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Composer Tod Machover never stops experimenting. He’s known for music that combines his electronic inventions with traditional instruments, he records street sounds to capture the ambiance of cities, and he works continuously to engage regular folks in the process of creation.

Linda Poon writes at CityLab, “It’s easy to disregard the hum of a city — the incessant honking or indistinct chattering — or to cast it off as noise pollution. … To the likes of Tod Machover, a composer who combines music with technology at the MIT Media Lab, these sounds are what makes a city sing.

“Machover has turned the sounds of Toronto and Edinburgh into symphonies that reflect the characters of each city. His first piece for an American city, Symphony in D, invited Detroiters in 2015 to contribute over 15,000 sounds unique to the city—drumming from the streets, sounds from factories, and spoken words by local poets—that were combined with instruments played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

‘Like so many things in our culture, there’s a growing gap between experts and ordinary people, and I thought music is such a great laboratory to show how things can be different,’ says Machover.

” ‘So I wanted the project to be a representation of connecting people—no matter what their background was in music—as equals.’

“His latest project, called Project 305 and funded by the Knight Foundation, takes him to Miami, where he’s teamed up with the city’s New World Symphony [NWS] academy to create an audio and visual masterpiece. He’s helping lead community tours to collect sounds and videos, and working with schools to teach students how to do the same. …

“Typical urban noise, like the revving of a car engine, the ringing of a bicycle bell, or the pitter-patter of pedestrian footsteps, can be found in virtually any city. So how do you make an audio portrait feel particular to the town it’s supposed to reflect?

“Sometimes, it’s about incorporating the sounds that reflect a city’s history. Detroit, for example, was famously dubbed the Motor City for being the heart of America’s auto manufacturing industry. So Machover asked the community to send in recordings of different car engines, which he merged with Motown riffs, in homage to the city’s music scene. …

“NWS is also gathering clips of human chatter, a way of capturing the diasporas within Miami. The city is often called the capital of Latin America with immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and other Spanish-speaking countries making up the majority of the population. Spanish has become a dominant language, but ‘you hear the same words inflected with all kinds of different accents,’ says Machover.

“When all is done, the entire performance won’t be confined to the halls of the academy. Instead, it will also be projected onto the facade of the building and simultaneously broadcast in different neighborhoods throughout Miami.” More here.

I have attended two of Machover’s operas. I thought the one based on a story by Tolstoy was lovely, although the one written with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky didn’t work for me. Something about an inventor seeking immortality by entering his electronic system after death.

Photo: Bowers & Wilkins
Endlessly inventive composer Tod Machover is incorporating sounds of the city in his new music.

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Photo: Daily Table
Fresh surplus food is sold for less, with help from a distribution platform called Spoiler Alert.

A logistics company that moves unwanted, unneeded but perfectly fresh food to people who do want and need it has chosen the perfect Internet slang for its name: Spoiler Alert. Ordinarily, “spoiler alert” is what you say if you are recommending or reviewing a film or book and don’t want to spoil the ending for someone else. In this case, it’s about delivering fresh food where it’s needed before it spoils.

Janelle Nanos writes at the Boston Globe, “Spoiled food is a costly problem, accounting for about $218 billion in financial losses to US farms, businesses, and consumers each year, according to ReFED, a group of companies, nonprofits, and foundations that was formed last year to minimize food waste. Since its launch in 2015, Spoiler Alert’s food-matching platform has been adopted by 200 businesses and nonprofits in New England to cut down on waste and encourage donations by making them easier to track.

“The company was created by two MIT Sloan School of Management graduates, Ricky Ashenfelter and Emily Malina, and their chief technology officer, Marty Sirkin, and has worked its way through the city’s accelerator programs, winning $50,000 from MassChallenge in 2015 and a spot in this year’s Techstars Boston cohort. …

” ‘At Daily Table I like to think of Spoiler Alert as an opportunity to further meet our mission of capturing healthy, tasty products before they make it to compost or trash,’ said Ismail Samad, executive chef of the Dorchester grocery store, which sells food and prepared meals gleaned from donations. He said he relies heavily on Spoiler Alert to source the food for his store shelves.

“But part of Spoiler Alert’s recent success can be credited to another, rather wonky aspect of its platform, which helps companies navigate the tax code. [In December 2015], Congress passed a bill that expanded the tax breaks companies can receive for donating food, making it easier for small businesses to donate and for farmers to assess the fair market value of their inventories.” Read how it all comes together, here.

A nonprofit organization that is also a MassChallenge winner and does similar work in the region is Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which I blogged about here. MassChallenge is a startup accelerator that helps new companies get launched. Its judges are partial to companies that can do well by doing good, bless their hearts.

Photo: Lovin’ Spoonfuls
Lovin’ Spoonfuls donates food to Safe Haven, a housing program run by the Bedford (MA) Veterans Administration.

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Here’s a new idea. A couple of young entrepreneurs have found a way to convert sign language into audible speech with their prize-winning electronic gloves.

National Public Radio has the story.

“For years, inventors have been trying to convert some sign language words and letters into text and speech. Now a pair of University of Washington undergraduates have created gloves called SignAloud. Sensors attached to the gloves measure hand position and movement, and data is sent to a computer via Bluetooth and is then converted into spoken word and text.

“Theirs is one of seven inventions recently awarded a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, with awards ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.

“Inventors Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor, both college sophomores, say the gloves will help create a communication bridge between deaf and hearing communities. The gloves, they say, will help deaf people better communicate with the rest of the world without changing the way they already interact with each other.

“However, the invention has been met with criticism that the bridge they want to create goes only one way — and it’s not necessarily one the deaf community has been clamoring for. …

“Azodi says he and Pryor are moving beyond their prototype and are working closer with those who use American Sign Language to develop new versions. They’re also working on better understanding ASL, which is more than just hand movements; it also uses facial expressions and body language to convey meaning.” Read more.

I don’t know much about the culture of the deaf community, but I do remember reading about resistance to cochlear implants a few years ago. It’s hard for people who can hear to understand that some people really don’t mind deafness and prefer their own ways of dealing with the world. But kudos to all inventors anyway, especially young ones open to continuous revision!

Photo: Conrado Tapado/Univ of Washington, CoMotion
SignAloud gloves translate sign language into text and speech.

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Here is an idea whose time has come. Aux armes! We need to remove the barriers to napping!

Olivia Vanni at BostonInno explains the revolutionary new Sleepbox concept.

“Sleepbox, a startup that’s recently set Boston roots, is making our wildest dreams come true: You will soon be able to sleep soundly and safely in any public place conceivable. As the name implies, the company has developed cozy, technologically decked-out cabins that can be set up just about anywhere — in airports, offices or downtown metropolitan areas — and rented by folks looking to catch some Zs.

“How did this visionary venture come about? According to Mikhail Krymov, CEO of Sleepbox and research fellow at MIT, he and his business partner Alexey Goryainov started it as a theoretical side project for their architecture firm Arch Group. The two professionals travel a lot for work and were constantly subjected to flight delays and layovers where all they could do was wish for a comfortable, private place to rest. From their personal experience, they created an initial design for Sleepbox. But it was meant only as a concept, at first.

” ‘It was just a design idea, but then it was published — it was actually published quite a few times — we started receiving requests and orders from all over the world,’ Krymov told me. …

“There are some customers who are buying them for noncommerical uses — say, companies installing them in their offices for employees to use for free. However, there are clients who buy them with the intention of charging people to rent them, like airports and municipalities. …

” ‘I really want people to be more happy, productive and healthy by having enough sleep, and hope that our solution will help,’ Kyrmov said.”

Ye-es!

More here.

Photo: Mikhail Kyrmov

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Radio show Living on Earth did a segment in February on new technology to store and release solar heat. Here is host Steve Curwood on his outing to MIT to learn about the breakthrough.

“A team of researchers at MIT has come up with a chemical that would let windshield glass directly store solar energy and then release it on demand as heat to melt the ice. … The same chemical could be woven into clothing fibers to capture the sun’s energy and then give you some added warmth when you ask for it, even days later.

“I paid a visit to the lab where the MIT team has been working on this breakthrough and met up with researchers David Zhitomirsky and Eugene Cho, who work in the lab of professor Jeffrey Grossman.”

To Curwood’s question about the difference between the familiar electrical, battery-enabled solar technology and the MIT lab’s chemical version, Zhitomirsky replies,”We use these molecules that can absorb UV light and instead of generating charges, what they do is that they change shape, and by changing shape, they can store chemical energy …

“CURWOOD: OK, so sunlight hits this molecule, it changes shape and can storage its energy. And how do you get the energy out?

“ZHITOMIRSKY: So you can figure the material in several ways. One way is to add a small amount of heat, and the material will release more heat than you add in. The other methods are triggering it with light or you can apply an electrical field to the material. …

“The way we envision using it is to integrate into fibers that you then make clothing out of.” More here.

Release solar heat from my coat in a blizzard? Where do I sign up?

Photo: Helen Palmer
Living on Earth host Steve Curwood, right, in the MIT lab with Eugene Cho and David Zhitomirsky.

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Rupa Shenoy had an interesting story on WGBH radio recently. It was about local startups interested in urban farming. I wrote previously about Higher Ground Farm, situated on top of the Design Center in South Boston, but Grove Labs, with its use of LED lighting for indoor gardening, was new to me.

Shenoy says, “Some of these new entrepreneurs are thinking big. Jamie Byron and Gabe Blanchet graduated from MIT and started Grove Labs two years ago with the idea to make every living room a potential growing space. …

“Their product is a cabinet that allows people to grow fruits and vegetables year-round in the home. It’s connected to the internet, controlled by an app on your phone, and designed to make urban farming easy and engaging.

“There are a few models set up in a space at Greentown Labs in Somerville, which they share with other startups. Each wooden cabinet, with several components, is about the size of an entertainment center.

“At the heart of the cabinet system is a fish swimming in a tank. The waste from that fish is sucked into tubes and converted into nitrate fertilizer. The fertilizer is pumped around the cabinet to trays filled with brown clay pebbles. That’s where the fruits and vegetables grow, with the pebbles serving as soil. Byron says once you get the system up and running, you can harvest enough for about two small salads everyday.” More at WGBH.

For more on using fish to fertilize your produce, see my recent post about an experiment in Duluth, here.

Photo: Rupa Shenoy / WGBH News
Somerville startup Grove Labs plans to sell cabinets for growing produce in your home.

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Gotta love MIT. There is always something crazy going on over there. And when MIT and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) ideas come together, watch out.

At WBUR radio, Fred Thys explains about a new, multidiscipline design program.

Matt “Kressy has put MIT’s first-ever integrated design and management (IDM) students in a kind of boot camp. He wanted to immerse the engineers, designers and business school students in a project where they would have to work in concert. …

“The task: build instruments from found materials. And boy did the students find materials. Mechanical engineer Maria Tafur, from Bogota, made a clarinet from a carrot. Engineer Tammy Shen, from Taipei, has made an instrument that includes glass bottles. …

“Kressy was teaching a course at the Rhode Island School of Design when he got the idea for the new IDM master’s program. He was also teaching engineers and business students at MIT — but it was the design students from RISD that caught Kressy’s attention by asking a critical question:

‘How does this product enhance our lives?’ …

“Kressy says it took 13 years for his idea for a design program to get traction at MIT. When it did, he was able to pick 18 students with completely different criteria from what MIT typically uses.

“ ‘And that rubric had crazy metrics, such as the metric love,’ Kressy says. ‘And the love metric was basically: Does this candidate have a large capacity for love and compassion? …

“ ‘When I showed the rubric to my colleagues here, let’s just say it got mixed responses,’ he says, laughing.”

To get at the love-and-compassion metric, he asked applicants to submit a portfolio indicating their efforts to make the world a better place.

You can read here about the impressive portfolios, struggles to get to MIT from poor countries, and inventive ideas for the future.”

Photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR
MIT integrated design graduate students Maria Tafur and Masakazu Nagata play their homemade instruments along with Brave Sharab, 7, on Main Street in Cambridge.

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Here’s a story about venture capital with a do-good focus.

Sacha Pfeiffer writes at the Boston Globe, “Among entrepreneurs, there’s a dreaded place called the Valley of Death. That’s where startup companies go when they run out of funding before making money on their own, and it’s an especially common fate for clean-energy startups, like manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines. …

“But what if that early-stage, high-risk financing could instead come from philanthropists, who aren’t driven by profit? Later, traditional investors could step in and supply continued funding.

“That’s the concept behind PRIME Coalition, a year-old Cambridge nonprofit that has pooled $1 million from wealthy donors, including Hollywood actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, as seed money for its first investment: an energy storage startup company. …

“PRIME rethinks the traditional definition of charitable work and charitable giving. Its founder, 30-year-old MIT graduate Sarah Kearney, argues that companies whose products or services reduce greenhouse gases are doing a social good, just like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, so they should be able to receive philanthropic funding. In this case, the social benefits include conserving the environment and fighting climate change.

“The group searches for early-stage alternative energy companies … then locates philanthropists or socially minded for-profit investors to fund them. Those could include charitable foundations, investment offices of wealthy families, and donor-advised funds. …

“Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, said philanthropic funding ‘can make a significant dent’ in filling the need for early-stage capital for clean-tech companies.” More here.

It is not unheard of for philanthropy to put its investment dollars into companies that provide a social good. Read about the Heron Foundation’s decision to do so some years back in “Expanding Philanthropy’s Reach: Mission-Related Investing,” here.

Photo: Lane Turner/Globe Staff
PRIME Coalition founder Sarah Kearney says that companies whose products or services reduce greenhouse gases are doing a social good and should be able to receive philanthropic funding.

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I saved up this one until it was cool enough outside to talk about heating systems.

Liz Stinson writes at Wired, “Commercial buildings account for 20 percent of the national energy consumption—a big number on its own, but stunning when you consider that often, those buildings are half empty.

“A new project from MIT’s Senseable City Lab is looking to decrease the amount of wasted energy by creating hyper-localized beams of heat. Called Local Warming, the prototype system uses LED bulbs to beam direct rays of infrared light onto people. This is in direct contrast to HVAC systems, which blanket entire spaces with hot or cool air, regardless of how many people are present.

“MIT’s system is rigged to the ceiling, like highly-efficient track lighting. Using a WiFi-enabled tracking system, the lights can sense when a human is present and will beam infrared heat down like a spotlight. ‘It’s almost like having a your personal sun,’ says Carlo Ratti, a professor in the Senseable City Lab.

“The current prototype is on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale until November. It features a large infrared bulb surrounded by rotating mirrors that can direct the light in a focused beam. It’s bulky—hardly the type of thing you’d like in your home—but Ratti envisions future prototypes will use smaller LEDs for a more compact aesthetic.”

Read more at Wired

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I’ve put off writing about sprites because I’m not sure I can explain what they are  — powerful upward lightning flashes that send electricity around the earth and were originally going to be photographed by an astronaut on the ill-fated Columbia.

A team of scientists and a few daredevil pilots flew repeatedly into storms to prove the visions were real. The television show Nova covered the quest.

“NARRATOR: On a stormy night, in Denver, a team of scientists takes to the air to investigate a mystery.

“RONALD WILLIAMS (United States Air Force): I reported it, and nobody believed me.

“NARRATOR: They’re trying to catch a burst of energy so fleeting and hard to see that scientists call it by the ethereal name of ‘sprite.’

“EARLE WILLIAMS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The bolts that cause sprites are superbolts, the kind of lightning that’ll blow your T.V. sky high. …

“KERRI CAHOY (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): You can see airglow that’s more diffuse and just in layers than the curtain-like aurora.

“NARRATOR: NOVA takes to the air, on a quest to record these elusive events.

“GEOFF MCHARG (United States Air Force Academy): Sprite!

“NARRATOR: And the effort also continues above, from the vantage point of space, where the work had it’s beginning during the ill-fated Columbia mission, with Israeli astronaut Ilon Ramon.

“YOAV YAIR (The Open University of Israel): I asked him, ‘Please bring me one sprite image.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get you a couple.’

“NARRATOR: Ramon’s colleagues now continue where he left off.

“SATOSHI FURUKAWA (Japanese Astronaut): We must take over their work. I thought that was the survivors’ duty.

“NARRATOR: Their dramatic discoveries are revealing that we live on an electrified planet, surrounded by a global circuit that rings the earth. And like a planetary heartbeat, we can now detect it.”

More here.

 Image: Nova

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If you want to convert the moisture in clouds into water to feed a parched land, you could train to be a sorcerer.

Alternatively, you could go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beth Buczynski at MIT’s inhabitat.com has the story on the “giant nets that trap moisture in the foggy mist, and funnel all of the tiny droplets into a container where they add up to water we can drink.”

According to “findings published online in the journal Langmuir, most existing fog harvesting systems are far from optimized. … Postdoc Kyoo-Chul Park PhD, MIT alumnus Shreerang Chhatre PhD, graduate student Siddarth Srinivasan, chemical engineering professor Robert Cohen, and mechanical engineering professor Gareth McKinley, believe that by closing the gaps in the net material, they can drastically improve the efficiency of fog harvesting systems.”

A press release from the research team says, “Chilean investigators have estimated that if just 4 percent of the water contained in the fog could be captured, that would be sufficient to meet all of the water needs of that nation’s four northernmost regions, encompassing the entire Atacama Desert area.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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I never thought about this before, but it seems that there is a whole community of migrant workers who take care of the horses at racetracks and then move on at the end of the season.

Melissa Shook, a photographer who has taught at UMass Boston and MIT and whose work is at the Museum of Modern Art, has photographed these so-called “backside workers.” Her pictures appear in a book called My Suffolk Downs. The book is a fundraiser to help these invisible migrants, who have no access to health providers or other social services. A 22-year-old nonprofit called the Eighth Pole is their lifeline.

Read what the Boston Globe‘s Linda Matchan has to say about photographer Melissa Shook and why she loves the racetrack world, here.

Photograph of Melissa Shook by Wendy Maeda, Boston Globe

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We are going to the opera tonight, and I’m remembering the last opera we saw, by MIT Media Lab innovator Tod Machover.

It was called Death and the Powers, and it was about a genius who wanted to live forever and figured out how to convert himself into a sort of computer after death. Given that it had lyrics by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, I thought it would be great, but it was nowhere near as good as Machover’s Resurrection, a Tolstoy story adapted by MIT’s Laura Harrington. (The robots in Death and the Powers were cute anyway.)

Machover is a tremendously interesting and prolific musician. Here he talks about how music can bring back memories, not unlike Proust’s petit madeleine.

Below he explains how his “hyper instruments” have drawn people of all types, including the elementary school classes he visits, into the joy of music making.

 

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Bike Share came to Boston last summer. I blogged about it here. I did wonder if people who used the Bike Share would be bringing their own helmets. It turns out that only 30 percent of Bike Share users do, compared with about 70 percent of those who have their own bikes.

MIT to the rescue! Thanks to a group of determined problem solvers, a bike helmet is in the works.

“The prototype of the product they call HelmetHub would dispense headgear to what until now have been the mostly helmetless riders of Hubway. …

“Much of Hubway’s allure is its immediacy,” writes Eric Moskowitz in the Boston Globe, “making even that side trip to the store — or the prospect of being saddled with a helmet after returning the bike — inconvenient for some users, said Nicole Freedman, who runs the city’s Boston Bikes program, which oversees Hubway.

“The HelmetHub prototype features a touch screen similar to those on Hubway rental kiosks, draws power from solar panels, and occupies half the space of a soda machine. And it works, dispensing helmets that adjust to fit most head sizes.” The prototype is almost ready to launch, and knowing the enterprising MIT mindset, it won’t take long. Read more.

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Some years ago, the John Adams family biographer Paul Nagel introduced me to physician/poet Norbert Hirschhorn. Paul told me that Bert was on the team that helped save thousands of lives in Third World countries simply by distributing water to which sugar and electrolytes had been added. (A National Institutes of Health paper references Bert’s 1973 research on “oral glucose electrolyte solution for all children with acute gastroenteritis” here.)

A special NY Times science supplement on Sept. 27, 2011, “Small Fixes,” reminded me of Bert and the notion that small innovations can have a huge impact.

Among the great stories in the supplement. is this one about Thailand’s success fighting cervical cancer with vinegar.

It turns out that precancerous spots on the cervix turn white when brushed with vinegar. “They can then be immediately frozen off with a metal probe cooled by a tank of carbon dioxide, available from any Coca-Cola bottling plant.” The complete procedure, which can be handled by a nurse in one visit, has been used widely in Thailand, where there are a lot of nurses in rural areas.

In Brighton, Massachusetts, Harvard’s George Whitesides founded Diagnositcs for All to commercialize his inventions, including a tiny piece of paper that substitutes for a traditional blood test for liver damage. Costing less than a penny, “it requires a single drop of blood, takes 15 minutes and can be read by an untrained eye: If a round spot the size of a sesame seed on the paper changes to pink from purple, the patient is probably in danger.” Read the Times article.

Amy Smith at MIT is another one who thinks big by thinking small. Read about her Charcoal Project, which saves trees in poor countries by using vegetable waste to make briquettes for fuel.

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