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April 2008 Archives

April 2, 2008



Stephen Sittler, AB'62, believes that "everyone should build a boat." A gastroenterologist in Chicago for more than 40 years, Sittler retired in 2006 and left Hyde Park for Sawyer, Michigan, a small town on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Quickly he realized he would need something to occupy him. That something turned out to be a 34-foot schooner with three anchors, a generous galley, plenty of bookshelves, and enough berths for four passengers. Building the boat from scratch inside a former auto-parts shop, Sittler is 15 months into the three-year project. Last November he finished the hull and hired a crane to turn the boat right-side up (the hull is put together upside down); since then he's been working on the boat's interior spaces: the galley, chart table, berths, and a slot in the stern for a 20-horsepower motor.

His purpose, he says, is greater than just having a sailboat to skipper and live aboard; the work is meticulous and obsessive, but "fascinating and gratifying." For him, it is sometimes more metaphysical than physical. "The chair"—where he deliberates on the project—"is one of the most important tools in the workshop."


Photos: From atop a ladder Sittler sorts through the wood he'll use to build a marine bookshelf; Sittler sent away for a set of blueprints for his 34-foot schooner.

April 4, 2008

Pictures of Jewish life


In the Regenstein Library's exhibit on modern European Jewish life, the images on display grow more colorful and more intricate as visitors progress into the Special Collections Research Center. Beginning with small illustrated prayer books and ending with bright paintings and decorated prayer books for Purim and Passover, the exhibit presents the Harry, AB'54, JD'57, and Branka Sondheim Jewish Heritage Collection, which Harry Sondheim has been transferring to the University in a series of gifts since 2005.

Organized around the Jewish life-cycle customs—birth, circumcision, naming, marriage, and death—and the Jewish calendar—the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Sukkot, and Passover—the Sondheim exhibit includes books and artwork from 16th- through 20th-century Europe; viewers can see three-dimensional German New Years cards from the 20th century along with a 1730s colored engraving of London worshipers holding the Torah aloft.

"These materials will provide students with a much richer source base for traditional topics and open new areas for research," noted history and Jewish studies professor Leora Auslander, who organized the exhibition with graduate student Sara Hume and who is teaching a spring-quarter course on modern European Jewish history and culture, where she'll use items from the collection. "The numerous and diverse representations of the celebrations of major Jewish holidays will add substance to the arguments for innovation and creativity in the diaspora."


Photos: Bernard Picart (1673–1733), The Jewish Manner of Holding up the Law in the Sight of the People at Duke's Place, London; These German Jewish New Years cards are chromolithographs showing Jewish men preparing for worship (left) and a Sabbath blessing over a child.

April 7, 2008

Autism's cultural spectrum


April is National Autism Awareness Month, and in recent weeks autism has been at the center of media coverage. High rates of the disorder—the most current CDC statistic cites that one in 150 children in the United States have autism, compared to one in 10,000 a generation ago—have led to public fears of an epidemic, fueled by vaccine- and environmental-related worries, such as the concern that immunizations are directly linked to autism. "Well-funded celebrities are devoting their time to autism awareness," said Richard Grinker, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, which paves the way for scientific studies and increased services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His talk Thursday night, "What in the World is Autism? How Culture Shaped an Illness," kicked off the MAPSS program's 2008 Earl S. Johnson conference, Autism Through the Lens of the Social Sciences, a collaboration with Easter Seals: a partnership between "social activists and cutting-edge social-science research," said MAPSS director John MacAloon.

Grinker—the grandson of Roy R. Grinker Sr., SB'21, MD'21, who founded Chicago's psychiatry department—comes at ASD as an anthropologist, he told the 25-person audience in Swift Hall's third-floor conference room, exploring how knowledge about autism fits into history and culture. The higher prevalence is not caused by a medical epidemic, he said; instead, modifications in tools such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders cast a wider net, including people with more mild symptoms on the autism spectrum. Answering an audience member's query about "the scare with immunizations," Grinker said that, based on what he knows, "that question has been answered": there is no scientific evidence to directly link vaccines to autism.

Grinker also approaches the disorder as a father—his 16-year-old daughter, Isabel, has autism. In her lifetime, he said, he's seen advances in autism awareness; because of changes in our cultural perspective, not only has stigmatization decreased, but there are also more treatment options. Quoting National Institute of Mental Health psychiatrist Judith Rapoport, Grinker said, "I'll call the kid a zebra if it will get him the services he deserves."

Autism's place in the medical and media spotlight has far-reaching effects on international awareness, Grinker explained. On a trip to South Africa, he met a Zulu family whose son Big Boy "developed all the hallmark signs of autism." The grandparents wanted Big Boy taken to a "witch doctor," Grinker said, but his progressive parents were "truly terrified" of the doctor's techniques, which would likely include induced vomiting, blood-letting, and laxatives. The parents, however, "succumbed to custom," and at the son's first visit, the witch doctor concluded that Big Boy had autism. Surprised, the parents asked him how he knew. The witch doctor responded, "I heard about it on the Internet."


Photo: Grinker's daughter Isabel, who loves animals, watches jellyfish at the Georgia Aquarium.

Photo courtesy R. Richard Grinker

April 9, 2008

Go figure


When a Mesopotamian artisan finished a statue of a deity, the craftsman underwent an arduous ritual before the object was deemed pure and could be moved from workshop to temple. The custom deemphasized the human creator by sinking his tools, cutting off his hands with a wooden knife, and commanding the artisan to declare that he did not create the god’s image.

Such anxiety about mortals depicting a higher power, while extreme, is not unique, according to the Smart Museum’s Idol Anxiety, which opened Tuesday. “Idols are worrisome objects,” suggest the exhibit notes. “From ancient times to the present day, theological traditions have reflected on idolatry and questioned the transcendence, significance, and power of objects.”

While the pious have sought to depict gods for nearly as long as they’ve worshiped them, problems arise when those representations fall outside cultural norms. When they did so, societies either deemed them idols or were forced to reconsider their standards. For instance, early Christianity’s prohibition against illustrating Christ led to the idea of acheiropoieta, literally non-handmade depictions alleged to have appeared miraculously, such as the Shroud of Turin. Later, Saint John Damascene argued that because Christ was seen in the flesh, it made the Second Commandment’s declaration, "Do not make an image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above," obsolete.

Idol Anxiety runs through November 2.


Image: Albrecht Dürer, Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels, 1513, Engraving on cream laid paper.

Image courtesy the Smart Museum.

April 11, 2008

A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar...


God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit decide they want to take a vacation. God suggests the Garden of Eden because he hasn't been there since he expelled Adam and Eve. Jesus has another idea: "How about Bethlehem? I haven't been there since I was born." Then the Holy Spirit pitches in. "No, no. I want to go to Rome. I've never been there."

That joke, which suggests the Catholic Church was founded on a fraud, said Chicago philosophy professor Ted Cohen, AB'62, is a "very short story," a work of art. To get the joke, listeners need to share an understanding of the language and its reference points—which often include stereotypes. And ethnic or religious jokes are going to offend some people, he said, but does that mean they should stop being told? At the Gleacher Center Thursday night, Cohen's talk, "The Uses and Misuses of Humor," explored this question with an audience of about 50 alumni, asking: Is there any objective sense in which a joke could be deemed unacceptable?

For the jokes Cohen presented, the answer was no. Take the Catholic quip: someone sensitive to its content may say, "Well, it's not true" that the Catholic Church was founded on a lie. "Of course not!" Cohen said, exasperated. "A joke is a fiction," and stereotypes are not meant to express a general truth. Quite simply, some people think the joke is funny, and others get offended—they simply like different things. "I don't like Holocaust or dead-baby jokes," he said, "but I don't think they're doing anything wrong." If people want to make these jokes, he conceded, let them; Cohen just won't listen.


Photo: Ted Cohen illustrates the first Ukranian joke he had ever heard: What does the arrow point to? The last link in the trans-Ukranian railway.

April 14, 2008

Art imitating life


If the University of Chicago is where fun goes to die, Nick Zimmerman can name the spot: during one excruciating night in 1999, fun perished in his dorm room. That year, Zimmerman's first in the College, he threw a party inspired by the film Out of Africa, hoping to lure his crush, a fellow student named Will, to the get-together. But despite Zimmerman's posters and e-mails announcing the time and place, only one guest showed up the whole night—and it wasn't Will.

Nearly a decade later, that failed party has become a much more successful one-man show titled "Out of My Mind." The performance has Zimmerman wearing a Chicago T-shirt and standing before a large Out of Africa poster as he recites lines from the movie, talks to the reimagined party's lone guest—an engineering student he calls Ralph—and recounts the heartache and hilarity of his freshman year in the College.

Presented by the Upright Citizens Brigade—a New York comedy troupe that got its start in Chicago and aired a TV series for three prank-filled seasons on Comedy Central—Zimmerman's solo show hits the stage for an eighth time this Wednesday at the UCB Theater in New York.

Enveloped by an increasingly desperate unrequited interest in Will, Zimmerman retreated to his parents' home to regroup after spring quarter of his first year and ended up earning a religious-studies degree from the University of Colorado. Last year he was a finalist on the Web series Project Improviser, and currently he performs in New York with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Magnet Theater.

Photo: Writer and improviser Nick Zimmerman turned a lonely night on the U of C's campus into a comedic one-man show.

April 16, 2008

Eastern promise, Eastern threat


“I’ve come to the conclusion that we are headed for a clash with China,” author Michael Levin announced at International House Tuesday night. “If there is going to be a war,” he went on, “it’s going to be in the next five to 20 years.” In a discussion of his book, The Next Great Clash: China and Russia vs. the United States (Praeger Security International, November 2007), Levin—who has worked at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, at Diagnostic Products Corporation in China, and as a management consultant to the World Bank Project Coordination Unit in Moscow—predicted that a coming war with China would engulf the entire world in flames.

He argued that Harvard government professor Samuel P. Huntington’s much-debated “clash of civilizations” thesis, that the West will continue to be locked in conflict with the Muslim world, supports a “West versus the rest” scenario where a “China-Islamic alliance” will be fueled by trading “guns for oil.” Additionally, American debt to China is “tinged with vanity and hubris and threatens American authority all over the world.”

Levin also pointed to Chinese politics and history as cause for concern. Chinese history, he noted, has been marked by 700-year-long “cycles of expansion and retreat” that, according to the calendar, now find China “in the beginnings of an expansionary phase.” Furthermore, Chinese “hyper-sovereignty” over issues like Tibet and Taiwan hold potential dangers should the United States try to intervene.

Out of this competition, Russia has positioned itself as a Chinese ally. “China and Russia are closer” than they have been since the 1600s. Such an alliance to counterbalance American power, Levin concluded, will surely locate the next great clash in Northern Asia.

In a question-and-answer session, Levin was reticent to provide ways to avoid the impending crisis, saying, “I was afraid someone would ask that.” He did provide three suggestions that might prevent the next great clash: a national campaign to spread Chinese-language education in America, a larger Peace Corps to expose more Americans to the world, and military conscription, which might make policy officials less eager to go to war.

Ethan Frenchman, '08

Photo: Michael Levin discusses the causes of a coming war with China and Russia.

April 18, 2008

To err is Ro-Man

Great Guidance: Earth Ro-Man, you violate the laws of plans. To think for yourself is to be like the hu-man.

Ro-Man: Yes! To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?

Dozens of current students, joined by prospective students on campus for a pre-enrollment weekend, came to Doc Films' Thursday night showing of 1950’s sci-fi classic Robot Monster. In 1953 director Phil Tucker, then 25, crafted this B-movie masterpiece for $16,000. It took four days. Shot entirely outdoors in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, Robot Monster is widely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time.

Ro-Man, i.e. the robot monster, has come to Earth from planet Ro-Man under the direction of his leader, Great Guidance, to destroy the hu-mans. “People,” Ro-Man explains, “were getting too intelligent. [Ro-Mans] could not wait until you were strong enough to attack us—we had to attack you first.” Ro-Man, played by actor George Barrows wearing a gorilla suit and a diving helmet affixed with antennae, is largely successful in his mission. Using his death ray, he persuades the world's allies to attack each other with their “hydrogen bombs.” Ro-Man even “wipe[s] out the last scientists in their deepest shelters.”

After the slaughter, only eight hu-mans remain: a professor, his family of four, and his three assistants. All saved by the professor’s antibiotic serum, the hu-mans do their best to avoid Ro-Man as he stalks the desert looking to destroy them by “physical means.” Ro-Man eventually falters in his mission, developing strong feelings for the professor’s beautiful daughter, Alice. Communicating with Great Guidance via a bubble-powered transmitter, the Billion Bubble Machine (little more than a sheet thrown over a wooden board), Ro-Man learns from the hu-mans and is overcome by a conflict between his duty to planet Ro-Man and his own feelings: “I cannot—yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do 'must' and 'cannot' meet? Yet I must—but I cannot!”

According to Doc Films’ description, when critics panned the film Phil Tucker attempted suicide but was saved after being found unconscious in Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel. Robot Monster was featured as part of Doc Films’ ongoing series Cinemasaurus.

Ethan Frenchman, '08

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Photos (left to right): Ro-Man prepares to communicate with Great Guidance in his cave home; Ro-Man spirits Alice away from her family (please note Ro-Man's gorilla feet); opening credits to Robot Monster.

Photos courtesy Three Dimensional Pictures.

April 21, 2008

Why is this lunch different from all other lunches?


By the time they gathered around a table at the back of Newberger Hillel's chapel, the ten Chicago students who stopped by for Passover lunch on Sunday had already had their fill of grape juice. Coming off three- and four-hour seders the night before, they'd been drinking plenty of it. Still, each filled a tiny cup from an Ocean Spray bottle and, after the kiddush was read, drank it. "Four more cups to go tonight!" one student joked, pretending to wince as she looked ahead to the weekend's second seder.

Launching its Passover celebration last Friday, Chicago's Hillel chapter hosted five seders over the weekend, each different: traditional, Reform, and student-led seders that coincided with a "freedom and responsibility seder" and a "skeptic's seder." Two others—a "feminist seder" and a "Red Hadaggah Yiddish seder"—are planned for Wednesday night. Throughout the holiday, which lasts until sundown on April 27, Hillel serves kosher lunches and dinners at its Woodlawn Avenue house.

During Sunday's lunch, which incorporated elements of the seder ceremony, students dined on spinach salad, broccoli soup, matzah, and latkes cooked with apricot. Tabletalk turned from matzah cereal ("Who would ever think that tastes good?") and Passover songs to unfinished schoolwork and classroom-related nightmares. One student offered a joke about a blind man handed a piece of matzah, only to have another student preempt the punchline: the blind man says, "Who wrote this nonsense?" After an hour of food and conversation, someone started singing the Birkat, and the rest joined in. Then they cleared the table and headed out into the warm spring day.


Photo: The traditional seder plate including, clockwise from top: maror (romaine lettuce), z'roa (roasted shankbone), charoset, maror (chrein), karpas (celery sticks), beitzah (roasted egg).

April 23, 2008

Nice to give and receive

Last Tuesday more than 30 undergraduate scholarship recipients met the donors who helped fund their studies. At the Gleacher Center, President Robert J. Zimmer and College Dean John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, joined the students, endowed-scholarship donors, and prospective donors for Wolfgang Puck–catered hors d'oeurves, risotto bar, and carving-station mini-sandwiches.

Zimmer told the crowd that although a Chicago education is expensive, last year about half of the College's students received a total of $55 million in financial aid. The endowed scholarships helped 420 students this year by replacing some of those loans with grants.

Boyer introduced Carma Peterson Baker, AB'90, who said she endowed a scholarship because as a student, she would not have been able to afford the U of C tuition without financial aid. Fourth-years Mingzhu He and Amanda Finney said the scholarships have helped them focus on their studies—economics and English, respectively—instead of how to pay for their educations. Then it was on to mingling and eating those mini-sandwiches.


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Photos (left to right): Trustee Robert Halperin, PhB’47, talks with three of his scholarship recipients: third-years Alice Bynum (left), Denis Echtchenko, and Katah Hart; Zimmer chats with Baker and her husband, David Baker, AB'87, MBA'94; the students gather for a group shot.

Photos by Dan Dry.

April 25, 2008

Looting Eden


In the 1930s, Oriental Institute archaeologists working in the ancient Sumerian city of Eshnunna (modern-day Tell Asmar) uncovered a pit filled with statues. Because they found the figurines beside an altar at the temple to the minor god of plants, Abu, the archaeologists theorized that individuals used the objects as stand-ins to symbolize their perpetual devotion to the deity. The sculptures’ burial implied that their owners had died. The excavation provided context that has fostered a better understanding of ancient Sumeria.

But for three days after April 9, 2003, when a euphoric Iraqi crowd pulled down a massive Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdus Square, a mob of looters invaded the Iraq National Museum and took an estimated 15,000 artifacts. Since then similar, but less documented, mobs have driven excavation-site guards away, and looters have crisscrossed Iraqi sites to scavenge for antiquities. Losing these objects, argues the Oriental Institute exhibit Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, destroys the perspective essential to understanding ancient civilizations.

Cast as villains by the exhibit's curators—McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, professor in the OI and Near Eastern languages and civilizations, Katharyn Hanson, AM'06, and Geoff Emberling, OI museum director—are some art aficionados, auction houses, fine-art dealers, and museums throughout Europe and the United States involved (knowingly or unknowingly) in the antiquities-trade market. And given a U.S. law that allows objects held in private collections to be donated to museums for a tax deduction, the looted objects might end up in American museum display cases. “This financial encouragement increases interest in collecting, thereby driving the prices and profits for stolen artifacts higher, which in turn causes more looting,” suggest the exhibit notes. However, many archaeological museums, such as the OI, have strict policies against accepting such artifacts. The OI's artifacts come from registered excavations.

The exhibit runs through December 31.


Photo: Looters searching for cuneiform-inscribed bricks have destroyed this excavated temple facade at Umma.

Photo by Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly, courtesy the Oriental Institute.

April 28, 2008

Race made visible

In an essay accompanying Black Is, Black Ain't, the Renaissance Society's current exhibit, curator Hamza Walker calls race "one of the more disputed of life's undisputed facts." Although "a biological fiction," he writes, "it remains a social fact whose history more than compensates for all that science disavows." With photographs of Emmitt Till's exhumed grave, Polaroids of grinning blackface figurines, eight disintegrating cones of flour, reflected images of now-demolished Chicago public-housing projects, and a six-foot-tall Black Power fist, the exhibit's 26 artists—both black and non-black—explore America's shifting racial rhetoric. In his essay, Walker notes that Black Is, Black Ain't, whose title alludes to a phrase from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, bears out the notion that transcending race, an abiding American dream for decades, remains a fraught, paradoxical task: "Our efforts to become less race conscious serve to make us more race conscious."

Nearly a dozen related events will coincide with the exhibit, which runs through June 8. Next Tuesday will feature a lecture by Harris School professor Jeffrey Grogger on the complex links between race and poverty. On Friday, May 16, Columbia University literature scholar Saidiya Hartman and Chicago geneticist Rick Kittles will discuss African American genealogical research.


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Images (left to right): Andres Serrano's The Interpretation of Dreams (White Nigger) and Woman with Infant hang behind Randy Reiger's Impending Future Bus, in which white patrons sit at the back; behind Untitled T-shirts (P.R.O.J.E.C.T.S.) by Jerome Mosley is Paul D'Amato's photo, 624 W. Division, showing a half-razed Cabrini Green building; sugar crystals engulf Alex Haley's Roots in Edgar Arceneaux's Failed Attempt at Crystallization.

April 30, 2008

I've made a kluge mistake


Can't remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? This common situation is not a result of poor memory, says Gary Marcus, an NYU psychology professor, but rather a poorly organized memory. In a Tuesday night talk promoting his new book, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin Co.), Marcus explained that your brain translates the question, "What did you have for breakfast yesterday?" into "breakfast, kind of recently," which then turns up a "whole bunch of breakfasts that blend together." We rely on clues to remind us of particular details but need the right cue to pull up the correct fact. People may not immediately recall who the 16th president of the United States was, Marcus said, but if reminded that he helped free the slaves, Abraham Lincoln immediately jumps to mind.

This imperfect filing system of a memory, Marcus said, comes from an "evolutionary kluge." An engineering term, a kluge is "a clumsy or inelegant—yet surprisingly effective—solution to a problem," he writes in his book. Instead of a complex supercomputer, our mind is in fact the outcome of an evolutionary process that doesn't aim for perfection. It goes for good enough: "satisficing," Marcus called it, borrowing a term coined by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, AB'36, PhD'43. Evolution has no foresight or hindsight and always works with what's already there—Darwin's idea of "descent with modification." While Google can retrieve stored information with the push of a button, the mind is organized more like an "old shoebox," Marcus said, cluttered with old photographs and tzotchkes.

A far more dangerous manifestation of the breakfast-memory scenario, Marcus relates, involves his "favorite" (albeit dark) statistic: about six percent of skydiving deaths are caused by practiced skydivers failing to pull the ripcord. They've done it so many times that they can't remember whether they've already done it; all the times before blend together. As Marcus pointed out, it's a good thing pilots make checklists before they fly.


Photo: Gary Marcus talked kluges with an audience that included William Wimsatt (front row, in blue), Chicago's Peter B. Ritzma professor in philosophy and evolutionary biology, and Barbara Wimsatt, AM'61, AM'89, PhD'97.

About April 2008

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in April 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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