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Jan 1, 2005

Agents of Change
Fabrication labs help communities help themselves
By Katharine Dunn

MIT graduate student Amy Sun held up a computer-manufactured fluorescent pink vinyl key chain en­graved with her name. “If you want it,” she told the class, “you will have to make it.” Some of the children, students, and teachers crowded into the classroom in southwest Ghana had never touched a computer before, but they coveted that key chain. Over the next few weeks, class members, sometimes 20 at a time, hovered over the three computers in MIT’s newest fab lab, playing with software and sending their designs—crosses, maps of Africa, hearts, airplanes—to a laser cutter that etched them into acrylic, foam, and cardboard. When the cardboard got soggy in the city’s high humidity, the classmates substituted local materials like coconut tree bark. After they’d learned the basics of the technology and produced pocket­fuls of trinkets, Sun and the classes talked about what should happen next. According to Sun, “The students said, ‘Key chains are cool, but key chains don’t change Ghana.’”

Maybe not, but they’re a start. The Gha­naian fab lab, set up by the Center for Bits
and Atoms last summer, is the sixth deployed by MIT since 2002 and contains $20,000 in equipment. Fab labs re­present what center director Neil Gershenfeld calls a “sea change”: unlike computers that are simply exported to com­munities, they give people the ability to design and create technologies their communities can use. The labs evolved from Gershenfeld’s research on personal fabrication, which enlists computers to create useful objects on the spot. In Ghana, for example, where cell phones are more prevalent than landline phones, students are using the computers to build copper antennas that extend cellular coverage. They next want to build solar-powered machines, such as steam engines.

The fab labs grew out of Gershenfeld’s class How to Make (Almost) Anything, which he started teaching in 1998. In the class, students “expressed themselves technologically,” says Gershenfeld, using MIT equipment to invent such things as a Spanish-English talking doll and a magnetic card reader that plays music when a card is swiped. Based on projects from the class, Gershenfeld selected the equipment that now makes up each fab lab: several Linux-based computers loaded with open-source design software; a scanner and printer; physical tools such as scissors and cardboard; and three fabrication machines—a laser cutter, an electric sign-maker’s knife, and a three-dimensional-milling machine for building circuit boards.

The labs are meant to bring personal-fabrication capability to any community. Today there are five international fab labs, plus one in Boston. Labs are either based at technology institutes or educational centers or backed by high-tech companies. A National Science Foundation grant pays for the capital equipment, supports the labs for about a year, and then turns them over to local communities. There is no formal application process to get a fab lab. News of them has spread by word of mouth, and interested communities have come forward and asked to participate. The lab in Ghana is a perfect example. Immigrants from the southwestern city of Sekondi-Takoradi happened upon the Boston lab. They knew their forward-thinking hometown mayor would be interested in establishing a lab locally, so they approached Gershenfeld with a plan to make it happen.

Each community determines how its lab will be used. The first fab lab, in Costa Rica, uses the equipment to teach technology skills to high-school students. Two labs in India help the local economies. Users in one community are building a spectral analyzer to precisely measure the amount of fat in milk, which will help thwart dishonest merchants who water down their wares. Another lab in India helps local artisans digitally design and build molds for stamping designs on fabrics. In Norway, farmers and engineers are collaborating to build a wireless radio to track sheep and reindeer from birth until they’re slaughtered. And in Boston, the lab at the South End Technology Center is working to provide wireless Internet access to local shops and homes.

The labs are now beginning to share their successes with each other. Recently, the lab in Norway designed an antenna for wireless networking and posted building instructions on the Web. Sherry Lassiter, the Center for Bits and Atoms’ program manager, says members of the Ghana lab discovered the directions and are “chomping at the bit to get started.” Lassiter adds that members often write tutorials to help people in other labs use the standard manufacturing tools. Through this exchange of ideas, the labs are helping each other evolve to better serve their communities’ needs. Today, students in Ghana are making small parabolic dishes to boost cell-phone reception, but in a few years, those same dishes could be powering their entire lab with solar energy.

Paper and Glass
Learning looks like fun for Erik Demaine
By Lisa Scanlon

It’s a cold fall morning at MIT, but the glass lab in the basement of Building 4 is hot enough to make protective goggles slide off sweaty noses. Erik Demaine and his father, Martin, seem oblivious to the heat, as Erik shapes the glowing, molten neck of what will become a glass vase. Erik, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is having a practice session for the glassblowing class he is taking. Today he’s being assisted by his father, a visiting scientist in computer science who also happens to be a renowned glass artisan. Erik takes a large pair of metal shears and cuts around the viscous mouth of the vase, trimming off a centimeter or so. “Show off,” Martin says with a smile. He points out that Erik has never trimmed a vase before, and doing it as a demonstration is pretty gutsy. Martin nods approvingly at his son’s handiwork and says to Erik, “I’ll bet even you like this one.” Erik agrees, distracted; he’s already onto the next step.

It’s obvious after some time with Erik that his work is always creative and often collaborative, and that it can frequently be mistaken for play. Back in his Stata Center office, a room crowded with beautiful glass vases and origami structures, Erik explains how he got his artist father interested in mathematics and computer science. Erik was home-schooled until he was 12, when he entered Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an undergraduate. Martin “would go to most of my classes,” Erik explains. “His motivation was that he wanted to still be able to talk to me about stuff that I do. Once we started doing theoretical computer science, it became a lot more creative, and then he got more and more interested.”

While Erik was a doctoral student at the University of Waterloo, he met Robert Lang, one of the first people to study computational origami, the design of algorithms for solving paper-­folding problems, with applications in everything from manufacturing to protein folding. Soon after, Erik attended a few of the larger origami conferences, “which are, like, a few thousand paper folders all just folding for three days solid. It’s a crazy atmosphere,” Erik says. Since then, computational origami has been one of his main areas of research.

Last fall, Erik taught his first computational-geometry class devoted to folding. At one session, he played a computer simulation of a cube unfolding and then refolding into surprising new shapes. “Here’s one random unfolding we drew on a piece of paper in a hotel room in Tokyo one evening. We call this ‘the spaceship,’” he said to the class. During the class’s problem-solving sessions, Erik and the students try to solve open problems—such as theorems that have been proposed but never proven. “We’ve worked on the same problem for two sessions, and we seem to have pretty much solved it,” he says, as if he were talking about the New York Times crossword puzzle, not a complicated geometrical conundrum that has baffled mathematicians for years.

MIT’s Newest Nobel Laureate
Wilczek’s restless fall nights are over
By Sally Atwood

For the past several years, theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek has spent a restless night each October wondering whether he’d receive a call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences the next morning. After all, when he was a graduate student at Princeton University, he and his advisor, David Gross, developed a theory that explains the fundamental force of nature that holds together quarks, the building blocks of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom. In the 20 years since the discovery, their theory has come to be regarded as a cornerstone of modern physics. At 5:00 a.m. on October 5, Wilczek gave up and headed for the shower. At 5:12, the call came in. Later that day at a press conference, Wilczek described how he dripped all over the floor as he spoke with members of the academy, and he grinned when he allowed that his sleepless nights were finally over. He, Gross, and H. David Politzer—who did similar work on his own at Harvard University—had won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics.

Wilczek has been on the MIT faculty since 2000. (Gross is now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Politzer is at Caltech.) The three physicists arrived at an important insight about the force that binds quarks together. The closer quarks come to each other, the weaker the force becomes, until the quarks essentially behave as free particles. This phenomenon is called asymptotic freedom. Conversely, the farther quarks move from each other, the stronger the force that binds them together. This understanding is the basis of the theory of quantum chromodynamics, which is now part of the Standard Model, a theory about three of the four posited fundamental forces in nature.

Wilczek has been busy fielding calls from reporters and well-wishers since the announcement. He’s also watched more than 1,000 congratulatory e-mails flood his in-box. He says he’ll eventually respond to each one individually, but in the meantime, he has sent a mass reply of thanks along with a sonnet he wrote for the occasion.

These days, Wilczek is busy pursuing a new particle he’s named the “axion.” He says the elusive particle, which is predicted to have unusual properties, has become one of the leading contenders to explain the dark matter in the universe, whose existence cosmologists have surmised. “Axions themselves are very hard to detect. I don’t expect to see them in my lifetime. Maybe if I take good care of myself,” Wilczek says with a smile.

Memorable Files
Find documents with a glance
By Lisa Scanlon

Finding a particular folder or document on a computer can be frustrating. People often find themselves searching through directories filled with thousands of files distinguishable only by their names. Ruth Rosenholtz, principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, believes that searching would be much faster if each file were assigned a unique image along with a name. “Humans have a wonderful set of visual skills, but a lot of user interfaces don’t take advantage of that,” she says.

Rosenholtz and colleagues at the University of Southern California and ESC Entertain­ment in Alameda, CA, designed a pro­gram that automatically generates an icon—a unique squiggle, perhaps, or a complex geometric pattern—for every file that’s created. (Files with similar names are assigned similar shapes; all other files get randomly assigned images.) The researchers then tested their “visual icons” to see whether they were more effective than standard software icons coupled with names. In one study, subjects found files 30 percent faster when they used the new interface. Two days after another study, the researchers asked several subjects to sketch and describe icons that they remembered; all gave descriptions and made drawings that were recognizable.

The researchers note that it will be hard to commercialize the technology. After all, its most obvious application is as an enhancement to a computer’s operating system, so it may not win mainstream adoption without promotion from Microsoft and Apple. The technology could, however, be attractive to smaller software companies, whose applications might use visual icons in their own lists of files. Regardless of what happens in the marketplace, however, Rosenholtz will continue to explore what, exactly, makes images recognizable and distinguishable.

Venice Unmasked
Handheld devices will guide tourists through unexplored parts of the city
By Laura Levis

The historic center of Venice, Italy, teems with tourists year-round—visiting the Piazza San Marco, taking boat rides down the celebrated canals, buying decorative carnival masks at the dozens of shops that have sprung up in recent years. While the tourism boom of the past 40-odd years has been an economic boon to the city, it also has a downside. Tourism has put stress on the transportation system, and in the city center, it has brought pollution and in general made living conditions very unpleasant. In order to help alleviate the problem, the Regione Veneto Office of Tourism in Venice turned to two graduate students in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. Michael Epstein and Cristobal Garcia have been studying the behaviors of both locals and tourists in order to design wireless handheld devices that could lure throngs of tourists from the overcrowded center of the city into less visited neighborhoods, easing congestion and introducing visitors to more of Venice’s culture and history than just the mask shops.

“Tourists need to get deeper, and go beyond the surface experience of the main attractions of the gondolas and boats to find the hidden secrets,” Epstein says. He and Garcia left for Venice in June 2003 to spend four months investigating how a mobile information system for tourists might work in the city. They interviewed hundreds of guides, tourists, locals, and city officials to get a sense of what types of media would be most effective and well received.

Epstein and Garcia have proposed Global Positioning System–enabled cell phones that tourists can rent at local tourism stands around the city. The phones will display images and graphics, including maps that indicate a user’s exact location, and they will store information such as names of nearby restaurants, museum hours, and blurbs about local hot spots. But even more important, the devices will help tourists explore hidden parts of Venice, such as secret gardens and the interiors of palaces. “Basically, it could be something like an audiovisual walking tour, with little exercises for the tourists to experience that will make them aware of how the city is laid out,” says Epstein. For example, the device might guide a tourist into a salami shop, where it would play a video of an interview with the owner talking about the history of the store.

Epstein and Garcia are talking with several cell phone manufacturers who are interested in providing devices as platforms for the technology. Longer term, the students hope that, using the Venetian system as a model, they can spin off their graduate project into a company called History Unwired and bring their technology to other parts of Europe.

Herbal Evaluation
MIT scientists analyze ginseng to understand its effects
By Katharine Dunn

Depending on where it’s from and how it’s made and who sells it, the herbal supplement ginseng may claim to fight cancer or impotence, “nervous exhaustion” or stomachaches, to stimu­late the immune system or enhance cognitive function, or even to work as an aphrodisiac. Ginseng’s genus, after all, is Panax, as in panacea.

Though consumers may think of the root as a cure-all, two MIT scientists and a team of international researchers have focused on two of its effects: it promotes the growth of blood vessels, which helps in wound healing, for example, or it does the opposite and stunts their growth, which is useful for cancer treatment, because tumors cannot survive without an active supply of blood. The researchers hope their work will convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate dietary supplements. Herbal remedies are currently governed by a 1994 law that does not mandate the rigorous testing that pharmaceuticals are subject to; manufacturers may also tinker with the proportions of dietary supplements’ ingredients without informing the government agency.

“You can crush [the ginseng root] and say it has been tested to do something and then sell it. We’re saying there should be rules in place,” says Shiladitya Sengupta, a postdoctoral associate who was part of the team that studied the effects of the popular remedy. Ram Sasisekharan, a professor in the biological-engineering division who was also part of the team, explains that “just because they’re natural doesn’t mean they’re safe.” He notes that it could be dangerous for a cancer patient to take ginseng that promotes blood vessel growth.

In their recent paper in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, the researchers show that there are two distinct ingredients in ginseng, one that encourages blood vessel growth and one that does the opposite. The supplement’s effect varies with the ratio of these ingredients, which different processing methods modify in different ways. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers analyzed the chemical components of three species of ginseng from three countries, then mimicked the steps of blood vessel formation with cells in culture to determine the effects of each ginseng-derived compound. They confirmed their findings by treating mice with fixed amounts of the compounds.

Sengupta started the research in 1999 as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where he analyzed ginseng roots given to him by scientists in Hong Kong. Sasisekharan, an expert in complex sugars, became involved because where sugars attach to the compounds in ginseng influences how it affects users. Sengupta and Sasisekharan are now trying to further clarify the role sugars play.

The researchers hope to modify the molecules in the future so that they’re more potent and can be made into effective medicines. Sengupta says powerful wound-healing drugs could make a difference to tens of thousands of diabetics who lose feet or legs every year from nerve and artery damage. They also hope to convince the FDA to standardize and regulate ginseng and other herbal supplements, forcing manufacturers to make sure their supplements have the advertised effects. Though the ginseng findings have been covered by the press around the world, Sengupta knows it will take more than media buzz to get the government involved. He and his colleagues plan to devise a rigorous method for standardizing herbal supplements and to present it to the FDA.

X-Rays on the Cheap
Scanners replace costly film
By Lisa Scanlon

Two-thirds of the world’s population is without access to x-ray systems, which can help to diagnose conditions such as tuberculosis or reveal the exact position of limb fractures. Richard Lanza, a senior research scientist in the MIT Department of Nuclear Engineering, hopes to change that by creating a low-cost system that combines conventional x-ray machines with inexpensive off-the-shelf computer scanners, eliminating the need for film.

The system would be a breakthrough, because the cost of x-ray film and its development is simply too high for health providers in many poor countries to manage. Even a relatively cheap x-ray system can cost about $7,000. Digital x-ray systems exist today, but they are high-end machines that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lanza’s proposed system works like this: x-rays pass through a patient’s body and are captured by a modified commercial scanner hooked up to a desktop computer, which processes the image and displays it on its monitor. Lanza’s idea is attracting interest. A Shanghai, China, imaging company has donated a low-cost x-ray tube for use in the prototype. Although Lanza warns that it’s too early to say for certain, he hopes that the system could be created in quantity for about $2,000.

Asian Americans, Rolling
Silkscreens film festival draws hundreds
By Lisa Scanlon

In his short film Game Boy, director Kevin Choi ’02 explores classic themes: love and infidelity, finding one’s identity, and the confining and liberating aspects of creative work. What makes the independent film different from its mainstream counterparts is that its stars and director are Asian Americans, a rarity in an entertainment industry that typically casts Asians as kung-fu masters or comic sidekicks, not romantic leads. So when Choi, a graduate film student at Columbia University, was invited to screen his film at an MIT festival celebrating Asian-American talent in the independent-film industry, he leapt at the chance.

Game Boy was one of several dozen films shown at the first Silkscreens film festival on campus last September. The two-day festival presented feature-length films, documentaries, student films, and a series of forums where actors, directors, and students could talk about the industry. “We wanted to encourage people who are interested in [film] to explore it and establish connections,” says Jennifer Fang ’05, the festival’s director. Fang estimates that nearly 900 people from the Boston area attended the festival.

The idea for Silkscreens came out of an encounter Fang had with biracial director Eric Byler at an Asian student conference in February. Byler, whose film Charlotte Sometimes was nominated for two 2003 Independent Spirit Awards, talked about how difficult it is for Asian Americans to survive in the film industry and even to get their work shown at festivals. “I didn’t know anything about film festivals,” says Fang, but she started thinking about holding an Asian-American festival at MIT. She mentioned the idea to some friends, and after a few months, she says, “it kind of snowballed.” Students from Harvard University and Emerson College got involved, and soon the festival’s planning committee included more than 25 students.

The committee scoured the websites of other festivals and found more films than it had time to show. The result was a collection of films that were diverse in their subjects and styles. Voices, a documentary made by Jimmy Hsiao, is about the survivors of Taiwan’s February 28th incident in 1947, when thousands of Taiwanese were killed by Nationalist Chinese troops. Another documentary, Dance Floor Diaries, by Si Chen and Todd Linden, explores the strange world of collegiate competitive ballroom dancing. Byler was present for the screening of Charlotte Sometimes, an antiromance about a love triangle that is upset by the addition of a fourth person.

A growing number of Asian Americans are interested in the film industry, says Choi. “There is a sizable community of writers, actors, directors, and producers, but they’re scattered about. And that’s why it’s great to have these Asian film festivals,” he says. “It’s great to feel that I’m part of that community.” But Choi stresses that it’s still rare for an Asian-American filmmaker or actor to find commercial success.

Fang and her fellow committee members hope that by continuing to hold the Silkscreens festival, they’ll provide encouragement and support for the next generation of Asian-American filmmakers and actors. Alumni interested in participating in this fall’s festival should write to silkscreens@mit.edu.

Translating the Pats
An MIT student brings football to China
By Sally Atwood

It’s October, and the New England Patriots have just defeated the Buffalo Bills, sacked their quarterback seven times, and tied the record for the longest winning streak in National Football League history. So how do you explain that to Chinese readers who have never even heard of the NFL, let alone seen a football game? Over food truck fare in the Stata Center lobby, Tian He ’06 admits it’s quite a challenge.

He, who moved from China to the United States when he was 10, was hired last August to translate stories about the Pats into Mandarin for the Chinese section of the team’s website. But the stories’ reliance on football jargon made the job almost impossible, so in the wee hours, usually of a Tuesday morning, He composes original pregame and postgame stories in Chinese and, after vetting English translations with the Patriots main office, posts them to the Web. He tries to explain the game using soccer terms, which the Chinese understand, but he’s also helped by the NFL’s new Chinese website, which describes the rules of the game and provides a glossary of football terms.

The NFL is hoping to cultivate millions of new fans in China. To that end, a 2006 preseason game will be played there. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has business interests in the country, so it is not surprising that his team is the first to woo prospective Chinese fans. Fred Kirsch, director of interactive media for the Patriots, came to the Chinese Students Club at MIT to find a translator. Kirsch selected He, a Patriots fan with a broad knowledge of the game, from among a dozen MIT students.

The Patriots have given He tremendous latitude in developing the site. “I’m trying to think about how we can hook the Chinese fans,” says He, who is glad to be practicing his Mandarin in preparation for a career in China. Could this assignment lead to a career as a Chinese sports journalist? “Who knows,” He says. “I’m just living one article at a time.” In the meantime, he is helping to open the largest market in the world to the NFL—and to a slice of American culture.

Kerry Copycat
Illustrator turns impersonator
By Laura Levis

He might not have the gray mane, but when it comes to the monotone voice and signature hand gestures, Tom DiCesare plays John Kerry so perfectly it’s almost scary.

“My entire life, people were always telling me I looked exactly like John Kerry,” DiCesare says, leaning back in his chair in MIT’s Whitehead Institute. “I don’t have the gray hair yet, but I dye it for most appearances.”

A scientific illustrator and animator, DiCesare began impersonating Kerry in March, after meeting a George W. Bush look-alike who recommended DiCesare to play Kerry for a commercial he was shooting in Los Angeles.

“I just took the plunge and went out there,” DiCesare says. “They paid for my entire trip, and all of a sudden I just thought, ‘Hey, I can make money doing this!’”

Whether he’s promoting Clif Bars in the middle of Harvard Square or sitting next to Regis Philbin, the Wayland, MA, resident says he’s loved every minute of it. Even though Kerry won’t be settling into the White House anytime soon, DiCesare says he doesn’t plan to fade into the background.

“I’m going to stick with this as long as I can,” he says. “In a few years, I won’t even have to dye my hair anymore.”