Guest blogger: Yiliu Zhang ’13

My name is Yiliu Zhang, a freshman planning on majoring in political science. I am spending my IAP in Madrid, Spain, as a participant of MIT’s IAP-Madrid program. Every weekday morning, I have Spanish class for three hours, and then I’m free to explore the city. Learning a language is a nice break from working on problem sets! In the evenings, my fellow program participants and I typically eat dinner with our respective host families. Afterwards, we head out to experience Madrid’s nightlife, which begins and ends much later than in the United States.

Yiliu in Granada in southern Spain

Last weekend, Yiliu and six others toured Granada in southern Spain. The town is most famous for the Alhambra, a Moorish fortification and palace. Pictured, Yiliu against the backdrop of the city, where the homes are whitewashed to cool the houses during summer.

My host family only speaks Spanish to me, and my Spanish listening and speaking skills have definitely improved as a result. And my host grandmother’s cooking is phenomenal! Her tortilla Española and cauliflower cream casserole are amazing.

As an MIT student, I am fortunate to study in an institute of science and technology. I’m also excited about opportunities in the humanities such as the IAP-Madrid program. My classmates and I made the best of our allotted time to fully experience the Spanish culture. The highlights of the trip for me were visiting the Prado museum (seeing Velázquez and Bosch paintings especially), visiting the Reina Sofia contemporary art museum (Picasso’s Guernica was very impressive), walking through the city of Madrid, admiring the Moorish fortification Alhambra in Granada, and discussing American foreign policy and Spanish economic issues with my host mother and host grandmother.

Some of the IAP-Madrid participants

Some of the IAP-Madrid participants.

I truly believe you have to immerse yourself in a culture to genuinely love and understand it. For me, studying abroad in Spain has been as much about discovering the Spanish culture as expanding my perspective. For instance, my host mother and I had a long chat one night about the field of humanitarian law and international development. Also, my host grandmother loves to berate Zapatero, the Spanish president, whenever I mention politics. When I was shopping in a store owned by a Chinese immigrant, I had an interesting conversation about being a Chinese immigrant in Spain. Even though the museum artworks and the public parks are gorgeous, I think the people I’ve met in Spain have affected me more.

In short, I feel more like a global citizen after immersing myself in the everyday life of the Spanish people.

R2D2 at the 2010 MIT Mystery Hunt with team R2Disco

In case you missed this year’s Mystery Hunt, here’s a quick glimpse of all the hoopla and excitement, from the puzzle creators’ headquarters to team rooms abuzz with strategies for solving puzzles. Find out why the 29-year-old Hunt is still so alluring, just how global teams are, and the best food to make it through the long weekend (which is far more sophisticated than the Doritos and Mountain Dew of yore). Also check out a map of Mystery Hunt coin locations—complete with fun anecdotes—since the Hunt’s inception and learn about the Hunt’s origins.

And yes, you will see plenty of R2D2, who so graciously posed for the camera and cheered on team R2Disco but who did not, alas, sign my autograph book. (Sigh.) Maybe next year.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

For more Mystery Hunt fun, check out short movie “swedes” (remakes) created by the teams as required by one of the puzzles. Team Palindrome has a funny rendition of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Others can be found in the Related Videos column.

Guest blogger: Shane Torchiana, Sloan Master of Finance candidate

From left: Shane Torchiana and his externship sponsor, Umber Ahmad '94.

From left: Shane Torchiana and his externship sponsor, Umber Ahmad ’94.

After working in asset management for a few years before coming to MIT, I was expecting more of the same out of my externship at Platinum Gate Capital Management. But, as has a tendency to happen, life has thrown a curveball. The past couple weeks have been more interesting than any other professional experience I’ve had. Being asked to do things like travel to the UAE or hang out backstage at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show have made my days here anything but run of the mill.

Many would call Platinum Gate a multidisciplined asset manager—i.e. hedge fund—but in essence it is a group that links those seeking capital in the U.S. to those able to provide it—in abundance—in the Middle East. They serve as a literal platinum gate through which capital can pass. Generally, the company deals with private equity/venture capital transactions as well as project finance, but mandates continually evolve to meet clients’ needs.

The firm is a new one, headed by the affable sibling duo of Jolyne and Joseph Caruso. Most recently, they were Lehman executives who individually had the foresight—or perhaps luck—to get out while the firm was still standing. Within Platinum Gate, Jolyne runs a top-notch investments team here in New York, while Joe and his team primarily handle relationships out of the Dubai office. Joe started the firm not long after he left Lehman a year and a half ago and Jolyne joined him this past summer, opening the New York office and bringing in an impressive investments team. One member of that team is Umber Ahmad, a 1994 MIT grad who went on to get an MPH from Michigan and an MBA from Wharton. After working in the Goldman Sachs Private Equity Group, she cofounded Goldenridge Capital and more recently joined Platinum Gate as a director. Luckily for me, Umber was kind enough to put out a posting for an extern this winter, which is how I landed at Platinum Gate.

Platinum Gate Capital Management

New York offices of Platinum Gate Capital Management.

I came in as an investments intern, not entirely sure of what I’d be doing at this new company. As I’ve alluded to, the experience has far exceeded my expectations of what an internship could be. From day one I was meeting with an eclectic mix of impressive and interesting clients, from sports team owners to Hollywood super-agents to mega-farm entrepreneurs. This was done working closely with the CIO, Adam Goodfriend—another banking & hedge fund all-star—and even the president, Jolyne. Having the opportunity to originate work on a billion-dollar clean energy deal right out of the gate was not something I expected, but that and other experiences like it have come as a nice surprise.

It has been a wild ride thus far, one in which I have had the opportunity to work with outstanding people at every turn. Already I have learned quite a bit about the deal side of the business, using the financial skills I’ve honed at MIT to help work out mutually beneficial capital allocations. In what appears to be a happy ending, it looks as if there might be an opportunity for permanent employment here as well. This has been a great experience that I can thank MIT and Platinum Gate for providing.

Mystery Hunt map

Click map to find out where all the Mystery Hunt coins, 1981-present, have been hidden.

A few months ago, I began a project in honor of the 30th anniversary of the MIT Mystery Hunt—a map indicating all the coin locations over the years. Hunt originator Brad Schaefer ’78, PhD ’83 suggested it as a fitting tribute. The Mystery Hunt archives page and a lengthy, detailed article from the July 1991 issue of Games magazine, written by Hunt veteran Eric Albert, stated that the Hunt began in 1980. However, after extensive research and dozens of emails to past puzzle creators and participants (including Schaefer and Albert), one thing became clear. The Mystery Hunt actually began in 1981. It’s only 29. No matter. This anniversary may not technically be a milestone, but it is the 30th time the Hunt is being played. So we’ll just go with that. Learn more about the origins of the Hunt.

Mapping the Mystery Hunt Coin
Where to hide the coin can be a challenge. The location has to be accessible at all hours; impervious to outside forces like rain, squirrels, or cleaning crews; and easy to designate with clues—a lesson Schaefer learned during the first-ever Hunt when a mezzanine level he wasn’t aware of caused some participants to break into a librarian’s office (see 1981 on the map). In early Hunts, puzzle creators (usually one or two people) waited for teams to call when they arrived at the final solution. These days, the endgame includes a massive runaround with teams (often accompanied by puzzle creators) traversing campus based on an intricate set of instructions.

2008 Mystery Hunt coin

Coins have evolved. Puzzle originator Brad Schaefer chose an Indian Head penny for its uniqueness, size, and indestructible nature. The 2008 coin, above, featured the thumbprint of Dr. Awkward's murderer, whom hunters had to identify. Each winning team member received one of these coins. Photo: nonelvis/flickr.com.

So what can be gleaned from this map? Buildings 4, 24, and 7 have each been used the most (three times) as hiding spots. East campus has only been used once, in 2006. Only two spots have been outdoors. And basements are especially popular—they’ve been used eight times. Check out the map and click on the coins for more insights and anecdotes, including when the first brute-force solution was required, what year the coin was hidden in someone’s pants, and which year even the puzzle creators didn’t know where the coin was hidden.

Also, please let us know if you have additional anecdotes or if you can supply any of the following information: the location of the ever-elusive 1992 coin (the only year, regrettably, not accounted for), the location of the large-team puzzle in 1986 (there were two versions that year), or confirmation for 1991 and 1997 (which were best guesses by those puzzle creators). Either reply in the comments or fill out our quick form.

Update: Check out video from the 2010 Mystery Hunt, where R2D2 made an appearance.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring Independent Activities Period (IAP) from students’ perspectives.

Sandra Chen

Sandra mentoring students on their project.

Guest blogger: Sandra Chen ’12

Hello from South Bend, Indiana! My name is Sandra Chen, a sophomore in the mechanical engineering department spending the first week of IAP, Jan 4–8, participating in the MIT Women’s Initiative Program. This is a student-run group whose mission is to encourage more women to pursue degrees and careers in engineering starting at the middle-school level. My partner, Elizabeth Kowalski (grad student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), and I were selected to present about engineering to young girls curious to learn.

South Bend Middle School students having fun building their paper tower

South Bend Middle School students having fun building their paper tower.

Our week consists of visiting seven middle schools, with several presentations in the morning and afternoon. We reached approximately 600 girls to educate them on the following topics:

  • What an engineer does
  • Adjectives to describe an engineer
  • Stereotypes of engineers
  • What engineers design and make
  • Different types of engineering

In addition, we also described our research to the girls to get the students thinking about how engineers contribute to society. In terms of research, Elizabeth works on the U.S.’s contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project focusing on fusion energy. I conduct research on drug delivery and development.

Elizabeth Kowalski

Besides presenting, we also explored the scenic campus of Notre Dame, viewed artwork in the Snite Museum, and had delicious bread bowls at the Chocolate Cafe in downtown South Bend. Pictured, Elizabeth in front of the Notre Dame football stadium.

We incorporated an activity in our presentation where the students were assigned to build the tallest free-standing tower without any other materials besides two pieces of newspaper and imagination. The goal was for the students to gain hands-on knowledge on what an engineer, in this case a civil engineer, might do on a daily basis. The students were very curious and asked a variety of questions pertaining to being an engineer and about our research!

Learn more about the MIT Women’s Initiative.

Man extending a hand to shake

Image: ©istockphoto.com/Viorika.

Coordinators of Charm School, that much-beloved Independent Activities Period (IAP) tradition where MIT students brush up on various life skills, are looking for alumni to extol the real-world virtues of these proficiencies—such as table manners and handshaking—to illustrate their value. Has your mastery of small talk or networking helped you get ahead or make an important connection? Do you rock the art of nonverbal communication? Has your ability to handle difficult people or situations earned you praise? If so, please submit a quote for possible inclusion on posters to be displayed at the Jan. 29 Charm School session.

Charm School logoCheck out a list of possible topics to comment on. You don’t need to have attended Charm School; you just have to indicate how your mastery of etiquette, manners, communication, and/or personal skills have benefitted you at some point in your life. Please submit quotes by Dec. 16 and include your degree year and course number(s) and current occupation/endeavors.

If you prefer to disseminate your wisdom in person, volunteer to be on the Charm School “faculty” and run a course. Or, if you want to learn some life skills yourself, feel free to join in the fun on Jan. 29, 2010, from noon–4:00 p.m. at the Stratton Student Center.


Student externs analyzed and tested advanced composite aircraft structures at Aurora Flight Sciences.

Maybe layoffs have left you shorthanded and doing the work of two or three people. Or important projects have fallen by the wayside because you can’t hire that new person you were counting on. Perhaps your company needs to find employees with a particular mix of skills, future summer interns, or an inexpensive way to market to the right potential workers. A little creativity can help employers and employees weather the economic crisis.

Here’s one solution: access and audition top talent for free by hosting an externship this January during Independent Activities Period, Jan. 4–29, 2010, for MIT undergrads or graduate students. Opportunities may range from one week up to the full month and typically provide meaningful challenges for students, be it with research, lab work, data analysis, software development, project planning, or more.

Past experiences have included helping research, design, and build an interactive, live-action spy challenge with 5 Wits Productions; working on computer vision in radiation oncology at Mass General Hospital; and analyzing and testing advanced composite aircraft structures at Aurora Flight Sciences (pictured). Discover other externship opportunities students have had and how they’ve launched careers.

Companies of all sizes are encouraged to submit sponsor applications by Sept. 22. Learn more about becoming an externship host.

Missing the one you love? Maybe the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group can help.

The pillow that smiles back.

The pillow responds.

Their Relational Pillow project has created a cushy pillow with extraordinary assets—the ability to sense touch remotely then display that information as a pattern of lights on your pillow. Send a smile, a kiss, or anything you can draw with a finger on your pillow to your loved one who is far away but connected to the network.

Associate Professor Patti Maes, whose group also developed the amazing Sixth Sense, and grad student Sajid Sadi SM ’06 are driving this project: “With the Relational Pillow project, we are trying to provide a simple, intimate, and personable communication medium between loved ones.”

Check out the innards:

How the relational pillow works.

How the relational pillow works. Photos: Fluid Interfaces Group

Will doves burst from his wallet? What else is he going to do?

Ezra Glenn, community development lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning had just organized a mock town meeting out of a table of IAP attendees. He circled the room and asked us to list off challenges to town meetings. Hostile audiences! Varying knowledge bases! Preconceptions! He scribbled the list on a big sheet of paper, ripped the paper from the wall, rolled it into a fat cone, and asked, “what do all of these problems give us??”

He tipped the cone onto the table  and confetti and raw eggs spilled out. “A big mess! That’s what!”
Egg and confetti

Everybody loved it. Sure, it was kind of cheap, but suddenly everyone was laughing and watching Glenn intensely. “What’s he going to do next? Are his pants going to fall down?” Glenn read our thoughts (close enough, anyway).

The rest of the hour was spent learning new tricks and talking about how public meetings and presentations can be made more interesting by interspersing simple magic tricks into the agenda. Glenn stressed that the tricks should carry a message or fit with a story–not be tricks simply for the sake of tricks. A meeting about raising money could include a cone full of coins; talk of beautifying a park could include a torrent of flowers.

Why would anyone do magic during a meeting?

  • Especially at public meetings held after working hours, attendees may have kids with them. Happy kids = happy parents.
  • Magic tricks break the ice.
  • If you want to humble yourself, schlocky, amateur magic tricks can make you more approachable and diminish the I’m-the-most-important-person-here-vibe. Good planners (and meeting facilitators in general) are also good listeners—but there will be nothing to listen to if people don’t talk because they’re intimidated.

We learned four or five other tricks during the IAP session (including the balloon feat below). Leave a comment if you’d like to hear more of them.
Balloon animals

Want to see real magic? The best show around, according to Glenn, still operates out of Beverly, MA: http://www.legranddavid.com/

MIT Physics Professor Emeritus Aron Bernstein kicked off a four-part lecture series called “Nuclear Weapons: Physics, History, and Abolition?” with a look at the history surrounding the development and deployment of the weapons. Here are some facts he presented that you may not be aware of.

1—Five years before nuclear fission (the energy-producer for nuclear power and weapons) was actually discovered, physicist Leó Szilárd conceived of the idea of the nuclear chain reaction that could release this energy and patented the concept and the yet-to-be-created nuclear reactor.

2—One of the reasons the U.S. succeeded in creating the atomic bomb and Germany did not is because physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s director of scientific research, gathered scientists from a wide range of fields in addition to physicists, including metallurgists to discover how to produce, purify, and use plutonium.

3—Scientists at three of the Manhattan Project’s major research sites, independent of one another, came to the unanimous conclusion—and vehemently advocated—that the atomic bomb should be used as a demonstration only, not on civilians, since there was no defense of such a weapon.

4—The first resolution of the United Nations, in January 1946, was to eliminate nuclear weapons.

5—The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) between the U.S. and Russia, which limits the number of nuclear warheads the two countries can deploy to 6,000 atop a total of 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers, expires December 5, 2009. Many in the arms community are hoping that number will drop to 1,000 under President Obama’s leadership.

For more information, read “Nuclear Disarmament Activities at MIT: Rising from the Ashes,” an article for MIT’s Faculty Newsletter penned by MIT professors Aron Bernstein and Heather Lechtman and researcher Kosta Tsipis.

Next Page »