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Alcohol Policies and Whale Bits

Dan Dunn

A friend emailed me a web addresses last week. I didn't check it at home, because I didn't want to wait for the 11.2 M file to squeeze through my crummy little modem. SoI waited a day, and loaded it up in the office here at The Tech where the Internet access is much better.

The movie playing on my browser attracted quite an audience. I apologize to those of you for whom this story is old news, but I had never seen it before. It is a 5 minute TV news report of a dead whale being blown up on the Oregon coast.

The story is simple: Dead whale washes up on coast. Whale begins to rot. Locals realize that life in this town will become unliveable when the whale begins to rot for real. The government is summoned to deal with the problem.

The government decides that brute force is the correct answer, and the "battle plan" calls for the application of one-half ton of dynamite to the 45 foot, eight ton whale.

The reporter interviews the head engineer, and asks if he thinks it might be more than a one day job: "Well, maybe, if there are any large chunks, some other cleanup is possible, or maybe another charge might be set," he replied.

The countdown is started, and the reporter describes the sand dunes as "covered with locals and land-lubber newsmen, soon to be land-blubber newsmen when the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." Say that five times fast, if you can.

The charge went off. The whale erupted into the sky in a reddish-black cloud. Then, the audio clearly reveals first small little "pleps," then bigger "plops," and finally large, wet "smacks" just before the video turns off and the cameraman turns to run for his life as the whale returns to earth in a much different form.

Right about then my brain began to churn with the relevance of this piece of video. There must be something that I can learn from it. "Don't blow up large animals with even larger charges of dynamite," my brain said. I immediately shrugged that off as far too obvious.

My next idea was much better: "This event is an analogy of every policy writing process at MIT." My internal Over-extended Analogy Alert went off, but I ran with it anyway.

Take the current alcohol policy issues (I mean nationally, not just MIT). The country determined that there was a problem: too many young kids getting drunk and hurting themselves, especially in cars. The solution: don't let young kids drink.

To me, this sounds like another quote from the Whale Relocation Engineer: "We put most of the dynamite on the leeward side of the whale, so most of the parts will be blown out to sea." Did this work? No. Does telling 20 year-olds not to drink work? No. But is there a more reasonable solution that would work in both cases?

Maybe the engineer could have used less dynamite more wisely placed. And maybe we could legislate against dangerous alcohol-related behavior instead of legislating against alcohol instead. The analogy sails right along.

The whale also seems related to the re-writing of the Orientation policy. Orientation is a big, sprawling issue with links to many parts of MIT's culture. It is very difficult to pull on one string without unexpectedly jerking on another.

The unknowns of the Orientation restructuring are like the unknowns of blowing up a whale. No one has really done it before, and no one really knows what will happen when you pull the trigger. The analogy passes again.

But just maybe my internal Bad Analogy Detector was right the whole time. Maybe I am trying to read too much into this whole whale thing. Some hot shot is going to come along and poke a few large holes in it.

Nonetheless, I am sure that at least part of the analogy is correct. At the end of the day, the mess will not be gone, another charge will have to be set, and we are all going to go home covered with small, smelly particles of whale.

The whale video can be found at