Tag Archives: MIT

River view

Here’s my view this weekend.

20130608-140722.jpg

I’m at the MIT reunion — the 25th year reunion for the Class of 1988 — and I’m staying in a graduate student dorm. Yesterday poured rain for most of my drive here, and this morning started gray and damp.

But this afternoon is the kind of afternoon that makes one want never to leave.

Arnie Barnett explains how to improve the U.S. electoral process

One of my favorite professors at MIT was Arnie Barnett. He’s the George Eastman Professor of Management Science, but more to the point he’s a wizard of statistics, able to make statistics understandable (and dryly funny to boot — as tired as I might be, I always made a point of attending his lectures).

He most frequently talks about aviation safety (he’s “[w]idely considered the nation’s leading expert on aviation safety“), but in this election year he’s been engaged in discussing ways to predict elections and, more significantly, how to improve the voting process so that it reflects the will of the populace more accurately.

On the MIT Sloan Newsroom Podcast page, there’s an interview with him that I invite you to hear. Right now, it’s about a third of the way down the page. Search for “Intellectual Capital: Arnie Barnett finds safety in numbers.”

Everybody loves pi!

Pie!

Pie!, originally uploaded by cynthiacloskey.

Today is Pi Day! It’s March 14, which is sometimes written as 3.14, which in turn is the mathematical constant pi rounded to two decimals.

When I taught computer camp in the summer during high school (yeah, yeah), one of the other instructors was working on a project in which he was calculating pi to some incredible number of digits. He used the school’s mainframe to do this, and it was even more tedious that it sounds. Tedious, that is, if you don’t adore pi. I confess that I don’t adore it, but my colleague did, and I respected his dedication.

I know pi only to a few decimals, and I remember it only because of a cheer I learned at MIT:

I’m a Beaver, you’re a Beaver, we are Beavers all.
And when we get together, we do the Beaver call.
E to the U du dx,
E to the X dx.
Cosine, secant, tangent, sine,
3.14159.
Integral radical mu dv
Slipstick, sliderule, MIT.
Go Tech!

(To explain the Beaver references: The beaver is the MIT mascot, because beavers are Nature’s engineers.)

I’ve always assumed this cheer, ridiculously geeky as it is, was unique to MIT. Today when I posted about it on Twitter, graduates of CIT and Princeton said they had learned almost the same cheers at their schools. Shocking!

I’m not sure how to trace the origin of this cheer, but be assured that I will be investigating. I notice that there’s a stronger mathematical underpinning to the MIT version than to the CIT and Princeton versions that may be significant. Developing….

Incidentally, when I attended MIT, we had competitive sports but no cheerleaders. That has changed: Please discover the MIT Cheer, "the smartest cheerleaders in the world."

Mastermind

Amy in the dorm

Amy in the dorm (photo circa late 1980 or early 1981)

A notable passing: Gary Gygax, one of the creators of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, died today.

When I first heard, I was surprised that I recognized the name. My high school friends and I played a lot of D&D, and his name must have been on the key manuals and other items we collected.

My friends and I started out playing fairly standard D&D, but we soon went off on a distinct path. The dungeon modules that we could buy were OK but put a lot of emphasis on dice-rolling and other game strategies. This didn’t suit us for a couple of reasons:

1: We were girls. We attended an all-female, Catholic high school. Most of the students commuted every day; I was among the hundred or so who boarded at the dorm. The dice-rolling chance of the game was OK with us, but what we enjoyed more was the story-telling of D&D, the unrolling plot in which our characters played their parts.

2: Our main dungeon master (the woman behind the curtain, if you will, who ran the game and told us of the challenges we faced) was my friend Amy Vonderau. That’s her in the photo above, sitting on my bed. (Other fun details in the photo: my unicorn poster, which I thought was very beautiful, and my Empire Strikes Back poster, which I won from a radio station, most likely WDVE. And the built-in desk: I’ll write a post someday about the enforced study time we had every night, which we had to spend sitting at those desks whether we had homework or not.)

We started out taking turns as Dungeon Master, but Amy soon assumed this role full time, through force of personality. Even in high school, Amy was a polished fiction writer and had an expansive imagination. She had written nearly a full draft of a fantasy novel as well. She started to insert characters from her novel into our games, then characters from other novels and movies. (I’ve mentioned in the comments on Have a Good Sandwich that she placed the map from Time Bandits into our game, which meant that we could escape from impossible situations but only at the risk of ending up in ever more improbable places and times.)

People came and went from our game in the early days, but eventually we settled into a small crew who included (if memory serves) Wilma, Sonia, and me, with Amy making our characters’ lives interesting and miserable.

And our real lives too. We played into late in the night, well after lights out. I would wander through the school during the day, exhausted, only to have Amy corner me in the hall or in a stairwell with a new puzzle or battle. My character, a clever but somewhat cowardly thief, at one point found a sentient and powerful sword (named Sword); Amy created a perversely funny and warped character for Sword so that I relied on and distrusted him in equal amounts.

It was amazing. It was draining. Eventually I wanted only for it to end, because it was consuming everything and making school and life impossible. But saying I wanted out came across as saying I didn’t want to be friends with my fellow gamers, that I didn’t like them — Amy in particular. So there was heartbreak of a typical teenaged girl variety.

How I wish I could recapture any part of those games! The stories, the characters, the puzzles. I think I had a sense at the time that it was neat, but now I recognize it as a creatively charged period.

When I went to college at MIT, I looked for a D&D game to join. There was a club listed in the student handbook, and I screwed up my courage to seek them out. I found a bunch of gamers one night, gathered in a classroom in building 56. The players were of a range of ages, mostly men, surrounded by DM guides and many-sided dice and little metal statues. I looked at them. They looked at me. I stepped backward out of the room and headed to my dorm.

A final note: Amy went to Barnard for college and lived in New York City for many years. Around the same time that I moved back to Pennsylvania in the late 90s, she moved back as well. I believe she’s living in the New Castle area, married to her junior high sweetheart. We haven’t seen each other in years, although every decade or so one or the other of us leaves a voicemail suggesting we should get together. I think it’s probably time I try to make that happen.

 

Sazarac

View from a hotel bar in Boston Saturday night in Boston, and I’m too tuckered to take advantage of it. Between late night discussions the last two nights and early morning start times each day (OK, 9am, but it felt early), I’m worn thin.

So I’ve settled for a few moments in the hotel bar. I love hotel and airport bars, the feeling of transience and the little ways we spoil ourselves when we’re away from home. I’m able to pick up the hotel wi-fi here, and I’m watching the various couples and groups, and the cabs and others cars struggling through the construction and pedestrian traffic outside.

The bar stereo is playing John Coltrane, but I also hear The Hollies’ "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" leaking down from a party in the mezzanine. A couple on a couch in front of me has had an argument and is trying to find common ground. A guy behind me is telling his female companion about what he does, explaining why it’s so very hard and how something he accomplished recently is important.

I’m sitting at a table by the window. A guy walking by just gave me the thumbs-up — I’m guessing because he saw the glowing Apple logo on my computer.

I’m sipping on a Sazarac.

Sazarac

1 1/2 oz. Bourbon (in this case, Old Overholt Rye)
1/2 tsp. Pernod
3 dashes Peychaud Bitters
twist Lemon
2 tsp. Sugar Syrup

Coat rocks glass with Pernod. In shaker (no ice) mix Bourbon, sugar syrup and Bitters. Shake and pour into glass. Add lemon twist.

It’s a classic New Orleans cocktail. I’ve never made it because I can’t easily get Peychaud bitters — so I was thrilled to see this drink on the menu. This is a perfect example of what makes hotel lounges great: they make the classic cocktails, and they make them right. In this case, I feel like I’ve found my ideal cocktail. It’s sweet (not too sweet), it’s tart, it’s spicy, it’s red, It’s eccentric, it’s grand. This drink is perfect, and every now and then I hear the bartender shaking up something else delightful for some other patron. So nice.

Outside, the trees around Faneuil Hall are clothed in lights — holiday season. At Starbucks yesterday I heard my first Christmas music for the year. It’s still too early for this stuff. Wait until next Friday at least.

Since I was cooped up in the Media Lab building for the last two days and missed walking through the MIT campus in daylight, for tomorrow morning I’m planning to head back over the Longfellow Bridge and wander a little. My back is a nest of knots, from the tensions of travel and from sitting in auditorium seats for hours on end, and I need to move around more. Then I’ll head to the airport, try to catch some of the Steeler game on a TV somewhere. Not likely though — the Patriots are sure to be playing at the same time. Then I’ll be back in Pittsburgh, then Butler.

Much to do in the coming weeks. Lots of work for clients, a new venture to move ahead, plus Thanksgiving and another trip — to Baltimore for another event.

Now from the event upstairs coming the unmistakable sounds of Numa Numa. I boggle at the convergences coming down on me. (Here’s a detailed history of the Numa Numa phenomenon.)

‘m listening to the conversation to my right: It’s a couple of generations, mostly sisters in their (I’m guessing) 60s, with a spouse and a child or two, describing a past event in classic Boston accents. I should know which neighborhood they’re from — I’m tempted to say South End but I’m unsure.

Now from upstairs we’ve got "You Shook Me All Night Long," and it’s clear that I need to wrap it up for the night.

But I feel a need to come up with a final thought.

(Now the upstairs DJ has mixed together Guns and Roses’ "Sweet Child of Mine" and something else that’ll come to me in a minute. It might even be a cover of "Sweet Child." Gotta wrap this and retire for the night, or I’ll have to crash that party for the sheer ridiculousness.)

The hotel lobby has made a transition from wayplace for the weary traveler to gathering spot for eager visitors. I dislike drawing a labored parallel with the discussions of the conference. but it’s so easy to see disparate groups of people within the same physical markets, ships passing in the night. The trick of this lobby is making everyone feel welcome, and to a great extent it succeeds. That’s what each online space wants to do too. And to make money along the way, if possible.

But that’s not a final thought … because each time the environment changes, our expectations change. The key skills become agileness, nimbleness, adaptability. Great companies are those that are able to focus on the bottom line while fully supporting their clients.

Is that different from the rest of the world? No. My lasting thought for the night is that everything has changed, yet I need to continue on the current course. The thoughts can’t be reconciled, but they have to be.

The fun bit is that this is a world in which I’m completely comfortable. For me, that’s the best result of all.

Immersed in the environment

Continuing my Cambridge/Boston nostalgia trip: I ate lunch at Legal Seafoods. When I was an undergrad, my parents were apparently concerned that I would not eat properly. So my dad gave me a credit card, and instructed me to eat at Legal Seafoods once a month. He’d eaten there when bringing me up to school for the first time, and been particularly impressed by the clam chowder.

As I remember it, I said I didn’t want to go to a restaurant alone, so I was allowed to bring one person with me for my nutritious meal of the month. My favorite items were the bluefish pate and the ice cream bon bons. I took various friends to dinner in turn. I don’t think my visit did much to affect my health and nutrition, but they did create in me an appreciation for fresh fish.

When I came back to the area for grad school, I didn’t eat at Legal’s very often, but now and again my dear friend Sharon and I would get lunch there, chowder and a sassy beer from the tap.

So today for lunch I ordered a cup of chowder, a salad with goat cheese, apples, and avocados, and a pint of Harpoon I.P.A. The chowder was fine, although a couple bits of grit snuck into my cup. The salad was uninspired. But the beer was cold and crisp, a lovely compliment to a chilly fall day.

Of course, I’m not actually enjoying much of the lovely, chilly, sunny day. I’m in a theatre in the basement of a building on the MIT campus (Bldg E15, for those in the know), for day two of Futures of Entertainment. Now I’m settling in to listen to people from Linden Labs (makers of Second Life), Multiverse.net, and MTV talk about virtual worlds, online spaces, and immersive experiences. Just before lunch we had a spontaneous countdown, from ten to one, bidding tongue-in-cheek farewell to Web 2.0 (this morning’s panel talked about MySpace and fan-based communities) and welcoming in Web 3.0.

Like many people, I have opened an account in Second Life and created a self, but haven’t done anything with it (her?). In fact, she’s only half designed, wearing some weird combination of default clothes and appearance. At some point I’ll get back to her and finish the setup, and go through the training area to learn how to make my way around. I’d like to understand more about what’s available in these kinds of environments — it’s a rapidly changing space, and there’s no way to know what will happen. As with much in this conference, I’m pleased to listen, watch, and learn.

Futures of entertainment

Today and tomorrow I’m in Boston for the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. This conference is looking at "developments such as user-generated content, transmedia storytelling, the rise of mobile media and the emergence of social networking." (Find liveblogging by members of the Convergence Culture Consortium here.)

This is conference month for me: Last weekend I participated in PodCampPittsburgh, a two-day conference "for people who create, enjoy or are interested in learning more about the following: blogs, vlogs, audio podcasts, web video, content networks and new media monetization." In the end, the weekend was mostly about putting video and audio media on the web and trying to make money from it, but there was talk too about content in general and more.

There’s so much to say about both these events, and about the trip in general. I’d like to take the time to put my thoughts together, but that would mean delay, and I’d rather get some things online quickly. So here’s a rapid-fire list of unconnected thoughts.

1. It’s tempting to compare this Futures of Entertainment conference with PodCamp: the topic areas overlap significantly, in that they both include online media. But they’re really quite different. PodCamp was an UNconference, in that people could and did spontaneously generate sessions, where this conference is a series of panel discussions by big industry leaders like Flickr, DC Comics, CBSNews.com, and more. Last weekend was lots of how-to, this weekend is big thinking about what new media means, where it’s all going, what we know and don’t know.

Last weekend I spent the whole time meeting people and making connections. So far today I’ve spoken briefly to only one person, and have otherwise been listening and making notes. I feel nearly at cognitive overload, soaking stuff up and processing it, thinking how to apply it to projects I have on hand and will be starting in future. I’m still processing the stuff by last weekend, so partly I may be just cumulatively full for the moment.

Another unexpected difference: PodCampPittsburgh invited sponsors, and so despite even though the conference was free to attend, there was great free food throughout the event and lots of swag. Futures of Entertainment, also free to attend, has no corporate sponsors but some academic sponsorship, so we had a small (nice) continental breakfast this morning, some terrible MIT Catering coffee throughout the day, fend-for-yourself lunch, and a little wine and cheese event on campus tonight. I don’t mind that there’s no free lunch here, but I think some networking/discussion opportunity has been lost.

Then again, we’re not being hit on the head with particular sponsor messages, which is nice. It’s a different vibe. (I am tired of the Flickr and YouTube worship, incidentally.)

2. When I stepped out of the Government Center T station last night, walking to my hotel by Faneuil Hall, I felt a rush of joy at being back in Boston. This morning, taking the T to MIT, I was positively elated, smiling at strangers and skipping through puddles. All day I’ve felt that I’d like to move back here. I think that feeling will wear off, and what it really means is that I should visit here more often than only every eight years.

3. An area where the two conferences are alike: Mac users seem to outnumber Windows users. By a lot. I believe this is due to Macs having a combination of better online and media generation tools and greater cool factor.

4. At home in Butler, I frequently find myself explaining what blogs are and why they’re neat. Here, everyone knows already. I am among my people. That’s kind of nice, but then again I feel like I have more to offer the folks back home. Again, this probably means I need to take more trips and see what’s out here, and take it home with me.

5. The MIT campus is prettier than it was in the 1980s. It’s still kinda ugly though.

6. After PodCampPittsburgh, I felt it was urgent that I get moving and get into online media. Today, in the middle of this conference, I’m practically in a panic about it. I’m having trouble staying in my seat, so great is my desire to run back to the hotel and work. But then, the information here is so interesting and valuable I also can’t leave, for fear of missing key pieces. This may also help explain why I’m not talking to anyone: I’m so tense I’ve temporarily lost my ability to socialize.

7. The Media Lab’s open wi-fi is terrific. But having a constant connection to the web during a panel discussion is beyond distracting. I’m having to shut the computer so as not to miss things.

OK, must get back to listening. Will post more later.