Will the real Kurt Vonnegut please log on?

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Within the links and connections of the electronic world, myths propagate and flourish at a speed that cannot be attested to by prudence or fact. Consider: on May 31 Mary Schmich, a writer for The Chicago Tribune, wrote a column for the paper that began:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of l997: Wear sunscreen."

Soon after it was published, in a completely unrelated event, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, delivered a commencement (awards) speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

A few days later, by a mysterious hand or in ways that have yet to be traced, the column became attributed to the novelist Kurt Vonnegut as a commencement speech he gave to the college. It was bounced around the world by e-mail, even Wired magazine extracted a passage, and it was celebrated wherever it went as the author's poignant guide to living.

Even Vonnegut's wife, photographer Jill Krementz, who did not doubt her husband was the author of the address, received it and sent it on to his children as an example of dad's cleverness and wisdom:

"Do one thing every day that scares you," the text continued.

"Sing.

"Don't be reckless with people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.

"Floss."

One of the last to know, Vonnegut learnt of "his" work's existence when his agent told him a magazine wanted to reprint the speech he gave at MIT. More requests started pouring in until Schmich called to tell all to the perplexed author of works such as The Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse- Five.

The 74-year-old writer has as little idea as anyone else as to how this cyberhoax - or cyber mistake - was born and the mystery has done nothing to soften his long-held antipathy toward computers and the Internet as a part of the future not worth trusting. "How can I tell if I'm being kidded or not, or lied to," he told the New York Times. "I don't know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet."

Schmich, 43, who once read Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle, at university, denies imitating the author's bitter-sweet style. Putting Vonnegut's name on her writing, she wrote in a later column, "would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-Mart jeans".

The experience has left her feeling much as Vonnegut does - especially as she has been criticised for damaging the integrity of the Internet. "I thought it was just one of the curiosities of cyberspace," she said. "But having been roped into it in a very personal way, it seems less merely interesting and more dangerous."

And that would seem to be that - except that feverish imaginations are still constructing conspiracy theories to support a belief that Vonnegut is the author of the address despite his denials. "This is part of a promotion for an upcoming Vonnegut book," one electronic news group writer wrote. "One of the characters in the book is a newspaper columnist and guess what her name is: Mary Schmich."

No word yet from Kofi Annan.

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