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October 2, 2006

On human rights


“They told them, ‘You have to renounce your previous ideology,’ and because they weren’t willing to renounce it, they were executed.”

At International House Thursday, Iranian political dissident Akbar Ganji described his government's role in killing writers and dissidents in 1998, as he did in two books on the subject, The Dungeon of Ghosts and The Red Eminence and the Gray Eminence. Before an audience of about 300, Ganji recalled being jailed and tortured for speaking out about that abuse. Law professor Martha Nussbaum served as moderator, questioning him on human rights, Iran’s evolution toward democracy, the status of women, and the U.S.-Iran relationship.

“I should not have to suffer, and that is what brings me rights,” said Ganji, who embarked on a speaking tour of the West after he was released from prison in March. Since all humans know what it means to suffer, he argued, nations could agree on a right to be free from suffering. “If we go with this issue of suffering, could we justify the complete list of rights women are claiming?” asked Nussbaum. Ganji explained that “suffering” goes beyond physical pain, including mental anguish as well—something a woman could suffer as much as a man if her political and social rights are restricted. “Of course I will suffer when my rights are not equal to others,” he said.

Reflecting on Iran’s history, Ganji said that the last thing the country needs is another revolution. Civil disobedience is the best route to democracy, he said—a theory he put into practice in 2005 with a month-long hunger strike while in prison. What Iran needs now, Ganji says, is to unite the women’s, labor, youth, and student movements. “Everybody in some way is actually fighting this regime. And we’re trying to harmonize this movement.”

Jenny Fisher, ’07

Photo: Nussbaum (far left) listens to Ganji (second from left) with the help of two translators.

October 4, 2006


Heavy rain, high winds, and the occasional hailstone brought down trees and power lines across Chicago Monday night. Generated by what WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling described as a perfect “atmospheric recipe,” the thunderstorms, accompanied by 65-mph wind gusts, knocked out electricity for 320,000 ComEd customers, the Chicago Tribune reported, and as of Wednesday morning 70,000 of them remained without power.

Also hit: Chicago’s campus, where the main quads sustained the greatest damage. Students on their way to class Tuesday dodged upturned trees, broken street lamps, and fallen branches. At Ellis Avenue and 56th Street, one tree ripped in half, its canopy landing across the street from its trunk. Rockefeller Chapel also lost a few large trees, as did Ida Noyes, the Law School, and Burton-Judson Courts. “I don’t believe there’s any part of campus that has not suffered some wind damage,” says Bob Tiberg, operations and maintenance director for the University’s Facilities Services. Still working to clear away the mess—a task that will stretch into next week—his office hasn’t yet taken a precise count downed trees, but Tiberg predicts scores were lost, including some left standing but now unbalanced. “It’s staggering.”

While a few campus buildings lost power during the storm, flooding amounted to only damp basements and clogged storm drains. But Facilities Services will be dealing with lost and damaged trees—by far the biggest casualty—for some time, Tiberg says. Replanting them presents a dilemma. “You can’t replace an 80-year-old tree with an 80-year-old tree. We’ll have to figure something out for that.”


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Row 1 photos (left to right): A student climbs over a fallen tree near Ryerson; Most of this tree fell across Ellis Avenue near the tennis courts; Near Swift on the main quad, this tree was completely uprooted.

Row 2 photos (left to right): A main-quads tree took a lamppost top down with it; Branches form a fork near Swift; Tree-removal crews work near Harper quad.

Photos by Dan Dry.

October 6, 2006

’Ud to Palestine


“Then, of course, I was becoming a man,” said Palestinian musician Issa Boulos, recounting a teenage romance. “So I needed to start talking politics—because that’s what Palestinian men do.” The approach, said Boulos, director of the University’s Middle East Music Ensemble, failed to win over the young woman, but it did inspire a song, which he played at Thursday’s Noontime Concert Series in Fulton Recital Hall. Titled “Being Peace: A Palestinian Memoir,” the 45-minute program included five compositions by Boulos, all strummed on an ’ud (or “oud”), a pear-shaped traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument. As he played, colorful abstract paintings and black-and-white photographs of Palestinian children flashed across a large projector screen.

Seated on the dimly lit stage, Boulos shared stories of his life in the Middle East, including two years in the mountains being “hunted by the Israelis”; his arrest; and time in prison. “How can you maintain peace in the absence of justice?” he asked the audience of 50 before launching into a melancholy melody. Boulos capped off the concert with a brief instrumental, joking it would help “calm you down—to calm myself actually.”


Photos: Issa Boulos plays the 'ud at Fulton Recital Hall (top); Photos and paintings flashed on the screen (bottom).

October 9, 2006

Research gold mine


In the past few years, academic research has staged a quiet revolution. Gone are the days when students searched databases for journal references, found the publications in the stacks, and photocopied the corresponding pages. Now, with a single click of a "Find It!" button, researchers can view the full text of many journal articles online. The U of C library wants to show users how.

Friday afternoon reference librarian Rebecca Starkey led a workshop on navigating the quickest routes to such full-text articles. Six students (mostly graduate) sat at the low-screened Sony Vaio computers in Regenstein 153, clicking along as she gave directions and warnings. Humanities and history journals, for example, may be harder to find than science ones. Some newspapers and journals limit their online offerings to specific date ranges. Texts may show up only in certain formats—HTML, PDF, with graphics or without. And searching Google is not a researcher's best bet. "Most full texts are available only through subscriptions," Starkey said, "where libraries or other institutions pay fees."

To find an article on immigrants in Chicago, Starkey began at the library's home page, found "Electronic Resources" and clicked on "Database Finder." In the "Sociological Abstracts" advanced search, she typed in her keywords and came up with a search yielding three pages of articles. Starkey wanted No. 8: "Encountering the Color Line in the Everyday: Italians in Interwar Chicago," by Gugielmo, Thomas A. Sure enough, at the end of the citation was the desired "Find It!" button, which in turn supplied several online options. She clicked on "Academic Search Premier," which offered a PDF—jackpot. That format, Starkey explained, shows the article exactly as it appeared in print, including charts and images where applicable.

She then went through other ways to find full texts, including using the library's "E-Journals" list (fast and easy to search but hard to browse because so many titles begin "Journal of..."), the "Library Catalogs" list, and even "Books and Texts." The basic message: if a user knows where to look and keeps on clicking, more likely than not she'll find what she needs.


Photo: Rebecca Starkey gives a heads-up on full-text searches.

October 11, 2006

Economics—minus the math


“Wait a minute, didn’t you get a 2 on the calculus AP exam?” asked Freakonomics author Steven Levitt’s high-school math teacher at the U of C economics professor’s 20-year high-school reunion. In a Monday night talk at the Max Palevsky dorms, Levitt recounted several stories about his trouble grasping math concepts. His humor, along with tales of questions that he and other “rogue economists” hope to answer, captivated the largely undergraduate audience—at least those who managed to squeeze their way into the small auditorium to see the economist who studies, in his own words, “things that other economists don’t.”

Stories about Levitt’s norm-breaking colleagues took up much of the lecture. He cited John List, a Chicago colleague who “invalidated the life’s work” of economists who, using a lab experiment called the “dictator game,” believed they were finding evidence of human altruism. In the game, a person is given a sum of money and dictates whether or not to give part of the money to a stranger. The researchers found that most subjects would split the money with the stranger, but List discovered that, because it was played in a laboratory setting, the game didn't actually prove that people are altruistic; rather it demonstrated that they wanted to seem altruistic to the person in the white lab coat. “Just by thinking about the question,” Levitt said, List showed that economists who thought they were finding altruism “missed the boat.”

Levitt took more than 45 minutes of audience questions, which ranged from “What are you working on now?” to “What is the one piece of advice you have for somebody just starting in economics?” To the former, Levitt played close to his chest but gave a hint: are some doctors better than others, and what makes them better? To the latter, he again invoked his antimathematical past, urging students to demand introductory classes in which they are first taught the basics of economics to supplement the College’s math-heavy economics curriculum.

—Ruthie Kott

Photos: Students peer through the dorm screen to get a glimpse (top); Freakonomics author Steve Levitt (Photo by Dan Dry).

October 13, 2006

Looking for Love


More than 300 people, mostly undergraduates, crowded into the Ida Noyes Cloister Club Thursday in hopes of finding out what love is. “Regardless of what they say about the U of C, we have a lot of love here,” began Nicole Baran, ’09, who organized the Chicago Society symposium featuring professors Martha McClintock, James Redfield, AB’54, PhD’61, Bert Cohler, AB’61, and moderator David Orlinsky, AB’54, PhD’62. “Or we’re looking for it.”

So what happens when you fall head over heels? McClintock, a psychology professor, described her research on MHC proteins, which vary from one individual to another and help the immune system distinguish the body’s cells from foreign ones. When McClintock took a set of T-shirts from male University students to female members of an isolated religious community, she found that they could detect tiny differences in the protein makeup, tending to prefer the smell of men with MHC proteins compatible with their own. “It was a sense of pleasantness,” McClintock said. “It just sort of made you want to go mmmmmm.” The compound in men’s smell, McClintock said, improves positive mood and decreases negative mood, contributing to that feeling of trust important to love.

Like McClintock, classics professor and Plato expert Redfield turned to his academic background for answers. In his 15-minute speech, “The Socratic Notion of Love: Sex as a Poor Substitute for Philosophy,” Redfield sketched out the Greek idea of eros, “a cosmic force” different from filia, which means friendship or kinship. Eros, or falling in love, “sort of hits you like hitting the pavement,” said Redfield. According to Plato, falling in love means “you see the god in a person” because you idealize him or her. But eros doesn’t last. “A few years ago,” quipped Redfield, “a woman said, ‘I adore you,’ and I said, ‘You’ll grow out of it.’”

Psychologist Cohler presented Freud’s theory of love. “In many ways, you love only as you love your mother,” Cohler said, explaining that your mother, the first person you love, becomes your lifelong model for love. It might not even be a person that you love, according to object-relations theory. “It could be an object. You could fall in love with shoes.” Orlinsky, a social scientist, joked, “If they smell right.”

Following the discussion, students lined up to ask questions. Overwhelmingly, they wondered whether knowing how love works would spoil it. “Does knowing the search process destroy the magic?” asked the first student in line. “Is there space for mystery?” asked another. The professors resoundingly answered that knowledge doesn’t spoil love. As Cohler put it, “Knowing the basis of love frees you to love more freely.”

Jenny Fisher, ’07

Photo: Students listen to Professor Cohler.

October 16, 2006

Get right with God


Every person in the world, Chicago social psychologist Nicholas Epley said, is a mind-reader. Not that people are psychics or phrenologists or parlor magicians, but they cannot help trying to peer into each other’s heads: What does one friend really think of another? Did she marry him for love or for money? Was the crime premeditated? Did the North Koreans really test a nuclear weapon? What is the boss going to say next? “And most important,” Epley said to appreciative laughter from last Wednesday’s lunchtime crowd at the Divinity School, “do they think we’re hot or not?”

Yet the data show that such mind-reading isn’t nearly as reliable as people imagine. Rarely do they guess right, in large part because of egocentrism: people use their own thoughts, feelings, and knowledge to intuit those of others. “It works out disastrously,” said Epley, a Graduate School of Business assistant professor. “We overestimate the prevalence of our own beliefs in the world.”

When it comes to estimating the prevalence of their beliefs in the otherworld, people behave the same way, Epley said. Egocentrism becomes particularly difficult to resist when religion is involved. Flipping through a digital slideshow of survey results, he told the group he’d found a “huge” correlation between respondents’ personal beliefs about political issues—abortion, the Iraq war, affirmative action, and legalizing marijuana—and the beliefs they ascribed to God. People usually answered that God’s beliefs resembled their own, only more so. “And God is more extreme if your beliefs are more extreme,” he said. The pattern held true across religious and demographic categories, and it even held when Epley and fellow researchers manipulated respondents’ beliefs. As people changed their own opinions, they adjusted God’s accordingly. Epley thinks he knows why the correlation is so strong: “If you’re out of step with other Americans, your neighbor, or even your parents, it’s not such a big deal. But if you’re out of step with God, that is a very big deal.”


Photo: Epley showed the Div School group a survey-results slideshow.

October 18, 2006

Bike shop gears up

Artists, volunteers, and bike enthusiasts crowded into Blackstone Bicycle Works for its grand opening Saturday, wheeling bicycles and carrying food. A man in a yellow jersey, black tights, and bike shoes praised the guacamole on his plate, while a woman pushed her chocolate cake on willing guests, saying, "It's so good I made two."

The bike shop is a project of the Experimental Station, housed in an unassuming brick building behind sprawling community gardens at 61st and Blackstone. Founder and director Dan Peterman, MFA'86, calls the nonprofit station "an incubator for small enterprise, a venue and workplace for the arts, [and] a laboratory of urban ecology and alternative education." Reopened after a 2001 fire, Blackstone Bicycle Works offers adult classes and employs local kids who earn bicycles, parts, and accessories by doing bike repair and maintenance for shop customers.

Ready for the kids, workbenches lined the shop's walls, fitted with tools in their outlined spots. Light streaming through colored glass disks in the plywood walls illuminated a mural depicting pre-fire youth-program participants, now in their 20s. Program director Christopher Wallace is still enlisting participants from nearby schools like William H. Ray and Andrew Carnegie elementary schools. Also at the opening was bike shop summer intern Sofia Narvaez-Gete, '07, who said she's excited to see how the program turns out. "I want to work in the shop or at least volunteer during the school year because I love the place and people, and I worked so much on getting the place ready for when the kids come that I want to be able to see the fruit of my labor."

Jenny Fisher, '07

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Photos (left to right): Experimental Station founder Dan Peterman (far right) chats with guests; a closeup of the mural depicting pre-fire youth-program participants; a boy examines the tool benches.

October 20, 2006

The brink of destruction


The Philippines, Indonesia, and the U.S. are just three of nine countries Jared Diamond believes are in imminent danger. “I couldn’t tell you what society will collapse next,” Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the audience gathered in the SSA lobby at Thursday’s Helen Harris Perlman Lecture, but those countries “are all sources of concern.”

Diamond touched on a number of vanished societies, including Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, the Mayans, and the American Southwest’s Anasazi, whose ancient Pueblo dwellings were the world’s tallest structures until Chicago’s steel-framed skyscrapers rose in the late 1800s. Human environmental mismanagement, climate change, war, trade-partner dependence, and resulting inept institutional responses, he explained, can all induce societal disintegration.

“What do you think the person to chop down the last tree on Easter Island said?” asked Diamond, recounting a question he poses to his undergraduate classes. Typical responses—reflecting contemporary debates—range from “there will be a new alternative technology that will develop to replace the need for trees” to “it’s my property, leave me alone” to “all this environmental concern…You’re all fear mongers.” Like the Easter Islanders, he said, American society cannot afford to sweep problems of limited environmental resources under the rug.

So why do some societies deal with their issues while others do not? “If the elite suffer,” Diamond said, “the problems are solved.” He cited the Netherlands, one-third of which lies below sea level and, unlike the worst hit areas of New Orleans, is inhabited by both rich and poor. After a 1953 flood killed more than 1,800 people, the Dutch responded. Today, he said, the Netherlands has one of the world’s highest percentages of individuals involved in environmental organizations.


Photo: Diamond called himself a "cautious optimist" at the SSA.

Photo by L.G.

October 23, 2006

Robie House: haunted?


“There are no devils here, but there are shadows,” proclaimed a Robie House tour guide, playing the role of Lora Robie (the wife of the house’s first owner, Frederick Robie) during Saturday night’s “Secrets and Shadows of Robie House" tour. Just in time for Halloween, the seasonal event promised to show a different side of the Robie House, giving a glimpse into the mysteries, myths, and legends surrounding the house that Frank Lloyd Wright built between 1908 to 1910.

Orange lights glowing in the upstairs windows added to the eerie ambiance of the nighttime tour. At 7 pm, a motley crew of about 20 students, children, and adults gathered outside, where the first guide, Dwayne, emerged from the shadows to lead the group around the outside of the house. Approaching the front porch (where the doors have no external knobs), he pointed out that one of the mysteries of the Robie House is simply “how to get in.” Once Dwayne led the group to an entryway tucked away on the side of the house, different guides (clad entirely in black) escorted everyone from room to room, each with a unique story. In the children’s playroom, the group watched a slide show of the three families who lived in the house and heard about the death of Frederick Robie’s debt-ridden father George who, on his deathbed, demanded that his son pay back every dollar George owed. The tale told in the guest bedroom explained second owner David Lee Taylor’s death from a gruesome kidney disease in October 1912, only 10 months after moving in. The living room, meanwhile, held the “casket” of Chicago graduate Marsha Wilber, the 25-year-old daughter of Marshall and Isadora Wilber, the third and final family to occupy the house. The Wilbers abandoned the Robie House in 1926.

No ghosts appeared to tour-goers, but, as one guide admitted, “it does feel like there are other presences in the house.” Workers restoring the place have heard footsteps coming down hallways and doors closing unexpectedly when only one person was inside, and there have even been accounts of a woman’s faint image in thresholds and doorways. The same guide later said that, whether or not one believes in ghost stories, the truth of these rumors is “for you to decide.”

Ruthie Kott

Photos: Robie House guide speaking to the tour group (top); the Robie House at night (bottom).

October 24, 2006

Poetry of the absurd


It is scribbled along the body
Impossible even to say a word

An alphabet has been stored beneath the ground
It is a practice alphabet, work of the hand

Yet not, not marks inside a box
For example, this is a mirror box

Spinoza designed such a box
And called it the eighth sky . . .

Visiting poet Michael Palmer began his reading Monday night with the poem “Eighth Sky,” explaining that he wrote it in memory of French writer and painter Max Jacob, who died in a Nazi deportation camp. Most of the poems Palmer read to the audience of about 150 in the Social Sciences building were dedicated to writers who had inspired him, and Palmer followed “Eighth Sky” with “SB,” for playwright Samuel Beckett, then read an untitled poem dedicated to contemporary poet David Shapiro that revealed Palmer's philosophical bent. "What is the relation of the painting to its title?” asked one verse. “The painting bears no relation to its title,” responded the next.

“There are plenty of seats,” Palmer said to students tiptoeing into the auditorium, before continuing with a selection from his latest book, Company of Moths, (2005). Reading the poem “Untitled, October 22nd,” Palmer began, “Eva Braun advised me in a dream to always be kind to dogs,” a line that made the audience chuckle. “So I summoned my dog, gnarly dog." Once he finished reading the poem, Palmer incited more laughter, explaining, “I ran into trouble when my French translator was trying to translate gnarly.”

Palmer, who will give a lecture Wednesday on his 30-year collaboration with the San Francisco–based Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, finished the reading with recent and unpublished poems reflecting his sense of humor and taste for the absurd. After seeing Kane Kwei’s sculpture, “Coffin in the shape of a Cocoa Pod,” at San Francisco’s de Young art museum, Palmer wrote a poem beginning, “Bury me in a cocoa pod. It’s time," and going on with requests to be buried in a Mercedes-Benz, a pot of India ink, a cuckoo clock, and more. Before his listeners lined up for cookies, cheese, and wine, Palmer closed with another poem whose last line read, “Poem, don’t be so strange.”

Jenny Fisher, '07

Photo: Poet Michael Palmer reads his work.

October 26, 2006

Presidential celebration

It’s official. At a Friday morning convocation in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, mathematician Robert J. Zimmer was formally installed as the 13th president of the University.

The 487th convocation, noted University Marshal Lorna P. Straus, SM’60, PhD’62, followed a pattern established by Chicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper: the inauguration was an occasion to grant degrees, to look forward to “the opportunities and necessities of the future," and to come together as one community.

Trustees, faculty, alumni, and delegates from other educational institutions and societies who filled the chapel, as well as community members who viewed the ceremony by video or Webcast, heard the new president describe an institution with an essential value: “a singular focus on inquiry.”

After naming some of the many tasks that go with the office, Zimmer put the to-do list into personal and institutional perspective: “My core responsibility as the president of the University of Chicago” is to ensure that the University realizes its fundamental principles “in the most enduring way.” Because “enduring values should not be confused with enduring answers,” Zimmer urged “boldness, imagination, and discipline,” as the institution strives to "recognize and embrace change" in asking and answering the questions of the day.

In a day that stressed the spirit of inquiry and the community of academic tradition, seven distinguished scholars—including stem-cell investigator, Allan Spradling, AB’71—were awarded honorary degrees; representatives of Chicago's faculty, students, and alumni welcomed the president; and the chapel echoed Brahms's Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80: "Vivat academia."


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Scenes from an inauguration: President Robert Zimmer's family and friends greet him as the convocation procession goes by; Rockefeller Chapel fills with people and pageantry; from the inaugural address: "It is not that our predecessors discovered the right shape of the University once and for all."

Photos by Dan Dry

October 30, 2006

Play pitch


“Committee members, I totally have cake,” announced a fellow University Theater (UT) member as she breezed into the Frances X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater 10 a.m. Saturday. Treats in hand, she settled in with the rest of the eight-person governing group, UT director Heidi Coleman, and a dozen other UT-ers to hear six student directors pitch shows for winter quarter. Contenders included an eight-women dance show called The Lonely Ones; Frank McGuinness’s graveyard drama Carthaginians; the 1960s Joe Orton farce What the Butler Saw; a student-written piece, but I cd only whisper, exploring a character from Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf; classic musical The Fantasticks; and Sylvia, a comedy about a man and his beloved dog.

The culmination of an intense selection process—students submitted lengthy proposals before Saturday’s public presentation—the meeting gave directors a last chance to sell their ideas and answer questions. “Seven people living in a graveyard—pretty nifty,” said fourth-year Phoebe Duncan, planning to stage Carthaginians as part of her BA paper. “What is really important about this piece, for you and the UT community?” Coleman asked the directors, noting that she did not want the “intellectual” answer. “The world can burn you,” responded Fantasticks hopeful Daniel Sefik, “and this play is sincere.” What the Butler Saw submitter Will Fulton had a different goal: “to rip the establishment a new one for being the way it is.”

After 45 minutes of presentations, the committee retired—with its cake—to an undisclosed location to make decisions. And the winners of winter stage slots, posted online Saturday evening, were dancer Kate Blomquist (The Lonely Ones), Duncan (Carthaginians), and student playwright Kristiana Colón (but i cd only whisper).


Photo: The Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater, quiet before UT members arrived Saturday morning.

About October 2006

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