Friday, December 02, 2005
Cheney's secret travels
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), one of the best organizations monitoring the government, has just released two reports on White House travel. The first covers the years 1999 to late 2004. Its finding that "more than 620 White House officials have reported receiving more than $2.3 million in trips from companies and organizations" doesn't reveal much of surprise.
It is the second report "Cheney Sidesteps Travel Disclosure Rules" that's the corker. CPI staff were going to compare the travel expenses of the Bush and Clinton administrations but found that they couldn't. There were no travel reports from Vice President Cheney's office—
Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff have been unilaterally exempting themselves from long-standing travel disclosure rules followed by the rest of the executive branch, including the Office of the President, the Center for Public Integrity has discovered.
Cheney's office also appears to have stuck taxpayers with untold millions in travel costs rather than accepting trip sponsors' funds that the rules would require to be disclosed.
It's not as if those in Cheney's office don't indulge in the type of junkets that are routinely funded by private sources. Instead of accepting reimbursement for such trips like other government travelers, it appears that his office labels them "official travel." As a result, however, the public is kept largely unaware of where he and his staff are traveling, with whom they are meeting with and how much it costs, even though tax dollars are covering the bill.
Some would credit the vice president's office for not accepting outside cash to cover his travel costs. That may be true, but critics point out that the Office of the Vice President's lack of disclosure also creates an opaque situation, with little or no transparency or accountability and at a substantial cost to taxpayers.
The Ethics Reform Act of 1989 requires every executive "agency" to file a semiannual report of payments accepted from non-federal sources. Regulations implementing this provision state that the term "includes an independent agency as well as an agency within the Executive Office of the President."
President George W. Bush's office accepts reimbursement for travel and has reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel funded by private sources in fiscal years 2003 and 2004, including trips taken by high-profile staffers such as Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales. Public records show that all but one of the other offices within the Executive Office of the President also have filed travel disclosure reports showing privately funded trips. The lone exception, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, appears to have filed no financial disclosure forms at all.
More than a dozen organizations and colleges have confirmed that Cheney's office was not compensated for travel to their events — and in some cases even refused offers of reimbursement.
Not an agency of the executive branch
We knew the Office of the Vice President was special, but we didn't know how special—
Instead of making disclosures like most of the White House, Cheney's office since March 2002 has periodically responded to OGE [Office of Government ethics] inquiries by stating that it is not obligated to file such disclosure forms for travel funded by non-federal sources.
The letters were signed by then-Counsel to the Vice President David Addington, who two weeks ago was named Cheney's chief of staff, replacing indicted aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Addington also reportedly helped write a memo validating the use of torture or similar techniques on terrorism suspects abroad that came to light during the attorney general confirmation process of Gonzales, Bush's former counsel.
In the letters to the Office of Government Ethics, Addington writes that the Office of the Vice President is not classified as an agency of the executive branch and is therefore not required to issue reports on travel, lodging and related expenses funded by non-federal sources. The letters go on to say that neither the vice president nor his staff had accepted any non-federal payments for travel during the period, and that the office is making that limited disclosure as "a matter of comity."
This means that no one knows where Cheney's recently indicted former chief of staff "Scooter" Libby was scooting either.
Buh- bah- bahr- barmy: Britain resolves the phonics controversy
Britain's Secretary of Education Ruth Kelly announced yesterday a sea change in British primary education: Next September literacy will be taught using "synthetic phonics" exclusively, beginning from the age of 5. Synthetic phonics is a method by which letter sounds are learned and then words are "sounded out." This building up of words from their component sounds makes the method "synthetic." A contrasting method in which whole words are learned first with their letter sounds learned afterwards is known as "analytic phonics."
This dramatic announcement was occasioned by the release of a report by Jim Rose, the former director of the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted). The Tories (Conservatives) are popping the champagne, and the teacher's union is up in arms. The Education Secretary was said to be reluctant, but the force of several studies using the techniques of synthetic phonics was too compelling to be denied.
Perhaps the most significant research was a 7-year study of 300 children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. According to Polly Curtis of The Guardian, that study found the children trained on phonics were up to three years ahead in reading, though there was no improvement in comprehension. Of course this was not a very large study. My own thought is that any child who can read "Clackmannanshire" can probably read just about anything, so I hope they controlled for locale.
As someone far removed from these issues, it amazes me that the best method of teaching children to read has been a decades-long political battle. Yet it has been, and there are some points I would make.
Determining the "best" method to teach reading to children shouldn't be all that difficult. Standard techniques of experimental psychology should yield an answer. My guess is that the real difficulty lies in reaching agreement on the meaning of terms such as "best" and "reading." Are people "reading" if they can sound out "onomatopeia" but don't have a clue to its meaning? Since the whole point of reading is comprehension, there is room for debate, and you should note that the Clackmannanshire study found no improvement in that regard.
That said, both sides have indulged in obscurantism to keep the debate as muddled as possible. To the extent that is true, the obscurantists can't be said to have the interests of the children at heart.
John Clare of The Telegraph, a conservative paper, is one of those popping the champagne—
His [Rose's] prescription ... reverses a 30-year orthodoxy that led in the 1980s to a steady decline in reading standards.
That decline was subsequently masked by the introduction of national tests that vary in standard from one year to another and offer what experts regard as an unreliable measurement of children's ability to decode print.
It enabled the education establishment to continue to insist that a mixture of methods worked best, an entrenched position from which observers believe they will be shifted only with difficulty.
The educational establishment is indeed insisting on a mixture of methods. Rebecca Smithers of The Guardian writes,
But teachers' leaders questioned the government's decision to rely on just one method, which would not necessarily suit all children. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "We want every child to be a proficient reader. But teachers are desperately weary of the reading wars. Phonics has too often been hijacked by politicians as a weapon to beat each other with, rather than being seen as a vital but not exclusive method of teaching reading."
He went on: "I welcome much of Jim Rose's report, including his criticism of the futile debate about methods of teaching phonics. But we all need to recognise that teaching the meaning of words and a love of reading is also vital. The last thing teachers want is a massive upheaval as a result of the promotion of a single fashionable technique. They know that to teach reading effectively there must be a range of strategies to hand. Above all, teachers must be involved in the debate on what works in the teaching of reading."
So who's right? Both sides, depending upon how the problem is defined.
But the teachers are egregiously wrong in one respect. While it is probably true that one teaching method is not best for all children, it is a useless objection, politically speaking, without research to demonstrate this. More importantly, it is useless because without research there is no way to know which children might better benefit from other methods.
A medical comparison comes to mind. Western medicine adds new drugs and vaccines to the available treatments typically based on studies across broad populations. But no claim can be made for most drugs or vaccines that they are best for everyone—only that they are effective for the population as a whole. Until research can differentiate that population into subgroups who can be shown better to benefit from other drugs/vaccines, the doctor is compelled to use the best available method for the group as a whole.
Instead of opposing the exclusive use of phonics without a basis for doing so, the teachers should be demanding research into individual differences as well as into methods that will allow students to convert their improved word recognition into verbal comprehension. Basically, our leaders only want the children to recognize "Stop," "Go" and "Shut up." Phonics should take care of that nicely. It will be up to the teachers to do the rest.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Photojournalism at its best
In the previous post we had an example of some of the worst in photojournalism. Now you can consider some of the best. Beginning yesterday Slate in cooperation with Magnum Photos has added a new feature called "Today's Pictures." The title is a bit misleading, since these are not current photos; they are the photos from the Magnum archive selected for the day.
Of Magnum they say,
Magnum's archive, an extraordinary visual storehouse, forms the basis for the daily gallery we'll be presenting in Today's Pictures. You can get a sense of the richness and variety of this material with the introductory survey of classic Magnum photography that begins on the site today and continues tomorrow. Our colleagues at Magnum have chosen one image by each of the 70-plus photographers on their roster. Over future weeks and months, we'll be offering different selections from these photographers. The daily gallery will present photos that shed light on historical anniversaries, images of recent news events, or sometimes simply a body of work we consider beautiful, meaningful, or urgent.
They're excellent. Check 'em out.
The distorting lens
If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, it's also worth a 1,000 lies. Nowhere is this so evident as in mainstream photojournalism coverage of the antiwar movement. But the deceptive photos typically pass without notice except by those involved in the movement, who seldom get heard anyway.
The photo on the left is the exception. AP photographer Evan Vucci went to Cindy Sheehan's book signing last Saturday at Camp Casey to take a picture of ... well, you would suppose a book signing. Instead the AP distributed the photo on the left, which was carried by the Washington Post among others, with the caption as shown. It really looks as if it turned out to be a dud, doesn't it?
According to Cindy Sheehan, as quoted in E&P, she sold the 100 copies of her book she had with her and raised $2,000 for the Peace House. Furthermore,
Her publisher, Arnie Kotler at Koa Books, meanwhile released a letter to her supporters, charging that “AP and Reuters posted photos - I can't imagine why - of Cindy sitting at the book table between signings, rather than while someone was at the table. And now the smear websites are circulating an article, with these photos, that Cindy gave a signing and nobody came. It's simply not true…. the benefit books signing in Crawford, Texas on November 26, 2005 was well attended and a huge success.”
This was the AP's response to a query from E&P—
Photographer Evan Vucci, queried about the incident today said that he was present at the book signing from about 10 a.m. to about 11 a.m. During that time, he said, people were coming in to have their books signed in small groups of a few at a time.
At the time the photos were taken "maybe 5 people had come in," Vucci says, and Sheehan was waiting for more to stop by, which they did individually as well as in very small groups. Therefore the wording of the caption is accurate in that Sheehan was waiting for people to show up at her signing.
Oh. If he had waited a little longer, maybe he could have caught her during a potty break.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Quip of the Day
Yet, despite an aggressive and brutal war that Bush has been waging in Iraq for going on three years, terrorist attacks in America are even more rare than a honest politician. —Paul Craig Roberts writing in "The grave threat is the Bush administration"
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Governor Taft of Ohio: An all-time low
By the beginning of October Ohio Republican Governor Taft's approval rating had plunged to 15%, which prompted me to ask "How low can he go?"
Now we know. Only 6.5% of Ohio's likely voters view the governor as "very or somewhat favorably," according to a recent Zogby poll. This is the lowest approval rating ever measured so far as pollster John Zogby knows.
Meanwhile one of only two Democratic contenders for the governorship dropped out of the race. Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus announced today that he's dropping out to take care of his family and his mayoral responsibilities. His wife was arrested last month for drunken driving. That leaves only Representative Ted Strickland.
Since there's a passel of Republicans contending, this could actually be good for the Democrats. But don't get over-excited. The head of Ohio's Democratic Party resigned last week after consistently failing to bring home the bacon. According to Jim Provance,
Republicans control every statewide nonjudicial office, and the party lost one seat on the Ohio Supreme Court months after Mr. White took over as chairman. Justice Alice Robie Resnick, of Ottawa Hills, is the only Democrat left statewide, and she has yet to announce whether she'll seek re-election next year.
How low can he go? (10/3/05)
Choice of the Day
Wilkerson said that Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults, because "otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard." —Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, as quoted by Anne Gearan of the AP
Justice Scalia: Strictly on background
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia has attempted once again to speak privately in public. He recently appeared as a guest at Time Warner in the series of interviews conducted by Norman Pearlstine dubbed "Conversations on the Circle." It might have been better titled "Conversations in a Circle"—a closed circle, that is. Before a hundred or so journalists and business people, the chairman of Time Warner, Richard Parsons, announced just before the event that the interview was off the record.
For journalists you might have thought this would be highly insulting, provoking a mass walk-out. They were not warned in advance, and surely they have something better to do than sit at the feet of Justice Scalia for enlightenment. But the bovine press played right along, the exceptions being, of all people, two gossip columnists!
The NY Post's column "Page Six" revealed that at the beginning of the Q&A session, Al Franken got a lecture from Scalia on word usage—
Franken stood up in the back row and started talking about "judicial demeanor" and asking "hypothetically" about whether a judge should recuse himself if he had gone duck-hunting or flown in a private jet with a party in a case before his court.
Franken was clumsily referring to the fact that Scalia had gone hunting and flying with Dick Cheney before the 2000 election.
First, Scalia lectured Franken, "Demeanor is the wrong word. You mean ethics." Then he explained, "Ethics is governed by tradition. It has never been the case where you recuse because of friendship."
It behooves us all to cultivate the friendship of as many justices as possible. And of course, Justice Scalia is correct in his differentiation of 'demeanor' from 'ethics.' Demeanor refers to throwing a hissy fit whenever your words are recorded.
What Justice Scalia might have said
Aside from that brief contretemps with Al Franken, we would know nothing more about the event if it weren't for Lloyd Grove of The Daily News. Grove took a novel tack in his reporting—he reported it hypothetically, informing us what Justice Scalia might have said if he had been speaking on the record.
On the press—
Scalia famously has little use for the press - "You can dish it out, but you can't take it," he might have taunted his media-elite audience - and I half-expected his security detail to relieve me of my notebook.
So it's possible, hypothetically, that the justice is no fan of the 1964 Supreme Court decision that requires a public official to prove "actual malice," not just negligence, to win a libel case.
Scalia might have noted that "The press is the only business that is not held responsible for its negligence." He might have added: "The court just made it up and - whack! - it's off the democratic stage, just like abortion."
On Roe v. Wade—
"Even the people who like the result acknowledge that the opinion is absurd."
And most astonishingly, of the Supreme Court's decision to make George Bush President—
... Scalia might have mused: "What did you expect us to do? Turn the case down because it wasn't important enough? Or give the Florida Supreme Court another couple of weeks in which the United States could look ridiculous?"
That the Supreme Court took the case away from the Florida Supreme Court to prevent the United States from looking ridiculous has got to be one of the most ironic and misguided decisions of U.S. history. Not only should such a consideration never have entered into the deliberation, but look at the result: When the United States is not looking hostile, threatening and dangerous, it is mostly just looking ridiculous.
The NY Times also reported the event. Katharine Q. Seelye's story was not about Scalia's talk but about the lèse majesté of the two columnists and Time Warner's displeasure with Lloyd Grove. True to their masters, the only news that the Times let leak was a repeat of the reports by the gossip columnists.
Monday, November 28, 2005
Bittersweet Regret of the Day
Mr. Darshan Singh was to execute on Wednesday the Australian drug runner Nguyen Tuong Van, who was caught in transit from Cambodia with just under a pound of heroin. The hangman claims the government dumped him after The Australian published his picture and identity. A spokesman for the Singapore prisons department is now denying that Singh was sacked.
According to a number of accounts, the problem of finding another executioner is that an inexperienced hangman runs the risk of decapitating the victim. The length of the rope is critical.
How to make the authorities nervous
A massive mosque that will hold 40,000 worshippers is being proposed beside the Olympic complex in London to be opened in time for the 2012 Games.
The project’s backers hope the mosque and its surrounding buildings would hold a total of 70,000 people, only 10,000 fewer than the Olympic stadium. Its futuristic design features wind turbines instead of the traditional minarets, while a translucent latticed roof would replace the domes seen on most mosques. The complex is designed to become the “Muslim quarter” for the Games, acting as a hub for Islamic competitors and spectators. “It will be something never seen before in this country. It is a mosque for the future as part of the British landscape,” said Abdul Khalique, a senior member of Tablighi Jamaat, a worldwide Islamic missionary group that is proposing the mosque as its new UK headquarters.
Tablighi Jamaat has come under scrutiny from western security agencies since 9/11. Two years ago, according to The New York Times, a senior FBI anti-terrorism official claimed it was a recruiting ground for Al-Qaeda. British police investigated a report that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the July 7 London bombers, had attended its present headquarters in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. In August, Bavaria expelled three members of the organisation on the grounds that it promoted Islamic extremism.
Defenders of Tablighi Jamaat say that it is not political and confines itself to humanitarian work. It was founded in India under the British Raj and has many members in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The east London complex would have by far the largest capacity of any religious building in Britain....
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Murder now legal in Britain for officers of the Crown
THE two police marksmen who shot dead an innocent Brazilian in the belief that he was a suicide bomber will escape criminal charges for murder or manslaughter, sources close to the inquiry believe.
Senior Scotland Yard officers and Whitehall sources are convinced prosecutors will accept the defence of the marksmen who shot Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old electrician, at Stockwell Tube station on July 22.
The two were said to have been interviewed last week by investigators from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). They are thought to have used the defence that they “honestly believed” he was a terrorist and say they used “reasonable force” to stop him endangering the public.
How easily the words "honestly" and "reasonable" become corrupt!
The fundamental reason that Menezes was shot is never mentioned. He was shot because the rules were changed to give police the right to shoot "suspected" suicide bombers.
The police are boys with toys. Give them a new weapon; it will quickly be used. Give them a new right; it will quickly be exercised. It really is no more complicated than that.
Why did the London police shoot a bomber suspect? (7/22/05)
A law professor comments on the murder by London police (7/26/05)