the Infinite Corridor, and that oasis of political advocacy that was Lobby 10.  If nothing else, it had a great view of the Great Court - and the Charles River.

Calculator Future Shock

Moore's Law plays havoc with cartoonists.  In 1976, hand-held technology was changing rapidly, and the race was on to develop pocket calculators that were smaller, cheaper and loaded with all sorts of features.  And the first LCD wristwatch had just shown up, soon to be followed by the combination wristwatch-stopwatch, the alarm wristwatch and the watch with the built-in calendar.  These were the days before anyone had heard of a killer app for iPhone.  Observing the pace of change, I thought I'd be clever and draw a Stickles cartoon that paid homage to all of it.
But, alas, I was too late.  Casio had already beaten me to the punch, by coming out with a calculator wristwatch, as my thursday editors solemnly informed me.  I thought about ways of trying to update the strip by coming up with other gee-whiz features that I knew a wristwatch wasn't going to have for a million years, but Moore's Law was too powerful an influence, so instead I admitted defeat.
I did have another strip about fancy gizmos on calculators
As calculators became more powerful, they became cheaper.  Within ten years, calculators were being given away like wall calendars.
And there were also disagreements about the direction of calculator technology.  These resembled VHS versus Betamax, DOS versus Linux, and Yahoo! versus Google.  Texas Instruments had calculators that worked the way most of us calculate simple math: 1 plus 2 equals 3.  Hewlett Packard, however, designed its calculators to work in "reverse Polish", in which the mathematical operations were performed the way accountants might do it on an adding machine (look it up; Wikipedia probably has an entry on adding machines).  That is, 1 enter, 2 plus, 3 equals.  Confusing, for those of us not versed in it, but some people loved the way HP did it and others loved it the way TI did it.  Stickles, of course, looked for a third way...

Saturday, January 15, 2011


"Jump the Net" was a cartoon that appeared in thursday in 1978.  But that was not the first time I had drawn it; earlier versions were drawn when I was still in grade school.  I was a struggling artist in a high school that had no student newspaper, but we did have a mathematics classroom with a bulletin board, so that's where my comics ended up.

When I got to MIT, there were two student newspapers (three, if you counted Ergo), but I was more interested in the radio station.  I didn't show up at the thursday doorstep until Spring of my freshman year, and I wasn't even sure I wanted to draw cartoons when I could write record reviews for the Arts section.  The last cartoon to appear on the campus was Nuts and Screws, which appeared in the Tech and featured Ferd the Nerd.  But I had a huge backlog of material I'd drawn in high school, and I was game.  The problem was, it was all about high school, which didn't quite work with a readership that was already in college and in one of the toughest college environments in the country.

But some things are universal; ping-pong had been an instrument of diplomacy between the US and Red China, long before China had become an economic superpower.  So ping-pong was good subject matter for Stickles.  Here's the way it appeared in thursday.
Here's the way it appeared on that math class bulletin board.
And this is the way it looked when I first drew up the idea.  The medium of choice was a Flair pen on loose-leaf notebook paper.
Here's more ping-pong of the high school variety.
And one that combined the other MIT pastime - killing roaches...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Witty, Urbane and Apropos

Some time in 1983, MIT reached the inflection point and actually passed both Sarah Lawrence and Bennington to become the most expensive school in the country.  The event was commemorated in Stickles.
Ordinarily, this strip would have passed into the archives without a second mention.  But I had a fan at the MIT News Office who took a shine to the cartoon and decided to write to me about it...
And in our family, the phrase "witty, urbane and apropos" has entered into the lexicon in the same way that "gleeks" has been popularized among theater majors.

Over the years, I collected a fair amount of fan mail, mostly because the late Houston Post used to attach home addresses to the names of those who wrote letters to the editor.  For a time, I was a regular Laszlo Toth.  I plan to share some of the more interesting missives at a later date.

Too Damn Much

Every year, MIT has a tuition riot.  It has been having tuition riots ever since it was a Howard Johnson's in Cambridge in the Sixties (Howard Johnson was an adminstration official at MIT at one time).  This year was particularly significant because MIT expanded the franchise to Cambridge, England.  Yes, there were tuition riots in the United Kingdom, and even Prince Charles got into the act by donning a suit with a target on the back and allowing himself to get pelted with rotten tomatoes.

The reason for the riots, here and there, is that tuition has always been Too Damn Much.  It didn't matter whether tuition was under $2000 a year (which it was in the Sixties), or whether it had soared to $3800, as it did the year after I left...or even today, when it is easily close to $50,000, it was Too Damn Much.  MIT was always one of the most expensive schools in the country, duking it out annually with such pishers as Bennington College or Sarah Lawrence University (they at least had ski lifts!).  Harvard and Yale and even Stanford could try to grab it, but nobody could take the crown away from MIT.
So, of course, Stickles had to weigh in.  I wrote a couple of gags about just how high tuition was.  I never wrote about room and board, because after all, someone has to live in Simmons Hall, aka Hollywood Squares Gone Wild (I always thought that I'd find Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly living in adjoining rooms).  And someone has to pay for all the fresh coats of paint applied to Transparent Horizons every  year.
These days, that price would be equivalent to an Escalade.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Harvey Grogo

What the Consumer Guide did to upset the tone of relations between the sexes at MIT, the "Harvey Grogo" affair likewise served to undermine race relations.  A little background - every year, the Technology Community Association, or TCA, which is a student service group (there was also Alpha Phi Omega, or APO, which was a service fraternity) - puts out an orientation book that it sends to all incoming students called the Freshman Picture Book, which is a compendium of photos of each freshman; it was a kind of "getting to know you guide" for the new undergraduates.  And each year, the President of MIT or one of the deans would be inserted as a gag photo.  In 1977, TCA stuck in a gag photo of Grogo, the mascot of Technique, the student yearbook.  Grogo is a gorilla, and in the interim between King Kong and Donkey Kong, he was a gorilla icon.  However, he appeared in the Picture Book as "Harvey Grogo, Kampala, Uganda".  Ordinarily, this would not be considered humor, but Uganda at the time was ruled by a despot named Idi Amin, and the kind of atrocities he'd committed had already become the butt of a novelty song in which all his backup singers were murdered one by one for not recognizing his greatness.  So a member of the TCA staff thought that was fair game and suggested that Harvey Grogo be the name of a student from Idi Amin's country.

The problem was a failure to communicate.  African and African American students thought the gag photo was insulting and an example of the white stereotype of blacks as gorillas, and they demanded an apology. Those who had published the photo thought it was a bit of innocuous humor about a madman tyrant who was oppressing his long-suffering country.  The MIT Administration did not help matters much when they  published a letter in Tech Talk - an official university publication - "regretting the error." (After they had done something similar with the Consumer Guide, someone at the Harvard Crimson decided that there was a story to be found at that other institution on the other end of Mass. Avenue, and once they reported on it, the genie was out of the bottle).  Heads rolled; in a fit of equity, the student responsible was reprimanded in much the same way that the students who had written and caused the Consumer Guide to be published were reprimanded, and everyone on both sides of the issue was left with a bad taste in their mouths.  Accusations were hurled back and forth between the white and black students that the other side "just didn't understand and couldn't possibly understand".  It was deja vu all over again.

So thursday did the only thing they could do, which is to publish a parody of the Consumer Guide...
...and to this day, somebody regrets the error.

The Consumer Guide to MIT Men

In Spring 1977, an innocuous one-page feature showed up at the thursday offices.  When I first saw it among the galleys, I thought it was a new format for the Last Word, which was a popular back-page feature consisting of famous and amusing quotes, depending on who edited it (Richard Stone was regarded as the keeper of the Last Word, but many others had assembled the page over the years; I put together a page of infamous quotes from country and western songs for one edition).  However, it turned out to be The Consumer Guide to MIT Men and it had been assembled by two female students from their notes about their dalliances with three dozen MIT students, including some who were friends of mine.  This is what it looked like when it was recently unearthed by the Smoking Gun.  The names had been fuzzed to protect the innocent...
When the issue hit the stands, it was a runaway success; copies of the paper disappeared overnight, snapped up by the curious and the prurient alike.  Then the Guide started traveling, some copies ending up in the mailboxes of shocked parents at home with an anonymous sort of "Look what little Johnny's been doing while at MIT" implied message attached to them.  The shit hit the fan, the Harvard Crimson picked up on the story and from there it was a quick trip to the pages of the Real Paper (one of two Boston-area alternative weeklies) and thence to the Boston Globe, the New York Times and even the International Herald Tribune.

People knew what the Consumer Guide was; they just wanted to understand why it came to be.  There has been no one single story that anyone involved can agree with.  Presumably it was a feminist attempt to show men what it feels like to endure what campus women had been subjected to in whispered jokes among their male counterparts; to be judged on the basis of things like ability to "put out" and whether someone "was a good lay".  Then again, it may have been nothing beyond the mundane need to fill copy on an otherwise blank page.  No one involved in the incident has elaborated further.  After a series of reprimands and suspensions was handed out to the individual offenders, which included the two women who drafted the piece, the thursday editor-in-chief at the time and a managing editor, life returned to normal.  Thursday continued to publish (over the objections of some who thought a suspension of publication was deserved for our having "crossed a line") and saw a gain in readership that almost put them on an even par with the Tech that Fall.

The Consumer Guide was not the only such feature that attempted to rate the sexes.  In 1980, or thereabouts, a student at the University of Wisconsin decided to write about every professor she had ever slept with.  And two months ago, a graduate of Duke University decided to take the sophistication of the rating system a step further by preparing a PowerPoint "thesis" on the sexual prowess of 13 male student athletes, which is why the Smoking Gun saw fit to reprint the Consumer Guide to MIT Men; it is unknown how many of the Duke jocks were lacrosse players.

The whole episode was commemorated in Stickles in 1980, but I'm not sure the series ever made it into print; by then thursday had succumbed to its internal financial problems, and I became a contributor to the Tech.  In much the same way that Law and Order's "ripped from the headlines" stories don't exactly track real events, I changed a few details...

Leif Garrett was 1980's version of Justin Bieber.  And CD's were still about five years away from commercial popularity, which meant we were still enjoying the richness of vinyl long-playing records.

The Consumer Guide would not be the only scandal to affect the undergraduate student body at MIT that year.  The Fall of 1977 would bring the "Harvey Grogo" incident...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Found: The Consumer Guide

A big "thank you" to Tim Wilson, who found this infamous bit of MIT's past on The Smoking Gun.  I'll have more on this, including the Stickles take on the whole episode tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

High Technology

Moore's Law holds that the amount of memory one can shove onto an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years.  This means the power of a typical personal computer also increases exponentially.  The gee-whiz technology of two years ago is already obsolete; it is no longer unsafe to send the secrets of a 2005 computer to the Chinese; after all, they may be selling those secrets back to us...

In 1975, there were no personal computers.  There were barely even hand-held calculators, and those that existed cost hundreds of dollars.  It was not uncommon to find locking seatbelts in some labs, designed to keep calculators from walking off.  Then Texas Instruments offered the first SR-50 for sale at the unheard-of price of less than 100 dollars, and suddenly there was nothing to stop progress.  In less than a decade, calculators could be had for under ten dollars, and they came with all sorts of great functions - sines, factorial, exponents and roots.  Heck, the things were even programmable.
Personal computers changed the universe as we know it even further.  There was no World Wide Web in 1980, but the ability to run word processing, prepare mathematical spreadsheets and write sophisticated programming on a box that fit on top of a desk was a revelation, for which we can thank Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and those first Apple computers.  But it wasn't until the '90s that you could run a spreadsheet without a math co-processor, and until the Pentium chips became commonplace, applications like Lotus 1-2-3 (think early-generation Excel) still had an option to turn off the automatic recalculation of numerical equations.  Windows back then actually consisted of "windows", delineated boxes on the home page of the operating system that each had a different feature or opened a different program.  Still, the pace of improvements in computing power and capabilities has been stunning.  In 1982, bubbles memories were a big deal because even if your device were accidentally turned off, it "remembered" what you were working on...
Advancements in technology are nice, but I still have and quite actively use a solar-powered Texas Instruments calculator that I bought in 1990.  It has twelve significant digits and every function I've ever needed to use, and it operates in low light - which is handy because I'm often kept in the dark by my superiors...