July 30, 2004

Final Thoughts, Before Sleep

IT IS 2:52 A.M. on a Friday morning, and we are about to go to sleep.

Explain -- please -- somebody, anybody -- why a semi-random thought about America's current-account deficit entered our mind just as we were about to catch some Quality REM Sleep. We do not have time to think about this now. We talked about this earlier tonight with Mr Kepple, and that was supposed to take care of it when it got lodged in our head earlier tonight. Yet we can't get the thought out of our head and we are going to be awake all night mulling it over.

Dammit. We can't be the only people in the world to which this type of thing happens. Does anyone have any tricks for clearing one's mind of boring esoterica and getting a sound night's sleep? Sure, they won't help NOW, but perhaps in future, they will come in handy.

Also, clearly we need brain candy -- a solid diet of brain candy -- for the next 36 hours. Please suggest good movies or books that will assist us in decompressing. We're beggin' ya.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:01 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack


WE HAVE LEARNED, via Simon From Jersey's blog, that South Carolina's agriculture commissioner has been arrested for allegedly taking bribes to protect an illegal cockfighting ring.

Okaaaaaaaaaaaaay. That's, well, different.

There are many news stories that have the potential to get weirder and weirder as time goes on, and we submit this might just be one of them. In the meantime, we expect to see a LOT of naughty jokes about the whole affair.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:47 AM | TrackBack

The Art of Tipping

WE NOTE WITH AMUSEMENT this Web site, Bitter Waitress, which names and shames people who tip their waiters and waitresses badly. We would gleefully add that many popular entertainers are listed in this cheapskate hall of fame, and as such stand accused for all time of being ungrateful, arrogant and generally wretched people.

That said, though, we are skeptical of one claim which the person behind Bitter Waitress has made vis-a-vis The Shitty Tipper Database. Namely, this is the idea that anything less than 17 pc -- that is, one-sixth -- of the tab constitutes a shitty tip when adequate service is provided for a meal. Adequate service, to be perfectly clear regarding her definition of the term, means that the service is minimally competent: the orders are correct, special requests done right, etc. Therefore, we think this tipping point is set slightly too high.

Why, you ask? Well, we think that, although America has turned into a service-oriented economy, some Americans remain disaffected and bitter at the fact they are doing service-oriented jobs. This goes double if they are jobs on the front lines, such as waiting tables. Hence, we would argue that while great opportunity exists for service workers who are cheerful and dedicated to their jobs, a contingent of these workers may approach their jobs with contempt and scorn. This contempt and scorn is then transferred onto honest God-fearing Americans who on paydays treat themselves to a dinner out. And quite frankly, we're not giving 17 pc to a waiter or waitress who is sullen and acts like a zombie.

On the flip side, we will say we have long recognized the hard work and dedication which most workers in tip-dependent industries (restaurant work, hotel work, transport, etc.) put into their jobs. So we're always very cognizant of the fact these workers earn their living through tips, and further cognizant they are doing very hard work. Therefore, we tend to be overly generous in tipping, across industries. And, as we've done a bit of traveling over our years, we've worked out sort of a tipping schedule, as follows -- although, admittedly, much of it is the "standard" stuff you would find in other tip guides. We have classified the table by employee category and tip; with rationale immediately following, where appropriate.


HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING: $1 per day, sometimes more, especially if we're staying at a cheap hotel where the housekeeping staff get very little in the way of tips.

TAXI DRIVER: 15 pc; but only 10 pc if he nearly killed us. Always 15 pc for livery drivers.

SHUTTLE DRIVER/HOTEL PORTER: A buck a bag, generally.

VALET PARKING: $3, but $5 if we know the place and go there frequently.

CAR WASH ATTENDANT: $3, but $5 if he really did a great job taking care of the car's insides. That one place on Sepulveda Boulevard, we can't remember the name, but the one where you could get an oil change and a car wash? Their guys did a great job.



TIP: 1 pc

Your service was so shitty that only our overwhelming desire to get you out of our sight prevents us from creating a nasty scene in front of all the other diners, your coworkers and your boss. You are a parody of a waiter; everything about you disgusts us, you stinking, worthless, miserable wretch. Also we hope you contract diptheria and the plague.

FREQUENCY: Once in our lives, at a pizza restaurant we do not wish to remember, in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1998.

TIP: 10 pc

Boy, you really put in a lot of effort, didn't you? Yeah, thanks a lot for putting us back near the kitchen, where we could see you loafing about and talking with your friends while our drinks remained empty, our food remained under the heat lamp, and our patience grew thin.

FREQUENCY: Very rarely.

TIP: 15 pc-ish

You did a good job given the circumstances which prevailed in this establishment at this time. Also, thank you for keeping all that crap about being-our-server-and-such to a minimum. You have no idea how much we approve.


TIP: 18 pc-ish

Say, you helped make this evening a bit of fun. Thanks for all your hard work, and we will certainly return in future and make sure to order plenty of expensive drinks. Also, we'll make sure to bring our friends along and make a good night of it.

FREQUENCY: Standard.

TIP: 20 pc

MESSAGE (choose one):

A) Hi! We're on a date!

B) IF server = female, THEN 18 pc + 2 pc

C) Thank you for noticing we were on a date, and making sure that everything went smoothly. We will take care of you very well now and in future.

D) You really, really, really went above and beyond tonight, and we shall be eternally grateful for your hard work. How do we make sure we get you as a waiter or waitress next time, as opposed to the other people in this place?

FREQUENCY: Generally infrequent.

TIP: 50 pc or more / if alone, round up check to $100.

MESSAGE: OK, so not only were you an absolutely perfect waitress, you also happen to be a major fox not wearing a wedding ring. However, our sense of decorum and manners -- plus the fact it would likely creep you out something fierce -- forbids us from asking for your telephone number. As a result we will never see you again. But still, we're going to put this $100 bill inside the bill sleeve, and leave it on the table for you to pick up later. Just because we want to, that's why. If all goes well we will be getting back on the freeway by the time you happen to pick up the check, but in the event you do happen to stop by, you'll be set and no! don't open it and force us to explain ourselves! -- just -- God! -- just take it back to the till or whatever you do with the checks once they've been dealt with. There. Phew. Yes, everything was great, thanks for asking. Thanks. Gotta go. Bye.

FREQUENCY: Twice in our lives, with two different waitresses, at a Manchester restaurant we won't mention. We haven't been back for a year.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:51 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 28, 2004

Yeah, No Denying This

You speak eloquently and have seemingly read every
book ever published. You are a fountain of
endless (sometimes useless) knowledge, and
never fail to impress at a party.
What people love: You can answer almost any
question people ask, and have thus been
nicknamed Jeeves.
What people hate: You constantly correct their
grammar and insult their paperbacks.

What Kind of Elitist Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

WE SUPPOSE NOW would be a bad time to ask whether anyone knows how to get an English copy of Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli's Ricordanze. Still, we will anyway. It has to exist; we've seen excerpts.

(via Sheila)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:09 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 27, 2004

Hi Bob!

"THEY UNVEILED A BOB Newhart statue in Chicago? ... well, I'm sure it was very impressive ... wait, what happened? ... all of Michigan Avenue flooded? ... mmm hmm ... Good Lord .... well, I'm sure they had the scuba gear ready ... oh, I see ... herding cats .... White Sox promotion ... OK. Goodbye, Howard!"

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:46 PM | TrackBack

America and Discontent

WE ARE GRATEFUL to Sasha Castel for bringing to our attention a particularly horrid little book which spreads gross mistruths about the United States and American culture. This vile little volume, entitled "Culture Shock! USA" contains enough distortions, half-truths and outright falsehoods to rival an edition of Pravda from the Thirties. We borrow from Ms Castel some of the more egregious examples:

From Page 86: "The American dinner has fallen under medical disapproval due to its high cholesterol content. The meal typically consists of a large piece of meat, ketchup, vegetables with butter, potatoes (fried or with butter), and a sweet dessert."

From Page 19: "The Puritans would not have smiled on the conspicuous consumption of today, but they would have admired the unrelenting effort that goes into the acquisition of goods. Americans have much greater admiration for businessmen than most other peoples do. An Englishman who has made enough money may well be happy to retire to his country home. The American only wants to go on making more money, driven as much by the Puritan work ethic...as by the desire for more money."

From Page 24: "Expect also to find innumerable exceptions to any of my claims about Americans. Just as not every Japanese is hard-working and deferential to superiors, nor every Chinese devoted to family, not every American is ambitious, patriotic, money-grubbing or even unsophisticated."

This last one particularly annoyed us, as we have this thing against comparing the United States with Gomorrah.

Anyway, Ms Castel has noted many more examples, and she understandably writes that even a quick look at this book prompted her to become enraged. We are not amused either, although we note the publisher is based in Oregon, and we suspect that might have something to do with it. (Hey, if you had spent a weekend in Eugene on business, you'd feel the same way).

Now, we admit our first reaction upon reading these awful excerpts was a feeling that turnabout was fair play; but on reflection we felt such a reaction was patently unfair. After all, it would not be fair to blame the Europeans for a work that is entirely American. However, because we are concerned that Europeans might read this book and draw erroneous conclusions from it, we encourage Europeans to read plenty of U.S.-based blogs -- like, say, ours -- to get a full understanding of American life.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:47 PM | TrackBack

July 23, 2004

Upward and Onward

OVER AT SAMIZDATA, Dale Amon has posted some interesting excerpts from court filings in a, well, novel property-law case.

It would appear that Gregory Nemitz, a resident of Carson City, Nev., has laid claim to the asteroid of Eros (Asteroid No. 433), which orbits the Sun at an average distance of some 146 million miles. Mr Nemitz has come up with the idea of setting up a colony on Eros to exploit its mineral wealth -- and if the idea is to work, the developer must have ownership of the rock in its entirety.

(Yes, it is amazing that we allow people to file such lawsuits -- although, as we understand it from Mr Amon, the idea is to force the property-law issue and not the claim. That said, we would note Mr Nemitz's case is now before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after a U.S. District Court slapped it down. Given the Ninth Circuit, we are half-expecting to read in the papers that Mr Nemitz has been awarded ownership not just of Eros, but half the asteroid belt).

Anyway, the Government's defense in this case is that Mr Nemitz cannot own Eros. It cites the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which forbids national Governments from appropriating celestial objects or otherwise making claim to them. Therefore, it reasons, Mr Nemitz is -- to use the legal term -- Shit Out of Luck. Furthermore, it is Most Certainly Not going to pay the $20 parking fee which he charged it for letting the Shoemaker craft land on Eros some years back.

As you can see, Mr Nemitz has been clever in planning all this out. A pity he put the cart before the horse.

For we do fear his plan falls short in a few key areas -- the most important being that he cannot enforce his claim. For that matter, none of the various people who have attempted to claim extraterrestrial land over the years can enforce their claims. This is, quite simply, because they can't get to the properties in question, and no Government has jurisdiction in these areas.

Yet what happens when either or both of those two conditions no longer holds? That to us is the real interesting question.

We would submit a lot of these legal issues will be based -- at least at the outset -- around the old squatters-rights concept. It is true this could lead to a situation one step short of anarchy: if some idiot tries to evict an honest citizen from his moon condo, because of a "title" to the land issued in 1955, the idiot may just get his space helmet filled with buckshot. But it does not have to be that way (and for a lot of examples why, see the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto).

After all, what if a link was made between property-improvement and its titling? We don't see why such a system could not be established in future to deal with land and property claims in outer space, whether through Governments based in space (in 1000 years, they might exist) or through Earth-based Governments which had made the sensible decision to scrap the Outer Space Treaty and open the last frontier up to development.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:46 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 21, 2004

Jersey, and Beyond the Blogosphere

WE ARE QUITE PLEASED to announce that Simon From Jersey, our great friend whom we have known since the third grade, has started his own blog. All Loyal Rant Readers are, as such, directed to visit Simon's blog, "Sick Day," on a regular basis for insightful and funny commentary on sports, current events, and plenty of other stuff.

As proof of Simon's wit, we note that for the most part, we stole the title for this entry from the subject of an e-mail which he sent us announcing the endeavor. So venture forth and read it. We will permalink it shortly, and are excited about reading his work on a daily basis.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:19 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Rant Statement on Celebrity-Related Discord

Financial Rant

HAMILTON, Bermuda -- Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant Inc., an Internet content provider based here, today issued the following transcript from a conference call discussing celebrity-related matters:


Mr KEPPLE, Chief Executive Officer: Good morning! Thanks, everyone, for your time. We know you're busy.

ANALYSTS: Good morning!

Mr KEPPLE: We have joining me today Quinn Quimbley, our vice president of sales and marketing, as well as senior vice president of finance Ted Hamilton. First, we'll deliver some short remarks, and then open the floor to questions.

After careful consideration, the Company has determined the entertainment industry's top performers have contributed to a general rise in discord among certain segments of the North American market. We understand that while only a fraction of these performers are responsible for this phenomenon, the result has been a general upward tick in negativity directed towards celebrities as a whole, and a significant increase in negativity vis-a-vis this fraction. The Company, after performing due diligence and thorough analyses of these data, sees fit to offer guidance that while there may be some risk, perhaps even high risk, of economic consequences for the aforementioned performers, the general effects upon the Company's activities will range from negligible to considerable, and that on the upside.


Mr HAMILTON: Twenty -- percent -- margin!


Mr HAMILTON: Good gravy, folks, we mean the pot is clean! People can't get enough of all these crazy celebrity shenanigans! It's unbelievable! We've got rising indicators across the board!

Mr QUIMBLEY: I just bought a boat!


ANALYST: Sir, this is Pieter Henrie with Land o' Shinar plc. What's this mean for the future of The Rant's celebrity coverage?

Mr QUIMBLEY: We see coverage on this front holding about steady, perhaps a slight increase over the next quarter. A thorough analysis of our past content shows no heated condemnation of celebrity antics, but rather a detached bemusement with it all that still makes our points. We will continue avoiding comment on these pronouncements of theirs. However, we believe the increased interest among certain market segments will drive revenues related to this sector higher.

ANALYST: A question for Mr Hamilton, if I may. Sir, this is Mark McAdoo from CuttlefishSpork Dominion. Do you see any expansion in terms of your labor force?

Mr HAMILTON: Did I mention we're having a stock buyback next quarter?


Mr HENRIE: I'll get my bonus. I'LL GET MY BONUS!



Mr McADOO: Um, you didn't answer my question.

Mr HAMILTON: Oh. Yes. Right. Well, Mark, as you know, we've always maintained high staff levels both here at our Bermuda headquarters and in our satellite offices, particularly in Grand Cayman, Hong Kong, and the Isle of Man. Plus, as you know, we recently established an office in Liechtenstein to further pursue our integration plans with our European distribution arm.

Mr McADOO: You still didn't answer my question.

Mr KEPPLE: Ha, ha! Mark, that's just a polite way of saying, "No, and you must be insane for wasting your one question on that." Next question, please.

ANALYST: Mr Kepple, this is Herbert Jones with ASK GmbH, and ...

Mr KEPPLE: Oh! How are things at Achtung Schnell Kauf?

Mr JONES: Fair to middlin'. Anyway, sir, how did the Company arrive at these conclusions?

Mr KEPPLE: Well, we gave considerable thought to this matter, especially given our past product lines, but we do think we arrived at a satisfactory conclusion to the question at hand.

We knew going into it that we cared little for what celebrities thought about such matters, as we had already made up our minds long before they came out with public pronouncements on this or that issue. Further, we knew that our sources of information -- namely, everything from Government reports to essays from respected writers -- proved better-sourced when compared with the one-off statements which these celebrities presented as gospel. The end result was we had no reason to even pay attention to these celebrities' opinions on anything, thus leaving us free to "enjoy the music," as the kids say.

Mr HAMILTON: Speaking of, I've got a Bose stereo in MY Lamborghini!


Mr JONES: So these opinions were nullities, in your view?

Mr KEPPLE: Well, no, that's far too harsh. Our point is simply that people don't generally form their opinions based on what a celebrity thinks. Obviously, if a celebrity has truly studied an issue carefully, reading up on it and perhaps calling some of the experts on both sides, their opinions on that issue -- provided they are reasonably formulated -- could sway us. For instance, plenty of musicians have written eloquent articles about the business practices of the recording industry, which we have read with interest.

Mr JONES: Do you think celebrities' opinions change people's minds?

Mr KEPPLE: Not particularly. They're behind the curve. Well, except for Bono. But he was clever -- he picked an issue few people care about, and studied up on it. So whether one agrees with him or not, you have to at least give him a bit of respect for bringing up debt relief. As for whether celebrities should offer up these opinions in the first place ... hey, that's their business. It's their business, of course, that will prosper or suffer as a result.

ANALYST: Mr Kepple, this is Scalawag McGillicutty of Harpoon Hedge and Pequod. Does this mean you'll cut back on criticizing celebrities' actions?

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, God, no!

Mr McGILLICUTTY: Thank God for that.

Mr KEPPLE: Good Lord. The very idea! No, we can assure you that we'll continue being right bastards when it comes to the quickie marriages, inappropriate public behavior, and general stupidity. Oh, and by the way, we're going to float some long-term debt soon. Any takers?




Mr KEPPLE: Well, thank you all for joining us today, and -- ah -- yes, we'll talk regarding the subordinate debentures. No, we don't know if they'll be callable yet. What? Two percent? Heh. Try one.

Thank you all, and good morning.


Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:11 PM | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Personal Economy, Revisited

RECENTLY, WE WERE SUBJECTED to a bit of good-natured teasing from a colleague at work regarding our personal economy. This colleague, who is a Baby Boomer, gleefully informed us that we would suffer grievous harm from paying the costs of his old-age medical care, and so on. Some might say this was particularly uncharitable, but we would disagree. After all, we knew the flip side to this argument: that if we do end up paying for our colleague's care, it will be because the cost of it first bankrupted him. Further, since skilled nursing home care costs between $40,000 and $100,000 per annum if one has assets to pay for it, it will bankrupt most of his generation.

So we were glad to have this conversation, because it got us thinking about our own personal economy once again. As we do not relish the cheapest option for our later years -- that is, to conveniently die in our late sixties -- we realized that we had best start planning for the future something fierce. The questions facing us deals with how to do this.

Now, as an American, we know that should things not go as we expected, our social-safety net will ensure that we enjoy a subsistence-level exsistence. That would not be a fun life, but it does beat lying in a gutter and starving to death. Our goal, though, is to have fun in our golden years while ensuring our eventual children do OK for themselves too.

This clearly means we will work for the rest of our lives, but as we enjoy what we do, we don't see any difficulty with that. Mr and Mrs Kepple, although "retired," live active and healthy and productive lives which pretty much ensure they will live to 110 years of age. So if they can do it, we can too. Besides, the whole retirement thing seems old-fashioned, unless one works in heavy industry. So as a young person, we can appreciate that people operate that way -- different generations think differently, after all -- but it's just not our thing. (Additional things that are not ours include golf, vacation cruises, annuities, and whole life insurance).

So assuming we work until the age of sixty full-time, and then proceed to an active but "semi-retired" lifestyle, how can we assure we have a great deal of fun and live in our neat modern house out in the desert, where we will enjoy the sun and mild winters free of sinus troubles?

Well, saving. Saving a lot. Not spending money on fancy vacations and plasma television sets and expensive doodads and luxury items. Ensuring we always have a positive cash flow. That's for starters, and we already do a lot of that. However, our conversation today made us realize that we have to take a more pro-active stance on this.

So we've decided to do a few things.

The first is to ensure that we attempt to maintain our current standard of living as long as possible. By that, we mean that as our income grows in future, we plan to touch as little of it as possible. So on the day we get our next raise, we are going to march straight into the Human Resources office of our employer and demand -- yes, demand -- a revised 401(k) application form, increasing our contributions to take in ALL of the wage increase. That way, we will a) prevent the Government from taking some of our wage hike in tax and b) save more, because we won't even see it. If we do this enough, we'll eventually max out on the bloody thing and enjoy a wicked amount of tax-free growth.

The second thing we will do is start saving more out of our own pocket. We know that when we have money, we are prone to spending it, so we plan to establish a Roth IRA (finally) with direct deposit. This way, we can save our allowable $3,000 per annum and not miss a cent -- and more importantly, we won't be able to get at it without an amazing amount of hassle and annoyance. And that's just one method of savings where it is easy to put money into something, but a pain in the ass to get it out.

So, basically, we plan to save ourselves from ... well, ourselves. We do believe there is something to that whole idea.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:04 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 16, 2004

Giving the Other Fella Hell

GAWD. CAN YOU IMAGINE just how much fun the guys at the New York Daily News are having right about now? How often do journalists have the opportunity to get snippy in print with their hated rivals -- and yet not have to do any of the work that would normally entitle them to do so?

It's just unbelievable. What with Newsday getting slammed for adding a bit of nitro to the tanks and The New York Post getting slammed for -- well, lots of things -- we suspect the Daily News folks spend editorial meetings just biting their lips, mightily trying to keep themselves from laughing hysterically at it all. And as long as they can get through the next few weeks without a major screw-up of their own, they'll be golden.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:58 PM | TrackBack

July 12, 2004

Dear God, No!

Oh No!
It's Time for Yet Another Installment of ...


OK, FINE. So the creative brain trust behind the "Police Academy" franchise has only announced that an eighth "Police Academy" movie is in the works. So the movie will not actually hit theatres for months or years. So the film could, in theory, prove a hit with the God-fearing American Public.

We don't care.

For let's face it: the likelihood of "Police Academy 8" proving to be an enjoyable film is on par with the Juche Idea being accepted as a workable form of Government. Consider: these movies were so bad that Steve Guttenberg could only stomach appearing in four of them. Consider: these movies were so bad that Bobcat Goldthwait was the real star in several. And if that's not enough, consider this reportedly-true line in the DVD set's commentary, which writer G. Noel Gross noticed: "Hello, this is Michael Winslow from Police Academy one through infinity, and I could sure use a JOB right about now!"

Well, Mr Winslow apparently isn't alone. Consider these chilling words from the man behind "Police Academy," taken from a Reuters news agency report.

"I felt it was time to start again," said series creator Paul Maslansky. "I saw that 'Starsky & Hutch' and a number of other revivals were doing really well. 'Police Academy' has such a great history. I thought, 'Why not?"

According to Maslansky, who will serve as an executive producer, the talent from the first seven features has expressed a keen interest in the revival, with Maslansky looking to combine both new and the "original talent" for the next "Police Academy."

"We became very much like a family," he said. "It's is very unusual to have seven films with virtually all the same major cast."

Now, we have to give Mr Maslansky some grudging credit -- after all, he fully admits in the cited passage that his sole aim is to make money from his franchise. As a capitalist, we admire this, and we acknowledge his right to do as he pleases in that regard.

That said, we would submit there are some things in this world people ought not do. Making an eighth "Police Academy" movie has to be up on that list.

We mean, these movies wrecked the careers of pretty much the entire cast -- when was the last time you saw Tim Kazurinsky in anything? And the whole schtick with Sgt Jones doing the impressions? That was funny once, when he ruined that professorial type's date in the restaurant. It's not funny any more. It's dead, gone, buried, hit the showers, pushing up the daisies and thoroughly shot.

God. You know, we were going to write up a faux plot for "Police Academy 8," but we're so disgusted we're not even going to do that. Besides, you all know how it would turn out anyway. There would be a not-so-thrilling opening scene, in which some sort of crime took place. Then a high-ranking officer would scream at Mahoney. Then there would be zany hijinks involving Jones, Hightower or Sweetchuck, which would end with a high-ranking officer screaming at Mahoney. Then Mahoney, or his sap designate, would end up two steps away from being cashiered, so the rest of the gang would have to save the day. Cut to a happy yet not all that funny ending.

We would submit the American Film-Going Public cannot stomach an eighth variation on this very, very bad theme. Therefore, we call upon Mr Maslansky to please cease and desist from this craven scheme, and return to making documentaries or whatever it is he does now. Please. We're beggin' ya.

(link via Ben Domenech)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:15 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

July 10, 2004

Reading and the Future

WE NOTE WITH CONCERN a report which recently appeared in The New York Times, which informs us that fewer Americans are reading books than in the past. A Government study found that only 56.6 percent of Americans bothered reading a book on their own in the past year, a decline from 60.9 percent ten years ago. It also found that only 46.7 percent bothered to read any literature, a drop of about eight points since the last survey.

It is an interesting survey for many reasons. For instance, the National Endowment for the Arts produced it. We are shocked to learn the agency spent money on writing this -- just think of all the graduate students whose sacriligeous, pornographic visual-art projects were left unrealized! Also, the survey reveals that young people were least likely to read books compared to their older peers, and the pool of American literature readers was 96 million. That last figure truly puts things in perspective. For if there are 96 million adult literature readers, there are 110 million American adults who do not read literature. We can extrapolate these figures and find there are approximately 89 million American adults who do not read at all.

Good God, that's almost frightening. How the hell can people not read books? What do these ninety million people do with their time? Do they watch television? If so, how?

We are hopeful that some of our readers can provide some insight into these questions, as we know that no one in our circle of family, friends or acquaintances falls among those ninety million. And the last time we watched television for fun -- that would be the Lakers-Pistons series -- we caught previews for some of the new shows and soon became nauseous.

One show featured a clip of a horse throwing off and trampling a noisome and obnoxious girl. Another show featured musicians moving into a quiet suburb and the zany hijinks which ensued; a third apparently served as a casino advertisement. God. People watch this stuff? Voluntarily?

Now, we will concede the situation may not be as dire as the statistics suggest. After all, one can function in daily life if one only reads, say, newspapers and magazines and blogs in the course of a year. There may be, and probably are, people who because of their work only find the time for that.

Still, we would think that people who read newspapers and magazines and blogs also read a lot of books too; the things just go hand-in-hand. At dinner last night, we read a magazine; this morning we are reading our favorite blogs; this afternoon we shall read a book. Tomorrow morning we shall read the Sunday paper.

The trouble comes when one considers the contrapositive: that people who do not read newspapers and magazines and blogs also do not bother reading any books. How many of those ninety million people fall into this category? And what, one wonders, will become of them?

The thing about reading is not merely that it is fun or enjoyable, although that's reason enough to pick up a few books. The thing is that one learns when one reads. It does not matter what one is reading or why; people who read improve their skill sets in doing so. That improvement may be small (if one reads a historical novel) or it may be large (if one reads a book on economics, personal finance, or similar subject). But the point is that there's improvement.

To succeed in American life, it is imperative that a person not only has a strong knowledge base, but also the ability to adapt as circumstance warrants. There are two sides to this same coin of knowledge.

The first is street-learning. After all, being the most-read person in the world will not save you, for instance, if you picked a bad partner for your overseas venture and he ends up robbing you blind. It will not save you if you make a horrible mistake in politics or operate on the wrong side of a patient's body or get caught down-limit on sugar futures.

But here's the thing. If you don't have the other side of that coin -- book-learning -- you'll never get to the point where you can really put your street-learning to practice. You just won't. And if you don't get to that point, you put your future and your family's future at risk -- perhaps for generations to come, until some far-off day when your great-grandchild breaks that vicious cycle.

Of course, we realize that Rant readers know these things already, which may lead readers to question why we even bothered writing this. After all, our warning is not aimed at them. They would be right in making this argument, except for one small thing, that being it is they we hope would pass on the message. For in the end, we realize the cruel truth: that those we would most want to read these words will never do so.

(link via Ambra Nykol)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:14 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 09, 2004

The Nightcap

HAVE WE MENTIONED we really, really -- really want a (blank)(blanking) (blank-blanked) godrotting cigarette right about now?

Ugh. It has to be the withdrawal doing this to us.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:57 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Our Latest Malaise

A study by Common Purpose - a body that runs leadership development programmes - into the hopes, aspirations and frustrations of some of the country's most talented and high-flying graduates in their late 20s and early 30s, found widespread disillusion, disappointment, and in the most severe cases, despair.

Many felt bored, under-stretched, stuck in a rut, without purpose and often bogged down with debt and responsibilities. The majority wanted to find an escape route, and at 30 not a few were preparing to take one.

-- The Independent, July 3, 2004.

WHEN WE GET FRUSTRATED with the various annoyances existing in our life, we will admit to sometimes having the evil and unpatriotic thought that we should pull up stakes and move abroad. It is not a thought which lasts long, of course. In part, that is because we realize one can't simply walk away from one's problems, but mostly because we realize America still offers us the best hope for our future. Besides, we happen to live in one of the best and most free parts of the United States at that.

Furthermore, when we put things into perspective, we can say we enjoy a lifestyle that is downright nice: a good job which we like, a good place in which to live, pretty much all that we need and want. Those are not things which are as easily obtained elsewhere.

So why, then, is it we so often feel empty and unfulfilled, and we are so often in foul moods? We can't believe quitting smoking is the only cause of our present irascibility, our disinterest in and detachment from many facets of life, and what we suppose could be described as a general feeling of malaise. Nor do we think we especially need any time off; we did just return from vacation, and we do go crazy after a few days if we don't do anything productive.

We can only assume it is a touch of depression; that has had a tendency to crop up in our life. Certainly that diagnosis would explain a lot: why we are always tired, why we can't especially get enthused about things to which normal people often look forward, why we have almost zero interest in dating or parties or going out with friends -- even why blogging sometimes gets a bit tough. It would also, we think, explain why we have thoughts about escape, even though there is no rational reason for them: we want something in our life to be different, although we don't know what. This is, of course, irritating to the highest possible degree.

But enough of this. We're going to do some reading and go to bed. Perhaps we'll feel better in the morning.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:46 PM | TrackBack

Love is Strange

WE WOULD DIRECT readers to a particularly fascinating discussion between some female bloggers about that maddening subject of love. At issue is what one of the writers, Anne Cunningham, has dubbed “the Marianne problem” – that is, the fact that some women pursue ill-advised relationships with men who have an amazing je ne sais quoi but not much else going for them. As such, the women often suffer amazing grief in the process. The main question at hand is whether a woman ought try to contain this impulse, the thinking being that doing so would produce a less-romantic but far more stable relationship in the end, one that would not ultimately result in pain.

Now, we fully admit we are not qualified to take part in this discussion. The first reason, of course, is that we are not a woman, and as such, we do not approach romance in the same way that a woman does. The second reason is that we are, we would submit, a man whom such women would likely term the solid boring type: we do not ride a motorcycle, we do not have much use for angst, and we would most certainly not do some damnfool thing like quit our job because we wanted to go hiking for a year. That is simply not us. However, because of these things, we are gratified to see this discussion is taking place – because we recognize this is something beyond our ken. Also, for what it’s worth, a man’s observations on this phenomenon might prove somewhat interesting.

For we can tell our female readers that we men react to the Marianne problem with myriad emotions. To explain it, it will require that we use some terms not normally used in mixed company, but unfortunately that is a necessity to fully show what we’re talking about.

Now, we can assure you that men as a class generally have three reactions when the Marianne problem affects us – that is, when a typical man is attracted to a hot lady, yet finds himself unable to go out with her because she a) is involved with someone else, or b) is not attracted to his type, or c) is not attracted to him personally, despite the fact said man considers himself a pretty good catch. These three reactions are as follows:

One: Bewilderment. This is commonly known as the what-the-hell-does-she-see-in-him reflex, which generally arises when one learns that a woman’s boyfriend is a lout, a cad or a schemer whose prospects are generally deemed dim according to prevailing societal standards. The bewilderment reflex does not, in itself, contain hostile emotion, as it generally involves a concurrent romantic writing-off of the woman.

Indeed, if the woman is married or going steady, a man – at least those with whom we hang out – would never think of intruding upon another man’s relationship. Such an act would be morally reprehensible AND it might just pose a long-term threat to a particular something of which men are very, very fond. So please, don't get us wrong. It's just that we don’t have any frickin’ clue as to why someone like her would be attracted to someone like him, as he’s not all that good looking/has no earning power/ moves his lips when he reads. And what the hell are we doing wrong anyway?

Two: Frustration. This is commonly known as the God-is-that-guy-an-asshole reflex, which generally arises when one learns that a hot girl is going out with someone who is a Factory-Approved Grade A Schmuck. The average “nice guy,” you see, cannot accept this state of affairs – and it even may strike him as immoral. Certainly he believes it irrational, foolish and decadent, as the mere existence of such a relationship is seen as an assault against every standard of truth and reason upon which he has built his world view.

We would submit the asshole reflex explains much in this world, such as why some folks in Hollywood were practically coining their own money after “Revenge of the Nerds” was released in theatres. For this movie gets it; after all, the hot chick is going out with the football captain, and the football captain is not merely an asshole, he has the reasoning power of a lemon rind. So when right triumphs over might, it represents the way things ought to be, and would be in the man’s perfect and rational and orderly universe.

Three: Resignation-plus-Acceptance. This is commonly known as the gimme-another-one reflex, which generally occurs when a man learns there’s no way in hell he’ll ever have a shot at going out with the hot girl. The man orders a double-shot of something fierce, kicks back and takes a look around, and soon finds himself content with the world. The rationality has kicked back in again. So the man reminds himself there are plenty of women out there, and football season is starting soon, and that things aren’t too bad in life.

Now, the ultimate question which has been posed is whether women inclined to pursue passionate relationships ought look for something steadier. Despite everything we wrote above, though, we must say we think the answer is a definite No.

After all, a relationship in which both parties are so different as to be incompatible shall surely fail in the long run. We truly do think it would be a recipe for disaster: perhaps not one year into it, but five or ten or twenty years into it. We would consider that an unacceptable long-term risk. Far better to try working it out with people to whom one is genuinely attracted, then try to make things work by taking the safe route. There may be more short-term risk in that approach, but the long-term reward prospects are far greater.

CLARIFICATION/CORRECTION, 9:10 p.m.: We are downright mortified to realize that we erred grievously in our reading of the linked essays, which led us to write a post which in retrospect appears quite foolish. We would direct readers to our comments section for a full explanation, as well as our own admission of guilt in this regard.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:25 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 05, 2004

One Year Later

March 14, 1920 - July 4, 2003

IT WAS A YEAR AGO YESTERDAY that my grandfather left this world behind. It was not long after midnight when the first call went out from a hospital ward in Pittsburgh, and not much longer after that when I learned from my brother that all was lost. That message from Ohio was the last in a series which he and I had sent back and forth during the night, and contained in them was all the grief which we both felt.

Looking back, the days which followed seemed to pass much quicker than that dark hour; and the memories of those days seem sharper in comparison. Perhaps the trip back to Pennsylvania and the time I spent with my family was responsible for that, or perhaps it was my grandfather’s funeral, with its implicit message that now was the time when one began to heal. Perhaps it was all the hours during the long drives with which I was able to think in quiet, or the beautiful letters from a dear friend I found waiting for me when I returned home. I can’t say I can pinpoint a cause, but now that time has soothed the anguish of that awful week, I would argue that all of those things gave me strength – strength enough so I could write about what my grandfather meant to me.

Yesterday, I read again what I had written last year about Grandpap, my mother’s father. It was a pretty humbling experience, to be perfectly honest. For one thing, as the above picture shows, my grandfather cut a far more dashing figure than I ever will. True, people dressed better back then, but still—that photo was taken when he was 24 years old. He looked like Sinatra. Also, like most folks from that time, he was developing what I call the Swell Post-War Look, which sure as hell beats tie-dye.

But I guess I feel pretty humbled because when I look at someone I really and truly admire, like my grandfathers and my father and other relations, I end up comparing how I live my life with how they live their lives. And Grandpap left some pretty big shoes to fill in that regard. It wasn’t just that he had his priorities straight or that he lived a good life; it was that he was a fundamentally good person. And I don’t know if I’ve truly lived up to his example as of late.

I’ve personally thought – at least over the past few months – that I’ve kind of developed a hard edge to my personality, and I really don’t like that. That’s not to say that I think I’ve suddenly turned into a jerk. I guess it’s just that when I find myself under the gun, I get a bit … um, strident. I’ve found myself less forgiving when things don’t go the way they ought go, and at times I’m getting downright snippy. There are plenty of reasons for this – the Latest Great Attempt to Quit Smoking – hasn’t helped my disposition any, and I’ve probably got a touch of depression again. Still, though, it bothers me—and I really feel as if I’ve dropped the ball when it comes to religious matters.

I don’t know if Grandpap is keeping an eye on me, but if he is, I’d like him to know that I’m trying. And I miss him greatly.

I was also thinking about Grandpap a few weeks ago, when I went back to western Pennsylvania, the land where my grandfather built his life. It is a place with a timeless quality to it, a place in which the memories of the past have not yet faded into history. Things are still very much as they have always been. For instance, my Aunt Carol and Uncle Bill still live in the small town of Scottdale, and Uncle Bill still gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day. I still stay at the Howard Johnson’s motel in New Stanton, and I still eat at the Eat’n’Park across from it for dinner. Now, that’s not to say the place exists in a time warp – for instance, I noticed a Wal-Mart set up shop, and there’s a new Bob Evans restaurant in New Stanton. Generally, though, it’s still the same western Pennsylvania I remember visiting as a boy.

It’s just that so many intangible things have changed.

No longer do I take the old road, US 119 South, down to Connellsville to visit my grandparents; no longer do I visit the small but comfortable home which my grandfather had built the old-fashioned way and in which my grandparents lived for so many decades. For after my grandfather died, my family had to deal with a second heartbreak: facing the true and stark reality that my grandmother was no longer the person she once was.

And so, on a hot and muggy Monday during my vacation last month, I drove from Wilmington, Del., to Mount Pleasant, Pa., to see my grandmother. She lives there now, in a small personal-care home. It is a nice place, well-kept and well-staffed and comfortable. But despite knowing she was always in good hands there, I was very much afraid about visiting her. You see, it was the last visit which I would—will—ever have with my grandmother; the last visit which truly mattered, the last visit in which I could truly say goodbye.

Oh, God, Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It is the most vicious and brutal and rapacious thing. It takes and it takes and it takes but it leaves just enough left so that it stabs you right in the heart and twists the knife again and again, over and over, without pity or remorse or mercy. Good God, I felt like such a fraud! I couldn’t just say why I was there, of course; I couldn’t no matter what the disease, but at least with the others I could have rationalized it to myself!

For it really was the last visit which I will ever have with her – the next time, if there is one, it will be too late. I hadn’t seen her since Thankgsiving, but the physical and mental decline since then was readily apparent. When I first saw her, oh, she looked so much older. She was walking into her room at the home, ever so slowly, when the aide mentioned that someone was there to see her. She turned around and exclaimed, “Ben!”

I really wasn’t prepared for that – at least not emotionally. On an intellectual level, I had thought I might have to explain who I was at first, or I might need the aide’s assistance, or what not. But the real reason I wasn’t prepared was because that really made it hit home that my grandmother was hanging on as best she could. In my mind, I suppose I hadn’t really considered that; I guess I made myself believe the decline had gone farther than it had. It really weighed on me as she and I talked for the next forty-five minutes out in the parlor, although that conversation was more along the lines of that for which I had been prepared.

The best way I can describe that talk is by comparing it to a scene in Asimov’s novel Foundation, when the scientists have a state visit from an important dignitary. The dignitary spends three days on the scientists’ planet, and in the end, makes all the scientists feel happy and optimistic and sure of future support. Then their analysts report that an examination of the dignitary’s words show that he didn’t say a damn thing, and did it so the scientists never noticed. The only difference between that conversation, and the talk I had with my grandmother, was that I tried to boil things down so she would understand. I don’t know how well I did at that, and I know the important thing was the time I spent with her. I had brightened her day by being there, and what really felt good was that after I had left, she remembered I had visited. Still, I just felt so guilty about the whole thing.

I especially felt this way when it was time for me to go. She didn’t want me to leave. And so, she offered to walk me out to my car (which I appreciated, but I wasn’t about to let an Alzheimer’s patient out of the house), and then she offered to show me to the front, and so on. This went on for perhaps ten minutes, with a lot of hugs and goodbyes in between, and was only interrupted when a real-estate assessor came to the door. That’s when the real heartbreaking moment came. I gave my grandmother a last hug goodbye and told her I loved her. She hugged me back.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

“I won’t,” I replied. “I promise.”

New Stanton, Pa. – Manchester, N.H.
June 14 – July 4, 2004.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:41 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 02, 2004

Dean Esmay Threatened with Lawsuit

OH, THIS IS JUST SWELL. Dean Esmay, everyone's favorite blogger -- and the man chiefly responsible for The Rant's swell digs, we might add -- has been threatened with a lawsuit. The link contains the full story.

We are heartened, though, to see that Mr Esmay has not only made the threat public to his thousands of readers, but has responded in the manner that one would expect upon receiving such a threat. OK, he was considerably more polite and elegant than we would have been, but we were nonetheless quite impressed with his response.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 04:11 AM | TrackBack

Americans Blamed for Canadian Election Snafu

Washington Responds: “They Had an Election?”

Rant Canada

OTTAWA – Relations between Canada and the United States are at a new low after prominent Canadians accused America of influencing its election, and an advertising campaign launched immediately following the race hasn’t helped matters.

The diplomatic donnybrook will also cause a new headache for the new Martin Government, which is already reeling from what many Liberal Party insiders said was an uninspired and weak victory speech from Prime Minister Paul Martin earlier this week.

"We as Liberals have lost votes," Martin told supporters on election night. "The message in this regard was unmistakable - Canadians expect more from us, and as a party and a Government we will do better. Of course, I don’t know how we’re going to do that with just 135 seats in Parliament. David Pratt—is David here?—no?—well, anyway, David had the great idea of setting up a suggestions box down at party headquarters. If anyone has any good ideas, I’d love to hear them. Please. Please, for the love of God, help me.”

“However, there is good news,” Martin told the now-concerned crowd. “I just saved a whole bunch of money by switching my car insurance to GEICO.”

But while things didn’t go as well as planned for the Liberals, their main rivals were also forced to admit the election was a botch.

“I'll admit I feel some disappointment," Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper told supporters in Calgary after polls closed. "You should feel disappointed also. God. We did so badly – you know, Martin could have walked out of Parliament with bales of banknotes on his head and we wouldn’t have won this election.”

“What the hell happened?” Harper continued, referring to the Tories’ win of 99 seats, a gain of 26 seats, but far less than most polls showed they would win. “Did we need a better slogan? A better platform? Was my deodorant not working during the campaign? Good Lord, it’s just embarrassing.”

“Shut up!” Harper screamed, as his supporters began a rousing chant of “Bring Back Mulroney!”

With neither the Grits nor the Tories having the votes to force their own legislation through Parliament, real power in the new assembly may very well rest in the hands of two men. The first is Jack Layton, head of the New Democratic Party, while the other is Gilles Duceppe, head of the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Some independent observers say this could pose trouble for the new Government.

“Oh, they’re screwed,” said Dr. Harris Wilson, head of the Institute for Canadian Political Studies in Niagara Falls, N.Y. “Did you see what Layton wants from the Liberals in return for his support? Don’t get me started on Duceppe either – I know he gave his standard stump speech after the results were in, but trust me: he still has that “Je m’appelle Gilles, et je ne canadienne” speech lying around somewhere.”

Wilson was referring to a popular Quebec-oriented version of an advertisement for Molson Canadian beer, which was run on a Toronto radio station some years ago.

ABOVE: Canadian political leaders react to election results.

Adding to what Wilson called “complete chaos” in Ottawa was the launch of a tourism-advertising campaign by a shadowy American-backed group. It’s not immediately clear who is behind the campaign, but analysts agreed that it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“What lame-brain gave the go-ahead for running these ads?” asked Dalhousie University Prof. MacKay Clark. “I’m sorry, but it’s not exactly helpful to launch them the day after an election.”

The advertisements, which appeared on broadcast and in print media throughout the nation, make specific reference to Canada’s bad weather and its taxation and regulatory schemes, among other topics.

Also vexing were ads featuring a hospital operating room with the legend, “Look! No Lines,” ads showing a rock band with the legend, “You Can Listen to Them All the Time Down Here,” and ads featuring 72 cents in U.S. funds with the legend, “Shouldn’t a Dollar Be Worth a Dollar?”

“The ad about the ease with which one could obtain quality Canadian beer was really below the belt,” Clark said.

“Those damn Americans,” said Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish, in a well-received speech made in Ottawa yesterday. “I hate those bastards – and with good reason. I think we all knew it was only a matter of time before those imperialist warmongers turned their cannons at us, eh?”

“It may very well be the Americans were behind these awful election results too,” Parrish added. “That’s clearly the only rational explanation for what happened. It’s all part of their scheme to seize our oil wealth and claim it for their own.”

Canada’s former Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps, echoed Parrish’s comments.

“Clearly it was the Americans who were behind my loss at the Liberal Party’s nomination convention for Hamilton East,” Copps said. “The Yanks’ve never forgiven me for my brave stand to keep their tawdry, worthless magazines out of our fair nation. And if we can’t have magazines to call our own, what’s next?”

Reactions from Washington were mixed.

“They had an election?” a senior administration official said. The senior official, when informed about the angry accusations from north of the border, then added: “Well, they’re divided – that’s kind of par for the course, isn’t it?”

Another administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also dismissed the Canadians’ allegations. The official pointed out that the Canadian miltiary was ranked above Denmark, but below the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, in terms of its efficacy, reach and firepower.

“We do hope our Canadian friends realize that no one down here – and we mean no one – had any idea they even had an election,” the official said. “Therefore, the idea that we would seek to influence it is completely ridiculous.”

“Heh. This might actually make that fisheries summit I’m supposed to attend this fall somewhat interesting,” the official added.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:06 AM | TrackBack