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?

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EECS Optical Micrograph

Research in MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department is, arguably, the future.

EECS researchers are designing revolutionary new ways to make chips and using living cells’ electronic properties to develop clinical applications. They are designing a new scheme for quantum money (and doing away with cash altogether) and gaining understanding of human languages through statistical language learning. They are producing transformative knowledge that will affect daily lives this year—and in the future.

So reading the recent EECS newsletter might be a smart way to start 2010. Here are a few places to begin:

To those who don’t look under the hood of web sites, Drupal may be a foreign concept. In fact, this open source content management system (CMS) is sweeping the web landscape because of its flexibility, fast evolution, and focus on growing a community of users. In fact, MIT’s Information Services and Technology (IS&T) group and a growing number of other MIT departments are choosing Drupal as their CMS of choice.

In a fall talk hosted by Sustainability at MIT, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert relates a synopsis of his life with Drupal. From its inception during Buytaert’s typical geek undergraduate days in Antwerp in 1999, to the upcoming release of Drupal 7, Buytaert places a particular emphasis on the community that has been created by the nature of an open source product. Drupal is “software to build websites with” intended for anyone to modify and improve then redistribute to its users.

“Drupal is a ‘Do-ocracy’, meaning the stuff that gets into Drupal 7 is the stuff that people like you actually worked on,” says Buytaert. Watch the MIT World video of Buytaert’s talk….you might wind up at the next Drupalcon—April in San Francisco.

A study of the digital gadgets we use to call, calendar, and connect reveals that they can accurately record the nuances of our relationships. Talk about Big Sister!

MIT Professor Sandy Pentland PhD '82.

Professor Sandy Pentland PhD '82.

A New Scientist article, reporting the work by MIT Professor Sandy Pentland PhD ’82 and two colleagues, described how matching the patterns of phone calls and phone locations allowed researchers to predict with 95 percent accuracy who the subjects would describe as close friends. That part is not so surprising. If the phones were together for several hours on a Saturday night, their owners were likely to be buddies.

However, researchers were also able to use the phone data to evaluate job satisfaction. “Those who reported themselves less satisfied were less likely to have friends in close proximity and more likely to call friends during work hours.” The phone data were more accurate than owners in describing how much time they spent with friends versus acquaintances. The owners overestimated the time they spent with friends.

Curious for more info on human patterns? Watch Pentland’s presentation to the 2009 Davos assembly on ideas in his new book, Honest Signals.

Quizlet inventor Andrew Sutherland '13

Quizlet inventor Andrew Sutherland '12

When 15-year-old Andrew Sutherland was preparing for a French vocabulary test, it took hours of his time and his dad’s, who was testing and retesting him on more than 100 words. There had to be a better way thought Sutherland, now an  MIT sophomore from Albany, California. And he came up with it—a software program that lets you enter words and definitions, test yourself, and then it retests you on any weak spots. An article in the summer issue of Spectrum calls Sutherland’s discovery a “lightning fast way to memorize vocabulary words.”

Sutherland launched the Web site to share his innovation. Now you can set up your own customized flashcard sets or tap into quizzes created by others on the Web site for free. Existing quizzes focus on languages, math and science, history, literature, medicine, and many other fields. You will also find links to standardized tests for SAT, GRE, LSAT, etc.

Recently Sutherland founded Brainflare, a company designed to turn a great idea into a profitable business. The five employees include Sutherland’s father, who is CFO and secretary. A member of the Albany High School Science Bowl, which won fourth place in the national championships, attests, “Quizlet cut my studying time in half.” Hmmm…this might be useful to Sutherland’s classmates.

Spectrum articles also report on Magnificent Desolation, a new book by astronaut Buzz Aldrin PhD ’63; efforts to save coral reefs by Assistant Professor Janelle Thompson PhD ’05; why real estate investor Ed Linde ’62 is giving $25 million to MIT for undergraduate financial aid; and more.

MIT Flea Market or Swapfest.

MIT Flea Market or Swapfest.

Where can you get an amazing deal on a used PC or electronic doodads  on the third Sunday of the warmish months? At MIT’s legendary flea market or swapfest. At, you can get the scoop on buying or selling electronics, amateur radio components, and computers a few years old with plenty of juice left for most users.

And deals are to be had. The Boston Globe reports August deals of a $250 Dell Latitude laptop with an Intel Pentium 4 chip, a gig of RAM, and a 40-gigabyte hard drive or, for $300, a Hewlett-Packard laptop with a 14-inch screen, an Intel dual-core Centrino processor, a gig of RAM, and an 80-gig hard drive.

Who sponsors this? The MIT Radio Society, in conjunction with the MIT UHF Repeater Association, the MIT Electronics Research Society, and the Harvard Wireless Club, hosts the swapfest on the third Sunday of each month, April through October, at the Albany Street garage on the corner of Albany and Portland streets. Next date: Sept. 20.

Stephen Dodd, Jay Forrester, Robert Everett, and Ramona Ferenz at Whirlwind I test control in 1950.

Stephen Dodd, Jay Forrester, Robert Everett, and Ramona Ferenz at Whirlwind I test control in 1950.

Itching to find out about the nitty-gritty development of MIT’s first digital computer? You can now virtually dig through  the Project Whirlwind Computer collection, a compilation of pioneering digital computing research conducted at MIT in the 1940s and 1950s. The collection, including formerly classified material, is back at the Institute and available to the public, thanks to the MITRE Corporation.

Whirlwind I—the fastest digital computer of its time—was completed in 1951 and occupied 3,300 square feet in the Barta Building (N42). The research project and documents eventually moved to Lincoln Lab and then to MITRE.

The precursor to modern-day computers, Whirlwind’s fingerprints are evident in today’s software and hardware. Parallel digit processing, random-access and magnetic core memory made the initial launch of commercial computers, and interactive visual computer displays, possible. The groundbreaking design also laid the foundation for simulation and real-time technology. In operation until 1959, Whirlwind formed the basis for the U.S. Air Force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system.

The Whirlwind documents now reside in the MIT Libraries Dome, a digital repository that contains 25,000 digitized images of art and architecture from the Rotch Visual Collections…and more.

Heather Knight '06, SM '08, at Ignite LA.

Heather Knight '06, SM '08, at Ignite LA.

Think of it as stand-up for geeks. Ignite, a mesmerizing event series, creates a  stage for the technology-minded to present ideas fast—five minutes of microphone time with 20 slides clicking forward every 15 seconds.

Naturally, some MIT folks have hit the stage. Heather Knight ’06, SM ’08 of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab described how to make robots more social on a YouTube video filmed at Ignite LA on July 21. Her talk, “Turning AI Gurus into Comets: The Rise of the Charismatic Machine” describes an interactive installation she and a JPL team created for an artificial intelligence conference: they transformed participants’ cell phone signals into comet visualizations whizzing in space. She acknowledged her friendly robot bias, having worked in MIT’s Personal Robots Group and for the French firm Aldebaran Robotics, the first European humanoid robot manufacturer.

Inventor Saul Griffith SM ’01, PhD ’04, a 2007 MacArthur genius fellow, presented an Ignite talk on his cartoon book Howtoons. The title? “Subverting science education: HOWTOONS seeks to put joy, story, adventure, free-spirit, fun & ridiculousness, back into informal science education.”

Ignite was started by Brady Forrest, technology evangelist for O’Reilly Media, and Bre Pettis of, and inspired by Pecha Kucha Nights, where creatives got six minutes and 20 slides to share ideas. The first Ignite was held in Seattle in 2006 and the events have spread across the across the U.S. and worldwide. Check out the How-To section of the Ignite site to plan your own local geekathon.

The tiny Bokode device, center, contains far more information than conventional barcodes.

The Bokode, center, contains far more information than conventional barcodes.

Barcodes are ubiquitous, producing little pops of information at checkout counters worldwide. The Media Lab has come up with a new, tinier barcode that could provide information useful to shoppers as they scan the shelves and could lead to new types of presentation devices, video games, or motion-capture systems.

The new system, called Bokode, is based on a different way of encoding visual information, says Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, who leads the lab’s Camera Culture group. The new approach encodes data in the angular dimension: Rays of light coming from the new tags vary in brightness depending on the angle at which they emerge. The name Bokode comes from the Japanese photography term bokeh, which refers to the round blob produced in an out-of-focus image of a light source. The Bokode system uses an out-of-focus camera—which allows the angle-encoded information to emerge from the resulting blurred spot— to record the encoded information from the tiny tag.

Bokodes have several advantages. They can be read from several meters away by a cell phone camera; they can provide much more information, such as a complete nutritional description; and you can scan several nearby items to compare them.

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