January 31, 2004

The Joys of Speculation

CHRIS PELLERITO at Samizdata has penned an important essay on personal-finance journalism which would be worth your while to read. In his post, Mr Pellerito takes a look at the ever-popular but completely-useless brand of finance journalism which touts "hot" equities and promises to make the reader richer than the Aga Khan. He borrows a term -- financial pornography -- to describe such journalism.

Mr Pellerito writes that he hopes the term gains wider acceptance in the finance community, although we think that would be overdoing things. The finance community already has a word for such articles, and that is "crap." But let's take a closer look at Mr Pellerito's post:


One of the biggest purveyors of financial pornography online is the MSN.com website, and this column doesn't disappoint: Seven Signs a Stock is Ready to Soar. The author purports to explain how to locate 'hot' stocks, those that are about to appreciate rapidly in price, by reviewing some research on what types of conditions most often preceded (notice I did not say caused, and neither did the research) a price increase.

It should not take a Wharton MBA to figure out what is wrong with the premise of the article. The cited research identifies the seven conditions that most often preceded a big run-up in the price of a particular stock, but nowhere does it suggest that these conditions were sufficient (or even necessary) to cause a stock price to take off.

Obviously, all of the conditions that make up the 'CANSLIM' acronym are desirable things for a corporation -- for its management and for its ownership. But that doesn't mean that the stock in question is about to outperform the market. I'm not a hard-and-fast believer in the semi-strong efficient market hypothesis -- I think a few super-stud investors can outperform the market -- but for the average investor reading MSN's Money Insight column, the CANSLIM approach is not going to turn those people into super-stud investors. EMH is still going to apply to those investors; there are just too many other investors who have the same type of information and insights at their fingertips.


We are not personally fans of the "market-timing" approach to investing, although we will allow that a seasoned professional who spends rather a lot of time at it can succeed -- provided he is not whipsawed in a bad market, and provided he doesn't get in too late or out too early with his equities, and provided his trading commissions and tax bill don't eat up his gains, and provided he can do it over and over again over time. That's not to condemn market-timing, but rather to say that it takes a lot of work and requires an investor to be on top of his game.

We also note that on the page which Mr Pellerito cites, the following small module appears:

Using a screen designed to emulate each strategy, the AAII (American Association of Individual Investors) constructs a portfolio at the beginning of each calendar year and tracks each portfolio’s performance for the year. Then it builds a new portfolio at the beginning of the following year.

For the years 1998 through 2003, AAII’s CANSLIM portfolios produced annual returns of 38%, 64%, 49%, -10%, 9% and 31%, respectively. CANSLIM’s 332% cumulative six-year return ranked sixth of all strategies tested. That’s not bad, considering that three of those years produced negative market returns, the worst of times for momentum strategies.

Let's leave CANSLIM aside for a moment -- we have no quibble with it, although as we said we're not market-timers -- and look at this test.

Quite frankly, this supposed test is built on some awfully stupid parameters. If an American investor turns over his portfolio on an annual basis, he is going to find that his massive gains are eaten away in tax -- short-term gains are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. So in the first year, if the investor is in the 28 percent bracket, that 38 percent gain will really only be 27 percent. Do all the calculations -- for simplicity, assuming that the loss year has no tax implication -- and one finds the 332 percent return falls to roughly 284 percent, by our math.

Now, don't get us wrong. That's an incredible return for six years no matter how you slice it. But one can see how much money -- perfectly good, compoundable money -- was eaten by tax. And the trouble is that in the real world, such things aren't as cut-and-dried. They aren't even as cut-and-dried in the CANSLIM system, which the MSN writer finagles with to serve his own ends. We have personally found those seven principles useful, but in terms of applying them to individual equities, one must also do a lot of chart-reading and figure-analyzing; and in the end, guess right. To oversimplify things, as this article does, just isn't very helpful.

As for the efficient market hypothesis, we are not convinced that it holds: for some people can and do outperform the market on a regular basis; just as many people can and do underperform the market on a regular basis.

And the trouble with this hype-based financial journalism is that it can often lead to underperformance. One often sees writers tout Equity X or Company Z as a great investment; but an investor who buys shares because of that could find himself behind the curve from the get-go. Or, the writers go on about some supposed market trend or shift in some indicator, and it prompts unsophisticated investors to get all panicky: leading to lower gains or unnecessary losses.

These are not good things, as one former stockbroker might say.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Utter and Complete Amazement

WE WOULD LIKE TO EXTEND our sincere condolences to residents of Arkansas this morning. For based on these Actual News Reports coming out of your state, you have had a really bad week. Either that, or somebody put something unnatural in The Natural State's water supply -- because a whole bunch of stupid got put on display all at once. Here's a partial sample:

"Both men tried to enter a guilty plea Monday but the proceedings were delayed when both tested positive for illegal drugs.

Among the evidence presented to the court were fingerprints on the box that matched those of the accused and the carcass of the snake. Its fangs were intact, but its body had been sliced in half."

Oh, that did pique your interest, we can tell! And that's just from one of the three stories we linked above, we can assure you.

Just go click on the links, dear readers. It is late here, and as such we haven't the foggiest idea of where to begin with all this. Of course, a good ten minutes of uproarious, sustained laughter has a tendency to distract us from doing any writing.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:41 AM | TrackBack

A Newer Look at the Oldest Profession

NOTICE: Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, we have placed our reaction to Dean Esmay's essay on the oldest profession* in the "continue reading" box, or whatever one calls it. As regular Rant readers know, we very rarely do this, but we feel we have an obligation to at least try and keep the kids out of the loop on this one.

Hence, we would ask our young readers to either A) skip this entry or B) depart the site presently, and go read something suitable for youngsters. That includes you too, Jimmy. Run along, son! Yes, we are quite serious ... now look, just trust us for once, will you?! Amscray!

All right then.


WE SUPPOSE WE SHOULD start off by saying our interest in this topic is purely academic. This declaration will come as no surprise to regular Rant readers, who can guess that among our reasons for avoiding this vice is the fact that it just wouldn't do. That's not to trivialize our other reasons, which are religious and hygenic in nature, but certainly the social stigma attached to the oldest profession is enough to keep us very, very far away from it. These reasons also explain why we have only visited -- ah -- a burlesque house a few times in our life, and only then at the instigation of our friends.

We can honestly say that few of Mr Esmay's essays have prompted such mixed emotions in us. Usually, we either agree or disagree with him flat out. In this case, though, we are all over the map. We found we agree with him on some points, sharply disagree on others, and waver at a third set. So to fully explain our own thinking on the matter, we will excerpt from Mr Esmay's work accordingly (the italics) and respond (in plain text).

Mr Esmay, who leads off with a fitting quote from a character in a Robert Heinlein novel, writes as follows:

But I believe that, whatever superficial truth there may be to those words, on the most fundamental levels they are utterly wrong. For, while prostitution may be an inevitability, there is very little in this world that is more sick or awful.

I suppose my Libertarian-minded correspondants will be scandalized for my having said so. Ditto my atheist friends. Yet, as a non-theistic naturalist, I stand by it: there is very little more degrading to the human soul than prostitution. To refer to it as "a profession" demeans humanity even more ...

The gender-feminists (or, as Tanya would call them, the "feminists") are, as usual, utterly full of it. Prostitution is not about "exploitation of women." Indeed, in most ways, that is the exact opposite of the truth. Leaving aside the role of the pimp or madam, we should be adult enough to acknowledge a fundamental truth:

If anyone is being exploited in the whore/john relationship, it is the john.

A whore is a predator. She feeds upon her john's loneliness, insecurity, and need. Meanwhile, by paying her, he trivializes her humanity.

I do not condemn women who fall into prostitution. At all. Nor do I hold in contempt men who use their services. In all the years of my life, I have done many things I am shamed by, and I do not consider myself above other human beings. In fact, the whole notion that I am "better" than most other people is rather repulsive to me.

But prostitution is a sick, and sickening, relationship. No matter how you look at it, and no matter what veneer that you may put upon it, it cannot do anything but degrade those who take part in it.

Yes, even for the high-class, highly-paid variants. Or the watered-down versions of it that you find in strip clubs.

We should say that we agree wholeheartedly with Mr Esmay's main point, in regards to the deleterious effects which prostitution has on all concerned. It may have existed since time immemorial, but there is no denying that it is both a particularly base corruption of the conjugal act and a mockery of how relationships between men and women are supposed to work. While we have no personal knowledge of such things, we would submit that the practice breeds unhealthy tendencies in men and an undesirable hardness and callousness in women. Add in those whom Dante memorably described as "pimps, troublemakers and all such-like scum" to the equation, and the situation gets even more dire. Hence, we consider quite valid the authorities' efforts to suppress this vice.

However, we should make clear the vice of which we are speaking; and even in the oldest profession, there are degrees of difference. If we are discussing what was once called whiteslavery, then we would fully agree with Mr Esmay that there are few things more sick or awful in this world. If we are discussing simple prostitution, then the moral turpitude of the act is lessened. How much turpitude exists is an argument for debate; but depending on the circumstances, it could range from relatively heavy (e.g., when a prostitute takes extreme advantage of her mark) to moderate or light (e.g. the act is done, and that's that).

That said, we do disagree with Mr Esmay's contention that the oldest profession has nothing to do with exploitation of women. That may be the case for a small percentage of the streetwalkers out there, but we would suggest that by and large, there is rather a lot of exploitation going on. For instance, if a woman heroin addict turns to selling herself so that she can get a fix, that's exploitation -- on the part of her supplier and her customer. If a woman sells herself to support her shiftless husband or boyfriend, that's exploitation -- on the idler's and the customer's part. That's just the facts as we see them.

We do see Mr Esmay's point in referring to a streetwalker as a predator. Such relationships -- in which the woman adeptly cleans out her hapless mark -- do exist, and occasionally see light in the press. Still, we don't think that these can be construed as indicative of the overall situation. We would submit that for the most part, the relationships are quite exploitative -- and it is not the woman who is doing the exploiting.

Now for some points where we do agree with Mr Esmay.

We must say we were pleased to see that he referred to "fall(ing) into" prostitution; we think this an accurate reflection of the act's moral consequences, despite our popular culture's attempts to make it seem fine, dandy and wonderful. We can assure you it is a constant source of amazement for us that people involved in the "sex industry" openly proclaim there is nothing wrong with what they're doing. True, they actually believe that; but one would think they would find it smarter to keep quiet, and let things continue without any public scrutiny.

That said, we also agree with his non-judgmental tenor; he has done better than we have in this regard. In terms of the women, we agree whole-heartedly with Mr Esmay; we could not condemn a woman who had taken this route. Try to convince her that other pursuits would be healthier, yes; condemn and vilify, no. We recall what Dr Lewis had to say on this:

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting: the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.**

But you see, where we fall into the trap is dealing with the men. While we -- like everyone -- have plenty of jokers to hide, we still find ourselves a bit contemptuous of these pathetic souls. We do not use the word as a pejorative: we think that most folks who patronize streetwalkers generally have pretty sad lives. There may be those for whom it is merely about lust, or a power trip -- "I want that and I shall have it" -- but for the rest, we think one would be on target in saying they don't have much going for them. For us, the challenge is being focused on the sad angle, to get them help if they need it; as opposed to our reflexive action, which is to deride them for their weakness. That, you see, is our Diabolic self rising to the forefront.

In any event, after a short discussion of the entirely male side to all this, Mr Esmay continues on:

But still, ultimately, you are dealing with a profession where one preys upon another person's loneliness. It is not, and never will be, a simple matter of a biological rubbing together of moving parts in exchange for pay.

And what is the life of your average whore? A cluster of venereal diseases that eventually end your life. If you're female, perhaps a half-dozen or more abortions, unless you decide not to have one--in which case your career ends a few months before the baby arrives. Or you raise the child in the most dyfunctional of environments.

In any case, if you are a whore, you prey upon other people's most deeply-felt needs and insecurities--and you do it for money. If you hire a prostitute, you are paying for something you wish you didn't have to pay for at all.

While there may be a tiny percentage of women who are cut out for such a life, I suspect that, in the vast scheme of things, it can only end in misery and regret.

In terms of reasons as to why the oldest profession should continue to be suppressed, the two in that second paragraph are the most important.

First, we'll deal with the social disease aspect.

In our day, we have known a couple of acquaintances who have had the misfortune to contract one of these nasty things -- and that was just due to the normal promiscuous environment one finds at a university these days. We can assure you this sucked something fierce for these unfortunates. However, there was no direct societal burden, as these people had private health insurance to assume the costs of their indiscretion. (Although, we must say, we'd be annoyed if they were in the same risk pool as we were).

In many of these cases, however, there is a direct societal burden -- not only in terms of the human cost to these unfortunates and those close to them; but also the economic cost to Government, and hence, society as a whole. And since these things are easily spread, one infected person can spread their ailment to dozens, if not more, people. As such, the problem multiplies.

The potential impact on children -- the natural end result of the procreative act -- is also particularly alarming. Our sociologists have done a good job at pinpointing the risk factors for delinquency and criminality among youth, and certainly the aberrant home life that such children would experience would put them at risk of falling into that pit. That's unfortunate not only because such children could end up burdening the rest of society, but because of the incredible reservoir of human potential going for naught. Of course, if the child's life is ended in the womb, then that potential has gone for naught; but long-time Rant readers know our thoughts on that.

One final point: we have read with interest the responses of the many, many commenters who have let Mr Esmay know what they think. Several of them are quite thoughtful; and interestingly, one even comes from a self-professed former prostitute. That latter writer was not alone in arguing that it was simply a fee-for-service arrangement; and another writer even went so far as to defend the institution.

However, such a rationale only works if one lives in a world where the conjugal act is morally and temporally equivalent to buying a widget. When cast in the cold light of how things actually work, it falls apart like a vampire caught outdoors at noontime.

For as much as one might want, one can't separate out the moral side, or nonchalantly apply simplistic economics to this aspect of human existence. We have quipped before that the oldest profession represents the one aspect of human life where the "zero-sum game" theory actually holds sway. But in all seriousness, whether one looks at things on a moral, spiritual or economic level, we can say without reservation that all the players in this game will always suffer loss.

* We have no doubt that Mr Esmay will be annoyed with us for using the term "the oldest profession" throughout, as he makes the right-thinking point that it is not a profession. However, as a euphemism, it works.

** See Dr Lewis's "Mere Christianity" (Ch. 5, Sexual Morality, p. 87)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:53 AM | TrackBack

January 29, 2004

They Say It's Our Birthday

SO IT IS OUR BIRTHDAY next week. We can assure you that as in years past, we will have a quiet and simple celebration of the day. Indeed, it will be even simpler now that the Coca-Cola Co. Inc. has introduced Diet Coke with Lime, a drink which practically screams "Just Add Rum!"

We are hesitant to mention our age, primarily because doing so prompts jeers from our younger readers and disgust from our older ones. For this latter group of readers, we know that whiny, petulant griping about our age is the last thing they want to read. Indeed, as our father (Mr Kepple) put it, "Think how I feel." So we can assure you that we aren't going to carry on like some angst-ridden musician. This we promise. After all, we're only going to be 28, which in the grand scheme of things is a fine age to be.

Rather, we're going to look at this past year and the years to come. Oh, aye, that's a dangerous game; but it is fun to play, primarily because it gives us a written record to examine in the far-off future. We can assure you, though, that what ever we write here shall almost certainly bear no resemblance to how events actually play out.

For if you had told us eight years ago that we would soon find ourselves living in Los Angeles, we would have laughed at you uproariously. Had you mentioned future New Hampshire residency during our time in southern California, we would have similarly guffawed. So for all we know, despite our grand plans and dreams and hopes, five years' time shall see us living in some Memphis flophouse.

IN ANY EVENT, though, we can say one thing: we are better off than we were one year ago -- better off financially, better off physically, better off in terms of our soul. In some ways, it's hard to believe how well things have gone -- and we must say we feel a bit like Marco Polo in terms of blogging about it: ("I have not told half of what I have seen!") But we can say that all the moments of happiness and despair, excitement and frustration, bliss and misery -- they left us wiser.

And that, we would argue, is the accomplishment here -- we learned quite a lot. Not so much in terms of book-learning, although we have kept active with that; but rather in terms of learning about how life works.

For instance, we fell in love for the first time this past year. We are sorry to say that it did not last; but still, the experience was nothing but good in all respects. To this day we are still a bit dazed by how it all happened, but we would say this: there are few things more wonderful in life than knowing someone else loves you regardless of temporal things; when all the things on paper count for naught. And when this relationship eventually came to naught, we did our best to act with honor, and to act like a man should. By that, we mean that we accepted it, and we were thankful for all the good times along the way.

We also had some professional success as well, or so we thought; just because we felt like we were working like men are supposed to work. All those late nights and work-sleep-work cycles proved nothing but good, we think; not merely for the temporal benefits they provided, but the spiritual ones as well. Yes, there was that sense of laborare est orare, but there was also a sense that with our labor, we were doing right by our family. Perhaps we are not expressing this as well as we ought, but we hope that serves as an adequate distillation.

Finally, though, we would say that over this past year, we grew up a bit. Whether there was one key event that sparked this, we cannot say; but we notice that we've taken an eye to more serious matters as of late. We can assure you we have started taking Our Actual Future into account instead of living for the moment.

Consider: we actively save for our retirement. We regularly do preventive maintenance on our car. We have started taking vitamins and try to get a good rest each night. Hell, we've even started eating breakfast (although, in true Ben Kepple fashion, we're decidedly un-hip about it. It's bad enough we drink Tab; but starting our day with Product 19?).

Of course, on a mental level we are fully prepared for all these things to turn out badly. We are ready to deal with the market crashing and the car catching fire and for Kellogg's to replace Product 19 with some hideous kid-friendly sugar derivative touted by one or more talking birds with Serious Freakin' Issues. But even if all these things came to pass, we could rest easy knowing we have had a hell of a life -- and that the best things are yet to come.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:41 PM | TrackBack

Sorry About That, Everyone

WE MUST APOLOGIZE to loyal Rant readers for not posting much as of late. We've been busy -- miserably, furiously, wretchedly busy -- and just haven't had the time to do any considerable blogging. Indeed, except for one entry last Saturday, we've had to put the blog on the back burner.

However, we can assure you that this period of work-sleep-work is now over and done; and as such, we'll soon get to the blogging we had been meaning to do. In the meantime, though, please accept our sincere thanks for your continued visits to The Rant. We'll be back in the saddle shortly, we promise.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:31 AM | TrackBack

January 24, 2004

There's No Accounting for Taste

JOSHUA ELLIS HAS WRITTEN an article examining the concept of like tastes, in which he puts forth a few arguments on the concept, some with more merit than others.

Mr Ellis makes the point that people with like interests will congregate together, which seems a rational observation on American life. He then argues that the Internet has caused this dynamic to change. Now, he says, more people than ever can find others of like mind through blogging. Finally, Mr Ellis charges that this state of affairs is great for content producers, i.e. writers and musicians, but problematic for content distributors, i.e. publishing houses and recording companies. In this vein, Mr Ellis rants about Britney Spears' success.

Mr Ellis writes:

"Ms. Spears has precisely zero talent at anything, except possibly for the hardly-challenging skill of shaking her ass. Her songs are wretched parodies of everything that makes music great and vital. She cannot hold a key without production effects. In effect, she is little more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track.

And yet, she is one of the best-selling pop stars in the world. Why? Because record labels promote the ever-loving hell out of her. It is impossible to walk into a chain record store without seeing her face (or more likely, her ass) plastered up on every surface. MTV plays her videos on an endless loop, because the record labels have created artificial demand for her work.

And yet, the likelihood is that Ms. Spears herself is making most of her money not from record sales, but from merchandise sales – t-shirts and handbags and training bras. As profitable as these items may be, they are worthless without the heavy hand of her record label. Without the label's promotional efforts, without the album it distributes around the globe to giggling teenage girls and the videos it gets played on MTV and the singles it pays "promoters" to push on radio stations, a Britney Spears t-shirt would be no more a commodity than a t-shirt with my face on it. If you took the record label out of the equation, Britney Spears really would be nothing more than a Junior League lap dancer with a karaoke backing track. She would certainly not become successful on the merits of her music, because it has none."

You know such criticism is over the top when even we think it is sour grapes.

Regular Rant readers know, of course, that Ms Spears routinely appalls us. One day, we are inadvertently exposed to one of her horrid new songs; on a second, we are bombarded with stories about her quickie marriage; on a third, we learn about something particularly idiotic she has said, such as claiming she wasn't a role model. However, we think the sick Hollywood culture contributes to these happenings; and for us to agree with Mr Ellis' argument in this regard would be foolish.

We mean, really. The record companies are promoting their musicians? Gad! The nerve these people have! To think that these otherwise fine corporations would actually attempt to make money!

The truly funny part about the whole thing is that Mr Ellis has bought into the trap. After all, in criticizing her so harshly, he merely adds to the publicity that she receives (hey, it prompted us to write about it). His argument would have been stronger had he simply criticized the music business in general.

Oh, and we love the argument about "artificial demand" too. We could see such an argument applied if the situation involved a rumored (or contrived) shortage in oil or bauxite; for buyers would drive up the price of such goods on those rumors (and sell on the news). But the idea of artificial demand in the music business does not apply -- at least not to compact disc sales. There, the demand is very real; even we cannot deny that millions of people really want Ms Spears' albums. And since the cost-per-disc of producing a compact disc falls the more one produces of any particular issue, Mr Ellis' argument is just not sound on an economic basis.

In that vein, we also can't agree with Mr Ellis' argument that Ms Spears has no talents at all. Aside from the singing and prancing about on stage bit, she clearly she has a talent for separating Americans from their hard-earned money, and in our capitalist society that counts for quite a lot.

Had Mr Ellis applauded Ms Spears for this instead of criticizing her, that would have helped us buy into his schtick. But he did not, and as such we find his arguments greatly diminished. For in attacking the success of one particular segment of music, he undermines the essence of his own argument: that in this world, there's no accounting for taste.

(Via Dean Esmay)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:11 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

Beyond The Lord of the Rings

"THEN THE LORD GOD said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever --' Therefore, the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken."

-- Genesis 4:22-23

WE MUST SAY we are delighted the three Lord of the Rings films have garnered such amazing critical and box-office acclaim. Yet this is not merely because the movies in themselves are amazing. That would be triumph enough. Rather, it is because when placed against any conceivable cultural standard, they rise to that standard and surpass it. As proof of that argument, consider the following.

First: the movies are, as we said, amazing cinema. They're just quality films, and it's always nice to see people choose those over some mindless drivel. Second: the movies reinforce the concepts of good and evil, which have wrongly been discounted in this modern age. Thirdly: the films will excite their audience to the point where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will buy the books on which the films are based. It is this that gives us the most inner joy.

We are joyful not merely because people will rediscover the love of reading; and go on to read other books. It is that the books themselves will cause people to do some serious thinking about the greater and more important things in life. For whilst "The Hobbit" is a children's story, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is most certainly not (Sheila O'Malley pointed that out). Indeed, we can imagine that those who only know the movie may find the books a bit daunting at first -- but they'll finish recharged.

One might find it a stretch to say that "The Lord of the Rings" might cause a cultural reawakening; but we are hopeful that such a thing happens. We hope that people will read Tolkien very closely indeed -- not only because the work deserves it, but because for many readers, the books will spark an intellectual and spiritual fire. Intellectually, the books are challenging. Spiritually, although Tolkien was extraordinarily subtle in his work, religious messages do exist in it. And while the book is clearly not out to convert anyone to a particular faith, we would be pleased enough if people began giving such things thought.

IT IS AMAZING to consider that even as Western society continues to reach unmatched heights in terms of its knowledge and prosperity, we have seen an increasing disconnect between the temporal world and the spiritual/intellectual world. Such a gap was nonexistent when our country was founded; it was still quite small fifty years ago; but now, it has exploded open. We submit that this trend must be reversed, lest the stratification become permanent, and the damage to society go beyond repair.

This is not to say that we are looking for a religious revival, so to speak. We understand that Faith, in the religious sense, is highly personal; this goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of Free Will. One cannot be forced to believe in anything, no matter how much another screams or pleads. In short, one must accept -- or reject -- God on one's own terms; and there's nothing anyone else can do about that.

Still, we find it disconcerting that these issues are not as prevalent today as other matters. This may be a case of us looking through rose-colored glasses at the past, but we find it disturbing that in this life, people can in theory go without thinking about these things at all. Indeed, people are openly discouraged from thinking about the spiritual. What we have seen instead is a marked emphasis on the temporal world -- with its omnipresent focus on materialism. And while wealth is clearly a good thing, consumption alone does not encourage thought. If we are to give everyone a true chance at happiness, we ought value both the intellectual and spiritual building blocks upon which they can construct that.

One thousand years ago, even the poorest peasant -- while deprived of even the most rudimentary education -- gave thought to the spiritual. It was nitroglycerin for the mind; it opened a frontier; it gave him the chance to reach higher. Today, on the other hand, we disregard spiritual matters. We do all right with the intellectual side of things, but we don't do enough to encourage rigorous study on one's own. And if both building blocks are thus diminished, how can people have all the tools they need to make the decisions which lead to happiness?

Thus, enter Prof Tolkien. We sincerely hope that his work will build respect for the intellect, but also for the soul. And while that was an incredibly long digression -- sorry -- we also hope that people will start reading some of Tolkien's friends as well.

Specifically, we refer to C.S. Lewis, whose relationship with Prof Tolkien has been well-documented. We bring him up because Dr Lewis wrote a trilogy of his own that is well worth reading. That would be the so-called "Space Trilogy" -- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

It is an odd trilogy -- and we say that because the books are different in tone and style. They are all wonderful, but they are different. Dr Lewis writes from a Christian perspective, one might say. It's not overpowering or blunt or TOO over-the-head, but it certainly does exist, and one should expect to see that regularly in the series.

The first volume is something an educated high schooler would read and get. The second is about the same, but a bit more difficult. The third -- which one can read on one's own, without the other two -- is extremely tough reading, for it challenges a reader's intellect at every turn

Interestingly, Prof Tolkien apparently had a significant influence on that volume. As Dr Lewis writes in his preface, "Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien."

We won't spoil the story, although we will say this: That Hideous Strength may seem a slog to get through at times. Do not let this discourage you, though. It is that way for a reason. You see, Dr Lewis was not kidding when he gave That Hideous Strength the sub-title "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups."

For it deals entirely with the world as an adult knows it, and all the wonderful and terrible things adults deal with on a daily basis. It is passionate and yet maddening; troubling and yet awe-inspiring; immensely spiritual and yet so very temporal. As the tale unfolds, it pulls no punches. And it will keep you thinking long after you turn the last page.

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January 20, 2004

Ofcom? Ofgem? JeCr!

IT IS FITTING that the above was inspired by one of Anthony Burgess' drier-than-dry quips, as it sums up a serious problem in modern British society. Namely, we speak of the UK's horrid yet trendy practice of giving Government agencies awful names. Not merely bad names, you understand, but names one would expect to hear escape the lips of Comrades Smith and O'Brien.

As an American, we find this disturbing.

We're sorry, but Government agencies ought not be named things like Ofcom. It's not just that it rings too much like Minipax or Miniluv, although that's a serious flaw. It's that a name should spell out what exactly the agency does.

Now, that's not to say we don't appreciate regional differences among the English speaking peoples. However, the United States and Canada do a much better job in this regard.

Here in America, our "alphabet soup" system is easy to master. Everyone still uses the long form in official correspondence, but in everyday conversation, the short form suffices handily. In cases where the alphabet soup system doesn't apply, the long form actually describes what the agency does. It's a simple and pleasant concept, and works very well.

Canada, meanwhile, often takes a simple descriptive (i.e. Health, Citizenship and Immigration, Western Economic Diversification, etc.) and sticks the word "Canada" after it. This denotes that one is dealing with the Canadian federal Government, and especially not with the bloody Americans. But like our standard, everyone gets it.

One cannot say this for the present British scheme.

Consider that the learned Mr Mark Steyn, writing recently in The Telegraph, said that he had never heard of Ofcom. As Mr Steyn is a noted commentator on British politics, we offer this as prima facie evidence that the naming scheme is an utter failure. Indeed, it was only with much work that we ourselves found that Ofcom is the recently-created, kinda-sorta successor agency to something called Oftel. And we don't even want to discuss Ofgem. Mr Steyn seems similarly unimpressed, as he makes a foreboding reference to the potential formation of something called OfOf.

We are confident the British will never let it come to that. However, we would suggest that they rename Ofcom the "Office of Communications," instead of having the latter in four-point type below the former's giant logo. They could also call it the Communications Regulatory Authority, or another easily-understandable name. Otherwise, they might find queries for these people end up with these people, and that would prove a total mess.


NOTICE: We would like to apologize to our readers for posting an entry on the naming systems of foreign Government agencies. This type of minutiae must prove exceedingly boring. However, Mr Kepple has final authority on content, and he insisted.


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January 19, 2004

Director Rewrites History; We Rewrite Film

OH, GOD. Such was our first thought when we saw a particular article in today's edition of The Washington Times, which informed us that British academics have "savaged" a film director for making a bad movie about the Crusades. As we learn from reading the article, that is not an inaccurate word to use:

Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott was savaged by senior British academics yesterday over his forthcoming film, which they say "distorts" the history of the Crusades to portray Arabs in a favorable light.

The $135 million film, which stars Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson, is described by the makers as being "historically accurate" and designed to be "a fascinating history lesson."

However, academics — including Britain's leading authority on the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith — attacked the plot of "Kingdom of Heaven," describing it as "rubbish," "ridiculous," "complete fiction" and "dangerous to Arab relations ..."

Well, we suppose we can scotch this particular film off our viewing list, given A) our penchant for true history; and B) that Dr Riley-Smith says, in so many words, that the movie is flawed in nearly all respects. From the Times, here's more on the movie's plot:

... The script depicts Baldwin's brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, who succeeds him as King of Jerusalem, as "the archvillain." A further group, "the Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews and Christians," is introduced, promoting an image of cross-faith kinship. "They were working together," the film's spokesman said. "It was a strong bond until the Knights Templar cause friction between them."

Gad. Look -- don't get us wrong. We very much approve when folks of differing traditions work together. But this doesn't sound anything like the Crusades. This sounds like some sort of zany screwball comedy!

Say. That gives us an idea.

Why not throw in a Buddhist monk along with this brotherhood? He can deliver important-sounding wisdom when the hot-headed Christian (Owen Wilson) makes the inevitable call for violent action against the Templars. And then, later in the film, our heroes can stop the fighting by organizing a rap concert! (1)

Oh, we can see it now.


KING GUY: There lies the enemy! ST JAMES AND AT -- ! (2)
RAYMOND of TRIPOLI: My lord king! Do you not hear that sweet singing from yonder plain below?
KING GUY: Well, as a matter of fact --
BALIAN of IBELIN: Dude! It's the Black-Eyed Peas!

(CRUSADERS halt, murmuring among themselves.)

KING GUY: Oh. Well. Yes, I suppose that could very well be the hit sensation sweeping America playing below the Horns of Hattin. Might I remind you we're fighting for Jerusalem?
RAYMOND of TRIPOLI: M'lord! How can we fight with the glorious strains of "Where is the Love?" ringing in our ears?
KING GUY: Never mind! What part of "extreme danger from angry foreign army" don't you get?
BALIAN of IBELIN: Dude! The Old Man's down there partying! We can score some killer weed!
KING GUY: What! Look here! I order you to ...
BALIAN of IBELIN: (to Crusaders) It's a free concert! A FREE CONCERT!

(CRUSADERS drop their weapons and rush down the hill. In their haste, THE TRUE CROSS is knocked aside and topples. Meanwhile, in SALADIN'S CAMP, a similar situation is at hand).

SALADIN: Observe the Crusaders! Stand ready! Now -- give the devil the lie -- ! (3)
TAKI ed-DIN: Sir! A Buddhist monk has conveniently arrived as you prepare to smash the infidel!
SALADIN: Do make it quick, would you?
BUDDHIST MONK: My lord. "Hatred is never appeased by hatred. Hatred is only appeased by love. This is an eternal law." (4)

(concert music drifts over to camp)

SALADIN: Gee, they're having a lot of fun over there, aren't they? And it wouldn't be noble to attack them while they're getting down in a totally righteous manner, now would it?
TAKI ed-DIN: What! Oh no. You've got to be kidding me.
SALADIN: Sorry, Taki. Let's go join them.

NARRATOR: And thus, it was on this day that both sides learned the value of peace. And everyone lived happily ever after. Well, until Constantinople got sacked in 1204. Hoo boy.


OK, so maybe these ideas wouldn't fit in with the rest of the film. But we're just offering them up. After all, if the movie is arguably complete fiction, why not go the full nine yards? (FIN)

HISTORICAL NOTES: In criticizing a movie based on historical accuracy, we realize the importance of providing well-researched historical facts for our readers, in addition to showing where we have taken a bit of license.

(1) This is a broad application of a theory first advanced by the writer M. Stanton Evans.
(2) As best we can tell, "St James and at 'em!" was not actually a medieval Frankish war cry, but rather a Spanish war cry during the Reformation.
(3) On the other hand, "Give the devil the lie!" was a war cry used by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin. See Runciman's "A History of the Crusades," vol. ii, p. 459.
(4) See the Pali Dhammapada, verse 5.

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January 18, 2004

Shock Fury over Carey Concert

MALAYSIAN POLITICIANS are demanding that Mariah Carey not be allowed to perform in that nation, the BBC reports.

Officials with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party warn that Carey's concert would have a bad influence on young Malaysians, even though Carey has agreed to dress restrictions, the BBC says Indeed, party youth-wing leader Ahmad Sabki Yusof gave this justification for banning a concert: "Everyone knows Mariah Carey presents herself in a sexy, unacceptable and almost vulgar manner."

Well, yes. What was the trouble again?

Oh, all right. So that was an unacceptable, gauche and chauvinistic cheap shot. We admit it. That said, we would have found this story even more amusing had Mr Ahmad Sabki complained about the quality of the music.

We still wouldn't have agreed with the idea, but perhaps in our heart of stone, we would have had the slightest bit of sympathy.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:23 PM | TrackBack

January 17, 2004

Classic Blunders Dept.

WE VERY MUCH WONDER -- if Wallace Shawn had a chance to do it all over again, would he do so?

Mr Shawn, as you may know, is the actor whose fame in life comes from playing Vizzini, the cunning Sicilian in "The Princess Bride." In that movie, Messer Vizzini leads the band of kidnappers who abscond with Princess Buttercup; a move which prompts both hero Westley to follow in hot pursuit and Vizzini to shout "Inconceivable!" all the time. But it was a role Mr Shawn played almost too well. For now that his energies have turned to different things, the people still recall his role as Vizzini.

We don't know if Mr Shawn would play Vizzini all over again; but we can imagine the thousands of people now stuck with bad Argentine bonds would have made different investing decisions, if given the chance. Megan McArdle reports on the full story here. Her commenters largely hold the same view as we do on the matter: there's no denying it's a sad situation, but it still brings to mind another Vizzini saying -- "You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!"

We will admit the greatest classic blunder still involves a land war in Asia. But in our mind, "investing in securities backed by shaky Governments" is up there with "speculating in commodities." And it's not as if history hasn't borne this out: not just in Argentina (see the comments on Ms McArdle's site for more on that) but elsewhere in emerging markets. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal story she cites on the matter makes the whole thing sound like a repeat of the Mexican Savings Bank Crisis (1).

PAY YOU BACK? INCONCEIVABLE!: EVIL VIZZINI exults upon learning Westley (in foreground) sunk all his money into Argentine bonds, leaving him virtually penniless. At Vizzini's right is Princess Buttercup, preparing for her new job overseeing lending to shaky Governments.

Anyway, all kidding aside, the Argentine situation is proof of an oft-told and important investing lesson: when it comes to the risk-reward principle, don't get so focused on the reward that you disregard the risk.

Speaking of risk-reward and classic blunders, remember when we were griping about cattle futures? Well, we are pleased to say that this topic was of interest to several folks. As such, we thought we would give you an update.

The contracts fell nearly TWO THOUSAND points, according to the good people at barchart.com. This was the equivalent of a 21 percent loss -- but as we discussed before, the extremely high leverage and volatility inherent to commodities trading means the loss was much more than that for speculators. In the end, long-players likely lost not just their initial investment, they likely lost it several times over, depending on what their initial margin requirements were.

We don't deny that we're not sympathetic to either the cattle traders or the Argentine bond buyers, as both groups were playing very dangerous games. However, we are sorry that they had to learn a very important lesson the hard way. Namely, that the inconceivable happens much more often than one would hope.

(1)Back in the Seventies, a whole bunch of Yankee investors got burned when their money, placed in high-yielding Mexican savings accounts, was devalued by the Mexican Government. For an in-depth look at that crisis, see Andrew Tobias' take on the matter in his "The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need," pp. 3-5.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: We're not licensed financial advisors -- we just have opinions on this type of stuff. So consult with an expert before you make any investment decision, read the prospectus, past performance not indicative of future results; people can and do lose so much money they end up hocking the wife's engagement ring and selling Billy's braces; you know the drill.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 15, 2004

Wisconsin Case May Herald End of Decent Society

BACK IN THE EARLY NINETIES, when we were but an out-of-sorts high school student growing up in a small Midwestern city, we sometimes made the common mistake of considering something cool when it was merely outside of our normal experience. Thus it was that we would occasionally watch "Catastrophe!", a particularly bad 1977 disaster film, with some of our friends.

How bad is the film? Well, consider that William Conrad (of "Jake and the Fatman" fame) is the narrator. Consider that all it contains is footage of such events as the infamous 1974 Xenia Tornado and 1969's Hurricane Camille. Consider that it contains some real howlers for lines, such as: "Auto racing: America's #1 sport!" Yep. It is that bad.

Anyway, because this movie was made in the Seventies, it will be no surprise to know it ended with a screed against the nuclear power industry. If we remember right, viewers were informed that -- despite the presence of a massive fault line underneath -- Actual Nuclear Power Stations operated in the general area of Northern California. Hence, the film argued, it was only a matter of time before a tremendous earthquake leveled the area, and spilled our precious nuclear fuel into the environment. Our civilization, Mr Conrad warned, could end "not with a bang, but with a whimper."

Well, as it turned out, Mr Conrad wasn't just whistling Dixie.

For we have learned of an incident so small that it could be considered a whimper on the news cycles; yet we believe it heralds trouble for decent society in the United States. But don't take our word for it. Let's turn to the Fond du Lac (Wisc.) Reporter for more details:


Cable TV made a West Bend man addicted to TV, caused his wife to be overweight and his kids to be lazy, he says. And he’s threatening to sue the cable company.

Timothy Dumouchel of West Bend wants $5,000 or three computers, and a lifetime supply of free Internet service from Charter Communications to settle what he says will be a small claims suit.

Dumouchel blames Charter for his TV addiction, his wife’s 50-pound weight gain and his children’s being “lazy channel surfers,” according to a Fond du Lac police report.


We'll let that sink in for a bit before we continue. Besides, we're out of drink and are saving our leftover pain medicines for special occasions; so we personally need to give it some time ---

(Typesetter's note: at this point, the two minutes immediately following were redacted from the finished transcript on the request of Mr Kepple. At the two minute one second mark, it picks up as follows).

-- FRICKING KIDDING. GOD ALMIGHTY, IS NOTH -- oh! you're still here. Um. Hi! Anyway, back to this fellow in West Bend, Wisc. We will be charitable, and say only that we believe he is not the sharpest nail in the drawer.

It's not simply that he blamed the cable company for the problems in his life. It's not just that, according to the story, the fellow's alleged actions at an earlier date got the police involved in the matter. It is that he has further alleged openly that his children are indolent and his wife is overweight. This, as the saying goes, was dumb. For it is hence very likely that none of them are all that happy about being described as such not only in "the paper," but to urbi et orbi.

Of course, the story gets better. From the Reporter:


Charter employees called police to the local office at 165 Knight’s Way the evening of Dec. 23 after Dumouchel showed up with a small claims complaint, reportedly intimidated an employee and made “low-level threats” to employees’ safety, according to a police report.

The report states Dumouchel gave an employee five minutes to get a supervisor to talk to him or their next contact would be “in the ocean with the sharks.”

According to the report, Dumouchel told Charter employees he plans to sue because his cable connection remained intact four years after he tried to get it canceled.

The result was that he and his family got free cable from August of 1999 to Dec. 23, 2003.


There are no words in human speech which can convey our reaction to that. Well, there are, but let's just say things are still sinking in. Hence, we shall again turn to the Reporter:


“I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years,” Dumouchel stated in a written complaint against the company, included in a Fond du Lac police report.

“But the reason I am suing Charter is they did not let me make a decision as to what was best for myself and my family and (they have been) keeping cable (coming) into my home for four years after I asked them to turn it off.”

According to the police report, Dumouchel called Charter to stop his cable service in August of 1999 and was taken off the billing but not the cable service.

In a written statement, he said he put the family TV in the basement in 1999 after he had called to get cable disconnected, but soon thereafter, his wife had moved it back and hooked up the cable connection, and it still worked.

He stated he “made a deal” with her that “she could watch TV as long as the cable worked.”

He then went back to Charter and asked that they disconnect his service, which they reportedly never did.


Now, we do not argue that this fellow's statement does not have some element of truth to it. After all, if you watched a steady diet of "MTV's Newlyweds" and the Game Show Network, "Manimal" reruns and syndicated episodes of "Jake and the Fatman," you'd have gone to pot faster than Brian Wilson too.

However, millions upon millions of Americans enjoy cable television on a daily basis, and show no such ill effects. This is because they still practice what was once known as personal responsibility. Antiquated though it may seem, this practice could have helped out this fellow and his family. Yet, instead of following this time-honored tradition, this fellow wants to sue instead -- even though there's clearly no civil wrong present, even though he has not exhausted all his options, even though it's bloody insane.

This, we would submit, is the rub. In this case, an everday average citizen has abjured his personal duties to the point of ridiculousness. But not only has he completely refused to accept that his own actions brought about the state in which he now exists, he seeks to blame a wholly innocent party for his own troubles.

What's important is that this case isn't isolated; it seems as if a growing number of people sue someone else as the cause of their problems, instead of looking in the mirror to find the culprit. Perhaps this facet of our modern-day existence may not truly be worthy of inclusion in "Catastrophe!" But it is not something that we think bodes well for life in America either.

(link via Damian Penny)

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January 14, 2004

Colder Than Hell

ACCORDING TO THE LATEST weather reports, the city of Manchester is entering that horrible time we politely call a "deep-freeze." By this, we mean that the temperature has fallen below 32 degrees Fahrenheit/0 Celsius, and will not rise above that point for days if not weeks.

Last year, this was bearable. Then, the temperatures were not particularly extreme; it was simply a very long cold snap that lasted for weeks during the dead of winter. This year, however, things have gotten much worse -- so much so that our only venturing out over the next few days will be for A) essential errands and B) warming up the car.

Tonight, as temperatures hovered around the -1 F/-18 C mark, we know we will be in the thick of it over these next few days. On Thursday night, Manchester -- in southern New Hampshire -- is forecast to see a low of -13 F/-25 C, and that's without the wind. Wind chills are forecast to fall as low as -45 F/-43 C. This is in the city, mind you; a place where the ambient temperature is always a couple of degrees warmer than the surrounding country; and a place that looks tropical compared to destinations farther north.

For instance, Whitefield, N.H., is a few hours' drive north of us. Right now, it is -21 F/-29 C in that town; and windchills there are expected to fall to 55 below. And as for Mount Washington --

Well, you don't want to know. We'll just leave it at that.

We will say this, though. There's a reason we Michiganders call highs of 40 degrees "shorts weather."

RELATED: Sheila O'Malley on Chicago weather.
RELATED: Dean Esmay is getting buried in snow.

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The End of Poetry

SHEILA O'MALLEY has posted an interesting passage from the poet Brad N. Haas about the import of poetry in this day and age. She lets the argument, the beginning of an article which Mr Haas wrote here, stand for itself.

The quote in question reads as follows. Mr Haas writes:

"The poet in our current time is complacent, maintaining an air of respectability or is the creator of outrageous manifestos -- in either case is benign. In times past poets were leaders and creators of reality; they were respected and entrusted with the keeping of cultural inheritance. Somehow this has changed, and poets now are non-entities for the most part; sure, they are politely applauded by small audiences, they sell a few volumes; they put their private lives on display to make others feel human. But this is all 'culture', a word which now seems to mean, not the whole of society, but entertainment for the few -- dividends received for living in a 'civilized' society. Furthermore, poets generally believe that they are effective, believe they make an impact on society; and who is responsible for this misconception is a great mystery -- some influence outside the poetic community, or worse yet, the poets themselves -- an important question that will not be answered here. This, for us, is the important fact: the poet has somehow been marginalized, and there is no sense that our society would die without the presence of poetry or poets. Perhaps this is the gravest sign of cultural coma."

Interestingly, Mr Haas goes on to examine how another poet dealt with these very same issues; but to our very untrained eye, the poet in question seemed a middling talent, and as such we abandoned reading the essay. Mr Haas' opening statement, though, suffices for our needs. And after mulling his arguments, we would say we agree with him entirely -- except for his last point. For it is not our culture which has become lifeless, but rather poetry itself.

For the majesty of the old epics will never die; the power, the craftmanship inherent in them has ensured their immortality. From the earliest epics (Gilgamesh) through the classical era (Homer, Vergil, Ovid) to medieval times (Dante), the meter and rhythm of poetry has produced some of the loveliest written works of man. Later generations (Milton, Burns, to name a few) kept up the craft, and their work will stir a man's passions today just as much as it did in the years when they walked this earth.

Prose, on the other hand, long held a different position in life: as the language of history and business and tax documents, honorable but also practical. Despite some successes (Petronius Arbiter, The Satyricon) it is only in the past few centuries that prose has truly taken its place as the supreme medium for a writer to do his work. One does not remember the Quixote for Cervantes' ballads within; and perhaps one could say that it was with Cervantes where prose first truly got the attention it deserved from the world.

Now, God knows that reams of bad prose have poured forth from the minds of men since that time. Indeed, we recall perhaps the best criticism of one such effort, from H.L. Mencken. He began his short review with the opening paragraph of a novel, a piece of writing so abysmal it made one gag. After reprinting the paragraph in question, Mr Mencken stopped -- and wrote, "Thus the book begins -- God knows how it ends!"

Still, though, the bad prose has not been overwhelmed by the good; indeed, well-written prose has poured forth from writers since Cervantes, and in such quantities that if one wanted, one could read all one's life without touching upon anything considered sub-par. This is not something one could say about poetry -- and especially poetry today.

Indeed, when the fabulous English writer Anthony Burgess wrote his series of books featuring the irascible poet Julius Enderby, one writer -- we forget who -- noted that a major popular question about the books was that no one could tell if Enderby's poetry was good or bad. And while we readily admit we do not have a natural ear for poetry, we don't think any of today's poets have the skills of Dante, Whitman, Hughes, Owen or Sandberg.

Now, this assumption of ours may be due to a lack of knowledge about modern poetry; as we have said, we don't very much care for it, and don't go out of our way to read it. But what we have read -- from the famous or notorious among today's poets -- is middling at best and miserable at worst. Actually, miserable isn't accurate -- worthless, stinking, useless, smarmy, wretched hideous drivel is a more accurate turn of phrase for the worst of the work churned out by some poets. For it is almost as if those old concepts of beauty and tradition to which the old poets adhered have been lost. One is no longer left speechless in pondering a line as beautiful as music; one is more likely to curse and ponder what in hell does he mean anyway.

As for why this has come about ... well, we can say we think technology has played a part in it. For with the rise of commercial music over the past century, the musicians have intruded upon the poets' natural turf, and thrown them off it most roughly. The musicians can never compete against prose writers, of course; the media are too different, the concepts too dissimilar. But can anyone truly listen to an amazing record or a catchy song these days and say the lyrics therein are not poetry?

Indeed, we would argue the musicians have fought the poets, and won. The former bask in the glory and adulation of the people, making millions as they work; the latter are lucky if they get some critical attention and make a few thousand dollars per annum. Perhaps it would not be a stretch to say that those, who in a different era would have been poets, have opted instead for a six-string guitar. And perhaps poetry is the way it is now because its practitioners are those who couldn't make the switch, or who loved poetry so much they couldn't see the rot which had set in.

As for Mr Haas' secondary argument -- that poets today are complacent and labor under amazing delusions of grandeur -- who knows why that is?

Perhaps this is merely a matter of the soul; something that has simply affected poets more than most. For any creative type -- an actor, a musician, a writer, a poet, a painter, a sculptor or a singer -- can easily fall into such a trap, especially if he gets a bit of success under his belt. It is amusing to see how some of the more famous creative types have become so oblivious to the world's workings that they truly believe they're all that important; and that they matter in the grand scheme.

Now, that's not to say such people aren't important, or that they don't matter in some way. We would not be so foolish as to deny that -- especially in this age!

But what we would submit is that they've made the fatal mistake of believing their own public relations. And when that happens, it's very hard to undo the damage. They no longer have that drive and that passion that forces them to work like the devil; they no longer have the all-consuming thought that what they've accomplished is never, ever good enough. And so they slide -- slowly at first but more rapidly as the years progress -- down into that stinking morass we call mediocrity.

We would submit that many a creative type today has found himself caught in that swamp. Unlike the followers of other disciplines, though, today's poets have largely remained oblivious to that dangerous bog -- the bog which has sucked in so many of their recent predecessors. And so, things continue on -- and the vast majority of poets shall find themselves sucked down to a fate which every creative type fears most.

Namely, obscurity.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:16 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

January 13, 2004

Blogroll FINALLY Updated

AFTER A PERIOD of what could charitably be called "abject and utter neglect," we at The Rant have gone through and updated our blogroll in the left-hand column. This means that when you click on a link, you'll actually go to the site which its author intended you visit, as opposed to the dated site the author had six months or so ago!

Whyever are you scowling? Good God! Have you any idea how hard we've been working? At the end of the week, we're half-dead with exhaustion. Of course our somewhat bad health causes this, but we have come to take all of that in stride. God willing we shall really tackle the problem this year, for we are not getting any younger, and we have no intention of going to our eternal reward (punishment?) anytime soon. Si post fata venit gloria non propero and all that.

But anyway. You do not care about such things. You care that we have added a spiffy new banner with new photos and a new motto. You care that we have judiciously selected new content providers to read. So! Onward!

Actually, we think you shall be incredibly pleased with the four blogs we have added to the 'roll. They are as follows:

First on the list is Will, at Morituri Te Salutant. So far, this looks like an interesting site; also, we haven't any idea what goes on in Oregon so we figure this will be a way for us to learn. Finally, we like anyone who uses Latin, although we wonder whether the gloomy weather over there has contributed to that gloomy sentiment. We prefer the snappier version of that phrase -- We who are about to win salute you!. (We think that's vincemur te salutant, but it's late and we probably got the stem wrong and no one ever uses the future indicative passive anyway). But never mind. It looks like a neat site.

We have also added Allison Kaplan Sommer's An Unsealed Room, which as Mrs Sommer's site says, is "a window on life in Israel." She is quite an accomplished writer, and we look forward to reading her work more in future.

Next up is Val Prieto's Babalu Blog -- which is a great site; it deals very much with Cuban issues. We very highly recommend it. Especially check out Mr Prieto's articles on his family -- they are fabulous and heart-warming reading.

Finally, in a nod to our partial Scots heritage -- we have added David Farrer's Freedom and Whisky. For our health, we drink very little; but as a fellow Scot we must say we are proud to see Mr Farrer hold true to those old traditions.

So do enjoy. As for us, we are off to bed for the evening. Have a great night, and we shall return soon with more acidic commentary. Of that, we can assure you. And if you have any suggestions for blogs we should add to our blogroll, do let us know.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:41 AM | TrackBack

January 10, 2004

Oh, That's Just Swell.

You're the United Nations!
Most people think you're ineffective, but you are trying to completely save the world from itself, so there's always going to be a long way to go.  You're always the one trying to get friends to talk to each other, enemies to talk to each other, anyone who can to just talk instead of beating each other about the head and torso.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and you get very schizophrenic as a result.  But your heart is in the right place, and sometimes also in New York.

Take the Country Quiz at the Blue Pyramid

THE AUTHOR of this quiz writes: "Just for the record, I really hope no one gets offended by any of this. At times, I try to add some humor into the world of countries, and if I'm not amusing to you, just know I wasn't trying to offend anyone. I just think history and humans are funny sometimes, and the joke is usually on leaders, not peoples."

Well, we are offended! Gad! :-D

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Impulsive Celebs Prompt Impulse Buys

BEFORE WE BEGIN RANTING ABOUT, we should note the initial incident which prompted us to write did not involve an actual celebrity. No, that would have been too perfect. In reality, it involved a bad disc jockey for a bad radio station to which we listen all too frequently because, for some unexplained reason, Manchester has iffy radio reception and this station comes in clear.

During our errand-running session yesterday (see below), we had mentioned that we were scanning through the channels looking for a decent song. In doing so, we hit upon this station in particular. The disc jockey on the air, presumably someone about our age, relayed that one of the station's interns had called him a "metrosexual." He did not know what this meant. He had not even heard the word before.

This got our attention. After all, someone who is young, far out and with it ought damn well know what a metrosexual is. Furthermore, someone who is young, far out and with it knows that everyone else young, far out and with it is sick to death of the term. If one had been too busy doing something actually important, this lapse of knowledge would be acceptable and understandable. But we're talking about a disc jockey here, folks.

Hence, we concluded this disc jockey was a sub-literate moron who likely hadn't picked up a magazine in years. Further, we were appalled that someone of such limited intellectual acuity could hold such a position. But this did not apparently matter, as he was able to carry on for minutes about both the vigor of his heterosexuality and the importance of primping his hair.

Anyway. We don't know how to entirely explain our reaction, but we think we just kinda lost it right then and there. We officially became Sick and Tired of Dealing with Our Popular Culture.

For we have had it with the constant bombardment of supposed news stories about celebrities' joke weddings, incredibly poor judgment and ... um ... well ... you know. Perhaps we could actually stand it if these celebrities came across as intelligent, but they've had a really bad run at that lately.

And so, cursing that disc jockey and all for which he stands, we drove like a man possessed to our local bookstore. There, in a frenzy of consumer spending which pumped nearly $200 into our local economy, we bought a book on medieval history, a decent folk music album, and the first half of "War and Remembrance." The second half is on order.

Ah. War and Remembrance. Now that's got everything -- an epic backdrop, an amazing story, and fabulous acting. Plus, one never gets distracted because the folks in it had said something in private life so stupid that one couldn't help but remember it when seeing them perform. We're sure folks have their opinions about actors like Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour and John Rhys-Davies -- but they damn sure knew (or know) the acting came first. If only the rest of our entertainers would hold up to their example.

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Kepple's Applied Theory of Popular Music

WE WERE LISTENING to our CD collection today -- it is mostly older popular music, with techno, instrumental and some of "today's hits" included to round out the mix -- and we got to thinking about how the quality of popular music Back in the Day compares to popular music now.

Clearly, when it comes to American music, there's some sort of weird inverse relationship between economic and social stability and popular music's quality. Now, we should say we don't think this is a new idea -- we've had so many conversations with our friends and others about this, that we can't believe someone else hasn't noticed this trend. Still, even if it's only for our own benefit, we'd like to "throw it out on the stoop" and "see if the cat licks it up."

Now, earlier in the day, we were out doing some errands; and, as such, were scanning through the radio channels trying to find a decent song. After a long slog through some truly awful rap songs (1) and overproduced popular crapola, we finally found some great music. In about thirty seconds, we transformed from our normal stolid, sober analyst-type persona to -- well, let's just say Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (2) had nothing on us.

That great piece of music was 1967's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" -- sung by none other than Frankie -frickin'- Valli, folks.

What is wrong with this picture?

Consider: we are not yet thirty years old; we do enjoy a wide variety of music, particularly music which has a "phat beat" to which we can dance; we are not loathe to accept new artists or new musical styles. Yet the popular music of our growing up -- the music of the late Eighties, the Nineties and today -- can't hold a bloody candle to this Frankie Valli song.

Some might say we are being a bit too harsh. After all, tastes and styles differ over the years; few of our peers or the younger kids have even heard of Frankie Valli, much less this song in particular; and we are a bit eccentric. We can accept all these points of contention, except we would note one thing:

It's not just Frankie Valli who, on a popular music basis, still kicks the collective ass of the younger generation. The Beatles certainly do; so do The Rolling Stones; so do Crosby, Stills & Nash and variants; so do -- hell, let's really throw down the gauntlet. When it comes to popular music, Jefferson Airplane kicks the ass of the younger generation.

It's not merely on a group basis, either. No young popular artist today even comes close to Paul McCartney or John Lennon or George Harrison or Jimi Hendrix. Cass Elliot was a far superior vocalist compared to, say, Christina Aguilera; and Michelle Phillips (3) was too.

"But Bennnnnnnnnn," some younger readers may say. "What about N'Sync? What about The Backstreet Boys? What about O-Town? They've been popular bands!"

Well, the Dave Clark Five was popular too, weren't they?

The Dave Clark Five. You know. The British band with no British fans. Ah! Now you remember! Faintly.

Anyway, here's one VERY IMPORTANT caveat before we continue. We're NOT saying that all music from modern times stinks, all right? Let's be clear on that. The aforementioned pop artists do have some catchy tunes, and in general, there's a lot of fantastic music being performed today.

Sarah McLachlan, for instance, is a fabulous singer and musician; there have been some great bands over the years: Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. But even though they have done/did do very well, and achieved some airtime, there hasn't been that level of popular success that one might have expected, given the success of the Sixties' great bands and performers.

But why is this, we wondered? Well, here's our thinking on the matter.

One can't entirely explain the changes by saying, "Oh, the recording industry's just different today." We are not convinced that it really is. In the Sixties, for instance, the music had as much to do with sex and narcotics and rebellion as it does today. Indeed, as many Baby Boomers enjoy telling us, their children try to rebel -- but they can't hold a damn candle to how the Baby Boomers rebelled back in the day. So here's our theory:

The quality of the most popular music in American society is inversely proportional to the amount of societal and economic stability in the U.S. at any given time. Or, in formulaic terms, MQ = (1/(S+E)).

Let's examine how things have gone throughout various time periods in American history:

ROARING TWENTIES: Despite this decade's economic prosperity, there was clearly a great level of social instability present. After all, drink was outlawed, people were buying everything on margin or credit, and syndicate men were running the cities. Result: great jazz music popular.

GREAT DEPRESSION: Everybody out of work. Runs on the banks. Germany and Japan causing trouble. Result: great swing music popular.

MID-SIXTIES TO EARLY SEVENTIES: Massive societal instability soon combines with major economic recession. Rampant free love and narcotics use encouraged. Participation in protests and things called "be-ins" frequent among people called "yippies." Angry students and faculty take over universities. Massive crime increase. Marked rise of materialism, as opposed to religious belief, as a way of life. Erosion of the family unit. The Vietnam War divides society on one front, while on a second front, backward people still oppose civil rights for all in society. Wage and price controls. The American Motors Corp. introduces the 1967 Rebel Rambler Regional Stationwagon. End result: rock music, folk music, blues music, jazz music -- everything -- is all of top-notch quality during this turbulent period.

MID-TO-LATE SEVENTIES: Society stabilizes due to acceptance (and resignation) regarding socialist policies and economic malaise. Result: the most popular music, disco, generally bites the wax tadpole something fierce. Things do begin to improve, however, when instability rears its head at the 1979 Disco Sucks riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

THE EIGHTIES: Economic upswing causes disenchantment among some, as the Eighties' expansion is not as broadly-oriented as that which took place during the Fifties. However, with most of society happy and content, the most popular music is generally grim: sappy songs abound. (Two words: REO Speedwagon).

THE NINETIES: Brief recession makes grunge music all the rage -- and some was quite good -- but long prosperity leads to slate of forgettable and mediocre bands being most popular (Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.)

And finally, of course, we have today. America has certainly been through a hell of a lot over the past few years, but we feel pretty confident in saying that as of today, our society remains both socially and economically stable -- perhaps even as much as it was in the late Nineties. We feel it could explain a lot about the present state of music today.

Could, of course. That's the operative word. We haven't, for instance, figured out how Eminem plays into the whole equation ("he's just an outlier!" said our statistician). And as the financial types always say, past performance isn't indicative of future results!

For our generation's sake, we certainly hope not.


(1) We do not intend this as a blanket criticism of rap music; far from it. We just can't understand why 50 Cent gets all the air time, to say nothing of this latest song about the "milkshake." Gad.

(2) To quote Mr Wilder in his role as George Caldwell, editor of gardening manuals: "GET DOWN! I'M A MACARONI! BWA-DOO-BOP-BOP, BAH-DAH-BOP-BOP-BOP ... oh. Oh, no. It's not what you think ..."

(3) We would suggest that Mrs Phillips -- the other female vocalist in The Mamas and The Papas -- could well be considered the Britney Spears of her day, at least according to the photos of her which we have seen. Gad, we tell ya, we were born too late. (For more on Mrs Phillips and her band, see Matthew Greenwald's "Creeque Alley: The Oral History of The Mamas and The Papas," Cooper Square Press. Mr Greenwald, for his part, says Mrs Phillips would top any female pop performer -- past or present -- in the looks department).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 09, 2004

We Assure You: We're Not Making This Up

WE'LL ADMIT IT: we laughed until we almost cried at this story. It wasn't just the event itself, which was amazing, or the picture, which was priceless. It was all the other details.

We'll give you some idea about them. Detail one: this event took place in Sheboygan, Wisc., which in itself is funny. Detail two: this event took place at a Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Sheboygan, Wisc., which made it even funnier. Detail three: it involved a young boy named Timmy, as in Timmy-fell-down-the-well-again-go-get-help-Lassie Timmy. Detail four: this Timmy also had to be rescued, although it was not an emergency. If that had been the case, we can assure you we would not be joking about it today.

But detail five -- the most notable detail -- was that this young lad reminded us of ourselves when we were young, when our precocious ingenunity resulted in some rather crazy shenanigans.

In our case, in an event known as the Infamous Kiddie Pool Diving Attempt of 1979, we attempted to jump six feet into a wading pool with approximately fifteen inches of water in it. This plunge, which took place from a sliding door next to which no deck had yet been built, resulted in us breaking our arm. It will come as no surprise to those who know us that in addition to snapping a major limb, we also managed to miss the pool entirely, and landed instead on terra firma.

Fortunately, this Timmy's sharp thinking didn't get the best of him. And we can assure you that Timmy is almost certainly destined for greatness. For he has accomplished a feat which no American before him has managed to do -- he got to all those cheap toys in those rip-off carnival games. And if Timmy could do that at the age of seven, we are confident that in two decades' time, he will be designing that spiffy new hydrogen-powered car we would be considering for purchase.

In the meantime, we hope he got to keep a few toys for his trouble.

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January 06, 2004


"MASTER," I SAID TO HIM, "now tell me also:
This Fortune, that you spoke about just now,
What is she, that has the world's good in her clutches?"

He answered: "How foolish people are!
How great is the ignorance which strikes them down!
Now listen to me and take in what I say.

He whose wise dispositions transcend everything
Made the heavens, and gave intelligences to guide them,
So that each part shines on the other parts,

Distributing the light with equalness,
So it is with the splendors of the world,
He put in place an agent and director

Who at the proper time could change around
Vain possessions from one people to another
Or between families, and no one could do a thing ...

Your science cannot take account of her:
She controls, takes decisions, executes them
In her kingdom, as other gods in theirs.

Her permutations go on without truce;
Necessity ensures that she is rapid;
So you no sooner have a thing than you lose it."

-- Dante, Inferno VII 67-88

NEWS ITEM: Ohio woman loses winning lottery ticket worth $162 million.

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A Random Stream of Thoughts

WE ARE HAVING ONE of those maddening moments in life; one could perhaps call it a mid-life crisis, except we do not care to think of the consequences should this prove to be the median of our existence. In any event, it all began with a thought which flashed through our mind a few days ago; and as it continues to trouble our sleep, we shall give it some consideration tonight.

The thought in question? Ah, it was a true jumble of things; one of those wonderful flashes of activity which strike at an odd hour of the day. It dealt with the ideas of creative work and one's commitment to it; how that interplays with our modern society; the risk-reward concept and modern economic theory. But we'll try to make that clearer:

We admire those who devote themselves fully to the creative disciplines in life. Our trouble, because we have eschewed the risk that entails, is that we have not done so. One part of us pursues our writing while the other part stays solidly in the modern world. Hence, our fear is that we will not succeed in either sphere.

Now, there are some who might call that first realm the "world of the artist" -- we do not, primarily because we consider it inexact. Creative types are all different in temperment; the souls of writers, poets, musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, and photographers are not generally interchangeable. And as a writer, we most certainly do not think we are an artist in any sense of the word.

But what is not different about creative types is that they all have passion; they have a hunger; they have a drive to pursue their craft no matter what. It is a passion that we believe we also have; but as of late, it has seemed to wax and wane as time goes on.

For we often find ourselves drawn to the harder world; the world of figures and theories; the world of finance and economics. We feel as if we have so much yet to learn and not enough time in which to do it; and we further feel that it is our duty to do that.

We were once told -- we say modestly -- that we were quite sophisticated. But the fellow who told us that left out the natural counter-argument; that despite all our worldly knowledge, he himself could steamroll us in a New York minute when it came to the savvy he himself possesses.

But can we succeed in that worldly realm while still keeping up our writing at the pace we do? For at the end of the day, it is what we truly love, what we breathe day in and day out, for which we have a passion so intense we spend most of our waking life wrestling with the written language.

We can't say we have an answer to that question. Perhaps what we need to do is simply do a rebalancing in our private life: keeping one eye on the skies above and the other at the ground ahead of us. Because we enjoy writing with our all heart and soul; but we know that we can't ignore all else either.

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January 05, 2004

Study: "Early to Bed, Early to Rise" Complete Crap

WELL, THERE'S NO ARGUING with the figures presented here: a full half of American millionaires arise each day after 6:25 a.m.

Of course, this assumes that folks who wake up after 6:30 a.m. or so each day are late-risers, which in our universe is sheer madness. For us, we're all about the leisurely wakeup about 7:30 or so.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:12 AM | TrackBack

January 04, 2004

To Mars!

NEAT PICTURES OF THE RED PLANET abound, thanks to the complete and utter success of our exploration rover mission.

We consider this a stunning achievement for our space program, which has had an awfully good week given that its comet fly-by mission has also proven successful. Still, there's a lot more to be done -- specifically, we'd like to see a manned mission to Mars happen by 2020, if not earlier.

It's not just that there are untold worlds in this universe, and there is no reason for mankind to stay stuck on this one. It's not just that a mission to Mars would electrify the nation, and give people hope about the future. It's that space travel is, at its core, about freedom. So let's hope that we have continued successes in these endeavors.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:57 PM | TrackBack

All's Fair in Love and Business

Markets Stable After Britney Marriage, Analysts Say
Financial Rant

NEW YORK -- Equity analysts breathed a sigh of relief upon learning that musician Britney Spears had her marriage to a childhood friend annulled hours after the fact.

The analysts warned that Spears' marriage, performed with no advance warning whatsoever, would have likely caused panic among her fans in the crucial 14-35 male demographic. Had the marriage not been annulled, the shock wave from the news could have sent tremors through an already reeling music industry.

"Dear God," said Peter Boingo, who covers the music industry for Broad & Hanover Global Hedge Pluton PLLC. "Can you imagine what would have happened if she had done this on a Tuesday afternoon? Cats and dogs living together, my friend."

"I know at least six guys who have naked calls riding on equities in the industry -- don't ask me why, but they do -- and they've taken enough Pepto-Bismol to push PG over consenus already. BAY's not doing too bad either, I'll bet," Boingo continued.

"What? Options? We're not even going to go there," he added.

Respected consulting firms CLM Cyclosis Inc. and Chinese Wall Zombie Bond LLC also weighed in on how Britney's marriage, and thus her career, could have affected the industry:

"Thank God that crisis was averted," said CLM Cyclosis analyst Martin Hypsisicle, who faced the prospect of having to cancel his Aruba vacation upon learning the news. "The last thing we needed was for a major upheaval like this to take place in the industry. But, fortunately, all is now well."

"No, really," Hypsisicle said. "All is well. In fact, there may be a considerable upside to the whole scheme, as attention will again be diverted away from the music industry's underlying long-run troubles, such as the fact it has yet to figure out how to stop the young people from stealing their music.

"While a remote possibility, one could even say the industry's long-run troubles could be Keynesian in magnitude -- if you know what I mean," Hypsisicle said.

Hypsisicle's counterpart at Chinese Wall Zombie Bond, however, downplayed such dire thinking.

"Clearly, we wish Ms Spears all the possible success for which she could hope for on the romantic front," said Yancey Porous, the firm's music analyst. "We also believe an eventual marriage of Ms Spears and retirement at some future date will be eventually priced into the industry. That said, we really didn't appreciate the surprise and sudden nature of the event. (Research assistant) Doug (Wormsley) was crying his eyes out."

"However, we believe that cooler heads have prevailed, and that all concerned now have a renewed importance on just how serious marriage is in terms of both a personal and societal commitment," Porous said.

(via Oliver Willis)

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Kangaroo Jacked

WE RECENTLY LEARNED that a very good friend of ours, having just returned from a long trip to Canada and New York, had some rather interesting dining experiences in the City. An edited transcript of the conversation, held over AOL Instant Messenger, follows:

SCOTT RUBUSH: What's up, chief?
BENJAMIN KEPPLE: And welcome back to the land of milk and honey! How was Canada?
RUBUSH: Thanks, man ... just got back about an hour ago. Trip rocked.
KEPPLE: Sweet.
RUBUSH: Yeah, man, Quebec's where it's at. It's not as cool as the Manch; I mean, no Red Arrow Diner ... but still, worth the trip.
KEPPLE: Sweet.
RUBUSH: Good times all the way around. We just got back from four days in NYC. Good times there too ...
KEPPLE: Man, I can bet you had a blast there.
RUBUSH: Ate kangaroo meat on New Year's Eve!

(At this point, Mr Kepple removed his glasses to ensure that he had read Mr Rubush's last post correctly. After a momentary start, he quickly recovered).

KEPPLE: Sah-WEET! Do tell, how was it?
RUBUSH: Tastes like chicken!
RUBUSH: Naw, it's good. It was a kangaroo sausage that we had. So it tasted like sausage.
KEPPLE: A bit gamey, I would say.
RUBUSH: It was really good.
KEPPLE: Yes, but a good sausage actually has flavor, so what did it taste like? This was not $2 a pound, gristle-'n'-tripe sausage.
RUBUSH: No, it was quite good.
KEPPLE: So you said, but what did it taste like? Was it gamey, was it stringy, was it beef-like?
RUBUSH: A little bit sweet for sausage, but still peppery.
KEPPLE: Wait a minute. You didn't buy this off some street vendor, did you? Now you'll have the typhus!
RUBUSH: No, we went to a respectable Australian establishment in Greenwich Village.
KEPPLE:. There's such a thing as Australian cuisine?
RUBUSH:. Kangaroo meat. That's pretty Australian!
KEPPLE: Isn't that a bit like (English) Canadian food -- something that exists in theory, but is really just derivative of something else? ... Well, at least the beer was good. You did have beer, yes?
RUBUSH: Oh yes, much beer was consumed on New Year's Eve.
KEPPLE: What was the name of the restaurant?
RUBUSH: the sunburnt cow
KEPPLE: You've got to be kidding me.
RUBUSH: They have their menu on-line. Click on entrees.
KEPPLE: OK, that's f------ it. I went to this link you gave me and I'm greeted by a mooing cow.
RUBUSH: We had the 'Roo Bangers and Smash.
KEPPLE: (scanning menu) Did you pay a fiver for any of the sides? 'Cause you know that corn on the cob is worth $5, even in New York City.

Despite our initial qualms, though, we have to admit we'd be willing to pay the $12 for the kangaroo sausage -- just because we could. For in a wealthy society such as ours, it is not so much the quality of the goods that make something atypical or status-worthy, but rather their availability. And we're pretty bloody sure that New York is the only place we'd be able to get such a thing.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:20 AM | TrackBack

January 03, 2004

Book Notes

A BIT ABASHEDLY, we shall now present proof that we perhaps need to get out more, take up knitting, or some such other hobby.

We were in the bookstore this evening looking for our week's copy of The Economist when we stumbled across a book that we thought looked really cool. Even though we won't have time to get to it for a while, we found the topic so utterly fascinating that we eagerly picked it up and purchased it without a second thought. On the way home, we gleefully thumbed through it to get a glance at what we would be able to later study in depth. In short, this is a book we are excited about.

The book in question is David Hackett Fischer's "The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History," which examines political and social history through the lens of inflationary and deflationary periods, doing so using wage levels, prices for goods and services, etc. We don't mean just medieval history or modern history either -- there's a graph in here for Babylon in the 19th century before Christ. (That's even more impressive when you consider that actual "cash money" wasn't really invented until the 6th century before Christ.)

Money itself, we might add, was a lot cooler back before the British decimalized everything in the Seventies (more proof that everything bad in our lives happened in the Seventies). We heartily approved of the old English system, for the same reasons which everyone else out there has given on the subject. First, it was confusing enough so people actually had to learn how to do math, and second, it maintained a cultural tradition that went back to the Roman Empire.

But we'll shut up now.

Actually, now that we think of it, we do have one very serious request for our readers. We are looking for an English copy of Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli's Ricordi, which is the diary/family history of that medieval Florentine merchant. We have had absolutely no luck in finding one through the usual channels. We are going to inquire through some book dealers we know here, but if you happen to know where we could find a copy -- e-mail us! Address is on the left.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:07 AM | TrackBack

January 02, 2004

Hey, Redskins Fans: Consider Yourselves Lucky

WE HAVE BEEN AMUSED to see all the analysis, the shock, the hand-wringing coming from fans of the Washington Redskins football franchise following the resignation of Steve Spurrier, the team's head coach. We are informed that Mr Spurrier's departure throws that squad into crisis, that his potential replacements largely fall short of the mark, and so on.

Now, given Washington's tendency to reach the blissful state of maximum suckage each season, perhaps this is all understandable. However, we have little sympathy for Redskins fans in the matter.

First, Redskins fans knew what they were getting into; that, to borrow a line, following the team would be like getting hit in the head with a crowbar each week.

Second, Mr Spurrier was a lousy coach (7-9 last year, 5-11 this year). Now, arguably, that is an unfair statement to make, but we do not care. We have long detested the University of Florida's football team, which Mr Spurrier coached for many a season, and by extension have long disliked him too.

Third, Redskins fans are largely not acting as they should to the news, by which we mean they are not down on their knees praising Almighty God and His angels and saints for letting this happen. Gad. At least Redskins fans can get rid of lousy team coaches. We here at The Rant must live with ours.

MEET BILL COWHER: Shown here angrily yelling at a player for again failing to reach the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach last did a decent job with the team in 1997.

For we have long believed that Mr Cowher should be cashiered. We realize that for many Steelers fans, this may be heresy. But we will not forgive Mr Cowher's long support of Kordell Stewart, the erratic former Pittsburgh quarterback known for throwing many Immaculate Interceptions.

Even when everyone else in the United States knew that Mr Stewart should have been benched, Mr Cowher failed to do so. And because Mr Stewart's ineptitude was not as well known in the late Nineties, Mr Cowher could have gotten a great deal had he traded Mr Stewart then. Instead, the team ended up releasing Mr Stewart, who went on to do a lousy job for the Chicago Bears.

Of course, we write these words knowing that Mr Cowher will never be sacked. This is not how things are done in Iron City. But we do hope that if things do not improve over this year's abysmal performance, Mr Cowher finds it in his heart to retire soon. For nothing -- nothing -- must be allowed to stand in the way of Pittsburgh winning "one for the thumb."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:26 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack