Caltech Hacking Story: The Page Crawl


In the tunnels under the Olive Walk, which separates the North and South Houses is an appropriate time to discuss the Page Crawl.

We have now entered what is known as the South Tunnels, the largest of the four tunnel networks on campus. It and the North Tunnels, to which it is connected, together comprise what most people mean when they talk about the Caltech tunnels. The Super-North Tunnel—connecting Avery and Moore to the Holliston steam plant—and the Super-South Tunnel—connecting a few of the buildings on the north side of California Blvd—are short and hard to get into, so few people explore them.

Speaking of places that are hard to get into, you should take note of the dead-end tunnel we just passed on the right. It’s actually not a dead-end, but the semi-legendary tunnel entrance to the North Houses, the Page Crawl. If you climb through the ceiling at the end of it, you find yourself in a two-foot-tall crawlspace in the foundation of the North Houses which, if you navigate successfully, takes you to a small door that opens into the North House basement under Page. This is one of the more unpleasant places in the tunnels to explore—besides being cramped, it is so dusty that you really need a dust mask to explore it, and anything you’re wearing will get horribly filthy—and one part of it is rumored to be infested with black widow spiders, so it’s probably best to avoid it. However, people do occasionally go through it so they can say they have: I think that a total of six people had been in it during my time at Tech.

What isn’t generally mentioned to prefrosh is that I was actually part of the first group to navigate the Page Crawl in a number of years. When I was a frosh, it was a legend that upperclassmen talked about, but no one claimed to have been in. Then, during a capture-the-flag game, two friends and I realized that the other team’s flag was just north of the North Houses and could easily be grabbed by someone sneaking out of the North House basement. However, we’d have to get into the North Houses without being seen first. To achieve this, we decided to attempt the Page Crawl. Surprisingly, we managed to get through it relatively quickly, though since it had taken close to an hour we assumed that the game must be over. We exited the North Houses from the south side to check our mail boxes (undergrad mail boxes are located on the south end of the North Houses) and then walked around the side of the building to the north side, only to find out that the game was still going on and to provide a useful distraction while another group from our team grabbed the flag.

The World’s Cutest Beaker!

It's probably not the world's smallest, but 5 mL is pretty small for a beaker.

It’s probably not the world’s smallest, but 5 mL is pretty small for a beaker.

This blog post doesn’t really have much point, other than that I think I’ve promised people that I’d post a photo of this beaker for quite some time. In the Caltech upperclassman chem lab where I took sophmore synthesis labs, there was one 5 mL beaker along with all the larger ones. I’m not really sure what it was intended for, or why it was there, but I always thought it was impressively cute. It could also be useful as a weighing dish, because it was light enough for precision scales, but glass so one could rinse it with organic solvents to remove any residue afterward.

I’m Escaping from MIT


My previous posts have contained some rumors of the fact that I’m in the process of leaving MIT and moving to the Washington, DC area—most likely PG County—but I haven’t really taken the time to explicitly go into what’s going on.  It’s probably about time I did so.

As I’ve complained about at length in the past, my PhD project at MIT was going nowhere.  I essentially spent the last five years serving as a lab technician, attempting to repair broken equipment and largely being treated as a minion by the senior grad student on my project.  When he left with a Master’s after nine-and-a-half years last February, I thought things would improve, but they didn’t.  The Machine continued to not work, of course, and the depression I’d developed while working under him didn’t go away.  Instead, it just made it impossible for me to make myself do anything with the Machine.

When I mentioned the idea of getting a Master’s to my advisor at our annual meeting in December, she said I couldn’t get one unless I collected data.  Furthermore, in early January, I gave her a proposal for some experiments I could do without further repairs so I could at least have enough data for a Master’s.  She refused and I concluded that I was probably doomed to leave MIT with no degree, since I didn’t believe that the needed repairs were even possible.  I fell into a cycle of despair and found that I couldn’t even make myself go into lab and do any work, so I gave up and took various people’s advice and went on medical leave.

My medical leave started at the end of January, and my original plan was to move down to DC to find a temporary job for the nine months or so before MIT would require me to return.  However, it pretty quickly became clear that I really didn’t want to go back, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a reasonable job to support myself if I couldn’t commit to staying at it for a year or two.  Since I’d be required to return from medical leave well before that, I concluded that I should make plans to not return.

When I first talked to my advisor about this, her response was to ask me to come off medical leave immediately.  When I pointed out that this wasn’t allowed, she then said I didn’t have enough for a Master’s thesis, but that I should return for the summer and write a set of applications for the new data acquisition computer we purchased, along with a thesis about the applications, in three months.  I told her I thought this was impossible and had a bit of a breakdown that evening over the fact that it appeared that the last five-and-a-half years of my life were going to be a complete waste because she was withholding a Master’s to try to keep me from leaving.

After talking to my undergraduate advisor about my options, I sent my thesis committee an email making it clear that I was leaving and not coming back, but asking whether I could write a thesis based on some work I’d already done.

While I think it is necessary that I leave MIT with or without a degree, I really would like to receive credit for the work I have done here, and I believe that I have already done enough to merit a Master’s thesis.  As for what my thesis could contain, besides the obvious literature review and discussion from my orals proposal, I think there are several things that would be worthy of including:

(1) The hundred-page user manual for the Big Machine that my advisor is having me write strikes me as reasonable to include; it is a very detailed coverage of the experimental and maintenance techniques that I have worked on in my five years in the lab, techniques which—for the most part—had not previously been documented.

(2) In terms of publishable achievements, the most obvious one is the molecular dynamics simulation I designed and coded for the fluorine project two years ago.  I included initial calculations from that model on the poster I presented at the 2013 Gordon Conference on Dynamics at Surfaces and, back when I wrote it, I also wrote up a fairly detailed write-up of the model itself.  I think an expansion of this would make a good primary component for a thesis.

(3) The first thing I did on my own when I joined the lab was to write the LabView code for the data acquisition program that we still use today to collect auger spectra.  This seems similar in nature to the data acquisition computer programming that my advisor proposed for a Master’s, so perhaps it would have some merit as the basis of a Master’s thesis as well.  My one concern is that, because it’s LabView code, it would be much harder, I think, for me to access it on my own to write up how it works without access to a computer with LabView installed.

I am curious whether it would be acceptable for me to write a thesis based on some or all of these over the next few months.  My understanding from conversations with the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education is that if I could produce an acceptable thesis, it would be possible for me to return as a student for a few days at the start of the summer term in June to submit the thesis and thus finish the requirements for a Master’s degree.  I’d then receive the degree on the September Degree List, but I would be able to return to Maryland after a couple of days, so this wouldn’t be incompatible with finding a long-term job.

Of course, being my advisor, she still hasn’t replied to this email six days later.  But the day after she received it, she did email the lab announcing that she would be out of town for the next two weeks with limited email.  Since she left, I’ve talked to my thesis chair and the Dean of Science and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education.  They all do seem to think that I should be able to get a Master’s based on what I’ve done, but it’s not clear to me exactly how this will come about or what the details of the thesis or who would sign it are.  That all seems to be waiting until my advisor comes back, although my thesis chair has said he’ll call her.  I don’t know if that will happen, but also don’t really want to keep living on couches indefinitely until I get an answer out of her.

Given all of this, I think that my current plan is to leave Boston on Thursday—now is the time to poke me if you want to see me before I go—and find an apartment in PG County somewhere.  My first priority for the next couple of months, assuming they let me, will be to write a Master’s thesis.  However, I also need to find a job.  Working as a lab technician if I can find a position seems like it’s probably my best bet, although something in science policy could also be quite interesting if anyone would hire me for it.  I’m not really sure that I want to stay in science, and I’m planning on taking classes at University of Maryland University College to try to give me more career options.  I’m not really certain what classes, but something programming-related seems the most employable these days.

Caltech Tunnel Story: In the Foundations of Throop Hall

The first building on Caltech's current campus.

The first building on Caltech’s current campus.

In the South Tunnels we enter a north-south running segment with unusually high ceilings and brick walls, unlike the concrete walls we’ve seen elsewhere.

We’re now walking through the foundation of Throop Hall, the original building built when Caltech moved to this campus in 1910. Throop was one of three buildings closed after the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, the earthquake that made Caltech lose its earthquake insurance and created the abomination known as Chem 3a.

You see, at some point in the 1950s, as earthquake insurance was starting to get more expensive in Los Angeles, the geology and civil engineering departments decided to determine which buildings were likely to be damaged in an earthquake, so that the Institute could then only insure those buildings against earthquake damage. So, when the 1971 earthquake hit, the only buildings at Caltech with earthquake insurance were Throop Hall, then the administration building, Gates Laboratory of Chemistry, and Culbertson Hall, the old auditorium.

Apparently the geologists and civil engineers had done their job well, because these three buildings were the only ones damaged badly enough in the earthquake that they had to be closed. Throop and the Culbertson Hall were demolished, and Gates Lab was empty for a decade until a donor was found to fund its renovation as Parsons-Gates, the new administration building. And, after this feat of prediction, no insurance company was willing to insure any Caltech-owned building for earthquake damage unless the whole campus was insured. The Institute decided to decline to insure anything, since they’d already lost the three buildings they’d predicted to be risks.

With Gates—which had housed the undergrad chem labs—closed, it was necessary to rapidly build a new undergraduate chem lab. Mead was built in about a year and, because of the rush, was much smaller than the undergrad labs it was replacing. This forced all of the upper-level chemistry labs to be crammed into one room with twenty fume hoods, making the scheduling of chemistry labs annoyingly cramped. There was also only one room available for freshman chemistry labs, which meant that it was impossible to retain the lab component of the then year-long Chem 1, with all freshmen doing labs as they learned about the relevant material in class. Instead, a one-term class, Chem 3a, was created to get students through a year’s worth of labs in a single term. Since students were expected to take Chem 3a as freshmen, this meant that most frosh would be taking it before they’d learned all of the relevant material in Chem 1.

It’s also worth mentioning that the demolition of Throop turned out to be unnecessary. The original blueprints had been lost, and the decision to tear it down was made based on the assumption that it had only been built to the building codes in force when it was built. However, it was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever built and, during demolition, it was discovered that, due to uncertainty about the strength of such buildings, an order of magnitude more re-bar had been used than was required, and the building was much more stable than had originally been thought. But, by the time this was discovered, too much had been demolished to make it worth saving, and the building was replaced with a pond full of turtles.

Now a turtle pond.

Now a turtle pond.

Maps of Camberville


Back when I was in my first winter at MIT and in Boston, I decided to draw up a map of my mental image of the geography of Cambridge and some of the nearer bits of Somerville. Recently, I found it while cleaning my room and thought it worth posting:

Early in my first year in Cambridge, I drew this map of my mental understanding of Cambridge geography.

Early in my first year in Cambridge, I drew this map of my mental understanding of Cambridge geography.

While I was a bit confused on some street names, it’s not as unreasonable as one might expect, or as confused as I gather some of my friends who’ve been here longer are. That said, it seems that back then I still tried to think of Camberville as a grid rather than as a network of connected squares.

After finding the map, I thought I ought to put together a more modern picture of my understanding of Camberville. This one is drawn as a network with approximate walking times. Black means 5 minutes, red means 10 minutes, and blue means 15 minutes. It is interesting to note that both Cambridge and Somerville seem to form east-west continuums with a rather hard-to-cross gap between them. This actually makes sense if you consider that they to some degree grew up as commuter suburbs of Boston, and downtown Boston is essentially due east of them, so commuter rail and streetcars tended to run essentially east-west to bring people into the city.

A new map of Camberville I put together.  Black lines are 5-min walks, red lines are 10-min walks, and blue lines are 15-min walks.

A new map of Camberville I put together. Black lines are 5-min walks, red lines are 10-min walks, and blue lines are 15-min walks.

Change of Address — Really, Elimination of Address


As many of you have probably gathered, I am leaving the Boston area shortly and don’t intend to return. Specifically, I’m planning on leaving town next Thursday, 26 February. That means I’ll no longer be able to check my PO Box, PO Box 425551 in Cambridge, and you should no longer send mail there. I’ll obtain a new PO Box as soon as I get to Maryland, and will post the address of that one once I’ve done so.

Caltech Tunnel Stories: Tales from Gates 22


A door on South Master leads to a hallway filled with abandoned furniture and an open door that leads into the bottom of a large lecture hall. Once we turn on the lights, it turns out to be Gates 22, the second-largest lecture hall on campus. This is the lecture hall that one traditionally tells Security that one is looking for if caught in the tunnels.

Besides being the traditional place that people tunnel to try to find, Gates 22 has a long history of RFs–the formal term for pranks–because it is large and has been home to many Core classes. Now is a good time to rest and tell some stories of some of the pranks that have happened here.

If you look at the clock on the back wall of the lecture hall, you’ll see that it has a hamster’s face. This is the remains of a prank the origins of which go back to before any of you frosh were born.

Starting in the Sixties, or perhaps even to the Fifties, Caltech had a yearly campus-wide party called “Interhouse”. Each of the four, and then each of the seven, Houses on campus held a party with lots of construction–Page always built a working roller coaster, for example–in their courtyards on the same night. These parties were huge, and had always attracted a number of people from off-campus. Originally, in the days before Tech admitted women, female students from PCC or Oxy were commonly invited \emph{en masse}, but, by the Eighties, Interhouse was mainly attracting Pasadena high school students. The party had continued to get bigger, though, and by the mid-Eighties it was topping Playboy’s list of great college parties. Unfortunately, huge parties attracting the general public turned out to attract unsavory behavior as well.

At an Interhouse in the late Eighties, a Caltech staff member was clubbed by an outsider with a baseball bat. The next year, one outsider stabbed another. In light of these two incidents, Administration decided that the 1989 Interhouse would be Caltech students and invitees only, and six-foot-tall chain-link fencing was put up across the Olive Walk between the North and South Houses to keep ousiders out. Even this turned out to not be enough, as people broke windows in the Houses to get into the party, and riot police were nearly called in.

After the disaster of the 1989 Interhouse, Administration decided to ban more than two Houses having parties in their courtyards at the same time. However, Interhouse was a big enough tradition that the student body wasn’t entirely willing to let it die. After one failed attempt by several Houses to organize an illegal Interhouse, it was replaced by a number of one-house parties over the course of the year: Dabney’s Drop Day, Ruddock’s OPI, and Blacker, Lloyd, Fleming, Page, and, later, Avery’s “Interhouse” parties. (Apache, though sometimes called “Ricketts Interhouse”, is actually not part of this tradition: it dates back to before the all-house Interhouse parties started and existed alongside them.)

Part of the reason that Interhouse had traditionally featured such impressive construction was that it had been during first term, when frosh were on pass-fail and had lots of enthusiasm for building projects. The one-house Interhouses were spread out over the year, though, and houses that had theirs in the winter or spring now didn’t have construction projects in the fall. In Blacker, this led to a tradition called Frosh Project, in which the seniors in the House challenged the frosh to do a specific prank, like turning Beckman Auditorium into a carousel, complete with motorized horses that moved up and down on the pillars that surround the building.

Several of these Frosh Projects have involved pranks in Gates 22. One year, in the late Nineties, a crashed flying saucer was constructed in Millikan pond, and a group of frosh with blue faces and silver hair staged an abduction of Professor Nate Lewis at the end of his Chem 1a lecture. Another year, the Blacker frosh turned Gates 22 into a giant hamster cage. They put wood chips down all over the floor in front, installed a giant water bottle on one side wall and a giant hamster wheel on the other, and dressed up the clock as a hamster’s face.

The tradition of pranking Gates 22 goes back a lot longer than that, though. Back in the Seventies, some students who stayed on campus over winter break decided to collect all the Christmas trees that people in Pasadena had put out by the curbside to be picked up with the garbage. They then brought them to Gates 22 on the night before the first lecture of term and set one tree in each seat, so when the first class filed in that morning, there was nowhere to sit, and class had to be cancelled while the trees were removed.

Some MITSFS Things

I'm rather amused by the photo of me with the MITSFS gavel that ran with Technology Review's article on MITSFS in November.

I’m rather amused by the photo of me with the MITSFS gavel that ran with Technology Review’s article on MITSFS in November.

This winter, MIT Technology Review ran an article on MITSFS. They apparently interviewed a number of old alums and found out some information I hadn’t known, such as that Marilyn “Fuzzy Pink” Niven, for whom our catalog was named, got her BS in the same year as L. Court Skinner, who gave his name to the chief executive of the Society.

Besides the link to that story, which may or may not actually be of interest to anyone, I thought I’d pass on a scan of a document called “Lore of the MITSFS” by Janice M. Eisen that was published in the 37th and 38th issues of Twilight Zine, MITSFS’s fanzine. It’s from the 1980’s, so it has a lot of history and trivia I didn’t know, as well as a lot of things that have changed significantly in the intervening thirty years.

I also wanted to include a scan of a song called “Maxwell’s Equations” and to be sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that I found inside a dust jacket in MITSFS some time ago:

Several years ago, I discovered this song being used to cover the dust jacket of a book in MITSFS.  I rescued it and posted it on the wall.  More recently, it was determined to be too old and dingy-looking to be on the wall, so I saved it from the recycling and took it home.  I thought some of my readers might be amused.

Several years ago, I discovered this song being used to cover the dust jacket of a book in MITSFS. I rescued it and posted it on the wall. More recently, it was determined to be too old and dingy-looking to be on the wall, so I saved it from the recycling and took it home. I thought some of my readers might be amused.

Caltech Tunnel Stories: Impeach Nixon!


Pranks really shouldn’t be too disruptive to life on campus. On occasion, though, they are, whether by accident or by design. One of the more disruptive and famous pranks from the Seventies, the “Impeach Nixon!” banner, caused enough of a political stir to get the House responsible for it disowned by the family that it was named after.

At some point during Watergate, President Nixon visited Caltech. In preparation for his visit, a group of Darbs scaled Milikan and hung a huge banner reading “Impeach Nixon!” from the side. As required by the Honor Code, they left a note saying that if it caused any problems, Security could call Dabney for help taking it down. In the morning, Security discovered the banner and panicked: they clearly couldn’t leave this up when the President of the United States showed up in few hours. They couldn’t figure out how to detach the banner, though, and decided to call Dabney for help. However, there are two buildings on campus named “Dabney”. One is Dabney House, the undergrad dorm responsible for the prank. The other is Dabney Hall, the the older of the two humanities buildings.

Anyway, Security somehow got the idea that, since Dabney Hall was closer to Milikan than Dabney House, someone there—an angry radical humanities professor, perhaps?—must have been responsible. They then spent half an hour calling every office phone in Dabney, and then searching the building, but failed to find anyone because it was six in the morning and none of the faculty had gotten in yet.

Security ended up cutting down the banner without removing the attachments the Darbs had used–they’re still attached to the front face of Milikan as a result—but the Dabney family, which was very conservative and had earned its money in the oil industry—officially disowned Dabney House in response to the prank.

Some Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations


Back when I was at Caltech, a grad student named Michael W. Busch—also known as “the Phantom of SPECTRE” because he did a lot of shelving in the science fiction library there, SPECTRE, but only in the middle of the night (because of astronomer sleep cycles) sent me a link to a short story and some related material he’d posted online called “Take-Away Exam”. The basic premise was that aliens transported Caltech and MIT, without the faculty, to a habitable planet orbiting Tau Ceti, let each person request twenty kilograms of supplies, and then abandoned them to see what would happen. It was a sort of amusing story and, when I arrived at MIT, I was very surprised to find that he’d also published a copy of it in MITSFS’s fanzine, the Twilight Zine. I bought a copy of issue #47, the issue containing his story, and filed it away in my apartment, never to be seen again. Then, five years later, while cleaning my room this Christmas break, I dug up the copy. I thought that other people might be interested in the story, so I scanned it and have posted it to my UGCS webspace here. While seearching for the story online—it doesn’t seem to be there anymore—I found out that Busch has now published a language for messages to be transmitted to potential alien SETI projects and published a paper on making and testing a potential “first message” to aliens. (Though I do question the fairness of having your fiance be the person to test decrypting it.)

It only seems fair to include in this post some other story recommendations I was going to make. First of all, there are two amusing fanfics from Archive Of Our Own’s Yuletide 2014 collection that I recommend heartily: “Donation”, a story about books in a library, and “A Comparison of the Composition of Asteroids and Dinosaurs: Towards A Better Understanding of Major Extinction Events”, the title of which I think speaks for itself.

Finally, while I rarely read novels anymore these days, I recently and mostly accidentally read a short young adult novel called Growing Wings by Laurel Winter that happened to be on the pile of new donations to be added to the library. While the plot does have some issues—it’s a first novel and it does kind of show—I really enjoyed the book and am glad I read it. Explaining why I liked it is a bit harder. I think a lot of it is that I identified quite a lot with having conflicted feelings about one’s body, and feeling deeply upset at the idea of someone modifying it even if it’s upsetting or inconvenient in and of itself. I felt like the story dealt with this surprisingly well, and I’d be interested in reading a second novel by the author if she eventually publishes one.


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