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Caltech Strikes Back, Retrieving Cannon

By Marissa Vogt

The end of Campus Preview Weekend brought the passing of two temporary presences at MIT — by the time classes began on Monday, both the prospective members of the Class of 2010 and Caltech’s Fleming House cannon were noticeably absent from campus.

Twenty-three Fleming House residents and seven alumni arrived at McDermott Court dressed in red sweatshirts and jerseys shortly after 7 a.m. yesterday morning to reclaim the Fleming Cannon, a Caltech landmark that had appeared in front of the Green Building on Thursday.

Approximately 45 minutes later, the cannon was on its way back to Pasadena, though the Flems had left a miniature cannon and a letter to the MIT community in its place, and covered the commemorative plaque with another sporting a large “F”. The text of the letter can be found on page 11.

MIT students, who easily outnumbered the Flems, stood ready to greet their visitors, whose arrival had previously been announced to the dormitory mailing lists by Tim Howe of the “Howe & Ser” moving company, which had taken responsibility for the hack.

Countering the moving company’s Web site,, the Flems created the rival, which was released yesterday.

“We would be remiss in our duties as Tech men and women if the cannon were to roll away without proper celebration,” Howe wrote.

Sure enough, MIT students sent the cannon back to California with fanfare and a warm welcome for their guests from the West. MIT students played Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on a stereo as the Flems emerged from Building 66 and prepared the cannon for transportation, then rolled it to Ames Street, where a flatbed truck was waiting. Afterward, students from both schools joined together on the Dot for a barbecue and friendly conversation.

“Fleming very much appreciated the music, food, and socializing during and after the stunt, and I feel that everyone had a good time,” wrote Fleming House President Scott D. Jordan in an e-mail. “Although I had my doubts coming into the prank, I found that the ‘good natured rivalry’ was everything it was expected to be.”

“The thing that impressed me most were the MIT students,” said Thomas N. Mannion, Caltech’s assistant vice president for campus life. Mannion joined the Flems at MIT for the cannon’s retrieval to ensure the Caltech students did not encounter any big problems or hassles.

Scout team left Saturday

Jordan said that the Fleming house officers began planning a retaliation at noon on Friday, and that by Saturday a scout team was in the Boston area. An idea to airlift the cannon with the help of alumni connections was considered but rejected after they found out that it would have posed a large inconvenience to MIT. Such a plan would have required closing nearby streets and evacuating people from the top floors of neighboring buildings, said Mannion.

The rest of the Fleming crew left by Saturday night to arrive Sunday morning, Jordan said. He said that both MIT students guarding the cannon and campus security forced the Flems to abandon previous retrieval plans.

Campus police departments at the two schools deal differently with hacks and pranks, Jordan said. Caltech’s pranking ethics state that pranks should be accompanied by a note, which often identifies those responsible for the prank, and administrators and campus security are sometimes given advance warning, whereas MIT hacks are much more clandestine.

Such differences between Caltech and MIT’s policies have recently raised controversy among Caltech students, who felt that MIT students’ stealing the cannon violated Caltech’s pranking ethics because the hackers did not leave a note.

“We feel that both sides would benefit from a discussion about the pranking process,” Jordan wrote in an e-mail. He also wrote that Fleming will be investigating possible damage to the cannon. Tim Howe did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

Jordan declined to comment on the cost of the prank, writing in an e-mail that the Flems paid for the plane tickets with credit cards, though they intend to solicit alumni for donations. “When I walked into where they were doing their planning … I saw all their personal credit card limits,” said Mannion. He said that Caltech has a fund with more than $8,000 from the sale of T-shirts that pranksters handed out last year at CPW, and that this fund could be used to help the Flems cover the cost of retrieving the cannon.