June 11, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 18

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    Chicago In the News

    The Chronicle’s biweekly column Chicago In the News offers a digest of commentary and quotations by a few of the University faculty members, students and alumni who have been headlining the news in recent weeks. Chicago faculty members are some of the most frequently quoted experts, so space allows publishing references to only selected examples. To read many of the full newspaper articles mentioned in this column, visit the University News Office Web site: http://news.uchicago.edu.

    Inventing a better language
    Alumna and linguist Arika Okrent (Ph.D.,’04) discussed invented language and her book, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language, with NPR Radio on Monday, June 1. Okrent said that throughout history, language evolved naturally over time until eventually it became “a habit.” “No one ever sat down with a pen and paper to write Russian or the rules of French,” she said. Yet as languages formed, they created inconsistencies and ambiguities that people have tried to correct. The host stated that it is believed that 900 known invented languages have been created over the past 900 years. “We can fly to the moon or build submarines, why can’t we build a better language?” Okrent said. “This is what people have been trying to do for centuries.” Okrent has a joint Ph.D. in Linguistics and Psychology, but she has earned first-level certification in Klingon, a language made famous in the Star Trek series.

    Goldsby announces library gift
    Jacqueline Goldsby, Associate Professor in English Languages & Literature and the College, announced Wednesday, May 27 that a historical collection belonging to founders and publishers of the Chicago Defender would be housed in a Chicago Public Library branch on the city’s South Side. The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature will display the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers, which contain historical documents, photographs and home movies that provide a look at Black America in the early 20th century. “There were photos of Booker T. Washington playing with his grandchildren, there were letters from Harry Truman,” Goldsby said. “Every time I opened a box, I found something of historical significance.” The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times reported on the story.

    Is recession making us fatter?
    A Gallup poll reported Monday, June 1 in Newsweek showed that in the past year, the number of Americans considered obese jumped by 1.7 percent (almost 5.5 million people). As part of their Well-Being Index, Gallup pollsters surveyed 1,000 Americans a day (more than 460,000 surveys) to create a comprehensive index of shifts in Americans’ lifestyles. One theory for the change is the increased stress caused by the recession, as well as the cost of healthy, fresh foods. Harold Pollack, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, saw the silver lining of the news: The possibility to reform healthcare policy in a meaningful way. He said the “recession does give us an opportunity. This is a good time to examine the ways we look at public health and say, how are we doing that, and can we do that better,” said Pollack, who is Faculty Chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies.

    Bankruptcy should help GM
    Law experts, including Randal Picker, weighed in on the Chapter 11 bankruptcy announcement of General Motors in a Monday, June 1 article on the Gannett news wire. The federal government announced it majority ownership stake in the auto giant, which was reportedly $172.81 billion in debt. Airlines such as Delta, Northwest and United airlines once used bankruptcy organization to lower their operating costs and debt amid competition from Southwest Airlines; now GM and Chrysler are in a similar situation with competitors like Toyota. “What is distinctive about this situation is that the government is behind GM,” said Picker, the Paul & Theo Leffmann Professor in Commercial Law at the Law School.

    Students get to ‘The Point’
    A Wednesday, June 3 blog post in the Chicago Reader highlighted three students in Social Thought who have launched a biannual publication that they hope will become a “journal of ideas.” The Point is the brainchild of Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick, students whose articles are unique in their length and content. “I’ve seen a little frustration with the way supposedly literary and intellectual magazines … have a relationship toward ideas that is not quite serious,” Baskin said. “They don’t really engage with the way these ideas function. I think there’s a kind of intellectual tourism in a lot of it.” The blog describes one of Thakkar’s essays, which the author wrote manages to connect Facebook to Ovid and Montaigne without being pretentious. The $10 publication is available at the Seminary Co-op, 57th Street Books or online at http://thepointmag.com.

    Finding life on Mars a snap
    Patrick McGuire (A.B.,’89), Research Scientist in the Department of Geophysical Sciences, is leading a research team that is using camera phones in the Utah desert to test an algorithm that could identify life on Mars. A Tuesday, June 2 article in New Scientist highlighted the team’s imaging algorithm, which is designed to automatically identify geological areas of interest, such as rock formations or signs of organic matter. McGuire’s team is using phones to take a series of pictures that are sent to a nearby laptop, where the algorithm classifies images according to hue, intensity and brightness. Although the program currently operates on a “child-like” level of accuracy, McGuire hopes versions made for Mars will be “superhuman.” He said that a “big-finger” problem is causing snap-happy astronauts, but expects the cameras to one day instead be attached to a spacesuit or helmet.

    Sher now First Lady’s Chief of Staff

    Susan Sher, who joined the Obama administration as associate counsel to the President in January, has been named Chief of Staff for First Lady Michelle Obama. Sher, the former Vice President for Legal and Governmental Affairs and General Counsel of the University Medical Center, worked with the First Lady when Obama was Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the Medical Center. “Susan Sher is a trusted advisor, longtime mentor and friend dating back to my work at the City of Chicago and later the University of Chicago,” Obama said in a statement. CNN, The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press news wire each reported the story