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Letters to the Editor, April 1999

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 And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication.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 April 1999.

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From: Bob Richmond
Date: 3/17/99
radiocarbon dating

Looking at your essay on radiocarbon dating –

The accuracy and precision of radiocarbon dating has been greatly improved in the last few years, and more distant dating can now be done.

The old method depends on radioactive decay of radiocarbon atoms, a slow process when the isotope has a half life of 5000 years.

The new method depends on mass spectrometry, so that the carbon 14 atoms don’t need to undergo radioactive decay in order to be counted.

There’s also been some recent improvement in mass spectrometry of the stable isotope carbon 13, which is not a product of radioactive decay or irradiation.

I wish I was more up to date on all of this. Been a LONG time since I took physics in college!

Thanks for writing. I think that the mass spectrometry method is about a dozen years old at this point. It considerably improves the accuracy of measurement and reduces the required sample size. The main thrust of the essay is about the calibration of radiocarbon dating so a history of improvements in accuracy is not essential to the essay. It would be a good point to mention though.

The essay, BTW, is by John Stockwell rather than by myself.

The problem with old (>50,000 years) dating isn’t one of accuracy, it is one of background contamination. That’s the big bugaboo in radiocarbon dating, that and reservoir effects.

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From: Paul Carnie
Date: 3/19/99
Subj: Makes me Laugh

I am from and work in Scotland, just thought I’d let you know how much I enjoy your site and what a laugh I had testing my workmates out with your densa quiz. Cant quite remember how I found your site but added it to the favorite list right away. Havent got round to reading your prose and poems yet, I dont really have time for that at work, but once I get set up at home I will. The radio joke is a classic though.

keep it up

Thanks for the kind words. My site offers many hours of diversion when you just can’t bring yourself to trim your toenails and are desperately looking for something else to do.

PS: See

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From: Joachim Wolf
Date: 3/22/99
Subj: one more

I’ve got one more, I’ve got one more…

Martin Berner, 62, a rich industry boss has a nice hunting-cottage in the German Black Forrest. Since several month he noticed that some thieves came into the cottage took expensive wines, carpets etc. with them but they never left a trace of violence at the doors or windows. With no traces of violence at doors and windows the insurence refused to pay.

After long thinking Berner decided that there must be just one way to get into the cottage without a key and a damage: The very narrow chimney. This explains why any time he came to the cottage a door or window was open, without any damage.

“Now my friend I’ll get you” thought Berner and let install a steel grid right at the bottom of the chimney over the fireplace, so noone can come in anymore! Yet someTHING still could come in: Next time Berner visited his cottage, knowing everything must be o.k. he opened the door and a terrible smell was in there, comming right out of the open fireplace…

I’m not sure that this comes under the Darwin Awards or stupid people tricks or what. Climbing down a chimney when you can’t climb up isn’t too bright. It’s a good story, though.
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From: Bert)
Date: 4/1/99
Subj: Web site

I didn’t go to Harvard either and I still know what I like. Besides The Onion your site is the funniest. I’m a pretty good story teller myself, and can relate to the problem of beig repeticious. Being a hick from Tn. you can assume I have shit for brains and your not to far off because I keep looking back at myself and do look dumb. Having a hick perspective I enjoy your sicker humor. An example is the restaurant review where the fellow had a hard time with shit. I have gotten good milage with that. I think there is more of that kind of stuff, but I can’t find enough.

But, but, but, I didn’t mean to create one of the funnier sites on the web. It just happened, somehow.
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From: Ryan and Nikki Guess
Date: 3/30/99
Subj: Reply to anwer

You were doing pretty good in your response to the question until you stated evolution is fact and also that there was no flood. According to your own statements about science and scientists, you have contradicted yourself. In the case of evolution, it is still opinion. You would like the world to believe it is fact, but no monkeys have become men, no fish have crawled out of the water and no snakes have grown wings and flown away! As to a world wide flood, just the statement that shell fish have been found in large enough quantities on the highest mountain tops deserves a pretty good cover-up, oh, I mean, an explanation. I don’t have time to debate the entire subject, just wanted to comment.

Congratulations. In one brief paragraph you have managed to capture the essence of creationist dweebery. I am pleased (but not surprised) that you have no time to debate the entire subject; I don’t debate crackpots and crackpottery in private email. When I want to see what the ceramically challenged are up to I browse the newsgroup where paragraphs like yours are regularly posted and just as regularly are dissected in detail.
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From: Nansi Heckler
Date: 3/30/99
Subj: Hi Richard

I love your web site. Thank you for putting out such a wonderful effort! I find it to be fun, sexy, irreverent….much like me! Keep up the good work.
Take Care, and God Bless…..Nansi

Glad you like it. All of the best people are fun, sexy, and irreverent. I try to be fun, sexy, and irreverent too.
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From: Roy Greene
Date: 3/24/99
Subj: Thank You

I would like to thank you for your highly entertaining web page. As a person who’s formal education stopped with high school , I have tried to “broaden my horizons” and in the process have been accused of turning my mind into a trash basket of trivial facts, figures, and anecdotes . After finding your web site, it is gratifying to see that higher education would not have changed things a bit. i.e.: that you must appreciate life’s underlying vein of humor, the fact the humanity can be dumber that you give them credit for , and a bottle of scotch can improve most things.

Thanks again and keep up the good work .

Somehow I doubt that my web pages are any evidence for the value of higher education. The way I look at it runs something like this: On the royal road there is a temple of learning wherein acolytes and scholars peruse and debate the established wisdom of the ages. I live in the building next door over.
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From: Dirk Kraus
Date: 3/23/99
Subj: Your site

Hi, I must say that I have just seen a fraction of what is on your site, but in any case it seems rewarding to explore it a little further.

I’m sure there must be something in there that is worth reading.
some comments, although I am sure you can live without:

the “who was that” joke is an anecdote about Bertrand Russel, swimming with his colleages in the river CAM.

I’m not sure which anecdote we are talking about here.
Waiting for Godot in a different way is indeed the correct translation for “Warten auf Godot auf verschiedene Weise”, although the original has a slight anachronistic touch to it, “auf verschiedene Weise” would not be used in common german.
My German is compromised by the fact that it has been decades since I studied it in college. I discovered how limited it was when I was in Hanover on a business trip and discovered that I needed to buy shoelaces. I only have fragments of Deutsch left – useful phrases such a “man saugt sumpfwasser” and “Ach! Der hochsheitangeletenheiten!” which I can pronounce correctly to the amusement of German friends (but probably not spell correctly anymore.)
Remarkable is the fact that AltaVista, in fact SYSTRAN, produced a reasonable translation. I suggest the experiment to take a well known text (a prayer, declaration of human rights etc.) an let it translate to german and back to english again. repeat this a couple of times an not only is the result as far from the original that nobody would recognize it, but quite often there is a poetic touch to some phrases. When we learned in probability theory that an chimpanzee could produce “Hamlet” given a typewriter and a couple of zillion decades, we didn’t expect the ape to be systran.
I believe it is a standard game. One shouldn’t fault the machine too much; people aren’t too accurate in their transliterations either. I don’t know if you are familiar with the telephone game. You gather a number of people together and arrange them in a circle. One person composes a message and writes it down. He then whispers it to his neighbour who in turn whispers it to his neighbour and so around the circle. When it gets back to the first person the original and final versions are compared. The game is quite simple but the degree of change is illuminating.
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This page was last updated April 4, 1999.
It was reformatted and moved December 16, 2004.

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