[OCTAGON]

The M.I.T. Technology Hackers Association

 

1.  Introduction

August 24, 2005:

A number of occurrences and prods have encouraged me to write a bit more of the early history of T.H.A., specifically my personal experiences with it.  It's been more than 20 years since I was actively involved, and I have few notes, but I thought I'd write down a brief personal history, in part to answer questions which I get from time to time.   

Bryan Bentz

2.  The Precursor: F.D.C.

I'm known as the founder of  the Technology Hackers Association in January 1980 at M.I.T., although it was by no means a solo effort .  There were a number of us who were responsible for getting this all rolling - and I hesitate to mention their names to protect the guilty, but I will if permissions are forthcoming.  

The Technology Hackers Association grew out of something called the Freshman Defense Corps, so I should start the story with that. 

M.I.T. had a hazing ritual at a few dorms, "Shower Night", in which upperclassmen would chase down Freshmen on the eve of the first Physics exam (which was the first substantial exam of the term and thus their lives at M.I.T.) and toss them in showers fully clothed. Now this might not seem like much at a distance, but M.I.T. can be a fairly high-pressure place, and this did nothing to improve the atmosphere.  I've always had a particular distaste for any form of bullying or hazing, so it struck me as something completely out of place at college.  Oddly, I never went through it; I transferred to M. I. T., and came in as a Sophomore. I'd spent my Freshman year at Connecticut College, instead of staying in high school for my Senior year - so I had no personal axe to grind. But it just seemed wrong.  (One person from Third East in East Campus told me that what they did there was much more civilized, being both voluntary and reciprocal, so I expect the hazing aspect really did depend on where you lived).

When the idea for the Freshman Defense Corps (hereafter referred to as F.D.C) occurred to me I was living in a dorm then known as New House. For several years I'd noticed groups of freshmen congregating in lounges in New House, and around campus, on the evening of Shower Night. It struck me how uncomfortable these people were, and that bothered me too. The first idea was a very simple one: if these people could get together, with a minimal amount of coordination, they could turn the tables on the upperclassmen.  What would result would be something like a large-scale water fight.

I think we got involved in this because it seemed like a marginally good cause, and (speaking only for myself) I wanted to do something that explicitly wasn't very serious.  I was starting to talk to grad schools and interview for jobs, and I felt the magnitude of the impending changes in my life, and this was a kind of fun social escapism.  It was a lark, in effect our first hack.  

Several of us tried to set up some means of coordination the fall of 1979, with basically no result. We'd wanted to have a fairly hands-off approach: to advertise what was going to happen, provide some tools of resistance ("moriahs"; more on these later), and real-time coordination of small groups of freshmen, to bring them together in significant numbers. As you might guess, it didn't work. There was no direct leadership, and the few calls we got were largely spoofs. The real accomplishment here was that we started to do something, rather than just talk about it; and we began to think through the sort of leadership which would be required.  Sometimes getting started on a project is more than half of the work.

The next year we began early, meeting freshmen, handing out literature, holding meetings, and recruiting some freshmen for organizing activities. We did a banner hack at the Freshman Picnic, and in general tried to become a recognized name. As time neared for shower night, we kept a list of likely members, grouped these under (our) upperclass leaders to track, and planned out what we were going to do.  I established a simple organization to manage what we were doing.

We tried to equip each freshman with a "moriah": a length of surgical tubing that would be tied off at one end. The other end would go over a faucet; when turned on, the water would expand the surgical tube into something that looked like an elongated eggplant. The wielder would pinch off the faucet end with a small clip. When the moriah was pointed at a target, the clip would be loosened or removed, and a fairly substantial blast of water would emerge.

Baker House today

The greatest success by far was in the dormitory Baker House, where we had (if memory serves) 63 freshman equipped and organized into squads under upperclassman leaders. We'd told the Freshmen  to wear black tee shirts and blue jeans, and each group had a meeting spot.

We thought we'd take the initiative that the evening, rather than waiting for events; we had a special group of upperclassmen who would undertake some slightly more risky services (which we named, of course, special services). We'd identified the upperclass shower night ringleaders, and our special group "pennied" them into their rooms and "pinned" their phones. "Pennying" meant hammering pennies between the door and frame, wedging the latch mechanism so that the person inside couldn't open the door. "Pinning" a phone was something we could do then with the student phone system - if you called a person, that person couldn't terminate the call by hanging up, until you hung up. So this preliminary maneuver put these people out of action and communication for a while. (Actually it probably didn't for very long; they were all on the upper floor in the nicer rooms - a consequence of being seniors in the room lottery - and their friends were all around, so I expect they were freed fairly quickly. However, what it did do is to set the psychological tone for the evening).

In short, the night was a big success. The freshmen effectively took over the dorm, and hosed down any upperclassmen who tried to impose the shower night hazing. Some of the upperclass ringleaders seemed to want to escalate to more violent confrontations, but this didn't happen.  After a while (an hour or two) we gathered everybody in one lounge area - and I must admit it was impressive, as we'd never seen the group all together.  They were excited and flush with success.  One Freshman (Jim M., who now runs a venture capital company in Manhattan) started yelling "T.D.C!  T.D.C.!" which was the name of the fraternity next door, with which Baker dorm had a sort of running feud. We (the upperclass leaders of F.D.C) could see that this was going nowhere good, and we dispersed the squads to different lounges, with the promise that we'd come by and make sure all was OK. This worked - by the time we worked through the lounges, most of the freshmen were back studying.

The upperclassmen did publish a sort of "Wanted" poster for our F.D.C upperclass leaders; this used to be filed away somewhere, and if anyone reading this has it, please send me a scan of it for inclusion here.

F.D.C. kept active that year after shower night, mainly fighting something nicknamed "Forced Commons", under which incoming Freshmen would be required to purchase substantial meal plans.  This looked like just a gambit to raise money, and would not have served the interests of the Freshman class in any way we could see.  Jim M. felt that no one would likely eat as much food as had to be purchased, so he was going to run a "Take a Bum to Lunch" program, in which Freshmen would escort various street people in for meals as guests.  We did do a petition in New House, which with other dorm petitions went to the administration - it probably seemed a bit odd, coming from a shadowy group rather than a recognized dormitory government.

Later that year some of the F.D.C. people got together for a hack or two, which was fun (I vaguely recall one banner with "Join the Class Struggle" as a slogan).  We'd had no experience with hacking per se, and the details would probably show an embarrassing level of inexperience, but it was fun, and planted the seed of what we might do with an organized group.  We also built a water balloon catapult, which did not function particularly well, but did manage to break up a mugging on Memorial Drive.

We kept F.D.C. going for a number of years, indeed I think it still exists in some form. I'd have been happy if the night turned into a sportsman-like water fight instead of the hazing it had been; but at least for the time I was around MIT during the early 1980's, Shower Night was pretty much dead.

3. T.H.A. Takes Shape

What struck us (the organizers of the above silliness) very strongly was how a little organization could go a long way. We'd had fun, it seemed to be a good cause, and we'd stumbled onto what would be a central theme in T.H.A.: to have fun seriously. Now "seriously" here isn't to mean really, truly seriously, but rather in the sense that you approach, say, a varsity sport: you know it isn't your life, and if anything really important (schoolwork, relationships) were threatened by it you'd drop it in a minute; but when you're doing it, you try to do it well.  In addition, humor was at the center of what we were doing.

The first two T.H.A. members conferring in Florida.
We had a group of people who had worked well together, and it was tempting to try to continue to do some things together in the future. Hacking had a certain rebellious appeal, a way to comment on and poke fun at some of the odd events and attitudes (presaging Political Correctness) which came up from time to time on campus.

"Hacking" here is used in the sense which we understood it as an MIT tradition - a sort of sophisticated practical joke played on the entire community, and having absolutely nothing to do with what people nowadays refer to as "computer hacking". While hacking had gone on for quite a while on campus, it was usually a group of people in a fraternity or part of a dorm which achieved a sort of critical mass for a little while, had some accomplishments, and then dissolved due to graduations.  Due to problems with 'student unrest' in the 70's, MIT had cracked down on a number of hacking-related activities, and there was very little going on.

I'd had a number of ideas for hacks over the years before this (but no resources to carry them out), and when I thought about how to structure the group, I described what sort of group I would have liked to have found to help me.  I didn't want it to have the insular character of the living-group based hacking groups - rather, it should be campus-wide.  Nor did I want it to be a fraternity, with different levels of participation (e.g. "pledges" as opposed to full members).  Rather, the intent was to create a group which would be able to help any person or persons who came forth with an idea; it would have information resources, and would be able to put these people in touch with experts in whatever areas they needed (we designed an ID card system, so it would be possible for strangers to get together with some sense that they were dealing with reasonable people).  We hoped to introduce a sort of 'professionalism' into the practice of many of the skills used in hacking, which included knowing how to explore and understand the architecture of buildings, how to deal with or avoid security systems (alarms mainly), managing locks, running small groups during projects, and so forth. 

My T.H.A. ID card, the first one issued.

The first attempt at writing down a structure would let any existing hacking group or living group send a representative, so that we could coordinate what we were doing across campus and exchange information. This fit well with the structure we'd had with F.D.C, which was spread across campus (though it seemed to be busy in only a few places on shower night).

We began with this kind of thing, and even paid for a slide at the LSC movies one weekend, announcing an organizational meeting and inviting anyone who was interested. We held the meeting in the Student Center, and got a number of names of interested people, a number of whom became essential parts of the group.

I suppose my model was that we were going to be a resource for people to use, and I think we all thought that we'd be as busy as we could be doing this. We were mildly surprised when we were approached by no one. We had a few ideas ourselves, and had mixed (but gradually improving) success with these. As we learned more about how to do what we did, we began to realize that it took a certain amount of experience to conceive a sophisticated hack in a realistic way.  Novices tended to have unrealistic ideas, unrealistic expectations of what other people would do, and no notion of how in practice things tend to happen (in particular, how they can go wrong).

For the last few years (since 1983, possibly because of the smiley face hack on the Green Building) it seems that MIT has essentially advertised hacking, using images on various publications, for fundraising, and in general capitalizing on the tradition in a number of ways.  I have nothing against this (as I think it does connect with something essential in the spirit of the place), but as I remember it at the end of the 1970's the environment for this sort of thing was extremely negative.  Even major hacks were removed pretty much immediately - for example, the Phone Booth on the Dome was removed by 7 AM on a Sunday.  This was I suppose understandable; for example, I recall hearing about serious penalties if you were caught exploring the steam plant - and also that this had been a potential (documented?) target for destruction by radicals a few years earlier.  Hacks, if we could manage to do them, were taken down as quickly as possible, so few people saw them.  This was somewhat disconcerting, as a lot of effort would just evaporate without notice.  It really wasn't too much of a problem for us, as this is sort of what we expected, and the satisfactions were personal.  But people who see how there is a sort of an official celebration of hacking probably don't realize that the atmosphere was diametrically opposite when we began.

We didn't want to become personally famous through this - you might best appreciate this as part of our desire to avoid internal politics.  If one could join us and use the group to achieve one's 15 minutes of fame, we felt we would not been serving our purpose.  This was one reason for our ID numbering system (and use of numbers instead of names), and for the tradition of general anonymity.  If you were going to do this, you did it for itself, not for the publicity you'd get out of it.  In my day this was personal anonymity; we believed it essential to give the group credit, so even people who had slight involvement would feel tangible pride.


4. T. H. A. Becomes T. H. A.

We began to focus on carrying out our own ideas, and started a semi-regular meeting (the bar; we had an honor system for drinks, so we raised a little revenue on the side) where we could talk things over and work out ideas. This introduced a social side to the group, which had positives and negatives.  (I met my wife through hacking, though it was an unusual meeting).

I wrote down a structure in a constitution. I wanted to keep some elements of the success we'd had with F.D.C, and I wanted the group to always be aware of a number of areas. I also had in mind an idea that I've since been taught in a fire service course: each level of leadership should only have relatively few people to delegate to and to listen to. The constitution changed a bit over time, and probably has changed further still, but this is what I recall:

This was really the top of the organization, and it meant that the chancellor could pose a project to the three ministers, and get good feedback on the resources available (finance), whether we knew enough to do it (intelligence), and whether it would interfere with what anybody else was doing (external affairs). In the back of our minds, the chancellor was still doing this on behalf of some member or members, and was mainly marshalling resources.

Each of the ministers in turn had subordinate officers; for example the Minister of Intelligence had four directors nominally working for him, tracking Buildings, Technologies (called Technical Services), and two others, though I don't recall what they were. One I think was for "Covert Operations", which we defined as things that were "necessary but very messy". I don't think anyone ever held the position; it's main value was humor in an otherwise dry document.  At the time I wrote the constitution, I probably was thinking of people who might pick a lock before a rooftop tour: something we could do, but didn't generally want to advertise as something we did.  The other director might have been something like "Counterintelligence", which would have meant keeping a wary eye on the Campus Police, the Dean's office, and anyone else who might have an unhealthy interest in what we were doing.

The point was that the minister could ask his directors about the details of any buildings involved, about any special equipment which would be required, what sorts of special skills would be needed, and what problems there might be if people were caught.  He or she shouldn't be making a decision about these, merely consulting with the domain experts; he'd then be in a position to describe to the chancellor what was possible and what the ramifications might be.

The advantage of this sort of tree is that each person has just a few people to consult with, and a relatively limited job to do - a real advantage in an all-volunteer organization.  You could easily find whom to talk to and get quality information.  Equally important, the commitment of each officer was finite and easily understood.  All of the jobs could be inherently very interesting if held by a motivated person, and were constrained enough to be manageable if held by someone without any particular passion.

This was derided as "Bureaucracy!" by those who didn't understand how it might work; yet the only alternative I could see was a sort of loose social club which might or might not be effective.  I'd say it sometimes sort of worked, and quite probably never as intended - it of course depended critically on who was involved, as one would expect.  Sometimes certain parts of the structure became very ambitious and effective, and others languished; but at least we kept our awareness of all of the things we ought to be thinking about.

One idea that I felt strongly about was that we should preserve the knowledge we acquired.  Our "opposition" was the Campus Police and Physical Plant (who secured the buildings), and they clearly had long institutional memories.  We could never hope to succeed if we didn't build and maintain a similar perspective on what we were trying to do.

As we moved from trying to be a passive resource to doing more of our own projects, we added a special services section to the group, mainly to be a group that the executive could call upon quickly and reliably to get things done.  It never worked as intended: initially I think it grew to encompass almost everyone, as we didn't want a second class of member; then it had no one, when this became manifestly silly.  We brought it back on occasion for special reasons, like training, which was OK.  Also, I think we figured if the chancellor couldn't get anybody to do what he wanted though the normal means of persuasion, perhaps there were other problems.

We decidedly did not want internal politics (we got some anyway) of the type we saw in other campus organizations, so the President and chancellor appointed successors, and the successors then appointed their own officers (usually by asking for volunteers).  We wanted to avoid factions which might be pushing one or another candidate, and a dictatorship didn't seem so bad in an organization with no real authority (we didn't insist that our members belong exclusively to us; they were welcome to be part of other hacking groups).  We later added a Vote of Confidence for the chancellor, in which the membership could toss the bum out if he or she didn't behave.

The organization waxed, waned, waxed, and so on, with distinctly different eras and personalities.  Much of this of course reflected the cultural changes going on in the environment.  Every leader of the group basically had to reinvent it for the times, which has always been a hard challenge.

We did want competition, and often tried to help groups starting out (in the not-uncommon case in which they'd recruited one of our members).  We wouldn't tell them we knew what was up, and we tried not to interfere, but if we could help quietly we did.  I remember one Freshman Picnic when we did some Great Dome hack, and then I helped some East Campus people string a banner - the winds were stronger than they'd anticipated, and they didn't have enough people.  If I'd gotten my wish, there would have been other groups similar to ours on campus, perhaps with different styles, competing in a friendly, sporting  manner.  When we began to get a reputation as being halfway decent at hacking, we never saw this - we became much more of a target than a competitor, I think in part because for certain periods we were the only active group, and there was no easy way for someone to find us and join.

4.1 What Did We Do?

I don't mean to give a history of hacks here (which are chronicled elsewhere if at all), but rather to describe the sorts of things we were up to.  At some point, if people send me scans of hack images, I might try to construct a small gallery of hacks, perhaps focusing on those older ones, or even minor hacks which haven't made much news by themselves.

The lower banner reads: "Technology Hackers Association" / "The Clandestine Student Activity.

Mostly we were nerdly students who studied and worked on academics a lot.  I remember looking forwards to evenings off when we'd go exploring around the Institute in a group or groups; it was so different from the academic side that it was positively refreshing.  A sport wouldn't have been the same - the sense of obligation would have been higher.  We'd go out and look at different parts of campus that somebody'd said were interesting - often we'd walk around areas, trying to build mental 3D maps of the structure, in order to locate any missing space.  When we had an idea where that might be, we then looked for access.

We'd do specific hacks, of course, and there is an entire lifecycle to a hack, from conception through design and planning into implementation, and optimally then celebration.  If this were something like putting a working phone booth on the Great Dome then many of the details depended on our previous explorations (which may have suggested some of the hacks).

Talking at bars and other venues was always fun, but sometimes felt too hypothetical.  But it was very good to share ideas with other people, to get into the potential humor of hacks, to share exploration stories, and just be around people of similar minds.

Technical work (say, on building communication systems, tools to handle alarms, etc.) was pretty minimal, unless a particular challenge drove it.  I think this was because it was too close to our "day jobs", and required the enthusiasm a particular project would bring.  This also tended to be "one shot" work, which always bothered me - we'd go to all the effort to understand a problem, design a relevant system, build it, and then when done it'd be relegated to a box somewhere with no documentation.  Before long the knowledgeable participants would have graduated, and it'd be almost indistinguishable from scrap.  I thought about trying to come up with a set of standard components which we could combine in various ways for different tasks, but I never had the time or energy.  

Finding new people was always a challenge.  In the early years the membership seemed to be about 20 to 30 people at any one time, which was a good critical mass to have.  However, people go through different phases in their undergraduate lives, and the really active members seem to have always been about 10 to 15.  Yet unless we went out to try to find new people, about a quarter of the membership would graduate every year, and of course this was almost (not always) the more experienced people.

Often our members didn't know as much as I wished they might about how to do things.  One summer when I was on campus, we ran training evenings (this was one of the reasons we used the special services name, as they were ostensibly the teachers).  This turned out to be really fun and quite educational.

We'd plan out some form of lesson: sometimes just practicing basic techniques under pressure, or having part of the group play at being Campus Police to make people less nervous when pursued, or we'd divide into several groups and try to coordinate what we were doing (say, stringing a cable high across the Great Court, with teams on rooftops on both sides and down below.)  It was very interesting to do this, as when we started out we were all thumbs, no one could anticipate what the others were thinking or doing, we ran into all sorts of situations we should have anticipated, we had little or no backup plans.  Yet fairly quickly we grew out of this, with some standard backup rules, hand signals for the major things we'd otherwise have to yell ("Stop pulling!"; "Run Away!" - that one I still remember - a hand across the throat edge-on).  We learned (almost unconsciously) to anticipate how others would react, and we became reasonably effective.

I always wished we had a space, a room somewhere to store materials, meet, look over maps, etc.  But we never wanted to be an "official" organization, which meant that any space we had would have to be unofficial, or completely off-campus (say a rented apartment).  The first we considered a bit, and we did have one common meeting spot (the "Russ Lounge", in a bit of forgotten space in something like Building 33), but it was destroyed in building renovations.  There were a number of other possible places we'd found through hacking, but it probably would have taken some clever negotiation with the administration (or at least a department) to have any hope of long-term use of the area without interruption.  So we never did it, but this has meant that resources and documentation are normally scattered among current and previous members.

I was always worried about two things.  One was that some enthusiastic young freshman would be lured into doing something that might get him into real trouble (either of the administrative/legal kind, or physical danger).  You'd probably have to have had sat in with a group of us at the time to understand this - it was exciting, fun, we were mainly upperclassmen, there was clearly an esprit de corps, and it would be easy to fall into joining in with something stupid.  Of course we tried not to do stupid things, but hey, we were undergraduates.  It concerned me that we might be building an environment that might cause someone a problem, and it was always something I thought about when someone joined.  One of the first lines in the constitution was that everyone was individually responsible for his or her own actions - an explicit point that new members would read.  We also encouraged older members to provide some sort of reality/rationality check on the more outlandish ideas which we'd talk about.

The other thing I worried about was that we gradually learned enough that we could do all sorts of things, certainly some things we never should do.  You can't unteach somebody something: if you teach them how to get through a locked and alarmed door, they can use that knowledge in whatever way they want, including teaching people you'll never know.  I gave up on worrying about individuals - I never wanted to be everyone's mother, and if we picked members with some integrity it shouldn't be a problem.  On occasion it was, and we'd find out that somebody was doing something that wasn't right, and we'd try to deal with it as circumstances allowed.  I didn't try to deal with this problem in the constitution because I don't think knowledge or ignorance determine whether you act rightly or wrongly; you might not have the option to (for example) rob an ATM if you don't know how, but knowing how doesn't cause you to go do it.  The knowledge by itself makes it a possibility, but the choice is yours.

There never was much of a danger that the group as a whole would do anything particularly bad.  One possibility, that we (I think successfully) shut down via persuasion and adoption of a certain cultural outlook, was that we wouldn't use the group to hack individuals that had annoyed any of the members.  We could have been extremely effective at this given the sorts of resources we had, but it did not seem at all consistent with the MIT spirit of hacking (at least as I understood it).  Maybe we were a bit different here, as there are plenty of MIT hacks directed against individuals, but it seemed a bad thing for a group to do.

Overall I think the idea of having some organizational structure, along with an emphasis on preserving information, worked well.  It meant that the group's capabilities grew, however slowly, and more ambitious hacks could be undertaken in later years.
The CP Car on the Great Dome hack


4.2  Me

My acquaintance at Wellesley
I ran T.H.A. from its beginnings in January of 1980 until something like the Spring of 1981, essentially two academic terms.  My first degree was in Physics, in 1980; I stayed for another year  for a degree in Computer Science; During the Fall 1980/Spring 1981 academic year I took all of the departmental requirements for the C.S. degree, with one exception (I'd taken an AI class earlier).  It was somewhat nuts to take courses that one would normally spread over 4 years, so I was insanely busy, which meant both that I had little time for hacking stuff and the need for the kind of recreational break hacking offered.  I was also dating a girl at Wellesley, and spending a bit of time out there, plus I was busy on other fronts, and was about to leave MIT.   In the Spring of 1981 I went to work at Bolt Beranek & Newman in June of 1981 (as have a number of T.H.A. people over the years).  I finished my last lab course and had the second degree awarded in June of 1982, while working.  

By May 1981 I was effectively leaving the place, and so I appointed Russell Chihoski as the next chancellor.  He was  arguably a better leader than I was, and could get people inspired for all sorts of things - he organized the Phone on the Dome hack, was generally a very bright and fun person with an excellent sense of humor.  He had a spontaneous side coupled with a wild streak which could be disconcerting: he used to climb the rough brick exterior of Baker dorm to the top, and climb around the protective cage at the roof door of a staircase along the Infinite Corridor, five stories up.  One day I came in to meet him there, and people were clustered around, staring down, and an ambulance crew rushed in.  As I walked up, my heart in my throat, expecting to see his body maimed by a five-story fall, he appeared at my side and said hello.  Turns out a woman had turned her ankle on the stairs.

About five weeks after the Phone Booth hack his ebullient spirits unfortunately led him to go climbing in the Colorado Rockies (the Flatirons) in a spot he shouldn't have been without a rope and some help, and he fell and died.  This was a deep shock to many of us. 

We had some procedures in replace to replace a chancellor who, say, resigned without naming a successor - I went through the formal process and asked each of about 12 people (these were known in the constitution of that moment as the "franchised members") what to do, and I ended up being elected.  I didn't want to be, and wisdom should have led me to throw this back at them to do something, but nobody wanted to think much about this at the time.  I set my goal as finding a successor as soon as possible - I was back on campus occasionally finishing up my one remaining course, so this didn't seem like it would be so hard.

If I had to describe my role in this period the word "disaster" springs to mind.  I'm sure my heart wasn't in it; I wasn't living at MIT, which you kind of had to be to have a sense of what would be an appropriate hack and what wouldn't.  And after my initial departure politics did spring up - I don't think this was Russ's fault, it was just the times.  I didn't know the people and politics as I would have if I'd been there in touch with people on a regular basis, and I had strong feelings about what should and shouldn't be done, damn the torpedoes.  It wasn't long before I just wanted out.  I did something uncharacteristic of the group to that point: I held an election.  And I made everyone a candidate (that is, everyone who had any interest at all).  We had a meeting in a large room, and by secret ballot we voted; after each vote we crossed off the lowest-scoring candidate, and then did it again.  It didn't take long to converge on two who would both have been fine choices.

Someone asked me something about them, and I made the mistake of indicating a preference.  Now everyone in the room was talking about who should be the next leader, so it didn't seem out of line, and I didn't run around telling people to vote in a certain way - but later (in the midst of a bizarre dispute), it would be said that I'd tried to drive the election in a certain direction.  I hadn't; if I'd wanted to do that, I would have just appointed my choice, and no one would have said anything.  In fact I just knew one guy more than I knew the other, and said something to that effect.  (The saying is something like: "Wisdom is needed to make good decisions.  You learn wisdom by making bad decisions.")  In time both led the organization, and as far as I know both did good jobs.
Me in 1982

But I was out, and on to more conventional, far less exciting things, like going to work.  No matter how much people say that they want creativity and imagination in the working world, they generally don't: it rocks the boat too much.  By its very nature it brings about unanticipated change, and if nothing else this is threatening to those invested in any hierarchy.  So there really wasn't anywhere to take and apply any of what I'd learned about motivating people, disciplining such processes, and shepherding them on to success (well, there was, but I can't talk about  that.).  BBN probably wasn't too bad a choice, but even there I was of course just a junior person fresh out of school.

5.  The Future, and the Past

Well, for me the future vis a vis the group began when I lost touch with most of the active membership after I left campus.  In different ways politics (personal allegiances) drove the group for a while.  I went back to a 20th reunion in January of 2000, and it seemed better than ever.

When building it up, I'd wanted to systematically acquire and preserve knowledge, augment capabilities over time, recruit good people, and in general be a sort of expanding empire of effectiveness.  I don't know if the group is still like that - maybe they're so far ahead in the game that they don't need that sort of attitude.  I also think we were somewhat "edgier" in the early years, wilder in some way, maybe willing to offend people a little if it made a good point, especially if we could change things for the better by poking fun at various policies and attitudes.  I have no idea if this approach would be warranted now.

Every once in a while someone will ask me a question about some actual event, or about something they'd heard about: a lot of what I hear is pure fiction, and it'd be great if we'd had anything like the implied abilities.  And of course there are things that I've promised people never to talk about (e.g. if some small subset of members went off and did something on their own), which sometimes leads to frustration on the occasions I must let some erroneous statement pass without correction.  Often the truth is far stranger than what people imagine it  was, something I've since seen in corporations, politics, fire departments, and other groups of people - so I suppose that phenomenon isn't so rare.

Sometimes I hear things that remind me how much times have changed, and how significant a cultural context can be to understanding what people are saying or doing.  When at the 20 year reunion, I heard one member ask another "Do you like babies?", to which the reply from another was "Sure, with 'Rav' sauce" (meaning Peking Ravioli sauce).  This (and it took me a minute to figure it out) was a reference to a "Cannibals at MIT" hack, a kind of parody of some of the student groups on campus (this was after my time, so I don't know the details).  At the same reunion, somebody mentioned that in the early organization we seemed to "jokingly refer to ourselves as Nazi's".  I was a bit surprised, and then I had to laugh - it was the same sort of reference to events, but the events had been forgotten.  It had begun long before: even when in high school, I'd been interested in meeting and talking with retired admirals in my hometown of Stonington who'd been submarine skippers in WWII: I found that first-person history was quite fascinating.  During college, when searching through an encyclopedia for something, I ran across a page with the biography of the German Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, and to my surprise it indicated that he hadn't died.  I wrote the German Embassy for his address, and we corresponded for a bit in the Spring of 1980 (when T.H.A. was beginning).  I visited him at his home outside of Hamburg in July of 1980, about six months before he died.  He had been a U-boat skipper under the Kaiser, then the chief of the U-boat arm at the outset of World War II, then head of the German Navy, and then upon Hitler's suicide he became the second Führer (largely because all of the other candidates had proven to be "unreliable" in some way); he served as head of state from May 2 to May 8, 1945.   I was interested in his naval background, and it was fascinating to meet him, to get a sense of what he was like as an individual.  (I went on to work in submarine-related technologies for over a decade).

Of course you can imagine what sorts of comments I got on my return: "Hey Bryan, how was the Führer?".  It became a kind of running joke, one I had no qualms about playing up a bit among those who knew me.  But I'd like to say for the record that to my knowledge there were no Nazis in T.H.A.; we had libertarians, lots of Ayn Rand objectivists, one socialist, and a good percentage of the early membership was Jewish, but I can't think of anyone who could by any stretch of the imagination be termed a Nazi.  Yes, we had a black-shirted freshmen (though the colors changed each year), F.D.C. used a Romulan salute (from Star Trek), and we used a military metaphor for F.D.C., but that's about it.  The worst coincidental overlap was that our "special services" group could be termed referred to as "SS", so at first we changed it to the "special services section" (three S's being less suggestive than two), and then we just didn't use it.

The people I knew through T.H.A. were in general interesting people, with a good sense of humor and solid creative streak.  Many of them have gone on to very interesting things.

6.  Further Information

Steve Eschenbach wrote an article for Technology Review in October of 2005; it's here.  

The symbol at the top of the page is the T.H.A. Octagon, which occasionally appears in in hacks. The symbol for the F.D.C. was basically the same, but with the crossbar running in opposite direction.

If you want to take a look at some MIT hacks, visit the Hacks Gallery.  Most of the hacks I was involved in are probably too old to be there.  

There are several books out about MIT hacking now, and they are worthwhile.


7.  Related Questions & Answers

After putting this page together, I've started to get questions, which I'll try to answer.  As this may change a lot, I'm putting them on a separate page: Click here for Questions and Answers.

 

 


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Last update: 04/30/07.

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