Monday, February 28, 2011

More Characters: Cindy and Walden

Today's MIT is completely coeducational - the ratio of male to female students is about 1:1. But MIT did not always have such parity. In the days of Stickles, the ratio was closer to 3:1, and it was even worse on Second East, East Campus - an all male floor in a dorm where only 4 of the 10 floors was co-ed. Actually, not even the single-sex floors or dorms were truly all of the same sex; in fact, the Freshman Pop Quiz, administered to all the newbies on the last day of Orientation, has one question that reads: of these four locations, which one is not co-ed?
1) MacGregor (all-male barracks in the west end of the campus)
2) McCormick (home to the distaff)
3) Bexley (Campus head shop - also all male)
4) Room 7-103.
(The answer is Room 7-103, which is a Men's Room just off of Lobby 7)
Into the all-male bastion that was Second East wandered one lovely young woman during Orientation Week of 1975. Her name was Cindy...
...and her presence discombobulated the guys.

Cindy was the owner of a cat named Walden. Walden is actually a take-off of Woodstock, who was the cat that lived on Third East, one floor above us (Walden is also, coincidentally, the name of the puddle where the Doonesbury clan settled into the commune that would be their home after college). As I mentioned early on, Woodstock had a very brief but very notorious life, having run for President of the Class of 1978.

Walden was Cindy's constant companion. Perhaps a little too constant.
Walden also tended to get himself out on a limb on occasion.
Or get his nose into things he shouldn't.
He also made friends easily.
But not even he could reckon with MIT's large, extended colony of squirrels.
The "mutant" squirrels were almost as much a bane of our existence as the roaches. Like the roaches, they were everywhere, and they had the added extra feature of being clinically insane. I once saw one hanging from one of the lintels above the dorm entrance, screeching at the top of its little lungs. Others have, on occasion, been found scurrying down the hallways of the dorm. We're not sure what created them; there are some theories surrounding the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, and others involving the Bexley Drug Factory (sorry, but it predates Stickles, so anything I know about it is by word of mouth). What I do recall is coming back to MIT several years after I'd graduated and having lunch with my brother-in-law in the faculty dining room, where I was offered "chocle squirrel" ice cream by one of the wait-staff. I didn't inquire further. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

More Characters: Ralph

MIT had its own collection of heads in the '60s and '70s. Most of them collected at Bexley, the last dorm that anyone mainstream wanted to be assigned to. But there were those for whom the allure of the place fit their profile, and they gravitated there - and eventually worked for thursday and avoided the Undegraduate Association and partied in the Bexley basement on Saturday nights while listening to One (which was a house band that played Grateful Dead covers and jam music). Some time in late 1977, thursday became mainstream, and so did Bexley - so it started to be cool for undergrads to come to the Bexley parties from places like MacGregor and Burton and McCormick.

Part of Bexley's counter-culture charm were the various hallucinogens that the residents would consume on occasion. But every dorm had at least one or two students who enjoyed a little cannabis here and there - and they could do without the counter-culture, thank you very much. Everyone - even the ROTC kids - had done a little something at least once in their time at college; if this stuff was supposed to be mind-altering, they were just as Republican after that one joint as before.

East Campus had a small group that would get themselves into a mind-altering haze and either play Mah-Jongg until morning - or play frisbee bowling, complete with plastic bowling pins, on a lazy Sunday afternoon during Independent Activities Period. Their best friend, at least as far as Stickles was concerned, was Ralph. Ralph was a Straight-A student majoring in (what else?) chemistry. And nothing else - sex, politics or sports - mattered to him but the Beatles and Firesign Theater, from whom he drew deep spiritual meaning with every inhalation. He was also just a little bit off the latch; gonzo, I think, was the word.
He also had a way of discovering things through experimentation.
To say he was a character probably did not do him justice. 
He was more than a phenomenon; he was that one odd monument in the town square that you brought all the tourists to see.
But time catches up with us all. Ralph graduated and so did everyone else, and each successive crop of frosh was more buttoned-down and boring than the seniors they replaced. Even the ROTC kids.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

More Characters: Ross

The fellow with the curly hair is Ross. Ross was Pud's sidekick, Kato to Pud's Green Hornet, Robin to Pud's Batman. The two of them would be found chatting in the hall, doing problem sets or perhaps playing ping-pong together.
Ross was also the sophomore with the "sophomore single".
Unlike Charlie the Tuna, Ross did not have a double lip. And Ross was probably a solid "B" student, but it was not without some effort.
Maybe that was because unfortunate things had a way of happening to him.
In many ways, Ross was an Everyman. Upon graduation, Ross would probably find himself in a cubicle at a large high-technology firm, serving as a mid-level engineer. And he'd have a house in the suburbs with a garage and a deck - where he and Pud would crack open a couple of cold ones and reminisce about their days at MIT...when their wives weren't asking them to take out the trash.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Epic Fail 3: The Ballad of Charlie the Tuna

I am informed by reliable sources at both ABC and NBC Nightly News that Cal Tech has won a basketball game. A conference basketball game. For the first time in 26 years. They did it - beat conference rival Occidental, 46-45. I'm sure my brother is ecstatic.

MIT's not in quite such a predicament. In their tenure in Division III, their basketball team has actually appeared in the playoffs and been ranked (if only Cam Lange could be there!). But basketball was never the glamor sport. Before football returned to the MIT campus in 1980, crew jocks got all the attention. If you were on either the men's or the women's crew team, you were varsity, you were MITAA, and life was good.

Stickles dandy Charlie the Tunafish, however, was not MITAA. But he had a lot in common with that Cal Tech basketball team, except his losing streak had been in the academic halls of MIT rather than on the gym floor. So he decided to embark on a deliberate attempt to flunk out, in an epic tale chronicled in an extended series of strips that came out in the first couple of months of 1977. In true Charlie fashion, however, his attempt to fail was itself an epic fail.
Professor Ed Diamond taught political science classes that focused heavily on the media. I took 17.27 my freshman year, though today I could not tell you its exact name. As mentioned previously, Prof. Diamond was also a managing editor at Newsweek, which meant he was very high up in the mass media food chain. As a result, he took a very serious interest in the campus student newspapers and hosted a Friday morning class at which members of the editorial staffs of thursday and the Tech gathered to discuss their newspapers. He'd ask the Tech staffers what their lead stories of the week were, and why. Then he'd ask us if we published that week.
For those not familiar with the '70s, Gary Gilmore was sentenced to death in Utah and elected to have his life taken by a firing squad. He was the first person executed in America after the Supreme Court reinstated the Death Penalty.

As for the Objectivists, they were philosophically aligned with Ayn Rand's writings and believed in the virtue of selfishness. They hated group activities, since those were collectivist behavior, but could still watch "The Fountainhead" without acknowledging the irony of a cast of thousands helping to bring to the big screen an epic tale of rugged individualism. Perhaps they should have watched "127 Hours" instead.
Now at this point, Charlie decided to lock himself in the "Tomb of the Unknown Tool", which is a famous but inaccessible landmark somewhere within Building 7. Or was it Building 10? Charlie sure didn't know...
At this point in the series, there was a final cartoon in which Charlie comes to a truce with the academic powers that be, and reschedules his graduation to "1986, if I'm lucky." I decided to pick a date that was not 1984, so that I could avoid the Orwellian overtones. But 1984 came...and went...and despite Ronald Reagan being in the White House, Big Brother did not arrive. That final cartoon is missing; presumably it is in the Tomb of the Unknown Tool.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Controversies: Genetic Engineering

People are up in arms about genetically modified foods, cloning and other things that alter the basic chemical building blocks that result in life on this planet. But there are advantages to splicing the DNA from a lobster into a tomato, which one set of genetic engineers has already done - you get a tomato that costs $27.95 a pound (except at the all-you-can-eat lobster-tomato buffet). Or you can splice abalone genes into a crocodile and get a crocabalone. It doesn't matter; Michael Jacobsen and his cronies will still call it Frankenfood, and they won't eat it (and you shouldn't either if you know what's good for you!).

All this ferment actually began in a laboratory at Harvard University, just up the street (and up the creek) from us. They actually were the first to propose genetic experimentation, and that got the good citizens of Cambridge up in arms. All they knew was that a vial was going to spill on the floor of that laboratory and loose some strange new strain of deadly bacteria on the rest of us. Therefore, they wanted the lab isolated...
Later,a laboratory on the West Coast would find a way to make money off all of this genetic synthesis - and Genentech was born.

MIT had its own controversial activities, and I'm not talking about the Consumer Guide. Or Harvey Grogo. My freshman year consisted of protests over MIT's proposal to train Iranian nuclear engineers, which would enable a certain short dictatorial autocrat to provide his country with nuclear power - and perhaps enough weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb or two (sound familiar?). Shah Reza Pahlavi probably would have looked rather silly in a threadbare sportcoat and an open-necked dress shirt straight off the racks at Wal-Mart, but the campus activists didn't trust him and raised enough of a stink about the whole nuclear program to fill several issues of thursday in the Spring of 1975.

But Summer came and went, and by Fall 1975, a new controversy came along. MIT had cut a deal to train missile engineers for Chiang Kai Shek's Taiwan. This one got interesting when Taiwenese students already at MIT decided to hold a rally in opposition to the program, and a couple of visitors (some would say KMT Party secret police dressed up as students) decided to take pictures of the rally - for their "memories". Again, many issues of thursday were filled with breathless news releases about the nefarious details of the secret program, and again a year came and went, and there would be newer and fresher outrages...

Monday, February 21, 2011

More Characters: Charlie the Tunafish

Charlie the Tunafish was a character who lived in the Goodale end of the dorm, but he could have been any of us. He could have been a good student, but he was a bit preoccupied with other pursuits.
Charlie was one of those undergrads who was always looking for love in all the wrong places. It was the disco era, so of course he had his platform shoes, snaggletooth necklace and a shirt that he always unbuttoned halfway down to his waist for the mixers. He was more a fan of Roxy Music than the Bee Gees, though, so he didn't entirely fit the scene.
But Charlie was always willing to broaden his horizons.
Charlie's bigger problem was that he was always flunking at least a couple of courses each semester. It wasn't that he wasn't MIT caliber; he just had too many other things on his mind.
Charlie once brought home a gorgeous young blonde from the Combat Zone - one who streaked Professor French's physics class one afternoon - but in true Charlie fashion, he happened to lose her to another of the dorm residents. She would become a den mother to us, she cooked a number of spaghetti suppers for the residents of the floor, and she also turned out to be a decent softball player, which was important because otherwise we wouldn't have won many games. She never became a Stickles character, though - probably because Doonesbury already had a character named Boopsie.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Star Trekkin' (Commercial Success, part 3)

You can tell the age of this cartoon, which came out soon after William Shatner started hawking Promise Margarine. Today, Shatner would be quitting to become the Priceline Negotiator. This after having been TJ Hooker and having hosted Rescue 911. He's also Dad in Sh*t My Dad Says, but we'll forgive him for taking on a role that was clearly meant for Danny DeVito.

East Campus was where Star Trek was watched. In the various West Campus dorms, Monty Python's Flying Circus captured everyone's attention. Star Trek was kind of a touchstone for us in our undergraduate days. The show had already been in reruns for eight years, but it was still Must See TV for us. It was kind of the gateway to the evening's activities - dinner, usually awful, served in Walker Memorial right after the last class of the day let out, followed by Star Trek at 7. The sun had long gone down, so we'd gather in the East Campus lounge in front of the big color console (although we could gather in the Goodale Lounge on Second East and watch the black and white set if we didn't feel like going all the way across to the other parallel). Then we'd all split up - some of us settling in for a long night of problem sets and term papers, some of us departing the building to partake in some extracurricular student activities and some of us sticking around for the prime time line-up. There were even those who'd start in on card games, though the real serious card playing did not begin until after the news and the Carson monologue at 11. Depending on the day, I might join the guys playing cards or spend the evening in the thursday office transcribing articles for the newspaper or, more likely, shooting the bull with Dave Schubert and Tom Ginden until all hours.

Star Trek also held a certain fascination for the members of the Ayn Rand Worship Society. In Ergo, when they weren't extolling the virtues of selfishness, composing paeans to the magnificent music of Richard Wagner and the romantic images of 19th Century literary classics, and saluting the steadfastness of Boston University Chancellor John Silber (who had been run off the University of Texas campus on a rail), they would wax eloquent over the parallels between individual Star Trek episodes and Objectivist thought. Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock were their philosophical heroes, which is odd, because the fourth Star Trek movie, directed by Leonard Nimoy, would celebrate saving the whales a la Greenpeace.

Indeed, none of us could foresee that the three-season oeuvre that was the original Star Trek would grow into a vast enterprise (heh!) in the '80s and '90s. There would be the next generation television series (at least two of them), complete with new characters, the movies and even the song parodies. Meanwhile, the high technologists are busily scrambling to invent devices that replicate those early Star Trek gadgets - wrist communicators, wands that can measure vitals when waved over a body and even phasers that you can set to "stun". Anti-matter has been detected and catalogued, cloaking devices that can bend light rays around objects are being designed, and there are people who are convinced that transporters will eventually be able to beam us from place to place. And the age of the flip-top communicator has come and gone; remember the Flip-Phone and the folding cellular phones that followed a generation later?
By the way, a true Trekker knows what's wrong with the above strip. The correct expression is, "Beam me aboard, Scotty" (and actually it's "Beam me up, Scotty", as in "Beam me up, Scotty, there's no intelligent life down here", usually said of Earth).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fish and Strategic Gamers

(Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been nine days since my last blog post.)

Benjamin Franklin once said that fish and Strategic Gamers always smelled after three days. Well, maybe he didn't say that, but he would have if he'd stopped by the front door of the thursday offices on Sunday and found them into the 52nd hour of a 72-hour marathon session of Panzer Brigade. There were two organizations full of these creatures - the Strategic Games Society and the Society for Creative Anachronism. I mean, who else would make an obsession out of serial Mad Mate? Who else could tell the age of a Risk board by the shape of the Ten-Army piece? And who else could look ridiculous in full chain-mail and tights, yet be authentically smelly?

Anyway, I lived on a floor that had more than its share of Strategic Gamers. We were divided up into clans that roughly paralleled the division of the dormitory itself. Walcott Hall to the south had the stoners, who would get drunk on vodka and play Mah-Jongg until 3 in the morning (or get stoned on hashish and play Backgammon until 4). Goodale had the sex-obsessed - the guys who would play Queen and 10cc while thumbing through Penthouse and fantasizing about the wattage of their stereos. And Bemis had the nerds, who would retreat to one of the lounges and preoccupy their minds with the problem set that was due at the end of the week. Oh, and the Strategic Gamers.

But the best place to find Strategic Games Society members in the wild was in Walker Memorial, whose carpet agreed with their flesh tones. They'd spread out their game boards and their hex dice and their strategy cards, and camp out for a while. They were immovable; not even the sound of Meat Loaf, cranked up to 11, could drive them away. This is not to say they didn't have their own place to gather; it's just that I could never find it...
Strategic Gamers also had another distinguishing quirk to their personality - they were obsessed with the military. Not that they possessed great amounts of brute physical ability that would qualify them as Army Strong. They were obsessed with weapons systems. One person, who lived on my floor and shall remain nameless, actually organized a Saturday night lecture on the merits of the A-10 Tank Killer (which someone in the Army would affectionately and mercifully rename as the "Warthog" when it actually went into service). If you ever wondered who kept Tom Clancy's publishing enterprise going all those years, this was his constituency. Well, that and all the old geezers who still think we could have won the war in Vietnam if it hadn't been for those damned hippies.
There was nothing quite as complex as an Avalon Hill board game. First of all, the game board was not necessarily square. Second, the dice were not necessarily cubes. And third, there were rules in this knife fight.
Many of the Strategic Gamers would go on to long and successful careers, either as Beltway Bandits or as drones in the Skunk Works. I never did find one who would later end up in the Peace Corps.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Sunday

"Punting" was not just someone kicking the football to the other team on a fourth-and-long situation. Nor was it an activity that one could do on the Charles River on a sunny Spring afternoon (by the way, what were those?). No, "punting" was something every student at MIT learned to do when a situation became completely untenable and there was nothing else that could be done. You could punt a problem set, a lab, a term paper or that month-old pile of dirty laundry with equal dexterity. It was a response that brought relief to the user and allowed him to then focus on something far more whether or not to go to the mixer at Wellesley or the block party at Simmons/Emanuel/Wheelock. Some things could not be punted, though - like that night shift at Twenty Chimneys. That meant no paycheck, and what student could survive without a little pocket money for the weekend?

"Punting" also referred to the process of dropping a class in mid-semester. We discussed that previously, so I'm going to punt on the explanation.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Epic Fail

It's happened to each of us. We've failed a test or an exam. Afterwards, we dust ourselves off and soldier on.
Incidentally, 18.03 is a sophomore year mathematics class, Differential Equations. This is what differentiates between the men and the boys. Later, I would find out that much of what we do in the realm of planning, designing and constructing airports does not require higher-order mathematics beyond basic calculus. But if you want to make it at Enron or AIG, this is what you have to know (courses in ethics are optional).

Incidentally, MIT in our day allowed students to drop a course within six weeks after the beginning of the semester. Usually, by then it was possible to tell if you were destined for greatness or going to bite royally. There would be at least one test or a couple of problem sets from which to divine the future. But occasionally...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I thought I'd introduce you to some of the principal characters who populated the dorm where Pud Stickles lived. These characters showed up in numerous strips over the years - and they just happened to resemble people I came in contact with while living in East Campus.

Ed was the hall tutor. Each floor in East Campus had one, and there was a master tutor for the entire dorm who was senior to the hall tutors. The tutors were graduate students - as were the teaching assistants (TA's) and research assistants (RA's). Their purpose was to organize events, keep the peace and help students solve their everyday problems - whether they were math, physics or the fact that their girlfriends had just dumped them. Ed had the added advantage of possessing a car, which meant he could help procure drinks for the hall parties.

Ed was from somewhere in Maine, which meant that he was a Mainiac and he had an accent that was even more distinct than the working-class Boston accents that all the locals had. To understand what a Maine accent sounds like, just put a half dozen cotton balls in your mouth and say, "Pawk the caw in Hawvawd Yawd". Combine that with Republican sensibilities from the Nixon era, an Izod golf shirt, a pair of brown corduroy pants from the L.L. Bean catalogue and Sperry Topsiders worn without socks and you had the quintessential Ed.

That's what distinguished Ed - that and his use of the words "Zyzz-zyzz!" to signify an event of some egregious nature (example: "Zyzz-zyzz! Commons is serving Ranch Style Stew again" or "Zyzz-zyzz! LSC is showing a Bahbawa Streisand flick tonight"). 
Ed's other distinguishing feature was a 400-watt stereo, which was just the kind of sophisticated equipment that one would expect a doctoral student in electrical engineering to possess (I think the only unit more powerful than Ed's was owned by David Hendry, who graduated two years ahead of me). It was a stereo from which the sounds of the Boston Symphony Orchestra blasting out Beethoven's Ninth, "The Pirates of Penzance" or Queen's "We Are the Champions" could be heard...all the way to the other end of the hall.

Ed had been the hall tutor and a PhD candidate before I had arrived at MIT. And Ed was a hall tutor and PhD candidate after I had graduated from MIT...and after I'd gotten my Master's degree from Stanford University and even after I had started my third job and gotten married. He was not one to be rushed.
Finally, sometime in the 1980's, Ed finally got his PhD and joined the faculty at Cornell which capacity he presumably met both Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter when they were students, or perhaps not. When Ed finally moved away from MIT, his send-off was to receive the very last Stickles ever drawn. Some friends of mine put it on a microchip and gave it to Ed. Unfortunately, I lost my copy of it. No! Mudhead, I've found it! This is the Ed send-off strip from 1985:
I've found a few other choice items while rummaging around in my basement office, which I will be adding to the Blog at a later date.