RelayRides: Car Sharing On The Rise In Boston

By Jaclyn Cashman   |   Friday, October 28, 2011
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Oct. 28, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 27 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — Move over Hertz and Budget, there's a new option for renting a car in Boston: You can borrow your neighbor's. At a price, of course.

Michael Monroe lives in Somerville and sold his car two years ago because he didn't want the financial and logistical hassle of owning a vehicle in the city, so he rents one from time-to-time.

"I feel free now that I don't own a car. Between the train, my own two legs and RelayRides I feel really covered," Monroe said.

Monroe uses RelayRides to help him find a car in his neighborhood that he can rent directly from the car owner. He rents cars by the hour and the cost of the gas is on the owner.

One big component of this service is trust, because in this case the owner has to give the renter access to the garage with other personal belongings inside.

"It really is an exercise in community and trust. I think people who are signing up are not scheming for the heist of the century," Monroe said.

RelayRides started last year and is currently only in Boston and San Francisco. It allows owners to rent out their idle vehicles, with the owner controlling the rates and availability of the car. RelayRides provides an online marketplace and a $1 million insurance policy to make the transaction safe and convenient.

Carsharing in North America has grown from 400,000 users in 2009 to 640,000 in July 2011. A recent study projects carsharing will have an estimated 4.4 million users by 2016.

That has Kevin Patton-Hock seeing green. He gets about $150 to $300 dollars a month without any heavy lifting. "It is kind of a cool neighborhood thing. It is funny to bump into someone who is using the car," Patton-Hock said.

He rents out his vehicle to strangers for seven dollars an hour and in return he gets some spare cash.

Patton-Hock says RelayRides makes him take better care of his car and also often uses the money for car repairs and maintenance.

Harvard University's 'Kindness Pledge'

By Toni Waterman   |   Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Oct. 5, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 3 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There's a new and controversial philosophy at Harvard University this year. All incoming students have been asked to take what has been dubbed "The Kindness Pledge." It reads:

"As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to make the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment."

It sounds innocent enough, but the pledge is sparking debate. For one thing, says former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis, the school has a 375-year-old tradition of rejecting pledges.

"If you go back and read about Harvard in the 17th century, it talks about how, unlike Oxford and Cambridge where the founders had been educated, Harvard didn't have any religious oaths and that's kind of persisted over the years," said Lewis.

He said Harvard isn't a particularly unkind place to begin with, so he was surprised when he heard about the pledge. Apparently, the pledge is the result of a few unhappy incidents between students and staff last year.

Still, Lewis finds ‘kindness' an odd value to pick, considering the schools history.

"We actually value nonconformity. And nonconformity, you know, can sometimes seem to be unkind if the person you are disagreeing with finds you disagreeable," he said, adding, "So I began to worry a little bit about the sort of thought control tendency."

Lewis said asking freshman on their very first day of school to sign a pledge to control their thoughts undermines the school's stated objective — and Roman model — Veritas, the goddess of truth. Lewis thinks there's perhaps been some confusion between civility and kindness.

"They're not the same thing. I actually do think that it's reasonable to ask people to be civil," Lewis said. "But kindness means going beyond the call of duty, you know, to do something extra."

As for the students on campus, reaction has been mixed, one senior said that all the students are prescreened before they arrive, so the school already knows what its getting. "In my class, I feel most of the kids are very kind. So I don't think it's necessary," he said as he hurried off to class.

A sophomore added, "They shouldn't have to sign a pledge to do that. They should already want to be like that, or be like that in general."

But some Harvard students think the pledge is a good thing.

"I think it's a good thing to reinforce moral values in people and remind them that Harvard is a place that expects you to act and to be a person of character," said one senior. Another one added, "If it starts a discussion, I think sometimes, you know, it's a good place to start making change."

Lewis doesn't say that change is a bad thing, but says "The Kindness Pledge," like most moral postures, is a bit hypocritical.

"It seemed odd to expect freshmen to pledge to do something which not everyone among that professorial and deans and presidents always show. We did after all have a notable former Harvard President who referred to some students during the summer using a seven-letter word, which began with "A" said Lewis.

Lewis is, of course, referring to the July incident in which President Larry Summers called the infamous Winklevoss twins a disparaging word.

"And was there any statements from the deans and the presidents and the faculty about how the former president, the university professor, should be kinder to students? No," said Lewis. "They expect the most powerless, sort of the bottom people on the totem pole to pledge to something that is neither exhibited nor pledged to by the people who have greater power in the University."

Boston: There's An App For That

By Jess Bidgood   |   Tuesday, February 22, 2011
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Feb. 22, 2011

A group of students, programmers and Code For America fellows gather at Microsoft's NERD center in Cambridge to brainstorm new uses and improvements on Boston's civic data. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Last summer, the MBTA unleashed a small revolution for people who spend minutes — even hours — waiting for the bus.
They released a stream of data that used GPS technology to track the location of all of its busses. Within days, developers created a number of applications that allowed smart phones, like iPhones or Androids, to tell users when their bus would arrive.
But Steve Hershman has a big problem with those applications.  

A screen shot from the PocketMBTA iPhone app, which predicts arrival times of MBTA busses. Some developers are working to make those predictions more accurate.

“So, I have a dumb phone,” he said, referring to his basic, regular, non-smart, non-fancy cell phone. “It drives me nuts that all my friends (with smart phones) can figure out where the bus is, but I can’t.”
He’s in the right place to tackle that problem. He’s sitting with about a dozen other programmers, students and data-heads at a long table at the Microsoft New England Research and Development center — NERD for short — underneath a futuristic-looking neon tube light.
They’re among a growing number of individuals dreaming up new possibilities for Boston’s civic data — basic streams of information on topics ranging from the city’s sidewalks, to school busses, to building shadows to that MBTA bus data. And they’ve all gathered at Code For America’s DataCamp, a low-key afternoon dedicated to thinking up new ways city data can make people’s lives easier.
Max Ogden talks excitedly with just about everyone there. A Code For America fellow who helped organize the event, he’s a longhaired, bearded computer programmer and something of a civic data evangelist. He says we’re just beginning to imagine all that we can do with the city’s numbers.
He and his team chat about their main project in Boston, which is to help the city use ID cards given to Boston Public School students to generate data about their extracurricular activities, grades, MBTA usage and more. That could help educators unlock why some students are successful and others aren’t.
Hershman, who is getting a Ph.D. in systems biology at Harvard, has never played with civic data before, and he seems a little sheepish. “I haven’t hacked around with local data, and I kind of wanted to, and I figured that would be a fun thing to do on a Sunday,” Hershman said.
And, even though some people have been in this room for five hours, it is fun. The room echoes with fingers hitting keyboards — but also with lively conversation. Two people compare GPS tracking in Ghana to that in Boston. Another woman is there to offer programmers advice on how to patent their work.

Across the table, David Crosbie and Michael Cox are discussing their work to make current data more reliable. They’ve noticed that mobile apps that use the MBTA’s GPS data don’t always predict the right time for the bus’s arrival.
In their view, those inaccuracies stem from the fact that apps connect to the MBTA’s “firehose” of raw data each time you ask them to make a prediction.
“It helps if you do that once, and if you do that with a nice big brain, rather than if you do that on your little cell phone,” Crosbie says.
He and Cox want to take the T’s data and make it into a format that’s much easier to understand — using their own prediction model.“So we take the cow, and we slice it up and we hand it out in little burger,” Crosbie said.
Mmm. Real-time data sliders. Yum.
There’s nothing formal about this day, no official goals or set of outcomes. But Ogden wants it that way. He’s hoping that, one project at a time, the city’s policymakers and programmer-hacker types will realize how much they have in common. “People want to help make their cities run better, but they are not clear on avenues to do so,” Ogden explained. “We want to figure out how to let the community that lives here interact with (the city) over time.”

Programmers, students, hackers and people from all walks of city life will gather again this weekend at Boston Globe Hack Day.

Your comments: What kinds of apps would make your life easier?

Mollie Woodworth: Neuroscientist

Thursday, September 16, 2010
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The Planetarium Laser Show Returns — with a Twist

By Anne Mostue   |   Tuesday, June 19, 2012
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June 20, 2012

laser show

A tangle of "laser" light projections on the planetarium's 57-foot domed screen. Sweet. (Museum of Science)

BOSTON — Do you remember Friday nights at the Museum of Science in high school and college? Laser lights, special effects and Pink Floyd and Zeppelin. This summer it's back — but with a local band and a 21st-century touch. 
"The technology is video projection, but like video projection on steroids," said David Rabkin, director of the Museum of Science planetarium.
To be exact, it isn't actually a laser show.
"It's all digital video, there's no lasers involved," he explained. "The range of colors and the detail and the motion that we can do now, there's just no comparison. It's a completely different media."
Using the same 3-D digital animation software that engineers at Pixar use, the Museum of Science staff have animated an album's worth of '70s-style rock music by the band Ghosts of Jupiter.
The result is a trippy movement through space, the human body and whirling geometric shapes. At times it can even induce a little vertigo.
The show is purely entertainment, Rabkin said, in keeping with the previous, popular laser shows.
"It was sort of this cultural icon, and I think sort of a rite of passage is a good way to think about it. Sort of a touchpoint in Boston," he said.
Rabkin called this the most technologically advanced digital theater in New England, thanks to a $9 million renovation that was completed last year and funded through the Charles Hayden Foundation and private donations.
And he was eager to point out that the museum isn't just for children. The new animation and other planetarium shows are attracting lots of adults, including Ghosts of Jupiter guitarist Johnny Trama.
"When I first came to town I think I was here every weekend. That's why this is like really cool," Trama said. "Back then it was just a couple of squiggly lines in the dark. Now it's — I mean, you're literally flying through space. It's pretty cool."
"The Ghosts of Jupiter: Music Experience" opens June 22 at the Museum of Science.

Xconomy Report: Charging Up

By Gregory T. Huang, Editor, Xconomy Boston   |   Friday, June 15, 2012
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June 15, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Can anyone make a battery that’s durable and lasts longer than the status quo? A123 Systems thinks it can — and just in time. The Boston-area cleantech company has been struggling with layoffs and lost revenues, but says it has a new lithium-ion battery that is better and cheaper for electric vehicles. The technology could also be used to store energy for the electric grid. A123 plans to hire 400 new workers in Michigan, as it ramps up production in a tough climate for energy companies.
In other innovation news…
Waltham-based Constant Contact is expanding in Web marketing with its acquisition of New York startup SinglePlatform, which helps restaurants and businesses list their menus and products online. The acquisition could be worth up to $100 million including earn-outs.
Our deal of the week goes to Boston-based Rhythm Pharmaceuticals, a developer of drugs for diabetes and obesity. The two-year-old company has raised $25 million in new venture funding.
And Ministry of Supply, a startup out of MIT, has launched a campaign on the Kickstarter website to support production of its high-tech, thermal-regulating dress shirts. It joins Blank Label as another local apparel company using crowd-sourced funding to roll out new products. 



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