4/9/2014 Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS alums are some of the most interesting people we know. To celebrate them, we’ve decided to ask them questions both serious and fun. Here, you’ll find their Ten Answers.

Mitch Altman (BSEE '80, MSEE '84) might be best known for his invention, the TV-B-Gone, a universal remote that turns off televisions. However, his true passion is traveling around the world, starting hackerspaces.

Altman recently spent some time in Champaign-Urbana, teaching students about hackerspaces and talking to ECE classes. Here are his Ten Answers.

Who was your favorite ECE professor?

My adviser, Ricardo Uribe, had a lab that's still existing, called the Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory (ASDL), on the second floor. It was really a proto-hackerspace. People worked on their own projects there. He encouraged people not to do the projects you're supposed to do, but the projects you're fascinated with. We didn't only work on our own projects, but we helped each other with our projects. He allowed people to come in who weren’t students. It was this really incredibly social place that introverted geeks could actually interact with each other and learn from each other. That was an incredible environment and that led me to doing my master's here.

Ed Davidson was another incredible professor here. He had us make our own computers as a lab class. It was amazing. By doing that, I knew exactly how computers work, because I could make my own. It was just an amazing thing to do, to be able to make your own computer and know exactly how and why.

I also liked Franco Preparata, who taught intro to digital design. He was one of the best teachers I’ve had, as well. These teachers were just so good. You could tell they loved what they did and loved sharing it. That inspired me to go on and teach and share what I love. Now, all my life is devoted doing that, at hackerspaces, schools, and libraries, with little kids and big kids.

What were you like in college?

I really am an introverted geek, and in my classes here, I stayed to myself. I knew the people in my dorm well but I really didn't know too many people in the EE Department except for the people in ADSL. I really got to know two people in particular. One guy, Jim McDonald, and I went on to start a company (3ware). Then also, I got to know Martin Eberhard, who founded Tesla Motors.

When you have 30 minutes of free time, how do you spend it?

I love reading. Also, whenever I have an opportunity to travel slowly, I take a train. I've taken the train from New York to San Francisco. Or, I’ll go to Noisebridge in San Francisco. (Altman is a co-founder of that hackerspace.) If I’m somewhere else, I'll go to the local hackerspace and meet people there to talk about projects and get inspiration from other people. I really love that. Even though I’m an introverted geek, I’ve learned to hang around with people who are also really geeky. I've learned to interact with others of my species, and I enjoy it.

Do you collect anything? If so, what?

I'm a reformed pack rat. I used to collect a lot of things. Then I went to India, just to go, and brought way too much stuff and shipped it all home. I basically traveled around with a couple lungis (a wraparound skirt for men), a couple of T-shirts, and a toothbrush. After traveling around like that, the thought of coming back to all my stuff and all my collections and moving it to a new apartment was just repulsive. I moved into a one-room studio apartment in San Francisco. The one thing I allowed myself to keep is my vinyl record collection. I have 550, after getting rid of two-thirds of my collection.

I love vinyl. They're big things with pictures and graphics. If it’s a double-album, you can open them and there are cool things in there. A record can be colored, and Monty Python even has a three-sided record. I love vinyl.

 Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

I can't choose one. Certainly, my parents are a huge influence, for better or worse, like anybody.

The positive influences have been the handful of (ECE) professors who were fantastic. They were great and so were a couple of teachers in high school who changed my life forever. In high school, I finally got a gym teacher that showed me being healthy and athletic doesn't mean being competitive. He took an interest in me somehow and saw I was being self-destructive by eating junk food and watching TV.

What’s your favorite form of physical activity?

I walk everywhere. I live in a house on top of a hill. It’s a 350-foot miniature mountain. I love walking and bicycling. I get around on a non-motorized kick scooter. I do yoga every day. I love swimming.

The glass: half-empty or half-full?

The world is full of things that suck, that are amazingly awesome, things that are indifferent or mediocre. I can't even focus on all the things that are awesome, so why would I want to focus on the things that are sucky or mediocre?

What book has influenced you?

Jerry Mander wrote a book in the ‘80s called, “In the Absence of the Sacred.” He laid out the language to think about technology and its impact on us. Technology moves almost exponentially, but society moves almost not at all. We have powerful technology at our disposal, but what do we do with those things and what’s best suited to be used with those things? Will the technologies make our lives better, individually, collectively, not change things, or make things worse?

I think it's really worth thinking about and exploring before we use technologies and certainly before we embrace them. It's going to be different for different people, but we have to make those choices consciously.

I know where I come down on TV. It's truly amazing in so many ways, but I think overall it makes the world a worse place. I choose not to watch it because my time is way too valuable to sit absorbing information from a screen.

I made a new piece of technology to turn it off and I made it for others. It's directly a result of that book. So much of my life changed because it gave me a language to think of these kinds of things.

What’s your favorite kind of food?

I'm a vegan. I eat what's healthy for me. I don't tell people what to eat but that’s the thing that's most healthy for me. I want to feel good. There's all sorts of amazing food that tastes outrageously good. I go to China a lot. In China, people have been vegetarian for various different motivating reasons for centuries. They've developed ways of making vegan food over the centuries, and it's flavorful and wonderful.

One of my favorite restaurants anywhere in the world is in Chinatown in San Francisco, called Lucky Creation. I just love that place.

What's your personal philosophy?

We all have little control over anything in our lives and no control over other people’s lives. But, we have a lot of control over what we choose to do with our time. Sometimes, it's scary to make those choices, but we can explore them. And by making those choices, we make a huge impact on our lives and on those around us. We all have a huge amount of power that we can use. The more people use that to make their lives better, as they see it, hopefully, maybe more people have a better life on our little planet.

Do you have answers? Email us at ece@illinois.edu, and we may feature you in the future.