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Chance e-mail, new definitions of a small world

Sometimes I'm not so sure about this whole Internet thing. There are days when email and the Web are the greatest invention since sliced bread. But then there are other days, like one I had last week, when I wonder whether I couldn't make do with the uncut loaf, so to speak.

On Wednesday I logged into my email, as I do several times per quarter hour during this peak thesis-procrastination season. There, summarized in my inbox, was a message from an off-campus address I did not recognize. How exciting, I thought. Perhaps I had made a new friend.

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Here was the text of the message as I recall it: Do you know what Richmond did to alcohol in 1935? If I find out I could win a prize in a trivia contest.

I had no idea who this person was. All I could surmise was that somehow he – or she – found out I was from Richmond, Virginia, and assumed that I am loaded with trivia about my hometown (which I am, just not in the category of alcohol during the 1930s).

I didn't know the answer, and I told this trivia freeloader so by email. I also asked who he was and how he found me. All I can guess is that he searched the Web for Richmond and came up with Ye Olde Webbe Page, my sorry on-line site.

I guess that's also how I ended up with this email, again from a mysterious address: Hi, I am trying to get a scholarship for one of the top cartoonists in Sri lanka to do a Ph.D. or a higher degree. Could you kindly help in any way to get this done. Regards, Dr. A. Sumathipala.

Now, Dr. Sumathipala, I can't even get my department to let me use its fax machine (but that's another column). How am I going to arrange for a Sri Lankan cartoonist to study here? Would I first have to start the doctorate in cartooning program before he could arrive? And is there really a higher degree than a Ph.D. (hmm, maybe that's what those 10th-year grad students are working toward)?

I also occasionally check the email account for Quipfire! Usually mail is from our alumni or from other improv comedy groups looking to organize shows. Wednesday produced an email from a self-described "comic magician," who was looking for advice on how to teach corporate suits about improvisation. I don't know what a comic magician is; it could be a David Copperfield who tells jokes or a Merlin who makes comedy appear out of thin air. What I do know is that this guy was asking us – rather nicely, I should add – to email him back with a short lesson on how to teach improv. I'll leave it to someone else in the group to get back to him.

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A fourth story and then the quick punchline: My mother, who just recently learned to use "the email," is on a church board that doles out money to the elderly, to students and to others in need. Others in need in Richmond, that is, not in Uganda, which is whence she recently received an application for aid. Someone – perfectly needy, I'm sure, but a little outside the neighborhood – had found the board listed on the Web and decided to apply.

Courtesy would require that all four of these on-line callers receive a reply; I know I've sent many an unsolicited email in hopes of a thesis interview, advice or other favor. But replying takes time, if only to say "I don't have time to say anything to you."

The Internet and "the email" have made our lives easier, but they've also made us easier to find. You can run, but you can't hide. Watch out for those Ugandan magicians looking to win prizes for drawing cartoons.

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