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A fresh coat

I was pleasantly surprised the other day to find that the Smoot marks on the Harvard Bridge had been repainted. Some markings died off (3OH!3 which popped up last year didn’t last) while other clever new ones like the “214 Smoots” mark appeared. Also, an unappealing bit of vandalism near the 60 Smoots mark has been kindly painted over. However, as I was walking to class, a few things stuck out to me. All the characters had rough outlines, the font and size was wildly varied, and instead of an interesting variation of yellow, purple, and green markings, there were simply three blocks of a single color along the bridge. By the time I reached campus, I was slightly disappointed to find myself thinking that the repainting of the Smoots had been done with less care than in the past.

The story of Oliver Smoot is one that is told to everyone, even people on campus tours. Smoots are a legitimate measure of distance on Google’s distance converter. It is the longest running hack in the history of MIT. Counting off the Smoots is a great way to pass the eight minutes it takes to walk across the bridge. It’s a bit of tradition that asserts that not just Harvard gets to lay claim to the Harvard Bridge. It’s because of all these things that I hope the Smoots do not go from being a piece of art into just another bit of graffiti.

—John B. Parkes ’13

The value of life is not measured in dollars

I would like to draw your attention to an unsettling cognitive dissonance that has appeared on page five of your newspaper over the course of the last two weeks.

In the issue dated October 15, a staff columnist conceded that global warming was real and had grave potential, then proceeded to argue that the United States, as a rich extratropical country, would find it cheaper to pay for the costs of global warming than to do anything to prevent it. Quote: “It appears that the hot areas of the world should be bribing us to take action, not the other way around.” Accepting (strictly for the sake of rhetoric) all the author’s technical assertions, I would like to note that the world’s warmest countries are mostly also its poorest. I find idea that the planet’s rich have no obligation to protect the poor from a problem that the rich substantially created to be ghoulishly Victorian, but it does make a certain mathematical sense as long as you assign zero value to the well-being of strangers.

Contrast that with a piece written by the same author, dated October 26, which asserts that abortion is immoral because sentient organisms have the right to live, and that embryos don’t meet that criterion but deserve protection because they have the potential to someday become creatures that do. He considers the cost of having a baby to be small enough to be negligible, and he dismisses the emotional cost out of hand. It’s my impression that pressuring a woman into having a child she doesn’t want is an act of awful psychological aggression, but on that point I am willing to agree to disagree. Likewise, I know a few parents who inform me that parenthood is a bit costlier than one double cheeseburger per day, but I can let that slide too. Nor am I terribly worried that the same logic could be applied to the countless human ova discarded every month, which could just as well become sentient beings if only (free!) spermatozoa were provided. Rather, I am deeply distressed by the implications of this argument combined with the previous. If we have some obligation to embryos simply because they could become adults someday, shouldn’t we owe at least that much to the thinking, feeling adults who already exist on the other side of the planet?

I suspect — and hope — that this isn’t what the author intended. It’s not the first time a well-meaning person has attempted to apply economics to human morality and accidentally come up with a self-serving answer. But we would all do well to remember that whatever sets the value of life in this world, it is not quite so simple as dollars and cents.

—Neil Zimmerman G

Global warming and abortion are different

Editor’s note: this letter was written in response to Neil Zimmerman’s letter, above.

I feel you are missing much of the point of the global warming article — regardless of whether we pursue a realistic or idealistic foreign policy, unilateral action to reduce our carbon emissions is unlikely to improve the lot of the poor in Africa. The signatories of Kyoto who accepted carbon constraints succeeded in maintaining their carbon emissions to 1990 levels, but the carbon emissions associated with the goods they consumed went up by 40 percent — the production of the most carbon-intensive goods simply relocated to China and elsewhere. If helping poor Africans should be a goal of our foreign policy, I would much rather give the benefits directly to them in the form of anti-malarial bednets and medicine, rather than giving $2 to China to send $1 of effective aid to Africa.

As for the abortion article, you’re right: I didn’t mean to say that 300 calories a day is the only cost to carrying a fetus to term. There’s a cost to labor losses, social and psychological costs, and a not-insignificant health risk to the mother. But you seem to have misread the conclusion I drew: I am not anti-abortion. I may find it immoral under most circumstances, but I believe that an embryo’s right to life does not trump a mother’s right to choose at the moment of conception. Instead, I am defending a Roe v. Wade style formulation, in which the mother’s rights trump the embryo’s right to life early in the pregnancy, but do not later in the pregnancy. If pressuring (but not coercing) a woman into keeping a child is an act of “awful psychological aggression” then perhaps we should jail Alan Sader for going on late night TV and guilting us to buy food and shelter for vulnerable children in developing countries.

—Keith Yost G

Recent crimes highlight the need for improved lighting on Albany Street

Over the past week I’ve been very disturbed by a string of armed robberies around the Northwest campus. At night students have been robbed of their wallets, laptops, and backpacks by armed men on the streets next to labs and graduate dorms around Albany Street and surrounding areas. Clearly there is a need to improve general vigilance, but these crimes also highlight a long unfulfilled need for better lighting on Albany Street.

Lighting on Albany Street has been terrible for years. Considering that there are about 2,000 or more graduate students now living in the NW area, it is hard to believe that it has not significantly improved. The poor lighting allows criminals to stay hidden and also makes it difficult to identify them. Poorly lit alleys and doorways around the buildings on Albany Street make unfortunately good hiding places. These reasons make Albany Street a target for would-be criminals and should make it a high priority for large-scale improvements in street and building lighting. Even when the criminals involved in these recent robberies are caught, Albany Street will still be a target if it remains poorly lit.

It may also be prudent to install additional blue emergency stations and maintain the areas around the ones we already have; for example, the one near Ashdown is covered by a tree.

It is my hope that MIT shows its concern for these events by taking the necessary actions needed to improve lighting around the NW campus.

—Matthew Eddy G