The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 39.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

Doonesbury Online Poll Hacked in Favor of MIT

By Hannah Hsieh
STAFF REPORTER

Alex Doonesbury, the daughter of the main character in Garry Trudeau’s popular Doonesbury comic strip, will be coming to MIT next year after the Institute won an online poll that allowed the comic’s readers to choose among MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Cornell.

When the poll closed at midnight on May 22, MIT had 48 percent of the total votes, thanks to what the official Doonesbury Web site called “insane, rampant, ingenious, and impressively ruthless” voting. RPI received 32 percent of the votes, and 19 percent of the votes went to Cornell.

Apparently there were a few MIT students who attempted to “hack” the online poll, with one script that was successful in voting multiple times from a single computer. According to an official post on the Doonesbury website, the main MIT hacker was identified by the Doonesbury crack tech crew as “a 5’8”, 115-lb. freshman from New York.”

This MIT student, (who wishes to remain anonymous, so will hereby be referred to as The Hacker) is a Course 6 major, but in an interview described himself as “not exactly the stereotypical computer nerd.”

The Hacker said he is unsure how many people on campus were running his script, but “it was sent to all the dorm lists on campus and spread to several frats as well.”

The infamous script was written in Flash ActionScript, and according to The Hacker, was “really pretty simple” and only took him 15 minutes to write. When run, the script reproduced the submit action on the Doonesbury online poll, but prevented the Web site cookie from being placed on the individual’s machine. This cookie is what usually prevents multiple votes from one machine.

The Hacker would like to give his roommate some credit for helping him test the script once it was completed. According to The Hacker, there was a script preceding his that was sent out to the Baker House e-mail forum, but was “fairly complicated” and required previous coding experience to install.

In an interview with David Stanford, the Doonesbury Town Hall duty officer, once the Doonesbury crack tech crew realized that their poll was being hacked, it was fairly easy to trace the source back to MIT. Instead of “outing” The Hacker, they decided to simply deny MIT network access to their servers and thereby prevent any further MIT voting.

“In light of our understanding that misusing university computers sometimes results in the offender being expelled, outing the culprit (who seemed from his hack site to be a genial fellow with a sense of humor and good taste in music) hardly seemed an auspicious way for Alex to start her MIT career,” said Stanford.

“I feel a little guilty when I read some of the blogs written by angry Cornellians, but overall I think what we did was pretty cool. Trudeau must have realized that this kind of thing would happen when he put those three schools on the poll together and he was obviously ok with it judging by his response,” said The Hacker.

MIT was not the only school to attempt to influence the Doonesbury poll. According to the Doonesbury Web site, several RPI students attempted to accomplish exactly what the MIT script had done, but were less successful. By the time the RPI students tried to hack the poll, it was too late and “the ballot box was adequately unstuffable.”

The Cornell community seemed to be closely following the script war between MIT and RPI, but chose to try a different route. According to the Doonesbury Web site, the Cornell alumni office had alerted alumni and urged them to vote. This effort, however, was not enough to pull Cornell up in the poll. As consolation to the many Cornell students and alums who posted “passionate, articulate, humorous, and convincing posts” on the Doonesbury feedback page, the Doonesbury Town Hall awarded Cornell the Doonesbury Straw Poll Congeniality Award.

When asked about the validity of the rumor that Alex Doonesbury was going to take a year off to follow a band around before starting at MIT, Stanford commented, “It depends on whether she can find a band worth following. She was devastated when Phish broke up. Also, her creator would be the first to point out that he doesn’t even know what his characters are doing next week, much less next September.”

According to Alex Doonesbury’s online cast biography, she is a “seriously competent hacker”. In addition to maintaining her own successful Alex-cam Web site, she runs myVulture.com, which obtains “intellectual assets of failed dotcoms.” She seems to be a typical programmer who fights with her father over file-sharing.

According to the Doonesbury Web site, “by tradition, engineers, hackers and techfolk will assume that in a problem-solving situation of this nature, there is no box out of which they are not expected to climb.” It seems Alex will fit in at MIT just fine.