MIT wishes it could deliver acceptance letters via drone

MIT wants prospective students to know that it’s fully aboard the drone bandwagon, parlaying an army of delivery drones (and computer-generated imagery) for a tongue-in-cheek admissions video, complete with Wagnerian orchestration. MIT sends acceptance letters to its next class of freshmen on Pi Day, aka March 14, or 3/14. The fanciful video shows the letters being delivered around the world by the aforementioned drones.


MIT uses patent from 1997 to sue Apple over chips

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a patent lawsuit against Apple and its suppliers this week, claiming that semiconductor wafers found in the company’s computers and mobile devices infringe on a patent obtained by two academics more than 15 years ago.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Boston federal court, claims that Idaho-based Micron Technology knew about a laser-cutting method described in the patent, but used it all the same when supplying DRAM semiconductor devices for products like iPhones, iPads and MacBook Airs.

The patent itself was issued to Joseph Bernstein, who is now an engineering professor in Israel, and a co-inventor, Zhihui Duan. MIT claims it controls the right to the patent, which has a 1997 filing date and was issued in 2000. The school says it’s entitled to damages and to royalties on all Apple products that contain chips using the laser method in question.

I’m not qualified to pronounce on the technology but, for those of you who can, here’s what the patent claims:

a method for cutting a link between interconnected circuits comprising the following steps:Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 12.51.08 PM

directing a laser upon an electrically-conductive cut-link pad conductively bonded between a first electrically-conductive line and a second electrically-conductive line on a substrate,
the cut-link pad having substantially less thermal resistance per unit length than each of the first and second lines, wherein the width of the cut-link pad is at least ten percent greater than the width of each of the first and second electrically-conductive lines; and maintaining the laser upon the cut-link pad until the laser infuses sufficient energy into the cut-link pad to break the conductive link across the cut-link pad between the pair of electrically-conductive lines.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This is not the first time that a Massachusetts university has come calling on Apple with demands over patents from long ago. In 2013, Boston University used a patent from 1997 that covered blue LED lights to team up with a contingency-based law firm from Texas to seek an order banning the sale of the iPhone 5, and then moved on to make similar demands of dozens of other tech firms.

Such tactics by universities are unpopular with many in Silicon Valley, and raise the question of whether the lawsuits based on old patents are really promoting innovation, or are instead just an attempt by lawyer and technology transfer offices to rustle up more cash.

Here’s the filing:

MIT v Apple

[protected-iframe id=”1353fe0ba7be73e7affcd7abb9b9084b-14960843-34118173″ info=”” width=”100%” height=”600″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no”]

edX: Programming language Scratch isn’t just for kids anymore

Scratch is a programming language built to help children learn basic programming skills. But now edX, the MOOC (for Massive Open Online Course) backed by top colleges including MIT, Harvard and Caltech, will offer a free Scratch course for anyone “regardless of age or digital skill.”

Registration is open now for Programming in Scratch” which kicks off February 2. The course will be taught by Colleen Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, a tech powerhouse and another edX partner school.

Scratch seems to be gaining momentum as a vehicle for teaching kids to create their own animations and computer cames — MIT Media Lab offers an iPad app for that purpose, for example.

This story was updated at 10:09 a.m. PST to reflect that enrollment is now open.

On the importance of building privacy into apps and Reddit AMAs

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Given the increasing need to keep private data private in a world of habitual over-sharing on social media and the burgeoning internet of things, the work Jean Yang is doing at MIT is important.

Yang and her team are working on Jeeves, a framework meant to help programmers build privacy and potentially other policies right into their code. If it works as foreseen — and there is still a lot to do around performance — a developer could write policies — who can see what and when — right into the application. Those policies would then follow the data associated with that application around.

So, for example, an application might share your GPS data only for a limited amount of time — while you’re in the zip code — then revoke that information.

Speakers: Jean Yang - Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL

Jean Yang – Ph.D. Candidate, MIT CSAIL

On this week’s Structure Show, Yang talks more about that work and also about the Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) she and too other female MIT Ph.D. candidates hosted last month.  The usual trolls showed up to ask the women for dates etc. but Yang was not discouraged. There were a lot of thoughtful questions — about the value of a Ph.D., how to keep young girls interested in math and science etc.  She and co-hosts lElena Glassman and Neha Narula later wrote about the experience for Wired. A video of Yang’s talk at Structure 2013 is linked below.

Also on the show, Derrick and talk about how the venerable database category remains hot, as evidenced by new funding rounds for [company]MongoDB[/company] ($80 million) and [company]Basho[/company] ($25 million) are any indication. In the first half of the show Derrick and I talk about that and about the end of the road for [company]Microsoft[/company]’s infamous anti-Google [company]Scroogled campaign[/company].




Hosts: Barb Darrow and Derrick Harris.

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Cheap cloud + open source = a great time for startups 

It’s all Docker containers and the cloud on the Structure Show

Mo’ money, mo’ data, mo’ cloud on the Structure Show

Why CoreOS went its own way on containers

More from Facebook on its new networking architecture 

Female techies brave Reddit AMA to talk about their worlds

You have to hand it to MIT Ph.D candidates Elena GlassmanNeha Narula and Jean Yang for facing the lions’ den last week when they participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything forum.

The AMA, timed to coincide with Computer Science Education Week, addressed topics like what it’s like to conduct research at MIT; what it’s like to be a woman conducting research at MIT; programming in general; and so on. It was an AMA after all.

As you might expect, they got their share of sexist trolling, some of it pretty mild (requests for a date) and some less so — although the worst comments appear to have been deleted. But this shouldn’t detract from legitimate questions posed and the thoughtful discussion that ensued.

Asked whether a Ph.D is always worth the effort, Yang (pictured above) responded that for her the answer was yes, but that’s not true for everyone:

“A PhD can be a lonely experience and there is high opportunity cost: there are many things you could be doing instead that will make you more money. In addition, the only additional thing a PhD enables you to do (besides spend a few years enriching yourself) is become a professor or a researcher. It’s probably not the best idea to begin a PhD burned out–you’re going to need your emotional reserves.”

For some people, a Master’s Degree will work just fine, said Yang, whose work on Jeeves, a programming framework to help developers build privacy into applications, was featured at Structure 2011 in San Francisco (see the video below).

Keeping girls interested in tech

One commenter — a self-described non-techie — wanted to know on how to keep her 11-year old daughter’s interest in math and programming alive.  While other commenters recommended the Khan Academy, the Scratch programming language designed for kids, Glassman, an expert in user interfaces, recommended Pyladies , a group for teaching Python programming skills and Girls Who Code as resources in addition to more gender-neutral groups.

“You should try everything but I personally found groups like Pyladies awesome because they specifically focus on mentorship … Face-to-face learning in a warm environment can help someone stay committed.”

Scores aren’t everything

Some people asked questions about how critical top grades are in pursuing an advanced degree. Narula, an expert in parallel and distributed operating systems, advised motivated students who might have struggled with grades not to give up hope.

MIT Stata Center home to CSAIL

MIT Stata Center, home to CSAIL

“I think grades matter a lot to get into grad school, as in they are usually necessary but not sufficient. That said, there are lots of exceptions! MIT is definitely the type of place which cares more about what you do than your grades — One nice thing is that MIT EECS doesn’t even take GRE scores,” she said, referring to the Graduate Record Exams many grad schools require.

“I think you can get around bad grades by doing something really cool. Different professors care about different things; for example some will care way more about your projects/open source code than your grades.”

Asked what struck her about the session, Yang said via email that she was surprised by the number of people asking why gender was included in the AMA descriptor. She and her co-hosts are drafting a longer response to that question.

She added:

The highest we got on Reddit was #5. The more popular we got on Reddit, the more trolls we encountered. We saw an increase in the number of questions about “why do you get to do an AMA because you’re a woman,” “will you go out with me?,” “will you make me a sandwich?”

On the plus side, some participants “helped us out, downvoting the more trollish answers and answering some of the questions about ‘why is gender relevant.'”

Here’s Yang’s talk at Structure 2013:


Note: this story was updated at 1:32 p.m. PST with Yang’s comments about the event.

Boston-area institutions launch HUBweek to take on big problems

There’s never a shortage of big problems confronting the world — think the looming scarcity of fuel, food and water. Addressing such issues is the purported goal of HUBweek, a series of events planned for October 2015 and sponsored by the Boston Globe, Harvard University, Mass General Hospital and MIT.

The inaugural event is slated to take place October 3–10, 2015 at venues in and around Boston and Cambridge. MIT, for example, will host Solve to address challenges in education, healthcare, energy and manufacturing. That event will be “curated” by Anant Agarwal, professor of engineering and computer science; Phillip Sharp, institute professor and affiliate of the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research; Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy; and Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus of engineering and computer science (and founder of Rethink Robotics).

In a related doing-good meme, [company]Google[/company] sponsored a hackathon  that challenged data scientists to make an impact on a real-world problem in 24 hours. The winning team of Bay Area scientists used free Google cloud credits to identify prostitution rings by analyzing patterns of phone numbers and text in postings to adult escort websites.

MIT's Kresge Auditorium.

MIT’s Kresge Auditorium.