ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOYCE HESSELBERTH
Nevine AbouGhazaleh waves her ID card in front of a reader-device that detects radio waves emitted by a microchip in the plastic card. A computer identifies the Pitt graduate student by her alias for the afternoon.
“Alexander the Great, you weren’t supposed to come here,” the screen warns, “but you can get back on track by finding the maker of Windows, not doors, on the fifth floor.”
The clever hint—generated by a prototype system designed by students and faculty at Pitt’s Advanced Data Management Technologies Laboratory—prompts AbouGhazaleh to navigate the crowded hallways of Sennott Square in search of the Microsoft information booth. Nearly 200 other students—posing as Marie Curie, Ptolemy, and other famous discoverers—are competing against her on this electronic scavenger hunt. They’re all on a mission to scan their ID cards at 10 booths at a Department of Computer Science open house in hopes of winning iPods or gift certificates. The electronic hunt is a new feature of the department’s annual Computer Science Day festivities. This year, faculty, students, alumni, and industry representatives have gathered to celebrate the department’s 42 years of teaching and research excellence.
“It’s the highlight of the year,” says AbouGhazaleh, who will soon earn a PhD in computer science and begin a job at Intel in Oregon. At the Microsoft booth, she swipes her card at another reader, which directs her to talk with a representative from the software giant. After chatting about Microsoft’s mountainous campus near Seattle, she hurries off to swipe her card at the booth for Northrop Grumman, a global defense firm. While the scavenger hunt adds fun and adventure to the yearly celebration, it also serves a research purpose.
The microchip technology that’s powering the race is called Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, a field of research in which the University is world-renowned. Pitt computer science professors Alexandros Labrinidis and Panos K. Chrysanthis, who codirect the ADMT Lab, are exploring the data-management possibilities of RFID technology as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to build a next-generation data management system. They’re collecting information during the game to improve their prototype system, which was designed, with their guidance, by three undergraduate computer science students: Alexander Connor, Chad Spensky, and Jim Bonant. The data also will assist the lab’s efforts to develop software to coordinate emergency response efforts as part of the federally funded Secure Critical Information Technology Infrastructure project. “Whenever we create something new, we need to have some real data to test its performance,” Chrysanthis says. “The game provides us with a fantastic way to collect that information.”
This year, AbouGhazaleh’s last Computer Science Day couldn’t have gone better—she walked away a winner of a bookstore gift certificate, a little reward before stepping into the real world.
Pitt music instructor and renowned jazz guitarist Joe Negri’s fingers quiver and dance along the fret board of his electric guitar as he plays “Nelly Bly,” a 19th-century pop song about a woman sweeping a front porch. Among those singing beside him is Pitt music professor Deane Root. In between verses, Root shouts, “Sing along with me!” to the audience. Jovial voices fill the auditorium of the Stephen Foster Memorial in response.
“Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Never, never sigh. Never bring the teardrop to the corner of your eye,” they sing.
It’s Stephen Foster Day, an annual event hosted by Pitt that celebrates the life and music of the American songwriter. Foster was born in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville and went on to write hundreds of timeless songs. His archive is housed in Pitt’s Stephen Foster Memorial.
The sing-along continues with performances of Foster’s “Some Folks” and “The Glendy Burk.” When the concert ends, people shake hands with the performers, praising their modern-day adaptations of the music.
During the postconcert chatter, Root and an audience member make their way to the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum adjacent to the theater to look at Foster’s original handwritten sheets of his music, letters he penned, and the portable organ he used. A leading Foster expert and director of Pitt’s Center for American Music, Root explains some of Foster’s history to the visitor. Then, an elderly man pushes his wife in a wheelchair through the pointed, arched doorway. Root—who is also the center’s Fletcher Hodges, Jr. Curator— warmly greets the woman, Teruko Shiono. They’ve known each other for more than 20 years, when Root began organizing the annual Foster celebration at Pitt. Shiono is one of Foster’s greatest admirers. Since 1960, she has attended Foster events in Pittsburgh, often speaking to the crowd about her love for his music.
She began listening to the composer’s songs as a schoolgirl. His music became part of the Japanese school curriculum around 1890, when it was introduced by an American teacher. During World War II, the Japanese government banned the music, called shoka song. But even then, officials couldn’t stop people from singing the songs they had grown up with. “We thought it was Japanese music,” Shiono has often told crowds at Pitt’s Foster celebrations. “Most people in Japan still think that today.”
She moved to Pittsburgh in 1958, when her husband, Ryonosuke Shiono, now a professor emeritus of crystallography, was hired by Pitt. When she first saw the Stephen Foster Memorial beside the Cathedral of Learning, she was awestruck. She had no idea her favorite musician was from Pittsburgh. Sensing a bond with the people inside, she entered and introduced herself. Fifty years later, she’s still a regular visitor at the memorial. In the stone museum, she and Root are having a great time catching up on personal news and their shared interest in Foster. Although the musician considered himself a “small, ordinary man from Pittsburgh,” his melodies have clearly resonated with folks both near and far from home.
At the University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts Building, a student examines two canvases covered in motor oil. The oil is thick and brown in some places, thin and greenish in others, and completely absent in a few spots, revealing patches of raw canvas.
While other gallery visitors sidle past the pieces of art, the observant student tapes a check on the wall near the canvases. The check is for 10 cents, payable to the motor-oil artist. The memo line says “For Artistic Excellence,” and it’s signed by the student, John Tronsor, with a big, loopy “J.”
It’s a dime of recognition, all Tronsor could afford. He’s also an artist and he looks the part: He wears a knit cap, carries a schoolboy satchel with buckles, and springs about in suede green sneakers with bright yellow swooshes. On this spring afternoon, he’s at the opening reception of the Studio Arts Student Exhibition, an annual event that showcases the work of graduating seniors and up-and-coming artists from beginning classes in Pitt’s Department of Studio Arts. Tronsor is a senior, majoring in studio arts.
At the next piece of artwork—a sculpture of a black tree with a lone red apple at its trunk—Tronsor gives the artist another 10-cent check. He also tapes a check near a painting that merges a man’s face with a gas mask, a possible biological adaptation to pollution. He places another check near wire sculptures reminiscent of tumbleweeds. He even adds one to a portrait of himself drawn by another student, which depicts his beard with short, fat strokes. At nearly every display, Tronsor gives the artist a 10-cent check “For Artistic Excellence.”
Throughout the gallery, visitors begin noticing a multitude of blue checks, wondering if they’re a comment on the starving-artist lifestyle, a snide joke, or a thoughtful gift. Tronsor is amused when he overhears snippets of these discussions. Creating conversation is exactly what he’s trying to do. The checks are, after all, performance and installation art.
The night before, Tronsor used up an entire checkbook writing nearly 85 checks to his fellow students; he was fulfilling an assignment for his installation art class, taught by Delanie Jenkins, a professor and chair in the studio arts department. The concept of installation art, she says, is to create a new way for people to experience a place.
Tronsor hopes that speckling the gallery space with his checks will prompt viewers to think about how a simple token of recognition can change perceptions of art. When a visitor finally asks Tronsor what’s he doing, he responds with his own questions: “How does a symbolic marker give additional value to a work? What happens after ‘artistic excellence’ is repeated so many times?”
Several days after the gallery opening, Tronsor looks at his bank account and notices that a couple of the artists have cashed their dime-worthy checks. Cool, he thinks. They’ve all earned a little recognition and, maybe, some inspiration to continue creating new art.
Tea and Games
Wan Zhu divides a plait of her friend’s hair into three sections and hastily weaves together the thick, black strands. Next, she takes the single, large braid and winds it into a relaxed twist that she secures in place with two painted chopsticks.
Zhu is a PhD student in Pitt’s Department of Human Genetics, and her hands move through hair with the same grace she uses to wield a pipette. Another half-dozen women, chattering in Mandarin, watch her in action as they wait for their turn to get a Chinese updo from the self-taught stylist.
“These wooden chopsticks are still very popular for hair in China today,” explains Zhu, president of the University’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, as she squirts her friend’s bun with hairspray and ties up loose wisps with bobby pins.
Zhu’s hairstyling demo is part of the Olympic Exhibition and Tea House her group organized to kick off a month-long celebration of Chinese culture at Pitt this spring. Today’s opening ceremony features traditional Chinese games and snacks, a slide show about Beijing’s transformation from an ancient city to a modern metropolis, and posters and souvenirs for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August.
Zhu, who is from the port city of Guangzhou in Southern China, says the goal of the event, also sponsored by Pitt’s Office of Cross-Cultural and Leadership Development, is to build a cultural bridge linking China and Pittsburgh and to spread the Olympic spirit across the University.
While Zhu braids another woman’s hair, several American students test their patience and dexterity at a nearby activity booth, trying to pick up glass marbles with chopsticks and move them from one bowl to another.
Other students meander past an exhibit displaying this year’s Olympic mascots. Called Fuwa, these whimsical characters extend friendship and peace from China to children worldwide. At the exhibit, Huiping Xie, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, proudly tells visitors how excitement about the games in Beijing has reached a frenzy. “It’s just a huge thing back in China,” she says. “Even 70- and 80-year-olds are learning to speak English to get ready for the tourists, and everyone is starting to play more sports and exercise a lot.”
Xie, like many Chinese-born students at Pitt, can’t make the long, expensive journey home for the Olympics. Xie’s friend Ming Cheng, with whom she’s sipping green tea at the Fuwa booth, says he plans to catch the action on TV or the Internet.
Cheng, an industrial engineering student, hopes to watch a lot of table tennis and gymnastics—two sports where China often rakes in Olympic Gold. “Every Chinese person wants to be a part of the Olympics somehow,” says Cheng, who studied in Beijing for seven years. “This is truly a great event.”