Author Archives: Audrey Pearson

Year 150 – 2010: iPad

Product debut: April 2010

To mark the official 150th anniversary of MIT’s founding in 1861, the Institute held  a massive “Next Century Convocation” on April 10, 2011 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center.

During the festivities, the renewal of MIT’s charter – a reaffirmation of the Institute’s mission – was signed by President Susan Hockfield. Also signing were MIT’s two Presidents Emeriti, along with representatives from the MIT Corporation, the faculty, the student body, and the staff. Each of them endorsed the document – a digital “iCharter” – on an iPad.

Since May of 2010, The Lewis Music Library has made an iPad available for loan. (Currently the library is circulating an iPad 2.) It’s loaded with music apps, and with thousands of clips from new CDs in the library’s extensive collection. The iPad does a lot of very cool things right out of the box, too.

A centrally important part of the MIT Libraries’ job is to make information as accessible as possible and to deliver it in the most appropriate way. So of course the Libraries provide tens of thousands of electronic journals and databases, access to GIS and social sciences data, digital collections, and countless other resources to serve MIT’s voracious appetite for information. Providing a tool like the iPad fits comfortably within the Libraries’ tradition of welcoming new technologies and embracing new ways to serve documents, images, and data.

During research for “150 Years in the Stacks,” as we took a glance backward at the Libraries’ rich holdings, it was fun and occasionally thrilling to stumble across tangible materials we just didn’t expect to encounter. Of course digital information is crucially important to the work being done in a place like MIT. But happily there’s still room in major research libraries like ours for publications which, though they may show obvious signs of having been well-used, will sometimes wear that history with a touching eloquence.

An antislavery tract is an evocative historical document, particularly if it was written by a Virginian whose home is now an official Underground Railway site. When the author has inscribed it warmly to his friend, MIT founder William Barton Rogers, it’s a unique treasure for the Institute. You can certainly digitize such an object, but it won’t be the same as holding the original in your hand.

To be appreciated fully, some things just need to be experienced physically and in close proximity. John Stuart Mill’s 1880 Political Economy is available digitally, but our copy – a study in obsessive note taking – still has to be seen to be believed. How can any photograph convey the mindboggling skill required to create a 200-pages-plus miniature book? To enjoy a book with moveable parts, well, you need to be able to move those parts. A booklet on radar can be a dry thing, but when it contains the signatures of a team of people who seem to have done as much as anyone did to win World War II, it becomes a deeply poignant document.

There simply is no substitute for the experience of seeing, touching, and yes, even smelling a treasure like the Libraries’ copy of Peregrinus’ exceedingly rare De Magnete, published in Augsburg in 1558.

An iPad, on the other hand, gives you access to “150 Years in the Stacks.”

We’ll call it a toss-up.

Year 147 – 2007: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Published: New York, 2007

Junot Díaz is the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing in MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. His first book, a collection of short stories called Drown, met with critical acclaim when it was published in 1996, becoming a national bestseller and winning a PEN/Malamud Award. A decade later, his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, generated even more buzz. In addition to ending 2007 on several “best-of” lists, the book also won several major awards including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

The novel moves back and forth between the United States and the Dominican Republic as it weaves together several narrative strands from different characters to tell the story of the de Léon family over the course of several decades. In the prologue, the narrator, Yunior, describes a curse known colloquially as the fukú, which Dominicans trace back to the arrival of Columbus, and blame for misfortunes both personal and historical. The title character, Oscar de Léon, is tormented by fukús big and small. Overweight, socially awkward, a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, Oscar fails to fit in anywhere, and his story is both funny and heartbreaking.

References to fantasy, science fiction, and American popular culture sit side by side with more elevated literary references; the book opens with a quotation from the comic book Fantastic Four that’s followed by a Derek Walcott poem. Díaz’s narrator frequently mixes Spanish with English, and uses footnotes not so much to explain certain references as to expand on them, much as a musician’s solo will augment and build on the basic tune of a song.

Díaz doesn’t spell everything out, and the reader’s experience is not unlike that of an immigrant who must learn a new language and culture by picking things up along the way, or sometimes just rolling with it.

Yet the effect is never alienating, and you could say that Oscar Wao is more than a novel: it’s a deeply rewarding and immersive experience.

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Year 146 – 2006: Orange County Housecleaners by Frank Cancian

Published: Albuquerque, 2006

This photo documentary profiles seven women, largely through their own words, all of them currently or formerly housecleaners in Orange County, CA. There’s Sara Velazquez, an immigrant who crossed the river into Laredo on an inner tube and nearly cried when asked during her first interview about her children back in Mexico. There’s Tina Parker, an Orange County native whose mother pulled her out of school when she was a child (ostensibly to be home schooled, but really to be taken door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness).

Leidi Mejia, originally from Guatemala, enrolled in a cosmetology program – with classes offered only in English – and earned straight A’s. Victoria Rua left an abusive father in Mexico, only to find that the shame of her mother’s infidelities had followed her to the States. Sharon Risley, born and raised in Laguna Beach, earned her BFA twenty-six years after an unexpected teen pregnancy derailed her original plans. Esperanza Mejia, Leidi’s sister, took up housecleaning after two very unpleasant stints as a nanny. Julieta Noemi (Mimi) Lopez stopped cleaning houses just before giving birth to her son. Then, unable to afford their Orange County apartment on her husband’s salary alone, the family eventually moved in with a relative here in Boston.

All seven of these women rank among what Frank Cancian calls “the elite of domestic workers.” While he does profile two white Orange County natives, he makes it a point to underscore the dramatic increase in the number of Latina domestic workers in recent decades. “In the Los Angeles area Latinas were 86 percent of female household employees in 2000,” he writes. “They were 23 percent in 1970.”

The women generally live within the same county as the families whose houses they clean, but they dwell in starkly different worlds. Cleaners live inland in places like Santa Ana; their clients live along the coast in Newport Beach. It comes as no surprise to read that “per capita income in Newport Beach is more than five times that in Santa Ana.”

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Year 145 – 2005: The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil

Published: New York, 2005

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil (MIT class of 1970) defines the Singularity as “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” This prediction is based on the idea that information technology develops exponentially, and that this development occurs at a predictable rate, resulting in accelerating returns. Given such an exponential rate of growth, Kurzweil, in considering our future, argues that

we won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress … (when measured by today’s rate of progress), or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century.

Kurzweil gives dates for a number of his predictions. For example, he predicts that reverse engineering of the human brain will be achieved by the year 2029. This event will help lead us into the Singularity itself, which Kurzweil predicts will occur in 2045.

As with any technological development, there will be benefits and risks. The Singularity may allow us to improve our medical knowledge to the point where we are able to live indefinitely, using nanobots to repair our bodies as they break down. But at the same time, it could lead to artificial intelligence that is unfriendly to humankind. It’s very difficult to predict how people will apply highly advanced technologies in the future.

Whether or not you agree with all of Kurzweil’s claims, it’s impossible to refute the steady increase in the acceleration of technological progress over the past hundred years. Nor can anyone deny that the rate of progress is likely to continue increasing. Great advances lay in our future. Let’s hope we’re prepared, mentally and ethically, to deal with them.

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Year 144 – 2004: Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything by Dan Falk

Published: New York, 2004

The theory of everything – not to be confused with unified field theory, which is related but different – has been the Holy Grail of theoretical physics for centuries. The successful theory would explain all physical phenomena in the universe, making it possible, in theory, to predict the outcome of any experiment. “And while it will likely be expressed through abstract mathematics,” Dan Falk suggests, “the ideas at the heart of the theory may turn out to be extremely simple – so simple, in fact, that the essence of the theory can be written on a T-shirt.”

Falk’s popular account of the Theory of Everything, which won two awards after its original publication in Canada in 2002, explores both the theory’s history and its frontiers. Beginning with Thales and the science of ancient Greece, Falk traces relevant scientific progress through the Middle Ages, touches on Galileo and Newton, Einstein and Bohr, and brings us around to today’s theorists and the concept of string theory – the current frontrunner for the Theory of Everything.

“String theorists aren’t uncorking the champagne just yet, however,” Falk notes.

The biggest problem is that the theory describes how particles and forces behave at enormously high energies.  Even the largest particle accelerators are about a billion billion times too weak to probe string effects by any direct experiment … To investigate strings directly, in fact, would require an accelerator roughly the size of the solar system.

While a viable theory seems out of reach for now, it should come as no surprise that members of MIT’s faculty have contributed to the pursuit of this scientific grail. And if someone here at the Institute were to articulate such a theory, making what might well be the greatest scientific discovery of all time, we certainly wouldn’t be opposed to uncorking that champagne.

If we’re lucky, it might happen next year, when Dan Falk will be a visiting Knight Fellow at MIT.

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Year 142 – 2002: Portraits by Santiago Calatrava

Published: Zurich, 2002

Santiago Calatrava is among the most celebrated architects working today. His bridges don’t merely span gaps between two points, and his buildings don’t merely enclose space. All of Calatrava’s structures are highly sculptural and dramatic, and they sometimes test the limits of technology. Fear not; he is also a structural engineer.

But that’s not all. Calatrava creates designs for opera, ballet, and theater; he paints; he sculpts. His work in all its variety has been the subject of exhibitions in major museums worldwide.

Calatrava’s soaring, winged design for the transportation hub at the World Trade Center site in New York is currently under construction. His dramatic, 2005 “Turning Torso” skyscraper in Malmö, Sweden, has won multiple awards, as have numerous other Calatrava structures.

It was as an architect and structural engineer that, in 1997, Calatrava was invited to MIT for three days of lectures. He interacted with professionals, with faculty, and with students from the departments of architecture and civil engineering. “The MIT Lectures” were a hit, and were later released in book form.

Some time after his visit, his office sent several books by and about Calatrava to MIT, with the architect’s compliments – but not only with his compliments. The volumes were also hand-decorated and signed by Calatrava himself. Each title page carried a color sketch, with Calatrava’s signature.

Books concerning specific structures, books on bridges, on museum exhibitions of Calatrava’s work, books containing portraits or depictions of animals – all were individually decorated and signed by the architect/artist.

The title page of today’s entry, Portraits, is decorated with an elegant, classical profile in graphite and watercolor. Along with the other decorated Calatrava volumes, it’s housed in the Limited Access Collection of MIT’s Rotch Library of Architecture and Planning.

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Year 141 – 2001: Karachi, Sentenced: The Architecture of the City in Typography

Published: Karachi, Pakistan, 2001

Known locally as the “City of Lights,” Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

In 2001, to promote awareness of the rich cultural heritage of the city, KaravanKarachi (now KaravanPakistan) was formed as a community and youth outreach program. In support of the program’s festivals and heritage activities held in September of that year, communication design students at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and the School of Visual Studies, University of Karachi, created Karachi, Sentenced: The Architecture of the City in Typography. The volume provides a visual representation of a few of the 600-plus historical buildings of Karachi that have been declared “protected heritage” sites.

What they created, though, is not your average book about architectural heritage sites. Karachi, Sentenced is a thin volume folded accordion-style. If you begin reading from the front cover, each two-page spread is a stand-alone depiction of a particular site in Karachi, such as St. Andrew’s Church or the Ghulam Hoosain Khaliqdina Hall and Library. However, when you flip the book over on its back and open it to its full length, it unfolds to reveal a panorama of Karachi buildings that’s nearly 7.5 feet long.

This unusual physical format is only the first of two unique features of this book. For rather than depicting buildings in photos or drawings, Karachi, Sentenced renders the city buildings entirely in typeface. Words and phrases that describe each site, in different sizes and fonts, are arranged to form the shape of the buildings pictured.

Readers learn, for example – from the text that forms the pediment of the Sindh High Court building – that the “grand portico of the judicial court was of pink jodhpur.” The text forming the roofline of the Sind Club explains that the facility was “designed for the social enjoyment of the representatives of the Raj.”

The intricate typography invites the reader to closely examine each building, and encourages careful study and appreciation of this small sampling of Karachi’s rich heritage.

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Year 140 – 2000: Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

Published: New York, 1999 (paperback: 2000)Cover

More than a decade after it was hailed as an instant classic upon publication, John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat remains an enduring masterpiece. There are countless reasons for this, but perhaps the most immediately striking is that the book is as succinct as it is exhaustive. An analysis of a devastated Japan in the aftermath of World War II, the book gives a rich and nuanced account of both victor and vanquished in under 700 pages.

Utilizing an enormous array of Japanese sources, Dower illuminates the effects of the six-year American occupation from all levels of Japanese society.  He pays particular attention to the political and social upheaval experienced by Japan during what he calls “an overwhelmingly humiliating epoch when genuinely free choice was repressed and alien models were imposed.”

Dower, the Ford International Professor of History at MIT, is a pioneer of image-driven scholarship and a founder and co-director of the Visualizing Cultures project, established in 2002. Not surprisingly, the book is filled with astonishing documentary photos and contemporaneous graphic art.

Embracing Defeat won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in Letters for General Nonfiction, and the National Book Award in Nonfiction. The hardcover version was first published in 1999, and the paperback, shown here, followed in 2000.

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Year 139 – 1999: Time Bomb 2000: What the Year 2000 Computer Crisis Means to You! by Edward Yourdon and Jennifer Yourdon

Published: Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1999

The end is near!

Or perhaps more accurately, the end seems always to be right around the corner … and it was always thus. Astronomer John of Toledo predicted the end would occur in September 1186. London astronomers foresaw an Earth-destroying deluge on February 1, 1524. Jacques Bernoulli forecast the arrival of a massive comet that would end things on May 19, 1719. American psychic John Ballou Newbrough spread the word about our impending demise in 1947. More recently, the Y2K problem – a scare for the new millennium – cast a spotlight on fears about technology and its impact on mankind.

The problem was that a huge number of computer programs used 2 digits, rather than 4, to identify the calendar year. This generated serious and justifiable concern that when the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000, computers would interpret 00 as 1900, resulting not only in computer glitches and confusion, but potential chaos within crucially important systems.

In the years leading up to Y2K, countless books, magazine articles, DVDs, and other media were published and distributed in order to provide the public with the information necessary to survive the impending crisis. One of these books was Time Bomb 2000, a collection of worst-case-scenarios illustrating the potentially disastrous impact of the “millennium bug” on the general population, and providing sound advice on what to do if things really did go wrong.

Interest in Y2K propelled this book to the New York Times business best seller list. Y2K’s potentially deleterious effect on utilities, banking, transportation, the government, the food supply – everything the average person takes for granted – was covered. If even half of the disasters had actually occurred, we would indeed have faced a major catastrophe.

Historians may debate whether the Y2K scare was the catalyst for preemptive action that prevented such a crisis, or whether there was no actual justification for alarm to begin with.

In the end, nothing too terrible happened at 12:00 a.m. on January 1, 2000. Millions were able to breathe easy, and continue to party like it was 1999.

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Year 138 – 1998: Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

Published: New York, 1998

One of the most notable figures in contemporary science fiction can be found right on the MIT campus.

Joe Haldeman, who teaches several different courses in MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, has received multiple honors for his published work. In 2010 he was named the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master, an award bestowed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to a living author in recognition of lifetime achievement in the literary genres of science fiction and fantasy. In receiving this award, Haldeman joined the ranks of such luminaries as Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

That’s not the only accolade bestowed on Haldeman, however. Today’s selection – Forever Peace – received the prestigious Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell awards in 1998. Though not a sequel, Forever Peace bears a thematic relation to Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War, which was also honored with Hugo and Nebula awards.

Forever Peace is set in 2043, during a war in which “soldierboys” (war machines connected to the brains of human soldiers) fight for the American-led Alliance side of the conflict. The story is told from the point of view of Julian Class, one of the linked soldiers.

The novel was greeted with ecstatic reviews. Publisher’s Weekly praised Haldeman’s prose for its “uncommon intelligence and acuity about the terror of war and the horror of the human heritage in the middle of the next century.” Library Journal said that the book “presents a thoughtful and hopeful solution to ending war in the 21st century.”

Haldeman himself is a Vietnam veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart. It seems safe to assume that his own experience has informed his powerful writing on war.

In 2007, Haldeman published The Accidental Time Machine, which touches on another type of first-hand experience: the novel is largely set at MIT.

You can hear Joe Haldeman speak about his writing process here.

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