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Date: Fri, 6 Oct 1995 19:25:33 -0700
From: Justin Hall <>
To: UnderList <>


Kurt Vonnegut addressed the computer age minimum wage conspiracy. I saw Vonnegut speak; at the reception I pestered him until he grabbed me and left.

In estimation of his lecture, I spent a little time researching Vonnegut. I found a record of Kurt Vonnegut reading selections from his novel Cat's Cradle in the Swarthmore College library, including his quaint rasp spinging the 53rd Calypso of Bokonon:
oh a sleeping drunkard up in central park
a lion hunter in the jungle dark
and a chinese dentist and a british queen
all fit together in the same machine
nice nice very nice
nice nice very nice
nice nice very nice
so many different people in the same device.

I wondered if he was talking about the Internet. Bokonon seems to be addressing the global brain, of which the web is the most recent, most tangible manifestation.

Two hours drive to Lancaster, PA, Amish country, with Ian Hansen. His mom does PR for Lebanon Valley College, had for us two tickets to this packed, oversold event, in Miller Chapel, ringed by foreign students and beyond them the healthy white bread of western PA.

The Chairman of the English deparment stood and made a funny but not memorable introduction, ending with "Step up here and tell us what you think about war."

Kurt Vonnegut was hunched, husky voiced, a slight slur. From five hundred pewed people away, he seemed old but spry. As he talked, it was confirmed. He had notes, but he leaned over them, over the podium, sending his spittle out to the farthest listener.

Right off the bat, he took a hand poll that showed many more readers of Slaughterhouse Five than actual combat veterans. He told us who the real people were behind the characters in SH5, what had happened to them since the war.

While he was asked to speak about Dresden and the firebombing, he would speak about Nagasaki and the atomic bombing. At Gettysburg, Lincoln made the Civil War carnage tragedy beautiful. The war was real - bayonets and bullets strewn honest bodies across battlefields. Not so with the atomic bombing, pilots bombing out-of-sight civilians. "Even Shakespeare would be tongue tied about the you-know-what. That's what I call it."

Not one second earlier were concentration camp victims freed, or soldiers pulled back from the German front; only one person ever benefitted from the fire bombing of Dresden, and we were looking at him. The bombing resulted from British beaurocratic momentum; what shall we do today, over a period of months, becomes let's bomb Dresden, a civilian city, unrelated to the war effort on either side.

His sacred duty was never to be a writer, but to support a family. Toward that end he was an advertising agent, and one of America's first SAAB dealers. If a newspaper had hired him, he would have been a journalist. If GE had paid him better, he would be retired.

He is essentially out of work because novels are irrelevant. Too many distractions - novels are a minor part of a media spectrum. Before electronics, people turned to novels to show them the world, introduce them to wonderful characters.

<harsh smoker's cough break>

Novels require the audience to be performers, to read.

What makes his life worthwhile now is meeting saints who are everywhere, ordinary folks acting decent in an indecent society (328k .au). He mentions here that he is the President of the American Humanist Society, after Isaac Asimov - a position with no tangible function.

Family values is big families, so we don't have to call the police and the fire department all the time. He met a man in Nigeria with 1000 relatives. He had a son, took him around to meet all of his family. That kid knows where he comes from, who he can depend on.

Freud discovered the great mystery of females:

they want to have more people to talk to!
Divorce, after admitting his own, is "you are not enough people - I know too much about you. I know how you snore, how you eat, how you read the paper." We need more people in our lives.

On the subject of waylaid youth, he suggested puberty ceremonies in public parks with the mayor - declaring to 14 year olds: "you're an adult, now act like it." After he returned from the war, his uncle clapped him on the back, "You're a man now." and Vonnegut nearly killed his first German.

CNN makes war look like a whoopee cushion. He detailed the horror of the Battle of the Bulge, the largest American loss in WWII. He was in the snow, on the ground, didn't see any American support, tanks or planes. The German's tanks were white, the soldiers were wearing white capes. Our uniforms were the colour of dog shit. We were pounded.

one sided When I saw surrendering Iraquis, I thought "these are my brothers." He recited a phrase that used to be as textbooked as "live free or die":
when some American soldiers had hit a Spanish passenger cruiser during the Spanish American war, they were cheering its feiery descent in the water. The caption of the vessel said "Don't cheer lads, those people are dying."
At the same time, the Army was one of the great highs of my life. Dark trucks moving in on a flashing front - hearing the sounds of war in the distance - steel helmet clangs against rifle - young, in with his trainee buddies - if only my wedding night had been that exciting.

the burning question is...

penis size...

Young people are very fond of me, and I'm not surprised - cuz I know the burning question. Does penis size really matter? was the hot topic at college in the midst of World War II buildup and draft. Now on campus the question is, "Do you use a word processor?"

...or word processor?

Somebody gave him a computer to use him in an advertisement. A magazine came by to check if it was actually used, discovered it in the nursery, solely utilized for chess.

the computer age is a calamity

The computer age is a calamity. Big money is behind computers, to knock you down to a minimum wage. This should not be celebrated, replacing humans, we never thought we were so good anyway.

When he writes, he types. Once. He writes in corrections in red pen on the typed sheet, and gives it to a woman to retype ("how are we going to beat the japanese if I don't fire Carol and become lean and mean?"). He doesn't fax it to her, he mails it. Instead of buying fifty envelopes at once, as his current wife suggests, he goes to the stationary store somewhere in NY each time he needs to send something. The woman behind the counter, a hindu, has a jewel between her eyes. That alone is worth the trip. So is chatting with people in line.

Then he goes to the post office, where he has a secret passion for the postal clerk. Considering her motley uniform, she goes to great pains to decorate her head and neck area, quite generous of her.

It is a hell of a good time.
We are here on earth to fart around.

It has been an hour, 9pm now, he asks for permission to continue, amply granted, he moves to a blackboard on stage. He draws an X and Y axis, graph of story structure. X is beginning to end of the tale, Y is good fortune to ill fortune. He illustrates several common tales in this format - boy meets girl, Cinderella, man in hole, Kafka's Metamorphosis. All of these have storylines that gesticulate along the good to ill fortune curve.

He observes that primitive stories tend to stay in the middle and follow a straight line. For starters, they're about animals. You can never tell what's a good or bad event.

Then the "greatest masterpiece of English literature" Hamlet. Hamlet is all depressing and deluded, all the way through - a straight line as well. It tells us the truth, we don't know what the good news or the bad news is, that's the masterpiece.

He finishes with Questions and Answers session (I was all set to ask him to sing the 53rd Calypso of Bokonon). Instead he is to ask the only question. Did you ever have a teacher who made you view life better? Tell the person next to you their name, and I'm outta here.

The session breaks, I mention "Howard Rheingold" to no one in particular, and we wander over to the reception, in the college art gallery. There are not so many people, he is not so thronged. A few people ask him to sign books, tell him about local goings-on.

I get close. I am facing Vonnegut. He reeks of nicotine - years of encrusted stale cigarette smoke eminate from his leathery looking skin and his nondescript tan suit. He is stooped a bit, but still tall and aware, very present. Beneath wisps of blackened curly gray hair, bleary reddish eyes set stare out with gaunt intensity.

I counter his humanity quenching conception of computers with my vision - personal empowerment and freedom and truth on the web.

"Body odour's going to come back in style. What's that wonderful smell? Another human being!"

I proposed that the computer could be used to extend family, and truth, the importance of which he mentioned in his speech.

"Those people aren't real."

I countered with a Rheingoldism - "What about the kid dying of lukemia in the hospital who types to people all over the world up until his dying moment? Is that not real?"

"You're sitting in one place when you use those things."

"Same as writing a novel. You don't write your books standing up, moving around."

He's backing away, looking to speak with some of the other folks congregated around him, "it sounds sort of like ham radio, people use that to talk all over the world." And he's absorbed elsewhere. I write in my notebook, underlined, "He's old school."

He drifts into another room, sits down. More autographs and Ian is talking to him. I take pictures of them together. Settle down next to his chair to wait for computer interjection.

Someone affirms his speech, bemoans the sad fate of the printed page.

I counter that reading is little different on a screen or a page. If they suck now, screens will get better. One is not more inherently communicative than the other.

A book is meditation. There's something about that sitting pose with a book in your hands, concentrating, decoding 26 letters, 10 numbers, 8 punctuation marks

I begin my counterpoint - he holds a nicotine-stained gnarled finger in my face - crotchetizing, "hold on! I'm not finished!"

- your blood pressure goes down, you are relaxed.

One could say the same thing about television, couch potatoing is pretty low key. Besides, with a computer, you are creating something. You don't just turn on a computer and let it play, you have to interact with it, make it do the stuff you want. It enables creation and communication.

Some of the old ladies running the thing ask me to move aside and let other people talk - he ignores them and rebutts me - A book is real. You can have it here, in your hands. Computer text is not real, I can't hold it.

What is real? How is any one thing more real than another?

He grabs my arm...

He grabs my arm. Eyes wild, he grabs my hair, shakes it,
"Can you get this from a computer?"
my head, shakes it,
"Can you get this from a computer?"
He rises and leaves the reception to laudatory middle aged women - "well said."

There's a long version

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