Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- July 14-20, 2002 (Week 28)

Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from July 14-20, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

July 20, 2002

Nature 1, Disney 0

The folks at Walt Disney work very hard to mold, create, and maintain their own little World among 25,000 acres or so in Central Florida.

It’s a Herculean yet thoroughly human task, and in many ways they’ve succeeded.

Whenever we’ve visited the place, I’ve been struck by the company’s careful attention to detail and the effort involved in developing a thoroughly entertaining environment. At times it truly does seem magical.

Nature has a way of asserting itself, however, even against the best efforts of Walt’s Imagineers®.

This week, for example, the staff learned a valuable lesson about the food chain:

Walt Disney World has stopped releasing flights of pigeons at weddings and shows because red-tailed, red-shouldered and Harris hawks have been feasting on them.

The pigeon releases began 30 years ago and have been a regular part of Cinderella's Surprise Ceremony and the Beauty and the Beast in recent years.

But the daily regularity became the problem and the hawks living in the area figured out when it was mealtime.

The carnivorous hawks are a protected species, and live in the wilderness areas surrounding the various park settings where millions of visitors come each year. Their 4-foot wingspan gives them a decided advantage over the pigeons, whose small size and sheltered existence make them the equivalent of flying snack food:

Disney spokeswoman Diane Ledder said it was only recently the hawks had figured out the opportunity. So far, no park visitors have complained, she said, but "it wasn't fair to the pigeons to keep releasing them."

Well, that’s true, although I’m not sure the pigeons understand the concept of fairness.

I give the folks at Disney credit for figuring this out and taking effective action before there was an unfortunate "incident."

Just think of the negative press coverage that the company would suffer if about 15 hawks descended upon a just-released flock of pigeons, at the exact moment that all eyes in the crowd looked skyward during the Cinderella number.

  • Dozens of little Tiffanies and Ambers scream, while their brothers Justin and Taylor point and shout "Cool!"
  • Mothers desperately try to shelter the smaller kids strapped into their strollers from witnessing the carnage
  • Dads swoop their video cameras up, down, and sideways, trying to capture the "action sequences"
  • Cinderella, the Prince, and the other actors scramble off the stage in stunned amazement, trying to escape the darting pigeons and screaming hawks.

The folks at Disney are not the only ones with the ability to visualize.

Or smile.

July 19, 2002

Restaurant Reviews

One of the potential difficulties of reading and trusting restaurant reviews is determining whether the critic’s tastes and preferences sufficiently resemble one’s own.

After all, it’s no fun to drop a quick Benjamin or more on a full-course dinner for two, only to conclude that the reviewer must have been either bought off or too drunk to notice how bad the food really is.

We have found that it often helps to rely upon not only the reviewer’s assessment, but also the word of mouth from those who can be trusted.

Surely by now the enlightened readers of this site know that they can depend on me.

Therefore, please note that Washington Post Staff Writer Eve Zibart was neither bribed nor blasted when she wrote her review of Striper Bites, a great seafood restaurant in Lewes.

In a belated celebration of Father’s Day, a few weeks ago we took my parents there and had a fine meal once again, as we had several times before.

If I ever get around to figuring out how to host a Beach Blogger Weekend this fall or thereabouts, Striper Bites should definitely be one of the prime gathering place candidates.

July 18, 2002

A startling sense of theater in criminal sentencing

Over the years I probably observed hundreds of convicted criminals receive the news of their punishment from their trial judges. The actual language used during the sentencing proceedings often produced a sort of tuneless thrumming sound, caused by the constant repetition of the same phrases about fines, imprisonment, probation, and all the rest. Given the requirements of American constitutional law, this was an unavoidable side effect of the need for clarity in stating the terms of punishment to each defendant, and ensuring similarity in applying sentencing recommendations.

I give credit to the judges for not falling asleep as they read their own orders.

Now this punishment, on the other hand, would keep anyone awake:

TEHRAN (Reuters) - An Iranian man, convicted for raping and killing his 16-year-old nephew, will be executed by being thrown off a cliff in a sack, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

If the unnamed man survives the fall down a rocky precipice, he will be hanged, legal experts said.…

The killer was arrested last year in the northwestern city of Mashhad after "seducing" and killing his nephew, who worked as an assistant at the man's carpenter's workshop….

This particularly novel approach uses a technique that I understood to be used in the United States primarily for dealing with unwanted cats.

Depending on the cliff height, however, this would be a truly terrifying punishment for a human, however richly deserved.

Just the same, this kind of death sentence couldn’t be carried out where I live—no cliffs, y’see. Our home sits a modest and typical 25 feet above sea level. The closest thing to a cliff that we have around here is a big beach dune or two.

Tossing the bagged criminal off the dune top wouldn’t do very much other than force a lot of sand into his shorts, depending on the porosity of the bag. (Perhaps Steven DenBeste could provide a calculated estimate).

The hangman would still have a job to do.

Out in Steven Green country, however, the Iranian punishment could produce a Wile E. Coyote effect quite nicely—including the little puff of dust at the bottom of the cliff.

The oddest thing about the Reuters story, however, was its final paragraph:

Under Iran's Islamic law, applied since the 1979 revolution, pederasty, homosexuality and adultery are among a long list of crimes punishable by death.

I don’t know why the reporter felt the need to mention these facts.

One would think that the convict's murder conviction for killing his nephew would be enough to support the choice of punishment.

Tacking on an additional death sentence for anything else he did to his victim would be just gilding the lily, now wouldn’t it?

Or was the Reuters reporter trying to make some additional point, sotto voce?

July 18, 2002

Stay Close to Your Pet

While the circumstances were obviously troubling, I thought it was very nice of Rep. James Traficant (D-Leavenworth, soon) to bring his pet possum to the recent House Ethics Committee proceedings.

The possum assumed his normal position on top of the Congressman's head, with his curled backside facing the front of the camera in this picture:

Pet Possum Sleeping on Top of Rep. Traficant's Head

Pets can be such a comfort.

July 17, 2002

Resorting to prejudice, or not

Andrew Sullivan’s commentary about Provincetown (Ptown) and a NYT article on Azurest, a tiny hamlet on Long Island, truly hit me where I live.

Sullivan summers in Ptown, and loves it:

Am I a big, fat hypocrite for condemning Lynn Hendy's comment that white people should vacation in other places than black-dominated Azurest when I'm sitting here in Ptown, a disproportionately gay resort? I would be if I argued that straights should not be a part of this community, as they are. One of the joys of Ptown has always been its actual diversity - straight, gay, bi, trans, families, couples, singles, etc.

Rehoboth Beach has much the same attractive quality of inclusiveness, except that the town and the surrounding area are not generally considered quite as "disproportionately gay" as Ptown.

That said, the homosexual community is a large and vibrant part of the mix here.

As a year-round resident, what I find intriguing is where the mixing takes place and where the parts separate.

The blending is most evident in the restaurants and shops.

Rehoboth has among the best places to eat in the entire state. Fine dining experiences, such as can be found at the Back Porch or the Blue Moon, or even just good food, for that matter, such as the offerings at Stoney Lonen, brings everyone to the tables. Trendy stores like Abizaks and more traditional retail outlets such as Brooks Brothers attract customers of all kinds.

Special events also bring everybody together. This was most evident recently on July 6, when the annual fireworks display brought a huge crowd to the ocean's edge.

The separating is most easily detected in the preferred choices for sandy spots on the beach, and in some aspects of nightlife.

On the south side, for example, is what is universally called Poodle Beach. Here’s how a popular gay web guide describes it:

Poodle Beach, located off the south end of Rehoboth's boardwalk (just past Queen Street, of course!), is where you're sure to find the boys of summer. The crowd gets as hot as the sand, so don't forget to pack your favorite Ray Bans to enjoy the scenery!

North of the Boardwalk, however, the human scenery couldn't be more different:

North Shores is the popular beach locale for the girls of summer.

In the center of town, within a block or two of where the Boardwalk meets Rehoboth Avenue, there’s frequently another kind of diversity in evidence on the beach. Recent immigrants to Sussex County, especially those from Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean, seem to congregate here. At times one is as likely to hear a child called back from the surf in Spanish, French, or Korean, as in English.

The rest of the mile or so of Rehoboth's beachfront does not appear to be nearly as readily identifiable as these three segments.

In any event, it’s not as if there are signs directing or restricting anyone to particular parts of the beach. The group separations are the result of choices made by thousands of people every day.

Given the role that bars play in mating rituals of all kinds, one would expect a similar separation trend to occur in the local nightlife.

One would be correct.

Several restaurants with a mixed clientele in their dining areas, such as the Moon, are nonetheless very much oriented toward a segment of the community in their bar areas.

Other places, such as the Dogfish Head brewpub, are not. For those without the local knowledge and who don’t wish to waste their time, the web guides are a handy source of information. For example, one site uses a letter code to distinguish among the typical customer preference types to be found at the various watering holes:

M=primarily men • W=primarily women • X=primarily mixed crowd • F=gay friendly • H=happy hour • J=live DJ • D=dancing

As Sullivan notes, the fact that places like Ptown are receptive to gays doesn’t mean that they should eventually become hostile to the rest of us:

By the way, the issue of how gay Ptown should be is a hot one right now. Peter Manso has written a blistering critique of those who he argues want to turn Ptown into a "gayted community." … He cites one new gay transplant to Ptown as saying: "I'm a member of a persecuted group, and this town is ours. We deserve it. Eventually straight people are going to have to leave." I find that attitude noxious.

In addition, Sullivan is correct to question the attitude displayed in the quoted comment that ended the NYT article:

"This is a historically black community," said Lynn Hendy, president of the property owners association. "I'd like it to stay that way. White people can go anywhere. But how do you say that without sounding racist?"

Sullivan’s right. You can’t.

I’m not so sanguine as to overlook some of the tensions that exist in Rehoboth. I find it ironic, for example, that some in the local homosexual community are in a bit of a snit over the new Hooters restaurant that opened this summer. Nonetheless, I believe that the trend in Rehoboth is to continue to work toward maintaining a general attitude that people of all kinds are welcome here. That temperament doesn’t appear by magic, but by the quiet persistence of those working in good faith to promote it.

July 16, 2002

We have a winner

The annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest is among my favorite feature news stories each year.

Rephah Berg of Oakland, California won the overall contest in the 2002 competition with this fine entry:

"On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.''

The winners in the various other categories, along with recipients of Dishonorable Mention, can also be read and winced over at a special site at San Jose State University.

Given Young Master O’Neill’s recent commentary about some bloggers’ diminished skills, at least as he perceives them, perhaps there should be a new Political Blog category for next year’s competition.

July 16, 2002

Three Claudes, after a deduction for dullness

Surely the headline writers for the AP could have come up with something with a bit more punch than this:

Senate Candidates Raise Funds

The story is a basic rundown of some of the more high-dollar cash campaigns for the Senate. For example:

…Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, facing no Republican challenger and considering a White House run in 2004, has raised $12 million. Kerry currently has nearly $3.5 million on hand and could use any money left after the fall election for a presidential campaign.

Apparently a state-wide campaign in the Peoples’ Republic of Massachusetts can be an expensive undertaking, even when one is running unopposed. Is it needed for street money on election day, perhaps?

Considering the deduction in the Claude rating for the utter mediocrity of the caption, to be fair I should point out that the piece was filed at 4:47 a.m. ET.

Perhaps the AP staff was simply tuckered out.

July 16, 2002

Mr. Bill

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my father-in-law, William J. Robinson.

"Mr. Bill," as I called him, was a real piece of work--and I mean that in a good way.

He was born into extremely modest circumstances in southwest Philadelphia. After knocking about a bit after high school at various odd jobs, he joined the Army when WWII broke out. His service in the Pacific earned a Bronze Star, among other honors.

Upon his return from Japan in 1946, Mr. Bill learned that his father died during the war. He moved back home with his widowed mother, and obtained a job with the federal government. He also attended night school at Penn on the GI Bill for several years.

He surprised his Irish relatives by marrying a nice Italian girl from South Philly. His mother remained with the couple in the same row house in which Mr. Bill grew up. He and his bride had a little girl several years later.

My wife tells wonderful stories about living on 54th Street, and especially about her relationship with her father.

For example, Mr. Bill was an admitted sports nut, with deep allegiance to the Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers. He managed to create in his daughter the same strong sense of fan loyalty, at a time when many fathers tended to limit that training to their sons.

By the time we met, Mr. Bill was disabled from serious arthritis problems. He enjoyed the occasional beer as a form of self-medication, as well as the therapeutic benefits of Phillies®-brand cigars, preferably seconds.

He could afford far better than those cheap cigars, but he was stubborn about a few things. He never wanted to be in debt, and paid off his mother's mortgage as soon as possible. He saved and invested during the '50s and '60s, and eventually paid cash for a duplex home just outside Philadelphia in the early '70s, when my wife was in college. Mr. Bill continued to save and invest the money that he didn't pay in mortgage loans, and could live comfortably on the proceeds and his federal pension. He sometimes expressed to me his need to make sure he prepared for his wife's eventual needs as a widow, but without being morbid about it.

He met his goal. It was a great lesson in personal financial management.

The man could be a real tease. Mr. Bill loved his Big Band music, and could be viciously funny in tormenting his daughter about her rock'n'roll collection. Without much effort, I managed to give him plenty of ammunition whenever he wanted to train his wit on the mystery of what his daughter ever saw in this guy.

Three things were guaranteed to turn Mr. Bill into a total softie--his two granddaughters, and his pet cat. The girls just ate up his affectionate embraces and cooing over their every move. As for the cat, no feline enjoyed such daily access to imported ham and other deli delights.

He did not wear his religion on his sleeve, but it was a constant in his life, as was his sense of loyalty, love, and duty.

There was much else to the man, but I wanted to note the highlights on this anniversary.

Thanks again, Mr. Bill.

July 15, 2002

What he said

Bob Cullen is an accomplished writer. In the last decade or so he’s been specializing in golf stuff, collaborating on a series of best-selling books with Dr. Bob Rotella, a popular sports psychologist. Cullen’s also written other golf books in solo productions, including A Mulligan for Bobby Jobe and Why Golf? The Mystery of the Game Revisited.

As a golf book reviewer and golf columnist, I’ve had occasion to speak with Cullen on several occasions. He’s far more than a mere sportswriter, however, with reporting experience from the Soviet Union among other places.

Cullen is not quite into blogging, but he’s coming close. At his website, Cullen posts what he calls his weekly screeds.

If his essays included links, they’d be called blog posts by anyone else.

This week’s essay discusses the recent news story about Augusta National and the efforts by some feminists to push the club into admitting women to membership.

What he said. Go read it. Please. You’ll be glad you did.

July 15, 2002

Road to Perdition

I’m glad the movie studios are making a determined effort to show truly adult films during the summer.

Last night, we managed to grab the last few seats in the theater to watch The Road to Perdition. [No spoilers, just atmospherics.]

There were several outstanding performances in this dark drama, notably Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, and Jude Law. Paul Newman was also very good, but the writing for his part didn’t seem as strong. Tyler Hoechlin, playing Hanks’ older son, conveyed a realistic sense of a boy caught up in a very adult, very evil world.

The cinematography was excellent--great mood setting photography and scenery. The sound effects and editing, especially in the choices of which sounds to accentuate, were particularly impressive. For example, one climactic scene emphasizes the musical soundtrack instead of simply carrying forward the story, and thereby heightens the dramatic payoff.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie picked up an Oscar® or two among these categories, and not merely among the Best Actor/Supporting Actor/Film nominations it will surely receive.

July 14, 2002

Smoking 'round the Laffer Curve

An AP story by David Crary helps illustrate a tax economics point that often seems lost on state legislatures--you can only squeeze a certain amount of juice from a single lemon.

Crary describes the reaction by the smoking community in state after state as cigarette-tax hikes go into effect.

Essentially, smokers are acting just like smart shoppers for any commodity. They’re going for the best price, and don’t care which (or if) any government receives tax revenue as a result:

[A]uthorities are bracing for some unwelcome consequences in the form of more aggressive smuggling and bolder use of the Internet as a tax-evading tobacco shop....

With prices as high as $7 a pack in New York City, and more than $4 in many states, some smokers are trying harder than ever to quit. Those unwilling or unable to kick the habit are left with several options — legal, quasi-legal and illegal — for getting a nicotine hit without a tax hit.

As with other commodities involving significant tax elements, such as gasoline, the borders between higher- and lower-tax jurisdictions are a popular location for tax avoidance and evasion:

In Ohio, where the tax recently rose 31 cents per pack, officials plan to monitor the Kentucky border for smugglers, and police are being trained to check for Ohio tax stamps on packs sold at stores. A carton of name-brand cigarettes in Ohio costs about $40, compared to about $25 in Kentucky.

In Maryland, where the per-pack tax rose to $1 in June, authorities are on alert for more smuggling from Virginia. There were only five arrests in Maryland for cigarette smuggling in 1997, and more than 50 so far this year.

Crary notes the combined efforts of state tax enforcers and the ATF to deal with the organized crime elements that are active in such smuggling. He also points out the interesting interplay between Internet sales and Indian tribes:

Sales of cigarettes on Indian reservations are exempt from state and local taxes, and some Indian merchants contend their Internet sales also should be tax-exempt.

Larry Ballagh, a Seneca Indian from upstate New York, sells tax-free cigarettes over the Internet.

"Adults who have been smoking for a number of years, they're not going to quit smoking," he said. "But they will shop around."

As the states struggle to increase their revenues from those for whom nicotine is the perfect pick-me-up, they run into a fundamental problem—each state’s tax policy on the issue is directly affected by the tax policy choices of other states. In essence, each state’s experiment with cigarette taxation involves a commodity tax version of the Laffer Curve.

The Laffer Curve, one may recall, was an income tax policy argument that simply argued that revenues inevitably decrease as tax rates increase, in a classic bell-shaped curve. The theory played a handy role in the income tax cuts of the Reagan era, spearheaded in part by Bill Roth, a long-time U.S. Senator and Congressman from Delaware. [Note: required local reference. There’ll be at least one more. Right now, in fact.]

The practical limits on state revenue pricing shows up in other areas besides commodities. For example, several years ago Delaware raised the extra charge for vanity tags to just over three times the base fee. At that point the revenue stream for vanity plates flattened completely. There was indeed a limited demand for the tags, proven by the marketplace reaction to the new fee.

The latest round of cigarette tax increases by many jurisdictions may produce a similar result.

It’s a bit early to tell just yet where these states are along the tobacco tax Laffer Curve. The indications thus far, however, seem to show that there’s not much left in that lemon.

They might need to look for their vitamin C in some other place.

July 12, 2002

It’s news again when people forget it was news before

The morning paper ran a piece in its People section that it cribbed from the Washington Post about Candice Bergen and Dan Quayle:

Turns out actress Candice Bergen really did agree with Dan Quayle.

Ten years ago, then-Vice President Quayle criticized Bergen's "Murphy Brown" TV character for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"

"I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless," Bergen said Tuesday. "But his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did."

This was a famous little cultural dust-up that in fact led to some spirited debate about family roles and single parenting. Perhaps one of the best results of the brouhaha was Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s article in The Atlantic, Dan Quayle Was Right, which thankfully is still available on the Web.

The odd thing about today’s news item, however, is that it wasn’t news.

Bergen was quoted in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times just over four years ago saying much the same thing:

In the news: Candice Bergen, who plays Murphy Brown, says she agrees with "the body of [Dan Quayle's] speech" criticizing the Brown character for having a baby out of wedlock.

Bergen said it was "the right theme to hammer home . . . family values . . . and I agreed with all of it except his reference to the show, which he had not seen. . . . It was an arrogant, uninformed posture, but the body of the speech was completely sound." Judith Michaelson, Washington Post, May 17, 1998, at Y07 (originally published in L.A. Times).

I’m not suggesting that repetition of prior statements is a bad thing, but the tenor of today’s piece gives the mistaken impression that Bergen’s agreement with Quayle’s argument was a new development in an old story.

Click here for this week’s golf column and here for a new book review of In My Dreams I Walk With You.

Contact Information:

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


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002