Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Was He Thinking?

It was so obvious it couldn't possibly be true. A warning about a bomb in some Harvard buildings, three of them places where an exam was about to take place, the fourth a freshman dormitory. When my brother emailed me from Texas on Monday to ask what was up, I replied, "Somebody really does not want to take his final exam." Just so, as it turned out.

Law enforcement were able to figure out whose laptop had been used to access the anonymizing network Tor around the time the warning email had been sent. That doesn't necessarily mean that that student, Eldo Kim, actually sent that particular email. But it certainly provided law enforcement with ample reason to have a chat with Mr. Kim. Turns out Mr. Kim had dropped some other breadcrumbs. He had blasted the Quincy House student list for help preparing for the exam in Gov 1368, one of the exams given that morning. In any case, when confronted, he confessed, even after being Mirandized.

So he was worried about the exam and did not want to take it. I get that part. But why on earth did he choose to disrupt the lives of hundreds of his peers by canceling their exams as well as his own, and threaten the welfare of the community too by summoning in police and fire units?

It's easy to "sick out" of an exam. That's an abuse of the health system and an inconvenience to the doctors and nurses who have plenty of actually sick people to treat. But the radius of inconvenience caused is pretty limited.

Mr. Kim's acts were selfish to the point of narcissism. We have already started to hear that he was under stress---so reports his lawyer---though maybe it is "self-imposed stress." The lawyer also reports that Kim loves Harvard and wants to come back.

No. I get it---people are under stress, people snap. But there is an inexcusably hollow moral core to a person, even a mentally disturbed person (and no one has suggested Mr. Kim showed any signs of serious mental illness), who conveniences himself by disrupting the lives of hundreds of his peers and the safety of the civil community in which he lives.

Maybe there is a cultural factor. Mr. Kim is Korean by birth and a naturalized US citizen. I visited with some higher education officials in South Korea a few years ago and asked them what their biggest problem was. I was shocked to be told "suicide." I wonder if Mr. Kim has committed an Americanized form of suicide.

Suicide is bad enough; this bomb hoax was more like a murder-suicide.

This was a calculated act --- Kim didn't just pull a fire alarm (another old trick for disrupting an exam). It took some work to create the fraudulent email account and inject the clever email into the anonymizing network (two out of the four buildings will blow up, good luck guessing which two!). Though Kim did not do enough work, it turns out. He failed to realize that there was a reason Harvard registered his laptop the first time he connected to its wireless network. I am glad he was caught, I am angry at him and consider him an evil person. I am glad that on top of that I don't have to be ashamed of him as a computer science student for his poor grasp of network technology! (See Michael Mitzenmacher for more on that.)

Kim should be dismissed from Harvard. That is the technical term for being sent away forever, not for the usual one year that plagiarists and drunken pugilists get. (Dismissed students can in theory be voted back in, and as a nonbeliever in capital punishment I suppose I would leave that door open, in case he wins the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of decades from now.)

Kim should also get a good sentence of time behind bars, and I expect he will. When the Dersh says you  are going to have a hard time finding anyone to defend you, you know the odds of getting off light are against you.

Having said all that, I still find something worrisome about this situation that I hardly dare mention. But what the hell.

Was it an accident that this incident, like the infamous cheating scandal, happened in a Government course? (I guess we don't know that it was the Gov 1368 exam Kim was trying to get out of, but that would seem a logical inference from the fact that he was worried about it and he had an exam that morning and that the Gov 1368 exam was that morning.)

This is from a comment by "Classmate" on a Crimson story:
 It was a fairly easy class, but the exam was worth a very significant portion of the class grade, and we still haven't received a single (concrete) assignment grade to date. 
Now that's an anonymous comment, and the rest of it is very sympathetic to Kim. And it may not be an accurate description of the course --- I would love to know. The course syllabus states the requirements this way:
1. Short in-class quizzes covering assigned material for the day, class participation and performance, total of 30 % 
2. Policy Paper and Presentation 30%  
3. Final Examination 40% 

I am reminded of how different courses are from each other.

I just turned in the 118 grades for CS 121. That's the biggest the course has ever been, by almost 50%. It is a tough course. There are 10 homework assignments. Each homework assignment has 3 parts to be turned in separately. These are math problems, no computer programming. People worked like hell, an assignment every week, a midterm exam, a final exam. We had a minor cheating issue about a month into the course and, instead of turning anyone over to the Ad Board, I wrote in huge letters on the blackboard at the next lecture, "DON'T BE STUPID!" and yelled at the whole class for 5 minutes, using my best angry-father voice. I think it worked.

If you want to be stressed, mine would be a logical course to be stressed in. And when the dust settled, a few clearly hoped that their grade would have been just a little higher than it was. But mostly students in the course sent me nice notes after the course was over. They thanked the TFs, who they could see, with over 3000 papers to grade, were working just as hard as they were. Some walked into my office with a big smile on their face when they stopped by to look at what they had done wrong on the final exam.

There really seem to be multiple Harvards. The experience of the Gov students, if the tales of Gov 1310 and that comment about Gov 1368 are accurate, is in a different universe from the experience of CS students.

And the weird thing is, students seem to be emigrating from the easy majors and joining the tough ones. A freshman came into my office recently, the graduate of a top prep school. He had intended to study literature but was enrolled in CS 50, which he thought was cool. He wanted understand what it would mean to major in computer science.

Of course CS 50 and other CS courses have their own issues of cheating and other bad behavior. But it seems that in general, the ambitious Harvard students are choosing to run up hill, and they like it. Are the bottom-feeders, like Mr. Kim, being disproportionately left behind in fields where they have gotten the impression they can cope without much effort?


  1. Harry,

    While I would not try to excuse Mr. Kim, I'd like this incident to lead to some discussion at Harvard on the following issue.

    From my time on the Ad Board, my impression is that the students who cheat are, with rare exception, not malicious (or "evil"). They are people who crossed some stress boundary and did something that, under regular circumstances, they know is wrong and would never think that they would do. But once they reach that point, it's like the part of their judgment that would and should be telling them "DON'T BE STUPID" gets turned off, and trouble begins.

    I don't know if this occurs more now than previously; perhaps many Harvard students (myself included, though time-shifted) have not faced enough adversity, so when a bad situation happens, they fail to cope as we would hope and expect. And I can't help but think more discussion and preparation early on in a student's career could help prevent this, making it harder for this mental shutdown to occur. (Maybe much more time should be spent reminding students Harvard is a stressful place, but it really all will be OK in the end, and when they hit a desperate time, here are the things they should and should not do. I think this is the sort of "practical moral reasoning" I believe you try to promote.) Maybe we need to stick our psychology department on researching this problem (or perhaps they have the answer and can point me to things to read).

    On another topic, I took a number of history/gov courses as a student here, and at least back then, while they didn't have the "problem set rigor" I appreciate as a Math/CS concentrator, the classes I took were not what I would call easy. While I can't say Mansfield's and Sandel's courses were quite as inspiring as CS 121, they were wonderful, memorable, challenging courses -- lots of fantastic reading and great lectures/discussions -- and those professors still around. I wonder if things have changed so much since then in some of the liberal arts departments, or if we're just somehow more aware of the bad cases these days.

    And of course, CS courses are wonderfully ambitious, may they ever be so.

    1. Michael,
      A lot of wisdom here (and yes, the history courses I took were hard -- never took a Gov course). On the subject of not having faced enough adversity, I wonder if you remember this passage from EWAS:

      The bearded, bespectacled young dean of students in one of the Houses stopped me after a meeting of the Administrative Board. “Is it true,” he asked, “that they are trying to cut the number of athletes?” It was true; the Crimson had reported, correctly, that the presi- dents of Ivy League colleges were planning to reduce the ceiling on the number of football admittees in the freshman class to at most thirty, maybe twenty-five, from the current thirty-five. I was surprised he was interested; I didn’t recall having seen him at any games. “That would be terrible,” he continued. “They add so much to the House. They are the only people here who know how to lose.”

  2. I'd like to take issue with the "evil" label. I'll offer up first the rather fuzzy "morals in this day and age seem very...fluid" combined with anyone, at any moment, can have a Grande Moment of Stupidity. While nothing quite as grand as Kim's, I can recall several moments of my own over the decades.

    None of that gets him off. In my mind, he should can his lawyer, offer up an apology and take his lumps.

    The second, and most objective measure: he confessed. In my experience, evil people don't confess.

  3. I'd like defend my use of the incendiary term "evil." Kim is not another knucklehead who pulled a fire alarm on a whim.

    1) He is a sophomore. That means that he probably was at Harvard 8 months ago when shrapnel-laced bombs went off in Boston and the whole metro area, including Harvard Yard where he was living, was locked down. Those bombs had shrapnel in them. Mr. Kim wanted the world to THINK he was as evil as the Tsarnaevs, even adopting the shrapnel idea from them.

    2) Kim's act was calculated, not impulsive. He acquired the technology needed to make it work (though not all the knowledge to make it work better, e.g. that Tor exit nodes can sometimes be identified). He made a game out of the email, taunting the authorities by throwing in extra "targets."

    3) He was unconscionably, almost solipsistically selfish. As MM says, the moral daemon that is supposed to stop you when you are about to hurt other people was absent. In my book, that's the worst of it.

    Yes, Maurice, he confessed. As I suggested in my post, I chalk that up to a kind of suicidality. Sometimes evil people want to destroy themselves, the two are not incompatible.

    Michael, I am actually getting weary of the talk about stress. IMHO, the stress comes from people having absolutely no idea why they are working so hard, or discovering that they don't have to work hard, because their achievements are meaningless. In high school they were working to please their parents and to get into college. Now they are into college and breaking free from their parents. So what's the point of all this schoolwork? These feelings are nothing new. They are standard early adult existential angst. What's different is that institutionally we do so little to help people think about the big issues or even to honor the hard work of figuring out what it means to be human. We have excellence without a soul, one might say. There is a stress reduction committee at work in the College right now. I'll bet it is not thinking in terms of identity formation and personal maturation, growth to independence, and so on. The only people who are thinking about the real issues are the religious ones, and IMHO, God is not the right place to turn!

  4. Your post was interesting up until the point when you had to Go There with the racist "oh, but he's Korean! it might be cultural!" crap. Which you followed up with a fundamental lack of understanding of suicide and the mental illness mechanics behind it. There is no "Americanized version of suicide" -- I know of PLENTY of (by your implication, white) Americans who commit plain old suicide. Suicide is not being thrown out of Harvard, suicide is self-murder, a violent crime stemming from mental illness. Mr. Kim did something stupid, selfish, and illegal, inconveniencing and terrorizing an entire campus. That is NOT suicide. That is NOT limited to just one ethnicity.

    With any luck, he'll never have to worry about finals again, because he'll be spending too much time in prison.

    1. Racist? I am not an expert on the public health statistics in this area, but what made that conversation with the Korean education official so striking was that it seemed to reflect an incidence that was inconsistent with what happens in the U.S. Of course lots of people in the US commit suicide, and it is a terrible thing when it happens. I have had to deal with it too. And as one of the experts David Brooks quoted recently puts it, suicide is often delayed homicide. Colleges should do what they can to prevent it.

      What was striking about the conversation with the Korean official was that the incidence pattern in Korean schools and colleges seems to be the inverse of what it is in the US. In the US, at least the last time I learned about this, the incidence of suicide is LOWER among college students than it is among college-age youth who are not college students. The opposite is apparently true in Korea. (I have not traced down recent statistics. Brooks quotes a WHO report as stating that suicide rates are on the increase everywhere, but are increasing more dramatically outside than inside the US.)

      As for Mr. Kim, granted that is dangerous to over-analyze on the basis of general experiences, no professional training, and press reports of a persons behavior, it seems to me that this was a self-destructive act, one that will destroy his life, and one that was calculated and planned, and which he quite likely fully expected to be discovered. I am, of course, glad that he chose this way of destroying himself rather than doing it literally. I'm willing to accept the criticism that I used a dangerous and too speculative metaphor. I'm also quite happy to be corrected on my facts if they are out of date or my Korean informant was misinformed. I am just trying to figure out what the hell he was thinking, at least in part subliminally, and why.

    2. There's a huge difference between murder, suicide, and murder-suicide. Also an immense gulf between any of those and making a bad faith effort to get a final exam cancelled.

      Mr. Kim has been in the US, according to the Crimson profile, at least since High School, so assuming that his behavior is somehow "typically Korean" makes even less sense than usual.

      Speaking as a Harvard-trained Asianist, though not an expert on Korea specifically, this kind of public dime-store psychologizing and cheap-shot cultural assumptions is quite reprehensible and irresponsible.

  5. I once skated on the edge of receiving the one year social death sentence that Harvard imposes on its academically struggling students. As it turned out, two straight days of cramming for an Advanced Stats final on the top floor of the Science Center made the difference between a C- and getting sent home.

    In retrospect, going to class a least a couple times over the prior semester would have been a far more preferable course of action, but 21 year old men are not famous for making great decisions.

    I was scared to death I was going to fail, felt cornered, angry and defensive, but it was an important moment for me. There aren't too many times you can look back at one seemingly small choice (cram like mad or go to sleep) and realize your life would be completely different had you made a different choice.

    I'm glad I learned that lesson at Harvard and not in the job market. Pushing students to make hard choices, consider trade-offs, and when necessary, swallow their pride and ask for help is EXACTLY what they should be doing.

    1. And it sounds like you failed to ask for help and figured this out for yourself. You are really lucky about your choices if I interpret your narrative correctly. I know I have many times nudged a student in the right direction just by asking a question like, "Why are you doing this?" Having an adult ask such a question, without giving the "right" answer, already frees people from the presumption that the answer is predetermined and obvious.This is where residential colleges can do something that no online forum can do. But they fail to do it when too many students are anonymous.