Computing@MIT 101

(courtesy to Cat Thu Nguyen Huu)

As you should know by now, MIT’s computing system is called Athena. You can go read about it here because I’m lazy: Athena Wiki. Athena is more than just a weird system that’s incompatible with everything and takes you forever to figure out how to do something. It’s actually really cool. And it runs on Ubuntu. You can read about its functions here Athena at MIT but this email is sufficient (I think) if you just want the essentials.

In many of the instructions below you will see many lines that start with “%” (without the quotes). These are command lines, and you run them by typing them into an Athena terminal (that purple window you see when you log into an Athena computer) and enter. $USER is a kerberos ID (yours or other people).

First thing is that you can do whatever you can do in Ubuntu in an Athena terminal. Then:


The only useful tellme is

% tellme combo

which will tell you the current combo to Athena clusters. The combo is changed every semester or every year (don’t remember which). Other combos to try for fun are universe, “the universe” (including quotes), 42,… and probably more that I can’t remember.

Mailing lists:

Groups, classes, dorms, etc. have mailing lists to email stuff to there members. There are two types of mailing list at MIT: athena (aka Moira) and mailman. You can find out about the pros and cons of each with a simple google search…


Web: can be managed through webmoira ( Pretty self-explanatory once you get there.


Add $USER to $LIST: %blanche -a $USER $LIST
Remove $USER from $LIST: %blanche -d $USER $LIST (useful when you want to stop receiving emails from some group you don’t care about).
View members of $LIST: %blanche $LIST

All the VSA lists, I think, are Moira lists. (Most lists are moira lists.)




First, run %add consult
To add $USER to $LIST: %subscribe $LIST -a $USER
To remove $USER from $LIST: %subscribe $LIST -d $USER

Manage your lists:

% mailmaint

Then choose an option. You can see a comprehensive list of lists you’re in here.

Create a new list:

How to mass spam:

A lot of events ad are mass spammed to the dorms. So that’s 11 lists. Last year I used to be able to spam with just two lists: dorms-spam (which has all 10 dorms except Random on it), and random-hall-talk. Unfortunately, it seems like whoever owns dorms-spam has modified it and I’m no longer sure whether it’s moderated or not.

An important thing to remember when mass-spamming is that: put all the addresses in the BCC field, not To, not CC. This is so that other people can’t just click “reply all” and start a flame war. If you start a flame war, people will hate you. After that it’s just common sense. Don’t send an email about the same event every day of the week, I’ve seen angry emails about that.

Mailing lists you should subscribe to:

- reuse: if you’re buying stationery, you’re doing it wrong. All the stationery you need can be found free in career fair (which is in 2 days) or through reuse. Reuse is a list where people recycle stuff that they don’t need, almost always for free. The only problem is that they go pretty fast. It is a mailman list.

- mitbeef: they announce when they’ll be free cooked beef. You come and eat. Based in Random Hall.

- free-food: self-explanatory.


Your Athena account comes with alpine, an email client. To use it:

% add alpine
% alpine

It’s a small and convenient mail client, but it’s not for everyone — especially people who like pretty GUI, but it always works…

Free expensive softwares:

There are a lot of expensive computing softwares to be used for free in your Athena locker! There’s an image processing software called GIMP, so you don’t need Photoshop. The ones that I use frequently (not a comprehensive list) are Mathematica:

%add math

and Matlab.


About Matlab, you can also download it from the MIT softwares website and get a ticket to use it for free, as long as you stay connected to the MIT network.

Your Athena locker:

Your Athena locker is private to you, except for the “Public” folder which is public. You can access it through your browser by . You can also access it through an Athena terminal just like you’d navigate around in a Mac or Ubuntu terminal. If you don’t like terminals, you can get an FTP client for free from MIT and use it. Functionally, it’s like online storage space. Several groups also have their own athena lockers, containing useful information about their groups and accessible to people who have bits. I’m not sure if VSA has a locker – maybe Viet Anh can clarify?

You can change your privacy settings of any folder in your Athena locker by a few commands. I don’t remember them right now, but they should be easily found online.


Scripts is a student group that runs . They give you quick way to set up a certain number of web service (blog, wiki, forum, etc.). This is how:

%add scripts

choose what you want to set up, and follow instruction. The page will be in your locker on scripts ( For example:


Zephyr is an out-dated IM client from which AIM, the most popular IM client in the US, was based on. It’s run on command lines, and nowadays is only used at MIT and a few other institutions (I occasionally see people from CMU). Zephyr is very East Campus centric, most people on zephyr know most other people on zephyr; so if you don’t already know the community you probably won’t enjoy zephyr that much, but it is very helpful for asking random questions (from “how do I fix this code?” to “where to buy duct tape?” to “What restaurant should I go to in NY?”). If you want to know more about zephyr, talk to me.

Accessing Athena from your computer:

Good news is that you don’t need to stay at an Athena station all day. You can access Athena from your own computer by remote login into an Athena computer. SIPB (Student Information Processing Board) runs a server called linerva specifically for this purpose. To ssh to linerva:

Mac and Linux: Open your terminal and type:


Windows: download an SSH client. I’d make suggestions, but I don’t know anything about it. Then ssh to

Then you can do anything you can normally do on Athena on your computer, including even calling programs like Mathematica, which is really cool. It’s a bit slow, though, because you’re using it through another computer. If you have a computing simulation or script that takes several hours or days to run, which will happen at some point if you’re an engineering major, you may also want to put it on a screen session (which allows whatever you run to stay there even when you log out) on linerva instead of killing your laptop memory. To add a screen session:

%add kchen

To detach a screen session: C-a-d
To attach a screen session:
%screen -x

To add a new window to an existing screen session: C-a-c
To kill the current window: C-a-k
To switch between windows in a screen session: C-a-#
where # is the number of the screen (so C-a-1, C-a-2,…)

and C is the control key (control key on windows, AND control key on Mac — not command).

A lot of people have screen sessions on linerva. To see a list, log into it and


Again, mostly East Campus people, but are more diverse than the group of zephyr users.