Archive for the ‘MIT’ category

One More On Swartz (and MIT)

January 15, 2013

I want to respond to a couple of things mistermix wrote this morning over at Balloon Juice about what I had previously written concerning MIT’s response to Aaron Swartz’s death, but first, some preliminaries.

1:  This topic has become a lightening rod for a stunningly unproductive comment war between those who see Swartz as presumptively criminal who couldn’t take the heat his own actions had invited, and those who see him as  a martyr to the positive cause of internet and data freedom and to the defensive one of resistance to overweening corporate and government interests.

My own view is much closer to the side of those who see Swartz as a driven idealist, on the side of the angels, largely unprepared for real life.  It’s overwhelmingly clear that he believed deeply in acting morally according to a particular moral code and that he was aware that this commitment could bring him into conflict with existing legal (and more everyday) constraints. It is clear, to me at least, that his goals, what he thought the good was for which he was willing to enter into such conflict, is in fact a major social benefit:  information, if it doesn’t always want to be free* wants to be genuinely accessible — or rather, we as citizens, members of a polity that utterly depends on an informed electorate, need to have ready access to the words, numbers and wisdom required to perform our civic work.  Does that mean Swartz or anyone else should get out of jail free when they challenge someone else’s intellectual property claims?  No, and Swartz and his legal team did not seek do so, according to the Kevin Cullen/Boston Globe column to which mistermix linked.  For those without access to the Globe, here’s the datum:

Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.

I have no problem with that proposed resolution; seems about right to me.  Much more appropriate than this:

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_037

That said, YMMV, on either side.

But here’s my point and my plea:  we’ve had now four threads on this matter.  I get it that some of you think otherwise, and have been fully in keeping with Balloon Juice traditions in the…how to put it…forcefulness of your expression of such views.  Now, please, just consider putting a sock in it.  The young man — I’m old enough to think of him as a very young man — is dead, and clearly suffered distress; whether or not you are convinced he was in the wrong just doesn’t f**king matter.  With absolutely no authority, and no intention of wielding a ban hammer for anything short of heinous, directly personal racism, bigotry, sexism and the like — mere insult and uninventive invective don’t cut it (that’s what pie filters are for, folks) –I’d just ask that you all try to stay on the actual argument, with some respect for the family, friends and those bereft by the loss of Aaron Swartz.  I’m asking as nicely as I can, OK?

2:   And while I’m at it, can I ask for some reflection before anyone spouts off about depression?  I’ve mentioned before that it’s been a big deal in my family, and I’m struck by the degree of careless and uninformed talk that’s run around Swartz’s loss.  No, depression should not be a get out of jail free card.  Yes, it is a serious, potentially fatal illness.  And yes, emphatically yes, I agree with one Swartz’s lawyer’s that the US Attorney’s office could and should have taken the risks posed to their defendent by the combination of a very aggressive prosecutorial approach and Swartz’s mental history:

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.

“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

It is worth remembering that prosecutors do have specific responsibilities to those under investigation or indictment, and a penumbra of duty that includes moral judgment.  I’m pretty sure the US Attorney’s office in Boston failed to meet at least some parts of that obligation.  But again, whether or not you agree, I’d ask anyone anxious to speak up on the role depression did play in Swartz’s death and any impact it should have had on the prosecution to think hard and write carefully.  This is not an area in which a snappy retort is likely to shed light, or, as important in my book, to contain what should be sympathy in the original sense of the word for a truly terrible and intensely complicated disease.

3:  A couple of links.  There’s a memorial site up for Aaron Swartz that any  so moved might find it worthwhile to visit.  And for those of you interested in actions that honor Swartz’s ambitions, MuckRock, a site dedicated to helping folks file Freedom of Information Act requests is offering free FOIA filing for the day in Aaron Swartz’s honor.

Alright, with those out of the way, onto the argument mistermix advanced in response to my piece about MIT President Rafael Reif’s announcement made in the wake of Swartz’s suicide and his family’s direct indictment of the Institute’s role in that tragedy. On that matter, mistermix writes:

When I read Tom’s piece about MIT’s President appointing a panel to study MIT’s response to Swartz, I figured that President’s haste indicated that there were some dirty hands at MIT who wanted to kick the can down the road. And what better way to do that than to follow the blue-ribbon example of Linda P.B. Katehi, still Chancellor of the UC Davis system, who used a panel to wiggle out of any accountability for her role in the pepper spraying of the Occupy protest on her campus. It doesn’t matter what the panel reports. What matters is that the panel’s report will be a long time in coming. When the report finally arrives, the outrage at those who insisted on draconian punishments for a “crime”–from which Swartz didn’t profit, which was completely non-violent, and which probably had minimal effect on the alleged victim (JSTOR)–will be attenuated by the passage at time.

To which my first reaction is, what would you have President Reif, and MIT do?  Not investigate?  Not formalize the process, identify decisions and the timing of those choices, name names?  That’s what I expect of Hal Abelson’s panel; if that’s not what I get, I will write again in this space acknowledging my error.

But until you see the document, roll with me on my assumption (as discussed in both my prior post and by several commenters in that thread) that Abelson is the real deal, in sympathy (I think) with Swartz’s take on open access, a man of formidable intelligence, as expert as you could hope for in the specific areas of computation and information most important to this case, and of previously tested and affirmed personal integrity and intellectual courage.  He may of course screw up; he may pull punches; he may be undermined by other institutional powers.  We will find out in time.  But for now, the rest of this post follows through the notion that Reif has requested a genuine inquiry and that Abelson intends to deliver one.

Given that, mistermix’s argument boils down to two related planks:  panels are devices to avoid action, and the way that this process arrives at the desired indecision is through delay.

Vouet,_Simon_-_Father_Time_Overcome_by_Love,_Hope_and_Beauty_-_1627

You know what: mistermix is right.  Just not always — and more to the point, some version of this approach is in fact how academic (and other) institutions both work and don’t work.  I can’t speak for other universities, but in the 8 years I’ve been at MIT I’ve come both to know and value its particular data-driven culture.  Assertions do not fly well in governance here — not as rhetoric, and not as robust foundations for the decisions they may be used to justify.

More, if you want to enact faculty governance as something more than form, you have to approach certain questions this way:  I don’t believethe faculty would not accept Reif’s say-so on this or many other matters — for all that he rose to his present position through the MIT faculty ranks.  Rather, on crucial questions, the recognized approach here (and perhaps everywhere else — again, I’m a latecomer to the academy and my knowledge of its practices, as opposed to those of my home institution falls somewhere between very little and none) is to create finders and interpreters (judges) of fact independent of the central administration.

So perhaps a reasonable question is whether or not this process is anything more than form; it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to think of a committee made up of faculty close to the administration, who could be trusted to keep troubling matters at bay.  But there’s also evidence that the process does not have to happen that way, at least not at the one venue for which I have direct knowledge.

As some of you may recall, a couple of months ago I interviewed my colleague Nancy Hopkins on my internet science broadcast.  Hopkins was the leader of the first panel created to assess whether or not MIT was discriminating against women faculty in ways that directly and crucially affected their research and their possibilities for advancement at the Institute.  Her panel and the one that followed it demonstrated exactly that, and produced both MIT – specific and national results as a consequence.

So, no, I don’t accept as a simple assertion of fact that Rafael Reif’s appointing a committee led by a prominent MIT scholar is prima facie evidence of the desire to kick this matter down the road.

Nor is the issue of time is important; justice delayed and all that.  But first — I don’t know when Abelson plans to report.  My guess is that it would be relatively soon, and speaking purely for me, I’d hope to hear from this panel before the end of the coming spring term in May.  (I know that’s not exactly a blazing pace, but that’s pretty quick by local standards.)

But whether or not that’s the case, its still not clear to me that taking an extended period to come to a conclusion is itself an obvious tell for the desire to sweep matters under the rug.  Rather, the test for me will be in the recommendations that flow from this investigation, and the administration’s response to those suggestions.  And anyway, taking time enough to nail one’s case is not in and of itself a sign of ill faith. Note that the Hopkins committee and its sequels took a couple of years to get their work done.  They did it in the way most likely to persuade an MIT constituency:  to prove the claim that women received less lab space than men under equivalent needs, they went out with tape measures and gathered the dimensions themselves.  That and a host of other efforts to accumulate unequivocal numbers took a while.  When their work was done, the picture was clear, and its implications unmistakable.  That it had taken a couple of years did not diminish it’s impact; rather the reverse.

So many words, when what I’m really trying to say is that simply pointing to the UC Davis travesty (I agree w. mistermix on that one) is not sufficient to arrive at the conclusion that MIT will similarly try to avoid taking institutional note of what happened here and what should be done about it.

*Why yes, damn, straight: I want you to run, not walk, to the electronic book store of your choice and buy my last work, for which I’ll score roughly $3.50 in royalties against a still-unearned-out advance.

**functionally a department, but as a historical rhetoric, MIT still boasts a Department of Humanities, of which several department-equivalents are sections.  A detail of interest to just about no one.

Images: Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising, 1890

Simon Vouet, Father Time Overcome By Love, Hope and Beauty, 1627

Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead

March 24, 2012

5:37 — and that’s a wrap, folks.

5:33:  Lloyd — don’t wanta quantum laptop just yet (takes a lot of gear just to talk to 12 atoms.)

Sweet spot for qu computing–factoring large numbers, which could break all public key codes. (Talk about disruption.)

5:15: Q & A time:  Belcher and Sharp talk about the sense of science as both a search for basic knowledge and very much an applied endeavor…Lloyd notes that most of the big problems are more political than scientific, but that in the end you still have to do the science to produce any remotely plausible solutions.

Q: Question about whether or not nano materials or organic quantum computers are disposable.  Sharp responsds that the nice thing about biological systems is that they are all pretty much made of stuff (proteins etc) that other creatures can eat.  But it is very important to design in recycleabilty (sp?).

Q:  Issue of framing problems — are we aiming too low, as in, investing in cancer drugs that at best prolong life for a few months.  Seth Lloyd responds:  aiming low is not really a problem at MIT — different calculation at drug companies.  He believes that we should allocate more resources to people trying “crazy” stuff.  Primary leaps for society come from technology that arise out of fundamental research — see e.g. the transistor — and not from incrementalism.  Hence, need to prioritize basic research over the attempt to divine the right applied line to follow.

Sharp: it matters at the highest level who’s setting policy because, yes, framing a problem is crucial; if you have the right statement of the problem you can solve that problem… much harder otherwise.  His example: lung cancer may be best approached by cutting smokng — that might be the right way tof rame the issue.

Belcher: emphasizes the value of interdisciplinarity. Putting her next to engineers at the Koch Center changes her insights, and vice versa.  She remembers her own experience of getting funding despite her “crazy” idea of giving genetic info to a nonliving system.

Sharp adds: origins of molecular biology lie in physics.  People like Delbruck came into physics and disciplined people to look at the simplest organism and work out those problems.  Cross fertilization of ideas and techniques…

Q: are the lawyers going to muck up the future of these sciences?  Sharp’s answer: there is an enormous amount of litigation around the health sciences, and an enormous amount of regulation.  The motivation of the regulation is clear — but you do have to work through/around this reality.

Lloyd asks Belcher, “you’ve patented a gazillion things — what do you think about the IP system.” Belcher — doesn’t have any sense of having been slowed down by litigation.  Maybe material science is easier than say, software.

Lloyd patents everything reflexively — ever since he didn’t patent an idea in quantum computing because, he thought, it’ll never work…which it didn’t until a company in Vancouver dropped $100 million to make it work.  Ah well….

5:02: Lloyd now moves to the specific question of quantum computing.  A quantum computer is wher eyou store and process information at level of individual quanta.

Now we get a delightful introduction to wave particle duality. Lloyd’s aside: it’s a toss up between quantum mechanics and natural selection as to which has more confirmation — and thus isn’t it curious that both are routinely under attack.

This leads to an anecdote about pitching a quantum search device to Brin and Page in a meeting held in a hot tub.  Interesting times…

Lloyd not interested in quantum computing to beat Moore’s law, particularly; rather, Lloyd want’s to understand how information processing happpens, in say, Belcher’s photosynthesizing plants/and/or/nanosystems.

Photosynthesis: take a photon, have it absorbed by a chromophor; it creates and electron-hole pair (exciton — a particle of excitement) which has to hop through the photosynthetic complext until it gets to a reaction center..reaction center is abou 5% efficient, whilst transport is hugely efficient….99 %.  Turns out the transport system involves a quantum biological step as these electron-hole pairs “ooze” (Lloyd’s word) through the complex.

So need insight into quantum information processing to understand what’s actually going on as we speak.

4:46: And yes — my fingers and wrists hurt.  Belcher talks fast.  Now it’s Seth Lloyd’s turn.  His specialty, says my colleague Marcia Bartusiak “All things Quantum.” (She challengers her inner Terry Pratchett, I think.)

Seth Lloyd begins with a shout out to science writing. (Yay!)

Grant writing is advertising — Mad Men without the sex.

Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, not to mention that the public in this country actually pays for most of it.

A rather small fraction of scientists are good at communicating to that public what they do…and so Lloyd is here because he thinks that what our grads do is great — with which sentiment I thoroughly agree.

Now the talk:  Predicting 50 years is a mugs game.  Agrees w. Sharp that one tends to overestimate what comes in 5 years, and can’t have a clue what will happen in 50 years.

So if the scale of the earth is 10^8 meters (equator to pole via the Paris meridian. to the size of a liter of water…and then down to the atom level — you get the rough equivalence — the number of atoms that fill a liter water bottle is the same as the number of liter bottles that could fill the earth…all this to give a sense of the scale involved in thinking in quantum and or nano terms.

If you think of size not as an absolute measure, but as in relation to the smallest component to which we have access — then a liter bottle has grown very large indeed in the last decade or so.

Key take away — none of this discovery could have been anticipated a decade ago; we had no way to tell what would transpire when we got down to that level.

So Lloyd channels James Brown for his prediction of what will happen in 50 years.  “I don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is will be funky!”

Thinking about Moore’s law…an extrapolation would say computers with single atom components could come around 2050 — except that’s what his group is doing now in quantum computing.

Talking Moore’s law — uncertain as to the details of its future course…but just thinking about the nanoscale discussions by Belcher and Sharp — we know that very funky things will happen as we travel down the slope of scale and speed.

4:39:  Belcher adds that the A123 products went from invention in 2000 to broad commercial use now.

Our whirlwind tour heads now to healthcare.  Cost is formidable 17% of GDP in US will soon go to health care.  Need now for minimally invasive diagnostics and treatment; new and better imaging; and more…nanoscience impinges on the whole sequence: nano probes can take measurements within single cells; nanoparticles are being used to perform rapid diagnostics for particular proteins.

Moving now to ideas about nanotreatment — if you can get nanoparticles with particular properties, can target cells very specifically for treatment.  Neat idea — a nanoparticle that can detect a tumor cell can signal other nanoparticles to deliver a drug or what have you to the cell.

Belcher’s own work is trying to take CO2 from emissions and turn it into building supplies, through an engineered yeast system.  Discusses promise of nanotech for water purification.

Last thought: can give DNA to manufactures; have engineered viruses to make batteries, e.g.

4:27 Say hello to Angela Belcher, MacArthur Fellow and nanotechnologist extraordinaire.

Future of science turns on interfaces: in 50 years won’t say “I’m molecular biologist or engineer ” or what have you — as the fields merge.

Her quesetion:  What does that non-living/living interface look like.  Can we impart to nonliving materials some of the exquisite properties or capabilities that life has.  Can you evolve properties of materials into the DNA coding that indivduals could pass on to their kids?

E.g. — what if you could grow batteries from a dna-located code in petrie dish.  Belcher cites the Feynman idea “plenty of room at the bottom.

Key idea is that nano isn’t just small, but that you can control atoms precisely, make the system do exactly what you want.

Belcher’s motivation:  want to do nano to make the world better/livable for her kids.  Because you can control systems at the atom by atom level, nano has such broad potential — tons of fields.

What’s happening at the nano scale — just in cells, see proteins, Ribozomes, Linear alpha helix collagen, DNA…lots of models for sophisticated functionality at nano level.

See e.g. Bawendi’s quantum dots that use nano properties for a range of properties.  Others are workign on self cleaning solar cells deriving insight from self cleaning lotus leaves that work at nano scale.

Bob Langer is watching how geckos walk up walls and is looking at ways to build better bandages.

Unifiying idea: look at what evolution has produced over millions of years and see what ideas one can steal.

Now Belcher turns to the energy issue; we see a chart look at energy production.  The chart makes it clear that production of renewables is not now close to keeping pace with future need…nanotechnolgy can impinge on the solution to problem, in applications that range from solar — with improvements in efficiency, processing, cost, self-maintenance.  Similarly nano can improve energy conservation (efficiency) — see, e.g. Bawendi et al. quantum dot applications to LED innovations.  Next up:  improvement in battery tech; in which the nano scale can play a significant role — see what’s happened w. MIT spin off A123 Systems.

4:14:  Sharp continues…He co-chaired a National Academy report committee on “A New Biology for the 21st Century.”

Major challenges identified there:  (1) Nearly a billion undernourished in the world i ’07 w. population growth going on:  how do we sustain that population.

(2) Human activities are stressing the environment from which that sustenance must derive…getting worse.

(3) Transportation fuels depend almost entirely on limited non-renewable resources.

(4) Healthcare, which is costly now, and will get more so: so how to make it more effective and cost-effective.

These are the issues that molecualr biology may and will need to address over the next 50 years.

So, what about  the food challenge.  Next revolution — molecular engineering of plants to grow in places and with a control of inputs not now achievable. Turns on genetically informed decisions, which include understanding biodiversity, systematics and evolutioanry genomics.  Think “analsyis fo crops as ecosystems.”

Bad news says Sharp:  we in the US invest trivially in this; center of gravity is in Europe; we just lost the best researcher in this field to UK.

Environment Challenge:

Need a comprehensive and quantitative (my emphasis) meausre of ecosystem services…molecular biology can contribut

Energy Challenge:

To meet hte renewable fuel standard 2022 goal — need 4x increase in ceonomical biofuel production…

To get there must approach biomass to biofuel production process as a systems/engineering problem.

Health Challenge:

We can sequence a genome now for $1,000:  have an incredible ability coming soon to approach your health from a genomic point of view.

Issue — you ahve to participate in this: have your genome on your iPad…If the goal is individualized health surveillance and care.

Some future goals: develop conceptual and technical capacity to monitor metabolome (new term to me — I like it)..as integrated phenotypic readout.

Many major diseases are already getting tackled death-rates down from cancer etc.  Big challenge: aging.  Sharp expects that in 50 years his grandson will expect to live into the hundreds, being active into his eighties and nineties….

That aging breakthrough, if it comes, carries with it all kinds of social, ethical and practical challenges.

Thus, says Sharp:  hold on to your seats.  Big change at the macro level is coming from revolution at the molecular one.

4:09:  What has happened here over 50 years: first, shifted MIT’s biology dept. from “food processing” to molecular biology — a shift aided by recruitiing Luria to come here.  In 1972, decided to add a Center for Cancer Research — which shifted emphasis from single cell approaches, and to take on the problem of fundamental processes of cancer in humans.

IN 1983, along comes the Whitehead, w. the challenge of understanding how single cells transform into 3 D structures of a complex organism; central problem to how biology works.

in 1993, MIT decided in which biology became a core requirement — a huge shift for the whole institute, as physical scientists and engineers now had to respond to biologically informed questions from their own students…so they had to learn biology to.

in 2000, came the neuroscience complex; followed by the Broad Institute in 2003, which brings big science approaches to biology…and last, the Koch Institute combines the cancer center w. engineers…to mark the latest stage of the evolution of life sciences as a practice at MIT.

MIT is now central to the cluster of life sciences research and industry in and around Kendall Sq. — by far the largest such complex in the world.

4:07: Sharp:  I knew Crick for many years, and had lunch with Watson just the other day — and I can assure you they had no idea what would come from that double helix at the point of discovery.

People overestimate advances in short range; underestimate it over 50 years.  So to get a sense of the scale issue — look at what’s happened at MIT over the last 50 years in molecular biology as a prelude for speculation on what’s to come.

The idea…there is a third revolution coming in a convergence of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

4:02:  Professor Marcia Bartusiak begins by highlighting both successful predictions — Arthur C. Clarke and satellite tech, e.g. — and less excellent ones, like the original IBM Watson’s declaration that the world market for computers might touch five.  First up, Nobel laureate Phil Sharp on molecular biology

3:58:  Just about to start the second panel in the celebration of ten years of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT.  The panel title:  Fifty Years Ahead: Imagining Nanotechnology, Quantum Computing, and Molecular Biology in 2062

Coming up:  talks from Philip Sharp, Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher on molecular biology, quantum computing and nanotechnology, respectively.  (No promises as to the order.)

Have a Way With Words?

October 24, 2011

Know any folks out there interested in rhetoric?  Communications pedagogy? Research into professional communication and/or literacies across media?

Well, some of my colleagues are looking to hire a senior (aka tenured/tenurable) scholar/teacher in this area, with MIT hiring its first (in a long time, certainly, if not ever) professor of rhetoric.  Here’s the description:

MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Science seeks to appoint a distinguished scholar in rhetorical studies at the rank of tenured associate or full professor to start in the Fall of 2012. Candidates should have a Ph.D. in rhetoric or a relevant field of interdisciplinary rhetorical studies, with a distinguished record of publication, broad experience in developing innovative college level courses in rhetoric and communication; and a record of funded research in one or more areas of communication education or media literacy. The candidate will work collaboratively with colleagues in the Programs of Writing and Humanistic Studies, Comparative Media Studies, and Literature, while providing faculty level support for MIT’s educational programs across the disciplines at MIT. Relevant areas of specialization include the history, theory and critical tradition of classical rhetoric; contemporary rhetorical studies in one or more academic or professional disciplines or fields of study; and oral presentation, visual studies, digital humanities, narrative, and media studies. MIT is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.

And here is where one would submit an application.

So — if this big and broad community has some among it, or some in its circle of acquaintances who might be interested…come on down!

And, of course, use this thread to spread the word about jobs you seek and/or jobs you know of.

Image:  Jan Steen, Feast of the Chamber of Rhetoricians near a Town-Gate, before 1679.

Further to the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing’s Stealth Rise To World Domination: Boston Globe edition

September 8, 2010

Not to toot one’s own horn or anything so vulgar, but it is with great pleasure that I find that MIT’s Grad Program in Science Writing could preen in the reflected glory of three of our graduates, seemingly taking over the Boston Globe’s science coverage this Monday.

Here is Emily Anthes (MIT SM 2006 and new PLoS One blogger) on childhood mental illness. (Sidebar here.)

Here is Courtney Humphrey (MIT SM 20o4, and author of the very well received Superdove) on the pros and cons of saliva as a wound palliative.

And here is Globe science reporter and MIT SM 2004 Carolyn Johnson on the virtues for a range of research of the South African frog Xenopus.

Two things:  this array of stories is one of the reasons I flat out love science writing — the doing of it, teaching it, reading it.  No other beat I know has such range, riches and human consequence.  And then there is the pleasure of seeing those you’ve worked with going out and having such fun with it.

It’s a good day (and moment) to go teach the first class to next year’s crop of MIT science writers.  See y’all.

Image:  Marzipan frog made by one of the chefs at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris. Photograph by Musical Linguist.

The Way David Macaulay Works

August 27, 2010

Something of a Friday brain dump seems to be going on chez Inverse Square. I’m trying to help out a little on what would for me be another David Macaulay-hosted project.

(Info on first one in which I participated — the Peabody award winning Building Big — is here.)

That led me back to the video of the talk David gave at MIT a couple of years ago, when I had the fun of hosting him for a few day-long visit. (I’m the guy introducing David whilst forgetting to introduce myself or my program — an academic rookie’s mistake.)

But David makes no such errors. The talk, titled “The Way David Macaulay Works” is a wonderful fully illustrated tour through his career and the process through which he investigates the built and the natural world. Have fun.

The Way David Macaulay Works: Finding Ideas, Ma…, posted with vodpod

DFH’s are not alone: Some video on the madness of current defense spending

April 6, 2010

Benjamin Friedman is no one’s idea of a wild-eyed hippie naif.

He is, rather, a Ph.D candidate at MIT’s Political Science Department and a research fellow at that well known bastion of tie-dye and patchouli, the Cato Institute.

Money fact: as Friedman totes up current defense spending  including all the bits up to the share of interest on the debt that can be attributed to deficit spending on the military, he finds that we get almost no change out of a trillion dollars each year. (Contrast that with estimates of the cost of health care reform that come in at about 940 billion over ten years, and is projected to reduce the deficit over that period.)

The edited version of Friedman’s is 23 minutes long, and there is no requirement that you agree with the whole analysis.

(I think he dismisses security interests in Asia a bit cavalierly, myself — not in that I disagree that it’s odd we still have major bases and commitments in Japan, but that it seems to me a more difficult process to extract from that north Asian series of commitments than it would be to do so from a Europe that no longer divides along the inner-German border.)

But that said, Friedman makes a coherent and to-me pretty obvious argument that we are spending way too much on the military.  He offers a good story as to why — where the different pressures to maintain that cost trajectory.  (If ever there was a case for “bending the curve” it comes here.)*He also came up with a pithy answer as to why that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Money quote, from political scientist Ronald Dahl:

“In a dictatorship, a minority rules. In a democracy, minorities rule.”

*One note:  Friedman points to an increase in the expansion of benefits and the cost of health care for active duty members of the armed services and for retirees as one of the (smaller, I think) drivers of military budget growth over the last decade.  He doesn’t separate out the specific cost of care attributable to the wars.  But the point is, of course, that getting medical care cost under control is as many have noted, a national security issue as well as a moral and social one.

more about “DFH’s are not alone: Some video on t…“, posted with vodpod

Live Blogging President Obama’s Energy Address At MIT

October 23, 2009

Star studded crowd.  Gov. Patrick, Sen. Kerry, and local congressman Mike Capuano are here.

12:45:  Obama takes the podium.  Wild applause.  This is Obama country.

First words:  Thank you MIT!

In joke:  “I’ll be here a while.  I understand a bunch of engineering students have put my motorcade on top of Building Ten.

Reference image:

12:49:  Politician shout outs are now over.  Now the president is touting all the lovely things being done at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).  Makes the link to the notion of Americans as innovators willing to take risks on projects that might fail — and on the US as a place willing to support such efforts.

References Lincoln’s move during the Civil War to establish Land Grant Colleges; Roosevelt’s signing of the GI bill; after Sputnik, US invests in space technology….

So, the claim is being made that we have always been about innovation; that ambition is “in our DNA” — a phrase I understand and loathe.

But now — the economic challenges are huge.  “Economy in which we all share opportunity is one in which we all share crisis.” Said in context of globalized economy.

Says:  Energy that powers our economy also undreminse our security and threatens our planet”

12:53  Nation that gets to clean energy wins the next economic revolution “I want America to be that nation.”  (applause)

That’s why, he says, the stimulus act has more clean energy funding than ever appropriated before…summarizes what the 89 billion bucks in the stimulus packae will go to fund.

Talks about a Massachusetts project — a test facility for wind turbine blades.  It is notable that Obama so readily digs at least one layer down into the technical details; its a rhetorically powerful way to claim not just support for a good cause, but the real value of that cause, the notion that we are spending cash on things that matter.  Smart guy, I’ve heard.

Many props to Governor Patrick — local Mass politics are a subtext here.

12:59:  Pivot to the comprehensive legislation we need and discussing the implications of Kerry’s climate change bill.  Mentions cleaner fossil fuels; biofuels, nuclear, wind, waves and sun.

Saying that there is a long, planned, intelligible path from an economy powered by fossil fuel dependence/carbon pollution threats to one that is sustainable; not making the claim that we can get there in one swoop.

Talks about DOD and business leaders and others coming round to the notion that global warming and dependence on fossil fuels is a national security and economic threat…making the case for the necessity, not merely the desirability of action.

Again, it’s an interesting strategy rhetorically; it seems to me that he is working hard to box in opponents to a smaller and less defensible position.  I hope it works.

He says explicitly that the opponents are being marginalized — but that they will fight harder as we get closer to a bill.

“They will say that we are destroying our eocnomy…when it is”what we got now that’s threatening it.

“We’re going to have to work on those folks.  But there is a more dangerous myth — because we are all complicit in it.”

That there is nothing we can do “it’s pessimism” …that politics are broken etc…

1:01:  That implies we can’t solve problems any more, says POTUS, and he knows that can’t be true….we’ve seen it at MIT and elsewhere…we’ve done it before (electricity) etc.

Writing teacher here.  This is an ugly phrase:  of innovators “they will lead us in the future as they have done so in the past.”

Can’t quite get my head around that one.

Ends with a pep paragraph…we can do this…we’re Americans, and we’re damn good at this kind of thing.

Last thoughts from your blogger:

He’s a good speaker, which we knew.  He’s smart as hell, which we also knew.  He’s a political process man.  This had no new initiatives or proposals in it, nor even a central, strong outline of how the specific actions discussed add up to the path to a sustainable energy future some decades out.

Rather, this speech seemed more or less to lay down a marker:  we’ve got some things going…we need now to pass the next piece of legislation — Kerry’s cap and trade plus other stuff bill is the one the President specifically referenced, along with the House bill already passed.

The praise for the various specific projects and research initiatives were designed to answer critics who say that we can’t escape fossil fuel use Most of the speech by running time was devoted to various general and specific paeans to the capacity of Americans to get this part of the job done.

Given that everybody, and especially me, are critics, here’s what I thought the speeh missed most:  I wanted to hear in this context a real and dire description of what failure here would mean, not just for the environment, but for the economy and safety of US citizens en masse and individually.

That is — I think it’s pretty well established that projecting the dire consquences of a 4 degree warming is still a hard thing to grasp (though this map is a good place to start).  But if you talk about the cost of wars, or even merely of the budget  year over year for Centcom…if you talk about clean energy jobs lost to other nations even now (see e.g. this story on the Chinese vs. American economic edge in solar energy products.)…if you talk about the lives lost here at home through the pollution being caused now by our current energy use pattern (18,o00 a year according to this report, about the same number as homicides for the last year I could pull the data quickly.  (See this CDC fact sheet and click through to the PDF  listed as the source for the summary numbers.)…if you go after the harm we suffer now through our dependence on our current energy mix, then the urgency for change and the willingness to assume risk in the service of that change will go up.

To be fair:  he did very clearly make the case that powerful interests in this area, like DOD, understand the implications of inaction and now favor significant energy policy change.  But he didn’t bring the reasons why home and down to the you and me level as sharply as I would have liked.

President Obama has the best pulpit in the world to preach this.  He has the right temperament too, by which I mean not his famous cool, but his genuine optimism, his sense that no problem is too hard for us to tackle.  That side of him was on display in full measure today, and I liked it.  But I think he needs to light more of a fire under us (sorry) on the other side, to remind us the most dangerous option we have right now is to stand pat.

And that’s my $.02

My Workplace Is Cooler Than Yours: Fun With Light And Bullets Edition

October 22, 2009

So, a couple of days ago I post some distressingly entrancing video of bullets punching holes in various things.  That attracted the attention of the most excellent Jim Bales, Assistant Director of MIT’s Edgerton Center, which is one of the real jewels of the undergraduate experience here, and the heir and monument to one of the Institute’s patron deities, Doc Edgerton himself.  (Some sample images here, a few of the iconic ones here.)

Jim extended hospitality, in an exchange of emails that evoked one line I never expected to hear within the academic cloister.  As a result, yesterday morning, I made my way up to the eyrie on the top floor of MIT’s central campus to witness a little of the sweet, stop-motion Edgerton magic in action.  And today, I received the product of the work done whilst I marvelled.

I bet this has never happened to your business card:

bullet

And just in case that’s not cool enough, how about this:*

three crayons bullett

So what did you do at work yesterday?

*Instructions given before the shot:  “When shooting crayons (or eggs), keep your mouth shut.”

Good advice.

Images:  “Sic Semper BFOs”  (BFO=Business Fetish Object)

“But Is It Art? (AKA Garfunkel’s Blues)”

Both photos presented here courtesy of the photographers:  Jasmin Baek, Elizabeth deRegt, Eric Fernandez, and Brandon Pung, none of whom are to blame for my titling whimsy.

Look below the fold for a bonus photo.

(more…)

Good Work Alert: Another MIT Science Writing Grad Student Making Good.

September 5, 2009

In today’s iteration of this sporadic series, check out some stuff by MacGregor Campbell, the man who is his own clan feud, and the pride of both the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing and The New Scientist‘s SF bureau, where he has interned this summer.

MacGregor, who had to suffer through the experience of being my advisee, is one of those polymathic students that can make their teachers feel both delighted and old.  He came to us as a musician and video artist, with a background in math and the teaching of that subject to high school students.  For a feel for his range and the flexibility of his mind, check out his blog, Main Sequence (a little slow to update just now, in the throes of his internship).

You’ll see there links to much of the work he’s done for the NS, along with his own sparks, but I’d like to draw attention to a couple of pieces.

First a little background.  Y’all may have noticed that the media landscape has changed a bit over the last few years.  One of those shifts has been to expect, increasingly as a matter of course, that prose on its own is not enough; the presentation of stories on the web is both enhanced by the incorporation of video, audio, and interactive elements, and it is transformed, at least in part, into work explicitly intended to entertain as well as inform.

More later, I’d guess, on the tension implied in that last statement, but here, just the practical problem for would-be writer/communicators in this evolving beat and medium.

The basic problem is this:  writing, creating good radio/audio, film making, and interactive design are all highly skilled crafts.  It takes time and practice — and talent, and passion, and habits of mind, and sensibility, ways of looking at or listening to the world — to get good or great at any of them.  The more one tries to master both the technical skills needed to, say, light, shoot and cut video, and to tell stories in the very different grammars of two or three different media, the harder it is to hone capacity in any one.

So, to MacGregor’s work:  check out these two interactives on health care, fine examples of why the web is a better delivery vehicle for mildly-enhanced prose than dead trees.  There is a reason traditional newspapers/magazines are bound for dodo-land, and it isn’t just MSM self-regard and feckless business decisions; the digital domain lets you do new, useful, sometimes transformative stuff with the material that is at the heart of the mission o f traditional media:  provide information within an apparatus that actually enhances a reader’s ability to understand what the writer is going on about.

And then look at this:  MacGregor (and friend’s) video on a development in robotics.

After seeing this, I wrote to MacGregor to ask him if the key point of …not quite dispute, but doubt…he and I wrangled over during the term had settled down for him.  I’m old fashioned about video, about new and integrated media in general.  I believe, strongly, in production and in the value of particular skills.  So when it came time to work with the MIT grad students on creating stories in audio and video, I emphasized a formal production procedure and sequence, the significance of writing your piece at every stage, from first story pitch, through articulated phases of treatment, shooting script, paper cut, and then on through the stages of editing and review.  And I emphasized old fashioned photographic and cinematographic skill, the use of a camera, knowledge of its particular properties, and above all, attention to lighting.  One thing we do differently at MIT than at some other programs is we bring in a national-shooter level DP to shoot for two days with our students — and to teach as the shoot proceeds about how to think about light, color, and motion as story telling tools, and not just decoration.

There is another approach that people use — some very well, which worries less about the formal steps in either the writing process or the shoot, and seeks to acquire the material first, and then cut whatever you’ve got, on the theory that what matters most is the event in front of the camera, and not the art, or artifice of the person behind it.  Both views have their merits, and when MacGregor came to MIT, he was definitely more immersed in the latter approach.

So when I saw his robotics video I asked him if the hoops through which I made him jump in the preparation of this documentary whilst at MIT were of any value to him.

To my great satisfaction, he answered yes, for both axes.  The emphasis on formalizing the production and writing process helped him a lot, he said, and he had found from his experience with our cameraman why one might do the kinds of things he had always disdained as a “catch the moment” documentarian.  So I have to say that the links I’ve sent you too above give me pride as well as pleasure; it’s hard to know, sometimes, if anything one tries to teach actually matters.  Here, generously, from MacGregor, I have some confirmation.

(And, btw, if any magazine editors are reading this:  I strongly suggest you think in two person teams, not one-man-bands.  Find those on your staff or in your orbit who love video, and match them up with writers who love prose story telling.  You’ll get more work done at a higher level than if you ask a good reporter to stop thinking about what’s being said to him or her and start thinking about the lighting triangle and whether or not you’ve got a directional enough mike to make that HVAC outlet in the upper corner an solvable problem.  Just my two cents.)

Illustration:  Movie poster for “The Kid,” 1921

Students making good alert, or why the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT is teh awesome.

August 3, 2009

Writing in Popular Mechanics, 2007 MIT Grad program in science writing alumnus Andrew Moseman, has a fine piece up on the hit Jupiter (and the rest of us) didn’t see coming.

The piece earned a genuine internet accolade, front paging* (at least for now) on Huffington Post.

*I deem verbing a venial, not a mortal sin.

Image:  NASA IRTF image of Jupiter imapct.


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