Harvard College

Revoked Harvard admission not a free-speech case

Freshmen dorms at Harvard

Freshmen dorms at Harvard

First ran in Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

Harvard College has rescinded its offer of admission to Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people. No, it’s not because he’s a big fan of Trump who reveres the NRA, which Harvard knew about when it accepted him. Indeed, his articulate outspokenness and that he went to that tragic school probably got him into Harvard, which only admits about 6 percent of applicants.

His problem was that Harvard learned that he had made virulently anti-black comments (extensive use of the “N’’ word) and, oddly, since he’s a descendent of Holacaust survivors, anti-Semitic remarks, too, via text and group chat before the shooting.

He asserts now that he was just being, well, silly, and didn’t really mean it: “We were 16-year-olds making idiotic comments, using callous and inflammatory language in an effort to be as extreme and shocking as possible,’’ and that despite, among other things, his links with Turning Points USA, which has a fair share of racists, he isn’t a racist.

Who knows? But his argument that his profuse apologies upon being found out, and his youth when he made his odious comments, should have been enough for Harvard to admit him anyway doesn’t wash. After all, all such institutions have to make judgments on the intelligence and character of teenage applicants. In the character department, his racist remarks look bad both for the overt racism expressed, however sincere or insincere it was, and for Mr. Kashuv’s apparent pathetic desire for the approval of his smug and maybe racist friends.

This is not a free-speech case. He can say or write whatever he wants, just as Harvard, as a private institution, can admit whomever it wants. Now we’ll see if Mr. Kashuv is truly regretful or tries to turn himself into a well-compensated “victim’’ on Fox News.

Facebook vs. America's sense of community

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal24.com

Harvard College has withdrawn the acceptances of at least 10 young people because of their nasty postings on Facebook. As in so many ways, the Internet has made life worse, not better. Some civil libertarians, such as writer and Harvard Law  Emeritus Prof. Alan Dershowitz, have criticized Harvard’s actions on the grounds of free speech. But Harvard is a private institution that has every right to let in whomever it wants into its community. In this case, it doesn’t want a bunch of young people who are crude and cruel or at least act as if they are.

These kids, smart and generally affluent, if lacking judgment, can apply elsewhere – assuming they can remove most traces of their comments, though that may be difficult, or get colleges to chalk it all up to youthful exuberance.  Stuff on the Internet is as enduring as a manmade monster can be. Everything about us that anyone has ever entered on the Internet is there in some crevasse.

If only more people of all ages would spend much less time on social media and more time, well, outdoors, for example, or reading a book onpaper and thus while doing so not being constantly distracted by the gyrations of the Internet and especially of social media, which are engineered to be addictive. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the famous Harvard billionaire dropout, has done far more harm than good for civil society and democracy by creating echo chambers where people see and hear things mostly according to their long-held biases and their insular interests. Facebook is helping to destroy a broader sense of American community and  the duties of civic engagement..


But the genie is out of the bottle!


David Warsh: Of plane crashes and hyper-computerization


The course in introductory computer science at Harvard College this year surpassed elementary economics in popularity. It has 818 enrollments, or nearly 12 percent of the undergraduate population, compared to 711 students in Economics 10. For most of the last  30 years, the economics course has been the catalog’s top offering.
The swing probably reflects the expert showmanship of computer scientist David Malan more than any underlying change in the relative importance of the fields. (See this eye-opening account of Malan’s entrepreneurial flair by Cordelia Mendez, and/or read a defense of it by Malan’s colleague Harry Lewis.) But the surge of interest in computers surely also reflects desire on the part of undergraduates to understand better whatever happens next, especially in the sorts of fields they think they might like to enter.
It is a conviction among many computer scientists that when (not if) the generalizable knowledge representation problem is solved, a new wave of expert systems will quickly emerge, enabling robot software to displace human  doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, pilots, and, of course, taxi drivers in performing a wide range of their customary tasks.
An especially good meditation on this uncertain future has just appeared.  The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton), by Nicholas Carr, stipulates that software has cut costs, decreased workloads and enhanced safety.  But, warns Carr, it has also eroded skills, dulled perceptions, slowed reactions and produced a “glass cage” of complacency about automation – a cage that he aims to break.
A case in point. Carr’s book includes a wonderful account of the first appearance, almost exactly a hundred years ago, of a technology whose evolution since is of great interest to him.  The scene was the Paris Air Show, June 18, 1914 – an event designed then, as now, to showcase the latest developments in aviation.
Piloting a Curtis bi-plane that day was Lawrence Sperry, son of inventor Elmer Sperry.  Flying with him was his mechanic, Emil Cachin. On the first low pass before the grandstand. Sperry held his hands aloft.  Remarkable! The plane was flying itself.
On the second pass, Cachin had climbed out to stand alone on one wing. Again, no hands, despite the change in wind resistance. On the third pass, Sperry, too, had climbed out of the cockpit to stand on the other wing. Carr writes, “The crowd and the judges were dumbfounded.”
Beneath the vacant pilot’s seat was Elmer Sperry’s “gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus,” a pair of gyroscopes, installed horizontally and vertically and powered by the wind, the controllers of history’s first autopilot.  “Sperry won the grand prize – fifty thousand francs – and the next day his face beamed from the front pages of newspapers across Europe.”
Fast-forward to Air France Flight 447, Rio de Janeiro to Paris, June 1, 2009. You remember the story. The Airbus A330 encountered a storm in mid-Atlantic in the middle of the night.  The Pitot tubes, its air-speed sensors, iced up, the autopilot disengaged, and the co-pilot who took control, thinking he was going too slow, pulled back on the yoke and put the plane into a stall. Instead of reversing himself to pick up speed (or simply letting go to permit the plane to fly itself), he continued to try to climb. The pilot sought to take control but it was too late. The plane fell 30,000 feet into the ocean.
Carr rehearses the history of the design competition between Airbus and Boeing over the  30 years since computer-controlled “fly by wire” techniques (as opposed to traditional cables, pulleys and gears) were introduced. Airbus pursued a technology-centered approach to render its planes “pilot-proof,” designing software system that in some cases overruled commonly made pilot errors. Boeing, in contrast, embraced computer control of airplane surfaces, but kept the aviator at the center of its systems. Significantly, it retained bulky old-fashioned front-mounted yokes in contrast to the smaller side-mounted game-controller-like devices with which Airbus pilots steered their planes.  Carr writes:
Airbus makes magnificent planes.  Some commercial pilots prefer them to Being’s jets, and the safety records of the two manufacturers are pretty much identical. But recent incidents reveal the shortcomings of Airbus’s technology-centered approach.
Some aviation experts believe that the design of the Airbus cockpit played a part in the Air France disaster.  The voice-recorder transcript revealed that the whole time the [co]pilot controlling the plane, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, was pulling back on his sidestick, his co-pilot [captain] David Robert, was oblivious to Bonin’s fateful mistake. In a Boeing cockpit, each pilot has a clear view of the other pilot’s yoke, and how it’s being handled.  If that weren’t enough, the two yokes operate as a single unit.  If one pilot pulls back on his yoke, the other pilot’s goes back too.  Through both visual and haptic [tactile] cues, the pilots stay in synch.
Airbus sidesticks, in contrast, are not in clear view, they work with much subtler motions,, and they operate independently.  It’s easy for a pilot to miss what his colleague is doing, particularly in emergencies when stress rises and focus narrows.
Design differences like these in particular products will be resolved over time, but the differences in philosophy that the story reveals are ubiquitous, and often important on a systemic scale. Carr concludes:
As computer systems and software applications come to play an ever larger role in shaping our lives and the world, we have an obligation to be more, not less involved in decisions about their design and use – before technological momentum forecloses the options. We should be careful about what we make.
Thus the appeal of computer science, especially to those just starting out on their careers. Economics, too, has much to say about these matters, under the heading, at least at first, of recent work on the diffusion of general-purpose technologies (steam, chemistry, electricity, computers, biotechnology). After that come the deeper social mysteries of the nature of work itself.  Expect those enrollments to remain high. There will be plenty of opportunity teaching and writing about robotology.

David Warsh, a longtime financial journalist and an economic historian, is principal of


Paul F.M. Zahl: Movie offers guide to Harvard Black Mass


"Order and chaos'' (mixed media), by LYNDA CUTRELL, at Galatea Fine Art, Boston, June 1-29.


As a Harvard grad and an Episcopal minister, I am dismayed by the prospect of the university's sanctioning a Black Mass for tonight (May 12), within Memorial Hall.

But what I really want to megaphone to all concerned is this: Wake up, Harvard (not to mention the Satanic Temple of New York City), and watch more horror movies!

You could all spare yourselves a lot of trouble if you watched more horror movies. Specifically, you need to see that unregarded but rich Hammer horror film from the early 1970s, entitled Dracula A.D. 1972. For those who care, and this writer cares very much, Hammer Studios in England produced dozens of luridly wonderful horror movies from the late '50s through the early '70s. These immortalized such U.K. character actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Fans of these movies tend to regard the instantly dated Dracula A.D. 1972 as the nadir of Hammer's output. But in light of what's slated to happen today in Cambridge, Mass., it's risen to the top of my list.

This is because Dracula A.D. 1972 anticipates in detail a scenario that has already unfolded. To wit, the villain in the movie, whose made-up name in the story is 'Johnny Alucard' (the surname, of course, is ''Dracula'' backwards), looks, dresses and talks like the spokesman for the Satanic Temple of New York City. Secondly, he keeps telling his gullible young friends in the movie to ''Keep cool, birds'' -- the script is deliriously filled with faux-Flower Child and Swinging London colloquialisms. "This happening I'm asking you to jive to is just a stunt. Just a bit of fun, mates."

To their acute misfortune, members of "Johnny Alucard's''' circle believe him when he says: "This is just a re-enactment."

The movie's staging of the Black Mass itself is extremely well done. The director, Alan Gibson, is sure-footed in the blocking and the angles; and during the Mass, which takes place in a ruined Memorial-Hall-type building, a deconsecrated church damaged during the Blitz, in World War II, the movie gets serious. The elements of a real Black Mass are all there, just as they will be, presumably, this evening in Cambridge within the once hallowed walls of the university's memorial to its Civil War dead. The parallels between now and this absurd but tight English movie are breathtaking.

Finally, the church comes into it. But not priest, not bishops, not archbishop.. Rather, old-fashioned religion comes in to Dracula A.D. 1972 through the person of an aging physician named ''Lorrimer Van Helsing". (Who ever thought of that first name? The writer should have been knighted on the spot!)

Anyway, ''Lorrimer Van Helsing'' strides into the movie, an old man poignantly concerned about the well-being of his impressionable niece. (His niece has come under the spell of ''Johnny Alucard".) Fortunately for her, her uncle intervenes, with cross and stake, and Jessica van Helsing is saved.

This is a classic instance, which occurs often in English horror and sci-fi movies, in which wise members of the older generation are the only ones who know enough to save clueless members of the younger one. (Usually, the character actor Andre Morell played these roles, though John Mills did once, too.)

I wish that Harvard University officials would go straight to Barnes and Noble, and buy their very reasonably priced copy of Dracula A.D. 1972. It's in all the stores as I write. (Target, too.)

A personal note in conclusion: Three times during my ministry in the Episcopal Church, I was forced to get up close and personal with Satanists. Somehow they succeeded in inveigling members of our parish youth group in Westchester County, N.Y., to take part in a Black Mass.

They "staged" this on the grounds of a country club up on the Hudson. Two of the young participants -- and I had to clean up the bones of living animals that had been sacrificed during the service (and had to change the locks on the parish sacristy because Communion wafers were being stolen) -- were scarred indelibly by what they were lured into doing. I never of them smile again.

I also got to know a languid old trust fund Satanist, who lived in London and had the most beautiful personalized Satanic stationery.

Harvard, wake up! Buy this movie and watch it. And it may not be quite as campy as it first appears.

The Rev. Paul F.M. Zahl is an Episcopal minister and a theologian.

Addendum by Robert Whitcomb: So will we see the Prophet Mohammed in drag in the next Hasty Pudding Show at Harvard, or indeed portrayed in any public way on Harvard's campus as less than perfect? Or course not -- and not because of any particular respect by a mostly secularized Harvard community but because of the physical fear of offending followers of a religion a few of whose adherents are famously violent.

Fear is a key ingredient of hypocrisy.