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Birds of Hyde Park

I’m glad that a zoologist as renowned as Stephen Pruett-Jones has declared that Hyde Park’s colorful monk parakeets don’t appear to pose an environmental threat (“Investigations,” October/98).

Having lived for several years in the vicinity of “Parrot Park,” I recall being amazed and uplifted by the incongruous sight of tropical birds in flight on a bitter-cold Chicago day. Then came reports that government agents were plotting to exterminate the creatures—until a formidable assemblage of Hyde Parkers came to the parakeets’ rescue.

There might be an X-Files plot hidden somewhere in this tale, but the lesson I took from it was more along the lines of that worn cliché “birds of a feather.” Hyde Parkers and monk parakeets both possess an unforeseen ability to adapt to environmental extremes—and both species put up a hell of a squawk if you make the mistake of riling them.

Ian O. Rinth

Twin Falls, Idaho

Strictly speaking

I don’t normally correct minor mistakes, but the lack of understanding of science and the nature of “organic” and “inorganic” exhibited by the editor (“Editor’s Notes,” October/98) is frightening. Just because a piece of plastic doesn’t behave the way a leaf does, does not make it inorganic. The definitions are usually simple: Compounds that contain mostly carbon are “organic”; compounds containing little or no carbon are “inorganic.” Most plastics are organic because they are made of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements. These compounds don’t biodegrade because there are few “bugs” that have evolved to use them as food. Cellulose, one of the major ingredients of wood is (horrors) a “plastic.” I hope she will learn a little about science before she graduates.

W. S. Zimmt, PhB’47, SB’47, SM’49, PhD’51

Tucson, Arizona

The editor, who has graduated (twice, though not from the University of Chicago), offers in her defense the fact that she was using the words in their figurative sense (which, like their scientific meanings, are included in the dictionary).—Ed.

An ad is an ad is…

Thirteen of the 14 letters in the October/98 issue are appropriate comments on prior editorial content or letters in this Magazine. The last (“Respondez s’il vous plate”) is self-admittedly a request from a (presumably profit-seeking) antiques dealer for offers on some U of C–related materials. This veiled advertisement belongs in a paid sidebar along with other ads for profit-making entities in the issue, including a furnished apartment-style hotel and a dating service. This content does not serve the readership as an amplification of or comment upon the University or the Magazine and should not be published in this manner.

Richard A. Sachs, AB’70

Chelmsford, Massachusetts

Although we thought we were providing alumni with a service, Mr. Sachs makes a good point; we won’t do it again.—Ed.

Strike two

In response to a letter by Norman L. Macht, PhB’47, in the October/98 issue of the Magazine, the editor states that “Macht is correct in noting that Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar was ejected during a September 27, 1996, game against the Toronto Blue Jays, for spitting in umpire John Hirschbeck’s face.” That is not, in fact, correct.

While it may seem, on the surface, like a technical distinction, Alomar was ejected before the spitting incident, a fact that, in the context of the situation, was extremely important. The spitting incident itself, while reprehensible, was part of Alomar’s enraged—and admittedly palpably excessive—response to his very questionable ejection for mildly objecting to a horrific called third strike in a crucial game.

Kerry M. Leibowitz, AM’88

Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Gang equality

The drug-selling gang studied by Steven Levitt and Sudhir A. Venkatesh, AM’92, PhD’97, (“Gang Economics,” October/98) is economically more democratic than the typical big national corporation.

The “foot soldiers” of both gang and corporation receive no more than the minimum wage—and less in the case of the corporation if it does its manufacturing in the Third World—but the gang leader took in only $100,000 a year, while his corporate equivalent, the CEO, often pockets several million.

Herbert J. Gans, PhB’47, AM’50

New York City

Treaders vs. non-treaders

Sociologist Andrew Abbott, AM’75, PhD’82, invited explanations of the relation he found between having stepped on the U of C seal and not having graduated within four years (“Seal of Approval,” College Report, October/98). There are two promising hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. The first involves cognitive ability.

My recent article in Intelligence, “Everyday Life as an Intelligence Test” (January-February/97), reviewed evidence for an inverse IQ link to many kinds of deviant behavior, especially when data were aggregated over many individuals. Hence, one might compare the SAT scores, if available, of the treaders and non-treaders, those who graduated in four years and those who did not, and proceed from there. I would be curious whether verbal and quantitative SAT scores each played an independent role.

Arguing against finding a connection with SAT scores is the fact that the deviant acts in question were mild ones and the relation is more likely to emerge when the normative departure is not trivial. Furthermore, U of C undergraduates are concentrated within a narrow range of intelligence (88 percent with SAT scores of 1200 or more in the class of 2002, a threshold corresponding roughly to an IQ of 130). Restriction of range militates against finding correlations between variables. Conceivably, too, brighter individuals would be less respectful toward arbitrary authority, and so step on the seal, although they might still graduate easily in four years. Nonetheless, the hypothesis is worth testing.

Integrity is the second hypothesis (“The Construct Validity of Integrity Tests,” Ph.D. dissertation by Deniz S. Ones, University of Iowa, 1993). As measured by a variety of conscientiousness and broader integrity scales, this variable has been found to add to the predictability of job performance beyond the strong effect of general intelligence, which is the best independent predictor for most jobs. Being a student is a kind of job (payment deferred). Hence, Abbott’s two behaviors may be linked because both are manifestations of conscientiousness. As females score higher in conscientiousness, the hypothesis might be tested indirectly by comparing sexes, perhaps holding SAT scores constant. Alternatively, students could be observed at the seal and a conscientiousness test administered at a later date to those who step on or respect the seal, once sufficient sample sizes have been reached.

Evidence for either or both hypotheses involving such an esoteric little specimen of behavior as stepping on the U of C seal would be gratifying indeed to theorists of behavior concerned with outcomes of seemingly much weightier social consequence.

Robert A. Gordon, AM’62, PhD’63


Andrew Abbott replies: We don’t have the respondents’ SAT scores, but gender makes no difference either in whether you “stepped” or in rates of graduation given stepping or not stepping. My own theories involve response bias. If you didn’t graduate in four years, you’re more likely to remember the plaque and whether you stepped on it. But graduation rates are the same for those who don’t remember as for those who do remember but didn’t step. So there must be a further effect.

My guess is that once the pain of late graduation is over, the plaque story makes good party chitchat. So people who took more than four years shade their memories that way.

Inclined hearts

Arthur and I didn’t meet at the University, but we certainly became better acquainted because of it. I had never had any trouble following and learning anything in the classroom until it finally dawned on me that eventually I would have to take a six-hour exam covering the sciences survey course, some parts of which may as well have been some kind of unrecognizable flying objects that somehow came together to form what?

One of my friends felt the same desperation. Help! And we found it. I had had a few dates with Arthur Kohn, who had several degrees from the University of Michigan, and when I told him my problems, he agreed to tutor my friend and me. Somehow, he got through to us. I even managed to remember (maybe just until the exam was over!) whatever I had to remember in order to solve whatever I had to learn about that “plane that inclined.”

And Arthur and I went on from tutor and student to man and wife.

Joyce Bodenheimer Kohn, AB’37

Mayfield Heights, Ohio

Good articles, but bad type

I recently received an invitation to renew my subscription to the Magazine. I do not plan to do so, but it seemed rather gauche just to throw the invitation in the trash without an explanation.

My eyesight is poor, and the Magazine has lots of text printed in fonts which are probably perfectly adequate for the average user, but hard for me to read. A “good read” for me these days is to settle down in a comfortable chair to listen to a recorded book or magazine. Most of my other reading has to be done with a magnifying glass or on the computer screen where I can change the letters to white on a black background and enlarge them.

A second reason for writing this note is to suggest that you might consider alternative ways of publishing the Magazine. I am currently quite interested, for example, in the developments in voice synthesis software, which can “read” electronic text.

All this aside, the Magazine is a very good one.

George H. Thomson, PhD’63

Santa Fe, New Mexico

The mystic soul

Statements about U of C students in Sam Portaro’s “Acts of Faith” (June/98) to the effect that they are “more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’” and that “curiosity prevails over conversion” suggest some students would be interested in a succinct exposition of religion as science—that is, the science of the soul that is mysticism.

The word “mystic,” from the ancient Greek mystes, denotes a person who has been initiated into certain mysteries. Idries Shah, who has published a number of books of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, defines mysticism thus: “Mysticism is not a religion. It is religion. It is the essence of all religions.” Alan Watt in his opening lecture of the “Great Books of Asia” series presented in the mid-1950s on public radio and public television, defined mysticism as “the knowledge of man’s true nature and destiny,” and added that such knowledge is the result of experience as specific and concrete as anything experienced by our physical senses. In that lecture, incidentally, Watt also points out in some detail what he felt to be a weakness in the Great Books system of education.

In secular terms, mysticism is about growth—the growth of a human being—because mysticism is the means that enables that growth. The American painter Kenneth Harris, in his lecture “The Necessity of Non-Conformity,” asserted that a teacher’s main purpose is to help the student grow. Mysticism is a path, a way, an actual highway—the royal highway—which leads from here to the abode of the Supreme Being. As Tennessee Williams rightly asserts in Camino Real, planet earth is located at the nether end of the Royal Highway.

The incredible journey upon this highway is, in my opinion, the most wonderful adventure open to a human being.

George M. Colby, PhB’49, AM’52

Murrieta, California

The Magazine invites letters on its contents or on topics related to the University. Letters must be signed and may be edited. Write: Editor, University of Chicago Magazine, 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637. E-mail:

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