Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hasta La Bye Bye, Windy City

In the past couple of days, as a take-my-mind-off-packing-er, I've been reading Dan Brown. So, I guess that's why I'm looking for signs and their meanings. Last night, it rained. Pretty heavily. And, I was thinking back to last year, a taxi ride to Ezeiza airport in BsAs. As my friend and I left our hostel, what seemed like a clear-ish sky darkened, and then opened up. I was told then that it was a very good thing - it means that the heavens are sad to see you go and these are their tears. I'd like to think they were crying for me pretty hard last night. In any case, they did manage to postpone my cleaning up, whereupon I find myself today still here, having lunch at my favorite coffee shop, a few minutes away from leaving this fantastic city. I'm all packed and house keys have been handed over.

Officially, Homeless.

I'm not one for long goodbyes, but while Chicago will always be here, it won't ever be the same city for me when I return. My time in Chicago has been so intricately associated with my GSB experience. I will miss Chicago - it is a truly magnificent city - but I will miss so much more the people I got to get to know this city with.

OK, shut up and drive time. Next stop: Boston. 1000 miles.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Four Kings

It has been my experience that, when it come to courses, choosing Professors matters more than the subject itself. This has been made more stark as I sit here and try to 'remember' what I actually learned in the two years past ... and I have to say that not a great lot has actually stuck : I'm sure things will come back in context when they need to, but.

I've actually been lucky to have taken classes with some amazing professors, but in the spirit of forced curve grading, here are my top Four faves, in no particular order. It's actually really hard to choose four over the rest (save a few), but the reason these cats jump so high is because they brought something to the experience that elevated, and this is a personal observation, the classroom beyond being just a place to imbibe what they had to profess.

Austan Goolsbee
, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics
Economics and Policy in the Telecom, Media and Technology Industries

The first time I raised my hand in class to make a point, Prof. Goolsbee pointed to me and before I could say anything, he said, "PY, you know I am going to laugh at you if you make a stupid argument, right." And, I loved him for that. Far from being a repudiation of the No-Stupid-Questions ethic, his teaching style is the closest I've seen at the GSB to the Socratic method of learning knowledge. He openly encouraged debate, insisting on people coming to class not just having read his cases, but with formed opinions. These opinions were then set off to clash, Prof. Goolsbee nudging and prodding from the Well, until either one was convinced, and hence able to convince the class, of the strength of their arguments, or seeing the chinks therin, and accepting an alternative thesis. Not just what, but Why.

And, Prof. Goolsbee did it in a manner all his own. I'm fond of the adage that the problem with adults is that they are not kids. Watching him in class is like seeing a kid playing with his latest infatuation. He's all over the place, gesticulating, and radiating an infectious energy. In his free time, he's rumored to moonlight as a stand-up comedian at Second City, and that's probably where the funnies come from. His class was a riot, and the mirth was perfect foil for what was unfolding - under the guise of applying economic principles to analyze policy decisions and their impact on TMT industries, I found myself being instructed in the subtle arts of critical reasoning. I have not come across another professor at the GSB that actually pushed so hard - my yardstick for evaluation being my sitting in class debating with myself in my head. This is also the class that I have most recommended to my peers, and I highly recommend it to anyone attending the school in the future.

Ronald S. Burt
, Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy
Social Network Analysis

Prof. Burt during his first lecture: "As you sit in this class, think of yourself as a gumball machine. If you have a question that comes to mind, let it roll out like a gumball. And, I'll be watching for it. If there are too many well-thought-out questions, I'm going to stop the class. Because, that means that you are not asking enough questions that you don't have answers for. And, that's a dangerous thing." I paraphrase, of course, but that was the general tenor of the Ph.D class on Social Network Analysis that I audited during Autumn Quarter 2006. Prof. Burt is a sociologist, a leading authority on brokerage in social networks, and a phenomenal professor. While the class alternated between hard-core quant stuff and analysis of network behavior, I couldn't help but be in a constant state of thinking. I have scarcely been in a class where I felt afforded the luxury of letting my mind wander - in the best possible way. I would sit in class totally engaged yet thinking of situations, from my past experiences and what was going on around me, where the concepts being talked about applied, their interplay, their foilbes, and then being a gumball machine: I suspect I asked way too many questions for someone auditing the class, but Prof. Burt was very patient, helping me understand what I didn't. If I have to nutshell it, I'd say I learned to extend the argument, search for applications beyond the obvious, to seek meaning where it's not immediately evident. It's hard to describe, but the class was totally awesome. (to be more precise, the classes that I ended up going to - I did miss a few)

Prof. Burt is also an evangelist for the Chicago School. In his opinion, at the University of Chicago, one is at very high risk of running into an articulate opposition to one's idea. At that point, you have two options - either an equally articulate response or an acceptance of a divergent point of view. I learned more about what this school is about - with, at its core the Workshop methodology of knowledge creation - by listening to him than any literature. Prof. Burt is also an extremely nice and approachable guy - I had occasions to talk with him about his work, my experiences at the school, organizations and networks, and also interviewed him for an article for the school newspaper.

A few months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from him asking about my job search. Basically he said that I was an interesting person, and that interesting people don't place as easily as uninteresting people, and that he was worried if I was well. He offered any help or advice to make sure I was OK on my first steps post-GSB. Receiving this email was one of the few 'moments' of my time at the GSB, one that set down some roots, if I may, when the place took a step away from being a 2-year transit stop to one where someone else cared about what was going on with me, and wanted to see good things happen.

Matthew S. Bothner
, Associate Professor of Organizations and Strategy
Strategy and Structure: Markets and Organizations

I can't seem to remember if it was Fall Preview or Admit Weekend when I sat in on a class by Prof. Bothner. I do remember the class though, where he talked about Explorers and Exploiters in the context of strategy, using Apple and Wal-Mart as examples. A great class, full of energy and brining a new perspective to things around us. Later that day, I was standing outside the building when Prof. Bothner, on his way home, stopped by to talk with me. We talked about going to school here, the teaching, faculty etc, and ended with him suggesting that this would be a great place for me to attend.

I did, and this pattern of random conversation repeated itself several times, starting with my taking his class. Prof. Bothner is a great teacher, and I have not studied under anyone so dedicated to his students. He brings a phenomenal amount of energy to the classroom, is constantly in motion, generated involvement in his case discussions, and uses media - video and audio clips - extensively, making for an interesting experience. He also grades his cases himself, and writes detailed individual reports back to each student - 180 of them in a quarter - for 3-4 cases. &, he is totally available for discussion and advice. I remember a time when we hung around class talking about Jack Welch, and my lack of any desire to be a CEO :), until 10:30 PM!

The all-round-great-guy apart, what endeared me is his approach to the issues of business and strategy. He is a sociologist by training (I've come to realize, I've taken a fascination to that subject), and seems not to be full of the business BS. In one especially memorable class, he was talking about Annealing. You know, the process of shaping metal by heating it first and then letting it cool to reveal its new form. The class was about applying the analogy to shaking up organizations in the midst of uncertainty. I ask him a question: How do you know when you've heated things up enough and it's time to let things cool? I was expecting a framework-type answer, when he turned to me and: "You've got to feel it in you Gut." I can't think of any other professor who could have given me that answer. When you are surrounded by people who think they know the answers, or are learning them everyday, it's quite the summer rain to be reminded that there is no magic bullet - that despite all the education, the fancy diploma, it still comes down to intangibles.

Omar M. McRoberts
, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Ethnographic Methods

This one is from my Book of Quirky. Any professor who says motherfucker in class has to be a hero, methinks. And, any professor who doesn't fail you for saying fucking in your final report has to belong to a pantheon of something, ya.

Prof. McRoberts is not a GSB professor, he teaches a graduate class in the Sociology department that I took in my final quarter. I walk into class my first day and realize that I have never taken a class with a black professor - it just never happened. And, there was the coolest cat ever to have sat at the head of a class I've been in - dreadlocks, smart as fuck, chill, the works. And, he said something that I should carry around inscribed on something:
"Nothing I profess today I've ever learned in a classroom."

He was talking literally: about how there was no class on Ethnographic Methods, the class he was teaching, at Harvard; how he was trained as a sociologist but his work now is in History. But, I read a more profound meaning: Classroom education is not just a starting point, but an obligation: to move beyond, to discover different things. Simplistic, I realize. But, one can tend to forget these small things when in business school, being around people whose choice of learning is linked directly to what they want to do - bankers want to major in Finance and Accounting, someone concentrating in Marketing wants to find a job in, no surprises, marketing. This is taken to extremes sometimes - people squeezing in a course so that they can get a concentration in something so that they can put it on a resume; conversely, not giving a damn about courses that are somehow not related to their intended line of work. Immediate line of work, emphasis mine.

And, lest you think that this was a profanity-laced experience, I was being a tad facetious. Prof. McRoberts tells stories. One of his best was when we were discussing reading about the culture of Jazz musicians, about the concepts of front-stage and back-stages, literally in performers and profoundly in people's behaviors when they are around others. He told us about the time his dad went to see Miles Davis play. After he finished his set, Dad walks over to the stage:
Mr. Davis, I just wanted to say that I'm a big fan. Love your music.
And, Miles, being the consummate non-square:
Motherfucker, I don't need to be talking to you.

I learned a phenomenal deal from the class about people, and their relationship to the Around them. And, I did a cool 10-week project: An ethnography of the GSB Communities. The plural is deliberate. After observing people in their environment, writing fieldnotes, parsing through this data, I ended up generating a theory about how students here live in 2 sometimes, sometimes not, overlapping communities - the existent one and an imagined one. It was a fascinating report, and hard to summarize all 18 pages of it, profanity et al.

I could go on, but I should stop. It's taken me a while, interruptions considered, to write this post. And, I need to pack.



The GSB Life That Was

I find myself with some time between sleeping nowadays and am going to do a series of posts looking back at my two years at the school. There is much to be said - should have been said during the past two years, really - and I'll try to cover decent ground over the next week or so.

Not sure if anyone still reads this blog, but this is also more of putting some finality to my experience thing. First post being typed up in a few minutes.



Thursday, July 05, 2007

historias del cuarto del julio

When you have things to do, a holiday is a most welcome thing. But, when you are on holiday, a holiday can be quite a pain. I mean, what do you mean that the coffee shop is closed today? At 2 in the afternoon? But, but, I just woke up? Observance of holiday shmoliday. All right, I complain too much.

I had the second most unusual 4th of July this year. Usual usually has meant staking out a nice spot - on the grass by the Charles, or in Point State Park, or facing Mount Nittany - and watching the choreographed fireworks. A few years ago - Most unusual - I was in Alaska with friends headed towards Seward on the evening of the 3rd. Without having a place to stay, of course. From many miles outside town, we started to come across bed and breakfasts. While I love these joints for their individual eccentricities, they seemed to have a shared similarity that day - No Vacancy signs outside. We must have driven for a couple of hours trying to find something - and there would be a repeated pattern. We would pull into one that didn't have an explicit Go Away sign (and these were all similar in their layout too, a gravel road that led off the highway for a bit before one came across the home), only to have the owners peek at us suspiciously, or in one case, us locking the car doors at the sight of the giant dogs coming at us!

Finally, we pulled into Alaska Nellie's, an old home inhabited by an old woman, and with a set of trailers outside. The trailers were partitioned into small 'rooms' that she was renting out. One of my friends went in, and asked her if she had a vacancy. She did! But, she said, she couldn't rent it to us. Why, Why. Why?? Well, because it had only one bed and we were three. Oh. We'll take it, señora angel. For a bunch of unwashed guys coming off sleeping in tents for 4 days, it was no problema. At all. That night on the floor of that trailer (my friend who was driving us got the bed), was one of my soundest nights of sleep.

Turned out the big Rush was for a marathon that's held every 4th in Seward - this one starts in town, and goes up and down a mountain. Checked out the town that AM, headed back to Anchorage, and got a super vantage point to watch the fireworks that night - from the window seat of an airplane with the pilot banking to get us a better view. Very Cool, indeed.

Chicago, I was told recently, has it's main fireworks on the evening of the 3rd, so that individual neighborhoods can have their celebrations on the 4th. I should have paid attention.

On the evening of the 3rd, I arranged to meet a friend for dinner. She had just moved to LakeView and I live on the south side of town. No issues - it's a 20-odd minute drive. If I left home at around 9, we would be all settled in and breaking bread by 10. So, I leave at 9:15, and at 10, I'm like 4 blocks from my house. Stuck in what must be the second most insane traffic I've seen in the US (the worst was crossing the GW Bridge into New York one especially busy evening). It was gridlock everywhere. Roads closed. No left turns. Jesus in his manger. Christ! So, I decide to go west and take an alternate route. Only problem was, getting to that alternate route meant taking police-mandated alternate routes due to road closings. Finally, I pick up my friend at around 11:30. I know a couple of places that are open until midnight. We make some wrong turns, thanks to Chicago's ingenious 6-way intersections, and get there too late. Really starving at this point, we decided to head to Chinatown, where I know a 1 AM place.

So, we finally head south and find a spot to park - it's around 12:15. And, Penang is still open. It was really funny except for the fact that I was starving to the point of dropping dead - Chinatown is 3 blocks from my house :) 3 hours of non-stop driving just to endUp round the corner! But, the evening progressed dandily from there, nice times were had by all.

Yesterday, the 4th, I woke up late, missed my coffee due to previously ranted Observance of holiday shmoliday, and promptly went back to sleep. Was woken up by my downstairs neighbor with an invite for a soiree at his place, which I lazily stumbled into around 9. Just about the time they were getting ready to leave. Invited along for a walk in the neighborhood, I decided to go along.

And, boy, am I glad I did.

I live, or am living my last few days tobemoretothepoint, in Pilsen, which is Chicago's Mexican neighborhood. And, as we set out (Destination: Tim's backyard, Agenda: Fireworks watching), it was just the coolest street scene. At every corner, there was a block party. And, these were really organized. A small tent covered music players and huge speakers, food, liquor and table-spreads of fireworks. On the streets, there were girls dancing to the music, elder people sipping Caronitas on their porches or lawn chairs, trucks blocking off traffic, chicos setting off fireworks on the street, people running from badly aimed missiles. I was told that these fireworks were actually brought in all the way from Mexico! And the noise - there was only one reference point for the cacophony surrounding me: Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. Took me back to memories of my own childhood. Very Cool.

We stopped by a friends' of somebody, set off a few ourselves, strolled through a couple of these parties, and settled into comfortable lawn chairs in a backyard watching the being-illuminated night sky. And, thusly the night progressed, surrounded by artists and fabulous conversation about The Alchemist, stealing bikes, being 40 and wanting a perfect bike, juggling school|work|art, audio books, Salman Rushdie, holding on to a perfect job and suchlike.

It was one of those unexpected and subtle evenings that made me glad that I chose to act on an impulse and live in this neighborhood. I've gotten to know my neighbors, been exposed to a variety of art, and more importantly, a bit of understanding of the struggles of artists as they hold on to doing what matters to them. And, though I rant, I love going to my local coffee shop, where the people know me by name, and I them. Man, I am going to miss it all. (not, of course, the bastard who stole my bike)

¡Feliz Cuatro de Julio!