Computing Harvard's Greatness


IHAVE ALWAYS had trouble relating to computers. Most of the time I have trouble relating to people who can relate to computers. Maybe it's because I am afraid that one day computers are going to take over the world. Maybe it's because I retain some old-fashioned prejudices about the human, personal touch. Maybe it's just because I don't really understand what computers are all about. For whatever the reason, I have never met a computer that I haven't disliked. To me, they all seem devious and evil.

Given this predisposition of mine, I was genuinely intrigued when I heard Stephen S.J. Hall talk about Harvard's new Delta 2000 computer system. Hall is a former employee of ITT's Sheraton hotel chain and he currently serves as Derek Bok's vice president for administration. The Delta 2000 is a $2.2 million dollar computing system that Hall had installed in the basement of the Undergraduate Science Center last year.

Listening to Hall talk about the Delta 2000 is like listening to a Jewish mother talk about her son who just got into Harvard; overwhelming pride, boastful enthusiasm and the sense that the god-gifted off-spring can do just about anything in the world are the common repertoire of the Jewish mom and the father of Harvard's Delta. For Hall, the Delta 2000 is what Harvard--if not life itself--is all about.

The purpose of Hall's million dollar baby is not computing so much as maintainance. The machine is connected up with hundreds of fans and ventilators and other mechanical apparatus spread all over the University and it monitors the workings of each and every one of them. If something breaks down somewhere a warning is sent to the computer terminal underneath the Science Center where the Building and Grounds employee on duty can order the appropriate steps to be taken to remedy the situation.

As if this were not enough cause for wonder, the Delta 2000 is hooked up to a little slide projector filled with schematic diagrams of the utility systems used throughout the University. When something goes wrong, all the attendant on duty has to do is to push a specially coded number into the computer's logic system and the diagram pops onto a television sized siren that sits next to the computer console. Without leaving his seat, he can see what's wrong and how to fix it.


And as if the video capacity of the computer still weren't enough to make you realize that this baby is as space-aged as they come, the Delta has an intercom system over which the interested bystander can tune in the sound of some powerful fan blowing away up in the Science Center.

The Delta 2000, a product of Honeywell Industries, is, no doubt, an exquisite piece of machinery and Hall's pride for his prize purchase is somewhat understandable. But keep in mind that I for one cannot relate to computers and I am only a little better at relating to people who develop a deep, emotional rapport with them.

Take for example the following comment made by Mr. Hall after describing all the wonderful benefits of owning a Delta 2000: "Nevermore should we have a burnt out boiler. Harvard is way ahead of the competition in this area." Now while I can almost understand Hall's high regard for his computer, the stuff about being ahead of the competition just goes over my head. Who's Harvard's competition anyway? Let's hope that Yale never hears about this whole thing or else we might find ourselves in the middle of an ever-escalating computer warfare. Yale will buy a Delta 2001 and Harvard will have no choice but to buy a $3 million Delta 2002.

Hall's real love for the machine derives from the fact that the Delta can save some money for the Harvard administration. Hall says that the system will make back the money originally invested in it just by preventing the breaking of boiler systems for a couple of years. After those couple of years, Hall says, whatever the Delta saves is pure profit.

Hall is sensitive about the possibility that the $2.2 million spent on the Delta 2000 might be wasted cash. When he invited me to take a tour of the system he said. "There's a good chance that something won't work on the computer while you're there visiting it, but I want you to know that only happens rarely."

As it happened, all was working well when I went to the Science Center to grab a look at the Delta 2000. The schematics bopped onto the screen when they were supposed to and temperature readings appeared on the console's display board when the programmer told them to appear. I even got to listen to some fan somewhere whirring and burring away.

Even though the Delta 2000 works exactly according to plan--and if a computer can't, what can--I don't like it or any other computer any better for having seen Hall's wonder-baby in operation. Maybe I'm myopic, but I just don't see the beauty in a machine, even if it does save Harvard a buck or two. And maybe I'm naive, but if Harvard really cares about equalling and surpassing its "competition," it had better pay less attention to expensive computers and more to the things that really count in making a university decent.

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