Earlier this month, Freakonomics Radio traveled to St. Paul, Minn., for our first ever live event, at the legendary Fitzgerald Theater. Since Steve Levitt grew up in the Twin Cities, we went a little “this is your life” on him — including his time as a Quiz Bowl captain during high school at St. Paul Academy.
Our latest podcast is a live recording from that event. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the embedded media player, or read the transcript here.) You’ll hear from Levitt, his sister Linda (also a Quiz Bowl captain in her day) and their father, Michael Levitt, a leading medical researcher in intestinal gas who’s known in some quarters as “the King of Farts.” Dr. Levitt was also responsible for drilling his kids in Quiz Bowl questions, day and night.
You’ll also hear from George Leiter, who was Levitt’s math teacher and Quiz Bowl coach during high school. Leiter still teaches at St. Paul Academy, and still coaches the Quiz Bowl team. In fact, he was willing to bring the current S.P.A. team to the Fitzgerald to challenge Team Levitt. Seniors Steve Wendeborn, Zac Mohring, Carter Peterson, and Cameron Matticks took on the Levitts in a lively competition, which you’ll hear in the podcast. Lest you think we went easy on them, here are a few of the questions:
- Sisters and brothers don’t always get along so well. While being chased by her father, this granddaughter of Helios hacked up her brother, Absyrtus, thinking her father would be slowed down by having to pick up his boy’s body parts. Name this wife of Jason who was the title character in a Greek tragedy by Euripedes.
- When the temperature gets above freezing, regular kick wax just doesn’t do the job. Instead, cross-country skiers use a special glue-like paste to improve their traction. The name for this goo actually means ‘paste’ in Norwegian. What’s the word?
- Let’s check out your knowledge of world capitals. Depending on whether you want to count Vatican City, there are four or five European capitals that begin with the letter ‘V.’ You’ll get 5 points each for naming each of the other four.
My favorite answer to that last question? “Vashington, D.C.” Not correct, but clever.
I won’t divulge the winner here but I will say this: it wasn’t even close. Hopefully even the vanquished had a good time, however. I know I did, and hope you do listening to it.
Live from St. Paul
ANNOUNCER: From DOUBLE-YOU N-Y-C and A-P-M: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
Stephen J. DUBNER: So, a couple weeks ago, we did something we'd never done before. We took Freakonomics Radio on the road to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota and we put on a show in front of actual living people. They seemed to like it, but it's a little hard to tell, you know, people are so nice in Minnesota to start with. Anyway, my favorite part of the evening was when we gave my Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt sort of a homecoming roast. He grew up in Minneapolis, most of his family still lives there, and he went to high school at St. Paul Academy. One more thing you might want to know before listening to this podcast: Levitt's father Michael is a medical researcher, one of the world's foremost experts in intestinal gas. In certain circles he is known as the "King of Farts." So if you ever wonder how Steve Levitt got off study sumo wrestlers and black names and economics of crack cocaine, all you gotta do is look up the family tree.
DUBNER: So Levitt, I did have an idea. Since, we’re here in your home town, and since we’ve made this hour on prediction, I was wondering if it might be fun to go a little bit of “This Is Your Life” on you, and to go back to some people who knew you then and to talk about what they might have predicted would come of you? Does that interest you at all?
LEVITT: Not really.
DUBNER: Does it interest you at all? (APPLAUSE) Well, let’s, let’s do that then, okay? So we’ve got a…I mean it’s mob rule. So, we’ve got a few guests for you tonight. And our first guest is a longtime teacher and coach at Steve Levitt’s high school alma mater, Saint Paul Academy, please would you give a warm Freakonomics welcome to George Leiter.
DUBNER: So, George thank you so much for being here.
LEITER: I am really excited to be here.
DUBNER: How excited are you?
LEITER: I can’t tell you how excited.
DUBNER: All right. Scaled of one to, you wouldn’t even want to get into a number? Or you’re good?
LEITER: It’s hundreds, hundreds of excited.
DUBNER: On a scale of one to…and you’re a math teacher, or no?
LEITER: Yes I am.
DUBNER: So on a scale of one to ten, we’re in the hundreds, and we wonder why you’re calculus score…All right. George, I wonder if we could start just to jog your memory, because we want to know your recollection of Steve as a high school student. Now, let’s start with a photograph of young Steve Levitt. Now, George when you see that beautifully hirsute young man, you know, what kind of kid was he, what kind of student was he?
LEITER: Well, I knew him I think all six years he was in the upper school at St. Paul Academy, and I guess curiosity is the word that pops into mind. The story I would tell is when he and his buddy James showed up at my house one summer evening and said will you come out to the car, we have a question for you? And I head out to the car and they open the door, and they pull out two eight-foot marijuana plants they had found growing behind a local hockey arena.
LEITER: And they said we can’t settle this for us, is this marijuana or not? And I said, why on God’s green earth do you think I’m the person to come to to ask this question? And Steve actually responded because you went to Macalester, didn’t you?
DUBNER: And George I understand that you knew Levitt not just from, as a student or his marijuana expeditions, but that you, that he was a Quiz Bowl competitor, correct? And you ran Quiz Bowl, is that right?
LEITER: I was at that time the coach of Quiz Bowl and went on to actually run the Quiz Bowl organization until I turned it over to a much more capable person just a few years ago.
DUBNER: I see. Yeah, so there we see Levitt, top row, can we maybe…Yeah, you were not a big boy, were you?
LEVITT: You know, to be truthful, I think I was sitting on a telephone book in that picture. I was quite small.
DUBNER: Uh huh, and now how good was Steve at Quiz Bowl? Was he all right?
LEITER: It is…Well he is sitting in the captain’s seat there, and as an eighth grader, I actually remember…
DUBNER: As an eighth grader captain of the…
LEITER: Yeah he was good, and it actually the reason he might be good is sitting out in the audience. I have a great memory of Steven in seventh grade. He weighed about sixty pounds. It appeared that he had no red blood cells in his body. He was this pale little kid, and I see him outside without a sweater on in the cool fall weather, and he’s holding this big armload of books. And I said, Steve are you okay? And he goes, my dad wakes me up at night to ask me about the presidents.
DUBNER: Uh huh, so that’s how he got…And what level did he…Did you win anything?
LEITER: It is, by the time he was a junior and senior they twice represented Minnesota at the national tournament and were fifth. And Quiz Bowl, I tell you in some parts of the country is extreme. So there are schools that actually have traveling teams like their high schools have traveling basketball teams. So to finish fifth, I think from the north was a real surprise to the people down in Dallas.
DUBNER: So, you were a very good team, and he was the captain of the team.
LEITER: He was.
DUBNER: So you were something. You were hot stuff. Alright, I understand Steve was not the only Levitt to play Quiz Bowl, right, can you tell me who we’re looking at right here?
LEITER: Oh, that’s the suaver and smarter older sister. That’s Linda Levitt. She was also the captain of the team, and she has the same father as it turns out.
DUBNER: Interesting, yeah. I don’t want to pry, same mother too?
DUBNER: Right, oh. Thought we uncovered something here that I hadn’t known. Okay, yeah, and so Linda Levitt, let me say is now known as Linda Jines, her married name, and I just want to point out that Linda was responsible for naming Freakonomics, for which we are eternally indebted, is that the right word?
LEVITT: She’s still waiting for her check.
DUBNER: And best of all though, I’m happy to say that Linda Levitt Jines is here tonight, okay. Also, Dr. Michael Levitt, the “King of Farts” himself is here tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, please a warm Freakonomics welcome for Linda Levitt Jines and Dr. Michael Levitt. Here they come.
DUBNER: How we doing so far? You guys all right?
Linda Levitt JINES: I’m here for my check.
DUBNER: Now, Dr. Levitt, let me ask you, if you had had to predict back then, you’re the guy who’s waking him up in the middle of the night to drill him on presidents for Quiz Bowl, you’re a medical researcher, you could envision some kind of future, but what did you think your son would turn into?
Dr. Michael LEVITT: Well, his mother thought he was a genius from the first day he was born, so she would not be one bit surprised with his success. I’m going to have to stay in form and actually tell you the truth about him. I call him a sleeper or a slow bloomer. He didn’t read a book until he was twelve years old. And I was getting a little bit worried, and I had read the book called…I can’t even remember the name of the book. But it was about the hijinks of baseball players.
LEVITT: Bronx Zoo.
DUNBER: Oh the Bronx Zoo, yeah.
M. LEVITT: Right.
LEVITT: That is the first book I ever read.
M. LEVITT: I gave him the book and said maybe you’d like to read this book, and that was the first book he ever read. He maybe read two or three more books before he went off to college.
DUBNER: You know, I’ve got to say, St. Paul Academy sounds less and less tough the more I hear.
M. LEVITT: And when he went off to Harvard, my mother more or less had her nose into everything said, 'Since when did Steven get so smart?' So, it was a bit of a surprise that he was so successful.
M. LEVITT: One thing I knew, he would not be a physician. He had one of these days off where you go and see what your father is doing, and he came in our laboratory, and we were doing surgery on a rat, and he practically fainted and ran out of the room. And so I gathered medicine would not be his future. And I never really did, would have predicted that he would be so successful that we’d all be on the stage at the Fitzgerald Theater.
DUBNER: Yeah, that’s all right.
DUBNER: Now, let me ask you this, Linda, as a former Quiz Bowl competitor yourself, I’m just curious to know, you know yourself, you know your brother, you know your dad, what if, let’s pretend that we can assemble the three of you as a Quiz Bowl team right now, Team Levitt, right? And let’s pretend that we could have you face off against, like, the current St. Paul Academy Quiz Bowl team? I guess there is one, right? We can’t make that happen obviously, but if we could what would team Levitt do?
JINES: I don’t think we could beat anybody except the current cast of “The Bad Girls Club”. We’ve forgotten everything we knew.
DUBNER: Well, I’m going to tell you. I did just tell my first lie of tonight. We actually have the current St. Paul Academy…Let’s give it a shot. You want to play? You guys want to play? All right, let’s give a warm Freakonomics welcome to the St. Paul Academy Quiz Bowl team, the Spartans, ladies and gentleman.
DUBNER: Alrighty, so first the combatants will in Quiz Bowl style introduce themselves in a few moments, but first of all I’d just like to thank George, George Leiter for putting this together, and St. Paul Academy for putting this together. And George has actually gone above and beyond the call of duty in putting together the Quiz Bowl competition by actually compiling questions that fit the theme of our five Freakonomics Radio hours, so prediction, and suicide, and scionology, and all that. And I also just want to announce there will be a cash prize to the winning team, all right, so with that in mind, George Leiter, let’s have some Quiz Bowl, thanks.
LEITER: All right, and sadly this is a dream of mine.
LEITER: All right, are you ready for some academic action? Well, you’re in luck, you’re about to see the St. Paul Academy Spartans square off against the Levitt clan. Who will survive, and what will be left of them? Let’s find out. We’re going to kick things off with a series of rapid round tossup questions worth ten points each. So teams, hands on buzzers, here’s that first question: In a chapter entitled “June 2nd, 1910”, a Harvard student commits suicide, the narrator is Quinton Compson who also appears as a character in Absalom, Absalom, name this classic in American literature penned by William Faulkner.
LEITER: And that is…
LEVITT: That’s me. The Crucible?
LEITER: No, can you take it over here?
Spartan: As I Lay Dying.
LEITER: That’s The Sound and the Fury. So, let me grab the easier questions for the teams. This term for this practice originated in the middle ages. It became such an issue that Pope Innocent XII issued a papal bull limiting its practice. Ambrose Bierce defined it as, “Appointing your grandmother for the good of the party.” It was certainly in the headlines in the 1960s when JFK appointed his brother at attorney general. And that is Wendeborn.
WENDEBORN: Is it nepotism?
LEITER: Nepotism is the word for ten points. And you’re on the board. Now, sisters and brothers don’t always get along so well. While being chased by her father, this granddaughter of Helios hacked up her brother, Absyrtus thinking… And that is Wendeborn.
LEITER: Medea is correct. Thought dad would have to slow down to pick up the boy’s body parts. That’s right. Let’s try this one. It is reported that this line came from Pierce Tower at some point in the 1990s, it was printed on T-shirts by Tuft’s House, and it was quite a money maker. What is the line that has become perhaps the most famous of the offbeat quotes about the University of Chicago? That’s Wendeborn.
WENDEBORN: Is it, “Where fun goes to die”?
LEITER: Where fun goes to die. Incidently, Steve will be attending the University of Chicago next fall. All right, let’s take a break after that exciting first period of play. We have twenty points, the Levitts still waiting to get on the board.
DUBNER: Coming up, we'll meet the St. Paul Academy team and see if Team Levitt can come up with any other Faulkner novels written by Arthur Miller.
Stephen J. DUBNER: From WNYC AND APM: American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio.
DUBNER: Here we go with some more quiz bowl excitement. Here's your master of ceremonies, George Leiter.
LEITER: Let’s take a second to meet the competitors in tonight’s contest. Let’s begin by meeting the St. Paul Academy Spartans.
Steven WENDEBORN: I’m Steven Wendeborn. I’m a senior at St. Paul Academy. I will be attending the place where fun goes to die, the University of Chicago. And my goal in life is to finally catch them all.
Zack MOHRING: Hello, my name is Zack Mohring. I’m also a senior at St. Paul Academy. I will be attending Yale University in the fall. And incidentally, I reached my romantic peak in seventh grade when I had two girlfriends at the same time, which is kind of tragic. And last night I had my romantic valley when I went to prom with my friend Carter here.
Carter PETERSON: I’m Carter Peterson. I am also a senior at this school. I will be going to Madison next year. And I like to think of myself as a mythical sea creature. I have the head of a shark and I’m doesn’t afraid of anything.
Cameron MATTICKS: My name is Cameron Matticks and I am also a senior at St. Paul Academy, and I actually just recently signed on to a contract as the spokesperson for Bowflex so I will not be attending college next year.
LEITER: All right, and I think we’ve actually met the Levitt family, so to make full use of the time let’s hop back into tossups. But now when a team answers a tossup, they’ll get a chance to answer a multiple part bonus question that they’ll be able to discuss. I’ll be looking for answers from the captains, that’s Steven and Dr. Levitt, the “King of Fart”, that Dr. Levitt.
LEITER: Okay, so here we go. Here is that tossup. Not every quitter never wins. This coach has had thirteen different head coaching jobs in his long career, three colleges and ten NBA teams. He coached at UCLA and Kansas, with a stint at the New Jersey Nets in between. His last gig was with the Charlotte Bobcats, though he quit that one too. Name this veteran coach perhaps best known for his six-season run with the Philadelphia 76ers. And that’s Zack.
LEITER: That is Larry Brown, that’s right. So, the students are going to get a crack at a bonus. And it is what do you know about one of the most important books of the last fifty years. So, in chapter one of Freakonomics, Dr. Levitt explores cheating by Chicago schoolteachers with and what type of elite athlete?
Spartans: Fencers right? Yeah, I think they’re elite. Was it sumo wrestlers maybe? Yes.
WENDEBORN: Okay, we’re going to go with sumo wrestlers.
LEITER: That is correct. Here is your second one. Dr. Levitt took the observation a step further researching the dangers of childhood. According to this research a child is one hundred times more likely to die in one of these than playing with a gun.
Spartans: A swimming pool.
WENDEBORN: A swimming pool.
LEITER: That is a swimming pool. And in Freakonomics we learn about the economic structure of drug gangs, with the leaders prospering for a very large number of low income workers. To which major corporation did Levitt compare these drug gangs?
WENDEBORN: Wasn’t that like insurance of something?
LEITER: And your answer captain?
LEITER: That’s McDonald’s, but we give you ten points on the bonus. All right, let’s try this one for ten. Marvel comics fans will know that Jean Gray is one. There’s also one in Stephen King’s Novel The Dead Zone, possibly based on the real life Peter Hurkos. You might have caught one on TV, maybe a Syliva Brown on Montel, John Edwards on his syndicated show Crossing Over, or on those infomercials of the faux Jamaican Miss Cleo. What word besides inaccurate describes them all?
LEITER: Psychic is right, so that’s ten for the Levitts. They’re on the board. All right, and speaking of quitting, sometimes quitting seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. Answer the following about famous quitters. First, Richard Nixon might be at the top of the all time list of quitters after he resigned from the Presidency. In what year did he do so?
M. LEVITT: 1973.
LEITER: 1974. Let’s try this one. This actress gave up her role as the snooty bar maid at Diane Chambers on the hit series Cheers to pursue a none too successful film career. Name her.
LEVITT: Shelley Long, yeah.
M. LEVITT: Shelley Long.
LEITER: You sister does watch a lot of TV, okay. Let’s try this one, in 1998 Geri Halliwell split from her musical group, at least until a recent reunion tour. By what stage name is Mrs. Halliwell known?
JINES: Okay, not Scary Spice, not Baby Spice, not Sporty Spice. What’s left?
LEITNER: All right, maybe Dr. Levitt you know the name of this Spice Girl? We’ll need an answer what have you got?
Audience Member: Ginger!
JINES: Yes, Ginger!
LEITER: Security, okay. All right, apparently the audience has given you five pity points there. Let’s go to this one. Some say it got its start in an email carrying the “I Love You Virus”. Even so it is more famously associated with Strong Bad whose protégé, The Cheat, wrote a song about it, “Everybody to the Limit”, which was feature in the game, Dancing Bubs. What’s the word? And that is…
LEITER: It is fhqwhgads. I’ll throw in an extra five if anyone there can spell it.
LEITER: There’s no “y” in there, but we’ll still give you the ten. And here’s you bonus question.
After his freshman year at Harvard, Steven Levitt talked several friend and relatives into investing in the Canterbury Downs Investment Syndicate, where honest to god, they gave him money and he went to the track and bet on the horses for them. This would have worked out great, they would have made big money except the horses he picked did not win. So, but let’s see what you know about the ponies here. First, what is the name of the racetrack at which the Kentucky Derby is run?
Spartans: Churchill Downs, right?
WENDEBORN: Churchill Downs.
LEITNER: That’s right. What is the word used to describe the type of racetrack betting in which all the bets are pooled, the taxes and fees are removed and the remainder is distributed among the winners?
Spartan: The good kind.
LEITER: Do you have an answer? It’s paramutual. It’s good you don’t know that actually. And racetracks are often measured in unit of length equal to one eighth of a mile. What is that called?
LEITER: Furlong is right, so you’ve got ten points there. Let’s go with this one. Odysseus, perhaps upset that some of his men had been roasted and eaten kills the Cyclops responsible. Name this man munching, one-eyed, son of Poseidon. And that’s Steve.
LEITNER: It is Polyphemus, very nicely done. And here’s your bonus. Okay the Levitts are getting ready to make their move. All right, well as a tribute to Dr. Levitt on stage here, we’ll see what you know, because he knows a lot about your innards, let’s see what you know about your innards. Let’s see how you fare on this question about the human body. What five-letter word means involving on in the region of the kidney?
Spartans: Uric? Renal? I like Renal. I like Uric but that’s four letters.
WEDNEBORN: Okay, we’re going to go with renal.
LEITER: Renal is correct, good for five. Okay, the far-flung Isles of Langerhans are found in which gland?
WENDEBORN: The one that’s like a little hat on top of the kidney. The adrenal cortex.
Spartans: Is that it? Go for it.
WEDEBORN. Adrenal cortex.
LEITER: It’s the pancreas. And the three small bones in the human ear are the incus, the malleus and the stapes. By what more common names are they known?
WENDEBORN: Let’s see, you’ve got the stirrup and the anvil and the hammer. Stirrup, anvil, hammer.
LEITER: That is good for five. All right, and let’s go to another tossup here. Careers were ruined, most notably that of Today Show regular and Columbia professor Charles Van Doren, scandals involving quiz shows like Twenty One, The $64,000 Question, and Dotto caused a public uproar and a nose dive in game show ratings. The networks reacted by curbing big payoffs. In fact they were not allowed a million dollar prize until 1999. Which show…And that is player…
LEVITT: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
LEITER: Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, that is correct. All right. And we have one bonus left for you, and it is this. Check out your knowledge of world capitals depending on weather you want to count Vatican City there are four or five European capitals that begin with the letter “v”. So you’ll get five points each for naming each of the other four.
(TEAM LEVITT CONFERS)
M. LEVITT: Vienna.
LEITER: All right, I think we’ll call time. Just to make you feel bad, let’s see if the Spartans know them. Can you name the other three?
WENDEBORN: I got Vaduz.
LEITER: Vaduz is Lichtenstein.
LEITER: Vilnius, Lithuania. And?
WENDEBORN: Vashington DC.
LEITER: No one ever gets the capital of Malta. Valleta in Malta. All right, so we’re done with the tossups, and now we’ve run out of time too. So, I’m going to thank you for participating. SPA squeaks by the Levitt clan by just a hair, and let’s turn it back over to Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: I gotta tell you, I feel I oversold the Levitt genius a little bit now. You guys were good, but holy cow. Congratulations, come on out, and another hand for our St. Paul Academy Spartans. Thank you so much, great job, great job. There they are. Vashington DC, great job. So, so, congratulations, it was a really great performance. I mentioned there is a cash prize. And obviously you guys read Freakonomics, I don’t know if you read Super Freak. So, in Super Freak, there was a chapter on altruism. And we explored whether, you know, how you know when altruism is real and how do you know whether it’s sometimes just the product of scrutiny. You know, you do nice things because you’re being watched. So, I’m going to give you some money, but it comes with a little bit of a catch. And I’ve got two choices for you, okay. So here are the choices. Choice A is this big red envelope full of two hundred and fifty dollars cash that you can donate to St. Paul Academy or to a charity of your choice, you guys collectively, okay.
And choice B is I’ve got four individual envelopes with each of your names on it. And they’ve each got fifty dollars cash in them. So you can each have fifty dollars cash that you can put in your pocket right now, and you can go buy some marijuana and show it to George here. Or, you can collectively give two hundred and fifty dollars in the name of the St. Paul Academy Spartan, fighting Spartan Quiz Bowl champions to a charity of your choice. So you put your heads together, there’s no right answer.
DUBNER: Who do you want to be, does the captain need to speak, it’s a vote?
WENDENBORN: Our senior class gift was kind of a fall-through this year, but we would like to donate the money to SPA so long as we can say that it is from the SPA Quiz Bowl team.
DUBNER: Okay. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that nice, isn’t that altruistic? So, George, I’m going to give you the money, not that I don’t trust them. But I will tell you, it was really just an experiment. We were just goofing with you. So you guys actually get the cash as well. So, Cameron, that’s you right? Cameron. And Zack, if you did it the other way, I would have kept the two fifty, that was what I was hoping for. Carter and Steven. Great job, and thank you so much for playing, and good luck, and make Levitt’s alma mater proud. I’m sure you will. Thanks so much to the St. Paul Academy Spartans, to George Leiter, to team Levitt, we’ll see you soon. Okay, thank you.