Commentary from a practical perspective
page includes posts from May 12-18, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings
on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.
The Weblog Foundation
I read Jeff Jarvis suggested model for a weblog foundation ("WF"), and thought of the United States Golf Association.
The USGA is a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation dedicated to the preservation and development of the sport. As I read Jarvis, the WF could be a similarly structured charitable foundation, dedicated to the preservation and development of the medium.
The USGA is supported by the golf industry, private country clubs, and several hundred thousand individuals, who make deductible contributions.
Of course, the really big money comes from televisions support for the mens U.S. Open championship, so its not a completely parallel model. Nonetheless, the USGA also has a thriving catalog sales branch, which is a possible parallel source of funds for the WF.
With the money that it raises, the USGA supports the sport, sponsors competition, awards grants in related fields such as turf research and equipment studies, and provides a common set of rules (operating principles) for those inclined to follow them.
As I read Jarvis, the WF would support the medium, could sponsor juried competitions among bloggers, could award grants to bloggers, and could provide a set of common set of protocols (software, hosting services, etc.) for those inclined to participate.
Bloggers could sign up for membership in the WF, with varying levels of recognized membership entitling them to a scaled set of member benefits.
A similar structure can be successfully marketed to the potential sponsors, whose commercial interest in expanding the communicative possibilities of the web from either a technical or content-based perspective can be the tie-in for their support of the WF.
An unobtrusive graphic appearing on the blogs would indicate their membership. A similar graphic relating to sponsorship could also be part of the package of benefits offered to the sponsors. (See below for a simple example.)
The WF concept needs a lot of work before it can be launched. Based on the relatively modest origins of the USGA and its current status, however, I believe Jarvis is onto something with this foundation concept.
Count me in.
May 17, 2002
There is a craft to writing headlines, whether for news stories or opinion pieces.
At journalism schools, budding newshounds learn the process of creating a short, punchy phrase to inform and entice the reader into delving into the article below.
In practice, certain forms of deadline-rushed shorthand frequently make an appearance, in which the writers depend upon a common understanding of a particularly pithy expression.
Todays example is "brace for."
Normally, this phrase is used for pieces intended to warn about problems of all kinds, usually of the potentially disastrous variety.
While not necessarily limited to tales of impending doom, the common understanding of "brace for" is also captured in the conversational phrase, "Oooh, thats gonna hurrt!"
Here are some representative samples:
Yesterday, however, an AP news headline added an unexpectedly partisan tinge to the term:
Is that headline really intended to impart a dire warning?
Did the editor or headline writer perhaps have a political agenda? Hmmmn?
In fairness to the reporter, the story didnt carry the same emotionally charged freight as the headline. The article had its own noteworthy elements, but it did not really deserve this headline, especially when the Dutch voters chose this particular *disaster*.
The story recounted the 43-seat victory by the Christian Democrats in this weeks legislative elections, led by Jan Peter Balkenende, described in the piece as
The Christian Democrats coalition will probably include the followers of assassinated leader Pim Fortuyn, whose brand new party also won 26 seats in the 150-seat assembly.
The reporters analysis included this blunt assessment:
The story also noted the rightward shift occurring in other European countries, including Denmark, Portugal, and Italy, as well as the preliminary success of Le Pen in the recent French elections. It also explained the apparent appeal of Fortuyns party platform:
The piece really didnt convey any sense of calamity as the Dutch begin to adjust to their new political landscape. Except for a segment just before the concluding paragraph, it read like a normal everyday bit of foreign affairs news.
In that one portion, however, the reporters own peculiar prejudice made an appearance:
This startling off-hand remark made me lapse into Andy Rooney-speak, as in "I dont know about you, but I dont think we should make our choices for political leaders depend on which kind of goo they slap on their heads."
Apparently in northern Europe, however, hair styling choices are considered extremely important for politicians.
Sometimes reality is just too weird.
Click here for this weeks golf column, if youd like. It has a great headline, too.
May 16, 2002
David Rosenbaums NYT piece about the current budget woes of most of the states has it half-right.
His otherwise fairly straightforward reportage discusses the various ways different states are dealing with tight budgets and revenue squeezes. Some governments are resorting to one-time gimmicks, such as a new form of revenue bond tied to demon tobacco:
Others, such as New York and California, are considering targeted tax increases, while other states like North Carolina are moving toward broad-based changes in their income tax system.
Most states are also searching for politically palatable spending cuts to meet state law prohibitions against budget deficits.
In addition to steep budget cuts, my own state is looking to increase cigarette taxes and to grab a bigger share of slot machine revenues (slots are officially called "video lotteries" to make them fit within the confines of some otherwise restrictive language in the Delaware constitution. Red Queen attitudes about nomenclature are not unknown in government circles.)
The only real argument I have with Rosenbaums story concerns his analysis of the causes of the states current difficulties:
Except for that bit about "slashing taxes for individuals and businesses," I wouldnt quibble with his description. Based on what actually happened over the last ten years, however, cutting taxes did not cause the current budget problems.
States are not immune from the business cycle. Government revenue streams, designed to produce a certain amount of income under most conditions, can produce far more money under special conditions, which is essentially what happened in many states during the last decade.
Most states found ways to spend money at a rate far beyond the rate of inflation, as the tax money poured in. Even so, tax revenues often went beyond what the most ardent spendthrift legislators could appropriate. Therefore, very few legislators or governors could resist also enacting politically painfree tax cuts for those who actually pay the bills.
In addition, for political and legal reasons, states cant build up long-term surpluses like some private entity (e.g., Microsofts reportedly humongous stash). Some states, like Delaware, have rainy day funds, where a set percentage of the total amount available for appropriations is set aside for special emergencies. Drawing down on these funds usually requires a super-majority vote in the legislature, as well as a certain amount of political courage usually found in short supply.
When one recalls that the rate of state spending went beyond the rate of inflation, it cant really be argued successfully that tax cuts caused the current problems. If anything, the decision to cut taxes or tax rates acted to modify the eventual day of reckoning, to the extent the cuts slowed the growth of state government during the good times.
Very few state tax systems are so static in their consequences from year to year that state budgets are unaffected by a downturn in the economy. If state governments really want to maintain the level of services they provide, however, their legislative and executive branches may have to run an actual electoral risk or two, while making some hard choices.
The prospect of a nasty voter backlash can concentrate the mind wonderfully, Im told.
May 15, 2002
Peter Kilborns story wasnt as mind-numbingly obvious as its title, but it came close. The piece reviewed the Census Bureau analyses of responses to the "long-form" questionnaire from 13 states, with 75 million of the countrys population.
For example, it divulged the fact that, in these states at least, low-wage unskilled workers did not fair as well as others between 1990-2000.
I am not shocked to learn this.
The nations economy continues to require an ever-increasing level of knowledge, skills, and abilities as the primary ingredients for personal advancement.
The story also confirmed that poverty levels among single mothers declined as the last decades welfare reform efforts went into effect. Mickey Kaus should be pleased.
In addition, income levels among the elderly improved significantly:
Similar Census Bureau reports are expected for other groups of states later this year. Id like to see if the combined U.S. data concerning the elderly will also trace the burgeoning migration of retirees to states deemed more desirable for their needs and desires, and what the elderly income data may reflect about the migration phenomenon.
Real life masquerading as a Warner Bros. cartoon
Wile E. Coyote, the maniacal yet hapless hunter of the Roadrunner, is one of my all-time favorite Warner Bros. cartoon characters. His touching faith in the ingenious products of the Acme Corporation never pays off, except in a startling explosion or other unexpected disaster. (BTW, Ian Fraziers Coyote v. Acme is a very funny, utterly faithful rendition of Wile E.s woes.)
Sometimes real life can match the slapstick cruelty of the best of the Roadrunner series.
The following story is taken from the deadtree downstate edition of The News Journal for May 14, 2002, page B3. Unfortunately it does not appear in the online edition (I changed the victims name to *Ms. Smith*):
Made me wince and laugh at the same time. Lets hope and pray that she recovers completely.
May 13, 2002
I once represented the major city in my state. I saw firsthand some pretty awful urban slums.
Nothing I ever saw in the city, however, was as bad as what I occasionally see in my current work, in the rural pockets of poverty hidden away in several parts of the state.
At least in the urban setting, there is usually better access to resources to meet some fundamental human needs, such as transportation and health care.
By comparison, for rural areas there is an ugly truth in the phrase "Out of sight, out of mind."
This dubious distinction for those living in rural poverty is by no means limited to the mid-Atlantic region.
Compared to the urban setting, however, doing something constructive to alleviate the conditions of the rural poor is also a more knotty problem. With the dispersed population, for example, there are often no real economies of scale available to reduce the per capita cost of relief. The sheer expense can often be used as an excuse to do nothing.
Finding ways to achieve something really beneficial for the rural poor occasionally requires creating enough publicity about their conditions to stir others into action. Sometimes the most effective tactic is to be faced with a crisis.
An Associated Press story today about septic tank enforcement in Lowndes County, Alabama may eventually provide a good example.
For some, its a matter of not having any septic systems at all. For others, its a matter of not being able to afford the maintenance expense.
Alabama health department staff are responsible for dealing with this issue. Its not easy for them, either.
Some in the community understand the need for action, and are willing to try to find help.
If the Lowndes community activists were to contact their congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they should be able to make a compelling case for some much-needed and available assistance from the Federal government.
The USDAs Water and Environmental Programs unit provides both grants and low-interest loans for sewer and solid waste facilities in rural areas.
These kinds of programs can truly help, as recent experience in my home county shows.
Just over a year ago, the USDAs Rural Development office presented a nearly 3 million dollar check to Sussex County for a new sewer collection and transmission system. They combined a $500,000 grant with a 40-year low interest loan for the remainder, to eliminate just under 900 septic systems and prevent the creation of nearly 300 more. The project is now well underway.
The Alabama Health Department is trying to do its job, but clearly doesnt have the resources to fix the public health problems it finds in Lowndes County and other rural areas. The local congressional delegation could be very helpful to their rural constituency if they brought in the USDA folks for the help that agency can deliver.
The septic enforcement action should provide enough inspiration.
May 13, 2002
Apparently the American public needs constant reminders that evidence of a statistical correlation does not prove causation.
A recent presentation at a conference on suicide noted the following:
Dont rush out to increase your stock holdings in the pharmaceutical industry just yet.
There was no mention in the NYT/AP story about a continuing and potentially related debate concerning anti-depressants, over the role that placebos may play in providing equivalent relief.
For example, an article at the American Psychological Association web site refers to a study that indicates up to 50 per cent of the reported improvement in depression patients taking antidepressants was due to the placebo effect.
Another essay on this issue beckons readers with a great title:
I wonder how much of the controversy about placebos, antidepressants, and psychotherapy reflects the competing treatment philosophies and preferences between psychiatrists and psychologists.
Perhaps we should see if there is a statistical relationship between those who argue for the benefits of antidepressant medication, those who remind us of the placebo effect, and their respective health care credentials.
Not that proving a correlation would prove causation, of course.
May 12, 2002
At the time we married, my wife gave no thought to being a volunteer for the Girl Scouts.
It just sort of happened, about ten years later.
I believe our two daughters may have played an influential role in this choice of volunteer activity.
In any event, their mother took up her responsibilities as a leader of a series of Daisies, Brownies, and Juniors with her customary drive, spirit, and goodwill. It often seemed as if she created an extended motherhood over a diverse brood of great kids.
In addition to the great memories (and the cookies), there were other bonuses to my wifes Girl Scout service that neither of us expected--obtaining the recipe for Monkey Bread, for instance.
Heres how weve been making it recently.
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
Open the biscuit containers, cut each roll into 4 equal pieces, and set aside.
Melt the butter in the microwave or over very low heat, and place in a bowl. Thoroughly mix the sugar and cinnamon into the melted butter.
Coat each piece of roll completely with the butter mixture, and place them in a 13 x. 9 x 2 inch glass baking dish. Its fine if the pieces touch; theyll be jammed up against each other by the time theyre done baking, anyway.
Spread any remaining mixture over the tops of the pieces in the dish.
Bake for about 15 minutes, and remove from heat.
Once they cool down a bit, the pieces can be pulled and eaten directly from the dish as it sits on the breakfast table, or removed and put on a serving plate in a pile.
Depending on the level of their addiction to butter, sugar, and cinnamon, this will serve 4 to 8.
The smell of baking Monkey Bread wafting through the house has been known to rouse otherwise deep sleepers from their cozy beds. Consider yourself warned.
And a very happy Mothers Day to all the other bloggers (and their Moms, of course).
Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.
That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.
© Frederick H. Schranck 2002