'Smart-up' out to solve the world's ills

Sam Smiley (left) and Gina Kamentsky talk on their iCan, a light-hearted communication idea. Sam Smiley (left) and Gina Kamentsky talk on their iCan, a light-hearted communication idea. (Globe Staff Photo / Yoon S. Byun)
By Katherine McInerney
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2008
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In basements and bars around the city, engineers, artists, philosophers, and techies have been coming together under the auspices of a local "smart-up" aimed at making the world a better place.

The goal is admittedly pretty broad, say the MIT graduates who host the get-togethers. But for Will Bosworth and Alex Hornstein, ambiguity is part of the design.

"We would hate to be focused, because we really don't know what we're doing," said the 23-year-old Hornstein, who founded an engineering-design company called Necessary, Useful, Beautiful with his former classmates Bosworth and Alec Resnick, both 22. (Resnick has since left NUB to establish his own community workshop.)

Playing off their company's name, the founders call their open-to-the-public meetings NUBtalks. They invite passionate people doing interesting things around Boston to gather for food, drink, and conversation at various locations around the city.

The talks are an opportunity for people to discover and capitalize on latent community expertise, said Hornstein. A socially aware artist and an MBA, for example, may be surprised to learn that they share a common goal that could benefit from their partnership. The NUBtalks' purpose, said Hornstein, is to foster ideas and conversation.

NUBtalk speakers have presented on such diverse topics as education revolution, Zimbabwe orphans, and Boston's bicycle nerd gang, a "nerdy sci-fi club in disguise," according to Hornstein.

At one talk, Charlie DeTar, an MIT grad student, reflected on the relationship between technology and happiness. At another, former MIT student Zack Anderson told of how he found a security hole in the MBTA's Charlie Card system.

On a recent Sunday evening at Tapeo restaurant on Newbury Street, artist Sam Smiley of the AstroDime Transit Authority, an art-based group that considers issues of transportation and communication, showed off a "short-wave communication device" she and fellow artist Gina Kamentsky made from two tin cans connected with PVC pipe. They call it the iCan.

"It was sort of a joke at first," Smiley said of the tin-can technology. But once they realized that it could work, the project proved to be a nostalgic, low-tech, and useful method of communication.

"People have proven really hungry for showcasing this kind of thing," Resnick said of the NUB talks. The NUBs estimate the events typically draw anywhere from 30 to 150 people - some of them regulars, some newcomers or wanderers who stumble across the gathering and decide to stay.

For Hornstein and Bosworth, the collaborative spirit and interest in new ideas that characterizes their NUBtalks carries over into their day jobs at their engineering-design company in Somerville. They spent the warmer months working out of a former auto garage in East Somerville and invited anyone to come in and use the space to create. The pair moved to a warmer location near Union Square this fall.

"We started thinking about all of the problems in the world," Hornstein said. "And we found that almost none of them were technical problems."From environmental calamity to subpar schools and urban congestion, the duo saw a need in their community and others for creative solutions. They say they want to use technology to empower communities in need of social change.

One of the company's early projects is the nublogger, an open-source datalogger that can be mass-produced at a low cost for schools. Their logobot is an affordable robot designed to work as a computer programming teaching tool.

The Cambridge School of Weston is using the datalogger to help teach its global-warming curriculum, and the nublogger is in schools in Birmingham, Ala., Richardson, Texas, and Duxbury.

Hornstein admits, however, that the fledgling company is not yet making enough money to support two people.Still, they plan to keep the ideas flowing. After a hiatus, they hope to hold their next NUBtalk in mid-January.

For more information, see the blog

Katherine McInerney can be reached at

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