MIT nerdism is genetic

“Sibling surprise” (Technology Review, the MIT alumni magazine) is fun for people who believe in the religion of genetics. Siblings reared apart were brought together as adults by DNA testing. It turned out that they had both gone to MIT:

[the brother] I had always believed that all of my potential came from my genetic blueprint. The newfound knowledge of Freedom’s and my biological roots has reinforced this. Many of my traits and interests seemed to come out of the blue, unrelated to the farm where I grew up. All of these attributes map to Freedom or my biological family. Every question I’ve ever had about my origin story has been answered.

Also in the MIT-specific portion of the same issue….

A celebration of Margaret Hamilton for (a) inventing “software engineering,” and (b) inventing the term “software engineer.” (The earliest references that I could find in the IEEE literature to “software engineering” were from the late 1960s, but the term is used as though it had already been in widespread use and would be well-understood. In the ACM literature, an early reference is from Alan Perlis in 1969, but again he uses the term without introduction, explanation, or credit. A “NATO and Software Engineering” article from 1969 talks about a 1967 study group recommending “a working conference on Software Engineering,” but no individual is credited with coining the term.)

A two-page obituary of Patrick Winston, an AI pioneer and one of the greatest teachers ever in MIT EECS.

A book by Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT, is reviewed: “Several of her examples are projects led by female scientists.”

A sad litany of death notices beginning with the class of 1970 and going backward. Apparently, none of us should count on living past age 70.

Full post, including comments

Richard Stallman on Jeffrey Epstein: time to switch from Emacs to vi?

“Renowned MIT Scientist Defends Epstein: Victims Were ‘Entirely Willing’” (Daily Beast):

An MIT engineering alumna, Selam Jie Gano, published a blog post calling for Stallman’s removal from the university in light of his comments, along with excerpts from the email in which Stallman appeared to defend both Epstein and Marvin Minsky, a lauded cognitive scientist and founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab who was accused of assaulting Virginia Giuffre. Giuffre has alleged that sex offender and financier Epstein trafficked her to powerful men for sex, including Minsky, who died in 2016. She’s alleged that Epstein and his alleged madam Ghislaine Maxwell recruited her at Mar-a-Lago when she was 16 years old.

Stallman wrote that “the most plausible scenario” for Giuffre’s accusations was that she was, in actuality, “entirely willing.” Vice’s Motherboard later reprinted the emails in full. Gano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stallman also wrote in the email exchange that “it is morally absurd to define ‘rape’ in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”

[MIT President] Reif is facing calls to step down after acknowledging that the Media Lab accepted funds from Epstein long after his 2008 conviction for soliciting a minor for prostitution, with Reif’s own signature found on a 2012 note thanking Epstein for his generosity to the university.

Will there be a mass exodus from Emacs to vi (also known as “the Devil’s crummy text editor”)?


  • “Please Do Not Buy Richard Stallman a Parrot And Other Rules” (Gizmodo): “If you can find a host for me that has a friendly parrot, I will be very very glad. If you can find someone who has a friendly parrot I can visit with, that will be nice too. DON’T buy a parrot figuring that it will be a fun surprise for me. To acquire a parrot is a major decision: it is likely to outlive you. If you don’t know how to treat the parrot, it could be emotionally scarred and spend many decades feeling frightened and unhappy. If you buy a captured wild parrot, you will promote a cruel and devastating practice, and the parrot will be emotionally scarred before you get it. Meeting that sad animal is not an agreeable surprise.”
Full post, including comments

MIT Chemistry Discovery: Immigration is Oxygen

From MIT President Rafael Reif, “Letter to the MIT community: Immigration is a kind of oxygen”:

For those of us who know firsthand the immense value of MIT’s global community and of the free flow of scientific ideas, it is important to understand the distress of these colleagues as part of an increasingly loud signal the US is sending to the world.

Protracted visa delays. Harsh rhetoric against most immigrants and a range of other groups, because of religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Together, such actions and policies have turned the volume all the way up on the message that the US is closing the door – that we no longer seek to be a magnet for the world’s most driven and creative individuals.

What kind of folks are currently streaming over the border and claiming asylum? Brilliant architects and future Ph.D. electrical engineers:

In May, the world lost a brilliant creative force: architect I.M. Pei, MIT Class of 1940. Raised in Shanghai and Hong Kong, he came to the United States at 17 to seek an education. He left a legacy of iconic buildings from Boston to Paris and China to Washington, DC, as well on our own campus. By his own account, he consciously stayed alive to his Chinese roots all his life. Yet, when he died at the age of 102, the Boston Globe described him as “the most prominent American architect of his generation.”

Thanks to the inspired American system that also made room for me as an immigrant, all of those facts can be true at the same time.

And now for the chemistry lesson…

In a nation like ours, immigration is a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole. As a society, when we offer immigrants the gift of opportunity, we receive in return vital fuel for our shared future. I trust that this wisdom will always guide us in the life and work of MIT.

Apparently oxygen is no longer a source of corrosion, fires, and toxicity!

Full post, including comments

MIT Private Pilot Ground School in streaming video


I finished uploading 1.6 TB of “pro res” video to YouTube and assembled it all into a playlist for our Private Pilot Ground School.

Do the videos work reasonably well?

Is it fair to say that, on a bytes-divided-by-value-to-viewers basis, this is the largest ratio ever achieved by anyone ever uploaded to the public Internet?


Full post, including comments

MIT and the Saudis

Recent email from the MIT President:

Last October, following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I asked Associate Provost Richard Lester, who oversees MIT’s international activities, to reassess MIT engagements with Saudi entities.

The report explores the full range of competing factors to consider, including faculty autonomy, the social and scientific value of the work we undertake with Saudi people and entities, the challenge of working in a nation so out of step with our commitment to inclusion and free expression, and our community’s deep sense of revulsion at actions of the Saudi regime.

Ultimately, the report concludes that if MIT faculty wish to continue their current engagements with colleagues, students, and public and private research sponsors in Saudi Arabia, they should be free to do so, as long as these projects remain consistent with MIT policies and procedures and US laws and regulations.

Nothing of substance changes, in other words. In the long run, however, virtue as defined by MIT will prevail:

The present moment is testing that position. When I agreed to host the Saudi state delegation at MIT last spring, I shared the hope of many in the US and around the world that the visit and official engagement were an important part of an ongoing process of reform and modernization.

Saudi Arabia needs to be “reformed” and modernized, in MIT’s official opinion. It is just a temporary setback that some of these Saudi state officials went straight from learning about MIT’s commitment to inclusion and free expression to planning the murder of the unfortunate Mr. Khashoggi?

Saudi Arabia faces an unusual demographic moment: More than half of Saudi citizens are younger than 30

How is this relevant to the question of whether MIT works with governments that assassinate the inconvenient? The killing of Mr. Khashoggi should be ignored because he was 59 years old and can be readily replaced by folks who are half his age? (And his intended bride, for whom he ran the risk of entering the Saudi consulate to gather some divorce documents (BBC), was 36 years old, so also outside of the demographic that MIT considers important.) The killing of Mr. Khashoggi would have to be taken a lot more seriously if the median age in Saudi Arabia were 40 (as it is in Singapore)?

Regardless of their age, it turns out that some Saudis are “worthy” because they share MIT’s principles (the others are “worthless”?):

I hope we can respond to present circumstances in a way that does not suddenly reject, abandon or isolate worthy Saudi people who share our principles and are doing good work for themselves, their society and the world, particularly if MIT faculty wish to continue the engagement. … Are there further steps we can take to make sure that our engagements are not only in tune with but advance MIT’s values, including equality and free expression?

One of MIT’s principles, as previously articulated by President Reif, is to employ both a “Director and Assistant Director of LGBTQ Services”. So this puts MIT principles at odds with the law in Saudi Arabia (though maybe not the reality, according to this Atlantic article, which says “Sodomy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but gay life flourishes there.”) The only “worthy” Saudi people, therefore, are those who reject traditional Islamic belief and align themselves with what a non-Muslim or apostate MIT administrator might believe? (speaking of apostasy, it is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia)

Is this letter essentially saying that coastal American values are superior to Saudi values as embodied in their laws? MIT must labor under a White Man’s Burden to engage with the Saudis until they agree to adopt our values? How is that consistent with a commitment to inclusion?


Full post, including comments

The Death of the Media Lab?

In a world where the only enterprise that is happy with its investments in high-tech is the U.S. military, what chance does the MIT Media Lab, the product of corporate money have?  This is the question asked by a recent WIRED magazine article.

The Media Lab made its money by convincing big companies to spend a portion of their profit on funding advanced R&D.  Today the average big companies, with a combination of stock options and cash, pays its top managers an amount roughly equal to total profit.  I.e., there is nothing left to invest in R&D at MIT or elsewhere.

In the long run the Media Lab may be remembered best for its revolutionary organizational structure.  The typical university professor is expected to manage research, teach students, raise funds, and promote his or her glorious results.  Very seldom will an individual be expert in all of these areas.  Why not ape the commercial world and divide labor among specialists?  That’s precisely what the Media Lab did.  A dedicated staff of PR professionals did the promotion.  A dedicated team of expert after-dinner speakers and schmoozers did the fundraising.  The founders discovered that MIT did not valorize teaching and therefore the Media Lab elected to leave the grunt work of teaching to other departments.  The best researchers were thus free to spend all of their time managing research.

It all worked great until (1) corporations decided they’d rather spend their money on vacation homes and private jets for their executives and board members, and (2) the Media Lab discovered a $multi-million accounting error that forced a lot of layoffs.

How did the accounting error happen?  Basically there are two ways to set up a business.  If you don’t believe that you’re a management genius you push profit-and-loss responsibility down to the lowest level possible.  In the case of McDonald’s and its franchisees, for example, P&L responsibility is at the individual restaurant level.  If one restaurant is doing badly if doesn’t have access to the bank accounts of the other restaurants and thus there is no way for the bad apples to drag down the barrel.  Furthermore the top managers don’t need to care too much about how an individual restaurant is spending its money.  As long as the group with P&L is making a profit, who cares how they are doing it?

An alternative approach is central management by function.  The Freedom Fries cooks at all McDonald’s would report to regional managers and a VP of Freedom at headquarters.  The soda pourers would report to middle managers under the VP of Soda.  The drive-through cashiers at different restaurants would share a manager and so forth.  If you have amazing business management skills in theory this method could produce higher performance and greater efficiency.  However, without metrics and cost controls there is a substantial risk of bankruptcy because many fewer people have profit and loss on their minds.

Traditional research universities push P&L responsibility down onto the individual faculty member.  He or she must apply for grants and can spend money only from those grants.  Once the money from a grant is gone, that professor can no longer spend money.  This way the university makes sure that more cash never goes out than came in (in fact they charged a fat overhead commission on that grant money when it came in so actually a lot less cash can go out than came in).  A professor who is not successful at raising funds never puts at risk a lab that is getting a lot of grants.

The Media Lab went the big-company division-of-labor route but didn’t mature fast enough to have all of the departmental profit metrics and cost controls of the best large companies.

Prediction:  In 100 years the Media Lab will be remembered primarily for its pioneering approach to managing university research. 

(In the meantime, let’s hope that the new building gets finished.  If you go to the basement of the current building and look at the model, I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be one of the nicest-looking and most comfortable buildings in Cambridge.)

Full post, including comments