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August 2010 Archives

August 3, 2010

Does the flap of a tweet’s wings set off a tornado in Chicago?

When an intern discovers a strange URL on the University network, his curiosity leads him down the rabbit hole.

Last week a typical, terse little tweet twinkled out into the world. Tagged #UChicago, the tweet did but one thing: recommend, with a "lol," that its reader direct his web browser toward goat.uchicago.edu. Humble and unsuspecting intern Asher Klein, '11, saw the tweet and, using a trick he'd learned in his pre-intern days, typed "goat" into his University-networked computer, which he knew would bring him to the same page. He hit enter, and nothing was ever again the same.

Friendly goat

This picture was all that showed up on the page advertised by the (this week conveniently, perhaps mysteriously, unavailable) tweet. What was this strange picture doing on this random URL? our intern thought. What, or who, is this goat, and what could it possibly want with the University of Chicago?

Fighting his mystery-solving instincts, our intern put it out of his mind for the time being, to do other things, things involving real work at the Magazine that he soon accomplished with his trademark brand of humility and being unsuspecting (see above epigram). But soon another digital discovery shook him to his core, all the result of an errant keystroke.

Go to d.uchicago.edu, or, as our intern did, simply type "d" as the URL on a University computer, and you will find this image:

Cheshire Cat

On the website, the Cheshire Cat image links to an e-text of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. "What?" our intern may or may not have exclaimed when he came upon the page. "What madness is this?" His whole world spinning, the intern suddenly saw the scope of the situation.

Frantically, he began to type, and the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickened. "Cat" got him a page load error, but, the error message said the site seemed valid. The same message loaded for "Whale," "Bear," and "Owl." But typing "Horse," "Bull," or "Robin" got an NSIT page: "URL Reserved," they said, suggesting those with questions e-mail a listhost. "Dog" was a failed connection that referenced elk.uchicago.edu, but "Elk" failed too!

The animal searching continued, and new discoveries were made: some pages were under construction, others forbidden, still more just timed out. "Lobster" references the Office of Student Aid. "Tuna" brings up only the text "Diderot.uchicago.edu;" "Diderot" the same! The University network was looping in on itself, a Mobius strip of terror the likes of which mystery blog posts had never before seen.

Then, perhaps most dreadful of all, the intern's search for "Sheep" called up a one-word response:


When he came to, the intern realized he needed help. He called Sara Worrell-Berg, director of web services at the University, who explained that "Goat" is the name of a development server, and, like all campus servers, it has a virtual host name as well as a number, which is easier for its keepers to remember. She said the programmers "might place an image on there," but that the goat image "should probably just be taken down."

Relieved, our intern made one more phone call, to Lead Web Systems Administrator Paul Barton. He confirmed that some servers are named after animals—the ones that host the Magazine are "Rhino," "Koala," "Wallaby," and "Kangaroo"—but there was only so much he could say. "There are thousands of servers on campus, and our group is only responsible for 200, 300 of them." He did offer that the goat was in his group's domain and was being taken down.

It was a mystery no more, but there was more searching to be done. The intern saw that "Duck" was more charming than terrible:


And, in fact, animals weren't the only server names; mythological figures (Zeus, Anubis, Loki, Chimera), things in space (Star, Nova, black hole), and German names (Otto, Simon, Marx, even Klein) all stood for servers.

With things seemingly back on track, the intern was humbly ready to return to his work and innervated with new trivia about the University's servers. But a thought buzzing around gave him pause. Was the goat really gone? It was surely just an image, he told himself. Pay it no mind. The truth is that you're just a paranoid intern who doesn't want to finish fact-checking his article. He laughed, but it rang hollow in his cubicle. He made one last foray into the server's domain.


The old goat was gone, but in its place was an even more horrible goat, its one terrible coin-slot eye a metal stake boring into the intern's very soul!

It remains to this day.

Asher Klein, '11

Note: This is a fictionalized account of real events, but the interviews did take place, and they were transcribed faithfully. The real discovery was made in a somewhat less nervy and more nerdy way, and some of the server names were found by intern Burke Frank, '11, whose inventive searching was invaluable.

August 4, 2010

Teach a computer to hypothesize…

Researcher Andrey Rzhetsky programs machines to become better scientists.

Hal9000.jpgAndrey Rzhetsky, professor in the Department of Human Genetics and a senior fellow at the Computation Institute, designs computer programs that are voracious readers. One of them analyzed 368,000 scientific articles and 8 million abstracts to form new hypotheses about brain malformations in mice and humans, a feat worthy of the greatest fictional computers—HAL 9000 without the malice.

In an interview with Wired, Rzhetsky lays out the case for getting machines involved in scientific research. Although a 17th-century English scientist might have read all there was to know about the exploding field of physics, today the body of literature is too vast, and the relationships among data too obscure. Computer programs such as "Adam", which creates and performs genetic experiments, and "Eureqa", which designs equations to fit raw data, are the first in a new breed of machines that could someday design, test, and, perhaps most impressively, prioritize hypotheses for scientific research.

Normally computers do only the grunt work of scientific discovery. They perform complex calculations that researchers input or organize massive amounts of data (cleaning glassware, in a time-honored laboratory practice, is still left to homo sapiens—specifically interns.) Humans have controlled the hypotheses, methods, and conclusions.

These new programs prompt the question: when a computer sets the scientific agenda, will we understand the results? While Eureqa-generated models of living cells are producing accurate equations, scientists are confused by the output. Humans haven't developed an intuitive sense of how these complex systems work. The classic, visceral examples of Newton's falling apple and Archimedes shouting "eureka" in his tub might be a thing of the past; Eureqa hints at a time when there will be too many variables in cutting-edge research to fully understand their relations. (I'm reminded of Deep Thought, the city-sized computer in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that can provide the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, which happens to be 42. The computer can't interpret the answer, and neither can the machine's baffled creators.) What will be the place of human scientists when the head robot researcher becomes a cryptic oracle?

For now, humans remain in charge. For those of us with extremely complex problems, Eureqa is freely available from Cornell. Now to get my BA thesis proposal into spreadsheet form...

Burke Frank, '11

While robot scientists may not be as advanced as HAL 9000, they aren't (yet) as homicidal.

August 6, 2010

Short shorts

Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman, AB'09, uses his cell phone to create small video moments.

Just as big-screen film jumps blindly into the third dimension, adding pop-out pyrotechnics to every new release and even 3-D-ifying old favorites, Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman has brought video production to just about the smallest scale possible.

His new blog, Cell Phone Videos, includes samples of spiders crawling, dogs patrolling rooftops, and cow skins rolling off the slaughterhouse dissembly line. Some are heavily cut to produce surreal movement effects, others simply admire the way an overcast sky looks from a moving car. The medium is something of a break from the hard work of watching busy big-budget movies. "Like a warm rhubarb pie or a cup of coffee at daybreak, cell phone videos will always be there," Hurwitz-Goodman wrote in an e-mail to Fire Escape Films, the University filmmaking club.

In the spirit of Cell Phone Videos, a certain University of Chicago Magazine intern has produced a couple shorts with his LG Versa. Feel heartwarmed.

Burke Frank, '11

revolving door   intern

caution   hair

waste management   countdown

August 9, 2010

Chicago’s new Court connection

kagan-headshot.jpgFormer Assistant Law Professor Elena Kagan was confirmed for the Supreme Court last week. Her place on the bench means not only that three women will serve on the nation's highest court for the first time, but that the University of Chicago will maintain an affiliation with the Court for a long time to come. Kagan's predecessor, John Paul Stevens, AB'41, served for 35 years. Kagan, 50, is one of the youngest justices ever appointed to the lifetime post.

Asher Klein, '11

The book that dare not speak its name

Barbara and Bill Yoffee's (AB'52) gift of African American and children's literature provides new resources for research.

sambo-books.jpg“A blog on Little Black Sambo,” I said, when a colleague asked what I was working on. I watched his eyes widen, and stay wide, as I babbled on, trying to contain the damage, “...it’s actually a really important donation to Special Collections, all these different editions of Little Black Sambo.” He nodded but looked unconvinced. Great, I thought. Now he thinks I’m a racist.

“There is very little to say about the story of Little Black Sambo,” reads the preface to the first American edition (1900) which, thanks to the generosity of donors Barbara and Bill Yoffee, AB’52, I was able to hold in my hand. The preface explains that “an English lady in India, where black children abound and tigers are everyday affairs” had written and illustrated the story for her two young daughters during a long train journey.

Of course, there is plenty to say, or at least ask, about Little Black Sambo. As a start, why is it so widely considered racist? And if it’s racist, why is it still so popular?

“It’s a story that children love,” says Alice Schreyer, director of Special Collections, “a classic children’s story.” In the original (if you have forgotten the details, as I had) Sambo gets a new outfit: a Red Coat, Blue Trousers, a Green Umbrella, and “a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings,” in Helen Bannerman’s quirky capitalization. “And then wasn’t Little Black Sambo grand?”

But as he walks through the jungle, Sambo has to give away his fine clothing, piece by piece, to four tigers so they won’t eat him; he manages to persuade them to take even the seemingly useless shoes (“You could wear them on your ears.”) and the umbrella (“You could tie a knot on your tail, and carry it that way.”). The tigers then fight over the clothes, chasing each other around a tree so quickly that they turn into melted butter (What? OK, it’s a kid’s story). Sambo’s father scoops up the butter, his mother fries pancakes in it, and Sambo “eats a Hundred and Sixty-nine, because he was so hungry.” The End.

Awesome! Or not. Well, first there’s the name “Sambo,” which was “already in opprobrious use in the United States,” says Schreyer. Then there are Bannerman’s odd illustrations, which seem to reflect the influence of American racist imagery. But Bannerman, who was untrained, had never been to the States. Would she have seen racist drawings somehow? Would she have seen a minstrel show?

Despite Bannerman’s primitive illustrations (like many children’s authors of the time, she was just a parent desperate to amuse her kids), Little Black Sambo, published in England in 1899, was immediately popular. As the Yoffee collection shows, the story was adapted over and over again, with different words as well as different pictures. “The illustrations became increasingly stereotypical and harsh,” says Schreyer. “It became incendiary.”

But the most recent books in the collection take the opposite approach. Two versions, both published in 1996, attempt to sanitize the story in fascinatingly different ways. The Story of Little Babaji returns to Bannerman’s original words, superfluous capitals and all. But the illustrations, by Fred Marcellino, portray Indian characters, while the somewhat defensive “Note on the Text” points out, “The Story of Little Black Sambo... clearly takes place in India, with its tigers and ‘ghi’ (or melted butter),” so the characters have been given “authentic Indian names.”

Then there is Sam and the Tigers, written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinckney. As he perused more than 50 versions of Little Black Sambo, Pinckney writes in the introduction, “I struggled hard to find my own approach to right the wrongs of the original and several subsequent versions”—a process he found “liberating.” In this adaptation, the little boy, Sam, lives in Sam-sam-sa-mara. The characters are African American, the clothing from the 1920s, the language slangy: “Ain’t I fine,” Sam declares.

Both The Story of Little Babaji and Sam and the Tigers are sincere and well-intentioned. And both somehow just don’t succeed. It’s almost as hard to look at them as it is to look at the original.

The Yoffee collection includes nearly 1,000 works of children’s and African American literature—and a lot of it can make you feel pretty uncomfortable. Next year the collection will be available for researchers in literature, history, African American studies, gender studies, sociology, but the collection hasn’t been completely processed yet. I feel like I haven’t completely processed it yet either.

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

August 11, 2010

Phoenix Pix: August 9-13, 2010

Alumni Weekend 2010

University planner Richard Bumstead shows off Botany Pond plantings during a campus tour earlier this month.

Photography by Jason Smith.

Submit your best University of Chicago-themed photos to Phoenix Pix.

Biking brain Boyer begins to blog

Dean of the College John Boyer's new blog, Spacious Ideas, might just become a modern-day salon.

BoyerIt has long been known in certain undergraduate circles that Dean of the College John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, is so cool. As dean of the College since 1992, Boyer presided over its rebirth as the hip, laid-back side of the intellectual life at the University. He is a coeditor of the preeminent American journal of European history, the Journal of Modern History, and serves as the University of Chicago's main modern historian, having written volumes on the topic. Boyer's scholarship on the Hapsburg Empire (the coolest empire) has won awards in Austria. And according to his Wikipedia page, "In 2009 John Boyer participated in the World Beard and Moustache Championships, a competition where men display their facial hair. His participation helped boost the contest's popularity and made 2009 one of the championship's most successful seasons." If it's true (and I kind of doubt it is): super-cool.

And Boyer's new blog, Spacious Ideas, promises to be so cool, too! Named in reference to a 1962 speech given by one of Boyer's favorite college deans, Alan Simpson (how cool is it that he has favorite deans?), Boyer wrote, "My hope is that this blog will be a forum for spacious ideas of all kinds, a place where the wisdom of the world can mingle with the learning of the cloister." Not only will he write about "everyday life in the College, my research on the history of the University and the College, and my scholarly work on the Hapsburg Empire," but he'll enlist colleagues to write "and give a sense of the 'full flavor,' as Simpson called it, of their fields."

Boyer even shows what he's reading—at present, professor Raghuram Rajan's Fault Lines, a smart book I would read if I weren't scared out of my mind at the employment implications of the recession—a pretty cool feature that plays up what makes this blog really interesting: people are hungry to learn more about and hear from the really smart, really informed, and very influential people teaching here. And just as it was in the 18th-century Paris salons, comments, suggestions, and ideas will be welcome, Boyer writes.

Dean Boyer, consider my RSS feed yours.

Asher Klein, '11

August 17, 2010

Dear O-leaders: pucker up!

An open letter to the UChicago's O-Week, advocating extra historic, funtimes productivity for all.

Dear O-Week's O-leaders,

Last year you made the video above. I know, I'm sorry too, but I'm writing to tell you that you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not just to make it better, but to make something... magnificent. You can help make the Class of 2014 not just the biggest yet, but the baddest, the raddest, the coolest of them all. And I'm not just talking on campus, I mean in all Chicago.

I'll leave the Internet history to the pros, but suffice it to say the "lip dub," in which one sings someone else's song, preferably in one, long tracking shot, has been around for a long time. Lately, the lip-dub phenomenon has moved out of the bedroom and become popular among high schools and colleges, where students film themselves singing silly songs as they walk through halls, auditoriums, student unions, etc.

"Cute," you might say derisively, perhaps sipping sparkling cider atop a neo-Gothic ivory tower, but you may be surprised at which schools have gotten in on the action: the Universities of Wisconsin, Munich, Quebec, Montreal, and St. Andrews for starters. Boston University has (a lame) lip dub. McGill's is pretty decent, as is the 750-year-old Sorbonne's lip dub. Even Poland's prestigious Warsaw School of Economics joined the trend, and impressively.

Schools from Thailand to Chile have their own lip dubs. I've watched a good chunk of them, and they are by turns impressive and nauseating, but at least you get to see how enthusiastic and awesome the student body is, especially if they really try, and especially especially if it's made interestingly. Oh, and did I mention Chicago's WGN TV is hosting this Lip Dub competition among local high schools and colleges? It ends September 30, and with a little help from Fire Escape films, I'm sure your collective planning and clear, shear brilliance can win the U of C its place in the lip-dub pantheon. Which, yes, would be a cool thing. For the most part.

It seems that there are a few key rules to follow when filming one of these bad boys (this other internet historian explains why):

  1. Pick a good song. Peppy but not vapid—so, definitely not the Black Eyed Peas.
  2. It looks good to move through things, like doors. I dunno why but it's true.
  3. Be in a pretty place. You know where's pretty? The University of Chicago.
  4. Dancing is good, but not if you're gonna be all silly about it. Confident dancing is good, and helped by...
  5. Costumes! Which are really really good.
  6. Use a steadicam. Not following this rule is half the reason most of these videos are nauseating.

These two rival Seattle high schools' are the lip dubs to beat. Be inspired:

hey-ya-lipdub.jpg     hall-and-oates-lipdub.jpg

O-leaders, you could make my dreams come true. Okay, ya'll? Hey, ya'll.

Asher Klein, '11

August 18, 2010

A Sunday service in Cos Cob

Connecticut Pastor Vicki I Flippin, AB'05, explores need and want.

In March, during a short visit to my childhood home in Connecticut, I spent quality time with family, enjoyed some New England seafood, popped into Friendly’s for ice cream, and took a day trip to Cos Cob, a small village known for its historic train station. While there I interviewed Vicki and Thomas Flippin, both AB’05, for a Core profile. Vicki is lead pastor at Diamond Hill United Methodist Church; Thomas is a classical guitarist and the composer of Neverland: Depicting the Narrative of a Dream (2009).

Before meeting the Flippins at their home, I attended Sunday worship at Diamond Hill and heard Vicki deliver the sermon she had spent the past week preparing. It was based on John 4:7-15, which describes a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Referring to the water in a nearby well, Jesus tells the woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst.”

After reading the passage, Vicki called the children in attendance to the front of the chapel. She asked the congregation to consider luxury car commercials that ask, “How could your family not afford to buy this car?” Modern advertising, she said, tells us we need things we don’t even know we need. Yet as the scripture puts it: “Don’t you see all you need is right here?”

She asked the parishioners to close their eyes. “You’re running on a hot day," she says. "Then you arrive at a pool of water.” As she spoke, the children gathered around and help her pour water from a pitcher into a bowl. “That water is like God.” She extended the comparison: God is like sitting at a table to feast after one has gone hungry or hearing an uplifting story after receiving terrible news.

“Then you come full circle and realize, ‘How can I not afford to seek out God’s kingdom?’” she finished.

I left the service grateful for the chance to witness Vicki’s facility with language and imagery but regretful that I wouldn’t be able to attend one of Thomas’s performances before my story was due. Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, all was not lost. I’ve spent more than a few hours back in Chicago listening to the videos on Thomas’s website. Who knew guitar could sound this glorious?

Katherine Muhlenkamp

August 20, 2010

Museum specimen

The MSI invites one person to live in the museum for a month.

Hyde Park's Museum of Science and Industry is taking Night at the Museum to a whole new level: its 2010 Month at the Museum challenge, in which one lucky person will move into the MSI on October 20 and "live and breathe science 24/7 for 30 days," interacting with guests during the day and hanging out with all the exhibits that (of course) come to life at night. If the guest completes the challenge, he/she gets $10,000 and a slew of public appearances.

Applications were due August 11, and many of the 60-second application videos are posted online. See the one below from Chicago author James Kennedy, who proved his prowess for sleeping in Hyde Park museums, including the Oriental Institute and the Smart:

James Kennedy

Note: I saw Kennedy read from his 2008 wonderfully quirky young-adult book The Order of Odd-Fish at a book club meeting back in May, and he was quite entertaining. I'm rooting for him.

Ruth E. Kott, AM'07

August 23, 2010


What farflung phenomenon correlates with the release of the new Freakonomics super-documentary, starring professor Steven Levitt?

Remember Freakonomics, the book? Remember how much fun it was to read, how much learning it inspired? Wish you could relive that experience, but in feature-length, documentary-film form? Well, good news! Levitt and Dubner are back, in a movie directed by six acclaimed documentarians, including Morgan Spurlock, director and star of Super Size Me. Reviews of Freakonomics's showing at the Tribeca Film Festival this April were positive, if not glowing.

Freakonomics (the movie) will be available for download on iTunes September 3 and will be released in theaters October 1; look for a post on Freakonomics (the blog) explaining how this unorthodox release schedule will affect sales of knock-off Ray-Bans on the streets of Berlin. Meantime, check on the movie's trailer, which indicates it'll have the look and soundtrack of a twee new rom-com, and note the lorem ipsum in the title cards. "Aliquam sed neque" indeed.


Asher Klein, '11

August 24, 2010

Audio/Visual: The makings of a hung jury

Foreman of Rod Blagojevich's hung jury James Matsumoto, AB'77, AM'78, sits down with WTTW's Chicago Tonight.


Blagojevich jury foreman James Matsumoto, AB'77, AM'78, has been credited with keeping the jury together during the months-long case. He discussed the trial on Chicago Tonight on Thursday, along with jury member Ralph Schindler.

Asher Klein, '11

August 30, 2010

Seal of approval

Vincent Yu, '14, designs a new look for the University of Chicago’s old logo, just for kicks.

revised-phoenix.jpgVincent Yu, ‘14, hasn’t even started classes yet, but why would that prevent the incoming first-year from getting a head start on the kind of critical thinking he’s excited to partake in at the U of C? A self-taught graphic designer, Yu decided at the beginning of August to update the look of the University seal for a more modern audience, posting his slick new design on his blog, idionsyncratic reminiscences. The San Jose native took a minute for a phone interview with UChiBLOGo to discuss the what brought the beaming bird about.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat made you want to come to the University of Chicago?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe overwhelming intellectualism of the University, and also the art and culture of the city—an authentic, original American city.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat made you want to redesign the University seal?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI wanted UChicago apparel, but when I was looking through sweatshirts I didn’t like what I saw. Most people would get the normal logo and get it on a custom sweater…. It’s a pretty awesome logo in itself—it’s a pretty complex logo for a University seal—but as I was looking at it, it was more complex and, not retro, more classic than would probably be necessary for a sweatshirt in the contemporary world of design…. I wanted to design a seal that didn’t have as Byzantine a look, as complex a look as the original logo has.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat were you going for?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI guess you can say it was a hybrid of the Twitter logo and what I thought was UChicago, the original seal. I wanted something that was sort of a phoenix and had the remnants of the original logo, but was as accessible as the Twitter logo.
QandA_QDrop.jpgSo what’s going on in the new seal?
QandA_ADrop.jpgIt does have sort of the feather designs. You can see the patterns going on in the bird’s wing, but the shape looks a lot more symmetrical than the original logo was, in terms of the bird’s wings.
QandA_QDrop.jpgIts eyes look kind of vacant. Why’s that?
QandA_ADrop.jpg[The Twitter logo] is just a white oval, so I guess it was just pirated from that. I guess the biggest reason was I wanted it to be contrasted from the original Chicago seal—you can tell it was hand-ink done, or stencil done. I was using the computer, which makes it much more difficult to create intricate designs…. [The design] also makes it more accessible, in terms of making it a modern, cartoonish image.
QandA_QDrop.jpgAnd it looks like the font’s been updated too.
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe font is just Avant Garde; I guess the style is condensed too. The business school loves to use Helvetica condensed…. I wanted to adapt that, but I didn’t want to be as bold as the Chicago Booth type face…it’s great for a school like Booth—it’s a brand name that’s recognizable—but here I wanted the focus to be on the image.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow’d you get to be so artistic?
QandA_ADrop.jpgMy parents originally tried to enroll me in art classes when I was in second grade, like, paint-the-vase kind of classes…the traditional approach to art. I really didn’t like it, I really didn’t like the idea of art for the majority of my life, from like 4 to 14. And then entering high school, I was very interested in journalism but I didn’t want to do newspapers…there was no permanence in terms of writing; what I wrote wouldn’t really matter in the next month or the next week.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhy did journalism appeal to you?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI wanted to do something more concrete, and I know yearbook doesn’t sound like journalism, but I made it my goal to make it more journalistic…I got to doing that. Obviously I didn’t lose my love towards journalism, I still love to report on the interesting stuff…. I sort of just transitioned from layout to actual illustrations, and I guess that’s how I sort of got into it.

Asher Klein, '11

About August 2010

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in August 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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