Harvard's Computer Wasteland

Unknown as it is to the rest of the world, Virginia Tech will always hold a special place in my heart. I grew up nestled among the towering limestone buildings of the university. The nurturing placidity of the small college town around Tech Kindled in me many of the qualities and traits I have brought with me to Harvard: my ethical sense, my determination--

And, of course, my addiction to e-mail.

Most people have to wait until they actually get into college to get involved with cyberspace. But with the resources of a university at my disposal, I was using words like "ftp," "MUD," "emacs" and "teinet" even before I graduated from lil' ol' Blacksburg High School.

The computer hackers at Virginia Tech enjoy a relatively well-developed computer network. There are at least 25 super computers run by the school's Computer Center. In addition, various departments have their own machines connected to the international network known as the Internet. Every on-campus dorm room is connected to the data network on 9600 baud lines, which are independent of the telephone lines. That means, of course, that you'll have no problems with call waiting interrupting your modern or with roommates who seem to have phone receivers grafted to their face.

As a verified, certified, card-carrying addict, when I learned that I was going to go to Harvard with its $5.1 billion endowment, my first thought wasn't, "Oh, now my education can flourish under the unique Harvard Experience." My first thought was, "World Better computer systems"


So applied for a UNIX account the first day I arrived at Harvard. Luckily, my account was ready the next day, and I waltzed on over to the Science Center, happy as a virus on a 200 megabyte hard drive. (Computer humor. You're supposed to laugh.)

I avoided the PC terminals because I couldn't figure out how to nevigate the green-and-blue menu systems. And I avoided the amber-text VT230s, just because they annoy me.

The logical choice, then, was to use the Mac-intoshes in the basement of the Science Center. I figured out how to call up my account and then sent out dozens of email messages to my friends on the net all over the world. And after about ten minutes, I had a splitting headache.

All the computers are protected against theft with a series of locks and clamps. Whoever set up the security system, in a brilliant flash of ignorance, clamped the power cord to the monitor.

If your remember your high school physics class, you should know that a length of wire with an electric current running through it generates a magnetic field--the stronger the current, the stronger the magnetic field. And if you ever watched Mr. Wizard, you should remember him showing how a magnetic field can distort a television image.

As a result, all of the Macintosh monitors in the Science Center basement flicker almost imperceptibly and produce slightly warped images. The effect is just significant enough to give any user a headache after a few minutes.


I also discovered that I was the member of yet another minority group at Harvard. For some reason, the campus is geared towards Macintosh users.

Usually, the college publishes only Macintosh versions of programs needed for match classes. Most introductory level Computer Science courses use compilers written for the Mac. Those of us with IBMs are forced to pick down to the Science Center and the Harvard's Amazing Flickering Macintoshes.

At Virginis Tech, there is a large collection of free and "shareware" software available for copying in the library, for Macs, IBMs and even Amigas. At Harvard, although there is a small collection of shareware available for the Mac, there is no such library for IBM users.