Posts Tagged ‘Newspaper opinion pieces written’


September 7, 2016

I went out recently to see the close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.  I could have done without the hype: that it was the closest they would be for many years.  Indeed, the hype ignored the fact that for a few days prior and afterwards, the two would be almost as close in the sky as they were that night.  It would have been better to have said that Venus and Jupiter would be close together all week, changing a little each night relative to one another, and that Saturday would be the night they were closest.  That gets people looking up and noticing that planets move from night to night.  The very name comes from the Greek “asters planetai,” wandering stars.

One lady in particular was almost adamant about seeing the conjunction, as if she might never get another chance.  I didn’t tell her that the next night it would be almost as good.  I like to teach, so I explained that conjunctions often occur in 10 and 14 month intervals, although there is a better 3.3 year interval. I didn’t have the ephemeris at my fingertips, but this was the 28th conjunction between the two since the beginning of 1991.  They aren’t exactly rare; they are beautiful.  Her expression didn’t change.

She then told me how Mars was as “big as a basketball” when it rose, last year, closer than it had ever been for “thousands and thousands of years.”  That simply wasn’t true, but I quietly replied no, Mars was bright, but it was still far away and about as bright as Jupiter was that night.  I didn’t have at my fingertips the fact that in 1924 Mars was only about 12,000 miles further away than it was in 2003, which was when it was closest.  Perhaps, I thought, she was thinking of the reddish eclipsed Moon a year ago.

She wasn’t having it.  Somewhere, she heard it was Mars, and she wasn’t wrong.  Shortly thereafter, she left.

This “knowing” of something that is blatantly false has come to the fore this year.  American immigration peaked in 2007, not continually rising.  All nine categories of major crime have fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. We aren’t having a massive crime wave.  The Earth’s temperature is rising slowly but definitively, the oceans are slowly rising, and California is in its fifth year of drought.  I don’t like any of the last three.  I wish they weren’t occurring, but they are, and I need to face reality.  As a country, we aren’t.

I was disappointed on several fronts astronomically.  How in the world does somebody think that Mars can suddenly appear in our sky looking the size of the full Moon?  Then I remembered for years after the August 27, 2003 closest approach, I would get emails from people—smart people— saying that on August 27 that particular year, Mars would be closer to the Earth than it had been for thousands of years.  That was wrong.  So was the picture of the huge Moon blotting out the Sun, posted by somebody who said that is what an eclipse at the North Pole looks like. Nope, that’s wrong, too.  As was the photoshopped large Moon rising over Houston, where somebody commented, “I didn’t realize it was so big.”  The Moon appears smaller on the horizon that it does overhead, when it is 4,000 miles closer, because we aren’t looking across the Earth’s radius.  We can’t perceive a change in the lunar size of 1.7%, but it isn’t larger on the horizon.

While I’m at it, the idea of Supermoons, full Moons at perigee, or close to Earth, can’t be perceived with the eye.  Indeed, Project ASTRO personnel once laid out on a desk twelve phases of the Moon and asked us trainees to order them.  When I got done ordering them, I pointed out the change in the Moon’s size during the cycle.  The teachers had never noticed this simple and important finding before, and they were teaching astronomy for schools.  If they weren’t aware of the change in the Moon’s apparent size photographically during every cycle, it is unlikely that anybody will be aware with the eye.

I don’t like hearing  “rare, once in a lifetime sightings,” that next year will be followed by another similar rare, once in a lifetime sighting.  Venus-Jupiter conjunctions shouldn’t be hyped; viewing the night sky, as well as the day sky, should be.  People need to get out and look up, safely of course.  It beats looking down at the cellphone. Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are not rare, but you don’t see them often.  Look for them.  Mars becomes bright every other year, and that’s worth noting.  Venus and the crescent Moon pair often, and particularly close pairings are spectacular.  Indeed, the idea of educating people about astronomical events is important, given that many Americans do not know what a year means, how to find the North Star, three ways to distinguish a planet from a star (motion over several nights, shines with a steady light, usually brighter than surrounding stars), or how to see the Milky Way.  Hint: go outside in summer or winter, far from city lights, and look overhead.

I have been disappointed in my occasional attempts to get people interested in what is up in the night—or even day—sky.  Last May, I had my telescope out near Autzen Stadium to show people the uncommon transit of Mercury, where it crosses the Sun’s disk, viewed from Earth.  There was moderate foot traffic, but only 7 people came by and looked during the 4 hours I was there.  One woman spent time talking about her special breed of dogs but made no move to see something that happens 13 times a century.  The transit of Venus was even more rare, occurring twice 8 years apart, about every 120 years.  One of the people to whom I showed the latter commented that it wasn’t very spectacular.  No, it is not, but he got to see something nobody else alive today will see again. And he liked the buttons I was handing out, commemorating it.

Recently, I wrote, on short notice, an opinion piece for the local paper about the need to prepare for the large influx of people coming to Oregon for the total solar eclipse in 2017.  Perhaps there isn’t much interest in Oregon, but there is worldwide.  The article gave me a chance to talk about planning ahead, how to protect one’s eyes from blindness and one’s brain from falsehoods that will be spewed when the eclipse comes.  I hope the article will be helpful.  There were four comments about it in the newspaper; four people told me they read it.

I do what I can and hope that somewhere, sometime, it will make a difference.


August 29, 2016

(Opinion piece, Eugene Register-Guard, 28 August 2016).

In less than a year, a long awaited total solar eclipse, perhaps the most beautiful sight in nature, will make landfall in Oregon, crossing 14 states in all before leaving in South Carolina. While the entire country will see some portion of the Sun covered by the Moon, the path of totality, where the Sun is completely covered, will be only 60-70 miles wide. Here in Oregon, totality will last from a few seconds at the edge of the path to 2 minutes, 9 seconds on the centerline at the Idaho border. The path is shown below.

Oregon is one of the best places climatologically to see this eclipse.   Many will come here from all over the world, an economic boon to the state and an excellent educational opportunity.  Watching day turn rapidly into twilight, seeing the black disk of the Moon block the Sun, allowing us to view the Sun’s thin corona, bright stars and planets visible, will be unforgettable.

Sadly, many will view the eclipse on television or not at all, afraid of non-existent “damaging rays” that occur during totality.  Ironically, no eye protection is necessary to view a totally eclipsed Sun.  Others will worry that the eclipse will cause natural disasters, wars, miscarriages, and a host of other myths, rather than just being a rare, beautiful natural occurrence.

The rules are simple: be on the totality path at the right time, and if the Sun is not obscured by clouds, you will see a beautiful spectacle for perhaps 2 minutes.  The most important rule is that any time part of the Sun is visible, you must use adequate eye protection: mylar eclipse glasses, #14 welding filters, commercial solar filters for optics, or indirect projection, NOT X-Ray or other film, sunglasses or staring at the Sun. Eclipse glasses are cheap and easily available. In Eugene, the eclipse is 99.3% total; the whole event must be viewed with eye protection. The southern limit of totality is a line from Waldport to Sisters. Viewers in Sweet Home and Finley WR will see a total eclipse; Monroe and Marcola will not.

I hope many who have never seen totality will see this eclipse and be as thrilled as I have been the sixteen times I have stood under the Moon’s shadow.

I have concerns about how we will handle perhaps half a million or more visitors to Oregon’s eclipse path. The last total eclipse here was February 26, 1979; far more people are interested in viewing one today, especially in summer.  Traveling to this eclipse at the last minute will be difficult.  Eclipses don’t wait and don’t care about the carrying capacity of roads.  Eastern Oregon, a prime eclipse viewing site, has limited road access, hotel rooms and campgrounds.

Once on the eclipse track, across the state, it is likely many will be more focused on finding a place to set up to view the eclipse than traffic, other drivers, or private property.  I-5 crosses the track for nearly 70 miles.  There will be the usual heavy commercial traffic, some who aren’t aware an eclipse is occurring may be startled by sudden darkness at about 10:20, some who will look while driving, others who slow down or pull off the road, get out, and look.  This is a bad combination.

Eclipses are weather dependent.  If there is smoke, common this time of year, or if a weather system makes parts of the eclipse track foggy or cloudy, many viewers will be moving at the last minute.  Count on it.  I have moved my site during five eclipses.  People pay a lot of money for eclipse tours and expect to be successful; cloudiness may cause craziness.  Paying attention to weather forecasts will be important.

Oregon is literally totally first in 2017.  The eclipse is coming and we can’t change, move, or control it.  Let’s see this wonderful event, but let’s also plan for the days and minutes prior to the eclipse.  We must protect not only our eyes from harm, our minds from those who claim an eclipse is something scary or frightening, which it isn’t, but ourselves from accidents and ill-fortune in a very infrastructure-stressed Oregon on a most special day: August 21, 2017.

Michael S. Smith, retired neurologist, member of the Eugene Astronomical Society, has seen 16 total eclipses from the ground, sea and air on or over all continents and both poles. 

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June 29, 2015

In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey saved pharmacist Gower from mixing poison into a prescription.  Gower’s son had recently died from influenza, and Gower was thinking of his son, not the prescription.  Here’s the root cause analysis.  Why was poison there?  Because it always had been.  Why had it always had been?  The movie doesn’t tell us.  Why didn’t Gower notice it was poison?  Because he was still grieving his son’s death.  Why was he working?  Because he had to.  He had no choice.  Why had he no choice?  Because you worked or starved back then.  Why?  Because we had no safety nets.  Why not?  Because it had always been that way. Why?  I don’t know.  End of analysis.

Did Gower want to err?  Of course not. But he almost did.  Poison has always been present in pharmacies.  It’s called the wrong drug, the wrong dosage, or an unexpected interaction. None of us is immune from making errors.  “Be more careful” isn’t the solution.  We need systems robust enough to make errors impossible, for people may be preoccupied, sleep-deprived, hurried, interrupted, multi-tasking, under pressure to produce may all combine to produce errors. None of us is immune.  “Be more careful” isn’t the solution.

Compare how improvement doesn’t and does occur, respectively.   I once got a letter from the quality committee castigating me, because a nurse asked me, a consultant, if she could have an order to get a blood gas analysis.  I gave the order, the blood gas was mildly abnormal, and I neither got a call nor followed up on the result, which was wrong.  I felt worthless, a bad doctor.  Good doctors are perfect, and I wasn’t perfect.  Nobody asked why these results didn’t go to the attending physician, or weren’t even called to me.  Indeed, the idea of quality in medicine was to assign responsibility and blame.  It was my job to follow up on this blood gas, and I failed.  Don’t do it again.  You are reported.  What did I do after that?  I never ordered another blood gas as a consultant again.  Was that optimal care? Nope.  But I wasn’t going to be nailed again for not doing what the attending should have.

Here’s an example of how root cause analysis helps.  The columns on the Lincoln Memorial were eroding from power washings, and this was becoming a concern.  Rather than just replacing the marble, very expensive, somebody actually talked to the people doing the work, an amazing idea, since while management traditionally makes decisions, the people on the ground really know what is happening.  Asking why learned of frequent power washings, which came from bird poop.  Why?  Birds came to eat insects.  Why?  Because insects were attracted by floodlights.  Solution?  Shine the lights, not for two hours after sunset, but only for 30 minutes, which didn’t attract insects.

Oregon is the only state where pharmacies are included in the confidential error reporting system.  I was disappointed to learn how few errors are reported here with a full “root cause” analysis. The first pharmaceutical report was in 2012, a few years after the program began.  Of 200 total reports, only 28 were last year among 721 pharmacies state-wide.  I’m a retired physician, I take medications, and I have considerable knowledge of medical errors, having been on both sides of the error divide.  I regret my errors, but what has additionally bothered me was that I could neither unburden myself of my guilt nor could I allow anybody to learn from them.  Silence does not improve systems; it allows the same error to recur.

Thinking on one hand I might have something to offer, despite my age, I contacted the Commission, whose staff were most kind to meet with me.  I wasn’t seeking employment, hoping only that my passion for improving medical quality and safety might allow me to contribute.  I am willing to help in any possible way at any interested pharmacy or health care facility in the state.  Reiterate. No charge, free.  Every person in my small family has suffered from medical errors.  This isn’t surprising.  Nor would I be surprised if every pharmacist who reads this knows that he or she has made errors or had close calls.  And didn’t report them. Shame, fear of reprisal, no time, no harm no foul. Which one?

I was wrong about numbers of reports.  I expected that was crucial.  It is not.  Pennsylvania has a quarter million reports annually, but “fall” without knowing why doesn’t help, not even if you knew the numbers state-wide.  How do I know?  I asked that question.  A few thoroughly investigated reports, learning why something happened until the question can no longer be answered is effective.  The Commission has people who can and want to help with this. I could, too. However, the culture of medicine and management must also change, away from punishment, excuses, fear, shame, ridicule, silence and hiding, to one of openness, learning, sharing information and power, the goal being to improve systems to cause less harm.  I am pleased that the Commission has done so much.  I am disappointed that 14 years after I proposed a similar program, how far we still have to go.

Were each pharmacy to perform one thorough analysis on a mistake every other year, this volume would have vast potential to improve systems that currently hurt patients and shame those who make errors.  The information could be shared state-wide.  Far from desiring to punish well-intentioned, hard-working people, I want them and others to learn from errors or near misses.  We make mistakes.  The days of hiding them must end.  Top management must vigorously support reporting by encouraging front line people to talk candidly to the Commission about what happened, with absolutely no fear of reprisal.  That’s a tall order.  I do not want to hear about percentages of successes, because counts of serious mistakes must be driven to zero.  In 2001, 99.999996% of all domestic flights were safe, and I doubt anybody believes that was a good percentage.  One mistake that is investigated is not going to cause long waits in Eugene, Portland or Bend.  Mistakes are made.  That is a fact.  We need to understand thoroughly why they occur and how to prevent them.  “Double check” and “education” don’t cut it.  We don’t tell people to put their foot on the brake when they back the car.  Cars are designed so that people can’t shift into reverse before their foot is on the brake.  Repeating “we believe in safety” does not establish validity.  “You mean you once didn’t?” I want to reply.

For reporting the error, George Bailey was initially slapped on his bad ear by pharmacist Gower, who later embraced George, when he realized the scope of his error.  It’s time to end both the slapping and the fear of it.

For reporting an error, George Bailey was initially slapped on his bad ear by pharmacist Gower, who later embraced George, when he discovered the error.  It’s time to end both the slapping and the fear of it.


April 18, 2010

Last week, I volunteered to teach an adult education course at Heritage Highlands.   Regrettably, few people showed, because a golf tournament occurred simultaneously.

That epitomizes Arizona’s attitude towards education.  Sports matter.  Schools and learning don’t.  Look at the space devoted to each in the media.  Compare salaries of coaches and teachers, then ask who influences more individuals.  Having been both a substitute teacher and a classroom volunteer on successive days in the same school, I know what teachers do.  Rich retirees need to volunteer in the schools, teach reading or otherwise give back to the community, in addition to playing golf.  Make no mistake, nearly all of us receive more from America than we give, Social Security heading the list.  The exceptions are those public servants and military who risk and give their lives.  And only 7% of us are veterans.

If ever a time to prove it takes a community to educate a child, this is the time.  If ever America needed an educated citizenry to compete in a fiercely competitive world, this is the time.  If ever education needed money and volunteers, this is the time.  If ever we needed parents to make education a priority for their children, motivating them to study, dress, speak and write well, this is the time.  The teenage brain matures later than the body.  We must recognize that fact and understand that teachers alone cannot mandate proper behavior.

We need to pay for education with money and time.  An educated society wouldn’t have tolerated keeping Iraq war spending off budget.  I don’t recall the anti-tax crowd, most of whom supported the war in 2003, serving or demanding fiscal honesty and responsibility from the previous administration.  But suddenly they are using precisely that reason to destroy public education.   How many dollars we need for education depends upon how many of us are willing to volunteer.  Regardless, I want my taxes go to education rather than to unwinnable wars and impossible nation building started by old men who never served one single day abroad in uniform.

It’s time to embrace what Horace Mann wrote 172 years ago:  the public should no longer remain ignorant; education should be paid for and controlled by an engaged society; classroom diversity is important; schools should be non-sectarian; children should be taught the values and spirit of a free society; and there must be well trained professional teachers.

Sales tax raise?  Absolutely.  Triple it for luxury items.  Income tax?  We need a marginal tax rate of 90% for income over $3 million, comparable today to the 90% rate over $400,000 under Eisenhower, a Republican.  It might decrease greed.  Saving Arizona and America is more important than saving par.  We must spend whatever required to ensure we graduate students who meet reasonable standards to move to the next level.  Cutting education funding is about as stupid as it gets.  But that’s Arizona.  And that is why we’ll leave.  Enjoy your golf.

‘No Child’ law undermines public education and must be reformed

February 23, 2010

When I was 18, I guided four canoe trips into the wilderness of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. I was in charge of several other teenagers for six days, paddling, carrying a canoe and a pack, navigating, choosing the campsite, cooking and first aid, one to two days travel from the nearest adult.

Today, at 61, experienced and competent, I cannot teach full-time with the nearest other adult a few yards away. For eight years, I have been an active volunteer in math at two high schools. At least 20 times, I have taught when a substitute did not know the material.

I want to do more, and there is great need. My father was a public-school teacher, principal and superintendent. I believe in public education; with liberty and national parks, it is one of three gifts America has given the world. If public education fails, and many legislators hope it does, we will destroy the middle class that is America’s strength.

I now have a substitute certificate. But I want to create a statistics course at a high school that needs one. I have a master’s degree in statistics and taught many semesters at New Mexico State, Pima Community College and other venues.

For four years, I graded the free-response portion of the national Advanced Placement Statistics exam; only three of nearly 400 graders were Arizonans. I have created a syllabus, prepared lessons, taught and graded. I’d teach the course for free if necessary, because I can afford to, and high school students should learn basic statistics.

But I can’t, because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), even as children are being left behind in droves. I encounter them every day I tutor. I don’t see the many others who need help or mentoring and don’t get it, and those who drop out.

With appallingly inadequate funding, many schools nationwide remove problem students, gaming the system to survive. NCLB is like Clear Skies, Healthy Forests and Clean Coal: the intent of each perverted the name. I believe NCLB’s original intent was to close public schools, outsourcing education to for-profit charters.

Public schools need money, volunteers, evening and weekend hours, and an end to promoting those who aren’t ready. Teacher certification should mean demonstrated competence; demonstrated competence should allow certification.

A former neurologist, I saw many who practiced in my field with nowhere near the eight years of post-college training I had. But to teach full-time, I must return to school despite two advanced degrees and teaching experience using both. Where is the America I served as a shipboard Navy physician, the country that found innovative approaches to solve problems?

Public education, an American invention, needs help. The Iraq war was funded by an off-budget emergency authorization. Public education needs an emergency authorization. I don’t want to hear politicians say “children are our future.”

All I ask is to serve young people and America to my fullest potential. And make NCLB a literal reality.

Michael S. Smith has taught statistics, neurology, reading and astronomy. E-mail him at


December 3, 2009

After 7 years as a volunteer math tutor at a local high school, I was allowed to be an on-call volunteer math teacher, meaning I teach with a certified substitute present.  I address the occasional problem when a teacher is absent and a fully qualified math substitute is unavailable.  On my first day, I was given a lesson plan for algebraic inequalities and prepared one for geometry.  While I don’t find these subjects difficult, understanding a subject is far different from teaching it. 

I arrived at 7 a.m. with water bottle, lunch and objects needed to explain the material, for good teachers don’t parrot the textbook.  The official substitute took attendance, introduced me and I began teaching.  Fortunately, I had no problems with student behavior, because the teacher for whom I substituted is an exceedingly good disciplinarian, knowing when and how to act with words, inflection and body language.  My experience could easily have been worse. 

What’s it like to teach for a day?  I was on my feet nearly continuously for 7 hours.  I needed a bathroom break at 10:30, but preparing for the class before lunch took priority, and I nearly sprinted to the men’s room an hour later.  Other than a few swallows of water, I ate nothing until I finished at 2:20.  I left at 3:45 and wasn’t the last teacher leaving.  That evening, I relaxed, not having to grade homework or prepare the next day’s lesson. 

My parents were both hard-working teachers, and I frequently heard, “You can’t eat dedication.”  I’ve taught exactly one day and didn’t deal with problem students, parental e-mails, after school tutoring, worth $40/hr, but freely offered by many teachers or faculty meetings.  I’m 61 and want to teach math.  I can afford to; many of our best and brightest teachers, with whom I’ve had the honor and pleasure to be associated, struggle to pay their student loans.  Summers off?  Many teach summer school out of necessity. 

A properly educated populace won’t solve all our problems.  But it is a necessary condition if we ever hope to address them sensibly.  Arizona ranks last in per capita spending for what is arguably the highest yield and lowest risk investment of all – education.  Nationally, we invest far more in low yield/high risk unwinnable wars and impossible nation building.  Those whose high risk complex financial instruments devastated our economy receive annual bonuses greater than a teacher’s lifetime earnings.  Important, difficult jobs requiring significant training and long hours deserve appropriate compensation, which is how we attract and keep good people.  As a former neurologist, I was paid well for my training, work and hours.  Teachers are not paid commensurate with their extensive training, hours and immense responsibility preparing the next generation.  Teaching math, or any other subject, to 35 teenagers who’d rather be elsewhere is difficult:  doubters should try it – assuming they have the skills to do so.  Increased funding for teachers and education is one of the best investments Arizona and America can make.  Our future depends upon it. 

Michael Smith, retired physician and statistician, has been a grader for the AP Statistics examination.


September 16, 2009


STAR OP-ED 8/20/2009

September 13, 2009



September 6, 2009

Tucson Citizen op-ed 3/07