Visiting MIT and a cousin's big wedding in Newport R.I.

Visiting MIT and a cousin’s big wedding in Newport R.I.

Caleb John Clark, 10-27-98

The Wedding, MIT, and stress

Black Shit and Carnivores

The Big Dig and The Media Lab

“The Wedding, MIT, and stress”
Travel Back East, Oct. 27th. to Nov. 2nd 1998
Caleb John Clark

First a travel observation: The best time to shop for clothes is when
you travel. You don’t have to pack hardly anything if you’re going to
buy stuff on the road and since you don’t need the close since you
just bought them, you can ship everything back and travel lite each
way. Also, you look great while you travel and you end up with close
people in your area can’t find. Win, win, win, win. I think I’ll buy a
suit. Got to wear something to the wedding and I’ve only brought one
pair of jeans.

Tuesday, on plane to Manchester NH. The goal of my trip is three fold,
but I just made that up. Lets see, 1. Big family wedding on Sat. in
Newport Rhode Island. 2. Complete frontal assault on the MIT Media Lab
moat of hype. 3. Try and bring my heart rate down to normal after a
semester best characterized by a constant feeling of fear. You know,
that tightness in the chest, mild yet pervasive pressure that makes
you feel your heart beat? But it’s a very hard semester at school,
lots of work and some problems with the environmental control that has
resulted in less then favorable conditions within which to get shit
done. I need to get shit done, or at least be free to think about
getting shit done.

I think #2 is really #1. I”m going to the wedding because it’s a way I
can justify checking out MIT. Here’s the skinny on my attack on the
castle of bits. The Media Lab is a lot of things to a lot of people,
sometimes geek mecca, sometimes over hyped playground of business and
smart yes people. As a career student it has been my ultimate
playground. Money, fame, freedom. I should also mention that I have a
case of “Ivy Envy”, the need to get a degree from a school that causes
people to raise their eyebrows and give you another look when you say
the name “Harvard” “Yale” “Stanford”. They may be looking at you
differently because they have decided to hate you, love you, distrust
you, or just take another look. The point is that the name has impact.
Maybe it’s because I was born in Hanover NH 1966, while my dad was
finishing his 7th year and 2nd try at getting a BA from Dartmouth.
Then we moved to the Bay Area when I was 1 so he could go to Stanford.
He didn’t finish, my parents split up, the hippie thing happened to my
mom. Life went on, and hair got long. My mother has a BA from Smith
and a Masters from Columbia. I’m the only one on my dad’s side of the
family to go to a state school. Grandmother: 3rd generation Vassar.
Cousins, 4th generation Vassar and Dartmouth. The rest I’ll save for
therapy – shit, I’m not in therapy anymore!…

But I digress. So the Media Lab has been on my mind for a Ph.D after
my masters. I’ve been lobbing emails at them for the past six months.
Skimming professors work and emailing clever letters hoping secretly
for adoption by a genius. Movinig to the next professor, firing a URL
of my latest project and then ducking back into my foxhole and faking
disinterest in the effectiveness of my shot. I email students randomly
with URLs and jokes, anything to try and make a contact. I have failed
for the last 6 months. 2 reasons come to mind. 1. I don’t have a focus
on what I would do if I got in 3. I can’t program.

When this wedding came up I decided to make plans to visit even if I
didn’t have a fucking appointment. Ha! I could loiter…As the day
came closer to my flight I panicked and starting emailing TAs about
sitting in on a class. I finally found on MAS 963 with Judith Donath,
“Social Visualization”. As if to test my ability to maintain sanity in
the face of piles of little homework assignments, the TA promptly
assigned me homework! At least it’s not with a group, one more group
assignment and I’m gonna scream “I don’t care what you think, do it
this way, or hit the streets pal.”

Now the tour. Got to see the toys. The professor is busy, and she’s
not too interested in me because she’s only admitting folks who can do
Java while the sit in a cafe talking and drinking Java. I’ve got the
last two down pat. But, after gentle hounding I’ve gotten 15 minutes
with her after class. I tried the staff. No dice “private building”
“need appointment” no contact, no play. I don’t blame them, the lab
gets a lot of press. And it’s a very crazy time in the academic year.
First weeks of school after the summer glow is gone, the work is real,
it’s getting chilly.

Then yesterday I found a weak spot in the armor. A new Masters student
in the Agents section responded to my email. She liked my Web site
too. She had time for lunch and a tour Thursday after class.
Excellent, but first some down time just south of Manchester NH.

OK. Now Iíve made it to NH. Just had dinner with my grandmother. Asked
her what my cousin was up to and she said she was hiking up in that
mountain I used to ski in the 30ís when grampa, the one in the civil
war, used to take us up there. Wow.

to be continued….

“Black Shit and Carnivores”
Caleb John Clark

New Boston NH, Southern part of the “Live Free or Die” state, population 4,000.

Thursday: My dad and I planned a walk on his land that day, it seems there’s a right of way that goes close to a house where a recluse lives. Like most rural right of ways through other people’s land, this one needs yearly use so that it is not forgotten. My dad arrived late at 1pm and we started on the dirt road lined with half leaved trees blowing in the cool fall air.

Grandma Rhoda joined us long enough to give a brief history lesson and show us how a falling limb from the famous ice storm two winters before that had knocked out power and water for 5 days. This frozen fury had also knocked over the top rung of a road barrier that Rhoda asked us to replace on our way back.

Rhoda turned around after half a mile, she’s 88 and born in Braintree, NH. Her father, Grampa Shaw, used to criss-cross the state on trains as the eastern manger of International Shoe. It’s easy to forget that when trains were running you could travel around the state in one day and still make it home for dinner.

I’m writing this in the car as my uncle Binny drives Rhoda and I down to Newport, R.I. for my cousin Heather’s big wedding. Rhoda is telling stories so I’m going to get them while I can:

Story #1: On a trip to Paris right after WW I, Grampa Shaw, her father, once tried to explain to a French cab driver that his hurt leg was from a duck hunting accident. He was using pantomime to tell the story since he did not know French. After gesturing wildly in the back seat, pointing fake guns and yelling, the cabby thought Grampa Shaw was trying to tell him that he was shot down in the war. He was so moved that he and gave Grampa Shaw a hearty embrace and double kiss when he dropped them off.

Story #2: Grampa Shaw retired during the great depression and stayed away from buying stocks on margins, where the real jumping-out-of-windows losses were. He bought the blue chips low. The rest is history. Most of it’s gone now, but the effect are everywhere.

Back to the walk. Grandma Rhoda bowed out of the of the walk gracefully, as she does all things, by saying in her New Hampshire drawl “well boys, I’ll let you two have a father son thing on the land.”

My dad and I continued along the road with my father going over the local history, land lines, owners, and general babble. We turned down a dirt road and passed the house of the recluse. Our right of way passed right in front of his lawn, close enough to see in his house. My father made a point of clearing the sticks out of the ruts in this old town road and showing me where he’d filled in the dips with gravel last summer. You’ve got to keep walking by and asserting your right of ways to keep them active in a land situation like this, he told me.

In the woods I was shocked at how much I didn’t know. We walked the dirt road back to the property line, a tree with rusty barb wire ingrown in it. My father made sure I marked it in my mind and then we went off the beaten path to find the corner property mark. We found it along with a stick tied with three pink ribbons that we guessed came from the other property owner. Standing there in the woods I began to see more and more things as my urban filter faded due to lack of use. I saw that some woods had been logged years ago leaving only young trees. Ours had not and had thick trees mixed with young ones. My father lead the way as we bushwhacked down the hill we were on. He talked, as he usually does, except now he was rambling as if he was lecturing to freshman forestry majors taking a compulsory class.

See, “we’re on what’s called a bench, great house lot, there’s another one down here…”
“See those big pines? Means there’s great drainage and sandy soil due to this slope.”
“See these berry shrubs? Means there was a farm pasture here at one time, probably early 1900s”
“Beaver’s must be back, fresh teeth marks there.”
“See that dark shit? Dark shit means that was a Carnivore!”

I was stunned really. Dark shit means carnivore. Well, that was very far from my perceptual skills of late. I’ve been figuring out highway traffic, grad. school, and technical problems. Figuring out what kind of animal shit lay on leaves in the woods did not compute.

Walking back we put the top rung up on the road block to Grampa’s point. Then we made the 20 mile drive to my bus in Manchester by 4pm. I was off to Boston’s south station at 4:15, whizzing along the tree lined freeways that seemed wondrously different then the building lined freeways of San Diego. Here it’s like you’re driving through wilderness.

And then Boston appeared. Industrial bricks, traffic, bricks, steel, granite buildings, bricks, scrawled names on marble and the “ahtery” as the “R” hating Bostonians would say of route 93, a famously clogged elevated highway right through the city. A sign said “Dinosaurs do Exist, you’re driving on one. The Big Dig, Worth its Wait” Ahhhh, the Big Dig, I forgot about the Big Dig, and I was going into the middle of it.

To be continued…

“The Big Dig and The Media Lab”
Caleb John Clark

Boston, South Station, 6pm. Wednesday.

The famous politician, Tip O’Neal, went out of politics with a bang, and that bang is called the Big Dig. See, Boston has this four lane highway that goes right through the city, separating the downtown from the coast, and generally making a mess of everything. This is a raised highway mind you. Well, one of Tip’s last moves was to help push through the idea that this highway needed to be put underground. The whole highway under the city and the old highway torn down and turned into parks and buildings. This is the Big Dig, supposedly the largest civil engineering project in US history.

Now, they’ve got to sure up the old highway before they tunnel under it, so while they’re digging, they’re also using cranes on every square inch of open space between the buildings in parts of Boston. We’re talking forests of cranes, big cranes, little cranes, cranes with treads, cranes with wheels, and one crane at South Station that is so big it doesn’t move, it only rotates and was just installed there for the next decade.

Getting off my bus and heading to the “T”, Boston’s subway, I was routed through a maze of plywood tunnels. Every once in a while I’d see through the walls into what looked like open heart surgery on a city. Four stories down into the city floor was gaping wide. Huge steel girders could bee seen 30 feet down running under the buildings. I got the feeling that the entire city was held up by some man-made bulwark, instead of the bedrock I always figured was there. Right before I dropped down into the “T” station I went by two guys hosing off a drill bit the length of a car. My cousin works in the city and says that sometimes when she gives visiting clients directions the off ramp they are supposed to take has been torn down by the time they get there. This is the Big Dig and I heard it’s going on until at least 2005.

Boston’s subway system rocks, or is rocks, well both. It’s old, like Boston, and like Boston, mostly made of steel and rock. The “T” has old tiles on the walls, and stations where you can see the tunnels coming out of rocks. But it works great and since Boston is a small city, everything seems like a short ride. After meeting friends for dinner and crashing early I found myself on the “T” again heading for MIT.

Thursday: The Media Lab.

Walking down to MIT’s campus I passed a huge red brick 5 story building with huge white letters on it that read: METROPOLITAN STORAGE WAREHOUSE: FIREPROOF. This building was indeed fireproof I guess. It’s walls looked like at least a foot and a half of solid brick. The windows were small and protected by iron bars. Next, I smelled sweetness in the air and found myself near a Nabisco factory that made Necco wafers I think.

As my uncle said, MIT’s campus looks like it was designed by engineers. There’s some trees and green but mostly just big rock buildings with an intermixing of new wild looking modern rock buildings. At the Media Lab I sat in on a class and felt nervous, out of place. I probably talked too much. The teacher used a laptop with a wireless modem on it that I think hooked up to a fast wireless LAN, but I didn’t ask. I felt like an invader in a way. The Media Lab gets a lot of attention in the media and from it’s sponsors, and it shows in the vibe at times. The students were really, really bright and the teacher was too, but a chill was in the room, a hesitancy about discussion at points. In my current grad. school some classes are like that, some not. I guess the Media Lab is a little more normal then I thought. I briefly talked with the professor after class. She loved the lab, said it was not necessarily a warm and fuzzy place, more collaborative and competitive. She was in a hurry.

Afterwards a student I had emailed (I emailed lots, she’s the one who agreed to show me around) gave me a tour of all four floors. She was a Brazilian AI student. The Media Lab is beautiful inside. Clusters of work stations are surrounded by offices on the windows. Graduate students and professors work in the offices and undergraduates are hired by the Lab to work in the bullpens of work stations. Plants are everywhere fed by grow lights making for a warm and healthy air and environment. The aesthetic computing section was just wild, pinwheels showing Web traffic, wooden things measuring something. The “cube” downstairs was full of Legos and new flat screens. Walking on an exposed walkway above the open center of the building we came upon a guy bouncing bird sounds off the walls. He’s figured out a way to get a 3 degree spread on sound. As he maneuvered this round thin hatbox looking contraption around, the sounds of birds flitted from side to side as they were invisible and flying inside the building. My tour guide said, “that’s one of the hottest demos now.” He was talkative but a mite snotty. The Media Lab is heavily besieged by the many big corporations that fund it and want constant demos of the cool things being done there. This guy had a cool demo. We had lunch at a ‘digital lunch’ thing that happens once a week. Excellent catered bag lunches were to be had for free while listening to some French guy talk about video archival, digitizing and instant Web outputting of footage. A lot of students were there for the food.

Taking an elevator out of the Media Lab I met a guy visiting from New York. We went and had lunch and then watched the John Glenn shuttle launch. He’d been meeting with professors and students, so we shared information. He found out that one of the guys who invented PERL is applying and we wondered about our changes should we try to break in. I told him of the talks with students and that I’d found out that there was a little bad blood between the lab and the CS and AI groups at MIT because of the lab’s focus on the ‘wow factor’ and not pure science. I could also guess there might be some jealousy involved, the Lab is a fully funded place that felt nimble and quick in terms of bureaucracy.

My analysis of the Media Lab at this point is that it would be a kick ass place to do certain kinds of work for the right person. Come up with a far out, really cool, hopefully very demoable, wacky idea and this could be a wonderful play ground to work in. I guess I was expecting something different, something warm and wonderful from the gushing press fed image I had formed over the years. As usual, reality was different. As I sit on the plane coming back I feel a little sad and let down. The morning period after a fantasy’s death. I see the Media Lab new as a corporate sponsored playground where far reaching ideas are being realized. But it’s a competitive playground, and one infused with commercially oriented money. I also see it as just like any graduate program which I didn’t expect. If you find a professor you respect and get alone well with, you could have a really great time working there getting a clout carrying degree while being fully supported and free to really obsess with the best of them. At one time I believed that to get accepted you had to have not only walked on water, but have done so repeatedly and with full press coverage under the tutelage of god. Now I see that like most other things, timing is also crucial. The right idea, presented to the right professor, at the right year, backed up with only brief skips on water covered by the local press and witnessed by a town pastor, might get you in. In the end the system of the Media Lab seems to dictate that they’ve got to produce cool stuff that businesses can use, or at least show off. If you can help them do this, it’s a rockin’ place.

That night I was back in NH. I took a walk at about 11pm out into the moonless countryside and dirt roads. I’m red green color deficient but I’ve always had excellent night vision so I didn’t have a flashlight. I had to wait a few minute to be able to see anything beyond the garage light and before I walked up the hill away from my grandmother’s.

The wind howled through the tall trees lining the road all around me. Suddenly, I felt scared and stopped in the middle of the road and put my hands in my pockets. I looked around for large things that might hurt me. I didn’t know what I’d do if I saw one. From behind me an ugly howling of wind was working it’s way up the hill. I turned and faced downhill as the wind blew by like an angry ghost train. I felt very vulnerable, as if I could die out here. Then I realized that wasn’t too far off. After being in San Diego, a place where sleeping outside is doable most of the year, I was in a place where the weather could harm me. The weather here was strong! The wind blows hard on a normal night like this. And it was a fall wind, the kind that stripped the dying leaves off the brittle trees. Clouds thick blanketing the sky and blocking the moonlight. The road was invisible and flanked by pools of pitch black. Only the hard craggly branches of the tall and tough trees could be seen fighting back against the blasts of air from the valley. I turned back uphill a walked for a little while to prove I still had some tough New Hampshire blood in me. Then I went back and fell asleep thinking of the BIG WEDDING in Newport R.I. that was coming up on Saturday.


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