Aug 4, 2010
Gallivanting with Gilles
Posted in: Life & Culture
When I give information sessions (including one today, at 2PM), I often find occasion to derail the discussion of extracurriculars and athletics at MIT in order to share with attendees what I believe to be the best-kept secret about being part of the MIT community. For this reason, admittedly among countless others, the audience at my information sessions is incredibly lucky, because no one else will tell them this.
Here it is:
The best thing about being affiliated with MIT, hands down, no questions, is the mailing lists.
Now I know what you're thinking - OK, Vint Cerf, mailing lists haven't been in vogue since before Nick Carter was but a twinkle in a record executive's eye. And yes, mailing lists are not as fancy or shiny as things like Facebook Marketplace, or Google Groups, or even Craiglist.
None of that matters.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mailing lists at MIT, each dealing with countless subjects: web development, LARPing, literature, and so forth.
Let me share with you a few stories of my experiences with MIT mailing lists.
Gallivanting with Gilles, or, How I Came To Own and Love A 'Wagon For The Little Old Lady Who Lived In A Shoe'
For years, I've been driving a 1999 Hyundai Elantra. It was a reliable and practical, if not particularly powerful or attractive, motor vehicle. Its official color was plum (ask me sometime about being hit on by a fifty-something parking attendant who remarked, batting her eyelashes, that it/I were "plum gorgeous"), and it had a really stupid spoiler on the back. Still, it got 30+ MPG, its 5spd stick shift was fun to drive, and I'd planned on driving it until I couldn't drive it any more, purple exterior be damned.
Unfortunately, that end came rather more quickly than I'd planned. The brakes had been squeaking, so I took it into the local vocational technical high school (pro-tip for future starving students: voc techs will often fix your cars at the cost of the parts, saving you hundreds, perhaps thousands, on labor) to get checked out. The diagnosis wasn't good. The brakes were shot, yes - as was the clutch, the exhaust manifold, and the timing belt, which should've been replaced 50,000 miles prior. The cost, even at the voc tech, would've been in the thousands of dollars, more than twice what the blue book value of the car was.
Not having a car was not going to be a huge problem. As regular readers of the blogs know, I prefer to bike to work anyway, and the MBTA gets me almost everywhere I need to go. However, there are still times - like when I want to go injure myself playing Frisbee in NH - that having a car is nice. But buying a car off of Craiglist is always dicey, and I couldn't justify taking out an auto loan or buying something from a dealer.
Enter the Reuse mailing list. Reuse is MIT's version of Freecycling. You have something you don't want anymore? Email Reuse, and someone will claim it. Here are the five most recent Reuse lists in my Inbox at this very moment:
But there are also other sections of Reuse. There's Reuse-Housing, where people can look for houses or roommates; there's Reuse-Ask, where people can ask for things others might have that they'd be willing to park with; and there's Reuse-Sell, where people can try to offload their junk for a fee.
I checked my Reuse-Sell folder, and one of the first things I saw was a listing for a car:
Long story short, this was precisely what I was looking for. An affordable, practical car, which also got 30+ MPG and had a four-door hatchback body that could seat five and yet fold down its seats for storage, being sold for blue-book value. Well maintained - spotless condition really - with no problems in its history or near future, even if, as the NYT auto reviewer had, at the car's launch in 2002, wrote that it "looks like a wagon for the old woman who lived in a shoe."
Because Gilles was a fellow member of the MIT community, we felt we could trust each other: I declined to take the car in for a presale inspection, trusting his word that everything was in fine condition, and he took a personal check from me, trusting that it wouldn't bounce. These are things you wouldn't do on Craiglist, but, as Gilles said, "perhaps [we are] naive, but something about the MIT community meant [we] could trust [each other]." My check went through, the inspection came out clean; Gilles is back in Switzerland, and I'm driving around a peppy, practical car, being mistaken for a little old lady everywhere I go.
YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL COMPUTERS, or, Cheaply Destroying My Life For Fun And (Blizzard's) Profit
Like just about every somewhat geeky male of my generation I grew up playing Starcraft, which is to say spending hours ordering tiny pixellated space aliens around my screen carefully collecting blue minerals until I would eventually get thrashed by hyperactive eleven year old old from Korea who decide that Zergrushing me would help him land that sponsored tournament gig and an Ayreon chair.
And, again like everyone of my demographic and generation, ever since 1998 I've been waiting with bated breath for the release of Starcraft II, through all of its various delays and missteps and mishaps.
When they finally announced the launch date and system specs for SC2, my joy at the first was tempered by despair at the latter - my ancient home Macbook, with its puny integrated Intel graphics card, would not be able to handle the less-pixellated hordes of alien invaders in this game.
Luckily, MIT IS&T had just announced (via mailing list of course) that they were replacing a bunch of obsolete departmental desktops, and that a limited number would be available for resale to staff.
It was through this program that I bought a dual-core 3.4 GHz Dell with a 250 GB HD and 2 GB RAM...for $42.
Granted, this machine isn't a Cray, but it's a zippy rig for the cost of The Ultimate Answer.
I almost got a graphics card off of Reuse for around $50, but Newegg was having a crazy sale so I picked up one that was twice as good for just a little more.
Vultu[email protected], or, What To Do With That Leftover Pizza
First of all, if you have leftover pizza, you're doing college wrong.
But let's say that for some reason you do (you were at Anime Club meeting - we have the largest private anime collection in the world - and your friends were too busy watching Dragonball Z reruns to eat everything).
Now, you're an environmentally conscious MIT student. You know that you don't want to waste food, because there's more energy used up by food we waste than in all the oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico per annum. You have a couple of leftover pizzas.
Enter Vultures, also known as "free food". You simply pop open your laptop, email vultures saying "free pizzas, lobby 10, get them while they're warm", and wait.
Now it's like 10 PM on a Friday night, no one is on campus, all is dark and peaceful...until an MIT student pops out of the woodwork, glances around, grabs a pizza and leaves.
It's the most anthropologically interesting list at MIT, and potentially the most (unintentionally) environmentally beneficial one too. If you're a student with too much food, you get to give it away without waste; if you're a student without any good, you get free food without having to dumpster dive.
Indeed, the MIT mailing lists are a microcosm of life at MIT. Rather than being bored or struggling with a dearth of things to do, the struggle instead is with the firehose: learning to manage all of the incoming reuse, free food, and other emails, not to mention zephyr chats and other MIT arcana, might be the toughest part of the job!