31 October 2008

Lawrence Lessig at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Last night's talk by Lawrence Lessig was pretty phenomenal. He gave a very effective presentation on the influence of money in politics, basically contending that its most pernicious effect is the obliteration of trust--the people's trust in their government.

You can view the presentation here.

And if you want to join the movement to change congress, you can learn more here.

FYI, Lessig is also the founder of Creative Commons.

Jeffrey Sachs at the Chicago Humanities Festival

First of all, my hat is off to anyone who can talk coherently for 45 extemporaneous minutes. No podium, no notes, no overheads. An amazing feat.

I really didn't know what to expect from Jeffrey Sachs; I was vaguely aware of him as someone who had "converted" from being a more free-market capitalism guy to a sustainable development guy.

There was no evidence of the free-market capitalism guy at last night's lecture. He spent the first 20 minutes or so of his talk trying to put the current financial crisis in context. He reminded us of the collapse of the Asian bubble in the late 1990s, the subsequent dot.com bubble, and the most recent real estate bubble. All interconnected--nothing about them should have been unpredictable.

From there, he segued into bubbles that he deemed more critical--the climate bubble, the population bubble, and the water scarcity bubble. When these burst, he pointed out, we won't just be looking at a recession.

He made a good case for pumping up our aid to impoverished parts of the world and taking a larger role in helping solve apparently intractable problems. He made connections between climate change, water scarcity, population explosion, and the situation in Darfur. He connected human encroachment on wildlife with the rise in diseases that cross from animals to people (including AIDS and SARS).

And all along the way he pointed to Tuesday's election as the first step to get real traction on these issues. He called Barack Obama "incredibly smart," which is something, coming from a guy who's clearly pretty darned smart himself.

Well, we are all hopeful. But of course the real work starts after Tuesday.

Lisa Randall at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Lisa Randall is a rare specimen: a renowned cosmologist who happens to be female. We listened to her give a talk the other night based on her 2005 book Warped Passages, about the possibility of "hidden" dimensions in space-time.

Randall explained that the investigations into additional dimensions are triggered by the desire to make quantum theory consistent with relativity theory. The existence of higher dimensions may explain apparent inconsistencies. One thing that was striking is how the mathematics drives the investigation. For example, "there is nothing in the mathematics that rules out the existence of other dimensions." It reminds me of another talk we went to--last year, I think--where the scientist talked about how there is nothing in the math of physics to explain why we can go forward in time but not backward.

So the work is to a considerable extent mathematical rather than physical (though this is physics). But there's nothing particularly new about that--Einstein used mathematics, too, and it was a long time before his theories could be proved empirically.

Randall claimed that the theories about higher dimensions may well be proved (or disproved) by experiments at the new CERN hadron collider in Switzerland, starting next year.

It is exceedingly hard to imagine higher spatial dimensions, though Randall tried her darnedest to help us do so. She explained that it is much easier to imagine them mathematically than visually. After her talk, I wondered if the whole question of what higher dimensions would look like is meaningless--as the cosmologist Rocky Kolb once said my question--what existed before the universe?--was meaningless after one of his lectures. We can't picture higher dimensions anymore than a point can picture a line. I wondered if the best way to think about dimensions is as projections. For example, you can look at a point as the one-dimensional projection of a line; a square is the two-dimensional projection of a cube; so a cube would be a three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional object.

Which means there are hidden worlds we can't perceive directly. But that's not new, is it? The microscopic world--was largely hidden from us for most of human history, and even now some of what we know about this world is due to inference rather than direct observation. You could say something similar about the astronomical world.

Anyway, it was all very interesting and thought provoking. One of these days I'll try reading Randall's book, which I bought in 2005 but haven't gotten to yet.

25 October 2008

The Garden

Victor and I went to see this movie last night--the first screening on our 2008 Chicago International Film Festival schedule.

A group of Latinos in South Central LA spent more than a decade tending a 14-acre community garden, until a backroom deal involving a member of the City Council threatened their eviction. While this pretty much is a classic good guys/bad guys story, the movie also manages to convey a lot of the complexities of personality and politics that have been involved. We're not that familiar with LA politics, but we had thought highly of its mayor. The movie made us wonder about him. It also made us wonder how many stories like this take place in the background of Chicago politics. The movie reminds us that we urgently need a different kind of politics.

One of the fun things about seeing movies at the Chicago Film Festival is sometimes the directors, or other key players show up. In this case, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy took questions after the screening. He was wearing a tee shirt with Barack Obama's face on it. It's wonderful to see people who are doing such great things in the flesh.

On the ballot provided by the film festival, we both gave The Garden our highest rating.

14 October 2008

Threepenny Opera

We caught this Hypocrites production on the day it closed. We were impressed with the tremendous energy, creativity, and talent on display. The Hypocrites made Threepenny Opera their own while remaining fundamentally true to the original.

This was our first Hypocrites show, but it won’t be the last.

The Chicago Humanities Festival in Hyde Park

Saturday we went down to Hyde Park for a special program of Chicago Humanities Festival. Usually the festival starts at the end of October and runs through the first couple weeks of November, but this year they scheduled this early taste in Hyde Park. So Victor and I rode our bikes to the Belmont Red Line stop and took the train (with bikes) down to Garfield.

We got up early to try and catch a bird watching group that meets Saturday mornings at 8 in Jackson Park, but the trip ended up taking too long, and we missed the group. But—wow—Jackson Park was beautiful, especially the Japanese Garden. We’re determined to go back.

The first event we attended was in Mandel Hall, a beautiful venue that looks like it used to be a chapel. The speaker, Gary Becker, is a Nobel-Prize winning economist, but his talk wasn’t so great. His thesis was basically that actions to resolve fears have unintended consequences, including the generation of new fears.


His theme was involved the importance of education in ameliorating the impact of unexpected consequences (fears). The most interesting data he presented was on the contribution of higher education to higher quality of life in various respects. But the main thesis was simple-minded at best.

Presumably his academic work is more interesting. I can only imagine he believed he had to dumb the stuff down for a general audience.
Next, we entered the Smart Museum of Art for the first time. Looks like a great space. In a classroom there, we listened to Deidre Chetham and Orville Schell, who discussed the new dam on the Yangtze River. Chetham talked about the impact of displacement on families who had lived in the areas that are now submerged. Schell focused more on the bigness of the projects that China is engaging in.

Our third and final event was a performance by the Silk Road Theatre Project of a new verse play by Yusef Komunyakaa, an adaptation of the ancient epic Gilgamesh. I’m afraid Victor fell asleep, but I really enjoyed it. I thought the performers were pretty wonderful.

After this we took a quick tour through at the Hyde Park Art Center, and then had a beautiful ride home. But long. We usually don’t ride more than 5 miles or so. The ride home was about 10 miles.

I was awfully tired the next day.