Alumni Life

The modern definition of the word "hack" was coined at MIT in April 1955. Photo: Nancy Crosby.

The modern definition of the word “hack” was first coined at MIT in April 1955. Photo: Nancy Crosby.

According to Wired magazine, the meaning of the word “hack” has been evolving for more than 500 years. Definitions include its earliest known usage in Middle English—“to cut with heavy blows in random fashion”—and its MIT-specific form— “mischief pulled off under a cloak of secrecy or misdirection”—that includes, but is not limited to,  a stolen canon and a disrupted football game.

But the more broad definition of hack, commonly associated with disrupting technology, was also coined at MIT and quietly first appeared in the minutes of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) 60 years ago on April 5, 1955.

“Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.”

Mr. Eccles refers to William Eccles ’54, SM ’57, a then-MIT graduate student and member of the railroad club. In a 2014 post on the website trainorders.com, Thomas Madden ’59 elaborated on Eccles’ involvement.

“‘Hacks’ was the term applied to all manner of technology-based practical jokes at MIT, such as thermite welding a stopped trolley car to the tracks on Massachusetts Ave. I believe TMRC member Jack Dennis ’54, SM ’54, ScD ’58 is credited with applying the term as we now use it, but he was certainly abetted by fellow graduate student and roommate Bill Eccles.

“I remember each of them shouting ‘Hacker!’ in the club room whenever someone did something questionable—and they were particularly quick to shout it at each other. Often for no reason.”

And while many of the timeless MIT pranks that predated 1954—like gags on the old East Campus dorm in the 1930s or the Dipsy Duck in the late ’40s—are now known as hacks, Madden doesn’t recall that monicker during his time at MIT.

“Back then, I don’t remember calling them hacks,” he told Slice of MIT. “The were just practical jokes, or basically, things that you did and hoped you wouldn’t get caught.”

The first known mention of computer hacking occurred in a 1963 issue of The Tech.

The first known mention of computer hacking occurred in a 1963 issue of The Tech.

And for good measure, according to wordorigins.com, the first known connection between the hackers and computing also occurred at MIT, in a November 20, 1963, article in The Tech.

“Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Profess Carlton Tucker…The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation.

“One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found…And because of the ‘hacking,’ the majority of the MIT phones are ‘trapped.’”

Hack isn’t the only world that hatched for the TMRC’s unique jargon. The club created released own dictionary beginning in 1959 and TMRC-spawned words like “foo,” “mung,” “frob,” and “cruft” are familiar words in the lexicon of computer programming.

Read more about the Tech Model Railroad Club in 2012 article in MIT Technology Review magazine.

{ 1 comment }

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.

{ 0 comments }

Mosely works with Yongquan Lu, co-president of OrigaMIT

During the MIT project, Mosely works with Yongquan Lu, co-president of OrigaMIT. Video: Melanie Gonick.

A Menger Sponge is the answer. MIT’s origami team, OrigaMIT, which made one out of 50,000 business cards, defines it as a mathematical fractal formed by iteratively removing the middle cross-sections of a cube. Their effort is special because it helped complete an international effort to recreate a Megamenger and because the level-3 version was first designed and built by origami artist Jeannine Mosely SM ’79, EE ’80, PhD ’84.

Watch a video about their project, completing a level-3 Menger sponge—that measured ~54 inches to each side—thanks to the help of Mosely and the students, faculty, and staff who stopped by to fold last fall.

So what was Mosely’s role in constructing the level-3 Menger Sponge?

Mosely learned how to fold modular origami cubes out of business cards in 1994 from a verbal description in an email. Most modular origami designs involve tucking flaps into pockets in order to the link the units together, but the business card cube has only flaps and no pockets and is stable only when all of the flaps are on the outside of the model, she says. Then she had an insight while watching her seven-year-old son make and play with cubes.

“I realized that the corners of the flaps could be tucked under each other to link the cubes together. So you could build any shape you could imagine out of enough of them. I also observed that you could use the same unit to cover the flaps on the external faces of your model, to add pattern or color to the surface.”

By gathering obsolete business cards from colleagues, Mosely accumulated several hundred thousand cards. Then she decided to build a level-3 approximation of a Menger Sponge, a fractal shape named for its discoverer, Karl Menger. It’s an approximate rendering because a true fractal has an infinitesimal degree of detail, she says.

preparing for a 2006 exhibit.

Mosely takes a break when re-assembling eight separate sections for a 2006 exhibition at Machine Project, an LA art gallery. Photo: Margaret Wertheim, Institute For Figuring.

She estimated the project would require about 66,000 cards and take 800 person-hours to build. It took much longer.

“I decided to build it as a group project so that I could spread the joy of origami, math, and engineering around and get help building it. I taught classes and workshops at various schools, the MIT Museum, the Boston Science Museum, at origami conventions and festivals, always collecting cubes and larger modules for the finished sponge.”

Even then, with raising two children and working full time, the project took from 1994 to 2005.

Why do business cards work so well for this type of origami? The size, shape, and stiffness work well for three-dimensional projects. And they are easy to fold.

“The ratio of the sides of an American business card is 1.75:1. But 1.75 is very close to the square root of 3 (1.732) which is the arctangent of 60 degrees. This means that it is very easy to fold equilateral triangles in a business card. Just fold two opposite corners to touch each other and you will see what I mean. There are dozens of things you can do with equilateral triangles.”

Dr. Mosely’s current work as an origami artist includes the creation in 2008 of a model of the Worcester’s Union Station, with 300 local school children and 100 Worcester Polytechnic Institute students, in time for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The train station incorporated around 60,000 business cards and was 10′ wide, 7′ deep and 6′ tall.

Learn more about Jeannine Mosely and about paperfolding at MIT

{ 1 comment }

Update: Happy April Fools’ Day! Currently, there is no forecast for a significant snowstorm in the Boston area—fingers crossed the snow totals for this historic winter stay where they are! If the Alps of MIT returns next year, however, we vote for the formation of a yodeling club and would urge them to perform for us daily.

Pictured: The Alps of MIT after last month’s Winter Storm Marcus. Today’s storm is expected to drop two feet of snow in the Boston area.

Boston-area weather reports are forecasting nearly two feet of snow for later today. MIT has announced several weather-related precautions for students, staff, and alumni. Unfortunately, a late-spring snowstorm is not unprecedented. In April 1997, an early-spring storm closed MIT and dropped 27 inches of snow around Boston.

Because the Institute was closed for four weather-related emergencies earlier this year—losing valuable research and class time—MIT will remain open on Thursday. In lieu of closure, the Institute has announced the following updates and precautions that will take place during the storm:

  • MIT subzero materials scientists will test a new hydro-polymer solution on sidewalks adjacent to 77 Mass Ave. The substance can resist snow accumulation, keeping it floating several inches above the walkway until it can be swept aside.
  • The MIT Department of Crystalline Fluid Conservation will preserve snow from campus, as part of a new federal grant that will research the connection between snow fall and the loss of sense of humor.
  • Alps of MIT, the five-story snow mound on Albany St., featured on TripAdvisor and the Boston Globe, will remain open through April 30. Hot cocoa, baked croissants, and fresh strudel will be served daily at 8:00 a.m., with live music from the Alpgorithms, MIT’s student yodeling club.
  • The MIT community is encouraged to use public transportation to arrive on campus. In the event that public transportation is shut down, the community is encouraged to sled.
  • MIT’s crew and sailing teams will use modified “skate boats” equipped with eight-foot blades to practice on the still-frozen Charles River.
  • A structural engineering competition, Snow Castles in Killian Court, will take place tonight at midnight. The winning team will receive a three-person sled for use on the Alps of MIT.
  • The Media Lab’s Relocation Correlation Group will conduct surveys to measure the emotional impact of Boston’s winter—including a longitudinal study on the increase in applications to graduate schools in warm-weather climates.

MIT’s facilities department anticipates that all snow will be removed from campus by April 1, 2016.

The evolution of a  Killian Court snowman after 90 inches of snow during a three week period earlier this year.

A still-growing Killian Court snowman after 90 inches of snow in a three week period earlier this year.

The MIT Edgerton Center had some April Fools’ fun as well with a story on a new infant program.

{ 4 comments }

Anjali Mitter Duva, Faint Promise of Rain

Anjali Mitter Duva MCP ’99, author of Faint Promise of Rain.

More than 10 years ago, Anjali Mitter Duva MCP ’99 traveled to Rajasthan, India, to show her husband the country of her ancestry. In a guidebook on Jaisalmer, one of the cities they visited, Duva came across an anecdote that struck her: since children would often live till age five without seeing rain, families used to paint clouds on the walls near each window to prevent them from being scared when rain eventually fell.

“I wrote it down…just to save it, because I thought it was beautiful. I just felt I wanted to bring it to life somehow.”

In the coming years, that anecdote, combined with her love for Indian dance, resulted in her first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, published in fall 2014 by She Writes Press. The coming of age story of a young dancer named Adhira in the temple of Jaisalmer, faced with the conflict of embracing traditional norms and gender roles or rebelling against them, Faint Promise of Rain has earned critical acclaim and become the first of a four-novel series for Duva. Listen to a podcast interview with Duva.

“It was a confluence of things that just came together for me,” Duva says. “I hadn’t intended to set out writing a book.”

While set in the late 1500s, the novel has subtle echoes of contemporary challenges facing India, most pressingly the changing roles of women. “The dichotomy of how women are treated in India has always for me been a mystery—how it can survive this way for so long, that women are revered as the sustainer and on the other hand a blatant disregard for the rights of women,” says Duva. “It’s such a complicated issue that goes so far back. I don’t have an answer. In writing this book, it helped see the different sides even if it doesn’t explain them.”

Listen to the complete podcast here. Listen to past books podcasts with novelists, professors, and entrepreneurs by visiting MITAA on Soundcloud.

{ 0 comments }

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.

{ 0 comments }

Gizmo Garden student works on powering a disco ball.

Students work on powering a disco ball and Hawaiian windstorm. Photo courtesy Gizmo Garden.

When a middle school girl from rural Maine updated her Facebook page with photo of herself soldering on a circuit board, the creators of Gizmo Garden© knew the project was working—participating students were developing new images of themselves.

Bill Silver ’75, SM ’80 and his wife, Judy, held the winter-break workshop in February for 10 students to bolster the opportunity for technical education in a place they loved—coastal Maine—but a location with limited resources.

The couple, living fulltime in Nobleboro, Maine, for the past five years, wanted to find a way to contribute to their community in a meaningful way. Bill Silver, a co-founder of the machine vision systems maker Cognex, and Judy Silver, who worked at Cognex in marketing and sales, drew on their technical and outreach skills. Working from MIT Edgerton Center curriculum models, they developed a week-long workshop that brought middle school students together in a local library and invited them to create their own projects using their newly acquired skills of breadboarding and soldering electronics onto circuit boards.

Bill Silver lead the Gizmo Garden workshop.

Bill Silver, who led the workshop along with a local educator and a librarian, works with students.

The Silvers, at their former home near Cognex’s headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, routinely visited Boston’s Museum of Science and the MIT Museum, says Bill Silver, who continues to work remotely from Maine as a Cognex senior vice president. “Technology was in the air there,’ he says, “it’s not in the air up here.”

Feeling empowered to work with electronics could transform the five girls and five boys selected for the program, says Judy Silver. “As wonderful as this community is, kids growing up here don’t see engineering and technical careers as even in their universe. And now the kids see they can do this. And they have seen what young professionals can do from the videos we showed them.”

The Silvers plan to continue the Gizmo Garden project in 2016, again working from an established curriculum and adding their own opportunities for creativity and cooperation. This year they based the project on the Edgerton K-12 electronics curriculum course created initially for i2 Camp. Local TV produced a short video that shares student projects from a spinning a disco ball to recreating an Hawaii wind storm.

Want to know more? Visit the Gizmo Garden Facebook page or email the Silvers: gizmo@tidewater.net. Alumni interested in working on similar projects can join the K-12 Education Volunteer Network and tap the MIT Edgerton Center for ideas as well.

{ 0 comments }

Cathy Kenworthy, Interactive Health

Cathy Kenworthy SM ’91

Cathy Kenworthy has always sought challenging problems—as a McKinsey management consultant; in executive roles at GE, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase; and even at leisure. She’s a self-described “fanatic for finding the hardest sudokus and crossword puzzles.”

Today, as CEO of Interactive Health, she leads an organization that’s addressing an especially knotty challenge: high costs and mediocre outcomes in the U.S. health-care system.

Her work doesn’t involve new drugs or diagnostic equipment but, as she puts it, “simple principles broadly applied” to employees of more than 2,000 client companies. “We get hired to help employees be healthier through preventive care,” she explains.

Nutrition, activity level, and tobacco use are three areas of emphasis. “It’s so simple, but so profound,” says Kenworthy. “One area where we can generate tremendous impact is in the prevention of diabetes, which is a major life-altering event. You never stop being diabetic: it affects your longevity, it complicates many other medical conditions, and treatment costs a minimum of $20,000 annually.”

Interactive Health’s data analytics group, which Kenworthy built in her previous COO role, can now show the impact of the company’s work with pre-diabetics through counseling, coaching, and goal setting: 40 percent of them returned to normal health within one year.

“That’s a gigantic number, off the charts in any clinical sense,” she says. “And it’s one of the best things you can do for someone.”

Kenworthy originally planned to apply that type of compassionate problem solving as a doctor. During her sophomore year at Georgetown University, she was accepted to the university’s medical school, but after working in an emergency room and reflecting on her goals, she chose to major in chemistry and mathematics. She graduated in 1987 and went to work in finance.

At the Sloan School, Kenworthy gained insight from her classmates, who came from diverse lines of work and corners of the world. “I’d come from Wall Street with a total focus on financial engineering,” she says. “Sloan helped me consider the many ways to think about the topic of business.”

Kenworthy and her husband, William, are recent transplants to the Chicago area and have three teenage sons. They enjoy cooking together and are avid hikers, skiers, and walkers.

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

{ 0 comments }

Water, essential to the survival of all living things, is scarce in many developing nations. Lack of water for drinking, bathing, and farming effects the quality of life, health, and productivity. With this in mind, Kevin Simon and his teammates at the Tata Center are working on addressing these issues in India this week—Simon’s sixth trip in the past year and a half.

Kevin Simon, Tata Center, water irrigation, India

Kevin Simon (left) and Katherine Taylor (right) install a solar-powered pump system in Southern Jharkhand, India.

Simon, an Engineering Systems Division graduate student, is developing irrigation technology to meet the needs of agriculture in India. Water shortages, caused by inconsistent access to fresh water and no solar pumps for small farmers with shallow groundwater, result in underdeveloped crops and inefficient farming practices. Simon has co-invented low-cost, solar-powered pumps that enable farmers to access shallow water for irrigation. This innovation has the potential to give approximately 20 million farmers access to water without the need for deep wells and expensive diesel generators.

“Witnessing this sort of resource-constrained environment has driven me to focus on figuring out how to help these people most effectively,” says Simon.

During his last trip, Simon deployed two of the pumps in Southern Jharkhand, India, along with fellow graduate student Katherine Taylor and mechanical engineering senior Marcos Esparza. The farmers have been successfully operating the system and are already seeing results. “India and other developing countries are facing huge challenges and how they address those challenges will have a lot of say in the future of our planet,” says Simon. “It’s important for us to be engaged with these countries and working in partnership with them.”

This project was recently recognized, along with other campus-wide initiatives, as part of the MIT Innovation Initiative, an Institute-wide effort that encourages the Institute’s innovative ecosystem, which was launched in 2013 by President L. Rafael Reif.

Tata Center, water irrigation, india

Local farmers examine the pump

“The Tata Center is a great example of rigorous MIT research being pushed in new directions,” says Simon. “There’s a cross-pollination of ideas with our partners in India that helps us grow as students, engineers, and entrepreneurs. We get pushed out of our comfort zone and sometimes the things we believe are challenged. The MIT Innovation Initiative shows that we, as an Institute, are not complacent. We’re asking new questions and looking for new ways to approach old problems.”

Other Innovation Initiatives include a proposed innovation and entrepreneurship undergraduate minor, a semester for innovative “passion projects,” and a Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy.

{ 2 comments }

Come back and celebrate at Tech Reunions 2015, June 4–June 7!  Learn more and register today.

Do you want to add to the excitement of this year’s festivities? Share your MIT memories and photos with the Alumni Association or on social media with #TechReunions, and they’ll be highlighted during Reunion season.

Send photos or any short summaries of your memories to the Alumni Association’s Nicole Morell. These memories will help make Tech Reunions even more special and may encourage even more friends and classmates to attend.

Too many memories for a short email?  Consider participating in the 2015 Reunions Access Memories project.

{ 0 comments }