Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- July 28-August 3, 2002 (Week 30)

Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from July 28-August 3, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

August 2, 2002

Very Easy Rider

A Vespa dealership just opened up in town.

I want one.

A motor scooter, that is.

It doesn’t actually have to be a Vespa--for about $1000 less I can buy either a Honda Metropolitan or a Yamaha Vino, both of which have similar retro styling. All three look very appealing to these middle-aged eyes.

I didn’t own a motorcycle when I was young. I took a ride or two around the high school parking lot on a buddy’s Honda, and that was about it. Other priorities, such as working for college tuition, kept impeding my plans to buy a motor scooter or small motorcycle.

I’m still working for college tuition, for the sake of my daughters, but now I can handle the added cost of a scooter for fun around town.

Apparently, as with almost everything else about being a Boomer, I’m not alone. According to a Washington Times editorial, the average age of motorcycle owners is now 38.5, compared to a spring-chicken-like 26.9 in 1980. (I would help push the average even higher if I followed through on this impulse.)

Unfortunately, the accident rate is increasing along with the registrations:

[M]otorcycle registrations have increased ... from 3.8 million to 4.2 million between 1997 and 1999, which is also exactly the same time period during which motorcycle accident fatality rates rose significantly as well — up to 23.4 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 1999 from 21.0 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 1997. Many of these fatalities involved older riders, those aged 40 and above, many of whom did not previously hold motorcycle licenses.

As the WashTimes notes, it’s highly likely that the increase in accident rates is based on a combination of inexperience and middle-aged hubris:

[A] 35-year-old who is looking to buy his first bike is probably indulging himself with a "toy" and has disposable income to burn. He can afford the $8,000-$15,000 or more to buy a big cruiser, so he does.

The results are predictable.

The WashTimes piece sums up with some straightforward common sense advice:

It would probably be a good thing if either motorcycling license requirements were a bit tougher (they're laughable in most states), or if people simply exercised better judgment and kept within their limits.

There's no shame in acquiring valuable motorcycling skills on a "starter bike" before moving up. Your life may depend upon your prudence.

With my apparently sensible interest in a motor scooter, therefore, I suppose you could say I was born to be mild.

If you were so inclined.

Blogging Break: Some good news. I’ve agreed to do a book outline and a sample chapter or two for a possible tongue-in-cheek guide to golf fashion, based on some of my golf columns (Draft Title: "When Bad Clothes Happen to Good Golfers--A Guide for the Style-Impaired").

Wish me luck, and enjoy reading the past essays on this site as I try to meet the upcoming deadline and keep up with my regular work. Back soon.

In the meantime, you can also read the current golf column, if you’d like.

August 1, 2002

A Matter of Timing

The proposal to re-time traffic light sequences in the Washington, DC metropolitan area makes sense and should be implemented, even if it didn’t have the benefit of reducing pollution.

According to the Washington Post, the area’s Transportation Planning Board agreed to spend about $38 million over the next three years to help bring the area into "conformity" with federal regulations on pollution. Of that amount, roughly 10% would be spent on the timing of the lights.

In addition to reducing smog, better-timed lights would also reduce commuter times, an economic benefit to the area worth millions.

Even then, the Board’s efforts may not be enough to satisfy the federal government completely:

Unless the federal government approves all the clean air measures by January, only road and transit projects already underway would be allowed to continue until the region showed that its long-term building plans would not violate smog limits.

The need to cut emissions to meet the targets established under the Clear Air Act acts as a significant background limitation for transportation planners and others responsible for transportation policy. In my discussions with my clients about these rules, a few things become clear (if you’ll pardon the pun):

  • There are no silver bullets left
  • There are many ways to reduce pollution. Most of them are painful to contemplate and therefore politically unpalatable
  • The regulations do not allow a community to adjust for growth impacts
  • The regulations have the potential for perverse results that run counter to other social policies, such as controlling sprawl.

There are no silver bullets left

Part of the problem is its sheer size.

There are millions of cars on the roads, and those built since 1990 produce negligible amounts of pollution. There’s not much left on the technology side of things to exploit, short of a safe method of using hydrogen fuel.

In addition, pollution loading has several paradoxical elements that make it impossible to identify one or two ideas that alone or in combination would provide the required mitigation. For example, highway capacity improvements that would reduce the pollution created at vehicle speeds less than 35 mph can increase the different kind of pollution created at higher vehicle speeds.

Expanding mass transit fleets will not necessarily reduce total pollution, even if one could entice a significant increase in usage from Americans reluctant to give up their freedom to use their own vehicles. ("You can have the keys to my SUV when you pry them from my cold, dead" ... you know the drill.) Other concepts suffer from similar drawbacks of cost, convenience, and other disruptive elements. A long-running joke among transportation officials goes as follows: "Monorails! The transportation mode of the Future! And they always will be!"

You can reduce pollution, but you might not like the total price tag

Transportation planners can devise several dozen ways in which vehicle-caused pollution can be eliminated or reduced. The problem is not one of creativity, but of practicality.

Some of the ideas would really work well, but the likely outcry about cost makes the planners cringe.

For example, several DOTs and other agencies developed "clunker buy-out" concepts, because a surprising amount of pollution comes from pre-1980 vehicles.

On the other hand, older cars provide significant mobility for those with moderate or low incomes. Even the federal government can’t expect these citizens to simply donate their cars for the sake of clean air. Trade-in assistance or similar buy-out ideas quickly become incredibly expensive, both in terms of individual cases and for the program as a whole.

The rules don’t adjust for growth

The need to meet the targets for conformity can run up against an area’s growth patterns. When a city and its surrounding communities experience tremendous expansion, such as in the DC area in the last 30 years, the rate of pollution naturally grows as well. The federal targets remain the same, however, and if the local economy is booming, it’s practically impossible to reduce pollution loading to meet the goals.

In parts of the Midwest and elsewhere, several counties are literally depopulating, as economic prospects in those areas dim or undergo major disruption. It’s much easier to meet pollution targets under those conditions, but not too many people would be pleased at the tradeoff.

The rules can create unwanted changes in development patterns

Anti-sprawl advocates often identify themselves as environmentally sensitive. It’s not necessarily so. In the absence of significant capacity improvements, which as noted above create their own pollution problems, land use and transportation policies that would reduce sprawl by re-concentrating development toward the city centers will not necessarily reduce pollution. Less sprawl may reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), an important element in the pollution modeling, but the increased congestion would to some extent only shift the kind of pollution produced, and not the total amount.

In any event, the Clean Air Act rules don’t provide any guidance as to how to fit the traditional, relatively free-market approach to locating housing, businesses, and other land uses with the admirable goals of reducing air-borne pollution.

None of these issues is a sufficient argument against taking steps to reduce pollution. On the other hand, I’m not at all sure that most people appreciate the consequences of full compliance with the new pollution control regulations, and their likely impact on maintaining economic growth prospects in the major metropolitan areas.

As the compliance deadline approaches, I expect to see a shift of emphasis from how to meet the targets, to how to adjust the eventual goals of reducing pollution.

It will be a matter of timing.

August 1, 2002

Pushing the punishment envelope

Sometimes a prison term just doesn’t seem like sufficient punishment for the evil that some can do.

This morning’s local paper gives a brutal example that a murder conviction shouldn’t necessarily be the only basis for the death penalty. Even if the death penalty is considered too much retribution, there should be some punishment available that goes beyond mere warehousing.

A woman in a semi-rural part of Delaware has two children. One is 8 years old, and the other is 18.

The teenager has cerebral palsy. He is tube-fed, can’t talk, and must wear diapers.

The mother had to run a few errands, and a neighbor agreed to babysit the boys.

The babysitter is a registered sex offender:

In court documents, police said [Edward A.] Smith[, 46] allegedly took the victim out of his wheelchair, placed him in a hospital bed and sexually assaulted him while his brother was outside playing.

The boy came inside during the alleged assault, [police spokesman Patrolman Trinidad] Navarro said. The boy later told his mother what he saw and she called police.

Smith was charged with second-degree rape, endangering the welfare of an incompetent person and second-degree indecent exposure....

Smith also was charged Wednesday with failure to re-register as a sex offender within seven days of changing addresses.

Navarro said he did not know whether the victim's mother knew Smith was a registered sex offender before the alleged assault.

Maybe Delaware should bring back its whipping post.

July 31, 2002

A modern day Ransom of Red Chief

The botched kidnapping of Erica Pratt in Philadelphia last week generated a fair amount of reaction among the Blognoscenti.

It also turns out to have a strong similarity to O. Henry’s famous short story, The Ransom of Red Chief, and not simply because of the happy fact that the little girl escaped.

The 1910 comedic masterpiece can be read in full on the Web, and in 1998 enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with a well-done movie version starring Christopher Lloyd, Michael Jeter, and Haley Joel Osment.

As recounted in the July 27 Philadelphia Daily News, and as described in O. Henry’s story, in both cases the kidnappers had simple plans.

The simplicity was a good thing, because in neither case were these guys capable of handling anything too complex. In both situations, the children involved presented far bigger problems than the criminals ever dreamed.

The modern-day version takes one into the thicket of the vile drug trade in South and West Philadelphia. One of the two men arrested, Edward Johnson, allegedly kidnapped the child of a mysterious South Philly drug dealer nicknamed "Big Man" last fall, and quickly picked up a cool 50G for his modest efforts.

"Big Man" allegedly took this transaction as a personal affront:

"Big Man" never called the police. But he got his revenge, sources said.

Last Oct. 2, he murdered one of Johnson's friends, 22-year-old Rosanioa Bolden, as retaliation - and Johnson was there when it happened, sources said.

Despite that result, Johnson was still willing to be enlisted by James Burns to kidnap yet another child related to Philly drug trade, according to sources quoted in the paper. They allegedly snatched little Erica and shortly thereafter called the girl’s grandmother with the ransom message.

Once again, Johnson received an unexpected reaction:

Apparently, they believed that, like "Big Man," the Pratts, who sources contend are deeply involved in the drug trade in West Philadelphia, wouldn't call police.

Johnson "was stunned when the cops got involved," one source said.

So Johnson and Burns, who had already left a duct-taped Erica in the basement of a house on Louden Street near 12th in Logan, decided to abort the ransom scam and get out of town.

Now that they’ve been captured, Johnson and Burns face a classic dilemma caused by not thinking through all the ramifications of their acts beforehand. Kidnapping is a major felony, but the official punishment may be the least of their worries.

The Daily News story showed that the suspects understand at least that much:

Johnson has confessed his role in the kidnapping, sources said. In the confession, he said he and Burns had been stalking the family for two weeks and planned to grab any member of the family they could, the sources said. Erica was just happened to be the first available targe[t]. In the confession, Burns also apologized to the Pratt family, sources said.

I’ll bet someone has already completed the first draft of the movie screenplay of this debacle.

July 30, 2002

Chutzpah Alert

The most recent antics of Rep. James Traficant (D-Leavenworth, soon) call to mind an old phrase I learned as a child:

"He's so low, he’s got to look up to see a sewer."

Our little possum-loving friend is now trying to avoid jail time by arguing that his recent expulsion from Congress should be sufficient punishment for his corruption conviction.

It’s bad enough that this oaf is trying yet again to evade responsibility. In this instance, is there anyone he actually believes he’s fooling with this latest maneuver?

The expulsion is only valid for the current sitting Congress. If he were somehow to win his current independent campaign for the newly drawn 17th District of Ohio, he’d be entitled to his seat.

I give the federal judiciary far more credit than he does, and certainly far more respect than he ever did.

The folks who’ve had to suffer this man as their Representative should simply write him a note:

Dear Jim: You don’t have to go away quietly. Just go away.

It won't work, but it might make them feel better.

UPDATE: He received an 8 year sentence. Good.

July 29, 2002

It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature, or her official representatives either, for that matter

The California Coastal Commission (CCC) recently gave notice that its beach access easement agreements should not be taken lightly.

Tapping into sympathetic resources among the coastal maritime fishing industry, the Commission caused several thousand giant squid to be deposited on the sandy shoreline directly in front of David Geffen’s Malibu mansion.

Giant squid sunbathing in front of David Geffen's Malibu home.

Picture via 07/29/02

A CCC spokesman, whose name was withheld at his request, said approvingly, "Geffen needs to understand that he’s not the only one with deep pockets. Ours are actually nets, and you’d be surprised what you can bring up with them."

Geffen recently filed suit against the CCC and others over the attempt to hold the long-time Hollywood mogul to an agreement to provide public access to the famous beach. A non-profit entity agreed to "adopt" the pathway to assure maintenance and security, but its reassurances were apparently insufficient for Geffen. For more details, see Beaching and Moaning About Beach Access.

"We used the giant squid as a kind of homage to the movie industry," the spokesman continued. "The last time these squid were used in a decent movie was way back in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Lately they’ve seen limited action in bombs like The Beast or Deep Rising.

"We figured that since Geffen produced several scary horror films, such as Interview With The Vampire and Personal Best, he’d appreciate the irony."

"Besides," he added, "Those squid are really nasty, ugly things, don’t you think?"

Geffen was unavailable for comment.

Note: I sometimes have way too much fun making connections between allegedly disparate events.

July 29, 2002


My two daughters are good buddies.

For example, older daughter gave her sister a birthday present of two tickets to the July 28 Jimmy Eat World concert at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia.

Younger daughter counts herself as among the band’s earliest fans, which is an important distinction for her. During last winter I picked her up after one of her athletic team practices, and she asked if she could change the radio station. I said sure, and when she hit the button, one of the band’s songs was playing.

"Oh, no," she cried.

I asked what was wrong.

"If this station is playing them, then Jimmy Eat World’s becoming too popular. I was there first," she moaned.

Then she grinned.

As it turned out, older daughter’s work schedule kept her from joining her sister for the show, and so the parents were cajoled (lightly) into taking younger daughter and a girlfriend up to Philadelphia.

The schlepping did not require the parents' presence in the Electric Factory, a fact that was perfectly fine with all parties. We had other amusements in mind while the band played for a few thousand screaming, sweating fans.

During the evening, however, we managed to overhear a great bit of dialogue that could have come straight out of Clueless. (All identifiers are changed, for obvious reasons):

Two girls are discussing this year’s homecoming extravaganza at their high school, and reminiscing about last year’s:

Girl 1: So we were all talking about who was going to run for Miss Spirit or Miss Congeniality, and Jennifer [not her name] says, "I think I’ll run for Miss Congeniality."

Girl 2: Really?

Girl 1: Yeah. I couldn’t believe it, so I say to her, "But, Jennifer—you’re not nice. People don’t like you." And Jennifer says, "Yeah. that's my only problem."

Girl 2: Unbelievable.

July 29, 2002

Limited Releases

An occasional drawback to living near a beach town instead of a big city is that the movie choices tend to be limited to the film equivalent of Top 40. If it weren’t for the Rehoboth Independent Film Society’s offerings, my movie-loving wife and I would often have to wait until one of the local video stores puts an independent or limited release offering on its shelves, if we’re lucky.

There are other options, however. For example, we took advantage of our drive to Philadelphia last night and watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding at the Ritz Five. (No spoilers)

We enjoyed this ethnic clash of cultures comedy very much, as did the rest of the large audience. It’s not at all subtle, and that’s fine.

Among the many fine performers in the cast, I think I enjoyed Andrea Martin’s role as Aunt Voula the most. The SCTV veteran works with a fine script to create a memorable, howlingly funny rendition of a loony but good-hearted relative. My wife and I could each name an equivalent aunt in our own families.

This is one of those movies whose enjoyment is enhanced by the presence of others. Try to see it in the theaters, or if you wait until it’s released in video, invite several of your friends to a video party.

Contact Information:

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


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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