Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Little Siesta

MIT Students were a hard-partying studying bunch. That meant the number of hours devoted to sleep every night ranged anywhere from 6 to zero, and like Elvis, many of us wished that there were more than 24 hours in a day. Every so often, lack of sleep would catch up with a student. It's just that the timing could not be predicted. Fortunately, MIT had sofas. And the sofa in the common area of our dorm floor was just comfortable enough to snooze on.
MIT also had nice cushioning on the chairs in the Student Center library, which tended to encourage certain responses that were unintended.
It wasn't just humans whose sleep patterns got thrown out of whack.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Squirrel Gods

Ping-pong was a familiar pastime at MIT. We also created some interesting games that involved five or six of us running around a ping-pong table while hitting the ball to each other. We also developed a game called "fling-flong". Let's just say we were creative with our table tennis variations.

The ping-pong ball of choice for most of us was Halex. If there could be a premium ping-pong ball, Halex made it. Halex balls were favored because they were evenly-balanced, not lopsided. You knew that by the sound...and by the way they bounced. A well-made, evenly-balanced ball goes "tink" on the table. One of those cheap Chinese balls goes "clink" and doesn't bounce in a straight line. In fact, you can't really tell the difference between a cheap ball and one that is damaged.

It was easy to damage a ping-pong ball. If you stepped on it, it would either crack or it would crease, which is almost as bad. Once a ball gets creased, it is hard to get the dimple out. Not that there aren't those who will try. The thing to remember about ping-pong balls is that they are thin, delicate membranes enclosing a volume of air. Air, when heated, expands. And that membrane is stretchable. So you can heat a ping-pong ball in a way that will cause the crease to come out of the skin, but you can't heat it too much...
A ball in this condition is said to have elephantiasis and cannot be salvaged. The only sensible solution is to sacrifice it to the Squirrel Gods. Which we had plenty of occasions to do.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Butcher Bloc

MIT has architecture. Architecture by I.M. Pei, architecture by Eero Saarinen, architecture by Alvar Aalto and now architecture by Frank Gehry (the Stata Center, affectionately known as Toon Town). The MIT Architecture Department is located on the upper floors of Building 7 and it has the distinction of handing a degree to the architect of Israeli settlement expansion - Binyamin Netanyahu. I took more than a couple of classes at the Architecture Department, but I determined in 1976 that architects were almost as unemployable as English literature majors and transferred into Course 1 (Civil Engineering).

To enter the Architecture Department, you had to ride up the elevator in Lobby 7 and stop at the message written on the wooden beams, "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin". The upper floors where the architects hung out had looked like other parts of the Infinite Corridor at one time, but the architects had in the '60s decided to customize their space with nooks and lofts and gangplanks and cubbyholes, created with plasterboard and timbers, and decorated with graffiti (exquisitely Lee-Roy lettered and pithy to the nth degree), posters (hundreds of them) and Helvetica lettering. Architects in the '70s were big on Helvetica; it was a sans-serif font that was popular with advertisers, and it was clean and dynamic. Another thing architects in the '70s liked a lot was butcher-block furniture. It said rugged but polished, spare but elegant, and it reminded people of Northern California, wine and cheese. And it was comfortable, once you got used to it. Crate and Barrel was built on sales of butcher block items. Butcher block was the Birkenstock sandal of the progressives of the era. You knew you were in a liberal household if you saw butcher block furniture; it was like seeing a Curtis Mathes TV console in a household in Dallas.

Architects in Cambridge, Massachusetts, generally got their butcher-block knick-knacks and their Lee-Roy sets and their sheets of press-on Helvetica lettering from one place - Charrette's. The store took its name from the charrette, which is essentially a jam-session for architects where they all sit in a circle around a butcher block table, with four blank walls behind them and rolls and rolls of onion-skin paper and drafting dots, and they try to come up with a Big Idea. It took its pricing policies from the guys who sold Lamborghinis.
 Charrette's was known to sell just about anything an architect could want, but there was one item they didn't have. It came in a cereal box and it could enable the user to reproduce a drawing by tracing the outline.
I've not been to Charrette's in decades. I've not been in Crate and Barrel, either, despite every opportunity (it has spread nationwide from Boston, like a virus). I don't know what I did with that Tricky Tracer (I suppose I could have reproduced some of my cartoons with it). These days, architects are moving ever so grudgingly away from sketchwork done with mechanical pencils on onion-skin to computers and AutoCAD. In fact, the divide between architects and engineers has been redrawn; the mathematically-inclined among us prepare our spreadsheets and our PowerPoints on Dells, while the artistically creative types flit about with those slim, shiny rectangular objects emblazoned with an apple.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Sounds of Silence

I've written about stereos before, but I neglected to mention headphones, which are the last essential component to add after you've acquired the receiver, the amplifier, the speakers, the turntable and the tape deck (okay, this is 1980s technology - no CD player, no input from the cable box, no TV, no DVD). Headphones serve two purposes. If you live in an apartment complex and worship death metal, they help you keep peace with the neighbors. At other times they cancel out the outside noise and allow you to hear every sound your stereo reproduces. Bose has noise-cancelling headphones that are supposed to play back a sound that masks all outside noise and allow you to doze off blissfully. But for most of us, the headphones of choice were Koss products; I realize the techno DJ's all prance around with headphones from Dr. Dre, but they have those as fashion accessories. Koss not only cancelled the noise but brought it - in massive quantities.
Musical reproduction technology was made portable by Sony, which rolled out the first Walkman in 1980. The first Walkman was essentially a radio; later it was modified to play cassette tapes and compact discs. Towards the end of the 1990s, a new technology came out called DAT, but it quickly flamed out. Now, of course, there are iPods and Smartphones, and you use ear buds to listen to them; the early Walkmans had headphones.
I can't close without mentioning the headphones you find in the airliners. These days, they're padded like real headphones and they attach with universal jacks, but when stereo sound was first introduced on aircraft, the early headsets looked like today's earbuds, only they were attached to hard plastic stalks as opposed to dainty hairstrand-like wires. I still have permanent creases in my inner earlobe from listening to those cross-country. And a permanent dislike for anything by Olivia Newton-John.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pencils Down

I've taken many tests in my lifetime. Thanks to the wonders of multiple choice and passing grades of 70% or higher, I can now claim to be a Certified Planner, a Certified Member of the American Association of Airport Executives and a LEED-accredited professional. I'm not sure what it has done for me except add a good chunk of the alphabet after my name.

I'm certainly a better test-taker than I was in school (although I've frequently failed tests of my blood sugar). In those days, exams were important and a little unsettling. Exams at MIT were no different, although unlike high school, those tests were frequently open-book. There was a reason for that; MIT never tested you on how well you could memorize the material, it wanted to see what you could do with all you had learned. For that reason, a good set of notes was important - as long as you remembered to bring them.
As I said, MIT always tested your ability to use what you had learned. For that reason, the exams always challenged your creativity and your ability to think outside the box. It really didn't matter how good your notes were...
Freshmen got introduced to exam-taking during Rush Week. MIT featured a Freshman Orientation Exam that asked any number of strange questions, including one about the angle of the dangle that I won't bother repeating; you'll just have to take the exam for yourself.

MIT also recognized that students sometimes had a bad day, so some classes, particularly freshman calculus, allowed do-overs on the exams. Not that it helped, necessarily...
Freshman calculus exams (at least in my day) also had the unique feature that you always reviewed the results with the proctor immediately after the exam, and in doing so, it was possible to improve your score (or in some cases to lose points) by showing how you did your work. It was Tom Lehrer's New Math, in that it was more important to understand what you were doing rather than to get the right answer.

However, if all else failed, MIT had another lifeline for overwhelmed students.
A final note: test-taking was not quite over after the last Final of your senior year. Those of us who entertained thoughts of going on to grad school had one more set of tests to take - the GRE's. Students wishing to get into law school took the LSAT's, and there were exams to get into medical school or business school. These were fairly rigorous exams built around multiple choice questions. Unlike MIT, however, there were strict rules about analytical aids in the exam room.
Technology is a wonderful thing, however; now the proctors will strip-search you to remove your Smartphones and iPads.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Sound of Music

Tom Lehrer once remarked, "I'd like to take you now on the wings of song and help you forget for a moment your drab, wretched lives". MIT was a contributor to the musical scene, and it's not just because Tom Scholz had a band or Charlie Bruno once dropped a piano off the Baker House roof. Despite our penchant for science, MIT had its own musical influences, from the radio station known as WTBS (that is, until Ted Turner bought the name for $25,000) to the Glee Club to the Chorallaries to the Musical Theatre Guild to the All-Tech Sing (where the student group with the best set of vocal chords was rewarded with the opportunity to carry home the heaviest object the MIT Student Center Committee could filch from the streets of Cambridge). Music was in the air, and it wasn't just because the Coffeehouse had brought in a folkie from off the streets of Cambridge to help the late-night studiers snooze the early morning away.
I went to a performing arts high school myself, so I had an appreciation for instrumental and non-instrumental music. In the '70s, music, particularly popular music, underwent a technological revolution. First came the first crude synthesizers, capable of playing a single note that sounded like it had been produced on a synthesizer (that meant a variation of a sine wave, or, getting creative, a square wave). Then followed quadrophonic stereo reproduction, which was based on the theory that if two speakers produced a sound twice as good as mono, then four speakers were twice as good as stereophonic. It was like a musical hologram, so lifelike, you could swear the musicians were in the same room with you (and if you played your AC/DC record loud enough, you could almost believe Angus Young was shredding on top of your bed). Soon would come revolutions in musical portability, from the boombox to the compact disc to the Walkman, eventually leading ear buds and iPods (though that happened much later). You could improve on the sound quality all you wanted, but the musical quality didn't always follow.
Incidentally, this strip got changed a couple of times as the musical fashions changed; this version featured a recognizable Van Halen lyric, while an earlier version had used the lyrics of a Parliament-Funkadelics song.

Being MIT students, we were always in a perpetual arms race regarding the size and power of our electronic stereo equipment. It was not enough to be able to throw the sound of your stereo system off the far wall of the building across the courtyard; being heard in Kendall Square from the confines of your modest dorm room on Ames Street was the objective. Some of my dorm mates had stereos with floor- mounted speakers that could faithfully reproduce the scratch in a record such that it could be heard at dinner in the Walker Dining Room. But try as we might, we could not get a reproduction clear enough to identify that curse word that got slipped into "Louie, Louie". (A note: some of you might not be familiar with the hissing, crackling and popping associated with vinyl records, having grown up with nothing but compact disks, or for the even younger among you, an iPod full of MP3 files. There are esoterics among us who will argue till the cows come home that long-playing vinyl produces a much richer, fuller sound than a compact disc, even if CD reproduction is clean, clear and accurate, and has none of the pops associated with scratched vinyl. I never got that far; I just know that it's a lot easier to produce that wikka-wikka sound that rules hip-hop by scratching a vinyl record than by trying to manipulate a sound file you filched off of SoundCloud.)
People know Bose for Wave Radios these days, but at one time, the House of Bose produced some of the most massive stereo speakers ever conceived. They ruled the roost until miniaturization made it possible to render ground-shaking sound out of little table-top units. This led to the consolidation of stereos from piece-together systems plugged together with jacks and speaker wire down to single piece boxes decoratively configured to look like they got pulled out of a Jedi warrior's fighter jet. Nowadays, you can create a decent clangor from a couple of speakers jacked into your desktop computer or from that docking port your iPod uses.

There was only one problem with stereos loud enough to wake the dead - they frequently did.
I had to redraw this strip, too. You see, the normal person (or one who does not live in Manhattan and attend the theatre regularly) would consider midnight to be way past their bedtime. The typical college student (and in this regard, MIT students were all too typical) would consider midnight to be the early evening. Later, I understood that 1:00 am was a good time to go out to a rave, but by then I was an old fogie of 35...