Sorry about the window. If you don’t like my solution, build your own.
August 17, 2020 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Ethan Zuckerman leaves a note to future occupant of his office in the MIT Media Lab. The window has some...unique features. And attempts to remove them.
posted by MrGuilt (41 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
You have to forgive him for inventing pop-up ads, right? (He's a friend.)
posted by wellred at 9:40 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


That was a fun, quick read. And I love the idea of the copper wings project.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:51 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


a) I love this.

b) I may love this even more. (I was googling to see if I could find more information on the copper angel wings--I really want to see them--and the first thing that hit my search terms, other than the original post, was this beaut from newshimalaya.com, in which the post has apparently been translated and retranslated into English. Sample: "When drowsing on this set of industrial, I chanced on it helpful to quilt the blue gentle on the sector with a put up-it sign.")
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:59 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


Important context for this post: On me, and the Media Lab. Zuckerman was one of the first people to speak out about the Epstein funding scandal and one of the few to quit his job over it. (As discussed previously on MeFi).

That puts a little extra poignant twist to the part of his story about the "young woman [who] left the Media Lab". He's coy, but that story may possibly be related to the food computers which were bad science and possibly more.

The rest of the story is your classic cute MIT hack story about the socially awkward nerd and their weird hours and unique solution to problems. Or if like me and you're in a cynical mood.. It's about a grad student wasting time on a solved and irrelevant problem, coming up with something that doesn't really work, then leaving the mess behind for someone else to clean up.

PS: I hear Joi Ito is back at work for himself quietly making VC investments. He's mostly kept a low profile online and in the media. The food computer guy is active on Twitter working with cows now and advertises himself as an MIT alum.
posted by Nelson at 10:00 AM on August 17, 2020 [25 favorites]


What a fun story! Pieces like this fill me with a nostalgia for a kind of idealized college campus that never actually was but gets conjured whenever someone describes the best, strangest parts of a place.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:20 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


(Fun letter, I should say. A very poetic welcome to the next inhabitant.)
posted by Going To Maine at 10:21 AM on August 17, 2020


The woman-with-wings story was frustrating.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:31 AM on August 17, 2020 [14 favorites]


I must have shown up just a few minutes too late... because now that link is a 404 not found and his main website just shows an Apache HTTP server test page.

No wonder it gave me a warning that it didn't support TLS 1.2, it's not even set up!

Archive of same article since the website seems to be DOA now:

https://archive.is/X73Ez
posted by deadaluspark at 10:32 AM on August 17, 2020


It's fitting that it's a story about a knob.
posted by Umami Dearest at 10:34 AM on August 17, 2020 [13 favorites]


I feel like maybe I've not lived my life correctly because I've never received a letter that wonderful.

I want to find the guy who left that window opening machine and slap him in the face with a rotting trout.

I love that in the end her solution involved carving a chunk of wood. Sometime the best solutions are the oldest and most straight-forward.
posted by bondcliff at 10:41 AM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]


I suppose I'm delighted to see that the terrible electric-window-opener implementation I would have come up with is on par with that of an MIT researcher.
posted by Kikujiro's Summer at 10:42 AM on August 17, 2020 [11 favorites]


You have to forgive him for inventing pop-up ads, right? (He's a friend.)

wrong
posted by entropicamericana at 11:30 AM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


Buried lede in the middle even so much better:

And late one night, I saw a young woman walk past my door wearing a massive pair of delicate, filigreed copper angel wings. When I stopped her to inquire, she explained that the wings were attached to a Peltier junction, which rested between her shoulders. As she radiated heat, the Peltier junction cooled her off and generated electric power in the process. The copper wings served as a heat sink. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever seen. Only tonight, writing this note to you, did I realize that she’d solved the same problem our roommate was obsessed with, albeit more poetically.
posted by sammyo at 11:48 AM on August 17, 2020 [11 favorites]


Oh no this is how I'm going to leave my house when I eventually sell.

Look at this nifty thermostat! It has a standard programmable schedule, but you can also control it from your phone! And here's a python script that runs on a cron schedule on a raspberry pi that goes to the website and grabs the current temp! And if those motion sensors detect motion while you're normally away it'll assume you're home and change the temp for you! Except IFTTT stopped working with the thermostat and I haven't figured out why, so I need to set up a different python script someone put on github that everyone says works but last time I tried it locked my thermostat account because the company doesn't have a public API so the script is scraping the website which is technically against the terms of service, so don't run it too frequently!

Now, let me tell you about these light switches and the different apps/protocols that control them..... You know git right?
posted by Is It Over Yet? at 11:51 AM on August 17, 2020 [24 favorites]


I wish I could write project comments like this: "If it start beeping, either it’s malfunctioning and needs to be rebooted, or there’s a significant radiation leak on campus."
posted by Gorgik at 11:52 AM on August 17, 2020 [14 favorites]


Much nicer than leaving a note on a switch that just says "Magic / More magic".
posted by biogeo at 11:57 AM on August 17, 2020 [12 favorites]


That reminds me so much of my time at the Media Lab - a lot of strange passionate people working on things that while interesting often made you wonder what was it for?
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:01 PM on August 17, 2020 [2 favorites]


I want copper cooling wings RIGHT NOW.
posted by The otter lady at 12:10 PM on August 17, 2020 [21 favorites]


He [...] explained that the aircon in that office had never worked, and that his rersearch at the Media Lab had focused on regulating the temperature in our office.

What a slick grift. How do I go where he is and get paid to do literally nothing?
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 12:25 PM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


I once helped design a "Media Lab Lite" building for a local college - joint building for the business, programming, and design programs. To meet the (relatively high) standards for energy efficiency the school wanted a "mixed mode" ventilation system for faculty offices, similar to what was described here- IE, weather station would determine if natural or mechanical ventilation made sense and open the windows as necessary. Working with the faculty we quickly determined that any system that removed user control was going to cause... HR problems.

We came up with a similar but different solution that worked as such: if the weather station reported a good or bad natural ventilation day (based upon a particulate level, humidity and temp envelope), it would light up a green or red LED next to the window. The faculty member would then have the choice if they opened the window, and if they did, the HVAC shunted to exhaust only. As this required individual VAVs for offices (tho i think we used groups of 2 or 3), it was much more expensive, and was ultimately less efficient than a "top down" solution (although still much better than no operable windows at all), but the people in the building love it so... it's good?

Thinking about this still gives me mixed-mode feels. The $$ put into mechanical systems came directly out of building finishes and external sunshades btw.
posted by q*ben at 1:33 PM on August 17, 2020 [7 favorites]


That’s a interesting sibling of the steam heat and open windows thread, q*ben. Human control, energy efficiency, operating cost, likely maintenance costs and risks...
posted by clew at 1:44 PM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


Interesting that the author is a geek of major standing but "make the electronic control work better" wasn't an approach he considered, or wasn't an approach he expected to be fruitful.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:54 PM on August 17, 2020


I knew all the occupants of that office (including the unnamed researcher) prior to Ethan, so I want to share a little bit of context on that work. I worked for ~3 years four offices down the hall from the corner office Ethan eventually sat.

The vision statement was basically "our environments should adapt to our needs, not to the monolithic settings of a building owner." So for that to be true, there needs to be more fine grained sensing (what are people experiencing in each space) and fine grained control. Roughly, room-level micro environments. People get their environmental needs better met and the building spends less energy trying to get all spaces to the same temperature (often colder than many building residents want in the summer).

I see a productive tension in the "how" here. The Media Lab approach is roughly "share a grand vision, build one small vertical slice of that vision to make it feel real enough for people to engage with the vision and think some other way of being is possible.

There's an irony that this people-centric vision decayed into exactly the opposite of what he intended after the system shut down and he moved on. So for me the critique is "too obsessed with novelty and not sustainability or responsibly deprecating things that don't work." The incentive systems are to share a big vision to get people excited and then bounce. That flows from the lab's funding models and the media ecosystem around it.

But to me, the caricature doesn't land here. That idea (even in 2010 or whatever) might have been old hat. Maybe his distributed sensing technique was unnecessary technology to flex his own skillset in solving a problem. Maybe he should have returned the office to its prior (also broken, fwiw) state. But I don't think this is a grand metaphor for pointless, narcissistic work.
posted by heresiarch at 1:55 PM on August 17, 2020 [12 favorites]


the building spends less energy trying to get all spaces to the same temperature (often colder than many building residents want in the summer).

Not if your solution is to let the building keep trying to get everything to the same temperature, but you keep opening your window.
posted by ctmf at 3:13 PM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]


Steve Mould just did a video on the Peltier effect: Make Electricity Go Round and Round - The Thermoelectric Effect... If you want to start thinking about your own angel wings.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:37 PM on August 17, 2020 [1 favorite]


That idea (even in 2010 or whatever) might have been old hat. Maybe his distributed sensing technique was unnecessary technology to flex his own skillset in solving a problem. Maybe he should have returned the office to its prior (also broken, fwiw) state. But I don't think this is a grand metaphor for pointless, narcissistic work.

From where I sit, all of those things you mentioned (already-examined problem; selfish reasons for implementing a solution; no plan for sustainability or maintenance ) sure support its use as a metaphor. Maybe not a grand metaphor...

My problem with that kind of approach is the ironic agency-by-proxy theme that seems to pervade many Media Center projects. Whereas anyone who's warm can just put on a neat pair of copper wings, this system needs to either constantly spy on everyone to indirectly infer (guess) if they're too warm, or have everyone pre-register their environmental preferences with the building and agree to be constantly tracked. And that's not even considering the algorithm needed to resolve conflicts when two people who need different environments are in the same room.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:50 PM on August 17, 2020 [6 favorites]


I want copper cooling wings RIGHT NOW.

I'm surprised the Playa isn't full of them every year, in a variety of different designs (angelic, faerielike, gothy, Gigeresque biomechanical, absinthe-soaked art-nouveau fever dream, &c,)
posted by acb at 4:04 PM on August 17, 2020 [8 favorites]


I want copper cooling wings RIGHT NOW.
No wings, but Sony will sell you the same tech if you're in Japan.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:31 PM on August 17, 2020 [3 favorites]


Primates! We just love to manipulate our environments!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:49 AM on August 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


Whereas anyone who's warm can just put on a neat pair of copper wings, this system needs to either constantly spy on everyone to indirectly infer (guess) if they're too warm, or have everyone pre-register their environmental preferences with the building and agree to be constantly tracked. And that's not even considering the algorithm needed to resolve conflicts when two people who need different environments are in the same room.

That's why they over-chill (since the wings don't really work). Anyone who is cold can put on a sweater. But that solution sucks. People don't actually like it very much.

have everyone pre-register their environmental preferences with the building and agree to be constantly tracked.

This seems like serious linguistic overkill. 'Constantly tracked'? The guy put a complex solution in his personal office. People are surprisingly agreeable to managing their own temperature on their own property, so it makes sense they'd agree to manage the temperature on property they don't own but spend tons of their working day.

He didn't invent Olaf's personal flurry.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:50 AM on August 18, 2020


That's why they over-chill (since the wings don't really work). Anyone who is cold can put on a sweater.

Also, hot people stink, but cold ones don't. usually
posted by ctmf at 6:21 PM on August 18, 2020 [1 favorite]


I’ve been doodling mechanical interlocks that would close the HVAC inlet exactly when the window was open, but I bet they would get jammed worse than sash weights do. Wouldn’t work with all kinds of heat/cooling, anyway.
posted by clew at 8:05 PM on August 18, 2020


That's not a great solution - a good deal of the comfort issues with conventional HVAC lies in zoning. More zones cost money and can hamper efficiency, so often the design groups together spaces that shouldn't be in the same zone - say, a conference room and an open office, or a space with south facing windows and a space with west facing windows. Additional dampers can help but only so much, and given that these spaces have different heat loads at different times, you're virtually guaranteeing through design that one of these spaces will be habitually cold or warm (usually cold, per the reasons above).

When it gets installed, the installer tries to make it work as well as possible through balancing, but can't really anticipate how things will work, and often can't overcome fundamental design issues. Thus people attempt to fix things by modifying individual duct runs or outlets, which usually throws the original balancing haywire, making people elsewhere uncomfortable. Then they do their own modifications and the cycle continues.

Essentially, the standard VAV solutions aren't compatible with user modification, and even worse makes user modification into a prisoner's dilemma situation. Moving to a different methodology (individual zoning, chilled beams, underfloor systems, etc) is better if you're actually interested in empowering occupants to modify their own environment, but all of these come at a cost vs the current lowest common denominator.
posted by q*ben at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2020 [2 favorites]


There's also the problem that the HVAC maybe worked perfectly fine for the original layout of the office but things have since changed (i.e. added a conference room or changed from a bunch of offices to open space, etc.). So you end up with a situation I had once where the thermostat takes it's reading from an office with west-facing windows when originally it was a larger room that had since been broken down into offices.


(This is probably less common in academic buildings where (based on my experience) the rooms are generally set.)
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:07 AM on August 20, 2020 [1 favorite]


What a slick grift. How do I go where he is and get paid to do literally nothing?
Is the objection that work on individual climate systems is worthless? Maybe. However, open-ended research environments are one of the few places that appear to foster truly innovative thought. It's hard to overstate the impact of giving creative people wildly expensive equipment and time to use it. For instance, the researchers at PARC basically invented the desktop GUI in the the 70s, because they were given personal computers at the time when the concept was a) clearly insane because b) computers cost as much as a house. It's truly difficult to imagine, at a time when computers (broadly construed, phones are computers) are hyper-visual and focused on interpreting our every wish, that this reference card nestled on top of the function keys on the keyboard was considered a helpful and innovative guide to using software as late as 1990. To be quite serious, the idea that non-programmers could and would use computers at all was a bit kooky until the 80s. Now our kids are going to mandatory online school as their only form of instruction. The world would be a much poorer place if researchers in the 70s weren't making this stuff.

To bring it back to the specific topic, I'd argue that individual climate is going to happen at some point. A hundred years ago, air conditioning was novel. Now it's very common, though not universal, and I don't know anyone who lives in a house with more than a couple zones to control it. "Smart" thermostats seem pretty dumb now, but how does the user indicate their comfort or discomfort with their personal climate, and how does the system respond in a way that's intuitive and energy-efficient? Those are open questions. Will we be hiking a house thermostat up and down in 5 years? Probably. In 50? I'm betting on the nerds.
posted by wnissen at 7:07 AM on August 24, 2020


in academic buildings where (based on my experience) the rooms are generally set.)

Huh! The opposite of my experience. The building one over, last time I was an academic, was on its third fretful attempt to re-purpose its classic demonstration theater (huge skylight, central table, steeply raked seating on the inside of a cone). The building I was in had changed some rooms from storage to labs and back as lab demands changed, and there was so much fossil tubing in the walls. The radiators, upstairs, worked quite well, which is good as the huge windows no longer closed. The forced air system in the basement blew greasy dust on us. )

But, those dreams of slow adaptation beside... q*ben, could you explain what the problem is with turning off the powered heat/cold into my office and opening a window if I think the outside temperature is good? Am I changing pressure in the rest of the heat/cold system? Is this true for all radiators, for instance? Am I causing a draft through my room door? Are we losing to heat transfer through the interior walls of my office?
posted by clew at 8:57 PM on August 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


My last two offices in an academic building were partitioned-off former library stacks.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:06 AM on August 25, 2020


And the one before was a partitioned-off hallway.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:06 AM on August 25, 2020


clew, I should clarify that this is true primarily for variable air volume (VAV) forced air systems. Systems using radiant heat are more suited to individual modification, mainly because radiant heat is more localized and tolerant of offsets from other heat sources (eg windows open, radiator blasting).

The two things to know are: 1. Where is the thermostat? and 2. What systems share your zone? If the thermostat is in the room you're disconnecting than that causes an obvious issue with removing feedback to the system. If you're on a forced air system like a VAV, making localized changes to your room can impact adjacent rooms because the HVAC system is looking at the zone as a whole and assuming a certain air volume it needs to supply based upon the other spaces - if you've shut off one room it will oversupply to the other rooms in the zone which can have weird consequences. Usually this takes the form of the following:

1. It's summer. Thermostat is in a south or west facing room - other rooms are slightly overcooled as a result
2. Someone blocks their register because they're freezing
3. Other spaces have an even more significant overcooling issue as a result
4. (Repeat 2 and 3 until people give up)
5. It's winter. Thermostat is still in a south or west facing room. Other rooms are underheated.
6. Essentially the reverse of 2-4.
7. Repeat 1-6

It's not always a thermostat in the wrong room - if a lot of equipment (eg computers, printers) or people are in the room with the Tstat that's also an issue (internal heat load is actually one of the greatest factors in office HVAC design).

In your situation i'd probably still redirect the vent and open the window. Just be aware that, if you have a conventionally zoned forced air system, you're not actually helping efficiency by blocking the vent- you're just pushing the air to other rooms.
posted by q*ben at 11:22 AM on August 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


Also! Academic HVAC problem - if you have labs with hoods- balancing the ventilation with the hvac is a huge design problem that you can assume wasn't solved properly unless you're in a relatively new facility. The hoods pull air from the general air volume, so the hvac supply is working double time to keep up. Most facilities don't have the sensors to allow the room hvac to know how many hoods are open so that means that if they're all closed the room is probably being oversupplied with air. This is one of the reasons that labs use a TON of energy, and why they always seem colder than the rest of the building.
posted by q*ben at 11:27 AM on August 25, 2020


Thanks, q*ben. I am further confirmed in my dislike of forced air.

We distrusted the hood vents in the patched-up lab building rather a lot, too. Most of the time I was in it the water fountains were taped off because the water wasn’t potable.
posted by clew at 2:45 PM on August 25, 2020


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