April 30, 2004

As We Say Up Here, Live Free and Drive

SHEILA O'MALLEY has posted a fabulous essay on the subject of owning one's automobile. The gold in this essay, as it were, would be her stories of car failure in wretched circumstances -- the blown tire in Death Valley (!), the breakdown in the San Fernando Valley (!!), etc. Hence, we must insist that all readers go and read Ms O'Malley's essay. If only because the last car she owned was a Volkswagen Westfalia van -- talk about True Motorist Grit. Wow.

We have been fortunate to only have two instances of Major Vehicle Failure while on the road. Well, actually, we have had three. But this last incident was not due to a mechanical defect, but rather a head-on collision with an empty car-carrier and a simultaneous incident with another eighteen-wheeler, on I-94 in Detroit. So we would like to apologize again to all residents of southeastern Michigan -- and commuters living in southwestern Ontario -- for closing the major eastbound artery in the Detroit area for over two hours afterwards back in April of 1998. We can assure you we still feel greatly ashamed at screwing up the drive for 100,000 people.

Fortunately, however, no one was hurt in that collision, even though we impacted with the grill of the car-carrier at about 50 miles an hour, after our car spun wildly out of control and ended up facing oncoming traffic in the freeway's No. 3 lane. That said, we must say we remain amazed at how calm we were when the end seemed -- as the movie put it -- extremely fucking nigh. (We did not scream and we did not panic; indeed, our sole thought was, "Lord, I'm checking out.")

We might add this incident made us a Ford Taurus driver for frickin' life -- or at least until they're done phasing out that car.

But anyway -- back to the first of these two former incidents. Now, this took place some years earlier, back in 1995; and there is a good story here.

For this story explains how we ended up spending a night in the honeymoon suite of the Exit 3 Motel in Wauseon, Ohio.

Now, the first incident happened on the Ohio Turnpike. We were heading from the Cleveland area back to Kalamazoo, Mich., our home town, on our very first road trip when we noticed that the engine in our 1987 Mercury Sable was running a bit hot. Nothing to worry about, we thought; it would simmer down eventually. But after a bit, we found the engine was NOT in fact simmering down. This leads to Mistake No. 1.

As it was a blisteringly hot day, you see, we made the rookie mistake of turning on the air conditioner -- instead of turning up the heat full blast. This led to steam pouring out of the vents into the cabin; the radiator was bubbling over. This prompted us to panic in a most unseemly fashion, and we pulled off to the side of the road with that classic response of OhGodohGodohGod running through our head. Clearly the car was broken, and broken irreparably; and we were shit-out-of-luck; and there would be hell to pay, etc.

Now we were lucky in that we had a mobile phone with us. Mrs Kepple had insisted we take one, and insisted we take a couple hundred dollars of cash (we had been going to embark with about $40 on us, if we recall correctly); and had insisted several other things before our trip that, in the end, proved to be amazingly beneficial. (Mrs Kepple's first car was an AMC Rambler, so she had experience with cars falling apart).

So, we called home, and got Mr and Mrs Kepple on the phone, and told them in a bit of panic just what our problem was. (Car! Overheated! Steam! Pouring! From! Vents!). Mrs Kepple advised us to call a towing service, which was not AAA, to which she had subscribed. This towing service -- through no fault of Mother's and which we shall not name -- was entirely useless and the help they provided was merely asking if we needed a tow-truck.

Well, how in Christ's name were we supposed to know if we needed a tow-truck? Gawd. We were out in the middle of Bloody Nowhere. We had no idea what was wrong with the car. We had no idea where we were on the Turnpike, only knowing that we were somewhere in the vicinity of Exit 3. We didn't need a tow -- we needed help. For with the weather -- it was like 90 degrees and humid -- we were clearly going to die out there.

After another phone call home, we got advice to wait for the car to cool down, and then limp it off the highway. This we did, and we made it all the way to the tollbooth before it overheated again.

TOLLBOOTH OPERATOR: Hi, that'll be $2.50 ... what the!
ME: The car's overheated!
(steam pours from engine)

Thus followed some unintelligible directions for a repair shop from the toll operator, who did not seem particularly pleased with us and as such was not as helpful as we had hoped. Hell, why should she have been? She had a TV commercial happening right in front of her.

Now, consider our situation: soaked in our own sweat, with a dying car out in the middle of nowhere. The first order of business, clearly, was to find lodging for the night.

Problem: A tractor-pulling event was being held in Bowling Green, 40 miles south. Despite this distance, it meant that every bloody motel was pretty much booked for miles around.

We couldn't believe it. Our car breaks down and we can't find a room because of a tractor-pulling event? To our young mind, we were clearly suffering woes not seen since God killed off Job's mode of transport, and we were convinced He was putting us through similar tests. So we limped the car from motel to motel in this tiny little town, having no luck whatsoever -- until we came across the Exit 3 Motel, the fifth motel we tried. If we recall correctly, they had one room left -- the honeymoon suite.

So we took it. Sadly, we were without a bride to share the honeymoon suite, but the place did have beer left over in the fridge! (The Exit 3 Motel was the type of place where one could pay by the week and get mail and such). Plus it had a double bed and high ceilings, even if the decor was straight out of 1978. Perhaps things were looking up after all, we thought.

Hey, we were 19. Beer was still noteworthy, all right?

Being rather thirsty, we cracked open a Budweiser and quaffed it most quickly, and again called home. We were not in good emotional shape, but in short order our folks had gotten on to a repair shop, which actually sent out a mechanic to look at our car. We do wish we remembered the shop's name, because the people there were a prime example of everything good about America. Anyway, the mechanic came out, looked at it, told us where the shop was, and to bring it by in the morning.

Then came dinner. Fortunately, there was a Country Restaurant right by the motel, so we went over there for some chow. How to explain this -- well, did y'ever walk into a place and everyone in the joint turns and stares at you? This literally happened. We don't know if we had a neon sign over our head that said "CITY BOY," but we do know that we very much wished we had a John Deere trucker's cap.

The next morning, we limped the car down to the repair shop and had a look at it. As the car was being fixed, we had the following dramatized conversation with one of the mechanics, a fellow about our age:

MECHANIC: You've got a blown coolant hose.
ME: Oh, God! What's the damage?
MECHANIC: All total? $43.50.
ME:. I'm sorry, what?
MECHANIC: Yeah, sorry about that. It's a lot, but we had to go get the part.
ME: $43.50.
MECHANIC: It'll be about an hour or so.
ME: Wow!
MECHANIC: Are you feeling all right?
ME: $43.50!

We still can't believe it. They send out a mechanic on his off-time and they did 90 minutes labor the next morning and it came to $43.50. If only we could remember the name of this shop! But in the off-chance that Tom, the mechanic who came out to have a look at the Sable on that hot night, reads this -- thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.

As for the next story -- well, a few months later, we were driving back from school and the Sable began overheating again. This time, though, we made it home safely. Oh, sure, the radiator had failed completely and we had no heat in the car and the rear defroster had failed and it was 10 degrees outside. But as we were on the freeways for all of our drive, the frigid air cooled off the engine so much that it stayed at "C" on the temperature gauge the whole trip, except when we had to stop and warm ourselves up. There are many humbling things on this Earth; and one of them, we would submit, is drying off one's socks over the heater in a gas-station bathroom.

But looking back, it was worth it.

RELATED: Mr James Anchower has written a startlingly coherent essay on Important Pre-Trip Planning for Road Jaunts. Hence, we would direct readers to Mr Anchower's "Here's My Road Map to Road Trips."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:23 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

And Now, a Bitter Poetry Interlude

EDITOR'S NOTE: REGULAR BLOGGING for The Rant will not be seen tonight, so that we may bring you this special bitter poetry interlude.


REGULAR READERS know that we generally have a tin ear for modern poetry. As we work in prose and enjoy it more than poetry, the ensuing years have seen us neglect the older of those two arts. The end result is that modern poetry generally passes over our head; for when we read it, the text lies dead on the page, and when we hear it, we too often hear the droning of a low C note played over and over again.

This is not the first time we have remarked on this unfortunate state of affairs; we did so in an entry some four months ago. However, reading some recent poetry -- as well as looking into several of the old volumes which we have in the back bedroom we never use -- has caused us to realize that we are not entirely tone-deaf to poetry. Certain works can indeed still hit us in the gut and chill our soul and make us think -- and even -- laugh.

The trouble we have noticed is that all this poetry is bitter in one way or another.

Indeed, we revel in smart-alecky haikus and corrupt limericks. We love bawdy verse and poems which exude scalpel-sharp wit.

So, with that in mind, it gives us great pleasure to present one of the funniest poems we have read in a very long time. It is bitter -- but only slightly. And if you are in our line of work, it is something which you will print out and paste to your wall.

We have borrowed the text of this wonderful poem from Meg McArdle's Web site, which posted it in full after Terry Teachout referenced it in one of his entries. We waited a day after she posted it, figuring and hoping that might atone for the sin; but quite frankly, this poem is so good, it could not stay bottled up forever. We look forward to picking up one of Mr James' collections.

In any event -- the lights, if you'd please ...

* * * * *

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered

by Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:21 PM | TrackBack

April 27, 2004

O, Miserable CD, How We Scorn Thee

SO EMILY JONES has put this question to the readers of her excellent site:

... This time I want you to sack through the CD and record collection. What's the cheesiest piece of music you own? I'll admit to the greatest hits of both Neil Diamond AND Supertramp and will bet a solid tenner that not one of you can trump my vinyl copy of a Partridge Family Christmas album.

We hope Ms Jones will forgive us for taking the long way home with our response, but we think we have a pretty strong case to make that we own an album that puts even the Partridge Family Christmas to shame. Besides, the PFC probably has Bonnaduce on it, so the kitsch value alone perhaps knocks it above this particular crappy two-disc set we own.

Since it takes a special amount of viciousness to properly condemn the musician(s) whose album has garnered such disgust in our heart, we should caution readers that the following entry may contain a bit of inappropriate language. Still, we believe it may be necessary. For this album is so putrid, so miserable, so astonishingly cheesy that we have come not only to detest the artist, but also the record label, the producers, the other musicians performing, and even the poor hack who wrote the stupid booklet which came with the CD. Especially the poor hack who wrote the stupid booklet which came with the CD. True, there is no credit given for authorship of this little volume -- or there may be; it could be the artist himself tried writing; it is all very unclear to us. But that in no way pardons the sinner, whomever he may be.

We mean, as a fellow writer, we're embarrassed for whomever wrote this. You see, the booklet itself is not so bad that it gives the impression the writer got screwed out of his payment for it, or anything like that. That's the problem. It's clear the fellow -- whom, barring any other evidence, we assume is or was a professional writer -- tried to make something out of it, and he and his editors failed miserably. Here's one good example of what we mean:

Originally written for the PBS Special of the same name, the "Saving the Wildlife" album's intention was to bring a higher consciousness to the survival of many species of animals.

Now, our fellow writers will have grasped the problems in a millisecond: the strained tone of this sentence, the misuse of words and phrases, the passive voice, the wordiness, grammar errors, etc.

But "higher consciousness?" What the hell does that mean? God's truth, it's as if the writer is back in freshman English, for Pete's sake -- if I use enough buzzwords, I'll get an A! Don't worry, though. We shan't stop there. Look at this next excerpt:

While the first (album) opens new doors, (the next album) unlocks others. Conceived as looking into an arena of doors, behind which are feelings to be experienced, this album will leave you exploring the portals of life.

Yeah, well, when we listened to the song from it, the only portal we found ourself exploring was the toilet. Gad. Look, buddy. We do not care what your excuse was -- whether you had a bit too much wine the night before proofing, or your hamster died, or the garage-door opener quit and trapped you in the house for two days prior to deadline -- you have no justification for writing like this. You just don't. We hope you didn't cash the check they gave you; it would be a fraud upon our shared profession if you took these people's money.

There is just one saving grace for you, my friend, just one. It is that the two-disc 25 Year Celebration of Mannheim Steamroller set is even worse than your skill with the pen.

Oh, readers. We are just getting warmed up -- so much so, that you can forget everything we wrote in the entry underneath this one. We've got our fire back, by jingo!

We should start by saying that we generally like electronic music. We have a thing for techno and we have a weakness for New Age and we have been spoiled by the efforts of Walter (Wendy) Carlos, whose electronic music is simply fabulous. In fact, Carlos' work is so good that even mentioning it in the same entry as Mannheim Steamroller unfairly sullies it. There is more heart, more clarity, and more pure essence of sound in ten seconds of "Switched On Bach" than exists in this wretched Mannheim Steamroller set.

Now, readers may wonder how the devil we actually picked up a copy of this pseudo-music. Well, it was simple, really. For Mannheim Steamroller actually has one cheesy but admittedly catchy song -- some Christmas offering, we think -- and as it is based on a traditional arrangement it had some inherent time-tested goodness to it. Hence, our fatal mistake was that we thought the band in question's output was similar in quality and scope to that song we heard on the radio.

When we got home and put the first of the two CDs into the player, we instantly felt a sickening pang in our gut. It was as if our ulcers had kicked up; as if we had eaten a badly-cooked meal; as if the garbage bag in our kitchen had broken and spilled its contents upon us. For this was not just a bad CD; this was a lemon, in its soul no different than some old Ford Escort over which an unsuspecting car buyer got screwed.

Every song had all the style and grace of elevator music; every drumbeat came off as flat; every note failed to inspire. The second CD brought the same result; it just mortified us how bad it was. After that first listen, we threw the set in the rack and forgot about it; when we tried to sell it on-line recently, the service which we consulted would not buy it for any amount of money.

But what really got to us, perhaps, was what we can only describe as insult-to-injury. Namely, we refer again to that little booklet. Because if there is one thing in this world that rubs us the wrong way, it is when people have an over-inflated sense of self-importance. And -- what?

READER: I don't mean to interrupt, but ...

Mr KEPPLE: Yeah, we see what you're getting at. This is different, though. We here at The Rant have no illusions about our importance to the world, despite the tone of everything on site.

READER: You're even talking in the plural. That's ...

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, dear. Sorry. Well, what I meant to say was something like this. I run a Web site that has a moderate level of readership of people who like what I write. That in itself is very flattering, and doing this is fun, and I enjoy seeing people react to my work. But I'm far far far from being the best blogger out there, and I certainly don't think I'm anywhere near George Will's league, you know? I just write. It is a drop of water into the reservoir of human thought, and I'm content with that. The use of the plural here is merely a satirical device; those who know me personally can attest to that, I think. Besides, look at Mencken; he was an amazing curmudgeon, but I have never seen anything that suggested he had a huge ego in private life. (If he had one, he earned it).

Mr KEPPLE (continuing): No, my point here is only that there are some people on Earth who think they're really something, and unjustifiably so, and they act a bit snarky. In some cases, of course, this feeling is in fact justified and they have the right to play big shot. But it's just the self-promotion bit from the others that gets to me. There's a line between being justifiably proud of one's work, and expressing that pride ("Gee, I really hit a home run with that!"), and going on and on ad nauseum as if one is the best in their field and a true and unmistakable genius. You know what I'm talking about: Franzen's Disease.

READER: You mean Hansen's Disease?

Mr KEPPLE: No, although it's pretty close.

Mr KEPPLE (continuing): To elaborate: for my fellow creative types who work hard and do their best and most of all -- take risks when they're in the midst of struggling -- I think it is great for them to be justifiably proud of their endeavors. And I really envy them for doing what I don't have the guts to do, namely, that risk-taking. It's just those folks who don't have that same bearing, those people who got lucky but forgot where they came from and who forgot how to be grateful a long time ago, they're who get to me -- if they really have an over-inflated ego. Part of me just wants to say to them, "You made it, man! Stop worrying!" That's my only point here. And I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of creative types either; God, don't get me wrong!

READER: Fair enough, but isn't having a visceral and knee-jerk reaction to such self-promotion and egotism from such folks a sign that you yourself have not achieved the humility you desire in the depths of your soul?

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, God, yes. But give me this. I'm on a roll!

READER: Yeah, but ...

Mr KEPPLE: Please!

READER: All right, but you watch it from now on.

Anyway! Where were we? Ah yes, self-conceit. Back to the booklet. Just look at this; and if we're really wrong here, blast us for it, but this just galls us:

1974 was the year it all changed. The music. The sound. The fidelity. The way we listened. The way we felt, hearing things we'd never heard before.

Now look, these are not words one can justifiably use for a Mannheim Steamroller album. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, yes. Fresh Aire? No. It just doesn't work. The arithmetic doesn't add up. Calling the guy behind Mannheim Steamroller a "musical genius" simply doesn't compute. We realize that millions of people have bought his albums -- hell, even we got suckered into it -- but the fellow ain't the best thing since canned beer. No, we can say with a lot of confidence that such fawning is unseemly, and we are sorry to see that Franzen's Disease is out in force even among some musicians.

But enough. There you have it; the cheesiest and most wretched and simply worst album we own: the 25 Year Celebration of Mannheim Steamroller two-disc set. We shudder that it sits on our desktop even now; we can hear the laughter coming from our friends in trendier locales; we feel their disdain and mockery bearing down upon us. Our very bones send forth the animalistic signals: get it away! it's midnight! no one will notice you run out to the garbage bin with it! just go, go, go!

Still, even as much as we'd like to hide the fact we own this CD, we must admit it. We have had this in our possession for several months now, and have never in our lives regretted a CD purchase more.

That is, perhaps, the true measure of its badness -- for even the cheesy Phil Collins solo stuff and the bad movie soundtracks and one-hit wonders we own -- at least there was one redeeming song on those albums which we appreciated for a time. But with this Mannheim Steamroller collection, we were culturally sucker-punched, and left bruised and battered. The worst part of it, though, is this -- we fear we may have contributed to future productions from the group, as there is no way for us to recover the $26 we expended on this set.

May God forgive us, and protect us.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:32 AM | TrackBack

April 26, 2004

A Seasonal Study in Despair

WE HAVE BEEN IN A perfectly good snit all day, for no particular good reason, and this troubles us greatly.

After all, we are not generally like this; we are usually happy and optimistic types, to the point where we are downright annoying and invite great malice from those suffering around us. For after all, we have been long schooled in various life lessons which serve us well in this regard, viz., Keep Things in Perspective, The Most Powerful Force in the Universe is Compound Interest, and One Ought Not Let Little Things Get One Down.

So it is to an eye with all three of these guiding principles that we pen the following, knowing full well that this wretched miserable gloomy gray day will pass onto a wonderful spring, and that we should earn 8 pc on our investments this year, and that the combined maladies we suffer on this April 26th, 2004, will mean nothing by Oct. 15, 2007.

But still, we feel like crap.

We do believe this is a seasonal thing; the rotten winter here has transformed into a rotten spring, turning everything gloomy shades of grey and brown. The rain pours forth, seemingly always during our off-time. We stare up at the overcast sky and take pleasure when our eyes hurt; it shows that at least we're picking up a few joules of energy from the forgotten sun. These things are, of course, assuming we go out -- there are few places that have piqued our interest around here as of late; and even if we did, our jaunts would quickly prove to mirror those mentioned in a recent sociological study. It is not so much that we have few personal connections here; it is that we have lost the desire for making any new ones.

To elaborate on that, it is as if the tapestry of our interests -- books and music and blogging and good movies and eating out and travel and private writing -- has had a bottle of bleach poured upon it. The brightness and vibrancy and color and enjoyment of those things have very much faded away. We had a good idea for a book once and have not written a word for it in three months; we have not bought a compact-disc in ages; it has been weeks since we went out for dinner. The furnace has long run out of fuel. And time marches on.

Of course, that leads us to Life Lesson No. 4, which is that This Too Shall Pass. How long it will take to do so is uncertain; it may simply be an evening, and on the morrow we may yet awake feeling refreshed and ready to take on life's challenges again. We have long known that it is a bad idea for us to blog when we are in one of these moods, anyway. So we'll see.

But what concerns us is that it has been a long time since we've woken up feeling refreshed and with that give-'em-hell attitude. At the very least, though, writing about this has made us feel a bit better -- and hopefully we'll be able to jump to the other side of the curve sooner rather than later. Of course, some sunshine would certainly not hurt things!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:27 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 24, 2004

The Shattered Morning Calm

SHEILA O'MALLEY has written a nice post on the difference between media coverage of the Madrid train-bombings, and the explosion at a train station in North Korea. The difference she points out is this: in contrast to the news reports from Spain, when one razors down the tapes of all the news reports out of North Korea, all one really hears is silence.

"And yet the people of North Korea -- what of them?" Ms O'Malley asks.

We were very glad to see that she asked this question, as it seems to us that few people out there are.

For we must say we're amazed this train wreck has garnered so much attention from the press. It is, of course, a newsworthy event: at least 154 people were killed and 1,300 more were injured in the explosion at Ryongchon. But we truly fail to see why an industrial accident should garner such interest, given everything else that has happened in the Hermit Kingdom.

What, the two million dead of famine in the past few years aren't worthy of non-stop coverage? The hundreds of thousands languishing in prison camps aren't worthy of it? The prisoners subjected to chemical experiments and hideous tortures and systematic rape aren't worthy of it? The suppression of religion and the cannibalism and the millions of malnourished children aren't worthy of it? The drug trafficking and counterfeiting and arms dealing and other soft acts of aggression on the DPRK's part aren't worthy of it?

Apparently not.

Because reports do exist about how Koreans in the North live -- both from the Chinese traders who serve as North Korea's main commercial link with the outside world, and from the defectors who managed to get out of the place. It's just that people in the West don't know about them.

So, with that, we shall present a variety of information about the daily life of Koreans in the North. All the following sites are in English.

One can read defectors' testimonies here, from the ROK's National Intelligence Service; one can also get a weekly update on North Korean events there. For more information on human rights issues, and additional testimonies, one should read the Chosun Journal.

For foreigners' travelogues on North Korea, check out this Canadian academic's site. For basic news, Pyongyang Square is also a fine site, and the Asia Times does a nice job as well. We also recommend The Academy of Korean Studies' page.

There are two other sites which we think readers will find interesting.

The first is that of the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which offers its North Korea Report as events or news happens. (Interesting to note: in December 2002, they reported the North's railroads were in disarray).

Lastly, we would point readers to an instructive guide on the Korean language, as spoken in Pyongyang. It is one page long, but speaks volumes.

We do hope, if readers are interested in this subject, that they will take some time to look over the sites we've mentioned. For within their pages, one learns just what has become of the Korean people who live North of the 38th parallel.

And it will horrify you.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Clothes Make the Man (and Woman)

LOUISIANA HAS LONG BEEN KNOWN for its miserable education system, shocking levels of criminality and a generally abysmal quality of life. So we were quite glad to learn recently that its civic leaders are taking Bold Action to correct the wretched state of affairs there. Namely, a state legislator has proposed a bill which would ban people from wearing low-slung pants.

No, we are not kidding, and neither is Rep Derrick Shepherd, the bill's sponsor. Under his proposal, people would face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine if they wore their pants in a lewd and laviscious manner:

"I'm sick of seeing it," said Shepherd, a first-term legislator. "The community's outraged. And if parents can't do their job, if parents can't regulate what their children wear, then there should be a law."

The bill would be tacked onto the state's obscenity law, which restricts sexual activity in public places and the sale of sexually explicit items.

According to the Associated Press, Rep Shepherd comes from some place called Jefferson Parish (formerly Jefferson Airplane). As this happens to be near the city of New Orleans, we can't help but wonder whether Rep Shepherd lives in a very remote part of Jefferson Starship Parish. After all, New Orleans is not known for modesty in anything; and if people there were to tone down various forms of naughty behavior, the pressing issue of the way people wear their pants might prove less of a concern.

But we do not mean to be overly critical of Rep Shepherd's proposal. After all, we do think he is on to something when he says this wanton disregard for proper pants-wearing is troublesome. In fact, we will go further and say we have never understood why people insist on wearing their pants so that nothing is left to the imagination. It is an unseemly and gauche trend, and one which we hope soon warrants attention from the fashion police.

Now, we can assure you that as a former resident of Los Angeles, we are not unaccustomed to seeing such immodesty in dress. Indeed, it was a practical impossibility for us to go out in the evenings and find people our age half-dressed for the occasion. We were especially amazed when we would see men our age engaging in such practices, as we never thought it conducive to the mating process for a man to advertise he is an ill-educated lout incapable of coordinating one decent outfit. After all, as the old saying has it, clothes make the man.

Of course, in the interest of fairness, we should note that as a writer, we are prone to not caring all that much about such things -- even if we are the type who always wears a collared shirt and owns approximately zero pairs of jeans. Still, that said, we have had enough of the social graces pounded into our head so that we know when to dress properly should the occasion call for it.

If we know we have an extremely important work meeting, for instance, we'll wear a suit. We would say we consider ourselves quite fortunate that we must only do so on the rarest of occasions; but if we worked in an industry such as accountancy, we would realize that one ought wear formal business dress as a matter of course.

It would appear that at least one person in the United Kingdom did not get this memorandum. And because Britain has fallen quite far from its heyday, people in Old Blighty are taking the wretched affair seriously:

A century after Emmeline Pankhurst and her suffragettes began their struggle for universal equality, a 36-year-old lawyer went to court yesterday to fight for the right to wear a short skirt or expose a bare midriff in the office.

The case is expected to have implications for what all women wear to work and could lead to the abolition of the corporate dress code.

Maxine Kelly, who is bringing the legal challenge, was one of 50 women working at a Midlands law firm to be sent a memo last year forbidding them from wearing dresses and skirts that were "revealing" or "suggestive" ...

... Yesterday Ms Kelly, who is suing the Burton-on-Trent law firm Advance Legal for sex discrimination and victimisation, said: "I was astounded to receive a memo which I saw as a clear affront to women. I made my objections known and I feel this led to my being dismissed unfairly."

Ms Kelly was particularly angered that the memo only applied to women and that a few weeks later the men in the office were sent an e-mail giving them permission to loosen their ties and pull up their shirt sleeves in hot weather.

The case - adjourned yesterday to be heard later in the year at a Leicester employment tribunal - is the latest in a long line of sex discrimination claims brought by professional women who feel that their conservative employers are out of step with modern working practices.

The first paragraph in this story is just delicious -- so much so that one wonders if the writers behind it were consciously aware of the point it makes. (We think they were). After all, there is a bit of difference between being denied the right to vote and being denied the privilege to wear whatever one wants to the office, even if said outfit is improper for an office envrionment.

Before we continue, we should note that when it comes to clothes outside of the office, we have never personally been one to judge people badly on the clothing they wear. Certainly not women, at any rate; we are more far more prone to having a knee-jerk reaction to an underdressed man, or if we notice that we ourselves are underdressed for some social occasion. However, we will fully admit that when it comes to professional situations, we are a bit less tolerant. Sex, as we see it, has no place whatsoever in an office environment; and we are rather unimpressed with clumsy attempts to change things.

To expand on that, we believe that in an environment in which men and women must work together, sex should be taken out of the equation entirely. No distractions, no suggestive remarks or actions, no horseplay, no asking a coworker out to dinner, nothing. A firm's employees are there to work and toil and suffer accordingly, not play footsie during the Q3 earnings meeting.

Now, given that, it stands to reason that men and women face different challenges in this regard. After all, when it comes to wardrobe, men have much fewer options than women do when it comes to office wear; and a man's sex appeal will not be affected if he wears a suit and tie to the office one day and a collared shirt and khakis on the next. It just won't -- but more on this in a bit.

However, because men and women are fundamentally different when it comes to sexual attraction, a female office worker can enhance her sex appeal by wearing certain outfits. Women figured this male weakness out a long time ago. And if the worker in question is particularly striking, she can prove quite a distraction to her colleagues by wearing such things.

What women like Ms Kelly do not realize -- although we should note we think most women have also figured this out -- is that since 1970, many men have evolved defenses against this. For most professional men know full well that in business, sex can be used as a weapon against them; and in response, they have established a hard-wired disdain for such tactics. As such, a woman who dresses improperly for work, even if she has no ulterior motive for doing so, will instantly set off alarm bells in the brain of a male client, colleague or vendor.

At the very least, improper dress will make it even more difficult for her to accomplish her aims; at worst, it will cause a man to wrongly discount her, as he assumes she is making up with her outfit what she lacks in competency. Besides, there is one other clear and present danger with such a strategy -- what if the client, colleague or vendor is female?

We would submit that this does not help one sell widgets or win clients.

Hence, a dress code which enforces certain standards among employees is appropriate. One will note the firm mentioned above required its male workers to wear jacket and tie to the office; one would also imagine that its dress code for men forbids visible tattoos, earrings, and other accessories. Indeed, we have known some offices in which men are directed to wear only white shirts with their jackets and ties. Again, the reasoning is simple -- in business, men are judged by a certain wardrobe standard, and differently from women. And in business, a man who wears a jacket and tie to a client meeting will automatically gain more respect than a man who wears shirt-and-slacks.

However, we are glad to report that despite all this, things really aren't all that dire for women. For a woman who dresses conservatively and fittingly for business will find she makes an excellent impression on others -- particularly if, as the saying goes, she has it. And if the woman adds into the mix an acute competency in her line of work, we daresay that for her, the sky will be the limit.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:37 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Things We Have Been Meaning to Address

OVER THE PAST WEEK OR SO, we noticed several newsworthy items which we saw fit to comment upon; but sadly, we did not have the time in which to do so. Hence, we're going to play "catch up" and take a look at various cultural trends ranging from the admirable to the, well, weird.

We shall start by addressing Andrew Sullivan's modest proposal to increase the federal gasoline tax by $1 per gallon. This is not a subject we shall address directly, as we realize gasoline taxes are a contentious issue for many folks.

However, we shall note that the Capitalist Lion -- a recent addition to the blogroll, we might add -- has weighed in on Mr Sullivan's remarks. We were particularly interested in Mr Lion's words regarding the subject of automobile preference.

It seems that Mr Lion takes grave issue with the idea that one should feel guilty for owning a sport-utility vehicle instead of a small compact. This is a sentiment with which we generally agree, as we consider it right and proper for Americans to not feel guilty about their cars. After all, unless one lives in New York or Washington, owning a vehicle is a practical necessity; and in some parts of this nation, one spends almost as much time in transit as one does at home. It therefore stands to reason that Americans must be allowed to purchase the automobiles they want to drive. So we here at The Rant have no complaint with anyone driving the vehicle of one's choice, even if it is something silly.

However, we must say that we do not understand why people purchase silly vehicles. Again, we do not have any complaint with the purchase of said items; we just don't understand why people do it.

What defines a silly vehicle, you ask? Like so many things in life, this term is an elastic one; it depends on a vehicle's driver, where the vehicle will be driven, the make and model and type of vehicle, even the cost. But let us take our own example as an illustration of this principle.

For our personal situation, a Ford Taurus would be a practical and socially-acceptable vehicle purchase. A Ford F-250 pick-up truck, conversely, would be silly. This is because owners of pick-up trucks, according to established convention, use their vehicles to actually haul things from one location to another. They also use their trucks to frequent construction sites, traverse difficult terrain, tow heavy items, and bring home the spoils from a day's hunt. As if that wasn't enough, we also understand that pick-up truck owners use their vehicles to express pride in certain auto-racing teams and woo country-music fans of the opposite sex. Clearly, one can see that all these things are legitimate uses for a pick-up truck, while also recognizing that our personal purchase of such a vehicle would be extremely silly. For we do not do any of the aforementioned things; and, as such, our involvement in such a transaction would prove to be an unfortunate social blunder.

Indeed, we would submit that any purchase of a vehicle other than a sedan on our part would be silly. For we are sedan people. They are our thing; they fit us. They provide all that we need in a car: reliability, long life, easy handling for parking in urban areas, and the capability to get from Point A to Point B via established roadways. Also we look quite refined in them as we cruise along the freeways.

Yet many people, sadly, seem unaware of the principles which we have set forth. There are many examples we could cite of this unfortunate happenstance, but we shall focus on one we think drives the point home quite well: our trip last fall along the Mount Washington Auto Road.

Now, you should know that in New Hampshire, Mount Washington is the highest elevation in the state; and that people often visit the mountain's peak to take in the spectacular views and other-worldly scenery. One can reach the summit in one of two ways, either through a train ride to the top, or by taking the eight-mile long auto path. If you go, we would add, you ought go in fall; the hours-long drive to Mount Washington will take you through some of New Hampshire's amazing woodlands.

We would also add one tiny bit of advice: DON'T TAKE YOUR BLOODY ROAD TANK UP THE FRICKIN' MOUNTAIN*. This would be silly. Instead, take your smaller family car or a pick-up truck; most Americans have them.

Yet, as we saw with our own eyes, many people do take really large vehicles up on that road. The road which in many places is unimproved; the road which in many places is very steep and very narrow; the road which in many places has nothing preventing a vehicle and its occupants from plummeting to an unfortunate end.

Now, we made the trip up to Mount Washington along with our good friend Simon From Jersey. As Simon From Jersey is a more accomplished motorist than we are, and drives a car with a manual transmission, and our car was in the shop at the time, we took his Volkswagen Jetta to the top. We personally thought this was a fine idea. It wasn't merely that the trip down the mountain would destroy our automatic-drive sedan's brakes; it was that Simon From Jersey's car is endowed with Fahrvergesozialismusgeschlechtanklang -- perfect, we thought, for any nature-type activity.

Sadly, though, the German engineering of Simon From Jersey's car did not prevent a few near-disasters along the way. We of course do not hold him responsible for any of these. It was not his fault that one tire blew out all of 0.8 miles into our 127-mile trip up north. It was also not his fault that some of the other motorists on the Auto Road were careless drivers who bounded along like they were on a country jaunt, oblivious to the fact their lack of caution could send others plummeting to a fiery death in some canyon.

Gad. We mean, come on. Here we both are, somewhere about mile four, going up a wicked-high grade, and along comes some road hog who has overtaxed his brakes and passes by us with inches to spare. At first, both of us didn't think anything of it; then it started to grate on our friend's nerves. So he responded in a polite and proper fashion.

We do not recall his exact words to the other drivers, but given his tone and bearing, we believe an accurate paraphrase of his remarks were: "Hey, moron -- yes, you. Your car's too big."

As this went on, we found the situation hysterically funny; almost to the point where we forgot about the really steep, really unpleasant drop to certain doom just inches away. But we would submit that the lessons we learned from our Mount Washington trip are applicable in many other circumstances. So, in short, we would say to folks: buy whatever car you wish, unless you would be silly to do so.


* Actually, certain varieties of large vehicles -- and sedans, too -- are in fact prohibited on the Mount Washington Auto Road due to safety concerns. Don't have your trip ruined; check out the official vehicle restriction information here. Remember: you can't visit America's oldest man-made attraction OR put on the neat "This Car Climbed Mt. Washington" bumper sticker unless you follow all the rules.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:55 AM | TrackBack

Support Our Troops

WE MUST APOLOGIZE to Dean Esmay for not posting this sooner -- things came up this week which prevented us from doing any blogging. But we do want to direct readers to a fine site which lets Americans here on the home front support our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, note our wording: reconstruction efforts. For these are projects which transcend politics, and causes which spring solely from the fount of human charity. They are about reducing conflict; about teaching men and women productive trades; about helping the most destitute. Best of all, donors can choose the projects to which their money will be directed; and all funds, minus credit card fees, will go directly to the projects themselves.

Besides, your entire contribution is tax-deductible. So we strongly encourage readers to get a head start on their FY 2004 tax planning and take part. Visit Mr Esmay's site for more information on the Spirit of America program. Plus, if you donate a lot of money, you can get Mr Esmay to offer his opinion on anything you want! Or you can get added to his excellent and comprehensive blogroll!

In any event, we hope you'll consider supporting this fine effort -- and we would again thank Mr Esmay for his tireless dedication to efforts which both support our forces overseas, and their humanitarian efforts.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:47 AM | TrackBack

April 20, 2004


POSTING AT THE RANT will be infrequent -- at best -- until Saturday, April 24. Basically, we are up to our eyeballs in doing various minor things, and as such we're going to need to take a few days to catch up with them.

Sorry. We know we should keep up with this on a daily basis ... but it's just not practicable at this precise moment. However, we can assure you we will be back on Saturday with bunches upon bunches of New and Never-Before-Seen Content.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:55 PM | TrackBack

April 19, 2004

She's Come Undone

WE FULLY ADMIT we're not "with it" when it comes to rock music these days; and as such, we may not be the best people to offer up an opinion regarding the unceasing woes of Courtney Love. We have never listened to her music; we have paid scant attention to her legal battles; and for the life of us, we can't say how she managed to gain the popularity which she now enjoys. In short, she has contributed a pittance to our existence.

However, like a shark drawn to blood, we took great interest in learning Ms Love has reported she and her daughter were swindled out of a full $40 million, and that the wires say Ms Love is at least $4 million in debt. If accurate, this represents a truly amazing and cautionary tale. We can think of no entertainer that has faced such financial calamity; despite the stories about Elton John and Michael Jackson, they are very much still standing, even if their egos may be a bit bruised from the disclosures.

Now, we are not yet convinced that Ms Love's circumstances are entirely her own fault. People of much greater intelligence have found themselves victims of similar swindles. Such stories crop up in the papers every few months: a trusted long-time financial advisor absconds with retirement savings, leaving agony and turmoil in his wake. Indeed, if what we are being told is the truth, it does seem possible that Ms Love merely made the fatal mistake of trusting too much; and that she just delegated out her fiduciary responsibilities, not ever dreaming that the people she trusted would do such things.

Of course, we should reiterate that we have no direct knowldge of Ms Love's situation other than what we have read; and the true story may be entirely different. But from our limited knowledge of the situation, we can offer up some cautionary advice for readers who may someday find themselves with significant assets.

The first point is that one ought not, if one can help it, put all of one's eggs in one basket. It would seem reasonable to have at least three baskets; and it would further make sense to ensure they were very strong baskets indeed. By this, we mean that one should look for solid management firms, firms which would have extreme problems in the public marketplace if it came out they were screwing around with people's hard-earned.

The second point is that one ought always -- ALWAYS -- maintain control over one's holdings. It is one thing to rely on an advisor if one truly has no knowledge of matters financial; but it is another thing entirely to simply abdicate one's responsibilities in keeping an eye on one's own affairs. Ms Love, for instance, reports that someone purchased a BMW on her credit card. Had we been in her situation, we would have fired anyone and everyone responsible for that, and then had them bastinadoed most fiercely, and then had thrown into a crocodile pit.

The third point is that one must keep an eye on one's cash flow, no matter what one's holdings. Ms Love reports that a full $100,000 per annum was spent on her dog walker; a ridiculous sum of money for such an expense. We find it amazing that Ms Love was unaware of this, given its extreme cost; but the interview which she gave on the subject makes it sound as if it was a new and disturbing revelation.

Now, we realize that we may sound a bit paranoid; but we can assure you that we merely see the virtue in extreme caution and extra redundancy. And it is not a principle which we apply solely to financial institutions. Consider how we deal with our automobile maintenance.

We have a full five shops, all of which are honest and reputable, at which we have maintenance work done on our sedan. We have one shop which we use for the sole purpose of having the car inspected and doing routine preventive maintenance, such as oil changes. We have a second which we use for minor repairs, a third and fourth which we use for certain specialty repairs, and lastly, a shop of impeccable reputation which we use for major repairs. All these shops get our business; but if one shop finds a problem, we take it immediately to a second shop and have the problem addressed there.

This provides us with three major benefits: first, we usually get the problem fixed cheaper than we would have done so otherwise; second, we have peace of mind knowing that our shops are honest; and third, we prevent any one of these shops from conveniently finding new things wrong with the car, and thus soaking us in the wallet. Not that they would, but it never hurts to be cautious. And, yes, we admit this is cumbersome; but in the end, we have found it worthwhile.

Finally, a last thought. We must say that we really feel sorry for Ms Love's minor daughter, who is the true victim in this whole sordid sale. It is one thing when an adult loses out because of poor decision-making or markedly bad judgment; but to see a child lose out through no fault of her own is particularly saddening. If only for her daughter's sake, one hopes that the situation is not as dire as Ms Love makes out.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:45 AM | TrackBack

April 14, 2004

Random Knowledge

SO, APPARENTLY EVERYONE is participating in an exercise in which they grab the closest book at hand, open it to page 23, find the fifth sentence, and post it on their blogs. We don't know why everyone is doing this, but never mind:

"Now, the King's foreign minister, the Marquis de Torcy, had informed him that not only was Law back without a passport but that 'his intentions are not good' and that 'he is serving our enemies as a spy.' "

This selection was from Janet Gleeson's Millionaire: The Philanderer, Gambler and Duellist Who Invented Modern Finance. The millionaire in question is none other than John Law, an oft-overlooked Scot who is credited with creating the dot-com boom of the early 18th century, through his creation of the Paris-based Mississippi Company.

For a time, things went well -- so well, in fact, that early investors became known as millionaires because of their immense profits. But some verse from the time, reprinted in the book, describes well what happened to the average investor in that venture:

My shares, which on Monday I bought
Were worth millions on Tuesday, I thought
So on Wednesday I chose my abode
In my carriage on Thursday I rode
To the ballroom on Friday I went
To the workhouse next day I was sent.

It is, we note drily, perhaps fitting that we bought a remaindered copy of this book for $4.

(via Emily Jones)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Because It's Not There"

BACK WHEN WE were in school some -- Gad, seven or eight years ago -- we stumbled across a Web page which had what we considered a very intriguing idea.

Now, in the halcyon period of 1996-97, the Internet was still in its infancy in terms of both content and usability. Consider: blogs didn't really get off the ground until four years later. Consider: PINE was a major e-mail client. Consider: people who did have Web pages generally had to hand-code them. Also, folks thought it a great idea to have things called "hot lists," which were like link lists, except they weren't nearly as cool.

A while after we made our first feeble Web page, we came across the page of one Stephen Turner, a Cambridge academic who did not have a hot list. No. He had a cold list -- sites that no one wanted to visit. Naturally, we thought it was a great idea and made one ourself (giving proper credit to Dr Turner, of course).

Both Dr Turner's original site and our own are lost to the mists of time. But, fast forward a few years, and we find Sheila O'Malley has updated the idea with her "To DON'T" list -- that is, a list of things which she never has a need to do in this life. And we thought, "Gee. That's a great idea. We should do this too -- giving proper credit to Ms O'Malley, of course."

Hence, without further ado, we present our "To DON'T List:"

Go Mountain Climbing. Yep. Don't need to do that. Now, we know there are plenty of people who enjoy doing this -- it's good exercise and what not. Of course, they are also putting themselves at risk of great physical injury to climb a mountain. A key reason oft given for doing so is "because it's there." We do not understand this.

You see, our idea of fun most certainly does NOT involve the possibility of contracting sunstroke, getting crushed in an avalanche, falling off a sheer cliff, or otherwise exposing ourself to traumatizing injury. Indeed, we do not even like being near mountain areas, as the air is dry and thin, and we get winded far too easily. Hence, we are going to stick to our preferred areas: deserts, beaches, deserts, forests, deserts, and deserts. Yeah. Maybe when we are close to retirement, we'll go live at Scotty's Castle or something.

Take Up Golf. Yep. Don't need to do that, either. We realize, of course, that the game is immensely popular with a lot of people, and we can see why people find it fun. It's a challenge, for one thing! But as we never grew up in a golfing family -- Mr Kepple was most certainly not a golfer -- we never got the hang of it nor had the inclination to do so. And if we are ever forced to take up a non-contact sport for our health, we'll play racquetball. Now that was fun.

Go to Europe. Yep. Don't need to do that one. Of course, we realize that we probably ought do so for a variety of reasons; we'd like to make a pilgrimage to the Vatican, and pay a visit to the Old Country; and all that. Also, as a student of history, we realize there is so much that we would really enjoy seeing.

But as an American, we also feel we need to spend more time exploring our own country. We have never been to the Pacific Northwest -- and we have never been to the South either. This greatly troubles us, and so we place a personal priority on this. Besides -- we have been informed that everything in Europe costs as much as in America, except that one gets less in all respects. Also, many people there don't seem to like Americans much. So we'll save ourselves some aggravation and go the Caribbean instead.

Buy a Mobile Telephone. Hooo -- yeah -- don't have ANY desire to do that. Christ. It's as if people want to have others call them at all hours of the day or night, without so much as a by-your-leave. No. We are sorry, but we have no desire to join this particular crowd.

Of course, our objections to joining would be significantly reduced if we found a company capable of making a phone that did what we wanted, and no more. By this, we mean that all we would want our mobile to do is: A) give us the capability to make and receive telephone calls, and B) give us access to the stock tickers. We do not need nor want a telephone with foofy games, annoying ring tones, a miniature camera, or a tiny keyboard which requires a set of tweezers to type out an e-mail. We'll say it again. Make calls; receive calls; indexes at close. And that's it.

That said, the makers of such a phone would have to fit into our price point (let's say about $40) were we to buy such a device. Since we would hardly use it, we would furthermore need an economical calling plan. We envision such a plan costing us $5 per month, plus say a nickel per minute for talk time. And then would come the real challenge.

For we have been informed that the nationwide networks are not in fact nationwide, and people can never get signals when their car breaks down out in the desert, and if one happens to live anywhere except on the coasts one is often hit with "roaming charges." This, we submit, sucks. Hence, we want nothing to do with such foolery, and will only get a mobile phone if the nationwide plan is nationwide. Or something. To be honest we are not fully in the loop about all this, but we don't care.

Start Watching Reality TV Shows. Now, we fully admit that this item could easily move to our "to do" list -- IF the industry happens to put out a show we would be willing to watch. Sadly, it has yet to do so.

Indeed, the few minor clips we have seen of reality TV shows have all seemed the same in our eyes. They all seem to feature an alarming number of oversexed morons as contestants; folks notable for A) taking bread out of the mouths of professional actors, and B) being unable to go five minutes without engaging in various petty faults -- such as backbiting, strenuously arguing over minor things, and drinking to excess at some trendy nightspot. (We are hopeful that people can prove us wrong on this, and fearful that no one can).

But for us, perhaps it doesn't matter. For we think the only way we would really become fans of the genre is if true loss was a potential outcome in addition to true gain. Really. Now that would be interesting.

("Uh oh! Jack's closed down-limit on pork bellies again! Let's listen in on his margin call ... and say! Jack doesn't know it now, but fifteen stories below, the bank is repossessing his Mercedes. Let's see what happens when he goes to the garage.")

Sadly, though, we realize that a reality show about commodities traders would have an audience of just one; and even if we are in the coveted 18-34 male demographic, this would just not do. However, we understand that one show featuring a successful real-estate developer has proven quite popular, and we may give its second season a whirl. If only to have something to talk about come the next morning at work.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 11, 2004

Internet Discontent

WE HAVE SPENT a good portion of this Easter Morning catching up on our favorite blogs as opposed to parking ourselves in a church pew for an hour-and-a-half. So instead of having a religious message -- as we would prefer on Easter Sunday -- we shall instead stoop down to the level of the secular; and look at a particular bit of nastiness making its way around the Internet.

Specifically, we refer to this whole blow-up between Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs and Kathryn Cramer of ... um, Kathryn Cramer. Now it appears that Mr Johnson has taken much issue with some of Mrs Cramer's words, and has linked to them accordingly; and Mrs Cramer has pointedly taken exception to the fact some of Mr Johnson's readers are a bit nasty in their remarks. Arguably, a couple of these remarks are little more than death threats; and as such things are relatively subjective, we can say that Mrs Cramer may feel a bit unnerved by it all.

Given all this, we would say it is particularly unfortunate that some persons fail to see the importance of expressing opinion in a civil matter. So we would say to such people: kindly grow up, would you? You're not in the eighth grade any more. Quit it. And since you're not in the eighth grade any longer, you should be aware that such things may lead to involvement with your local police. We do not care what the topic or the comments were; there is no call for that.

But, that said, we found it interesting that we had rather a lot of trouble finding out what exactly it was that sparked the whole uproar. After all, one would think such a thing is central to the whole donnybrook. Then we found it.

It would appear, according to Mr Johnson, that Mrs Cramer identified one of the civilian contractors killed at Fallujah, Iraq, with a white supremacist of the same name.

Yikes. Now, we have not seen Mrs Cramer's post on that -- but based on the above, we can say that doing so was just indecent -- to say nothing of pretty stupid.

For as folks have pointed out, in a nation of 300 million people, there are plenty of Americans who share the same name. For instance, we can assure you that there is more than one Benjamin Kepple. (We have never learned what our second cousin thinks about The Rant, but we can imagine he is probably annoyed we got the domain name first. Heh). And there are a lot more folks who share this contractor's name compared to our own situation.

However, as Mrs Cramer has apparently deleted the offending post, we can only but assume she has realized she was in the wrong. Whether this saves her trouble from the dead fellow's estate, we shall see.

We do find it amazing, though, that Mrs Cramer has not -- at least, as far as we can tell -- bothered to say that she is sorry about the whole mess. After all, the man had a family. Instead, we note with displeasure that Mrs Cramer has instead attempted to get Mr Johnson's site thrown off-line -- a tactic which has apparently failed rather spectacularly.

That this has failed is a good thing, as we find it unseemly and gauche that Mrs Cramer would attempt to silence someone who has done nothing but point out her ... caring thoughts on the matter.


CORRECTION, 8:25 P.M. We have been informed that Mrs Cramer had in fact apologized for her original post, via Sheila O'Malley, who pointed us in the direction of this entry at "A Small Victory." (See comments on our entry, below). However, the page on which Mrs Cramer made her apology is either unavailable or has been deleted.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:25 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 10, 2004

Report: Ex-Enron CEO Hospitalized for "Bizarre Behavior"

NYPD Cites Sincere Apologies for Stock Losses
Among Reasons for Detaining Skilling

City Man: Skilling Gave Newsboy Half Crown

Financial Rant

NEW YORK -- FORMER ENRON CHIEF EXECUTIVE Jeffrey Skilling was taken to hospital after performing what Manhattan residents called "bizarre" and "unusual" acts of common decency, the Financial Rant can reveal.

Skilling, whom police found at 4 a.m. Friday in the intersection of Park Avenue and East 73rd Street, was taken to New York Presbyterian Hospital for observation following an alleged spree of niceties in Manhattan, authorities said. Skilling -- who faces a litany of charges for alleged fraud and insider trading, among other things -- was reportedly acting so out of his element that police and citizens feared for his health.

"I couldn't believe it. Here I am, walking towards the subway, and all of a sudden Jeff Skilling pops out of nowhere and starts buying the bums pizza," said 38-year-old Brian Kennett, of Manhattan. "He must have bought pies for -- God, at least fifty of them."

"Then, after that," continued Kennett, "I saw Skilling pay for a couple's cab fare home, stop traffic to let an elderly lady safely cross the avenue, and give a newsboy just starting his route a half-crown."

"This city's too weird for me," Kennett added. "I've got to get back to Peoria."

But Kennett was not the only eyewitness to Skilling's reported good streak. Jack O. McArgyle, a 61-year-old human resources administrator from Islip, said he spoke to Skilling as the disgraced ex-CEO retrieved a cat stuck in a tree.

"I was stunned," said McArgyle, who lost approximately 20 percent of his retirement savings when Enron's stock fell from $81 to just pennies per share. "So I went over and said hello to Mr Skilling, informing him that I wished he would contract bubonic plague. Also, I told him I wanted a pack of wild dogs to chase his sore-ridden, festering person through the streets."

"And he apologized," a shaken McArgyle said. "He said things seemed to be going fine and then they just got out of hand. Then he gave me $50 to get a bottle of wine, as sort of a little way to make up for it."

McArgyle added that he now only wished Skilling would contract "diphtheria and the whooping cough."

According to McArgyle and other stunned onlookers, after Skilling freed the cat, Skilling also let a squeegee guy wash his car's windshield without complaining, used a coat-hanger to unlock a door for a hapless motorist, and put $100 bills into the baskets of every street musician, soapbox preacher and charity solicitor within a three-block radius.

An NYPD official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the apologies about the losses were one reason why authorities took Skilling into protective custody.

"It just didn't make sense," the official said.

"This is certainly not the type of behavior one expects from a disgraced former Enron executive," confirmed city psychologist P. Nelson Crabb. "Usually, such people do their best to hide from the glaring eyes of the world, all while spending their cash reserves on a high-priced legal defense team."

"Clearly, Mr Skilling is under a great deal of stress," Crabb continued. "However, I am confident that after a few days of solid bed rest and proper meals, Mr Skilling will return to normality soon enough."

However, not everyone was a fan of Skilling's sudden generosity.

"So Jeff Skilling thinks he can simply skip along without a care in the world, handing money out to folks on the street?" asked Marvin G. Upshotte, a Bend, Ore.-based securities litigator.

"The hell he can," Upshotte continued. "And it's not going to save him anyway, that's for sure; he's up against half the securities lawyers in America. When they're through with him, he'll be damned lucky if he's got a pair of cuff links left, to say nothing of anything convertible into cash."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:10 AM | TrackBack

April 09, 2004

A Compendium of Craziness

GAD. APPARENTLY THE WAXING MOON has been working its evil magic in force this past week, as I have never in my life seen as much complete madness on the news wires as I have this early morning.

I can assure you there is no way I can properly do justice to all of these happenings, as they are too weird and too numerous to fully document. However, I am going to give it my best shot. It's just ... well, in volume terms, I just haven't seen anything like this, all right?

Item. A London resident is betting everything he owns on one spin of a Las Vegas roulette wheel.

No, really. You read that right. Reuters reports that 32-year-old Ashley Revell -- that's not a woman, that's a man, baby -- is putting up approximately 75,000 GBP ($138,000) on just one spin of the wheel. This is his net worth after he liquidated all his assets; he will watch the spin in a rented tuxedo. As is fitting for such a suicidal move, a camera crew is shadowing Mr Revell in the weeks prior to and after his wager.

Now, those of you who have played roulette may wonder how exactly Mr Revell intends to wager his cash. He is not, like the young Romanian in the old movie, putting it all on 22. No. Instead, he is limiting himself to a wager between rouge et noir. But do not think the man's chutzpah is somehow limited by this hedge -- examine the following copy:

Revell, recently a professional gambler, said he decided to take a big plunge while he was still young and raised the stakes as high as possible, including selling his clothes.

"I like to do things properly," he said.

He had not decided yet whether to place his money or red or black on Sunday afternoon.

"I don't know, man," he said. "One of them is going to be the right thing to say and one is going to be the wrong thing."

While I certainly wish Mr Revell the best of luck, students of his diabolical art know his odds are not as high as he might hope in this matter. Besides, given the amazing laws of irony that govern wagers of chance, I think the end result will mirror Mr Revell's existence more than he might like.

Namely, when the ball drops, it will land not on red or black -- but on Zero.

Item. Speaking of mad Britons, note the sad case of one Mr Colin Sadd. The unfortunately-named Mr Sadd faces six years in the boot after being convicted again for stealing cars ... and then cleaning them to amazing effect. He has 155 prior convictions for doing the same thing, the poor man.

While I feel very sorry for Mr Sadd, I feel especially sorry for the long-suffering Mrs Sadd, who has put up with this for years. I firmly hope that she is made a candidate for sainthood:

Sadd's modus operandi is to dress up in a suit, go to an auto dealer and ask for a test drive. The car never returns, but is abandoned after being spotlessly cleaned.

"He looked after the cars he stole better than me," said his wife, Mary, who added that Sadd has never owned a car.

Item. Speaking of sainthood, I also hope that Mrs Michelle Duggar of Springdale, Ark., is nominated for a similar honor; if Protestants can indeed become saints under Church law.

Mrs Duggar, you should know, is 37 years of age. She has borne FOURTEEN children and is expecting a fifteenth with her husband -- wait for it -- former state Rep. Jim Bob Duggar. As if this wasn't interesting enough, look at this part of the AP story:

The offspring include two sets of twins, and the parents have stuck to the letter "J" when it comes picking names. There is Joshua, 16; Jana and John-David, 14; Jill, 12; Jessa, 11; Jinger, 10; Joseph, 9; Josiah, 7; Joy-Anna, 6; Jeremiah and Jedidiah, 5; Jason, 3; James, 2 and Justin, 1.

The new baby is due in two months and is most likely a boy. They plan to name him Jackson.

I almost hate to say it, but ... Jeeeeeee-sus!

Fourteen kids! No wonder Arkansas gave her an award. They ought to have given her a second for the mere fact she and her husband have raised them in a house with just two bathrooms.

Item. Clever streetwalkers in Lithuania have figured out that Western soldiers generally have more cash in their pockets than those from the former Soviet Union. As such, they are charging different rates based on the nationality of their customers. NATO troops pay thrice the price for action.

That's not the real story here, of course. The real story is the reaction of the police general in charge of the district:

He said that the sex workers were hiking their rates for the Western troops, who come from Belgium and Norway.

"Prostitutes take $35 an hour from Lithuanian citizens, while NATO troops are asked to pay $125 an hour," he said, calling it a clear case of discrimination.

Item. A 2-year-old in Louisiana has mastered all the skills needed to run a Chinese restaurant, The Daily Iberian has reported.

Gordon Tan can run the cash register, take customers' order tickets, correctly count out change, and swipe debit or credit cards accordingly. He keeps track of customers entering the Formosa Gardens restaurant and knows where to seat them.

It's impressive and touching, and very very cool. I do have one question, though: will young Gordon be able to figure out how to deal with the almost certain regulatory crackdown that will come following the story? Now, that would be really impressive.

Item. A Connecticut man has demanded compensation for a coat he says an "I Voted Today" sticker ruined. Stamford resident Robert Bonoff wants the city to buy him a new $106 suede jacket -- plus sales tax.

My question: are Mr Bonoff's neighbors snickering over the fact he paid just $106 for what seems to be a sport jacket? After all, it is Stamford. But what I really want to know is this: where did he manage to find a jacket for just $106?

Item. Eyeball jewelry.

Now, here's the truth -- that's just wrong.

Item. Finally, I must note this particularly disturbing article out of Germany, which reveals that a Croatian woman phoned in a bomb threat to Duesseldorf Airport so that -- wait for it -- she could get out of a vacation with her boyfriend.

She's damned lucky she didn't do this in the United States -- that type of stunt here will get you up to twenty years in prison. However, as she is in the heart of old Europe, she was dealt with leniently. Heck, the Germans let that real al-Qaeda terrorist out of prison recently, so why not give the fake ones a pass?

The woman was given a suspended sentence after admitting in court that she called authorities and, in a hoax, made an al Qaeda bomb threat because her parents disapproved of her boyfriend.

"I didn't know how I would be able to tell my parents about a holiday with him and I couldn't really say to him 'Listen, my parents wouldn't approve'," the woman, 28, identified only as Marina B., told the Duesseldorf state court Wednesday.

Yes, you bloody well could have.

I don't know; maybe it's just me; but isn't it common courtesy to be upfront and honest about things in a relationship? Things like, say, using his cell phone to call in the threat -- an act, it should be noted, which led to his arrest upon the couple's return?

But ah well. Anyway, that's it for now. See you in a bit and hope everyone is having a good Friday.

NOTE TO STAFF: This post is in compliance with Company Style Memorandum No. 226, posted on all internal bulletin boards.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:51 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 07, 2004

It's Relentless Self-Criticism Day Here at The Rant!

SAY, EVERYBODY! As part of The Rant's patented quality-assurance process, we are inviting all readers to share in the comments section everything they don't like about The Rant!

The way we see it, this process will allow us to see what we need to change so our blog may draw ever-greater traffic and acclaim from others. So if you would prefer that we tone down our hubris a bit, rein in our self-conceit, cut out our overbearing pedantic tendencies, or what have you -- just let us know!

(Actually, some feedback about what we're doing right would be helpful too. Obviously we're not going to change certain things or our long-held beliefs; that would ruin the site, which is a distillation of our personality. However, we very much want suggestions about what does and does not work. We would greatly appreciate any input you have, as we are very much aware of the fact that we are writing for an audience.

With that said, we would also like to sincerely thank the legions of Loyal Rant Readers who have made this effort a joyful one over the past three years. We do not do that enough. Thanks for sticking with us, and we'll do our best to keep everything humming along).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:35 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Let's Give EW a Second Chance, Shall We?

BECAUSE OUR MIDDLE NAME IS IRONY*, we have again found ourselves in the position of doing something we previously had assured others we would never do. In the past, this tendency of ours has led to embarrassing situations, such as telling our friends we were moving to Los Angeles two months after vowing we would rather eat glass than do such a thing.

You would think we would have learned by now -- but thanks to Stephen Silver, who linked to this really great article about the 34th season of MTV's "The Real World," we find ourself in this position yet again. As it turns out, Entertainment Weekly hit the frickin' nail on the head:

"Mind you, I don't think that someone with Frankie's problems should be kept off the airwaves. In the right hands, a documentary on Frankie could be very sad, touching, and enlightening. But after this show has spent the past few months fetishizing dumb people drinking, humping, and generally being irresponsible, then any random, serious Life Lesson moment seems comically discordant.

Especially when it's such a one-shot: As the coming-attraction segment showed, next week we're going to go right back to seeing Brad dry-hump some girl while the rest of the roommates peek into his room. It's like splicing an afterschool special into the middle of a ''Girls Gone Wild'' marathon. ''Show us your boobs! Show us your boobs! Hey, wait, that girl's got bulimia, and she needs therapy. But hey, girl behind the girl with bulimia, show us YOUR boobs!''

Oh, and it continues:

"Here's a thought: Why not cast one of the other 400,000 kids lined up at the door with a slightly less serious problem. Like, say, just being an ordinary idiot? I assume that when Brad showed up for an audition, he brought a friend who wanted to see how the producers could shrink Brad to fit him in a TV: Why not cast that friend?

I'm not saying ''The Real World'' can't be a force for good. How about this? Before every episode, have Drew Pinsky appear and gravely warn: ''Lazy-ass kids who lack any kind of work ethic are a serious problem. Hopefully tonight's episode will raise awareness of the terrible epidemic of tragic self-absorption.'' Then again, MTV can't risk possibly solving that epidemic: it would mean the end of ''The Real World'' forever."

Attention Entertainment Weekly editors: if you keep this up, we might just buy a subscription for The Rant.

* Our middle name is not actually Irony, Danger, The Intrepid, or any other sobriquet. It is Biblical, however.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:21 PM | TrackBack

The Public's Vices

WE SUPPOSE WE SHOULD START by saying we originally intended this post to solely address the issue of sexual vice, given the Blogosphere's collective gasp of horror over the Government's plans to strike hard against pornographers.

But then we got to thinking about things, and we realized this was merely one facet of a much larger issue: namely, America's regulation of vice in the aggregate. Like most Americans, we have indulged in pretty much all of them at one time or another in our life, so why not take a broader look at the whole enchilada?

Should Government try to outlaw things or rather regulate them? How has technology played a role in the proliferation of vice? And lastly, what is the best way for society to combat vice -- not merely sexual vice, but smoking and drinking and narcotics and gambling along with it?

Those things are, we could say, The Big Five these days. We admit that it is a broad classification, but for now we are operating under a broad premise: that it is better and healthier for people to abstain from these things than to indulge in them. Furthermore, to deal with such things piecemeal -- focusing solely on, say, sexual vice -- is to necessarily dilute the questions at hand.

Now, some readers may wonder why we use the word vice to describe all these activities. Our thinking is this: we are using the word to describe behaviors that were once thought -- and which many still consider -- to be generally bad things. After all, in polite society one does not afford respect to a pornographer or a narcotics dealer or a professional card-sharp. For despite the fact these three occupations are fulfilling roles which the free market has created, no one engaged in these three trades is the type of person one would want one's child going out with on a date. It is as simple as that.

In that vein, we must admit we are a bit baffled at one line of thought sometimes implied in arguments over regulating such things: that the vices in question are actually good. We honestly don't know what to make of that. Perhaps we simply need to get out more on the weekends, but we don't fundamentally get -- for instance -- the celebration of pornography for pornography's sake. This is somewhat like praising the wonders of cocaine, or the restorative powers of tobacco.

It seems to us there is a difference in saying one does not want the Government to have any say as to whether we read and watch pornography in the privacy of our own homes, and cheering the fact the stuff exists. Were a distinction between the two arguments made more often, we would be more able to accept the former on an intellectual level.

The Question of Moderation

Of course the tricky part to all this is that so much of it is a matter of degree. After all, one or two glasses of wine with dinner is not going to hurt anyone, unless the person having the wine is pregnant. The occasional quarter poker game is not going to drive anyone into bankruptcy. A person who has a cigarette during an evening out will suffer few health consequences, and the same goes for the person who tokes up in his living room. Finally, we sincerely doubt that the guy who goes to the tiny back room of his local video store on the odd Saturday night is in real danger of developing unnatural sexual impluses. And we can see where some would find, if not virtue, a bit of good in all of these things. But we'll get to that in a bit.

On the other hand, we note that when all these doings are taken to the extreme, bad things do happen. A person who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day is pretty much asking for a respirator and chemotherapy later in life. A person who drinks to excess faces a whole host of problems, ranging from health concerns to broken relationships. A person who gambles too often faces the same consequences, and also deprives his family of the money they need to survive. A habitual narcotics user has a whole host of the same issues; so too a person addicted to sex and/or pornography.

So we think it unfortunate that people who are partial to pornography -- or any of the above things -- tend to paper over these very real troubles. Now, roughly a quarter of Americans smoke; roughly six percent have a drink problem; perhaps three percent are addicted to narcotics; six percent have a gambling problem; and roughly six to eight percent are sex addicts, the last according to these folks.

Of course, as one might expect, there is often an overlap of these things; but our point here is merely to show that all this is no joke. What for most is merely a harmless activity or even a petty vice puts others on the road to self-destruction.

The Question of Prohibition

So then. If millions of Americans are running about engaging in risky behaviors all the time, what do we do about it?

This is a tough question, and admittedly not one for which we have a pat answer. On the one hand, we know that if the Government makes something illegal, it may make it less likely for a person to engage in or consume that something. On the other, we know that if a vice is illegal, no petty law will stop one from fulfilling one's desire for that vice.

So in this regard, we are at a crossroads.

Obviously, there are some activities which are illegal for a reason, because they are so beyond the pale that all well-adjusted people find them abhorrent, unnatural and thoroughly immoral. Examples include pimping, the production of pornography involving minors, and bestiality. Then there are those things which are illegal because the dangers to society overwhelm any possible benefits, such as heroin.

But of course those extreme activities are not the issue here. The questions at hand, rather, are these: should the fact some folks are alcoholic prevent others from drinking? And should the fact some folks are gambling addicts prevent others from playing cards, and so on for pornography, etc.?

Of course not. The poor unfortunate enslaved to his addiction will not hesitate to find extra-legal ways to sate his habit, so to us it doesn't make sense to forbid these things to others. Furthermore, at the end of the day, the addict is the only one who can get himself out of his addiction. Then, after he has excised it from his soul, it is his responsibility to avoid that which got him in such trouble in the first place. We would add that it would help matters if society as a whole had a bit more compassion for such folks, but we have been glad to see that on an individual level, folks who need help get support.

The Question of Regulation

Technology, of course, has done more than anything to minimize the Government's effectiveness at suppressing vice. New York may want smokers to pay $7 per pack for cigarettes, but a smoker can simply off-shore his order to a duty-free outfit. A city's police might bust up the occasional private casino, but the Internet now lets one gamble from one's home. The VCR had the amazing effect of decimating both the local vice squad and the pornographic theatre; and now, the Internet has made it possible for people to get their hands on pRon*%# any time they want.

However -- we do think, even in this day and age, there are plenty of effective ways to prevent folks from engaging in bad habits. Obviously, there is the law; but we question how that can truly do anything other than knock out the most egregious violators of it. To us, the success of vice-suppression efforts rests on de-glamorizing the institutions causing all the problems.

Thus far, such efforts have failed -- and will continue to fail -- because they are lame. For instance, we can assure you that when we lived in California, those goddamned anti-smoking advertisements only served to annoy us. Such public-service efforts must not be cutesy. They must be graphic and they must be raw and they must be brutal if they have any chance at getting through.

The movie "Trainspotting," for instance, instilled a life-long fear of heroin in us because it was so raw in depicting the ravages of that poison. Therefore, we don't see why the Government doesn't apply the same principles to gambling (showing a casino floor at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday), to alcohol (showing the problems of family life with an alcoholic) and lastly, to pornography (showing its most hard-core consumers instead of those portrayed in it).

Now, we realize this is not a perfect solution; it may not even be the right one. After all, we certainly don't want to demonize these things so much that we force them entirely underground; that would not do folks much good at all, as we see it. Nor is that something we particularly want, because we enjoy our vices as much as anyone. But if we were somehow able to push these activities into a purely private and purely adult sphere, we do think the social health of our society would be vastly improved.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:31 AM | TrackBack

Disquiet Perfected

IN THE EXTENDED ENTRY BOX below (click the link), we have placed what we consider a truly masterful piece of writing. The words come from C.S. Lewis; the book in which he wrote them is "That Hideous Strength," published in 1943.

We do believe that this is one of the best -- if not the best -- written descriptions we have seen of the feeling of disquiet: that nagging feeling that something is horribly wrong. The descriptions are so vivid that the work gives us the creeps something fierce -- perhaps especially so, given that we know the position in which the character has found himself. But give it a read; we can assure you the excerpt contains no spoilers.

God! Now we'll be thinking about this for a good hour -- and just before we went to sleep too.


"IT APPEARED TO BE AN EMPTY COMMITTEE ROOM with a long table, eight or nine chairs, some pictures, and (oddly enough) a large step-ladder in one corner. Here also there were no windows: it was lit by an electric light which produced, better than Mark had ever seen it produced before, the illusion of daylight -- of a cold, grey place out of doors. This, combined with the absence of a fireplace, made it seem chilly though the temperature was not in fact very low.

A man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was ill-proportioned, not grotesquely so, but sufficiently to produce dislike. It was too high and too narrow. Mark felt the effect without analysing the cause and the effect grew on him as time passed. Sitting staring about him he noticed the door -- and thought at first he was a victim of some optical illusion. It took him quite a long time to prove to himself that he was not. The point of the arch was not in the centre: the whole thing was lop-sided. Once again, the error was not gross. The thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind even after the deception had been unmasked. Involuntarily one kept shifting the head to find positions from what which it would look right after all. He turned round and sat his back to it ... one mustn't let it become an obsession.

Then he noticed the spots on the ceiling. They were not mere specks of dirt or discolouration. They were deliberately painted on: little round black spots placed at irregular intervals on the pale mustard-coloured surface. There were not a great many of them: perhaps thirty ... or was it a hundred? He determined that he would not fall into the trap of trying to count them. They would be hard to count, they were so irregularly placed. Or weren't they? Now that his eyes were growing used to them (and one couldn't help noticing that there were five in that little group to the right), their arrangement seemed to hover on the verge of regularity. Their peculiar ugliness consisted in the very fact that they kept on suggesting it and then frustrating the expectation thus aroused. Suddenly he realized this was another trap. He fixed his eyes on the table.

There were spots on the table too: white ones. Shiny white ones, not quite round. And arranged, apparently, to correspond to the spots on the ceiling. Or were they? No, of course not ... ah, now he had it! The pattern (if you could call it a pattern) on the table was an exact reversal of that on the ceiling. But with certain exceptions. He found he was glancing rapidly from one to the other, trying to puzzle it out. For the third time he checked himself. He got up and began to walk about. He had a look at the pictures.

Some of them belonged to a school of art with which he was already familiar. There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skillfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair: indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly-coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. At first, most of them seemed rather ordinary, though Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of spiritual themes. It was only at the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details -- something odd about the positions of the figures' feet or the arrangements of their fingers or the grouping. And who was the person standing between the Christ and Lazarus? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace -- like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind. Compared with these the other, surrealistic pictures were mere foolery. Long ago Mark had read somewhere of "things of that extreme evil which seem innocent to the uninitiate," and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 04, 2004

Sketches of a Lost Economy

MANAGER: "Why is the logo on fire?"
TECH: "Because it's a, you know... a burning... logo."

-- ad copy

WE WERE RE-READING Dinesh D'Souza's "The Virtue of Prosperity" over the weekend and we must say we found it a fascinating experience. It was not merely that we are fond of Mr D'Souza's writing, but rather that Mr D'Souza based some parts of his book on interviews with whom society once thought were the emerging technocratic elite; those New Economy oracles who smugly intoned that the Internet would change business, change finance, change economics.

Publication date? November 9, 2000.

Now, we certainly do not intend this as criticism of Mr D'Souza's excellent work. The lessons he imparts in "The Virtue of Prosperity" are as timeless as ever, particularly with the still-present debates over such things as executive compensation and the changing nature of American capitalism. We are merely saying we found his book even more interesting now because it featured some of these high-flying Internet types.

We wonder what has happened to a lot of the folks with whom Mr D'Souza must have met and spoke. Not so much the early Internet pioneers; almost all made their piles early on enough so as to be forever insulated from the pitfalls of modern life. Nor are we interested as much in those who weren't as wildly successful, but who still saw the writing on the wall. No. We are interested in what happened to all the others -- the true believers who saw their options drown and their holdings crumble and their jobs disappear, only to find themselves finished off by the tax laws. And boy, do those laws suck if you're on the wrong end of them.

Indeed, looking back, we should have guessed something was wrong in 1999. For it was then that we spoke with a good friend of ours regarding one such Internet company, which our friend informed us had an excellent technological innovation. After doing some research, we found it was trading at about $5 CDN on a low-level regional exchange, and hence we could purchase a great deal of its shares for just a few thousand Yankee dollars. However, the next day it had jumped to $6 CDN, and we were very leery of sinking such a portion of our limited capital into this particular equity. So we gave it a pass.

The stock went to roughly $95 CDN in a year.

Dear God in Heaven. A fifteen-bagger. Enough to buy a Mercedes and take a month-long vacation in the islands and still have plenty left over for investment elsewhere. We daresay we could have had anything our then-23-year-old heart would have wanted.

We offer this example merely as prima facie evidence of how wacky the market was back then. Can you imagine if we had actually bought? Oh, the very idea, a 23-year-old kid making that kind of cash on a long-shot trade -- it boggles the mind!

Still, we're glad we didn't in a way. The lessons we learned from not buying may prove more valuable in the coming years.

Of course, the stock in question is now back around that $5 CDN price, and the markets' workings dictate there were probably many more losers than winners in the aggregate with that particular equity. One could say the same for the broader tech sector, unfortunately.

We are sorry to say that, out in Los Angeles, we knew a few people who lost in that market -- and when we say lost, we mean lost. Ninety percent lost. From comfortable to barely-getting-by lost. And while we were not one of them, we saw how widely it cut -- from one fellow who lost hundreds of thousands to one friend of ours who lost but a few hundred; but still, a considerable percentage of his investment in a particular equity at the time. And then the whipsaw really came down -- when the secondary effects of the crash started affecting people we knew ... it was not a pleasant thing.

Of course, that's not to say there weren't winners -- and we knew some of those as well. But the real winners, as we see it, were those who simply bought and held. Not the Internet stocks, but the old stand-bys, the safe stuff. And when the money flowed out of the tech sector, that's where it went.

So why tell you all this? No reason, really; it was just flowing through our mind, and we thought we'd get it out. But we would say we learned three things from those heady days of yore. First: long-term thinking really, really does pay off when all is said and done. Second: this may have been the first speculative bubble we saw in our short life thus far, but we have a feeling it won't be the last. This leads us to our third and final observation:

Sometimes, caution is truly a virtue.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:38 PM | TrackBack

April 03, 2004

Search Engine Queries Answered

YES, IT'S TIME FOR YET ANOTHER round of "Search Engine Queries Answered," in which we mock the people who inadvertently stumble upon The Rant looking for information about ... well, apparently everything under the sun, and not all of it legal.

Honestly, some of these queries are enough to make us despair about the human condition, not that we weren't already despairing about it. Good Lord. Of course, we know full well that by answering certain moronic queries, we simply increase our chances of getting "hits" from others looking for the same things. Thus begins a vicious cycle of despair and misery from which we will likely never escape. But since we can't escape, we may as well go into this with full force! So let's begin, shall we...

QUERY: public nudity

This is consistently the top search request at The Rant, and for the life of us, we can't understand why. People -- there will most certainly NOT be any public nudity displayed here at The Rant. There will not even be pictures of foxy women. The Rant is simply a "dimension of mind," which we note would make a hell of name for a blog.

QUERY: cheer lider free nude sites

The fact that we have received multiple queries for this particular search string truly bothers us. What ARE they teaching in schools these days? It's L-E-A-D-E-R, first of all, and "cheerleader" is one word. Visitors who arrive at The Rant looking for such things ought go elsewhere.

QUERY: clubbing baby seals

Dear God in Heaven. We certainly hope that people are merely looking for jokes about this topic, as opposed to actual photos or videos of baby seals being clubbed. That said, we understand the Canadians unfortunate to live above the sixtieth parallel do this frequently, as seals are apparently rather nasty creatures.

QUERY: how can i listen to the whole song of \ don t tell me\ by avril lavigne?

Some of our friends also haven't figured out how anyone can do this. That said, we have the strange ability to listen to songs over and over and over again, as we "tune them out" into the background. This allows us to listen to the Bee Gees more than others have thought any human being could stand.

QUERY: views on predestination and free will

Predestination is a logical fallacy incompatible with the recognized doctrine of free will. Simply because God is omniscient does not mean He has willed things to happen. That's it in a nutshell.

QUERY: companies that have gone from traditional to transformed organizational model in the last five year

You will find most of those on the OTC exchange. As for the rest, you should have bought into them earlier before they became overpriced. Anyway, show me a company that has gone from a transformed to a traditional organizational model and I might just buy shares in it, provided they're really cheap.

QUERY: protestants do not have fun

This is why we became Papist! Of course we kid. But this is not to say Protestants cannot have fun either; it merely depends on your denomination. For instance, we know from personal experience that a Methodist can commit all manner of vice, and be forgiven for it provided he or she brings a really great dish to the church potluck dinner.

QUERY: the passion of the christ confused about snake and satan

See Genesis 3:15.

QUERY: where are power and glory found in the power and the glory by graham greene

The whole bloody book, that's where. And don't buy the Cliffs Notes version either; just read it. It will be worth doing, trust us.

QUERY: 1974 xenia tornado movie

Ah! Now here's a query in which we're very much interested. As every Midwesterner knows, the horrible 1974 super-storm which blasted through southwestern Ohio spawned hundreds upon hundreds of tornadoes. The Xenia tornado was one of the worst. The top photo here shows just how big this F-5 tornado was; there are also plenty of videos on the Web. Look for Bruce Boyd's 8mm film of the tornado as it unleashed its devastating, apocalyptic fury upon that wretched city.

Well, that's it for this edition of "Search Engine Queries Answered." Look for it again next month!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:24 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 02, 2004

UPDATE: Hackers Caught!

HAMILTON, BERMUDA -- Triumphant officials at Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant Inc., an Internet content firm based here, announced early this morning it had caught the hackers believed responsible for defacing its Web site on April 1, 2004.

Alleged hacker Biff X. Stone, 22, of Ypsilanti, Mich., was being held at The Rant's new detention facility located on a small island just off Hainan, in the South China Sea. Company officials were ecstatic over the news, rewarding Vice President for Information Technology Ned Henries with a "paid trip to Miami on the expense account" and "this great old bottle of Haig & Haig we'd been saving up for things like this."

"Mr Henries has done a fantastic job in restoring both the site to its status quo ante performance and serving up this Stone fellow's head on a platter," said Benjamin Kepple, the firm's chief executive. "Mr Henries couldn't be with us today, as we thought it only fair he should get back to his Cozumel cruise. But we've created this handy graphic to show you how 'all that shiznit went down,' as the kids say."

Seeking to allay investor concerns over the damage, Kepple assured them that record traffic to the site had resulted in its wake. He credited the firm's quick response with not only containing damage that could have arisen, but also leading the firm to new heights.

"We can assure you that traffic spiked a full 200 percent above standard daily averages and a full 50 percent over our past high," Kepple said, as The Rant's accounting department did "the happy dance" in the background. "We are incredibly pleased with this, and would add that this should show our parent firm's Financial Services and Transport Divisions that the Intellectual Property Division is doing just fine."

Shares of the firm rose 3p to 94p on the London exchange in mid-day trading; trading in its American Depository Receipts on the NASDAQ exchange were also expected to be higher, according to financial analysts.

"This is a major coup d'etat for the company," said Marvin Wixgate, an Internet analyst with Completely Fair and Balanced Research Really We Swear LLC, a division of City brokerage house Collude and Whipsaw. "We're bullish on the upside, that's for sure."

"Eurodollar petrochem basis point, ECB CES double-plus good!" Wixgate added with enthusiasm. "LIBOR debenture stable."

At the press conference, also notable for its buttery croissants and good coffee, Kepple was joined via satellite by Colonel Yin, the firm's new contractor in charge of its detention facility. Colonel Yin will be tasked with forcing Stone, the alleged hacker, to provide a full and voluntary confession for his reported misdeeds.

"We are pleased to have this opportunity to work closely with our new partners in this exciting new joint venture," Colonel Yin said. Security measures at the facility are top of the line, he added, including this one guy with a flame-thrower who guards a creaky bridge.

"You lose!" said Yin, addressing Stone directly.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:21 AM | TrackBack

April 01, 2004

Communists Hack The Rant

HAMILTON, BERMUDA -- Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant, an Internet content provider based here, said its Web site was hacked sometime around 10 p.m. last night. The company has blamed Communism.

"We just don't understand how they could have guessed the password," a distraught Benjamin Kepple said at a news conference, hastily convened after he was informed of the security breach. "My God. It's not as if anyone actually saw the "Addams Family" movie anyway. Look what they've done to the site!"

"This is just so embarrassing," Kepple added, as he took a sedative and looked, bleary-eyed, into several television cameras. "God. Aspirin. I need some aspirin."

According to Kepple, the security intrusion prompted a Code Yellow alert at company facilities worldwide. While not the most serious response possible -- Code Red involves the mass burning of papers, the activation of the firm's helicopter escape fleet, and moving the precious-metals cache and other negotiable instruments to a heavily-guarded and secure location -- the company was forced to temporarily lock down its facilities, detain personnel, and cancel top executives' vacation plans.

"We can assure our valued customers that we will have the problem fixed within 24 hours," Kepple said, as he prepared another gin. "We're not going to let these scheming Reds ruin all that we've worked so hard to accomplish. We can assure our customers, investors and others that we are already on the trail of these criminals."

"As a precaution, we've also had our security chief, Colonel Payne, cashiered," Kepple added, saying that Lt. Col. Smith had taken over the firm's response.

Investigators looking into the security breach reported that a cryptic note had been left at Rant headquarters two days prior. No one thought much of it at the time, a factor which observers believe may have led to Payne's early retirement. The text of the note, written by a "Comrade Biff" and which was sent from a post office box in Ypsilanti, Mich., read as follows:

"Здравствулте! собаки капиталиста Yankee идущие! Ваши инструменты
невластны против диалектики марксиста! Вы дотла будете разрушены и
ваши требухи devoured витком данным по людей славным!"

Detectives are baffled as to what the note means, and were reportedly consulting history experts to discern the message described therein.

Ned Henries, director of the firm's Information Technology Department, joined Kepple at the news conference. He pledged that normal operations would be restored as of 12 a.m. on Friday, and warned that his staff was well on their way to identifying the culprit or culprits.

"They will not escape. No jurisdictional hassles, no petty arguments about the rule of law, nothing will prevent us from taking revenge upon the people who ruined my cruise to Cozumel," Henries vowed.

The breach was the first to take place at The Rant's Web site since it debuted last June. However, in March 2002, a contingent of the firm's Cayman Islands-based operation was found to have skimmed one of the company's accounts. The skimming operation was shut down after the firm's Bermuda headquarters sent in a squad of mercenaries to deal with the thieves.

UPDATE 4/02/04: The security matter has been solved. However, those wishing to see the damage that had been done may click here.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack