Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- September 15-21, 2002

Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from September 15-21, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

September 21, 2002

Adventures in Technology

Yesterday, a large computer firm based in Happy, Texas or somewhere near there delivered the new computer and peripherals that we ordered about a week ago.

Part of this weekend will be spent setting it up, installing potentially balky new software, and moving the household's 1997 P166MMX model to another room that also has a phone jack, just in case.

As a result, the already fairly light posting schedule to which this site adheres may be even lighter this weekend. With any luck, however, the slow, steady stream of sensible communitarian commentary that is the hallmark of will soon resume its normal daily schedule. [Others may quibble over this self-description. Ed.]

Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated at this difficult time.

September 20, 2002

Unfortunate Pots and Kettles

When it comes to environmental issues and the favorite word used to denigrate the other side while arguing about them, Senator Daschle and the Bush Administration apparently work from the same playbook.

Neither side could be accused of complete consistency on environmental issues, and both sides are well aware of that fact.

For example, here’s a quote from an AP story on September 19:

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle attacked President Bush's environmental record Thursday, accusing the administration of "a disturbing trend of rollbacks."

Of course, Senator Daschle is fully capable of suggesting a rollback or two of his own, as illustrated in this story from the Washington Times that ran on July 25:

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle quietly slipped into a spending bill language exempting his home state of South Dakota from environmental regulations and lawsuits, in order to allow logging in an effort to prevent forest fires.

In addition, both sides also use the same passive/aggressive word to challenge the other's policy choices.

Here’s a typical usage taken from a PBS story about nuclear waste storage last May 8:

The state has powerful allies in the Democratic leadership. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called the endorsement of Yucca Mountain "unfortunate and premature."

And here’s this week’s version from the White House, aimed right back at the Senator:

White House spokesman Taylor Gross said Thursday, "It's unfortunate that Sen. Daschle would seek to politicize such an important issue as the environment."

The word "unfortunate" must be something that the two political parties focus-grouped extensively before they made the conscious decision to use it anywhere and everywhere. (Google "Daschle unfortunate White House", and you’ll see for yourself.) Their intent seems to be to create a quietly dismissive tone, as if more in sorrow than in anger, so that no one could accuse these partisans of being too excessive in their rhetoric.

"Unfortunate" may "sound nicer" to certain voter groups, but its ubiquity in current political discourse is becoming really annoying. Besides, they're not fooling anybody.

Frankly, I’d appreciate a more robust choice of phrases that more accurately describe what they really mean.

How much more refreshing it would be to open the morning newspaper and see something like these quotes, slightly altered from those referred to above:

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called the endorsement of Yucca Mountain "remarkably stupid, wildly ahead of any real need, and exactly what I thought this Administration would do."

White House spokesman Taylor Gross said Thursday, "We fully expect that Sen. Daschle would politicize an important issue like the environment. It’s what he does best, as opposed to working toward achieving what’s best for all of us."

Obviously, certain rhetorical lines should not be crossed, because failing to respect those limits makes the eventual compromises far more difficult to achieve.

On the other hand, surely these folks can swing something a little harder than this little word-pillow at each other without endangering our democratic republic.

The failure to be more direct in one’s choice of expression is truly regrettable.

September 19, 2002

A pox on both their houses

Here’s a hint about reading opinions issued by U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals:

When the first sentence in a labor law decision makes a direct reference to the fact that only a few thousand dollars are at stake, neither side should look forward to reading the rest of the opinion.

The management of a unionized bus company in upstate New York became upset when the union unilaterally dropped a grievance arbitration one day before the scheduled hearing, and only nine days after the arbitrator turned down the union’s request for a postponement.

Apparently this wasn’t the first time the union had blown off an arbitration. In fact, Article 86.01(g) of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) included a clause dealing with this practice:

If one party unilaterally withdraws the arbitration, it shall bear all costs of cancellation.

The company’s arbitration preparation costs (almost entirely attorney’s fees) totaled $5655. It sued the union for the money.

Displaying a finely honed sense of irony, the union claimed that the company couldn’t sue for the preparation costs, because the CBA required all disputes to go to arbitration.

The district court ruled in favor of the union, and the company appealed.

The Second Circuit’s decision begins with a fairly telling parenthetical remark stuck inside the first sentence:

This case, in which the amount in controversy is less than $6,000.00, once again requires us to examine the arbitration provisions of a collective bargaining agreement.

After reviewing the factual and procedural steps that brought the case to this exalted level, the Second Circuit reminded both parties of the express language in the CBA.

First, the Union was simply wrong to insist on arbitration of the cancellation costs claim:

The CBA's arbitration clause, which immediately follows the grievance procedure states:

If the matter is submitted in accordance with the foregoing procedure and is not satisfactorily resolved, then the Union or the Company may, within thirty (30) calendar days, invoke binding arbitration by written request.

A-93 (emphasis added). We agree with [the Company] that this language creates an express condition precedent that must be satisfied before a duty to arbitrate arises.

The Company was under no duty to grieve and arbitrate this cost recovery claim before filing suit over it.

Second, the Company was wrong to seek recovery of its own preparation costs, under the terms of the contract:

... Article 86.05 in the CBA ... unambiguously states that "[e]ach party will pay its own costs and expenses incurred in presenting its case." "[E]xpenses incurred in presenting its case" must include preparation expenses. Looking at the agreement as a whole, therefore, it is obvious that Article 86.01(g) deals only with the fees for the arbitrators and those directly associated with the arbitration process, and not with a party's preparation expenses. [footnote omitted.] [The Union] did pay the arbitrator upon the cancellation. That is all the CBA required. [The Union] did not breach the CBA, and [the Company's] attorney's fees are its own responsibility.

The end result, therefore, was an affirmance of the district judge’s order, but for very different reasons.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Circuit Court also orders both parties to split the costs of the appeal.

It seems only fair.

September 19, 2002

The Power of the Blogosphere

This week provided yet another example of the trend-setting nature of blogdom.

Week of September 15, 2002—Garry Trudeau begins daily strip about David Geffen, Malibu Beach, and beach access easements, featuring Zonker Harris.

March 12, 2002"Beaching and Moaning about Access", an essay posted at Sneaking Suspicions about David Geffen, Malibu Beach, and beach access easements.

Advantage—Sneaking Suspicions!

But of course.

September 18, 2002

Bus Tokens

This week I used the new parking garage behind the just-opened New Castle County Courthouse. When I returned to the car, the parking fee totaled three dollars. I put a $5 bill into the wall-mounted automated cashier. After a bit of whirring and stirring, two bus tokens dropped into the change bin below.

At least, that’s what the two $1 coins looked like.

This was the very first time I had ever seen these modest bits of metal used in circulation. Frankly, I can see why they’re now considered a failure.

While initial public awareness generated by the advertising was strong, the new dollar coin, like the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin, "has failed to achieve widespread use," the General Accounting Office reported Friday.

According to July, 2001 statistics from the U.S. Mint, people use the dollar coin in just 1 percent of dollar transactions, the report said.

U.S. Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore acknowledged her agency has yet to overcome public and commercial resistance to using the coin dollar and generally concurred with the report's findings, she wrote in response.

I don’t have much objection to using coins in lieu of paper money, as expressed recently by Charles Kuffner. On the other hand, this particular design suffers from two deficiencies, as I see it—the coins have no distinctive heft, and they’re still too close to quarters in size, which was also the knock against the Susan Anthony issue.

Whose face is on the currency is certainly not the issue, obviously. I suggest it’s more a matter of feel.

The point is to create a new coin that fingers jammed into a pocket can quickly and easily distinguish among the others in the mix.

I agree with Kuffner that something like the old Eisenhower coin would be an improvement, or maybe even an enlarged version of the British £2 bimetal currency.

There are also good marketing reasons to create an improved dollar coin. If the folks at the U.S. Mint created a larger version of the same gold piece, they would instantly create a huge collectable market for the currently unpopular version. That kind of opportunity should not be overlooked. The current sales program for the quarters featuring each state in order of their admission to the Union is already far more successful than they ever dreamed.

Obviously, there are other issues related to coinage that need to be considered, such as conversion of cash registers, vending operations, and so forth. Even so, I think the main problem with the most recent dollar coin experiments is that the people at the Mint did not fully appreciate the need to think bigger than they did.

The current dollar coin

September 18, 2002

Give ‘em five Claudes, and then let’s go out for dessert

Some Claude-worthy headlines need no explanation for their nomination:

Many Weight-Loss Ads Misleading - U.S. Report

Phineas T. Barnum would be proud to know that the famous aphorism that was falsely attributed to him nonetheless continues to remain one of the ultimate expressions of absolute truth.

This headline receives a five-Claude award, with non-fat whipped cream and a cherry on top.

Thanks to Ann Salisbury for the tip.

September 17, 2002

Sometimes there’s no other way to vote than with your feet

Barefoot v.City of Wilmington is a recent precedential annexation opinion issued by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case serves as a not-so-gentle reminder that even on issues with significant political impact, it’s a mistake to assume that all those interested must have the right to approve the matter personally.

The City of Wilmington, North Carolina decided to annex a sizable hunk of adjacent New Hanover County. That choice did not please Ovalee Barefoot and several of her neighbors. They lived with about 13,000 other residents in the targeted 9.27 square miles lying between the city limits and the Intracoastal Waterway, just outside the birthplace of Michael Jordan, and were perfectly fine with continuing that arrangement.

On the other hand, the North Carolina legislature authorized cities with a population greater than 5,000 to annex territory contiguous to city limits, and no referendum was required to accomplish the takeover. Neither the 90,000 citizens of Wilmington nor county residents such as Ms. Barefoot had a chance to vote personally to approve or block the annexation.

It’s not as if the state General Assembly didn’t recognize the benefits of referenda. On five occasions it enacted local legislation that granted voting rights for annexations. In most cases, a majority of those living in the area to be annexed had to approve the idea, while in at least one case the annexation had to be approved by those already living in the city.

After Wilmington approved the annexation, Barefoot and about 100 others sued in state court to block it, and lost. They then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which upheld the dismissal.

Undaunted, the plaintiffs then filed in Federal Court, alleging a variety of violations of rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the Privileges and Immunities Clause. They also threw into the mix a takings claim under the Fifth Amendment.

The District Court granted the City’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Fourth Circuit was fairly blunt in affirming the dismissal under each of the plaintiffs’ theories:

The Appellants' first argument on the merits is that the North Carolina statutory scheme violates the Equal Protection Clause. We hold that it does not....

To begin, there is no substantive constitutional right to vote on annexation. [citations omitted.]

So thoroughly a matter of state political concern is annexation that the Supreme Court stated early last century that annexation is "entirely within the power of the state legislature to regulate." Hunter, 207 U.S. 178-79. Annexation may be accomplished without any opportunity for a vote, even in the face of fierce opposition from the citizenry; the matter is within "the absolute discretion of the State." Id. at 178.

... It cannot be seriously maintained that all annexations present the precise problems that would prompt the General Assembly to mandate a referendum. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits states from wisely limiting the exercise of its powers to the needs at hand. [citations omitted.]

The Court was even more direct in dismissing the due process claims:

When a legislature passes a law which affects a general class of persons, the political process provides all the process that is due. As Justice Holmes wrote for the Court in Bi-Metallic Investment Company v. State Board of Equalization, 239 U.S. 441, 445 (1915): "General statutes within the state power are passed that affect the person or property of individuals, sometimes to the point of ruin, without giving them a chance to be heard. Their rights are protected in the only way they can be in a complex society, by their power, immediate or remote, over those who make the rule." See also Londoner v. Denver, 210 U.S. 373 (1908). Accordingly, we hold that the Appellants have not been deprived of due process of law.

The plaintiffs faired equally badly with their takings and Privileges and Immunities claims:

The Appellants complain about the possibility of a physical invasion (such as the widening of streets), but the possibility of a taking is not a taking. The Appellants also complain that the annexation has affected their economic interests, but it is apparent that not all productive use of their land has been denied. [citation omitted.]

... The Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV is "designed to ensure to a citizen of State A who ventures into State B the same privileges which the citizens of State B enjoy." [citation omitted.] The Appellants make no argument regarding any discrimination between citizens of different States, nor can we conceive of any. Accordingly, the Appellants have failed to state a claim under Article IV.

The Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "protects all citizens against abridgement by states of rights of national citizenship as distinct from the fundamental or natural rights inherent in state citizenship." [citation omitted.] Needless to say, there is no national citizenship right to vote on annexations. See generally Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 73-81 (1872). Accordingly, the Appellants failed to state a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment's Privileges and Immunities Clause as well.

As I read the 18-page opinion, I had the distinct feeling that the Circuit Court judges were a bit disbelieving that this annexation appeal had actually reached their courtroom. A search of annexation legislation on the Internet would have shown that the mix of voting options provided in North Carolina is similar to that found in many states. Annexation is one of those local government issues in which experimentation is not at all unusual. Local influences also play a major role in the deeply political decision about whether to hold special elections for the purpose, or to allow the general elections for state and local officials to serve as the ultimate referenda.

State governments continue to have the ability to make the choice between those two forms of obtaining public consent to fundamental decisions about the appropriate form of government to apply to a given area.

That’s the point Justice Holmes made in the Bi-Metallic case cited here, and it remains a valuable precedent.

In addition, but without denigrating the personal disruption it may cause, there is always the option to vote with one’s feet.

September 16, 2002

Selections from the IKEA catalog

A story in today’s NYT outlines the launch of a new advertising campaign for IKEA, the Swedish retail furnishings giant. The updated marketing approach focuses on convincing the customers to think of furniture as disposable, much like clothing or other fashion-sensitive merchandise.

In part, the company's latest promotion seems intended to make a virtue out of IKEA’s less-than-stellar record for selling stuff that will hold up well over time.

"Ikea's cheap prices are a plus, as are its contemporary designs," said Irma Zandl, president at the Zandl Group in New York, a market research and consulting company.

"But it has a spotty reputation for quality."

The campaign may be seeking to "put a positive spin" on that disadvantage, she added, "suggesting that you will want to replace something anyway, so that it doesn't matter that it doesn't last very long."

Well, good luck to them.

We don’t live near an IKEA store, but a few of our relatives do. We enjoy going to the stores and almost always buy a little something whenever we go. We also receive the IKEA catalogs in the mail.

The furniture and other big-ticket items are frequently tempting, and there are several inexpensive offerings available that are both useful and fun to have around the house.

Nonetheless, the consonant-filled names IKEA gives to the hundreds of objects it sells can make our mouths hurt while trying to pronounce them.

As with perhaps millions of other customers worldwide, we sometimes have fun dreaming up new names for possible IKEA products.

Here are a few selections from our version of the company's newest catalog:

  • Puürdreck--Piano/Computer Lamp, in bronze with black trim. NOTE: The halogen lamp transformer is integrated with the plug; some customers may require the Joltenzap Combination Power Strip-AC/DC Converter.
  • Jûtkrep--Candleholder Centerpiece. This craggy pile of magnesium/aluminum alloy (roughly 25cm diameter) includes space for up to sixteen candles, arrayed in a special homage to the Göteborg Opera House. CAUTION: Slight fire hazard. Do not let flames touch the metal.
  • Don’t forget  our special offer on bright blue and yellow Fotef Candles in our Home Decor section—three dozen in each bag, with mixed quantities of both colors. Buy two bags to make sure you have enough of both!
  • Phartsöm--Our best folding Futon/Sleep Sofa, in Swedish Queen Size (1.25m width). NOTE: Requires specially-sized, fitted Polekidot bedding sheets, available in the IKEA Linen Section in a wide range of colors, from off-white to tan).
  • Smuekntokin--Hemp Throw Rugs, in the handy 60cm x 3m strips that look great in foyers and hallways. Tan with black edges, and featuring non-slip latex backing (not for use on hardwood floors).
  • Bòkshlf--Our hugely popular CD/DVD/Bookshelf stands. Just perfect for those nook and crannies that “just need something” to complete a room, and still only 15cm wide and 15cm deep. Available in 1m, 1.45 m, 2m, and 2.5m heights, in Black, Red, Blue, White, and Birch Veneer. Fibreboard with unpainted metal shelves. Rollers optional, in Black.
  • And in the Food Section, try some of IKEA’s famous Kodsbreth crackers. The best of Sweden’s maritime tradition, baked into a nutritious, flavor-packed, and very non-traditional biscuit. Try them with our own Zarrichrli tuna jelly spread, based on an old family recipe.

Look for the distinctive blue and yellow exterior on a vast box store near you!

September 15, 2002

Exhibit 13

I recommend watching and listening to the Blue Man Group’s new Exhibit 13 video more than once.

After the initial experience, I suggest simply listening to the music again, this time with eyes closed.

The video’s imagery, based on the WTC paper fragments that floated over the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, will remain vivid in the mind’s eye. Other visual memories from the events of September 11 may also return to listeners, depending on the changing emotional tones struck by the music throughout the roughly 4-minute composition.

After the fourth or fifth repetition, I could see the Blue Man Group performing the piece, with two of the members leaning carefully over the plastic pipe arrays as they created the percussive melody.

The music is appropriately somber, though not funereal, with a hint of modest hope suggested toward the end of the piece.

For some viewers, the few thousand paper fragments seen in the video may call to mind the equivalent number of those who died in the buildings that produced that artificial flurry in Carroll Gardens.

The video is not maudlin, and there probably shouldn’t be any tears caused by watching it.

It would be perfectly understandable, however, if one’s eyes glistened a bit as some of the bits of paper come into focus.

Link via Larry Simon and N.Z. Bear.

September 14, 2002

Possibly doing well by doing good

It’s nice to see somebody not only conduct helpful research, but also do something about the results of that research.

A story posted by Reuters yesterday discussed a new report about injuries to U.S. children coming into accidental contact with bicycle handlebars. Dr. Flaura K. Winston of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia headed a team of researchers on this topic, and their results were published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

The story notes that the scale of the problem is fairly significant:

[I]n 1997 more than 1,100 US children and teens were hospitalized for bike-related injuries to their abdominal or pelvic organs. None of these accidents involved a car, and in most injuries, the bike handlebars were "likely" to blame, the researchers report.

... The potential for bike handlebars to injure internal organs has been known for 30 years, the authors note. Reports have documented injuries to the intestines, liver, spleen, pancreas and abdominal wall, among other sites.

Thankfully, there are possible solutions to lessen the risk:

The researchers suggest that safer handlebar designs that lessen the force of impact on the torso could reduce organ injuries. Giving children the proper bike size and type for their age and keeping the bike in good shape may also cut the risk of accidents, they note.

The last paragraph of the story shows that Dr. Winston also possesses some initiative in this regard:

Winston has a patent pending for a new handlebar design.

Good for her. I hope it helps.

Naturally, I have my own contribution to this story.

I have always been an avid, if not voracious reader. At one point, my mother suggested that if toilet paper had words printed on it, no one else would ever be able to use the bathroom.

This keen interest in the written word carried with it some unusual risks, given my penchant for reading anything and anywhere.

One summer evening, I decided to combine my interest in reading with bicycle riding. I carefully held my book in one hand, while steering with the other.

Looking where I was going, unfortunately, was an additional safety consideration that I failed to notice.

I also failed to notice the parked car in front of me, until I hit the center of the rear bumper with my front tire.

The impact threw me forward and down at the same time, so that I scraped my chest against the handlebar post and wire basket attached above the front wheel.

The other kids playing around in the area at the time had a great time laughing about the accident.

I wasn’t nearly as amused about it as they were.

On the other hand, that was the last time I ever tried that stunt.

Contact Information:

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


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002