My Smart Roommates

By Jack Weiss

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My Smart Roommates is an intellectual garage band. My roommates at Princeton were impressive - Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude Ph.D.s (except me). Today they are the recent European Human Rights Commissioner; a biologist running a conservation non-profit; a Slavic literature professor; an expert in classics, antiquity and monasticism; and a political scientist - a doctoral dream team. Many of us entered college with high-minded goals; My Smart Roommates are still at it. Hosted by Jack Weiss. Connect with us:

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Episode Date
Covid-19 Slams Europe: Lew Lukens and Nils Muiznieks

Diplomats Lew Lukens and Nils Muiznieks discuss the immediate and long-term impacts of Coronavirus in Europe.

Lew became one of America's top diplomats through several decades in the Foreign Service and is now a Senior Partner in London with Signum Global Advisors, a New York-based independent advisory firm.

Nils, the recent European Human Rights Commissioner, is a European Affairs and Human Rights consultant based in Riga, Latvia.

(Shortly after this episode was recorded on March 23, 2020, UK officials imposed a near-total nationwide lockdown.)

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Mar 25, 2020
Lew Lukens: The Downgrading of Diplomacy

Lew Lukens became one of America's top diplomats through several decades in the Foreign Service, including postings as Executive Director for Secretary of State Clinton, Ambassador to Senegal/Guinea-Bissau, and DCM in London.

Lew offers candid observations about how the current Administration has jeopardized U.S. interests and values, and the practice of diplomacy around the world, in conversation with classmates Jack Weiss and Nils Muiznieks, the recent European Human Rights Commissioner.

Lew is now a Senior Partner in London with Signum Global Advisors, a New York-based independent advisory firm.

(The current Administration's assault on professionalism targeted Lew; you can read about that here:

Jan 23, 2020
Impeachment, from Ancient Greece to Modern Europe

Direct democracy in Ancient Greece included euthynai (plural; euthynē singular; "straightening"): a deterrence-based system of mandatory audits, investigations, and public trials of officials to prevent embezzlement, bribery, and malfeasance. Modern European states likewise provide systems for handling misconduct by elected officials and political parties.

Impeachment, My Smart Roommates-style, is a discussion about parallels to impeachment with scholar of the ancient world Dan Caner and European diplomat Nils Muiznieks. 

Discussed in this episode:

Josiah Ober, The Athenian Revolution

Robert Harris, The Cicero Trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator)


Dec 10, 2019
The Craft of Writing - Screenplays and History

A screenwriter, a scholar of the ancient world and a modern Russian historian discuss the craft of writing – a lot of the how, some of the why, and the difference between "small t" and "Big T" truths. With special guest Rod Barr and Indiana University Professors Dan Caner and Emma Gilligan.

Discussed in this episode:

The Sound of Freedom (soon-to-be-released motion picture)

David Brion Davis

Flannery O'Connor

Peter Brown

Ronald Syme

Thomas Merton

Abbey Road Studios

Oct 31, 2019
Bullshit 101

Princeton Philosophy Professor Harry Frankfurt’s famed essay “On Bullshit” is the jumping off point for a discussion about a category of information that is not true but is also not technically a lie. Brandeis Russian Language and Literature Professor Dave Powelstock; Indiana University Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Professor Dan Caner; and Indiana University International Studies Professor Emma Gilligan trace the classical and literary roots of bullshit and antecedents such as sophistry and provide a framework for understanding a key component of the current assault on truth. Bullshit is an actual thing that permeates modern discourse and the roommates take a serious stab at providing definition for a concept that, because it is a dirty word, is often not taken seriously.

Discussed in this episode: Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit; Wittgenstein, Personal Recollections; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; Aesop's Fables; Plato, Ethics, The Symposium; Herodotus, The Persian Wars; Homer, The Odyssey; Deborah Cadbury, Chocolate Wars.

Aug 01, 2019
The Grey Zones: Eastern Ukraine, Northern Cyprus with Nils Muiznieks

Former European Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks walks us through the grey zones of Eastern Ukraine and Northern Cyprus, where territory is legally part of one country but controlled by another in an uneasy state between war and peace. Nils discusses the current bloody conflict in Ukraine and the simmering modus vivendi in Cyprus as he recalls official visits to lands beyond the reach of most outside observers.

For more on the situation in Ukraine, see

For more on the situation in Cyprus, see

Jun 21, 2019
Nils, Rosie & Emma Define Success in Human Rights, Early Childhood Programs & the Soviet Dissident Movement (Defining Success Pt. 3)

Listener Brian Pass asked us to continue our conversation about defining success from the standpoint of the Smart Roommates' areas of expertise. Today we focus on how to measure success in human rights, programs for underserved children and at-risk families, and the Soviet dissident movement. Nils Muiznieks, Rosie Zweiback and Emma Gilligan round out our series on how to define and measure success.

Discussed in this episode: Paul Tough, How Children Succeed; Ludmila Alexeeva, The Thaw Generation; Anatoly Marchenko, My Testimony.

Apr 25, 2019
Defining Success 2: Poets, Greeks and Biology

Listener Brian Pass asked us to continue our conversation about defining success from the standpoint of the Smart Roommates' areas of academic expertise. How did the Ancient Greeks define success? What makes poems and poets successful from the standpoint of those who write and study poetry? How do biologists working on massive conservation programs measure success? Dan Caner, Dave Powelstock and Mace Hack dive into a conversation that takes us from Agamemnon to algae.

Discussed in this episode: Jared Diamond, Collapse; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel; Homer, The Iliad; Herodotus, Histories; Plato, Republic; Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry.

Apr 09, 2019
Jeff Bezos Was In Our Class But We Never Met Him: Defining Success 1

Jeff Bezos - the founder of Amazon, the richest person on earth, the most commercially and financially successful human being ever - was in our college class and we never met him. Really. Jeff's success is the jumping off point for a discussion of how to define success and how our definitions have changed over time. Featuring Nils Muiznieks, Dave Powelstock, Dan Caner, Mace Hack, and Rosie Zweiback.

Discussed in this episode - Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita; Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods.

Feb 21, 2019
Migration Crises in Europe, with Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks

Nils Muiznieks served as the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, from 2012-18. In this episode Nils explains the roots of the dramatic migration and refugee crises that impacted Europe during his tenure and still affect global politics today. Nils is joined in conversation with Indiana Professor Emma Gilligan and Brandeis Professor Dave Powelstock.

Discussed in this episode - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),; Nils Muiznieks, Human Rights in Europe: From Crisis to Renewal,; Babara Honigmann, “Zohara’s Journey”; Jeremy Harding, Border Vigils; Gulwali Passarlay, The Lightless Sky.

Jan 18, 2019
Everyday Ethics

“Everyday Ethics and Globalization,” Professor Emma Gilligan’s upcoming book, launches a discussion about how to make individual choices about the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the non-profits we support. Featuring Mace Hack of The Nature Conservancy and Professors Dave Powelstock and Dan Caner. 

Discussed in this episode: Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think; Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically; Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. 

Jan 04, 2019
Early Monasticism and the Modern Academy

A chance encounter with a Bulgarian exorcist named Dmitri led Professor Dan Caner to decades of scholarly inquiry into the roots of monasticism and asceticism during late antiquity/early Christianity.  Dan provides an overview of his work which leads the roommates to a discussion of parallels in the lives of modern academics. Featuring Professors Dave Powelstock and Emma Gilligan and former European Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks.

Discussed in this episode: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov; Stories and Sayings of the Desert Fathers; William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain; W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge.

Not discussed but essential: Daniel Caner, Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity.

Dec 07, 2018
Language, Consciousness and You

Professor David Powelstock’s scholarship in nineteenth-century Russian poetry has led to his current work about the inner experience of self and the literary roots of contemporary concepts of selfhood.  This episode features fascinating exchanges between Dave and Professor Dan Caner, an expert in late antiquity, on the evolution of literature and consciousness and the perspectives of writers and readers from the classical world to the Romantic movement.  Dave gets into your head as we explore the connections between thought, the written word, and the inner world.  Also featuring Professor Emma Gilligan and Nils Muiznieks.

Discussed this week: George Orwell, Politics and the English Language; George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen, Metaphors We Live By; Richard Wilson, Inciting Genocide with Words; Longinus, On the Sublime.

Nov 23, 2018
How To Talk About Climate Change - Mace Hack, Nature Conservancy

Mace Hack directs the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. Like a country doctor making the rounds, Mace travels the state listening to and speaking with ranchers and farmers, finding common ground on resource and environmental issues. A biologist with years of field work studying zebras in Africa and wild horses off the coast of North Carolina, Mace’s talents as the great explainer of the natural world are joined in conversation with Professors Dan Caner, Emma Gilligan, and Dave Powelstock. Many care deeply about climate change; Mace has unique insights into how to persuade the skeptical and achieve sustainable conservation outcomes.

Discussed this week: - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the best source for current information on global climate change; - US government site, relevant for climate change impacts to the US broadly and the region you live in; Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North, Mark C. Serreze; The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! George Lakoff; Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen.

Nov 09, 2018
European Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks (2012-18)

Nils Muiznieks grew up in the US the child of Latvian emigres; his parents spent seven years in displaced persons camps as teenagers after World War II and made their way to California. Nils majored in politics at Princeton and got his Ph.D. in political science at Berkeley. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Nils decided to make his life in Latvia. A scholar, government official, and human rights expert, Nils won a European-wide election and became the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. In this episode we learn about Nils' amazing story and the human rights challenges he tackled during his six-year term. Featuring Indiana Professor Emma Gilligan and Brandeis Professor Dave Powelstock.

Discussed this week - Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind; Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century; Anatoly Adamishin and Richard Schifter, Human Rights, Perestroika, and the End of the Cold War; Andrei Sakharov, Alarm and Hope; “Human Rights in Europe: From Crisis to Renewal?” Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing, 2018; Special Issue (Fall 2009), Open Society News, Eastern Europe: Where Do Open Societies Stand 20 Years Later?

Oct 23, 2018