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betacup logoIf you’re like the majority of North Americans (65%), you drink coffee. And if you buy it from a coffee shop, you probably don’t hand the barista a travel mug before ordering—even though you’ve likely been given a few nice ones over the years as gifts or giveaways. Am I right?

Problem is, most of the to-go cups used to carry those tasty lattes, including those from Starbucks, are not recyclable. In fact, 58 billion paper cups are thrown away every year, and 20 million trees are cut down in the process of manufacturing said cups, which also uses some 12 billion gallons of water.

So what can be done? Two MIT alumni are part of a team that hopes you can figure that out—or at least provide some feedback for others with ideas. Marcel Botha SM ’06 and Shaun Abrahamson SM ’98 helped form the open innovation challenge known as the betacup, which offers $20,000 in prize money for a reusable or recyclable coffee cup people will actually use en masse.

Ideas submitted to the contest are viewable by the public for comment and ratings. So even if you don’t have an idea (yet), you can offer constructive comments and engage in discussions with community members and contest jurors. The contest is sponsored in part by Starbucks, which aims to serve all its beverages in sustainable cups by 2015. Learn more in the video below.

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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.”

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…)

Video cameraThe world could use a few laughs these days, or chuckles, or even smiling nods of appreciation for supreme cleverness. Show off that irreverent MIT spirit and enter the Alumni Association’s Hacks @ Home video contest.

Here’s all you have to do:

  • Create a hack somewhere in the world
  • Record a short video of it (90 seconds max)
  • Upload said video to YouTube and submit a very quick entry form

Earn the admiration and respect of your peers—who knew it could be so easy?

Videos must be uploaded by March 25, 2010, by MIT alumni. Winning videos will be posted April 1 (I know, so fitting, right?). Here are all the details.

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MIT is a powerhouse when it comes to problem solving. Some of the world’s most talented scientists engineers study and work at the Institute, and breakthroughs across different disciplines are often a part of daily life.

However some problems, particularly in the energy sector, transcend the scope of a single discipline and require a systems-wide approach. A new video by AMPS and the Alumni Association focuses on that multidisciplinary strategy, showing how innovation in energy technology has to be combined with innovation in business models and policies in order to create and promote a sustainable energy system.

View the seven minute Energy Innovation video above or watch it on TechTV.

The PBS Frontline series, “Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier,” is using MIT students as a starting point to understand how omnipresent digital media is influencing daily life—perhaps detrimentally—in the 21st century.

The producers call MIT students “some of the most technologically savvy students in the world…digital natives.” And then they ask questions about whether this 24/7 online culture as down sides, such as limited attention spans. The professor who heads the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self thinks that might be the case:

“I teach the most brilliant students in the world,” says MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, who describes the challenges of teaching students who are surfing the Internet and texting during class. “But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things.”

Watch a 90-minute segment of Digital Nation to learn why Turkle believes that effective multitasking—even digitally facilitated— is mostly myth. What do you think?

Guest blogger: John Cohn ’81, IBM Fellow at IBM Systems and Technology Group

John Cohn

On the show, John Cohn ’81 (above) built numerous devices to aid the colonists' survival, including water purifiers, a wood-powered electric generator, and flame throwers. The opportunity to spend all day inventing on the fly was, despite the conditions and some reality-TV drama, one of the most fun and relaxing things he's ever done. Photo: Discovery Channel.

Ever wanted to be on TV? Here’s your chance! Last year I was a cast member on The Colony, a new science/survival/reality show on Discovery Channel. The show simulates a post-apocalyptic world in which a small group of people is isolated in a constrained setting and has to innovate in order to survive. Think Survivor meets MacGyver. Watch video from the show to get a feel for the setup.

Last year, 10 of us were isolated in an abandoned steel mill in East LA for 58 days. We had to develop ways to purify water, find and prepare food, generate electricity, communicate, and even defend ourselves from simulated attackers using just the materials we could find. The experience was not for the feint of heart—we worked long hours; ate, drank, and slept very little; and were perpetually dirty. But even so, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life on both a technical and personal level.

Reaction to the series was very positive. Discovery called it a “surprise hit” and are now casting for season two. They’ve asked me to help find the perfect mad scientist type. Do you have mad talents like circuit hacking, welding, woodworking, and fire skills? Do you have crazy survival tactics? Leadership ability? What do you think you’d bring to a post-apocalyptic world? We’re looking for Mad Max with a brass rat. Is that you? If so, please contact me johncohn@alum.mit.edu and visit Metal Flowers Media and get your application in right away. Also, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

I’d love to see another person from the ’Tute show the world what it takes to survive the big one!

Here’s the casting notice:

THE COLONY

The Discovery Channel invites you to participate in an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience: in the second season of this critically acclaimed docu-reality series deemed a social experiment, a group of eleven strangers must co-exist in a simulated, post-apocalyptic world. The world as you know it is gone there is no water, no food, no communication, no power. Its now up to you and eleven strangers to fend for yourselves as you rebuild society and re-engineer the world as you once knew it.

If you understand the science of survival, if you have a skill that would help you and others survive after a catastrophe, if you are ambitious, motivated, resourceful under pressure and willing to un-tap your personal ingenuity, we are looking for you. Join us in this true test of the human spirit.

Must have TANGIBLE survival skills and big personalities.

Editor’s note:

In honor of the upcoming national Engineers’ Week, February 14–20, Cohn put together and stars in this humorous rap parody to remind folks that engineering is wicked cool. Also check out Cohn’s blog, which he began as a way to help cope with the death of his 14-year-old son, Sam, killed in a 2006 traffic accident.

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