Just what the heck is a ‘Smoot‘?
Visitors traveling over the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge from Boston to Cambridge, MA MIT area have been asking themselves that for years since a pledge from Lambda Chi Alpha MIT frat measured the bridge in body length and painted the increments.
These pranks, or ‘hacks’ as the MIT community calls them are a tradition that has transformed the campus and the community in some oddball ways, from the famous dome being painted like R2-D2 and a whole police car placed at the top of the thing.
Writer and MIT alum Steve Altes teamed with cartoonist Andy Fish to bring these stories to life with a Kickstarted funded graphic novel called Geeks & Greeks.
The team is here to tell us about the hacks and reminisce about more local legends like the Quincy, MA Quarries!
FOG!: Hi Steve and Andy, thanks for joining us to discuss Geeks & Greeks on Forces of Geek!
Andy Fish: Thanks for having us.
Steve Altes: The pleasure is all ours.
Steve, how did the idea come about for this book? I remember being in college myself in Boston for the infamous Police Car hack!
SA: When I was an MIT student in the 1980s I would tell my friends back home about the pranks and hazing that happened at MIT and they were always shocked and amazed and alarmed.
It got me thinking that if I could find a coherent through-line and emotional journey to hang these incidents on, I’d have a pretty decent story.
What can you tell the readers about MIT hacks if they are unfamiliar?
SA: At MIT a hack is a clever, humorous, technically sophisticated prank. Hacks showcase a combination of engineering prowess and anti-authoritarian whimsy, two key aspects of MIT’s DNA. A hack can help people see something in a different way, like “I wonder if I could turn this tall building into a giant playable game of Tetris?”
Steve, you mention in your intro that this exists on a ‘timey-wimey’ timeline. Meaning some of the hacks were brought into the modern age. How did it go, updating these pranks?
SA: True, our booky-wooky’s timey-wimey is sort of loosey-goosey.
* Andy slaps Steve *
Yes, I’ve taken certain liberties. Timelines have been altered. Hacks that occurred decades apart in real life happen in the span of one month in this story. And, of course, some incidents have been fabricated or embellished. To separate fact from fiction I included 120 endnotes that document the real-life origins of nearly every event in the book. In the end about 90% of this story was inspired by actual events that I, my friends, and fellow MIT students lived through.
I had to make some adjustments. For example, in Geeks & Greeks the Quincy Quarries are still full of water, not dirt from Boston’s “Big Dig,” because that’s how things were when I was an MIT student. On the other hand, this story is clearly set in the present since it features things like smartphones and the MIT Stata Center, which weren’t around in the 1980s.
If you’re knowledgeable enough about MIT or Boston and notice such temporal disconnects, just tell yourself that this story takes place in an alternative universe MIT/Boston, where some things are the same as today, some things are the way they were in the past, and some things are a little bit different.
I should be clear, there is more to Geeks & Greeks than pranks and hacks. You’ve got a bit of romance, lots of humor and lots of local Boston/MIT/Cambridge references. What was most interesting in doing your research for the book?
SA: It’s been really interesting talking with today’s students. The atmosphere at MIT has changed completely since I was a student. In the 70s and 80s many MIT living groups had a real Animal House mentality. That era is gone. While the playful spirit of hacking continues to thrive at MIT, many of the more abusive impulses of it’s living groups have toned down. Fraternities in particular have been forced to adapt to changing societal norms.
The worst offenders have had their charters suspended or revoked and, across the board, a more mature attitude has taken hold. Today’s MIT student is more concerned with inventing the Next Big Thing, starting a company, and changing the world than engaging in some of the more destructive hijinks recounted in Geeks & Greeks.
You’ve been hatching this idea for a long time. Care to tell us about the history of how Geeks & Greeks came to be, from a screenplay to a Kickstarter project years later?
SA: Geeks & Greeks started as a screenplay because the events were so visual I felt they had to be seen not just imagined. It’s a kinetic story with lots of chasing, smashing, exploding, climbing, rappelling, and plummeting. It just felt like a movie, rather than a novel.
But I didn’t start writing it right away. The ideas needed time to marinate, plus I didn’t really find my voice as a writer until the late-90s. Around that time I started getting bit parts in movies and I viewed that experience as a form of film school.
I started the script in 2001 and had a solid draft by 2003.
Of course, it’s really tough to get read as an unknown screenwriter, but I was lucky and got the script in the hands of Dottie Zicklin, the most successful MIT alum in Hollywood.
She produced a bunch of hit sitcoms like Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Caroline in the City, and she co-created Dharma and Greg. Being an MIT grad, she immediately got what I was trying to do with Geeks and optioned the script.
Dottie got the script read by a couple of literary agents at UTA in Beverly Hills. They said casting directors “were doing backflips over the screenplay.” Next thing you know I’m on the Warner Bros. lot meeting with producers from Heyday Films, the production company behind the Harry Potter movies.
Those were exciting times. Heyday has more money than God. They could have made Geeks & Greeks into a movie for less than they earn each year from Harry Potter Hedwig the owl action figures.
I spent a year rewriting the script for Heyday. Tighten this. Change that. Give this character more of an arc. The downside was all these rewrites were unpaid. That’s the nature of the Hollywood game when you’re a noob trying to break in. But the good thing to come out of this phase was the script got a lot better. And not just because I rewrote it dozens of times. A bunch of really smart story development execs read the script and offered their insight. Their critiques helped make the script faster, funnier, and more focused.
I got acquainted with a Hollywood term known as “development hell.” Time passed and a key person at Heyday left to start his own production company, so the script lost its champion. The option expired and Hollywood moved on to the next bright shiny object. Happens all the time.
Then in 2013 I was browsing graphic novels in a bookstore and it finally dawned on me… Geeks really ought to be a graphic novel. Like film, graphic novels are a visual medium. A graphic novel is a movie shot with ink and paper. So I pivoted. I believe in being persistent about your goals but flexible about your methods.
I turned to Kickstarter to raise funds because illustrating Geeks & Greeks was going to be a huge undertaking for Andy. Location research, character design, pencils, ink, lettering, and coloring 184 pages takes time. I couldn’t ask Andy to work full-time for a year and a half for nothing.
We were amazed at enthusiastic reception Geeks & Greeks got. People really embraced it. In June 2014 our Kickstarter raised $43,000, which at the time was a Kickstarter record for a first-time graphic novelist.
Question for Andy, we love your cartooning in the book. How did you go about sourcing references for these things? Did MIT give you some access or did Steve?
AF: Steve arranged to get me an extended tour of the campus with a great student guide who took me to the nooks and crannies of the campus. I spent two days there, eating meals and interacting with students. I found the place artistically inspiring and a far cry from the industrial grey I expected. I wanted to get some of that fun and color into the book.
SA: Andy also explored my old fraternity at 518 Beacon Street. This brownstone was the site of a lot of the mischief recounted in the book. You can tell Andy did his homework. If you look at his panoramas of the MIT campus, the aerial shots, the Esplanade, and the Back Bay, they have an almost photo-realistic quality to them. His illustrations are like time-traveling for me.
Andy’s attention to detail is insane. If you look on page 26 there is a scene in MIT’s Killian Court, the college’s quad. On the frieze, barely visible between the trees, you can just barely make out the letters “ARC,” which is hella accurate because ARCHIMEDES really is inscribed on the actual building in that spot. Its like that throughout the book.
What is your favorite MIT hack (in the book or not)?
AF: Okay this isn’t technically a hack. It’s more of a high-tech fraternity shenanigan. But I’m a fan of the Watermelon launch. I like things that make a statement and having a highly pressurized watermelon slingshot into your room and explode is certainly something you’d notice. The ratsicles is a close second.
SA: My favorite MIT hack has always been Alpha Tau Omega commandeering the SHERATON sign in downtown Boston to make it read “ATO” during Rush Week. It was so creative and gutsy and terrific advertising for them. That hack features prominently in Geeks & Greeks.
What does the future have in store for MIT hacks? Have they jumped the shark or are there infinite possibilities?
AF: I hope for the sake of our society that the hacks continue. Brainiacs need pressure-releasing outlets and opportunities to challenge authority and express themselves creatively. It’s a training ground for the next generation of techno-rebels.
SA: I have faith that future generations of MIT hackers will continue the tradition. Our country’s hair-trigger terrorist alert status does present some challenges for hackers. In 1982 MIT hackers installed a giant weather balloon underground in Harvard Stadium and deployed in the middle of the Harvard-Yale football game. Imagine the reaction today if that happened. A SWAT team would have mobilized and the hackers probably would spend a couple days being interrogated by Homeland Security.
Geeks & Greeks is available now.
For more details, or to purchase, Click HERE.
For your chance to win a digital copy of the book, please send an email with the subject header “Gimme that thing” to [email protected].
Only one entry per person and a winner will be chosen at random. Contest ends at 11:59 PM EST on September 30, 2016.