Daily Archives: January 24, 2010

Letter to the editor, San Antonio Light—Big trees and big gaffes . . .

SAN ANTONIO LIGHT: The San Antonio Light, a daily afternoon and Sunday morning newspaper in San Antonio, Texas began as the San Antonio Surprise in 1881. The paper subsequently morphed through a series of titles including the Evening Light, the Daily Light, the Light and Gazette, and finally settled on the San Antonio Light title in 1911. The Light was published continuously until late in 1992, and closed shortly after its purchase by the Hearst Corporation.

This posting is a letter that I submitted to the editors of the San Antonio Light way back in 1990, and in the interest of full disclosure I must admit that it was never published. Apparently my letter touched a nerve, or perhaps several nerves, because it was neither printed nor acknowledged.

November 26, 1990

Letters to the Editor, San Antonio Light

PO Box 161

San Antonio, TX 78291

Susan McAtee’s article on big trees in your VIVA section on Sunday, 25 November featured some dimensions that sent me scrambling for my calculator and the World Almanac. Susan cited the General Sherman giant sequoia as the largest tree on the National Registry of Big Trees, with a diameter of 998 inches.

A quick application of “pie-are-square” revealed that such a tree hollowed out would accommodate a home of 5,179 square feet with the outer walls one foot thick. Since official measurements are taken at a point four and one-half feet above ground, floor space at ground level might be even greater. A tree that large would accommodate a ten lane freeway, each lane 8 feet wide with a median of 3.2 feet (and I thought one lane built through a tree was impressive).

I wonder how Susan fared in Geometry 101. Diameter is the distance across a circle, or in the case of trees, the thickness of the trunk. Circumference is the distance around the circle, the distance around the tree trunk. The General Sherman, last measured in 1975, has a diameter of 26.5 feet and a circumference of 83.2 feet. Either Susan confused diameter with circumference or the General Sherman has experienced phenomenal growth in the past 15 years.

Her apparent confusion also extended to a cherry tree (64 inches in diameter, or 5.3 feet), a maple (80 inches in diameter, or 6.7 feet), and the Goose Island live oak, a whopping 422 inches in diameter. Try to imagine a tree 35 feet thick and only 44 feet tall—such a tree defies imagination!

The article would have benefitted from outside proofing, perhaps in collaboration with  Bill Graves of Uvalde, Texas, the person that was interviewed for the story. And except for the misleading statistics the feature was interesting—well written and informative.

And that was my letter to the editor. This next bit of information may be adding insult to injury, but here’s another statistic concerning the San Antonio Light. When the Light closed in 1992, two years after the Big Tree feature appeared in its VIVA section, it employed 600 people including 134 editorial staff. With that many editorial staffers, surely at least one could have been assigned to corroborate the Big Trees dimensions. And I can’t help wondering whether the writer of the Big Trees feature was one of those remaining 134 staffers. I don’t know how well the writer fared after receipt of the letter, but if she remained on staff as a writer she must have had a very close relationship, familial or otherwise, with the people upstairs.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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School teachers rock!

I recently received this e-mail, Teacher arrested at JFK, from a relative in Dallas, and I felt that it should be disseminated as widely as possible. It was very difficult to confirm with Snopes because of the profusion of articles dealing with the arrest of teachers including arrests for DUI, indecent exposure, drug theft, leading prayer, dealing crack, having sex with minors, early dismissal, slaying stepdaughter, brainwashing kids, kicking students in karate class, murdering another teacher, etc., etc.

The scope of these arrests and their reasons reflect poorly on our historically vaunted teaching profession, but they comprise an infinitesimal part of the whole—they amount to no more than the teeny-weeniest part of the iceberg’s tip. The greater part of the educational iceberg is comprised of teachers that are largely and historically overlooked and underpaid. They are the ones that work and fight in the trenches, the ones that dedicate their days, their nights and their lives to helping families and other elements of society mold students into outstanding adults, and the ones that are in a great measure successful in their efforts.

The story of the teacher’s arrest is untrue, of course, but it’s funny and it’s very creative, obviously penned by someone familiar with mathematics (I’m not very familiar with mathematics, but would like to believe that I’m familiar with creativity in the written word). I am using it in this posting because it enables me to expound on my feelings and my respect for teachers—and I feel that I’m qualified to express my feelings and my respect because I’ve been paddled by some of the very best—seriously!

This is the story as I received it in an e-mail:

Teacher arrested at JFK

A public school teacher was arrested today at John F. Kennedy International Airport when he attempted to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a compass, a slide-rule and a calculator.

At a morning press conference Attorney General Eric Holder said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement. The man was not identified, but the Attorney General said that he has been charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

“Al-Gebra is a problem for us,” Attorney General Holder said.

“They derive solutions by means and extremes, and they sometimes go off on tangents in search of absolute values.”

“They use secret code names such as “X” and “Y” and refer to themselves as “unknowns,” but we have determined that they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval, with coordinates in every country.

“As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, “There are three sides to every triangle.” (The Snopes article added the following item: The teacher was found carrying code books written in an arcane language called “calculus,” which the NSA is currently attempting to decode)

When asked to comment on the arrest President Obama said, “If God had wanted us to have weapons of math instruction, he would have given us more fingers and toes.”

White House aides told reporters they could not recall a more intelligent or profound statement by the President.

It is believed that the Nobel Prize for Physics will follow. (This was not included in the Snopes article)

The comment attributed to President Obama was attributed by Snopes to Hillary Clinton as follows:

When asked to comment on the arrest, Senator Hillary Clinton said, “If nature had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, she would have given us more fingers and toes.”

House aides told reporters they could not recall a more intelligent or more profound statement by the senator.

On a personal note, I believe that neither President Obama nor Hillary Clinton made the statement. I don’t believe it because the statement is funny, and neither person is capable of exhibiting that level of humor. I have not detected one whit of humor in either person at any time since they stepped into the national spotlight.

Those that laugh when a person says something intended to be funny are not always laughing with them—quite often they are laughing at them.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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Letter to the editor, San Antonio Express-news: Obama’s reeling . . .

A letter from a reader of the San Antonio Express-News prompted this posting. The letter was printed in the paper’s Metro Section (Your Turn) January 22, 2010,  In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that my Letter to the editor, was not sent to the paper’s editor for consideration. I did not submit it because of a series of rejections of my submissions over a period of many years. Many were printed, but now I prefer to air my thoughts on my blog. Word Press has never rejected one of my letters, and the letters are available to infinitely more viewers than is the San Antonio Express-News.

Letter to the editor, San Antonio Express-News

January 22, 2010

A reader’s submission printed today in Your Turn was titled Obama’s reeling. The apostrophe was apparently used by the copy editor to form a contraction meaning that Obama is reeling. In the literal sense it means that he is off balance, staggering and lurching violently (figuratively, of course) in reaction to the result of the Senate race in Massachusetts, a race in which the Republican candidate was elected to the Senate.

Obama’s reeling?

Such construction and presentation of the contraction Obama’s is incorrect and could be very misleading, providing fodder for various political commentators, particularly late night comedians.

One places an apostrophe and an ess after the name of a person, place or thing to show that the person, place or thing possesses something. Obama’s reeling is not a contraction, at least not a proper contraction as used in conjunction with the verb reeling. I suppose that Obama could possess a reel, as in fishing reel, but a reeling? Not likely! Reeling is a verb—had the article been titled Obama’s reeling in votes for Democrats, the contraction would have been proper and understandable. And if there is a fish or an aquatic animal that is known as a reeling, and if the president were fishing offshore at Martha’s Vineyard while on vacation, and if he had actually hooked a reeling the heading could have read, Obama’s reeling in a reeling. That would be a proper contraction, completely understandable and unlikely to mislead a viewer’s perception or conception of the president’s physical condition.

And as an afterthought, our president may possibly be reeling in a purely psychological sense, keenly aware of the fact that the balance of power in his administration is changing and has become off balance.

Had the letter referred to something possessed by our president, the apostrophe and the ess would have been proper. A few examples would be: Obama’s decision, Obama’s wife, Obama’s effort to nationalize health care, Obama’s reliance on teleprompters, etc., etc. In those examples the words decision, wife, effort and reliance all are things Obama possesses (well, I suppose wife may be a stretch, except perhaps in the biblical sense).

And now on to the use of apostrophes and esses:

From: (

William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946).  The Elements of Style.  1918


1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

the witch’s malice

This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

I  strongly disagree with William Strunk, Jr. when he states,  Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. To show that a noun—any noun, whether a person, place or  thing—possesses something one does not add an apostrophe and another ess when that noun ends with an ess. That may have been correct in William Strunk’s day (1869-1946) as presented in Elements of Style by The three examples given by Strunk to show possession are Charles’s friend, Burn’s poems and the witch’s malice. The first two end with an ess, the third does not. The first two are incorrect—the third is correct. Charles’s and Burns’s are incorrect, regardless of the fact that This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press. The various US publications on writing style are littered with errors and some should be consigned to the litter boxes from whence they came.

Just because the federal government prints it does not make it true. And unless my memory fails me, the Oxford University Press is a British organization, and our treatment of the English language differs considerably from that of the British people. Remember when President George W. Bush, on his first trip to England as president, was asked what he considered his biggest challenge on the visit? The president said something to the effect that he might have a problem with the language.

Oh, and if one is fain (archaic, but a good word—look it up) to know the plural possessive form of witch, one only needs to add an ess to make it plural and an apostrophe to show possession thusly: the witches’ malice. Please do not spell it and pronounce it as the witches’ess.

Go ahead—try it—unless the three syllables are carefully and properly enunciated, the witches’ess tends to come across as the witches ass—we would not want that, would we? Our listener would probably respond with a “Say whut?”

I can legitimately speak with the voice of experience—nay, with authority—in this matter of proper punctuation. I labored (laboriously) at various tasks during more than 22 years in the United States Air Force and during an additional 26 years in the ranks of our federal Civil Service. Throughout those 48 years I was called on (compelled, actually) to compose a wide variety of writings, including performance reports for myself and for others, and recommendations for various awards and medals for myself and for others (my efforts brought me several personal awards). I had access to most government style publications, and in fact brought some home (inadvertently, of course) when I retired from federal Civil Service. I still reference (and quote) the publications, but when they conflict with what I know is correct, government loses—I win. And at the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat myself—just because the federal government prints it does not make it true.

And here I must digress from my subject:

The thought just occurred that if one could literally repeat oneself, and if every person on earth repeated one’s self simultaneously, the world’s population would immediately double, rising from the present population (as of January 24, 2010) of 6,798,300,000 to 13,597,600,000 (From Wikipedia: The Earth’s population is estimated by the United States Census Bureau to be 6,798,300,000). That was as of January 24, 2010. I strongly urge than none of us attempt to literally repeat ourselves and especially not repeatedly—if we should succeed in our efforts we would soon run out of standing room on earth.

And now back to my subject:

Pee Ess: This posting is a continuation of my efforts to restrict the length of my postings in order to placate viewers that may be anxious to return to other more productive activities. I’m trying, but I cannot imagine any activity that could be more productive and personally rewarding than my blog.

Footnote: The terms pee and ess are proper words, abbreviations for the words Post and Script, and may be legitimately used in place of the letters P and S, the sixteenth and nineteenth letters of the English alphabet. If you like, you may verify their definition, their use and their numerical position in the alphabet online at

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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