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Now You See It, Now You Don't


Zachary Emig -- The Tech

Guest Column: Wesley Chan

I once found myself kneeling in front of an Athena workstation. Contrary what you might assume, I wasn't paying homage to the goddess Athena. I was on my knees because there wasn't a chair in front of the workstation, and all the other chairs were occupied. I wasn't the only chairless person in the cluster either. Many others were standing or kneeling in front of their workstations because quite a few chairs in the cluster had mysteriously disappeared overnight.

I can tell you that it was rather uncomfortable to have to check my e-mail in such a humble position. And that's to say nothing of the fact that I looked like rather strange, like some sort of religious monk praying to MIT's patron goddess.

But this was not an isolated incident. More than 100 chairs have vanished from Athena clusters over the last year. In fact, there was one reported incident in which all the chairs mysteriously disappeared out of the Athena cluster in Building 2. In a related but even stranger incident, all the soft cushy chairs in the Building 4 Athena cluster mutated into those hard wooden desk chairs found in most classrooms.

So where did all the Athena chairs go?

I'm sure Brian Murphy would like an answer to that question. Murphy is the customer services support team leader for Information Systems. In I/S lingo, this means that Murphy is in charge of replacing all the vanishing Athena chairs in all the computer clusters. Last year, he spent a whopping $15,000 to replace all missing chairs. Murphy, along with the rest of I/S, is rather baffled as to why they have to buy so many chairs every year.

Chairs are not, however, the only objects of theft at MIT. Other mysteriously disappearing items include classroom tables, plates and flatware from dining areas, and signs around campus announcing conferences and events. Even the automatic urinal flushers in restrooms along the Infinite Corridor vanish once in a while.

We know that chairs, tables, flatware, and automatic urinal flushers are subject to the laws of physics. They can't, after all, just disappear into thin air. Where they end up is anyone's guess, but the leading and most widespread theory is that they are stolen - or borrowed, as some students like to say.

The culprits are usually students looking to make their rooms more comfortable. After all, most students would agree that dormitories come stocked with furniture that rivals that of third-world prisons. Students feel that taking furniture at the Institute's expense is a way of getting their money's worth for the expense of their MITeducation.

Other times, items are borrowed by students who find problem sets aren't challenging or entertaining enough for them. You can roam the halls of dormitories at night and find Athena chair drag racing tourneys (complete with force equation diagrams and acceleration calculations) or even a game of "Athena Chair Water Polo" (sans the water, of course).

MIT is quick to replace these missing items - only to replace them again not too long after. With the rising cost of Athena chairs and classroom tables, MIT spends more money each successive year to purchase new furniture. In fact, Aramark spent $97,000 last year to replace flatware and plates, most which disappeared out of dining halls.

Few care enough about the problem to do anything about it. Most, however, are quick to contribute to the $15,000 a year cost required to replace the items they steal. Students are quicker at taking chairs (and urinal flushers) than the Institute is at replacing them. It's a continual game of give and take, and it seems that the Institute always gives (or rather, replaces), while students take.

Stealing has become so common that both Aramark and I/S have been forced to include the cost replacing of stolen items in their operating budgets. It is MIT, however, that has the last laugh. The Institute raises tuition every year, and students have to fork over the $30,000 (and then some) it takes to attend and live at MITeach year. You can bet that students are in the end paying the cost of replacing all the missing items that vanish from Athena clusters, dining halls, and classrooms.

No doubt, the chairs will continue to disappear, and more and more students will find themselves paying homage to Athena when they check their e-mail in the clusters. It won't be a pretty sight.

Wesley Chan '00 works for the Campus Wide Information Systems division of I/S.