Uncle Don's Notebook
[Graphic: Inkwell
labeled VITRIOL]

Uncle Don's Notebook

1996 Archive

Each of us needs a notebook in which to jot down those flashes of insight, one-liners, bad jokes, Nobel-prize-worthy ideas, and provocative tidbits and scraps read or heard. This is mine.

This document is the natural successor to my regular column Scraps From The Editor's Wastebasket in The Vector, published from 1976 to 1991.

Entries are stacked in reverse order, with the most recent ones first, so readers won't have to wade through old ones to get to the new ones. Occasionally they will be collected and archived.

[Graphic: Santa with a mean look on
face. Caption: Merry Christmas and all that Humbug!]
Santa © John Holden.

Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, nonaddictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, and with respect for the religious persuasions of others or their choice not to practice a religion at all; a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the generally accepted calendar year 1996, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to our society have helped make America great, without regard to the race, creed, color, religious, or sexual preferences of the wishees. (This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others.)

© 1993, Dan R. Greening. Non-commercial reproduction allowed.

Everyone seems to be dieting these days. Doctors give you diet sheets whenever one of your medical tests hits one of their magic numbers. The food industry is quick to take advantage. Products tout reduced fat, reduced sugar, and reduced salt, but never all three at once (yet). Of one thing you can be sure, if a product is advertised as natural, lite, or has the word healthy in its name, it will surely taste vile. What do they do with the flavor they extract from these foods? It's a clever ploy: make it taste bad enough and you won't be tempted to eat much of it, so you won't overindulge.

If you think your diet is a cruel joke, the one below could make yours seem like a feast for a king. I ran across this item while cleaning out old files. It is from a joke card given out many years ago by a Slug's Roost, a smorgasbord restaurant in Camp Hill, Pa, which, alas, no longer exists. The food there would break anyone's diet.

Low Calorie Diet


Breakfast - Weak tea
Lunch - One bouillon cube, half cup diluted water.
Dinner - One pigeon thigh, 3 ounces prune juice (gargle only).


Breakfast - Scraped crumbs of one slice of burnt toast.
Lunch - One doughnut hole without sugar, one glass of dehydrated water.
Dinner - One fish egg - shad or sturgeon (minced).


Breakfast - Shredded egg shell skin.
Lunch - Belly button from navel orange.
Dinner - Three eyes from Irish potato (diced).


Breakfast - Half ounce strained unflavored Jello with one peeled grape.
Lunch - Half dozen poppy seeds.
Dinner - Bees' knees and mosquito knuckles sauted with vinegar.


Breakfast - Two broiled Lobster antennae.
Lunch - One Guppy fin with lemon and pepper.
Dinner - Filet of soft shelled crab claw.


Breakfast - Four chopped banana seeds.
Lunch - Broiled butterfly liver.
Dinner - Jelly fish vertebrae a la Roost.


Breakfast - Pickled hummingbird tongues.
Lunch - Prime ribs of tadpole and aroma of empty custard pie plate.
Dinner - Tossed paprika and clover leaf (one).

Note: All meals to be eaten under microscope to discourage taking extra helpings.

The Scourge of Sports. It's August 1996, and soon the school year in the U.S. will begin. Retail stores are having `back to school' sales, and on the athletic fields of schools across the country the football teams are beginning fall practice, well before the start of academic classes.

This only serves to remind us once again of the sorry state of public education in the U.S. Will the schools have the resources to provide a better education this year? The media have little interest in that question; all you hear from that quarter is mindless prattle about how well the sports teams are likely to perform this year.

I used to think that sports were merely a cosmetic blemish on the educational system. But now that sports and the `sports culture' has infected not only education, but our entire national culture, a better comparison would be to a cancer.

The decline of educational quality has gone hand in hand with the rise of sports in the schools. I won't argue cause and effect here, but the two trends certainly reinforce each other, feed upon each other, and are interlinked in many ways. The more time and commitment a student puts into sports, the less is available for intellectual and academic pursuits. Sports schedules are allowed to disrupt class schedules, but never are academics allowed to interfere with sports. The value-system promoted by sports displaces the values which promote academic excellence.

Coaches, physical education instructors, and ex-athletes are hired for administrative positions in the schools, bringing to the job their limited understanding of the academic process, and a value-system derived from the sports model. They then impose these limited and superficial values from sports upon the entire school system, holding them up as a model for all. These values are not all bad, of course, but most are trivial and their application beyond sports is often strained or inappropriate. Certainly sports promote team cooperation (and a tribal competitiveness to `beat' the other team). Sports promote competition (and, though not always overtly, the `winning is everything, losing is nothing' philosophy). Sports promote playing `by the rules' (except when you can get away with something which the referees can't see).

Sports promote dedication to a goal, though oddly that doesn't transfer to other goals, such as academic ones. Nor does the ethic of achievement through practice and hard work seem to transfer to academic course work. The student weak in academics can substitute ego-gratification by excelling in sports.

Sports promote the philosophy that a thing isn't worth doing unless it produces an adrenilin rush, and visceral satisfaction. Is it any wonder that students also expect academic courses to be `fun' and `entertaining'? If it `feels good', do it. If it's boring and intellectually difficult, ignore it. That's the prevailing attitude of students—an attitude reinforced by the culture of sports.

Sports promote subservience of the individual to the will of the coach and trainer and to the success of the team. This has value in certain aspects of life, and is a quality certainly desired in employees by leaders of business and industry. But the value system promoted by sports does nothing to ensure the development of other intellectual values important to citizens: analytic thinking, independent thinking, critical thinking, and creative thinking. The mental activities required in team sports are developed within the narrow constraints of the arbitrary rules of one game. These mental skills are useful in the real world to help people `fit into a productive niche'—to be a cogwheel in the machinery of the social-economic system. But they are totally inadequate to shape the scientists, creative artists, innovators, and original thinkers society needs for its long- term progress.

There's a curious double standard here. School sports operate in an elitist manner. The 90 lb uncoordinated weakling is unlikely to be selected for the football team, and the coach feels no pressure to include everyone. But teachers of academic subjects are expected to admit everyone, the mental weaklings, and the woefully unprepared, and teachers get serious flak if their students don't all `succeed' by getting good grades. In academics nowadays, everyone is expected to be a `winner' but in sports it's understood that if there's a winner, there are also losers. In academics there's an unwritten (and unrealistic) operating principle that `everyone is educable'. But no coach is foolish enough to assume that everyone can become an Olympic athlete, or even qualify for a high school team. In an academic course, when a student learns nothing, it's considered the teachers' fault. In sports, those who don't succeed must try harder, or be booted off the team. In academic courses, if some don't succeed, some teachers lower the standards.

On a more subtle, and perhaps philosophical, level, sports encourage a desire for near-term gratification. The goals of sports are realized rather soon, on the playing field. The outcome is clear: you win or you lose. In the real world, outcomes often come much farther down the road, and the goals are not always so clearly defined. The rules may not be completely and clearly stated, and they change as the `game' progresses. In academic courses, especially in math and sciences, progress toward the goal of understanding is slow, the goal not within sight, the roads are not clearly marked and are potholed with hazards. The student must learn to defer gratification. Understanding comes in a series of small revelations, each raising more questions, then come more small revelations, but never does one reach the point where one understands everything perfectly well. The goal is elusive, and along the way there are new things to be discovered, things not mentioned in the rule book.

Now that sports have become a national obsession one seldom hears meaningful criticism of sports, and few have the courage to challenge the presence and dominance of sports in the educational system. Anyone who dares criticize sports will feel the wrath of the ignorati far worse than if one had criticized their religion. Indeed, some people's allegiance to sports is greater than their commitment to religion. One can search the Internet and find nothing even mildly critical of sports. Woe to the teacher, or parent, who dares challenge sports in the schools. The system will exact retribution upon that person, or that person's children.

So long as sports co-exist in the schools, on an equal status, with academics, we cannot expect the quality of academic education to improve in any meaningful way. The cancer of sports must be eradicated before the system can be restored to good health.

More on sports: Sports Quotes.

Last spring I commented here on the absurdity of the position of those who advocate prayer in the public schools (see below). Since then I've located net resources which address this issue: School Prayer: News, and, from the Wall Street Journal, a tongue-in-cheek politically correct prayer for the schools.

Abuse of the handicapped. While spending a few weeks in Iowa, I've been away from computers and the net. It's good to get away and into the real world once in a while. I picked up a copy of the Cedar Rapids Gazette (July 26, 1996, p. 8A) and read a report that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin released a study showing that Medicare pays 3 to 6 times as much for medical supplies as a Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City. He cited an example: Medicare pays $99.35 for a commode chair, while the VA pays $24.12 and the wholesale price of the item is $39.99. Not only the drug companies rip us off, the medical equipment companies do it too.

Not only the cost, but the design of such equipment for the elderly and handicapped, leaves a lot to be desired. If a piece of equipment looks as if it came from a 40's charity hospital, it is merely overpriced. If it is designed with good engineering, style and attractiveness, it costs twice as much.

We spend huge sums for handicapped accessibility done badly. While in Iowa I had occasion to accompany my 88 year old mother, who is arthritic and gets around with a wheeled walker, to a medical equipment supply company. The large, imposing building had a handicapped parking place at one end, requiring a long stroll uphill to the door. If the parking had been at the other end, the path would have been level. Parking near the door was not permitted. Then the handicapped person must negotiate two sets of double doors. There's a red button marked 'handicapped access'. Press it and the door hits you if you haven't moved aside. I watched as two able-bodied workmen brought in a motorized chair designed for the handicapped, which was being returned from repair. One was riding on it. He got smacked by the door. Finally, with the help of his friend, he maneuvered it aside and got through the door only to be trapped in the too-small space between the two sets of doors. It took the two of them to figure out how to get him out of the predicament. I watched with amusement, tempered by outrage. Is this any way to treat the elderly and handicapped? What kind of idiots design this stuff? Highly-paid engineers and architects who are devoid of common sense design it, to specifications written by brain-dead bureaucrats. It is a scandal.

While I was at this medical equipment supply store I looked at the prices. The ordinary and ugly commode chairs were priced at $100. The only well-engineered and reasonably attractive one was $200. Harkin was right.

You can quote me on this. I'm gearing up to make a definitive collection of my original quotes. Over the years I've come up with pithy comments, puns, and self-referential statements with built-in ambiguity or contradictions. A few people tell me they are worth quoting. However, while trying to gather up and remember these, I was struck by a fundamental truism about quotable quotes: "Anything worth repeating has already been said by someone else." But, so far as I know, these are original, so if you use them, a credit line with my name would be nice.


  • Computers should be forgiving, not forgetting.
  • Computers are nice, but can you really trust them when the chips are down?
  • Serial communications are sometimes flaky.

Science and Mathematics

  • Entropy requires no maintenance.
  • Scattered data points on a graph look more significant with a straight line drawn through them.
  • An answer is no good unless you know how good it is.
  • An answer is no good unless you understand how you got it.
  • I am never quite sure about uncertainties.
  • Statistics means never having to say you're certain.
  • Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.


  • Courses with the worst grade inflation are those with the most hot air.
  • In education, nothing works if the students don't.


  • History ought to be kept completely in the past.
  • Prediction is difficult, especially when it involves the future.
  • The production of useful work is strictly limited by the laws of thermodynamics. The production of useless work seems unlimited.
  • Ten reasonably intelligent people working together on a committee can produce a result indistinguishible from that of one idiot working alone.

    What's Up?

    The zenith's up and the nadir's down
    And that's a fact the world around.

This was inspired by an old saying which I first heard from Mr. Frank Asmus, the drugist, pharmacist and soda-fountain operator in my small home town in Iowa. It was the 40s and I was in elementary school at the time. I'd gone to ask him for some chemical for a lab experiment. He asked how much I wanted, and I was a bit unsure. So he helpfully reminded me "A pint's a pound the world around."

In our continuing efforts to bring you links to net resources, we discover new sites which look interesting, but often it takes a while to evaluate them to see whether they deserve a place on these pages. You can sample the latest promising new links at your own risk.

Vector Archives. Some new readers have asked whether material from The Vector will be archived here. Some already is, and more may come. (We are taking requests.) Regular Vector contributor Bob Shadewald gave us permission to archive his Six Flood Arguments Creationists Can't Answer [6, 2; April, 1982], and the classic paper in which Bob Schadewald's (BS) gravity engine was revealed to the world, "What Goes Up..." Is Basis for a Breakthrough [3,3; April 1, 1979]. My own attempts at humor are here, including Hazards of Solar Power [3, 1; Dec, 1978], and Noah Fooling! [5, 2; Apr, 1981], and also Jack Holden's Illustrated Dictionary of Physics [6, 1; Dec, 1981]. William E. Stafford's classic spoof of the sports/academics imbalance, He Tries Hard [3, 1; Dec, 1978] is as relevant as ever. You'll also find provocative quotes on education [1, 2; Apr, 1977]

I'm waiting for someone to write a book titled How to Absolutely and Finally Cure Yourself Of Addiction To Self-Help Books: a ten step plan that WORKS!. Some years back there was a book titled Do-It-Yourself Psychotherapy which sounded like a sensible idea to me.

If you want to convince your doctor you are getting senile, ask him the precise meaning of "Take one tablet twice a day." Tell him it's such a messy nuisance to have to spit up that first tablet to take it again later.

These days it's a very good thing for students that most jobs which require a college degree don't require a college education.

News Item. June 16, 1996. Many private colleges in the East are reported to be revising admissions policies to make SAT scores optional for admission. They say that the SAT discriminates against some identifiable groups of applicants. Sure it does. It always did. It discriminates against the group of academically and intellectually unprepared applicants. Seems to me that was its purpose, and value, all along. This erosion of admissions standards hastens the day when all colleges will have open admission policies, admitting any warm body with tuition in hand. They will no longer discriminate against the academically challenged. Even some private schools will follow the example of the public institutions by inflating grades and lowering standards so that nearly everyone is guaranteed a diploma. To read more about grade inflation and related matters, visit the Society for A Return to Academic Standards. Two of my own opinion pieces about the decline of education are here: The Decline of Education 1. (1974, 1994) and The Decline of Education 2. (1995)

A riddle is circulating the internet, causing all sorts of fuss. People argue over its precise wording, and propose answers which others point out are deficient, in that they don't meet the conditions of the problem. No one seems to have pinned down the origin of the riddle, though some say it was heard on a radio talk show. The riddle is apparently quite ancient, and several distinctly worded versions are circulating. Here's a version that makes some sort of sense, has an answer that fits and isn't too much of a 'trick'.

    What is the third word?
    There are three common words in the English dictionary that end with the letters g, r and y. Two of them are hungry and angry. The third one we use everyday and we all know what it means. What is the third word?
After you've invoked your own spell checker or dictionary, you may wish to look at my answer.

They need a prayer. It's Spring again and commencement ceremonies abound, dispensing devalued diplomas to students as a prelude to the rigors of finding a job. Apparently many feel that students also need a prayer at this juncture of their lives.

So the newspapers are full of reports of controversy over public prayers at commencement ceremonies, and the letters columns are overflowing with indignant diatribes from Christians acting as if their fundamental freedoms would be abridged if a prayer were not said on this public occasion. One wonders why they are so insecure that they must flaunt their religion upon others at such public affairs? They seem to wish to embarrass and intimidate those who don't hold the same religion, or who object to public displays of religiosity. They also arrogantly want to give the impression that the schools support their religious views, or at least support the idea of prayer to their Christian god, and to dismiss objections from those of `other religions'. On these occasions some Christians don't display much sensitivity to the feelings of others. It's another example of "Tyranny of the Majority." They are convinced that they have absolute truth, and therefore have the right to flaunt or impose their beliefs on everyone else. To them, anyone who doesn't share their views is a second-class citizen.

One simple-minded letter-writer thought there'd be no problem if a Protestant, Catholic and Jewish representative each said a prayer! Apparently this person figured there were only three religious views which counted, or which needed to be accommodated.

These proselytizers seem to forget that their own Bible advocates private prayer over public prayer. "Go into your closet and pray..."

I've encountered people who doubted that the Bible actually said anything of this sort. (You'd think those who make such a big show of believing in the Bible would know it better.) So here's the precise quote from the King James Version, in Matthew 6:

    5. And when thou prayest thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

School superintendents should quote these verses whenever some Christian suggests public prayer at school events. And it is always a professed Christian, of the Hypocrite sect, who suggests such things. Those who profess to believe in the Bible should be challenged to find any Bible passage which clearly advocates public, institutionalized prayer.

Rogue Gogues. The format of this electronic notebook derives from one of my favorite inspirational books: Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, 1956. That book was a set of numbered entries, in no particular order, with no chapters, no organization and no plot development at all. It didn't even have an index. Mencken's book seems not to be available on the Internet, but you can sample its pleasures right here.

We published some of Mencken's quotes on education in one of the last issues of The Vector. A reader asked:

    You left us wondering how H. L. Mencken's word, "gogue" should be pronounced. Mencken frequently used it for "pedagog," using it derisively. "Pedagog" rhymes with "flog," and the "o" is pronounced the same way in "pedagogic." But these derive from "pedagogy" where the "o" is pronounced as in "toe," though pronunciation as in "paw" is also sanctioned by permissive dictionaries. In either case the [second] "g" is pronounced like the "j" in "judge." Does anyone know how Mencken himself pronounced "gogue?" I'll bet it rhymes with "rogue."

Not knowing the answer, we called Dr. Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.

The day we called, September 14, 1991, just happened to be "H. L. Mencken Day" at the Pratt Library, so Mencken experts were there in abundance. Therefore we had no trouble obtaining authoritative opinions. Dr. Fitzpatrick confirmed that "gogue" does rhyme with "rogue." Mencken also coined the ancillary word "goguery." Mencken coined several other burlesque terms, pronounced for maximum humorous and derisive impact, like "bolshevicki", for communists.

The H. L. Mencken House, 1524 Hollins St., Baltimore is worth a visit. This 19th century row house was Mencken's home for 67 years, until his death in 1956. It is open to the public Wed-Sun, 10-5; closed holidays. Phone 301-396-7997.[Note, Dec. 2009. The Mencken house is presently not open to the public, but plans are underway to re-open it sometime in the future.]

Mencken's own epitaph appears several places in his writings, (see: The Smart set Dec 1921 p. 33) and is on a brass plaque in the entranceway to his home:

    If ever I depart this vale, and you wish to remember me, pardon some poor sinner and wink at a homely girl.

Credits: The vitriol picture and the schizophrenic scroll are by John Holden. For more of his work see Jack Holden's Illustrated Dictionary of Physics.

Opinions expressed here are those of Donald Simanek. Any similarity to policy of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania or opinions of its administrators is highly unlikely, and surely coincidental. Any words of wisdom or universal truths found herein are unintentional and should be brought to our attention so corrective action may be taken.

[Graphic: The Net Atheists logo]

Why the logo? Some religious folks bombard us with their symbols, seek to impose their public prayers upon everyone, try to inject their philosophy into the public schools, and, in general, promote the impression that everyone is religious, or ought to be. So we remind them that not all of us buy their simple-minded fairy tales and supernatural clap-trap. To link to resources which provide an antidote to religious nonsense, a good place to start is The Secular Web.

Return to Uncle Don's Notebook Archives
Return to Donald Simanek's front page.