Think Again

As a reader of The Atlantic on and off for 40 years, I have to say that your new look is making William Dean Howells turn miserably in his celestial resting place (perhaps as Harold Ross roiled when Tina Brown rampaged at The New Yorker), to say nothing of his literary colleagues of the 1870s who were trying to hold off the ascendancy of New York and the Jamesians as the center of letters in the country.

You look like a cross between Time and The Economist. Amid your lunging social and political reportage, you severely neglect literature and the arts, save for those shabby paragraphs of sanitized authors and titles in the back. I know you will not dare to publish this, fearing to offend what H. L. Mencken called the “great booboisie” of readers.

David Taylor Johannesen
South Dartmouth, Mass.

Could it be that all it took was a stunning new wrapper to transform an indisputably excellent magazine into one that instantly strides to the head of the class? Or, alternatively, has The Atlantic been so skillfully retuned from the inside out that the changes ever so slightly shift the book’s emphasis and sensibility?

Having thought about it, I conclude, happily, that both are true: every element and detail of your redesign is “just right.” A venerable old title is once again a brilliant monthly gift to readers who appreciate being challenged at every turn.

Cable Neuhaus
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Spousal Infidelity?

Ross Douthat (“Is Pornography Adultery?,” October Atlantic) writes, “The man who uses porn is cheating sexually, but he isn’t involving himself in an emotional relationship.” Does that make my wife’s romance novels—in which the heroine meets and falls in love with a handsome sea captain with a Ph.D. in marine biology just back from Far Tortuga, where he was saving whales and attempting to get over the tragic loss of his wife, who died trying to climb K2 to raise money for the Special Olympics—better or worse than anything I might see on She’s also cheating sexually, and she is involving herself emotionally—vicariously falling in love—with a fantasy male I can’t compete with (except for the perfect pecs and the cleft chin, anyway). Why is it that Mr. Douthat’s outrage is aimed only at men?

Jeff Raines
Oakland, Calif.

New York Legend

Jed Perl’s article (“The Man Who Remade the Met,” October Atlantic) pays due tribute to Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello and raises several interesting points about museums today. However, one sentence is damaging, indeed downright wrong: “The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, one of the greatest in the country, has drastically cut curatorial departments and positions.”

Under the leadership of Malcolm Rogers, the museum has expanded both its curatorial and conservation departments. In fact, during the past eight years, curatorial positions have grown from 62 to 77 (a 24 percent increase), and conservation positions have grown from 46 to 69 (a 50 percent increase).

By investing in the curatorial and conservation departments, Rogers has demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that the museum’s collection receives the care, scholarship, and accessibility it deserves.

Katie Getchell
Deputy Director
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston, Mass.

Jed Perl replies:

Numbers tell only part of the story. Anybody familiar with the recent history of the museum knows perfectly well what I am referring to. In the summer of 1999, Malcolm Rogers—to quote from The Wall Street Journal—“put into effect a re-organization so radical in conception and so heavy-handed in its implementation that some have dubbed it ‘The Boston Massacre’ … When the dust settled, eighteen longtime employees were gone and departments had merged into superdivisions responsible for immense tracts of cultural terrain.” Among those fired were Jonathan Fairbanks, who had founded the American decorative arts department, and Anne Poulet, head of European decorative arts, who went on to be director of the Frick Collection, in New York. At the time, the firings and reorganization were met by a storm of protest that prompted the museum’s chairman to say, “I understand why people feel strongly.” As for the aftermath, Getchell may see net gains, but many see net losses.

Giving Wind a Chance

Matthew Quirk’s article about wind power (“Blowback,” October Atlantic) begs some clarifications. It is not necessary to install lots of new backup generation when large blocks of wind generation are added to the grid. Wind power is only a fraction of the total generation in any particular part of the country, and its variability typically falls within the margins of the existing operating reserves utility systems maintain. Thus, it is usually possible to add a significant amount of wind power without causing any increase in the use of reserves. Also, wind’s variability is largely forecastable.

The article states that “an unexpected cold front” suddenly reduced the output of wind plants in Texas last February, causing a series of power-supply problems. The changes in wind conditions that day were accurately forecasted by the new centralized forecasting system (operated by my firm) established by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Because the system was still in its pilot mode that day, ERCOT chose not to use the forecast. The state’s power shortfall was actually triggered by the failure of a conventional gas plant to come on line and not by the drop-off in winds.

Bruce H. Bailey
President/CEO, AWS Truewind, LLC
Albany, N.Y.

Matthew Quirk replies:

Wind power does require backup. The question is how much. I went with the conclusions of the grid operators themselves. At the end of the day, they’re the ones responsible for making sure the lights don’t go out. For wind to add capacity to a system and reliably meet demand, every 100 megawatts of wind power typically requires 85 or more megawatts of backup. In Texas, that figure is 91 megawatts.

Better forecasting will greatly help compensate for wind’s variability. The emergency in Texas was due to a drop in wind and a failure of reserves (this is the official explanation from ERCOT). My larger point still holds: wind, even in small proportions, can gum up the system, and sanguine assumptions that current backup can accommodate lots of new wind power without incident are not borne out by facts on the ground.

Baking Even

The legal concept that is conspicuously missing from Corby Kummer’s article (“Half a Loaf,” October Atlantic) is that of a trade secret, something that is not protected under copyright, patent, or trademark but that has proprietary commercial value if exploited without competing use. As the name implies, a trade secret is valuable only if the details are, in fact, kept secret. Perhaps Jim Lahey didn’t seek counsel before he cooperated in the publication of a New York Times article about his “revolutionary bread-making method,” but having done so, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. What did he expect, that readers would pay him a royalty out of the goodness of their hearts? Many wiser (if less altruistic) chefs guard their baking recipes as zealously as I and my fellow mushroom foragers guard the locations of our prized chanterelles.

Owen Prell
The Art Law Group
Mill Valley, Calif.

Corby Kummer replies:

Jim Lahey of course never meant to suggest that he receive royalties for his no-knead bread, a method he is the first to say is ancient. The question posed by the article remains: How can cooks and writers stay active, generous, and solvent?

Perils of Gastronomy

Is that really Corby Kummer on page 126 of September’s Atlantic? My husband and I have read and enjoyed every one of his columns. We often wondered just how fat he is. We pictured him waddling from fabulous restaurant to wonderfully managed dairy (huffing and puffing as he climbed a hill, his shiny bald head gleaming cheerfully). Poor Corby flying to Greece, squeezed into the two seats required for a Passenger of Size. Now here he is, a slim, nice-looking man with a full head of hair!? How can a person wax euphoric over so many delicious foodstuffs and not be obese? Corby! My hero! Pray, how do you manage to do it?

Meg Meltz
Santa Fe, N.M.

Termite Power

Although making two liters of hydrogen at atmospheric pressure (“Gut Reactions,” September Atlantic) is not patently impossible, powering any car for six miles with it is.

Stephen Bartok
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Lisa Margonelli replies:

I wrote that the two liters of hydrogen produced by termites eating a single sheet of paper were enough to drive a fuel-cell car six miles. Although this appeared to be true on paper, in fact not all liters of hydrogen are equal. As I was recently told by Roy Kim of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the generic fuel economy of fuel-cell vehicles is 60 miles per 1kg of gaseous hydrogen at 5,000psi. However, one cannot easily convert miles per kilogram into miles per liter, as there are different amounts of hydrogen in a liter at any given pressure. So although it may take a stack of magazines, rather than the single page I cited, to power a fuel-cell car, the conversion of cellulosic material into energy is still fairly amazing, and more rewarding than taking out the recycling.

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