Uncle Don's Notebook
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Uncle Don's Notebook

July 10, 1999

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.


  • World Going to the Dogs [March, 1999] My wife, Connie, and I take walks whenever we can, a couple of miles or more, in one of the nearby state parks or natural areas, or just around the neighborhood. In the latter case we take along bags and pick up trash along the road way, which helps beautify the neighborhood and gives us a little exercise. Often we meet others, walking, or jogging, or running for exercise, but they seem not to be notice trash, and couldn't be bothered, in their mad pursuit of fitness, to lean over and get a little extra exercise by picking up something.

    Then, a few days later, we walk the same path and see still more trash. It makes us think the world is full of slobs, indifferent to their surroundings. The world is going to the dogs, it seems. Today we saw many teenagers with orange vests going down the interstate, picking up trash. They do this every spring, and that's good. It's just not often enough. Sometimes we see people out walking their dogs, which gave me this inspiration, which I offter to anyone who will implement it.

    Dogs can be trained to do many things: sniff for drugs, aid the blind and handicapped, flush out birds in the woods, catch frisbees and, of course, fetch and retreive. Then why doesn't someone train dogs to pick up trash? They could pick up cans and bottles and styrofoam cups and containers, and half-eaten Big Macs (TM), bring them back and drop them in suitable containers. Teams of volunteers and dogs could clean up roadways at any and all times of the year. The dogs could get into underbrush not easily accessible to people. And they could be trained to seek out these particular items. Abandoned dogs from pounds could be trained for this, solving two problems at once. It's so simple and obvious, I can't imagine that it hasn't been tried.


  • Ed-Biz Malarkey [August, 1998]

    The new school year begins soon. We know this because the athletic teams are already on the practice fields. The debates continue to rage about what, if anything is wrong with education in the USA and what, if anything, can be done about it. There's plenty of blame to go around, but school administrators are seldom singled out. They ought to be, especially when, as so often happens, they are indistinguishable from idiots.

    I'm reminded of this by a school system's newsletter which landed in my mailbox. The Superintendent of the system was asked to give his thoughts on the prospects for the new school year. I have changed the name of the school, and I do not name the Superintendent, to protect the intellectually challenged. Here's his thoughtful and wise comments:

      Within the span of the 1998-99 school year an emotional energy will continually ebb and flow from nostalgia through the pioneering spirit of new beginnings. With the backdrop of past and future concretely intermixing with the present, Flintstone Central has undertaken an approach balanced with sensitivity and enthusiasm. Consequently, our extended wish remains to validate our memories with dignity through involvement and ownership.

      Further, in this exciting period of Flintstone Central history, our students will prove most resilient and most adaptive to progressive, educational change. Subsequently, adult community family members will need a moment to nurture and preserve remembrances.

      Overall, our children and our students will bring all of us together, and will move us forward positively and proudly, as we actively approach the 21st Century.

    Clearly this is a person who had nothing to say and said it eloquently. At first I thought his words may have been mangled by the editor, but they show no evidence of misconstructed sentences or faulty punctuation. A grammar-checker would find no fault in it. The quoted statement simply doesn't reflect any underlying thought, nor even internal logical connections between words or phrases. I am forced to the horrifying conclusion that the man thinks this way! What can we conclude about the judgment of someone who allows such mindless drivel to appear in print with his name attached?

    If I wanted to write a parody of the thoughtless, mindless, florid prose of the charlatans of the ed-biz, I couldn't have written one as funny as this. This could be a classic example of content-free, platitudinous, pseudo-profundity. Even politicians at their worst sometimes slip and actually express a thought. This doesn't. Ask yourself: "What does this actually say?" Are these assertions true?

    Can people who talk and think this way act as effective role models for teachers and students of educational institutions? Can murky platitudes substitute for thought and leadership? Why is it that people who would flunk an English Composition course are elevated to high positions in the educational system? On the evidence of this quote I suspected that this man might have once been a coach. If so, he's given coaches everywhere a bad name.

    I have tried to faithfully transcribe the text quoted above, but if any errors crept in, I'm sure they won't compromise its meaning.

    Our head librarian, Bob Bravard, commented on this piece:

    What amazes me is how hard it is to write something like that. The English language is so rich and nuanced that it is rather difficult to write three sentences without some meaning sneaking in there. Here we have three (it is three, seemed like a multitude) paragraphs as innocent of intellectual content as a pebble newly cast up on a rocky shore. I admit it follows the standard grammatical rules; otherwise, a bored monkey could have assembled this from blocks with random words on them.

  • The Decline of Education [July, 1998]

    The media have been engaging in another round of finger-pointing as a result of the dismal and embarrassing outcome of Massachusetts' new test given to prospective teachers. Half of 2000 applicants flunked. A third of them couldn't pass the reading and writing portions of the exam, which were set somewhere around the tenth grade level.

    The folks who hatched the idea of this exam aren't very fast learners. This has been tried in other places with similar results. It demonstrates that it is possible today to be a teacher without possessing basic academic skills. This is not to say that all teachers are so intellectually challenged, but it says something about the standards of the "profession." Incidents such as this are egg on the face of the educational system, and reflect badly (and sometimes unfairly) on all teachers, even those who are doing an exemplary job with very little respect. They don't need the additional burden of criticism from politicians who gleefully take advantage of the situation for their own gain, and who probably could not pass the exam themselves.

    William Raspberry, writing in the Washington Post, put it bluntly: "The awkward secret is that too many young people who go into education are among the least academically gifted of their college classes. It seems to be the case that many of them choose to become education majors precisely because it is among the easiest paths to a professional career." This isn't news, for it has been the case for many decades. Those who can't make it in a college major often fall back on the teacher-ed major as an easier way to a degree. Some of the best and the brightest who initially chose a teacher-ed major are turned off by the mind-numbing triviality of its course requirements, and switch to a "real" major.

    Some have argued that it's not reasonable to expect teachers to perform at a 10th grade level in reading, writing and mathematics. Some even argue that such tests, such as the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST) are inherently racist, because the test performance of those from disadvantaged racial groups is lower. To that charge, Raspberry (an African-American) wrote, 15 years ago, "We can have well-educated children or ignorant teachers. We cannot have both." I ask why these exams only expect teachers to perform at the 10th grade level. Why not at the college/university level, since they all are required to have college degrees? Or does the degree guarantee nothing?

    Debra Saunders Banner, in a 1996 article titled "More Dumb Teachers" characterized the "borderline" teacher, the one who barely passes these exams.

    Educators have a name for the ignorant teacher: Dale. Dale is the "nonsexist" name for a profile character dreamed up by California educrats who sought to define the borderline teacher. Dale scored "well below average" on his/her SATs, received Bs and Cs in college, but an occasional A in an education course, can "read the daily newspaper but only comprehends and retains superficial knowledge," and makes mistakes in grade books and grammatical errors in letters to parents.

    Is that the kind of teacher we want as a role model for our children? Maybe that's the ideal teacher sought by a corrupt educational system which only dispenses superficial knowledge--teachers whose entire college education has consisted only of superficial knowledge.

    One point the commentators missed is what this incident says about the graduation standards of our colleges and universities. Why can a person graduate from college in any field and still be unable to pass basic reading and writing exams? Why are graduation standards at some colleges this low?

    Here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there's a move underway to upgrade teacher standards. Part of this proposal is to require teachers to take the same courses as other majors in the discipline. If this were to be enacted, teachers wanting to be certified in physics would have to take the same undergraduate courses taken by other physics majors. This would wipe out most of the prospective teachers of physics. The requirements for teacher certification are nowhere near as demanding as those for other majors. The other part of the proposal is to require a 3.0 (B) overall grade-point average. It is presently 2.5. Some say this alone would disqualify over half of those we now graduate and certify as teachers. There's much anguish over this proposal amongst the faculty in "education." I tell them not to worry. After a short period of adjustment grade inflation will solve the problem, when a C+ performance becomes a B, and we'll be certifying just as many teachers, of the same general ability as we do now.

    Journalist and novelist Colin Wilson wrote, in the early 60s:

    Courses in education given at...teachers' colleges have traditionally been used as a substitute for genuine scholarship. In my opinion, much of the so-called science of "education" was invented as a necessary mechanism for enabling semieducated people to act as tolerable teachers.

    It's only gotten worse since then.

    The trouble with being a pessimist is that in the long run pessimists usually turn out to be right. Education has been declining throughout the history of mankind, according to its critics. What's really happening is that education changes, and we expect change to produce improvements. But changes and "reforms" in education seldom produce improvement, and this fact reminds us continually that the goals and claims of the educators are far different from the actual outcomes, so we become disappointed and disillusioned. Couple that with the unrealistic slogan "Everyone is educable", and you have a recipe for guaranteed failure of the system. I have commented at length on these matters in The Decline of Education, Part 1 (1974, 1994), and Part 2 (1995). As one who is concerned about the quality of education in science and mathematics, I am quite alarmed at several current trends to further dumb-down education in both of these fields. Fortunately there's an organization, Mathematically Correct, whose web site has a huge collection of resources and links documenting this new outrage, exposing its dangers and providing materials to help parents and teachers combat it.


  • Citations [April, 1998]

    Web surfing can be hazardous to your mind. It can stretch your mind in directions unimagined. The internet is a vast unmoderated, ever-changing sea of information and misinformation, and the so-called "information highway" has plenty of potholes, construction areas, dead ends, and no reliable road maps. To add to the confusion, advertising signs and tacky businesses line the roads. Then there's assorted loonies standing on streetcorners peddling varieties of snake oil, or standing on soapboxes proclaiming for all the world to hear their new method for turning old shoelaces into gold, and thereby solving the world's economic problems.

    I've had for some time several humor, satire, and parody items on my web page. One, called The Hazards of Solar Power parodies the style and illogical arguments of activists for causes whose zeal is far greater than their understanding of the issues. This attracts several angry e-mail responses each week. Some are terse and to the point: "You are an idiot." Others suggest that I am in the pay of the power companies who want to thwart efforts at alternative energy sources. My parody was deliberately written so that every point asserted was patently ridiculous, illogical, or entirely devoid of substance. Anyone with half their brain engaged should immediately realize it's not serious. Yet some people take the time to try to refute each of my points, one by one. Usually they do it very badly, using emotion and unfounded assertion rather than fact and reasoned argument. The best (most reasoned) was a polite e-mail from an 11 year old girl. Some of the worst are from college students who declare they are "going into alternate energy research". Scary! Some say they agree with some of the points but take issue with one or two. Frightening! For a sampling of responses to this piece, see Responses to Science Spoofs. Only one person caught up on the fact that the organization I claimed this document came from, the Citizens' Reactionary Alliance Committed to Keeping the Environment Decent has the acronym CRACKED.

    I'm on a number of discussion groups: subscription groups consisting of professional people, teachers, etc. But even here, where there's an unusually high proportion of literate people, one sees consistent misuse of language. One which annoys many of us is the misuse of the words "cite", "sight" and "site". This prompted one person to quote the dictionary definitions, asking everyone to pay attention, for it would be on the exam. To this I couldn't help responding by citing a quote which I said I would put on my web site. So here it is.

    If our foresight were as keen as our hindsight we'd have a darn sight more insight.

    Since this homely homily is (so far as I know) original with me, I asked people to properly cite me, and my web site, if they used it. Some one-liners deserve citation, and maybe even a fine.

    From time to time students ask about career options. I suggest that the net has lots of info on that. Yesterday I had some free time to check out what's out there about careers. One site had lots of material about an incredible variety of jobs, with a long essay about each job or profession from a person who was in it. But amongst the entries for barber, stockbroker, physicist, cosmetician, etc. I found, to my surprise, entries for "call girl" and "dominatrix". Naturally I checked out what they had to say. A real education. One of them, I forget which, said she was a college graduate and had taught at a college for a number of years before realizing it was a dead end and she was burned out. So she turned to something more interesting and fun, and more lucrative. The dominatrix pointed out the importance of the study of human psychology, business and marketing before entering her field, and noted that her clients were almost all professional people. If you think I'm going to link the site here, think again. I'm not even sure I saved the URL, so don't ask.

    I haven't had such a surprise (and accompanying education) since I did a web browser search for materials on computer-based-training by using its acronym.


  • My Medical Adventure [April, 1997]

    Regular readers may have noted an absence of new notebook entries recently. Well, I've been otherwise occupied. I went in for surgery on Tuesday, April 22 and was released the following Sunday evening. It was open-heart, four-bypass. I'm home now right on on schedule for recovery, but it is slow.

    This was my first operation (yep, I still have my tonsils, adenoids and appendix). For those who haven't yet had the thrill of the experience, here's some advice for coping with our automated health-care system.

    You will be processed efficiently, prodded, bent, folded, stapled and mutilated. Your sleep will be interrupted every hour or so for more checks of your "vital signs". The appropriate responses here are "I'd be more vital if you'd let me get some uninterrupted sleep." Then the nurses come stealthily in the dark of night to take blood samples "Take cover, the vampire shift has arrived!"

    They'll ask "Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10." "Help me out here, what is the rating of being hit by a truck?" They'll ask "How was the food". "Do you want that on a scale of 1 to 10? Are negative numbers allowed?"

    Before they cut into you they'll ask "State in your own words what you understand is to be done here" This is to be certain they have the right patient. Appropriate responses: "If you don't know, why should I trust you with my body?" "Don't you have the paperwork?" "Rearrangement of my plumbing." "100,000 mile tune-up."

    If they suspect your memory may be temporarily affected by something they did to you, they'll ask you what day it is. Responses: "How should I know, you don't have a calendar on the wall and you wouldn't let me wear my watch to this party." "Time passes so quickly when you are having so much fun." If they ask you what year it is, or your age, or your social security number, you are in trouble." Other options: "I knew that yesterday, but this is tomorrow, already, isn't it?" "Just check your paperwork. I've been asked these questions many times. Doesn't anyone ever listen?"


  • Rampant Irrationality [March 28, 1997]

    The mass suicide of members of Heaven's Gate in California has lessons for us which are being totally ignored by the media circus going on now. It's all too easy to label something a "cult" then go on a crusade to combat cult activity, without getting to the heart of the problem.

    It's easy to say that these people only were a danger to themselves, and that no innocent people were harmed. I disagree. Others were harmed. Families, including children, were abandoned by some who joined this group. That's some harm, I think. Others are continually suckered into such groups, and the group dynamics magnifies any wacko propensities the initiate may have had previously. We may say that person 'deserved' the outcome, but I think those propensities are far more widespread than we like to admit.

    When we hear of this Heaven's Gate organization's mass suicide, or that of Jim Jones and his People's Temple a few years back, or the Solar Temple suicides of last year, many of us assume that these people must have been especially simple-minded, stupid or gullible to have been willing to give themselves totally to someone peddling a foolish idea—even to the point of giving up their lives and thought to that person. We assume that there must have been something flawed in these people to have compelled them to behave so irrationally and so foolishly. Someone on one Internet discussion group remarked that this mass suicide wasn't such a bad thing, for it removed flawed material from the human gene pool.

    But look more carefully and we find there's little to distinguish those people from the general population. We may utter such platitudes as "They had an emptiness in their lives. They were seeking meaning. They felt downtrodden and oppressed and needed to feel a sense of community and an assurance that someone cared about them. They needed something to give them direction and purpose." Or we may attach the label "cult" to their community, a label which sets them apart from the rest of society, allowing us to dis-associate ourselves from them. Do these labels and platitudes explain anything? Perhaps these are only ways to label these people as "different from the rest of us."

    These people had cut themselves off from former family and friends, but were not totally reclusive. They interacted frequently and freely with their neighbors and others in the community. Those who interacted with them described them as personable, bright, friendly, and, in general, quite ordinary folk. They were talented, creative, artistic, good at carrying out their business enterprises, and computer-savvy at a high level. Yet they had a soft spot in their heads, which allowed them to suspend their reason and to believe, with great conviction in a particular bit of nonsense. They believed in something which had no supporting evidence. No rational arguments favored it. All it had going for it was emotional appeal. They could overlook its irrationality by inventing rationalizations.

    In this respect, these folks aren't much different from other people. Compare the business person, teacher, doctor, lawyer, tradesman, who may be well-educated and who seems quite sober and rational most of the time. Yet this person may sincerely and devoutly believe in a god, go to church once a week to worship that god, and may even pray to that god, giving thanks for good fortune, never blaming the supposedly all-powerful god for bad fortune and natural disasters (not god's fault, they rationalize). They may even expect to ascend to a heavenly reward after death. How is this different in any substantial way from the convictions of those 39 people who decided to punch their own tickets to ascend to their celestial reward which they thought beckoned from behind a passing comet?

    How ironic to watch the evening news and hear Peter Jennings, with a straight face, move directly from reporting this suicide case to a segment about people worshiping at this Easter season, then showing statistics of a recent study which shows 95% of people believe in god, 90% in the Bible, ... the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, etc. If the Heaven's Gate people were foolish to believe their leader was an alien implanted in an earth-woman's womb, and that he and they could leave their bodies to live on a higher level, then the religious beliefs of 9 out of 10 Americans are equally foolish.

    What ought to frighten people when they consider this mass suicide is to realize that those folks weren't different from the rest of us, and that we all may have the same defects of mind which led them to an action we think bizarre and incomprehensible. When we see things in them which we think irrational, we ought to look within ourselves, lest we harbor similar irrational and unsupported notions.

    Another thing frightens me. Events such as this encourage some self-righteous people to step up their efforts to fan hysteria about cults, encourage "deprogramers" (who only replace one irrationality with a different one) and fuel their paranoid belief that satan is behind it all. No, the evil is more insidious. It is, in my view, our susceptibility to passionate belief in irrational fantasies.


  • A New Year So what's new here? I've been neglecting this notebook, spending time on additions to my web page. Thanks to a generous space increase from our computer gurus, I can now add documents with more images. You will find a new 3d stereo and illusions page. Two new humor pieces I did in collaboration with Jack Holden: A Religion For The Rest of Us, and, for those who can stand puns, Sam Schwartz, Ruler Of The Mathematicians' Domain. Three new scenarios for physics teaching have been added in draft version: Electrostatics Demonstrations, Lenses For Dummies, and Images And Parallax. Watch these two for added diagrams and discussion. And, finally, there's a biography of that prolific and quotable writer known as Anon. It's about time he had a biography.

    Regular visitors to my pages notice that they aren't snazzy, multimedia extravaganzas. There are no frames, columns, sound, or video animations. I'm aiming at an audience that wants information first. I try to minimize loading time by using black and white line drawings wherever possible, just large enough to print clearly. Most people don't have color printers, so I want my pages to print well without color, and to print without breaking graphics across pages. In fact, some people have complained that the "new" flags on my home page are distracting, especially the one which is animated. I'll remove that one of these days. I hope that the information on my pages will be accessible even to people with older browsers, like Netscape 2.0. [Obviously this paragraph is dated.]


    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.


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