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Category: MIT

June 7, 2005

CEOs should not give commencement addresses

My commencement speaker was Daniel Goldin, the outgoing head of NASA. I guess they wanted to connect with the whole "2001" theme and have a spacey speaker, but Goldin is an administrator, not an innovator, and I was bored to tears. It could have been worse: MIT and Stanford graduating classes have both had Carly Fiorina as a speaker, and someone from the MIT class of '05 just sent me the text of the commencement speak by Irwin Jacobs, CEO of Qualcomm, which is the epitome of boring CEO commencement addresses. Read on, if you like being bored.

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May 22, 2004

Boston

With all my posting of media related to my trip to Boston, I never took the opportunity to do a simple post on what I actually did, as opposed to what I saw.

The trip didn't start of auspiciously. United cancelled my flight and put me on one five hours later, and that flight was further delayed both on take off, landing, and during the taxi-ing to our gate, but my luck turned around as a nice person from Genentech gave me a ride from the airport to j and hogue's place. Among other things, we joked about the flight attendant who was more than a bit overzealous in her enforcement of emergency exit row qualifications and procedures.

The alumni party BBQ was fun; during the course of the weekend I found out about two babies on the way, caught up with a lot of friends, and saw the immense damage to one of the houses used to lived in. I also watched a lot of NBA playoff games, had some good serious discussions with friends, saw the tremendous changes to the MIT campus (Stata, Simmons, Z-Center, and toilet paper), and managed a couple of sinks during beer die (though I shamefully had to use proxies for defense).

My only disappointment was that this was one of the lesser turnouts for an alumni event that I had seen in the six-or-so events I had been to; most of my class was absent, pretty much no one from the previous three classes came from out-of-town. The low turnout was understandable: this year's event was much more low-key since our venus was destroyed, and next year's event will certainly offer much more interesting sights with a newly renovated house to gaze at. Also, I did manage to see a lot of this year's seniors (who were freshmen when I graduated) before they take off.

May 17, 2004

Stata Center

photo One of the highlights of my visit to Boston was visiting the nearly complete Stata Center at MIT. Ever since seeing photos of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I have been a fan of Gehry's work, and this was my second opportunity to see one of his buildings in person (the first being the Disney Center). I've already expressed some opinions on the Stata Center prior to visiting it, so you can compare and contrast my pre- and post-impressions if you wish.

I've broken my impressions and photos of the Stata Center into five parts, partly to separate distinct parts of the building, and mostly because I took over 200 photos and need to make the image galleries consumable.

Exterior
Modifying the building
Interior
Roof

Stata Center: Exterior

photo The exterior of the Stata Center has invited a lot of criticism and not much defense, so let me be one of the few voices out there to say, "I like it." It's different, it's looks like got damaged in an earthquake, and it's strange, but it's also very interesting, open, and thought-provoking. It has towers with a gentle curve that enhance their height, Gehry's signature use of metal, and the appropriately dedicated Dertouzos amphitheater, which I hope will invite people to hang out in nicer weather. Unlike most MIT buildings, it also has a parking garage (added after the building was designed) and day care center with playground.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the exterior design is the still-incomplete robotics lab (photo). With its shiny metal exterior, separation from the rest of the building structure, and conical chimney, it almost seems like a cottage to the rest of the building. In most of the sight lines for the building, it seems to stand out most prominently, which perhaps was the intent of Gehry when he chose for it to be the shiniest.

In comparing the Stata Center and Disney Center, I would say that the Stata Center has a much slower rhythm. When I visited the Disney Center, I found myself taking a photo, walking two feet, and finding a completely different view that I had to take another photo of. The variations in the Stata Center design are much more spread out, and while it does have a greater diversity of design elements, it doesn't have as many interesting angles from which to view it from.

Stata Exterior (100 photos))

Related: Index of other Stata Center entries

Stata Center: Modifying the Building

Another interesting design decision for the interior of the building that deserves its own post is that the interior is very hackable. Most of the interior spaces are complete open with reconfigurable separators to adjust how the space is used, and there are large, open spaces, some of which extend sixty feet into the air.

There is also extensive use of glass invites people to write messages or draw pictures on it, or in some cases, paper up the glass entirely for privacy. One of the more morbid window drawings I saw can be viewed here (hard to see).

Gehry I believe has taken to using the euphemism "modifying the building" to describe some of the modifications that people are making to correct some of the building design. We took to joking around with this saying as we wandered around; e.g. when we propped open one of the doors using construction material, we were "modifying the building." One of the more humorous modifications I've heard about is that in one of the conference rooms someone placed a box with a brick in it over one of the buildings floor vents and labelled it "temperature control." It is good to see that Gehry doesn't take offense at these modifications, though I'm sure that some of the denizens wish they were unnecessary. In all fairness, at least they have control over their spaces in the Stata Center; the old NE43 building offered little opportunity.

There are also plenty of fun reasons to hack the building. The "Gates Building" logos are numerous and pristine, the MIT library terminals are running Windows and frequently bluescreen (they were hacked to run Linux during the dedication), and the Dreyfoos building has already spawned the Dreyfoosball table.

Related: Index of other Stata Center entries

Stata Center: Roof

photo One of the things we discovered while wandering the halls of the Stata Center is, despite the numerous active doorlocks, you could actually go into nearly any room you wanted if you were adventurous enough. For example, the control room for the big 123 lecture hall has a combination lock on it, but it turns out that if you just twist the handle, it opens. Another example is roof access. I assume that, in the future, MIT will want to block access to the roof, but, for now, you can walk up a stairwell and right out onto the roof.

The roof offered many interesting views of Cambridge, the MIT campus, and Boston. It also makes for a fun mini-maze as you try and navigate through the vent-works to get to the outer roof edge.

If you examine the photos carefully, you might be able to notice some mounting stands that are regularly spaced near the edge of the roof. They have four holes in them as if to bolt on something important, but their main use to me was a good solid base to stand on and look over the high roof edge.

Roof Gallery (29 photos)

Related: Index of other Stata Center entries

MIT ch-changes

In the three years since I've graduated, MIT campus has changed a lot, and my general impression is that it has become a much nicer place to go to school. The biggest factor in this is the new Z-Center, which replaces MIT's 50-year-old scummy pool and basement weight rooms with a modern, three-story complex with two pools, tons of workout machines, and lots of TVs. It also appears that there are more dining choices close to campus, and I also happen to like the addition of the Stata Center. The number of buildings that MIT has built or is building since I left is astonishing -- my current count notes that at least five large buildings have been completed, and there is also a gigantic building being constructed for the cogsci department. Of the buildings, the only one I wish MIT could take back is the Simmons dorm, which is ugly beyond description on the outside -- I hear that it's even worse on the inside.

I can't speak for changes in student life. It was hard to tell in the space of a weekend how the changes to the freshman programs, from changing the timing of rush, to requiring freshman to live on campus, to eliminating two-term pass/no record, have harmed or improved interactions on campus, but I will note that I even noticed that the toilet paper on campus has noticeably improved, and that certainly improves day-to-day life.

May 9, 2004

Stata Center followup

rcp posted a comment deriding my praise for the Stata Center. I imagine others will or already do share her viewpoint, and as aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, it's rather difficult to debate. A vote could give some credence to right or wrong, but I don't have a poll feature, so here is my response:

rcp: we have agreed to disagree on our definitions of art :) but i think it makes our already hideous campus look all the more heinous. i would have been happy if they had kept the 77 mass ave or killian court architecture. in their attempts to be innovative, i think they've made a mess. who cares if there's a building that's a 30-60-90 triangle or 1/8th of a sphere? with the recent addition of an oddly colored simmons and this drop of demented-looking metal, i think we have won the award for the most eclectic and yet, most uncoordinated campus ever. now, i will prepare myself to be flamed by you :).

We already had the award for most eclectic and uncoordinated campus ever. If MIT had stuck to the Killian Court look throughout, then my response would differ, but no other buildings on campus match that look, not the Green Building, Media Center, hospital, Sloan, bio building, NE43, or any of the other building numbers too numerous to list. The building that the Stata Center was built over was a fifty-year-old "temporary" building that had five coats of hideous blue paint on it, none of which matched, and none of which seemed to make it all the way around a full window frame. The building that the Stata Center replaces (NE43) could easily be mistaken for a boring office building, which its twin across the courtyard in fact is. Coordination was never a virtue of the MIT campus after its initial construction. About the only common trait they share is that most of them use lots of concrete.

If we assume that it's too late to tear down the MIT campus and rebuild it in a new image, then we have to accept the fact that nothing can be done to improve the "regularity" of the campus. That doesn't mean that we should build horrendous buildings like Simmons, where the only design consideration seems to be making the windows inconvenient for suicide attempts, but it does mean that MIT can, and should take risks in its building design to demonstrate innovative architecture.

Whether you like or dislike Gehry's designs, he is a leader in architectural design. His designs would be impossible without the leading-edge CAD tools he promotes, and his buildings are marvels that fly in the face of the principle of interchangeable parts; they demonstrate that technology now affords us the capabilities to dismiss assembly-line manufactured designs. Too many buildings resemble the parts that made them: rectangular blocks. If you look at the Disney Center in LA, you will be immediately struck by the fact that they had to individually bend each sheet of metal that covers it; no two are the same. The fact that this can be done without astronomical costs is additionally impressive. At the very least, the Stata Center will be a case study in modern design and construction technologies for architecture students.

Go into any other building on the MIT campus, and go to any floor. Take a look around. Then go up or down the stairs, and take a look again. Look familiar? Other than the bathroom layout, which alternates each floor, nearly ever floor in an MIT building is a replica of the floor below, save the dreaded catacomb basements.

The Stata Center will break this tradition. It will offer the largest variety of spaces available in the entire campus, from large lecture halls, to individually shaped tutorial rooms. Each floor, room, and stairway will have the opportunity to make unique impressions. At the very least, it will make it very challenging for the AI lab to program their robots. When I wandered around the Disney Center, each vantage point revealed something different about the building; you never got the same view as you walked around. From the photos of the Stata Center I have seen, I believe the exterior and interior will offer a similar variety.

I believe this unconventionality will be useful, because one of the things that impresses me about PARC, now that I work at SRI, is how important the building is for the culture of the lab. SRI's building, I'm told, is a former hospital, which has the consequence that there are no common spaces, and all the hallways and stairways are in the interior of the building. At PARC, much of the building faces the outside. Anywhere in PARC, you're never more than a hundred feet away from a patio or a courtyard. The building is also subdivided into pods, so and each pod is centered around a common space. All of this fosters social communication at PARC at a level that far exceeds that of SRI. Pixar had a similar approach in their building design: the bathrooms are all placed at the center of the building, so that people are encouraged to run into each other during their bathroom breaks. Neither PARC's or Pixar's building designs are responsible for their culture, but they are consonant.

I do not know if the Stata Center will encourage social communication on campus, though I do think that the amphitheater might be only large outdoor social gathering point in the entire East Campus. I am fairly certain, though, that the unique design of the Stata Center will make an impression on the research culture. It is hard to predict cultural shifts, but my prediction is that this impression will be a positive one.

Stata Center opens

The Stata Center at MIT officially opened on May 7th. It's not my favorite of the Gehry buildings, but to me, at least, it's a refreshing break from the other buildings on the MIT campus. The MIT campus can be best described as depressingly ugly, so I think it will be an improvement. I'll know better when I visit next week and take lots of photos.
The Ray and Maria Stata Center - Photos

March 22, 2004

Stata Center + Brass Rats

The Stata Center at MIT is nearly complete (more info). I'm a Gehry fan, so I think that it's rather cool to get a Gehry building on campus. However, looking at the current photos, it doesn't seem as striking as I thought it would. Perhaps large amounts of brick-color, or bad angles in the camera shots, but it doesn't stand out like, say, the Disney Center in LA.

On a slightly related note, the new 2006 Brass Rat design has been announced, which I mention because it's the first ring I know of where you join two rings together to spell out the secret message.... MIT. The message is kinda lame, the idea is cool, in a dorky way appropriate to an MIT ring. Strangely, the report also says the ring has "ILTFP" inscribed on it. Did MIT suddenly get a whole lot nicer to its students? Did the school suddenly start caring about student life? Every ring I've seen has IHTFP, and if there were a "secret" message to be spelled out, that would certainly be a good candidate.

December 5, 2003

So long Vest

The head of MIT is expected to retire soon. I don't dislike Vest, but I don't like him either. In his tenure, he managed to quadruple the MIT endowment, but yet none of that went to student activities or improved student life, and athletics remained on a flat (non-inflation adjusted) budget the entire time I was there. Oh, a tuition went up ~$1K+ a year that I was there.

These two paragraphs near the end of the article are why I won't miss him.

He also dealt with enduring problems of student life like drinking and mental health. The death of a freshman, Scott Krueger, from an overdose of alcohol in 1997 after a fraternity hazing, highlighted the alienation many students felt at the university, largely because so many had lived in fraternities and independent houses around Boston and Cambridge, Mass., since the institute was chartered in 1861.

The death resulted in a $6 million settlement with Mr. Krueger's parents and the construction of three dormitories, along with a requirement beginning in 2001 that freshmen live on campus

I felt that he didn't protect the students against the giant overreaction in the wake of Krueger's death. Houses lived in a constant state of fear - if someone smuggled alcohol into your party, it was your fault, and you could end up kicked out of your house for a period of time. The social life on campus evaporated after this incident, and it was still recovering four years later when I left. I also think they set a bad precedent by settling with his parents - they were arguing that MIT was in loco parentis, and by settling it set this terrible trend that parents somehow rely on a large institution to be a better parent to their kid than themselves, nevermind the fact that the kid is now actually a legal adult, and if he couldn't proper decisions with his life only two months away from home, who shares the greater responsibility?
M.I.T.

November 29, 2003

MIT feigns poverty

Maybe they want me to give them money, or maybe they want the joy of firing people for the holidays. Either way, even with $5.4 billion in the endowment piggy bank, MIT is in fact shutting down over the holidays.
CNN.com - MIT to shut down part of campus over holidays - Nov. 26, 2003
(thanks wu-tang)

November 15, 2003

Book: Bringing Down the House

book image

I was motivated to read this book b/c it comes straight out of some of the rumors I had heard at MIT. My friend Jay told me about a grad student who had a Foxwoods Blackjack champion jacket, and after the Wired article was published, others had shared friend-of-a-friend rumors about people on the blackjack team.

In terms of story, the book didn't disappoint. It's full of all the basic elements of a good story, with plenty of intrigue, clever plans, high-profile celebrities, danger, and betrayals. It also revealed the basic elements of their strategy, which surprised me with it's simple algorithm (hi-lo) and clever implementation. There were some more sophisticated tricks they used, such as following high cards through the shuffle and being able to cut exactly 52 cards, but most of the method came down to using a team to bring in the high roller at just the right moment.

In terms of writing, the book did disappoint. I groaned during some of the early chapters when the author introduces some of the characters. Many of his descriptions feel like attempted cleverness, and not once does he actually capture the feel of Boston or MIT. With the written word, there is power to embed great detail, comparison, and nuance, but instead it feels like the author is writing copy for a TV special, with everything reduced to a caricature. There are also several chapters where the author places himself into the story to describe his "research." These clumsy additions read more like attempts at breaking two-hundred pages than meaningful components to the story.

Despite the poor writing, the story is entertaining, and you won't waste too much of your life reading it as you can finish the book in a single night. I bought the book because I needed something to clean out my mind between more difficult prose, and this book didn't disappoint :).

October 20, 2003

Architecture meets Bio (Course 4 Meets Course 7)

MIT researchers are coming up with new ways of growing tissue, including building 3-D scaffolds to encourage specialization.
ScienceDaily News Release: MIT Engineers Report New Approach To Tissue Engineering

(via Ars Technica: The PC enthusiast's resource)

September 12, 2003

Coldest temperature ever

ScienceDaily News Release: Biggest Chill: MIT Team Achieves Coldest Temperature Ever

May 20, 2003

Paper: mediaBLOCKs

mediaBLOCKs: Physical Containers, Transports, and Controls for Online Media [pdf]
Brygg Ullmer, Hiroshi Ishii, and Dylas Glas
Tangible Media Group
MIT Media Lab
SIGGRAPH 98

This is an interesting complement/predecessor of DataTiles.

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