kottke.org posts about Harvard

The birth of MicrosoftOct 08 2013

From the Harvard Gazette, Walter Isaacson writes about Bill Gates' years at Harvard.

It may have been the most momentous purchase of a magazine in the history of the Out of Town News stand in Harvard Square. Paul Allen, a college dropout from Seattle, wandered into the cluttered kiosk one snowy day in December 1974 and saw that the new issue of Popular Electronics featured a home computer for hobbyists, called the Altair, that was just coming on the market. He was both exhilarated and dismayed. Although thrilled that the era of the "personal" computer seemed to have arrived, he was afraid that he was going to miss the party. Slapping down 75 cents, he grabbed the issue and trotted through the slush to the Currier House room of Bill Gates, a Harvard sophomore and fellow computer fanatic from Lakeside High School in Seattle, who had convinced Allen to drop out of college and move to Cambridge. "Hey, this thing is happening without us," Allen declared. Gates began to rock back and forth, as he often did during moments of intensity. When he finished the article, he realized that Allen was right. For the next eight weeks, the two of them embarked on a frenzy of code writing that would change the nature of the computer business.

What Gates and Allen set out to do, during the Christmas break of 1974 and the subsequent January reading period when Gates was supposed to be studying for exams, was to create the software for personal computers. "When Paul showed me that magazine, there was no such thing as a software industry," Gates recalled. "We had the insight that you could create one. And we did." Years later, reflecting on his innovations, he said, "That was the most important idea that I ever had."

And here perhaps is the worst idea Gates ever had:

Harvard dropouts, 40 years laterJun 06 2011

Harvard tracked down three people who dropped out of the school in the late 60s to see what had happened to them in the meantime.

"I knew I didn't want to do city planning, to play in that bureaucratic world," he continues. "I also knew that if I stayed another semester they would hand me a diploma, and that diploma is going to open a whole lot of doors that I don't want to go through. And I know that I am not real strong, and if I have that key, at some point I'm going to be seduced and want to go through one of those doors. So by not having the diploma, I will remove the temptation. That actually worked out very well, because I was tempted, more than once."

That's from a man who became a world-renowned knife expert.

Conning HarvardMay 19 2010

When Adam Wheeler got into trouble at Bowdoin, he transferred to Harvard, saying he was an MIT student. When trouble started at Harvard, he attempted to transfer to Yale and Brown. Along the way, he came very close to getting Harvard to endorse his application for a Fulbright Scholarship.

After two years of blending into campus life and racking up academic prizes and tens of thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships, Wheeler allegedly upped the ante: The 23-year-old senior applied for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships last fall using falsified credentials, including a fake transcript and work he plagiarized from a Harvard professor, said investigators.

If you're going to con a college, you've got to aim high, I always say.

Squeezing the lemonMay 15 2009

What Makes Us Happy? asks Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The article is a dual biography of two intertwined entities, a long-running study of 268 Harvard men and the study's long-time principal investigator, George Vaillant. The study was started as a way to determine how people lived successful lives. Valliant's main interpretation from decades of study is that how people respond or adapt to trouble correlates with their healthy aging.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or "psychotic," adaptations -- like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania -- which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the "immature" adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren't as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. "Neurotic" defenses are common in "normal" people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one's feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve "seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ." The healthiest, or "mature," adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Shenk then goes on to evaluate Vaillant on his own terms, with some interesting results.

Grading on a curveJul 23 2008

The second in an unplanned series of posts about the pitfalls of an elite education: John Summers on teaching the banal and privileged at Harvard.

In the first meeting of my first seminar of my first year, Kushner's son Jared entered my classroom and promptly took the seat across from mine, sharing the room, so to speak. I was drawing an annual salary of $15,500 (£7,700) and borrowing the remainder for survival in Cambridge, in order that he might be given the best possible education. Jared later purchased The New York Observer for $10 million, part of which he made buying and selling real estate while also attending my seminar. As publisher, one of his first moves was to reduce pay for the Observer's stable of book reviewers. I had been writing reviews for the Observer in an effort to pay my debts.

From earlier in the week: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. Also relevant here is the growing discussion of gigantic college endowments and how best to use them.

Malcolm Gladwell's description of how Harvard decidesOct 11 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's description of how Harvard decides on who to admit strikes me as similar to how many companies in the tech/web industry hire employees. "Subjectivity in the admissions process is not just an occasion for discrimination; it is also, in better times, the only means available for giving us the social outcome we want. The strategy of discretion that Yale had once used to exclude Jews was soon being used to include people like Levi Jackson."

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