Saturday, July 2, 2011

One Good Turn Deserves Another

A couple of days ago I received an email from a Ph.D. student in the U.K.. I don't know him, or his supervisor, but the message came with a simple enough request. The student was having trouble getting hold of a copy of a paper published as a chapter in a book (Handbook of Applied Economic Statistics) that Aman Ullah and I edited a few years - could I help in some way?

This sort of thing comes up from time to time for all of us, I'm sure. When I got the email I was reminded of the first time that I was on the other end of such a request - in 1973, as a Ph.D. student in New Zealand, trying to get on top of what was then a newly emerging field - Bayesian Econometrics.

Arnold Zellner's classic book had appeared just two years earlier. I'd been through it from cover to cover - I still have my notes that fill in all of those gaps where there are statements such as: "Completing the square and then integrating, it can be shown that...." (Two pages of integration later....!)

Anyway, I was trying to get hold of a particular Ph.D. dissertation that Arnold had recently supervised. The University of Chicago didn't participate in the dissertations microfiche distribution service that the University of Michigan then ran, internationally. (Microfiche?? You had to be there!) So, our library couldn't help me. I was on my own.

No email of course. So, with a good deal of trepidation, and very little confidence of succeeding, I wrote(yes, wrote by hand- I didn't have a typewriter and there were no such things as word processors) a letter to Arnold and put it in the mail. The letter simply asked if he could advise me which library at U. Chicago I should write to in order to get hold of the dissertation. I kind of knew enough to suspect that there may be more than one library there!

Before I knew it, a package arrived containing not only a copy of the thesis, but also numerous recent working papers. There was a very kind letter from Arnold telling me that he had called up various colleagues who were also working on Bayesian problems, and had asked them to mail me their own working papers. They obliged, and papers from Arnold arrived regularly for at least a couple of decades.

Now, you might think that Arnold was just savvy enough to recognize a potential convert when he heard from one. Yes, he was. But I was already committed to the cause, so there was little for him to gain there. Any of you who knew Arnold would be able to confirm that this was just typical of him. He was enormously generous with his time and energy.

I have much to thank Arnold for, and I was greatly saddened by his passing last summer. I often think that my professional friendship with him would probably never have started if I hadn't plucked up the courage to write that letter, and if (more importantly) he hadn't responded so positively.

It seems to me that the least I can do now is to respond in a similar manner to such requests when I receive them myself.

© 2011, David E. Giles

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