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A musical postcard to MIT graduates

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A musical postcard to MIT graduates


On February 11, I got a call from MIT’s executive director of Institute events and protocol, Gayle Gallagher. President Reif had just announced that MIT would again be conducting commencement online—and to open the ceremony, we needed a compelling piece of music that would evoke renewal as we began to emerge from the pandemic. 

After nearly a year of socially distanced teaching, learning, and living, I envisioned music that not only reflected upon the losses and challenges we’ve faced but also embraced optimism about how we might come back from darkness as a better and more thoughtful society. Involving many music students and highlighting MIT’s iconic campus quickly became priorities. And the intimacy of the voice was a must.

But what was feasible, given MIT’s covid protocols? With few exceptions, students weren’t allowed to play or sing together in the same spaces. And who—on short notice—could craft a composition with such a specific intention, and for the unusual combined forces of orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, Senegalese drumming ensemble, and multiple choirs? We needed a composer with the technical and professional chops to tackle such a daunting task—and the heart and humanity to understand why it was needed for this moment in time. 

I instantly knew that Tony Award–­winning alumnus Jamshied Sharifi ’83, with his long history of working with MIT students and his willingness to take on large-scale projects, was the only person for the job. Always in high demand—even during the pandemic—as an arranger, producer, and composer for Broadway, film, and artists in many genres, he agreed to do it at once. 

Because this project would involve singers, unlike the instrumental collaborations we’d done over the years, we knew we had to find an appropriate text. At Gayle’s suggestion, I contacted MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, who compiled some of her students’ recent poems about the pandemic. And once Jamshied read them, his vision became clear. “The emotional openness, simplicity, and, at times, aching sadness of their writing was my guiding light,” he says, “and informed all compositional decisions.” 

From inbox to realization

Though I’ve coordinated other complex, large-scale concerts, this project was uncharted territory. It involved organizing recording sessions for five ensembles, accommodating students not on campus, rehearsing in person and online, and structuring a 10-hour film shoot in five locations on campus. The logistical challenges were mind-boggling—we even had to get a massive crane on the sidewalk outside of 77 Mass. Ave. moved.

On May 3—a month and a day before the commencement-day premiere—Jamshied’s score and midi file for Diary of a Pandemic Year arrived in my inbox. I knew well what he was capable of, but what he’d sent brought me to tears. The flow, the tone, his handling of the text, and the way he shaped this five-and-a-half-minute sonic journey from dark to light—all of it was just perfect. Because he wanted vocalists to hear their parts with real voices, he had also taken on the arduous task of recording all of them for the audio file himself. 

My colleagues and I were off and running to bring the piece to life. Multimedia specialist Luis “Cuco” Daglio—who helped keep Music and Theater Arts musical performances going for 15 straight months—again donned his superhero cape, recording seven separate sessions for groups of MIT musicians. 

So how did the final virtual performance come together? First, all the instrumentalists and vocalists recorded themselves playing or singing to Jamshied’s midi file. Jamshied then mixed and mastered all these tracks—well over 200 of them—until Diary of a Pandemic Year was transformed into a living, breathing piece of music.

“Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory.” 

—Jamshied Sharifi ’83

During the epic filming day—overseen by Clayton Hainsworth, director of MIT Video Productions (MVP)—the original file was amplified through speakers for all players and singers to perform to live. Even with the restriction of having to play or sing to the midi track, it still felt revelatory. Emmy Award–winning MVP producer and editor Jean Dunoyer ’87 led the video team, which beautifully captured the emotional scope of the composition and the expressiveness of the students’ performance.

“At the end of a long year and a half of meeting to make music over Zoom and in separate practice rooms, filming the music video gave us a chance to perform together in person in a very meaningful way,” says MIT Wind Ensemble saxophonist Rachel Morgan, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It meant so much to see what MIT music can do!”

While Jamshied was working his audio-mixing magic, Jean, whom I consider the other magician of the project, was creatively translating the score to film. “I wanted the piece to be an invitation to the community to return to campus, unmasked and in person,” he explains. “The joy of togetherness was the thing that was most missed by our students over the past months, and when the signal arrived that the vaccine was working, the yearning to gather once again was palpable.”

Powerful messages for the future

The work everyone took on to realize Diary of a Pandemic Year was emblematic of the central role music, and the arts in general, play in the lives of so many MIT students. It testified to how determined students, faculty, and staff had been to ensure the continuation of music performance under very trying circumstances since the start of the pandemic. 

As Erica put it, “Diary of a Pandemic Year felt like a musical postcard to the graduates from The World, even though it could only have been created at MIT.” 

Days before the premiere, Jamshied reflected upon the universality of the piece and its central message. “Reading the MIT poets’ selected lines, and the longer poems from which they were drawn, I began to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic on young people—its larger significance given their fewer years on the planet, its limiting force on a time that should for them be exploratory and expansive, and its uncomfortable place in a matrix of unfolding calamities brought on primarily by human inattention and hubris,” he wrote. “The current moment feels hopeful; the birds sing of new life. But I sense in the pandemic a warning, and an unsubtle suggestion that we should not ‘return to normal,’ but seek an evolved, equitable, and holistic way of structuring our world. Our young people know this in their bones. We should listen.” 

Frederick Harris Jr. of the Music and Theater Arts faculty is music director of the MIT Wind Ensemble and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble.

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The Download: Introducing our TR35 list, and the death of the smart city

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JA22 cover


Spoiler alert: our annual Innovators Under 35 list isn’t actually about what a small group of smart young people have been up to (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s really about where the world of technology is headed next.

As you read about the problems this year’s winners have set out to solve, you’ll also glimpse the near future of AI, biotech, materials, computing, and the fight against climate change.

To connect the dots, we asked five experts—all judges or former winners—to write short essays about where they see the most promise, and the biggest potential roadblocks, in their respective fields. We hope the list inspires you and gives you a sense of what to expect in the years ahead.

Read the full list here.

The Urbanism issue

The modern city is a surveillance device. It can track your movements via your license plate, your cell phone, and your face. But go to any city or suburb in the United States and there’s a different type of monitoring happening, one powered by networks of privately owned doorbell cameras, wildlife cameras, and even garden-variety security cameras. 

The latest print issue of MIT Technology Review examines why, independently of local governments, we have built our neighborhoods into panopticons: everyone watching everything, all the time. Here is a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to make you wonder whether smart cities really are so smart after all:

– How groups of online neighborhood watchmen are taking the law into their own hands.

– Why Toronto wants you to forget everything you know about smart cities.

– Bike theft is a huge problem. Specialized parking pods could be the answer.

– Public transport wants to kill off cash—but it won’t be as disruptive as you think.

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever

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Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever


Most Quayside watchers have a hard time believing that covid was the real reason for ending the project. Sidewalk Labs never really painted a compelling picture of the place it hoped to build. 

Quayside 2.0

The new Waterfront Toronto project has clearly learned from the past. Renderings of the new plans for Quayside—call it Quayside 2.0—released earlier this year show trees and greenery sprouting from every possible balcony and outcropping, with nary an autonomous vehicle or drone in site. The project’s highly accomplished design team—led by Alison Brooks, a Canadian architect based in London; the renowned Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye; Matthew Hickey, a Mohawk architect from the Six Nations First Nation; and the Danish firm Henning Larsen—all speak of this new corner of Canada’s largest city not as a techno-utopia but as a bucolic retreat. 

In every way, Quayside 2.0 promotes the notion that an urban neighborhood can be a hybrid of the natural and the manmade. The project boldly suggests that we now want our cities to be green, both metaphorically and literally—the renderings are so loaded with trees that they suggest foliage is a new form of architectural ornament. In the promotional video for the project, Adjaye, known for his design of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, cites the “importance of human life, plant life, and the natural world.” The pendulum has swung back toward Howard’s garden city: Quayside 2022 is a conspicuous disavowal not only of the 2017 proposal but of the smart city concept itself.

To some extent, this retreat to nature reflects the changing times, as society has gone from a place of techno-optimism (think: Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone) to a place of skepticism, scarred by data collection scandals, misinformation, online harassment, and outright techno-fraud. Sure, the tech industry has made life more productive over the past two decades, but has it made it better? Sidewalk never had an answer to this. 

 “To me it’s a wonderful ending because we didn’t end up with a big mistake,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for Toronto, who advised the Ministry of Infrastructure on how to set this next iteration up for success. She’s enthusiastic about the rethought plan for the area: “If you look at what we’re doing now on that site, it’s classic city building with a 21st-century twist, which means it’s a carbon-neutral community. It’s a totally electrified community. It’s a community that prioritizes affordable housing, because we have an affordable-housing crisis in our city. It’s a community that has a strong emphasis on green space and urban agriculture and urban farming. Are those things that are derived from Sidewalk’s proposal? Not really.”

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech

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Rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech


What ML and AI in biotech broadly need to engage with are the holes that are unique to the study of health. Success stories like neural nets that learned to identify dogs in images were built with the help of high-quality image labeling that people were in a good position to provide. Even attempts to generate or translate human language are easily verified and audited by experts who speak a particular language. 

Instead, much of biology, health, and medicine is very much in the stage of fundamental discovery. How do neurodegenerative diseases work? What environmental factors really matter? What role does nutrition play in overall human health? We don’t know yet. In health and biotech, machine learning is taking on a different, more challenging, task—one that will require less engineering and more science.

Marzyeh Ghassemi is an assistant professor at MIT and a faculty member at the Vector Institute (and a 35 Innovators honoree in 2018).

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