Modern Geekhood

Happy April Fools’ Day! A few weeks ago we announced a Hacks at Home video contest and we’re please to present the winner.

Drum roll

Longtime appreciator and first-time hacker Jim Mottonen PhD ’89, a senior research associate in the Department of Physics & Optical Science at UNC-Charlotte. Mottonen turned the whole endeavor into a spirited family adventure, complete with code names for all of the mission’s participants. Mottonen (“Gristle”), his kids, Nathanael (“Secret Sauce”) and Frieda (“Fierce Monkey”), and friend Ryan Oliver (“Agent Oregano”) showed the UNC–Charlotte campus what this MIT tradition is all about.

“Hacking turned out to be quite an exhilarating family enterprise, like geocaching with an edge,” Mottonen says. “My kids and I were so inspired that we now have a hacking queue set up with future projects.”

Parents take note! You can add hacking to that list of fun together-time activities. There are only so many make-your-own-pottery studios and IMAX movies and putt-putt courses you can hit. Am I right?

But of course, nothing goes off without a hitch. Says Mottonen:

“The actual hack day events turned out fraught with unanticipated problems, like most projects. The steak blew off at first, until I borrowed a step stool from a nearby lab to secure it to the pickaxe. The video from my daughter’s camera could have been clearer, and I forgot to show her contribution of the giant bite-mark revealing a medium-rare cross-section. We put it up around 7:00 a.m. and by 11:00 a.m., the steak itself was gone to parts unknown. Perhaps someone decided to ‘claim’ it?”

Mottonen did alert the campus police of his undertaking beforehand with the following message sent from email username “ribeye”:

“The giant steak and lettering at the 29 entrance to campus is a harmless prank in the tradition of MIT hacking. If it survives the day, it will be removed tomorrow morning. No actual rib eyes were harmed in the making of this hack.”

MIT has a photogenic campus, what with Stata, the Dome, and the Charles. Today, however, Slice wants to feature an image from campus that is unique, not just in subject matter but also in technique. Several years ago photographer Greg Peverill-Conti captured this shot of an administrative building at MIT that was being torn down. He recently went back and reprocessed it, using a tilt-shift effect.

Peverill-Conti says he’s hoping to produce a series of tilt-shifted MIT photos. You can try out the technique yourself, using either Photoshop, an iPhone app, or a good old (expensive) tilt-shift lens.

If you want to try the Photoshop route, check out this tutorial on tilt-shift photography.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

A giant statue of the Greek goddess Athena appeared in MIT's Killian Court on the first day of final exams 2009.

Hacks, clever student stunts that enliven campus life and do no harm, are an MIT tradition. Now the MIT Press and the MIT Museum are revising Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT in time for the pending 150th Institute anniversary in 2011. They need new material—and they are hoping that alumni will come forward to share stories and information.

The deadline looms! In fact, writer Eric Bender needs to hear from you by Friday, March 26. See ways to contact him below—and you can remain anonymous.

“In particular, I’m writing an essay about hacks from 2001 to today,” Bender says. “I’d love to hear from alums who have special knowledge of hacks in that period.”

Bender is particularly interested in these hacks:

  • Caltech cannon abduction
  • Apollo lunar module on the Dome
  • Solar-powered subway on the Dome
  • “In case of zombie attack, break glass”
  • Board games hack
  • Fire truck on the Dome (5th anniversary of 9/11)
  • Marriage proposal banner drop
  • Yellow cranks
  • Wright Flyer on the Dome
  • One Ring to Rule the Dome

Ready to share a tale or two?  You can email Bender with a comment or set up a time to chat at Or leave voicemail at his day job, 617-732-2418.

Meanwhile feel free to visit Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People: the MIT Gallery of Hacks.


Buzz Aldrin in his astronaut days and now his dancing days.

Left: Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes photos during training on July 1, 1969. Photo: NASA Kennedy Space Center. Right: Aldrin rehearses with dance partner Ashly Costa. A typical session in the studio is three-and-a-half to four hours. Photo: ABC/Rick Rowell.

A competitive nature propelled Buzz Aldrin ScD ’63 into his career as an astronaut, and it’s that same spirit he’s taking with him on his next venture, as a contestant on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), premiering this Monday, March 22. Aldrin has already sized up his competition, targeting none other than Olympic figure skating gold medalist Evan Lysacek as his most formidable challenge.

“If you take [Lysacek’s] age and multiply by three, it’s still eight years younger than me,” Aldrin says. But he’s not daunted. For relaxation, the octogenarian scuba dives and downhill skis (which he took up at age 50) and continues exploring other non-celestial worlds: Antarctica, the Titanic ruins two-and-a-half miles below the ocean surface, the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. “This dude, for an 80 year old—he could probably bench-press me if he wanted to,” Lysacek told Access Hollywood.”

And let’s not forget that Aldrin brings something to the competition no other dancer does. An MIT degree. What exactly does that afford him? “Concentration, orderly thinking, memory, integrated thinking of transitions from one step to another,…an appreciation for the bigger picture” he says. “I learned all of those things at MIT.”

Buzz Aldrin dancing with partner Ashly Costa for the premier of Dancing with the Stars.

Photo: ABC/Rick Rowell.

On being hip
Dancing on a reality show is not Aldrin’s first foray into pop culture. You might actually be surprised to learn how visible he is. He’s performed in a rap video with Snoop Dogg and others (view the performance or see the making-of video at the end of this post—it’s hilarious); guest-starred in episodes of The Simpsons, Numb3rs, Sesame Street, 30 Rock (airing May 6), and more; will soon release an iPhone app; launched a space brand, Rocket Hero, that’s been licensed by electronics, toys, science-edutainment, and apparel companies, like Nike for a skate shoe; is the inspiration behind Disney’s Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear; and served as the icon for MTV’s original station identification and its video music award, the Moonman (originally called the Buzzy). MTV is so indebted to Aldrin that it has given him its first-ever official endorsement of a DWTS contender, dubbing Aldrin the celebrity they most hope wins the competition.

Some of Aldrin’s many public appearances are aimed at promoting books he’s coauthored, of which there are seven, including two illustrated children’s books, two science-fiction novels, and two autobiographies. His most recent is the memoir Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon (Harmony 2009), written with Ken Abraham. (more…)

Of course you don’t need an excuse to bake delicious desserts, but St. Patrick’s Day and its attendent festivities are still a great time to dust off that cookie sheet and preheat the oven. (Even if the holiday is usually eclipsed by drink and not dessert, celebrants still have to eat. Eventually.)

With that in mind, Slice has assembled a list of geeked out cookies that would be perfect for almost any St. Patrick’s Day party. Just kick up the green food coloring and voila! You’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with science.

Click the images for more information. Credit:

Circuit board cookies

Space Invaders cookies

Periodic table with shortbread cookies

Earth cookies

MIT Alumni Travel Program travelers to Sedona and the Grand Canyon found a dome to call their own.

MIT Alumni Travel Program travelers to Sedona and the Grand Canyon found a dome to call their own.

The MIT community extends far and wide beyond the Cambridge campus. You’ve probably felt it. The lure of a geektacular encounter or shared inspiration over a problem others in the real world deem insurmountable. Or maybe a technical marvel that began in an MIT lab or research center and now finds an enthusiastic audience with non-MITers. Those instances that feel so MIT despite your distance from campus.

Photograph people, places, or things reminiscent of MIT culture or impacted by MIT and enter it in the MIT Around the World photo contest.

Some other ideas for photos:

  • MIT’s Mens et Manus (mind & hand) motto applied to practical problems
  • the industrious beaver
  • impact of science and technology in the world
  • innovation and entrepreneurship
  • prankster spirit exemplified by the tradition of MIT Hacks
  • structures reminiscent of MIT’s architectural icons or built by MIT architects

The first-place winner can choose one of the following prizes: a $500 discount on any future trip sponsored by the MIT Alumni Travel Program, a Flip Video Mino HD, or a $200 Mpix gift card. The winning photo will also be featured on the Alumni Association homepage and displayed in the MIT Alumni Travel Program’s 2011 Explorer catalogue. The second place winner will receive a $100 Mpix gift card and have their photo displayed in the 2011 Explorer brochure. This contest is open to all MIT alumni and past MIT Alumni Travel Program travelers and ends May 16, 2010.

Read all the details.

If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even kill the proverbial two birds and submit a short video of a Hack @ Home and photograph it for the photo contest. I’m just sayin’…

Photo: Sam Brown,

People think all of sorts of crazy things about other people’s jobs. For example, there’s the stereotype that  photo editors are all failed photographers, physicists are all failed mathematicians, and writers are all demigods perched on thrones of gold (that last one is so true). What about the robotics industry? Slice decided to ask alumni in the field what they think about the biggest stereotypes about robotics. Here’s what they said:

The biggest stereotype about robotics is…that they’re some kind of futuristic thing, like we’re not swimming in robots right now, like there’s not enough computing power in a fuzzy logic rice cooker to dwarf some of the room-sized computers of the ENIAC era.  Can a rice cooker be a robot?  Of course it can!  It decides when to stop cooking your rice, it changes in response to things in the environment.  Lots of people can’t recognize robots that they’re using.  I think that’s the biggest stereotype.

Second biggest is that any complicated robot will eventually go crazy and kill all humans.  🙂

Juanita Albro ’92, grad student at UCI Robotics Lab

The biggest stereotype about robotics is that robots will run amok killing humans.  This stereotype originated with the first appearance of the word “Robot” in Karel Capek’s play RUR, published in 1920, and continued over the decades, in myriad robot stories and films, right up to the “Terminator” series and beyond.

As with most stereotypes, there is a nub of truth.  It is reasonable to be wary of autonomous intelligent robots (or the future prospect of autonomous intelligent robots).  Technology does fail, from time to time, or is misused.  But people are also flawed and have, over the millennia, killed hundreds of millions of fellow humans in genocidal and tribal atrocities.

Autonomous intelligent robots, including military robots, can be designed with value-driven logic to provide them with a code of ethics and morality.  Their behavior can be more rational, more exemplary, and more humane than that of humans.

Robert Finkelstein PhD ’88, president of Robotic Technology Inc.

There are two stereotypes that strike me in Robotics…. One is Data from Star Trek TNG, the Holy Grail of Robotics and the other is the PackBot from iRobot, the extension of the human in the loop to deal with high risk packages; high risk packages being objects that put the human in the safe loop in the first place.  Of course Rumba is the first thing one may think about as Robots from iRobot but the technology of the Rumba, while autonomous in behavior, is more closer to the actions of a cockroach.  Data is the ultimate in autonomous robotics and inspires many of a roboticist.  The reality of today is that roboticists are happy to be at the learning curve of the autonomy of a newborn when it comes to robotics.  We are learning more and more of the inner workings of human perception and cerebral decision making but in reality, we have not passed beyond the characteristics of an advanced cockroach or an application with a defined order of rule sets to follow.  In the next 10 years, we will gain tremendous information from the confluence of NeuroSciences, Human Cognition, Autonomous Robotic Behavior, Machine Vision and Information Management.  Perhaps then, the elements that fill in the roadmap to Data will emerge and the evolution of robotics will take a great leap forward.  I’m excited to participate in the next decades of robotic evolution.


Rolling Stone reports that MIT alumni had a hand in the “insanely complex video” for Of the Blue Colour of the Sky single “This Too Shall Pass,” which has gone viral on the net since its release March 1. Musicians OK Go, who even have a short video about how they love working with nerds, brought in folks from Syyn Labs and the MIT Media Lab including Heather Knight ’06, MNG ’08 to help create a two-story Rube Goldberg-esque structure.

“There were two Media Lab grads involved and me,” says Knight. “I managed the top floor in the final weeks and during shooting (first two minutes) with a dirty paw in almost every module there, Richard Whitney SM ’07 made the wooden ball bearing surface just after the music starts, and Jamie Zigelbaum SM ’08 worked with the lead singer Damian Kulash and his dad to make the first table full of small stuff.”

Kulash’s thoughtful New York Times essay on how free embedded videos boost revenues for bands and record companies may have influenced OK Go’s then-label, EMI, to disregard their own no embedding policy. “This Too Shall Pass” has been distributed freely throughout the Internet, much like the band’s star-making treadmill vid for “Here It Goes Again” in 2006. On OK Go’s Web site, you will find videos of top songs, the making of ‘This Too’, concerts,  and their recent decision to strike out on their own.

Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy Good news for Alex Rigopulos ’92, SM ’94 and Eran Egozy ’95, MNG ’95, founders of Harmonix and creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They have won one of USA Network’s Character Approved Awards honoring innovators who impact American culture and influence opinions, styles, and world views.

MIT Media Lab alumni Rigopulos and Egozy won for pioneering the field of instrument-based music games and for allowing people to more easily engage with music. They find themselves in good company. The nine other honorees include Oscar-winning Director Kathryn Bigelow, (peer-to-peer microlending) cofounder Jessica Jackley, and environmentally friendly architect Angela Brooks.

Check out video of the game designers on the USA Network site.

Last time, I gave a brief history of my personal fascination with sleep and a few of you echoed my sentiments of needing more sleep than the average person.

The Zeo itself consists of two main pieces: an alarm clock of sorts that actively displays your sleep cycles and a headband that wirelessly monitors these cycles as you sleep. On the first night I tried the Zeo, my excitement got the best of me. I remember laying in bed staring at the monitor which blinked in a way which indicated that I was “awake.” I closed my eyes tightly and tried to will myself to sleep, partially wishing I could stay awake to watch the monitor throughout the night. It was late and I was tired…but I couldn’t fall asleep. “Performance anxiety!?” I wondered to myself, tossing, turning, and flipping my pillow with frustration. Still no sleep. I started to worry about how, exactly, the device worked and mentally chastised myself for not researching more before I nonchalantly strapped something so close to my brain. Finally, at 4AM (at least I am tenacious), I took off the Zeo.

The next morning, I did what any normal person would do, and emailed Matt Bianchi, MD PhD of MGH’s sleep division and asked if the device was safe. His email simply said, “the Zeo has passed all routine safety standards for commercial sale.”

Not satisfied, I emailed Mollie ’06 – aka my advisor on everything related to the brain. She wrote, “My friend (who is an MD/PhD student and Knows Things) says it actually records the changes in conductance of your skin, not even really the brain waves per se, which I guess makes sense, because you just need skin contact, not brain tissue contact (ew).”

Completely satisfied with this response, I wore the Zeo that night without anxiety.

Below is data from one night’s sleep.

Oh no, I feel so exposed! Don’t judge my brain waves!

In the interest of time, space, and attention span, I will wait until the next and final post in this series to interpret the data, show you more, note my observations, and answer some questions that came up in last week’s comments (with the help of the friendly staff at Zeo.) Check back for it on March 21st!

In the meantime, get some sleep.


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