Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Weird" Harvard Students

I am sitting here watching the Knicks and Mavs play. The Mavs have just gone on a run with Lin on the bench. Without Lin, the Knicks have stopped moving the ball--they seem to be just bringing it down the court and heaving it up from the outside, mostly missing.

By now pretty much everything that can be said about the Lin phenomenon has been said. And yet, I have not heard anyone say this: Lin did not "come out of nowhere." By that I don't mean that Harvard is not chopped liver. I mean that Lin was a very talented guy and Harvard couldn't have cared less that he was Asian. Some credit is due here to Frank Sullivan, the Harvard basketball coach who recruited Lin. And Tommy Amaker plainly did a good job coaching Lin, and deserves serious credit too. But more broadly, the reason Harvard is regarded as "nowhere" for these purposes is that Lin was not considered weird at Harvard. Sure he was unusual--Harvard hadn't had any Asian basketball stars that I can remember. But Harvard is so full of people who are unusual packages that he was not identified as extraordinary for being an Asian basketball player.

Lin was a basketball star, and he was Asian. In that sense he was like a star woman mathematician or a gay student who wanted to serve his country in the military or an African American student who wants to be president of the US. The fact that there are not million exemplars of the combination of categories certainly makes the total picture more interesting, but it wouldn't be interesting at all if the individual wasn't a star mathematician or politician or would-be cadet or basketball player.

I have no personal knowledge of Lin's admission to Harvard, but I have been on the admission committee for decades, and I have seen this phenomenon many times before, where a person stands out because of something unusual about the total package, but wouldn't get in without the underlying distinguishing excellence. People looking in from outside accuse Ivy League schools of reverse discrimination against normal people, and demand that the unfairness of the highly subjective, "holistic" admission process, described so well in Harvard's brief in the Bakke case, be replaced by something more objective, based on grades and test scores. But what we actually have is a cross section of the talent pool potential of America and the world, in all the variety that talents come and are needed to make a society.

In 1960, when he stepped down as Dean of Admissions, W. J. Bender wrote a report on Harvard admissions policy and why, to paraphrase Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard should not have one. What he said then would be politically incorrect today in some of its specific language. The exclusive use of the masculine is because Radcliffe admissions was entirely separate, with its own dean and committee and very different philosophy. The numerical standards Bender mentions are seriously dated. And yet the perspective he describes has remained wise for the intervening 52 years. The ghost of Bender over Harvard admissions helps explain Lin--and why he was "just" a  great basketball player at Harvard, not a great Asian basketball player. It has resulted in Harvard having a lot "weird," wonderful students who go on to do great things with their lives.

Perhaps, in other words, we will actually be the best college and make the optimum use of our resources if we are reasonably relaxed about it, if we show a little more humility and humanity and catholicity in our search for talent, if we recognize the fundamental human and social importance of other factors than A-getting ability and high academic ambitions, and don't use the faculty exclusively to reproduce themselves. By all means let's have a lot of brilliant students, the first-class academic minds which have always been one of the hallmarks of Harvard. And in the getting of these, let's look particularly for the truly original and independent and imaginative minds, even if they are found in candidates with SAT scores of 550 and a rank in the middle of their school classes. but let's have some other students to help hold the place together, students who are intelligent and curious and interested enough to profit from Harvard, who are intelligent without necessarily being "intellectuals" but whose distinction is primarily other--goodness or loyalty  or every or perceptivity or a passionate concern of some sort. … 
In other words, my prejudice is for a Harvard College with a certain range and mixture and diversity in its student body--a college with some snobs and some Scandinavian farm boys who skate beautifully and some bright Bronx pre-meds, with some students who care passionately if unwisely (but who knows) about editing the Crimson or beating Yale, or who have an ambition to run a business and make a million, or to get elected to public office, a college in which not all the students have looked on school just as preparation for college, college as preparation for graduate school and graduate school as preparation for they know not what. Won't even our top-one-per-cent be better men and better scholars for being part of such a college?
Jeremy Lin did not come out of nowhere. He came out of that way of looking at the world.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

More Harvard Facebook prehistory

Spurred by the interest of some journalists and bloggers (see The Alternate Reality Facebook that Almost Happened), I did some more digging in my email archives to see if I could document the path from the earliest electronic face books at Harvard to early 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg took matters into his own hands. I come away with a general feeling that whether or not Facebook was "invented" by any of the three Harvard claimants (the Winklevosses and Aaron Greenspan as well as Zuckerberg), it emerged in a sort of technological inevitability, assisted by Harvard's shortsightedness.

Physical "facebooks" had been around Harvard since forever, not just for the Houses but for departments. The first reference I can find to moving a facebook online is from 1994 and his here reproduced in its entirety.

From: gwertzma@husc
Subject: Re: facebook
Date: February 13, 1994 6:46:56 PM EST
To: lewis@das (Harry Lewis)

Hey.. Don't know if I answered this already. Right now the images  ARE available outside Harvard, but noone knows about them yet. I  am looking into ways to make the facebook only accessible within Harvard.
         James Gwertzman    :     No neat quote.    :     For that you'll have to read my plan. 

That's exactly 18 years ago. Clearly it was sent in response to a query from me, presumably of something we had discussed in person, Alas, I don't have my half of the exchange, or any direct followup.

I hope James Gwertzman won't mind receiving the credit here. At the time he was an undergraduate concentrating in computer science, and a trusted colleague on the Information Technology committee. Subsequent emails make clear that what he is referring to here is creating a face book for both students and faculty of what was then called the Division of Applied Sciences (now the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences), of which Computer Science is a part. There are followup emails, on which I am copied, between him and administrators responsible for the ID photos and the list of faculty email addresses.

It is clear even from this first message that policy issues were being confronted. Followup emails dealt with a data leak resulting from the fact that the photos had Harvard ID numbers (which are not supposed to be public) in their file names, and whether any faculty members would object to having their email addresses made public. A response James got from one administrator gives the tenor: "Yes, we can release them to you.  However, some questions have been raised about proper use of the images.  My supervisor has drawn up a standardized form …" A few weeks later, James was in correspondence with the Admissions Office about getting its view book online. In April 1994 he circulated a concrete proposal. Here is some of what he offered:
Admissions Department Internet Proposal
As the number of high schools connected to the internet increases, it becomes increasingly important for Harvard Admissions to display an active internet presence. The reasons for this include:
o Attracting the student who might otherwise believe Harvard is backward technologically.
o Showing that the myth about Harvard doing everything several years after other schools is false.
o Taking advantage of this new medium to recruit in areas not usually covered by traditional guides (Alaska for example has one of the best high school connectivity rates)
o Providing a very cost effective way of attracting foreign students.
James goes on to suggest some concrete steps, such as making the email address of the Admissions Office widely available, and this gem:
3. Create a simple page about Harvard on the World Wide Web, a multimedia tool for accessing the internet that is rapidly becoming the predominant means of accessing resources on the internet for many people. Include links to other Harvard on-line resources such as the course catalog and any departments with pages, such as the Division of Applied Sciences, and the Biology department. 
Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it! Remember, this is not only pre-Web 2.0, that is, before the time where people could easily modify each other's web pages. It is barely Web 1.0. The I/T professional from the Admissions Office included in his response to James and me some correspondence he had just received from colleagues at the University of California, including this priceless quote: "It turns out that gopher is now old technolgy!!! You need to do some reading about Mosaic …."

I do not remember whether the DAS face book ever went live. James, however, has gone on to great things. After some years at Microsoft he went to Popcap games, recently acquired by Electronic Arts. He now manages their China operations. A good guy and a visionary both.

In the August 1997, a student from the Harvard Computer Society put forward a fairly long proposal about creating an online facebook for all Harvard undergraduates, and by this time there is no question that this could mean anything but a Web site. A lot of thoughtful discussion ensued with various interested parties, including the head of the I/T committee and the Registrar, about issues of privacy, security, and accuracy, and whether a student-run project could manage it all. (Remember, this is Web 1.0--it was like print publishing. If a phone number was wrong, you needed the I/T department to fix it.)

The Registrar included in one of her plies (August, 1997) the following fascinating paragraph:
You might want to know that my office currently provides data to a site called "Facebooks" which includes "directory information" for those students who have not set security flags.  This data is refreshed every day of the year.   The House administrators go to that site to pull the data for their houses (which is all they currently are permitted to access).  The image (the photo of the student) is provided by the HUID Office for those who have not set security flags. The image may be used for internal Harvard publications and other processes.  In the case of the Facebbook,I believe the student is given the opportunity to reject having his/her photo in the Facebooks via a query at the Houses.  I have not been able to confirm this yet, however, but hope to do so this afternoon.
Two things of interest here--the use of the term "the Facebook," with a capital F, for what was an entirely internal administrative system, not visible to students or the outside world. And the great sensitivity about student photos, and protocols for their use even within Harvard--which underscores that when Zuckerberg launched Facemash, Harvard administrators had been struggling with the issues surrounding electronic distribution of student photos for a decade. No wonder they reacted with some alarm!

Here is another piece of the history--this email, from the Registrar, is from November 1997. so the incident referred to must have been in the summer of 1995: "about two years ago in the summer … the Science Center failed to filter out student dorm room numbers from the Ph directory, which is available to outside users via the kiosks in the Science Center.  Apparently, a female student's location was found that way and she was stalked."

Now while all this was going on, two of the bigger agenda items for the dean's office were a series of peer sexual assault cases, and the question of "Universal Keycard Access," that is, should a student from one House be able to swipe into another. These two were related, because a woman fleeing an assailant would want to get into the first House she came to, whether or not it was her own (but if her assailant was a peer, then he could swipe in too …). So there was a larger and more urgent context in which these discussions of data security were taking place.

On May 10, 2001, a student approaches me with the same proposal: "I was wondering about the possibility of setting up a Campus Wide Facebook on the Web." The Registrar reminds me of what had happened a few years earlier:
I had at first asked Y to take on the project but he was unable to assign the resources.  The student group was providing the staff for developing the project and the server, the RO [Registrar's Office] was providing the data, and HU ID office was providing the images. It had been agreed that Freshmen would not be included in the facebook project. (And, I believe, the one House that was not interested in a web-based book was Eliot House!).
To make a long story short, the students responsible for the project did not have enough time to get it going and the project died.  I worked with three different students during the course of 2 years.  The model, you might recall, was to do it House-by-House working with the House staff and using a standard template and guidelines. As you know, Y is now planning to assign staff resources to develop the web-based House facebook.
As in the previous post, Y is the head of computing services. He reported up through a different chain of command, and his priorities were set by academic authorities, not by the Registrar or student life deans like me. And I imagine the academic authorities just did not see the project as having much educational value, by comparison with the many things faculty were asking for to assist their research and teaching. And as the email also suggests, even the relevant College authorities were not agreed on the privacy issues.

And then in February 2003 it comes back again, with this email from a student:
I am writing to you on behalf of the Harvard Undergraduate Council on the matter of all-school online facebook.

In our recent meetings, many representatives expressed a concern for the lack of a mean to locate other students in the college. It is indeed frustrating when one wants to look someone up from class/dining halls/paths, since there is no way to go about it unless they are from your house (or the yard). In fact, even the freshman facebook is missing a significant portion of the class.

Do you think it is possible to create one main website- accessible with ID and pin number- that has everyone's ID pictures on it? The ID office in Holyoke already has all those pictures on file and it should not be a problem. I believe that this project will increase school unity, as well as classmate bonding, which we lack so much after we leave the Yard.
Back it went to the I/T department, which by now was totally preoccupied with music downloading--the need to keep increasing network capacity, and to respond to RIAA complaints against students. A month later I was released as dean, so I don't know whether anything might have been in the works over the summer of 2003.

But in January of 2004 I got the famous "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis" inquiry from a student who had taken my CS theory class in the fall of 2002 (just as Friendster was aborning), and that ends the Harvard prehistory of Facebook!

Readers of Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants" will see this sequence of events as fitting the pattern he describes. Technology wanted an online facebook. By this time all that was needed to make it a reality was a student who was a bit less respectful of authority than the several wonderful people I have quoted or mentioned here!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Early Online Harvard Facebook Email Thread

After talking to a reporter about the Harvard culture around the time Mark Zuckerberg was here, I dug out some old email to jog my memory about the early efforts to move the Harvard House face books online. These were printed brochures with basic information and photos of members of each House, students and resident staff and tutors, which had long been used to create House community. It seems that some Houses started to create online versions of their Face Books around 1996, while I was dean, and I was involved with the discussions of uncoordinated effort duplication and privacy. The Harvard Computer Society, which often serves as a central resource for otherwise decentralized projects like this, wanted to help out. The minutes of a February 25, 1996 HCS meeting has an agenda item called "Online Facebook" and two bullets:
- idea is to have one main photo server that other people link to.
 - Political issues will be most difficult.

As a matter of historical record, I post below most of a subsequent email exchange I had with the FAS Registrar, who was one of my direct reports. I have redacted some names.

The date of this email is October 6, 1997. So more than six years before Facebook started (and five years before an alum brought Friendster to my attention) Harvard was trying to figure out a sustainable model for managing online facebooks in a way that was sensitive to student privacy expectations. Of course, there were other development projects that seemed more urgent, so we never got around to doing this one properly …. The indented text is from the Registrar, the flush text are my interpolated responses.

Harry: I write to provide you with an update re: on-line face books. X and I did meet with three students from HCS to review issues relating to on-line facebooks.

We shared with the students the standards/guidelines we had previously discussed with you. The students agreed to do everything they can to secure the student images (photos); however, given that the access vehicle for the on-line facebooks is Netscape, it will be possible for those within the Harvard domain to download copies of the facebooks. We agreed that we should provide information to students which references the appropriate sections of the handbook which would let them know they should not tamper with the images in any way. There is no way, however, for HCS to completely secure the image within the Harvard domain. We are now at the point where HCS would like a sample set of data from me so that they can begin to think about the web facebook application. We learned during our meeting with the students that three houses have facebooks on-line: Pforzheimer, Mather and Eliot. The first two I was able to access which means they are available within the Harvard domain. I could not get into the Eliot one which probably means the server it is on is not available outside of Eliot. Given that some Houses have already moved to on-line facebooks and that others want to shall we just share the guideliens[sic] we developed with the houses so that they know how we view their participation in this project, including their responsibility to inform the students of the fact that they are going to have the image and data on-line for those students who have not restricted directory information and who have not exercised their option to inform the Houses that they don't want their image on-line. We could then have HCS follow-up house-by-house to develop the on-line facebooks. However, it does seem to me that some Houses may want to work with HCS in the design of the Facebook but may want to keep it on their own server and not provide access to the Harvard domain. Do you have any strong preference in this regard?
I know Eliot house has locked the world, as it does physically. [HRL: A reference to the fact that Eliot House kept its gates locked against even other Harvard students more than other Houses did--another issue I was dealing with.] I would prefer that we develop a standard for harvard-wide access and make it as easy as possible for the Houses to plug their data into it, so there will be a disincentive for customization. Of course any house that wants to work directly with HCS could continue to do so, at some greater cost to itself.
Do you want me to send our recommended guidelines to the Assistants to the House Masters, or, do you want to discuss this with the Masters at one of your regular meetings?

This is not good fodder for Masters meetings. I would prefer to send the Masters a memo explaining what we are doing, and putting the spin on it  outlined above. The technical details can go in a separate packet to the  Assistants.
Also, HCS would like to have the on-line facebooks moved to another server in the long-term rather than keeping it on their server (which, of course, was provided to them by HASCS [Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services]). I discussed this with Y, because it seemed to me that if any unit has responsibility for FAS-wide computing support, it is HASCS. However, Y is concerned about the resouces[sic] he would need (staffing and computing) to provide the level of service (help assistance, general inquiry assistance) that would arise from the facebooks being on-line. He also felt that given all of the other projects he needs to complete, that this one has low priority. So, if HCS begins this process, they will have to be committed to keeping the facebooks on their server for the long-term. I will be sure the students we met with know this.
OK. Let's get started and face the longterm issue if we are fortunate enough to be successful.