SATURDAY MAILBOX

The Baltimore Sun

Enough of excuses for failure in Iraq

In The Sun's article "Rice warns Congress on Iraq" (April 30), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed that President Bush would "not sign any war spending bill that penalizes Iraq's government for failing to make progress."

An article next to that one, "Violence, corruption stall reconstruction" (April 30), reports that "corruption among Iraqi officials also appeared to be worsening" and that "Iraq's annual financial loss now exceeds $5 billion because of fraud and abuse," which a recent report from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found "afflicts virtually every Iraqi ministry."

So we write a blank check, give it to the Iraqis, sacrifice more than 3,300 of our troops and ask for nothing in return?

Just imagine what that $5 billion would do for the people of New Orleans who are still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and the ineptitude of the Bush administration's response.

After four years of bloodshed and an April in which we again saw more than 100 Americans killed in Iraq, we can expect, as The Sun summarizes the recent remarks of Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, "that the war effort may well get harder before it gets easier."

That statement might have been acceptable three years ago. But the patience of the American public has come to the breaking point.

Enough is enough.

It is time for Americans to stand up and demand that our soldiers be brought home from a bloody civil war in Iraq we should never have been a part of in the first place.

Eric Crossley

Laurel

Empires brutalize occupiers, occupied

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is an award-winning movie centered on the Irish struggle for independence that contains scenes that would bring any Irish-American's blood to boil ("'Wind' whips up strong tale of Irish struggle," April 27).

But one of the many fine points in this great film is that the English soldiers in Ireland are not monsters.

It is just that otherwise good and decent men sent as soldiers to subdue other lands easily become savages, and that otherwise good and decent men and women, in turn, become savages fighting against them.

And this, of course, is just what has happened in Iraq.

Books and articles by American soldiers who have served in Iraq testify that the homes of Iraqis are routinely ransacked by our soldiers with the families terrorized by angry and fearful soldiers shouting obscenities and Iraqi civilians in the streets gunned down or bombed as "collateral damage."

Like the British before us, we are now an empire - and we're reaping all of the "benefits" thereof.

God forgive us.

Jay Hilgartner

Towson

GM now producing high-quality vehicles

Columns such as Kevin Cowherd's "Better cars: What's good for Toyota is good for America" (April 26) serve as a sharp reminder of how crucial perception is in the car business.

However, Mr. Cowherd's column also sells short the major improvements in GM vehicles.

Many people remember the days when Americans viewed Japanese cars in a negative light. Yet, over time, as Japanese cars improved, perceptions changed as well.

We are now seeing a similar turnaround in perceptions of GM vehicles.

General Motors has transformed its business and today produces a lineup of high-quality, well-designed, fuel-efficient cars and trucks -- perhaps the finest in our 100-year history.

These improvements are being recognized by auto critics, analysts and customers everywhere.

Our global competition with Toyota and other companies has only sharpened our resolve to be leaders in design and technology.

I understand that perceptions can be difficult to overcome, and that columnists have wide latitude to share their personal experiences.

But I don't think that Mr. Cowherd's suggestion that nothing has changed at GM is fair to the company, its employees or its dealers.

Steve Harris

Detroit

The writer is a vice president of General Motors.

Honda has aged much more reliably

We read with interest Kevin Cowherd's column which noted that Toyota has taken away the crown from General Motors as the world's No. 1 automobile manufacturer ("Better cars: What's good for Toyota is good for America," April 26).

We own a 1993 General Motors Saturn SL2 and a 1996 Honda Civic.

The Saturn's alternator has been replaced twice. We have had to replace the valve cover gaskets and spark plug seals to correct an engine oil leak and the valve body cover to correct a transmission fluid leak.

We have had to replace the temperature-monitoring unit because the engine overheated. A leaky roof had to be repaired, and the doughnut spare tire dry-rotted and had to be replaced. The rear-view mirror became foggy and had to be replaced, and the dome light stopped lighting and had to be replaced.

The glove-box latch broke and had to be replaced. The air-bag warning light occasionally lights up, but nothing has been found defective there.

Lest you think that we are driving the car night and day into the ground, after 14 years it has only 66,000 miles on the odometer.

But that's not quite accurate.

Last year, the odometer became stuck and stopped advancing. The Saturn dealer told us it would cost $900 to replace the entire instrument panel.

We chose not to fix it, wisely - as several months later, we drove over a bump and the odometer magically began advancing again.

The Honda Civic has almost twice as many miles on it (112,000) and we have only had to replace one headlight casing, which leaked in the rain.

When these cars eventually stop running, is there any question whether we will buy a Japanese or an American car next?

Leon Reinstein Iris Reinstein Baltimore

Assembly advances on health coverage

The Sun's editorial "The health care front" (April 23) was on the mark.

This spring, lawmakers in the House of Delegates passed a bill that would have increased access to medical care and coverage for the uninsured.

While the Senate did not pass the measure because its leaders decided to address this issue in the broader context of the state's structural deficit, the House plan should form the basis for future Assembly action.

It is crucial for Maryland to expand the number of citizens eligible for Medicaid coverage. This is a road already taken by 32 other states, and it was the cornerstone of the House of Delegates' bill.

Uninsured parents of kids receiving medical assistance deserve coverage. More children must have health insurance as well.

Legislators did pass a bill under which the state will study the feasibility of mandating health insurance for higher-income individuals. This could lead to agreement next year on how to prod well-off residents to purchase health coverage, much as Massachusetts is doing.

A bill passed by lawmakers this spring also allows insurers to provide appropriate incentives for individuals to participate in wellness programs.

This bill moves to reduce health care expenses by encouraging lifestyle changes and healthier living.

Another legislative study approved by the General Assembly will examine physician reimbursement rates.

That's part of the issue, too. Appropriate payment rates are essential to ensure we have enough physicians to treat all Marylanders.

These encouraging steps could set the stage for passage of a comprehensive health care expansion plan next year.

Reducing this state's large uninsured population is in everyone's best interest.

Calvin M. Pierson

Elkridge

The writer is president of the Maryland Hospital Association.

Robots do wonders for prostate surgery

Although no one can dispute Dr. Patrick Walsh's contribution to the field of urology ("A pioneer in prostate cancer surgery," April 27), today's urologists also cannot deny the evolution of advanced and new surgical techniques, specifically the robotic da Vinci Surgical System, which produces remarkable results for laparoscopic prostatectomy.

At St. Joseph Medical Center, where we began performing robotic prostatectomy in January 2005, we have studied the results of more than 200 of these patients and found many benefits compared with the traditional prostatectomy.

These patients' blood loss was far less, which means they generally do not need the blood transfusions usually necessary with traditional prostatectomy.

And the cancer-free margin of tissue around the removed prostate gland improved by 7 percent to 10 percent, which means we are curing more prostate cancer.

Post-operatively, we did not need to use narcotics because our patients had virtually no pain.

We also found that the robotic patients regained urinary control sooner.

Just as doctors have embraced laparoscopic technology to perform kidney cancer surgery, it is time for urologists to acknowledge robotic laparoscopic prostatectomy as the state-of-the-art treatment.

Dr. Marc H. Siegelbaum Dr. Thomas B. Smyth Towson

The writers are, respectively, the chief of urology and a urologist on the medical staff at St. Joseph Medical Center.

State must protect Green Ridge forest

The Sun had it right in its editorial lamenting the Maryland Court of Special Appeals' decision to give a green light to the development of 4,300 homes and a shopping center in Allegany County ("Not-very-smart growth," editorial, April 16).

The project is in the middle of nowhere - and on the border of the pristine Green Ridge State Forest.

Local officials in the area cannot be blamed for wanting to use the Terrapin Run development to boost their tax base.

Given the nature of their responsibilities, their focus is narrow. Broader responsibilities are someone else's job.

Terrapin Run is a tributary of the Potomac River. But protecting that river is someone else's job.

Green Ridge State Forest's hiking trails would overlook the development. These trails connect the C&O; Canal in the south with trails in Pennsylvania that form a network of trails similar to the Appalachian Trail. But those trails are someone else's problem.

The court is interpreting and strictly following the law. The broader implications are someone else's problem.

The Maryland legislature has a great reluctance to challenge local zoning prerogatives. They are someone else's problem.

That someone else is now Gov. Martin O'Malley.

At this time last year, another of Maryland's treasures was threatened by a similar development plan - the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.

The governor recently announced that the state is purchasing 728 acres to preserve forests and farmland near Blackwater, saying, "This is a very good day for not only the Little Blackwater River, but also the Chesapeake Bay" ("State board OKs purchase of land near Blackwater," April 19).

Well, now it is Green Ridge's turn for a rescue effort from Mr. O'Malley.

In rescuing Green Ridge, the governor would be rescuing Allegany County from an ill-conceived development.

Theodore Levin

Baltimore

The writer is a former member of the House of Delegates.

Affordable housing secures a basic need

Years ago, Abraham Maslow developed a "pyramid of needs" that is now taught in every Psychology 101 course.

It shows that food, health and shelter are basic survival needs. Unless an individual can secure those needs, his or her education and further development are close to impossible.

Affordable housing helps protect access to shelter - a critical component of survival many families lack ("Low-cost homes bill debated," April 22).

When many lower-income people can find housing at all, its high cost often seriously compromises their ability to care for themselves and their children.

Their remaining income often just isn't adequate to take care of the costs of food, clothing, education, transportation, insurance, medical care - all the other basic expenses of safe and healthy living.

The community, as an aggregate of its families, struggles along with them.

Inclusionary housing is an ingenious way to create benefits for the city while doing the right thing for its families.

Including affordable units in market-priced developments creates neighborhoods where people get to know one another without the artificial barriers of home cost.

Children grow up in diverse neighborhoods and are better prepared for their futures in a diverse world.

Every aspect of the community - public health and safety, education, the arts, government - is enriched.

Affordable-housing requirements are not an attempt to "control" a housing market ("City can't control the housing market," letters, April 27) or an effort to "engineer" society.

Affordability combined with inclusion builds a strong, educated, healthy community - a goal that is often proclaimed but one that is achieved only by cities that have enacted proactive housing policies such as the measure now before Baltimore's City Council.

Cynthia W. Morse

Livermore, Calif.

The writer is a volunteer advocate for affordable housing.

Selling a few books so many can be free

As a former volunteer at The Book Thing, I can testify that Russell Wattenberg and his organization are completely on the level. And in a city where so many things are wrong, it is offensive that The Sun would find someone making a positive impact and try to tear him down ("The Book Thing cashes in online," April 26).

Mr. Wattenberg has always made it clear that valuable volumes donated to The Book Thing are resold to fund the organization.

And it just makes perfect sense that when a nonprofit group receives a $1,000 book, it would resell that book and reinvest the money in the organization rather than give the book away.

Selling that one book may enable Mr. Wattenberg to give away hundreds, if not thousands, more.

The fact that The Book Thing's Web site seems to have "misled" the public as to the exact volume of books sold is probably more a reflection of the fact that the site is not properly maintained than it is evidence of malfeasance.

Because of shortages of funds and skilled volunteers, the site has not changed significantly since I first visited it in 2003.

The Book Thing's mission statement does not promise a free rare book collection to those who browse there.

And indeed, anyone who collects rare books knows that it is a hobby of the wealthy. I have never heard of anyone receiving a free first edition of The Sound and the Fury.

However, on any given Saturday or Sunday, at 3001 Vineyard Lane, one can probably happen upon a paperback copy of the same title printed anywhere from 1950 to the present. It may be yellowed, annotated and battered, but it will be free.

I know Mr. Wattenberg well enough from my volunteer days to say that I do not believe he would ever mislead someone as to the value of his or her donation.

I can easily see how offensive it is to book dealers that Mr. Wattenberg sells donated books for a good cause.

After all, they are in the business of trying to beat regular people out of valuable books at the lowest possible price in order to resell them at their own personal gain.

It must be hard to compete.

Dan Shiffner

Philadelphia, Pa.

Storytellers graced lives they touched

We in the storytelling community grieve now the loss of the second of two remarkable women who graced us with their stories and their lives - not only other storytellers but everyone whose lives they touched and changed.

Mary Carter Smith was honored by The Sun just last week for her pioneering work in storytelling ("Griot brought African tales to Americans," April 26), and Mary Vaughan was remembered last August for her many contributions to children and adults, not only in the Baltimore area but nationwide ("Mary E. Vaughan, 74, actress founded children's troupe," Aug. 22, 2006).

It is a sad thing indeed to lose two such phenomenal leaders in our field in such a short time - women who mentored so many of us and shared their love for stories and people.

Storytelling always centers on the stories; we raconteurs are the conduits by which stories come to life for our listeners.

Ms. Smith and Ms. Vaughan were exemplars from whom we learned, and are still learning.

We are grateful to have been blessed by their lives and their love.

Barbara Woodey

Timonium

The writer is a professional storyteller.

Finding fuels as the oil runs out

John A. Bewick's column "Preparing for 'peak oil' " (Opinion

Commentary, April 29) praises President Bush for his energy plan. However, this plan is years late and, in any case, made of tissue paper.

Mr. Bewick cites Mr. Bush's goal of producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol in 2017. This is just talk. We would have to grow corn and other crops between our collective teeth to achieve such a goal.

The ethanol program pushed by the president is little more than a payoff to the farmers. It takes energy to produce a gallon of ethanol, which has two-thirds the power of a gallon of real gasoline.

The price of corn has skyrocketed since last summer, and price pressure has extended to other crops because so much farmland has been converted to corn. We'll find out the cost this summer when we visit our favorite vegetable stand.

Mr. Bewick notes that Mr. Bush has called for a 20 percent reduction in gas consumption by 2017. This is just more talk. His administration has consistently opposed efforts to force the car companies to increase mileage per gallon.

Mr. Bewick says Mr. Bush has supported spending $1 billion for research into clean coal gasification technology. Mr. Bush should save the money. The energy industry is deep into coal gasification already. This process is also energy-intensive.

He notes that some U.S. agencies are studying ways to make ethanol from biomass materials. We're late here too. Some South American countries have been doing this for years, with great success, particularly with sugar cane.

Mr. Bewick says the U.S. should lead the way in capping greenhouse emissions. We all know the president's record on emissions and global warming. It's abysmal.

No one really knows the answer to declining oil supplies, except perhaps to invade countries that have oil.

But the people who run the energy companies are smart; they know their resources are in decline.

My guess is that they will come up with real answers when it suits them.

Ed Brandt

Lutherville

The writer is a former reporter and editor for The Sun.

John A. Bewick's wake-up call for the energy crisis awaiting a seemingly oblivious world is certainly a must-read. As he puts it so well, "The American public is barely aware of the issue."

A few points need clarification, however.

While biofuels such as ethanol do have a role (they, like oil, are modes of energy transfer and storage, the sun having served as energy source), what Mr. Bewick calls "oil substitutes such as hydrogen fuel cells and batteries for hybrid cars" can never really be oil substitutes.

Hydrogen and batteries are merely means to store energy, collecting it from a true source, storing it conveniently and dispensing it when needed.

Hydrogen cannot be collected or mined in any meaningful quantities; energy is needed to break it away from a compound such as water.

While present technology has given us respectable battery and hydrogen fuel-cell efficiencies and energy-to-mass ratios that have made hybrid cars practical, we must continue to make progress in this area.

Why is research and development in this area a must?

Because electricity will, in an oil-scarce future, be the most promising way to transmit energy from source to storage to usage.

And our best hope for a future energy source is nuclear-released thermal energy transformed to electric energy in nuclear power plants.

We have the technology (although, as with all technologies, there is always room for refinement). We have the answers, based on sound, proven technology, to soothe the fears that the mere mention of the word "nuclear" generates.

Such electric energy is cost-effective and environmentally safe now and will become even more desirable than coal-, oil- or natural gas-generated electricity as the cost and ill-effects of burning hydrocarbons continue to escalate.

Are there hybrids in our future?

Yes, in the near-term.

But don't be misled by claims such as Mr. Bewick's about "a plug-in hybrid with the potential to achieve 150 mpg."

That impressive 150 mpg figure will be made possible only through the use of plug-in electricity, a cost Mr. Bewick does not acknowledge.

Our hope for the future must rest on a "more plug-in, less hybrid" or "more electric, less hydrocarbon" approach to energy, which will eventually lead to all-electric cars.

Forthcoming research may well make such cars approach, even surpass, our beloved gas-powered ones in all respects.

The most immediate research goals are developing fast-charging, high-energy-to-mass-ratio, low-cost, long-life, environment-friendly chemical batteries along with means of hydrogen storage and conversion and super-efficient electric motors.

At the same time, and most difficult of all, the emotional, politically charged issue of nuclear power proliferation must be addressed anew, with rationality, realism and urgency.

I look forward to the absence of engine and exhaust noise and fumes (with their carbon dioxide) and the realization that all that horsepower and engine roar are not really needed.

Just a convenient electric outlet.

Nelson L. Hyman

Randallstown

The writer is a retired mechanical engineer.

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