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From Baker City to the Big Apple
By MIKE FERGUSON
Baker City Herald
Late last month, Max Bulinski accepted his degree at one of the nation's eight Ivy League schools, Columbia University in New York, from another guy with Baker City connections, Columbia president Lee Bollinger.
Bollinger's father, also named Lee, was publisher of the Baker City Herald in the late 1960s.
Along the way Bulinski, who's a 2004 Baker High School graduate, co-authored a scholarly paper with one of his favorite professors and sang "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera.
A trained tenor, Bulinski played an Egyptian soldier in the Verdi opera.
"It was a funny black wig and lots of makeup every night," he says. "I'm not the Egyptian type."
Not bad for a young man who readily admits he wasn't even in the top 10 percent of his high school graduating class.
"My first semester at Columbia was really tough. I'd always coasted through high school. My only real studying was through independent study," during which he taught himself calculus, Bulinski said this week, seated at the dining room table of his parents, Clair Button and Kata Bulinski.
"I came there with a very different academic background than most of the others, so I had a fair amount of catching up to do."
A self-proclaimed "free thinker," Bulinski said he's always wondered how things work. Not machines so much, but systems the political system, for example, or the seemingly inscrutable way gasoline prices can rise so sharply, then go back down again for no apparent reason.
That curiosity got him involved in studying Game Theory at Columbia, a political science discipline. By definition, it's "if actors act rationally, what will be the outcome?" he says.
Then, with a smile, he defines his field "in English: You take apart a given system and look at what makes the most sense to do."
Take the classic prisoners' dilemma: each con is offered leniency if he betrays the other. Those prisoners will quickly figure out it pays to rat on your colleague.
But change things slightly with this modification: the prisoners can make a deal with each other, and if they do they might not get convicted. How does that alter their behavior?
"You just string the theories together and it gets more and more complicated," Bulinski said of Game Theory, popularized in the film "A Beautiful Mind."
The paper he co-authored with his professor, David Epstein, uses Game Theory to help explain the American primary system. Since it's relatively harder to vote in some states, Epstein and Bulinski show prospective candidates the kind of states in which they should invest time and resources if they expect to get elected.
"I did the math, and he did most of the writing," Bulinski said, noting with a small frown that Epstein just presented the paper without his co-author in Barcelona, Spain.
"It's not a good morning read with your coffee."
The beauty of a place such as Columbia with world-class faculty, Bulinski says, is that "rather than just learn a theory out of a textbook, you learn how they arrived at the theory they are famous for. It seems less rote learning and more like an exercise of the mind."
Bulinski took one class from Bollinger, one of the nation's foremost First Amendment scholars, called "Freedom of Speech and the Press."
"He uses the Socratic method, so he just goes down the roll and calls your name and quizzes you in front of the entire class," Bulinski said.
While he met with the Columbia president five or six times during his four years on campus, Bollinger each time told Bulinski, "Oh, you're the one from Baker! How's Baker? I haven't been back there in some time."
Each time, Bulinski had the same reply: "It's pretty much the way you left it."
Bulinski was Bollinger's student last fall when the Columbia president made national headlines by inviting the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak at the university then denounced the visiting dignitary while introducing him.
Still, Bulinski said, "it was nice to be at a place where they bring in so many speakers." Many heads of state, he said, visit and speak at Columbia while they're in town to speak at the United Nations.
At commencement, Bulinski's grandparents were Bollinger's guests in the president's box. That little perk is partial payback, he said, for all the financial support the grandparents offered during his time at Columbia, which charges about $50,000 per year to attend.
"I'm going to be writing (his grandfather) lots of large checks for a while, but that's to be expected," he said.
After graduation, he treated himself to a small gift before flying back to Baker City an Eagles concert at Madison Square Garden.
Bulinski's own singing career got launched through another Columbia connection the university's "Bridge Program," where current students are paired with graduates from 50 years before. Thus, Bulinski's mentor was the Broadway director Joe Klein (Columbia '58), musical director for the original "Man of La Mancha" on Broadway in 1965.
"We became good friends, and I started taking voice lessons from him," Bulinski said. "He gave me advice on auditions, and I ended up doing quite a lot of auditioning. It was all on the side, and it was all good fun."
Singing at The Met and other New York venues proved a pleasant diversion from all the studying, he said.
"Even 20 or 30 minutes of singing gets your mind working on a different wavelength," he said. "You go back to your studies feeling refreshed. It gave me a goal to work toward, rather than sitting around not getting things done."
Last fall, Bulinski accepted a job with the strategic consulting firm Simon-Kucher and Partners in Boston. Companies that have developed new products will ask Bulinski what they should charge to maximize their profit, and Bulinski will do the math modeling to determine the answer.
He says he's "thrilled" for the opportunity to have attended one of the world's great universities.
"I can't picture life had I gone to another school," he says, noting that his original goal was to study physics or aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a campus just across the Charles River from his studio apartment in Boston.
That life can wait. For the next few weeks, he and his freshman roommate, Thommen Ollapally of Bangalore, India, will tour the West.
"We get along really well now, but we used to have our misunderstandings," Bulinski said. Most of them involved Bulinski's use of "western or rural slang." Ollapally's hometown, by way of contrast to Baker City, is as large as New York City.
"We had that rural/urban, Western United States vs. India miscommunication going on, but not anymore," he said.