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Keyser Discusses Hacks, Culture at TBP Lecture

By Jennifer Chung
Staff reporter

Samuel J. Keyser a professor of linguistics and special assistant to the provost, kicked off the second semester of the Tau Beta Pi Leonardo da Vinci Dinner Lecture Series with an lecture on MITstudent culture entitled "What does IHTFP really mean?", with opening remarks by President Charles M. Vest.

Throughout his twenty-one years at MIT, Keyser has had keen interest in MITstudent culture, said Guang-Ien Cheng G, the TBPScholarship Chair, who introduced Keyser.

Keyser, started his talk, entitled with "a very quick walk through hackdom". "Everybody loves hacks," said Keyser. "I mean, there's something very fetching about them."

One of Keyser's earliest examples of a hack involved placing a Model T on the roof of East Campus in 1925. Later, students thought it would be fun to one-up that by coaxing a cow onto a roof. They discovered that although cows will willingly climb up stairs, they will refuse to climb down them, he said.

In the same vein students placed a plastic cow (stolen from the Hilltop Steak House) on the great dome, which may or may not have been easier to take down. (The cow, now on display at theMIT Museum, has since been granted a mortarboard in honor of its time at MIT.) The Objects-on-the-Dome series has spawned various other hacks, including the infamous police car on the dome and a phone booth which rang as soon as a police officer reached it.

Keyser's favorite hack, also on display at the MITMuseum, was a 1985 List Visual ArtsCenter "exhibit"entitled "No Knife," in which hackers set up bogus artwork by "James A. Tetazoo" outside of a new art exhibit.

For many years, the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega got free advertising during Residence and Orientation Week, when the Sheraton hotel across the river would only light the letters "ATO" in its name, "because they were afraid that kids would break the other letters," said Keyser.

Another oft-told hack involved a disruption at a Harvard-Yale football game. During halftime, a weather balloon inflated and exploded in the middle of the football field. The hack was so successful, it overshadowed two other hacks at the same football game - in one, MITband members pretended to be theHarvard band and managed to play the MIT fight song on the field; in the other, cards were distributed to members in the crowd which, when flipped over, spelled "MIT." "Hacking is to MIT what football is to other schools," Keyser said.

Hacking and IHTFP are related

Keyser points out that the acronym "IHTFP" has been integrated in many hacks. The police car on the dome had the license plate "IHTFP"; the 1995 class ring has the date "IHTFP" instead of the usual Roman numerals on its picture

"WhenI was associate provost," Keyser said, "faculty would come up to me and ask, If students hate this fucking place so much, why do they stay in this fucking place?' and I would say, Watch your language.'"

Hacks are intended to debunk authority and MIT, he said. Students share the value system of the faculty, and students want to do what the faculty does, but better. And at the same time, said Keyser, students are learning that they aren't as good as they think they are.

In that way, according to Keyser, hacking serves the same function as living groups - "to get away from the strain of being a student" and to relieve the student. Hacking brings the Institute down to size, he said.

"TheMIThacks are a highly refined tradition," Keyser said. "Hackers perform for the student body."

Dinners encourage discourse

"The Leonardo dinners have interdisciplinary thinking we need to bring back," Vest said. "I salute students for their foresight in developing this series."

This semester's Leonardo dinners will feature many professors with a variety of topics, such as Robert Birgeneau, dean of the school of science ("Why physicists can't figure out how superconductors superconduct") and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Linn Hobbs ("The Science and Engineering of Fine Wines.")

The Leonardo dinners began last year to foster "a spirit of liberal culture"at MIT. They are a means by which faculty-student interaction can be promoted, and the intellect stimulated, said TBPPresident Panayiotis I. Kamvysselis G.