Best of the New 2012

Best of the New: People and Ideas

A better spacesuit, the Red Sox’ fresh start, the cutting edge of continuing ed, and help for homeless vets.

Felix Baumgartner in his improved spacesuit.

Balazs Gardi/Red Bull content pool

Felix Baumgartner in his improved spacesuit.

Best of the New contributors: Jenn Abelson, Ami Albernaz, Cheryl Alkon, Kara Baskin, Karen Campbell, Matt Casey, Devra First, Tim Flynn, Ethan Gilsdorf, Alice Gregory, Lucia Huntington, Katherine Hysmith, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Susan Johnston, Sheryl Julian, Joseph P. Kahn, Marni Elyse Katz, Scott Kirsner, Ann Trieger Kurland, Dan Morrell, John Powers, Sebastian Smee, Shira Springer, Tina Sutton, Rachel Travers, and Glenn Yoder




Perhaps it’s not surprising that Greater Boston, a center of educational innovation since at least 1636, has spawned a new niche in continuing ed. and the Boston Startup School are geared to people who already work for start-ups or professionals who hope to land a job at one. Based in the South End, offers after-hours classes taught by seasoned pros. Boston Startup School takes new college grads and, over eight weeks, tries to make them more appealing hires. (After the summer session, 84 companies showed up to recruit 50 graduates.) Some programs are free to students, sponsored by companies looking for employees. The centers are creating “a new gravitational pull for Boston’s start-up scene,” says Bill Warner, a Cambridge entrepreneur and investor.



Shopping by periodic share is no longer just for organic vegetables and heirloom meat. Buy into EH Chocolatier’s CSC and you can use your sweet tooth to support local confectioners. Join on a monthly or biweekly basis; there are pickup locations in the city and suburbs.



The City of Boston is letting some light into its notoriously smoke-filled rooms. First, something for stats geeks. Boston About Results offers a performance review of sorts via municipal minutiae — everything from a tally of party-noise complaints to the number of sidewalk ramps brought into compliance by public works. And it’s not just gloss: The school dropout rate is ticking up and SAT scores are falling, and that’s online, too. Then the city outfitted an old bomb-squad van with laptops and wireless Internet to create City Hall to Go, a place where residents can do everything from pick up school registration forms to get a marriage certificate to pay property taxes. The pilot program is the first of its kind in the country.


When scientists drafted the DNA blueprint of a human being more than a decade ago, they were surprised at how few genes they found. The vast remainder — popularly called junk DNA — was clearly important, but the role it played was “enigmatic,” says Job Dekker, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. That drove Dekker and other scientists to complete the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project, which elucidates the function of much of the rest, providing a powerful tool to probe human biology and disease.


Barbara Erickson helped raise a record $200 million in her last job, as a development executive at Save the Children in New York. Now she’s working to protect the Bay State’s beauty as president of the Trustees of Reservations. One goal in her new role: to double the 2 million annual visitors at Trustees properties over the next decade.


After their worst season in 47 years, marked by a misdelivered Valentine and a COD shipment to Los Angeles, the Red Sox were looking for stability and familiarity in their new field manager. So they rewound to their glory days of champagne and bejeweled rings and brought back the man who’d directed their championship pitching staff, plucking him out of Toronto and plunking him down on what he called “the epicenter of the game.’’ John Farrell has a direct gaze, a strong handclasp, and firmly planted feet. Even better, he won’t have to ask directions to the home clubhouse.



Korean pop sensation PSY’s Gangnam Style video inspired fans around the globe to create parody videos, and MIT senior and novice director Eddie Ha’s is one of the funniest. Linguist Noam Chomsky makes an appearance, and so do the school’s giant beaver mascot, the South Asian Students’ Association (in a Bollywood homage), and Eric Lander, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, who jumps onto a desk and begins dancing. It’s a nice debut for Ha.



Finding homes for chronically homeless veterans is a vexing problem, but HomeStart, a Boston nonprofit, is on the case. The agency is working with the City of Boston, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s the first time the VA has worked with an agency that has an expertise in housing searches, and it’s paying off. Since the collaboration launched in November, 25 veterans have found homes and another 12 are in the final stages of getting an apartment.


Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile space jump in October required a 334-foot-tall helium balloon to get him to altitude, a good deal of courage to hop off — and a tricked-out spacesuit to keep him alive on the way down. Made at Worcester’s David Clark Co., Baumgartner’s get-up featured rearview mirrors to watch for safety chute deployment, pressurization that literally kept his blood from boiling in the thin atmosphere, and maneuverability that allowed him to shift from a feet-first dive to the head-down “Superman” position necessary to fall safely.


The missing piece to the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl puzzle these past few years has been a young, fast pass rusher. Last spring, during the annual NFL draft, head coach Bill Belichick did something he very rarely does. He traded up in the first round to get the player he wanted. That player was defensive end Chandler Jones. It has turned out to be a great move. Jones, with the wingspan of a jet and the speed to match, is among the team leaders in sacks (despite a recent injury) and is a contender for defensive rookie of the year. Soon we’ll find out if he can help complete that championship puzzle.



Computer games aren’t usually associated with productivity, but MIT researcher Sebastian Seung decided to turn the huge scientific challenge of mapping the connections in the nervous system into one. His Eyewire game harnesses the efforts of citizen scientists — 40 to 50 people play each day — to map neurons in the retina. Ultimately, Seung hopes to expand the mapping effort to better understand epilepsy, schizophrenia, and memory.


To find out more about the history and evolution of Earth, scientists have been looking up. Earlier this year, twin NASA spacecraft completed their primary mission, swooping low over the moon’s surface to gather data that will allow scientists to make a finely detailed map of its gravity and internal structure. The GRAIL mission, led by MIT geophysics professor Maria Zuber, will provide a resource for future spacecraft headed toward the moon, but its data will also provide a window into the evolution of rocky planets like Earth.



In January, Shannon Mulaire shifted from Fox 25 weekend anchor to morning news host, replacing veteran Kim Carrigan and becoming the most prominent fresh face in an all-around shake-up on the channel. She now heads the early-riser team along with Gene Lavanchy and Doug “VB” Goudie, providing an easy-to-like even temperament on the gang’s Morning Exchange.


When state engineers created the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s, four Central Massachusetts towns disappeared beneath the waters. In her debut novel, Cascade, Ashland resident Maryanne O’Hara chronicles the fate of one such (fictionalized) town and its inhabitants, notably Desdemona Hart Spaulding, an ambitious artist trapped in a loveless marriage. O’Hara, a former Ploughshares fiction editor, shapes her protagonist’s story to pose questions like: If art is not lastingly valuable, what is? Ponder that over your next glass of tap water.



Boston start-up Boundless’s efforts to drag the old-fashioned textbook into the open-source era — patching together digital course content using available open-license materials — has been met with glowing reviews from investors, who put $9.7 million behind the idea, and students, who like the price (free). The company featured seven digital texts at launch this year, ranging from economics to biology, and kicked off work on its forthcoming physics text in true start-up fashion: a three-day “hack-a-thon,” where physicists from local universities (including Harvard, MIT, and Brandeis) laid out about a third of the intro-level textbook.



A group of entrepreneurs is warding off underarm sweat stains with dress shirts that make use of heat management technology originally developed by NASA. These $108 “Apollo” shirts, created by the Ministry of Supply apparel company in Boston, regulate the body temperature and are moisture-wicking, wrinkle-free, and machine-washable, promises Kit Hickey, one of the cofounders. But don’t throw out your Old Spice yet. “Guys typically still wear deodorant,” she says.



Catching a cab in Boston got a lot more comfortable this year. Two taxi services that launched in the city enable customers to use their smartphones to hail a cab, track its progress in real time, and even pay for the ride at the end. Hailo and Uber offer a salve to Boston’s low-profile livery.


About 100 million children around the world have no access to school. So One Laptop Per Child dropped off solar-powered tablets in two remote Ethiopian villages to see if children — who had no teachers or prior access to technology — could teach themselves to read with pre-loaded alphabet-training games, cartoons, movies, e-books, and other programs. The results are promising after several months, according to the Cambridge nonprofit. The children were reciting the alphabet song, spelling words, and had even customized the machines despite software installed to prevent the hack.


Merely improving people’s surroundings can have dramatic effects on their health and happiness, even if it doesn’t improve their income levels. A study launched in the 1990s gave families in public housing in Boston and other cities access to vouchers that allowed them to move to less poor neighborhoods. In an analysis released this year, researchers found that for every 13 percentage point drop in neighborhood poverty, people reported a surge in happiness equivalent to a $13,000 increase in annual income — a significant raise.


City Councilors Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley want to replicate a New York City program to turn pay phones into wireless hot spots in Boston, offering free WiFi service to anyone within a few hundred feet. The idea is to help increase access to the Internet for low-income and minority residents. According to the Department of Commerce, only 4 out of every 10 households with annual incomes below $25,000 report having wired Internet access at home.

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