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Gnip, gnop- the good and bad at the Institute

Guest Column/Randy Hertzman

There's a game that some joker put in the lounge on my hall called Gnip-Gnop (I think that the G's are pronounced, as in gnurd). The game consists of a long plastic-enclosed board separated into two halves by a plastic shield in which three large round holes are cut. On each end of the contraption are three paddles which rest against six big plastic balls -- three in bright pink and three in lemon yellow.

The game starts with three similar-colored balls on each side. At a word, the two players begin ferociously batting their paddles, trying to fling their plastic balls through the center into the other player's side before the opponent can return them. The winner is the one who manages to get all six balls onto the opponent's side of the arena at the same time. It's a pretty silly time, not a game on which outsiders would expect mature, erudite, scientific MIT students to waste much time. Nevertheless, frenetic banging and cursing can be heard emanating from the lounge at any hour of day or night.

Most outsiders don't know much about us. I've come to expect one of a few typical responses whenever I tell someone that I go to MIT. Most common, of course, is "Oh! You must be really smart!" Well, yes, I am pretty smart -- so is everyone here. People don't realize, though, my intelligence doesn't say anything at all about who I am. Gnop.

Another typical response is "You must be a real computer whiz." I admit it: I know more about computers than the typical off-the-street citizen. I even enjoy using them. But that still is not me. Gnop.

People frequently ask me, "What kind of engineering are you studying?" and recoil in astonishment at my response that I probably won't study engineering at all. Why must I be an engineering student just because I attend MIT? Gnop.

The one stereotype that most closely corresponds with reality at our Great Institute in the Sky is that concerning the pressure here. It is true: there are simply not enough hours in the day to do all the work assigned, let alone to play IM's, sing, act, throw frisbees, sail, ring bells, hack, and have sword-fights in Killian Court (and 26-100, but that's another story...), to say nothing of such mundane activities as eating (if you can call the ingestion and hopeful digestion of Institute food "eating"), or even (occasionally) sleeping. Yet somehow all this happens on campus. People never believe me when I tell them that MIT fields a greater number of Varsity teams than any of the Ivy League schools. Gnip, or perhaps Gnop --I'm not sure.

Okay: that's the good side. People seem to make time for whatever on-campus activities interest them (gnip, gnip). But, submerged in the throes of problem sets (gnop), papers (gnop!) and even (shudder, though I may, to mention these words this early in the term) tests and exams (GNOP!), students all too often cannot summon up the energy to break the potent wall of abstraction that separates their lives and MIT from "out there."

How can we possibly reconcile ourselves to work with the intensity that is a prerequisite of survival at such a goal-oriented place as MIT, while at the same time remaining uncertain of our eventual goal in life? It is nothing unusual for college students to be unsure about their eventual ambitions, to try different paths in the hope of stumbling upon a way of life that appeals to them, to feel uncertain and insecure upon contemplation of the "real world."

The tragedy is that we chosen ones at MIT feel that we must fulfill the stereotype, that we must be superhuman, that we are too talented to be insecure about anything. Acceptance of complexity is the victim; too many of us, grasping for a justification of our monumental labor here, refuse to acknowledge the intertwining complications involved in any life of value; we seize any security blanket that presents itself, and confidently claim to "know where we're going."

This tendency is frightening, for by nature the universe is too big and complex a place for any but the most mature or the most blindly complacent to contemplate without at least a small gulp of uncertainty.

What are the plastic goals that we pursue? A biggie is money, the ticket to status and a comfortable life, the acknowledged driving force of all of Western civilization. What better goal for a young, enterprising college student? The fact that, for most of us, making money is a fairly certain proposition, involving no juggling with Lady Fortune or her minion, Unemployment, cannot but be in our favor. Why court insecurity unnecessarily? Gnip.

The proverbial Good Time: that's another goal, perhaps less safe than wealth in the long run, but more easily accessible, here and now. It's surprising how bad MIT parties are in general, considering the number of enthusiastic party-monsters on campus. We have all the essentials -- booze, colored lights, bands, loud music. What's wrong? Gnop.

The best party I've attended in over a year was at East Campus, during R/O week. There was a bonfire in our new sandbox, "fruity beverages" on the side, and a reggae band playing in the background. It took a few minutes before I realized why the party was so good. People could talk without having to shout over the music. It was incredible -- I met more people in one night than at the entire previous year's parties. Some of the best conversationalists in the world go to school here -- they just can't usually be heard over the music.

Artificial these goals may be; still they are not the worst manifestations of our inability to accept complexity. Most frightening are those of us who deny the need or the place of a goal at all, who spend our days "getting by," who make no commitments and frown on those who do. Apathy is a defense against uncertainty for these people, but what drab lives they lead! Neither gnip nor gnop, nor anything else, for that matter.

This Gnip-Gnop is entirely and completely unnecessary! We, the superhuman intellects of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faster than a speeding neutrino, smarter than a capital "E,", able to climb the Great Dome in a single hack, are still human. Nobody expects us to be machines -- except ourselves.