Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

In the Crimson Again

We've had, what, two posts in the past six weeks? Sorry, guys, I had a senior thesis (pdf) to write. And we're only kind-of back, since I'm luxuriating a bit in the calm after the storm.

But an article I read in the Crimson on Monday got me mad enough to jolt me out of my stupor (this is usually how I get un-slumped from blog hiatus), and I've got an op-ed in today's paper:

Harvard’s a funny place. In the span of a single day, I can attend a lecture about securing the University’s computer systems from foreign hackers by Jim Waldo, Harvard’s former Chief Technical Officer and, just a few hours later, read an article in The Crimson about the Undergraduate Council’s uninformed request that Harvard postpone its plans to upgrade the same outdated password system that makes it difficult to defend the school’s computers. (...)

It begins, as do some of the best op-eds about computer security, with a quote from Chesterton that I can't remember if I first heard from Leah Libresco or Scott Alexander:

G. K. Chesterton, in his 1929 book The Thing, wrote of reforming institutions: “[Imagine] a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’” (...)

Anyway. What I've got here is a few footnotes to the article that didn't make it past my editor (or the word limit).


The Undergraduate Council is the 'more modern type of reformer' and HarvardKey is the fence. But the fence was also sort of a mirage, and kind of not really blocking anything at all, or, well...

The deadline for students to switch over to the new system is June 1. A targeted search of my email inbox found only an email that specified that students would have to switch "before the end of the year". The UC seemed to think that the deadline for students to switch was April 20 -- which is actually the deadline for faculty and non-student staff.

HUIT maybe deserves a little blame for not being explicitly clear when various parties would be required to switch, but this is mostly on the UC. Someone heard a rumor or misunderstood something, brought it to the Council, which panicked and decided to issue a resolution immediately, rather than collecting real details from HUIT. (If anyone knows what information, specifically, convinced the UC that the deadline was April 20, I'm really curious.)

Meanwhile, with a few emails, I had spoken with Jim Waldo (Harvard's former CTO) and Tim Vaverchak (the director of engineering for the HarvardKey project) by the end of the day. They made it very clear to me why HarvardKey was necessary, what the rollout schedule was, and just how much thought had been put into aligning it around dates that would be convenient for the parties involved (i.e., actually a lot.).

But instead, Christopher Cruz ’17 is on record as saying:

“I understand that there was a fairly contentious debate last night, and that a lot of individuals feel this wasn’t the right measure to take,” he said. “But considering the deadline we believed we were facing, I think this was the right move.”

I don't have many words for Christopher Cruz ’17, besides these: I don't think it was the right measure to take.


At least someone in that room is likely to end up in elected office someday, right? (I mean come on, this is Harvard.) When you think about it, that's kind of terrifying.

I mean, I don't have a great deal of faith that the Harvard UC is doing much to actively prepare the future leaders of the world to act as elected officials, but at the same time, the idea that our elected UC representatives, in majorem, believe that it's okay to issue formal statements on behalf of the student body with less research behind them than I try to put into posts on this blog is...troubling? After all, the news about HarvardKey only caught my eye because I had literally come from a cs262 lecture on its importance in the context of Harvard's distributed computer systems; how many other things has the UC done with a similar degree of rigor?

In one of my favorite quotes about representative government, Edmund Burke famously said that "[y]our representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment". In this incident, the UC did a rather excellent job of exhibiting neither.