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Murphy’s Law

Fred Shapiro presented an enlightening recent history of Murphy’s Law (You Can Quote Them, July/August). Its principles, however, go back much further.

The earliest depiction of Murphy’s Law is found in the Aurignacian cave paintings at Lascaux, in which a hunter observes his spearhead falling off as he is about to stab a charging woolly rhinoceros. Certainly the earliest printed mention of Murphy’s Law, and the nomenclatorial basis for it, is in the journals of Quiscalus Lugubris Merfius, a Roman consul of the first century CE. Merfius observed that whenever he went into battle during his campaign against the Bosnians without his umbrella, his troops were encumbered by heavy rain. He carried his umbrella on every battle day but lost anyway.

Murphy’s Law has spawned many corollaries, my favorite being the one coined by the German statistician Scheisskopf in 1827: “The laws of probability can be relied upon only when the outcome is of no conceivable use to anyone.”

At the Yale Dramat I learned a corollary to Murphy’s Law from David P. McGowan '61. Hennessy’s Corollary states: “There is one thing, and only one thing, wrong with Murphy’s Law. It is too goddamned optimistic!”


TB as infotainment

The melodramatic July/August cover story, “Tracking the Reaper,” shows the magazine’s preference for infotainment (Lux et Entertaining). Most of the article is a “suspenseful” account of researchers tripping over XDR tuberculosis in South Africa.

However, there was no mention of Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the real pioneers in this area, who has successfully battled World Health Organization complacency and pharmaceutical greed. Two paragraphs offer a muddled analysis of hackneyed “socioeconomic factors” without reference to the equally poor Cuba successfully containing XDR through low-cost isolation.


Identity politics

I am disappointed in the July/August feature “Hazing for Politicos.” I was amused by the description of the hazing practices of the Yale Political Union until I read that the Independent Party requires the candidates to identify which of the spectators is “Jew” or “non-Jew.”

I imagine from the title of the event, the “Inquisition,” that at its core this practice was meant to be witty. However, let’s not forget that Hitler's rise to power and the ensuing Holocaust were based on creating a distinction between “Jews” and “non-Jews.” Vienna mayor Karl Lueger, who inspired Hitler, used this “labeling” for his own political gain, stating: “Wer Jude ist, das bestimme ich” (I decide who is a Jew).

The Independent Party should take care to prevent such irresponsible behavior. As leading academic minds, we have a responsibility to foster the nurturing, acceptance, and inclusion (not subdivision) of all people. By permitting such a practice, we go against this fundamental code. Let us not get so lost in being smart and witty that we forget to be intelligent.

The Yale Alumni Magazine asked the Yale Political Union to comment. Noah Mamis ’08, YPU speaker, replied as follows.—Eds.

“We apologize for any offense we have inadvertently caused. The significantly Jewish Independent Party (of which I am a Jewish member) chose to use this game to make light of a sensitive subject through humor. Humor in this case serves to defuse tension on a subject that might otherwise cause the kind of divisiveness Ms. Benfield refers to.”


The butterfly collector

The obituary for Charles Lee Remington, professor emeritus of biology (Milestones, July/August), struck a sad chord. As a newly dedicated zoology undergraduate, I volunteered to work on the field collections of butterflies for Dr. Remington. There were few data points from West Virginia, so I spent the summer months of 1950 collecting specimens of Colias butterflies on the campus of West Virginia State College. The sight of a 6'3” African American running over the campus grass with a butterfly net elicited some of the most humorous, disbelieving comments I’ve ever gotten in my life, together with some of the most intellectually curious and sincere inquiries about academics at Yale that I've ever received. To see the resultant paper was awesome for a country boy. I still miss Drs. Remington, Trinkaus, and the other greats of the zoology department who enlightened us.


Those flying pie pans

Let me add a bit more to the Frisbie discussion (Old Yale, May/June) in which Judith Ann Schiff presented “two competing claims” for the earliest documented date—1939 vs. 1946—when pie pan tossing caught on at Yale. I lived on the fourth floor of Trumbull College, with a balcony view of the courtyard, from 1940 until 1942. I can distinctly remember Frisbie tossers in the courtyard.


The name game

To name a college after someone who has contributed nothing to the university because that person is black or a woman is insulting to blacks and women (Light & Verity, July/August and earlier).

Yale has to learn to live with its history of racism and sexism. There is no quick fix for a shameful past. Yale should focus on the future. Give the proposed new colleges temporary names—New College, South College, Ugly College, Guilty College—and then change the names when a woman or black or Muslim makes an appropriate contribution.


Yale in Singapore

In dwelling on Yale’s “reputation worldwide” and rushing to draw defensive comparisons to Harvard’s renown, President Richard Levin (Q & A: Rick Levin, May/June) reveals the essential superficiality and triviality of his administration’s push to “globalize” or “internationalize” the university. Instead of joining Paris Hilton in fretting over fame, Levin and his associates ought to consider a more substantive, even visionary, approach.

In the past seven years, I have attended meetings in Singapore with three senior Yale administrators, including the president. Each time, I came away disheartened by the demonstrated lack of awareness of the Southeast Asian context, the failure to assert the commitments that have distinguished Yale for more than three centuries, and the lack of recognition of the relevance of Yale’s real strengths to the challenges of the region. Few Fuller Brush men can have been as hapless in hawking their product. Rather than learn to be better hawkers, however, Levin and his team ought to focus on building a Yale whose research and teaching in both the United States and in the world beyond America's borders reflects the university’s commitments, its values, and its excellence. On the heels of that achievement, international renown for Yale would surely follow.

Levin’s proposal to build two new residential colleges and thus jeopardize the historic intimacy of Yale College as a university college is very much bound up with his sloppily conceived approach to internationalization. But if that plan must go ahead, then let us name one of the colleges for Chester Bowles '24S. Distinguished UN official, twice ambassador to India, friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, and architect of John Kennedy’s approach to the developing world, Bowles in his voluminous writings shared an informed, humane brand of liberal internationalism with a large public. Yale should honor him, and Woodbridge Hall should learn from him.


The evolution debate

I was astonished to see Joel Brind '71 arguing against evolution (Letters, May/June) on the grounds that “what we unequivocally do know about natural processes is that they spontaneously run down; not up.”

This statement of the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to the entire universe. Any part of the universe is free to 'run up' so long as the net is down. Specifically, organisms may grow in complexity so long as they give off enough heat and break up enough large molecules into small molecules (through eating). There is no argument against evolution from thermodynamics.

When Camille (McDonald) Green '02 cited Scripture as her conclusive refutation of evolution (Letters, July/August), I really began to wonder what is going on at Yale. Her curiously incomplete citation of Exodus 20:11 left out the opening: “For in six days the Lord created heaven and Earth.” The confused thinking in the argument “If man cannot create … a leaf out of thin air, then to ascribe all creation to lifeless time and inanimate chance is intellectually dishonest” takes my breath away. In the interest of continuing education, perhaps she might consider that there are those who question “creation” as a valid metaphor altogether for the universe and being; the “act of creation” is itself a description arising from mankind’s “small” powers of observation and thought.

Essay question for today: what if the universe was not “created” but simply “is"? Since Ms. Green apparently believes that Scripture settles all questions, she, a self-professed “dust creature,” may feel certainty when contemplating the illimitable universe; but does one need to go to Yale for that?

It is true, as Camille (McDonald) Green writes, that we are but tiny creatures in a vast universe, trying to understand our world and ourselves. But we do have, from whatever source, the ability to reason, and surely we do wrong if we do not attempt, despite our painful limitations, to employ it in search of reality. The “dumb” and “educated fools” she mentions include many of the best minds we have, including Mark Twain, Sir Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, A. N. Wilson, and Bishop John Shelby Spong; is Ms. Green really setting herself against this long list of great minds, not only disagreeing but dismissing them all with contempt? I think upon reconsideration, she will give them the respect they earn, and quietly consider their theses. Wrong they conceivably may be: “intellectually dishonest” they are not.

Ms. Green needs to search for support for her disagreement—evidence, not assertion; reference to fact, not quotations from the Bible. She also needs to discard anger, contempt, and condemnation for those who have made this argument.

While I have no doubt Ms. Green and her fellow creationists will continue to believe life is the result of divine intervention, I have no other choice than to defend my work (highlighted in “The Birth of Birth,” March/April) against her attacks and point out that it is impossible for evolution not to occur. As noted by Darwin, organisms are variable, not all reproduce successfully, reproductive success is a direct result of how well they are able to compete for resources, and competitive advantage results from heritable variation; thus, given that these conditions hold, evolution must happen. It is a mathematical certainty. Not only does it happen, but it has been observed, measured, and documented in numerous ways.

Those of us who study evolution are not “egotistical” or “narcissistic,” nor do we “desire … a lack of accountability” for our actions. I understand evolution as having precisely the opposite effect; it is inherently humbling. We are not the special creation of god(s), in dominion over the rest of life. We are its equals, accountable in this life to each other and not in some future afterlife that the right prayers can pardon us from. We share a common ancestry with the rest of life and are an integral part of it.

Evolution is even poetic, as Darwin said: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


Yale and UN history

I thank you for Michael Bierut’s excellent article on Donal McLaughlin '33BArch (Arts and Culture, May/June) and his design of the United Nations lapel pin that became the UN’s official logo. However, your story leaves out reference to an important Yale contribution to preserving this history.

Many of the most interesting details of the design of the UN logo and other aspects of the use of graphics for both clarity and propaganda are contained in the Yale-UN Oral History program archives. For instance, the 1990 interview with Oliver Lundquist, McLaughlin’s boss, reveals that the original lapel pin cleverly arranged the map of the world so that Argentina, at that point (early 1945) still not declared against the Nazis, was not visible. He also discusses the choice of blue, which came to be indelibly associated with the UN, and the innovation of a circular organizational chart to represent the complexity of the new organization. The Yale-UN Oral History Project, which was led by James Sutterlin, is an invaluable resource for historians and political scientists interested in UN issues.


Lifelong music

I wish to add a word of caution regarding the quartet competition lauded in the May/June School Notes for music. After winning my first and only prestigious competition, I realized that it was a counterproductive path and devoted myself to creating an alternative path.

Naming one winner means that everyone else “loses.” When this happens, it is the promotion of the classical music repertoire itself that is the ultimate loser. This sort of competition suggests that serious music making is the domain of only a vaunted few, inaccessible to mere mortals. The School of Music should instead promote and provide opportunities for all of its students to continue to perform and promote classical music throughout their lives.


Too many foreign undergrads?

President Richard C. Levin’s Baccalaureate Address (July/August) made me proud of my alma mater. He reported that the number of international applicants to Yale College has more than doubled and that the Class of 2007 was the first ever in which the number of nations represented equaled the number of states in the union.

I thought that Yale’s outreach to the world as reflected in President Levin’s report was just plain wonderful. Then I read the execrable comment regarding foreign students at Yale in the Class of 1945 Alumni Notes (July/August) and felt shame as a member of that class.

Our corresponding secretary wrote that three Yale students had been arrested after “officers spotted a burning American flag on a porch.” He didn’t explain the nature of the charges, but that was not his concern. It was apparently the students' ethnicity that drew the ire of our corresponding secretary. He made a point of noting their countries of origin. Once was a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen, he said; another was a Greek citizen; and the third was a British citizen whose name was Anklesaria.

“For those of you who agree with me that Yale goes too far in admitting students from abroad while rejecting stellar applicants from here,” continued the corresponding secretary, “I hope this is as aggravating to you as it is to me.”

I doubt that President Levin will feel such aggravation, and I hope that the overwhelming majority of my classmates won’t either. I deeply regret that my class should be represented by someone with these views.

The class’s corresponding secretary replies:

I, too, am pleased that Yale is striving to increase its influence in a rapidly shrinking world, and my column did not intend to suggest otherwise. What I did say was that Yale goes too far in admitting students from abroad while rejecting stellar applicants from here. If you believe that less qualified foreign students should be given preference, you are certainly free to say so, although you did not make such a statement in your letter.

As to the nature of the charges referred to in my column, I specifically stated that the news article did not specify the charges lodged against the students. I did, indeed, make a point of noting their countries of origin, because their ethnicity was precisely the point. When the newspapers highlight the illegal and/or unpatriotic actions of Yale students, and such students have in all likelihood been the recipients of favoritism by the admissions office, the prestige of Yale is not enhanced; it is diminished.

I regret your disapproval. You are entitled to your views, and I to mine, and Yale may benefit from a discussion of its admissions policy. I have a deep appreciation of most of President Levin’s policies, but unless I can be assured that Yale does not favor foreign applicants, my views will not change.

The Yale Alumni Magazine asked Jeff Brenzel '75, dean of undergraduate admissions, to comment. He replied as follows.—Eds.

“Yale does not extend an admissions preference to international students, and in fact the admissions process for these students is significantly more competitive than it is for U.S. citizens. This past year, Yale offered admission to 11.6 percent of the students applying from the United States and to 5.5 percent of those applying from abroad.”


Let’s change graduation

In attending my daughter’s graduation this past May, I was disappointed to observe that Yale is stuck in the mud, at least with respect to graduation (“Commencement 2007,” July/August).

We sat through the Class Day ceremony. Am I really supposed to care that some student got 28 out of 29 A's? Is that the purpose of a Yale education? Is that even a good thing? This student may have had a wonderful experience at Yale. Or perhaps never took a chance and stretched. For two hours on Class Day, 15,000 people had to listen to the dean go on and on about the “best" students in a variety of categories. Does that leave the students and parents with a caring message, with an individualized message, with a special message, with the right message? We didn’t even hear from and barely got to see the winning students. My nine-year-old’s takeaway message from the ceremony was “the dean has a very large moustache.”

Graduation day was even more painful. At the college, I had to hear several more hours of grade point averages and “bests.” It’s not that my daughter didn’t get mentioned. She did, as did many of her friends. But many didn’t. Was this the right way to end the Yale experience for them? And was it the right message for the students who were not rewarded?

Yale has arguably some of the best professors in the world. Can’t they come up with something more creative and meaningful? The annals of history are rich with moving, meaningful ceremonies that are within the easy reach of the Yale community. It just requires a little thought, effort, imagination.

It’s time for a change.


Southern speak

Raleigh isn’t so far from Chapel Hill, but when I lived there we used “y'all" as singular and “all y'all” as the plural (Arts & Culture, March/April). As a Yankee who moved to the South, I was given a quite deliberate and extensive grammatical education by some friends so as not to sound too uneducated in my new environment.

One day I remarked to a buddy about a rather strange sight: “Now what the hey'ill is that?” He promptly acknowledged my rebirth as a true Southerner.

So, greetings to all y'all (everyone) from the Land of Enchantment.



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