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February 23, 2010

Rethinking the Obama Measure

Michael Snively ‘11 and his associates have an interesting desire to define the Obama as a unit of measure (“If the Obama were a unit of measure …,” January/February 2010). I recall this tradition being practiced as far back as my own MIT days: “Arrogance is measured in micro-[name of senior professor]s.”

Not surprisingly, the president did not have a ready answer. With authority figures it’s often a good idea to provide an answer and see if they’re okay with it. In Mr. Obama’s case, the suggestion could be the quantity of true achievement per unit of recognition for it. Mr. Obama may agree that he found the lower quantum limit on that measure with his recent Nobel Peace Prize.
Timothy J. Maloney ‘71
Palo Alto, CA

Michael Snively responds:
I agree, putting our president on the spot probably wasn’t the best strategy. When we did the same thing with Stephen Colbert, his answer was “The Colbert is the unit of ball.” Do we get it? No. Does it make sense? No. Do we go with it? Absolutely! But let’s see if we can do better with Obama. I’ll send him a letter and the article and we’ll see what he says.

Michael Snively ‘11
Cambridge, MA

The Etymology of IBM?
Art Funkhouser ‘62 writes about the name of the HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Alumni Letters, January/February 2010). I had always been told (or believed) it was named after IBM, by displacing each letter by one alphabetic position. However, I have long maintained that the computer company was itself named after me! You see, I was named in 1920, the year I was born. According to my reading of history, the company officially renamed itself “IBM” on my fourth birthday, February 14, 1924! QED.

Hal Laning ‘40, PhD ‘47
West Newton, MA

Quantifying Aid Projects’ Impact
Thank you for the article on the great work by Professors Banerjee, Duflo, et al. (“Poverty’s Researcher,” January/February 2010). As an MIT alumnus who worked for nearly 14 years in a developing country (Brazil) and as a volunteer consultant to the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and other international agencies and NGOs, I have often been puzzled as to why so many international aid and relief projects do not achieve their goals.

I thought this was mostly because the donors did not understand the recipients and the recipients lost their will to become self-sustaining. Reading this (and similar articles) made me realize that it is much more complicated. It also confirmed my long-held belief that all such projects should be evaluated by their outcomes instead of by the value or weight of goods donated or subsidized.

I have always been skeptical of donations or aid projects, having witnessed too many “white elephants” in the form of sophisticated medical equipment received by rural hospitals that cannot even afford to buy disposable surgical gloves. I prefer to teach the hungry how to fish instead of giving them a fish. However, after reading the experiment on mosquito nets, I am willing to think that giving a fish may be necessary first.

Binseng Wang, ScD ‘79
Charlotte, NC

The Legacy of an MIT Education

MIT alumni are not the only members of the armed forces who benefited from the Institute (“Military Alumni Unite,” November/December 2009).

In the late 1930s, my grandfather, Milton Edelman, worked to help support his mother and grandmother, fund a brother’s university tuition, and send himself to night school. When he was drafted during World War II, the army air corps sent him to MIT for nine months to study meteorology. After serving as a weatherman for two years at an air base in Casablanca, Milton returned home to continue his education under the GI bill. He earned degrees from the University of Chicago, Wharton, and the University of Illinois. Though he earned no degree from MIT, I still have the photos he always kept of his military class lined up in uniform on the steps of Killian Court. Milton was never a showy man, but when I attended MIT 60 years later he had my mother put a school decal on his car window.

My grandfather was an economics professor by profession, but I knew him only as a meteorologist and engineer. He taught me about cloud types, and when tornadoes approached he sent his family to the basement and went outside to study the sky. The man could build or fix anything with his hands, and one of my greatest childhood joys was assisting him. His understanding of the physical world, and knowledge that he could apply this understanding to improve it, did much to inspire my interest in engineering. Though not an MIT graduate, he always appreciated his MIT education, and he lived as I learned at MIT to live–with the belief that he could do anything to which he set his mind and hands.

Shira Lee ‘05
Winterthur, Switzerland

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