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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is famous for having numerous brilliant but totally oblivious professors and students over the years. One of my favorite stories that I was told when I was at MIT was about Norbert Wiener, a famous and brilliant Math Professor:
MIT corridors have, or at least used to have, wainscoting, that is, a strip of wood with a molded groove in it running along a wall about three and a half feet off the ground. The nominal purpose of this is to prevent chair backs from scratching the paint on walls and to provide a boundary between the darker shade which the lower part of walls are usually painted and the lighter shade above. It was Wiener's custom to stick his finger in this groove, close his eyes, lower his head in thought and walk down a corridor, guided by the wainscoting. Professors were told to close their classroom doors or Wiener would be apt to follow the corridor wainscoting to the door jamb of the classroom and pick up the trail of the wainscoting on the inside of the classroom, following it around the room until it led him back to the corridor.
This story may well just be an urban legend, but in that case I'm inclined to use the phrase "fake, but accurate" in a positive sense since such total lack of awareness of how one's behavior might be viewed or affect others was and is rampant at MIT and the story is so utterly plausible, even if not actually true.

So it is of no surprise that a young female MIT student follows in a long tradition of obliviousness in her recent visit to the Boston airport to pick up her boyfriend:
An MIT student with what police feared was a fake bomb attached to her chest was arrested at gunpoint Friday at Logan International Airport and later claimed it was artwork, officials said.

Star Simpson, 19, had a computer circuit board and wiring in plain view over a black hooded sweat shirt she was wearing, said State Police Maj. Scott Pare, the commanding officer at the airport.
The circuit board had flashing LEDs and a battery. But keep in mind that MIT students and faculty also have a long history of wearing batteries:
One notable hack attempt targeting the 1948 Harvard-Yale football game involved the use of primer cord. One night shortly before the game MIT students snuck into the Harvard stadium and buried primer cord just under the field. The plan was to burn the letters MIT into the middle of the field during the game. However, their work was uncovered by groundskeepers and disabled. During the game the hackers were apprehended while wearing heavy coats on a fair-weather day. The coats were lined with batteries, obviously intended to be used to detonate the primer cord. An MIT dean came to their defense, opening his own battery-lined coat and claiming that "all Tech men carry batteries".
Apparently all Tech women carry batteries too. The thing that was suspicious to me was not the circuit board or batteries, but rather the playdough:
She was holding a lump of what looked like putty in her hands.
The response was swift and deadly serious:
The trooper, joined by others with submachine guns, confronted her in front of the terminal.

"She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands and not to make any movement, so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device," Pare said. "Had she not followed the protocol, we might have used deadly force."

He added, "She's lucky to be in a cell as opposed to the morgue."
Shooting her would've probably been overkill (so to speak). Probably everybody is lucky she didn't end up in the morgue. A headline that read something like "Police kill young MIT student because she was carrying a circuit board" really wouldn't've done much for the reputation of the police and would've only hampered real law enforcement needs in the future.

The student is being charged with criminally negligent joking:
Simpson was charged with possessing a hoax device and was arraigned today East Boston Municipal Court. She was held on $750 cash bail and ordered to return to court Oct. 29.
With all the laptops, cell phones, and circuit boards for my robots that I've carried into airports, it's a miracle I've never been charge with possessing a hoax device. I've probably even had play dough with me for some of my trips with the kids. Perhaps I've had circuit boards, LEDs, batteries and play dough all at the same time! Clearly shocking:
"I'm shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport," Pare said.
I can understand the "appalled" part, but "shocked"? He had never met an MIT student before during all the years he lived in Boston? Personally, I agree with her defense attorney:
"I would characterize it as almost being paranoid at this point," Schreiber said of authorities' response.
Unfortunately for her, the key word is "almost". It wasn't quite paranoid, and as a result, I wouldn't be at all surprised if this poor oblivious MIT student is convicted.


erp said...

Sorry to disagree.

I will assume that when you travel with the tools of your trade or your kids' play dough, you don't arrange them as this very foolish young lady did.

I have plenty of stories of the kind of intense concentration some people are capable of. My older son is one such and the amusing and otherwise stories about him are legion. However, the whole point of your story of the professor and the wainscoting is one of a person so deep in his own thoughts that the outside world has stopped existing.

The young woman in question was just the opposite. She was patently emulating a suicide bomber. Her agenda? Who knows? Looking for attention; making a statement of solidarity with Moslem terrorists; a clueless practical joker? Doesn't matter.

What she did was deliberate and if it were my decision, she would have been tossed out of MIT.

Eccentricity is not derivative.

Anonymous said...

Darn these younguns'. Don't they know eccentricity is the perogative of the elderly and middle-aged and doesn't become them at all? Why can't they be happy just sticking with sex?

Times have changed. I remember back in the sixties one cherished and famous prank at my college was when a car full of students pulled up outside a theatre in town with a line-up for tickets, one guy jumped out screaming and running, another guy jumped out and "shot" him with a blank pistol, and then all emerged to pick him up and throw him back in the car, which then roared off. We all thought it was the last word in creative humour. Try that one today.

Bret said...


I seriously doubt that she was pretending to be a suicide bomber:

'"She said that it was a piece of art and she wanted to stand out on Career Day," Pare said at a news conference. "She claims that it was just art, and that she was proud of the art and she wanted to display it." (There was a career fair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday, according to the university's Web site.) '


"Two phrases that looked hand-drawn — "Socket to me" and "Course VI" — were written on the back of Simpson's sweat shirt, which authorities displayed to the media."

Course VI is the department of electrical engineering at MIT.

It would not be unusual to see an MIT student wearing electrical "art". That she unfortunately was allowed off campus given her obliviousness was the problem.

erp said...

Peter, If you wore Moslem mufti, especially a burqa, you'd be safe from the law.

erp said...

Quacks like a duck ...

Susan's Husband said...

One detail that was in the reports but gets left out in posts like this is that one of the ticket agents asked the student about her getup and rather than answering "oh, it's art!" the student simply ignored the agent and wandered off. To me, that's no small detail from the point of view of the airport staff.

Bret said...

susan's husband wrote: "...the student simply ignored the agent...that's no small detail..."

It's likely that we're all in agreement that she should've been accosted and questioned. I'm not even necessarily saying she shouldn't've been arrested. After all, we can't expect the general population of police officers and others to understand that circuit boards don't explode, even if they have flashing LEDs, so if people are gonna panic over such things, it's potentially reasonable to consider it a hoax.

My only point is that since I have a great deal of experience with the people at and from MIT, I'm virtually certain that it was a non-act of obliviousness rather than an intentional hoax. The only thing that keeps me from being absolutely certain is that play dough thing - I'm not sure how that fits in.

erp said...

I assumed play dough was to simulate plastic explosives. You techies may know a circuit board when you see one, but I'm pretty sure airport screeners, like most of the rest of us, wouldn't be able to say with surety what might or might not be a bomb.

SH is right. Had she said, you know I thought this would be a good joke, but I see that it was stupid and show the authorities what it really was, perhaps I'd be inclined to clemency, but her actions were reprehensible.

She's in a passel of trouble and rightly so.

Susan's Husband said...

Perhaps it's petty of me, but I hope she gets some jail time if for no other reason than to wipe the smirk off her face. She clearly still thinks the whole thing is funny, which is a level of condescension I find extremely grating and worthy of strong discouragement.