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Letters to the Editor, September 2000

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 And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication.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 May 2000.

I have been receiving quite a bit of peculiar mail because the mutant watch page has a link to my Are mutations harmful? page. I have gathered them together in their own page.

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Other Correspondence Pages

From: Matthew Ross
Date: 9/27/2000
Subj: Goldberg’s

HELP – I miss Goldberg’s – anyone have any information??? Is it going to relocate???

loyal customer since 1979…

Sorry, I don’t have any info. We can all hope, can’t we.
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From: SirISuck
Date: 9/25/2000
Subj: Great Page

I enjoyed your article on Mutation and weather or not they are harmful. I stumbled upon your link from, and at first I expected somekind of joke article but what I found was an article that fascinated me very much!! Just wanted to let you know!

Thanks for the kudos. I seem to have gotten a lot of new readers from that link.
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From: “Lucy”
Date: 9/25/2000
Subj: Website

Hello Richard,

you have a brilliant mind, you a an inspiration and you’re very funny. You”ll never guess how I found your page: looking for links on Jerry Springer. This led me to your ‘PostModernists on Jerry’ joke. I’m so glad I discovered your page. Maybe you can tell me why it is that I went from insane Jerry Springer chatlines, to your stuff. Is there a deeper connection?

Now that’s an open invitation to indulge in the bafflegab that that I love to indulge in. Jerry is a bright man and was mayor of a major city. No slouch, he, and yet he produces this show that is an insult to the intelligence of a gerbil and has all the taste of trailer park squalor. How can this be? Why do people watch him?

I don’t know but I will speculate that he is presenting a theater of the absurd updated for the mindless consumerist age. Presumably there are people who watch his show because his guests and their problems are relevant for their own lives. (That is a frightening thought.) Most of his viewers, I suppose, have their lives and their rationality more together than Jerry’s guests. Why do they watch? Perhaps the answer is that people are unconsciously aware that they are living in a theater of absurd – living meaningless lives, awash in media images, advertising, and plastic, with no fixed bearings, no depth, and no substance, and that they wish reassurance that they are not lost.

Then again, they may simply think that his show is funny.

Also, I was just reading through some of your correspondence. There was this letter in 1996 or 1997 I think, the guy who wrote it was arguing that intelligence was useless. . You both agreed in the end that you viewed the world differenly. I have to say, the guy was a real idiot. He completely misunderstood the concept of wisefool, he even more stupidly misinterpretted anything Jesus had to say. To me, Jesus was always a walking paradox, and thats what its all about. And just on the subject of intelligence, if you’ ve ever read the Gospel of Thomas, which no doubt you have, you would find that Jesus himself was a child prodigy, his vast intellect being just another facet of his mystery. Emotional intelligence is anotehr facet of intellect. I wish people wouldnt separate them allt he time. Emotional intelligence is also ver y close to spiritual intelligence ( in other words, humility, love, compassion). Anyway, they’re just a few thoughts.
I haven’t read the Gospel of Thomas but perhaps I should; I’ve seen fascinating references to it. Offhand I venture to say that no one correctly interpreted what Jesus had to say except, perhaps, a few people at the time. What little that is known about what he had to say has been subject to the most astounding variety of interpretations. He is almost a palimpest.
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From: “Lucy” ([email protected])
Date: 9/25/2000
Subj: Website

Hi, its Lucy again.

I was just reading some of those other emails. That X-men mix up is hilarious! I remember another email, where that guy/girl said your site was cool considering you are ‘old’. What an unbeleivable thing to say. Was’nt it your generation that invented ‘cool’? I really hate this obsession with youth, I hated it when I was young, and I’m still young, and I still hate it.

I’m in the in between generation. People born a decade earlier went off and saved the world from Hitler. People born a decade later were baby boomers and invented peace, sex, and good drugs. Mine was the “Grease” generation.

Really, there is much to be said for being young. Your body works better when you are young. You are prime mating material when you are young. And when you are young you haven’t yet made all of the stupid mistakes that you are going to make in your life …

There is some justice in the person’s remark. Many people get very stuffy as they get older. Here is a theory. When you are young you don’t have many good ways to be a big deal. One way is to be cool which mostly meant in my generation that you had a black leather jacket, slouched, and projected an attitude of disdainful unconcern. Every generation has its own version of cool. From twenty to forty people are busy getting on with life – finding a mate, earning a living, establishing a career, enjoying the use of their bodies. By forty they’re no longer young adults. A lot of people lose themselves about then. They may become self-important asses or become stuck in ruts or desperately try to cling to youth.

You are going to be insulted, but the reason I was looking for Jerry Springer, was because he struck me as an intelligent man, and then I found you. Are you insulted by the parallel?
Insulted, no? Astonished, perplexed, delighted – these possibly.
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From: ArtyLand
Date: 9/25/2000
Subj: poem

to whom it may concern
i found your web site facinating. I wish to use one of your poems in a paper i plan to write I wish to use

“In the fields of hell where the grass grows high
Are the graves of dreams allowed to die. ”
I also would love to know your name both to put in my paper and to spread around to friends.
My name is Richard Harter. You have permission to use the poem in your paper. I would take it kindly if you add in a footnote that it is copyrighted by me and is used by permission of the author.

I’m pleased and flattered that you like the poem and my poetry pages.

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From: rylesda
Date: 9/19/2000
Subj: comment on 8 husbands and still a virgin

Hello. it’s about 3 AM, and I just read your joke involving the woman who had 8 husbands, none of whom could perform because of different reasons. WEll, I just wanted to say that I’ve heard this one before, except the ninth husband was a lawyer. the woman’s final comment was “ANd now I’m married to you, a lawyer. So I know I’m going to get screwed.” he he

Chortle. Maybe I will add that. Most of the jokes on my humor page have been around. I just try to pick the ones that particularly tickle my funny bone.
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From: G.Van Bussel
Date: 9/15/2000
Subj: zenexp nexus

We chatted breifly about Heinlen a few weeks ago…

I’m working on my own web page and I would like to toss you a link because your page was a good model for me…

Please check it out. If you don’t approve I will remove your link right away.

I describe you as a gruff but loveable old ex-marine. Sorry, but that is the impression I received…

This is a test page: it just went up 20 minutes ago. No one else has seen it yet…

I’d hate to think that I was a good model for anything. I’m not even a good horrible example. Mothers don’t point me out to their children as someone they don’t want to grow up to be like. At least I don’t think they do – they’re always moving to the other side of the street when I go by and looking the other way so I don’t imagine they have much to say to their children about me.

Sure, call me a gruff but lovable old ex-marine – it’s as good as anything.

Liked your site – it’s good for a start.

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From: Frogs1043
Date: 9/19/2000
Subj: help? (The Cold Equations)

first of all i loved this story, 2ndoff i was wondering if you could help me 🙂 i have to write a compare/contrast essay on the characters and someone i know in real life! Would you be able to send me some infromation about the characters, personailty types?? etc??? i would really apprecaite it! thanks for your time…

I doubt that this particular story is a good one for a comparison of the characters with real life people. Still, it is an interesting question. To a large extent the characters are simply stereotypes, markers used in the plot. None-the-less there is a lot we can deduce about them.

The two main characters are the girl and the pilot; the brother appears on stage very briefly but he has a definite role. The thing to remember is that the story is not a realistic portrayal of what interstellar travel might be in the future. Rather, it draws heavily upon existing images and character types that were common in literature at the time.

Thus the ship is modeled on a steamship in the nineteenth century. It carries native cleaning women and makes extended voyages to a list of ports of call. The young woman and her brother are characters that were common in the nineteenth century.

If we picture them in the nineteenth century they might be British or American. If they are British they are scattering to outposts of empire; if they are American they are going out west to the frontier. Their family is genteel but doesn’t have much money. The frontier offers opportunities that they don’t have at home. in the nineteenth century the sister might get a position as a teacher or a governess; in the early twentieth she might be a clerk or a secretary. In short she expects to get a low level job. The brother also does not have a high level job; in nineteenth century terms he might be a factor for a trading firm, a clerk, or a technical representative. He has been “out west” for a while and knows the ropes; she does not.

If we continue with the steamship analogy the pilot is an intermediate level ship officer. A steam ship wouldn’t have many officers and those that it had would be expected to be able to undertake independent action. He is not broadly educated and is not particularly imaginative or sensitive except within the narrow limits of his trade where he is indeed quite competent. Think of him as the pilot of a steamship.

These are stereotypes that Godwin drew upon for his story. There are not many touches of individuality in the characterization; indeed there is not much room in the story for characterization. The young woman might be any young woman seeking adventure and opportunity in an era where there are frontiers. The pilot might be any ship’s officer who conscientiously does his duty and discovers too late that duty can turn ugly.

I hope this helps.

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From: Alan Martin
Date: 9/19/2000
Subj: Which Came First?

That was a good read.

You indicate in the ‘article’ that you are open to critism of this argument.

Now, I read computer science as an undergraduate, which means I know a bit about of logic, formal declaration and such like.

Surely you have ommited definition by division, “That which is a bass and is not a small-mouthed bass is a large mouthed bass”.

or as is actually practised:

definition by exclamation, “Thou art a small mouthed bass!”

That is one of the many useful forms of rhetoric not commonly taught in logic courses. Others include proof by intimidation and proof by induction into the army. I prefer 100 proof myself.
BTW, fish have eggs.
But not chicken eggs, I hope.
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From: Stepehen Blossom
Date: 9/5/2000
Subj: Piltdown

At 08:47 PM 09/05/2000 -0400, you wrote: Thank you overwhelmingly for posting that article. And again, thank you, thank you, thank you. My only problem now is to get readers to read Kipling’s story. If we could put that on your site my joy would be complete.

I don’t want to put the story on my site but I would be happy to add a link to it if it’s on the web somewhere.
Sorry to hear about your mother. I have had some experience with that problem.
All things considered she is doing well. Still it is my sincere hope that I never have to go into a nursing home. Fortunately I don’t have any well meaning children to make that decision for me.
South Dakota is a great place to spend the summer. I spent a summer and a winter at Sturgis, which is on the border between the Black Hills and the flatlands.

Deadwood was having a great revival, especialy on weekends. The miners from Lead and the soldiers (officers too) from the Fourth Cavalry would converge on Deadwood Saturday afternoon, and a good time was had by all.

I still remember the names of two of the three jolly houses in town: Ma’s Nifty Rooms and Shy Anne’s. Maybe you can remember the name of the third. Gambling was wide open in other establishments. The cash flow was phenomenal.

The establishments that you refer to (if they were the ones I suspect that they were) were shut down a few years by the state’s Attorney General a few years ago, much to the disgust of the local residents. One of them was the oldest continuously operating whorehouse in the country. You will be pleased to learn, though, that gambling is still a major entertainment industry. I don’t doubt but what there are still establishments that vend the favors of ladies of easy virtue but they no longer operate openly. The casinos on the other hand are now legal. Kevin Kostner, he of Dances With Wolves, has a major casino in Deadwood as I understand it.
On Monday morning each troop would have to send an officer to Deadwood to bail out our Indians and recruits.
Now those were the days when we had a proper army.
The military establishment was known as Fort Meade. A West Pointer asked me one time what I would do if the Japanese attacked Ft. Meade. I was speechless.
I dare say. I am imagining a Japanese troop ship docking at San Francisco and catching the train east. I don’t think there was rail transport to Deadwood but they could have caught a train to Rapid City and made their way to Fort Meade via a forced march.
What have you been doing in mathematics? Theoretical or recreational or what? I have been trying recently to get a definitive grip on magic squares of the fourth order, but my math is weak and I have been getting nowhere.
Mostly applied mathematics – statistical theory of communications and algorithm design. I know that the magic squares of order four have all been cataloged but I don’t have an immediate reference for that. I suspect that you can find it on the web somewhere.
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From: Charles Hitchcock
Date: 8/29/2000

A cynical way to look at that farrago would be the observation that reason requires work while faith requires only belief. This can be seen as a reason for the rise of Christianity — all it required was Belief. (Yes, I remember your comment that it won by not being a class-segregated religion, but without other attractants it probably would not have gone as far — the Roman empire had uses for class segregation.)

The trick is that organized belief systems offer the keys to the secrets of the universe to anyone who will believe. You can be ignorant and none too swift but you are, by self promotion, one of the elite for you know the Truth. Mere inconsistency, irrationality, and absurdity is of no consequence because the Truth trumps all.
Amy Semple MacPherson (sp?) is said to have demonstrated (unintentionally) just how empty Belief is after claiming she could walk on water; she whipped up the assembled crowd with the standard evangelical’s pounding of “Do you believe/ (I can walk across this lake)?” — and when they were all saying “Yes!” she said there was no need to prove it. (It’s a good story, but it’s just neat enough that I suspect it even if I don’t think/ I first read it in something of Heinlein’s.)
It’s a good story but I suspect it doesn’t work quite like that. If you work the crowd up to expect a miracle you have to deliver something. It doesn’t have to be much – a true believer will accept any old bit of rubbish as a genuine miracle – but it has to be something.
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From: Hal Sellers
Date: 9/2/2000
Subj: Hal Sellers/St.Mugg/Evolution

The error of fact you mention in relation to the piece I sent you by Muggeridge is not an error. Muggeridge stated that Darwin first popularised the notion of progress. True, if you take “popularised” as being the operative word. You quite rightly state that the concept of human progress predated Darwin: one thinks of Descartes with his cogito ergo sum which Descartes opposed to the proposition of the previous fifteen centuries – God thinks, therefore I am. Going further into the past, the Reformation and the Renaissance were precursors. I am sure the idea of man’s consciousness of himself as distinct from God goes back to when Adam was a lad.

There are many things wrong with the above. Let me enumerate them:

(1) [In this one I may be in error] Descarte was not opposing “I think, therefore I am” to “God thinks, therefore I am”. The latter is not, as far as I can tell, a proposition of the preceding fifteen centuries. Stated baldy it is a proposition of 18th and 19th century idealism. I doubt that it is even good Christian theology. In any event Pascal was engaged in trying to prove the legitimacy of conventional religion by rooting it in reason. The “Cogito ergo sum” was the starting point for an argument appealing to necessary and self-evident truths that even the most ardent skeptic must concede.

(2) I read your text as your confusing the notions of progress and the infinite perfectibility of secular condition of humanity (which is clearly what Muggeridge is talking about), the notion of renaissance humanism, and the apposition of faith and reason.

One can argue that there was a long slow process in European intellectual thought of replacing faith by reason, a process which is conventionally marked as beginning with Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

The notions of progress and secular perfectibility, however, are quite clearly products of the Enlightenment, the thought and writings of the 18th century philosophers and writers such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Concordet. The characteristically English versions of these notions were developed all through the 19th century; the English versions were much more influenced by economic theory.

In short, Darwin neither originated nor popularized the notion of secular perfectibility.

(3) The assignment of secular perfectibility and progress to Darwin rests on a major misrepresentation of what Darwin wrote. Darwin’s theory of evolution is NOT a theory of progress. He explained adaptation as being a consequence of natural selection, that is true. However local improvement does not imply global progress. There were pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, e.g. LaMarck as the most notable, which did posit an intrinsic progress in evolution. Theories of evolution as essential progress predated and postdated Darwin.

(4) Darwin’s theories were used by numerous writers, the most notable being Huxley and Spencer and, later, Wells, in support of theories of progress and secular perfectibility. It should be clearly understood, however, that “Social Darwinism” had very little connection with Darwin’s theory of evolution. It should also be understood that Darwin’s thought was influenced by the economic and social theories extant at the time he wrote, e.g., writers such as Malthus, Ricardo, and Adam Smith.

In short Darwin was popular. His ideas were used as a hook by several generations of writers as a hook for promoting agendas of their own. In summary, Muggeridge did not understand what Darwin actually said, nor did he appreciate that Darwin’s name was being used, nor that the lines of thought that he deprecated were not originated by Darwin, were not popularized by Darwin, nor that said lines of thought were common pre and post Darwin.

I do not understand the word “reification” nor are my dictionaries any help. I cannot deduce the sense from the context even substituting “rectification”. I presume it is a jargon word drawn from a discipline of which I am ignorant. What does it mean? This is not a dig, I would like to know.
The discipline, I suppose, would be philosophy. My dictionary defines “reify” as “to convert into or regard as a conrete thing; to reify an abstract concept”. Reification is treating of abstraction as a concrete thing. In my remark I was referring to the reduction of reduction of the rather complex trends in intellectual thought of the 19th century to simplified labels followed by treating the labels as though they were real things.
Brutal reductionism has it’s place and it’s dangers: the kind of man who gives simplified answers to complex questions [ Lenin, Hitler ] are to be avoided. Oddly enough, I would include Ayn Rand in this category.
We are in agreement about Ayn Rand albeit I would say that there is nothing odd about putting Ayn Rand in that category. Any sensible person would.
One must also be wary of the others, the ones who say things which appear to be obscure but which are, in effect, meaningless; Marx, Darwin, Freud _ _ _ ___ ____ fill in the blanks yourself. God knows there are plenty of candidates to choose from.
I don’t much like your list. Every one says things at some time or another that appear to be obscure but which are, in effect, meaningless. I do myself from time to time. They were not, however, obscure or meaningless theorists.

However the authors you name were all clear writers for the most part. They may have been wrong but they weren’t all that obscure. Freud’s theories, particularly the more fanciful aspects, haven’t stood up too well. Marx was surprisingly accurate in his predictions as to the course of social and economic history for about 75 years. Darwin has stood up quite well.

Christopher Booker wrote a book The Neophiliacs in which he discusses the nature of intelligence [ I paraphrase ]: Simple people comprehend this life and their place. in it, simply. Complicated people have to stretch their minds to come to this same understanding of the world. This stretching of the mind is what we call intelligence and contrary to popular belief, it is not a virtue, it is a condition. Intelligence can be virtuous in which case it produces people like Shakespeare, Leonardo and Beethoven. More often than not, intelligence is vicious and produces Napoleon, Lenin, Trotsky and Goebells.

In my youth I was Marxist revolutionary [ I know, I know, we all were ] and rubbed shoulders with many left wing and liberal intellectuals. It was illuminating.

Indeed. That is the difference; I was never a Marxist revolutionary albeit I too rubbed shoulders with many left wing and liberal intellectuals. I will say this about said gentry: Their understanding is fueled by moral indignation rather than by intellect, that and an unexamined urge to be consequential in the world.
When I sold the pass and quit in a welter of recriminations I made a catty remark: Intellectuals have two things in common. They are very intelligent and as thick as pig shit. Muggeridge stated the case more elegantly when he said, apropos of Bernard Shaw: He had a sparkling intelligence but a low understanding. This allowed him to be extremely witty, but when he tried to be serious, he was merely absurd. And then there is the Bible which refers to “wise fools”.
He was not so far wrong about Shaw.
My point? The words of Christ defy simplification, or reductionism if you prefer . Any attempt to simplify them [ St. Septemberine’s laboured explanation of the parable of the Good Samaritan for example ] founder on this rock.

I seem to be going on a bit and I accept that I have not answered all the points you raised. I suspect our world-views are radically different.

I think that is a fair assumption.
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