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Letters to the Editor, November 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 And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication.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 November 1998.

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From: Diane Ware
Date: 11/12/98
Subj: Snappy Feminine Comebacks

I've got one for you:

Older man: "Where have you been all my life?"
Younger woman: "Probably not born for half of it!"

I've actually used this one (it's my own), and it works!

Thanks, I'll add it. A variant of that runs:

Older man: "I want you to be the mother of my children"
Younger woman: "But how many do you have?"

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From: Kalina
Date: 10/25/98
Subj: The Cold Equations

Hello,
This story is really interesting. We are also reading it in school and I don't know what are the "cold equatiions" and why are they called that? Please answer me as soon as possible.

My apologies - I've gotten a bit behind on my email. The basic idea of cold equations is that you can't change the laws of physics to meet human desires. It doesn't matter whether you are good or bad, smart or stupid - the laws of physics don't care. In the story the young woman has to die because there simply isn't enough fuel to carry her as a passenger. The cold equations in this case are the equations governing the rate of consumption of rocket fuel.

The real theme of the story is that in ordinary society we are protected from dangerous consequences of our actions in a lot of ways - humanity has created a protective environment for itself. In extreme situations and evironments, however, the protection is thin and it is easy to make an unwitting fatal mistake.

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From: Pelli
Date: 11/11/98
Subj: 1995 winner

all i can say is that i saw a copy of the original story at work and wanted a copy for myself...i was disappointed to see that you had re-written the story (updated 11/10) and the tragedy was not nearly as humorous..please post a copy of the story as originally written.

I'm sorry but the version that you see is the original version as I got it; there may be other versions circulating on the net. I definitely did not rewrite the story. The page was last changed 11/10 to add the information that a reader says that the story is true but that it happened in New Mexico rather than in Arizona.
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From: Stephen D. Franklin
Date: 11/10/98
Subj: Darwin Awards Page

Your Darwin Awards Page is most edifying. When it refers to "urban legends" you might want to link to http://www.urbanlegends.com/ You might also be interested in the fact that it was featured in http://reports.guardian.co.uk/articles/1998/11/11/32481.html

Thanks for the kudos and the suggested link - I will add it. Thanks also for pointing out the guardian article. When I first put up the page I had no idea that it would be so popular.
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From: Sdmcar
Date: 11/10/98
Subj: morefunny

I don't know if this has already been sent to you, but if it has, let me know. Mindy. this story is about a guy in a weather balloon with a six pack of miller lite

I've got it: It's the The 1997 Darwin Award Honorable Mention,
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From: Ann Wylie (a-wylie@webtv.net)
Date: 11/9/98
Subj: Super

I just checked out your site. I loved it. If it wasn't so late i've have stayed longer. I bookmarked it. You need a guest page.

Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. I don't have a guest book as such but I do record almost all of the correspondence in the letter pages. You'll find yourself there within the next few days.
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From: James Chase
Date: 11/3/98
Subj:
Piltdown homepage

I found your Piltdown page very interesting.

Thank you; I appreciate that you found it so. Over time I have tried to make it into a semi-authoritative resource page for the hoax as well as providing a reasonably coherent account of the hoax.

A bibliographic suggestion: the main reference for Gould's views isn't 'Piltdown Revisited' in The Panda's Thumb. That paper only briefly sketches his argument in a short appendix. He goes into much more detail in 'The Piltdown Conspiracy' and 'A Reply to Critics', both collected in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes. He's also written at least one other article on the subject in Natural History, but I don't know if it's made it into one of his collections.

You are quite right. I have copies of both books but not the Natural History article. For some reason I missed referencing Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes.

Some content suggestions:

1. One thing that always puzzles me about Piltdown arguments is the use of the 'needle in haystack' thesis: the claim that seeded fossils would almost certainly never be found by innocent searchers (with the corollary that the forger must have been present in the pit to discover the fossils for himself). I don't find this claim especially implausible, but in Piltdown studies it gets as much work as a law of nature, and very little supporting evidence. Walsh is an especial disappointment, as he leans on it extremely hard but doesn't cite any empirical evidence to back it up: even anecdotal evidence culled from the writings of paleontologists would be useful.

That's a good point and one that I will have to think about. I think we can take it for granted that all of the planted fossils were found - Woodward went back to the digs many times. The hoaxer, of course, would want all of his carefully manufactured artifacts to be found; it seems he was successful. A real issue is whether it was necessary to plant them during the course of the digging or whether it would have sufficed to plant them in one step and rely on them being found.

Moreover, there seems an equally strong counter-tradition among paleontologists that once you know what to look for, fieldwork becomes very much simpler (Gould runs the 'needle in haystack' claim in his Piltdown articles, but elsewhere gives instances of how the eye informed by hypothesis has triumphed in fieldwork). Assuming that Woodward, Dawson and Teilhard were on the lookout for skull and teeth fragments, to compare in colouration and texture to the pieces Dawson allegedly got from a workman, wouldn't this make the job very much simpler?

If I have the right of it, the Piltdown dig was particularly unfavorable. It was a hard gravel pit with both the gravel and the bones being heavily stained. If Walsh is correct most of the fragments were found in the spills rather than directly in the pit. I shall see if I can get the expert opinion of paleontologists on this one.

Anyway, I feel that some of the Piltdown scholars are oversimplifying things, in order to run their preferred arguments contra Teilhard or Dawson. Perhaps your webpage could serve as a bulletin board for people to contribute any evidence they have either way on this.

You're quite right about oversimplifying things. The authors trying to make cases have regularly forced the evidence, i.e., they have overstated the implications of suggestive circumstances. Thus, for example, any of the suggested principals *might* have have happened to acquire the original bones. Likewise it is not certain the hoaxer *had* to have had access at all relevant times to the digs. Suggested motives are often wildly speculative.

On the other hand there are elements that are more solid. Walsh makes much, rightly I think, of the circumstances of finding the jawbone. Even more to the point, I think, are the circumstances surrounding the Piltdown II find, something the theorists mostly pay little attention to. P2, I think, definitely implicates Dawson.

2. Another way of gaining evidence about this case is by comparing it to other famous fraud cases. To my mind, a very strong argument against Dawson is his previous history of fraud in a variety of circumstances, and the fact that other famous forgers (the sinologist Edmund Backhouse; the Greek scholar Wise and the chess historian Duncan Forbes are good examples) equally seem to have had a background of compulsive repetition of fraud, in a variety of circumstances. Again, perhaps your webpage could collect together evidence about the profiles of people who commit scholarly fraud of this kind.

That is a good suggestion.
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From: Steve Harter
Date: 11/10/98
Subj: The Harter Gazette

Come for a visit!

I've added music to my website, additional animals to the family and updates on each of the kids, Ellen and Myself.

Let me know what you think, OK?

Long time, no hear from. I like it - the rabbits are delightful.
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From: John
Date: 11/13/98
Subj: Web site

Just wanted you to know I like your web site a lot.

Thank you - kind words are always appreciated. Of course that depends upon what kind of words they are.
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From: Charles Hitchcock
Date: 11/12/98
Subj:
sdtrip

It must be a strange sensation to go back and find that your childhood home is barely even a hole in the ground. I get back to my early grounds (formerly exurban DC) every few years (family, and the only school reunions I value); the last time I was there somebody had managed to subdivide the lot and put up an I-HAVE-MONEY house, but the one I grew up in was still there. (Brick has its uses.)

Indeed. In truth the sight was not strange to me - when I went there in 1973 the buildings were already gone. The impact was greater this time. In previous trips I had been with other people; one cannot wallow in nostalgia unreservedly in the company of others. There is more to it than that, though. Nostalgia - the desire to be in touch with one's youth - is a stronger factor when one is one's 60's than when one is in one's 40's.

The impact is particularly strong for me because everything is gone. Until I was 13 my world consisted of the ranch and the one room country school that I attended with the occasional visit to town or to neighbors. Nothing is left of the house save a hole in the ground where the cistern used to be and a few rocks. The only thing left of the buildings are some rows of stones where the foundations were. The one room country school is totally gone - you cannot even see where the foundation was. More than that the neighbors are gone and their houses are empty, decaying, and falling into ruin.

The town has changed too. When I grew up it had two drug stores (both of which carried pulp SF magazines but not, alas, ASF), a movie house, and a bakery. All gone, of course. The great social event was to go to town on a Saturday night - it was like an outdoor SF convention. That has gone by the board.

The land does not change though. One of things about growing up in the country is that you know - really know - every hill, it's shape, and every draw.

So much for "You can't go home again."

The closest I came to that sort of disappearance was wandering through the former site of a chautauqua/trolley-park/amusement-park that I'd grown up with; it closed shortly after I moved away 30 years ago, although parts are being reused as an arts center. Parts of it had gone to wrack and ruin -- the pool and the arcade in particular looked like something out of BATMAN, while the minigolf course had no carpet but enough concrete left to make clear what each hole had been like -- but the most dramatic part was the 3 30-foot trees where I remembered boarding the roller coaster (one of the few things actually torn down -- abandoned woodies get dangerous).

Disconcerting isn't it?

I find it hard to imagine you settling in the plains, possibly because I've always known you in a city-based setting. Several NESFen were talking just last night about how appallingly flat they'd found Winnipeg at the 1994 Worldcon; I expect a lot of us are more deeply imprinted by our childhoods than we like to acknowledge -- my wife was talking to a fellow Philadelphian about the beautiful countryside on our West Coast driving trip and was told "Yes, but there's NO DELI between San Francisco and Portland." \Chacun a son gout/, even without the variations from Dorothy Parker and Tony Lewis....

(chortle) NO DELI, eh? I guess that takes care of that.

I like cities. That is, I like cities that you can walk around in - Boston is an eminently livable city. But then I like the plains, too. As you say, one is imprinted in one's youth.

It's a funny thing about flat. When I grew up flat was what I knew. When I had been East for a long time flat became alien to me - I remember once flying out to visit my mother and having to make a major adjustment to flat. Now it seems comfortable again.

Do your sisters ever get the impulse to move back? One of Stan Rogers's last albums (when his songwriting was moving away from the Atlantic coast and into the central plains) ends with a piece about how all his friends seem to be winding up in California....

They don't seem to. Lois goes back to South Dakota a lot to visit my mother but even she is thoroughly ensconced in California. I don't think that any of the girls will ever move back. Oddly enough people do retire from California to South Dakota.
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From: Geoff
Date: 11/17/98
Subj: Website

Great Job. One of the funnest sites I have seen in years. Keep up the good work.

Thanks - it's always nice to get kudos.
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From: Nestor Makno (makno@icanect.net)
Date: 11/16/98
Subj: Piltdown Man Home Page

Hey thanks for creating and updating this site! I have a question for you.

Cheikh Anta Diop, in his Magnum Opus work, Civilization or Barbarism suggests that racism may have been a factor in the hoax, that Dawson et al wanted to prove that European Homo Sapiens evolved separately from African Homo Sapiens, possibly from Neanderthal Man. Is there any evidence for this? For example, was this a discussion during his time?

One could argue that but it's sort of dubious. The question of where and how Homo sapiens evolved was very open at the time. At that point most of the fossils (which were very few) were European. The similarity between the great apes and humans was a live topic (Owen and Huxley had lively debates on the subject - Gould's latest book has a chapter on the dispute) but there weren't IIRC any African finds. Dart's discoveries were made somewhat later.

I think that it is fair to say that there was a bit of presumption that Homo sapiens evolved in Europe or possibly Asia. The real influence, if there was one, was English chauvinism. There had been finds scattered throughout Europe but none in England. The "find" established England as a primary location for the evolution of humanity. This was a clear factor in the acceptance of the hoax - the English paleontologists were much more willing to accept Piltdown Man as a legitimate find. Outside of England there was substantial skepticism about the jawbone and skull being from the same creature.

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From: Jeremy Krane
Date: 11/23/98
Subj: Thompson Turkey

Dear sir,

I made this turkey in 1991 and have spent every year since searching for the lost recipe. I carried a copy of the ingredients in my jacket pocket until last year, when it was misplaced in a move. People still remember the debauchery associated with this turkey, and its creation has achieved its rank in the informal canon of yarnspinning amongst my circle of friends. I'll be happy to send leftovers. Words cannot express my thanks.

As an addendum to the recipe, it should be noted that the bird arrives from the oven completely blackened and looking ruined.

Warmest holiday regards,

I'm glad to have been of service. I had "the turkey" about twenty years ago and still remember it fondly. As you note, it does come out looking black and ruined - I should mention that. Isn't it marvellous what you can find on the net?
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From: Walter Breidenstein
Date: 11/1998
Subj: Giving a little back

I've been surfing.

You know, I find that I do two kinds of surfing. One kind is like highway driving; blowin' along, just seeing the outside of stuff, and only briefly, but a lot of it. The other kind is like being in a curio shop for awhile.

Curio shop? Now that's an apt description.
Your site made me pull-over and curio-shop surf. Thought you'd like to know that. It may be a small reward for all the effort of putting the site together, but then I'm sure you weren't expecting, like, cash and stuff.
Cash would be excellent. I dunno about "stuff" - that covers a lot of territory. I can see it now: "You have been awarded a free membership in the moosehead of the month club."
I've read most of the jokes (I will finish all of them). I've read lots of the articles. A few USENet conversation excerpts. Looked at a few pictures. I've shyed away from the poetry, but only because you, yourself, disparage the works.
You might take a look at the poetry if you have a taste for poetry. I was harsher on myself than I need be; it is (he says not at all modestly) a lot better than most of the stuff you will find on the web. There are people who read and enjoy my poetry.
The joke collection is top-notch. I called my parents (they live in Rochester, NY and I live in Houston, TX) last night to tell them the "Hot and Sweaty, Cold and Chilly" one. The three of us laughed for 5 minutes after the punch line. My wife came downstairs to find out what all the ruckus was about. I told her the joke later and had another laugh.
It's a good story. I'm on a number of humor mailing lists; I cull out the stories that particularly tickle my fancy.
The short analysis of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" was, for me, one of those times when you stop, and think to yourself, "Wow. That is so interesting, and sound, that I cannot believe I've never thought of, or heard of that before." Did you write it? Have you more on Dickens?
Oh, yes, I wrote it. I don't have anything else on Dickens - at least not at the moment. I will, however, commend Orwell's collected essays. It is stretching things, perhaps, to call Scrooge "Socialist Man"; still, it is an interesting thesis. I do like to turn things over and look at them from the other side.
Anyhow, since I've read so many of your good jokes, I thought I'd share one of my favorites with you. You're welcome to include it on your pages. As a matter of fact, I'd be honored.
[snip story]
I hope you liked it. It may be one of those jokes that're better told aloud. Being able to do a good old guys voice helps even more.
It's a good one; I will probably use it. Reading it doesn't do justice to it, though - it's a story that is meant to be told.
P.S. Have you noticed how much you like the words "sundry" and "delectation"?
"Sundry" is an excellent word - it so often covers exactly what I mean. I hadn't thought about "delectation" but it is, after all, a delectable word.
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This page was last updated November 23, 1998.
It was reformatted and moved November 6, 2004