Sneaking Suspicions

Archives-- August 18-24, 2002

Commentary from a practical perspective

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This page includes posts from August 18-24, 2002 in the usual reverse order. Each week's postings on the home page are perma-linked to these pages.

August 24, 2002

Mr. Grumpy makes an appearance

My neck is a little stiff.

That’s not an admission about a character trait--it’s just a statement of physical condition.

While driving on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia late yesterday afternoon, with a full load of stuff in our Olds station wagon for our daughter’s upcoming college semester, we were nailed from behind by a Land Rover in one of those incomprehensible Slinky traffic situations.

For no apparent reason, the cars and trucks in front of us on the incredibly crowded highway came to a dead stop. It wasn’t the first time, and I was prepared. I braked hard, and watched the car in front of me not only hit his brakes, but also steer to the left shoulder to evade the vehicle in front of him.

He missed. I didn’t hit him, either.

For a split second I felt safe.

Then I saw in my rear view mirror that the Land Rover behind me was approaching just a little too fast.

When it was over, I checked my wife and daughter’s condition, and then left the car and started retrieving videotapes, posters, and other material from the glass-strewn pavement. The Land Rover driver was unhurt, and asked about us. Then we noticed a blue Jetta behind him, with the front end badly crushed. The young woman driver left her VW, and we could see she was pregnant.

Fortunately, other than a little stiffness, no one seems to have been seriously injured. We’ll know for sure later. Soft tissue reactions to low-speed impacts sometimes take a while to develop.

While the Jetta appeared to be totaled, the Land Rover looked basically okay. I’d wonder about the frame, however.

Our Olds lost its back window, and suffered damage to the rear quarter panels, doors, and some of the seats. Entering and leaving the car is now a somewhat complex maneuver, but at least the doors shut.

Thankfully as well, the car could still run without scraping tires on the wheel wells, and the taillights were intact.

The fire company emergency personnel, the VDOT emergency road technician, and the Virginia State police were on the scene in no time. Each was polite, quietly professional, and made a bad experience far more bearable.

My daughter and wife were shook up, but otherwise didn’t seem to suffer any different physical impacts than I did.

After obtaining identification materials and other information from the trooper, we left the scene and traveled the final ten miles or so to our daughter’s college.

That was among the more annoying aspects of the entire incident. We were so close to escaping I-95’s perilous conditions, and instead became the object of others’ ire at the delay the accident caused them.

To those who rolled down their windows to make sure we could hear their opinions over the roar of the traffic, I now say,

"We sincerely appreciate your constructive comments.

"#*=% you very much."

Our daughter is now safe in her dorm. We drove slowly back home, and pulled into our driveway around 1:30 a.m.

The next steps in dealing with the accident, dealing with the repair shops and insurance companies, remain to be completed.

Oh rapture. Oh joy.

August 23, 2002


Southern gentleman and blogger raconteur Sam Heldman gave me a bit of good-natured ribbing on his site yesterday.

Mr. Heldman took issue with Disney’s proposed casting of James Carville as a cartoon hillbilly from Appalachia. He also claimed that my suggestion that Carville would also make a good voice for Foghorn Leghorn was a bit much, considering the actual differences in accents between the famous rooster and the Ragin’ Cajun.

[I was going to write "the two famous roosters", but that seemed a bit partisan.]

I can certainly understand his mild frustration at the conflation of Southern speech patterns that sound distinctly different to the well-tuned ear.

It’s also a fact that self-knowledge about how one’s way of talking sounds to others not from the same region is sometimes limited.

Several years ago, I made a presentation in Chicago before a few hundred attorneys, from over 40 states and the federal government. My segment was the third one for the group that morning.

I opened my remarks by stating that one of the fun features of this national legal conference was the fact that we could hear a variety of dialects, from speakers from all over the country.

I noted that the first group of presenters that morning was from South Carolina, and that I always enjoyed the lilting tone of those from the Low Country.

I reminded the audience that our host, a Chicago native, made the second presentation, and that I liked hearing his distinctive accent.

I then said something like this:

"Now, as some of you know, I’m from Delaware.

That’s a very small state in the Mid-Atlantic region, for those of you who are a little rusty on your geography.

And of course, being from Delaware, I have no accent."

The crowd erupted into raucous laughter.

August 22, 2002

Cruelty to Animals

We took our dog Rocky to the veterinarian’s office recently for a visit. In addition to a shot in the rear flank, he also received a short blast of medicine up his nose to prevent kennel cough. Rocky is a border collie mix, and he handled the indignities fairly well, all things considered.

While there, we met a young woman who was a "foster" pet caretaker. She came to the vet’s office to obtain treatment for a small cat newly placed with her. The feline’s back left leg was wrapped in a bandage.

The woman told us that someone in the Lewes area is setting traps that ensnare the cats running around town. Her foster cat was caught in one of these traps and badly hurt. To make matters worse, its capture apparently wasn’t discovered for several hours. The woman received the cat after its initial medical treatment.

Lewes is famous for its charter fishing fleet. Perhaps in part because of this industry, the town is also developing a local reputation for the number of feral cats that, well, like fish.

Apparently somebody there is a self-appointed anti-cat crusader. This person is not above using a particularly nasty method of capturing or killing the cats. Of course, the traps grab hold of feral and pet cats alike. A spring-loaded mechanism left alone can’t make such distinctions.

Our sister state Maryland recently enacted a new felony statute concerning cruelty to animals. This law seems to be aimed at just this sort of malicious misconduct. Deliberate torture or mutilation of animals is now a felony, with a potential three-year prison sentence.

In the first case in which the state tried to prosecute someone using this new law, however, it didn’t work.

AP Press Writer David Dishneau reported that Eric Grossnickle is a landlord in Frederick. He had a problem with a tenant’s cats. He allegedly told the tenant five times to remove them from the premises, or he would.

Last fall Grossnickle made good on this threat in a particularly vibrant way, using a 12-gauge shotgun to kill two cats.

The judge convicted Grossnickle on two counts of malicious destruction of property. This misdemeanor charge is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sentencing will take place soon.

Nonetheless, the court would not convict the landlord of the more serious felony charges, for reasons that make sense:

"I don't like what he did, but it's not a crime under Maryland law," Circuit Judge Mary Stepler said on Wednesday.…

Although the state prohibits inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on animals, it allows killing them humanely for food processing, hunting, scientific research, pest control, and agricultural practices.

Since Grossnickle killed the cats quickly, using a method accepted by farmers and with no intention of causing them unnecessary suffering, he did not break the law, Stepler said.

Dishneau reported that the prosecutor felt the charge was justified:

Assistant State's Attorney Laura Corbett said the cats were "unnecessarily, unjustifiably and, therefore, cruelly killed."

That syllogism doesn’t fit, however. Killing the cats was certainly unnecessary and unjustified. However, establishing those facts doesn’t end the inquiry. Given that animals can be killed in many ways, the method used here was demonstrably less cruel than other options that the new law was obviously intended to outlaw.

Here’s an example that may help illustrate the point.

A long time ago I went dove hunting with my father. Using my 12-gauge shotgun, I went through a box of 25 shells that afternoon, and managed to kill seven of the speedy but tasty birds.

One bird took two shots. I knocked it down with the first one, but didn’t kill it. On the other hand, I couldn’t catch it and snap its neck. It kept running away in the underbrush. Eventually I stood up, took careful aim, and shot the bird again.

There was no head left on the body when I retrieved it.

Now, that may seem cruel. Compared to simply leaving it to die hours later in some hedgerow, however, I don’t think my actions fit any legal definition of the term.

In much the same way, the Maryland law seems to be directed at cruelty to animals that is limited to the common understanding of the phrase. The exceptions noted in the Washington Post story make this clear.

As the Judge ruled, Grossnickle violated a law, but not this new one.

August 21, 2002

'Tooning up for a new career

Matt Drudge reports that the folks at Disney are offering a new acting role to political consultant James Carville, in which he would lend his voice to a new animated movie titled "My Peoples":

… DISNEY filmmakers have become convinced he has the perfect vocal qualities for the part: an off-the-wall hillbilly, studio sources reveal.

It actually sounds like a fun movie. I would look forward to watching it, if they follow through on the concept.

In one sense, however, it’s a shame that Warner Brothers didn’t already hire Carville for a new full-length animated feature.

I can well imagine how perfect he’d be as the new voice for one of their famous characters:

Click here to hear Foghorn Leghorn!
Foghorn Leghorn
Voice by James Carville
(of course!)

August 21, 2002

Hip Hop Hope for Hogs

This sounds promising, if you’ll excuse the inevitable pun.

David Soll, a University of Iowa professor, recently applied for a patent based on his research into the use of ultrasound to reduce the smell of hog waste. The technique reportedly cuts the production of hydrogen sulfide by 50%. The chemical is a key ingredient in generating the godawful smell of pig manure.

After conducting tests using frozen hog manure, the professor is now engaged in a large-scale experiment using the real stuff in all of its factory-farm freshness:

A large-scale test is under way at a 1,300-head confinement barn south of Alden, a small town in the heart of hog country in central Iowa. For four months, manure collected in a storage pit has been piped up to the barn’s ceiling and through a sonification chamber before it’s dumped into a nearby lagoon.

Acoustic waves generated by titanium tubes vibrating 20,000 times per second penetrate the manure, breaking chemical bonds and triggering chemical reactions that alter the typical decomposition process.

AP Reporter Todd Dvorak reports that if this experiment proves successful, the next step is to try the same process at a 4,000-head factory operation. He also suggests that the technology may hold similar promise for those engaged in other forms of protein production, such as beef and poultry farms.

In his interview with the reporter, the professor showed a flair for understatement:

"People are just dying for a solution to this, the producers as well as those who live nearby," said Soll. "And it’s important we find one, because we don’t want to shut down one of the state’s top industries."

Not everyone is pleased at the prospect of relief from the pungent pig perfume:

Hugh Espey, rural project director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said making large operations smell better doesn’t solve other problems, such as water pollution and the threat posed to smaller, family hog producers.

Espey certainly has a point. On the other hand, thousands of people already live close to farms that inevitably create the tear-producing, gagging byproducts of our carnivorous ways. My home county, for example, produces more than 200 million chickens a year. Not too far from the Trussville home of the Possumblogger lies Cullam County, the leading poultry province in Alabama. If Professor Soll's invention really works, the other arguments about factory farming will remain as valid or as flawed as they are now, but at least there would be far less odor if the mega-farms are permitted to remain in operation.

I just wonder if the market for boom boxes will be affected by this new invention.

In any event, it certainly appears that music does hath charms to sooth the savage beasts—and maybe the smell of them, too.

August 20, 2002

Three Claudes, living on burrowed time

The NYT doesn’t have a comics page.

On the other hand, by running stories like the following, the paper of record won’t ever need the comics in order to put its readers in a good mood for the day.

The headline for an AP story the NYT published today could have appeared 120 years ago without any changes:

Ranchers Complain About Prairie Dogs

As Swen Swenson might say, where’s the news in that statement?

For its banal repetition of an old problem, the headline deserves perhaps three Claudes.

The 21st Century version, as reported in this story, notes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested two years ago that black-tailed prairie dogs should be considered a "threatened" species. This is a rung or two below the more famous "endangered" category, but the designation continues to annoy South Dakota ranchers. They’re now meeting with Interior Secretary Gale Norton to discuss conservation plans for the little critters.

The best part of the story, however, concerned the over 200-year-old prairie dogs apparently still to be found out in the Badlands:

Jay Davis of the Sierra Club said 98 percent of the prairie dogs present when explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled across the country are gone.

"Part of why that's hard to believe is that a good part of that 2 percent happens to reside in western South Dakota,'' he said.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that any prairie dogs that were alive during the 1804-1806 Lewis & Clark expedition are still popping their heads out of their burrows.

I guess that’s what they mean when they talk about The Old West.

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Hand-painted concrete prairie dog lawn ornament
I am not kidding.

NOTE: I agree. There’s a really bad pun in the title to this post. It’s a continuing weakness.

August 20, 2002

Annals of Commerce

Well, that didn’t take long.

On Monday evening, just 24 hours after Rich Beem’s startling triumph in the 2002 PGA Championship, I received my first e-mail advertisement seeking to take advantage of Beem’s great performance.

Some folks tried to interest me in what they described as

[T]he head cover everyone was talking about the final day at Hazeltine.

The price was only $19.95, for this.

Rich Beem's head cover now on sale

Thanks, but no.

It’s just not my style.


But thanks for asking.

August 20, 2002

Great moments in government contracting

Among other responsibilities, I advise my client on compliance with the State’s bid laws.

Shortly after today’s weekly bid opening, I attended a unique event staged to answer a burning question touching upon the fundamental principles of competitive bidding:

Who won the coin toss?

It seems that two enterprising companies recently bid the  same price of $90,216.36, or $37 per acre, for the privilege of mowing the rights-of-way along some of Delaware’s finest low-volume "blue highways".

[Readers of the book using that title may recall that William Least Heat-Moon was singularly unimpressed by the roads he traveled in the Blue Hen State. Perhaps he should have a conversation with Mr. Chait.]

The state bid law gives contracting agencies two options if this highly unusual circumstance occurs. Under 29 Del.C. Section 6962 (d) (13) e., my clients could award the contract to either entity, or toss the bids out and start all over.

Despite the drought, the grass still needs mowing, so the agency chose to conduct a coin flip to pick the winner. Both companies agreed to participate.

The next question was how to decide who would call "Heads" or "Tails".

Drawing upon my nearly 24 years of legal experience, I advised my clients to have the two company representatives pick an envelope from a pile of two. Whoever picked the envelope enclosing the slip of paper with "YES" on it would have the right to call the coin in the air.

Both bidders appeared at the appointed time, and with all due solemnity for the occasion they carefully opened their envelopes. The man who picked the YES envelope then called out "Heads" as the Delaware commemorative quarter (naturally) floated in the air.


He lost.

Both bidders seemed a bit stunned at the news, and then quickly smiled and shook hands.

Looked fair to me.

August 19, 2002

Proof it once more before you publish

I should probably be a copy editor.

When I read my own and others’ work, typos and grammatical contortions are usually easy to spot. In addition, I mistrust the spell-check feature in word-processing software. Almost invariably there will be a misused word that is spelled perfectly and yet doesn’t carry forward the writer’s true intentions.

For example, take a close look at this USA Today piece about a mistaken property tax appraisal in Kansas, published on its web site today:

MANHATTAN, Kan. — In this era of government budget shortfalls caused by a sagging economy, the Riley County appraiser must have thought he hit the mother lode. However, a mistake that caused the property value of a home to be inflated by $200 million has left local governments scrambling to refigure budgets. The property near Kansas State University should have been listed at $59,500, a miscue that caused local officials to base budget calculations 6.5% higher than they should have. No one knows how the mistake occurred, though speculation centers on someone simple typing in the wrong information.

I really doubt that USA Today meant to be so harsh in describing the person reponsible for the mistake.

The writer probably only meant to suggest that someone "simply" typed the wrong information into the database.

It was good for an unintended grin, though.

August 18, 2002

Brown Ribbons

Eight years ago P.J. O’Rourke made a deep impression without relying upon his well-known talent for humor.

O’Rourke discussed the politics of plague in a chapter on Haiti in his 1994 book, All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty.

Here’s the part that really stuck in my memory:

Political means could be used to prevent almost all deaths from childhood diarrhea. Diarrhea is spread by contaminated water. Public sanitation is, like personal security, national defense, and rule of law, one of the few valid reasons for politics to exist. Lowly, semicomic diarrhea kills 2,866,000 people a year worldwide, 2,474,000 of them children under the age of five. This is ten times the number of people who die from AIDS. But no one is wearing a brown ribbon on his tuxedo lapel at the Academy Awards or marching up the Mall in Washington carrying a sign reading DIARRHEA—IT CAN BE CONTAINED.

(From pp. 267-268, Atlantic Monthly Press paperback edition)

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the eight years since O’Rourke’s commentary about misplaced priorities in public health.

Consider these quotes from an August 16 article in the Washington Post:

The United Nations has set a goal of 2015 for cutting in half the number of people who cannot reach or afford safe drinking water. Even if that goal is met, 34 million to 76 million people could die of water-related illnesses, said a report for release today by the independent Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.

More people die of diarrheal diseases, such as dysentery, than other water-related diseases, and children are extremely vulnerable to them....

The United Nations says 1.1 billion people worldwide live without access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lack proper sanitation.

O’Rourke noted that a small mixture of glucose and a few forms of salt, blended with clean water, can easily prevent hundreds of thousands of childhood deaths from dehydration, the fundamental risk of diarrhea. The salt packets for this Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT, as it’s called) are simple to prepare and incredibly cheap to produce.

When I read comments on how public health dollars should be spent either here or abroad, I try to keep O’Rourke’s haunting facts in mind in order to maintain a sense of proportion.

I still don’t see any brown ribbons on any tuxedos.

Why is that?

The problem is not insurmountable, although complicated by the typical daunting task of dealing with failed and failing governments.

The World Health Organization is hosting a conference on Healthy Environments for Children on September 1, as part of the World Summit for Sustainable Development.

Here’s one suggestion for the conference participants:

Contact the various bottled water companies (Coca Cola, Pepsi, Poland Spring, etc.) to see if they would create and bottle a uniform ORT formulation for distribution where it would do the most good.

Market the brown ribbon logo on their regular products as a reminder to the rest of us of the continuing need to provide safer water and an appropriate preventative to those at risk from dysentery, cholera, and diarrhea.

Perhaps a motto such as SuppORT Clean Water would also help advance the cause.

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SuppORT Clean Water

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