book review: these are not your ordinary college pranks

When you get to a certain age, let’s say 8, April Fools’ Day loses much of its charm. The pranks of your childhood — hey, your shoe’s untied; made you look — just begin to seem, well, childish. There’s no wit, no creativity involved. So, you may find it comforting to know that some of the best and brightest young minds at MIT work hard to raise pranks to an art form. You can read about some of their triumphs in Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT by T. F. Peterson.

Pranks — also known as hacks — are a long-hallowed MIT tradition. Before hacking became associated with computer mischief (which, as a true-hacker would tell you, should be called “cracking”), a hack was used to describe any kind of anonymous prank performed by students at MIT.

And since MIT is an engineering school par excellence, many of the hacks have a strong scientific component. The pranks are sometimes a bit arrogant, showing off the hackers’ mastery of the physical world, of using electronics, computers, and, yes, even doughnuts. Forget about stealing a mascot, though, admittedly, there are some more mundane pranks described in the book as well. Many of the MIT hacks can be admired for their ingenuity — rewiring lecture-hall blackboards, rappelling from a 90-foot height to replace a carved inscription (thereby dedicating the school to the advancement of hacking), or deploying a 6-foot-tall, MIT-emblazoned weather balloon to burst out of the turf during a Harvard-Yale football game.

One of the “finest hacks of all time” appeared on the morning of May 9, 1994. Parked atop MIT’s iconic Great Dome of Building 10 was a campus police car, emergency lights flashing, with a police officer in the driver’s seat. Some 150 feet in the air, the finer details of the joke were not seen. The dummy, dressed as a campus officer, had a toy gun, a cup of coffee, and a half-eaten box of doughnuts beside it. The car was number “pi,” its license plate was “IHTFP,” which in MIT parlance stands for “I Hate This F—ing Place”), and its windshield bore a parking ticket that stated, “No permit for this location.”

How was it done? The only way up to the dome is through a 3-by-4-foot hatch. The hackers responsible attached segments of the shell of a Chevy Cavalier (painted to look like a police car) to wood framing, and then assembled the car on site.

The Great Dome is a favorite target for hackers. It’s been turned into R2-D2, a giant breast, and been encircled by Tolkien’s One Ring, with an inscription in the original Elvish. MIT is a geek paradise, so what would you expect?

The book ends with some essays on what hacking means to MIT culture, and even includes a helpful glossary of terms of common usage: You’ll find out, for example, that a “brass rat” refers to the MIT class ring, which displays the school’s mascot, the industrious beaver.

“Nightwork” is a book to browse through, not to read at one sitting. After all, even at MIT, there are only so many things you can do with a dome, and reading one prank after another can get tedious. Nonetheless, if you’re interested in knowing how some students use humor to help cope with the extremely demanding high-pressure world of MIT, it’s worth getting.

Today would have been the perfect publication date: Unfortunately, the book will not be available until June. But if you can’t wait, take heart: April Fools’ is a prime day for hacking, so keep your eyes on that dome.

Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT
By T. F. Peterson
The MIT Press, 176 pages, illustrated; $19.95
Publication date: June 2, 2003

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 4/01/2003.
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