November 23, 2004

Sex! Drama! Marketing!

NOTICE: Per long-standing Rant policy regarding potentially-objectionable content, readers under the age of majority are asked to refrain from reading this post. This policy, as Dan Ackroyd once put it, is to prevent you from becoming as screwed up as your elders -- look, run along, son.

Standards Department,
Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant, Inc.


SIMON FROM JERSEY has written an excellent post on the recent controversy surrounding an ABC promotional spot aired during an NFL football game. As we understand it, the spot featured an actress from one of the network's dramas seducing a player from the Philadelphia Eagles, and there was accordingly much wailing and gnashing of teeth afterwards.

Mr Einspahr, as we learn from his post, is horrified that vapid marketing ploys are invading his football viewing. He writes:

Sure, I'm upset and amazed to see just how uptight and repressed our culture is about sex, but not as upset as I am seeing companies sell anything at any time, any place. I can't avoid it. At least I still have the Joe Louis Arena, and the Rose Bowl (brought to you by - insert jackass company here). But music, movies, TV, EVERYTHING just stinks of crass commercialism. Network is the worst though, as 99% of it is garbage, pandering to the lowest common denominator, only there to hock shit Americans don't even need.

We ourselves are not impressed with ABC's unfortunate marketing ploy, although we do admit that sex does play a role in our displeasure. This is primarily because we view sex as generally something that ought be assigned to life's private sphere. By this, we mean we don't particularly care what one and one's partner do, watch, or read. We also don't particularly care about one's tastes or proclivities. That said, we don't want to see or hear about it in public either, and we certainly don't want it to crop up during events aimed at general audiences. Please, keep it at home.

We know these statements will prompt charges that we are old-fashioned and Puritanical in our outlook on life. Understandable, perhaps, but we do think such allegations are unwarranted. We see nothing wrong with the act of coitus, nor many related activities, but we do find it unfortunate that our society sees fit to daily cheapen and coarsen the act with thousands upon thousands of stupid and tawdry schemes forced upon the public.

For we are not impressed with the slavering and pathetic tone which seems to infect such things; the lurid frat-boy mentality that prizes transient beauty above lasting relationships, and which casts aside true love for the fleeting joys of the one-night stand. Yes, such-and-such an actress may be quite a dish; and yes, it was thrilling that you made out with such-and-such a girl in your chemistry class; and yes, one ought praise God that you threw the football through the tire. Just what about this, pray tell, is supposed to impress us? These experiences are not exactly what one would call new and novel.

All that said, we have not yet discussed Mr Einspahr's points, which deal with marketing -- something which, as he writes, can sometimes prove a bit disturbing.

We share Mr Einspahr's personal distaste for the constant commercialism which has seeped into every facet of our popular culture. Yet we do respect it, and have developed our own personal antidote to it. Allow us to explain.

Over the years, we have realized that the tentacles of commercialism reach far deeper than one might expect into American life; and indeed, we doubt that any part of life is free from it. Even the deepest sacraments and tenets of religion can sometimes prove infected, Christ's expulsion of the money-changers notwithstanding. But in modern life, of course, commercialism is most apparent in the incessant barrage of advertisements and cross-promotions and product campaigns and everything else which daily assault a person.

Yet on a temporal level, we have come to respect this facet of life, and even to appreciate it. For as Coolidge famously put it, the business of America is business, and this necessarily involves separating large numbers of Americans from their money; which is accordingly spent on goods and services which they may not need, but certainly do want. Such is life under glorious capitalism.

So while we may not be impressed that our gas station now offers supposedly premium coffee, and our favorite restaurant makes a big to-do about serving middling liquors, and our automobile comes with TruCoat for just an extra $599, we do realize that such spending fuels the national economic engine. And we do realize that to make that engine run at peak efficiency, the affluent must spend lots of money on very expensive durable or luxury goods -- the fancy box seats and the diamond watches and the new kitchens. Our view then, is quite simple: if you can't beat 'em -- and you won't -- then join 'em. Live with the commercialism that others embrace, and smile as others spend, for down the line it will eventually enrich you.

But wait, readers will say, you spoke of an antidote to all this. What is it?

It is simplicity itself.

No, really. Simplicity. That's it.

We take no credit for the following thoughts, for verily, we have learned them at the feet of the masters. But another grand secret to commercialism is this: there is no reason why anyone must buy into it, and if one does not, then one will prove all the happier and the richer for it. The former, of course, is far more important; but the latter is a rather nice side benefit. And the latter item, as it turns out, can contribute a bit to the former. But the best part is this: simplicity is a good starter kit for spiritual peace.

We are convinced, as are many other learned sages, that many people spend not because they truly want some particular good, but because they are looking to fill a void in their own lives. But of course the pleasure derived from the good is fleeting, and one must then buy more goods to keep up, and suddenly one is enslaved to avarice: the beast, as Dante put it so well, that grows hungrier with every meal. It is, of course, no sin to buy a good or service because one truly wants it; but why buy something when something other than that want is driving your purchase? It makes no sense.

Really, who cares if your neighbors or coworkers or friends snicker that you have an older car and don't have a new fridge and stayed home on your vacation? You know that in living below your means, you are better prepared for retirement, better prepared to follow your dreams, better prepared to one day achieve your freedom. Indeed, through the grand opting out, you have already done much to reach that goal.

And so, with Thanksgiving Day upon us, we would encourage everyone to take stock of their lives, and examine the books in terms of one's wants and needs, on both the temporal and spiritual planes of life.

But enough. Thus endeth the lesson for today.

We did not mean to turn this into a sermon, and we apologize for carrying on so. We're excitable about these types of things. However, we do hope it proved at the very least interesting, in some way.

And we sincerely wish each and every reader a happy and joyous Thanksgiving. May God bless and keep you and your family.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:46 PM | TrackBack

Potomac Fever Caught Again


As certain of our readers know, we were recently in the nation’s capital for a long weekend, and during those delightful four days we fell in love yet again with the District. We lived there briefly as a younger man, and came to treasure it; and although that experience seems as if it was a lifetime ago, our recent trip brought those memories into the forefront of our conscience. And we were pleased to note that seven years later, we experienced nothing which would sully the memory of those grand times.

We realize our view is not something which all of our readers might share, and this is understandable. For there is no denying that certain parts of Washington are a bit dicey. Still, though, we are not convinced that even these areas are particularly worse than those one would find in any major city. Further, when one performs a cost-benefit analysis of what Washington has to offer, we see the benefits it offers as unparalled when compared with other urban centers.

That’s an argument with which we realize most of our readers won’t agree either. After all, many in our readership will make the case for New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and Boston and any one of one hundred cities. But in our heart, all those come up short when weighed against the District.

We respect New York and all it offers, but we do not particularly care for it: it is too crowded and too expensive for our liking, and grim and dingy to boot. Furthermore, we cannot imagine living in a place where Making It involves trading up an overpriced set of rooms with no view for an extremely overpriced set of rooms with a half-decent view.*

Los Angeles also comes up short in our analysis: for it too suffers from many of those troubles. It is certainly not as self-important a place as New York, and socioeconomic matters seem politely swept under the rug, except when criminals make their presence known; and, of course, once in a while a great cauldron of seething societal rage boils over in an orgy of self-destruction. But based on our three years of living on that city’s west side, we’d argue consumerism and a general state of decadence have triumphed in the extreme, one result of which is the amazing shallowness one too often finds among the city’s wealthier classes.

And then there are the other cities of which one could speak: Boston, a city which to us clings desperately to its past glory; San Francisco, great to visit but not to live; Detroit and Cleveland, which despite some improvements still seem worn out and tired; Las Vegas, so wonderful and horrible at the same time. We could keep going down the list, to the cities of the third rank in we have visited and lived, but there’s no point in that. They have neither the resources nor the population to support what Washington does; and as such they must be judged separately and alone.

We will say, though, that in our mind Chicago does come very close to Washington. It has been forever since we have visisted, but we have only fond memories of the Windy City, and we can only think it has continued to improve, just as all cities seem to have done over the past decade. If we had to rate American cities that we personally liked, Chicago would certainly rank second in our list. And to soften the blows of our criticism, we should note that all of the cities we mentioned do have a lot going for them. Well, maybe Detroit needs some work, but you see our point. Boston has its history and New York is the center of finance; Los Angeles is the capital of entertainment and San Francisco has its cheerful, easygoing hipness. Even Cleveland is making a bit of a civic comeback. But in the aggregate, we give top honors to Washington.

This, naturally, leads to the question of why we like the nation’s capital. We have a dreaded three-part answer for this.

In the first instance, we know these things could apply to any major city; but they still hold nonetheless. Simply put, Washington has critical mass – it has great restaurants and bookstores and a large population of educated people, many of whom are snappy dressers. It is the center of the action when it comes to politics; and as a result, one can have plenty of intelligent argu—ah, conversations—about any matter under the sun. It is an expensive place in which to live, but not absurdly so; and we looked upon our friends’ abodes with quiet longing.

In the second instance, Washington is a well-designed city. Consider: after we left Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, it took us all of thirty seconds to embark upon a Metro train for the city itself. In twenty minutes, we emerged to find our hotel standing less than one block away from the stop. The Metro, of course, is the best subway system in America; but even the city bus system seems both competently run and reasonably safe. We would submit that when a public transport system is convenient enough to make even a fervent devotee of America’s car culture believe that system superior, it has done its job well. We only hope more resources will be put into expanding it.

But not only is Washington well-designed – the city-street grid system alone is proof of that – it is architecturally pleasing. Even the bloody National Airport is rather soothing, with its old-style architecture. But one can find much more there that is simply awesome: most notably, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which will take one’s breath away. (It is right next to the White House and to our eyes, more impressive architecturally. The EEOB used to be the OEOB, O standing for Old, but they changed the name. A pity they couldn’t have revamped the New Executive Office Building while they were at it, as this structure down the way is built in craptacular late Sixties style).

Finally, though, we think the people of Washington are what puts the city first on our list. Everyone we encountered was incredibly helpful and polite during our trip there. Really, we mean, it was downright astonishing. The service we received was generally impeccable; people on the street were cordial; even the teenagers we encountered did not engage in uncivil behavior. Perhaps this is because Washington draws people from all over this great nation to its door; perhaps amidst the rushing about, its citizens have acquired some grand sense of perspective. But God! whatever the reason, we hope and pray Washingtonians keep it up. They do credit to their city through it, and we look forward to the day when we can return there again.

* Yes, New York is bloody well over-priced. Apparently, its City Council lost the memo from back in the day about the war news. As such, it remains in fear of warlike aggression from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, and has thus kept in place its emergency rent regulations enacted some six decades ago. As a result, the “market rate” for apartment homes is artificially higher than it would otherwise be, and we suspect this filters through the city’s entire economy accordingly.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:01 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 21, 2004

DEEEEtroit BASKetball, and Other Items of Note

AS WE HAVE been away for much of this week, we have subsequently found ourselves rather out of the loop when it comes to the news. Therefore it was only natural that lots of interesting things would happen during our absence. So, in an attempt to catch up, we would present some quick observations on these events, viz. and to wit:

* DEEEEEtroit BASKetball: Brendan Loy has a good rundown of a particularly nasty fight between members of the Indiana Pacers basketball squad, and bunches of Detroit Pistons fans whose drink-fogged minds kept them from realizing it's not advisable to throw things at really big and really angry athletes. To get a full sense of the bedlam which erupted at the Palace at Auburn Hills, click on the above link.

Naturally, the melee has prompted much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth among the chattering class, who are shocked! shocked! to see that violence and unsportsmanlike conduct would happen at a basketball game. Our own thoughts on the matter are as follows:

1. Based on our limited knowledge of the incident, it appears most of the fans who were involved in the riot and were injured as a result got what they deserved. On general principle grounds, if a fan is stupid enough to charge out onto the court and lunge towards a player in a threatening manner, he is asking for trouble.

2. The Pacers players who went into the stands to fight with the fans showed amazingly bad judgment. Such a reaction to a short-term problem will only bring long-term headaches. Furthermore, if they go after the wrong fans -- and at least one fan says he was wrongfully assaulted -- it will really cause them grief down the line. The three Pacers players involved reportedly received an amazing 70 games' worth of suspensions. That's a LOT of money to throw away, to say nothing of the damage to one's career, endorsements, etc.

3. It might be a good idea for teams to put some sort of limit on alcohol sales during sporting matches. We're not suggesting a ban, because that would punish everyone; but we don't see why a team ought let certain fans drink to excess when they clearly can't hold their liquor.

Finally, we *do* hope this won't happen again, as we rather like John Mason's catch-phrase, and would prefer not to use it in such a scurrilious manner.

UPDATE, 8:33 PM: The NBA has suspended one player for 72 games, and eight other players a total of 70 games, the New York Times reports.

* * *

* THERE'S GOLD on them there tickers. We were quite pleased to see that GLD, the new Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) which lets one buy gold just like one would any equity, did so well on its opening day. Each share is the equivalent of 1/10th of a troy ounce of gold. While we are generally skeptical of gold as an investment -- if one must advertise on television, there's probably a reason for it -- we do think it could prove a useful hedge (1) once one has acquired significant assets.

As the fund makes it a lot easier to buy the stuff, and without having to worry about theft or loss, it is definitely a net positive for everyone. This goes especially for small investors, for no longer will they have to pay a premium to purchase gold in its coin form. We are especially hopeful GLD's success will lead to the introduction of other commodity-based ETFs, as it would let people invest in these goods without much of the risk that currently exist when dealing with the futures markets.

(1) Do note that when we speak of using gold as a hedge, we mean as a hedge against two particular things: first, stagflation or hyperinflation, and second, a collapse of civilization. As both these things are highly unlikely, we can see no reason why one would want to invest more than 1 to 2 pc of one's holdings in specie; and if one has under $1 million in investable assets, we can't see why you would screw around with it at all.

We should also mention that we are NOT licensed financial advisors, and as such do NOT take responsibility for your investment decisions. Read the prospectus carefully before investing, there's a high degree of risk, investors can and do lose money, perhaps you should look at Treasuries instead, void in Vermont.

* * *

* FILE TO THE "YOU DON'T SAY" DEPT. From The Guardian newspaper, based in London:

A former royal secretary told an employment tribunal today that Prince Charles is the head of a "hierarchical and elitist" workplace where staff are expected not to "rock the boat."

We do not, of course, take lightly the serious allegations made within the article, which we encourage all readers to read. Those charges, which involve the conduct of a minor official against the complaintant, ought be punished severely if true. So we want to be absolutely clear about that.

What amazes us, though, is how shocked and outraged many Britons are about the alleged elitism on the Prince of Wales' part. Did we miss something here? After all, we are discussing a monarchy. This would seem to suggest that elitism was part and parcel of the whole deal. If the people of Great Britain do not want their hereditary royalty to act as if they're entitled to the perks and privileges which go along the job, then perhaps they ought reform or scrap the whole institution.

But that, of course, is a discussion for the people of Great Britain alone. As for us, we're going to have some dinner. We'll report with more details about our fabulous trip to the nation's capital soon.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:10 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

November 17, 2004

The Rant is Away ...

... UNTIL MONDAY, NOV. 22. We'll be back with a full report of all the Madcap Antics, Wacky Schemes and Zany Hijinks in which we have engaged over this past week. 'Til then, God bless, and good night.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:12 PM | TrackBack

November 14, 2004

Idiocy, Compounded

WELL, GAD. Remember back in August, when a clothing-store clerk in Pennsylvania actually accepted a $200 bill as Legal Tender? Well, the authorities have taken pity on the woman who bought the goods with the gag-store banknote.

In deciding to drop all the charges against the woman, provided she paid for her purchases with bona fide currency, Westmoreland County prosecutors wisely avoided a show trial. As this would have been done at great expense to Westmoreland County's taxpayers, some of whom are our relatives, we approve. Besides, based on the comments of her lawyer, we can only conclude the former defendant is as dumb as a bag of rocks.

The Associated Press reports:

GREENSBURG, Pa. - A case of funny money has ended happily for a woman who had been charged with passing a bogus $200 bill with President Bush's picture on it.

Prosecutors in Westmoreland County dropped all charges Friday against Deborah L. Trautwine, 51, after she paid the store in real currency.

Trautwine "wasn't aware that it ... wasn't actual legal tender," said her attorney, Harry Smail Jr.

The AP has more -- do go read it. Our question is this: how in hell could a person of sound mind and body not realize the note was fake? The AP points out, for instance, that there's no such thing as a $200 bill, and the serial number was clearly made up, and Ronald Reagan signed the bill, and the back side had a "We Like Broccoli" sign on the White House lawn. Plus, the notes aren't even printed on standard-issue paper. All of these things should have tipped off a functioning adult.

We realize it's cruel and horrible for us to make fun of someone whom, according to a respected attorney, truly did believe this note was the real thing. But this has just left us gobsmacked, it really has. On the other hand, as the store clerk also accepted the bill as legitimate, it does make us wonder. Perhaps an enterprising person could do well with this.

CLERK: OK, ten gallons of gasoline and a pack of Marlboros ... that'll be $24.40.
US: Here! Have this newly-minted $30 bill!
CLERK: What?
US: It's a $30 bill. You know, honoring famed Vice President Schuyler Colfax!
CLERK: Oh! He was vice president under Carter, wasn't he?
US: Yes -- he -- was. Plus, if you hold it up to the light, you can see the security features the Government put in the bill.
CLERK: Let's see ... "THIS IS, VIZ. & FORSOOTH, HONEST-TO-GOD AMERICAN CURRENCY." Well, that's good enough for me! Say, you have any more of these? These are cool.
US: Yeah, out in the trunk.

Of course, we kid. After all, Americans -- these two noted exceptions notwithstanding -- are intelligent and fiscally-prudent folks. Besides, as everyone knows, clerks are naturally suspicious of any bill larger than $20, and they have that marker thing they use to ensure the bill's legitimate, and most of them actually look at bills before they throw them in the drawer. Although, if it truly were that easy to fool cashiers, this trend could really get out of hand ...

MAN: Gee, I'm going to like this new television set! Here's $400.
CLERK: Uh, you're paying me with one bill. And it's not even green.
MAN: Of course it's not green! Don't you read the news, son? New security features to fool counterfeiters! You see, if we trick them by printing foofy Communist-style money, they'll stop counterfeiting and such.
CLERK: Well, that'd explain the red color then. But who's this angry-looking dude?
MAN: Why, it's John Nance Garner! You know ... uh ... he was President after FDR.
CLERK: The one who dropped the atom bomb?
MAN: Exactly!

But again. Obviously, such a transaction could never take place, for store clerks these days are often students, and they would immediately reject the proferred bill because Garner was, well, something disagreeable. Still, if anyone is interested in our $30 bills or even larger denominations -- such as our one-of-a-kind $750 note paying homage to Calvin Coolidge -- we invite them to contact us via the address at left.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:12 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 13, 2004

South Beached

DEAR GOD, please -- we're begging You -- deliver unto us a box of cupcakes, or a dozen donuts, or just a really big chocolate bar. For we are on the second day of strict adherence to the South Beach Diet, and we are going mad.

We do hope readers will forgive us if our entries over the next few days seem a bit confused, but our body is screaming for carbohydrates something fierce. We mean, it is really, really angry with us. As such, it has created a rather awful drumming in our head as it orders us to provide it with carbohydrates. Yet we have resisted for two full days now.

Readers will recall, of course, that we were first ordered to start the diet some two weeks ago. At that point, we resigned ourselves to doing it; but we subsequently held off because we knew we were in for a few tough weeks at work. Now that that's over with, though, we have jumped in full-bore.

We can assure readers the South Beach Diet experience is as bad as we thought it would be. However, we are proud to note we've managed to adapt to this invalid's diet pretty well, even though we are a bachelor and as such pretty useless in the kitchen.

For instance, last night's dinner and today's lunch was that sea scallop recipe we talked about (see below); you know, the one that takes seven minutes from start to finish. Half-a-pound of sea scallops provided us with roughly 350 calories and a total of perhaps 5g of fat, one-eighth our daily allowance under our Medically-Approved Nutritional Scheme. We also enjoyed, on both days, an excellent field-greens salad with crab-flavored haddock or some such; and for dressing, we used fish sauce, the Sugarless Condiment of the Gods. For snacks, we have relied heavily on a jar of kim chi (another Sugarless Condiment of the Gods) we had in our fridge.

The lesson we have learned from this is that it's easy to eat healthy, as long as one doesn't think too much about where one's healthy food came from, or how it was processed before arriving in one's home. That said, we must say we take great issue with some descriptions of the South Beach Diet which we have seen on-line. Here is one of them:

From great meals to losing inches around the waist, read about how people just like you are enjoying the South Beach Diet, eating better, exceeding their desired weight loss goals, and regaining their lives!

We don't mean to be flippant about this, but dammit, we're nil-for-four at this point. Our life was perfectly fine before we started this -- we were a happy and well-adjusted person blessed with an abundance of good things, like pasta with meat sauce. Along those lines, we can assure readers that we are damn well not "eating better." A more accurate statement would be to say we are "eating for the sole purpose of sustaining life and getting absolutely no joy out of it whatsoever." As for weight loss, we haven't noticed any yet; and as for "regaining our life," the diet people can take that and shove it up their --

But we digress. Happy thoughts. We need to think happy thoughts. We're becoming ... healthier ... with each passing second! If we think that enough ... will somebody get us a frickin' muffin or something? Please! We're begging ya ...

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:22 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 11, 2004

Report: We're All Doomed

GEE. SCIENTISTS report Mars is growing warmer through some kind of global-warming process. This has, naturally, led at least one blogger to ask a rather disturbing question:

On the other hand, I can't help but wonder — if two planets so close to each other are both experiencing a rise in surface temperature, isn't it just possible that it might have to do with that nearby star they both orbit? I'm just asking is all. I mean, what if...

What if, indeed? Well, we've figured out some potential answers to this pressing question. As we see it, given these phenomena, there are four perfectly reasonable outcomes that could occur:

One. The Twilight Zone Outcome.

Both Earth and Mars have somehow been knocked out of their orbits and will soon enter some hideous death spirals leading straight into the sun. Therefore, we're all -- yes, that's right. Doomed.

Two. The Martian Chronicles Outcome.

Wow! Mars is heating up! Say! Now we can go colonize it and destroy its ruined cities and set up a parochial yet oddly dysfunctional society! Plus we can strip-mine the place and seize its mineral wealth for our own. Yes, that will work perfectly. Must -- create -- ruined -- future!

Three. The Day After Tomorrow Outcome.

JACK HALL: Dear God! Mars has ... reached a critical desalinization point!
AGENCY HEAD: We've been through this once already. Jesus. You're not expensing another trip, and that's final.
JACK HALL: What if I put on a chicken suit?
AGENCY HEAD: Dammit! No!
JACK HALL: But we've got to do something! Mars is in danger! If it heats up ... um ... then that could mean ... ah ... my son is there! Sweet MERCY! Sam! I'll come to get you, Sam!
AGENCY HEAD: Do I have to call security again?
JACK HALL: But you've got to believe me!
AGENCY HEAD: Mmmm. Yes. You mean like I'm supposed to believe this expense report for "important research" in Maui? Dammit, Hall, you study frickin' Antarctica!
JACK HALL: That was for extremely urgent anthropological and cultural studies necessary to my ...
AGENCY HEAD: You're going to study my fist if you keep this up!
JACK HALL: But this is import ...
AGENCY HEAD: If you don't get the hell out of my office, I'll send you to the Hurricane Observation Team! Not only that, I'll put you on a rat-trap so frickin' unseaworthy that --
JACK HALL: Fine! Then I'll go tell the United Nations!
AGENCY HEAD: Oooooooooooh!

Four. The "Ah, it's Mars" Outcome.

MAN: You see Mars is heating up? Now it's less of a barren, frozen wasteland than it was before!
UNLUCKY DATE: Ah, it's Mars.
MAN: Well, yeah. But ... ah ... you know ... that's bad and such.
UNLUCKY DATE: Don't we have more important things to worry about, like creating an equitable and efficient property-rights mechanism in the developing world?
MAN: Um.
UNLUCKY DATE: You know, to help make it easier for people to join the formal economy, thus unlocking capital and increasing their standard of living?
MAN: Say! How 'bout those Eagles?
UNLUCKY DATE: How 'bout Rothelisberger?
MAN: We could just skip dessert.
UNLUCKY DATE: Why? You're paying, and I've got to get something out of this. I'll have the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier. Extra Grand Marnier.

Out of these four outcomes, we can see the second outcome is the most likely to occur, and thus the one for which we should all prepare. For the first is physically impossible, and the third is based upon a movie. As for the fourth ... Gad, you didn't think the fourth was the most likely, did you? Oh, no.

Clearly, the fourth outcome is the least likely of those presented. After all, on a truly horrible date, a woman would have used her innate self-defense mechanisms to escape from the situation. By this, we mean that as the guy was waiting for the minestrone to arrive, his date would have politely moved to Vermont.

Furthermore, the idea that a Steelers fan would date an Eagles fan is so ludicrous as to not be believed. Really, now. Even for this entry, that's silly.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:11 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 09, 2004

Our Hometown is ... Frickin' Dangerous

WELL, SO MUCH for the idyllic memories of our youth. FBI statistics prove that our once-glorious hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., (as the T-shirt said: "There's nothin' to do in Kalamazoo") is a more crime-prone place in which to live than -- wait for it -- New York.

Admittedly, we haven't set foot in Kalamazoo since 1995, but still -- what the hell happened to the place? It's Kalamazoo, in God-fearing and traditionalist western Michigan. It's the Celery City, famed for its muck fields. It's the Bedding Plant Capital of the World. It's not supposed to be a haven for degeneracy and criminality. Yet the statistics do not lie, as a selection of them shows:

New York, 7.75m; Kalamazoo, 76,000.

VIOLENT CRIME RATE per 100,000 citizens:
New York, 977.8; Kalamazoo, 1,066.5. (+9 pc)

New York, 2,744.8; Kalamazoo, 6,780.6 (+147 pc)

New York, 527.7; Kalamazoo, 683.4 (+30 pc)

New York, 479.1; Kalamazoo, 1,567.6 (+227 pc)

New York, 1,802.9; Kalamazoo, 4,576.8 (+154 pc)

About the only crime in which New York is more dangerous than Kalamazoo is robbery: there is considerably less on a per-capita basis back home. Michigan law allows people to pack concealed firearms, so it could be robbers are a bit more shy about conducting their trade. Then again, perhaps there's just less opportunity for robbery.

We also compared Kalamazoo with our present city of residence: Manchester, N.H. We refuse to publish the comparison data because it is downright embarrassing. Plus, our hometown's outright criminality might cause people at work to start avoiding us in the parking lot. ("How do we know Kepple's not a thief? I've got FILE FOLDERS to protect!")

Again, we must ask: what the hell happened?

We mean, this is Kalamazoo-fricking-Michigan we're discussing. When did it become such a cesspit?

We remember one big crime during our time in Kalamazoo: a rather nasty domestic murder several blocks away in a different subdivision. More typical was the time a neighbor discovered a prowler casing her home, and that prompted such an overwhelming police response we can only assume that nothing else was going on that night in our section of town. Oh, and one time a neighbor boy got knocked over the head for his Halloween candy.

That's three incidents in all of fifteen years. Yet apparently things are so bad that one would think twice about moving to the place. Even with our native's perspective, we certainly would. After all, it's one thing if there's nothin' to do, and another entirely if one gets mugged while doing it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:13 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 08, 2004


WE'VE HAD the joy of picking up two fabulous works over these past couple of days, and we thought Rant readers also might find them particularly interesting.

The first is Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, which examines North Korea under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It is a fabulously researched book and a must-read for anyone interested in North Korean affairs.

It is not a perfect work, for as reviewers at have noted, Mr Martin seems a bit too optimistic about the DPRK's Dear Leader. On the flip side of that coin, though, Mr Martin did much in the way of telling defectors' and escapees' stories, and he has done a damn fine job in total. We can assure readers that the $30 we spent on Mr Martin's book was definitely worth it, and we would encourage all Rant readers to pick up a copy.

Tonight, meanwhile, we picked up the third volume of Victor Klemperer's famous diaries. The first two volumes recounted his experiences as a Jew living in Nazi Germany; the third ("The Lesser Evil") focuses on his post-war life, covering the years 1945 to 1959. We have not yet delved into the book, but we are very much looking forward to doing so.

We must say, though, that even a glance at the cover has given us that same terrible sense of foreboding that we felt throughout reading the first two volumes. Those who have read them know what we mean. For things get worse and worse for Prof Klemperer over the years, and it is heartbreaking to read. We wonder if we will be thinking along similar lines as the years pass in the third volume.

You see, Prof Klemperer stayed in East Germany.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:25 PM | TrackBack

November 07, 2004

Today's Lesson Is ...

... DON'T SCREW with The Franklin Mint. They fight to win!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:07 PM | TrackBack

More Gloom 'n' Doom

WE REALIZE we haven't exactly been a Staunch Beacon of Sunlight as of late. Sadly, we shall have to add to that misery index today with some rather annoying news in the financial markets. Namely: there are rumors that China, and other foreign nations, are selling off their dollar-denominated assets.

The problem with that, as the Financial Times notes, is this:

India and Russia have reportedly been selling US assets, as well as petrodollar-rich Middle Eastern investors.

China, which has $515bn of reserves, was also said to be selling dollars and buying Asian currencies in readiness to switch the renminbi's dollar peg to a basket arrangement, something Chinese officials have increasingly hinted at. Any re-allocation could push the dollar sharply lower and Treasury yields markedly higher.

This would undoubtedly help exporters, but not for long. After all, a sharply weaker dollar would mean higher inflation and boost interest rates. The former, of course, makes the dollars everyone holds worth less; the latter curbs economic growth by making capital more expensive. Plus, it's just galling to have a really weak dollar: bad for the psyche and all that.

That said, we don't think it's time to party like it's 1979.

After all, these are just rumors, and once news breaks it has a way of reversing speculative trends. The little speculators, the ones just piling on, will get whipsawed; and the big speculators will walk away with some big profits in the meantime, provided they get out of their short positions fast enough. And it stands to reason that if one player is driving the market one way, his eventual volte-face will also drive it in the other.

Still -- it makes one think. Perhaps the dragon, for all its weaknesses, is a far quicker study and more powerful foe than we once thought.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:58 PM | TrackBack

November 06, 2004

Za Vashe Zdorovye, Ya Dumb Yuppie

WE GOT A KICK out of an article, published on Halloween in The New York Times, which discusses the rather strange popularity of high-end vodkas among the fashionable set. It seems they are regularly and voluntarily spending upwards of $40 per liter for the stuff. As they're buying when they're not anywhere close to smashed -- an acceptable excuse, that -- we don't see why they're doing it.

After all, it's vodka -- a drink that is generally colorless, odorless and tasteless. Further, as the Times notes, the fashionable types never drink the stuff straight up. This makes it even harder to discern what characteristics actually do exist in the vodka they're drinking. Despite this, though, we note with amusement that there's still plenty of snobbery in this emerging market. The Times writes:

Inside one of Manhattan's monuments to vodka consumption, the Pravda bar in SoHo, Mike Lee orders a vodka on the rocks, letting the bartender choose among the esoteric collection of bottles lined up behind the bar.

Mr. Lee, 30, a stockbroker, usually drinks expensive vodkas like Belvedere, Chopin or the new Absolut brand, Level. But at Pravda, he can't order those mainstream brands.

"The bartender just rolls his eyes when I ask for one of those," he said.

Those vodkas, and even Pravda's more obscure imports - like Jewel of Russia and Zubrowka Bison Brand, from Poland - are gaining popularity as the vodka market grows. Vodka accounted for 26.6 percent of all spirits sold in the United States in 2003, up from 24.2 percent in 1998, according to the Adams Beverage Group. And sales of superpremium brands, those costing $30 a bottle or more, were up 21 percent in 2003 over the previous year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Distillers would not release specific figures, but high-end vodkas are clearly profitable. "There is more margin involved for everyone'' for high-priced vodka, said Monsell Darville, vice president and group marketing director at Bacardi, which owns Grey Goose, a French vodka.

Translation: "Say -- if we charge more, we can make more money."

We would submit this state of affairs is not good for you, the end-user and consumer of spirits. What to do about it, you ask? Well, from a personal-economy standpoint, one can do quite a lot.

Now, our own thinking on vodka drinking is based on Andrew Tobias'* theory that, because no one will notice anything amiss, one ought buy one bottle of Absolut and a 99-cent plastic funnel. As we ourselves detest vodka, we would have no qualms about pulling off such a stunt. However, as we think it not entirely fair to submit our friends to a confidence trick, the Benjamin Kepple Variant Theory is as follows: buy two bottles of good vodka and a 99-cent plastic funnel.

Our thinking is this: as everyone will probably be a bit tipsy or outright shit-faced after the first few rounds, there's no harm in secretly switching to some down-market brand in the middle of one's drinking session. After all, no one's going to notice, except in the morning. But at that point, our friends will likely have spent the night on our couch, and they can't exactly complain after we offered them shelter and took them to breakfast and such.

The lesson, therefore, is clear.

First, if one is going to spend money on drinking, one ought buy drinks where one can readily discern the quality improvements that come with increased expenditure; that is, beer and wine and champagne and whisky and gin.

Second, if one is ever over at our place and wants a drink, ask for gin. Since that is our hard liquor of choice, you know there is no chance that we're going to skimp on the stuff. (Two words: Bombay Sapphire). And therefore, the night (and following morning) will go well for all concerned.

* Mr Tobias, as it turns out, has today posted a seven-minute recipe for cooking sea scallops. That's seven minutes all-inclusive. You can see why we like the guy's work.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:53 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 05, 2004

Would You Invest?

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS recently published a rather fun story, about a Virginia-based telecom firm which only serves vegetarian food to its workers.

The upshot to this idea is that the food is free, which is a great perk; plus, making workers healthier cuts down on medical costs. But the downside is that the company's vegan chief executive, who mandated the cafeteria, has not apparently properly impressed upon his workers the benefits this provides:

"They have this thing called 'soyberry steak' instead of Salisbury steak," says Michaela Goodman, a 19-year-old customer service staffer, while delicately picking at a plate of corn and coleslaw.

"It just didn't seem right. The fake meat stuff is not for me. I tried the nachos, though, and that looked about the same. It was pretty good."

As she ate, workers filtered in and refilled soft drinks or nibbled on the cake. A few stopped in front of the platters of sloppy joes, potato soup, lima beans and fried potato wedges.

Ginger Hinkley, 33, was more practical about her salad: "I'm not one of those veggies, but it's free. Where else could you work and they'd actually give you free food?"

A few disgruntled employees called a local television station to complain about not being able to bring meat into the Vegeteria. But (CEO Norm) Mason says they still can eat meat -- they just have to take it into another company room. Or they could go out for lunch.

CEO Mason's take on the matter is as follows:

Mason says he created the "Vegeteria" out of concern for the well-being of his 200 employees of Cat Communications International. So he's giving them all the fresh vegetables, meat substitutes, cakes and drinks they could ever want.

"This was a way to say: 'Look, we don't feel it's right to have the flesh of an animal, an animal killed for your benefit,'" Mason said. "I see it no different than smoking. People are asked to go outside and smoke."

It also will hopefully teach them respect for animals, he says, a value symbolized by Lucille, the paralyzed dog he adopted that follows workers around on a little wheeled contraption.

As students of economics, we think Mr Mason's idea an excellent one. After all, there are few better ways to change eating habits than to offer free lunch to one's workforce. We ourselves are not fans of "meatless, eggless, butter-free delicacies," as the AP describes the cafeteria spread, but were they provided to us gratis we would eat them every day. This is because our dislike of soya is far less than our dislike of shelling out $5 to $10 per day for lousy food.

However, we are also students of the human condition here at The Rant, and as such we don't think Mr Mason's firm is spreading the gospel correctly. For one thing, not letting workers bring meat into the cafeteria is not exactly a morale-booster for workers who like the stuff. But that move not only sows discontent -- it also acts as a disincentive for workers to one day switch and try the vegetarian food, as well as a disincentive for people to stick around at the company. As a rule, people do not appreciate being treated as if they were children -- and if workers were calling a television station about their cafeteria, we do wonder if they were disgruntled about more than lunch.

Furthermore, Mr Mason's arguments for creating the cafeteria aren't exactly savvy. He is sensitive and caring and wonderful in his comments, yes, but he's also a businessman. So screw sensitive and caring and wonderful. This is about profit and productivity.

In terms of the first point, Mr Mason is undoubtedly losing money on his cafeteria, but so do most firms. He can justify the cost through the health and retention benefits that accrue from it; lower medical costs, and the lower costs which derive from less employee turnover. But not once in this article does he do so. Instead, he goes on about how important it is to care for animals and such. This is all well and good, but it ignores fundamental arguments that can do much to make his staff realize that his vision is sound.

In terms of the second point, there are undoubtedly productivity benefits that arise from having a free cafeteria on-site: namely, workers spend less time at lunch and more time at their desks working. Not once does Mr Mason bring this benefit up. Instead, we learn about how our society does scary things to animals. We suppose we should appreciate Mr Mason's openness in this regard, but we do think he missed an excellent chance to keep quiet. At the very least, such comments may draw raised eyebrows from his workers.

We also must say that we're not impressed with Mr Mason's analogy between eating meat and smoking tobacco. Last time we checked, after all, many states and municipalities and corporations do not merely ask workers to smoke outside; they mandate it. There is undoubtedly such a mandate here with both tobacco and meat, so don't be cute and dress it up as something other than that. Instead, explain the mandate and have done with it.

Now the company of which we speak is apparently a private concern, and as such, we think the people who run it can run it in whatever manner they see fit. That said, though, almost every sizable private firm is run with two long-term end goals in mind: an eventual IPO or a sale to a larger company. So, setting aside the business operation from its leaders for a moment, we would ask: would you invest?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:05 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Total War (Denouement)

FEELING FATIGUED and a bit bored this past Saturday, we splurged on a copy of “Rome: Total War,” the latest strategy game from the good, fine people at Creative Assembly Ltd. Our reaction to the program can be summed up in one word: wow.

The game is so good that declaring it the best strategy game of the year does not do it justice. This is a game on par with the various installments of “Civilization,” and in some respects, it may just surpass it. For “Rome: Total War” is a downright brilliant game, breathtaking in its scope and complexity, and a fascinating window on a world long consigned to the mists of time.

The gist of the game is as follows: you are in command of a major Roman house, the Julii, the Brutii, or the Scipii. Your objective is to lead your house and Rome to greatness during the later years of the Republic: from roughly 270 B.C. to 14 A.D. In short, help build a great nation, and then take it for one’s own when the time is right. Along the way, one takes part in epic battles, builds up cities, leads armies, and engages in diplomacy with the nations unfortunate enough to find themselves in Rome’s way. As one might expect, we are very much enjoying all this; and we are quite gratified to note that we are thus far ahead of schedule.

In our first campaign – which we admittedly set on the “easy” setting – the clock has only reached 188 B.C., yet we have done much to spread civilization throughout the known world. We have thrown mighty Carthage down to the ground, and led our armies to victory against the barbarian hordes in Gaul. We have forced Spain to bend its knee and have managed to box Germania into a corner. With our legions holding the line from the English Channel to the Black Sea, it is only a matter of time before we achieve total mastery of the known world. There’s only one problem – our friendly Roman colleagues have been busy crushing Greece and subduing the rest of Northern Africa, and it is going to be a royal pain getting them out of the way.

Thus far, we have had few problems with the game: the only glitch is that it taxes our eight-month old machine to play it (we believe it a RAM issue) and as such the video (but not the game) is sometimes a bit stuttered. We also would have liked a customization option, where one could have fun with customizing each faction to certain particulars. What can we say -- we like the idea of the great B. Iohannes Kepplus leading his troops to victory.

But God! those things aside, though … one really couldn’t have asked for anything more. One really couldn’t.

* * *

WHAT? You were instead expecting something about the election? Oh, God. We can assure readers they will find precious little about that here at The Rant – American politics is not something we discuss. However, we would make a couple of very general observations about America as a whole.

We note with dismay that certain writers in the foreign press have, in writing about our election, cavalierly referred to the United States as an Empire, instead of properly referring to it as a Republic. For America is not an empire, has no aspirations to become one, and makes no pretensions that it is already such a thing. It may be the United States had those once; but we would argue that whatever aspirations it had in that respect disappeared shortly after the Spanish-American War wrapped up. After all, when we attempted to pacify the Philippines, it was a most unpleasant experience; and we wisely granted that nation its independence some three decades later. An empire would not have done such a thing, and the continued independence of Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti and Panama stand as testament to that fact. The eventual and true independence of Iraq, which will soon come, will stand as further evidence.

We Americans do a lot of things well. We’re pretty good at making money, we’re awfully creative, we work really hard, and we’re good-hearted people. The first three things, we would submit, explains a lot about why America has achieved such power in this world. The last item, we reckon, explains a lot about why an American Empire will remain a fantasy in the minds of the sullen and deluded.

For instance, consider Fallujah. As we write, there are thousands upon thousands of insurgents and foreign fighters girding for battle against America in that miserable city. Yet what have we done about this? We’re patiently waiting on the outskirts. Soon, we shall conduct a carefully-coordinated assault upon these elements, designed to minimize civilian casualties even when it puts our own troops in harm’s way.

This is not how an empire goes about things. An empire would have immediately dealt with these malcontents. An empire would have also fired the city, salted the earth outside it, and forcibly relocated the populace – those who survived, that is. An empire would have delivered pain without consideration and death without mercy. For that is how empires work when they face opposition. They do not last very long otherwise.

Of course, empires also don’t generally put much stock in elections. And it bears noting, we think, that Americans once again not only elected a Government in a peaceful and orderly fashion, but went about their business the next day with no ill effects on their persons. There were no proscriptions, there were no riots, there were no personal repercussions -- the worst that can be said is that people had to stand in line for a while. Even then, the lines were orderly. All in all, these are not the traits of an empire.

But enough; it is finished. The holidays are coming up, and along with them, the joys of family and togetherness and well-deserved rest. And we look forward to eventually conquering Rome.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:49 AM | TrackBack