Monday, April 24, 2006

“Let the buyer beware,” but pay the full price anyway...

I recently browsed through a local drug store and stopped at a carousel rack of reading glasses. Most of them were half-glasses with oval or rectangular lenses. A few looked as if Benjamin Franklin had crafted them. One buys a pair according to a number designation. The numbers are 1, 1.5, 2, and 2.5. They refer to the amount of magnification. The glasses all are sold with cases. Tin cases with a pocket clip, nylon envelope cases, or leather ones. You have seen them, I am sure.

Have you ever tried on a pair? And then have you looked at the price?

I mention that because I recently visited an optometrist and had my eyes examined. I also bought new glasses. The examination was a good thing as a check on my vision. But buying the new glasses now seems foolish. They cost more than a hundred dollars. And they are only for reading. I do not need them for driving or seeing at a distance of more than a couple of feet. The doctor said so.

I chose the least expensive frames in the optical store and waited an hour for the lenses to be fitted…and perhaps for the manager to check my credit rating and credit card balance. Who knows? The glasses were well over a hundred dollars, as I said.

The reading glasses in the drug store cost about ten dollars, depending on which style and case. Ten dollars! And they have frames and glass lenses! The frames are attractive. Plenty good enough to wear in public.

So, tell me why frames, alone, at an optometrist’s shop ought to cost over a hundred dollars when one can buy frames with magnifying lenses for ten dollars in a drugstore. Or sunglasses for a few bucks with frames also as attractive as those optometrist ones costing more than a hundred.

I bought a drugstore pair of reading glasses, by the way. They are on my nose as I type. I see the screen and keyboard better than with the prescription pair. With either eye or both. (I just checked that out.) I could have saved a bundle.

But I saved money on a new printer.

Have you bought one lately? Costs have really come down, haven’t they? I have seen some deals where, with the rebate coupon redeemed, the printer is almost free. “How can they do it?” I asked myself about ten months ago while setting up the new machine.

I have figured it out. The company charges twenty-five to forty dollars for the black and color ink replacement cartridges! Little plastic cases that cost, perhaps, a few cents each to manufacture, once the mold and machinery are set into motion. And a few more pennies worth of “toner” powder. I would bet that the packaging and labeling costs more per cartridge than the cartridge itself.

So one buys a new printer for very little and is hooked into purchasing outrageously priced ink every month or so to keep it running! I have spent about $200 on printer cartridges so far, and will no doubt keep the printer for many more months and spend hundreds of dollars more for a few bucks worth of ink. And that is how companies can almost give printers away.

That seems like the same plan of drug pushers who give away samples until the new sap is hooked. Then they charge big fees, when the user needs to continue. That person also has no choice.

We are hooked on prescription drugs, too, of course. We are told that the high prices are to finance the research and development of the companies saving our lives, sex lives, and general health. Right. Foreign countries are not asked to share in the costs of American research and development, I assume, because the same drugs in identical packages can be bought in Canada and Mexico for less money. No one has explained adequately why foreign markets shouldn’t share in the costs of research and development if they buy and sell drugs from those businesses doing the research and development.

I suppose one might make a case for newly developed drugs costing a bit more than the actual cost to make each pill. But explain why a large bottle of brand name aspirin, a drug that has been around for decades, is sealed and shipped from the U.S. to Mexico, and sold in pharmacies there for the equivalent of sixty cents while we still pay dollars. Isn’t the original cost of developing aspirin pretty well paid for by now? What does each little tablet cost to make these days? Couldn’t they be bottled and sold for sixty cents in this country, with the company making at least the same profit per pill as they do from the ones sold to Mexico?

American pharmaceutical companies contributed heavily to the last Bush election campaign. But that wouldn’t influence the president to warn Americans away from cheaper drugs in foreign countries, I am sure. Yet a little over a year ago he told us of the potential dangers of buying foreign drugs. We run the risk of buying contaminated products, he said. Bush was even specific and warned against buying in Canada.

A few weeks later it was learned that this country was running out of flu vaccine, with winter approaching. The supplier had had problems with the manufacturing process. A British supplier. I wonder if Bush knows Britain is a foreign country.

Not to worry, however. Bush soon announced that the shortage would be temporary because the United States was buying enough flu vaccine for everyone from…ready for this? Canada!

I know; this rant includes grossly over simplified economics. But you get the point. We are being misled and gouged by more manufacturers and companies than just those of the oil industry. And we have no choice.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

he didn't do it, and he won't do it again...

Most pundits say that President Bush will not fire Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Critics claim that firing him would be an admission of error on Bush’s part. One report claims Bush said it would be like firing himself. Now there is an idea!

Cynics among us say snidely that Bush won’t fire Rummy because the President doesn’t really have that authority. Rumsfeld, under that acid statement, is seen as a part of the cabal pulling Bush’s strings. Rice, Rove, Cheney, and Rumsfeld may be the ones actually running the government. Bush would, therefore, need permission. From Rumsfeld.

Anyway, the Secretary of Defense has been doing a series of fluff interviews with non-critics, including Rush Limbaugh and Bill Cunningham, trying to increase his support level. On the Cunningham Show, Rumsfeld recently said the following about the retired generals’ criticism of his management of the war.

“Of course, the implication that there was something wrong with the war plan is amusing, almost, because of the fact that the war plan is fashioned by the combatant commanders, and it is reviewed in great detail by the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; then it’s recommended to me and the President.”

In other words, Rumsfeld is saying that there was nothing wrong with the Iraq war plan — and even if there was, the plan isn’t his. The “combatant commanders” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the ones who made the bad plan… although there is nothing wrong with it. And, don’t forget, the plan was ultimately sent to Bush.

So far, Rumsfeld hasn’t made those kinds of statements to the mainstream media, perhaps because he realizes a “pass the buck” strategy wouldn’t go over well. Except with his ultra-right wing base of ditto-heads.

A Fox News poll, no less, claims this week that Bush’s approval rating is now down to 33%, the lowest yet. Again, cynics among us wonder how there can still be that many ditto-heads.

Meanwhile, a new report of America’s war spending puts the monthly figure at nearly ten billion dollars for Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost ten billion dollars a month!

I wonder if there is anything we could spend that on in this country that might be more worthwhile than killing Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians and insurgents, and paying our contractors to rebuild what we destroy there, and feeding and giving free medical attention to all those peoples, and keeping our own troops in harms way as daily maiming and killing of soldiers continues, while Iraq moves ever closer to all out civil war.

We are told that our military presence is temporary. But huge, fortified, bases are being built and occupied in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Built by contractors making millions (billions?) for their government war work. One report claims that a large US base in Iraq has two fast food franchises and a car dealership inside the fences.

A temporary base.

I guess it depends on what the definition of “temporary” is.

Monday, April 10, 2006

(A) Humans may lie. (B) Government officials are humans. (C) Therefore, government officials may lie.

A segment of the public seems to want to think of their elected leader as larger than life, possessed with greater powers of perception, with more knowledge and greater wisdom than mere humans. Those people may see themselves as loyal and devoted “children” and their leader as “Daddy,” impossible to do wrong, and able to “lick” anyone else’s old man. People who sincerely believe that about the head of their own party, even subconsciously, are often willing to defend the leader’s actions, no matter what.

Others see political leaders as human, with human traits that allow for mistakes, lies, greed, and personal agendas that may supersede the common good. They also see those same humans with the potential for doing what they believe is right for the majority of Americans and the world. But, first and foremost, they see humans who ought to be held accountable for their actions when they hold temporary positions of national leadership.

Those defending the current charges against the President concerning his alleged authorization of “leaks” sound tragically humorous as they blether on, skirting the truth, searching for a straw to grasp, defending, and twisting and spinning the information as it surfaces, comically unable to admit that their leader may have done wrong and lied about it.

Those who see their leaders as human are shaking their heads, wondering what facts will come out. But they do not doubt that any man in high office could have done what Bush and/or Cheney are accused of doing. They simply wish it were not so.

If you see elected leaders as human, and not often the best humans who could have been chosen, walk through a possible scenario with me. I have no proof of its truth. I only know some of the ways of humans, and I can speculate.

First, a review of what we know. Someone leaked classified information that lead to revealing a CIA operative’s identity. It seems like an attempt to discredit the operative’s husband. He had written an article before the Iraq war began casting real doubt on the administration’s contention that Saddam was buying enriched uranium from Africa, as Bush had confided in conspiratorial tones during a State of the Union Message while he prepared for the invasion. At any rate, it is a crime to reveal the identity of operatives. It also turns out that the “declassified” information released about the Africa purchase proved to be “erroneous intel.”

Bush went on television after the CIA operative had been “outed,” and in sincere tones said he wanted to find out if there was a leak. He assured listener/viewers that if it turned out a member of his administration was involved, he “would be taken care of.” Most people were satisfied. A few wondered, cynically, if being “taken care of” meant the “perp-a-traitor” would be protected, even pardoned.

Investigators eventually discovered that Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was the one who first gave the information to a journalist. Libby has now testified that Cheney told him to do that. And further, it is reported that Libby said he was hesitant to leak the information until Cheney told him that the action was authorized by Bush, himself.

Now for what leads to speculation. Look at Cheney’s record of lies, deceptions, and his behind-the-scenes way of running the government. Where to start? How about during the first years when it seemed so obvious that Cheney was running things, and Bush was not, that late night comedians jokingly said Bush was only a heart beat away from the Presidency. Cheney’s.

There is a long list of incidents from the beginning showing Cheney seeming to be in charge. Skip forward to 9/11. Bush sat frozen in a Florida classroom when told the nation was under attack. Cheney in DC was putting the nation on alert status. Further, Cheney advised Bush that he should not return to DC because Air Force One was a target. Later there was an official admission that there was never any evidence of that. Cheney, in other words, had lied.

But, instead of rushing back to Washington to take charge of the government, Bush hid out at Offutt Air Force Base, in a cave, near Omaha, NE, while the New York mayor rushed down town to help, and Cheney took charge of the White House.

Two days later, Bush showed up at ground zero with a bullhorn, and the mayor loyally said afterward that the tremendous support and leadership of the President was wonderful to behold. Or words to that effect. The nation cheered Bush’s leadership! Cheney was sent to an undisclosed location as the Bush handlers worked to make the President a hero. Some have speculated that Bush was not happy with Cheney’s visibility immediately after the terrorist attack. Perhaps.

There have been reports speculating that Cheney and Bush have had a falling out. We don’t know. But think of them as humans, and consider a few more facts we do know. Again, early in the first term, Cheney met secretly with oil industry officials to form the nation’s secret energy policy. Criticism of that continues to hurt the administration. Cheney pushed through the first round of tax cuts for the super rich, and when Bush questioned the need for a second round, asking what about the lower income people, Cheney was reported to have said, “Remember our principles, remember our principles.” (Did he mean, “Remember our principal”?) The second round was passed, and the national debt soared.

A small plane headed into White House air space on a working week day as Bush was riding a bike in Maryland. Cheney, however, was working at his desk and ordered an evacuation, including Laura Bush. The President was not notified of the potential attack on the White House and his wife until he returned some time later, after the alert was over. Even, Laura, the First Lady of Stepford, said that the President should have been told at the time. Some see that incident as a turning point in the Bush-Cheney relationship.

Whatever the case, it is true that not long after, Cheney went on a vacation to Wyoming while Bush spent August in Texas, and Hurricane Katrina roared toward New Orleans.

Remember, Bush and Cheney are humans. So Cheney, who had been taking charge for years, sat in Wyoming, perhaps thinking he’d let the little guy take care of it himself, since Bush had been so upset with the evacuation scenario at the White House and Cheney’s role right after 9/11.

And, perhaps the little guy didn’t know what to do, relying on others as he had from the start, assuming others would take charge, again, as they had from the beginning. That could have been partly his thinking, or lack of thinking. Humans act that way sometimes. Whatever the thinking, Katrina came ashore while FEMA did almost nothing right.

And the destruction and continuing fiasco on the Gulf Coast was and is too tragic to describe adequately here. The criticism was loud. Bush had to hear it.

So what did he do? Again, I am imagining, based on knowledge of fallible human nature. But it seems as if he decided to show Cheney and his critics and the nation that he could, indeed, take charge of an issue. Bush surprised everyone, including his staunchest supporters, by nominating his advisor, friend, and one of his biggest fans, especially during those trying post-Katrina days, to the Supreme Court! Surely you still remember Harriett Miers.

Another peek at possible relationships occurred when Cheney had that hunting accident. He not only didn’t notify authorities for many hours, he never did call the President to inform him. And Bush did not call Cheney to talk about it after the news was made public. That indicates strained relations to me.

Though there is much more, that may be enough to give a possible view of the relationships and ways of thinking going on in the White House. So, go back again to Scooter Libby’s recent testimony. He testified that Cheney told him it was Bush who authorized the leaking of classified information, later proven inaccurate, but information that lead to revealing a CIA operative’s name, a felony, and helped deceive the nation to accept war with Iraq.

It is interesting that so many journalists today are saying Bush authorizing the leak. What Libby testified to was that Cheney told him that Bush had authorized the information be put “out there.” There is an important difference, but the media has assumed that both Libby and Cheney were telling the truth, Libby to the Grand jury, and earlier, Cheney to Libby. So, the media says, “Bush told Cheney to get the information out, and so he did, through Libby.” But is that the way it happened?

Put that Valerie Plame leak into the context of the time it occurred, back when Cheney was taking charge and there seemed to be no split between him and Bush. So, did the President authorize that leak? If so, did he know what he was authorizing? Or did Cheney, who may have been in charge more often than not back then, simply lie and tell the hesitant Scooter that the President had authorized release of the information?

Don’t call me a conspiracy theory nutcase. Something happened back then. Humans in the White House leaked, or planted, information, seemingly for their own purposes. They were not larger than life leaders knowing what was best for mere humans. They were, and are, humans. They had personal agendas and acted in ways that might push them forward. So think about it within the context of how humans can behave in order to maintain power, get their way, or achieve their goals.

An Associated Press story on April 7 said the following. “Bush merely instructed Cheney to ‘get it out’ and left the details to him, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case for the White House. The vice president chose Libby and communicated the president's wishes to his then-top aide, the lawyer said.”

I think that report fits my scenario, though one must suspect the complete accuracy of the anonymous lawyer source.

The AP story continued: “It is not known when the conversation between Bush and Cheney took place. The White House has declined to provide the date when the president used his authority to declassify the portions of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified document that detailed the intelligence community's conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Those are the “conclusions” that proved erroneous, by the way. But as interesting as that may be, there is another question.

Why would the Bush League decline to provide the date of declassification if there were nothing to hide? And if the information were declassified, why was there a need to plant or leak it to the press?

To summarize: Bush may have authorized the leak. Or he may have told Cheney to “get it out;” “it” being the National Intelligence Estimate, the information, though wrong, he thought would help his case. Or Cheney may have lied to Libby about Bush authorizing the leak. Or Libby may be lying now, but today, that seems least likely.

Conclusion: Someone in high office is lying. And not just about his sex life.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Show your work; don’t just record the answer

I feel my blood pressure rise whenever sample, standardized test questions for schools are printed in the newspaper as examples of “what kids ought to know.” I want to rant against the test makers who decide that. And then at the media and public who buy into it.

Next, I look at the questions to see what ambiguities there are to confuse the brightest kids, if not the slowest. I can always find ambiguity at the thinking levels of young students. My reasons for doing that are complex, perhaps, but part of it is the result of a test I took in the first grade.

Back then, almost no reading instruction, as such, was given in kindergarten. So we learned about reading in first grade. After only eighteen weeks, our class of nine six-year-olds was given a standardized reading/achievement test. I remember almost nothing about the questions.

I do remember one item, however, and two of the possible answer choices. There were probably at least three choices, most likely four. I missed the question.

I would never have known that, but the principal and teacher called me to the desk to look at the test and to explain my answer. The principal, Mr. Kitch, told me that it was the only question I had missed, and he wanted to understand my reason for marking the wrong choice. Imagine you are six years old and faced with that.

“I only missed one?” I said, showing where my priorities lay, perhaps. But I looked at the paper.

The test word was “mansion.” Pupils were to draw a line to the picture that represented the word’s meaning. I stood before the teacher and principal, immediately recalling my confusion in deciding.

As a depression era child from a tiny home on a dirt street in a blue-collar neighborhood where few families had cars, some families were without steady jobs, and there were almost no luxuries, I had had no experience with large houses. The word “mansion” held no meaning for me. I could recall neither hearing nor seeing the word before. But I had learned the skills necessary to “read” it.

I remember looking at the picture of the huge building with a large porch, wide windows, and tall columns and wondering if the word might mean that structure. First, I used the process of elimination to disregard the other pictures, thinking I knew the words that should be used to describe each of them. I drew a line to the house.

Then I erased it, for one other picture suddenly held confusing meaning. A man in a postal worker’s uniform and carrying a mailbag was another choice. My family called that a “mailman.” But as I sat pondering, I dissected the word “mansion,” and do clearly still remember thinking that the syllable “man” certainly could refer to the mailman. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the syllable ‘sion’ refers in some way to his uniform or to his job of delivering mail.” After drawing a line to the house and erasing it, I drew the line to the mailman.

Remember, the test was designed to show aspects of reading inability. It revealed my vocabulary limitation, perhaps as intended, and my socio-economic experience level. It failed to show that I could pronounce the word upon seeing its spelling or that I could divide a word into its syllables.

The teacher and principal were wiser than the makers of the test. Not only that, with a class of nine pupils in a small school, both the teacher and principal had time to dig into instruction as well as pupil thinking and learning. I explained the syllable “man,” and my confusion about the syllable “sion” as best I could. Mr Kitch nodded and smiled, and the teacher, Miss McNeil, turned to him and said, “I had a feeling that was the case.” She patted my hand and explained that “mansion” was a name for a really large home. She also told me that my thinking through the question was very good, even though I had selected an incorrect answer.

I have never forgot. And I now look for ambiguity, from a student point of view, in test questions.

The local paper recently printed a few sample items Arizona schools claim they believe every sixth grader must know. Here is one. “Read the following phrase from the poem: Salty sausages and sweet syrup

This is an example of which element of poetry?
A> alliteration
B> onomatopoeia
C> rhythm
D> repetition”

Forget that similar questions appear in high school literature textbooks. The state of Arizona has decreed that sixth graders should know the answer. Never mind that most adults have forgotten the answer, or have forgotten what the other choices might be as poetry elements, if they ever knew. Or needed to know.

So, imagine that you are a sixth grader, not yet twelve years old, less than 144 months of life coursing through your young body. Let’s say you are relatively bright and know even more than the test asks. You repeat the poetic phrase in your head a few times. There is a definite rhythm. Hmmm. Is the answer “C”?

But four of the five words begin with the letter “s.” Surely the answer is “repetition,” because the “s” sound is repeated so often. And also, you bright little sixth grader, you know that sausage, by its nature is salty. Syrup is sweet. Therefore “salty sausages” seems almost what the teacher introduced as “redundant”; “sweet syrup” seems the same. You remember that redundancy is a kind of repetition. The answer must be “D --repetition.”

Wait. There was something about repeating initial sounds of words close together. “Initial sounds.” That must be the first sounds of the words, the sounds of their initials. It wasn’t just repetition. What was it? Maybe “onomatopoeia”? No, that means a word that sounds a little like its meaning, such as “buzz.” So was that element of poetry called “alliteration?” Maybe. Or “assonance?” But “assonance” isn’t one of the choices. They have similar meanings, though. Something about sounds in the words.

There is so much repetition in that phrase, and of two different kinds, both structure and meaning, that with a high level of sixth grade logic, you decide to settle on “D - - repetition.”

The test-correcting machine will mark it wrong. People who never met you will interpret the score, but they will not look at the answer you gave in order to understand how you were thinking. Your score may help them decide you are mentally slow for your grade level. Slower than the kids who lucky-guessed the correct answer and slower than those who had memorized the definition of “alliteration,” but perhaps remembered nothing about “redundant” and “assonance” and “onomatopoeia,” and how to think through a multiple choice question.

The classroom teacher and the principal would know better, if they had the chance to go over the mandated standardized tests given to pupils they know, but whom the test makers do not. A situation like this could help people make a case for schools being given back to the communities and their control back to the teachers and administrators. Except that so many of those people have fallen for the nonsense of the federal, “No Child Left Behind” act, designed to produce cookie-cutter kids who can all recall the same trivia, but who may not have learned to think.

Anyway, do you remember the math teachers who insisted you show your work and not simply record the answers to the problems? One enlightened teacher gave partial credit for knowing the procedure, even if you made a simple calculation error.

Perhaps if we want to know how our students think, as well as what they can recall, we ought to ask them to “show their work” when they answer standardized reading questions or ones about the elements of poetry, for just two examples. Or we could give the schools and testing back to local educators.

Maybe, however, America wants schools to indoctrinate rather than to teach thinking; that is, perhaps we now believe recalling facts in order to answer test questions is proof of thinking and learning. If that is what we want, then standardized test scores might be proof that teachers have “indoctrinated.”

By the way, did you know that older first brother Neil Bush heads a company developing and selling computer software to parents, schools, and learning centers to help kids pass those mandated standards? Yes, that Neil Bush. The one whose mother gave money to a hurricane Katrina relief fund with the stipulation that it be used to buy software from his company for kids in the storm’s wake. The Bush brother who was divorced after it came out he had traveled often to China as a political “consultant” and was given women at his hotel door to help the “givers” gain the ear of his brother. Right. That Neil Bush, who was involved, but never blamed, for his part in the failure of the Savings and Loans a few years back that cost taxpayers billions. That’s the guy, getting rich from the federal testing mandate promoted by his brother. One report dared reveal that his software company was initially set up and financed by Arab friends of the Bush family. I’d love to see sample questions from his company’s software. I’ll bet there is ambiguity there.