The Insider's Guide For New People at the Media Lab

Whether you're a brand new graduate student, or a heavily recruited tenured professor, as a new inhabitant of the Media Lab, you'll eventually run across the same basic need to make a Xerox or not get locked out of the building. So here's a nitty-gritty survival guide to the new occupant of the Media Lab. Each pearl of wisdom on this page represents hours of frustration spent on a task that should only take minutes.  As you stumble and bruise yourself on your administrivia, let your search for light not be in vain. Send me an email at so I can include you adventure in the liturgy described below.

This guide is designed for the first few weeks as the lab.  Once you can comfortably make phone calls, exchange email, and order delivery food, you'll be in a much better position to get down to the really important task of meeting everyone in the lab and developing a deep and meaningful understanding of both their work, and them as a unique person on spaceship earth.  

There are two themes to this guide -- "Culture" and "Things"  Culture talks about what to expect from the Lab and how to optimize your interactions with others.  Things is a discussion of the process for obtaining the bits and atoms necessary to comfortably move around the lab.  "Culture" is more important in the long haul, but "Things" are more urgent.

Treasure Hunt:  Small Bits and Atoms You'll Need to Collect:

I'm not always sure how to acquire all the items listed below, but just being aware you need them is three quarters of the battle. I've found that asking other people is a great way to relieve  ignorance. For many of these items, I could simply tell you the password or code, but what fun would that be? It's just as important you learn the survival skill of how to seek the knowledge, as is the knowledge itself.  Knowledge without adaptability is good for about two weeks.

Keys & Security Cards:

Never assume a key to one door inside the lab opens another door -- it usually doesn't. And don't assume that a door unlocked at 4:00 PM will be unlocked at 10:00 PM.  Doors tend to get locked around 6:00 PM.   Keys and codes accumulate like experience. The longer you're here, the more keys you'll get. Obtaining keys is a two-step process. You get key requisition forms from Pei on the 4th floor (E15-463). You can only get these forms from 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM on days she's here. Then you have to go to a different building to get the actual keys. This building can be hard to find, and they donít always have the keys ready.  Recently, they've been low on Media Lab keys, citing "too many UROPs".  In other words, if you wait until 1:45 PM on the day before a three-day weekend to get your key, you're probably outta luck.

You'll need keys to the following places:

The machine shops in the basement requires a security card.  To use the shop you must first be authorized, either by taking How To Build Almost Anything, or by sweet-talking John, the shop supervisor.

A final note about keys.  Did you know your MIT ID card has the magnetic strip necessary to open the doors of various other MIT buildings that get locked after 6:00 PM.  For example, you can use your ID card to pass through the medical building on your way to the T.


If a door or device doesn't have a key, it likely has a code. All the rules about keys apply to codes as well -- different keypads have different codes. 6:00 PM is when many timer activated doors require passwords. It's my favorite tangible interface in the building -- lets me know it's after 6:00. Fortunately, you can be assured codes don't change during the day. You'll need codes to the following places and items:

Mail and Packages

I was here three months before I realized I had a mailbox where physical mail arrived.  It contained things like my registration information and offers for free magazine subscriptions.  You probably have a mailbox also.

Immediately to the right of the freight elevator on the first floor (one floor up from 'G') is the mailroom.  You can leave mail in the bins.  If it's official Media Lab business, you don't need to put stamps -- simply write the group account number where the stamp would go.  If you've gotten a long distance code, you've also gotten the group account number.  If you need to mail Fedex or some other overnight, you'll have to arrange billing with your group's administrative assistant.  Personal mail should be stamped, but who's going to check?

Packages come directly to your office, EXCEPT UPS.  UPS does not deliver directly to the Media Lab.  Instead it goes to the loading dock on E15 where they are delivered by MIT staff.  UPS packages delivered to E15 usually make it to us within 24 hours, and often on the same day.  But if a package is urgent, DO NOT deliver it UPS.  If you urgently need something that has been delivered UPS, you can go over to the E15 loading dock (before 4:30) and try to receive it in person.  Be aware that if you help yourself to a package in E15, it might look like something else.

Buying Stuff:

The Media Lab can generate tons of money, but it's up to you to find ways to spend it.  In general the lab has a liberal purchasing policy which can actually be almost problematic because of the almost complete lack of standardization.

If you want to buy something, you're going to need the help of your advisor's administrative assistant.  Purchasing policies differ from group to group, but here are some general guidelines.  Be sure to ask about specifics for your group before doing anything.

All purchases over $500 under $3000 have a 50% MIT surcharge placed on them.  So a $2000 laptop actually costs your group $3000 while a $3000 laptop really does cost $3000.  I cannot begin to explain this, and it took well over a year to believe my advisors assistant wasn't pulling my leg.  So try and avoid ordering things between $2000 and $3000.  Keep in mind those pesky educational discounts can often reduce the prices from just over $3000 to just under $3000.  So do your best to get a laptop with a DVD player and you'll not only be saving the lab money, you'll be the envy of your peers as watch the first half of "The Matrix" on DVD while flying to Media Lab Europe.

Purchases over $3000 also require to you to submit three competing bids to demonstrate you're getting the lowest price, or prove there are no competing vendors.  For the former, is a good place for comparison shopping.  For the latter, you will need to write a sentence or two that will convince a purchasing officer you claim is valid.  Your group's admin assist can help you with this.  I've been successful with wordy sentences that more or less boil down to:   "Dell is the only vendor that sells Dells".

Unfortunately purchases over $3000 must go through MIT bureaucracy and take about two weeks, while purchases under $3000 can be ordered overnight.  If you're in a hurry for something, this can place you in a dilemma.  Do you waste money and get a lower priced model sooner?  Or save money and get a more deluxe model later?  It's a tough call and certainly not one to be made without consult.

The Media Lab has no centralized stockroom for staples like office supplies, cordless drills, hot glue guns, solder irons, transistors, or network cables.  There are organized spaces in the lab that appear to be stockrooms, but they are in fact maintained by that research group.  The Media Lab has no staff dedicated to keeping all those organizer bins bursting full of parts.  In many ways this is unfortunate because the most organized spaces in the lab are also the ones most likely to be raided, creating a disincentive for organization.  Most labs, however, are willing to loan you parts equipment if you ask nicely.  This alone is enough of a reason to get to know as many people as possible.  You never know who will come forth to provide you with that 220k ohm resistor necessary to complete your masterpiece the night before hell-week.

Borrowing equipment from other labs actually creates the opportunity for tremendous goodwill insofar as a promt return generates a positive credit rating.  Replenishing low stocks and replacing malfunctioning equipment in a lab that isn't part of your group will earn you tremendous brownie points.  Spending ten minutes ordering RJ45 cables from DigiKey could wind up saving you hours when you're most desperate.

Administrative Assistants

When going about your business, keep in mind your advisor's administrative assistant is not your administrative assistant.  If you see your advisor asking his or her admin assist to program their palm pilot or make Xeroxes, this does not give you permission to make similar requests.  Similarly, your group's admin assist will probably give higher priority to your advisor's purchasing requests than your own.  Get off on the right foot by introducing yourself and having a conversation about individual group policies.  At present there is no labwide standard for what a grad student (or professor or UROP) can expect from an admin assist, so you have to work this out on your own.  If you're an administrative assistant, you might consider writing down your group's policies, complete with typical lead times for ordering equipment and making travel plans.  Include blackout dates such as vacations or particularly busy times when lead times might be longer.

The lab prides itself on its decentralization, and I'll have to agree this is a good thing.  Too much labwide standardization could indeed be damaging.  But I do consider it a good use of time for each group to define its own idiosyncratic policies.  If your group only orders equipment that costs a prime number, make the effort to spread the word.

Setting Up Your Computer & Installing Software:

Nobody is going to come and put a computer on your desk. The network support staff, Necsys, is responsible for network support, but not for buying and configuring computers.  Some groups have internal network people which will help you get computing, but this is on an entirely group by group basis.  If you've worked at a large company, you may have had a helpdesk you could call for computer help.  The helpdesk also probably dictated acceptable hardware and software configurations of your computer.  The Media Lab has no such thing.  If you need your own computer, it is up to you to specify, configure, and keep it virus free.  Similarly, if your computer breaks, Necsys will not fix it.  Broken computers are miserable.  If you have to return it to the manufacturer, it's up to you to find packaging and send it back.  Necsys also does not provide hubs, power cords, keyboards, or network cards, although they have been known to hand out extras to their favorite people.

In many instances, you will inherit a computer from a graduating student. It will already have the operating system installed, as well as all kinds of cool software. It will also probably be totally customized with all kinds of crazy widgets, outrageous desktop themes, and filled with invaluable MP3 archives other people in the lab have grown to expect.  It may even be serving up web pages instrumental to that graduate's ongoing career, or busy cracking Soviet spy codes.  So before you reformat the hard disk, make at least a good faith effort to contact the computer's previous owner.  Similarly, when you graduate, do the polite thing of cleaning your hard disk of personal documents, and leave a note giving the next user permission to do what they will.

If your starting from scratch, begin by ordering equipment.  Beyond, which sells Gateways, there are no preferred vendors or configurations.  Different groups tend to have superstitions about which computers are the most reliable, so start by asking your peers. For PCs, I've had good luck with Dell -- both laptops and desktops, but others feel Dell is evil incarnate and prefer obscure near-bankrupt European suppliers with cute egalitarian names so they can specify trivial optimizations to the BIOS.  If you want six opinions about computers, just ask five grad students.

Once you have your computer, here's what you're going to want to do:

Signing up for Mailing Lists:

The lab is all about email lists. To join lists, go to One of the most popular lists is "bigphun".  Make sure you're a member of that group or you'll miss out on big fun (get it -- ha ha).  Every active Media Labber belongs to "msgs".  This is where you get notices about cars in the loading dock (did you know there's a loading dock), labwide holiday parties, and free giveaways.

A good way to know what to join is to look at what people you respect belong to. To find out who belongs to what, go to: For instance, type in "benres" and see to what I'm subscribed.. (I belong to "veggies", and I like vegetarian food, but please don't mistake me for a vegetarian).


First off, Necsys DOES NOT support phones.  Phones are the responsibility of Media Lab building facilities (  But the people who actually install and repair phones are the MIT telecommunications office, at  Only contact facilities if you're not getting help from the MIT Telecommunications office.

DO NOT UNPLUG YOUR PHONE. REPEAT: DO NOT UNPLUG YOUR PHONE. If you unplug your phone, you can risk loosing communication with the phone network, and the phone not working when you plug it back in. When I asked telecommunications about this, they told me: "You should be fine as long as you don't have the phone unplugged to long." I interpret this to mean that if you unplug your phone the Friday before a three day weekend it will immediately stop working. If you unplug your phone Tuesday at 11:00 AM when you're all caught up with your work, everything will be fine.

If you need your phone moved, and you're under pressure, contact telecommunications directly at the above web address. They'll come and move your phone and make sure it works.  They will not look at you funny for such a trivial request.

Iím told that not every group has voicemail, so appreciate it if you got it.  If you miss voicemail and need to get messages from Grandma, there are some great internet voicemail services that record messages and send digitized versions via email.  Check out or

How to check voicemail from your phone:

How to check voicemail from home:

You should now be able to figure out how to use one lab phone to check the voicemail of another lab phone.

Some General Advice

Giving Good Demo

The lab is all about giving demos to sponsors.  Rarely a week goes by where you will not be asked to give a demo.  Demos are the main conduit by which students and sponsors interact.

Other People

The lab is filled with lots of other people. To take full advantage of the lab, it's a good idea to get to know some of those other people. If you happen to get email from one of those other people, is a great place to learn more about him or her. If a person has a homepage set up, it will most likely be in the form: where "xxxxx" is the"xxxxx" from  You can also try searching from the Media Lab homepage at

Another useful people locator tool is "finger". Finger has the advantage of working from any computer, whereas Medialabber only works from internal machines.

Finger also works for non-media lab students. To find my MIT address (as opposed to my Media Lab address), type "finger"


The Media Lab must have been founded by a Jewish Mother. There is lots of food in the Media Lab. Virtually every meeting comes with food. To get food, you have two choices. You can actually attend the meeting (if you're invited). Or you can lurk around the 3rd floor kitchen area and wait for the leftovers to be brought there. The 3rd floor kitchen area is the central clearing location for all leftover food. It's entirely on a first-come first-serve basis.  Recently a foodcam has been installed so those of us further away from food can ingest just as much grease, salt, sugar, and starch as those right next to the kitchen.  Foodcam is located at  Note the foodcam will not work from browsers outside the lab.  If you're working at home and coming into a food barren lab is too much to bear, you can remotely use the foodcam via the VPN.

It's considered very bad form to show up for a meeting just for the food.

You'll soon learn that while there is an abundance of food, there's a chronic shortage of plates, utensils, and serving implements. You'll see a big tinfoil tray of bright fire-engine red sweet and sour pork, but absolutely nothing to eat it with. This is normal. Despite its logic, I seem to be the only person who has brought a non-disposable bowl and metal utensils from home to be constantly prepared for free food. I suggest you do the same. Otherwise you're going to have red fingers, and eventually red jeans. Given the choice of hoarding food or hoarding plates & utensils, hoard the latter.

The Lab provides all the free coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and milk you can consume. The caffeine machines are some of the worst maintained devices in the building. Do not count on them working when you're desperate. The Lab does not provide soda, juice, or bottled water. You can buy those from the vending machine by the food area. You can also buy salty and sweet snacks. The 3rd floor vending machines are the only vending machines in the building. Be warned the candy machine is the "screw" type that fails to rotate sufficiently to dispense the purchased item about 5% of the time. Don't be one of the seven people a year who die after the vending machine they were shaking fell on them. Your creative energy is much better spent building an autonomous self-organizing collaborative system of robots that learn to infiltrate the vending machine and retrieve that which is rightfully yours

Who's Cool:

People with wirelessly networked compact laptops are indeed cooler than those without. If being cool is important to you, you'll do everything in your power to never be seen without a sub-portable computer under your arm.

Palm Pilots are no longer cool. They're not uncool. They just are. Even the Palm 7 is not cool. It's pretentious. Learn the difference.

Working at Home / Away From the Office

Yes, some of you may be shocked at the notion of leaving the lab. But some of us enjoy working at home. Most of Boston and Cambridge is now covered by DSL and/or cable, so there's an availability of highspeed internet.

Iíve been able to do most everything I need from home.  While NecSys operates a Virtual Private Network (VPN), I find itís easiest to use the Netopia Timbuktu software.  As of this writing, the necessary ports arenít firewalled.  Be aware that if you run a FTP server on your machine, normal FTP ports are firewalled.

For more info about remote computing, including dialup accounts, see the NecSys webpage.

Business Cards:

Graduate students get business cards with the title "Research Assistant". An email gets sent out in January and September for ordering business cards. Other people may or may not get cards. Undergraduate research assistants do not generally get business cards.


If you didn't come from an academic background (that's me), UNIX is totally new to you. Unless you're going to be doing lots and lots of work on an SGI or other UNIX machine, DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME LEARNING EMACS. Use "Jot" instead. It's the "Notepad" for the UNIX world. It's not as powerful as the all-mighty Emacs, but if you're content to use a editor that can't be customized to dial your phone, you'll be up and running much faster.

Media Lab Van:

The Media Lab has a van people can use for Media Lab purposes. You can reserve the lab at: I've driven it and it's cooler to be seen driving the van than to check email with a wireless VAIO in the atrium.

Reserving Rooms:

If you want to reserve a conference room or classroom, sign up at:

If a room is empty and you haven't reserved it, it's generally acceptable to use it until someone shows up to kick you out. Keep in mind that no matter how much reserving you do, if someone more important wants to use the room, you're outta luck. 

Features of this Building and Other Things to be Aware of:

Feelings that are normal during your adjustment to the lab

Feelings that are NOT normal during your adjustment to the lab