In short, one might conclude that all knowledge, wisdom, and wit are confined to those who inhabit New York City, Washington DC, or Hollywood.
As I creep inexorably toward nearly 70 years of life experience - which was gained in many cities in the U.S. and in about 30 foreign countries, I decided to put down some ongoing thoughts in a series I call "The View From the Outback." That experience has included the U.S. Marines, law school, the ATF, the CIA, Fortune 500 executive, writer, public speaker, educator, editor, and publisher - for openers. For over 20 years, I have written articles off and on for various magazines and newspapers. I've had an enormous number of letters published in major national publications. The Outback is the rural area in Northeast Texas where I have lived for the past 10 years. Each Saturday I will attempt to post a new set of musings from the Outback.
It is amazing how two people can view the same event with such stark differences of opinion. Somebody in an L.A. paper described the Oscar acceptance speech by Julia Roberts in terms of its brilliance, emotion, and aptness of thought. Gosh, I thought it was a rambling and pathetic display; a total lack of an ability to form coherent thoughts while standing in front of an audience. And this is a lady who is telling us that our President is a moron. Consider the source. Lovely smile.
Bob Knight, the volatile basketball coach, has been hired by Texas Tech. I watched part of his press conference. You could see the anger boiling up inside of him when asked questions about whether he would put his hands on players at Texas Tech. A few minutes of his strained and "barely under control" press conference was enough for me. He is obviously a man with some kind of inner demons that have not been expunged, and probably never will be. My vote is that Texas Tech made a very bad mistake in hiring him. You might start an office pool as to how many days or weeks Bob Knight will go without some kind of an "incident" or getting fired.
My ongoing disdain for CBS News is getting additional vindication. They have recently been running last in the ratings for the evening news. Dan Rather may not be long for the anchor chair, although he says he wants to work until he is 70 (he is now 69). I saw a poll somewhere on the Internet which asked who should replace Dan Rather when he bows out. One choice was "Nobody." Nobody won handily. Very interesting. Now on to "Nobody" to replace Brokaw or Jennings. The institution of network news is obviously in trouble, and it was they who shot themselves in the foot over many years.
There is an obituary notice at Voter.com, and that is too bad. It was a very useful site.
Campaign Finance Reform - A Senatorial Catharsis - And National Snow Job
Bless C-SPAN. I watched a few hours of Senate debate about campaign-finance reform. It was a bit of introspection and honesty one is not likely to see in that body for many years. Senator Hollings (D-S.C.) was brilliant, although his constitutional amendment was defeated for the umpteenth time. He spoke of how there were 100 experts in the Senate who knew about "raisin'" money. "Oh, we all know 'bout money!" he said.
The senator pointed out that years ago, the Senate would work a normal work week, Monday through Friday. But, over the years, working on Monday went away. Working during the time around lunch went away. Working late went away. And Friday was get-away day. The reason. "We are all out raisin' money!"
Senator Byrd (D), from West Virginia, pointed out that he ran for the Senate, way back when, all you needed were some good ideas. Now, he said, the first question you have to ask an aspiring candidate is "Can you raise $7 million?" He called the state of campaign financing "putrid." "It stinks," he said.
There were many others who took part in this "group-therapy" session and condemned the campaign-finance system. None more honest than Hollings and Byrd, I thought. Many amendments have been offered, and several adopted.
Many opponents of doing away with "soft money" claim that it is an unprecedented infringement on the First Amendment. They claim that money is speech. Senator Hollings pointed out that free speech is not an absolute right and then began to tick off the same limitations I had outlined in my article "The Ever-Expanding First Amendment" in my column of January 26, 2001. It sounded like he was reading right down the line from my list, but I am sure it was just coincidence.
Senator Byrd attacked the very idea that money is speech. He rattled his mike and said, "This is a mike, not speech." Money is money, not speech, and so on. I concur. Sen. Specter (R), from Pennsylvania, discussed the Supreme Court case that is the basis for the money is speech concept Buckley v. Valeo. Specter read part of the convoluted and disjointed opinion and characterized it as a "Constitutional quagmire." In other words, the Supreme Court ran all around the issue, with so many ifs and ands, that nobody can say for sure what they meant.
I had a very good Constitutional-Law professor, and I am not afraid to wade into a Supreme Court decision to see if I can make any sense of the often arcane and convoluted logic used to arrive at a conclusion. But, trying to read Buckley gave me a headache and a knot in my stomach.
Sen. Spector says that the Supreme Court is wrong in saying that money is speech, and that there is thus a First Amendment issue here. He cites 209 law professors who have submitted a statement urging the overruling of Buckley v. Valeo. His speech is on his Web page at ( www.senate.gov/~specter/000328.html). The Court has repeatedly refused to hear cases that would allow it to reconsider its 1976 decision. The Holling's constitutional amendment would essentially negate the decision and place in the hands of Congress the power to regulate campaign finances. That too, is fraught with the danger of abuse.
Buckley established most principles of the campaign finance legal framework, including the constitutionality of contribution limits and disclosure, the unconstitutionality of mandatory spending limits for candidates and independent expenditure groups, and the express advocacy test. It declared that limits on total campaign spending (personal money, soft money, et al.) were a violation of the First Amendment. The money is speech idea has largely thwarted any attempt at campaign finance reform. So, you hear everyone saying that portions of McCain-Feingold, as amended, will fail constitutional muster. We can thank the Supreme Court for their ill-advised opinion for the climate of confusion and frustration that permeates every discussion of serious campaign-finance reform. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)
. But, another hidden monster keeps rearing its ugly head; union dues being used to contribute to political campaigns. Any sensible person would think that a union should not collect dues from union members and spend them on political action. Dues are supposed to cover the cost of collective bargaining and maybe contribute to a pension fund. How anybody can say that it is fair to use the money for political campaigns, especially without asking the members, is beyond me. And I know that dues are not always voluntary. Even as a young man, I remember some burly union guys telling me I needed to join the union and pay dues when I worked in a grocery store and for the telephone company. Sure, why not? I've seen the "Godfather" and get the message - many no doubt say today. And I promise not to ask what you do with my money.
President Bush was adamant that he would not sign a bill unless it had "paycheck protection" for union members. But the pressures in the Senate and the House are enormous. Unions spent $75 million in 2000 on direct hard-money contributions to federal candidates. They spent as much as $800 million in soft money and hidden contributions. According to Linda Chavez, in a column in Jewish World Review (www.jewishworldreview.com), that $800 million came right out of union dues. This is outrageous, but it goes on unabated. The president wants to sign a bill, and he may be forced to sign one without "paycheck protection." Tony Soprano and his boys will have triumphed over the forces of good once again. Jimmy Hoffa, Sr. may be gone, but his legacy lives on. Where is Bobby Kennedy when you need him? Dead. Just like campaign finance reform may be.
FoxNews claims that a poll shows that only 4% of Americans feel that campaign-finance reform is a priority. That is ridiculous. Who did they talk to? Bill and Hillary - and Al Gore and friends? After all the soul-searching and admissions of evil emanating from the Senate these past two weeks, the campaign-finance bill is struggling to survive. If it fails, or if it passes without union "paycheck protection" we know that talk is really, really cheap in the Congress. But, getting elected to the Senate will still take $7 million. Fantastic!
Two weeks of Senate time and what will they have to show for it? Off to the House, where there will be a different bill, and then to a conference committee of the House and Senate. And if anything sensible comes out of that, President Bush may sign it, since he does not want to be on record as being against campaign-finance reform. Maybe we ought to run this country by referendum or voting on the Internet on each issue. The Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House sure do find creative ways to mess up a simple concept. Get the soft money out of politics. Outlaw PACs. Fat chance, it seems.
Memories of MIR
The Russian space station MIR met a fiery death in the Pacific. For many years, most of the public knew very little about MIR. But, other than space scientists and those involved with the program, one group tracked it like a hawk tracks a mouse in a field - ham-radio operators. Over the years, I talked briefly with a Russian Cosmonaut or two, and with at least two American Astronauts. The most memorable was Shannon Lucid. Even though the couple of times I contacted her via ham-radio were short snippets of conversation (the MIR would be in range for only about 12 minutes at a time), I listened to her for many hours during her sojourn on MIR. She spent a lot of time talking with fellow astronauts and family members when MIR was within range of the Houston Space Center (and thus my area at the same time).
I was struck by the casual way in which those on MIR talked about their historic adventure. I remember Shannon Lucid one day talking to Houston about some items to put on board the Space Shuttle for its next docking mission with MIR. "Can you find some mayonnaise in a plastic jar. Yury keeps asking for some." And another time. "Did you go by the house to see if the grass had been mowed?" Universally, they would all say, "The view from up here is unbelievable." Some would ask for the scores of ballgames. It was like a big campout, but a long way from home, and with considerably more danger present.
MIR and Space Shuttle watchers used one of several computer-tracking programs that looked just like the flat world map at the NASA space center. You could track MIR or the Shuttle each second of the day and know exactly when they would come over the horizon and be within radio range of your location. My software even sounded an alert 5 minutes before arrival time. The mathematical elements for tracking items in space, called the Keplarian elements (KEPS) are available at several web sites. The KEPS are imported into the tracking software to keep you current, in case the orbit shifts.
You can download one of the best software programs, STSPLUS, at www.dransom.com and pay a small donation to the author (Dave Ransom) if you use it. KEPS are also available there. And, check out a friend's website for KEPS, other space-related info, and software (www.mindspring.com/~n2wwd). Ken is a space Engineer, as is Dave Ransom. This is professional stuff, not some kid writing in Visual Basic.
So, if you are looking for something different to do, track the International Space Station (ISS) and listen for the "hams" on board talking to other hams and to school children right in their classrooms. All it takes is a scanner, and maybe an outside antenna to listen. The ISS frequency for ham-radio voice contacts is 145.80 MHz. There won't be a lot of ham activity until the ISS is more completed and settled. But, they have already been making some contacts. If you don't want to monitor all day long and take pot luck, download the tracking software and you will know exactly where the ISS is at all times. You might get hooked and want to get a ham license just so you can say you talked to someone in space. It is an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Happy space eavesdropping.
FDA Questions Practice Of TV Ads for Prescription Drugs
It is always nice to see that your thoughts and opinions are well grounded. In a much earlier column, I questioned the practice of drug firms advertising their products directly to the public on TV. Now, the FDA has decided to take a hard look at the practice, and might consider banning it. Doctors tell of patients demanding that the doctor prescribe a drug the patient has seen on TV. The drug might be the most expensive of several alternatives, the patient may not need the drug, and the drug's side effects may cause more harm than good. Doctors sometimes give in so as not to alienate, and possibly lose, a patient. It takes less than a minute to write an Rx, but about 20 minutes to explain why the patient does not need the particular drug. This is unconscionable.
Spending for TV ads by drug companies reached $1.13 billion in 1999. Heaven only knows how much was spent in 2000 and beyond, since there seem to be more and more drug commercials on TV. You are paying that $1 billion + in higher drug costs, just like you pay for Michael Jordan's palatial mansion when you buy his brand of sneakers.
The FDA has already chastised one or more drug makers for making improper claims in TV ads, or for showing images that overstated the effectiveness of the drugs.
Proponents of the TV ads say that they "empower" consumers. If you want to be empowered, buy a copy of the Physicians Desk Reference (PDR), or go to the many Web sites where full information about prescription drugs is available. (You can find citations to some URLs in my column for Sept. 11, 2000, in the article "Prescription For Disaster"). In your research, start from the premise that you have some medical problem and you want to see what drugs might be appropriate. By falling for the lure of the TV ad, you start with the premise that there is a drug that must be good for something, and you go in search of some possible excuse that you need it.
At a minimum, those who have looked at the problem want more information broadcast about the potential harm and side effects of drugs advertised on TV. I would lean toward banning the ads. They cause more harm than good. They cost you a bundle in higher costs. One personal example. A drug is touted on TV to help with pain from arthritis and so forth. When I was in a very bad car accident, I had severe pain in my back and neck. The ER doctor gave me four tablets of the TV-ad drug and wrote me an Rx for some to take later. When I researched the drug on the Internet, the possible side effects were potentially horrible. I decided to endure the pain and not take the drug. For someone with nearly unbearable, daily pain, this drug might be an option. But, to run to your doctor with a mild pain and say "I want that drug I saw on TV" makes no sense.
Doctors must share the blame for the prescribing of unnecessary medications - even beyond those seen on TV. Doctors generally practice "crisis medicine." That is, let's wait until you have a medical crisis and then we will give you a pill that might help you, or maybe we will operate. There are a huge number of pills and operations that would not really be called for with more thought to preventive medicine, careful diagnosis, and a long-term plan of treatment.
I am blessed with one of the most intelligent and understanding doctors I have ever known. I sometimes come to his office with books, reams of research, and a typewritten list of questions. He goes over the stuff and we discuss the pros and cons of various methods of treatment. Usually, the outcome is that I will agree to modify my diet, increase my exercise, get more sleep, consider yoga or meditation, reduce my stress level, or take a certain supplement or vitamin. Or simply live with any non-life-threatening or non-debilitating problem. In time, many heal themselves.
Once in a while, my doctor picks up a tip from my exhaustive research. In my 60's, I take only one type of medication - for high blood pressure. The cabinet is full of samples and prescriptions that I decided over many years had the potential to do more harm than good. I keep them "archived" mostly as a reminder of the propensity of many doctors to reach for the Rx pad after listening to your problem for about 3 minutes. Recent exhaustive physicals, including an echocardiogram, EKG, and so on, seem to prove that "our" approach to taking prescription medications as a last resort is working. Admittedly, I do take many carefully-researched supplements and vitamins. None of the fad stuff, and none that make claims of medical miracles.
If you feel as I do, that there ought to be severe restrictions, or more complete disclosures of side effects, or an outright ban on TV ads for prescription medications, drop a note to Nancy Ostrove, FDA Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications. She is particularly interested in "inappropriate prescribing."
Food and Drug Administration
Mail Stop HFD-42
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857
FAX 301 594-6759
Let her know. You can make a difference. I am e-mailing Nancy this article. To repeat myself, government does very few things well. Protecting consumers is one of their better efforts. But, you have to let them know the problem. Check www.fda.gov for a ton of interesting information.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Richard C. Rhodes
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