All posts by Leo Confalone

Leo is the opinions editor for The Heights. He is from DC, not Washington. He enjoys Italian home cooking, live music, and leather shoes. You can follow him on Twitter @Leo_Confalone

Jeb Bush to Speak at CSOM Finance Conference Next Month

Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida and a 2016 Republican candidate for president, will speak at the 12th annual Carroll School Finance Conference at Boston College on June 7-8, The Boston Globe reported. He will deliver a keynote address on the second day following a continental breakfast. Nicholas Burns, BC ’78, former United States Ambassador to Greece and current visiting professor at Harvard, will also give a talk.

The conference will bring together CSOM faculty and prominent figures in the world of finance and investment. The two-day event is intended to “leverage our capital and our network,” according to a message from Dean of CSOM Andrew Boynton and the conference’s co-chairs on BC’s website. Tickets to the event are $250 for alumni, parents, and industry professionals, and $500 for the general public.

Notable attendees include Alfred F. Kelly, Jr., CEO of Visa; Lindsay LoBue, BC ’96 and Advisory Director at Goldman Sachs; and Vince Gubitosi, BC ’94 and president and chief investment officer of Geode Capital Management, LLC.

Past conferences have featured speakers such as Lawrence H. Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and a former president of Harvard, and Larry Kudlow, an economist and senior contributor at CNBC.

Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

People Magazine to Honor Welles Crowther With Third Annual Award

People magazine announced that it would be honoring the heroism of Welles Remy Crowther, BC ’99, with the third annual Red Bandanna Hero Award.

In partnership with the American Heroes Channel (AHC) and the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, the award will be given to an individual who emulates the courage and bravery of Crowther, who is remembered for his selfless sacrifice during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He saved as many as 18 people before losing his own life during the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The award winner will receive a $10,000 donation to a charity of his or her choice and be featured in People. He or she will also be showcased in an hour-long AHC special airing in the fall.

In addition, the recipient will be given a trip for two to the Red Bandanna Football Game at Alumni Stadium this fall.

When Crowther was 6 years old, his father gave him a red bandanna that he carried with him everywhere. After graduating from BC, where he played lacrosse and studied economics, Crowther moved to New York City to work as an equities trader.

On 9/11, Crowther used his experience as a volunteer firefighter to help rescue survivors from the 78th floor lobby of the South Tower, returning inside the building multiple times after guiding groups of people out to the street. During his heroics, he wore the gift his father gave him around his mouth and nose to guard against smoke, allowing some of those that he saved to later identify him as “the man in the red bandanna.”

The previous winners of the first and second annual Red Bandanna Hero Award are firefighter Jake LaFerriere, who founded Firefighters for Healing, a non-profit that supports young burn survivors and their families, and veteran Christopher Baity, who founded Semper K9, a non-profit that matches wounded members of the armed services with service dogs.

Nominations for the award are being accepted through July 4 here.

Featured Image Courtesy of

Understaffed, Computer Science Seeks Faculty to Meet Demand

Computer science is the fastest growing undergraduate major at Boston College, but the department remains notably understaffed.

According to the BC Factbook, the number of undergraduate computer science majors has grown from 57 in 2007 to 268 in 2016, an increase of 370 percent, the largest of any undergraduate discipline. The number of undergraduate minors increased from 19 in 2012 to 41 in 2016. The computer science department had nine full-time faculty for the 2016-17 school year, a faculty to student ratio of about 1:34 for the department’s 309 majors and minors. The faculty to student ratio in 2007 was about 1:5.

Edward Sciore, an associate professor in the computer science department, is expected to retire this year, and the contract of one of the visiting professors in the department is also set to expire. Robert Signorile, also an associate professor, has deferred his retirement to December of 2018. The department has hired two new tenure-track faculty members, with Lewis Tseng to start teaching in the fall, and Emily Tucker Prud’hommeaux to start in the spring of 2018. Vahid Montazerhodjat has joined the department as a long-term faculty member, and two additional visiting faculty, Ziyuan Meng and Anjum Biswas, have also been hired, bringing the department’s total to 12 for the 2017-18 school year. Despite these new hires, Sergio Alvarez, the department’s chair, believes that the department will still be understaffed.

“We’ve grown a little bit, but that’s because we were simply way understaffed,” he said. “Now we’re still understaffed, and we will be with these additional hires.”

Alvarez is in the process of writing a study comparing the computer science department at BC to those at other leading liberal arts universities, including Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago. In his research, he found that BC’s department would need 16 faculty members to be on par with the general average for universities nationally. He doesn’t see any sign of students’ interest in computer science slowing down, and he thinks that the department needs a minimum of 20 faculty, based on BC’s size, although he ideally would like to have as many as 30, which would bring the faculty to student ratio down to about 1:15 or 1:10, respectively.

Louis Andrews, MCAS ’17, a computer science major, said that the understaffing of the department sometimes makes scheduling tricky, especially for those pursuing a B.S. rather than a B.A., because some required courses are only offered once every other year.

“I can’t imagine that you would find a CS major at this school that their biggest complaint wouldn’t be the lack of classes offered, which is a product of understaffing,” he said.

The University determines how many professors are needed in each department based on the faculty to student credit hour ratio, according to Vice Provost for Faculties Billy Soo. BC looks at student demand for courses in a subject from majors and nonmajors, and then calculates average course size and teaching load per professor. This allows the school to determine the reasonable number of faculty that are needed to staff a department, which can fluctuate from year to year.

The University wants to focus on elevating more junior faculty to tenured positions, and is considering hiring more senior professors in order to accelerate the development of the department, Soo said.

Although it had been offered in CSOM beforehand, a proposal to create a computer science major in MCAS was approved in 1980, and students could officially declare the course of study in the fall of 1981.

Computer science is one of the fastest-growing areas of study at universities across the country, as the American economy has become increasingly reliant on people with technological skills and knowledge in recent years. Because of this, departments at many universities have been highly active in the market for computer science professors, Soo said. This creates a competitive environment that can make it difficult for a school to find and hire enough suitable educators to meet student demand.

“We’re competitive, we can go toe to toe, other than with maybe Harvard and MIT,” Soo said. “We just need to work harder simply because everyone wants them.”

He described the University’s proximity to the innovative and tech-friendly city of Boston as an advantage in looking to hire new computer science faculty, but also noted the area’s high cost of living as a possible drawback.

Another obstacle to BC’s hiring of additional computer science faculty is its lack of a graduate computer science program, which lessens the opportunities for prospective professors to conduct research. Although there has been talk of establishing a graduate program, it would require more faculty than the department currently has, and therefore the program first has to make a number of new hires. Many of the peer institutions that Alvarez used in his comparison have graduate programs in computer science, he noted. Both Soo and Alvarez stated that it is something that BC desires to accomplish in the future.

The upcoming construction of the Institute for Integrated Sciences and Society (IISS), scheduled for 2021 or 2022, will give the University the opportunity to expand the computer science department and perhaps make the creation of a graduate program a reality, Soo said. Part of the mission of the IISS is to foster interdisciplinary research, and computer science is a field that lends itself to this goal through its usefulness to a variety of subjects. Alvarez sees the potential for computer science to help model complex systems in biology, or the way that a composer puts together a musical piece, among other things.

Alvarez described the University’s increased support of the computer science department, which he believes is essential to BC’s identity as a liberal arts university.

“In the 21st century, computer science is really a language for the liberal arts, just as mathematics used to be the sole language of the sciences,” he said. “Now computer science, computing, and algorithms increasingly are complementing mathematical language and enabling complex scientific and social phenomenon to be understood and talked about in ways that weren’t possible before.”

While the computer science department has no plans to cap majors and minors, Alvarez noted that the department’s disparity in faculty sometimes makes it difficult for incoming freshmen to explore the field through introductory courses, which inevitably fill up. Physical constraints due to the limited number of seats in computer lab rooms also puts a limit on the number of students that can take computer science classes, he said. For the fall semester, all courses above Computer Science I were restricted to majors. Students who are minors were required to go to the computer science department during their pick times to be added to a waitlist before they could add the course.

In the future, Alvarez has a vision for the computer science department that would fit into BC’s Jesuit mission. He thinks that it is important to keep people at the center of computing, and for the department to remain aware of the ethical implications of automation and the increased role of technology in the workplace.

“The way that the disciplines are brought in will hopefully be one that keeps these priorities in mind,” he said. “We’re going to grow BC to have an excellent computer science department, but also in a way that helps people’s quality of life, and contributes to efforts in improving health outcomes and to addressing environmental concerns.”

Featured Image Courtesy of

Football Alum’s CompuCog Makes Memorizing Easy

Harris Williams, BC ’14, CGSOM ’16, was in his dorm room preparing for Boston College’s next football game. The 6-foot-3 offensive lineman sat at his desk, flipping through two separate decks of cards. In one stack, the blank spaces on the cards were filled with hand-drawn symbols and arrows representing his offensive plays—the blocking schemes, where the receivers and running backs were headed, and so on. In the other stack, Williams had the plays that BC’s defense would run against its offense in practice. He went through each set countless times, analyzing each card to memorize his positions and movements. This tedious process, coupled with watching hours of game film, was Williams’ routine for learning not only his plays, but his opponents’ as well. After playing under five different offensive coordinators during his time at BC—not to mention two head coaches in Frank Spaziani and Steve Addazio—Williams hatched an idea for a better alternative.

As a computer science major, his football woes inspired him to develop a virtual way for players to learn playbooks. Williams began coding his idea during his senior year at BC, and after getting his MBA, realized he could monetize this creation. CompuCog, short for Computational Cognition, was born.

Through CompuCog, which Williams and Ribhi El-Zaru, MCAS ’18, founded with Eric Wilson, a senior and football player at St. Anselm College, and Josh Kershaw, an insurance salesman and former classmate, the innovators hope to revolutionize how athletes train, and eventually to expand to the world beyond the field.

Kershaw, who was two years older than Williams at the Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., was the reason Williams began playing the sport in the first place. Williams had never played football prior to high school, but when Kershaw saw his large figure walking around campus, he convinced him to go out for the team.

“I was going to do kayaking, but he was the guy who got me into playing football” Williams said.

And it was a good thing he did. Williams received multiple awards and honors during his high school career, and was captain of the team during his senior season. He was originally committed to play at Stanford, but ended up accepting a scholarship offer to play at BC after an injury forced him to change his plans.

El-Zaru, also a computer science major, entered the picture last year, after a professor who knew about Williams’ project brought the two together—he had been familiar with Williams from his experience as a videographer for BC football.

The company’s primary project is called Mental Rep. This digital football training program, which is an evolved version of Williams’ original idea, allows football coaches to input playbooks—both their own and their opponents’—into a cloud accessible to each member of the team. The software then uses artificial intelligence to generate an animated graphic of all 22 positions. The icons, representing players, move and make decisions realistically as plays are carried out in real time.

Players can analyze their assignments and directly interact with the program by controlling their position’s icon using the mouse. Mental Rep includes detailed textual descriptions for each position’s role within a play, and provides feedback for players when they fail to execute a play correctly. There is even a mobile app that allows players to view and work through plays on their phones. It’s a little like Madden, but more useful.

“The idea is to be able to play an entire game while you’re walking in between classes,” Williams said.

Because of Williams and his co-founders’ expertise in playing football, their decision to make software for the sport was an obvious one. In fact, it is this first-hand experience that sets CompuCog apart from its competitors.

“What gives us our competitive edge is we’ve actually been there and blocked against first-round draft picks, played against All-Americans, and we know what to put into our software to make it really help out an athlete,” Williams said. “We’re not just mimicking what we think we see on TV.”

Similarly, the CompuCog team’s experience playing college football has given knowledge of the expectations and practices of top coaches, meaning their software is tailored to be useful to coaches at high school, college, and professional levels.

This past May, Williams developed the back end, or the essential algorithms, of Mental Rep. After El-Zaru became a part of the team, the two worked last summer to develop the front end, or input ability and user interface, of the program, which transformed it into a workable and marketable product.

After this development, CompuCog began the beta-testing phase for the software with a small group of high school teams on Jan. 1. While there are no paying users of Mental Rep thus far, Williams anticipates that they will begin selling the product in the near future.

Along their journey to marketability, the CompuCog team has taken advantage of resources within the BC community to help grow its company. Last summer, the founders participated in the Soaring Startup Circle accelerator program, which gives BC students the opportunity to work with experienced alumni to develop and improve their startups.

After reaching the final round of last year’s Shea Center Venture Competition with an unfinished product, the CompuCog team hopes to blow the judges away with this year with its refined and improved software.

“We’re here to take it,” El-Zaru said.

But having this sort of confidence isn’t always easy. The startup world is fast-paced and always changing, and El-Zaru described the degree of uncertainty that he has experienced during his time with CompuCog.

“One of the things that every startup founder said is that what you think is going to happen in two months, probably won’t. Everything is going to be different and dynamic, and you have to be on your feet and ready to adapt,” El-Zaru said.

In dealing with these challenges, Williams has drawn upon the lessons of perseverance that he learned while playing football at BC.

“Playing football here, the coaches have taught me a lot just in terms of being gritty, because …  not a lot goes your way,” Williams said. “We’ve applied to maybe 10 different competitions, and we’ve only gotten accepted by one. It’s very tough, and we’ve just kept at the grindstone and just keep going at it.”

While football, with its play-by-play nature, was the ideal first sport to tackle with CompuCog, the company doesn’t plan on stopping there. The adaptable core of Mental Rep gives the software a range of potential applications. Its founders believe that it can help athletes in other sports, such as soccer, basketball, and lacrosse, improve their training methods as well.

But the world of sport isn’t CompuCog’s final destination either, as the team has even larger plans for the expansion of its software. In what Williams described as the startup’s “utopic vision,” its founders have their sights set on revolutionizing the fields of armed service and general job training, and perhaps even early childhood education.

“If you think about how a 12-year-old learns long division and mathematics, and how there is a set of assignments that they have to perform, we can apply our algorithm to that, to teach them how learn mathematics,” Williams said.

In teaching children to read, for example, Williams described that just as a child must sound out individual syllables to correctly read a word, a football player has to move a certain way to execute a play correctly. Mental Rep is capable of analyzing these requirements and providing guidance and feedback for students and athletes alike, suggesting that it could serve as a valuable tool for educators in the future.

So whether it turns up in your local elementary school, or helps the football team of your alma mater bring home a championship, Mental Rep may soon become a household name. And Williams and the team at CompuCog will continue working to make sure you don’t forget it.

Featured Image Courtesy of CompuCog

Sanders and Warren Continue Revolution at Boston Rally

In an emphatic statement, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called for a “fundamental restructuring of the Democratic Party.” He believes that Democrats have become too cozy with the country’s liberal elite, and that the party must connect with working-class America once again.

Sanders spoke at the Our Revolution Boston Rally at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday night, in which he and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren rallied support for national and local progressive goals. Despite the wintry mix of rain and snow that fell over Boston, 1,600 people packed into the ornate theater to show their support for causes in Massachusetts and across the country.

The rally was sponsored by Our Revolution, an organization founded to continue the political movement which finds its roots in Sanders’ presidential campaign. Our Revolution was paired with several advocacy organizations—such as Raise UP Massachusetts, and the Jobs Not Jails Coalition—to highlight issues pertaining to the Bay State, such as the establishment of paid sick and medical leave; the fight for a $15 minimum wage; and statewide immigration and prison reform.

Sanders emphasized the necessity of the Democratic Party becoming a “50-state party,” with reach from coast to coast—as well as the states in between. He believes that reaching out to people in typically red states, such as Kentucky where thousands received health care for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), promoting a vision that appeals to all people, and remaining united are essential for the success of the Democratic Party.

In her speech, Warren hailed the increased efforts and participation of Americans in politics following the victory of President Donald Trump. She celebrated the recent defeat of the Republican plan in Congress to repeal and replace the ACA, which she called “the biggest assault on health care in this country,” and credited the nationwide public opposition to the plan as the reason for its failure.

Sharing her experiences from rallies and events in Boston, such as the Women’s March, Warren thanked the crowd for their efforts, and implored them to continue working for progress at home.

“The Republicans have the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the number of tools we’ve got down in Washington on our side [is] limited,” Sanders said. “But that means exactly one thing. We aren’t going to be able to do it by ourselves in Washington, it’s going to take all of us to be in this fight.”

Warren then discussed the need for a change in perspective. Recognizing that much of the criticism surrounding the current administration has been on the character of Trump’s cabinet members and other appointments, Warren called for a shift in focus toward the overarching “extremist, right-wing agenda” that she believes Republicans are working toward.

“The real point is not who Donald Trump is, it’s not what kind of person he is, the real point is what Donald Trump and the Republicans in Washington are doing,” Warren said. “We stay focused on what they are doing to American families. These are people who said over and over that they were going to fight for working families, that they were going to fight for those who are left behind, and look what they’ve done since they got to Washington.”

Warren explained that she grew up in a different America, which, although imperfect, provided each child with the opportunity to do better than his or her parents. She criticized the influence of large corporations that has altered the country’s political landscape, and stripped opportunity away from the average American. Speaking passionately, Warren declared her intent to fight for a country that provides opportunity for everyone, and condemned the high price of education, opposition to making healthcare more accessible, and the denial of the existence of climate change.

“I stand here tonight ready to fight, ready to fight for an America that believes in the dignity of every human being,” Warren said. “An America that believes in opportunity not just for some of our children, but opportunity for all of our children.”

Shortly after Warren declared that “Democracy is not for sale,” Sanders joined her on stage, and an uproar of cheering, applause, and chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” erupted from the crowd.

Sanders called for massive changes to be made to the current political and economic systems in America. Touching on a familiar theme, he condemned the influence and greed of the country’s wealthiest citizens, and explained that Americans are in a war of “monumental proportions.” According to Sanders, the only solution is uniting the rest of the country to stand up to inequality and injustice.

“Despair is not an option,” Sanders said. “Yeah, they’ve got the money. But we have the people, and our job is to organize the people, and when we do that, we are going to create the nation that all of us know that we can become.”

He painted a critical portrait of the current level of inequality in America, as much of the newly created wealth is funnelled to the rich. Sanders travelled across the country while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, and spoke to many Americans about their struggles. The time for progressive changes—such as raising the national minimum wage to $15, achieving equal pay for women, and decreasing long work weeks and student debt—is now more than ever, he said.

Sanders also touched upon his plans to introduce two pieces of legislation in Congress later this month. The first is the Medicare for All bill, which seeks to provide universal healthcare for Americans. The second is a proposal that would make public colleges and universities tuition free, funded through a tax on Wall Street speculation, and substantially reduce student debt, honoring one of his promises from the campaign trail.

“Today, hundreds of thousands of bright, young kids, kids who did well in high school and want to go to college, are unable to do so because of the income of their families. On top of that, we have millions of people who have graduated college $50, $60 thousand dollars in debt, graduated graduate school, medical school, dental school, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt who are spending decades paying off those debts” Sanders said. “Our job is to encourage our people to get the best education they can, not punish them for doing that.”

While many people may be quick to stereotype Trump supporters, Sanders believes that this is unfair. He stated that it was not Trump who won the 2016 presidential election, but the Democratic Party who lost it.

“Some people think, that the people who voted for Donald Trump are racist, sexist, and homophobes, and just deplorable folks. I don’t agree” he said.

Instead of furthering the divides between parties and demonizing opposing viewpoints, Sanders encouraged attendees to unite with their fellow Americans, regardless of class, gender, or political alignment.

“Together, we are going to tell Mr. Trump and his friends: ‘Sorry, you are not going to divide us up. We are going to stand together’ … We are going to go forward, and we are going to transform this country,” Sanders said. “We are going to create an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

Burns, Former NATO Ambassador, Wins Award

Nicholas Burns, BC ’78, a career ambassador and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, has had an extensive career in public service around the world. If his parents were here today, however, he isn’t so sure that both of them would believe what he has accomplished.

“If my parents were here today, my mom would be very proud to hear it,” Burns said. “My dad would’ve believed about half of it.”

Burns was presented with the Ignatian Award following the Laetare Sunday Mass at a Boston College Alumni Association event. The award is given to individuals by who “live out the Ignatian mission of ‘men and women for others.’” In 2001, Burns was given the Public Service Award by the BC Alumni Association.

He briefly described the current state of international affairs, which he believes is just about as contentious as it has ever been.

“This might be the most complicated foreign policy agenda, the agenda that President [Donald] Trump has to face, of any generation going back to the Second World War,” he said.

Burns has spent the majority of his career in public service. He got his start in diplomacy as a member of the State Department Foreign Service, working overseas in multiple embassies and consulates. His first assignments were spread across Africa and the Middle East, where he served in Nouakchott, Cairo, and Jerusalem.

He was director of Soviet (and then Russian) Affairs under President George H. W. Bush, and then served on the National Security Council of the White House from 1990 to 1995. Burns went on to work as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, spokesman of the State Department (1995-1997), and U.S. Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001) and NATO (2001-2005). He is currently the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Despite his background, Burns elected not to talk too much about global politics at Sunday’s event. Instead, he focused on a message of hope for the future, and where he sees hope in the BC community and the world beyond. He discussed the influence that his education at BC had on his life, and that he was inspired by his professors and the Jesuit mission of service.

“The Ignatian creed, finding God in all things and the importance of service to Boston, to Massachusetts, and to the world, that’s what makes a Jesuit education different, and I am profoundly grateful for it,” Burns said.

Later, Burns mentioned Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Tony Penna, S.J., a close friend who taught Burns in eighth grade religious education. Burns called him “the finest moral leader” he has ever met.

He then discussed some of the domestic problems currently facing the U.S. He mentioned income inequality, the opioid crisis, and transportation reform as some of the most pressing issues that the next generation of Americans will face in the coming years.

Burns, however, sees hope all around him. He alluded to the achievements of Leonardo Da Vinci, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Albert Einstein as examples of what a person can accomplish through hope and belief. He called for hope following an election that he and many others believe deeply divided the nation down the middle.

“At a time like this, I think if you look back and look at some of the people who really gave us hope, and then look at our present society, hope is actually all around us,” Burns said. “Hope fuels the human heart, as they say.”

He discussed the hope that he sees in the refugee families coming from the Middle East to live in the U.S. He pointed to BC’s heritage as a school for Irish immigrants, and drew a parallel between Irish and Italian immigrants that came to the U.S. in the past, and the refugees from the Middle East that are coming to America today.

“The people, Italians and Irish, in the 19th century, are not very different from the Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, who want the same dream as them,” he said.

In one of his classes at Harvard, Burns asked his students to send him an email telling him what gives them hope for the future. Many students responded by mentioning the millions of people that have been lifted out of poverty over the last century, technological advances in society, and the potential eradication of world diseases such as polio. He stated that many of the most promising advances in the world are coming from colleges and universities across the country.

“The ideas and innovations produced at BC, at the University of Texas, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, University of Utah, those ideas produced here are linking up with private equity and venture capital, and they’re transforming the world,” he said.

Burns then transitioned to a discussion of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit mission, in which he praised the hope that Church brings to the world. He mentioned the Jesuit Peace Corps and Catholic Relief services, the latter of which he worked with in the West Bank during his time in Israel. He lauded Pope Francis and his “luminous, poetical humanity” that he believes inspires Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike.

Burns touched upon the Jesuit spiritual belief in the “Magis,” which means “more” in Latin. The distinguishing aspect of BC, Burns said, is its call for students to do and to be more, and this is what he believes will allow the University to continue to make a difference in the world in the future.

“It’s why BC will continue to be a beacon of hope for generations to come,” he said.

Taste of Iceland Brings the Sagas to Boston

If you asked Eliza Reid, a Canada native, how her life would play out after moving to Iceland and marrying Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who formerly worked as a history professor, becoming the First Lady of her adopted home country would probably be one of the last possibilities she would have entertained.

“The Canadian media always asked me: Did you ever think, when you were growing up, that you would one day be First Lady of Iceland? Uhm, no, no I didn’t,” Reid said.

The release of the Panama Papers revealed corruption inside the Icelandic government related to offshore bank accounts. This led to public unrest and a series of protests, forcing Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to resign in April 2016. Jóhannesson gained national attention after appearing on television amid the crisis as a pundit, and decided to declare his candidacy for the presidency. He assumed office in August 2016, and as First Lady, Reid was forced suddenly into the spotlight.

She shared her story at an event in Boston at WBUR on Thursday as a part of the annual, five-day Taste of Iceland Festival. The festival, which was first hosted in Boston in 2010, brought a comprehensive experience of Iceland’s culture to the city this past weekend, with events showcasing Icelandic cuisine, music, film, literature, and art.

Taste of Iceland was initially organized to celebrate Icelandair’s nonstop service between Boston and Reykjavik, said Kristjana Rós Guðjohnsen, co-chair of Iceland Naturally, the promotional group for Icelandic brands and tourism in North America that puts on the event each year, in an email. Since then, the company has seen support for its festival grow.

“Taste of Iceland in Boston has grown exponentially since its debut,” Guðjohnsen said. “In the past several years, we’ve added new events, including a literature discussion with Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, and an art discussion. We’ve also seen increased participation from the Boston community each year, leading to larger and fuller venues.”

Reid, in addition to her new role as first lady, is also an accomplished journalist and writer. On Thursday, she spoke to a packed room about the Iceland Writers Retreat. The program, which will be held April 5-9 this year, brings writers from all over the world to Iceland. Participants hone their skills through a series of workshops with accomplished authors and go on excursions throughout Iceland meant to inspire creativity through the country’s unique and wondrous landscape.

Reid co-founded the IWR in 2014 with Erica Jacobs Green to share Iceland’s rich literary culture with others. But, as she comically admitted, the event also allows her to interact with some of her favorite authors.

“We thought that it would be a brilliant idea to bring people who like the written word to Iceland, and have them take workshops by writers who we wanted to meet,” she said.

Reid also touched on the importance of literature in Iceland, from its roots in the Sagas, which are historical narratives that recount the lives and times of Iceland’s early settlers in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, to the abundance of talented writers that hail from the country in the modern era. From ancient literature to more contemporary works, the written word is an important part of Icelandic society, she explained. Reykjavik was the first non-English speaking city to be named a UNESCO City of Literature after it received the title in 2011.

From Friday through Monday, Bostonians enjoyed a special Icelandic dinner menu at The Merchant, a popular restaurant in Downtown Crossing. The cuisine, which included arctic char, langoustine, free-range lamb and, skyr, a yogurt-like treat, was prepared by acclaimed Icelandic chef Sigurdur Helgaso. The meal was accompanied by craft cocktails made with “Iceland’s favorite vodka,” Reyka Vodka, and mixed by cocktail champion Kári Sigurðsson.

Although Iceland has a population of only around 330,000 people, the country has a vibrant contemporary art scene. Björg Stefánsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Art Center, led a discussion about Icelandic visual arts at the Kingston Gallery on Friday. She explained how Icelandic art has spread across the world, and how the Icelandic Art Center helps connect the country’s artists to the rest of the professional art community.

On Saturday, music from Saga Island took over the Middle East in Cambridge. A free concert entitled Reykjavik Calling featuring Icelandic bands Fufanu and Mammút, the latter of which won best album and song of the year at the 2014 Icelandic Music Awards, entertained the audience with upbeat Icelandic rhythms. Also part of the show were the Dirty Dottys, a pop-motown band based in Boston.

At the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square on Sunday, moviegoers enjoyed a diverse group of six short films at a screening of Shortfish, a portion of Iceland’s premier film festival, Stockfish. Transitioning from emotional and serious to comedic and lighthearted, the films addressed a wide spectrum of subjects, from alcoholism to a botched marriage proposal, and gave viewers a window into Icelandic culture.

In the future, Iceland Naturally hopes to expand the festival to other cities in the U.S. The organization put on the first annual Taste of Iceland Chicago in 2016, and generally hosts five to six events per year around North America, Guðjohnsen said. Following this year’s festival, however, she hopes that Boston-area residents came away with something about Iceland that peaked their curiosity.

“We hope that Taste of Iceland offers a little something for everyone,” Guðjohnsen said. “Whether you’re a contemporary art enthusiast, film buff or foodie, everyone who attends a Taste of Iceland in Boston event has the opportunity to walk away having experienced something new that they hopefully want to try again and learn more about.”

Featured Image by Leo Confalone / Heights Editor

One Room Mansion Exhibit Offers New Urban Housing Solution

Single person households make up 37.4 percent of Boston’s overall population, while only 6.1 percent of the city’s housing stock are studio apartments, according to One Room Mansion at the Boston Society of Architects Space.

Opened to the public on Nov. 10 and running through Feb. 6 of next year, the exhibit proposes the concept of communal and compact living as a solution to the growing demand for urban housing.

“The issue that [One Room Mansion] addresses is the housing crisis facing Boston and most metropolitan areas across the country,” said A. Quinton Kerns, a curator of the exhibit. “We are at a disadvantage of units that relate to our population, so as a solution we are promoting compact living and more sharing environments to allow for a larger demographic to be housed in the city.”

The upstairs of BSA Space, located near the South Station T stop, has been transformed into a model communal residence. A series of corridors and partitioned rooms showcase studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartment living spaces, in addition to a shared living space and laundry area.

These rooms are unique in that they have been architecturally engineered below the city’s minimum square footage requirement but still provide ample living space and necessary amenities.

For example, while the city’s minimum size for a one-bedroom apartment is 625 square feet, One Room Mansion displays a potential one-bedroom residence requiring only 355 square feet.

Such conceptualized apartments are not meant to stand on their own. Rather, they are meant to be grouped together, with residents investing in communal living spaces rather than larger apartments that may utilize space inefficiently or simply be bigger than a resident requires. This provides an economical solution that looks to counter the high average rent prices in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.

“From modular build, which could save on construction time and costs, to co-housing situations, in which private residents can ban together to save money on land costs and building, and then of course, aggregating more units in smaller spaces to allow for larger density of diversity within the housing typology,” Kerns said. “And so that will bring people into the cities, and hopefully once the supply reaches levels that are higher than demand, cost can be stabilized.”

Along the corridor walls, the exhibit highlights examples of compact housing in other countries such as China, Argentina, and Spain. These panels provide photos of the exemplary residences, and explain the innovate architectural techniques used to turn a relatively small amount of space into a viable place to live.

While providing tangible examples of the possibility of communal living, One Room Mansion also explains why the development of new styles of housing units is necessary. One colorful chart conveys the disparity between the number of one- and two-person households and the number of studio and one-bedroom living options available in major cities across the country.

Another emphasizes that many neighborhoods in Boston above the city’s median price per bedroom are those in major urban areas such as Midtown and the Back Bay. Residents seeking cheaper housing are generally forced to search in the city’s surrounding neighborhoods like Allston and Jamaica Plain, demonstrating the need for more affordable housing within Boston.

The “uhü,” a compact, factory-built residence, is also on display at the BSA Space. This form of housing is meant to be combined with other modular units and ultimately form affordable, multi-family apartment buildings. The “uhü” comes in two sizes to accommodate different kinds of households, and two units can be combined to serve a larger family. The “uhü” was produced by the BSA in conjunction with the Mayor’s Innovation Lab and LiveLight for only $50,000, making it an economically efficient alternative to traditional urban housing. Visitors can tour the inside of a “uhü” unit at the BSA Space.

As the goal of One Room Mansion is to draw attention to the housing crisis facing many prominent urban areas across the country, Kerns hopes that visitors would feel inclined to continue the conversation about this issue after leaving the exhibit.

“There is an issue of housing in the city, and in most cities, and the only way to address it is to be active and to be informed,” Kerns said. “And so this is gathering awareness, keeping the conversation going, and seeing what we can do to solve this issue.”

Featured Image by Leo Confalone / Heights Staff

With Projections, Artist Gives Immigrants a Voice

Immigration has been a hotly discussed political topic this year, especially with the divisive rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election. On Thursday night, artist and Harvard professor Krzysztof Wodiczko spoke to students about his work and how it relates to the topic of immigration.

Wodiczko began his talk by displaying a photograph of a non-white immigrant avoiding the glares of two natives on a train in Switzerland. He described how the photograph represents the discrimination immigrants face as a result of a person’s fear of their own differences.

“Why do they fear this person?” Wodiczko said. “Because his very presence invokes something that ought to be hidden: their own strangeness. The presence of this other person brings out all the repressed difference that they feel, so rather than confront this coming out, they would just deport this person.”

Throughout his career, Wodiczko has tried to address this misunderstanding and lack of communication between immigrants and native citizens in modern society. One of his practices, interrogative design, seeks to combine art and technology to draw attention to and solve cultural issues.

At the event, Wodiczko shared a video showcasing his Alien Staff project that took place in several cities across Europe during the early ’90s. The Alien Staff was a conglomerate walking stick that helped to tell the story of an immigrant.

“Buildings are silent faces.”

—Krzysztof Wodiczko, artist and Harvard professor

The staff featured a small video monitor and speaker at its top, which would display a recording of the owner sharing his or her story and struggles as an immigrant. The middle portion of the staff was made up of a number of clear tubes, each one containing an important relic from the immigrant’s life, such as photos of his or her family or visa documents. The goal of the project was to prompt increased communication between members of the marginalized immigrant community and the general public.

“Once you are close to a stranger because of this object, it is too late not to start a conversation, and that’s the idea,” Wodiczko said. “The walking stick is unnecessary afterwards.”

In light of the results of the recent presidential election, Wodiczko believes that his and similar work may soon become imperative.

“It’s quite possible that, if [the] president-elect was actually to follow his own speeches in relation to immigrants, perhaps we, as artists, especially those who work with media and public space, will have to do something,” Wodiczko said. “To bring more understanding and connection between those who are strangers and those who claim to be non-strangers.”

Wodiczko is most famous for his large-scale projections that turn building façades, statues, and memorials into canvases. He animates these surfaces with images of either live or prerecorded video and sound to bring social issues to the forefront of public discourse.

“Buildings are silent faces,” he said. “They see with their blind eyes and they hear with their deaf ears what is happening around them, and they cannot say anything.”

Wodiczko believes buildings are suffering a sort of post-traumatic condition. Those who might suggest the possibility to speak through monuments are monuments to their own trauma themselves, he said. He believes these people are silent monuments to what they live through.

In 2001, he carried out a projection project in the Centro Cultural in Tijuana, Mexico, a border city dominated by factories called “maquiladoras,” in which North American corporations utilize cheap Mexican labor. Women in Tijuana are often discriminated against, mistreated, and abused in the workplace and by police, and Wodiczko sought to create a way for women to speak out against this injustice.

He designed a helmet with a video camera and a microphone that projected the face of the wearer onto a building while he or she spoke. Wodiczko chose the spherical facade of the La Bola IMAX theater in Tijuana as the medium for a symbolic purpose. As women factory workers had their testimonies of struggle projected upon the building, a film glorifying the relationship between the United States and Mexico was being shown in the theater.

“It’s a blast of truth,” Wodiczko said. “There is still public space, at least, on paper. But the fact that there is such a thing called public space doesn’t mean that it is public. It is public in the moment when you actually try to say something that seems to be inappropriate to be saying in public, that belongs to some private world.”

Wodiczko has also done a number of projects with the the war veteran community, people whom he believes are alienated like immigrants within their own countries.

In 2008, he redesigned an army Humvee by replacing the projectile launcher mechanism on its back with a video projector and speaker set. The War Veterans’ Vehicle debuted in Denver just days before the Democratic National Convention was set to take place in the city.

The vehicle broadcasted interviews with veterans about their difficulties in society as their words flashed upon the side of a building. Warfare sounds, such as gunshots, could also be heard, in an attempt to communicate the realities of war to the public. Wodiczko has done similar projections with the War Veterans’ Vehicle in Liverpool and Warsaw.

Wodiczko was awarded the prestigious Hiroshima Art Prize in 1998, an award given every three years that recognizes an artist who promotes global peace through his or her work. He has developed a proposed plan to build the World Institute for the Abolition of War in Paris, which is outlined in his book, The Abolition of War, in order to analyze and discuss the issue of war and hopefully avert war altogether.

“It will work on various levels theologically, culturally, artistically, politically, and technologically to analyze and discuss the issue of war and peace, and also to open up channels of possible engagement that will lead to the averting of wars,” Wodiczko said.

MIT Seeks to Drive Innovative Startups With The Engine

Massachusetts Institute of Technology President L. Rafael Reif has announced the launch of The Engine, the university’s new startup accelerator project. The enterprise seeks to provide Boston-area entrepreneurs with the resources to get their startups off the ground. The venture was created specifically to support companies working to improve society through innovative ideas in the fields of science and technology.

The Engine will connect budding companies with investors and advisors, supplying the capital and expertise necessary to take ideas out of the lab and into the market. It has set out to raise $150 million for its initial fund, with $25 million being supplied directly by MIT, and the rest coming from larger venture capital investors. The accelerator hopes to form connections between entrepreneurs and established companies in order to create a network of innovation.

Affordable office and workspace can be hard to come by in Boston. Startups participating in The Engine will have access to 26,000 square feet of space at its headquarters in Cambridge, with plans to add an additional 200,000 or more in Kendall Square and its surrounding neighborhoods currently in the works. Additionally, participants will utilize MIT’s many lab and equipment rooms for research and the development of physical products.

“The Engine will support tough-tech firms working on big societal problems, by providing a distinctive package of resources: Patient capital, affordable local space, access to highly-specialized equipment, streamlined legal and business services, and expertise, from prototype to scale-up,” Reif said at the launch announcement. “The Engine will also connect them with a network of MIT alumni, like-minded entrepreneurs, and major corporations in other innovation nodes near and far.”

The Engine is modeled around supporting and accelerating two specific stages of startup development: the transitional outset of an idea becoming a commercial product, and the later phase of introducing developed prototypes to the market.

The enterprise hopes to support up to 60 participants at one time, with each startup remaining in The Engine for a period of up to a year.

The Engine is unique in that its selection process will seek companies looking to transform society in the long term, rather than provide large returns on short-term investments.

“What truly sets The Engine apart is the emphasis on impact: In assessing candidate companies, it will prioritize breakthrough-answers-to-big-problems over early-profit,” Reif said.

The Shea Center for Entrepreneurship at Boston College sponsors its own startup accelerator program called [email protected], which provides students from all four schools at BC with the resources to develop their ideas and connects aspiring student entrepreneurs with accomplished alumni. In addition, the Shea Center sponsors weekly workshops and a Lunch with an Entrepreneur series, both of which give students access to experienced professionals.

“The idea is to help students go from an idea to something that is closer to a commercializable entity by providing a systematic set of steps and helping them with everything from understanding customers better, to what types of experimentation make the most sense,” Mary Tripsas, the director of the Shea Center, said. “The second thing is to have experienced entrepreneurs help students through mentoring, of which part of the mentoring is getting access to a network of people who can help you as you continue your endeavor.”

One of the final goals of accelerators like The Engine and [email protected] is to produce companies that can succeed locally, contributing and attracting investment to the Boston economy.

“If you look more generally at what role entrepreneurship plays in promoting both local and broader regional economies, it contributes a ton,” Tripsas said. “There are so many universities around Boston, and what Massachusetts would love to see is those students who have entrepreneurial ideas coming out of all those local universities stay in Boston.”

In the past, the disparity of available assets like startup capital in Boston has caused many innovators to seek to grow their companies elsewhere. As the city’s startup and technological scene looks to expand, MIT believes that institutions like The Engine can help retain local talent by providing an alternative to the abundant resources available in rival tech-oriented regions such as Silicon Valley.

Reif believes that many entrepreneurs can never find sufficient support, which discourages both them and others from trying, a phenomenon that leaves them stranded in the lab. This was one of the things they identified when creating a new environment for entrepreneurs at the university.

“In effect, we keep seeing that, in fields like energy, manufacturing, robotics, biotech, and medical devices, innovators are finding it extremely difficult to secure the stable funding, space, equipment, expertise and networks to fully develop their technologies,” he said.