Thursday, October 12, 2006

University of Toronto Horoscopes

I first heard this story from Kelly Gotlieb more than 30 years ago, [1] but I have retold it so often that it has come to seem like one of my own.

The president of the University of Toronto received a letter from an alumna complaining that she had noticed a display of "University of Toronto Horoscopes" at Eaton's Department Store. She enclosed as evidence a sample that she had purchased. It was a computer printout, cleverly folded so that the University of Toronto crest in the lower right corner was prominently displayed.

The president was unaware of any work on astrology being conducted at the university, let alone any enterprise of selling horoscopes to the public. But the sample seemed to establish a direct link with a U of T computer. He asked the director of the Computation Centre to investigate.

Talking to the operators, Kelly soon figured out what had happened. The Computation Centre acted as a small service bureau, selling computer time that would otherwise be idle to users outside the university. The company generating the horoscopes had bought some time, and printed the horoscopes on the paper in the line printer, which bore the U of T crest.

Kelly reported back to the president, explaining what had happened. He also said that he'd instituted a new policy to always use plain white paper in the line printer when outside jobs were being run, so they wouldn't appear to be linked to the university, whatever their nature. But he considered the astrology program to be harmless, although frivolous, and planned to continue selling computer time to that company.

The president informed the alumna of the investigation and policy change, but she was not mollified in the least. She was one of Toronto's leading astrologers, and her real complaint was not that selling horoscopes would reflect badly on the university, but rather that the horoscopes being sold were inaccurate!

[1] Kelly undoubtedly has many more tales to tell, but I'll leave that up to him. He and I co-chair the ACM's Awards Committee.