September 26, 2004

Uh Oh

MOUNT ST. HELENS is apparently going through the volcanic equivalent of gastric distress.

The advisory, from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington, reads as follows:

Seismic activity at Mount St. Helens has changed significantly during the past 24 hours and the changes make us believe that there is an increased likelihood of a hazardous event, which warrants release of this Notice of Volcanic Unrest. The swarm of very small, shallow earthquakes (less than Magnitude 1) that began on the morning of 23 September peaked about mid-day on 24 September and slowly declined through yesterday morning. However, since then the character of the swarm has changed to include more than ten larger earthquakes (Magnitude 2-2.8), the most in a 24-hr period since the eruption of October 1986. In addition, some of the earthquakes are of a type that suggests the involvement of pressurized fluids (water and steam) or perhaps magma. The events are still occurring at shallow depths (less than one mile) below the lava dome that formed in the crater between 1980 and 1986. The cause and outcome of the earthquake swarm are uncertain at this time. Several causes are possible, but most point toward an increased probability of explosions from the lava dome if the level of current unrest continues or escalates. During such explosions the dome and crater floor are at greatest risk from ballistic projectiles, but the rim of the crater and flanks of the volcano could also be at risk. Explosions would also be expected to produce ash clouds that drift downwind at altitudes up to several thousand feet above the crater rim. Landslides and debris flows from the crater that are large enough to reach the Pumice Plain are also possible. Such events occurred at Mount St. Helens between 1989 and 1991.

(via Instapundit)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:59 PM | TrackBack

An Open Letter to CBS

TO: The Columbia Broadcasting System

FR: Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant

RE: Football

-------

To whom it may concern:

You may dimly recall that due to weather-related problems, the National Football League game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins was postponed from 1 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. today. It is now after 8:30 p.m., and there is absolutely no football on Boston's CBS affiliate. It is readily apparent that no football will be forthcoming this evening.

Instead, CBS foisted upon its viewers an hour-long family drama about the trials of a batboy for a team that looks very much like the New York Yankees. The Yankees. Surely the good people of Greater Boston deserve better than this? Couldn't you have held off until after the World Series?

But as if that wasn't bad enough, at 9 p.m., instead of airing the game, CBS showed its Sunday movie, "Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman." You must be kidding. You are going to show "Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman" as opposed to an important AFC inter-division matchup?

Wretched, miserab -- why don't you just broadcast "Heidi" and have done with it?

In anguish,

Benjamin Kepple

UPDATE, 9:12 p.m. Oh, God. The Steelers are even winning.

UPDATE, 9:20 p.m. Now we're reduced to watching Tampa Bay vs. Oakland on ESPN. Swell. Just swell. Well, as long as the Raiders lose ... oh, wait. They just took the lead. Gaaaaaaah.

UPDATE, 9:42 p.m. OK, they just showed footage from the Pittsburgh-Miami game, and they're playing in a downpour. It is fundamentally wrong that we have no way to watch this.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:05 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

September 25, 2004

PayPal's Singapore Sling

ON-LINE PAYMENT service PayPal has apparently started acting as if it was the Government of Singapore. We recently learned that PayPal has informed users it may start levying fines on them, should the users buy naughty goods and services over the Internet using their PayPal accouint. According to a news report, these $500 fines may be imposed on anyone who buys prescription drugs from unauthorized pharmacies, who engages in on-line gambling, or who purchases adult materials.

This report comes just as the blogosphere is steaming over news that PayPal has limited -- whatever that means -- noted blogger Bill Quick's account with the service. See Mr Quick's site for more details on that matter.

Now, we personally feel that PayPal, as a private concern, has the right to act however it wishes -- provided that it violates no laws or regulations which Government has imposed on it. It also, in line with the prior proviso, has the right to deny or accept business as it sees fit.

That said, we can't for the life of us understand why PayPal is acting this way. Obviously, they don't want trouble from the Government -- but their policies are much broader than those necessary to avoid such trouble. Furthermore, actually fining users -- as opposed to merely closing their accounts -- has the potential to cause amazing negative repercussions. If PayPal should ever err in levying those fines, the public-relations impact alone could be devastating, to say nothing of the potential ramifications from litigation or arbitration.

But even Mr Quick's situation has stirred up furious anger and general scorn in the blogosphere, which makes great use of the service. Over 30 blogs, including many heavy hitters, have written their own irate posts on the matter in response. Furthermore, because bloggers love causing trouble and showing solidarity with their compatriots -- look how much help a blogger gets when he loses his job -- there is the potential for widespread alienation among this very large and very natural market for PayPal.

It may be that PayPal has grown to the point where even the blogosphere matters little for their present business. However, a key part of any firm's success -- especially if they are publicly traded -- is continued growth over time. Annoying current and potential users will not help generate new business. And as competition to PayPal is already emerging in the marketplace, we think it's pretty dumb for PayPal to act so heavy-handed and be so patronizing in dealing with its customers.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:06 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Stupid Investing Tricks, and Other Matters

WE WERE DISAPPOINTED to read this morning an article, recently published in the hallowed pages of USA Today, which wastes a great deal of ink discussing the proposition that large financial-services firms screw over their small-potato customers. The article did not use that particular turn of phrase, but that sentiment is clearly expressed within it. A pity the whole idea is crap.

It is also a pity that the article was inadequately researched, unfair in its tone and scope, and offers up some truly awful advice to boot. The USA Today article starts out with a swipe at the Vanguard Group -- Vanguard, for God's sake -- and proceeds from there:

Come to the Vanguard Group with $1 million or more, and you get portfolio advice, low fees and a personal representative to attend to your investment needs.

Come to Vanguard with $10,000, and you get a guy on the other end of the phone.

Come with less than $1,000, you get turned away.

Vanguard is typical. Increasingly, the message from Wall Street is that small investors need not apply. Merrill Lynch, which once bragged about bringing Wall Street to Main Street, requires a $100,000 ante to sit down with a broker. And Charles Schwab, pioneer of discount brokerage, pushed up fees on small accounts in an effort to make them be profitable — or go elsewhere.

Nearly every brokerage, brokerage house and bank has a special team that caters to the wealthy. Small savers, on the other hand, pay more for their investments, get little advice and often get the raw end of investment scams.

All of which could be dismissed as the way the world works, except for one thing: Today's small investors aren't the stock dabblers of a few decades ago, who bought and sold stocks for the thrill of playing the market. They're investors because they have to be. Their retirement depends on it.

Pensions, once a mainstay of retirees, are disappearing. Just 17 percent of all private employees have traditional defined-benefit pensions, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), a nonprofit research group. That's down from 44 percent 20 years ago.

The first immediate problem we saw with this was simple -- there are companies which do welcome investors with less than $1,000 to invest, even in a taxable account. One of them is Scottrade, a fast-growing private brokerage firm which requires just $500 in cash or equities to open an account. Online trades are just $7, and investors can get personal attention at any of the firm's hundreds of offices. All they must do is walk in. Therefore, we can see Scottrade's service would be wonderful for any truly small investor who is just starting out, and wishes to build his account over time via monthly contributions. It would have been nice had the article pointed out there are companies which do cater to regular folks.

The second immediate problem we saw was that certain ideas were glossed over. Yes, we realize we are discussing USA Today, but that's still no excuse: one sentence would have done the trick in fixing these problems. For instance, when the writer points out that "nearly every brokerage, brokerage house and bank has a special team that caters to the wealthy," it might have helped if the writer had mentioned why. Oddly, he does not do so until the end of the story, and even then, he doesn't really explain it.

The answer is simple: due to deregulation in the financial-services industry, all these firms can now compete for this small but lucrative market. It is entirely feasible for, say, Wachovia -- or, as Simon From Jersey has jokingly called them, Watch-over-ya -- to handle every aspect of a customer's financial life. And because competition for this limited market is so fierce, firms must offer such services lest their clients jump ship.

The third immediate problem is the article's cavalier dismissal of the profit motive. Attention, USA Today: brokerage firms are not charities. They never have been. Fred Schwed had that figured out back in 1940, so there's no excuse for your man not to have done so six decades later. But apparently it is impolite these days to suggest that firms might actually be doing a good thing in carrying these accounts which generate no revenue or actually cost them money.

And the fourth is this wailing and gnashing of teeth vis-a-vis pensions. We are not generally enamored with pensions, as we find them a post-war anachronism in today's information age. Pensions made sense back in the Good Old Days, when tax-advantaged retirement accounts did not exist, and as such they're great for older workers. But as those tax-advantaged accounts do exist now, we -- being a young worker -- do not think pensions are as great as they once were. Yes, the guaranteed income with a defined-benefit pension is nice; but young workers could make far more money on the defined-contribution side of things. Besides, when workers die, so do their pensions. That sucks.

Anyway, as we said, these were things we immediately saw wrong with the article. There are deeper, more insidious things, as well -- and we think we ought point them out lest bad ideas go uncriticized.

The first is this idea that people should start brokerage accounts with small money. In some cases, it's not a bad idea -- for instance, if one wants to use "dollar-cost averaging" to build up an account over time. If Small Investor A wishes to open an account with $500, and put that into Index Fund B, and supplemented that with monthly contributions, it's not a bad idea. But in most cases, the idea that an investor would put $500 into an account to buy shares in a single equity is ridiculous. Furthermore, we have to ask, just as Tobias and all the other gurus have asked: if you don't have $1,000 or $3,000 in ready cash to put in the market, what in hell are you doing opening an account? You would be better off putting that money in a savings account for emergencies, so you won't have to dip into your retirement funds should an emergency arise. We should also stress that we used the phrase brokerage account -- there's a difference between that and a retirement account, e.g., a 401(k).

Our second complaint deals with some of the patently stupid examples which the writer uses. Specifically, he mentions investment in one of the "hottest" broker-sold mutual funds, which charges poorer clients a higher percentage commission than the wealthy. The gurus again have noted: why the hell would anybody buy a mutual fund and pay commission to get in it? You've lost money from the get-go with that approach. Investing in an exchange-traded fund, on the other hand, offers virtually expense-free investing (expenses are often between 0.1 and 0.2 pc per annum, depending on one's firm) and there are no percentage commissions.

Lastly, though, we must say we don't like the writer's thinking that financial advice is really worth all that much. Anyone with funds in the market must deal with those matters seriously, and that means an investor needs to take the initiative in learning how to do his own research. In short, he ought arm himself with the tools he needs to be successful. It may not be the most fun thing in the world, but he will be better off for it. Quite frankly, we would be greatly surprised if these well-off investors, the seven-figure types, used their personal account representatives simply for advice. More likely they come in handy for smoothing out administrative details and such.

But as we do not want to end on a negative note, we do want to point out one thing which we thought USA Today's man did right. He should have devoted more space to it, perhaps even written an entire article on it. It, in this case, is the fee-schedule with which investors in some 401(k) plans often get stuck. There is a lot of capital being wasted in such plans just due to the unnecessarily high expense ratios. We think people would be served well with an examination of these expense ratios, as they could then shift their money into those available funds with smaller expenses.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:13 AM | TrackBack

September 23, 2004

The Trials of Juror Number Ten

GREETING! We must apologize for the lack of posting as of late – those of you who have mentioned this, you know who you are – but we can assure readers that we have a perfectly good excuse. Namely, we were in court.

We can assure readers we were not in court due to any real or alleged actions of our own, but rather because the Government ordered us to appear for jury duty. As such, we dutifully trudged down to the county courthouse last Monday to do so. Much to our surprise and amazement, we were then selected at random to serve on a jury judging a criminal matter. At first, we were merely a backup for the people whom Fate had decreed would serve, but peremptory challenges soon caused us to become Juror Number Ten. In all, fourteen jurors were chosen for this particular case, but out of those, only twelve would decide the outcome. Two would become alternates via the same method we were all first chosen: a lottery.

We became Juror Number Ten at about 12:30 p.m. last Monday, some five hours after we arrived at the court. The orientation session and jury selection processes were about as dull as one might expect, because even the most obvious legal points must be spelled out to prospective jurors. We must say we thought these sessions could be Made More Fun in several ways. For instance, it would be a lot more fun if swimsuit models were allowed to read the voir dire questionnaire. Also, instead of having kindly court personnel simply read out the rules of conduct, we think a multimedia presentation along with the lectures might help hammer those points home. There are two options we can see for this.

The first would be a short film, like the announcements one sees in the movie theatres prior to the featured films. The rules could be made perfectly clear through humorous skits. For example, a juror whose mobile phone went off in court could be dragged off in handcuffs, followed with hearty laughter from all in the chamber. But even if that wasn’t feasible, something with PowerPoint might prove useful:

KNOW COUNSEL? CONFLICT!
KNOW WITNESS(ES)? CONFLICT!
BREAKS: MORNING, AFTERNOON
PAY: $20 PER DAY, $10 PER HALF-DAY

It used to be $30 per diem, one of the bailiffs told us, but it got cut back in the early Nineties. Such is the legacy of great Pericles.

The Wheels of Justice

THE TRIAL started three days later, and despite our joking above, we can assure readers that matters of law are no joke. One indication of this: in that courthouse, jurors had guards every step of the way.
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Hence, while we jurors all had access to restrooms and vending machines, and were provided all the free coffee and water we could drink, we could only leave the jurors’ area of the courthouse if we were under guard. At every step of the way, court officers would hand us off to their colleagues, and we would proceed from station to station under the watchful eye of these personnel.

That had to be done, of course, to keep the jury pool free from taint; and we all found humor in it. For instance, a break outside for a cigarette or fresh air was known as a “1099,” which we all found quite funny. That’s the number of the tax form used to report miscellaneous income, such as pay for jury duty. But although the officers and our fellow jurors were great and friendly people, and we kidded each other about this or that, on that first day we felt a bit of relief when our assigned officer finally radioed, “Jurors going home.”

As it happened, we did not go immediately home that night. Instead, we followed our normal Thursday night routine: stop at bookstore, pick up The Economist, go out for cheap but fulfilling dinner. At the bookstore, we picked up some books and a movie as a special treat for when the trial had finished. We picked up a novel and a history book and an expensive movie; this last being an old foreign film which was reincarnated on DVD with Plenty of Unneeded Extras and Bonus Materials. Among them: an English-dubbed soundtrack. Anyone who has seen this particular movie knows that is treason to cinema. But we digress.

When we did get home, we knew we couldn’t think about the case – after all, more would be presented in the morning. How we hated the prohibitions against asking questions and taking notes! We recognize the legal principles which stand behind those, of course, but God! it was just aggravating to work against instinct like that. As we had to be back at court pretty early, and knew well how our mind works, we realized there was but one thing we could do: go to bed, and early. Well, that and watch some mindless prime-time entertainment. The case could wait.

The Case in Question

The trial was held over three days, and it was really rather strange. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to recall the words of Dickens' old foil, Thomas Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” The trouble was that there were damn few Facts with which to work, and we jurors had to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Anyway, here’s the summary. The defendant – whom we shall not name here – was charged with burglary, as well as a lesser and included charge of theft. The defendant was alleged to have broken into the apartment where his then-wife and three step-children lived, and stolen goods from inside. Seems simple, right?

How wrong you would be to think so.

For one thing, there was the relationship between the defendant and his now ex-wife, who was one of the complaining witnesses in the case.

Attorneys on both sides spent much time showing these two would not soon be named Citizen of the Year. It was not merely that the defendant and his ex-wife were in the waning days of their marriage when the incident happened. It was not merely that the defendant and all the complaining witnesses had no love for each other. That would still, well, be expected.

It was rather unexpected when the defendant’s ex-wife said, under oath and apropos of nothing, that a key reason she married the defendant was because he had health insurance. If we recall correctly, she did not use the word love even once. She could not even remember the date of their wedding. Now, we know readers will likely be shocked and appalled at such an account, but we assure you it is the truth.

We can also assure you it gets worse.

For the defendant’s former wife was also previously his aunt through a prior marriage. This, therefore, meant the defendant’s step-children were also his cousins. At this point, we were half-expecting to learn Polonius got run through with a sword on the honeymoon.

Now, we bring all of this unfortunate stuff up not because we wish to shock our readers, but because we hope you are thinking the question we thought during the trial. Namely, what the hell does all this have to do with it?

Pretty much nothing, when you boil it all down.

We had to do a lot of such boiling down with this case. God! Eight hours listening to arguments in court, and at best half of those hours were actually meaningful. What we wanted were Facts, and when we got Facts, we focused on them.

Now, there were a few Facts which were common to both the defendant’s and complaining witnesses’ stories:

* There was no denying that on one day last summer, the defendant arrived at a certain city apartment about 7:30 a.m., this being (or once being) his home, where his then-wife and his step-children also lived.

* The defendant had been at work since 7 p.m. the prior night. On the prior night, his then-wife had dropped him off at work. The defendant arrived at the apartment after he was finished with work. Upon arriving, he banged on the front door repeatedly. After a short while of this, the defendant left. He then returned at a later time and removed items from the apartment, as well as a secondary storage closet accessible from outside it.

The prosecution, via its complaining witnesses and others involved in the matter, set forth the following account of the day’s events. We present it to the best of our memory, and believe it to be an accurate depiction of the prosecution’s case, although we caution that we may have left some of the innumerable details out:

* As the defendant and his then-wife were in the waning days of their marriage, the defendant agreed to move out for good some three days before the incident. The complaining witnesses, those being his then-wife and two of her children, testified the defendant had taken most of his stuff from the apartment before the incident happened. They testified that only a few boxes with his stuff in them remained. On the night prior to the incident, his then-wife took the defendant to work.

On the day of the incident, the defendant arrived at the apartment around 7:30 a.m., banging about the door and causing great consternation among those inside the residence. They, seeking to avoid unpleasantness, did not open the door to him. Later in the morning, the defendant’s then-wife and some of her children, including the then-wife’s grand-daughter, left to visit family in Maine.

In the early afternoon, the defendant’s step-daughter was at home asleep due to tiredness. She awoke to hear an awful din from immediately outside her room, as if someone was breaking into the secondary storage unit. She then heard similar violence being used against the front door of the apartment.

The step-daughter, by this time, had hidden in the closet of her bedroom. She heard two men talking in the apartment, and testified that one of the voices was that of the defendant. The two men were in and out of the residence for roughly an hour and a half, removing goods from it, and then left. She had also heard other voices from outside.

A short while later, the step-daughter emerged to find that much had been taken from the apartment, including her brother’s computer. She testified she had heard the defendant instruct the other man to remove a computer. Also taken was a small television set, a video-game set-up, and other items, which had been in her brother’s bedroom. Her brother corroborated this account. As the step-daughter had no way to contact the authorities, she waited at home until her family returned to the apartment. Some time later, the family called the authorities.

The officer who responded to the scene testified he saw evidence of tampering with the front door, that is to say, it had been severely damaged about its hinges, and the damage could have been done either from the outside in or the inside out. However, had it been done from the inside out, a very strong person would have had to have done it.

The police detective who followed up on the case testified he found items not at issue in the case, such as a lawn mover that had been in the storage closet, at the residence of the defendant’s mother. None of the items the detective saw were among the stolen goods. The detective also testified that he received from the defendant a key to the apartment, and when he went to test the key, the front door of the apartment opened up.

The defendant set forth the following account of his actions, with the appropriate witness testimony to back it up. We present it to the best of our memory, and believe it to be an accurate depiction of the defense, although we caution we may have left some of the innumerable details out:

* Upon ending his shift at a local factory, the defendant waited for his wife to pick him up. She had not arrived at 7 a.m. as scheduled, so he called her to see why. She told him she would not pick him up, because he had failed to apologize to her children about something said in an argument. He then enlisted the aid of a coworker, who dropped him off at the residence about 7:30 a.m.

The defendant returned home to find no response from inside it. Being worried about this, he tried to raise an alarm to ensure everything was all right inside. He did not enter the home, he said, as he did not wish to get involved in a confrontation with his wife. He then phoned his mother, a resident of this city, and asked her to pick him up.

As the defendant had belongings (known in court parlance as "musical items") worth a considerable sum in the apartment, the defendant’s mother advised her son to remove those belongings that day. The defendant called the city police to ask for a civil standby, that is, an officer who would ensure he could remove his goods without trouble. The police informed him his wife would return from Maine at a later date, and he could recover his goods then. However, he arrived at the apartment alone in the morning, entering with a key, and started packing his things. There were many boxes, perhaps as many as 20, plus the musical items.

A friend who owned a trucking firm testified he sent two of his employees to drop off pads and other things to help with the move. The friend arrived a short while later, and these two employees did not enter the apartment. Once the truck was loaded, the defendant and his friend left, dropping the things off at the defendant’s mother’s house. The defendant testified he locked the front door with a key, and denied taking the stolen items. He also pointed out he had a computer of his own.

The businessman testified that he had not removed, nor seen removed or packed, any of the stolen goods. The defendant’s mother testified that she witnessed the unpacking of most of the boxes, which were placed in her living room for weeks prior to their unpacking. She did not see any of the stolen goods, in those boxes or outside of them. The defense also presented the testimony of a downstairs neighbor, who reported seeing three people – but not the defendant – move goods from the apartment. The neighbor did not see the entire move, but attested to the fact the musical items were removed from the apartment. The neighbor also did not see any of the stolen goods removed from the apartment.

Follow everything?

We are glad we had our eleven fellow jurors to help us remember all this during deliberations.

High Drama in the Court

There were a few moments of High Drama throughout the trial, for instance, when the defense attorney cross-examined the defendant’s stepson.

The defendant’s ex-wife was not following the line of inquiry which the counselor was taking. Therefore, she saw fit to loudly ask what it had to do with the matter at hand. She was summarily escorted out of the court, but according to other jurors with a better view of the matter, she made a point of glaring through the court’s door-windows at the proceedings.

But the key instance of High Drama was when the defendant, ah, may have exaggerated his resume on the witness stand. Then testimony was later presented which suggested that. Obviously, there can be mistakes in records, but God.

The defendant had told the jury he had received training in electrical engineering through a local university’s computer-engineering program. He also told the jury he had received a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from this school. A records-keeper from the school was summoned, and testified the defendant had only completed three semesters there, and had not in fact graduated from the institution.

We would submit only that this was not a confidence-builder when it came to the defendant’s account of how things transpired.

Immediately afterwards, closing arguments were made. Because of a delay in the case, Juror Number Eleven had been excused. Juror Number Seven found himself the alternate-designate. We the jury then retired.

Benjamin Kepple, Jury Foreman – and a Verdict

Now you should know the first order of business, after we the jury retired, was to take a break. The second was to order an adequate and nutritious lunch, which the court provided to us free. Then we all went about the business of picking a foreman.

There were no volunteers, so we offered to do it. It is actually a surprisingly easy job, we found. Basically, one makes sure the deliberating jurors follow the judge’s instructions, and makes sure order is kept, and what not. Also, we got to announce the verdict in court.

We deliberated for a total of an hour: twenty minutes on the burglary charge, and forty minutes on the theft charge. In both cases, we the jury individually and collectively found the defendant Not Guilty on the charges.

Here’s why.

To prove a burglary charge, the prosecution must show the defendant’s actions met several criteria. That includes the following: that the defendant was not licensed or privileged to be in a building or occupied structure – occupied here simply meaning “lived in.”

We the jury found the prosecution did not meet this burden. Not only were there no legal restrictions preventing the defendant from being in the residence, the defendant’s then-wife dropped him off at work the night before the incident. The first point shows he could still legally abide at his marital abode; the second strongly suggests he was still resident at the apartment on the day of the incident.

Therefore, we the jury found a man cannot burglarize his own home. So you see that business about the key and the door was irrelevant after all, as was whether he ordered a civil standby, and what have you.

And what about the theft, you ask?

We the jury found there was no proof that the defendant had stolen the goods. No witness in the case reported seeing the defendant with the stolen goods, and without any sort of recovery, deciding on a not guilty verdict was the only option. It was as simple as that.

So What Really Happened?

What really happened is what we the jury decided happened.

Now, that seems an odd thing to say, perhaps even a bit Orwellian. We obviously don’t know what happened, and we will never know, unless we get a working crystal ball in the mail. Did we have a lot of unanswered questions, even after hours listening to both sides? Yes. Did we wish both sides had explored more avenues? Absolutely. But to reach a fair and impartial decision, a jury can’t engage in idle speculation. All we can do is sift through the Facts at hand, decide those that are relevant and those that are not. Based on those Facts, we found the defendant Not Guilty – and so he is.

An awesome power, really, when one thinks about it – to determine the truth like that.

And so, after delivering the verdict, we ate our lunch and departed the courthouse, leaving behind our jury badge and all of the rest of the paraphenelia which we received over the course of our service. We got in our car and drove home, and opened up that DVD we had bought back on Thursday. We were very much looking forward to watching "Rashomon."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:33 PM | TrackBack

September 22, 2004

Brit Faces Full-Court Press

THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC recently offered its readers a truly amazing account of the wedding ceremony between Britney Spears and That Dopey Looking Guy. There was an immense spite to the work which coursed through it like electricity, and its tone was so powerful that one could almost sense the writer gnashing his or her teeth during the creation process. The Republic's copy desk then provided a delightful finish with a truly obnoxious headline: "Spears, Casanova in first-crass ceremony." But do not take our word for it -- witness it for yourself:

The good news now that Britney Spears has finally married minor-Moesha-cast-member impregnator Kevin Federline, in a small ceremony Saturday evening in Studio City, Calif.: Finally, we can stop reporting on her taste-challenged marriage preparations ...

... The New York Daily News says that just after the couple placed platinum wedding bands on their Cheetos-stained fingers, Spears ditched her gown for a velour sweatsuit, the better to get down to Journey's "Lights." The rest of the wedding party was outfitted with comfy loungewear, too, some emblazoned with the words "Pimp" and "Pimp Daddy."

The 20 or so guests at the surprise ceremony dined on chicken fingers, crab cakes, ribs and Waldorf salad, according to Access Hollywood. No truth to the rumor that the guests pelted the happy couple with Slim Jims as they left for their honeymoon.

Now that, we would submit, is writing. Mean, vicious, unwarranted, uncalled-for writing -- but boy! there's talent there!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:10 AM | TrackBack

September 20, 2004

Oh, God, No!

WASABI CLOGS the sinuses, a new study reveals. Apparently, the burning green substance may have all sorts of wonderful health benefits -- it may help prevent cancer, blood clots and even cavities -- but it will offer no relief for those of us who suffer from hideous sinus pressure:

"Actually, wasabi is a congestant," study author Dr. David S. Cameron told Reuters Health. "It makes the space of your nasal passages smaller, but it makes you feel more open."

Cameron explained that wasabi probably clogs up sinuses by increasing blood flow to the lining of the nose. That extra blood takes up space, he said, which constricts the nasal passageway.

Wasabi may make the nose feel more open, Cameron noted, by causing changes that increase the cooling effect of air breathed through the nose, or by stimulating flaring of the nostrils, which enables air to flow more easily though the nose.

Wasabi -- for those unfamiliar, it's a sort of Japanese horseradish -- is our favorite condiment on Earth. If this report is any guide, we may have to decrease or even cut out our Wasabi consumption when our sinuses are flaring up.

We cannot fully express our disgust and anguish upon learning of this development. We gave up ice cream and we gave up fruit juice and we gave up regular soda and all sorts of other things -- and now we have to give up wasabi? Good Lord, next thing we know, we'll have to start taking our meals through a straw.

We would respectively request the medical community start working on -- we don't know, something, anything -- to fix this.

MORE BAD NEWS: Public-health researcher issues study that will "help localities pass smoking bans." Gee, that's just swell.

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

Greeting!

HELLO, EVERYONE! We must apologize for the lack of posting here at The Rant as of late. We have just finished a few days of jury duty service. As the case is now finished and we can now write down our thoughts, a full report will appear on Friday. Check back then for our tale of our experience.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:12 PM | TrackBack

September 17, 2004

Our Pride and Joy, &c.

Oh No!
It’s Time for Yet Another Installment of …
YOUR SEARCH ENGINE QUERIES ANSWERED!

A recurring – and popular – Rant feature

WE WERE QUITE pleased to see that many searchers who visited The Rant this month likely learned something through their queries. For all those who entered queries on subjects ranging from medieval banking houses to net-worth statistics, and from spiritual matters to the writings of C.S. Lewis, we sincerely hope you found the information for which you were searching. We also hope you return often.

Then there were the people looking for images of Officer Sweetchuck from the Police Academy movies.

It is a phenomenon we do not entirely understand, but then, we can’t entirely understand why people searching for weird things end up looking over The Rant. One would think the search-engine algorithms would direct said searchers to sites which were more relevant to their queries. However, they arrived here, and their data was harvested accordingly. Let us study, then, the thought processes of these unfortunate souls.

QUERY: devastation dave zip zap rap listen

ANSWER: That’s Devastatin’ Dave. Anyway, we did some searching on-line and actually found an mp3 of Devastatin’ Dave zip-zap-rapping. We are not providing a link on public health grounds. It’s kind of like a cross between Vanilla Ice and the Sugar Hill Gang, that is, if someone had mixed Hank and Master Gee’s drinks with roughly two pounds of Xanax. Word to your mother, kids!

QUERY: jessica simpson discussion idiot

ANSWER: We are no longer convinced that Mrs Simpson is lacking in intelligence, primarily because Mrs Simpson has amassed a great deal of wealth and publicity for reasons we can’t entirely fathom. Therefore, we suspect that when one removes the glitz and glamour, she is quite a canny operator – or simply smart enough to surround herself with canny operators working on her behalf. Either way, Mrs Simpson has secured her place quite well, and we withdraw all our prior criticism on that front. We remain, however, less than enamored with her songs.

QUERY: jen schefft engagement ring

ANSWER: We’re sorry, but your query is long past its expiry date for freshness. The Rant does not answer stale and outdated queries.

QUERY: think too hard

ANSWER: Don’t strain yourself.

QUERY: philadelphia eagles & boston bar

ANSWER: Save yourself time and trouble. Beat yourself with a crowbar, repeatedly.

QUERY: what is bulb of the lamp

ANSWER: Not the brightest bulb in the lamp store, are you, son?

QUERY: amor vincit omnia

ANSWER: Interdum.

QUERY: stop reality television

ANSWER: We’re with you on this one.

QUERY: mandatory tipping restaurant parties

ANSWER: In many restaurants, parties of six or more diners are assessed mandatory gratuities of 18 pc. This practice ostensibly prevents said diners from being cheap when tipping the waiter. However, we believe the practice actually protects waiters from the ineptitude of the kitchen staff in most of these establishments. Also, the practice is one of many ways in which a bad restaurant can strive to show it has class.

QUERY: burn fur coat

ANSWER: What the hell good would that do? The animals are already dead. Burning the fur coat’s not going to change that fact. Besides, you’ll pollute the atmosphere, and we couldn’t have that, now could we?

QUERY: why is god a good role model

ANSWER: Speaking personally, we always thought that whole business about the cross proved instructive.

QUERY: knitting before christ

ANSWER: We’re not theologians, but we don’t think He would be displeased if you gave the potholders you made to your church.

QUERY: satanic idiocy

ANSWER: We don’t mean to be pessimistic, but underestimating evil probably isn’t the best idea.

QUERY: circles of hell salesman

ANSWER: As far as we can tell, wicked salesmen condemned to eternal pain and suffering can end up in any of the circles. However, if the faults which led them there are related to their work, the salesmen will likely end up in Circle Four (avarice) or Circle Eight (fraud). In Circle Four, the salesmen will stand between the giant weights which the greedy and prodigious roll back and forth against each other, vainly attempting to sell both parties service agreements in case the weights stop working. In Circle Eight, the salesmen will undoubtedly attempt to sell various protective devices guaranteed to protect sinners from the horrible boiling pitch engulfing them. This will continue until either a) the second death, i.e., final annihilation, arrives as promised, or b) Heavenly Justice decides the other sinners are being overly punished for their sins. Should that second eventuality come about, however, we understand that Geryon will be used to advertise Hell’s various automotive-financing plans.

QUERY: is seattle depressing

ANSWER: Yes. The rain’s bad enough, but you also have to deal with the people who live in Seattle and believe it the best city on God’s green Earth.

QUERY: third street promenade california cheap parking

ANSWER: *snicker* *guffaw* *snort*

QUERY: proper way to do a chin-up

ANSWER: Pull.

QUERY: song analysis lying eyes

ANSWER: It’s still only September. Consider taking something useful, such as Accounting 201.

QUERY: public nudity in public place

ANSWER: This would be as opposed to what?

QUERY: he is having his dinner anyway

ANSWER: Well, bully on him!

QUERY: dean esmay

ANSWER: For the last time – he’s over here!

QUERY: prospectus argentine bond

ANSWER: Dude. It’s Argentina. Why are you even considering it?

QUERY: bill cowher yelling

ANSWER: Well, it’s either that or scowling, isn’t it?

QUERY: jokes about pittsburgh steelers

ANSWER: Uncle Dave? You’re being paged.

QUERY: dave kepple

ANSWER: Uncle Dave? Maybe a blog is in your future.

QUERY: essay dennett’s dangerous idea

ANSWER: We don’t know if dangerous was the correct word to use in this instance. Stupid, yes, but not dangerous.

QUERY: short romantic speech

ANSWER: Eleanor, gee, I think you’re swell, and you really do me well – you’re my pride and joy, etc.!

QUERY: kate winslet pounds

ANSWER: Oh, God -- Kate Winslet! Foxy foxy foxy foxy foxy.

QUERY: dating a journalist

ANSWER: This is an excellent idea, and we certainly encourage people to date and marry journalists, especially young and smart and witty journalists who have that roguish sort of charm about them.

QUERY: attitudes of americans to englishmen

ANSWER: Americans generally like the English, as we feel a cultural kinship towards the auld sod. Also, your accent lends you an air of sophistication and intelligence, which if you combine it with a shade of aggressiveness, will get you all the girls. With the pound so strong these days, it would be unwise to screw this up. Do note the easiest way to do so is by expressing opinions on politics and religion, unless the Americans to which you are speaking agree with you. If they do not, expect to be informed in no uncertain terms that Britain is, depending on your views, a rotting bolshy cesspit or a racist bastion of imperialism.

Englishmen, as a rule, should take note that Americans can generally be divided into three groups. The first knows little to nothing about the rest of the world. The second will quiz you on myriad topics related to British life, such as the Conservative Party, the proposed blood-sport ban, and popular reaction to the revaluation of homes for council tax purposes. The third will have some knowledge about Britain, but nothing acute.

You will be most safe in dealing with this third group, provided you are polite and suffer their curiosity. Do note, though: if dealing with people from the first group, do NOT act as if they are idiots. They will pick up on your condescension and deal with you accordingly. If dealing with people from the second group, do NOT tell them they are awfully smart for Americans. They will respond with an all-out attack, ranging from insulting your political leaders to mocking Britain’s caste system. However, should you inadvertently insult your hosts, remember that four out of five Americans dislike and distrust the French Government. Hence, changing the subject to matters related to French foreign policy may prove a safe out. Proceed with caution, though, as pollsters report 20 pc of Americans still think France is our ally.

QUERY: there’s no accounting for taste

ANSWER: Preach it, brother.

QUERY: moral corruption

ANSWER: Yes, it IS that time for all the weird search queries, isn’t it? Glad you brought it up, because the searches are weirder than ever this month.

QUERY: free sneezing porn

ANSWER: See what we mean?

QUERY: women bathing in custard

ANSWER: Good googly moogly. NO.

QUERY: hippie girls naked

ANSWER: Dude! Give it up already!

QUERY: naughty conversation starters for adults

ANSWER: Inform everyone at the party that Louie will soon be in attendance.

QUERY: crass consumerism college

ANSWER: Phew. We’re back to the relatively normal searches.

Anyway, yes, college is rife with crass consumerism, as many students have lots of money but no bills. The fun part is that many students indulge in crass consumerism while professing to hate it. We are sorry, but if you want a simpler life, kids, you ought ditch the sport-utility vehicle which your folks gave you.

QUERY: should heirloom rings be given as engagement

ANSWER: We don’t see anything wrong with this. After all, you are getting married, and if you can save yourself five thousand on the ring, that’s a real bonus.

QUERY: ben kepple role model

ANSWER: Oh, God – well, we do try, although the very prospect is scary.

QUERY: facts about ben kepple

ANSWER: We’re two inches taller, a better dancer, and much more fun to be with, if we do say so ourselves. Also we are useful to have at dinner parties.

QUERY: ben kepple pics

ANSWER: Um. Gee. That’s somewhat flattering. Now might be a good time to remind readers (especially our single female readers) that we can be contacted at ben – at – benkepple – dot – com. Again, that’s ben – at – benkepple – dot – com.

QUERY: dreaming about ben

ANSWER: Really?

QUERY: nice guy not attracted to him

ANSWER: Don’t worry, we’ve very much gotten used to this. God – save – us.

Well, that’s it for this month’s edition of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! Tune in next month, when we examine breakthroughs in food, the astonishing badness of Leonard, Part Six, and those GEICO auto-insurance commericals. Much good news to come, we can assure you. As for us, we're .... outta .... here.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:36 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Distinctive Aura of Crappiness

THERE ARE few things in life which we reckon are doomed to fail right from the get-go. Even the most badly-conceived business venture may have a chance at success, and even the most foolish ideas may become workable inventions. Yet once in a great while, an idea comes along that is so particularly horrible that it carries with it a Distinctive Aura of Crappiness.

We would submit this proposed film, which People magazine informs us about, has that in spades:

Paris Hilton, 22, is still in line to play Daisy Buchanan, the object of bootlegger (and lavish partygiver) Jay Gatsby's affection, in a proposed movie remake of the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, to be produced by 'N Sync veteran Lance Bass, reports FOX News and The Washington Post. Though Bass initially planned to star as Gatsby, The O.C. actor Chris Carmack reportedly is now in line for the role (played by Robert Redford in the much-maligned 1974 version; Mia Farrow played Daisy), and The Sopranos daughter Jamie-Lynn DiScala also is said to be penciled in for a role.

Dear God in Heaven. Doesn't the very idea seem to reek of failure? After all, if Redford and Farrow couldn't pull it off, how the devil would Paris Hilton and That Guy manage to escape the putrefying stench of stupidity and incompetence that would surround such a production?

(link via Sheila)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:10 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 13, 2004

Investors Demand Inquiry on Rant Work Attire

ANGRY INVESTORS CALL FOR INQUIRY
INTO DAILY RANT'S BLOGGING M.O.

------
FIRM: STAFF DOES NOT WEAR PAJAMAS AT WORK
------
"They're smoking jackets," insists CEO
------
By HARRIS SCHWED
Financial Rant

HAMILTON, Bermuda -- The head of Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant Inc. (OTC:BJKNH), an Internet content provider based here, sharply denied rumors that staff at the firm wore pajamas to work.

Such comments were beneath contempt, chief executive Benjamin Kepple told reporters at a hastily assembled news conference, called to reassure investors of the embattled company. The Rant is already facing questions over its executive-compensation scheme, as well as talk the firm would outsource its Statistical Analysis and Information Technology divisions. Yesterday, Kepple dismissed such ideas.

"For the last time, we are not offshoring either the Statistical Analysis or Information Technology divisions. These are critical departments which require personnel to be kept in North America," Kepple said yesterday. "Also, while we're at it, who the hell came up with this pajamas talk? We're professionals here. We do not blog in our pajamas, nor do any of our staff. There. Are you happy now?"

Rumors of pajama-wearing staff were recently brought into the public domain after a television commentator charged that myriad bloggers were working while pajama-clad. Yesterday, Kepple said that if he ever found the person responsible for starting the rumor vis-a-vis the Rant, grave and immediate measures would be taken.

"We can assure our parent firm, our investors, fellow employees and all those who depend on quality Rant content that no employee is permitted to wear pajamas while on the job. This is a clear violation of the dress policy, which expressly forbids pajamas, flip-flops, beach attire, and T-shirts with particularly stupid slogans on them," Kepple said.

"It is true that executives over the level of senior vice president are permitted to wear smoking jackets when they meet the following conditions: they are working late, they are not meeting with clients, and they have a serious nicotine craving," Kepple continued. "However, this is a very rare occurence, and merely a perquisite related to the long hours our leadership team works. Besides, they're nice smoking jackets. Monochrome. None of the horrible Seventies-era pattern wear you might expect."

"By the way, we'd like to mention that traffic to the Rant is at record levels and product quality remains high as always," Kepple added.

Kepple was joined at the news conference by human resources manager Carter Sandusky, as well as Quinn Quimbley, vice president of marketing. Both men joined Kepple in strongly denying the existence of pajama-wearing staff.

While the news conference soothed some fears, many investors described the rumors as the straw which broke the camel's back.

"I bought BJKNH when it was trading at $3 per share, with the righteous and clear conviction that I would make a quick profit flipping it," charged Harris Oust, a pensioner from Shrapnel Creek, Ala. "Then this pajama story broke. Bang. Not only was I underwater, my stupid broker made a margin call and sold it out from under me."

"You're damn right I'm angry," snarled Oust, who lost "somewhere in the three figures" when the pajama story broke. "I don't trust them."

However, employees with the firm -- which also has offices in Manchester, N.H., the Cayman Islands, and Bangalore, India -- confirmed that no rank-and-file workers wore pajamas while at the office.

"Do we look like we work for Google?" asked one engineer, who asked to remain unidentified. "My God. They barely pay us enough to cover our own expenses, much less spend money on smoking jackets. That's a perk for the suits only."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Blogroll Additions

LOYAL RANT READERS -- of which, we are happy to note, there are more than ever -- should be quite interested in several new blogs which we have added to our blogroll, that is, the long list of links which we have provided in the left-hand column. We hope that you will find these blogs as enjoyable as we have.

We have continued using the National and International Stock Market Indices Format, as we find this the easiest way to track the many blogs to which we have linked. Besides, reading these blogs provides one with valuable information, which we personally find useful in helping us gauge investment conditions in other nations. Of course, they are also a lot of fun to read too, the primary measure for inclusion on the blogroll.

We would direct our readers to the following blogs:

On the Dow, we would again direct readers to Simon From Jersey's Sick Day blog. We have known Simon From Jersey for two decades, which is no small potatoes when one considers we are but 28 years old. He continues to provide witty ramblings and other commentary which we think you'll enjoy.

On the NYSE, we would direct readers to both the excellent Iain Murray and the always enjoyable Weekend Pundit. Mr Murray is well known to the blogosphere for his commentary, and the Weekend Pundit team -- based right here in New Hampshire -- are a great group who always provide thought-provoking commentary and essays. We think you'll find both valuable resources.

Under the NASDAQ index, we have listed The Musings and Searchings of Camassia, a particularly well-written blog largely focusing on Christian theology matters. Reading Camassia's site always serves as a reminder about the truly important things in life. We read it quite frequently, but given our spiritual state, we ought do so more often.

Under the AMEX column, we have listed Brian Chapin and Gregory Markle's American Realpolitik -- you can guess what that covers -- and DavidMSC's fun Better Living Through Blogging.

We have also listed several blogs which are either based outside the United States or focus exclusively on non-American matters.

Perhaps most worthy of note among these is the fantastic NK Zone, listed under the Seoul Composite heading. NK Zone does not merely feature sharp writing and commentary on the world's most repressive society. They have some true experts on Korea writing for them, including Dr. Andrei Lankov, a noted authority on North Korean matters. We have read a bit of his work, so we were really psyched to learn he was contributing to a blog on North Korea. Another interesting blog is that which Korea Watch runs: Charles Tustison is the man behind that.

The Devil's Excrement, a blog which we first learned about via the top-notch Democracy Project, is an amazing resource on Venezuelan issues. Rant readers will find this a fascinating site -- and as for the name, well, go see for yourself why the blog is named as such.

Lastly, we've listed two sites from countries which ought get more attention than they do in the United States: South Africa and Belgium. Commentary.co.za covers South African issues in-depth, along with other world matters, while under the BEL-20 heading, you will find Live from Brussels.

We hope Rant readers will find these good additions to their own daily or regular lists of blogs which they read. Also, if Rant readers know of excellent blogs which they consider underappreciated, particularly if they focus on international matters, please do let us know.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:17 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Major Durable Good Purchased

WE ARE NOW the proud owners of a new 24-inch SONY FD-Trinitron Flat Screen Television, with Vivid Color and Surround Sound and a screen that allows one to watch movies without straining one's eyes. It is the first new television we have had in ten years, and it is a considerable upgrade from our box-like 13-inch RCA model.

We can say with authority that this television was worth the $319.99 we paid for it this past Saturday. In retrospect, given the awful result of the Michigan-Notre Dame game -- there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth -- we probably ought have waited until this week to buy the thing.

Besides, it would have given the electronics firms time to prepare for the inevitable. After all, if we bought such a good, it is a clear sign the market is saturated to the point of absurdity, and the companies which produce said goods are going to see their shares revert to the mean something fierce. Still, we look forward to seeing how televisions will have improved in 2014 -- when we buy the next one.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:59 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Everybody Have Fun Tonight

OVER AT SHEILA O'MALLEY'S excellent site, her legions of commenters are busy discussing songs from the Eighties which might be considered intolerable, unless they were played at roller-skating rinks during the decade.

Now, we admit we are not experts on such matters. When we were growing up back in western Michigan, we only knew of one roller-skating rink in our local community. As roller-skating was a pastime which had peaked in popularity a bit before our formative years, we never went to such places. Instead, when we were young kids, our idea of Big Fun was to spend time at various horrible establishments which existed to separate parents from their hard-earned. This transfer of wealth was accomplished via buying "tokens" for play in expensive video games, as well as pizza of such low quality that it would today garner warnings from public health agencies.

But we digress. Having grown up in the Eighties, we are somewhat familiar with the tunes of that era. So we must register surprise at one thing.

As of this writing, it is now 5 p.m., and 25 comments have been left on the subject. NONE have mentioned ANY SONGS from this great British duo:

We would submit that while Wang Chung had some pretty good songs -- "Dance Hall Days" in particular -- the former chart-topper "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" has not become a timeless hit. For, as a different duo once put it:

"What's that guy in the back doing?"
"He's Wang Chunging."

But enough of my ranting about. Go check out the rest of the discussion -- it's good stuff. Plus, there's more on Wang Chung mentioned. Read the whole thing, and the comments.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:27 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 08, 2004

Be it So Noted ...

... THAT DOOM 3 is the best computer game of all-frickin'-time. Wow, wow, wow.

That is all.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:49 PM | TrackBack

Yankees Suck

STEVE SILVER, if we recall rightly, is a fan of the Minnesota Twins baseball franchise. As the movie put it, we have to think this is like getting hit in the head with a crowbar every week. That said, though, we would point readers to Mr Silver's commentary on the New York Yankees:

Nearly blowing their huge lead over Boston, losing 22-0 at home to Cleveland, and Kevin Brown punching a wall were bad enough. But to demand a forfeit from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- who were prevented from traveling by a hurricane, has to be a new low for the 2004 Yankees.

Steve? Give it time. They might just top all that -- provided, of course, they actually make the playoffs.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Building a Remedy for Khrushchev and Kennedy

IF THE FORCES of International Terrorism were on the ropes before, Russia's announcement today that it would "liquidate" terror bases around the globe has made us think that terrorism is pretty much finished. It may take a few years, perhaps more than a decade, but we do think it will happen.

It is true the Russians do not possess military strength on par with the United States. However, they do have a complete disregard for Western Europe's opinion on what they ought do, and little tolerance for diplomacy. We do believe that both Western European leaders and the Chechen rebels understand this, given their comments on the matter.

From the Canadian Press:

Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, asserted Russia's right to strike terrorists beyond its borders.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases . . . we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," he told reporters.

Baluyevsky made his comments alongside NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. James Jones, after talks on Russia-NATO military co-operation, including anti-terror efforts.

European Union officials reacted cautiously to Baluyevsky's statements, with spokeswoman Emma Udwin saying she could not be sure whether they represented government policy. Udwin said the 25-member EU is against "extra-judicial killings" in form of pre-emptive strikes.

Ms Udwin's statement, we would argue, can be boiled down to: "Uh oh." The last thing the Euros want is for Russia to start acting up again. Yet they must also know there will be little they can do to stop Russia once it moves into action. The Chechen rebels, it would appear, realize this too:

Mr (Akhmed) Zakayev said: "I think these are probably not empty threats, in fact they have already shown in practice that that is the way they do things.

"It is a very disturbing signal they are sending for all civilised countries.

"There are lots of Chechens all over the world and of course they talk freely about how dissatisfied they are with Putin's policies.

"To Putin, that makes them international terrorists. It is a warning to other European countries that Russia may come and carry out an assassination on your soil at any moment."

Rebel envoy Zakayev's statement, we would argue, can be boiled down to: "Uh oh."

After all, the Chechen rebels have severely overplayed their hand. It was one thing when they were fighting for independence from Russia, and only attacking soldiers who had come to put down their rebellion. It was another entirely when they started blowing up apartment buildings and airliners. Now, they've killed hundreds of innocent people at a school. Those barbarous acts not only deprived them of any sympathy they may have once had in the outside world, they got everyone in Russia to sit up and take notice of this troublesome little war on the southern border. The Russians are now going to want very much to win it.

We must say, though, that we're amazed the Europeans misjudged their Russian friends so badly. So much for negotiation and the other useless tactics of which the Euros are so fond! On the other hand, perhaps it's not really a surprise. We note this event that happened in Paris recently:

PARIS, France (AP) -- Madonna drew massive applause from a sold-out crowd at Paris' Bercy stadium when she dedicated a cover version of John Lennon's peace ode "Imagine" to the Russian hostage crisis.

Addressing the audience midway through her Sunday-night show, Madonna spoke briefly about the hostage-taking at a school in the southern city of Beslan that left at least 330 dead. Officials have blamed the deadly attack on Chechens and other Islamic militants.

As video images of war and children were broadcast behind her on giant screens, the 46-year-old pop diva urged fans to think about what happened in Russia and about Lennon's lyrics.

We did our thinking. Imagine getting the bastards, getting the bastards, getting the bastards.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:04 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 07, 2004

Unfortunate Moments in Popular Culture

WE WERE driving home one recent night when the radio station to which we were listening began, without any warning whatsoever, to broadcast a song by The Eagles. As we have always found this particular Eagles song a bit silly, it got us to thinking: did this unfortunate mess of a tune represent some kind of watershed in American cultural history? And even if it didn’t, what in hell were these people thinking when they wrote it?

Therefore, we thought it fitting to pick a few Unfortunate Moments in Popular Culture and put them before our readers, so that our readers could help us understand things and events which we don’t entirely understand. We know that life was radically different in the decades before we were born, but still – we had no idea how much so.

In any event, let us commence:

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 10
The Eagles Release “Lying Eyes”
1975

The chorus to this unfortunate song, which grates on our nerves something fierce every time we hear it, is as follows:

So she tells him she must go out for the evening to comfort an old friend who's feeling down.
But he knows where she's going as she's leaving, she’s headed for the cheating side of town.
You can’t hide your lying eyes, and your smile is a thin disguise.
I thought by now you'd realize, there ain't no way to hide your lying eyes.

Our question: what in hell is the cheating side of town? We mean, come on. Are we to believe some sort of weird socio-economic divide separated a municipality into sections for its respective adulterous and non-adulterous residents? We could believe such a thing were it 1875, and adultery was not something one formally acknowledged in polite society. But in 1975, polite society was on the verge of drowning in its own decadence, due to a horrible combination of social and economic problems.

It’s one thing to suffer some weakening of the traditional family unit, or to face society-wide issues with social disease. But in the Seventies, those things were just part of the problem. In 1975, according to the Government, unemployment was at 9 pc. So was inflation. The bear market of 1973-74 played havoc with stock holdings, and inflation added to the pain that came with that downturn. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, people couldn’t even buy gasoline. Clearly, social and economic forces drove this unfortunate soul – whom, we learn from the song, is looking desperately for monetary security – to a life of moral turpitude. Therefore, we can determine the song is a Cultural Watershed, as the woman’s behavior clearly points to general societal malaise as a whole.

The song’s still crap, though. There’s a great way to hide one’s lying eyes, and that is with a good pair of sunglasses.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 9
Alanis Morrissette Releases “Ironic”
1996

An oft-mentioned criticism of Ms Morrisette’s song is that the events she describes in the song are not in fact ironic, but merely unfortunate. For instance, in one line, Ms Morrisette clearly depicts the agony and trauma which exists when one buys a particularly messy item at Taco Bell: all one needs is a knife, but one ends up with that useless plastic spork thingy. (The proper phrase, we have learned, is runcible spoon, but never mind). As it turns out, a Massachusetts firm trademarked the word spork in the Seventies, thus proving that all bad things may have a common ancestry.

In any event, it is clear that whomever wrote “Ironic” did not know the meaning of the term. After all, our above example is not an example of irony, but rather a hideous descent into a maelstrom of suffering not seen since Tantalus was cast into the underworld. It is true that one could interpret Ms Morrisette’s lyrics as an indictment of certain Canadian societal trends. Ms Morrisette, after all, is Canadian, and while Canada claims to have a health care system, it is not really a health care system at all. However, the fact that Canada failed to do anything about this immediately after her song was released is prima facie evidence that “Ironic” is not a Cultural Watershed. Instead, it is just crap.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 8
“Dragnet” Attempts to Get Pretty Cool and Far-Out
1967-1970

This is a tough example for us to bring up, because we quite like the old Dragnet show, which is not really the old Dragnet show, but never mind. After all, how can anyone not root for Joe and Bill, guardians of the Swell Post-War Order, as they fight a tough but losing battle against the forces of nihilism, despair and sloth?

The only trouble was when they fought a little too hard.

We are sorry, but it was quite jarring for us to watch as Joe and Bill would foil smugglers and murderers in one episode, and then in the next spend the entire thirty minutes arguing about pot with the Church of Groovy Psychedelic With-it-ness (Reformed). Perhaps we are being a bit harsh – after all, the show did try to let God-fearing adults know what they were up against – but we have to think this episode and others like it prompted lots of groans during “rerun season.”

Speaking of groans, from exactly what department store display did they find the actors to play the teenaged characters? We recall one such episode that so appalled Mr Kepple he spat out the word “robots!” at the screen in disgust. (That would be the episode with “Blue Boy,” who before you get any ideas, suffered from a different affliction than one might think.) We know they didn’t spend a lot of money putting on the show – there’s a reason why Joe and Bill were hardly ever out of uniform – but even we can’t believe they set out to find actors who had trouble managing even one dimension of a character.

But we digress. Clearly, these episodes of Dragnet – which we have no doubt were once thought pretty cool and far-out, son – were a Cultural Watershed. Arguments which would have convinced people back in the Fifties no longer held any weight, and the end result was that Joe and Bill couldn’t seal all the holes in the dam. Had Joe and Bill realized this would happen, they might not have smirked when the protesting hippies told them they would be the ones someday writing the laws.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 7
“Captain Planet and the Planeteers” First Airs
1990

The writer James Wolcott recently confessed that when hurricane footage is shown on the television, he finds himself rooting for the hurricane. This is a particularly unfortunate thing to say in public, and similar to us saying that if Mr Wolcott -- God forbid -- contracted dengue fever, we would root for the plague seeping through his veins. But of course we would not ever say or do such a thing, because that would be rude and insensitive. Indeed, we wish Mr Wolcott lives to be 110.

In his badly-thought out post on the subject of hurricanes, Mr Wolcott refers to “Gaia,” which in our book is a Key Sign that a writer Has Strong Views when it comes to environment matters. As for the popularity of this neopagan Earth-spirit concept, we blame it solely on “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”

“Captain Planet” was a regrettable attempt on the part of a certain businessman to raise awareness about environment issues. The plot, readers will recall, centered around the fact that Gaia – who was incarnated as an actual spirit – could not stomach the devastation being wrought upon, well, Gaia. Clearly the best thing to do was send a set of power rings to impressionable youngsters, who when they weren’t acting like a mini-United Nations, used these rings to summon some green-haired Communist from … somewhere. Anyway, Captain Planet would then run around unlawfully hindering industry and progress, while the kids would lecture adults about the proper balance between development and conservation.

All that said, though, we must classify Captain Planet as a Cultural Watershed, as it was in the late Eighties and early Nineties that people got really concerned about environment issues. Plus, the show somehow stayed on the air for six frickin’ years. How the devil did that happen?

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 6
The 55-mph Speed Limit Introduced
1974

Our theory about the 55-mph speed limit is that someone who always took the bus to work thought this brilliant idea up. Either that, or they were frustrated that they couldn’t get any action despite having sunk a high percentage of their salary into that puke-colored AMC Gremlin. And even though folks back then should have noticed these things, we have no doubt this 55-mph speed limit proposal was undoubtedly given Considerable Official Support before it got kicked up to The Powers That Be.

Therefore, on behalf of everyone here at The Rant, we’d just like to say, “Way to go, wide-lapel pleather-wearing Seventies-era policy-wonk team! Thanks for all those wasted hours spent in the back of our folks’ car as we drove from Michigan to Pennsylvania! Thanks for letting our insurance firms charge us more money when we were caught boosting the speed up to a sinful 65 or even – gasp – 70 miles per hour!”

A friend of ours did note today, however, that the 55-mph speed limit did prompt Sammy Hagar to write a song about the idiotic idea. Also he -- Mr Hagar, not our friend -- jumped around in some kind of weird yellow jumpsuit. Therefore, we must say this was a Cultural Watershed.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 5
Bad Rap Music Gains Popularity
Mid-to-Late 1980s

While we are not music historians, we have to think the increasing popularity of rap music – which began in the Eighties – kicked off a particularly unfortunate trend in the music itself. By that, we mean popular rappers began to focus on the fact they were making significant sums of money from their music. Therefore, instead of actually writing lyrics that told a story or spoke to their listeners, many rappers focused on the fact they were making bank something fierce. Worse yet, the popularity of rap made it possible for incompetent morons to make rap records, despite having absolutely no talent whatsoever. Ice, ice baby, you … you got what I need. But you say he just a friend.

Now, while we recognize that many Kepple-haters may attack us for our position on the issue, we can assure readers that we actually kind of like rap music. Good rap music. In fact, we would go so far as to say Dr Dre’s “California Love” is the best rap song ever written. But “California Love” has a good beat, and has good background music, and has good lyrics. Much of the rap music today does not have any of these things. Instead, the music often … well, let’s just say it comes up a day late and a dollar short, because you don’t want to hear our twenty-one questions. Fortunately, however, there is enough good rap music to ensure this is not – we hope – a Cultural Watershed. However, if the trend continues, there is danger of this happening. Get on the floor.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 4
Wall Street Decides Greed is Good
Mid-1980s

Back in the Bad Old Days, before disclosure requirements and all that, we learned a few pointers about investing. One key lesson we learned was that we ought take analysts’ recommendations with a great deal of salt. Another lesson was that whenever we saw a stock touted in the press, we had to assume the person touting it – and all of his friends – already owned shares and were waiting for the thing to shoot up. A third was that hype was just often that: hype.

Unfortunately, back in the Eighties, not enough people on Wall Street saw fit to mention these things to all the small investors. Even worse, few of the small investors were listening to the people who rightly shout Mayday about such things once every couple of decades. Then all the Wall Street types became like rock stars once the market started to pick up, and people started earning insane salaries, and lots of folks thought cocaine was a good thing. We have to think this irrational exuberance helped create the conditions which led to all that regrettable stuff in the late Nineties and afterwards. So we must, by necessity, term this a Cultural Watershed.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 3
John and Yoko’s “Bed-in for Peace”
1969

There are plenty of moments in time when celebrities saw fit to damage their careers by sticking their noses in politics. But if we had to pick one point where this trend started to get out of hand, it would be John and Yoko’s “bed-in for peace.” Not so much for the event itself, but rather the example it set.

It used to be that celebrities were only political when it came to supporting a war effort. Then it got to the point where you had some overtly political but annoying celebrities, but the majority remained apolitical. We would suggest that John Lennon was one of the first to truly bridge the gap: a formerly non-political celebrity turned anti-war activist. Sadly, Mr Lennon did not write up an essay on how to do the job correctly, as a lot of today’s celebrities could’ve used it.

Readers will recall that in video of the “bed-in,” John seemed to have a great time with it all, while at the same time making his point pretty effectively. Plus, he and Yoko didn’t get defensive and upset whenever someone else criticized them; a big contrast between today’s spoilt stars, many of whom run around whining about censorship when people disagree with them. Why exactly later generations never realized the effectiveness of Mr Lennon’s tactics is beyond us, but we have to say: it’s a Cultural Watershed, darling Sean.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 2
Logan’s Run debuts in theatres
1976

Christ, if this is how people in the Seventies saw the far future, no wonder everyone engaged in so much anti-social behavior. No amount of condemnation can truly provide justice for the movie-going public who spent their hard-earned to see this miserable, wretched, horrible waste of celluloid. Everything in it sucks. Everything – down to the horrible Seventies-era décor and frickin’ escalators – escalators, for God’s sake – makes us recoil in disgust and horror. It is a mockery of science-fiction.

The worst part is that there’s talk of a remake. Oh, God. Not a Cultural Watershed. Definitely not.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 1
Government Imposes Wage and Price Controls
1971-1974

We need some help from our elders about this one. What exactly were otherwise reasonable people thinking when they thought wage and price controls would end up cutting inflation in peacetime? We know that wage and price controls were somewhat helpful in curbing it during the Second World War, but that was, well, during the Second World War. Spending 40 pc of GDP on a war for the nation’s survival, and borrowing most of that money, necessarily caused inflation. (That’s roughly the equivalent, in this day and age, of having the Government spend $20 trillion over four years). But during peacetime? To fight inflation running at six percent? What the hell?

Now, we like to think we are educated; and indeed, we have a year’s worth of economic training under our belt from a top university, plus a lot of self-study we have done on our own time. That said, it was not until tonight that we ever heard of this “Cost of Living Council,” which apparently went about telling people what they could pay workers and what they could charge for goods. It was not until tonight we heard of bare store shelves and farmers drowning their chickens rather than send them to market. And then they kept the price-control system for oil and natural gas, which was the big concern anyway, when the wage and price controls didn’t work? What the hell? Weren’t people trying to Whip Inflation Now or something?

We just don’t get it. We don’t get why people thought it was a good idea, why people went along with it, and why no one apparently got all that upset with it. We’d have spent our increasingly-worthless dollars on a steady supply of pitchforks and torches. Ah well. In any event, this is definitely a Cultural Watershed, because this truly represents the Giant Economic Malaise that existed in the Seventies – a wretched and horrible decade that, as we have hopefully shown in this little exercise, contained much that we ought bury in history’s dustbin, and bury deep.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:14 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

September 06, 2004

Big Sky Country

WE'RE HOPING that if we look long enough at this Photoshopped picture we made this evening, our seasonal allergies will go away and leave us alone.

UPDATE: 8:15 p.m.: We now have proof that nothing, and we mean nothing, ever happens in Wyoming. The two top stories on the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle's Web site are: "Familiarity can help patients catch errors, cut costs" and "Health bills got you confused?" (Our reactions: "You don't say," and "No.")

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:05 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 05, 2004

Paging MI-5

WE DO HOPE that Her Majesty's Government has taken note of this article in The Telegraph of London, in which an extremist Islamic cleric says he would have no problem with militants pulling off a Beslan-style terror attack in the United Kingdom. We also note that Omar Bakri Mohammed believes it fine and dandy if women and children are killed in such an attack. Furthermore, it would appear that Bakri will host a convention celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington.

Bakri's argument is so grotesque, so beyond the bounds of human decency and so beneath contempt that we will not address it. However, we would say this.

It seems to us this Saturday's convention could attract lots of people who share Bakri's views. It also seems to us that some of the attendees may have records that immigration authorities might want to re-examine. Further, it seems to us that such a gathering could create opportunity for Her Majesty's civil servants to test out new ideas vis-a-vis the deportation of troublesome aliens.

At the very least, this might be a good time to test the limits of those Anti-Social Behaviour Orders we keep hearing so much about.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:23 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Not Dead Yet!

WE SUPPOSE we owe our readers a bit of an explanation as to where the devil we’ve been for the past week, and an apology for not bothering to post a message regarding our absence. However, we can assure folks that we are in relatively – relatively – good health and have an entirely believable excuse for our lack of posting.

To begin with, we have been sick and tired, both words being used in the literal sense. Our dreaded seasonal allergies, which taunt us like one of Satan’s imps, have not let up troubling us for the past few weeks. Furthermore, we find ourselves dealing with near-constant physical and mental fatigue, both of which are less than helpful as they relate to myriad aspects of our life. Among these aspects, naturally, is our blog and all that goes with it.

However, we just had a very nice visit from Simon From Jersey, who was in town for a while, and we were quite glad he traveled all the way from the Garden State to see us for a relatively brief sojourn here in Manchester. It made us feel as if we were doing more in this life than marking time. Together, we both watched some fine movies and ate well and drank a bit and talked about life and where we were going in it. It was too short a visit, but we still felt a sea-change because of it – for in those hours, we were finally able to loosen up a bit. It has been a very long time since we did any loosening up, and it is well that we did, for at least a little while.

Switching gears for a bit, we can assure you that we learned much over the past two days, to wit:

* We learned that it is quite inadvisable to walk in front of an automobile negotiating a parking space in a mall parking lot, as the operator of said vehicle will refuse to yield to a pedestrian as called for under the laws of this state. Further, the operator will also crudely castigate a pedestrian for acting lawfully. We can assure you that it took a great deal of inner strength for us, at the minimum, not to suggest the driver and the driver’s mother make haste in performing an anatomically impossible act. It also took a great deal of strength for us not to suggest that the driver’s actions were anti-social, boorish, and indicative of mental deterioration which sprang from a) inbreeding, b) narcotics use or c) social disease.

* We learned that many restaurants in New Hampshire have decided to disallow smoking throughout their establishments. While we recognize the restaurants’ owners have the right to do this as private entities, we would especially appreciate it if the owners would post a sign at the front door warning us of this circumstance. This would make it more pleasant for both ourselves and the server, who has to listen to us gripe and moan.

* We learned that a movie-theatre operator, provided he possesses a mediocre amount of drive and a better-than-average eye for what the public wants to see, could frickin’ clean house in this city. That said, “Collateral” was a heck of a good movie.

* We learned that our father possesses an amazing amount of aptitude regarding auto mechanics, although before we were able to put his advice into practice, the problem with the car amazingly disappeared. You can see how well it worked!

Well, that’s our status update for now. We will celebrate Labor Day in the traditional Kepple fashion, by which we mean we will be at work, and get back into the swing of things later this week. However, we do hope that we’ll be able to do as much blogging as our readers expect and demand.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:15 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack