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 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 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.

Members of the MIT community have a history of transforming visual effects. Herbert Kalmus (1903) and MIT Physics Professor Daniel Comstock codeveloped Technicolor (yes, it was named after MIT) and Bill Warner ’80 created the Avid digital editing system. And now Eliot Mack SM ’96 hopes to add his name to the list. His portable Previzion system enables accurate matching of live-action foregrounds and computer-generated backgrounds so directors can see beyond a green screen at how the final shot will look. Watch video of the technology in action.

Previzion being used on set

To add backgrounds in post-production, technicians have to know exact camera positions and lens optical parameters used during filming. Currently, visual tracking involves 3,000-pound cranes fitted with rotary measuring devices that lack complete accuracy. Mack's invention puts Intersense optical-inertial and Airtrack inertial sensors onto the camera itself, which precisely record necessary data and eliminate the need to manually figure out tracking info.

While green-screen technology is not new (meteorologists swear by it), creating live photorealistic images with it is. Current technology has problems accounting for motion tracking, image resolution, focusing and defocusing background shots, and capturing lens adjustment calibrations, which are crucial for post-production work. Mack has refined his technology to automatically generate camera tracking data and to not miss a single strand of hair against the backdrop. “Essentially, we’re recreating the world on the fly,” he says. So far, it’s been used on the television show V, the upcoming Tim Burton movie Alice in Wonderland, and the Knight Rider made-for-TV movie.

How does it work?
Consider the typical FX process. A show is recorded against a green screen, then digitized and loaded into a computer. An artist keys out the green, then another team manually identifies all the camera tracking and calibration points, which can take days for just one shot (a special-effects-laden movie would contain hundreds or thousands of such shots). Next, a team fills in the background, and yet another artist composites all the images together, all of which can take weeks or months. Mack’s invention can, with simpler backgrounds (like those usually found in TV), generate final-quality output in real time that just needs to be edited, scored, and distributed. Post-production time can still be cut by weeks for more complex scenes by fixing any lighting issues on set and using the tracking data Previzion generates (see photo caption). (more…)

Erik Demaine

Click photo to check out a video clip of MIT associate professor Erik Demaine from the show.

Between the Folds, part of PBS’ Independent Lens series, spotlights ten masters of the art and science of origami, including MIT associate professor Erik Demaine and Brian Chan ’02, SM ’04, PhD ’09. Works from those featured on the program range from minimalist designs to paper caricatures reminiscent of Daumier and Picasso to creations using advanced computations. The result is a look at how the creativity inherent in origami blurs the lines between art and science.

Check your local listings for air times.

The show’s Web site also offers a history of origami and a Match the Folds game to see if you can discern the finished product from a fold pattern.

Design Squad Host Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 stands ready (on roof) while Zach Tribbett ’12 tests a T-shirt shooter for the WNBA that can reach an arena's upper deck.

Design Squad Host Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 stands ready (on roof) while Zach Tribbett ’12 tests a T-shirt shooter for the WNBA that can reach an arena's upper deck.

Ask MIT engineers to help create a TV show and what do you get? Design Squad, PBS’s Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning show that aims to educate and excite tweens and teens about engineering. On it, teams of teenage contestants design and build problem-solving products for actual clients, such as a remote-controlled aquatic pet rescue vehicle for the New Orleans Fire Department or a portable peanut-butter-making machine for a women’s collective in Haiti, while competing for a $10,000 scholarship. Filmed near Boston, Design Squad is half show, half engineering outreach. The companion Web site offers hands-on activities, educators’ guides, videos of working engineers, and more. Watch the show.

As host of the show, Ball would monitor teams' progress and scout for lessons to emphasize to viewers through narrated animations.

As host of the show, Ball would monitor teams' progress and scout for lessons to emphasize to viewers through narrated animations.

Several members of the MIT community have been instrumental in the development and production of the show. To name a few, Daniel Frey PhD ’97, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems, served as the show’s first advisor, in 2002, and created the curriculum in collaboration with producers at WGBH-TV Boston. He also oversaw UROP students participating in the show. David Wallace SM ’91, PhD ’95, professor of mechanical engineering, has created design challenges, served as technical advisor on set, mentored teams, and aided post-production. Inventor Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 hosts the show and some MIT students have been cast members.

The show aims to introduce the process and practice of engineering and demystify it as a possible career choice. “[TV] can certainly offer exposure to the world of engineering in a much more visual and experiential way than you can get otherwise,” says Ball, who loved to tinker and build things as a kid but didn’t know what mechanical engineers did until he went to college. Still, reality TV as a teaching tool does have its demands. Ball has to balance a mix of excitement, interest, competence, and zaniness and also works to buoy and motivate contestants during frustrating moments so they don’t just reflect aggravation on camera.

Tribbett during the season finale, when contestants were dropped off on Misery Island in Salem Sound and given limited materials to build a boat and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball thinks this was one of the most successful challenges of the season. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."

Tribbett during the season finale. Contestants had to build a boat on Misery Island in Salem Sound and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball considers this a successful challenge. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."

Tight time and budget constraints, which prevent overtime, offer some of the greatest struggles. Contestants have 16 hours to complete challenges, yet they can be held up waiting to film key moments, like joining two pieces of a design together. “Whenever we were going on to the next step in the process, they’d have to get that on camera,” says Zach Tribbett ’12, a math and brain and cognitive sciences major from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who appeared on the third (and most recent) season. If the camera operator was occupied, contestants had to wait. Then, they’d have to restage the shot from different angles. A two-minute procedure could take 20 minutes to an hour. (more…)

Teresa Huang

Teresa Huang

Teresa Huang ’97 was just helping out a friend in 1998 when she auditioned for a play as part of MIT Dramashop’s Playwrights in Performance event, which showcases student writers and directors. She scored the lead and found her calling. Now, Huang lives in Los Angeles building her acting and writing resume in the television industry.

She’s had numerous roles in shows such as ER, The West Wing, and Cold Case and landed her first recurring role on the 2007-08 FX show The Riches, which starred Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard. Huang played Izzard’s assistant Kimmie in nine episodes. While the show was mostly drama, her scenes often provided some levity, an opportunity she enjoyed. The episodes are available on Hulu.

Developing her character on The Riches provided a welcome break from the auditions and roles (on shows such as Ugly Betty and The Young and the Restless) she often receives as a well-spoken Asian-American—that of reporter or nurse. But any work is fine by Huang, who understands the tenacity required to build a Hollywood career. “If I have to do the nurse role a hundred times before I get a supporting best friend role, I don’t mind,” she says. “I know it’s not very likely I will ever play the romantic lead or villainess, and I’m totally fine with that. I know my personality and my strengths.”

Eddie Izzard and Teresa Huang

Eddie Izzard and Teresa Huang. Huang played Izzard's assistant on The Riches.

And she credits MIT with helping her develop her self-awareness. At the Institute, she felt comfortable being a Star Trek geek and exploring all aspects of her personality. “MIT really helped me discover who I am,” she says. “I embraced my nerdiness.” It’s this nerdiness that in part helped her land a job as a staff writer on the short-lived Knight Rider series remake. She cowrote a pilot about time travel that caught the right person’s eye, as did her MIT degree, something of a novelty in the entertainment industry. “As a writer, I definitely think it’s become one of my commodities,” she says. “Having that background and interest in engineering and that eye for new gadgets and technology became my persona in the writers’ room.” Indeed, Knight Rider colleagues even nicknamed her “MIT.” And Huang, who graduated with a degree in Science, Technology, and Society, delivered, scouring Technology Review for new gadgets and science to pitch, such as recharging K.I.T.T., the show’s tricked-out car, wirelessly and remotely, shooting a GPS dot onto a moving vehicle, or creating a sonar listening shell’s cone of silence around a character. While the ideas were ultimately unused, they did make it up on the writers’ “gack wall” of inspiration. (more…)

How does someone go from studying engineering to writing for television? Saladin K. Patterson ’94 did it by studying TV like an engineer.

Saladin Patterson on the set of The Bernie Mac Show.

Saladin Patterson on the set of The Bernie Mac Show.

Ever the class clown, Patterson thought a show about him and his friend would be a hit. So on a whim in 1995 he scrutinized popular comedies—Frasier, Seinfeld, Mad About You, and Ellen—with an engineer’s analytical, process-oriented approach to understand their structure then wrote spec scripts. “The first thing I realized is that a TV show about me and my friend Rich would not be funny,” Patterson says.

Still, he continued writing and left a graduate psychology program at Vanderbilt after landing a prestigious Disney|ABC Writing Fellowship—his entrée into Hollywood. He learned about pitching and fleshing out ideas and writing scripts from industry insiders and forged important connections with executives that helped him move up the ranks. During his fellowship, for example, he met former Harvard Lampoon writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who offered advice, an internship, and, finally, a staff writer position on Teen Angel. Before long, Patterson was writing for Frasier then The Bernie Mac Show. He’s especially proud of his work on Frasier. “That was like a dream come true,” he says. “I was a huge fan before I became a writer. It was the first spec script I wrote.” Most thrilling was tape night, when he could witness a live audience responding to his jokes. “It gives you a rush. It’s something you can’t get anywhere else,” he says.

These days, Patterson is a coexecutive producer on USA Network’s dramedy Psych about a fake psychic detective. Television writing is highly collaborative. A team of writers and producers (who are senior-level writers who also work on set throughout an episode’s production) brainstorm story arcs and characters. Then, one or sometimes two people end up writing the actual script. Many writers new to the LA scene, Patterson says, struggle with assimilating their writing habits with the group collaboration and strict deadlines of TV, but he was well-suited to the process and structure. “At MIT you have to learn how to organize yourself within time constraints,” he says. “Television shows in general follow a universal structure,” which doesn’t mean the stories themselves are formulaic. “But there are formulas in television you can learn and exercise.” (more…)