The Blog


There’s a conspiracy afoot—and it’s a big one.

At the heart of so many of the problems that plague our campus—stress, anxiety, the impossibility of ever making a real choice­—this monster crouches, laughing in the shadows as we unknowingly throw away our sanity. We’ve been lied to, fooled and toyed with like the oblivious infants we are. Our deepest fear—the belief that nothing we do will have any real impact—proves true, as our small yet concerted collective efforts to make a difference are daily thwarted. In this post-truth world of ours, nothing is what it purports to be. Not even the trash.

In all likelihood, you’ve never thought about it. You just toss your recyclables into the proper color-coded bin, relying on the suggestively shaped perforations to tell you: ‘Bottles & Cans Only,’ or ‘Rejected Manuscripts/Unread Newspapers Here.’

But every so often, there’s a tug. A feeling that something is…off. As you toss the latest unread copy of Spec into the bin, you have a brief moment of panic (one unrelated to that embarrassment of a paper). Through your head flashes a warning: “Something is Wrong!”

And then it’s gone, and you go on with your day, seemingly unaffected. But the seed of existential doubt has been planted and nothing can stop it now. It will ride with you through the rest of your days, both on this campus and off. It is the unnamed beast lurking in the shadows, the palpable obscure haunting your dreams.

Today, we name it. And in naming, we expose. Hark, O Columbians, and witness: Recyclegate.

 

Exhibit A: A classic case of top-swap. (Feb 26, 2016)

“Surely this is overblown, surely there is a reasonable explanation,” you might say. Oh, how we wish you were right. At first, one might reasonably attribute the confusion to some mischievous prankster who gets off on switching bin-covers. Even the so-called Extreme Prankster case evidenced in Exhibit B can be so explained, albeit with a bit of a stretch (as it requires them to relocate an entire bin).

 

 

Exhibit B: Notice the doubling of Bottles & Cans receptacles but the single All Paper cover on the leftmost bin, belying the troubling absence of a proper Paper bin. (Dec. 8, 2017)

Alas, such a mollifying explanation falls quickly to pieces. There are…glitches…that defy such a prankster(s). The conspiracy goes deeper. Much deeper.

Aside from the textual testimony each bin gives as to its purpose, general recycling relies on tells to announce itself. These tells are as close to universal truths as we are like to get on this earth: Green is Paper, Plastic & Metal = Blue; slits suggest discarded essays and shoddy newspapers, while circular apertures cry out for bottles and cans. Symbolical and practical, these clues are meant to guide us in our quest to save the world. The truths they represent are our anchors, our rocks. The White House may have turned orange, but so long as Green is Paper we might still sleep at night.

But this is 2017, and truth no longer exists.

 

Exhibit C, “The Label Libel”: Notice the discrepancy between the ‘All Paper’ label and the circular perforations plus the subtle yet paradoxical sticker. (May 8, 2017)

The sobering reality is that Paper hasn’t been Green for at least two years (evidenced by Exhibit D) and all that we think we know to be true seems determined to flip us off and chortle at our fears of Fakeness.

Exhibit D: Clearly a manufacturing error. (Dec. 3, 2015)

In East Germany, the Stasi would disrupt their targets with a method of psychological warfare called Zersetzung, in which subtle manipulations of the everyday objects in a victim’s home would help destabilize their sanity. The calculated disruptions, the small changes in tiny things the target was sure about—replacing the saltshakers with sugar or moving the pictures on the wall—would precipitate a slow breakdown of their perceptions of reality.

That feeling, that profound unease you get while walking through the halls of Butler Library? Just saying.

As I mentioned in an email to Scott Wright, Vice President for Campus Services, the trend of mislabeling and misperforation has increased at an alarming rate over the past year. By my last reckoning, somewhere around 20% of Butler Library’s recycling bins are now affected in some way by this deceitful disease.

Exhibit E, “God is Dead”: Misperforations and gross disregard for color-code consistency. (Nov. 30, 2017)

The question remains: cui bono? Who could possibly be behind these acts of confusion, and why? My investigation has so far come up empty handed, but we will, we must get to the bottom of this. Until then, stay vigilant. And stick to non-recyclables.

Exhibit F: We’re on to you, Louie.

 

 

People inherently long to be part of a group, a village, a community. For communities to endure, they must have a history, and each generation must perpetuate the traditions of the past and pass them along to the next generation. Some such traditions are intentionally created and integrated into society at a young age, such as saluting the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the National Anthem. Others are more organic, like family picnics and watching fireworks on Independence Day. In a small town near where I grew up, the biggest annual event was the “irrigation festival,” celebrating the bountiful harvests made possible by the technology that brought water to what was otherwise an arid valley. In a small community, people seize upon whatever it takes to bring people together to eat, play, compete with each other, and socialize. These events are part of the fabric of our civilization.

The common experiences that occur during four years of college similarly bring a community of students together in many ways. Traditions within a college bind class to class, generation to generation, and bring current students from every academic pursuit a sense of togetherness and community and a bond of kinship. Many such college traditions are a bit odd or idiosyncratic, but they form a part of the identity of a school that every student carries away from commencement and (hopefully) brings back for class reunions. The attraction of oddball college traditions was summed up in one article: “[C]ampus traditions are a huge part of what takes a bunch of students, and makes them a community that lasts a lifetime.”

Examples abound throughout the country. At Regis University in Denver, after four nights of enforced quiet study in the week leading up to finals, the signal is given for the “all hall scream,” and students spend ten minutes screaming, laughing, and running through the halls.

At Occidental College, where Barack Obama spent his first two years before transferring to Columbia, tradition dictates that on your birthday you will be thrown into the campus fountain (by your friends). During the “Pterodactyl Hunt” at Swarthmore College, students don garbage bags and roam campus beating each other with foam weapons. At the University of Virginia, students run naked across the campus lawn and kiss the statue of Homer in the days leading up to graduation.

And the Ivys are not too elite to participate in quirky traditions. At the University of Pennsylvania, students throw pieces of toast onto the football field after the end of the third quarter of home games. (The university has designed a special Zamboni-like machine to vacuum up the stray bread.) During the winter carnival at Dartmouth, a hole is drilled into the ice of a local pond, and students jump into the freezing water (with a safety rope).

What traditions bind together the generations of Columbia alumni? There are few, other than the Core Curriculum. In the Wikipedia entry for Columbia University, there are only three entries under “Traditions.” They are (1) Orgo Night, (2) the tree lighting and Yule log ceremony, and (3) the Varsity Show. The first one on the list, Orgo Night, is one of the most unique traditions in all the land, and it is unfortunately under attack.

When you search“quirky college traditions” on Google, the first search result is an article from the website “collegeraptor” titled “13 of the weirdest college traditions.” The article begins:

“There are strange things happening at college campuses across the country. Students are nailing their shoes to trees, howling at the moon, and kissing statue’s bums with no one giving these weird pastimes a second thought.”

The #1 entry on this list is: “Orgo Night:  Columbia University.”  The article notes the essence of the event:

“Each year, on the eve of the orgo final, the Columbia marching band heads to the library to entertain all of the orgo students (and anyone else lucky enough to be studying at that time) with the fight song, jokes, and music. The tradition is a great harmless way for students to blow off steam during finals.”

The website then links to other information about Columbia for the benefit of users who are researching different schools.  You would think that Columbia administrators would be proud that their school ranks #1 (on this list) in yet another aspect of American universities.

In fact, the Orgo Night tradition is listed in all six of the top search results on Google, where articles from BuzzFeed, USA Today, and hercampus.com list the most interesting and memorable events on campuses across the country.  In all cases, Orgo Night is lauded as a fun stress reliever for students during finals week.

On Columbia’s official web site, there is a prominent entry on Orgo Night among the stories that alumni were invited to write about their memories of the Columbia experience as part of the C250 (250th anniversary) celebration.  University editors chose this as one of the best stories:

“One of my most memorable experiences at Columbia was Orgo Night in the undergraduate reading room in Butler Library. I attended Orgo Night in all eight semesters I was at Columbia. Each was an experience of its own. . . .[T]he show of school spirit was unmatched . . . Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school’s age-old traditions.”

Meanwhile, in a printed recruitment brochure for high school , Columbia lists fifteen items as “Fun on campus” events that new students can look forward to.

 

It is debatable whether student government budget meetings, University Professor lectures, or Engineering Weeks belong in the “fun” column, but it is significant that Orgo Night is on the university’s official list.  In another recruiting brochure titled “Columbia Blue,” the university’s office of undergraduate admissions lauds various traditional campus activities, including Bacchanal, the Varsity Show, the President’s annual Fun Run, and Orgo Night:

“Orgo Night Merriment. The night before the Organic Chemistry Final — Orgo Night. On this night in December and again in May, the main study room in Butler Library starts getting packed around 11:30 pm. You see practically everyone you know and despite being finals week, everyone is excited and happy. At midnight sharp, you hear the sound of instruments and all of a sudden, the marching band storms into the room playing songs and reading jokes while the rest of us are standing on the tables and chairs dancing and laughing. Debbie Goodman, Lido Beach, NY; CC”

All this would suggest that the university administration values Orgo Night as something that is unique to Columbia.  It is a living demonstration of how a peculiar tradition can provide some needed stress relief during an otherwise tense finals period and can serve as an heirloom that generations of Columbia alumni share as a common memory.

And yet, if you did not already know, the current University Administration has decided to end this tradition, claiming that the Orgo Night show is not an appropriate activity for Butler Library and relegating the marching band to performing the show outside, on the steps in front of the library in whatever weather might present itself.  Banishing Orgo Night from the library is intended to diminish its significance and disassociate it from the process of finals studying.  The Head Librarian who announced the ban in December of 2016 justified it based on the need to preserve quiet study space, although the University had received no complaints from students who were unable to find other appropriate study space or who were surprised by the appearance of the band at the well-publicized time and place that had occurred every semester since 1975.  Despite protests by students and alumni, the University has remained resolute in its desire to kill the Orgo Night tradition.

This leaves only the tree-lighting and the Varsity Show as traditions common to present and past Columbia students – along with reading The Iliad.  Will this improve the feeling of community and connection for future alumni?  Will it make any students feel better about the university knowing that the administration took action to preserve their quiet study space during finals week?  Years from now, the class of 2018 will remember the Orgo Night in December of 2016 when it was eighteen degrees and the valves in the band’s horns froze up after they were banished from the library.  They will remember the notice sent out from Low Library in April of 2017 stating that the administration was “working closely” with the current band leadership to discuss the future of Orgo Night, when in fact there was no communication of any kind from the administration to the band, and none would follow that whole summer.  They will remember how the tradition of Orgo Night was stubbornly perpetuated by the marching band despite the administration’s continued “war on fun.”  They will probably lament that they are one of the last classes that can remember Orgo Night.  As they mingle with the younger alumni from the classes of 2023 and 2028 and 2033 at a future class reunion, someone is bound to mention Orgo Night and some younger alumnus will say “I’ve heard of that, but by the time I was a student, it had died out.”  That will be a sad day, but one that is entirely predictable, and apparently one desired by President Bollinger, who is the chief executioner in the crusade to end Orgo Night.

It is not too late to change this course; the scrappy marching band continues to plan an Orgo Night show despite the administration’s resistance.  We, who love Columbia, should care.  When Orgo Night is just a distant memory for a diminishing population of older alumni and someone laments the absence of enduring traditions that link current students to previous generations, we will all share the blame.  We had Orgo Night, and we let it die.

 

If you’d like to submit a response to this op-ed or a general op-ed to The Lion, please email submissions@thecolumbialion.com

After weeks of ignoring her begging, I went with my roommate to see Thor: Ragnarok. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see the movie (Marvel films are actually my guilty pleasure), but I didn’t want to spend the ridiculous amount of money that is New York theater prices to see a film I thought I could predict in its entirety. I had a pretty strong feeling about how the movie was gonna go: we’d start with a dramatic scene where Thor’s at a low-point, then the film’s villain would inspire him to get his act together, and he’d reunite with some random Avenger to defeat whoever was threatening Asgard this time around. Interspersed would be some jokes about his abnormally attractive body, his villainous brother Loki, and of course Marvel’s typical sexual innuendos. I knew it would be entertaining, but also extremely predictable.

So when I sat down in the theater, I was surprised by the film I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I had indeed predicted the general plotline, but something about Thor: Ragnarok was different. Rather than being interspersed throughout, the jokes were continuous and quite upfront. From the very first scene (where Thor was indeed at a low-point), Chris Hemsworth’s superhero was cracking jokes left and right. His relationship with Loki took on a more humorous tone than ever before, and even the villain (Thor’s sister Hela) cracked a joke every now and again.

Even in the movie’s darkest and most serious moments, the characters were joking around. As I watched, it felt a little off-putting: why would Thor and the Hulk joke about the fate of millions of people? Why couldn’t the writers be serious for just one second? I came out of the theater feeling a bit uneasy; sure, the film was hilarious and most definitely entertaining–but what just happened? In an earlier column, I praised this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming for its jokes and for creating a lighter and more entertaining superhero movie than DC’s Wonder Woman. But it seems like Marvel took my feedback and dialed it up, like, five thousand percent.

Earlier this week, Marvel released its trailer for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, set to be released in two parts- one in 2018 and one in 2019. The trailer is typical of Marvel’s superhero universe, and only features one joke at the end of the preview–more like what I had been expecting from Thor: Ragnarok. And the trailer wasn’t released without its own drama: news that Avengers frontrunners like Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), and Scarlett Johansson’s (Black Widow) contracts are up after the film releases is sending every superhero-fan into a frenzy. Is this the last Avengers film? Will Marvel try to continue the Avengers franchise without its stars?

In interviews, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige has said that Marvel intends to continue the franchise with or without its stars, but that Infinity War will definitely mark the end of a particular era in the Avengers universe. And with Thor: Ragnarok shifting so dramatically in its approach, I am left wondering: is this lighter tone Marvel’s new take? And how will that work? Will it work?

Now don’t get me wrong: the fate of the superhero genre is not in danger. People will keep paying to see attractive men and women (although far too few women admittedly) save the world while cracking a joke about it. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and it makes us feel good. But where Marvel has succeeded (and where, I would argue, DC hasn’t) is in making these feel-good movies into films with real quality. Previous Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Avengers movies are all actually good movies. And that’s because they mix action and humor effortlessly, and invite the audience to feel close to their heroes. But when Marvel decided to focus solely on the humor in Thor: Ragnarok, they lost their appeal (at least to me). And if they continue on in this way, they may find themselves losing at the very genre they brought to the forefront of American cinema ten years ago.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Dina (played by Katrina Lenk) beautifully sings “Welcome to Nowhere,” a song introducing the audience to the show’s location, she doesn’t portray it to be one of the most exciting places. In fact, she goes so far as to sing “Such a city, nobody knows it. Not a fun, not an art, nor a culture. This is Bet Hativka.”

And her character is right: this show, like it repeatedly describes, is a simple story about how ‘’Once not long ago group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Yet, in this charming 95-minute show, audiences are thrust into a story that is so simple yet so complex, just like the human experience. Indeed, like life, the show begins with a slow start, in which we are introduced to the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt, which, due to a misunderstanding of their final destination, end up spending a night in Bet Hatikva rather than Petah Tikva.

Stuck in a new place with nothing else to do, we see these strangers begin to connect. Part of the experience of meeting new people is finding out more about them: at first, you don’t know much about each other, but as time goes on, you learn more and begin to feel more for one another. The same is true for characters in shows. While The Band’s Visit eventually introduces us to all of its characters, unfortunately, we only get to really know a few. As the show progresses, though, we see extraordinary songs and heart-wrenching moments from most of the characters that, when the characters we as the audience get to know are involved, leave us tearful and filled with emotion.

For the characters we don’t get know as well, moments of truth — revealed in admittedly beautiful songs — can be a little confusing. Why does the man who waits by the telephone wait so obsessively for his girlfriend to call, to the point of being agitated when someone else uses the phone? Just because he misses her? Knowing nothing about this man except that he waits and waits and waits, it felt as if his behavior fell closer in line with someone who is unhealthily obsessed rather than in love. While this too can be part of the human experience, it was frustrating to see this moment aggrandized as it leads into the final grand moment of the show in which the entire cast harmonizes beautifully, singing about longing, love, and human connection. If we had gotten to know this man better, perhaps the final wouldn’t have felt as if it came out of nowhere.

That being said, the final song (“Answer Me”) is still beautiful in its own right, highlighting the show’s strongest component: its music. With lyrics and composition by David Yazbeck, every song pulls at the heart, making you laugh and leaving you contemplating your own desires. Each song is stunning and invites the audience members into the moment, allowing them to connect with the music on a personal level, even if they’re not familiar with the musical style, which is inspired by Arabic culture — something rarely seen on Broadway.

In a time that feels incredibly divisive, this production shows that, despite differences in our languages, our backgrounds, and our heritages, we all still are united in one human experience. We still all have a desire to love and be answered, and The Band’s Visit is such an important musical because it reminds us of just that. Rather than focusing on gaudy, ostentatious sets, colors, and music, it strips down these elements and focuses on the simple, the ordinary. This ordinariness actually produces something  unique and extraordinary, and, accordingly, the show should be seen by all.

Tickets to The Band’s Visit can be purchased from the show’s website.

Image courtesy of Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

The hippocampus is one of those brain regions that pops up again and again in popular science literature, and for good reason. Most people associate the hippocampus with memory, mainly thanks to Henry Molaison, better known as H.M. Over fifty years ago, a hotshot neurosurgeon named William Scoville removed most of his hippocampus in an attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The treatment worked but at a severe cost, as H.M. lost the ability to form new memories.

This curious case kicked off modern memory research as we know it. Decades of follow-up research has connected activity in the hippocampus to a variety of functions, most famously  the formation of episodic memories. Inspired by this human case, researchers peered into the brains of awake mice in an attempt to learn more.

One of the reasons why we can investigate this brain region in particular across species is just how similar the hippocampus of a mouse is to a human. It is an ancient structure, millions of years old, but it is arguably the first of the most ‘advanced’ brain regions to develop. While there are obviously differences in size between the species, the underlying organizational principles are nearly identical. What makes the hippocampus so special that we and our rodent cousins have one, but frogs don’t?

During one of these mouse experiments, a scientist named John O’Keefe made a curious finding. When the animal ran around in its environment, a certain kind of cell in the hippocampus would consistently fire only when the mouse navigated through a particular position. This finding later won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and spurred another avenue of research into how these ‘place cells’ (as they have since been dubbed) form a sophisticated ‘cognitive map’ of space.

Meanwhile, the development of fMRI in humans enabled human researchers to study learning, memory, attention, curiosity, and many other cognitive functions of the hippocampus. More than just memory, this enigmatic part of the brain is necessary for imagination, planning, and many other processes we consider so essential to our human existence.

Given the similarities between mice and men, it’s reasonable to expect that the mouse and human hippocampus are doing similar things. So why are their scopes of research so radically different? How exactly do cells that respond to a rodent’s current location in place create memory? While long existing in different spheres, new research aims to bridge the gap.

From the mouse side, non-place features of place cells are increasingly providing evidence for a broader, more integrative role of hippocampal pyramidal neurons than simply recording place. Recent findings, some unpublished, from the Society for Neuroscience 2017 Annual Meeting demonstrated many of these newly discovered, more diverse functions.

In highly social bats, ‘place’ cells can record the location of their fellow bats just as well as their own. In rats, ‘place’ cells can ‘map out’ a representation of sound. In monkeys, ‘place’ cells can fire without movement simply by looking around the environment. Most convincingly, a number of studies have shown that ‘place’ cells can also record a detailed representation of time.

Increasingly, it seems that these special hippocampal cells fire not only to locations, but a number of other things too. Some, if not most, of these cells respond to multiple things at once, like place and time, or sound and place.That feature, crucially, is indispensable in creating a memory. These cells aren’t just recording places, they’re combining different aspects of an experience together. Put another way, a ‘place cell’ isn’t simply mapping space, it’s making a memory.

While neither I nor neuroscience more generally has an answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this column, combining decades of research in mice and humans will help guide the way forward.

 

Citations and further reading:

  1. Scientific reviews are a great way to delve deeper than articles like mine without wading too deep into the terminology of primary articles. For an overview of the importance of H.M. to the field, I recommend: Squire, L. R. (2009). The legacy of patient H.M. for neuroscience. Neuron, 61(1), 6–9.
  2. To read the seminal place-cell study by O’Keefe: O’Keefe, J., & Dostrovsky, J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Research, 34(1), 171–175.
  3. For a broader review of place cells by nobel laureates in the field: Moser, M.-B., Rowland, D. C., & Moser, E. I. (2015). Place cells, grid cells, and memory. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 7(2), a021808.
  4. Bats encoding in 3D, same lab with the preliminary unpublished social findings (primary paper): Sarel, A., Finkelstein, A., Las, L., & Ulanovsky, N. (2017). Vectorial representation of spatial goals in the hippocampus of bats. Science, 355(6321), 176–180.
  5. Rats encoding non-spatial ‘sound map’ (primary paper): Aronov, D., Nevers, R., & Tank, D. W. (2017). Mapping of a non-spatial dimension by the hippocampal–entorhinal circuit. Nature, 543, 719.
  6. Monkeys encoding a non-movement based ‘visual map’ (primary paper): Killian, N. J., Jutras, M. J., & Buffalo, E. A. (2012). A map of visual space in the primate entorhinal cortex. Nature, 491(7426), 761–764.
  7. Review of time cells by a giant in the field: Eichenbaum, H. (2014). Time cells in the hippocampus: a new dimension for mapping memories. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 15, 732.
  8. To read more about a fascinating brand-new big-picture theory about the hippocampus: Stachenfeld, K. L., Botvinick, M. M., & Gershman, S. J. (2017). The hippocampus as a predictive map. Nature Neuroscience, 20(11), 1643–1653.