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Letters to the Editor, January 1998


This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for January 1998.

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From: L. Hunter Cassells
Date: 12/30/97
Subj: A choice that cannot be made

"My will is that you choose." Except God cannot divest Himself of that power; He is the only one that has it, and even putting Himself at your disposal, so to speak, is His choice, for which He alone is accountable. Whether I obey you or disobey, I choose, and the responsibility is mine, mine alone, and never my commander's.

Hmmm. This gets tricky. Your point as I take it is that choices and the responsibility for those choices can never, in the nature of things, be passed off to others. One way to look at it is that this is not your choice - it is God's choice. All you can do is offer God advice. Very well, put it this way:

God says to you "I am contemplating one of two actions - eternal salvation for you and eternal damnation for everyone else or else eternal salvation for everyone else and eternal damnation for you. I demand of you your opinion as to which of these two actions I should take."

The natural thing to do is to refuse to make a choice. God being God, however, can compel you to make a choice. You might refuse until the moment of compulsion comes and your answer, so to speak, pops out by itself. But this would not be a conscious choice. Can God compel you to make a conscious choice? Not, I opine, under the ground rules of Christianity.

You might build in a "default" choice. If the choice was made by my walking through the left door or the right one, I might answer by choosing to die in between and never pass either one; but if the choice was made by staying put or leaving by (either) door, then the choice is forced.

This is another variation of "Can God force you to make a choice?"
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From: Alfred Lehmberg
Date: 12/30/97
Subj: Great site!

At first blush our priorities seem to parallel. Enjoy, and agree with many of your positions. Looking forward to keeping up with you -- expect my periodic visit to your site.

Explore the Alien View?
http://www.fortunecity.com/roswell/arecibo/46/

Thunk you, nice to hear from you and all that good stuff. I took a look at your site - some interesting stuff there. But I don't have priorities - I have seniorities.
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From: LaVirg
Date: 12/22/97
Subj: Waiting for Godot?

I read your interpretations for Beckett's Waiting for Godot and it seems to me as if you understand even the most absurd. So, I have a question for you......... Do you or can you find postmodern aspects of the play? You are perhaps the only person who can help me with this, and since you know so much..................................................... If you write back, I'd be much obliged.

Sincerely, Andrea ( the confused college student)

I'll try to answer although if I were you I wouldn't put any great stock in my answer if you're looking for a grade.

One of the problems with saying "postmodern aspects" is that postmodern and postmodernism are labels that are used for a lot of different things.

Waiting For Godot is a quintessential example of the Theatre of The Absurd which, in different forms, was quite popular after the world wars. In its simplest form it says that life - the complex life of the culture that we live in - doesn't make sense. It holds a mirror up to that senselessness. As such it was a natural reaction in the aftermath of the great wars. Our cultures are supposed to make sense to us. That is, they provide ready explanations for what we do within them and why we do them. More than that they are expected to deliver - to take care of our needfuls including our sense of security. Theatre of the Absurd is a trick - take an incomprehensible element of life within the culture and strip everything else away.

It's been a good while since I've seen a production of WFG so memory may fail me but, as I recall it, it's a pretty simple play in structure. You two elements - the two citizens waiting for contact with a remote authority and the master/servant who may be taken as symbols of the aristocratic upper class/lower class. Puzo represents the past; the two main characters are people in the modern incomprehensible state. As to who they are waiting for, my little satire points out that different explanatory systems provide different explanations. Each of them provides jargon and formulas of explanation. I suppose you could say that the satire is a structuralist analysis - it points to the common structure of how these different explanatory systems have a common structure.

The terms used in post-modern circles for what I have called 'explanatory systems' are grand narratives and meta-narratives. It is a very post-modern thing to do to look at meta-narratives with a jaundiced eye. Meta-narratives do two things that post-modernists point to. They substitute for the actual an explanation of the actual. (Hence the emphasis on looking only at the text.) They also are politicized. That is, a meta-narrative gives privelege to certains concepts and modes of thinking; the priveleges within the meta-narrative reflect the interests and values of the priveleged class that propounded the meta-narrative.

Perhaps a post-modern way of looking at WFG is that it makes it evident that the meta-narratives don't explain what they purport to explain. The incomprehensible remains incomprehensible after the explanation is over. After the babblers are through babbling they are still waiting for Godot.

Another thought along these lines is that Derrida devotes attention to the idea of the Messiah as the unplanned future that is to come.

I don't know if this is of any help but it may give you a few thoughts to play with.

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From: Henning Strandin
Date: 01/06/97
Subj: editorial dec 29

As always, it is a pleasure to visit your site. I thought I'd contribute some semi-relevant thoughts on the web as an encyclopedia (it became quite long, sorry about that).

That's quite all right. I enjoy long letters, particularly interesting ones such as yours. As a bonus they are material for the ever-expanding web site that I don't have to write.

I believe you are right in comparing the web to your other reference literature. This is how I use the web much of the time. There is one fundamental difference though. On the shelves of the web can not only be found books and writings, but also human beings, with personal experiences from professions, cultures, hobbies, you name it. This is in my opinion what really makes the web an 'encyclopedia humana' (please correct my latin, it is non-existent). The fact is, the recipe you were looking for was out there somewhere, and you managed to get hold of it. One might protest that Usenet, IRC and e-mail correspondence is not part of the web as such. It isn't. But hyper-links in ICQ, Usenet archives on the web and HTML in e-mail etc, will soon make the distinction irrelevant, I think.

Along these lines the web is part of what I will call experience of the the third kind. Experience of the first kind is direct experience - we walk, we talk, we interact directly with people. Reading text and looking at pictures is experience of the second kind. The medium is passive - we produce the sensory experience in our imagination and thought. The electronic media is a new kind of experience, experience of the third kind, which is still developing and expanding. The media is active and not passive, yet it is not the immediate experience of the first kind.

This encyclopedia can also be used for all kinds of not-so obvious tasks. E.g., English is not my maternal language. I have an on-line dictionary among my bookmarks, but it's far from complete. When I need to check the spelling of a more unusual word, I use Altavista. I make a search for the word, if I get 50 hits, all in non-English speaking countries, I conclude that it's the wrong spelling, but a common enough mistake. If I get 3000 hits with a large part from sites that end with .edu, I can safely assume that it's the right spelling. I can also search for a whole phrase, to see what this phrase means, and even get an idea of what kind of people use it and get it in a cultural context. This encyclopedia is really like no other before it.

Hmmm. That's an interesting trick that I hadn't thought of. I have a dictionary (the print and paper kind) immediately at hand - it's a bit handier than going to alta vista and doing a search. On the other hand it isn't the OED so that's a trick worth remembering. A friend introduced me to web bingo. The game is to simply think of names that are likely to be used at site names, e.g. http://www.foobar.com (which is real) or http://www.fubar.com (which doesn't exist). One turns up all sorts of randomness this way. There is a nifty site that provides domain lookup, , which will tell you if any domain name is available.

Finally, about the web being unreliable as a source. It's impossible to use the web for research without practicing good critical analysis of the sources you find. You need to get multiple confirmations and make a check-up on the authors if you can. I know it has taught me to be more critical towards traditionally published writings too. This, I think, is a Good Thing. So this is the one point were I don't agree with you. I don't think the net will propagate pseudo-science, but maybe teach us to be more critical in our approach to other people's writings. After all, getting multiple sources is often a matter of seconds on the web, while at the library, it may take hours or days.

It's sort of a mixed bag. One of the plusses is that a lot of reliable sources such as the leading science journals are on-line. This means that if I create a page on a subject I can link directly to my references. On the other hand my page is not refereed. This is a problem. The vast bulk of material on the web is not validated by anybody except the web page author. A major aim of the enterprise of science is to produce reliable knowledge of the world.

This is not a simple matter. There is an immense amount of cross checking that goes into the knowledge claims of science. It is this process of social verification of knowledge that gets diluted in the web. On the other hand these things tend to be self correcting. Today we have search engines which provide us with connectivity. We have various sites that point out "cool" and "hot" sites. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up with web page review engines that rate reliability of pages.

Pseudoscience is another matter entirely. Every crackpot can put up a web page and many of them do. They can recruit and foster their sundry causes. The loonier ones also provide great entertainment but that is another matter.

That was all, thanks again for contributing such a massive amount of original content to the web (that's where the real work lies after all).

Kind words are always appreciated. Thanks for the thoughtful letter. Sites with a large amount of original content are common enough but they are relatively rare.

One of the neat things about the web is that you can get a look at what other people have to say about themselves. The ordinary world of mass media (books, movies, et cetera) doesn't do that.


From: L. Hunter Cassells
Date: 1/7/98
Subj: A choice that cannot be made

(material from first letter)
God says to you "I am contemplating one of two actions - eternal salvation for you and eternal damnation for everyone else or else eternal salvation for everyone else and eternal damnation for you. I demand of you your opinion as to which of these two actions I should take."

"God, my honest opinion is that you need a long hot bath and a good bottle of Scotch ale, and find yourself some new actions. You're God; you should be able to come up with something."

The trouble is that that would make you comfortable. God in this scenario isn't interested in making you comfortable or making you feel good. He wants to put you to the test to see what you do with a really hard choice.
(material from first letter)
The natural thing to do is to refuse to make a choice. God being God, however, can compel you to make a choice. You might refuse until the moment of compulsion comes and your answer, so to speak, pops out by itself. But this would not be a conscious choice. Can God compel you to make a conscious choice? Not, I opine, under the ground rules of Christianity.

My "default choice" mechanism wouldn't amount to a truly conscious choice, true.

But all this is weaseling, by playing games with the metaphor in which the question is framed, rather than the point of the question. How profoundly are you willing to screw other folks, for how much gain; or, how much pain are you willing to endure for the good of others? Stealing a pen from work costs my fellow taxpayers an infinitesimally small amount, which may even be offset by their fractional gain (my small pleasure in having a pen at hand, contributing to my overall good humor, spread over 250 million folks). Stealing $50 billion by computer fraud from a bank will specifically hurt specific people a whole lot more than my tolerance level; I can't think of any pleasure that $50 billion would bring me, that would outweigh my displeasure at the pain caused. OTOH, you don't see me sacrificing my life now trying to build a better world for others. At the level of the eternal bliss/damnation question, the choices are both so nearly equal, that I think my only real option is to go mad. I'm reminded of another dog story: dogs asked to choose between an oval and a circle for a treat or a shock. The ovals were made successively more circular. At some point (varying, as I recall, with the individual dogs), being unable to choose and yet having to, they started to lose it, barking and scrabbling and otherwise showing signs of deep agitation.

You point about playing games with the metaphor is well taken. The question takes the notion of self-interest vs self-sacrifice to the limit. Here are some thoughts on that:

In evolutionary theory there are explanations for the evolution of altruism. In the ordinary course of things evolution rewards the selfish individual who looks out for number one. However there are circumstances where there is selection for limited forms of altruism. Parental care is the obvious one. Sacrifice for relatives is another (your relatives share your genes). Reciprocal altruism in social species is another.

The forms of altruism found in animals are all forms of indirect self interest and are distinctly limited in scope. With humans, however, atruism is culturally mediated and has a much wider scope. The genes in the cultureless animal cannot conceive of the common good nor can they plan for the future. Humans can. It is culture that permits us to have these thoughts of extended self-sacrifice; culture takes us into larger realms. The question tests the boundaries of those realms.

A related question is what I call the question of the price. Take an action which you would not ordinarily do for money. The action depends on your personal predilictions. For the sake of argument let the person being queried be heterosexual and the action be a homosexual act. This is something that one might do for nothing out of curiosity. However you are not being asked to do it for nothing; you are being asked to name a price for doing it. Would you do it for $10, $1000, $1000000, or what? An interesting thing about this question is that different prices have different meanings.

There is a limit to how much is paid for sexual favors as a straight transaction - it is on the order of a few thousand dollars for an evening. If your price is within that range you acting as a prostitute selling your body for money. A high class prostitute, perhaps, but you are in that ball park. Then there are a range of prices which will make a real difference in your life but will not make a radical difference. Thus a hundred thousand dollars would let you buy many things; it would not be enough so that you could stop working. Above that is an amount of money which is enough so that you would never have to work again. Still further up is an amount that would enable you to live in luxury for the rest of your life. An even larger amount would give you resources for political and social power.

What I am getting at here is that different prices have different meanings. This applies also to considerations of self-interest and self-sacrifice. (Your point, of course.)

Another thought is that the question raises the possibility of self-sacrifice as an absolute. It occurs to me that this is not a Christian idea but rather it is a pagan idea. Christ may have died for us but he was conveniently resurrected. Prometheus, on the other hand, suffers for us forever.

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From: Ruby Dunagan
Date: 1/9/98
Subj: Intrigued

I was intrigued by two things that you have: One - you intro on building web pages and who they might attract. And the other- your horseback riding! My nephew has a small spread in Oklahoma and he has hosted different people to ride and participate in the day to day stuff that goes on, so it was suggested to him that he start a cowboy school. That link has not got him very far, possibly because people are looking for a vacation not a school. I wonder if you would exchange links with him when we get him under another link in the browsers! That is, he lists your place and you list his?

As you can tell my site is not exactly commercial. It is sort of dedicated to the spirit of free personal journalism or something pretentious like that. You will not find in it those annoying advertising banners with the ticky tacky animated gif's. Although, come to think on it I do have an EFF token on my main page. Oh well, one shouldn't take sacred principles too seriously.

Be that as it may, sure. Little people helping little people and all that, you know. I dunno as it will help him a great deal but I'm game. Send me the URL when you get it up.

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From: Jim Belec
Date: 1/15/98
Subj: naked antelopes and watermelon seeds

Richard,

Not sure how I arrived at your cluttered mind-scape, I closed my search pages soon after I began wandering about your place. I think I was searching for idiot savant references, or mental calculations (math) suitable for my son . . . or some such.

In any case, I have made a shortcut to your pages so I can return and do the many topics you address (some) justice. Your humor suits me to a tee.

Good to hear from you; thanks for writing. Cluttered mind-scape is an excellent characterization. Re justice for my topics: I can't afford justice; I want mercy! Have fun rambling through the pages.
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From: Bob Oppenheimer
Date: 1/16/98
Subj: more humor

Hello Richard,

Here's some new material. Well new for me at least. Your home page re-organization looks good though I do miss the (signature) "this site best viewed with a bottle of scotch". After being barraged with "this site best viewed with ...." it is a humorous difference.
[material snipped]

Thanks for the material. I don't promise to use it but I might. I keep files of stuff and pick something out every so often. It's much appreciated even if I don't use it.

The "this site best viewed with a bottle of scotch" tag is still there. Maybe I should move it up to the top and make it bigger.

Re the reorg: I decided that the old layout was too wordy and didn't really help people find their way around. Also I find it a lot more convenient. The layout of the site is sort of a maze of twisty little passages but I don't want to make it too hard. Also I figured that at the rate I've been adding material it makes sense to go to monthly table of contents and correspondence, just as though it were an e-zine. Frankly I don't know what it is.

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From: ron clarkson
Date: 1/16/98
Subj: link

please link my page to you sight www.kdi.com/~clarkson

Hi,
Why? Have you looked at my site? Where do you think that a link to your site would belong?
[Ron continued]

hello richard
yes i have been to your sight. as far as where the link should be, im not sure,. you can put them anywhere. i would recommend putting it somewhere toward the bottom so it will not distract in any way form your page i would like to link your page as well. please send me the url again. if you need any help contact me.

Hi,
The word is "site" rather than "sight". I don't think you understood what I was getting at: My web site literally has hundreds of pages with pages covering a large number of topics. I certainly wouldn't put it on my main page but there are a lot of other pages where it might be appropriate. Do not worry though. A link to your page will appear in my correspondence pages. (Click here to see his page. Why I should have a link to it is a mystery to me.)
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From: mdr
Date: 1/18/98
Subj: dhmo

thanks for dhmo page. plan to use it as an introduction to the chemistry part of a science class!
mdr

It's an oldie, one of those things that has been kicking around for years. There are several copies floating around on the net. It's a good object lesson, though.
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From: Miriam Coyne
Date: 1/24/98
Subj: loved the Godot in various modes...

I absolutely loved the Waiting for Godot in various modes! Your "baffle-gab" interpretations were right on the money. You need to add feminism. You could go off on the fact that women were not the dominant force in the play and the play is obviously a conspiracy by the white male dominanted society that rejects the power of women and their obvious importance in the cycle of world events.

Oh my, yes, I should have done feminism. I don't know as it should be a conspiracy though - more on the order of "the phallocentric mindset of the patriarchy" with the servant being a symbolic woman and Godot being the anti-goddess, the antithesis of the Goddess. I will concoct something.

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