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Alumni Connection

Transitions

Working in cambridge, adjacent to mit, i have been fortunate to observe firsthand the rhythms and transitions of MIT life. Recently, this proximity allowed me to attend three remarkable events: the MIT commencement, the dedication of the Ray and Maria Stata Center, and Technology Daythe last Technology Day Chuck Vest will moderate as president of MIT. Each event marked a transition: the annual turnover of students, the longer cycles of change that govern the evolution of the physical campus, and the succession of Institute presidents.

Commencement is a time-honored tradition, of course. This year the Institute granted degrees to 2,160 people of whom 32 percent were women and 9 percent underrepresented minorities. But diversity was also evident in the degrees awarded, in subjects such as environmental engineering science, aerospace science with information technology, archaeology and materials, comparative media studies, mathematics with computer science, medical informatics, biomedical engineering, and science writing. The continuing evolution of degree programs points to an ongoing transformation in academia, namely the growing role of working across traditional disciplines. MITs recognition of this transformation will ensure its continuing leadership among universities.

Meanwhile, a new crop of freshmen and first-year graduate students arrived on campus a few weeks ago. Based on the admission statistics of the admitted students, the Class of 2008 will number close to 1,100, the result of a record yield of 66 percent. Of those admitted, 46 percent will be women, and 17 percent will be underrepresented minorities. As the Office of Admissions proudly notes, 42 percent are valedictorians and 62 percent scored 800 on at least one SAT I exam. This impressive yield was helped by the participation of more than 2,000 alumni as educational counselors. With each new class of students, the Institutes commitment to excellence continues to be fulfilled.

My proximity to campus also afforded me a front-row seat for the physical transformation of the campus, especially Vassar Street. From a former office, I could track the demolition of Building 20, the excavation for the foundation and parking garage beneath the Stata Center, and the growth of its superstructure. I could also see the rise of the McGovern Institute and Picower Center, the new brain and cognitive science center, being built just across the street from the new Stata Center.

I was also fortunate to attend the dedication of the Stata Center. You have undoubtedly seen photos, but this is a structure to be experienced. It is a visually stimulating, synesthetic experience where unexpected views and juxtapositions of form, material, and color yield tactile and emotional responses. A building like that grows into itself and its occupants, much as the celebrated intellectual endeavors in Building 20 grew into its old timbers over the years. (Many alumni will be happy to know that Building 20s spirit is celebrated in a special exhibit inside the Stata Center.) The mass, shape, and audacity of the Stata Center create a new gateway to MIT that is not to be underestimated: it literally transforms the back of the campus. Like any grand endeavor, this project has invited controversy. But for any alumnus visiting campus, the Stata Center is a must-see.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are witnessing the transition to a new MIT presidency. As MIT bids farewell to Chuck Vest, the transitions noted in the Institutes degree programs and physical profile are important cornerstones of his legacy. He has been the longest-serving MIT president save for one, and the Institute bears the stamp of his remarkable leadership in many ways. While other observers of Chucks tenure rightfully cite his integrity, the descriptor that comes to my mind is resolute. It was no surprise to me that at Technology Day this past June, the MIT Alumni Association announced that Chuck and Becky had been awarded the Bronze Beaver, the Associations highest award for outstanding service.

By the time you read this, a new MIT president may have been named. He or she, scientist or engineer, insider or outsider, alumnus or notthe next president will embody the leadership qualities of his or her predecessors, and like them the next president will need to preserve the Institutes core values while meeting the need for change.

It is a source of some pride to me that the Institutes core values support change. I submit the following thumbnail description of our core values:

  • A culture of intellect, integrity, intensity, and irreverence
  • A focus on the future, the unknown, and the interstices
  • An output of excellence, innovation, and service
  • All with a global reach and a global perspective

As individuals and as an association, we alumni will welcome the new president and engage him or her to set the direction of the Institute in these challenging times. In the midst of all of these transitions and those to come, communications between alumni and all aspects of the Institute will play a critical role in deciding its future. Luckily, our modern tools of e-mail and the Web make the task a lot easier. I look forward to using those tools to hone the message and sharpen the dialogue, and to build recognition of MIT alumni as the collaborating partner we are to this remarkable institution. -Linda C. Sharpe 69

The Beauty of Geometry

In 1793 marie antoinette ascended the guillotine scaffold wearing a pair of two-inch-high heels, and it seems countless women have lost their heads over fashionable shoes ever since. But thanks to some reengineering, the idea that women are willing to sacrifice comfort for style may be losing its foothold even in the fashion shoe industry.

MIT alumni Brian G. R. Hughes 77 and Paul Rudovsky 66 believe a long-overdue injection of high-tech engineering called Insolia may be just what the foot doctor ordered for women who love the look of high heels but cant stand the pain.

We can now offer women the ability to be two inches taller and still be able to think at the end of the day, says Hughes.

Walking a mile in womens shoes may seem an unlikely departure for the two former Alumni Association presidents. Hughess rsum includes building the first private transatlantic telecommunication system and running his own hybrid-rocket development company. Rudovsky has served as CFO of several public and private companies and as CEO of a clothing manufacturer. Its still the classic MIT approach, says Hughes. This is a fundamental problem to which people have assumed there is no solution. When you finally find the solution, you are incredibly motivated to get it into the marketplace.

When Hughes joined the board of HBN Shoe in 1999, he realized it was time to shift strategies. We didnt understand the shoe business worked in fashion seasons. We finally got a line of shoes and brought them to the marketplace, and the retailers said, Fine. What are you doing for fall? We realized then that a bunch of MIT folks trying to design womens shoes was a big mistake. We had this great technologywhy not sell it to the people who make shoes?

The shift in strategy proved right, as Insolia is already used in womens shoes sold in the U.S., China, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, and the Czech Republic. The Insolia technology was created by company founder Howard Dananberg, a well-known New Hampshire podiatrist, who in the 1980s invented the kinetic wedge found in Brooks running shoes. The story goes, laughs Hughes, that one of Howards more cantankerous patients told him, So you made a running shoe more comfortable. Big deal! What are you going to do about high heels?

All podiatrists know the age-old problem with high heels. Standard construction of the shoes creates a ramp effect, with the foot sliding down toward the toe box, which places continuous pressure on the digits and ball of the foot. Bunions, hammertoe, and a painful thickening of the nerves between toes are the all too common results. Worse, when the ankle flexes to accommodate the tiptoe position, the joint becomes inherently unstable, and the knee joint overcompensates, frequently leading to a syndrome of knee and back pain, and eventually a strong dislike of high heels.

But what if the ramp could be altered to shift more weight back to the heel? Research shows that women wearing a pair of conventional two-inch heelsas opposed to, say, sneakersexperience a 64 percent increase in forefoot pressure. Women wearing two-and-an-eighth-inch Insolia heels experience only a 22 percent increase in pressure. In blind studies, Insolia wearers commonly describe the effects of this thick, wonderful padding, says Hughes. But there is no padding. Its all geometry.

Still, convincing the traditional shoe-manufacturing industry to embrace new technology has not been easy. Rosa Hung, owner of Millies shoe stores in Hong Kong, helped turn the tide. A woman-run shoe company is what we needed, Hughes says. Someone who would say, This works. We need this, versus a bunch of guys saying, Whats the problem? They are buying our product anyway.

Generating interest in new products, however, is no simple feat (pardon the paronomasia). Insolia made its American debut in Nordstrom stores just last May in an Amalfi pair of heels. The technology is invisible and built into the shoe, so you may not notice it unless you look on the sole for the Insolia logo or try the shoes on.

My working definition of success, says Hughes, will be when I can walk into Saks Fifth Avenue and watch somebody look at a pair of shoes, and the first thing they do is look for our logo.

Even as workplace dress codes go more informal, American women still buy some 200 million pairs of high-heeled shoes annually for those special occasions when theywellhave to wear high heels. With all due respect to Marie Antoinette, Hughes and Rudovsky look forward to finally putting them out of their misery. -Dave Enders

Pursuing the Endless Frontier

As the 14-year tenure of MIT president Charles M. Vest comes to a close, the MIT Press has released a collection of essays he wrote during his time at the Institute. Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities marks the many ways in which Vest worked continually to realize his vision of rebuilding Americas trust in science and technology, says Norman Augustine, author of the books foreword. During a time when federal funding for academic research programs was hard to come by, Vest stayed the course. Says Augustine, Vest reminds us of what he calls the most critical point of all, that science is driven by a deep human need to understand nature, to answer the big questionsthat what we dont know is more important than what we do.

Many of the essays are texts from various speaking engagements over the years, and for this book, Vest has added a new introduction for each essay. Pursuing the Endless Frontier can be purchased through MIT Press with a 20 percent discount for alumni. For more information, click on the MIT Press link at alum.mit.edu/as/index.html, or contact the MIT Press at (800) 405-1619.

2005 Travel Calendar Available

If your vacation plans for next year include a crowded beach and a mobbed golf course, you may want to reconsider. Have you experienced life from the perspective of a Tanzanian woman? Whens the last time you were lifted through the 100-year-old engineering masterpiece known as the Panama Canal? Care to have lunch with the leading tenor of the Metropolitan Opera in Busseto, Italy? Then get in touch with the MIT Alumni Travel Program. The new 2005 trip calendar includes 33 adventures in exotic ports of call including Antarctica, Costa Rica, Crete, Chile, and many others. To book a trip or for more information about the 2005 calendar, visit alum.mit.edu/travel/index.html or call the MIT Alumni Travel Program directly at (800) 992-6749.

Summer Send-Offs

Every summer, a number of events known as Summer Send-Offs are hosted throughout the country and the world to welcome enrolling students and their parents to the MIT community. This past summer, with the help of regional parent connectors, educational counselors, and alumni clubs, 1,735 students, both incoming and current, were given send-offs in 45 cities, including three international events in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Lebanon. The celebrations varied from picnics to baseball games, but their purpose was the same: to give incoming students (Class of 2008) and their parents an opportunity to talk with alumni, current students, and parents and to ask questions about the Institute.

BAMIT 25th Anniversary

Many mit alumni will have an extra reason to welcome in the long weekend this Columbus Day. The Black Alumni of MIT (BAMIT) celebrates its 25th anniversary with a conference on campus from October 7 to 10. Great AccomplishmentsGreat Expectations will feature invited speakers such as MIT chancellor Phillip L. Clay 75, University of Maryland physics professor Sylvester James Gates Jr. 73, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shirley Ann Jackson 68, MIT Alumni Association president Linda Sharpe 69, and deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center Woodrow Whitlow Jr. 74.

Bringing together alumni of African descent, BAMIT helps to support MIT with a special focus on the recruitment, development, and successful degree completion of black students and helps to strengthen black communities to which alumni are committed. Contact Moana Bentin at mbentin@mit.edu or (617) 324-0379 for more information on this special reunion celebration and conference.

Building 20 Exhibit

While some considered it an eyesore, Building 20 held a special place in the hearts of those who called it home from 1943 to 1998. Initially serving as the Radiation Laboratory, it soon housed multiple MIT labs and centers, as well as the navy ROTC unit. The building has since been razed to make room for the Ray and Maria Stata Center, but the love-hate relationship that its inhabitants developed with it over the years hasnt diminished one bit. From drilling holes in its walls to being victimized by pieces of falling insulation, alumni wont soon forget what the Magical Incubator meant to them. Learn about the Stata Center, take a stroll down memory lane, and share your memories of beloved Building 20 at alum.mit.edu/noteworthy/stata.html.

MIT Family Weekend

The MIT Parents Association annual Family Weekend will take place October 1517 on the MIT campus. The weekend celebration features tours, lectures, and cultural events, and more than 2,000 people are expected to attend, representing 650 MIT families.

Highlights of this years Family Weekend will include a keynote address by Dr. Sheila Widnall 60, former secretary of the air force, who will speak on The Columbia Disaster and Implications for the Education of Future Engineers; the MacVicar Faculty Fellow Presentation and Luncheon, featuring Professor Woodie Flowers, ME 68, whose topic will be Towards 21st-Century Renaissance Minds; and important research updates from Professors John Grotzinger, Nancy Hopkins, and Peter Diamond.

A number of cultural events will take place, including an MIT band concert, and performances by the MIT a cappella group and MIT student dance groups.

For more information, visit alum.mit.educcg/parents/family-weekend/.

Being Book Smart

The first thing you notice about alumnus Matt Mankins, SM 03, is that he doesnt look like the Lone Ranger or Don Quixote. Yet the 29-year-old MIT grad, who recently earned his masters in media arts and sciences, has embarked on a quixotic quest to rescue a dying industry: used bookstores.

The first thing you notice about alumnus Matt Mankins, SM 03, is that he doesnt look like the Lone Ranger or Don Quixote. Yet the 29-year-old MIT grad, who recently earned his masters in media arts and sciences, has embarked on a quixotic quest to rescue a dying industry: used bookstores. Rescue an industry? Mankins repeats the question with a bemused grin. No, I wouldnt describe it that way. Im just someone who loves books.

Okay, maybe its hyperbolic to say hes rescuing the industry; then again, how many MIT graduates have taken their diplomas and then opened up used bookstores?

Located in Inman Square, which was once a haven for dusty old bookstores, Mankinss new store, Lorem Ipsum (www.loremipsumbooks.com), sits on the corner of Hampshire Street and Tremont in Cambridge, nestled halfway between two world-famous universities. Of course, being near Harvard and MIT is no advantage to bookstores any longer.

There was a time when Cambridge was noted for its used bookstores. Not any more. Littered among the carnage of the dot-com boom were a host of used bookstores that after years of struggling with rising rents, the emergence of huge discount chain stores, a shrinking population of people who actually read, and then, finally, the Internetwell, eventually it just got to be too much. Even Bostons famed used bookstore Avenue Victor Hugo, a city landmark for nearly 30 years, was forced to close its retail shop this past summer.

Mankins steps into this dying industry, however, with a good deal of poise. I have started a few businesses previously, based on software I have written, says the soft-spoken Mankins. So there is some familiarity here.

This time Mankins wanted a challenge that included more than just writing code. So he decided to combine his love of books with his background in software engineering. In short order, he developed a small piece of software specifically designed to help a used bookstore compete globally. Globally? Used books?

In todays retail world, a bookstore has to compete locally and globally, Mankins says. Amazon and other online distributors brought a disruptive technology into a nontechnical industry. Most bookstore owners didnt have the technical background needed to compete in this arena. So my intention has been to build a tool to make bookstore operations and pricing more efficient. If it works here, it should be portable.

Mankinss impetus for starting his used bookstore was necessity. After graduation, I lost my graduate office, laughs Mankins. I suddenly discovered I had more books than would fit in my apartment. He began to sell some of the books online, quickly discovering two major headaches that impede used bookstores: marketing inventory through the numerous online distribution channels and developing a profitable pricing model that is also competitive.

Mankins first wrote a program to list books automatically with the leading used-book distributors, such as Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, and Half.com. He followed that up with a program that prices books based on supply and demand, using Amazons massive sales-ranking database. The program then queries other sites to get a list of prices, which is fed into an algorithm that determines an appropriate price.

Used books are a commodity, explains Mankins, until they start to disappear. Then they can grow in value. My programs were designed to take a time-consuming task, one that seemed overwhelming to a bookstore owner, and make it simple.

To demonstrate, Mankins randomly opens a box of new inventory. Its a cardboard box with about 40 used books inside. He grabs a book and scans the bar code on the back, which immediately drops all the pertinent facts about the book into Lorem Ipsums database. It also triggers the market price lookup software that gathers prices from websites around the globe. In a matter of seconds, an average price of $3.50 comes back. A few more clicks, and suddenly Lorem Ipsum has updated its listings with the major distributors. The whole process takes less than 30 seconds.

Managing inventory is a time-consuming process for bookstore owners, says Mankins. To compete online, this process has to be made efficient. Its really just Business 101, but the technology hasnt been developed for this niche of the book industry.

Lorem Ipsum hopes to change that soon. Mankins says his intention is to perfect the technology at his own store and then offer it to other store owners.

So why the bricks-and-mortar store if the solution is technical? Mankins seems surprised by the question.

Look around, he says quietly. Theres a woman reading in one corner. A man sits in the large reading area by the front window enjoying a small stack of books he is perusing. A woman with three books in her arms is meandering toward the register.

Its impossible to replace the tactile enjoyment that comes from perusing a book in your own hands, says Mankins. Bookstores will survive because thats something the online world cant replaceat least not yet.

Amen, brother, amen. -Jim Wolken

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