World News

Boston and the Great Potato Famine

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Tuesday, May 8, 2012
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March 9, 2012

boston irish potato famine memorial

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial commemorates the period that irretrievably shaped the character of Eastern Massachusetts. (Scott Carpenter/Flickr)
michael higgins and tom menino
The Irish president meets with Boston mayor Thomas Menino on May 4. (Isabel Leon, Mayor's Office)

BOSTON — Each year Ireland chooses one American city to help commemorate the Great Potato Famine. This year, Boston received that honor … and President Michael Higgins of Ireland visited the weekend of May 4 to observe the event. WGBH's Jordan Weinstein talked with Higgins during his Boston trip.
The famine led to the emigration of millions of Irish — many of whom came to the Bay State. In 1850, the Irish made up a quarter of the city's population. "Boston is particularly important, of course, because such a very large wave of Irish came in different periods," Higgins said.

He noted that those different waves of emigration represented "different Irishnesses." The arrivals of 1848 were "poor Catholics that have nothing. They are in fact poor, ragged, they're carrying disease," Higgins said — and that caused some tensions.

How to Create a World-Class Transit System

By Phillip Martin   |   Sunday, April 22, 2012
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April 23, 2012

BOSTON — “The doors will open on the left side. The signs will point to the Red Line on the upper level.” A regular announcement over the subway loudspeaker guided commuters through the crowded underground at rush hour. I was on the Orange Line trying to get to Arlington and commuters were talking about their ride home. One woman said, “It’s better than driving.” Another commuter volunteered, “I ride the Blue to the Orange on to work and then back.” And another said, “It’s fairly efficient. It gets me home quickly.”

But this Orange Line is not the one you’re thinking about. This one is in Washington, D.C., where I recently paid a visit.

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Lowell Bergman Discusses Murdoch's Scandal

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
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Join a live chat about Murdoch's Scandal with Frontline correspondent, Lowell Bergman and producer Neil Docherty, along with Sarah Ellison from Vanity Fair. The chat begins at 1pm ET. 

Dreaming of an Air Travel Boom

By Adam Reilly   |   Monday, March 5, 2012
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Mar. 6, 2012
BOSTON — It's an aviation milestone for Boston: Japan Airlines is about to begin nonstop service from Logan to Tokyo featuring the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Because the plane is made of carbon, it's 20 percent more fuel-efficient, making direct flights from Boston to Japan feasible for the first time.
Bob Weiss, the former editor of "Boston Airport Journal," predicts the high-tech plane will give Boston's tourism industry a major boost. The estimates put the number of Asian visitors to Boston at 50,000 annually.
Asians love to travel, Weiss said. "So what I think is going to happen is a lot of people are going to come to Boston — they know a lot about Harvard and MIT and business here and everything — and then I think they're going to go on to New York and then come back. I think it's going to expand the entire travel business here in Boston."

(And just think if it had been around when the Sox first acquired Daisuke Matsuzaka.)
The Dreamliner starts flying the Boston-to-Tokyo route on April 22.

Using Business Tools To Combat The World's Big Problems

By Kara Miller   |   Saturday, February 4, 2012
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Muhammad Yunus is seen speaking with borrower-owners of Grameen Bank. (via GrameenFoundation Blog)

In 2006, a social entrepreneur named Muhammad Yunus, the so-called "banker to the poor" who pioneered microfinance, won a Nobel Peace Prize. And ever since, the concept of doing good — while still making a profit — has been a hot topic in business schools and industry.

We talk to experts about the rising tide of social entrepreneurship. Does it have the power to address some of the fundamental problems in society — hunger, health, poverty? And we check in with local companies who are trying to change their communities and the world.

Understanding Social Enterprise

First, we delve into the background and theory behind the movement with two expert professors.


On The Ground: Turning Business Into Good

Part 1:

Part 2:

We talk to entrepreneurs whose companies are running online auctions for charities, selling shoes to make money for clinics and educational initiatives, helping finance small businesses and funding socially-conscious organizations.


Fighting Dengue Fever With Legos

By Cristina Quinn   |   Monday, January 23, 2012
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Jan. 24, 2012


Take a fruit picker and combine it with a Coke bottle and you have... a gripper for a prosthetic arm. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sometimes, to talk about the future, we need to visit the past. Remember "MacGyver," the popular TV show of the '80s? To escape deadly situations, the secret agent combined his expertise in physics and chemistry with ordinary household objects.

Today, at MIT, they’re not using MacGyver’s paper clips and duct tape to get out of risky jams. But they are turning to Legos and bike pumps to help solve problems in the developing world such as dengue fever and asthma.

The lab of the Little Devices Group on the MIT Campus resembles the garage of a hacker. At first glance, it seems pretty ordinary: tools, pipefittings, test tubes and wood spread out across the room. Upon further inspection, you see Popsicle sticks, dissected toy helicopters and boxes of Legos.  But make no mistake: the work done here is far from child’s play.

Jose Gomez-Marquez is a medical device designer at Little Devices. In a tour through the space, he points out the sections of the lab.

“Generally our lab is divided between dry and wet, mechanical and electrical with a little bit of everything in between sometime. In the mechanical side of the lab, what we have here are a lot of toys. We use a lot of toys because those are durable parts.” Gomez says.

A man, a plan, a bike pump nebulizer, Nicaragua

And where do they find those toys? Rummaging through the aisles of toy stores and dollar stores is a big part of what the Little Devices Group does, which is making MEDIKits. These kits come with devices and are designed to save lives by doing what we take for granted: check vital signs, administer drugs and perform diagnostics. For a nurse in Nicaragua, these kits can improve the quality of care she gives—and save someone a long trip to a hospital just for a quick asthma treatment.

Gomez-Marquez plugs in a compressor attached to a nebulizer. “The nebulizer works by having a compressor you connect to a wall, and all it does is blow air. So we started playing with these instead," he explains.

He then takes out a bicycle pump the team bought for $5 in a hardware store in Nicaragua. When you think about it, it does the same job as a nebulizer—blowing air—but it's powered by a human, not electricity.

The team tore out the part that connects to the bike tire valve. Add a zip tie to the tubing… and the end result is a bike pump nebulizer that is being used in remote areas of Nicaragua, where electricity can be scarce.

The kit in the field

It seems easy in an MIT lab, but what happens when a kit of tubes and doodads arrive in a poor village?

“We basically try to give them the parts in a way that’s smart— that have a language of design [so] they know how to put them together," Gomez-Marquez says. "By language of design, we mean, you never have to teach a kid how to use Legos. They just have an intrinsic snap-on quality about them. And if they want to make a car, there is just some underlying logic that allows them to make a car. We think the same should be true with a medical device.”

The Little Devices Group wants to democratize the way people fabricate medical devices and break down any class barriers between the medical communities of the developing and developed worlds. Sending simple tools allows users to develop their own prototypes to create solutions for the problems they see on a daily basis.

“It’s much more different to come up with a device here than to come up with a device out there,” Gomez-Marquez explains.

A step backward?

Some critics of the MEDIKit say the emphasis on empowering those in the developing world should be on training, not making simple devices out of toys and plumbing hardware.

“They don’t so much need instruments and tools and devices as someone who knows how to fix them and keep them working,” says Irving Bigio, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Boston University.

While Bigio’s research also focuses on creating devices for poor countries, he says training and troubleshooting are the key.

For a nebulizer, he thinks the best approach is to teach people "how to simply repair it and keep it working. If nothing else, they’ll be ready to make use of the piles and crate loads of equipment that various donor organizations dump on them and they don’t know how to use."

In the meantime, the team at the Little Devices Group continues to go toy shopping. But they’re also developing more MacGyver-type fixes to problems—like a surgical tool sterilization kit using pocket-sized mirrors and a pressure cooker, or handing out free cellphone minutes as an incentive to take your medicine.

“A lot of people are going blue in the face trying to yell at us because we’re being cowboy inventors," Gomez-Marquez says. "But I think for every good idea, you’re going to get a handful of people that do that, and that means that you’re doing a good job."

About the Authors
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at
Adam Reilly Adam Reilly
Adam Reilly is a political reporter and associate producer for WGBH's Greater Boston.
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

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