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October 3, 2005

Smart markets


“Munch away,” Saul Levmore, dean and William B. Graham professor in the Law School, directed the audience in packed Classroom II. As law students and faculty chomped on turkey and portobello sandwiches last Thursday, Levmore set out to dethrone experts in the first lecture of the fourth annual Chicago’s Best Ideas series. He offered an array of anecdotes suggesting experts might not be any more knowledgeable than the average joe—or at least than a group of average joes participating in a prediction market.

In prediction markets, participants bet on the likelihood of an event happening, such as a Democrat or Republican being elected to office. The participants purchase either the Democratic or Republican stock, according to their predicted winner, and in so doing raise the stock’s price. The market prices are then taken as the group’s aggregate forecast. For example, if the Democrat’s stock goes for $30 per share and the Republican’s stock commands only $10 per share, the participants predict a Democratic victory. Levmore pointed to the Iowa Electronics Market, which operates in this fashion and has become “famous for predicting political elections with an accuracy not matched” by polls or columnists. Likewise, “futures market for oranges,” he said, “are a better indicator of the weather than the National Weather Service.”

Corporations have taken notice of these markets. In the past, when Hewlett-Packard introduced a new printer, the company asked regional sales managers to determine how many factories should be converted to produce it. In 1996 the company piloted a Web site where employees predicted sales and won prizes for their accuracy. The resulting internal predictions market was so on target, Levmore said, that HP has “ditched” its regional sales predictors. These markets work, he said, because if there is incentive enough—be it money or bragging rights—individuals will bone up on printer sales, politics, or orange growth, and their aggregate knowledge is as good as gold.

Meredith Meyer, ’06

Photo: Saul Levmore

October 5, 2005

Medici’s main squeeze


Many restaurants advertise all-you-can-eat deals. But how about “all you can squeeze”? Every weekend Medici on 57th offers infinite refills of fresh-squeezed orange juice for $2 a glass. The only catch—or the best part, depending on one’s perspective—is that patrons squeeze all their own oranges, and “you have to squeeze quite a number of them to get a glass,” says assistant manager Mattie Pool. From 9 a.m., when the restaurant opens, to 2 p.m., when brunch ends, Medici typically goes through 200 to 250 oranges, with at least 100 people lining up for their turn at the squeezers.

It all started in the 1960s, says manager Kim Hayward, as the brainchild of owner Hans Morsbach, MBA’61, a bona fide devotee of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Hayward remembers when the regular menu included the deal and the waitstaff had to bring the squeezer and oranges to people’s tables. She also remembers when the Medici purchased their produce “a couple times a week” and ran out of oranges “by Sunday, frequently.” There’s been no shortage of oranges, Hayward says, since the restaurant set up an account with Hyde Park Produce about ten years ago. Now the Med purchases the oranges fresh, by the box, each Saturday and Sunday. The staff cuts the oranges into halves and places them into a large glass container between two squeezers. Though the tradition remains “really popular,” says Pool, the supply never runs out.

Hana Yoo, ’07

The jaws of juice (top) turn orange halves into glasses of OJ (bottom) at the Med.

October 7, 2005

Veteran advice


“It’s nice to hear that people do struggle,” said College third-year Christina Socias at last night’s Collegiate Mentoring Program (CMP) welcome dinner, “that not everything is perfect. It makes you feel like you’re OK.” Socias is a returning participant in CMP, a diversity-mentoring program that pairs undergraduates with graduate and professional-school students. Mentors and mentees meet at least once a week, said College senior adviser Elise LaRose, CMP’s founder and director, to talk, watch movies, catch a concert—or, in one case, visit a cadaver lab, which inspired that mentee to drop his pre-med aspirations. The program’s goal, LaRose told the students clustered around tables in Ida Noyes’s first-floor library, is “to help you have the most satisfying and successful experience possible—as you define success.”

When LaRose started the program in February 2003, she said later, she imagined it would be “more centralized,” with lots of group activities. But she found that students mainly wanted “to do their own thing,” spending one-on-one time with their mentors. For the most part, she said, “it’s really clear that students love their mentors.” In a Spring 2004 survey of 62 mentees, only four disliked their mentors, and none had approached LaRose to change their assignments. About 60 to 80 undergraduates participate in the program—the number fluctuates as students join and drop out during the year—and interest usually spikes after winter break, when fall-quarter grades have come in and, LaRose said, “the honeymoon is over.” Mentors typically work with two to four mentees and make $15 an hour. She pays them because “graduate students are generally poor,” she said, and as an incentive to attract the best grad students. Though the program is advertised as a “diversity-mentoring program,” anyone can sign up.

“This is from the outside, because I didn’t go to undergrad here, but from what I hear, [Chicago] can be an intense, depressive environment,” said third-year law student Linda Boachie, who mentored two students last year. “It’s good to talk things over with someone a little bit older who’s not a parent or teacher.” That’s what attracted first-year Sana Suh to the dinner. “I’m uncertain about what I’m going to do for the next four years,” Suh said, “and beyond that I want someone to talk to about how to manage my time and how to get into grad school” with someone “who’s actually been through the school.”

Hana Yoo, ’07

Photo: Mentors and mentees eat in Ida Noyes.

October 10, 2005

Green house


With his ParaSITEs—tentlike structures attached to building vents, inflated and heated by the warm air the vents give off—Michael Rakowitz works with the homeless to create art. In 1998 he began the ongoing project by collaborating with a handful of homeless people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to custom design seven of these portable homes. Aside from a few ParaSITEs made of vinyl and nylon, most of them are composed of plastic bags and packaging tape. One inhabitant, Bill Stone, returned his ParaSITE to Rakowitz when he no longer needed it. Still dirty and stained from its time on the streets, it now sits in the Smart Museum as part of the exhibition Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. On the wall behind Stone’s temporary shelter are a slide show about the project, sketches of other ParaSITEs, and a ParaSITE kit.

Beyond Green, which opened last Thursday, includes works by 13 artists and groups from the United States and Europe contemplating the idea of sustainable art. For many of the artists, sustainable art “must also be convenient, or aesthetically pleasing,” said docent Emily Warner, a fourth-year art-history major in the College, leading a tour group of about a half-dozen visitors Sunday. For instance, the artist collaborative JAM has produced a line of handmade, earth-friendly, cloth and leather handbags equipped with flexible solar panels, so consumers can charge small electronics such as cell phones and iPods while walking down the street. Soon JAM hopes to offer the handbags for sale. Another artist, Kevin Kaempf of People Powered, has developed both compost “tea packs”—bags of decayed organic matter made from kitchen and yard waste—and a palette of paints made from mixing together friends’, neighbors’, and strangers’ waste paints that otherwise would have been discarded.

Though exploring solutions to social problems, Warner said, the artists often see their job as raising questions and issues. Rakowitz, for instance, includes the following disclaimer as part of his ParaSITEs display: “This project does not present itself as a solution. It is not a proposal for affordable housing. Its point of departure is to present a symbolic strategy of survival for homeless existence within the city, amplifying the problematic relationship between those who have homes and those who do not have homes.”

Hana Yoo, ’07

Photos: A ParaSITE (top) and the handy handbags (bottom).

October 12, 2005

Hibernian humor


Almost as soon as he took the podium in the Swift Common Room, Rory Childers—a Chicago cardiology professor, electrocardiogram expert, and native Irishman—had a packed house of students, faculty, and friends laughing out loud. “Irish hilarity involves a mix of graveyard humor, mockery, the celebration of calamity, the farcical, the knockabout, curses and spells, satanic laughter, the profane and the sacred, mendaciousness, roguish ineptitude, gaudy, exuberant invective, and wit honed to a fine art,” Childers said at the Divinity School’s Wednesday Lunch series. In the face of such a litany, he admonished his audience not to be squeamish. “A strong anticlerical vein permeates much of the comic in Irish writing,” he warned. “Language is often outrageous, even ludicrous—the verbal equivalent of the gargoyle.”

Apart from his life as the man Chicago medical students know as “the EKG guy,” Childers is the grandson of Robert Erskine Childers, an Irish writer and patriot executed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, and the son of Erskine Hamilton Childers, the Republic of Ireland’s fourth president. (On Monday Ireland celebrated his birth centennial by releasing a postage stamp bearing his portrait).

At last Wednesday’s lunchtime talk, Rory Childers delivered an hour’s worth of bawdy anecdotes, rhymes, and one-liners from the likes of Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, poet James Stephens, and playwright Brendan Behan, who was once Childers’s patient. “Towards the end of his life, Brendan Behan had clearly become a type of stage Irishman, simply because the requisite shocking speech was expected of him,” Childers said. “On his deathbed he took the hand of the nun who was nursing him. ‘Bless you sister! May all your sons be bishops.’”

Lest any Swift Hall listeners think Ireland’s wit was purely the province of its literati, Childers offered plenty of boisterous waggery handed down through generations of ordinary citizens. Most every statue in central Dublin now has its own ribald—and rhyming—nickname. Monuments to Anna Liffy (the city’s main river), Molly Malone, Dublin’s waterways, a millennial clock, and two women shoppers have been rechristened, respectively: the floozy in the Jacuzzi, the tart with the cart, the box in the docks, the chime in the slime, and the hags with the bags. Meanwhile, locals are calling a new statue of Joyce seated on a bench “the prick with the shtick.”


Photo: Rory Childers

October 14, 2005

Prison break


You can walk into the Court Theatre production of Man of La Mancha knowing the 1966 Tony Award–winning musical inside out—able to sing along to the lyrics not only of “Impossible Dream” but also “Dulcinea,” “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” and even “Golden Helmet of Mambrino”—and still get caught up in the story.

It helps that the story is one of the best, a retelling of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. A play within a play, the musical is also a play within a prison, as Cervantes and his manservant await their fate during the Spanish Inquisition. Both Charles Newell’s direction and Josh Culbert’s set, a multitiered affair that suggests the seven circles of hell, underscore a storyteller’s power to open an audience to new possibilities and connections.

The music remains as stirring as the message, as the three lead characters sing their hearts out in tripartite performances. Herbert Perry plays Cervantes; acting out a story to save his manuscript from being destroyed by his fellow prisoners, Cervantes assumes the role of Alonso Quijana, an idealist who would prefer to be the great knight Don Quixote. Neil Friedman waxes comic and appealing as Cervantes’s manservant, who also plays Quijana’s manservant and Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza. As the half-mad prisoner Escalante, Hollis Resnick plays the less-than-virginal servant Aldonza, transformed by Quixote into his own fair lady, Dulcinea.

Man of La Mancha runs Wednesday to Sunday through November 6.


Photos by Michael Brosilow: Neil Friedman as Sancho, Herbert Perry as Don Quixote, and Hollis Resnik as Aldonza (top); Dulcinea and Don Quixote (bottom).

October 17, 2005

Covert choreography


“This looks like a high-school prom,” said Kate Blomquist, ’07, as she examined the gem-colored Mexican sodas and Twinkies splayed like shrapnel on a table at the Renaissance Society’s open house Thursday afternoon.

Blomquist had dance on her mind, but she certainly was not adorned in taffeta. By 3 p.m. fellow dancers Marya Spont, ’06, Lixian Hantover, ’07, Terin Izil, ’06, and Courtney Prokopas, ’06, all dressed in T-shirts and jeans or black pants, entered the gallery, which currently houses a five-screen video installation depicting the movements of choreographer William Forsythe. In a performance Blomquist choreographed, the dancers promenaded among the 30 or so spectators intently viewing the exhibit. Intermittently the dancers struck poses or imitated Forsythe’s movements on the screen, to the surprise of their fellow screen-gazers. The audience, as if collectively mesmerized by the performance, drifted toward the room’s edges, allowing the dancers free rein of the gallery space.

The open house was the first by the Renaissance Society in partnership with a new student group, the Wrens, who hope to raise campus-wide awareness of the Renaissance Society by holding performances in the gallery.

Meredith Meyer, ’06

Photo: A dancer mimics Forsythe's moves behind the screen (top). Strike a pose (bottom).

October 19, 2005

Beaver tails and dragonfly spies


Having beaten out 60 other poetic hopefuls to earn a spot on the bill at last Tuesday’s poetry reading—the first in this season’s Emerging Writers Series—Geoff Hilsabeck, a student in the University’s Master of Arts in Humanities program, shuffled toward the podium in Classics 21. The room was full; people crowded the couches and windowsills and lined the walls. Hilsabeck flashed a shy smile.

“There will be some swearing at some point,” he said. “I hope that’s not a problem for anybody.”

It wasn’t. From time to time Hilsabeck, whose work has been published in a chapbook called The Keeper of Secrets, whacked his audience with something serious, but mostly he kept them chuckling through more than half a dozen poems with lithe and lively wordplay and imagery that tended toward the surreal. From a poem called “Providing Assistance”:

Taken by storm
a swarm of sparrows
picked feathers under the overhang and listened.
We all did.
I even paid extra for two good seats,
a dragonfly, a cinched bouquet.
I leashed the dragonfly
with floss and trained it as a spy.

Hilsabeck shared the stage with poet Sam White, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop who teaches at the University of Rhode Island. White’s first book of poems, The Goddess of the Hunt is Not Herself, was published this year. It is a quiet and contemplative collection that owes its title, White said, to an artist he once dated, who created an entire exhibit by photographing herself with beaver tails sticking out of her mouth. “I met her and saw the photos at the same instant,” White explained. “I was so struck by everything about her.”

In “Life in a Big Sweater,” White mused: “I am unshod, / like an aged whisker from the lawn. / I am under you, on top. / Far off a light blinks / in the deep stretch of a window. / Part of me lives in a crow’s beak. / Part of me is nest.”


Photo: Geoff Hilsabeck.

October 21, 2005

Saris and kurtas

Setting aside school rivalries, the College’s South Asian Students Association (SASA) and Northwestern University’s chapter came together this past Saturday to celebrate a joyful occasion: a wedding. A U of C “bride” married a Northwestern “groom” in a mock ceremony incorporating South Asian cultures and religions including Muslim, Sikh, Hindi, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bengali, Gujarati, and Punjabi.

Like many weddings, it required months of planning. Preparations began last March, said second-year Prerna Kumar, SASA’s events cochair, as students dressed in traditional Indian garb—females in lengha, salwar kameez, and saris; males in kurtas—filed past her into the Shoreland ballroom. “We took [the idea] from Columbia and NYU,” Kumar said. The event was conceived as a way “to get students on campus to come out and have a good time,” she said, as well as “to educate people about South Asian culture—even teach Indians about their own culture.”

A key component was choosing a bride, whom the SASA board picked based on who answered the written application questions “in the cleverest, funniest, most creative way,” Kumar said. The honor went to second-year Aasha Barot. She “had a cute list,” Kumar said. “She wrote her answers as if she were really getting married.” Barot was decked out in red and pink, which “symbolize sunrise,” said third-year Yesha Sutaria, “the start of a new life.”

Organizers scattered rose petals on the round reception tables and on the stage, where a mandap, an Indian bridal canopy, squatted. “We built it from scratch,” Kumar said, in about six hours the previous day. During the ten-minute ceremony, “wedding photographers” snapped pictures of the couple performing rituals. SASA members sprinkled them with rose water, a ritual purification, as they entered (a Tamil Nadu custom). Female students—in a real wedding, saat suhagins, or seven happily married women—ground sugar cubes over their heads to ensure a sweet life together (Muslim). They exchanged garlands (Hindi and Sikh), and their “families” blessed them by placing placed blades of grass and grains of rice on their heads (Bengali). The remainder of the afternoon featured Indian dances by U of C students, a performance by a Northwestern Indian a cappella group, toasts to the bride and groom, and a meal from Viceroy.

Hana Yoo, ’07

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Photos (left to right): The groom awaits his bride; rose petals decorate the tables; the a capella group entertains.

October 24, 2005

Stand-up guys


“I’m really shy,” Daniel Nainan confessed to his Mandel Hall audience as he stood on stage with Azhar Usman after their stand-up comedy routines this past Saturday, sponsored by the Chicago Society and the South Asian Students Association.

Strange words from a man who makes a living playing for laughs in front of large groups, though not so strange considering how Nainan got into the business. As a technical presenter at Intel from 1996 to 2001, Nainan had to represent the company, “sometimes in front of thousands of people or on TV,” when globetrotting with senior executives. “I was really nervous about speaking on stage,” he said. To combat stage fright he took a comedy class, which he enjoyed so much that after retiring early from Intel, he started doing stand-up full-time. Similarly, Usman, though always a “class clown” and involved in theater, only mustered the courage to pursue a comedy career in 2001, two years after graduating from law school.

During the show—Nainan performed first, Usman second—both Nainan, who is half Indian and half Japanese, and Usman, an Indian Muslim American, mined their cultural backgrounds for jokes, poking fun at their parents, Bollywood movies, and Indians’ mangling of English pronunciation and grammar. At one point Usman explained why Indians are always late (the show itself began 30 minutes past the scheduled time): “We are a people that uses the same word for yesterday and tomorrow,” he said. “Basically, if you’re within 72 hours, you’re pretty much on time.” The two also took on politics, with Nainan doing dead-on impressions of figures such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Usman lamenting post-9/11 airport security checks (“It’s not pretty. Heads turn simultaneously. Security guard says, ‘We’ve got a Muhammad at four o’clock. Over.’”)

Before the two left the stage to sell their CDs and DVDs, Usman noted that stand-up comedy, which he called one of American’s few indigenous art forms, has enjoyed little scholarship compared to jazz, which “has been studied ad nauseam in academia.” Perhaps, aware of the University’s reputation for intellectualism—at one point he joked about proud Indian parents’ outrage at having “U of the C” (as Indians say it) being mistaken for his own alma mater, UIC—he was hinting that an audience member should take up the gauntlet.

Hana Yoo, ’07

Photo: Nainan (left) and Usman after the show.

October 26, 2005

Dealing with demons


“When a female pheasant, without cause, enters the house, its name is Spirit-Traveler. In the house, there is invariably a violent death. Leave quickly.” Thus reads one instruction in “White Marsh’s Diagrams of Spectral Prodigies,” a 10th-century Chinese manuscript explaining how to deal with demons and strange occurrences around the typical elite household. The manuscript, discovered in 1900 at Dunhuang on the Silk Road, offers helpful hints from White Marsh, a popular medieval protector deity. “When a leather belt glows at night,” cautions another directive, “make sacrificial offerings of ale and dried meat slices.” The manuscript also lists demons’ names; in some cases all it takes to scare a demon away is to say its name a certain number of times.

Such a manuscript provides a window into the medieval Chinese world. In fact, argued East Asian Languages and Civilizations Professor Donald Harper in a Humanities Open House lecture this past Saturday, until you have studied the manuscripts, “you don’t really understand ancient and medieval Chinese culture.” Though it is unclear how many Chinese could read, paper was “certainly affordable in medieval times,” and many texts were posted in public places. Furthermore, this particular manuscript provides important “everyday” knowledge, he noted, “not about fantastic things you’d never expect to see” but incidents that could occur “right in the environment of your own home.” Harper also pointed to parallels between the 10th-century manuscript and one from the 4th century B.C. For 14 centuries these instructions on how to deal with life’s “hidden, occult, magical,” and inexplicable phenomena were preserved via the written word.

Yet “somewhere in the medieval period” the Chinese left the book tradition behind, Harper said, instead hanging portraits of protector spirits in their homes. In about the 9th century people began nailing White Marsh portraits, or “A Diagram of White Marsh,” over their doors, the earliest evidence of this shift. The portrait still survives in paintings and block prints in Japan, though not in China.

Hana Yoo ’07

Photo: Harper at his Humanities Open House lecture.

October 27, 2005

Portrait of the martyr as a young girl


Beany Malone would have relished the harvest-and-Halloween menu dished up by the Divinity School Wednesday Lunch cooking crew this week: pear and goat cheese salad, stuffed squash with hazelnuts and cranberries, and miniature cupcakes topped with bright-orange icing and Halloween candies.

Beany (née Catherine), the youngest of the four motherless Malones of Denver, is the heroine of Lenora Mattingly Weber’s series for teenage girls, and she spends much of the series (the first book appeared in 1943, the last in 1969) worrying about what to cook for dinner and if her family will like it.

Beany is also—argued Maureen Corrigan, longtime book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and author of the new literary memoir Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading—a secular martyr, placed with the nuns’ seal of approval on Corrigan’s grammar-school reading list. Which is why Beany turned up in a discussion titled What Catholic Martyr Stories Taught Me about Getting to Heaven—and Getting Even.

As Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, told the Swift Commons diners, “The beauty of series literature is that you can see certain themes developing over the course of the years.” Beany’s life trajectory—including the moment when the handsome young man from whom she’s expecting a marriage proposal announces his decision to become a priest—is fueled by “the tension between self-fulfillment and offering it up” at the altar of self-sacrifice.

The Beany Malone books also make it into Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, a project for which Corrigan “decided to give myself permission to just talk about books that had stayed with me.” And, yes, she said during the Q&A, the books’ messages stayed with her, to “mixed” effect: “They toughened me to endure stuff that I would have otherwise more wisely gotten out of much sooner.”


Beany Malone (top) may offer messages of self-denial but, says Maureen Corrigan, author of Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (bottom), "Reading itself is essentially an antisocial act."

October 31, 2005

Witches in waiting


A doctor, a princess, a Christmas present, and a couple of witches lined up outside Mandel Hall Saturday night in anticipation of the University Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween concert, “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble.” The audience, which took the invitation’s “costumes encouraged” suggestion to heart, awaited the USO’s renditions of Revueltas’s “Sensemaya,” Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” the Prelude and Witches’ Chorus from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” and music from Williams’s “Harry Potter.”

Meredith Meyer, ’06

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Photos: The characters outside Mandel Hall.

Photos of the Week: October 2005 (Postcards from the Quads)

Halloween scav hunt 10/31

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