Tuesday, May 29, 2012


MIT students pull off "The Holy Grail of Hacks"

I've been officially separated from MIT since I retired at the end of June 2007, but I visit former colleagues in Music and Theater Arts there with some regularity when I'm in Boston and I keep up on some areas of Institute culture.  One thing I love more than any of the others are the famous student hacks, all great feats of planning, engineering, coordination and design.

Hacks, by the "rules," must cause no damage to anyone or any structure, be put in place in one night, include instructions on how to dismantle any construction for MIT Buildings and Grounds staff, and they are anonymous.  Occasionally, hack teams will reveal themselves at significant class reunions.  hacks that show especial creativity, wit, structural ingenuity, etc. are especially admired.  This spring
the outfitting of the Green Building at the very center of the campus as a giant Tetris game turned into a landmark hack in that it will attain a continuing life as part of the MIT campus.

The ‘holy grail’ of hacks:
The construction of one of the most anticipated hacks of all time
By Jessica L. Pourian, EDITOR IN CHIEF of The Tech, MIT Student Newspaper
May 1, 2012

153 windows, 153 pixels. Two weekends ago, the front of the Green Building lit up in a colorful display of the popular puzzler Tetris. The 17x9 pixel screen spanned over 80 by 250 feet — making it the second largest screen in the nation. Appearing mysteriously on Friday night, the Tetris hack was the culmination of over four and a half years of work by an undisclosed number of hackers. With the completion of the hack came the conclusion of a dream; the idea of transforming Building 54 into a working game of Tetris has been a fantasy of hackers for decades.

“The point was to do something that was marked as impossible,” one of the hackers said to The Tech this Sunday.

Birth of a hack
The idea of doing Green Building Tetris has been around since the 80s when the game was first invented, and the inception of this hack started just over four years ago. 

One of the biggest challenges in the engineering process was how to properly illuminate the entire window from a single spot. The device needed to be small enough to not annoy the room’s occupant, but powerful enough to uniformly light the window. Each window on the Green Building is about eight feet tall by six feet wide, and formed one pixel of the entire display. Every window was outfitted with a custom built LED board that was wirelessly controlled. 

“It wouldn’t have been possible to run wires to put everything together,” a hacker said, “From our perspective; this was the only way you could possibly build it.”

The units used consisted of 2-layer aluminum-core printed circuit boards housed in an aluminum casing. To cut costs, the hackers used standard aluminum bar stock which was CNC machined to create custom one-piece housings. The devices all have 13 LEDs on them, each rated for 3 watts. The hackers went through five different prototypes before settling on the final version.

One of the advantages of the design was its heat dissipation. “They are thermally linked to the window sill,” said a hacker, “Turns out we don’t actually run them that hot, ever. If you were to run them [to full capacity], it would still only be warm to the touch.”

The housing for each board was also specially designed for the wireless antennae, which communicated with a computer held in the podium where players controlled the game. 

With the design finalized, the time came to implement the hack. The team worked for two months nonstop.  “We worked every night from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” he said, “I’m not kidding you, every night for like two months.”

The fruit of their efforts was the patriotic display that appeared on the Green Building on 9/11. The flag, which went up in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of September 11, is the same LED system that was used for the Tetris Hack.  

They were responsible for the purple ribbon that appeared on the building in honor of Relay for Life in March. Tetris was the original goal of the project, and they set their sights on Campus Preview Week for its premiere.  “It’s a time when people want to put up hacks,” one of the hackers explained, “The more you can get prefrosh interested in hacks, the more likely you get more interesting prefrosh to come to MIT.”

Tetris in action
When the hack finally went live, the Twitterverse and Facebook exploded with photos of the event, with dozens of MIT students boasting about seeing the coolest hack ever. A number of Boston media reported on the event, and the internet carried the story even further.  Asked how they felt when the Tetris hack finally went live Friday night?  “It was freaking awesome,” said one of the hackers.  “Watching it from across the river is pretty freaking sweet,” added another. 

The future
The hackers have made arrangements with EAPS (Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary sciences); the residents of Building 54, to keep the hack installed permanently so future generations can use the Green Building’s “screen.”

“In general, EAPS is supportive,” said a hacker,  “They think it’s difficult to manage, but it’s still pretty cool. People whose windows they are in actually all have varied opinions.”  To prevent occupants from getting angry with the hack, each unit has a button that will disable the light for a few hours. 

Open source
The plan to release the software used to create the Tetris game on the internet so people can try and make their own hack that could run on the building.  “Everything would still go through us to make sure it’s vetted and ok with us,” one of the hackers said, “We would like to open this up to a general audience.”


Given the "War on Women" (which it denies because it essentially doesn't recognize the equality of women in the first place) and it's entry into the American political process on the far Right, it becomes obvious that there are highly reactionary movements afoot within the Catholic Church.  Specifically, there is a move to return things to their condition prior to the Vatican II Council with its breath of fresh air in the form of liberal changes and moves to make the Church rituals more comprehensible and connected to the laity.   

Some of the pomp and splendor that had accrued to the Pope, cardinals and bishops over the centuries had been retired (as in the Pope no longer being crowned like an emperor), while the everyday vestments of the priests saying Mass were simplified and some of what might be called sacred frou-frou was packed away and replaced by more modest vestments.  But now all the old attitudes, exclusivity and pomp are roaring back.

Bishop Slattery of Tulsa being his own procession in a 20 yard long train, the rear hem of which is being carried by an altar boy. 

Here, the other end of the train in the National Catholic Cathedral in D.C.  What in the modern world is the purpose of such display, except to distance the clergy from the faithful, the very alienation that Vatican II was trying to eliminate?  We were taught in Catholic school that the clergy are supposed to be "Christ-like" and are indeed Christ's representatives on Earth; it's very difficult to imagine Jesus swanning around in this kind of empty, self-aggrandizing royalist drag. 

Former Bishop Burke of St. Louis, now a Cardinal working as head of a major Vatican department.  When I saw this, I thought it looked like the Mother of the Bride outfit from Hell.  I thought they all took a vow of poverty.  I know they always preach the virtues of simplicity and avoiding vanity to the faithful.  The above images depict a festival of vanity; money that could be spent feeding the hungry and clothing the needy is being squandered on luxury and ostentatious personal display. 

The other day when I first began putting this entry together, the scandal of the Pope's butler leaking documents detailing money laundering and corruption by the Vatican Bank was hitting the newscasts.  How long can the outrageous behavior of these people be sustained and tolerated?  Where is Martin Luther now that he's needed again?


The hack is amazing!

Bishop Burke looks like something out of Chaucer.

And I love the final quote! :)
The hack is brilliant.

The UNgodly extravagances of the leadership of the Catholic church are appalling.
I just finished a history on Martin Luther. Fascinating man and fascinating time. It is a comfort for me to know today's scandal is no different than any other time's scandal.
Wow! Two items that are news to me (and I don't live in an internet shell as you know, Will).

The hack is brilliant.

I am appalled by Bishop Slattery's train. These men are modern sadducees.
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