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Letters to the Editor

Dismay over Africa

Professor Jenna Davis’s efforts to help save the lives of African children are commendable (“646 Very Personal Questions,” November/December). However, to have any real success there must be a focus on education—which will likely take several generations. Merely being told that improvements in hygiene are important in saving lives doesn’t go far unless the population can understand and appreciate the connection as well as implement the changes. Nor do investments in infrastructure unless they are used.

A second and concurrent goal in education has to be concerning birth control. If 2 million children were saved each year, would there be enough food or money to purchase food to sustain the greater population? Solving one problem may do little more than create another.

Bill Pahland, ’57, MS ’59
Chico, California

First, let me say that my pride in my daughter who graduated from Stanford is as strong as ever. But I really need to take umbrage with your choice of how to lay out your November/December issue. Right after the article on children who don’t even have clean water to drink and play in garbage dumps and near open latrines, you chose to put a full-page color ad for an outrageously luxurious private club in Florence: “Europe’s most magnificent palace residence club,” where just a membership costs 549,000 Euros. I find this in very bad taste and a supreme lack of judgment on your editor’s part.

Beano Solomon
Park City, Utah

I was dismayed to read the cover story referring to the “habits” of Africans as the source of their health crisis. (Dar es Salaam is described as a “proxy for much of urban, sub-Saharan Africa,” so the article generalizes from Tanzania to Africa.) Although the article acknowledges the severe infrastructure problems faced by Tanzania, the author and perhaps the “always-smiling” and “lighthearted” young Stanford professor whose research is the subject of the article seem to be unaware that infrastructure investment in Tanzania is the victim of Western-backed privatization and structural adjustment programs. There was heavy investment in infrastructure during the post-independence period of the 1960s and 1970s in Tanzania and many African nations, as part of the self-reliance programs of Julius Nyerere and other nonaligned leaders. The author, who erroneously assumes that what infrastructure elements exist “were put in place by the colonial powers,” needs to read up on 20th-century African history. Unfortunately, starting around 1985, a combination of forced debt to Western creditors/the World Bank and the rigid economic philosophy of the “Washington Consensus” devastated African infrastructure. Today, African governments have no budget to spend on infrastructure and are permitted no “policy space” to make infrastructure investments. Everything from university education to garbage collection must be “privatized”—a political purity diet that the West has never followed itself—or the government will face the scorn (and worse) heaped on [Zimbabwe president Robert] Mugabe and others who will not follow the market edicts of the West.

When I visited oil-rich Gabon in 2004 and saw the trash piling up because of privatization of garbage collection insisted upon by the Western creditor nations, I did not say this was because Africans like trash. The “habits” article actually states that “Africans may consciously . . . evaluate hygiene interventions . . . and decide not to take them.” The reason for the supposed preference for dirt and feces is not clearly stated, except a suggestion that Africans don’t care about sanitation because they rent.

The article does acknowledge that for sanitation infrastructure, “the money isn’t there,” but in the next passage attributes the problem again to “habits” and seeks to “get into the minds of the people.”

Unfortunately, it is easier to use stereotypes and conclude that Africans have dirty “habits” than it is to ask why there are no government funds to build sanitation systems. I understand that lack of knowledge and youthful missionary zeal may lead to some errors of vision, but I was not prepared to see the other stereotypes in this article. African men are said to object to their wives’ hands being cleaned and massaged by aid workers because it is seen as a sexual overture. How many Stanford-educated husbands would like their wives’ hands massaged by a strange man, white or black? Then the point is made that if the “women were fully in charge” of finances, instead of men, “hygiene would get better attention.” What are we supposed to make of this stereotype? (Why don’t we start with a woman as president of the World Bank?) Finally, the stereotype of inefficient African government was trotted out: African governments take a long time to respond to requests to start humanitarian projects in their countries. Perhaps they are tired of being demeaned by well-meaning but oblivious foreigners.

I thought about ignoring this article and its patronizing tone, but it is important to identify the way we speak about the continent of Africa. I have come to agree with William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden, that foreign aid should start with cleaning our own political dirt and “turds” before we try to criticize the habits and housekeeping of other nations. As Stanford graduates, we are called to use our expensively educated minds to examine the way we write and think about the world. 

Cynthia Cannady, ’72
Los Angeles, California

Positive Thinking

I read with more than a passing interest the sermon by Forrest Church (“Chance of a Lifetime,” November/December). While his statements, and view, about the probabilities of being alive can give one pause to consider the triviality of most problems that consume our daily lives in 21st-century America, my sharing his perspective has also had value in my clinical practice as a psychologist.

As any cognitive behavioral therapist will recognize, many problems of living are based on our irrational thoughts. In essence lending credence to Shakespeare’s pronouncement that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” part of the psychotherapeutic process involves challenging the patient’s irrational thoughts that lead to erroneous beliefs, attitudes and self-defeating behaviors. Using a hypnotic induction is one way to gently [do so].

When I see patients whose anxiety and depression seem to stem from a lack of confidence in their abilities, or self-esteem, I utilize a hypnotic induction that I created years ago to have them realize the most fundamental truth about themselves. Using the analogy of running a foot race, but [imagining] being in a different race [with] one particular sperm trying to reach the particular egg that created the patient, can only conclude with the perception that the patient won that race against more potential competitors than the population of the United States. They, and only they, came in first, shutting all the other sperm out. To that extent, any mistaken belief of the patient that he or she is, or was, a loser is a fundamental error, because he or she started out winning the greatest race, and prize, of all: life.

James E. Barrick, PhD ’73
Los Gatos, California

Getting Reacquainted

How wonderful it was to see a piece by Sumbul Ali-Karamali (“Muslim Like Me,” Showcase, November/December). I have thought about Sumbul over the years since I graduated, although I have not had any contact with her. I always enjoyed her company, as we often talked about subjects that revealed her worldly perspective, her obvious intelligence and her respect for others. I was delighted to reflect upon her sometimes very unsettling experiences as [part of] a religious minority, and to admire her many accomplishments and her courage in changing careers so abruptly.

I’ve been reading lately about Islam and the history of Islamic peoples around the world. Sumbul’s piece motivates me to keep on learning about this rich and diverse religion about which many of us in the United States know very little. Thank you, Sumbul, for sharing your story and your insights with us, and especially for reacquainting me with you after all these years.

Jeff Bloom, ’84
Alexandria, Virginia

Let’s Play It Safe

In the November/December issue, Martin Hertzberg presented an interesting argument for why we should not accept the theory of global warming (“Blowing Hot and Cold,” Letters). It is clear that he has devoted considerable time researching the topic. However, before we dismiss the theory, we should ask ourselves, “What is the conservative approach to take?” If Hertzberg is correct, we can continue to enjoy ourselves and cease worrying about this global warming stuff. However, if he is wrong and the global warming theory is correct, we may discover, some decades from now, that we have irreversibly tripped the Earth’s climate into a new and very unpleasant state. I think that the conservative approach is to follow the safest path, that is, to assume that global warming is occurring due to human activity and take action to prevent it, and in the meantime continue research on global warming until we are certain what the truth of the matter is. Hopefully, such research will prove that Martin Hertzberg is right.

Edward Kurtz Jr., ’51
South Dartmouth, Massachusetts

The old farmer’s saying “Amazing what you see when you’re out without your gun” fits a couple of letters (“Blowing Hot and Cold”) published in the November/December issue. “The Big Thaw” (September/October) seems to have thawed out some odd ones indeed. Not to embarrass anyone for their misguidedness, let’s just say that the Stanford classes of ’50, ’59 and ’62 appear to have members who studied less science than they should have, or at least have made inadequate efforts to keep up, even with 19th-century reality.

The issue of global warming (or the more mealy-mouthed climate change) is not an issue, but a reality. One writer fibs about “The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence.” Now that indeed is “propagandist,” evident especially when he quotes petro-industry sources. One can count the “scientists” unclear about human-induced climate change on the fingers of one petroleum lobbyist’s hands.

Ironically, the father of industrial chemistry, without whose work we wouldn’t have the cornucopia of fuels, plastics, medicines and industry profits we do (or did), predicted what we’ve seen happening. “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” was first published in 1896 by the 1903 Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius. Apparently, the ’50, ’59 and ’62 grads writing in never took serious chemistry (or chemistry seriously). Without the Arrhenius Rate Equations, we’d still be relying on alchemists.

However, [that] was not the inception of scientific awareness of human effects on climate. Engineers and scientists in England and Europe were highly concerned about the Industrial Revolution’s consumption of coal from the ground and oxygen from the air, just dumping CO2 up the stacks. The effects of CO2 on our climate were basically known then—without a few hundred parts per million in the air, we’d freeze; with lots more, we’d cook. And, from the late 1800s on, we learned of all the various other “greenhouse gases,” some more effective than others at heating everything up.

As one writer alludes, water vapor itself is a greenhouse gas. Its effectiveness is undisputed because of its vast volume in our air. But it’s also essential to [have] in large quantity so we get rain and snow for our crops and reservoirs. And, because it often changes state twice, it transfers far more heat from surface waters to atmosphere to space than do gases like CO2.

Water therefore has special status, unlike more powerful greenhouses gases, such as CO2 and methane. Our latest fad—the flat-screen TV—has introduced another gas, an unnatural one: nitrogen triflouride. It is not regulated yet but used commonly in such manufacturing. It will indeed need regulation because it is many times more powerful than methane, which itself is far more powerful than CO2, which is more powerful than water vapor—you get the idea.

Altering one gas’s concentration can influence another’s, even causing a runaway condition, such as may have occurred in Earth’s earlier history. The ocean has absorbed about 50 percent of the CO2 we’ve produced via our burning. Ruminants and termites produce huge amounts of methane, as do bacteria in the sea floor. As our CO2 acidifies the ocean further, oxygen production by ocean plankton decreases, reducing the oxygen available for breathing and burning, and reducing carbon dioxide absorption by shell and reef formation. As warmer air and less ice coverage heats oceans more, bacterial methane ices at the ocean floor can destabilize, releasing methane amounts far beyond what we’ve seen before. This type of event has already occurred for CO2 in certain African lakes—Congo’s Lake Kivu and Cameroon’s lakes Nyos and Monoun. Any oceanic overturning yielding methane gas will be truly catastrophic to more than just climate.

We need adults to take responsibility for our climate issue, not the uninformed or those with personal agendas. And we certainly don’t need folks to fib about the reality and size of the problem simply because they misunderstand it. Misleading others is antithetical to science and education, whether either is obtained at Stanford or not.

As the ocean levels continue to rise (Mssrs ’50, ’59 and ’62 can check tide-table archives) and the ocean continues to warm and acidify (per Arrhenius, latest measurements and reef losses), we’ll have ever more expensive but limited choices for amelioration.

The Maldives government is already making arrangements to move the country’s population to lands in India and Africa once seas cover their islands, now just a few meters above high tide. Imagine Bangladesh or Bermuda. The list just goes on and on. Imagine the cost to just the United States of a 21-foot sea rise due to Greenland becoming all green. Want to compute the cost of hiring Dutch engineers to build dikes around Boston, New York, the southern half of Florida, not to mention the Gulf Coast and the Golden Gate? We think we have issues with fresh water in the Sacramento Delta now. We think we have a global financial crisis now.

It’s time to “man up” and start listening to, and using, what science and engineering have to say, because we haven’t the luxury of time folks 150 years ago thought we had. We certainly haven’t the luxury of ignorance.

Alex Cannara, Engr. ’66, MS ’74, PhD ’76
Menlo Park, California

In Loco Parentis

As an older parent of a fourth grader, I was intrigued by the recent article “How the French Do School” (Planet Cardinal, September/October).

One of the “French conditions” that I would take great exception to is Strauss’s point that “with rare exceptions, parents are all but banned from the classroom.” I believe it is true in rare cases that teachers deal with “the neuroses of the parents,” but for the most part parents are responsible and do have the best interests of their child at heart.

I am a semiretired teacher who subs occasionally in a public middle school. I believe the parental involvement in our children’s education is very important to the total well-being of our children. This comment really bothered me in the article: “On the brighter side, once parents have purchased everything, they can look forward to having nearly no involvement in their children’s education for the rest of the year.” This is the brighter side? I hardly think so. To me this would further distance parents from children who have enough separation with the generation gap as it is already. Even with all the problems in the American public schools, I think I’ll stick with our system over the French.

Peter T. Love, ’67
Grants Pass, Oregon/p>

Far-Flung Family

I feel great every time I get Stanford in my mail, and it is wonderful to know that my Stanford family still remembers me although I am in another continent. I read the magazine enthusiastically in a week and then start looking forward to the next one. Many thanks for remembering us.

Hasan Ilhan, MS ’07
Ankara, Turkey

The following letters did not appear in the print edition of STANFORD.

Bargain Lesson

After reading “This Is Your Brain on Bargains” (November/December), I had the uncomfortable feeling I was unwillingly participating in an experiment since the following page concerned Dr. Seuss items that could be purchased. With the new facts I had just learned, I overcame my desire to shop and continued with the next article—no compulsive shopping for me! If this was not the intention it was certainly an unfortunate coincidence.

Susan Hickok Butcher, ’52
Santa Barbara, California

Merits of Realism

The article by Forrest Church was absolutely superb, and your staff is to be congratulated for publishing it (“Chance of a Lifetime, ”November/December). As a fellow Unitarian Universalist, I have read many of his sermons and books, but the one you published is his finest. I was amused to have you refer to him as a “theologian,” but after reading the article, I realized that he was indeed discussing theology: not the traditional one involving ancient “fairy tales” but the real world theology behind our human existence.

Martin Hertzberg, PhD ’59
Copper Mountain, Colorado

I’m sorry to read that Forrest Church’s cancer has returned and wish him well. That said, I was dismayed at what I view as a misconception apparent in his article. Kevin Cool compounded the error (“Positive Thinking,” First Impressions). It seems to be a version of the anthropic argument, so I suppose renowned people would disagree with me. I think probabilities are not involved at all. If the sequence of events related by Church had not occurred, the consciousness he knows as himself would not have developed. Douglas Hofstader addressed this subject very well in I Am a Strange Loop.

Positive thinking has its merits, but I’m disappointed that neither an eminent theologian nor editor Cool recognized a more realistic assessment.

Allan D. Halderman, Engr. ’67
Portland, Oregon

Ups and Downs

I think the letter by Erin Rath (“Alienated”) [about University policies regarding gender identity] in the November/December issue was good. Some things that are advanced by the University are uplifting. They help man live so he can rise above his animal nature and enhance that divine spark within each of us, as Professor Rathbun used to say. Other policies at the University do the opposite. Erin Rath points this out in a most learned and rational way.

Peter Frusetta, ’54
Tres Pinos, California

‘Seasoned’ Eyes

Generally, I find your publication attractive and interesting. However, you have succumbed to the power of the computer and are doing things you can but should not. I refer to the choice of text color and size that makes some of your articles unreadable for those of us who are “seasoned citizens” or have less than perfect vision. For example, see the photo captions on pages 63 and 64 (“Chance of a Lifetime”) and the lead-in on page 71 (“This Is Your Brain on Bargains”) of your November/December issue. I suggest you include a “readability” scan in your editorial review before publishing (perhaps by a “seasoned citizen”).

Certainly you are not alone in this practice that is especially offensive in the technical press. I am sure you don’t intend to discount the value of your older clients, but you do with this practice.

George McAlpine, MS ’61
Cary, North Carolina

Mixed Message

As a biology grad, I’ve always been proud of the quality and dedication to science at Stanford. Your excellent article “The Big Thaw” (September/October) was a real gem showing clearly the essential role of science in understanding our world and the issues we need to address to ensure a safe and secure future. Many kudos. At the same time, the magazine’s [back] cover accidentally highlighted why we are so far from solving our climate change threat.

There probably isn’t a faster or more wasteful way for a person to emit carbon than a private jet. The carbon per passenger mile is many times more than a commercial airliner and vastly larger than road transport. While the best science says a secure future depends on all of us drastically reducing our carbon emissions to near zero, the fastest-growing source of those global emissions is air travel, and the fastest-growing portion of that is from the explosion in private jet travel. So, which side of the cover will we choose, my fellow Stanford grads: luxury-carbon or a secure future?

Barry Linnett Saxifrage, ’82
Seattle, Washington

While the subject matter of “The Big Thaw” was quite engrossing, the organization of the piece left something to be desired.

The piece focuses on the striking work done by Russian scientists to uncover secrets of the ecosystem of a certain portion of the Siberian tundra. A very important corollary is that these discoveries could lead to a new understanding of “ecosystem-level responses to climate change in the far north.” A very frightening corollary is apparently that the warming of the Siberian landscape and the consequent melting of its permafrost could release a huge amount of carbon, further promoting global warming. A potential positive development is that these Russian scientists have come to believe that the introduction of a number of grass-eating animals such as bison might be able to restore the ecosystem that existed at the time of the mammoth and prevent the release of this massive amount of carbon.

But, at least to me, these themes were presented in a way that did not make it easy for a lay reader to understand how they relate to each other. There is a description of the Kolyma basin and the activities carried out by the scientists, which leads to a discussion of why Siberian rivers have displayed a recent increase in runoff, which is potentially linked indirectly to increased levels of atmospheric CO2. Then the author moves to discuss the nascent science of how plants figure into global warming. This leads to a treatment of why the crushing of forests by mammoths might, due to an increase of grassland, have created a cooling effect, which the disappearance of the mammoth would have reversed, and which the introduction of grazing animals might restore.

At the end of the piece, there is a discussion of how one of the scientists drove all over the region with a tank, which is followed by a mention of this scientist’s collection of mammoth tusks. Then there is a reference to the “real goldmine” of the region, which the scientist regards as its unique yedoma soil. What follows is a brief description of the climate that the mammoths had to endure and the aftermath of Pleistocene storms. And the piece then ends with a statement about how many head of bison could be needed to restore the ecosystem that existed at the time of the mammoth. I had no idea why yedoma soil might be a “goldmine,” and what issue this relates to. The point is just left hanging.

Again, the substance of the article seems important. I just wish that the author had tightened up his presentation before the piece went to press.

Charles Chromow
New York, New York

Not in Pasadena

Having attended Reunion Homecoming this year, which included Stanford’s victory over Arizona, I was enjoying Roy S. Johnson’s article about Jim Harbaugh until I encountered the author’s description of the “greatest college upset” ever as the “Cardinal’s last-minute victory in Pasadena last October” (“Ready for Some Football,” September/October). As with Babe Ruth’s called shot, millions (well, okay, perhaps thousands) of fans will claim to have been present, but I have the ticket stub to prove it. As I recall, Stanford’s victory took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which—despite various shifts due to the San Andreas fault—remains in place and well outside Pasadena city limits.

Keith Culling, ’73
Glendale, California

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In the November/December issue, there were incorrect spellings of P&H Creative Group ('Drawn to the Action') and author Sumbul Ali-Karamali ('Muslim Like Me,' Showcase).

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