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Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?

Graphic by Saul Blumenthal--The Tech

Column by Stacey E. Blau

Where? There's a whole posse of them here at MIT, and it's a wonder it took me so long to notice. Just a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that a couple of computer science professors look like cowboys. OK, maybe they don't look exactly like cowboys holed up at the Laboratory for Computer Science. But they sure look like they could have made it as cowboys instead of computer scientists if they had really wanted to.

Then I went walked into my Computer System Engineering (6.033) lecture on Monday, and I saw Professor Gerald J. Sussman '68 wearing a 10-gallon hat and faded jeans - as close as a Course VI professor gets to John Wayne. I thought he was going to put a piece of straw in his mouth and do a dance at the end of class when Professor Jerome H. Saltzer '61 played the 6.033 theme - a Shaker hymn exalting the virtues of simplicity.

And then as I glanced over at the rest of the 6.033 teaching staff in 34-101, it really struck me in a powerful way that it wasn't just a couple of professors who looked like cowboys. All of them did. The cowboy mystique cut across age, gender, and field of research.

I wasn't quite sure if the cowboy thing was something they all were actively cultivating or just pure coincidence. Indeed, that matter still seems kind of elusive. There is little evidence of twangy voices, western fashion (aside from Sussman), or other overt Wild West tendencies among Course VI professors.

But if there's no there there, as Gertrude Stein might have pointed out, wherefore do I have my notions? The answer seems to lie in a quite adaptable cliche: Cowboy life, like punk, is about attitude. And that cowboy attitude - that daringness and independence, that frightening competence, that sense of adventurousness, that native sense of right and wrong - is exactly what Course VI professors are all about. The ride off into the sunset follows - down Main Street, natch.

Personally, I don't see the point in eschewing the trappings of your true nature. There's nothing wrong with telling the world what you're really about - especially if what you're all about is being cowboys. To that end, I think Technology Square could probably do with a redesign.

Imagine the possibilities. A Laboratory for Computer Science with a decidedly Old West flair. The building could be redone with a new western town front and buck board wagons parked in front. There could be daily quickdraw competitions and calf ropings in the Tech Square courtyard. LCS could maybe sponsor morale-boosting cattle drives across campus. The building's interior could be redecorated with wanted posters and longhorn steer pictures. The ground floor might be replaced with a Texas-sized saloon complete with bar stations and pool tables.

The entrance to the building could feature a huge sign proclaiming, "Kick Up Your Heels at LCS - Where the West Begins and the Cowboys Are Alive and Well!" Maybe Clint Eastwood could cut the tape at the celebration heralding the independence of the Republic of LCS. A real cowboy campfire cook out - complete with glowing mesquite coals and a real cowboy singer - could cap off the festivities.

What is it that Course VI professors are doing all the time anyway that would prevent them from living this kind of life? Is it research and teaching? It doesn't seem like there's really any conflict. I say if cowboy attitude can go with everything from VLSI to complexity theory, then armadillo racing can't be very far behind.

As it is, it's not too hard to guess where else that cowboy attitude might be manifesting itself right now. A friend of mine and I are convinced that each research group at LCS is assigned times when they are responsible for taking down the flag in the courtyard of Tech Square if it starts raining after hours or on weekends. Can you imagine professors journeying out in awful weather from their homes all over the Boston metropolitan area just to make sure that the American flag is protected? I sure can. They're cowboys, damn it.

The men and women of LCS should take the plunge into the full life that they have essentially been living for years, if not decades. It's not too late to follow the path not taken - the one on horseback.

After declining a bid from Alpha Phi, Stacey E. Blau decided to hit the road with her one-woman performance in the tradition of Karen Finley and her yams. She's back at MIT now. Like cowboys, Course VI classes are her weakness. She is a junior majoring in mathematics with computer science.