Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- September 14-21, 2003

This page includes posts from September 14-21, 2003 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.


September 21, 2003
That’s racin’

Today’s News-Journal ran an interesting article about NASCAR stock car racing and its appeal among American women.

As NASCAR has become the second-most watched regular season sport on TV, women compose 55 percent of its audience. That's more than in any other major league sport, according to a survey taken by Mediamark Research Inc., a New York-based firm.

It's a trend that corporate America has rushed to profit from. NASCAR sponsors in the past have included Budweiser, Craftsman Tools, Viagra and DuPont Automotive. Now they also include Kellogg's cereals, Minute Maid, and Just Born, the company that makes Peeps, the sugar-coated marshmallow candies shaped like chicks and bunny rabbits….

"It's one of the fastest-growing sports out there, and despite what a lot of people think, it's very much an all-family sport," said Jim Coyne, marketing director for Nestlé Toll House. "You get to the races; you see moms, kids and whole families there."

We helped prove the point, by going to Dover to watch the MBNA America 400 today. 

The well-behaved crowd was estimated at about 140,000, about 17% of the entire population of Delaware. The gender breakdown seemed to track the News-Journal story. Our own family was two-thirds' female among those who attended (older daughter's away at school), so we pushed the percentage just a little bit.

The crowd saw a great race. If they wore earplugs with sufficient dampening characteristics, they were also able to talk about it shortly afterward.

I discovered that younger daughter thinks that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#8) is pretty cute. It’s a shame he lost control and crashed his car up against the wall on Turn 2, and we hope he quickly recovers. It was the only serious incident the whole day.

I focused on Jeremy Mayfield (#19) for most of the race, and he came achingly close to beating Ryan Newman (#12).

For those who’ve never been to a live NASCAR race, an entirely different experience than watching on television, that word “focused” was deliberate. It’s impossible to follow all the action. Most folks tend to watch their favorite driver or a small set of drivers, and then observe the tactical interaction.

On several occasions today, for example, I only realized that a caution flag was out when Mayfield and whoever he was chasing at the time suddenly slowed down. Then I’d look over to the stop/start line and see the yellow caution flag being waved frantically.

NASCAR races are impressive events, as a sport, as a experience in American marketing, and as sociological studies.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. at the MBNA America 400 before his crash.

And they're a lot of really loud fun, too.

September 20, 2003
Missed this one in the college guidebooks

The Internet can be a hugely creative environment. All these folks reading each others’ thoughts that generate further discussion and ideas—it can’t help but advance civilization, if you ask me.

The path toward advancement might be a little meandering, is all.

For example, Janis Gore couldn’t help noticing the ever-increasing number of people in the Axis of Weevil, whose members are officially screened and welcomed by Alabama blogger Terry Oglesby. She suggested that a university environment would be just the thing in which all Axis members could thrive, given the broad range of their endeavors.

Oglesby ran with the idea and developed a highly detailed, very funny college brochure for Weevil State University, located

somewhere south of the present-day town of Fayette,

the residents of which I’m sure are as proud of the local college as anyone could be.

Of all the pictures Oglesby linked to as part of his advertisement, I liked the reference to the MSU Astronomy Department’s pride and joy the best:

The Stephen Hawking Planetarium—one of the finest facilities of its kind in the world.

Ogleby’s post reminded me that there are like-minded folks here in Delaware, who have figured out how to cash in on one of higher education’s prime profit centers—logo sweatshirt sales.

The sharp staff at the Slower Lower Delaware Company sell a wide selection of t-shirts, hats, and other items celebrating the nether regions of the First State. I understand that their sweatshirt for the University of Slower Lower Delaware is among the company’s best sellers.

Their online brochure says it best:

Our beautiful University of Slower Lower Delaware fleece sweat shirts will not only make you feel warm and fuzzy all over, they'll announce to the world that you're a student of Slower Lowerness.

Selling for $25, and in a choice of four colors, the USLD sweatshirt makes a great gift.

On occasion folks will ask the Company for the location of the USLD campus. As I recall, they used to tell people it was in Ellendale, but the FAQ page now says something else. 

I tend to doubt that either one of these schools will ever be found in the Princeton Review’s top 351 colleges—but at least there’s a good reason for that.

September 19, 2003
Lucky for us, not so hot for others

We are some kind of lucky sometimes.

Hurricane Isabel's landing in North Carolina and the speed with which it blew itself inland helped keep the damage in Rehoboth Beach down to only mild tropical storm levels.

Others in Delaware and elsewhere were not so fortunate.

The strongest winds hit us very late last night, but didn't seem to produce much except for some downed tree branches and a whole lot of leaves and other minor debris.


As usual, the adage "prepare for the worst, hope for the best" is still the right way to think about preparations for these unpredictable events--sort of like the right kind of national defense policy, if you think about it.


I posted some post-Isabel pictures on the hurricane page, for those interested.

Here's one that seemed to fit the situation well:

September 18, 2003
Now it's storm time


We went out to see the beach during the storm at about 2 o'clock this afternoon. Pretty impressive, especially considering we're not supposed to see the biggest impacts for another 4-8 hours.


I've posted several pictures from this visit on a new page, to reduce loading times for readers using dial-up internet access.


September 18, 2003
Smelling the coffee about tax policy

A Washington Post story today about the recent defeat of the latte tax in Seattle gives a few clues about how its supporters may have misread public sentiment about how best to raise money for general purposes.

John Burbank, the originator of the 10-cent proposal, heads up a local public policy group. In the WaPo piece Burbank is quoted as follows:

"This was a test of the willingness of Seattle voters to tax themselves for an important public good," he said. "I think that test was failed." …

"This was a tax that was purposefully designed to fall on upper-income people," he said. "If people had objectively looked at this tax, they would have seen it as a well-thought-out form of revenue in a state that doesn't have an income tax."

Perhaps more than just the coffee is being a little bitter here.

I believe the only parts of that quote that are objectively correct are: (a) this special little excise tax was designed to focus on upper-income folks as the primary sources, and (b) Washington State has no income tax.

Jacob Levy touches on this issue in his recent essay in The New Republic Online, at least in part: 

The general form of these arguments … is: If we subject everyone to the same rules, institutions, or conditions, then there will be political demand to make them fair or otherwise tolerable. If we only subject some people to them, then some may be unfairly singled out or burdened; there will be opportunities to divide the citizenry, play the interests of some against those of others, and to undermine the overall desirable outcome. The only detail that changes from argument to argument is the class to which one tries to yoke people--the class of taxpayers, the class of potential soldiers, the class of recipients of government checks, etc.  

Similar views are occasionally expressed at this site, on several occasions in fact.

In these posts and others, I’ve suggested that spreading the overall tax burden is a more fundamentally fair policy than the options typically sought by the political class. Burbank’s comments take the opposite approach.

The WaPo piece also includes a quote from an opposition spokeswoman, who countered Burbank nicely:

"Child care is too important an issue to be funded by a single group of people," said Andrea Lehwalder, a spokeswoman for JOLT. "This vote means that Seattle voters care about kids, but they agree that this is no way to fund child care."

I don’t see Washington State adopting an income tax for the sole purpose of funding child care assistance to those who need it. In most cases, in fact, there are very good budgetary policy reasons to avoid earmarking particular taxes for particular purposes. On the other hand, a change in a broad-based tax system, if intended for a goal that most folks would accept, would also have a far better chance for adoption.

September 17, 2003
A little less calm before the storm

I went down to the Rehoboth Boardwalk late this afternoon and took some pictures as Isabel works her way toward the coast.

This shot shows the wave action (about 4-5 feet) at just before low tide. Winds were about 20 mph from the northeast, causing some whitecapping.

The landmark Dolles candy store at the Boardwalk and Rehoboth Avenue is partially boarded on the ocean side. One panel (third from left) says it was used in the Storms of '92, '94, and '98, all fairly vicious nor'easters.

Television broadcasting trucks, set up for the obligatory shots from the beach during the lead-up to the hurricane hitting the area. I tend to doubt this expensive equipment will be stationed here when Isabel shows up.

Depending on the state of emergency conditions that might be imposed, I'm going to try to shoot more pictures of the storm's impact tomorrow and the next day.


September 16, 2003
Marshmallow Farming

To most people, the phrase “Delaware Agriculture” means only one thing--chicken. 

While there’s no denying the importance of the poultry industry to Sussex County, Delaware and the rest of the Delmarva Peninsula, several other aspects of Diamond State farming are critical contributors to the state’s economy. 

For example, the state’s watermelons and cantaloupes are local favorites, with auctions held each week at Laurel. 

In addition, the reason why the world-famous Punkin’ Chunkin’ gourd-tossing event is held here is simple—we grow plenty of pumpkins, just waiting to be catapulted into the record books.

On the other hand, at least one of Delaware’s cash crops isn’t quite as well known, but there are good reasons for being a bit more circumspect about it.

This week, in fact, it’s time for the annual marshmallow harvest. Take a look at these beauties, which I saw today during a business trip north of Georgetown:

400-pound marshmallows awaiting harvest in a Delaware farm field.

The four-foot-high, yard-or-more-thick cylinders of sweet gooiness must weigh about 400 pounds apiece in their fully-grown state, shown above.

As the picture shows, the marshmallows are grown much like melons and other sweet fruits. The seedlings are raised in local hothouses until late May/early June. The vines are then planted in secluded fields, surrounded by taller, quick-growing crops such as corn.

Hiding the marshmallow plants is vitally important. That's because early in the growing season, the crop is a prime candidate for poaching, at least while the delicate young marshmallows remain small enough to carry.

Fortunately, corn and marshmallow plants have similar growth cycles. About a week after the corn is picked, it’s time to harvest the now-massive (and therefore hard to poach) marshmallows.

The plants' long vines are cut and removed just before the marshmallows themselves are picked by mechanical harvesters.

At the marshmallow packing houses, the individual fruits are cleaned, trimmed, and placed into large stainless steel tubes. Vacuum technology then draws the marshmallows through specially-sized holes at one end, where sharp blades cut the marshmallow into the two basic sizes we see on our supermarket shelves (full and mini). The millions of now-tiny marshmallows are then dusted with a light coat of powdered sugar and packaged for distribution.

The trim pieces and the marshmallows that fail to meet the exacting standards required for placement into the stainless “mallow-tubes” aren’t wasted. Instead, they are melted down and blended in huge vats, where they are reconstituted into products such as Marshmallow Fluff and the little dehydrated pieces used in Swiss Miss® and other hot chocolate powders.

One might wonder why the marshmallow is not listed among the crops given Federal protection against market downturns and other potential disasters. There are two basic reasons, to hear the marshmallow farmers tell it.

First, they say the sugar cane and corn syrup lobbyists have done too good a job of protecting their own against this organically grown competing crop.

The second reason they’ll admit to with a shy smile—they don’t need the Feds' money, although of course they'd take it if they were offered any.

The fact is that it’s hard to keep a straight face asking for a marshmallow subsidy. All these plants ever do is make a very nice piece of change for any farmer willing to go through the effort of hiding the crop as it grows.

One thing’s for sure. Whenever I see fresh marshmallows out in the fields, just before harvest-time, it brings a smile to my face.

But then, marshmallows have that effect on just about everybody, don’t they?

September 16, 2003
Calm before the storm

Sure, it’s a cliché.

It’s also true, at least often enough.

Here’s a picture of the Atlantic Ocean just off the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk at Rehoboth Avenue, taken this morning a few hours before high tide:

This evening we took another look. The ocean’s still relatively calm, but the shopkeepers aren’t taking any chances. Several beachfront businesses are already boarded up against the impending storm. The city also removed the dozens of white benches that normally edge the Boardwalk, as well as trash cans and other potential projectiles.

It’s finger-crossing time.

September 15, 2003
Hot new stuff for census wonks and others


On its website today, the Census Bureau gave a heads-up to media types and others about its upcoming annual reports on income and poverty in the United States.


The data are scheduled for release on September 26, but the real news is that this year’s Bureau reports could significantly alter the terms of the debate over what it really means to be poor in America.


Here's why:

The 2002 income report will show year-to-year changes between calendar years 2001 and 2002 based on money income alone (the traditional income measure), as well as year-to-year changes based on four alternative definitions of income:

1) The first adds realized capital gains and subtracts taxes (federal income taxes, state income taxes, payroll taxes).

2) The second includes everything in the first definition and adds employer-provided health benefits, food stamps, rent subsidies and school lunches.

3) The third includes everything in the second definition and adds an estimate of the value of Medicare and Medicaid.

4) The fourth includes everything in the third definition and adds an estimate of the annuity value of home equity for homeowners.

For policy wonks, those who write legislation, the entire poverty industry both within and outside government, and a few bloggers, these reports should make for fascinating reading.

To varying degrees, for example, each of these alternatives should provide ample opportunity for re-thinking the extent to which senior citizens are fairly described as poor. The second alternative income description in particular may cause some to question how far the expression “working poor” should really stretch.

The Bureau also announced another upcoming report that carries forward the agency’s work on trying to understand and measure the nature of U.S. poverty:

This report, Supplemental Measures of Material Well-Being: Expenditures, Consumption, and Poverty 1998 and 2001, will discuss alternative ways of measuring economic status and poverty, including measures based on expenditures rather than income (which is the basis for the current official U.S. poverty measure).

Mickey Kaus might even take a break from recall-blogging to read these reports.

September 15, 2003
Beavis and Butthead, Headline Writers

I am not making this up.

The following is the complete headline given to an actual story, as it ran in Reuters today:

Canada's Gay Marriage Debate Coming to a Head





September 14, 2003

Stuck on you


During the late summer/early fall, two of the three critters involved are frequently not all that happy about the morning ritual involving our dog and his visit to the back yard.


The dog's fine with it, of course. After all, a border collie who's just eaten breakfast has certain needs that must be attended to, or else.


On the other hand, the spider that uses one of our former Christmas trees as a base of operations is probably out of sorts, and I know I'm not so pleased myself.


Try as I might, I can't seem to avoid running into one of his surprisingly sticky traps nearly every time.

It's usually just one line, but once hit it tends to wrap around and stick to my head and several body parts.

To anyone else watching this little ritual at that moment, I probably look like I'm having a mild seizure.

This weekend I thought I was being clever by taking a different path to the post that holds the dog's cable, avoiding the fifteen-foot space between the tree and the porch corner.


But nooo.

Somebody's now running an even longer webline from that same tree to two others about twenty feet away from it on the other side.

I've been whirling the dog leash in front of me to hit the web before my face does, somewhat like a lariat in a Wild West show, but with only limited success.

Of course, the dog's low enough to the ground that he runs right under the webs.


Not that he cares. After all, he's getting what he wants. Does he ever think about my concerns, my sacrifices?


I think we know the answer to that one.



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 2002-2003