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Readers sound off

Readers celebrate the pleasures of book collecting and getting lost, recall Richard Stern’s criticism and Enrico Fermi’s culinary choices, and more. 

Books: A love story

My book collection had its beginnings when I was an undergraduate as well (“Bibliomania,” Summer/18). Having never been in a used bookstore before, I was fascinated by the tiny one that was tucked away in the basement of the Reynolds Club in the 1960s. There I bought a very undistinguished copy of Moby-Dick and a nicely bound On the Origin of Species that had lovely marbled endpapers. Thus began decades of searching dusty, feline-filled used book emporia for the volumes that demanded to be taken home. Among those acquired over the years is a lavishly bound and illustrated Moby that now keeps company with fine editions of Herman Melville’s Omoo and Typee, and Origin sits cheek to cheek with The Voyage of the Beagle.

A couple of feet of shelf space are devoted to books related to each of my minor passions: photography, ornithology, music, poetry. But the vast majority of the thousand-plus volumes are well-bound and/or illustrated tomes of American and English literature. My bibliophilic children (daughter Dianna, an academic librarian, and son Jeffrey A. Sachs, AM’07, a Middle East scholar) are already plotting how to divvy up the treasures after I am gone.

Richard A. Sachs, AB’70
Grantham, New Hampshire

For the birds

Towering Insights” (Summer/18) is illustrated with a photograph captioned as “Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885.” I would hope that any Chicagoan would recognize the building in the photo as being, in fact, the Rookery, completed in 1888, and, unlike the Home Insurance Building, still standing. (It is, fortunately, a landmarked building.)

Those interested in learning about the Rookery, or for that matter the Home Insurance Building, would be well advised to take the Chicago Architecture Center’s (CAC) historic skyscrapers tour. There is also a CAC tour specifically of the Rookery, including a visit to the 11th floor where Burnham and Root had their offices. For tour information, visit architecture.org.

Bob Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73
Evanston, Illinois

We are grateful to Michaelson for the correction.—Ed.

Skirting the issues

As I customarily do with the Magazine, I read the Summer/18 issue cover to cover, even more than skimming the Alumni News notes, but perhaps that was my problem. It myopically encouraged me to overlook the glaring observation that hit me like a sledgehammer with this issue. For all the major social, political, and economic problems our nation faces, there is not a peep about any of those problems in the Magazine, usually, or especially in this issue, with the arguable exception of “Corrective Measures” (Summer/18), on overincarceration. It is an unseen elephant in the parlor, and I am chagrined I missed it until now.

Much is academically inclined light pieces and news bulletins, but nowhere is there any effort to address any of the serious problems we face. Virtually all is irrelevant to those problems, like the University is on a different planet.

I am not urging a steady diet of problematic angst, but some recognition we live in a seriously troubled world and might have some good thoughts about it would be fitting, I think.

Kimball J. Corson, AM’68, JD’71
Pago Pago, American Samoa

Non-exponentially yours

There has been a quantum leap in the use of “exponential growth” in the University of Chicago Magazine and the Core. Anne Walters Robertson claims that two years ago her perspective about the role of the humanities grew exponentially (On the Agenda, Summer/18). And François Richard says that “over the last five years, the newness in Dakar has been exponential” (“Nine Weeks in Dakar,” the Core, Summer/18).

In fact, exponential growth has a precise meaning. It is characterized by increases of the same ratio during any fixed period of time. Exponential growth frequently arises when the rate of growth of a quantity is proportional to the size of the quantity. Growth of a financial investment at a constant rate of return and unconstrained population growth are examples that are accurately modeled by exponential growth.

Even if we grant some way to quantify a person’s perspective on a subject, it is unlikely that the increase during the brief initial period was followed by similar rates of increase during subsequent time intervals of the same duration. And even if we grant a way to measure newness, it seems doubtful that newness increased by the same ratio each year.

The likely source of the misuse of exponential growth is the misconception that it is large or rapid growth. But exponential growth can occur with a low growth rate. One dollar invested at 2 percent annual interest grows exponentially. But after 100 years, the account will be a modest seven dollars and change. Yet if Calpurnia had made such an investment at the time of Caesar’s death, the account would now exceed half a quintillion dollars, enough to repay the current US national debt roughly 25,000 times.

We can probably trust the calculations of Enrico Fermi when he announced, “The reaction is self-sustaining. The curve is exponential.” Otherwise, be wary of claims of exponential growth.

Robert Messer, SB’71
Albion, Michigan

Fair assessment

I was delighted to read “Value Judgment” (UChicago Journal, Summer/18), about Christopher Berry’s (AM’98, PhD’02) work on Cook County’s property tax system. The unfairness of the current assessment system has a dramatically negative impact on the area’s economy and politics, with damage greatest in black and immigrant neighborhoods. The topic richly merits your spotlight.

I was also glad that you mentioned me and my victory over the incumbent Cook County assessor, Joe Berrios. Assuming we beat the Republican nominee in , we will indeed have a tough job ahead when we take office in December.

Given your readership, I want to give a shout out to the University of Chicago community in helping me get to this point. First, my father, Walter Emil Kaegi Jr., professor emeritus in history and the College, just retired from the Department of History and the Oriental Institute after 52 years on the faculty. Many UChicago alums, students, and faculty powered our campaign, most notably campaign manager Meaghan Murphy, AB’15. One of Berry’s coauthors, Robert Ross, AM’16, is leading our transition team’s efforts to revamp the office’s modeling.

I don’t have a UChicago degree but am affiliated through my 10 years at the Laboratory Schools and the several courses I’ve taken at the University over the years. I am not sure how that’s rendered in alumni shorthand, but count me as a fan and friend.

Fritz Kaegi
Oak Park, Illinois

Age of ambiguity

On the inside front cover of the Core (Summer/18), there is a fine photo of June Gordon Marks Patinkin, LAB’44, AB’18 (Class of 1946), who received her College degree this June. The caption says, “At 90, she is the College’s oldest graduate.”

Did you mean, she is the College graduate who received her degree at an age older than any other graduate of the College?

I’ll politely note that I made it out of the College in 1947 and am now 91. Thus, I am an older graduate of the College than Patinkin. I doubt that I’m alone in that category.

Richard L. Forstall, PhB’47
Alexandria, Virginia

We did intend to convey that Patinkin is the College graduate who was oldest at the time she received her diploma, and thank Forstall for keeping us on our toes.—Ed.

Can get there from here

As an undergraduate geography major, I became deeply interested in place (“Let’s Get Lost,” Spring/18). Being a native New Yorker and a driver for 47 years, the study and experience of cities and space combined to form a passionate avocation. Maps, places, and getting deliberately lost on vacation have been lifelong pursuits.

It appears to me anecdotally that in our society, we have literally lost our sense of direction, especially as each succeeding generation relies increasingly on technology. Serendipitously discovering a restaurant that hasn’t been Yelp reviewed to death, or stumbling onto a neighborhood where the storekeepers speak a dialect of a language we thought we knew, seem like quaint artifacts.

About 10 years ago a friend of mine complained that his stepson didn’t even think of what direction he was headed when driving; he just turned on the GPS and with blind faith let it lead him. Having driven as a sales rep for much of my adult life, I find my well-honed sense of direction invaluable. In fact, my stepson and his mom, my wife, call me “the human GPS.”

Overall, I have found technology invaluable. Far more personally satisfying, though, are the rich experiences stumbled onto whether driving, walking, or looking through train windows, and sharing them with loved ones. The journey itself typically spawns tales of travel adventure.

Similarly, my experience with what is now labeled as “guerrilla marketing”—i.e., approaching a potential customer and personally introducing myself—often results in a far more rewarding life experience, sale consummated or not. By the way, it is more often successful than a lobbed email request to a stranger for an appointment.

A good sense of direction takes longer to hone and implement. But for me the results are far more rewarding than the few minutes saved by technology.

Adam Stoler, AB’78 (Class of 1977)
Bronx, New York

Regret for Yerkes

On a recent visit to Yerkes Observatory, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the University would be suspending operations there as of October 1. Revisiting the Spring/18 issue of the Magazine, I find only a one-paragraph announcement of this development, buried in the middle of For the Record under the unrevealing headline “Fond Farewell,” where it was easy to miss—and I indeed missed it.

The Magazine has celebrated the observatory over the years, such as in web exclusives like “Yerkes’s New Tricks” (2013) and “Astronomers at the Wheel” (2015). The March–April/15 issue displayed a full-page photo, introducing the Peer Review section, of Mary Ross Calvert peering through the eyepiece of Yerkes’s 12-inch refractor telescope in 1926. It is ironic that the University’s announcement of its severance from Yerkes should come exactly three years later and receive short shrift in the Magazine then.

The University has apparently considered Yerkes a drag on its resources for over a decade, having announced in 2005 it would sell the building and land to a developer, only to suspend that decision in the face of opposition. The opposition was understandable, given that the developer’s plan, among other affronts, would have obliterated grounds designed by John Charles Olmsted.

It seems to me that the architectural value of the observatory building itself, a widely admired work of Henry Ives Cobb, should encourage the University to maintain its tie to Yerkes, which it founded in 1897. The historical value of the facility, at which many University stars (Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar; Edwin Hubble, SB 1910, PhD 1917; Gerard Kuiper; Carl Sagan, AB’54, SB’55, SM’56, PhD’60) conducted studies, is irreproducible. Yerkes’s educational programs have for many years demonstrated the University’s lively interest in public outreach. And the observatory continues in full working order. While it is not the Very Large Array, it is capable of worthwhile observations.

The University’s sacrifice of this irreplaceable asset appears to be a terrible miscalculation and a sad betrayal of the animating ethos of its first decade.

Daniel R. Campion, AB’70
Iowa City, Iowa

Abbreviated history

As one who was present at the demonstrations around Robert McNamara, I submit that the description of the events in “The Long View” (UChicago Journal, Spring/18) represent alternative facts, or at least revisionist history. “A faculty committee invited … Robert McNamara” is an incomplete, disingenuous version of what happened. A “selection committee of five faculty members, the provost, a trustee and the president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations chose McNamara” as the first recipient of the Albert Pick Jr. Award for International Understanding (Chicago Maroon, May 11, 1979). One-thousand six-hundred people conducted 9.5 hours of peaceful protest activities before arrests took place, and approximately 300 members of the faculty, including 13 department chairs, the directors of 20 programs, and the head of the Court Theatre signed a petition of dissociation (Chicago Maroon, May 22, 1979).

Furthermore, the initiation of the award and the structure and deliberations of the committee were all conducted in secret, and only after the announcement of the award was the rationalization of the nomination as “for his work as president of the World Bank” promulgated. In a letter to the University Senate (May 14, 1979), Hanna Gray herself stated, “it is a matter of great regret that the establishment of the Award was not publicly announced at the time and that the Committee and its mandate were not then announced at the time of its appointment in the following month.”

With regard to the demonstrations on the day of the award, it wasn’t just “even Studs Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34.” Speakers included Del Close, then a director at Second City; David Dellinger, one of the original Chicago Seven; Clark Kissinger, former national president of the Students for a Democratic Society; Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July (McGraw-Hill, 1976); and several faculty members, including professor of anthropology Marshall Sahlins, who in the 1960s had organized the first antiwar teach-in at the University of Michigan.

Susanne Rudolph, then chair of the political science department and a member of the selection committee, stated that she was “very distressed about the procedures through which the award was given” (Chicago Maroon, Friday, May 11, 1979).

To summarize, the award was initiated and awarded (I believe for the first and only time) in secret, the choice of honoree was rationalized post hoc, and in response to repeated requests for discourse, Mrs. Gray and the University stonewalled. I struggle to see how this is academic freedom.

Victor S. Sloan, AB’80
Flemington, New Jersey

Our account of the circumstances surrounding McNamara’s appearance was compressed in a story about Hanna Gray’s memoir and broader career. The Magazine’s contemporary reporting on the event appears at mag.uchicago.edu/pickaward.—Ed.

Policy talk

After stating all the expected behaviors resulting from inductive reasoning about the behavior of people with health insurance, Katherine Baicker (“Measuring Medicaid,” UChicago Journal, Spring/18) seems surprised that David Hume was correct. Trusting causality based on custom and emotion, although common, is often wrong. As a board-certified emergency medicine physician, I knew for decades that the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Perhaps most significant, to me, was the statement that Medicaid provides “benefits” when none were documented. It is hard to give up beliefs. More significant, though not surprising, was that the director of a school of public policy, when confronted with evidence that a health policy had no positive health outcome, abdicates and refuses to advocate for ending an ineffective program.

It might also be interesting to have the business school comment on “tax breaks” for those who pay no taxes.

J. Curtis Kovacs, AB’63, MD’67
Sun City, Arizona

Re: Writing

I was very pleased to learn the College now offers students a major and a diverse range of classes in creative writing (“The Writing on the Wall,” UChicago Journal, Spring/18). When my wife, Alicia Rasley, EX’77, and I were students in the 1970s, Richard Stern taught the College’s two creative writing classes, one on poetry and the other on the short story. Alicia took the poetry class, and I took short story. Stern conducted the classes in the then innovative, and now traditional, workshop style supplemented with readings he chose to illustrate particular styles in great English literature.

Stern was a sensitive reader and a sharp critic. He was always encouraging but would not let you off the hook. He was an adviser for my General Studies in Humanities BA paper, which at 130 pages was intended to be a fictionalized version of my cross-country motorcycle trip—sort of like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. In Stern’s comments he termed my undergrad magnum opus “a magnificent failure ... well-intentioned, but it really doesn’t work.”

I was also delighted to read the mature comments of the students who are taking creative writing classes. Indeed, very few writers develop a lucrative career in creative writing. But I can affirm that at least two of Stern’s students became better readers and writers. Alicia is an award-winning and Amazon best-selling romance and craft writer, an English professor, and currently a writing instructor at the University of Maryland. My writing skills were daily tested as a lawyer, and outside of the law I managed to write more than 70 published articles and 10 books. All these decades later, Alicia and I still enjoy reminiscing about “Stern expressions” and our experiences in his classes. His two creative writing classes are a family treasure and still an inspiration to these two still-aspiring writers.

Jeff Rasley, AB’75

For another remembrance of a Richard Stern writing class, see The UChicagoan.—Ed.

Frankly appalled

No doubt letters focusing on memories of U of C experiences further stimulate alumni-related memories followed by letters, though, of course, not ad infinitum. This happened to me recently when I read “Fermi Memories,” a letter from Lester R. Dragstedt Jr. (Spring/18), about the writer’s father, chief of surgery at the U of C medical center, who treated Enrico Fermi’s stomach cancer. Until now, I never thought of why Fermi passed away at such an early age, only 53.

In 1948, as a World War II veteran and a student in the College, I had the good fortune to be assigned to Fermi for my physical science course. He was an outstanding lecturer and had written the syllabus with each opposite page blank to allow students to record notes as his lectures proceeded. I still have it, the only course syllabus I have retained for almost 70 years.

The memory still sharply in my mind is not related, however, to physics, but to the discovery I made while standing behind Fermi in the “chow” line of Hutchinson Commons one evening.

Being the son of a devotee of Gayelord Hauser, a nutritionist of that time (his statue still remains in Kyoto, Japan) and a passionate advocate of blackstrap molasses and no-red-meat meals, I was anxious to see what Fermi would select for his dinner. To my befuddlement and chagrin, the world-renowned physicist eagerly chose hot dogs. It is a family joke (even my eight grandchildren know about my absolute aversion to hot dogs) that after this experience I decided my choice for a major would be economics. I confess, I never saw the dinners Milton Friedman, AM’33, selected. But I do know that he passed away well into his 90s. Now into my 90s myself, from my educational path and experience I know enough to avoid reaching conclusions based on very small samples.

Bertrand Horwitz, AB’49, AM’51
Asheville, North Carolina

Courting trouble

In his Summer/18 letter, Ernest A. Dorko, SM’61, PhD’64, proposes a constitutional amendment that decisions by the US Supreme Court only “become the law of the land” if they come by a vote of 7–2, “or better yet,” 8–1. But the Supreme Court often resolves issues on which federal courts of appeals in different circuits have disagreed. In precisely those cases, different justices will most likely have different opinions. To prevent a 5–4 or 6–3 court majority from resolving divisions among the federal circuits would leave those divisions standing, so federal law would mean something different, maybe indefinitely, depending on the circuit. Even worse, state courts too have the power to interpret federal law. If the Supreme Court couldn’t resolve differences among the state courts, because it couldn’t get 7 or 8 justices to agree, federal law would mean something different not only in each circuit but also in each state. The framers knew what they were doing when they set up one court and made it supreme.

I doubt Dorko has thought about how he would treat precedent. Under his proposal, could courts around the country simply disregard any Supreme Court precedent that didn’t get the requisite 7–2 or 8–1 vote? But if his proposal only required that future court decisions have a supermajority, it looks like a patently obvious device to stop the court from overruling precedent. After a few years of Supreme Court decisions with which he disagrees, Dorko will likely have much less interest in requiring the court to have a supermajority to overturn precedent.

It might encourage court unanimity if court appointments needed confirmation by more than a bare Senate majority. Since each state, however large or small, has two senators, senators representing 18 percent, and supported by just over 9 percent, of the American electorate can control the Senate and confirm justices. Perhaps if federal judges needed a supermajority for confirmation, the political parties would work together to confirm judicial appointments based on competence rather than ideology, leading to more Supreme Court unanimity. Unfortunately, the Senate’s 2016 stonewalling of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination implies that even that remedy would have limited effect. But at least it worked for generations. It was called the filibuster.

David Sobelsohn, AB’74
Washington, DC

Destructive force

In a letter published in Winter/18, I stated that dropping the two nuclear bombs caused the Japanese to surrender, thus saving the lives of millions of Japanese who would otherwise have died if an American attack on the Japanese mainland had been required to end the war.

In his Spring/18 letter, Bob Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73, challenged my statement, claiming that the nuclear bombs were not the cause of the Japanese surrender. He supports his claim by pointing out that the Japanese did not surrender even though “the Japanese death toll from US conventional bombing in World War II exceeded 500,000.” Since the death toll from the two nuclear bombs together was far smaller, he states that it is unreasonable to attribute the Japanese surrender to the nuclear bombs. Michaelson attributes the Japanese surrender to the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.

His argument ignores one important fact. The 500,000 deaths resulted from an American conventional bombing campaign that extended over many months. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki each resulted from one single bomb. And the Japanese had no way of knowing that the United States had no additional nuclear bombs. Japan surrendered six days after the nuclear destruction of Nagasaki.

Enormous death tolls from conventional warfare, both civilian and military, did not diminish Japan’s determination to fight to the bitter end. More than 110,000 died defending the island of Okinawa, and yet the Japanese continued fighting. Millions more Japanese would have died in defense of their homeland.

There is a good reason why the world views nuclear warfare as vastly more destructive than conventional warfare. One single nuclear bomb can destroy an entire city. Let us hope that nuclear bombs will never again be used in disputes between nations.

Nathan Aviezer, né Wiser, SM’59, PhD’65
Petah Tikva, Israel

The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters about its contents or about the life of the University. Letters for publication must be signed and may be edited for space, clarity, and civility. To provide a range of views and voices, we encourage letter writers to limit themselves to 300 words or fewer. Write: Editor, The University of Chicago Magazine, 5235 South Harper Court, Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60615. Or email: uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu.