Modern Geekhood

04.07.15 Matt-Lieber

Gimlet Media co-founder Matt Lieber MBA ’12.

If you have been paying attention to the podcast renaissance sparked by the 2014 hit Serial, you may already know Matt Lieber MBA ’12. As the co-founder of Gimlet Media, Lieber and his podcast company have turned their focus on their own evolution in the innovative podcast series StartUp.

StartUp, which garners an audience averaging around 120,000 listens per episode, is one of the first products of Gimlet Media, the brain child of This American Life contributor Alex Blumberg, who cofounded the company with Lieber.

Missteps, fundraising, and frustrations are all shared in the podcast that aims to give a real look at what it’s like to launch a startup—and not just the successful fairytale version. Following this format, listeners were first introduced to Lieber in Episode 2 of the series as Blumberg worked to woo Lieber into his co-founder role. A few awkward conversations about money later, Lieber was onboard.

Though Lieber burst onto the podcast and startup scene in unique fashion, his path to it was hardly random. Lieber spent years working for public radio, completed his MBA at Sloan in 2012, and was working as a management consultant for Boston Consulting when Blumberg tapped him to help launch his new startup.

Lieber will be joining us for a #MITAlum Twitter chat on Friday April 10 at 11:30 a.m. EDT. He will be talking about startup fundamentals, the podcast renaissance, and what it’s like sharing your startup challenges and successes with an audience each week. Follow along on Twitter starting at 11:30 a.m. EDT and ask questions using the #MITAlum hashtag.

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Ben Glass '08, SM '10

Ben Glass ’08, SM ’10

As an aspiring rocket scientist, Ben Glass was thrilled to get a Course 16 undergraduate internship at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company. It was, he says, a fantastic experience at a great organization, but his main lesson was less about technology than about himself.

“I realized I’d be a terrible fit at a big company,” he recalls. That realization, and a longtime interest in clean energy, propelled Glass into his current role as cofounder, CEO, and CTO of Altaeros Energies, a four-year-old startup based in Somerville, Massachusetts, seeking to commercialize airborne wind turbines that can bring steady, economical electricity to remote communities and industrial sites.

Altaeros’s tethered helium-filled balloon, or aerostat, lifts a turbine as high as 600 meters, tapping into high-altitude winds that are more consistent and stronger than ground-level winds.

Video via Altaeros Energy on YouTube

“Remote sites usually depend on diesel generators; the power typically costs 30 to 35 cents per kilowatt-hour, and can go over 50 cents,” compared to an on-grid national average of just under 11 cents, explains Glass. “Our first 30-kilowatt product should be extremely competitive at the most remote sites, and we’ll quickly scale to a 200-kilowatt system that will be the lowest-cost option at almost any site using diesel.” The aerostat can also carry telecom equipment, cameras, and other payloads.

Glass first worked in wind power through MIT’s Energy Club and a senior year turbine array project, and he began mulling the airborne-turbine concept the summer before starting his aero-astro master’s degree program. The idea became a group project in his Sloan School class in energy ventures, where future Altaeros cofounder Adam Rein was a teaching assistant, and their concept went on to win the 2011 ConocoPhillips Energy Prize.

Startup life suits Glass, who juggles engineering, fund-raising, hiring, and dozens of other duties. “Every day is a different job; it’s a blast,” he says. He lives in Somerville and reserves time for cooking, running, and outdoor leisure: “We know Altaeros is a marathon and not a sprint, so we’re pretty good at not burning out.”

Glass draws on his experience on MIT’s Solar Car Team, which allowed participants to “go from conceptualization and design to building, testing, and using what we’d made,” he says. “You learn skills you can’t get in a classroom. I’d encourage everyone to do something like that, and then apply for a job at Altaeros!”

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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Social Textiles respond when users share a common interest. GIF: Social Textiles

What if your likes and interests on social media were broadcast to the world offline? Would that make it easier for you to make real world connections with people? That’s the idea behind Social Textiles, a wearable social network created by Media Lab students Viirj Kan, Katsuya Fujii, Judith Amores, and Chang Long Zhu Jin—members of the Fluid Interfaces and Tangible Media groups.

This wearable network is made up of t-shirts that light up when wearers share a common interest. When people wearing Social Textiles are within 12 feet of one another, their shirts will give a quick buzz on the shoulder to alert them that someone with a common interest is near. When the wearers identify each other and make a connection—by physically touching their new connection’s shirt—the shirt will light up, revealing their shared interest.

The idea for Social Textiles came from a class assignment in MAS.834, Tangible Interfaces. “We were told to make something intangible, tangible,” explains Viirj Kan, which got the group thinking about social media. “Online is good at connecting us at a distance, but not connecting us when we’re close,” Kan says. “We wanted to change that.”

These shirts don’t store information from your profiles on established social networks, but instead connect and light up around one or two common interests like a certain brand or community you belong to, like a university. Kan explains, “If you were to buy your shirt through a certain blog, that blog would be your connection and interest. Or if you bought your shirt at the COOP, that’s your connection.”

For now, Social Textiles are still in the development stages and aren’t available for purchase, though Kan does believe the wearable network belongs on store shelves. “People are really excited about it. At some point it should go out into the world, but the next steps are to test it on users more,” she says.

Until then, the combined Media Lab group is getting plenty of attention. As media outlets learn of Social Textiles, the group has to balance interviews and class time—adding to the learning experience. “It’s kind of like another class,” laughs Kan.

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The US Postal Service announced the issue of a stamp honoring 1965 Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman ’39 on August 14, 2004. The day of the announcement was the independence day of Tannu Tuva, and it wasn’t a coincidence. Feynman and his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton had spent years trying to visit this small central Asian country near Mongolia.

It all started with a stamp.

Credit: US Postal Museum

Credit: US Postal Museum

Tuvan Stamp

1935 Tuvan Stamp; Credit: Wikimedia

In the 1920s and 30s, Tannu Tuva’s uniquely shaped diamond and triangle-shaped stamps were in high demand among stamp collectors. “Stamp designers were working away on these wonderful idyllic themes…which were firing the imaginations of kids around the world,” said Leighton.

Tuvan Stamp

1927 Tuvan stamp; Scanned by Stan Shebs

As one of those young stamp enthusiasts, Feynman became entranced by Tuvan stamps’ dramatic illustrations of camels racing trains, horse wranglers, and cattle mongers against otherworldly, mountainous scenes.

Fifty years later, Leighton and Feynman had a dinner conversation about geography, and Feynman mentioned his love of Tuvan stamps. The pair decided to travel to Tuva, which turned into an 11-year quest detailed in Leighton’s book Tuva or Bust! In a documentary about their plans, Feynman said of Tannu Tuva, “any country with a capital Kyzyl has just got to be interesting….we had discovered our Shangri-La.

Getting to the country was no small feat. At the time, Tuva was under the rule of the USSR and was rumored to be a testing ground for atomic bomb research. “I’m sure we were being watched,” recalls Leighton. “People couldn’t figure out why these guys would want to go to Tuva, especially someone who worked on the bomb.” (Feynman famously worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos)

Mock up of Feynman Tuva Stamp Credit: Ralph Leighton

Mock up of Feynman Tuva Stamp Credit: Ralph Leighton

The pair learned phrases of the Tuvan language, dreamed up crossing the border from Mongolia in shepherds’ disguises, acquired a rare recording of a Tuvan throat singer—Tuva is famous for this unique type of overtone music—and collaborated on a traveling exhibition of nomadic culture that turned out to be the largest ever from the Soviet Union. Feynman never made it to Tuva—he died in 1988—but Leighton and his wife were finally able to visit a few months later.

After Feynman died, Leighton launched another years-long campaign with his organization Friends of Tuva to petition the US Postal Service to honor his friend with a commemorative stamp. But not just any stamp—a diamond-shaped Tuvan stamp.

“We definitely wanted to make a connection between Feynman stamp collecting, Tuva, and a US postage stamp,” said Leighton. In one tongue-and-cheek mock-up stamp they dreamed up, Feynman is dressed as a shaman holding elements of his famous Feynman diagram with Tuvan throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar.

Thousands of letters and many signed petitions later, the Postal Service ultimately decided to feature Feynman in a stamp series on American scientists.

Learn more about Feynman’s lively lectures. Check out Ralph Leighton’s latest project, an illustrated children’s book Legends of the Groovin’ Tuvan.  

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Happy Super Pi Day! In honor of an event that happens only once a century, we bring you our take on this special day. Please note publication time of 3.14.15 at 9:26 a.m. ET. Please enjoy and share!

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03.13.15_Pi_Day_crop

Tomorrow is Pi day and MIT offers infinite ways to celebrate. This day, observed on March 14, 2015, is actually Super Pi Day because the numeral date format represents the first five digits of the mathematical constant—3.1415.

For students applying for the Class of 2019, it is a momentous day. Some 850 will be very happy indeed with their acceptance news. Tomorrow morning at 9:26 a.m.—to continue with the next few digits of Pi—they will be able to check the results of their applications online. They also will get the news earlier than previous classes.

In recent years, MIT posted admission decisions online at 6:28 p.m., which is called Tau Time, to equally honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau. Not quite sure about the debate between Pi and Tau? Here’s the answer in a short video, Tau vs Pi Smackdown. If you are a glutton for Pi, you can peruse Numberphile’s list of Pi day videos.

In anticipation of the acceptance decisions, the Admissions Office created a fabulous video that shows a swarm of drones taking off from the Great Dome and delivering MIT acceptance tubes worldwide. In reality, though, drones were not involved. At least not this year.

If you’re looking for ways to honor this special day, here are some on-campus options:

Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year

The Pi Day celebration at Ashdown House last year. Photo credit: Aarthy Kannan Adityan, Ashdown House.

Students can party at the seventh-annual Pi Day event put on by the Ashdown House. This year’s event, a collaboration with Sidney-Pacific, will be held from 6:00–8:00 p.m. in the Hulsizer room and will include pie-throwing contests and a Pi recital competition.

Also Saturday night, the MIT Alumni Arts Exchange is hosting a special arts and music event for Super Pi Day from 6:00–10:00 p.m. in the Media Lab. Students will enjoy savory and sweet pies, a delicious way to celebrate the mathematical constant. Click here to register for the event.

Further afield, you can celebrate Pi Day virtually:

Pi-card-03-13-15

Pi Day e-cards

Click here to learn more about Pi Day in years past at  MIT.

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Design and Manufacturing 1—better known as 2.007, one of MIT’s iconic courses—requires students to create small robots to complete a specific task. Skills learned in 2.007 helped Logan Munro ’07, design and create Ringly, a ring that uses vibration and lights to alert wearers to their smartphone notifications. “My Course 2 expertise was invaluable early in designing. Machining from 2.670 and 2.007 helped make the product and 2.000 to critically think about how the product should work,” he says.

Ringly comes in multiple styles. Photo: Ringly

Munro, a co-founder of Ringly, explains that the is simple—a user’s ring will light up and vibrate to notify them of alerts such as phone calls and text messages. Bluetooth technology works to wirelessly send notifications from phone to ring, so Ringly wearers don’t have to keep their phone at arm’s reach. “The goal is for technology to be discreetly integrated into our lives,” Munro explains.

Though Munro didn’t imagine he would be creating and designing jewelry after MIT, he says Ringly matches his interest. “I have always been interested in consumer products, and jewelry is the ultimate consumer-driven market,” he says. “With Ringly, we are taking a product that is traditionally used to express our personality and style and adding functionality.”

RINGLY3

Ringly offers different notifications for different apps. Photo: Ringly

Ringly allows users to set different notification light colors and vibrations for several types of alerts. Users can also choose to receive alerts from apps like Uber, sending users a notification when their requested ride is outside. All this functionality comes in a ring with a gemstone measured at 14×19 mm. Munro explains this challenge of fitting technology into a small, stylish space motivates him.  “Applying an additional layer of functionality with some very difficult engineering is what drives me, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” he says.

Ringly currently offers multiple styles of the ring for pre-order with some styles already sold out.

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Instructables offers myriad valentine do-it-yourself projects.

Instructables offers do-it-yourself valentines.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day—have you made your token of love? Don’t despair–it’s not too late for your MIT mind-and-hand training to kick in. Here are some ideas brought to you by alumni working in the maker zone.

Check out the Valentine’s Gift Guide for makers, hackers, artists, and engineers at Adafruit Industries, founded by Limor Fried ’03, MEng ’05.

You could buy cool gifts—like the full color MiniPOV that would let you project your sweetheart’s name in light—or make your own gift using tutorials in the Adafruit Learning System. You can create a light-up heart display or a Ringly, a bluetooth notification device build into a metal and stone cocktail ring, with a few Adafruit components.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Make a lighted heart with Adafruit instructions.

Popular Mechanics named Limor among the “25 Makers Who Are Reinventing the American Dream” along with Eric Wilhelm ’99, SM ’01, PhD ’04 and Christy Canida ’99, who launched the how-to company, Instructables.

Instructables has its own maker Valentine options. For a last-minute option, grab a dollar bill and watch the video to make a Dollar Bill Origami Heart. And with scissors, straws, and colored paper plus a few drink ingredients, you can still toast your love with Cheers to Valentine’s recipes and tokens.

To make a wooden cartouche, get out your woodworking tools and craft a chunk of hardwood into a polished heart. For a more electronically attuned Valentine, try making a Steampunked Heart-Beat-Box, which will provide a personal light show.

Another option is to visit the Makeymakey website, created by Media Lab colleagues Jay Silver SM ’08, PhD ’14, founder/CEO of JoyLabz/MakeyMakey, and Eric Rosenbaum SM ’09, a doctoral student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group. Makeymakey invention kits can be transformed into interactive projects such as Sketch It, Play It, which connects a simple drawing to a jam station with lights and sounds, and Interactive ‘Zine, make a ‘zine that triggers soundscapes and animations programmed in Scratch.

And, as long as you are working in Scratch, a free programming language and community based in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, you could try the Valentine poem maker and the Valentine’s card maker.

More MIT-style Valentines:

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Kira Kopacz '15

Kira Kopacz ’15

The way Kira Kopacz ’15 sees it, there are no two groups more typecast than MIT students and pageant contestants. So why not dispel stereotypes about both—at the same time?

“There are definitely misconceptions about both groups,” Kopacz says. “Pageant contestants aren’t dumb blondes. And MIT students aren’t anti-social—they’re actually pretty outgoing.”

Kopacz is one of 14 contestants who will compete for the titles of Miss Boston and Miss Cambridge on Sunday, February 8. The winners receive a $1,500 academic scholarship, a $1,995 public speaking scholarship, and are eligible to compete in the Miss Massachusetts pageant this summer.

Kopacz, a Course 9 major, entered her first pageant in high school and has competed for Miss Cambridge since 2013. She finished as third runner-up and won a STEM-related scholarship in last year’s competition.

“I get backhanded compliments all the time,” she says. “People at MIT ask, ‘Aren’t there better things for you to do?’ But it’s helped me build confidence, break stereotypes, and take a break from the MIT academia.”

Kira Kopacz (right) won the Miss Middleboro crown in 2014.

Kira Kopacz (right) won the Miss Middleboro crown in 2014.

And much like MIT, pageants competition—Kopacz was named Miss Central Massachusetts in 2013 and Miss Middleboro in 2014—can be more practice and preparation than fun and games.

“Pageant season is basically January to June,” she says. “During that time, my schedule is schoolwork until 5 p.m., rehearsal until midnight, and then I just crash. But it doesn’t feel like work—I love it.”

The Miss Boston/Miss Cambridge pageant is divided into five phases, including a talent program. Kopacz will perform the song “I What I Am” from the 1973 French musical La Cage aux Folles.

“Luckily I live in Burton Connors,” she says. “So I can use the music room to practice instead of my dorm.”

The pageant’s other phases include interviews, on-stage questions, and the evening wear and swimsuit competitions.

“The swimsuit competition is about being comfortable in your own skin,” she says. “The judges are looking for self-confidence. It’s about being able to handle any situation you’re thrown into.”

Kopacz’s journey to Miss Massachusetts isn’t unprecedented. Erika Ebbel Angle ’04 was named Miss Massachusetts in 2004 (Joanne Chang ’03 was fourth runner-up) and Jacqueline “Chacha” Durazo ’14 competed in Miss Cambridge in 2013.

Kopacz will graduate from MIT in June and plans to attend medical school. She hopes to stay involved in pageant competitions and help her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, raise awareness for the Boston chapter of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a community program that advocates for abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities.

The Miss Boston and Miss Cambridge pageant takes place on Sunday, February 8, 5:00 p.m., at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel. Tickets are still available.

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Taking part in a combined 22 missions, the six alumni astronauts interviewed by Slice of MIT are no strangers to space. Yet John Grunsfeld ’80, Dominic Antonelli ’89, Mike Fincke ’89, Franklin Chang-Diaz ScD ’77, Chris Cassidy SM ’00, and Mike Massimino SM ’88, ENG ’90, ME ’90, PhD ’92 are still in awe of the experience of looking back on Earth. “It’s so hard to put it in words,” shared Chris Cassidy.

In fact this group of MIT alumni astronauts hold a common memory—how moving it is to see your home planet in a new way. “The Earth…I think it might actually be paradise,” Massimino remembered. “It is very much the most beautiful thing you ever saw,” Chang-Diaz recalled in the video. The astronauts also discussed the thrill of takeoff, including last minute fears that they might not be headed to space after all. “All the way up to the final countdown, I thought they were going to open the hatch and say ‘Hey, we made a mistake, get out,’” Fincke recalled.

The six astronauts cover nearly 30 years of space missions. Chang-Diaz, who leads the group with seven missions, took his first space flight in 1986 as a member of STS 61-C (1986) aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. Cassidy bookends the group’s collection of missions with his 2013 trip to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 36.  Many of the astronauts said that whether it’s your first or seventh visit, the experience of space is spectacular each time.

Hear what each astronaut had to say about their missions and what it’s like to look back home from hundreds of miles away.

The video was produced by Alumni Association videographer Brielle Domings. 

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