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Steady beat

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Steady beat


The corridors of WMBR are quiet—empty of the DJs who should be combing the shelves in search of the perfect song, the engineers ensuring that the equipment is broadcasting to the whole Boston area. MIT’s campus radio station closed its doors in the basement of Walker Memorial in March 2020, when the Institute sent staff and students home at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. Though the campus reopened in a limited way for 2020–’21, the broadcast studio has remained shut to the majority of DJs for more than a year.

But the 178 students and others involved in running WMBR were not about to let this decades-old institution dwindle. You can still tune in to 88.1 FM 24 hours a day and rock out to the pop-punk and rock show Breakfast of Champions or warble along with the Americana, country, and bluegrass of FM Road—all prerecorded and edited from the safety of DJs’ homes and submitted to Brian Sennett ’13, MEng ’15, host of the classical show Music by Dead People and WMBR’s technical director.  

When the campus shut down, Sennett recalls, “someone wise said, ‘Take all the equipment you need to keep things operating. This is going to be a while.’” 

Sennett joined WMBR as a sophomore in 2010 and is one of 40 alumni still active at the station, which for many has come to feel like a family. That feeling has a lot to do with this continued alumni engagement—and with why its members banded together to make sure the station and its culture wouldn’t be a casualty of the pandemic.

Generational impact

WMBR is an all-volunteer, primarily student-­run group supporting an eclectic range of shows. Community members with no MIT affiliation work alongside students, alumni, and professors, all led by an MIT student general manager, currently Julia Arnold. 

MIT has had a campus radio station since the late 1940s, but it did not begin using its current call letters—which stand for “Walker Memorial Basement Radio”—until 1979. That was when Jon Pollack, SM ’79, host of The Jazz Train, graduated. Briefly involved with the station as a graduate student, Pollack returned in 1987 and has been there ever since. 

“I just really enjoy it,” he says. “That’s why I’ve stayed. It’s part of me at this point.”

A list of WMBR team members reveals graduation dates ranging from 1979 to 2020. Having that deep well of knowledge has helped the station stay on track as technology and tastes have changed. 

Missing out on the live radio experience has been hard for many members during the covid-19 era. But they have adapted.

As technical director, Sennett helped transition the station from in-studio to at-home operations in 2020. Now, after seven years in his leadership role, he’s started to train Gillian Roeder ’24 to take it over by the end of the fall 2021 semester.

“I’m glad that there’s this sort of torch-passing happening between generations,” says Jacob Miske ’20, host of Uncommon Grounds,where he plays a mix of older and newer underground and counterculture music. “It’s something that I worried about with covid—that a lot of student cultural groups’ traditions are being obfuscated by this dead period.”

Evidence of WMBR’s traditions is etched on the covers of the records and CDs in the station’s extensive music library. Classical, jazz, heavy metal, blues, rock—every genre imaginable is housed in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. 

“We write down who plays what on each disc,” says Marianna Parker ’00, one of three rotating hosts of alt-rock show King Ghidorah. “I could go to the record library and grab a record from 1988 and see that John played this, Sue played this.”

While their predecessors provide musical guidance, students get even broader benefits from working elbow to elbow with alumni and community members. Miske, for example, was inspired by Dave Goodman, host of WMBR’s political show Sound and Fury. A longtime radio professional, Goodman did not attend MIT but has worked with WMBR for 30 years. 

“Through his show and talking to him, he motivated me to go out and become politically engaged during the 2016 and 2020 primaries,” says Miske.

As for Parker, who has volunteered for WMBR since 2012 after a brief post-­graduation hiatus and is now a doctor, she hopes her professional journey offers its own encouragement to students she meets through the station. 

“I wasn’t pre-med. I went and did some other things, then went back to medical school,” says Parker. “I hope they see in me a person who took a slightly different path and they can see a path for their future.”

The FCC is the limit

Parker is also involved with WMBR as president of the Technology Broadcasting Corporation (TBC), the entity that holds the station’s FCC license and looks out for its long-term financial and legal health. This corporation, consisting of students, professors, and alumni, is one of the things that set WMBR apart from other college radio stations. While day-to-day operations are 100% supported by listener donations, bigger projects—such as moving the FM transmitter to a taller building in Kendall Square—have the backing of the TBC and MIT. 

As unusual as WMBR is in its support system, it’s even more unusual in its programming. 

“Except for being FCC compliant, we really don’t have any rules about what DJs can do,” says Parker.

Sennett learned that on day one, when he was recruited to the station by a fellow violinist in the MIT Symphony Orchestra. 

“She said, ‘I don’t know if you’re interested in radio at all, but I have a show on WMBR and I play classical music and death metal,’” Sennett remembers. “And I said, ‘In the same show?’ And she said, ‘Yeah. That’s just the thing we do at WMBR.’”

“A lot of other radio stations have some kind of programming board that decides what gets aired,” says Valentina Chamorro ’16, host of the poetry show Lentil and Stone. “WMBR just doesn’t have that. It’s a huge platform that we all have access to do whatever we want with, and that’s such an incredible privilege.”

Missing out on camaraderie and the live radio experience has been hard for many members during the covid-19 era. But they have adapted, learning new skills like using the audio-editing software GarageBand. While some hosts admit the result feels more like podcasting than radio, it has been keeping the station alive. And the leadership hopes to keep open the option for remote production so alumni can submit shows from anywhere. 

But for many DJs, the chance to get back to the station—to wander the stacks and say hello to colleagues—can’t come soon enough. 

“When I arrive and the DJ before me is on the air, I feel like it’s the bridge of a ship,” says Sennett. “The music’s playing, and it’s about to be your turn. You flip the switch to go on the air, and you hit play, and the ship is your hands. Then you say hi to the next person who walks in—someone you haven’ t seen for a week. They go on and you think, ‘Now the ship is in someone else’s hands. I’ve done my part.’”

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming

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Audio Postcard: Real-time farming


Pinot Grigio actually makes a white wine and it’s won a few varieties in California that, uh, is a pretty common variety that actually we make purple grapes that make a white wine. So my name is Dirk Heuvel and I’m the VP of vineyard operations here at McManis family vineyards. 

My family actually kind of set roots here, actually farming almonds. And some people say almonds, we say in Ripon, and we say, say, almonds. 

I feel like, if it was like my dad or my grandpa trying to adopt this technology, absolutely. I think there’d be a huge culture shock there for them. I still think they don’t quite understand it, but they’re seeing the results of it. So I think that’s the most important thing—that we’re able to show them that it is working and how it’s working for us.

I will say today, I feel that we’re growing better quality grapes than we were 30 years ago. Just adapting a lot of this aerial imagery, modern irrigation technology, running drip system technology, you know, being able to fertilize through drip systems. And you can actually look at the imaging on your phone and you can actually pinpoint go out and walk to a specific vine. You know, that might be a   vine that died, that shows up on the aerial imaging. You can use the technology and, and walk right into a specific area. Just being able to identify areas, you know, using GPS. We can have field checkers go through the field now and on their app, they’re able to actually drop and pinpoint where we might have mite issues where we might have, you know, leafhopper issues, areas that need to get treated. And that actually allows us to go through and just cite specific treat. Instead of treating an entire vineyard block, we’re able to just treat specific areas.

Jennifer: It was only what like five, seven years ago, it was half of farm workers weren’t using smartphones. 

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. 

Jennifer: So, if people are dropping pins that’s…

Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. You know, 30 years ago, in order to make a phone call, you’d have to drive in a, in a town or go to your house to call your irrigator to do stuff. And now it’s, this is almost, it’s like real time farming. Now we can make decisions on the fly. And one of the big advantages to using variable rate applications is that you’re only applying the amount of nutrients or amendments that are needed for a specific area. So before we adapted this variable rate technology, we would drive down a row and we would put a consistent amount of amendments, whether it be gypsum, lime, soil, sulfur, we would apply that amount evenly throughout the entire vineyard block. Now we realize going through and using this variable rate technology is that we might cut the, the amendments that are needed by 20 to 30% on a specific vineyard block, just by applying the correct amounts of nutrients where they’re needed and not overlying where they’re not needed 

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The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda

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🧠


This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.

Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.

What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram

Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable.  But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.

Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)

4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s Artemis moon mission has been delayed again
Due to tropical storm Ian. (BBC)
+ Saudi Arabia wants to send its first female astronaut into space. (Insider $)

6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $) 

8 The Danish city that banned Google
The tech giant’s handling of children’s data wasn’t properly assessed. (Wired $)
+ Google says it’s unwilling to pitch it to fund network costs in Europe. (Reuters)

9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)

10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion 🍔
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”

—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells? 

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader. 
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.



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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles

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This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles


Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.

But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)

According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.

Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.

Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.

“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”

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