Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- May 12-18, 2002 (Week 19)


Commentary from a practical perspective

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This 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.

May 18, 2002

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 television’s support for the men’s U.S. Open championship, so it’s 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.

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NOTE: Feel free to copy and paste this graphic into your own blog, if you'd like.

May 17, 2002

Fun with a loaded headline, and more

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.

Today’s 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, that’s gonna hurrt!"

Here are some representative samples:

Scientists: Brace for a severe El Nino winter

FBI, Pentagon brace for Y2k hacker attacks

Workers brace for more layoffs

Dakotas, Minnesota Brace for More Flooding

Yesterday, however, an AP news headline added an unexpectedly partisan tinge to the term:

Dutch Brace For Conservative Rule

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 didn’t 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 week’s legislative elections, led by Jan Peter Balkenende, described in the piece as

a 46-year-old Christian philosophy professor….

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 reporter’s analysis included this blunt assessment:

The election swept away Prime Minister Wim Kok's liberal coalition, which brought the Dutch steady growth since 1994 but was punished for ignoring voters' concerns about drugs, immigration, welfare abuse and lax law enforcement.

Kok's alliance legalized euthanasia, gay marriages and tolerated soft drugs - liberal policies that now likely will be challenged.

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 Fortuyn’s party platform:

Fortuyn tapped a groundswell of discontent with the ruling politicians and the country's growing immigrant population, especially Muslims who refused to adopt Dutch ways and assimilate into society.

The piece really didn’t 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 reporter’s own peculiar prejudice made an appearance:

In many ways, Balkenende's plain spoken manner and sense of humor, too, is a departure from the staid elite that ruled until now.

By contrast, Balkenende relishes jokes, and with his boyish looks, bookish glasses and unexciting hairdo he looks like the movie character of Harry Potter.

Unexciting hairdo?

This startling off-hand remark made me lapse into Andy Rooney-speak, as in "I don’t know about you, but I don’t 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 week’s golf column, if you’d like. It has a great headline, too.

May 16, 2002

Half-right about state finances

David Rosenbaum’s 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:

Wisconsin is considering issuing bonds secured by the 30 years of annual payments from the national settlement with tobacco companies. The effect would be to spend all 30 years of the state's share of the tobacco money this year and next.

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 Rosenbaum’s story concerns his analysis of the causes of the states’ current difficulties:

In the prosperity of the late 1990's, the states acted as if good times would always roll, slashing taxes for individuals and businesses and spending with abandon.

When the economy turned sour, revenue fell sharply, higher spending was locked into place, and the states, most of them required by their constitutions to run balanced budgets, found themselves in deep holes.

Except for that bit about "slashing taxes for individuals and businesses," I wouldn’t 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 can’t build up long-term surpluses like some private entity (e.g., Microsoft’s 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 can’t 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, I’m told.

May 15, 2002

Three and a half Claudes

I can usually count on the New York Times for a Claude-deserving story or headline. This time the NYT headline-writing crew came through in the clutch:

Census Shows Bigger Houses and Incomes, but Not for All

Peter Kilborn’s story wasn’t 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 country’s 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 nation’s 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 decade’s welfare reform efforts went into effect. Mickey Kaus should be pleased.

In addition, income levels among the elderly improved significantly:

For those over 65, however, incomes grew, in part because Social Security payments are tied to inflation and in part because of stock market gains they were able to reap. As a result, poverty among the elderly dropped in nearly all the states. In Indiana, for example, poverty in this group dropped from 10.7 percent in 1990 to 7.7 percent in 2000; in Washington, it dropped from 11.3 percent to 9.5 percent.

Similar Census Bureau reports are expected for other groups of states later this year. I’d 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.

May 14, 2002

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 Frazier’s 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 victim’s name to *Ms. Smith*):

A 42-year-old Milford woman was injured Monday when she was run over by her own van, police said. *Ms. Smith* was having trouble starting the Ford van in her driveway about 7 a.m., so she got out. But the van, which was in reverse, had started. It rolled backward out of the driveway into East Clarke Avenue. *Smith* tried to get into the moving vehicle but was knocked down onto the road. The van hit a tree on the other side of the road and the impact knocked the gearshift into drive. The car ran over *Smith* as it rolled forward back into the driveway. *Smith* suffered multiple broken bones and internal injuries. She was taken to Milford Memorial Hospital and then transferred to Christiana Hospital, where she was in stable condition Monday night. Police are investigating.

Made me wince and laugh at the same time. Let’s hope and pray that she recovers completely.

May 13, 2002

Creating a crisis may help find the money to fix it

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.

In a rural Alabama county that is one of the poorest in the nation, hundreds of residents are gathering in old wooden churches off dirt roads to fight a government crackdown on homeowners who don't have septic tanks.

For some, it’s a matter of not having any septic systems at all. For others, it’s a matter of not being able to afford the maintenance expense.

Thirty-seven families have been notified by the courts that they need to install waste-removal systems or face jail. So far, more than a dozen people have been arrested and fined. At least 1,200 more lack septic tanks needed for waste disposal - and about 1,500 other families have septic systems that are beginning to fail

Alabama health department staff are responsible for dealing with this issue. It’s not easy for them, either.

Health officials say the crackdown is unfortunate but necessary because of the threat of disease such as diphtheria and cholera from improperly disposed waste….

The potential for disease puts health officials in a bind, said Ron Pugh, the health department officer who oversees sewage and septic tanks. Under state law, health officials must send a legal notice to a residence if there has been a complaint about waste flowing freely on the property.

Pugh said he turns to the district attorney for an arrest warrant if a septic tank hasn't been installed within a few months.

Some in the community understand the need for action, and are willing to try to find help.

"If you arrest people, they still won't have septic tanks, and they will still have health problems," said Catherine Flowers, economic development coordinator for Lowndes County and organizer for the movement. "We're not going to allow any families to suffer any hardship or lose any homes under our watch."

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 USDA’s Water and Environmental Programs unit provides both grants and low-interest loans for sewer and solid waste facilities in rural areas.

Water and Environmental Programs (WEP) provide loans and grants for water, sewer, and solid waste facilities in rural areas. WEP grants to nonprofit organizations provide for technical assistance and/or training to entities in rural areas and to cities and towns of 10,000 or less.

These kinds of programs can truly help, as recent experience in my home county shows.

Just over a year ago, the USDA’s 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 doesn’t 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

Take two Prozac, or two M&Ms.
Call me in the morning, if you don’t kill yourself first.

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:

From 1995 to 1998, prescriptions for relatively recent antidepressants like Prozac rose 41 percent, while the age-adjusted national suicide rate dipped about 6 percent, said Dr. John Mann, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University.

"There may be a relationship,'' Mann said in an interview. ``We don't know for sure ... (but) that's our hypothesis.''

Don’t rush out to increase your stock holdings in the pharmaceutical industry just yet.

John Kalafat, president of the American Association of Suicidology and an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, cautioned that the results don't prove Mann's hypothesis.

"It's a correlation, and of course correlations don't prove causation,'' said Kalafat. ``He's entitled to speculate (but) there's no way to go beyond speculation.''

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:

Prozac and Placebo: There's a Pony in There Somewhere

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

Monkey Bread for Mothers’ Day

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 wife’s Girl Scout service that neither of us expected--obtaining the recipe for Monkey Bread, for instance.

Here’s how we’ve been making it recently.

Ingredients:

Two containers of refrigerated buttermilk biscuits/rolls
1 1/3 sticks of butter (11 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoons cinnamon

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. It’s fine if the pieces touch; they’ll be jammed up against each other by the time they’re 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).



Contact Information:

Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969
USA

fschranck-at-sneakingsuspicions.com


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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