Slice of MIT, a daily blog published by the MIT Alumni Association, covers MIT discoveries, campus culture, and alumni stories. For complete versions of these excerpts from popular recent posts, visit alum.mit.edu/sliceofmit.
Brian Chan ‘02, SM ‘04, PhD ‘09, has a new do-it-yourself project for you. The origami master, who now designs graphics, metal and paper items, and products, has invented a quick-fab ukulele that you can make yourself and then fold and toss in your backpack so it’s ready when you want to make music.
Chan designed the folding ukulele to be made from laser-cut bamboo plywood, and the kit, which takes about half a day to assemble, is offered online from Ponoko.com, a New Zealand–based software company that allows creative types to make prototypes of objects as small as jewelry or as large as furniture.
Self-described as a maker of anything, Chan is a Cambridge-based freelance engineer and artist who has won honors for mobile-phone concept designs and for his idea for using thermal depolymerization to produce biofuels while sequestering carbon pollution. He’s also recently begun working with the MIT Hobby Shop.
—Nancy DuVergne Smith
It happened again. [Professor] Marvin Minsky guessed my idea before I had half explained it.
I was talking with him about what would happen if smart computers took over. The subject comes around like a comet, every 20 years or so, this time stimulated by 2011’s Watson and 2012’s 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth.
“Well,” I said, “really smart robots could be incredibly dangerous; we better not turn any of them loose before we do a lot of simulation.”
“Oh,” he said, “and we’re the simulation?”
One or two decades ago, Danny Hillis [‘78, SM ‘81, PhD ‘88; Thinking Machines cofounder] wandered into my office and said, “Marvin has a short attention span.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Have you noted that he will often guess your idea before you’re half through?”
“Yes, generally,” I agreed.
“And his guess is often better than the idea you were trying to explain?”
“Just about always,” I regretted.
“Do you talk to yourself when you solve problems?” he asked.
“Well,” Danny said, “maybe that inner conversation does what talking to Marvin does—the words and phrases uncover a sequence of improving ideas.”
We agreed that it is good to talk to yourself and even better to talk to someone else. It makes your ideas better. Be careful about talking with yourself out loud, though. Unless you are wearing a Bluetooth device, people may think you’re strange.
“Smoot” Enters the Dictionary
The smoot unit of measurement has long been a Google calculation, but now the historic MIT term resides in a more conservative venue—the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, now out in print and in mobile apps.
In a recent NPR commentary, Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish noted that “smoot” is one of 10,000 new words featured in the new edition:
“Smoot: a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches, often cited when discussing the inherent arbitrariness of measurement units; after Oliver Smoot, whose height was used as the basis of the measurement.”
Of course, MIT folks know more history. MIT celebrated the 50th anniversary of the measuring of then-freshman Ollie Smoot ‘62 with Smoot Day on October 4, 2008. Activities included unveiling a plaque on the newly repainted Harvard Bridge (also known as the Mass. Ave. bridge), parties, and a performance by the legendary singing group the Platters. Read more about Smoot’s legacy at alum.mit.edu/news/AlumniNews/Archive/smoots_legacy. —Nancy DuVergne Smith
How to Stop the Flu
MIT research is often quite practical. And this influenza season, we have a new study that will help each of us stop the flu virus before it makes us sick.
The best barrier to sickness is prevention, according to a pair of MIT researchers who have identified specific practices you can employ to avoid the dreaded bug.
Professor Richard Larson ‘65, EE ‘67, SM ‘67, PhD ‘69, and senior research scientist Stan Finkelstein ‘71, both members of MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, reviewed some 40 studies on the effectiveness of various nonpharmaceutical interventions and published their recommendations in the December issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, an American Medical Association publication.
In brief, here are their recommendations:
Wash your hands thoroughly after leaving a sick person’s room. Scrub with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer for 20 to 30 seconds.
Wear a mask. At minimum, the mask prevents a healthy person from transferring a virus to his or her own nose and mouth—the highway to infection.
Install air filters. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can remove nearly 98 percent of virus particles; using portable air purifiers and pointing a window fan out the window of the sickroom can also help.
Control temperature and humidity. Higher temperatures and humidity levels can kill or disable viruses.
Install an ultraviolet light. UV light is antimicrobial, and portable air purifiers with both UV lamps and HEPA filters can be purchased for $180 to $370.
—Nancy DuVergne Smith
Infinite Corridor Hacked and Under Attack!
In what could be described as the tiniest—and cutest—attempted military coup of all time, thousands of armed soldiers stormed the Infinite Corridor on December 14, 2011. Fortunately for MIT, these soldiers were of the miniature, plastic, and stationary variety, and their corridor-long presence was more hack than attack. A note from “General Jack Florey” said the hack was an end-of-term assault on finals. —Jay London
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