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Hackers Have Blast With Caltech Cannon

By Marissa Vogt

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The April 7 article “Hackers Have Blast With Caltech Cannon” reported that the Fleming House Cannon appeared on the MIT campus Wednesday morning when in fact it appeared on Thursday morning.

One year after pranksters from the California Institute of Technology infiltrated the MIT campus during Campus Preview Weekend, the Fleming House cannon, a familiar Caltech landmark, appeared in front of the Green Building early Wednesday morning to usher in the arrival of this year’s CPW.

A press release on the Web site, which went online shortly after the cannon appeared, announced that “Howe & Ser Moving Company has completed its latest job: moving a Spanish-American War cannon from the pits of Pasadena, CA to sunny Cambridge, MA.”

The cannon was adorned with a 24 karat gold-plated brass rat, which weighs 21 pounds and took about 1,000 manhours to machine, said an individual calling himself Tim Howe, a representative of the hackers responsible for moving the cannon. Howe said that the ring is placed as if the cannon has not yet graduated, and while the year on the brass rat is 2006, the ring is an original design for the hack.

Crowds of students and prefrosh gathered in McDermott court throughout the day to admire the hack, and much of the conversation included speculation of how the cannon, which weighs 1.7 tons, found its way to MIT. While Howe called his exact methods a “trade secret,” he said that 26 people were involved, all associated with MIT, and ten people traveled to California. An intense planning effort for the hack began in December, and the hack was funded by those individuals and anonymous donations, he said.

At Caltech, the cannon’s disappearance has been received in good humor by both administrators and students, at least now that they know it was done as a hack (or a prank, as hacks are called at Caltech). The cannon was taken from Caltech at 5:30 a.m. on March 28, and because the MIT hackers did not leave a note, there was some concern among Caltech students that the disappearance was not a simple prank. As a result, Fleming House, the owner of the cannon, filed a grand theft report, said Thomas N. Mannion, Caltech’s assistant vice president for campus life.

Caltech’s pranking ethics state that pranks should be accompanied by a note, which often identifies the people responsible for the prank. Todd Gingrich, president of the associated students of the California Institute of Technology, said that he thinks it is fair to require MIT hackers to conform to Caltech’s pranking ethics, which he said are more stringent than MIT’s hacking ethics. He criticized the MIT hackers for not leaving a note, but also called the hack “reasonably impressive.”

Howe said that they would have liked to have left a note, but that given the circumstances on the night of the hack, “we were a little spooked out about returning to the scene.” Caltech’s student newspaper, The California Tech, reported on Monday that on the morning of the cannon’s disappearance, Caltech security stopped people towing the cannon, who were prepared with fake work orders.

Even without a note identifying the pranksters, many Caltech students and administrators originally suspected MIT or Harvey Mudd College of taking the cannon. This is partially because Interhouse Committee’s Resolutions at Caltech state that the Fleming Cannon cannot be pranked, Jean Sun, ASCIT vice president, wrote in an e-mail.

Pranking the Fleming cannon, Gingrich said, is “something we wish we could do to Fleming but we’re not allowed to.” He said that some Fleming residents are upset, though the vast majority of Caltech students think the prank was “well done” and “amusing.”

Howe said that the hackers were not aware that the Fleming cannon is considered off-limits for pranks.

Mannion said that the cannon is primarily the concern of Fleming House, and that its alumni, including some of Caltech’s trustees, are “very involved at this point” and are interested in responding to the prank.

“Fleming expects to get the cannon back,” Gingrich said. The hack “suggests the prospect of a back and forth thing in the future,” which is something many Caltech students are excited about, he said.

Harvey Mudd first stole the Fleming cannon from Caltech in 1986. Howe said that Caltech expected Harvey Mudd to steal the cannon this year, and that the hack was the hackers’ response to Caltech’s pranking CPW last year. Sun wrote in an e-mail that Caltech has been waiting for MIT to respond to its first pranks, and that “every time something … happens on campus, we think it’s you guys pranking us.”

Caltech President and former MIT Institute Professor David Baltimore ’61 called the hack an “imaginative response” in an e-mail. Asked in an e-mail what he thought about the growing rivalry between Caltech and MIT, Baltimore responded only with a smiley face: “:)”.

Mannion said that the general consensus on the hack among administrators was that “it’s good it was MIT because their engineers are almost as good as ours.”

As for what the MIT hackers have in store for the cannon’s future, Howe said that any action by Howe & Ser would depend on the attitudes of the MIT and Caltech administration. “Let’s just wait and see how things unfold around here,” said Howe.