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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Courtesy costs little II

Gabriel’s last post brought irresistibly to mind another letter that was orbiting the planet via email several years ago (this was before the Planet Blog emerged from ether). As with Gabriel, I apologize if you have already seen this, but it is not only hilarious, it is funny in such a kind and gentle way that I have used it in several classes as an example of how to write a letter in which you are saying “no, no, a thousand times no!” while making a new friend.

The letter, from the Smithsonian Institution to a backyard archaeologist, follows: Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled “211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull.”

We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents “conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.” Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the “Malibu Barbie”. It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loath to come to contradiction with your findings.

However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to its modern origin:

1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.

2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.

3. The dentition pattern evident on the “skull” is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the “ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams” you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:

A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.

B. Clams don’t have teeth.

It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in its normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating’s notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name “Australopithecus spiff-arino.” Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn’t really sound like it might be Latin.

However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation’s capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the “trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix” that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

Yours in Science,

Harvey Rowe

5 comments to Courtesy costs little II

  • Millie Woods

    This reminds me of an anecdote my boss told when I was working in the stats department of a Throgmorton Street brokerage. One of the partners came in one Monday morning all indignant because he had almost been impaled by a huge needle imbedded in the upholstery of the seat of his commuter train from Saffron Walden. He was even more ioutraged because when he’d complained to the powers that be, they’d shrugged and told him he was lucky he hadn’t been hurt. End of story. My boss who’d recently returned from hobnobbing with the firm’s American contacts in New York said one of the chaps in the American company had found a cockroach in the car he was travelling in from Long Island to Wall Street. He duly wrote to the railroad giving the car number as well as all other essential details. He received a reply thanking him for bringing the unseemly occurrence to their attention and assuring him that the car in question had been taken out of service and fumigated. On shaking out the envelope he found a handwritten note with the message – Send this guy the bug letter .

  • Mark… I suggest you look at the category RC Dean gave it: humour.

  • R C Dean

    I never thought for an instant that it was “real” (whatever that means when you are talking about a document). I mean, the letter unquestionably exists – it is posted right here on this website for anyone to see! At least, its words are, and isn’t that what a letter “really” is?

    I guess I figured it was real enough for me – I always thought that its value lay entirely in the quality of the prose and the imagination and sensitivity on display. Whether a paper copy was actually mailed from the Smithsonian (I suspect this is what Mark means by by “real”) is irrelevant to me.

  • Some farmer out in Oklahoma figured out that hydrochloric acid did a terrific job unblocking the drains in his pig barn. He wrote a letter to the Agriculture Department in Washington informing them of his discovery.

    He received a letter in reply stating, “While hydrochloric acid is undeniably highly effective in removing drainpipe obstructions, we must point out that its caustic properties are likely to have highly forseeable consequences in chemical reaction with ferrous metals.”

    The farmer sent a letter back to the Ag Department saying how glad he was that they’d liked his idea.

    He soon received another letter saying: “Don’t use hydrochloric acid, you dope. It eats the hell out of the pipes.”