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Hacking at MIT

Greg Kuhnen -- The Tech
Hacks, like this one of a Campus Police car that was put on the MIT dome, when taken down are stored in the MIT Museum.
By May K. Tse
Senior Editor

Even the most casual of MIT acquaintances is at least somewhat familiar with that creative prank called a "hack."

National press has not been unkind in reporting this aspect of MIT, covering most recently the silhouette of an AcademyAward Oscar in the strategically lighted rooms of the Green Building and previously the Campus Police vehicle mounted atop the Great Dome. The MITMuseum, too, has long-since recognized the addictive nature of hacks with the maintenance of the long-running MITHall of Hacks.

All this attention has only emphasized the association of MIT with hacks, adding to the oral tradition passed from student to student and leading to several published volumes about hacks by various MIT affiliates.

"A hack is a parodic, practical joke designed to debunk authority," said Professor of Linguistics Emeritus Samuel J. Keyser, former associate dean for institute life and a generally well-reputed official source on aspects of MIT culture such as hacks.

"Hacks are non-damaging, funny to most people, sometimes they are engineering feats and sometimes just humorous," said Theresa V. Iuzzolino G, who works with the MIT Museum's hacks archives.

Hackers are often prompted to act for different reasons. "Hackers like to amuse the people of MIT and the Boston community. Also, hackers want to achieve something extremely difficult. They might also want to avoid classes by performing a great engineering feat while avoiding homework," Iuzzolino said.

"Hacks provide sunglasses for every MIT student to wear when MIT becomes too bright," Keyser added.

Jack Florey speaks out about hacks

But what do hackers think of hacks?

The implementation of hacks begins with a treasurer, said Jack Florey, one of MIT's most infamous hackers.

"Hacks generally start with a hacker's vision of something normal becoming something entirely different,"Florey said. The treasurer, who occupies an obligatory and rotating position, tallies the required materials and, with an appropriate amount of funds procured through various means, obtains the materials.

"Once we have the raw materials, we just acquire the necessary tools and go with it,"Florey said. He admitted that hackers "tend to be rather secretive about the hacks until after they are finished and deployed,"because the deployment of hacks is not strictly legal.

"Hacks are our response to MITcampus life and how broken it is," he added. "The entire campus is perpetually prayingto be hacked everywhere you look, one mundane sight after another."

Unfortunately, layhackers in the recent past have complained that these mundane sights haven't been hacked in awhile.

"Part of the problem is that the hacks do appear, but are removed almost instantly,"Florey said. According to Florey, one recent hack entitled "Aramark Monopoly" (a large Monopoly game board constructed at the end of last spring, representing the MIT dining contractor) was "removed less than six hours after it was put up." Only the sheer number of large orange ribbons erected a few months ago in the spirit of ILTFP(or "Ilove this place") ensured that some of the gargantuan symbols would still be around for students to see; "the enormous 50' x 20' ribbon on the side of [Building] 16 was taken down in two hours," for instance, and many others were removed "within three or four hours."

Additionally, "the [Great] Dome is too easy to access now, what with the scaffolding,"Florey said. "We're concentrating on other areas, lest the Dome become passé. Keep your eyes open; we'll be around."

MIT has a well-trained hack removal team

But after the hacks go up, they must eventually be taken down. The work of hack removal is generally accomplished by a special group from the Safety Office, the Confined Space Rescue Team. Whenever a hack is reported, the SafetyOffice is notified, and the CSRT has frequently been in charge of removing the hacks.

"We have been involved in removing several hacks from various locations. To name a few: the ŒEntertainment and Hacking' from Lobby 7, the gargoyles from Lobby 7, the Christmas tree from Lobby 7, a piano from Dome 10, the beanie hat from Dome 10, various signs from the Dome 10 Œfront,' signs from Building 54, various signs from Dome 7, and the Œsmiling faces' from the great sail statue (McDermott Court) and its miniature statue at Building 9," said David M. Barber, CSRT Coordinator.

To be certified members of the CSRT team, "the CSRT members all have passed 40-hour Confined Space Rescue class, are medically trained to a minimum of First Responder level and continue to participate in monthly drills. A lot of the training deals with rope rescue techniques (high angle rescue type), anchoring, fall protection and personal protection," Barber said.

Barber described the procedure the CSRT follows once a hack is reported. "When we are notified about a hack (usually from either Operations Center or from Campus Police) we first go out to the site and assess the hack for safety concerns. We will take into account such items as weather (like wind, rain, lightening), location, traffic patterns (both pedestrian and vehicular), fire hazards, damage to buildings and the quality of rigging involved. The determination about safety takes priority over everything else: if a hack is deemed unsafe in any way, then the priority is to remove the hack as quickly and safely as possible."

"If a hack is deemed to be safe, then the schedules of those who will be removing the hack will determine when the hack will be removed (all of us have other duties, so if safety is not the overriding factor, then work schedules take over). Usually, with the better hacks there are very detailed instructions on how the hacks were installed and how to remove them safely. These instructions are a vital help to us in the dismantling of the hacks," Barber said.

Once the hacks are removed, their future location is determined. "We contact the MIT Museum after we have removed all hacks and ask if they want the hack to be sent to them or not. If they want it, the movers from Facilities take the hack to the museum. If not, the hack is disposed of at an appropriate location," Barber said.

The CSRT is currently undergoing a change in its make-up right now, Barber said. "This has happened for a variety of reasons, Re-engineering, early retirement, members leaving MIT and task assignments. There is a separate group called the Emergency Response Group (ERG) that responds to fire alarms, chemical spills, toxic gas alarms and related Œemergency' situations across campus. The ERG team members are mostly culled from the coaches and supervisory positions throughout Facilities. The CSRT members were originally chosen in the same way, but is now being altered to a line-up that is determined by the Safety Office and is intermixed with other training disciplines," Barber said.