Modern Geekhood

Pins passed out at Nerd Nite. Photo: Mary Lewey

Pins passed out at Nerd Nite. Photo: Mary Lewey

Can robots learn to bake cookies? Can ceramic filters make water drinkable in the developing world? MIT alumni Mario Bollini ’09, SM ’12 and Amelia Servi ’10, SM ‘13 shared insights on these topics at recent Nerd Nites, a popular event that showcases new research from MIT and other area universities.

The bonus? You can drink beer while you learn.

Over the past 10 years, Nerd Nite has grown from one grad student presenting evolutionary biology research at a Boston pub to monthly events in 80 cities around the world. There are Nerd Nites in Milan, Liberia, Detroit, Amsterdam, and Auckland. And if it’s not in your city, you can start one.

Typical Nites include a mix of hard science talks like membrane desalinization, social science presentations, such as the history of cycling in New England, and the (fake) history of Godzilla monsters.

Adrian Ward speaks at a special Nerd Nite held at the Oberon Theater on how the Internet is reshaping our lives. Photo: Mary Lewey

Adrian Ward speaks at a special Nerd Nite held at the Oberon Theater on the impact of the Internet. Photo: Mary Lewey

“People have always been interested in science, technology, and the humanities,” explained Boston Nerd Nite co-organizer Tim Sullivan. “They’ve also always been interested in bars and beer. Nerd Nite just puts those two things together.”

Boston’s Nerd Nite is held monthly at Middlesex Bar, located a stone’s throw away from MIT campus. The event usually attracts upwards of 200 people, many affiliated with MIT. “It’s a format that lends itself to the MIT community really well,” said Mary Lewey, Boston Nerd Nite co-organizer. “The intention is to learn from people rather than judge or criticize,” said Lewey.

Amelia Servi presents at Nerd Nite Boston. Photo: Mary Lewey

Amelia Servi presents at Nerd Nite Boston.
Photo: Mary Lewey

MIT alumni are frequent speakers both in Boston and Nites worldwide. “Presentations to people outside of my field, like my recent one at Nerd Nite, make me take a step back to look at my motivation for the work and all of the foundational work that went before mine,” said Amelia Servi ’10, SM ’13, who first attended a similar event in Phnom Penh. “I felt like people were interested and learned something, which is a very satisfying feeling as a speaker.”

In Boston, Maxim Lobovsky SM ’11, co-founder of Formlabs, walked Nerd Niters through his company’s process of inventing one of the first affordable 3D printers.

At a New York City Nerd Nite, Hesky Fisher ’02 talked about developing Plover, an open source stenography application.

And in Seattle, Liang Sim SM ’06 made the unlikely connection between salsa dancing and theories of engineering and management consulting. Any good salsa dancing presentation includes actual dancing, and Sim did not disappoint, dancing with wife, Eliza.

Does the popularity of this Boston-born event demonstrate an upsurge in nerd pride? Perhaps, but Sullivan argues that Boston has always been a hotbed for nerds. “If you are passionate about a topic and you take the time to learn more about it, you are a nerd,” explains Sullivan. “You are a geek.”

But there’s a difference between a geek and a nerd. You guessed it—that was a topic at a Nerd Nite event too.

Find the Nerd Nite in your area, present, or start your own. 

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You may have seen Pantheon, the newest creation out of MIT Media Lab’s Macro Connection group, in the news lately. With the ability to rank globally famous people—Aristotle currently sits at number one—the platform has garnered a lot of attention. These rankings, however, are just one part of Pantheon.

A concept developed by Macro Connection’s Principal Investigator, César A. Hidalgo, which builds off his previous work with the Observatory of Economic Complexity and DataViva, Pantheon aims to map and visualize historical cultural production. Think of cultural production as contributions to our global culture, like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or Stephen King’s multitude of novels.

“The major insight at the project’s start was that a lot of things can count as culture, say Starbucks or blue jeans. Those things we can’t really measure, but we can measure Harry Potter as proxied by JK Rowling,” explains graduate student Kevin Hu ’13, who works with the Macro Connections group.

Consequently, cultural productions are represented in Pantheon’s database by the biographies of globally notable characters who have broken the boundaries of space, time, and language.

Pantheon then ranks, sorts, and visualizes the data of the 11,340 biographies sourced from Wikipedia that meet this criteria. For the language criteria, a biography must appear in Wikipedia in more than 25 different languages to be included in Pantheon’s database. Pantheon’s space criteria relates to how far a notable figure’s influence has reached around the world. Lastly, time helps to weed out cultural one-hit wonders that may seem huge in a specific year, but lose their cultural relevance beyond that.

With this information, Pantheon can then provide visitors myriad visualizations. It can showcase the cultural output of a country based on profession—the US is tops for actors. Or rank the most famous gymnasts of all time—Věra Čáslavská of the Czech Republic claims the number one spot.

Beyond the compelling visualizations, Hu says that the ultimate goal of Pantheon is to give everyone the chance to discover and draw conclusions from data it provides: “Anyone with a web browser and internet connection can learn the stories contained in our data.”

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Christie Barany SM '00 makes her pitch on Shark Tank.

Christie Barany SM ’00 makes her pitch on Shark Tank. Screenshot via abc.com.

Imagine pitching your two-year-old startup to a panel of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs. Now imagine those potential investors dissecting your company’s potential—while nearly seven million people watch on television.

That scenario occurred for Christie Barany SM ’00 on April 5 when she promoted her company, Monkey Mat, on Shark Tank, a reality series that features business pitches from entrepreneurs to a panel of investors, or “sharks.”

“It was surreal,” says Barany. “The cameras start rolling and the sharks know nothing about you—then the questions start flying.”

Barany and business partner Courtney Tabor—the self-titled “Monkey Mat Mamas”—were seeking $100,000 in exchange for 30 percent stake in Monkey Mat, which sells 5’ x 5’ water-repellant mats that can be folded into a compact pouch. The company’s target audience is parents seeking a portable, clean surface that could be used at airports, picnics, and soccer games.

After their pitch, Barany and Tabor fielded questions—and criticism—from five sharks. One investor strongly disapproved of the mats’ then-price of $39.99 (“It needs to be $9.99!”) and another was unimpressed with their size and color. (“It’s too small…and the colors are off.”)

“Obviously you want every shark to be interested,” Barany says. “But the great thing is that it happens so fast, you don’t have any time to take it personally.”

The "Monkey Mat Mamas" inside the Shark Tank.

The “Monkey Mat Mamas” inside the Shark Tank.

Others were more receptive; shark Mark Cuban said he loved the product and shark Lori Greiner believed she could lower the sale price. Cuban and Greiner made an offer: $100,000 for a 35 percent stake in the company.

The Monkey Mat Mamas quickly accepted the handshake deal. (Watch the April 5 Shark Tank episode.)

“We were thrilled,” she says. “It was validation because we weren’t willing to compromise the quality to lower the price.”

Although the episode aired on April 5, filming took place in July 2013 following a months-long application process. Pitches are condensed into a 10-minute segment for TV, but in reality, many pitches can take more than an hour.

“We’ve tried to recreate the pitch so many times,” she says. “The dialogue went in so many different directions. They definitely focused on the price point during the show.”

In the nine-month period between the actual pitch and the show’s airing, Barany and Tabor have worked with closely with Cuban and Greiner to grow the product. Thanks in part to the sharks’ experience in manufacturing and retail, Monkey Mat was able to lower its price to $19.99.

“We’re amazed at how accessible they are,” she says. “They have so much on their plate but they are always available. They’re helping us expand the company with a lower cost and new price in a broader market.”

Barany co-founded Monkey Mat in 2012 after a career in the medical device and biotechnology industry. She says reaction from the Shark Tank appearance was instantaneous and overwhelming.

“Building this company is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “The response has been great, and because of DVR, it’s still coming. But the challenges that come with an MIT education—pushing boundaries and working through the night—has really prepared me.”

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Update: Happy April Fools’ Day! Currently, there are no plans for a moving walkway in the Infinite Corridor. Walk safely! 

The Infinite Corridor may soon seem much less infinite. Beginning in 2015, portions of the corridor will include a moving walkway, called Zero Footprint, which will allow members of the MIT community to safely text, read a book, or study as they travel through the corridor.

The proposed walkway—similar to the slow-moving conveyors commonly seen in airports—was designed by researchers at MIT’s Historical Edifice Innovation Center and will have a dual purpose of safety and sustainability. According to a new MIT study, 30 percent of MIT students reported injuries related to texting or reading while walking within the Infinite Corridor or other busy MIT pathways in the past school year.

Fran Swanson, Hayden S. Finch Professor of Building Theory, says the walkway will add another layer of safety to campus while also being mindful of MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Zero Footprint will be a first-of-its-kind carbon-neutral moving walkway.

A mockup of Zero Footprint. Credit: Alan Scott

A mockup of Zero Footprint. Credit: Alan Scott

“It’s called Zero Footprint because it will create nearly 95 percent of the power required to operate,” explains Swanson. “The most important issue is student safety, but the name is a nice tie-in with the Infinite Corridor. It explains just how sustainable this new installation is.”

Based on research from MIT’s Urban Re:Construction Lab, Zero Footprint will be powered almost entirely by piezoelectric tiles that will frame the walkway. Those who choose to walk outside of Zero Footprint will generate energy with each step on the tiles.

To allow for maximum mobility within the corridor and easy on/off access, Zero Footprint will consist of five short moving walkways.

Additionally, to mitigate traffic congestion in the corridor, Zero Footprint has been designed as a one way walkway that will change direction depending on traffic flow. For example, as students rush to campus for morning classes, Zero Footprint will move away from Lobby 7 towards Bldg. 4. The walkway will then reverse directions in the late afternoon as students return home.

Plans for Zero Footprint are pending final review by the Cambridge Historical Commission. Currently, construction on the walkway is slated to begin April 1, 2015.

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Photo: Fleece Traveler

Guest Post by Elizabeth Dougherty from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Yes, but you can’t generate enough to power the roller coaster with itself…

“Imagine a straight-line, one-hill roller coaster. It’s boring to ride, but it’s a useful example,” says Aaron Johnson, a PhD student in aeronautics and astronautics. If you start your ride at ground level, the first challenge is getting the coaster to the top of the hill. This takes energy, so you expend what you need against gravity and friction to get the coaster to the top. When the coaster crests the hill, all of the energy you have just expended against gravity is now stored as potential energy—though exactly how much depends on the height of the hill and the weight of the cars and passengers.

In an ideal world, Johnson says, a perfectly efficient energy collector on a frictionless coaster in a vacuum should be able to harness that potential energy and convert it to enough kinetic energy on the way down to drive you up a hill of exactly the same height. But in the real world, energy collection is more complicated. Much of the potential energy you have just gathered is going to scatter. Friction generates heat energy in the track and wheels, and drag buffets the cars and passengers, heating them and the air around them and dissipating more of your energy. This dispersion means realizing all of your potential is nearly impossible.

Interestingly, not all of this energy needs to be completely lost—whether it’s from a roller coaster or any other moving vehicle. One way to collect some of the energy that dissipates from moving vehicles is through something called regenerative braking, as used in hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius. Regenerative brakes use energy normally lost to heat and friction during braking to charge batteries that power the car. “It works, but you’re never going to get enough energy to bring you back up the hill again,” says Johnson. “You’ve lost some of it to heat, plus the regenerative braking process isn’t 100 percent efficient.” (In Pittsburgh, engineers recently created just such a demonstration coaster and used the collected energy to power a display of amusement park lights.)

Another approach is to add a turbine to the coaster to collect wind energy. Airplanes do this. In an emergency, such as a power failure, a plane drops a so-called ram air turbine from a hatch. The turbine collects wind energy to power hydraulics and critical instruments. “It’s very inefficient, so it’s usually only for emergency use,” says Johnson.

While no solution is perfect, regenerative brakes and turbines are constantly being reworked and redesigned to become more efficient. For instance, in turbines, the shape and twist of the blade matters. “There’s a lot of people trying to design the most efficient blade possible,” says Johnson.

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

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After 12 years as an architect, Gilad Rosenzweig MCP ’13 knew he wanted to work on a larger scale. “Not larger buildings,” he says, “but to be involved in the development and improvement of cities.”

Rosenzweig saw his opportunity in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Once known as Boston’s “second downtown” the neighborhood is currently among the poorest in the city.

3.21.14_Smarter_in_City

Smarter in the City’s logo highlights its unique location.

“I was doing some work in the neighborhood on the nonprofit development side and noticing the impact that development had in the neighborhood. It might be good for physical qualities, but not necessarily for people who live there,” he says.

This prompted his idea for Smarter in the City: a high-tech incubator for inner city neighborhoods.

Rosenzweig sees Smarter in the City as a tool to improve neighborhoods from the inside out.  According to his website, “We are specifically addressing the lack of opportunities for computer science and digital media entrepreneurs in lower-income neighborhoods and minority communities.”

To ensure that Dudley Square residents benefit from Smarter in the City, Rosenzweig engaged with community members and local politicians to get the word out. “I thought ‘what is the big change here and who needs to be involved?’” he explains.

Set to open its doors in July, Smarter in the City’s first class will have four startups—businesses ranging from urban journalism to a social network. Ideally, as each startup expands, the new jobs created will be filled by residents of neighborhoods like Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.

3.21.14_startup_map

A glance at where statups are located in Greater Boston. Credit: Techscence @Boston

“You don’t bring people from outside to change the community. You change it from inside. It all comes down to median income and education—the startup tech industry can deliver on both,” Rosenzweig says.

Rosenzweig, who is getting support from the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, credits his coursework at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning for his problem-solving approach to Smarter in the City. He says, “My ideas are coming both from the community and economic mindset, but not doing one without the other.”

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Guest Post by Peter Dunn from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

In an era when everything else is accelerating, airplanes are actually flying at slower speeds than they used to…

A 1950s advertisement for the Boeing 707; Credit: 1950s unlimited

“Your link to faraway continents in hours less time: the new, fabulously swift Boeing 707.”
Credit: 1950s unlimited

Specified cruising speeds for commercial airliners today range between about 480 and 510 knots, compared to 525 knots for the Boeing 707, a mainstay of 1960s jet travel. Why? “The main issue is fuel economy,” says Aeronautics and Astronautics professor Mark Drela. “Going faster eats more fuel per passenger-mile. This is especially true with the newer ‘high-bypass’ jet engines with their large-diameter front fans.”

Observant fliers can easily spot these engines, with air intakes nearly 10 feet across, especially on newer long-range two-engine jetliners. Older engines had intakes that were less than half as wide and moved less air at higher speeds; high-bypass engines achieve the same thrust with more air at lower speed by routing most of the air (up to 93 percent in the newest designs) around the engine’s turbine instead of through it. “Their efficiency peaks are at lower speeds, which causes airplane builders to favor a somewhat slower aircraft,” says Drela. “A slower airplane can also have less wing sweep, which makes it smaller, lighter and hence less expensive.” The 707’s wing sweep was 35 degrees, while the current 777’s is 31.6 degrees.

There was, of course, one big exception: the Concorde flew primarily trans-Atlantic passenger routes at just over twice the speed of sound from 1976 until 2003. Product of a treaty between the British and French governments, the Concorde served a small high-end market and was severely constrained in where it could fly. An aircraft surpassing the speed of sound generates a shock wave that produces a loud booming sound as it passes overhead; fine, perhaps, over the Atlantic Ocean, but many countries banned supersonic flights over their land. The sonic-boom problem “was pretty much a show-stopper for supersonic transports,” says Drela.

Some hope for future supersonic travel remains, at least for those able to afford private aircraft. Several companies are currently developing supersonic business jets. Their smaller size and creative new “boom-shaping” designs could reduce or eliminate the noise, and Drela notes that supersonic flight’s higher fuel burn per passenger-mile will be less of an issue for private operators than airlines. “But whether they are politically feasible is another question,” he notes.

For now, it seems, travelers will have to appreciate the virtues of high-bypass engines, and perhaps bring along a good book.

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

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David Dobkin ’70 collects old popsicle sticks, credit cards, and lids from Snapple bottles. He owns over 800 snow-globes and 11 shoeboxes full of old postcards.

Dobkin also happens to be the dean of faculty at Princeton University.

But it was in the former role—that of collector—that Dobkin showcased his collected work in found sculpture, memorabilia from ages past, and photographs from his travels, at an exhibition at Princeton’s Lewis Center for Visual Arts last fall.

Entitled “Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles,” the exhibit featured beaded curtains made from Dannon yogurt lids and keyboards, scores of license plates from various states, and photographs of phone booths and restaurant menus from around the world.

Take a tour of the exhibit of Dobkin’s work. You might also suggest a title for it in the comments below.

“I’ve taken quite a few pictures in my day,” says Dobkin, who has taught computer science at Princeton since 1981. “Lots of pictures of waiters and waitresses and menus…I think if it’s a sign and I’ve seen it I’ve taken a picture of it.”

Dobkin started building things from found objects at an early age. On business trips, he started collecting snow globes and paperweights, and then people started giving them to him as gifts each year.

“Paperweights are the quintessential form of kitsch,” he told one interviewer. “I have a paperweight of Jesus walking on water from a Bible Book Store in Nashville, a few high-end musical paperweights (including one from Graceland that plays ‘Love Me Tender’), salt and peppershaker paperweights, a paperweight that was made by a friend for my wedding using a candy jar, a bride and groom from a garden shop and filler from a bean bag chair.”

Making time for art does not completely conflict with Dobkin’s career in code.

“I’ve written software…before hashtags became popular, I created my own version of hash-tagging, so they’re all identified in a way that you couldn’t hope to do without a computer,” he says.

Much of his art serves at least one utilitarian purpose: reminding Dobkin of the places he’s been. Dobkin says he can recall where he was when he acquired 99% of the objects.

“A lot of the things you see constructed are in and of themselves boring, but if you step back and say ‘life is really about the details, and it’s the details that make life work,’ this is filled with life, and the details that make life work.”

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Register for the Mar. 19 webcast.

Update: Watch the March 19 webcast.

Solving the world’s problems is synonymous with MIT. It is a quality that has fired the imaginations of students, faculty, and alumni.

In the March 19 Facutly Forum Online, three current MIT students shared how they are incorporating mens et manus into the 21st century. Public Service Center Dean Sally Susnowitz, alongside current MIT students Laura Stilwell ’14, Sofia Essayan-Perez ’15, and master’s degree candidate Rodrigo Davies, discussed the importance of public service in student life and how their  work is  address crucial global issues. Following their comments, the dean and students took live questions from the worldwide MIT community.

Watch the full webcast then return to Slice and continue the discussion in the comments.

The March 19 webcast is one three special public service-themed Faculty Forums Online, themed “One Community Together in Service,” that coincide with MIT Public Service Center’s 25-year anniversary. The first service-themed webcast, MIT Research at Work in the World, took place on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, and featured Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80, Dean Christine Ortiz, and Dean Sally Susnowitz. Watch the archived webcast.

Sally Susnowitz

Sally Susnowitz

Sally Susnowitz

Sally Susnowitz has served as Director of the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) since 2000. She has co-developed many of the Center’s programs and initiatives, including the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, which involves hundreds of MIT students in innovative social entrepreneurship each year.

Before MIT, Sally served as Director of the Service Learning Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has spent more than 20 years as a scientific and technical writing teacher at several universities including CU-Boulder, CU-Denver, and the Colorado School of Mines.

Rodrigo Davies G

Rodrigo Davies G

Rodrigo Davies G

Rodrigo Davies—a master’s degree candidate and research assistant at the Center for Civic Media—spent a fellowship in Kansas City, MO, helping non-profit organizations develop fundraising strategies for civic projects that benefit the local community. He helped create a crowdfunding campaign that expanded a Kansas City bike-share scheme and hosted a series of interactive open workshops that helped organizations learn more about community-building strategies.

Davies has presented at South by Southwest, the Library of Congress, and the Federal Reserve. Prior to MIT, he was an advisor to the UK crowdfunding platform Spacehive, co-founded Conde Nast’s digital business in India, and worked as a broadcast journalist at the BBC.

Sofia Essayan-Perez

Sofia Essayan-Perez ’15

Sofia Essayan-Perez ’15

Sofia Essayan-Perez is a brain and cognitive sciences major in with a minor in applied international studies. Her public service work focuses on strengthening math and science education in rural Nicaraguan high schools and she helped create a new approach to teaching math and science, grounded in local health and socioeconomic challenges.

Essayan-Perez has also conducted research on autism at MIT’s Picower Institute, and attended University of California Berkeley as an Amgen scholar and the Pasteur Institute in Paris on an MIT-France internship. She is involved with many MIT community initiatives, including the Experimental Studies Group (ESG), the Office of Minority Education, and the Burchard Scholars Program.

Laura Stilwell

Laura Stilwell ’14

Laura Stilwell ’14

Laura Stilwell is an economics major with minors in biology and public policy. Since 2011, Laura has been involved in GlobeMed at MIT, which works to create a better understanding of global health and provide comprehensive health care services to communities in northern Togo.

In 2015, Laura will work at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and has future aspirations to work at the intersection of global health, public policy, and economics.

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.

 

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Eagerly anticipating—or perhaps just patiently waiting for—the Pi Day announcement of the MIT Hack Madness champion? The winner of the final-round match between the 1982 Harvard-Yale game and the 2006 Caltech cannon heist will be announced at noon at Friday, March 14 (Pi Day, of course).

In the interim, check out Slice of MIT’s collection of hack-related stories, dating back to 2009, some of which were included in the tournament and many that were left out. Read about these pranks then head to the Hack Madness Championship to learn who was named the MIT community’s favorite hack.

Pac-Man, Hacked.

2013

2012

  • Even a Dome under Construction Can Be Hacked” (November 14, 2012). The Great Dome was lit blue and green in honor of Amphibious Achievement’s annual Erg-A-Thon.
  • Holy Hack, Batman!” (July 23, 2012). Mystery assailants–channeling their inner Commissioner Gordon–illuminated the Bat-Signal on the Green Building (Bldg. 54).
  • Heads Up! The Baker House Piano Drop” (April 27, 2012). About 200 spectators watched a piano tossed from the roof of the Baker House onto another piano six stories below.
  • Hacked! Tetris on the Green Building” (April 23, 2012). One side of the Cecil and Ida Green Building (Building 54) was transformed into a giant video game canvas.

Infinite Corridor Attacked!

2011

2010

2009

View results for all 31 Hack Madness matches in the updated tournament bracket then visit Slice or social media to learn who was named the Hack Madness champion.

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