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Letters to the Editor, August 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 And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication.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 August 1999.

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From: Lance Juno
Date: 7/23/99
Subj: What I Did With 15 Years of My Life

Today I happen to reviewing a document I printed back in the early ’90s and there is a reference to you and the article you wrote for ‘Unix World’, June 1989.

In seeing your name, it brought me back to the days when I was just starting to learn about SCM and how to approach software development in general. During that time, I experienced my first real “serious” work in SCM figuring out how to use a tool called ‘Aide-de-Camp’. In an effort to learn more, I had the pleasure to take one of your seminar courses in Ottawa Ontario. During the week long course, you and I had the opportunity to share a meal one night.

So, today, after reading your name once again, I found you on the web and just finished reading your bit on your 15 year segment and I thought I’d drop you a note.

At this stage in my life, I have been with Motorola almost 15 years, with the first 11 years in engineering and the last 4 in information technology. Interestingly enough, I left engineering because of SCM – or rather from the frustration I felt in dealing with a business environment where “CM” (I like to think I’ve grown past just SCM and now consider process an integral part of the overall CM experience so SCM and PCM become CM) does garner any priority and consistency.

During my years of SCM I have had limited exposure to ClearCase and DSEE, but am quite familiar with how SCCS, RCS (and all it’s higher PD cousins), and Continuus work to provide solutions in the development environment. I must say that it must be at least 10 years since I worked with ADC and I find it funny to think that the “other” SCM companies are just starting to deliver change set methodologies.

Richard, when I met you, I recognized then that you had a brilliant product and that the ADC implementation of change sets was just, well “right” for doing CM. After all the change I’ve seen in CM, I still talk about how I worked with the creator of change sets and how obviously ADC was a product ahead of it’s time (just like the old Aegis operating system).

It is clear to me that for the length of time you spent working on ADC that your 15 year commitment was a worth while endeavor. For me, change set methodology continues to be the “right” approach to SCM, and interestingly enough I am returning to engineering in the SCM role. As I re-discover the world of CM, I imagine I will once again find opportunities to express how change set methodology would work best.

I have always regretted not having had the opportunity to work with ADC more than I originally did, and I sometimes wish that ADC was on a market par with ClearCase and Continuus so that I could look at that option. I think you and the people that worked with you created a wonderful concept and that you enhanced some of the fundamental concepts of SCM.

I remember the seminar and yourself very well. You were my one of my sharp students as I recall.

I understand quite well your frustration with the role of SCM in the software development environment. I have come to the conclusion that there are fundamental problems in the software development process that make good CM and good management of software development and information management almost impossible. One of them is cultural – the pervasive “cowboy mentality”. We are all of us, even I, hotshot brilliant programmers who need to do things “our way”. Process is for other folks and not for ourselves. Another is the kludged and patched together nature of the development environment tools. In part this is a consequence of the rapid change in both hardware and software. However a consequence is that CM, which deals with bringing the process into order, gets short changed.

The ADC system that you saw was improved a great deal over time. In retrospect there were some fundamental flaws of concept (implementation is a separate matter.) Something that I did not fully appreciate was that all changes to everything should be tracked. As a simple example renaming should be done under change control.

The fundamental idea is that all information should be identifiable as to where and how it came to be there. This is a pervasive fault in the software systems and data management systems that we are building; too much information is anonymous. The web is a case example; we have an wonderful tool here – online information and world wide connectivity. And yet that information is unreliable and uncertain because it is subject to undocumented change at any time. In financial systems there frequently is a lack of the most basic kind of transaction auditing. In file systems files can change with little or no warning.

CM systems do provide protected environments in which change is tracked and recorded. There are problems with this though. First of all in most systems the working environment and the protected environment are distinct. (Clearcase and Aegis did this part right.) Secondly the various tools and applications by default do not interface with the CM system well; in consequence the CM system has to interface with all of the idiosyncracies of the information environment and its instrumentalities. Thirdly no CM system (the ADC system comes closest) provides a really adequate change set methodology. Fourthly, the protected environments are neither portable nor effectively distributed.

Be that as it may, it was a pleasure to hear from you.

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From: John Woram
Date: 7/31/99
Subj: de Maillet research ??

I ran across your site while searching for info on Benoit de Maillet. On the off-chance you don’t mind responding to people who were born before you, I’d be delighted to hear from you about the following:

I’m doing research on the human and cartographic history of the Galapagos Islands (which you can read all about at my site, if you need a trivia fix). Anyway, an important part of that history involves the American frigate Essex, Capt. David Porter (ca. 1813). Porter’s son, David Dixon Porter, wrote a bio of his father, in which he made a passing mention of his grandfather–alas, also named David. Anway, the elder Porter (1754-1808) was a Revolutionary war naval officer, and, apparently, a bookseller/dealer in Baltimore when not off killing Brits for G. Washingon.

D. Dixon Porter claims old Grandad’s “greatest work” was a “treatise on the origin of man” which was–he says–a pre-Darwinian spoof aimed mostly at Lord Monboddo. Unfortunately I can find no trace of such a work, and Dixon Porter offers no clue as to its origin (book? newspaper article? private letter? etc.). I did however find the 1797 Baltimore edition of the de Maillet/Telliamed “The World Explained” which was “Printed … for D. Porter at the Observatory.” The final section, “The Sixth Day” comes close to some of the things D. Dixon claims as his grandfather’s “work”, so I’m beginning to suspect the biographer of a little artistic licence–that is, that the elder Porter was a book seller, not (at least in this case) an author. But now I’m stuck.

D. Dixon P. claims the elder Porter’s “work” traces the origin of man from jellyfish to merman to monkey to man. Now, the merman part is well covered in de Maillet’s “Sixth Day” but there’s not a word about jellyfish (unless it’s mentioned in passing in one of the other sections and I just haven’t found it yet). So I’m wondering if Dixon “lifted” the jellyfish from some other work, and if so, does this ring any kind of bell in your memory?

Also, the “Sixth Day” is obviously (to me, that is) a tongue-in-cheek account, what with all those references to sea men, others with tails, etc. Yet everything I’ve seen about de Maillet seems to take him at face value. For example, your own page states that “he calculated the age of the earth to be greater than 2 billion years” but it doesn’t say anything about his more whimsical stuff. I therefore wonder if I’m missing something here, or, do you know of anything that describes de Maillet himself in greater detail, perhaps with commentary about the Telliamed book.

I don’t know if this counts for anything, but in my 1797 edition, the “Sixth Day” section is set in much smaller type than the rest of the book. I’ve seen enough other books of the period to know this could have no significance, but it also might indicate it was an edited version of the original.

To wrap this up (finally), if you can comment on any of the above I’d be delighted to hear from you, either here in email or by phone. If the latter, I’d be glad to call you at your convenience.

I’ll look forward (I think) to hearing from you, and to not finding my name on the 1999 list of Darwin Prize wannabees.

My source for de Maillet is Catastrophism by Richard Huggett. In turn he lists as his sources, the 1747 French version of the Telliamed conversation and a 1968 translation into English by Albert V. Carozzi, the University of Illinois press. All told de Maillet gets about a half dozen paragraphs.

Huggett’s book covers both geology and biology; my web page was restricted to geological issue. In the evolution section Huggett does mention some of de Maillet’s more fanciful notions, e.g., tritons.

This is what Huggett has to say:

“De Maillet suggested that all life had begun in the waters just at the moment the primitive mountains were about to emerge. Seaweed, shellfish, and fish multiplied and diversified, and their remains became entombed in the sediments, eventually to become the secondary mountains, laid down on the flanks of the primitive mountains. When the oceans had diminished enough that continents had emerged, marine organisms colonized the land; from seaweed sprang shrubs and trees; from crawling marine animals arose walking land animals; from elephant seals developed elephants; from flying fish came birds. Man’s career began as a fish.”
There is nothing there about jellyfish. I suspect that they are an elaboration.

I don’t have any information about Porter.

I am startled to hear from someone born before I was; so few people are these days.

Your query sounds interesting. Perhaps one of my readers has more information. If you like I can post a copy of your query in a couple of newsgroups that I follow ( and rec.arts.books) which might turn up somebody who has more information.

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From: Jonathan King
Date: 8/12/99
Subj: about the Piltdown man page

Given the unfortunate news today about the Kansas Board of Education, I ended up surfing around the FAQ pages and eventually the Piltdown Man homepage.

On that page, mention is made of the possibility that Grafton Elliot Smith was involved in the hoax. It’s hard to say, but right after reading the whole Piltdown Man homepage, I visited this page:

…about the unfortunate Nebraska Man incident. Guess who worked with the artist on the original pictures of the Nebraska Man tooth?

The imaginative drawing was the work of an illustrator collaborating with the scientist Grafton Elliot Smith, and was done for a popular magazine, not for a scientific publication.
Yes, it’s only circumstantial evidence that could work both ways, and I assume this connection has been noticed before, but it might be interesting to point it out on the home page somewhere.
That’s intriguing but I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. The paleontological community concerned with hominids has always been a fairly small group. The same names turn up in surprising contexts.
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From: aero
Date: 8/13/99
Subj: A question

I wonder if you could help me. I am looking for a site where their are true court sayings by doctors, becuase the prosecution were asking funny questions. I am been downloaded one of these in the past but i am trying to find where is the website.

Sorry, I don’t have that one. It sounds amusing though. Maybe one of my readers will recognize it.
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From: Wikrkaam
Date: 7/25/99
Subj: A question

What fossil evidence exists regarding the common ancestor of insects and vertabrate?

None as far as I know. It’s rather hard to imagine how one would know that one were looking at a fossil of a common ancestor. OTOH DNA sequencing of the homeobox genes gives us a fairly good idea of when the split occurred and how much the different animal phyla have in common. There has been a lot of stuff in the scientific press about this in recent years.
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From: Ray Heatwole
Date: 7/27/99
Subj: Letter to CRI

your Chili story is outrageous and has been sent to all 92 on my ICq list and all of them almost fell off their chair, I see you changed the ending I liked the old version better. Loved the Dear John Letter..and also other pages, keep up the good work. gage/F/PA/married 48 years/retired college professor/living with the Lord all seventy+ years

Thanks for writing; it’s good to hear from you. I don’t think I’ve changed the Chili story but I won’t guarantee it.
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From: Bobster
Date: 7/29/99
Subj: Fools Rush in

Are you aware that darwin towards the end of his life, came to the conclusion that everything he believed about evolution was wrong and he did in fact believe that the world could not have formed without Divine intervention of a holy God. I would rename your page to better reflect something of value than something of an Illusion

I’m sorry; I’m not aware of any such thing. It is a myth. See the FAQ for a bit of detail on this particular urban legend.
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From: Lon C. Thomas, Jr.
Date: 7/29/99
Subj: Greetings from a new fan

Mr. Harter,

I can’t remember, I think I was rambling around the creationist/evolution sites, looking for more ammunition against ignorance, when I chanced upon your site. Excellent vision excellently implemented.

Gracias. My site is not for everyone, of course, only for people with excellent taste and alert inquiring minds. You appear to be one of those people.
Now I am interested in approximately twice as many things as before. Gosh thanks … I didn’t have enough time as it was. In any event, regarding the ‘post-modernism’/wacky jargon area, I thought you would enjoy this news from The Onion: “Post-Modern Condition Upgraded To Pre-Apocalyptic”. (, current issue is Vol 35 Issue 26, I will have saved it in case they don’t have a good archive). I recently returned from a business trip to Chicago and just discovered the Onion. If you haven’t seen it already, I think it will be right up your alley.
The popularity of The Onion raises my opinion of humanity considerably.

One of the curses of my existence (and a blessing) is that I easily become interested in things. The results tend to be erratic.

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From: Wakefield, Josh
Date: 8/10/99
Subj: you’ve got a cool site

Heheheee, I was playing around at work a little bit and I came across you site. It kept me from my work for a few hours!!! Thanks a bunch!!

I’m glad to see that I’m doing my part to lower the productivity of American industry
Anyways, you have a pretty site. Just thought that you should know that.
I had my suspicions. I thank you for the confirmation.
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Date: 8/10/99
Subj: Lamarck

I have a question that possibly you can answer.

I have read some experimental proofs from reliable investigators of Lamarck’s Theory of Inherited Characteristics. Although they seem authentic, the scientific community rejects them.

Doesn’t the fact that space travelers in a zero gravity environment lose their bone mass prove LaMarck’s theory? NASA scientists (Washington Post Health Section, August 10, 1999) claim they have observed an almost instantaneous change in gene operation (switching bone growth “on” and “off”) during a return from a zero gravity situation. If the genes are modified by a changing environment, won’t those gene patterns be inherited and wouldn’t others’ genes change in the same type of changing environment?

Can you help me?
Appreciate a response.

It’s not the same thing. In true Lamarckian inheritance the genes themselves are altered. When genes are turned on and off (this is part of the normal operation of genes) the genes are not altered. What happens is that molecules are attached to the genes. It is the presence or absence of these molecules that determines whether the gene is on or off. (It’s a bit more complicated than that but that’s the essential idea.) Look at this way: Changing the switch settings doesn’t change what switches are there.

AFAIK the “switch settings” get reset when a cell divides; that has to happen because the DNA double strand gets unzipped when the cell divides. Stem cells and the haploid cells (sperm and egg) have, so to speak, “open programs”. During development different genes are turned on and off and receive permanent settings.

There are “Lamarckian” effects in that the physical form of offspring depends not only on the genes it inherits but also on the environment the mother provides, e.g., materials supplied in the egg and, in mammals, fetal nurturing. However these are short term effects that only last for a generation or two because they aren’t genetically based.

In true Lamarckian inheritance acquired traits are converted into changes in the genes. This can’t happen because there is no way for converting a change in the morphology into a change into the gene.

I hope this is of some help.

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From: Hop David
Date: 8/7/99
Fermi Paradox

Some comments on your Fermi Paradox essay:

“Planets suitable for life as we know it must meet a number of requirements. The main ones are: (a) They must be in the life zone (not too close and not too far from the primary.) ”

Life as we know isn’t the only possibility. For evolution to occur the necessary ingredient would be a self replicating molecule that stores information. My guess is that DNA is only one of many molecules that would do the job. If this is so, the life zone for all possible life would be much larger than you describe.

Biological like as we know it (BLAWKI) may not be the only possibility but something close to it is the way to bet. For sundry chemical reasons carbon and water are privileged. That is to say, carbon and water have very useful properties that make them uniquely useful for building the kinds of complex molecules that are needed for life.

DNA, by the way, is not a self replicating molecule. Strictly speaking, DNA (and RNA) are not molecules – they are molecule templates or patterns. RNA, on the other hand, is “self replicating”, i.e., there are varieties of RNA that can catalyze the replication of RNA molecules.

It is not clear that there are any alternatives to RNA that have the requisite properties. Likewise it is not clear that life needed have started with a single replicator molecule.

It is worth noting that there are alternatives to the open planetary surface – witness the speculations about the possibility of life in the oceans of Europa (if Europa actually has oceans) and the existence of life in subterranean rocks. However life in the form of bacteria is not at all the same thing as intelligent life. The latter likely enough does require an open surface biosphere. That in turn requires liquid water and temperatures that permit full time liquid water. In other words, we need the life zone.

I believe evolution would bring about organisms that preserve and spread themselves. “Imperialism” would be a deeply ingrained instinct in most, if not all intelligent life forms.
I agree that evolution brings about organisms that preserve and spread themselves. However it doesn’t follow that there would be an instinct for imperialism. Imperialism is, in part, a cultural phenomenon, i.e., it requires joint action by groups. Evolution acts on populations of individuals; at most selection can produce organisms which are good at living in groups. Cultures evolve but the nature of that evolution is not Darwinian.

The flip side is that the only intelligent species that we are familiar with does seem to be imperialistic so, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that is the way to bet.

So, believing that intelligent, imperialistic life forms are even more probable than you state, that makes it even more of a paradox.
Thanks for the interesting comments. They are much appreciated.

… continued on next rock

If all the elements where made by fusion in stars, the smaller atoms (the top of the periodic table) would be more common. Of chemicals with 4 electrons in their outer shell, carbon seems the most bizarre. So I would have to agree that CHON would be the most likely chemistry. I still question that it’s the only possibility .

The elements with the smaller atomic numbers are definitely more common. IIRC most helium, deuterium, and some lithium are primordial. Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Neon and some Iron are produced in regular fusion; everything else is produced by supernovae.

The point about carbon is that with it one can form polymers which (a) can vary in side structure and (b)aren’t excessively stable. It might be that there is some other set of chemicals in some environment that would have equivalent properties but it doesn’t look as though there can be.

Also in the atmosphere of gas giants? Maybe bacteria could exist in the more temperate layers of a gas giant with CHON. But a technological civilization would need to mine metals (have access to a rocky surface) and to mine metals have fire (not be water dwellers).
My guess is that gas giants aren’t suitable for abiogenesis although it’s conceivable that bacteria could exist there once they are established.
But individual instincts can influence cultural trends. Niven & Pournelle (Mote in God’s Eye) explain war as populations expanding beyond their boundaries. This would be imperialistic behavior driven by the need to reproduce.
More precisely, they make that assumption without questioning it. It isn’t just reproduction; there needs to be a specific propensity for making war. Most species spread without investing effort in killing off potential competitors; humans are a rare exception. (Lions apparently kill off cheetah’s for the hell of it.) The decision to kill potential competitors is a cultural one in humans and (inter-species) a fairly recent one tied to agricuture.
Cultures evolve not through mutation. But it seems something similar to natural selection would be at work. If the customs of the culture facilitate survival and reproduction the culture will spread.
It is true that “favorable” customs are likely to spread. However there are real differences. Natural selection is slow and is essentially statistical in character; with it there is no room for foresight. Cultures can think out customs; they can behave “intelligently”.
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From: Josh Gans
Date: 8/6/99
Subj: ryans steakhouse

funniest story i have ever read

You have a low sense of humor. Good show!
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From: Angie Waller
Date: 8/5/99
Subj: Kitty Litter Cake

I just want to thank you for the Kitty Litter Cake recipe. I have recently been selected for promotion to Chief in the Navy. Before the promotion takes place, we as “slugs” are required to perform all sorts of tasks, from shining shoes, to washing cars, to singing and dancing and providing “refreshments” for the Real Chiefs.

It is not often we can provide refreshments in such a glorified manner. We have used your recipe on a group of about 30 Chiefs, and I think most are still laughing.

Thank you so much again for the outstanding recipe!

I hadn’t quite thought of my web pages as a valuable resource supporting our brave men and women in uniform. To be honest, I still don’t. I am glad that everybody enjoyed their special dessert.

Congratulations on your promotion.

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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 8/3/99
Warped Food

Went back to this on account of recent email; I’ve never seen a whole-head mold but you can get a ~human-size brain mold for jello….

As a warped food thought: Supposedly in parts of Southeast Asia monkey brains are a delicacy. Diners dine at special tables with holes in them. The tops of the monkey heads are removed and the monkeys are positioned under the table so that their heads poke up through the holes thus serving as a dish of brains. Whether this is actually so or not I do not know. In conjunction with your mention of a human-size brain mold, however, I can think of some interesting possibilities for future Boskone banquets.
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From: Michael Delducco
Date: 7/31/99

Funny web site. Especially the part about bible prophecy… I expecially appreciated the reference to modern day Israel coming together out of the countries of the world, and being born on one day as declared by the United Nations… all as predicted in the bible (even has time table)…. thanx. We do know ALL people who believe in creation and God are idiots don’t we? Of course we do, that’s because we are smart. Lucky to have all those idiots, otherwise how would we be able to feel so smarh eh?

Almost forgot, doesn’t light have a source? Did you say chance? Who invented the dice? Always there… uh huh. You’re here aren’t you? You’re intelligent aren’t you? So, you arrived on the reality scene somehow. But, somehow another intelligent being cannot exist in the context of the reality scene because this being just may be a little smarter/superior to you?

Bible prophecy?? I have something on my site about a reference to modern day Israel coming together? I might have; I have a lot of pages and some very odd stuff. But bible prophecy? It does seem unlikely.

The “you atheists think you’re so smart” argument for religion isn’t a very good one, at least not for Christianity. Petulant resentment was never one of the Christian virtues.

Be that as it made, I’m pleased that your enjoyed the humor pages. They seem to be popular.

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From: Chip Hitchcock
Date: 7/8/99
Rules guys wished girls knew

wrt #14 — a program item at ConFiction (1990 Worldcon, in the Hague) discussed the discovery that mess in the Schiphol (airport) mens rooms was much reduced after they put a drawing of a fly in the middle of each urinal; apparently some men can use either a target or a focus of attention….

Practical solutions for practical problems.
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From: Mccoy Family
Date: 7/18/99
Subj: Can you stand another Blonde joke…

Hi Richard,

I have written you before. I am a “frequent flyer”–I really enjoy the jokes! I have one for you.

So this Blonde walks out of a casino in Las Vegas and sees a Coke machine. She deposites 60 cents presses the button and an soda comes out. She looks surprised, puts in another 60 cents presses the button and the soda comes out. She does it again, feeds the machine 60 cents presses the button and yet another soda comes out. Enthusiastically, she feed coins into the machine, one after another, pressing buttons retrieving sodas. An older gentleman, tired of waiting comes from behind, asks for a chance to use the machine. The Blonde says, are you kidding–of course you cannot use this machine right now, can’t you see I’m winning!

Okay, so I’m no comediannne–I did get a chuckle from this. I am a teacher and I like to “borrow” a joke or two from your site. I like substituting Blonde or Irish with my student’s names or “freshman” or whatever to cater the joke to the crowd.
Thanks for such a cool site,

It’s not a bad joke – it’s worth a chuckle or two. I really hadn’t thought of my site as a teaching resource. That’s not quite right – I hadn’t thought of the humor page as a teaching resource.

It’s good to hear from you again.

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From: ROSE
Date: 7/8/99
Subj: Interesting–

I enjoyed looking at your sight. It was very interesting.
Rose from Texas

As in “May you live in interesting times”?
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This page was last updated August 16, 1999.
It was reformatted and moved December 15, 2004

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