Last Thursday, MIT released two staggeringly cool videos. And I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic in saying that. Above we have a robotic cheetah that’s “trained” to “see and jump over hurdles as it runs — making this the first four-legged robot to run and jump over obstacles autonomously.” The cheetah knows when to jump by using LIDAR — “a visual system that uses reflections from a laser to map terrain.” MIT News has more on the tech behind this creation.
Making almost equally big news is another MIT invention — a miniature origami robot that self-folds, walks, swims, and degrades. As the electrical engineering website IEEE Spectrum explains:
The unfolded robot, which is made of a magnet and PVC sandwiched between laser-cut structural layers (polystyrene or paper), weighs just 0.31 g and measures 1.7 cm on a side. Once placed on a heating element, the PVC contracts, and where the structural layers have been cut, it creates folds….
Once you’re done messing around, you can drive the robot into a tank of acetone and it will entirely dissolve.
One day, if things go according to plan, these creatures will become small enough to perform important medical tasks within your body, and then when they’re done, poof, they’ll be gone. And you’ll have an MIT researcher partly to thank.
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On May 3, 1967, Dr. Timothy Leary, that high priest of hallucinogens, faced off in a debate with MIT professor Dr. Jerome Lettvin about LSD in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Leary spent the debate in the lotus position, dressed in a white gown, beads and bare feet. The very picture of a counter culture icon. Lettvin, on the other hand, cuts a distinctly conservative figure, sporting a short-sleeved white shirt, a skinny tie and thick-framed glasses. On first blush, the debate might look like a stereotypical clash between the hip versus the square, but it ended up being much more interesting than that. Lettvin, who proved to be at least as charismatic as Leary, more than held his own against the man Richard Nixon once called “the most dangerous man in American.” You can watch the full debate above.
Leary speaks for the first half of the video. For those familiar with his routine, little of what you see will come as a surprise. He argues that LSD is a “a way of life and a sacrament and a sacrament is something that gets you high.” He goes on to cite groundbreaking figures like Einstein, Newton and William James who struggled to understand reality and consciousness. “The real goal of the scientist is to flip out,” he said to a packed auditorium filled with future scientists. “I don’t know if LSD is good or bad. It’s a gamble. It’s a risk. The sacrament is always a risk. … What isn’t? But LSD is the best gamble in the house.” Aiding him with his argument is a psychedelic picture show featuring a steady stream of images including ocean waves rolling backward, children bouncing on trampolines, and a man in a goatee eating soup, all set to a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar.
“Tim, your argument is exceedingly seductive,” Lettvin concedes at the beginning of his presentation (it begins around the 30:30 mark), which had none of the visual razzamatazz of Leary’s spiel. “I feel like this man is [in] the hands of the devil.”
Lettvin, however, proves not to be your standard anti-drug scold. At one point in the debate, he proclaims, “I can conceive of no more immoral thing than has been done by the government in the wholesale banning of drugs. … There’s a fundamentally monstrous thing about forbidding rather than reasoning people out.” And that’s exactly what Lettvin set out to do — reason the audience against taking acid. “The question is not scientific but moral,” he says. LSD has the potential to rob takers of their critical faculties, rendering them permanently spaced out. “The price seems a little steep to pay. You are settling for a permanent second rate world by the abnegation of the intellect.”
Lettvin’s performance is all the more impressive because he had little time to prepare. The faculty member who was originally slated to debate Leary bowed out at the last moment, and organizers scrambled to get someone, anyone, to face down the famed guru. Lettvin reportedly came straight from the lab to the auditorium and he even had to borrow a tie. Too bad Leary didn’t have a spare Nehru jacket.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily. The Veeptopus store is here.
Bonaverde’s “Roast-Grind-Brew Coffee Machine” seemed like one of the cooler inventions I’ve recently stumbled upon. But then I came across this: The Copenhagen Wheel. Originally created by researchers at MIT, the Copenhagen Wheel “transforms ordinary bicycles quickly into hybrid e-bikes.” It allows bike riders to “capture the energy dissipated while cycling and braking and save it for when you need a bit of a boost” — like climbing a hill in San Francisco. The wheel also feeds data to your iPhone, allowing you to monitor pollution levels, traffic congestion, and road conditions in real-time. After spending several years in development, the wheel can now be pre-ordered online and it will ship next spring. It retails for $699.
The participants in this seminar will dive into learning basic conversational Italian, Italian culture, and the Mediterranean diet. Each class is based on the preparation of a delicious dish and on the bite-sized acquisition of parts of the Italian language and culture. A good diet is not based on recipes only, it is also rooted in healthy habits and in culture. At the end of the seminar the participants will be able to cook some healthy and tasty recipes and to understand and speak basic Italian.
As Rebusco explains in a short video, this course has the advantage of making the language lessons a little less abstract. It gives students a chance to apply what they’ve learned (new vocabulary words, pronunciations, etc.) in a fun, practical context.
On June 1, 1997, Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune columnist and Brenda Starr cartoonist, wrote a column entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” In her introduction to the column she described it as the commencement speech she would give to the class of ’97 if she were asked to give one.
The first line of the speech: “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.”
If you grew up in the 90s, these words may sound familiar, and you would be absolutely right. Australian film director Baz Luhrmann used the essay in its entirety on his 1998 album Something for Everybody, turning it into his hit single “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” With spoken-word lyrics over a mellow backing track by Zambian dance music performer Rozalla, the song was an unexpected worldwide hit, reaching number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and number one in the United Kingdom.
The thing is, Luhrmann and his team did not realize that Schmich was the actual author of the speech until they sought out permission to use the lyrics. They believed it was written by author Kurt Vonnegut.
For Schmich, the “Sunscreen Controversy” was “just one of those stories that reminds you of the lawlessness of cyberspace.” While no one knows the originator of the urban legend, the story goes that Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, had received an e-mail in early August 1997 that purported to reprint a commencement speech Vonnegut had given at MIT that year. (The actual commencement speaker was the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.) “She was so pleased,” Mr. Vonnegut later told the New York Times. “She sent it on to a whole of people, including my kids – how clever I am.”
The purported speech became a viral sensation, bouncing around the world through e-mail. This is how Luhrmann discovered the text. He, along with Anton Monsted and Josh Abrahams, decided to use it for a remix he was working on but was doubtful he could get Vonnegut’s permission. While searching for the writer’s contact information, Luhrmann discovered that Schmich was the actual author. He reached out to her and, with her permission, recorded the song the next day.
What happened between June 1 and early August, no one knows. For Vonnegut, the controversy cemented his belief that the Internet was not worth trusting. “I don’t know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet.” For Schmich, she acknowledged that her column would probably not had spread the way it did without the names of Vonnegut and MIT attached to it.
In the end, Schmich and Vonnegut did connect after she reached out to him to inform him of the confusion. According to Vonnegut, “What I said to Mary Schmich on the telephone was that what she wrote was funny and wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.” Not a bad ending for a column that was written, according to Schmich, “while high on coffee and M&Ms.”
Almost exactly a year ago, we told you about Google’s release of Course Builder, an open source platform that would let you build your own online courses/MOOCs for free. This week, Google has a new announcement: it’s joining forces with edX, (the MOOC provider led by Harvard and MIT), to work on a new open source platform called MOOC.org. The new service will go live in the first half of 2014. And it will allow “any academic institution, business and individual to create and host online courses.” This will give innovative educators the opportunity to put a MOOC online without necessarily making a steep investment in a course. (When added all up, the costs can otherwise be enormous.) If MOOC.org sounds of interest to you, you can put your name on a waiting list, and they’ll contact you when the service launches next year.
Last week Anant Agarwal, President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT), paid a visit to The Colbert Report. And it didn’t take long for the host, the one and only Stephen Colbert, to ask funny but unmistakably probing questions about the advent of Massive Open Online Courses. “I don’t understand. You’re in the knowledge business in a university. Let’s say I had a shoe store, ok, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s give the shoes away for free.’ I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head.” In other words, why would universities disrupt themselves and give education away at no cost? Where’s the sanity in that? If you have five minutes, you can watch Agarwal’s response and get a few laughs along the way. And if you’re ready to take a MOOC, then dive into our collection of 550 Free MOOCs from Great Universities. 120 new courses will be starting in August and September alone.
I’m usually pretty dialed into this stuff, but somehow this one slipped by me last fall. During the Gangnam Style craze, MIT shot a parody video where Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, made a cameo appearance. Maybe it slipped by me because the appearance is brief. About 5 seconds, starting at the 3:20 mark. We were on the ball enough, however, to spot another parody by Ai Weiwei and then we had Slavoj Žižek demystifying the whole Gangnam Style phenomenon, complete with wild hand gesticulations and frantic rubs of the nose. Anyway, one day this will make for some good archival footage — public intellectual meets international pop culture craze — so we’re adding it to the trove.
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