Saturday, October 25, 2014

Steven Levitt, University of Chicago - October 24, 2014

Steven Levitt, photo credit: University of Chicago

Steven Levitt spoke to a crowd of mostly University of Chicago students and their parents (it was family week) on Friday night.  Despite veering wildly off track from the promoted theme (sharing his new research and promoting his new book about retraining your brain to think more creatively), both Griffin and I were in complete awe of him as he told us about how he found his niche in economics, his dad's advice, and his work with prostitutes.  He was captivating, funny, and interesting.

As you'll see in the notes, Levitt had to find a way to overcome his lack of skills in math to be successful in MIT's Ph.D. program and in his career and the advice his dad gave him, while funny, is also apt ("The only hope you have is to take on subjects so self-degrading, that nobody else will do it.").  I recently read John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (where he has a brief line about everyone carrying a bag of cement on their shoulders --- they're own personal struggles), and Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath (about how the underdog can win), and have found that a coalescing theme between all three is that everyone has their own struggle, but what matters is how you respond.  You find your niche, you grow more compassionate, you develop coping mechanisms at a young age that can propel you as an adult -- whatever it is -- you find a way to overcome the obstacle and you are stronger in character because of it.  (And sometimes wildly successful, too). 

After telling us that the two worst words he can hear when he's out grocery shopping are: "Professor Levitt!", I was surprised to find that he was THE most congenial author I have encountered at a book signing.  He insisted on knowing what each of us did for a living, and graciously signed the book with thoughtful inscriptions.  Two young sisters were in line in front of us and I noticed that he wrote, "Hope to see you in my class one day".  I was impressed with his stamina and genuine level of interest in seemingly everyone who approached him at the event. 

Also, I am a fan of the Freakonomics series and particularly enjoy their podcast.  A few of my favorite episodes are:
Parking is Hell
Should Tipping be Banned?
How to Save $1 Billion Without Even Trying

Videos w/Steven Levitt:
TED Talk - Analyzing Crack Cocaine
The Daily Show

On to the notes...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lena Dunham, Chicago Humanities Fest, October 6, 2014

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham kicked off the 25th Chicago Humanities Fest earlier this month, and I was elated when I was able to get a ticket (that came with a signed copy of her book, Not That Kind Of Girl).  The talk was more of a reading than the normal talks that I go to, and while I would have loved to hear her talk more extemporaneously about feminism, her career, her writing, or Girls, it was such a joy to just be in the same room as her.  She has a wonderful energy about her - it felt like there could not be more happiness or enthusiasm emanating from her.  It was so fun.  The readings were wonderful.  The discussion with Jenni Konner had the feel of a casual lunch date that just happened to have a thousand (?) people watching.

The notes are short, and in an effort to combat her surprising anonymity among some of my friends and spread the love I have for her, I'm including a few other links to other interviews, articles, things she's done that I especially enjoy.

1) Ask Lena #1: Questionable Feminist ("a huge part of being a feminist is giving other women the freedom to make choices you might not necessarily make yourself.")
2) Ask Lena #2: Plus Size ("I am the best version of myself that I can be.")

NY Times Magazine
A Cup of Jo (my favorite blog, by the way)

By Lena:
"A Box of Puppies" 
"First Love" 

on to the notes...

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hank Paulson + Timothy Geithner

Hank Paulson + Timothy Geithner

The conversation between Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner was, hands down, one of the best I have seen.  I liked so much about it.  It was informative, the speakers were likeable, I loved their perspective, appreciated their outlook (there are no easy solutions, the world is full of gray), and most especially appreciated their candor.  While I still don’t know the half of what happened and why, I did learn a few key things that made me really satisfied and that shifted my perspective, which is more than I could have hoped for from an hour-long conversation.

First, it seems there could not have been a more appropriate triumvirate of individuals at the helm of the crisis.   Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, had spent the majority of his career as an academic where he focused intently on the Great Depression.  Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, had spent his career (30 years) at Goldman Sachs.  And Timothy Geithner, who at the time was the President of the NY Fed, had experience responding to crises in emerging economies around the world.   I got the feeling that as a nation, we were lucky that these three men were in the positions they were at such a critical time.

The second point that really struck me was that here we had a Treasury Secretary who was appointed by a Republican (Hank Paulson served under President George W. Bush), and another Treasury Secretary who was appointed by a Democrat (Timothy Geithner served under President Barack Obama), and they were in lock step with each other on what the problems were, what needed to be done, where they fell short, and what they got right.  It was inspiring and encouraging.  It made me thankful for how they had worked together, and hopeful that it could be used as a model for crisis management (or even day-to-day politics) in the future. 

This disappointing side of this, however, is that at the time, I can only remember seeing people (who were not involved in the decision-making process) bloviating on national television about too much being done (“they’re socialists!”), or too little.  It really highlighted to me what a disservice our modern media can be, and has made me really think hard about what type of media I want to consume, and how much credence I give to those proffering their opinions.

As individuals, I was really drawn to both Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner.  Hank Paulson was tall, poised, and had a raspy voice that was grandfatherly (and therefore reassuring).  Timothy Geithner was fidgety, and seemed a little nervous.  But!  He was wearing a running watch, and he thought about the words he was using, and both of those things are endearing to me.  Plus, when I was looking for pictures of them to use for this blog post, I noticed the range of faces that Geithner has in his arsenal, and really appreciated how he wears his emotions right out there.  The transparency seems trustworthy.  


 *Photo credits: top to bottom,,, various.

A video of the talk can be found here:
On to the notes… 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Al Gore - University of Chicago - May 12, 2014

Al Gore 

Of all of the lectures hosted at the University of Chicago this Spring, I was most excited about seeing Al Gore.  Here was someone who has been at the pinnacle of power and since then has been hugely influential and a leading voice on an important subject.  The setting was pretty intimate – maybe a couple hundred people in the audience, and hosted in a beautiful room at the Chicago Theological Society – a building that is LEED Certified. 

My one critique of the talk was that much of what he said seemed like old-news.  The audience was primarily students at the University of Chicago, graduate students in their Institute of Politics, faculty members, and interested community members.  Knowing that a good portion of his audience was already quite informed on the subject, I wish he would have gone deeper into his thoughts on the subject, instead of focusing so much on problems we’re already aware of: stagnation in Congress and money in politics.

I usually stay away from articles and lectures on global warming because I find the subject so depressing, but I was surprised and appreciative of the optimism with which Al Gore spoke.  He really did a good job of presenting it as an opportunity for economic development and innovation.  I continue to feel disappointed when it comes time to ask “well, what can we do about it?” and the answer almost always comes back to politics.  It’s so deflating!  We went to the talk with our friend Christina, who is a philosophy professor.  When I asked her how a philosopher would approach the issue of climate change, she had a different take, saying:

I'm not sure that I've actually read all of that much philosophical stuff on it, but I can speculate that most people probably discuss it in the way that they do any big political issue. It's completely irrational for one person to do anything, really, just like it's irrational to vote. No individual action will change anything politically. But there are usually really compelling arguments for altering your behavior anyway, mostly because it convinces others to do the same.
Well, I can do that!  I read an article about a year ago on the NPR website about the impact it would have if everyone in the Midwest ran errands within a 2.5-mile radius of their home either on foot or on bike.  The result is that it would impact overall health, and improve the local air quality.  Since this lecture (and since the weather has been good enough), I have been trying to do that.  It’s amazing how one little tweak in our routines can have impact and quite quickly become a habit.  

On to the notes...
 *picture source:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Senator Rick Santorum, University of Chicago - May 7, 2014

Rick Santorum

While the talk itself was at times difficult to sit through, the night I spent at the Rick Santorum event was quite enjoyable over all.  I could convince nobody to attend with me, so I considered the evening a date with myself, and had such a nice time!  I sung along to music on my drive down, read my book before the lecture started, exchanged some knowing (and exasperated) glances with the lady sitting to my right, and then had a pleasant conversation with her once the talk was over.  The weather was ideal, I didn’t hit any traffic, and I snagged a clutch parking spot.  All in all, I felt pretty good! 

With that being said, however, the talk was, at times, challenging.  I suppose the best way to set the tone of the event is to report that when Rick Santorum approached the stage, instead of being welcomed by warm applause, the audience was noticeably mute.  The man sitting to my left would laugh out loud about two beats after Santorum made some of his more extreme comments.   

There was interest when Santorum and Steve Edwards talked about Santorum’s new book, Blue Collar Conservatives.  And there seemed to be a sort of acceptance toward some of his ideas on the economy.  (And I should note, that I thought he made a few good points about the jobs market: that we should promote trade schools and assign more value to jobs that don’t require a college degree.)  I also thought he was pretty funny, and likeable, which was a pleasant surprise. 

But there was palpable discomfort when the social issues were addressed. I expected to have a hard time with this, but I don’t think I expected to be so frustrated to hear him say these things.  I could hardly sit still!  I agree with him that family and community are important, and that we should build them up and promote them in our society.  But to depend on them to fulfill a social need seems unrealistic.  I wanted to say, “what about the people who don’t come from good families?”  Or “what about the people who don’t want to go to church?”  Who helps them?  I wish I had asked him.

The question and answer session was lively, but cordial and appropriate, which I think everyone probably appreciated.

My conversation afterward with the lady seated next to me was so fulfilling.  She told me that the question she wanted to ask was what his views are on incarceration rates, because this has significant impact on families.  It was helpful for me to talk with someone who didn’t get caught up on equality issues and instead focused on a very specific issue that has broad impact on society. 

My view of Rick Santorum was this: he doesn’t need to be as polarizing as he is.  This is partly the media’s fault (something I am increasingly frustrated with), and some of this is his fault (his statements are often riddled with words that have religious undertones, and I don't know if he realizes how alienating this can be).   I thought he was funny, smart, and personable.  I appreciated his honesty and his willingness to put himself out there when he probably knew that it wouldn't be his most supportive crowd. 

All in all, a good evening for me. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Role of Religion in Politics: EJ Dionne + Ramesh Ponurru, University of Chicago - April 22, 2014

EJ Dionne

Ramesh Ponnuru

Los Dos.

As long time fans of EJ Dionne’s work on NPR’s This Week In Politics with David Brooks, Griff and I were excited to see the man behind the voice.  He was great!  (I mean can someone be any cuter?)  This talk, between Dionne and Ponnuru felt exactly the same as those weekly talks we so enjoy; completely informed and cordial.  Someone in the audience asked why we don’t find these types of conversations more often in the media.  The answer is pretty obvious, I suppose: controversy sells.  And you can find these types of conversation out there – just not quite as readily as one might like.   

The part I find myself bringing up over and over again is how, in seventh grade at Parochial school, EJ Dionne was taught how Catholics can maintain a belief both in their faith and in the theory of evolution (how critical this must have been!).  It led to a broader discussion about the role of authority in our society and to this important quote from Ponnuru: “religions that don’t ask you to believe something that facts contradict are rationally superior.” 

Rand Paul, University of Chicago - April 22, 2014

Senator Rand Paul
Senator Paul and David Axelrod

The University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics had quite the Spring lineup this year.  In a matter of weeks, we saw Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, EJ Dionne, Ramesh Ponurru, and Al Gore.  In a couple more weeks, we’ll see Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel who taught the one and only Coursera class I’ve seen through to completion.  The first talk we saw was Rand Paul.  He was very charismatic, and I found myself nodding along with much of what he said.  It wasn’t until I read through my notes later that I started thinking “hey…wait a second….that’s not quite right…”.   It was a surprising realization to have, and important, I think.

We saw Rand Paul on the same night that we saw EJ Dionne and Ramesh Ponurru talk about the role of religion in politics, and it was interesting to see some overlap between the two.  For example, when David Axelrod asked Rand Paul where he stands on abortion rights, one of Senator Paul’s reactions was to state his religious belief on the issue.  Dionne and Ponurru were asked if it’s okay to use your religious belief to make a political decision, and I thought EJ Dionne had a great response, essentially: you can, but it would be more productive if you framed it in a non-secular way.  When given enough time to expound on a subject, Paul would outline other arguments for or against the issue, but none of those arguments seemed to form the basis for his opinion quite like his personal religious belief (or of where his voters are on the issue, I suppose).  I imagine it’s a tough line for a politician (or anyone?) to toe – straddling between personal faith and societal secularism.

David Axelrod is a hell of an interviewer, quick on his feet, witty, and endearing.  The kind of person I’d love to have over for dinner.

The notes are below, and a video of the exchange can be seen here.