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Leibowitz lecture documents history of hacks


Brian Leibowitz G.

26-100, April 8, 8 pm.


BRIAN LEIBOWITZ IS UNUSUALLY young to have become an MIT institution, but he must have done something right. The Alumni Association flies him all over the country for free, people ask for his autograph, [it0,7p6]The Boston Globe calls him for information, and perfect strangers walk up to him in the Infinite Corridor and start telling him stories.

The reason? Leibowitz is the hack historian. His book, The Journal of the The Institute for Hacks, Tomfoolery and Pranks, compiles hundreds of photographs of the antics of MIT's hard-working, hard-playing engineers.

The Alumni Association has therefore given him the dubious job of romanticizing MIT life, casting a golden glow on Firehose Tavern. Well, if you [it0,0]were cynical, you'd say that. If not, then Leibowitz provides an entertaining public service, documenting the secret achievements of a band of mischief-makers legendary the world over. Either way, his lectures are always a hell of a good time.

Leibowitz, dressed in a light-blue plaid suit, fire-engine red Reeboks, and matching bright red tie and belt, smoothly delivered his polished and by-now familiar (at least to him) material. He's delivered a talk like this at about 10 alumni gatherings this past year, including some as far away as San Francisco and Arizona.

[it7p6,0] Unfortunately, his talks are not easy to review in print. Most of the laughs are visual: You look at the picture of the working phone booth on top of the Great Dome, and you wonder, "How did they do that?"

The literary hacks tended to be more subtle. Placing a banner declaring "For the love of God, Montresor," at the freshman picnic was a harbinger of the students' future, but only those who had read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" got the joke. (In the story, these are the last words of a man [it0,0]about to be encased in bricks.)

Broadly, the lecture was a montage of photographs familiar to readers of IHTFP, punctuated by Leibowitz' history and context for each story. All of the old stories were there: wrecked pianos, the USS Tetazoo, the Nerd Crossing sign, the Center for Theatrical Physics, the strange history of Professor R. Catesbiana -- these stories of the old masters, passed down through the ages, have become a part of MIT folklore by now.

Leibowitz serves as what Robert Pirsig once called a Kulturb"arer: His book and his lectures strike a chord in people here, create a common culture, and remind us of the positive side of the values that make MIT famous. MIT is a human place, too, and Leibowitz and his work will perpetuate the ideals an institution like MIT needs to continue to function.

Leibowitz had the good grace not to mention his book during his lecture; I have no such shame. Go buy it. You won't find a more idealized view of life at MIT (except, perhaps, by reading Tech Talk), but you won't really mind either. Leibowitz offers a vision of what MIT should be, if not necessarily what it is.