Forum: September-October 2008

Students in Duke Gardens--on the grass

Megan Morr

Keep Off the Grass

The Full Frame photograph in the July-August issue of students playing Frisbee on the South Lawn at Duke Gardens is a terrific shot—thank you!  But at the time it was taken, the South Lawn was closed (note yellow rope). The Friends of Duke Gardens and the University invested $300,000 to replace culverts, remove trees "loved to death" by climbers, improve drainage and irrigation systems, and re-sod the lawn with Bermuda grass better suited to our changing climate.

Though Frisbee is a common activity here, "team" sports are on our list of don'ts, along with don't pick the flowers or climb the trees. Our plants suffer greatly from wayward Frisbees and runaway balls. In any case, it illustrates the challenge we face balancing the desire for active recreation and our mission to develop, interpret, and preserve our plant collections in a setting designed for more passive enjoyment. 

Bill LeFevre

Taking Responsibility

The university's decision to boycott investment in Sudan [Gazette, May-June 2008] is misguided for two reasons.

First, the divestment "will remain in effect until the U.S. government lifts sanctions against Sudan." This clearly shows a lack of leadership and independence. Most government decisions are politically motivated, which is why some of the world's worst human-rights abusers never make the government list in the first place.

Second, the divestment points to human-rights violations in Darfur as the reason for the decision. While the situation in Darfur is tragic, it has no racial, ethnic, or religious human-rights component at all. Both sides are black, Muslim, and Arab. The terrible atrocities are due to out-of-control tribal wars caused by a combination of extreme poverty and desertification that was exacerbated by gross mismanagement by the Sudanese government. So, the boycott could potentially hurt the very people it is intended to help.

I am glad that the university is interested in investment responsibility. Unfortunately, its first act was an ill-informed softball. If this interest is genuine, the President's Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR) needs to have the courage and leadership to tackle more consequential issues such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Chinese oppression of ethnic and religious minorities. For ACIR to be effective, it needs to listen to Duke students and professors more than it does the U.S. government.

M. M. Samman Ph.D. '91
Houston, Texas

Conservative Bent?

In the May-June issue of Duke Magazine you ran a supportive (as opposed to analytical and critical) article on the candidacy of Ron Paul for President and on the Libertarian movement ["Speaking Libertarian Lingua Franca"]. Earlier in the year, Duke welcomed Karl Rove as a speaker. I write this letter to seek additional information regarding these events. While a university needs to encourage and accept different points of view in order to promote learning, it seems unusual to have such a decided partisan and ideological effort without balancing speakers and publications.

With the Bush administration and Ron Paul, there are indications that concerns for the needs of others such as the working class and the poor, protection of the less powerful, civil rights, a productive civil service, and concern for the welfare of others are simply not priorities. Both our tax system and government expenditures are currently oriented toward rewarding the rich and powerful at an ever greater level—and "the rich get richer while the poor get poorer."

Duke's history as a school of faith and its ongoing support of Habitat for Humanity and community-service activities generally have contributed to my own sense of the importance of such issues. I would not like to see Duke University become an institutional supporter of ideological and wealth-oriented politics.

Herbert K. Lodder '55
Lutherville, Maryland

Liberal Bent?

Why would you contaminate your classy magazine with that diatribe against Karl Rove and the "totally incompetent" government by the irrational, flaming liberal Stanley Collyer [Forum, May-June 2008]?

He must have morphed into this mindless being in recent years. I don't remember the Duke faculty of my era being ultraliberal as they are on most campuses nowadays. So I don't see how he could have gotten that way back then. 

Roland Woodfield
B.S.C.E. '51
Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Musical Notes

The research of Dale Purves ["In Search of Music's Biological Roots," May-June 2008] is brilliant. Somebody should nominate him for the Nobel Prize in medicine, but since few scientists know anything about music, this hope is probably forlorn.

However, there are some inaccuracies and exaggerations in the article. The five-note pentatonic scale arose at an earlier stage of music development than the seven-note diatonic scale, at a time when music was passed on by oral tradition rather than written. Thus, pentatonic music must be more closely related to speech than diatonic music.

Most so-called Negro spirituals, brought here by the slave trade, are pentatonic; there was then no mechanism in Africa for writing music. ("White spirituals" like "Amazing Grace," which imitate Negro-spiritual style, are also pentatonic. So is "Auld Lang Syne," which I would thus think predates [Scottish] recorded history.)

The Greeks probably first developed a method for writing music, adapting the pentatonic scale by adding two semitones. So I think professor Purves should be concentrating his research on pentatonic, not diatonic, scales.

While it is true that the pentatonic scale is a subset of the seven-note diatonic scale as author Ker Than avers, a musicologist would look at it differently. A subset of the twelve-note chromatic scale is "diatonic" if it consists of seven connected elements of the circle of fifths. Its complement in the circle is the five-note pentatonic subset. Each diatonic subset contains seven scales depending upon which note is chosen as the starting point. These are the celebrated ecclesiastical modes, two of which are the major and minor scales. Similarly, there are five pentatonic scales in each pentatonic subset.

On page 41, Than implies that physics cannot explain why consonance occurs for certain intervals and not for others. I respectfully disagree; physics explains this very well, based on the concept of beats, roughness, and fusion applied to the overtone series of musical tones. See, for example, Donald Hall's Musical Acoustics (Brooks/Cole, 1980).

To learn more about diatonic and pentatonic sets and scales, see my own articles in Perspectives of New Music (Vol. 34, No. 1, 140-161, 1996) or Journal of Statistical Physics (Vol. 121, 1097-1104, 2005). This work, and that of others, belies Purves' statement that music cannot be explained in terms of mathematical ratios. If he had added the word "alone" I might agree with him.

On page 39, Johannes Kepler's belief in the "music of the spheres" is described. This theory was refuted by his contemporary, Marin Mersenne, the discoverer of Mersenne primes (primes of the form 2n-1), who was also a musician and is called the "father of acoustics."

Paul F. Zweifel Ph.D. '54
Radford, Virginia

Rational Questions

Robert Bliwise's article on Fuqua professor Dan Ariely was informative and very interesting ["Why We Do the Things We Do," May-June 2008]. In emphasizing the irrational nature of many of our decisions, Ariely seems to ignore the existence of rationality. Perhaps he didn't mean to dismiss rationality, and he has brilliantly outlined the large extent of irrational decision-making.

If most of our decisions are irrational, then why should Ariely's writings and theories have any predictability or rational basis? Is he vastly more rational than the rest of us? In fact, I'm sure he would agree that decisions have both rational and irrational components.

What is problematic is the suggestion that society should be more paternalistic, with mandatory mechanisms forcing retirement savings and health check-ups. Who would be in charge of deciding what requirements should be forced on people? How could we be certain that the decision-makers are more rational than everybody else? Collective decisions are not necessarily more rational than individual decisions, and sometimes they are worse. There are many historical examples of this. The tyranny of the majority must always be viewed with some suspicion. These types of policy decisions are made by those with the most political power. Politicians are not always elected in a rational manner.

Again, Ariely has done us a great service in researching these issues, which have not been explored very well in the past. And it is possible that he is more rational than the majority of us, because it is irrational to pretend that irrationality does not exist.

David C. Morris
'74, M.D. '78
Lexington, South Carolina

All in the Family

The article about LGBT issues at Duke in the March-April issue ["Gay. Fine By Duke?"] emphasized how "family-oriented" the pride parade was. The observation that even the protesters had brought children along is not a reflection of the parade's family-friendliness; instead, it reveals the level of disregard that the protesters actually have for today's families. Those people are teaching their children to hate and fear families that are not like theirs, and ultimately, those children will either have to face the reality that diverse, loving families deserve respect—or they will pass on that fear and hatred to their own children.

Sarah Harger M.P.P. '06
Washington, D.C.

Conservation Matters

After several Duke Magazine issues have passed, I am shocked that no one has picked up on the university's water-conservation methods [Gazette, January-February 2008]. Therefore I feel obliged to write a comment.

I refer specifically to the fact that the dining facilities have switched to disposable plastic cutlery as opposed to the original washable and reusable stainless steelware in an effort to limit the use of valuable water resources. While I don't have the specific figures at hand, I would assume that once-only plasticware must consume far more of our planet's natural resources than the washing and reusing of the stainless steelware. The amount of water and oil used to produce, package, ship, and then dispose of the plasticware must far outweigh the benefits of the minimal water saved by the dining facilities. In financial terms, your assets versus your liabilities have not been properly accounted for!

I would strongly urge the dining facilities managers to reconsider their use of disposable cutlery. In fact, it is ironic that a university with a showcase green-energy Smart Home and the Nicholas School of the Environment is using disposable plasticware. Please be kind and save our planet! Please do let me know what the dining facilities decide on this matter.

Ron Miao M.B.A. '91
Richmond, Surrey, UK

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