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Dream Houses

Columbia Magazine Spring 2012The proposed housing models featured in your Spring 2012 issue (“Dreaming American”) are best described as solutions in search of a problem. In particular, the proposal for the Oranges, in New Jersey — which would fill underused streets between existing buildings with ribbons of new developments — creates problems for which there are no reasonable solutions.

Problem number one is that the new structures, to meet disability-access regulations and building codes, would require elevators and public corridors leading to enclosed exit stairways, neither of which can be accommodated within the proposed configurations. Problem number two is that the structures would interfere with access for emergency vehicles.

But aided by the reclamation of previously private spaces (“The idea is that private space that is now abandoned, foreclosed, or empty would be given back to the public”), a more realistic project could be conceived featuring the following:

• Narrowed and reconfigured roads for use by bicyclists and joggers, and access for emergency vehicles.
• Playgrounds, parks, and open space enabled by the demolition of buildings deemed to be unsuited for adaptive reuse.
• Varied housing types to accommodate residents with a wide range of family structures and financial resources.
• Ground-level spaces for such services as childcare, health care, laundry, and community administration.
• Community-owned shuttle buses to provide access to shops and schools.

I’m sure that Jane Jacobs, if she were alive today, would be pleased to see this concept implemented.

Aaron Cohn ’49GSAPP
Los Angeles, CA


Critical Acclaim

Thank you for the Spring 2012 issue of Columbia Magazine. It is for me the most splendid in memory. Reading the College Walk pieces about the National Book Critics Circle Awards (“Bookmakers”) and Joseph Pulitzer (“Window of the World”), as well as Norbert Ehrenfreund’s first-rate short story (“To Capture a King”), fills me with admiration.

Esther Casier Quinn ’60GSAS
Seattle, WA


I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Spring 2012 issue cover to cover. I felt transfixed by Bill Zavatsky’s poem “Train Ride” (and am now on a mission to find more of Zavatsky’s poems); inspired by Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance seminars, which reflect my own current questioning (“Known Unknowns”); puzzled by Dr. Attila Mady’s letter as I try to reconcile this viewpoint with Columbia’s proposed campus smoking ban; and disturbed (even if proud of the victory) by the visual of racial division captured by the photograph of the winning track-and-field team on p. 54.

Sabi Muteshi ’93BUS
Nairobi, Kenya


Jaque Mate!

What drew me to read Norbert Ehrenfreund’s “To Capture a King” in the Spring 2012 issue was the first word of the story: Ofelia. From the Spanish spelling, I surmised that the story would take place in a Spanish-speaking country, which is of cultural interest to me. The added charm of “Ofelia” is that it was my mother’s name; she was Venezuelan.

In dramatic and swift narrative, the author was able to capture so many important themes of Hispanic and universal interest: machismo, loneliness, longing, provincial perceptions and responses, and the emerging competence of the modern woman. ¡Bravo y otra vez! (Bravo and again!)

Beatriz Olmeta Block ’61GS
Little Silver, NJ


From Stalin to Putin

Timothy Frye’s essay “Russian Resolution” (Spring 2012) reminded me of my years at the Russian Institute, now known as the Harriman Institute.

I arrived at Columbia in 1951, while the Cold War was on and the ugliness of McCarthyism and the fear it engendered seemed to be everywhere. It was rumored that FBI spies were in our classes and student conversations were being reported.

On graduating, we would earn a certificate, an absurd and inexplicable alternative to a master’s. We were required to take two years of course work, write a final essay, and pass two foreign-language exams. All that for a certificate?

I remember Geroid T. Robinson ’30GSAS, who wrote the compelling Rural Russia Under the Old Regime. He turned down my proposed certificate essay on the Jewish Labor Bund, telling me he couldn’t read Yiddish. That’s your loss, I thought, but instead asked why, then, he had approved proposals for studies in Russian and Chinese relations. Could he read Chinese? My mentor, Philip Mosely, who taught political science, rescued me and accepted my essay, “The Czech Legion and Russia.” In 1953, I was drafted and left without my certificate.

I finally received my certificate in 1967. Russian Institute director Alexander Dallin asked me why it had taken so long. “The Army, a wife, and three kids,” I answered. The Russian Institute was a remarkable place, with a committed faculty and curious and dedicated students.

Murray Polner ’67SIPA
Great Neck, NY


What You Don't Know...

It made me smile to read Douglas Quenqua’s reflections on Ignorance, a seminar organized by Stuart Firestein (“Known Unknowns,” College Walk, Spring 2012). I was a student in the inaugural session the spring of my senior year, and it was a fitting capstone to my time at Columbia. The small class, which met in the evening, mused on the present boundaries of scientific knowledge and the ignorance that extended beyond them, as well as avenues for potentially expanding the islands of scientific knowledge. In all, it was a very helpful perspective to gain before delving into graduate school in geology the following fall — and it seemed fitting to embark on my own research having just received an “A” in Ignorance.

As some areas of scientific research have become more driven by methods and tools, and are benefiting from but also being challenged by the rise of very large data sets, there has never been a better time to focus on the true unknown.

Samuel C. Schon ’06CC
Houston, TX


Latter-Day Pols

Jennifer Miller’s College Walk essay “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?” (Spring 2012), which explores how “gentiles” view Mormonism, notes that some confuse the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with Scientology. It’s passing strange, then, that when Mitt Romney was asked in 2007 to name his favorite novel, he chose L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Not the choice I’d have made, were I running as a Mormon in America, even excluding the book’s dubious merits as pulp science fiction.

Michael Kempster ’71CC
Andover, MA


I am saddened by the idea that anyone in this day and age would dismiss a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints purely because of his religion.

Though I am not a Mormon myself, I have known and respected Mormons for many years. Some time after going to Washington as a reporter, I signed on as the Washington correspondent for the Church-owned Deseret News. I ended up staying for twenty-six years. Late in my career, my journalism-school classmate Jim Mortimer became the paper’s publisher.

I have found Mormons to be as wholesome and trustworthy as any people I ever worked with.

Gordon Eliot White ’57JRN
Deltaville, VA


Still Fuming

Attila Mady (“More Smoke,” Letters, Spring 2012) overreaches from his hospital experience to pronounce on the epidemiology of smoking-related diseases. It is not the case that the effect of cigarettes is “unpredictable and idiosyncratic” when studied at the level of populations. There, the attributable risks of a wide range of diseases are specific and predictable: much higher than in nonsmokers, in a dose-graded fashion, with ex-smokers at an intermediate level. The idiosyncrasy belongs to the individual who may contract any one or more of a number of smoking-related diseases.

Unquestionably, nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke over time do have a heightened risk of cancer, lung disease, and heart disease. Mady draws his conclusions from hospital data. It is well known that these are unreliable in judging relative risks for whole populations.

Mady would like us to believe that smokers are reluctant to quit because smoking is calming (among other attributes), and that we have “little hard data ... regarding the effects of smoking.” This is nonsense. Nearly all chronic smokers are addicted to nicotine and find it difficult to quit. This phenomenon has been well studied by the tobacco industry itself and applied to making cigarettes addictive. Most “calming” is due to the relief of withdrawal.

In survey after survey, nearly three-quarters of smokers say they wish they had never started (the majority did so in their teenage years). It is the tobacco industry’s legal and public defense that citizens have the “private right to make their own choices” (quoting Mady), but free choice has been subverted by the industry’s engineering design of the cigarette and pervasive advertising and promotion.

Norbert Hirschhorn ’58CC, ’62PS
London, England


The Tau of Alzheimer's

Karen Duff deserves credit for her conjecture concerning tau’s role in the etiology of Alzheimer’s disease; but some skepticism is in order because there is not yet scientific consensus about the role of this protein (Explorations, Spring 2012). The function of tau is the maintenance of the tubules that carry molecular transmitters from the neuronal cell body out to the end of the axon. Anything that kills the cell will cause the release of tau into the extracellular space: the more cell death, the more cerebral atrophy, the more tau (in the form of tangles) is released and can be found in the cerebrospinal fluid. The killing event itself is likely the result of oxidative stress. And Alzheimer’s disease, which starts with synaptic failures in the hippocampus (not, as in rats, in the entorhinal cortex), may also have its etiology in the inability of the cells to get rid of reactive oxygen species. Admittedly, the subject is complex, and we have a long way to go before definitive answers can be obtained.

Howard Lieberman ’55CC
Haverford, PA


Future Justice

In 1957–58, I worked at the reserve desk of the law-school library. On my first day, I was told by the librarian, J. Myron Jacobstein ’50LS, to provide a Ruth Ginsburg with anything that she might request (“Without precedent,” News, Spring 2012).

Ruth was certainly very often at the desk. She was always smiling, polite, and friendly. It was a pleasure to serve her. I still remember her signature. It was a bold, legible Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She is the only person whom I really remember from my time at the law library, and I am delighted for her success in life.

Edward J. Harnby ’55GS, ’58BUS
Seal Beach, CA


Good Chemistry

As soon as I earned my PhD in chemistry with Gilbert Stork in October 1988, I needed to rush off to Oxford to begin my postdoctoral appointment and so had no chance to participate in Commencement. It was only last summer, twenty-three years later, when I was finally back in New York around the right time and was at long last able to properly graduate.

Straight after the ceremony, I wandered into Havemeyer, now finally with my doctoral robes, to visit Stork and feel again the special serenity of the famous lecture hall. Coincidentally, Paul Hond exactly captured that feeling of the department and of the time-honored Thursday-evening problem sessions (“Chemical Bonding,” College Walk, Summer 2011). As a graduate student, I kept a separate notebook for the special lectures Hond mentions; the notebook is still in my library. The names of visiting lecturers to the department from that time read almost like the Nobel laureate list for chemistry.

Good to hear the department is as congenial, stimulating, and interactive as it always was.

Alan D. Roth ’88GSAS
London, England


Euro's Death Exaggerated

David Beim’s speculation that the euro may not outlast 2012 strikes me as a possible but unlikely scenario (“Too Late for the Euro?Winter 2011–12). Greece has managed to get its bondholders to take a 74 percent haircut. Italy has gotten rid of its clownish prime minister and held its sovereign bond interest below 6 percent. Spain, the current bad boy, is struggling, to be sure, but how likely is it that it would leave the Eurozone, given the advantages it has gained from membership? Beim is right to point out structural weaknesses in the euro’s governance, principally, the lack of compensatory fiscal-policy coordination and the unwillingness of hard-liners like the Germans and the Dutch to countenance transfers of wealth.

Yet I believe he has missed the original purpose of the euro: to form an indivisible union, first between France and Germany, and gradually stretching to most of Europe, so that there would never be a repetition of the three hundred years of internecine war that had plagued Europe since 1648. That’s what will ultimately lead the Germans to ease up and seek face-saving economic measures.

Walter P. Blass ’53GSAS
Warren, NJ


White House Calling

In his May 14 Commencement address at Barnard College (“Barnard, this is the White House calling,” News, Spring 2012) President Barack Obama deplored the shortage of female executives at major companies and urged the graduates to “fight for a seat at the head of the table.” Jill Abramson is the first female executive editor of the New York Times. The fight for women to get a seat at that table included a sex discrimination suit forty years ago. For that reason, one would have thought that Abramson would have been an appropriate choice for Barnard’s Commencement speaker.

She was, in fact, that choice. But she was preempted by Obama. At a fundraiser after the Barnard Commencement, President Obama said, “I want everyone treated fairly in this country.” I guess, with the acquiescence of Barnard, that didn’t include Jill Abramson.

Donald Nawi ’62LAW
Scarsdale, NY

According to Barnard president Debora Spar, Jill Abramson said she would be pleased to speak at another time. — Ed.


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