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Letters

Cambridge 02138

Green energy options, foreign policy, medical errors, military jurist

May-June 2008

Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan

Re The Physics of the Familiar” (by Jonathan Shaw, March-April, page 46):

Mountains, valleys are wrinkled earth.
Glossy grapes shrink into raisins.
Maps of life illustrate old faces—
Because skin folds to fit.
Neurons bend toward memories.
He thinks, therefore we learn.

E. James Lieberman, M.P.H. ’63
Potomac, Md.

 

Collective Trauma

I am writing regarding “Trail of Tears, and Hope” (by Craig Lambert, March-April, page 39). I applaud the magazine for focusing on this important issue and for highlighting the promising work of Sousan Abadian. All too often the hardships imposed upon indigenous people, in the United States and in other countries, are overlooked or seen as ancient history, and this article does a great job of calling attention to the present consequences of the often shameful treatment of Native peoples since contact.

Yet one aspect of the article that I think deserves clarification is its implicit idea that the wrongs indigenous peoples have suffered are purely historical. As a telling example, the main countries discussed in the article, the United States and Canada, together with Australia and New Zealand, are the only countries that recently voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The collective trauma of many Native peoples is made worse by the harms that continue to this day.

Ezra Rosser, J.D. ’03
Assistant professor of law
Washington College of Law, American University
Washington, D.C.

 

My own experience with Northern Plains and Saskatchewan First Nations leads me to emphasize the paternalistic policies that destroyed a large number of First Nations communities a century ago: by allotting parcels of land in severalty to break up communal holdings and, after World War II, by moving families to tract housing in agency towns, purportedly to facilitate access to schools. There are no places in these tightly clustered subdivisions for children to roam and play, so they sit watching television (in English, losing their own languages). Unemployment is high because the reservations were deliberately placed away from transportation to “protect” the Indians from exploitation by incoming whites. Indians have not been able to develop businesses because they have no collateral for loans, their lands being in trust or highly divided among multiple heirs. On Northern Plains reservations, most of the economically viable land has been leased in large sections to white ranching families, some with five generations on these leased properties. Because of these intractable governmental policies, Indian people quite rightly feel helpless.

May I urge you to do another article that forgoes the feel-good New Age healing jargon and instead…[focuses on] why “healing” will come with economic development created by First Nations themselves, from which will come political freedom from stifling imposed practices.

Alice B. Kehoe, Ph.D. ’64
Professor of anthropology emerita
Marquette University
Milwaukee

On line: Commencement, Web Extras, Puzzles Redux

The magazine’s website will again feature real-time coverage of Commencement week, including breaking news reports, audiovisual recordings of the principal events, and speech texts, beginning June 2. Our annual Commencement and Reunion Guide, with a comprehensive calendar of happenings, is available now.

As noted in the March-April issue, the “HM Extra” icon in magazine articles indicates the presence of complementary multimedia content on the website. In this issue, look for such features accompanying an account of new archaeological discoveries (page 12); introductions to the Harvard-Radcliffe and Longwood Symphony Orchestras (pages 23 and 65); and the visually stunning exploration of biomedical imaging (page 40).

Finally, it is a great pleasure to announce that the clever creations of puzzlemaker John de Cuevas ’52, a contributing editor, are returning; you can now download archival puzzles and a new Harvard Puzzle from harvardmag.com/puzzles

 

Financial-Aid Focus

I was gratified to see the progress made in making [the situation of] Harvard undergrads essentially tuition-free, and that Ph.D. students are also doing well (“Boosting College Financial Aid” and “Gains for Graduate Students,” March-April, pages 54 and 58).

But there was not a word about the shameful situation at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), where the typical master’s student graduates $45,000 in debt. Do they then go on to $200,000 jobs as do the Business School and Law School alumni? Of course not. They go into the lowest-paying—but most important to society—jobs of teaching our youth, at salaries below what your plumber makes.

President Faust: Wake up! This is a priority. Every student at the GSE should be tuition-free.

Charles Resnick ’48, LL.B. ’50
Longboat Key, Fla.

 

Hybrid Cars and Wind Power

Professor Michael B. McElroy brings a welcome dash of realism to the national discussion on energy sources for future transportation in the United States (“Saving Money, Oil, and the Climate,” March-April, page 30). He is certainly right that electricity is the key, and that plug-in hybrid vehicles provide the technological bridge to reduced fossil-fuel dependence. Here, “plug-in” is the vital feature that is perennially limited by lagging energy- storage (battery) technology. I feel he was optimistic in emphasizing the 60-mile- range dream for automobiles on battery alone. Has he examined the cost to the buyer of such a vehicle? I suspect it will be within the economic range primarily of full professors of environmentalism.


Concerning the air-pollutionless attainment of the needed electricity, I was less pleased by his exposition. The two available routes are wind and nuclear. Possibly because of his own research interests, he seems biased toward wind turbines. I find it somewhat appalling that an environmentalist would unreservedly endorse these monstrous, flailing bird-killers—huge mechanical contrivances with all their associated aesthetic and maintenance penalties. My impression is that, like ethanol, which he rightly recognizes as a scam, wind power would not get off the ground without taxpayer subsidies.

In contrast, with an easing of the fear-mongering campaign against all things “nuclear,” the latter power source would unquestionably have the potential to meet all national electric power needs indefinitely, without killing one bird or offending one aesthete, and without subsidies. I have no doubt that hundreds of our citizens, if not thousands, have died to give us coal power, while exactly zero have died to give us nuclear power. Yet what is the national image of the relative “safety” of these two power sources? Surely it is the job of professional environmentalists, if they wish to be judged kindly by history, to restore some balance.

Our government has given nuclear power nothing but a hard time. No help has come, only an endless series of safety regulations that have indeed pushed costs through the sky. Environmentalists have played their part in this. Is it not time for a change of heart? Must fear govern everything we do? Should national policy be dictated by worst-case scenarios?

Thomas E. Phipps Jr. ’46, Ph.D. ’51
Urbana, Ill.

 

Mcelroy’s article on using non-fossil energy for our vehicles reminded me of my efforts to move in that direction. About six months ago I hoped to get rid of my gasoline car (about 28 mpg) and get an all-electric, plug-in car. I had hoped to use the electric for driving around the city, and to rent a car for the occasional longer-distance trip. I discovered to my dismay that it is impossible to get auto insurance for such a car unless it is one’s second vehicle. I checked with four major insurers and they all had the same restriction. Perhaps McElroy and others with more clout than a single consumer can make the insurance companies help reduce our carbon footprint by encouraging the use of electric and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs).

David Barnhouse ’49
Santa Barbara, Calif.

 

Mcelroy’s article made the claim that energy savings could be made by utilizing plug-in rather than standard HEVs. This is not sustainable from an engineering point of view, and is suicidal from an ecological point of view.

This is the initial impetus for the hybrid vehicle: If the energy dissipated in slowing down can be recovered and reintroduced during acceleration, overall energy consumption can be decreased. Initial and steady-state energy consumption take a hit due to the added weight of the electric motors and energy storage devices (currently NiMH batteries). If enough energy is recovered during deceleration and fed back during acceleration, there is a net decrease in energy consumption. As usual, this is a complex engineering trade-off. You want minimal battery weight to minimize energy consumption in steady state and accelerating conditions and sufficient battery capacity to recover an optimum amount of energy. Different companies decide on different optimization strategies, but it appears that the maximum amount of energy that can be recovered by coasting down a long hill and stopping is the method utilized to establish the battery capacity.

Because the battery is a very inefficient method of storing energy, especially when compared with gasoline, sizing the battery in excess of expected recovery requirements leads to excess energy consumption overall. But some people are enamored of the concept of electric-vehicle operation. The usual idea is to add battery capacity to allow for pure electric operation for around 40 miles or 60 kilometers. In round figures, the additional batteries needed to provide this capacity add roughly 20 percent to the vehicle weight. At lower speeds, this leads to an increase in energy consumption (whether from gasoline burned by the engine or the kilowatt hours consumed from the electric grid) of roughly 20 percent also, with this percentage decreasing as the speeds increase.

Proponents of plug-ins trumpet gasoline mileage figures of 80 mpg, 120 mpg, even 150 and more mpg. Incredible! They are going to save the world! However, they neglect to take into account the energy consumed in generating the electricity consumed in the battery. The real [mileage] figure is much less.

There are even more substantial problems using grid electricity. The electric industry is capacity-limited. Furthermore, though the industry is converting to greener ways to generate electricity, the capacity of these new sources is already fully committed. Thus we can assume any kilowatt hours used by plug-ins come from the most highly polluting forms of energy generation, such as coal or nuclear. Thus plug-ins, in effect, simply export pollution “upstream”—from the point of consumption (where the vehicle is being driven) back to the point of generation of the electricity (where the local population and environment have no voice in the pollution generated).

David W. Harralson
Hollywood, Calif.

 

I was surprised that there was no mention of the concept of “CO2-to-algae-to-biofuels.” My own patent-pending technology, as well as those of my competitors in this field, enables this process to happen economically and profitably in the southern half of the country where there is sufficient sunlight and warmth.

Given the ease and low cost of converting our existing fuel-distribution infrastructure for biofuels, and also the extra radiation risks of increasing our use of electricity to power vehicles, it is unfortunate that the concept of using photosynthetic algae to sequester CO2 and then produce biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel seems to get less media attention—not to mention academic focus—than other technologies like the hybrid engines being promoted by McElroy. Is this yet another case of “liberal media bias” in the Northeast, or simply an honest oversight???

Jonathan L. Gal ’89
President, Texas Clean Fuels
Royse City, Tex.

 

I applaud McElroy’s initiative, but at the risk of nitpicking, I have to complain, “Why the obsession with wind?” As a 27-year veteran of the international power-generation industry, my ardor for climate-change solutions is governed by hard-earned experience and an appreciation for efficient solutions. McElroy is headed in the right direction—plug-in hybrid cars charged with electricity made from renewable energy. And he’s correct that the greenhouse-gas problem in the electricity sector cannot be addressed without taking coal head-on. But wind is not the answer. Most people look reflexively to wind because the technology is commercially available and we’ve been led to believe that it is competitive, or nearly so, with conventional forms of electricity. Yet wind’s intermittency and its very poor average utilization rate (a national fleet of wind turbines of the scale proposed would operate on average at less than 30 percent capacity) make it woefully incapable of replacing coal-fired generation. The almost flip suggestion that we need to get to work building transmission to interconnect all of these wind farms to the grid highlights the other problem, but also points to the solution.

If we’re willing to consider blanketing the countryside with wind turbines, stringing thousands of new transmission lines in order to connect them to the grid, and building hundreds of new nuclear, gas- or (God forbid) coal-fired plants to stabilize the production of so much intermittent wind, should we not ask if there are any less draconian and more economically attractive alternatives? A promising one is solar thermal with thermal storage. We could accomplish with fewer than 10,000 square miles in the desert Southwest (about 9 percent of the federal lands in Nevada) what would take literally millions of wind turbines to produce, even if you could somehow site them. And rather than thousands of new transmission lines, perhaps a dozen large high-voltage direct current corridors running to existing major transmission hubs would be sufficient to interconnect the capacity to the national grid. Perhaps the technology is few years away, but it makes far more sense than rushing headlong to invest in a technology that is accessible and feasible at the margins, but quite clearly not appropriate to the larger task proposed by McElroy.

Michael Hogan, M.B.A. ’88
Boston

 

Fixing Foreign Policy

Reading Joseph Nye’s essay (“Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy,” March-April, page 36), I do not see the fresh departure from our failed unilateralist, neoconservative foreign policy that your readership is awaiting. Indeed, this apple has not fallen very far from the tree—somewhere within the Beltway.

Nye has limited his objectives to “how.” All he is saying is that he can ensure U.S. hegemony better than the neocons. He is not their intellectual opponent, questioning the framing of the questions. In his priorities, and most particularly the identified major threats we face—terrorism and political Islam—Nye is accepting unquestioningly the corrupted vocabulary whereby the United States is engaged in a phony “war” on terror that the sitting president has used to ram through his anti-civil libertarian agenda.

Life exists beyond the narrow confines of “soft” and “hard” modalities in the exercise of American hegemony. One need only introduce a different question: “Why?” Why assume that the United States has an obligation to shoulder a twenty-first-century version of the “white man’s burden”? Why not assume that countries other than the U.S.A. rightfully have national interests which their governments are pursuing in a rational manner and that those governments, whether democratically elected or not, are as politically mature as our own?


Our “mission” should be to create the institutional basis for consensual, multipolar security arrangements. This means replacing the confrontational policies of military and economic containment directed against China and Russia, whose continuation Nye advocates, and jettisoning the false issues of “values gaps” and spreading democracy by force. Instead we should be accommodating graciously and proactively worldwide economic and demographic change, bringing the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China] to their rightful positions of influence in the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank. This also entails dismantling NATO, now that it demeans its member countries by serving merely as a “tool kit” for an American bully, prevents the emergence of a much-needed EU defense agency, and is ultimately counterproductive to U.S. aims.

In many ways the situation before us parallels the run-up to World War I, and it is an open question whether we will do better than the U.K. did then as we step up to the mark.

Gilbert Doctorow ’67
Brussels

 

No mention is made of Israel as a factor in our nation’s past, present, or future foreign policy. Our present “only for Israel” foreign policy has caused us to make enemies, brought us to 9/11, and is a likely reason for the current Iraq war, with its tragic loss and cost.

Working toward a better foreign policy is a practical goal. That would be to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all peoples of the Middle East. The lavish aid we give Israel should be spent only to promote peace and prosperity evenhandedly in the Middle East. An economic union is a feasible mechanism. Borders have long been established by the United Nations.

Beginning in the Middle East, this model could serve well for global application.

Francis Sullivan ’46
Greer, S.C.

 

Medical Errors

My wife and I have been in medicine for more than 60 years each. We have never been told to hide the facts regarding a medical error. “The Talking Cure” (March-April, page 60) would leave your readers believing this was a universal and common practice. In none of the eight major medical institutions here or in Scotland where we have practiced were we ever instructed not to inform a patient or his/her insurance company that an error was made.

In truth, we were told very little about the matter for the first 45 to 50 years of practice, certainly not at Harvard Medical School. I can recall only one instance of the subject coming up during my years there. We medical students in the 1940s passed on among us the tale about the great Brigham [Hospital] surgeon, John Homans: to the effect that he had apologized to a patient for some minor lapse in judgment or technique. The story was told not so much because it was an object lesson but because it reflected the well-known honesty and humanity of the man. In more recent years, the advice my wife and I have always heard in various relevant meetings has been to report errors immediately to the patient and to hospital administration. Perhaps our experience is unique, but I doubt it.

Giulio J. D’Angio, M.D. ’45
Philadelphia

 

Autism Remedies

As a physician and the grandfather of an autistic 10-year-old, I am dismayed both by the letter of Theresa V. (Makin) O’Brien ’00 (March-April, page 5, concerning “A Spectrum of Disorders,” January-February, page 27) and your decision to publish it. I believe that the entire letter is not only undocumented, but viciously false. Perhaps her source of information is Deirdre Imus, whose public forum is granted to her by her entertainer-husband, but that doesn’t justify either O’Brien’s tone or her message. I trust that thoughtful Harvard scientists can help O’Brien understand how uninformed her published letter turned out to be.

Joseph R. Barrie, M. D., ’60
Harvard, Mass.

 

Military Jurist

It is indeed refreshing to read an account of an alumnus—an exceptional man by any standard—who is doing work of the very highest importance for the nation (“Wartime Legalities,” by Willy Stern, March-April, page 72). Colonel Martins is emblematic of the hundreds of judge advocates of all the armed forces serving in the theater, who every day forward the rule of law among the Iraqi population, ensure that combat operations are conducted according to international standards, advise commanders on a host of issues, and assist in maintaining good order and discipline among our own personnel, all at great personal risk and under conditions of substantial hardship.

I have been fortunate enough to work in and around the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the respective armed forces for most of my career. These uniformed lawyers represent some of the best in the American legal profession. In an era in which the bottom line seems to be the only criterion for success, they have chosen the path of duty and sacrifice. Given the load of educational debt that the average law graduate emerges with, many of them have in a real sense mortgaged their futures to serve the nation. I salute them, and hope that that nation continues to be worthy of their sacrifice.

Scott W. Stuck, J.D. ’73
Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
Washington, D.C.

 

I read with great pride the account of Colonel Mark Martins and his service to our country in Iraq, and am particularly impressed at the positive, strategic impact this one Harvard-trained lawyer has had. It’s ironic that Harvard’s influence in our armed forces is greatly diminished by a continuing ban on ROTC training on campus.

Ralph Erickson, M.P.H. ’89
Columbia, Md.

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