So I haven’t posted in, um, months. And for a couple weeks I’ve been thinking, “What should I post, after so long?”
Like angels descending to show me the way, yesterday morning some aggressive FOX journalists suddenly appeared. Averaging around 30 years old, and looking like college students having just woken from kegger-induced near-comas, they harassed me on my way into work. They were asking people what they thought about the student who built a bomb and took it to Logan: Liars. They furtively took my photo, so I less furtively returned the favor.
They were asking about Star Simpson, the unfortunate MIT student who traipsed into Logan Airport as if she were dressed for… well, dressed for a regular day at MIT. Her sweatshirt had messages about Course VI on it, and on the front a (scary!) 9v battery and a “protoboard“.
Where to start? I’ve met Star a few times, and she’s pretty normal for MIT. That’s not saying very normal.
She’s part of an extremely geeky, incredibly productive club at MIT called MITERS, the purpose of which is to hack, and to hack hard. I’m not that excited by most projects out of MITERS, as they are techno-fetishistic. There are a few exceptions: past members have used their skills for social causes like renewable energy. Overall, it’s a place where people revel in making ingenious, unusual gizmos, useless projects that could almost be called art, but aren’t involved in the discourse of art. But MITERS does allow MIT students to play with technology, and from play can come inspiration. Past members have started amazing companies, and become millionaires, in part because of hacks they discovered at MITERS.
MITERS is also the kind of place where people play with their technical identity, in the same way that artists discover their artistic identity, or new recruits become soldiers. MITERS students experiment with living a technical lifestyle: They hack their bikes, their computers, their dorm rooms, and their clothes. Sort of a nerd fraternity. And like many, many people around the world, they wear electronic jewelry and eTextiles. Star’s garb was comparatively primitive compared to the state of the art, but harmless and pretty normal.
Harmless is important. I’d imagine that a lot of people think it’s insane to wear, as AP described it, a hacked “computer circuit board” on one’s chest. The board in question had nothing to do with a computer. It was a prototyping board, an incredibly simple device that lets one plug chips or L.E.D.s into it. It is “passive,” meaning that it has no electronic function at all. It’s basically like a grid made of tin foil that lets one connect things to each other. There were a couple dozen wires in it, leading to a few L.E.D.s. My phone has about 5 L.E.D.s in it; my laptop dozens more. I have a watch with over a hundred L.E.D.s in it. (I’ve counted, and a Boston bridge mooninite has 178 L.E.D.s!) Finally, there was a 9v battery, far, far less powerful or dangerous than the battery in nearly any cell phone, and orders of magnitude less dangerous than the batteries in a laptop.
Every electrical engineering student in the country runs into one of these prototyping boards in there digital electronics class. Around much of MIT, they are more common than staplers, scissors, or rulers. For a 19 year old who was clearly comfortable with electronics from an early age, a prototyping board would look no more intimidating than a toothbrush. And for some MIT students, more familiar.
Let’s remember this: The 911 hijackers used boxcutters. I routinely wear a “leatherman” utility tool, which is more dangerous than a boxcutter. I have worn it when picking people up at the airport. When I travel, I check it under the plane. I have seen many people with leathermen or similar at the airport when picking people up.
The 411 train bombers in Madrid used cell phones. Ask yourself: Have you ever seen a cell phone being used in a plane terminal?
We’ve been warned that we must throw our liquids away before getting on the plane, as they may be mixed to make a bomb. But we’re allowed to carry them in airports when picking people up. Have you ever seen a water bottle in the airport?
Of course, the world doesn’t work from logic, and if there is one way that MIT consistently fails itself and its students, it’s by not disabusing them of that fact. The average person thinks of a bomb as a home-made contraption with wires sticking out of it. And, sadly, the average American probably thinks of a terrorist as either dressing funny (and possibly having a Euro accent, a la Diehard movies), or as being from the Middle East. (Personally, I’m scarred for people who look like Tim McVeigh. Actually, he looks a little bit like a Fox journalist!) Thankfully, it’s illegal to arrest some one who’s dark skinned or dresses funny. Should it be legal to prosecute some one for possessing something that looks nothing like a bomb?
Sure, Star was being kind of dumb. Or absentminded. But Norbert Wiener, one of the most famous professors from MIT, used to forget if he’d eaten lunch or not. After speaking to someone in the hallways, he would ask what direction he’d been walking when they’d met, so that he’d know if he was coming from or going to the canteen. I find that pretty dumb — MIT is full of people who are math smart but socially naive. That’s why we have a charm school — though not enough students enroll.
MIT issued a press release that described Star’s actions as “reckless, and [they] understandably created alarm at the airport.” It _is_ understandable that they created alarm. Airport personnel aren’t necessarily aware of what electronics look like, or can do. Police should be more aware, but they have a lot on their mind. But reckless is a strong word. Absentminded. I’d say out-of-it. But MIT should also have mentioned that the way Star was dressed is pretty normal for students here. And MIT should have said that the stuff that Star was wearing are significantly less dangerous than many of the things that people around her were carrying. She was singled out because she looked weird: This was about appearance, not threat.
The key is whether charges will be brought. Star’s outfit doesn’t look like a hoax bomb. It looks like tools we use every day at MIT, in nearly every introductory electronics class. Star’s sweatshirt looked like a $5 prototyping board — the very last thing anyone would put in a bomb. Just because the public has a misconception about how bombs look doesn’t mean that their misconception should lead to prosecution, any more than the misconception that Middle Eastern looking people might be terrorists should lead to their prosecution.