March 28, 2005

The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on -- Hey! That's My House!

OK, SO DIG THIS -- I get into work this morning as I usually do, and there's a bit of commotion surrounding some chatter on the police/fire scanner, something about "smoke showing from an apartment building."

Uh oh.

Did you ever have one of those gut feelings where you instantly know something is going to prove unpleasant? I don't know why, but that's the kind of feeling I had at that very moment -- that icy, queasy, pit-in-the-stomach kind of feeling. Maybe it was because I had left the house in such a rush this morning. But I'm sorry to say that as I kept asking questions about the scanner reports, that feeling seemed more prescient as the seconds ticked by:

"What street is it on?"

"Oh. Hey, that's my street -- that's my apartment complex! What building?"


I don't want to say that I panicked. After all, the last thing I'm supposed to do in my line of work is panic. So it was merely ... um ... concern which prompted me to rush around my office -- which has an open floorplan -- shouting about the fact my apartment building was apparently heading for the Great Building Lot in the Sky.

It was also this concern which prompted my hyster ... um, expressions of concern ... to include rather nasty obscenities. For me, it wasn't so much the potential economic loss that was troubling -- as a young bachelor, I have few things of value in my home -- but rather the potential loss of my writing.

That really frightened me. I've got all sorts of half-finished ideas floating about on my computer, and the thought the hard drive AND the backup disk could go bye-bye was terrifying. Plus, what about all the time it would take to set up a new life in a new apartment? My God -- I saw months of my life passing before me. Surely I was destined to spend them in an endless bureaucratic maze where functionaries kept asking me for my present utility bills and other semi-essential documents I no longer had. Oh God oh God oh God ...

There was a spot of hopeful news, though -- the smoke wasn't coming from my apartment. It was coming from a higher floor. That meant it wasn't my fault.

Not that it would be, of course. I have downright ancient views when it comes to preventing fires. I am super-careful about turning off the stove, and double-checking things before I go to bed, and I always douse my cigarettes as opposed to just stubbing them out in an ashtray. Still, as odd as it may sound, that news came as a big relief.

For as all apartment dwellers know, there's only one thing worse than having your own apartment burned to a crisp. That's the knowledge that the fire which burned out your own apartment also caused others to end up out on the street. For not only would they hate you and hope you contacted typhus and diptheria and the gout, such a happening could also put you in the horrible position of being liable for their losses. And that could take years to settle up.

Besides, how fricking embarrassing would it be to have caused the fire in the first place? Holy smoke -- I mean, you'd all be out on the sidewalk waiting for the fire department, and everyone else in the building would be staring at you because you were the schmoe who left the candle unattended, the iron on, the stove on, etc. And there are families that live in this building, for God's sake -- what would they do? It's one thing for a single guy to end up temporarily homeless, but a family? God. And all that trouble, of course, would pale next to what would happen if someone actually got hurt or worse because of the fire.

But I couldn't just stand there running these things through my head. So I grabbed my overcoat and a notebook and rushed out the door. I was rushing down the hall when I heard a repeated shout of "BEN! BEN! BEN!"

It was bad cooking? Someone burnt beans on the stove? The building isn't on fire? There was nothing to it? Oh. Thank God, and never mind. That was great news to hear but it took a long time for me to settle down afterwards. A long time.

It was such a jolt to begin with, and then, when the adrenaline finally faded from my system, I just felt drained. That, combined with not sleeping well the previous night, meant the rest of my day was a struggle to get through. I had this irrational urge to go home -- to make sure everything was all right and soothe my nerves, even though I knew everything was all right. Still, I forced myself to overcome that -- and even used my lunch break to eat lunch.

When I got home tonight, the fact that everything was all right made things even more surreal. I knew they would be, of course -- when you have bad cooking or some other non-event, all the fire department usually does is put fans in the corridors and doorways to air out the place. But to arrive home and find things just as they were when I left felt downright strange. The entire day just felt like a bad dream.

Yet it was, of course, real -- the scanner does not lie, and as I walked to my building through the late March gloom, I caught the faintest odor of acrid smoke hanging in the air. It was there for a second, and then it was gone. And so, I went inside, kicked off my shoes, and listened to the rain.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:03 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 26, 2005

Credit Where It's Due

WE NOTE WITH AMUSEMENT a recent quote attributed to Lee Bollinger, late of the University of Michigan and presently President of Columbia University in New York. It seems the school is adding a second program of study to its Graduate School of Journalism, and upon introducing the program, Mr Bollinger said the following:

"There is no profession more important in the modern world than being a journalist," Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia and a First Amendment lawyer whose father was a newspaper executive, said this week. "I felt that journalism education had not developed to the same point in terms of providing the richness of what a great university like Columbia can offer."

Now, we hate to think that Mr Bollinger's remark was simply transparent flattery, but the first thing that sprang to mind after we read it was a sarcastic aside Bill Shirer wrote in his "Berlin Diary." Mr Shirer, who hated the Nazis before most did and who wrote much about German nastiness during The War, wrote the following in Sept. 1939, a short while after the Germans had invaded Poland:

Starting day after tomorrow, new ration cards for food. The German people will now get per week: one pound of meat, five pounds of bread, three quarters of a pound of fats, three quarters of a pound of sugar, and a pound of ersatz coffee made from roasted barley seeds. Heavy labourers are to get double rations, and Dr Goebbels -- clever man! -- has decided to classify us foreign correspondents as heavy labourers.

Of course, we are being facetious -- the last thing we would want is for easily-excitable people to think we were seriously comparing Mr Bollinger with Goebbels. We certainly didn't intend the foregoing that way -- it just was the first thing that popped into our head. So let us give Mr Bollinger the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant what he said. Do journalists have the most important profession in the modern world?

Of course not.

This is certainly not to say journalists' work is unimportant, but we honestly can't see any justification for arguing their work is more important than that of a host of other professions.

After all, think about the business of journalism for a bit. A journalist's job is to disseminate information. His salary comes from two empirical sources: the readers who pay for the product he produces, and the advertisers who sell goods and services through the product in which his words appear. This very format puts the journalist in the business of providing what we personally call a "secondary service," that is, something for which a market exists solely because there is enough primary economic activity to support it. If there isn't enough economic activity to support his work, the journalist soon finds himself in the unemployment line.

So in that regard, there are far more jobs which are more important and which provide greater benefit to the society as a whole -- ranging from agricultural laborers to factory workers to soldiers to business executives. For these folks keep the markets working at their primary core -- they provide the needed goods and necessary services which civilization needs to survive. It is only because these folks demand non-essential services that journalists and doctors and plaintiffs' lawyers and certified financial planners and all the rest can make a living.

Now, that may seem a bit harsh, but it's very true. One can't live without food on the table, but a typical human being can live without advanced medical care if he takes care of himself. That's not to say that people would live as long or as happily without doctors, of course, but they would still live. The same goes double for certified financial planners -- if there were none, people would still have money to spend. They might not handle it as wisely as they otherwise might, but the money would not disappear. And if that line of reasoning goes double for certified financial planners, it goes triple for plaintiffs' lawyers and fivefold for journalists. People would have poorer lives without their services, but would they get on without them? Of course.

But we do not want our point to be misunderstood -- just because folks in these industries are in empirically non-essential lines of work does not mean what they do is unimportant. It also does not mean they don't provide value or utility in exchange for the money they earn. Quite the contrary on both counts! That's an important consideration and one that shouldn't be overlooked.

The total bills for our appendectomy a few years back ran about $14,000 -- but even if we had paid every cent out of pocket, spending that $14,000 certainly beat being dead at 27. Similarly, readers who spend 50 cents or a buck on their newspaper each day get access to a wealth of information they would have had to spend countless hours to gain on their own. Since people are busy, it's very cost-effective for them to buy the paper instead of attending meetings down at City Hall or sitting in court all day to learn about what's happening. It therefore stands to reason that these consumers have every reason to want qualified people performing the services for which they're shelling out their hard-earned.

So we do want to give Mr Bollinger credit for spearheading what seems like a smart program at Columbia. Among journalists, the usefulness of journalism school is sometimes debated, but we are pretty impressed with the scheme which Columbia has set up.

If one reads The New York Times story linked above, one finds Columbia plans to have two mandatory courses for its new Master of Arts in Journalism degree (amazingly, the existing program is a Master of Science degree). One of these courses will be on the history of journalism, and the other will be on analyzing statistics, legal filings and certain archival material. Both will be useful for those who aren't already in the trade and haven't figured out the tricks of those things yet.

But more important in our view are the other courses -- the seminars on business and economics, politics, and other topics. We also very much like the idea of an immersion course in foreign languages, as having language skills is an amazing help for journalists. (We just wish we were better with our Spanish, which can be charitably described as "grim.") For the most important ammunition a journalist can have, aside from interview skills, is a well-rounded background in real-world subject matter -- in short, how things work.

We do have one concern about the program, though. It reportedly costs an all-inclusive $50,000 per annum to attend Columbia University, and as such we're not convinced of its cost-benefit for prospective journalists. Mr Bollinger reportedly had envisioned a two-year program, which would have kicked up the cost of attending to around $100,000. And that's cash on the barrelhead -- if one had to borrow the cost of attending, one may as well double it to include interest payments.

It is one thing to spend that type of money on law school or medical school or business school, because these degrees will almost certainly provide an impressive return on investment. But journalism isn't a job which people take with the idea they'll get rich.

As of 2003, The New York Times paid top scale base wages of $75,000 per year, which is worth about $45,000 anywhere else in the nation. Journalists in union shops -- there are about 120 of these around America, including the Times -- will generally make about $45,000 in base wages at top scale, which one usually hits after three to six years of service. (On the high end, they'll make $65,000; on the low, $25,000).

But those working at Guild shops are a minority -- there are something like 3,000 newspapers in America. The reporters working for the small dailies are lucky to clear $40,000 per annum -- typical salaries range from the mid-twenties to the high-thirties. Those working at weeklies make even less -- we've known folks who have had to take second jobs while working at them. For more on this, see The Newspaper Guild's salary scale info -- and find out what the guys at YOUR local paper are making!

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and some journalists can often make lots of additional money in overtime. Plus, journalists often get fringe benefits unheard of elsewhere in the private sector -- such as plentiful vacation packages. We have no doubt that most journalists -- ourselves included -- consider being a reporter a great job and a great way to make a comfortable, middle-class living. But we can't see spending $50,000 or more for additional training if it means being in hock for many years after receiving it.

(via Meg McArdle)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:10 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thoughts on the Dollar

LOYAL RANT READERS have long known about our aversion to “foofy money,” a term which in our peculiar lexicon can be described as “brightly-colored banknotes notable for either their meaninglessness or their supposed inability to hold value.” Examples of the former include euro notes, which are well-designed but don’t convey any historical significance in their design; while examples of the latter include pretty much everything that’s not an official reserve currency somewhere in the world.

Still, a re-examination of national currencies elsewhere have made us realize the U.S. dollar, while still the best reserve currency in existence, needs a bit of an upgrade. This is not merely because decades of inflation and innovations in banknote design require it, either. It is also because many American banknotes fail to properly convey the grandeur of the nation’s history. America’s currency isn’t only redundant at times – e.g. having Lincoln on the penny and the $5 bill – but looking at the banknotes, a learned observer could honestly believe it was a Grand Inside Joke.

Let’s look at the notes and we think you’ll see what we mean:

We mean, come on – why the hell is Ulysses Grant on the $50 bill? Oh, sure, he was a great general and he did win the Civil War. But he was a lousy President – his administration was notoriously corrupt, and noted historians have cast his legacy down with that of Nixon, Tyler and Fillmore. Therefore, he ought not be on the $50 bill.

Oh, and then there’s Andrew Jackson, on the $20 bill. Our only thinking as to why Jackson ended up on the $20 is because somebody at the Treasury Department came up with the idea at a three-martini lunch and as such, found it downright hilarious. We daresay Old Hickory is spinning in his grave at knowing he’s on the face of the most widely-issued paper money in America, because the man hated paper money and bankers the way most Americans hate cockroaches. For a brief look at Jackson’s ideas about finance matters, we’ll quote from

“Jackson's unsatisfactory experiment with the state banks helped drive his economic thinking toward more radical extremes. He renounced all banknote currency and demanded a return to the "hard money" of gold and silver. To that end, and to curb rampant speculation, he ordered the issuance of a "Specie Circular" in 1836 requiring payment in coin for western public lands. By the end of his presidency he was attacking all chartered corporations, including manufacturing concerns, turnpike and canal companies, and especially banks, as instruments of aristocratic privilege and engines of oppression. His Farewell Address in 1837, drafted largely by (Attorney General Roger) Taney, warned of an insidious "money power" that threatened to subvert American liberty.”

As such, the idea that Jackson ought appear on a $20 note which holds its value solely due to Government fiat is ridiculous.

Finally, of course, there is the $2 bill with Thomas Jefferson’s portrait. This design must have caused much mirth over at the Treasury, as Jefferson was always short of money due to inherited debts and lavish spending. Like lots of people in America today, the man lived with debt for practically all of his life. Still, we don’t think Jefferson’s picture should be stripped from the $2 bill. We think its rarity in U.S. commerce (when was the last time you saw one?) and its inability to be accepted in vending machines make the $2 bill worthy of Jefferson’s portrait.

Now thus far we think we’ve made a pretty good case for changing the portraits on the $20 and $50 bills, but we also think we need to go further. Namely, we need bills larger than the $100 note.

We had them in America once, of course, but they were silly back then. Putting Presidents McKinley and Cleveland respectively on the $500 and $1,000 notes may have made sense at the time, but today this move prompts one to ask what the guys at Treasury were thinking. The higher denominations were even sillier – the $10,000 note, for instance, had someone called Salmon P. Chase on it. We are sorry, but no one named “Salmon” ought appear on any sort of banknote anywhere.

Still, though, in doing our research for this post, we discovered that of the $539.8 billion in U.S. banknotes out there, a full $364.7 billion are $100 bills. We know inflation has worn away the value of the notes in the marketplace; in 1969, when the big notes were withdrawn, the $100 bill was worth roughly $500 in today’s money. We also know the Europeans have 200 euro and 500 euro banknotes. Well, dammit, if the freedom-hating Eurocrats in Brussels think really large banknotes are a good idea, then there’s no reason why freedom-loving Americans ought not have them. Besides, as most U.S. currency is held outside the United States, there would almost certainly be a demand for these higher notes. So we clearly need $200 and $500 notes.

We would also suggest that $1,000 notes be introduced on general principle grounds. After all, it is very much in the United States’ general interest to preserve the dollar as the world’s premier reserve currency, and creating a note with that store of value in it would again give the dollar a place of pride. No longer would American tourists have to go to London or Paris and feel as if their money was merely green-colored paper; one bill would ensure the holder was given a vast amount of currency in exchange. Although we realize such an idea is perhaps premature, we do think it’s something to consider. Nor is it all that crazy – up until a few years ago, the Canadians had a $1,000 note.

But if we hold off at the $500 note as the new maximum denomination, and we strip Jackson from the $20 and Grant from the $50, the question naturally becomes, who do we put on all these bills? Here’s our thinking.

Clearly the proposed $500 note should have Alexander Hamilton on it. Aside from being the architect of modern American life, with his vision of a nation dedicated to commercial activity, Hamilton is the archetype of the American Dream – a poor kid from Barbados who made good in America solely through hard work. As for the color inflection in the notes themselves – the new $20s and $50s have this feature already – it should be purple, a good imperial color.

Hamilton, of course, is already on the $10, so we can take him off there in exchange. This leaves four openings – on the proposed $200, the $50, the $20 and the $10. The beauty of having four slots open is that each political party can choose two of them – all they’d have to do is figure out who would go on the notes, and on which notes their selected personages would appear. But here’s our thinking of who should go on each note:

$200: President Eisenhower. Aside from overseeing U.S. victory in Europe, Ike was President during a time of peace and prosperity. Sure, no one could figure out what he was saying when he said it, but that’s not important right now – things went pretty swimmingly when the man was in charge. Therefore, it’s fitting Ike should get put on the $200 note. Color inflection: mustard or tan, similar to the 200 euro note.

$50. President Kennedy. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in the 20th century, and our banknotes should reflect this. President Kennedy not only oversaw a time of peace and prosperity, he forced Khrushchev to blink over the Cuban Missile Crisis. And God knows what the man could have accomplished if it wasn’t for what happened in Dallas.

$20. Martin Luther King Jr. Really – isn’t it about time we had somebody other than a white guy on our banknotes? Putting Dr. King on the most widely-circulated currency would serve as a fitting tribute in recognition of what the civil rights leader accomplished.

$10. President Reagan. Lots of people want this, and under our plan, they’d be able to have it.

One benefit of these changes is that we can also attack the Redundancy Problem with our coinage. For instance, there’s no reason why Lincoln should appear on the penny AND the $5 bill. Put Grant on the penny instead. This will satisfy both those who value Grant’s historical accomplishments – he wrote some decent memoirs – and those Southerners who still hate Grant.

As for the nickel, we don’t have any ideas, but we know that Jefferson shouldn’t get to monopolize the $2 bill AND the five-cent piece. We could put President Madison on there, or Frederick Douglass, or Teddy Roosevelt, or Walt Whitman, or Booker T. Washington, or one of many other leading historical and cultural figures. All would be good on the nickel.

As for the dime, we think FDR ought stay there on general principle grounds. It just fits: brother, can you spare a –

Washington gets to keep the quarter because he was our greatest president and kicked ass. Besides, he’s stuck with the $1 bill and if we’re not going to give him a promotion, he of any American in history should get an exemption from our “no double-dipping” rule.

Lastly, if we put Kennedy over on the $50 note, there’s no reason for him to stay on the 50-cent piece. We suggest that whomever comes in second place for the nickel would get put on the 50-cent piece. Heck, we could even put Susan B. Anthony on it.

Anyway, we call for the Secretary of the Treasury and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to consider our idea and ways they could put it into practice. New bills would not only make things more convenient for Americans and other U.S. currency holders, it would increase usage of and confidence in the U.S. dollar. Plus, we’d be able to update the new bills with all the latest security features to prevent counterfeiting and such. So we hope the Government will give the idea some consideration – because it’s time.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:31 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

March 24, 2005

Take the Money and Run Dept.


Ask Jeeves Inc., an Internet search engine, was sued by a stockholder who claimed the company is worth more than the $1.96 billion offered by IAC/InterActiveCorp. Chief Executive Officer Barry Diller.

Dude. It's $1.96 billion for Ask Jeeves. Take the equivalent of $28 and change per share already.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:23 PM | TrackBack

Europe in the Breach

AS AN AMERICAN and a student of history, we have long had mixed feelings about the European Union. On its face, the closer integration of the Continent makes perfect political and economic sense; but when one looks into New Europe's eyes, one finds only stagnation and decay staring back. It has been nearly 50 years since the European Economic Community was established, and even after all the expansion of the EU's size and scope, the Continent still deals with double-digit unemployment, a rigid bureaucracy, industry-choking regulation, social-safety nets coming apart at the seams, and a foreign policy that is both schizoid and ineffective.

Therefore, we don't exactly see how giving the EU superstate even more power to meddle in the affairs of its member states will do anyone any good. Yet such skepticism does not matter to Timothy Garton Ash, the noted Oxford historian. No. Where we see chaos and ruin, Dr Ash sees the birth of ... something wonderful:

Over the last fortnight, I have been in six European cities: Oxford, Madrid, Paris, Hamburg, Gdansk and Warsaw. In all of them, I have been reading Jacques le Goff's wonderful new history of The Birth of Europe, a book that every sentient European should know. Through a sequence of rich but small courses, as in a gourmet meal, Le Goff explores the formation of Europe from the ruins of the Roman empire to Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America at the end of the 15th century. Turning from the book to the streets, and the streets back to the book, I have been thinking about the great adventure on which this continent is now engaged. Shall we call it the second birth of Europe?

So Dr Ash begins his rather dreamy essay in The Guardian, which gives it both an odd title (merely "The Birth of Europe") and a Provocative Subheading ("Our challenge to the anti-Europeans is: where's your story of the future?"). Sadly, Dr Ash does not present such a story himself, as we shall soon see. The germ of it, of course, is there -- apparently, United Europe will mellow out and be happy together and want to buy the world a Coke. Except it wouldn't buy Coke, because that's American, and it couldn't have that. So it will buy Mentos instead. Mmmmm. The Freshmaker.

But we digress. Anyway, Dr Ash seems to believe that this Continent-wide Feeling of Grooviness shall sunder all of Europe's problems. We daresay he is wrong from the get-go. Let us consider his next point regarding "the birth of Europe:"

The birth of Europe, that is, no longer just as a self-conscious cultural, historical and religious unity, the heir to Christendom evoked against the encroaching Muslim Turks in Pope Pius II's magnificent essay of 1458, but as a European Union, soon to include Turkey, which is a single commonwealth, with a set of shared laws and political institutions of which medieval Europeans could only dream. And, increasingly, as an actor on the world stage.

Oh, yes, we can imagine what our ancestors would think of the EU's shared laws and political institutions. Let's channel, for the moment, the spirit of Johannes Koeppel, our non-medieval but still distant ancestor, who in the 17th century ran an inn not far from the EU's parliament building in Strasbourg. We present it with apologies to George Orwell, who had better and gloomier thoughts about such things:

CUSTOMER: Hi! I'd like a pint of beer. The good stuff, please.
JOHANNES: That's one penny. Just a second while I get a mug.
EU REGULATOR: Excuse me, sir!
JOHANNES: Who the devil are you?
EU REGULATOR: I'm with the Metrication Regulation Commission. You offered to sell this gentleman, I believe, a "pint" of beer.
JOHANNES: Well, what else would I call it?
EU REGULATOR: You can't sell pints anymore. Sell him a half-liter.
CUSTOMER: But I don't want a half-liter. I want a pint.
EU REGULATOR: Or a liter. We don't care. But you can't sell pints anymore.
JOHANNES: Why not?
EU REGULATOR: You know, because of ... um ... standardization. Yeah, that's it. Standardization! Anyway, if you wish to make a complaint, just show up at the office in Brussels between 10 and 3 during the week to apply for an appeals appointment. But the point is you can't sell pints anymore. You can sell a 500 milliliter mug of beer, though.
JOHANNES: I don't have any 500 milliliter mugs. What am I supposed to do, go buy 40 more mugs?
EU REGULATOR: That's a good start. Also, is that a wood burning stove in the back? We'll have to make sure it meets safety guidelines. I'll have Fritz on that next week. Oh, and that reminds me -- you charged a penny for that beer.
JOHANNES: Yes, that's what I've always charged.
EU REGULATOR: Clearly you haven't been collecting the minimum 15 percent VAT for each sale. Charge one penny and a third-farthing.
JOHANNES: How'd you like to get charged flat on your ass?

Of course, we kid -- as we understand it, drinking establishments are momentarily exempt from the metrification regulations. Still, it's one thing to harmonize laws for things such as crossing the border and another thing entirely to send forth swarms of officers, armed with yards meters of regulatory red tape, to harass the people and eat out their substance. The EU has done very well at the latter -- and there are oodles of news reports which stand as testament to that. As for being an actor on the world stage -- well, the less said the better.

Dr Ash continues:

The connections between that old Europe and this new one are complicated. History, unlike geometry, has few straight lines. Le Goff has little time for the simplistic, mythopoeic narrative much loved by cultural Eurocrats: "from Charlemagne to the euro". Bad history is not a good foundation for anything. But the connections, the foundations, are there - and you see them clearly on a whistlestop tour through six European cities.

For a start, there is the simple physical presence of this past in architecture, streetscape and art. Those familiar shapes of gothic, renaissance and baroque, from Oxford to Gdansk, make us feel that we are at home even when we are abroad. This is so obvious that we forget just how unusual it is. There's no other continent on which this is so.

Of course, the fact that it's so obvious makes it entirely meaningless. As any American who has moved around a bit can tell you, it's not the architecture which makes you feel at home, it's the people. We don't know about you, but if we were living in London all our lives and suddenly had to decamp to Berlin, we don't think we'd feel some sort of immediate camaraderie because of the architecture. Yet that is what Dr Ash is suggesting. But he keeps on:

Then there are the gaps between the old houses; the gaps where the bombs fell. Most of them have now been filled with more recent buildings, often 1950s drab or 1960s brutalist. They stand out like false teeth. I drove through Hamburg with a friend, looking at the old and new facades. There, we exclaimed, the bombs must have fallen; and there; and there. Sixty years on, the memories of war, Holocaust, gulag and occupation are still everywhere - not just in stone and concrete, but on television, in the newspapers, in conversation.

"You know the story of your hotel?" another friend asked me in Paris, as we walked down the Boulevard Raspail. I knew. During the German occupation, the elegant Hotel Lutetia was the Gestapo headquarters. And here in Warsaw, it's impossible to forget. I turn on Polish television, and there's the Polish president at a ceremony to mark the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Near the entrance to this higgledy-piggledy common European home that we are building, low down in the wall, you can see the inscription on the original foundation stone. It's covered with moss now, since it was laid more than 50 years ago, and many younger Europeans don't even know it is there. But if you look closely, you can still discern it. It reads: "Never again!"

We admit that it's possible for nations which were at each other's throats for centuries to forget about those old wounds and national differences. We just don't think it's very probable. Once things hit the fan, all the old grievances will bubble back up to the surface -- as they already do. Poland supports the Iraq war and France tells them to shut up. France and Germany beat up on Greece for its finances while they themselves fail to live up to the euro stability pact. An Italian politician says something impolite and all the other countries pile on in disgust. The British keep bringing up the war. We could go on, but our point is this: the EU isn't solid enough to stay together should it get sorely tested. There's not enough allegiance to it.

Enough of the heavy stuff. Two happier things unite us: food and football. Le Goff argues that the beginnings of a conscious enjoyment of gastronomy can be found in the 15th century. The range and richness of European national cuisines is amazing. It's a classic example of the continent's "unity in diversity". Gastronomy can even moderate other passions. One of my favourite jokes about contemporary European nationalism is told of the Basques, who are even more passionate about food than about politics. Question: What are the three most important questions for a Basque? Answer: 1. Where do we come from? 2. Who are we? 3. Where are we going for dinner?

Aside from the troubling implications of Dr Ash's joke (apparently Brussels has banned humor), we would submit that one can't build a nation-state on excellent restaurants. We are sorry, but you need something a bit more binding than that.

As for football: it's the European sport par excellence. Is there a European alive who does not know about Real Madrid? If the French and British governments want to win their referendums on the European constitutional treaty, it's not Chirac and Blair they need on the television spots. It's Beckham and Zidane.

You know, he may be right about Becks and Zidane. That said, we can't understand why Dr Ash thinks soccer is a unifying thing. Good Lord. After all, if soccer is so unifying and wonderful, why does the EU make a point of banning rowdies from traveling during soccer matches?

You may say that some of the features claimed as distinctive to Europe are not unique to it. Latin Americans, for example, outdo even our cult of football. You would be right. But that doesn't mean that these elements do not connect us. A chess club is a group of people, usually living near each other, who like playing chess. There are other chess clubs. The European Union is a club of liberal democracies. There are others; and we want there to be more.

Of course the European Union would like more "democracy clubs" -- except in the Middle East, except those which might like the Americans, and except those which might involve Israel.

You may say I'm ignoring all the bad things about Europe. I'm not. Most of our countries have entrenched establishments of shortsighted, time-serving, often corrupt politicians. Contrary to Eurosceptic myth, the Brussels bureaucracy is rather small - but it makes up for it by being even more bureaucratic. Most of our economies are still woefully uncompetitive. Our native-born populations are declining, and we are bad at making migrants, especially Muslim migrants, feel at home. These problems, too, we have in common.

And the solution for all this would be ... what, exactly? After all, if one's Government is oppressive, making that Government even more distant and less accountable probably won't help matters.

Le Goff's book ends with Europe beginning to take over from China as the avant garde of technological modernity, and setting out to conquer the world, starting with America. Now America is the world's leading power, while China is coming back up again with the force of a rising piston. This relative decline of Europe is another reason for hanging together rather than hanging separately.

It's not just a relative decline, it's an absolute decline. After all, as Denis Boyles has noted, Europeans can't even produce enough Europeans to keep up, much less anything else. That said, Dr Ash would be right -- except that sticking together is likely to make the problems even worse, because the EU has policies that don't help matters. For instance, instead of figuring out how to compete with the new countries in the EU, the Eurocrats keep talking about how the new countries ought raise their taxes and regulatory burdens to par with the long-time members. That doesn't sound like a plan for success to us.

Meanwhile, within our own continent we have an amazing story to tell. It's the story of the most successful peaceful spread of freedom in recent history. Thirty years ago, General Franco still ruled Spain, and my Spanish publisher was battling with the fascist censor. Sixteen years ago, in spring 1989, my Polish publisher was still battling with the communist censor. Last year, the front line was in Ukraine. In each and every case, the causes of Europe and democracy marched together. The EU may not itself be very democratic, but it's the world's most successful promoter of democracy.


Dear God -- is he kidding? Please tell us he's kidding. Look, doc, a big part of why the European Union exists today is because your friends and allies across the Atlantic conveniently kept the Soviets from running roughshod over your half of the continent. While we're at it, must we remind you that our generosity regarding security arrangements meant you didn't have to spend all that much on your defense preparations? Which in turn meant you could spend your money on all those generous social programs? Which in turn meant you didn't have all that much to do with containing the menace on your eastern front?

We simply don't understand how Dr Ash can make such a statement. It is so disconnected with reality it's not funny. We mean, some of the countries which now make up the EU weren't always helpful about America's Cold War efforts. Furthermore, when there were hot wars around (e.g. Serbia beating up on Bosnia), the EU didn't do a damn thing to stop it -- even though that conflict was just a few hundred miles away! How do these things translate into "world's most successful promoter of democracy?"

Change always provokes a reaction. Yesterday, I was answering questions from Polish Eurosceptics which could have come straight from the UK Independence party. These opponents of the EU are as much Europeans as we pro-EU Europeans are. In fact, in their very nationalism they are more characteristically old-European than they know. The difference is this: we new, sceptically pro-EU Europeans have a great story to tell - a story that is about the past but also about the future. Our challenge to these old, doggedly anti-EU Europeans is: we hear your story about the past, but where's your story about the future?

Well, we can think of a few ideas for such a story, but the most important one involves freedom. The European Union doesn't seem to like the idea much -- after all, it regulates speech and it stifles enterprise and it makes it as difficult as possible for its people to get ahead. A future without double-digit unemployment, a future where people can manage their own affairs, a future with wealth -- there's something to be said for it. A pity Dr Ash sees fit to discount it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:00 PM | TrackBack

March 22, 2005

OK, It's NOT So Bad as Battlefield Earth

LOYAL RANT READERS may recall that last month, we issued a rather pointed denunciation of the "Gastineau Girls," a particularly unfortunate reality-television show which we greatly disliked. Indeed, we disliked it so much that we called it the television equivalent of "Battlefield Earth," and charged the show was a "television disaster not seen since the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978."

However, much to our great surprise, this commentary has momentarily put us in a role similar to that of Petronius Arbiter. For we can assure readers that LOTS of people arrived at The Rant looking for information about the show, and our commentary was ranked No. 32 when one performed a Google search about the program. While our thoughts were similar to higher-ranking pages which also panned the show (, for instance, hated it), our words did not go unnoticed by the entertainment industry.

For we can assure readers that this evening, we received a rather nice note from Chad Greulach, one of the show's co-executive producers, in which Mr Greulach invited us to take another look at the program. While we got the letter after business hours on both coasts, a bit of detective work on the Internet led us to discover enough evidence for us to believe the letter was genuine, and we appreciate Mr Greulach's inclusion of enough information in his note to make that possible.

In any event, tonight's episode was billed as a "turning point" in the series. Apparently, Lisa and Brittny (no 'a') Gastineau have begun working at achieving "independent success in their lives and careers." Or, as the cable company's synopsis of the episode puts it, "Brittny's hope to become a model hits a roadblock."

Oh dear. But as of this writing, we do have 18 minutes before the show begins, so let's give it some breathing room. Besides, over on CBS, a bunch of gringo tourists are running around Argentina as part of some kind of crazy Phineas Fogg-like expedition. We would be annoyed with this too, but for some reason, we're only able to scrounge up 32 pc of our normal feelings of disgust.

Oh, here we go. Say, it's Lou the Fake Doorman! Ah, Lou. At least somebody in this thing's got a union card ...

(thirty minutes later ...)

You know, that actually wasn't half bad. Given how much we hated the first episode, we can't believe we just wrote that. But it honestly wasn't all that bad, probably because the elder Gastineau is actually portrayed as parenting her daughter to some degree, although Miss Gastineau still seems a bit hopeless to us. And while we can't say we would set aside Tuesday nights to watch it, we have to say the show is considerably better than it was when it began -- probably on par with any of the other reality TV shows out there.

That's not to say the show still doesn't have flaws. It still relies too heavily on Lou the Fake Doorman, and there's still too much use of the quick edit, and both these things suggest the folks making the show don't have as much material as they'd like to work with. Plus, even though we only watched 30 minutes of the show this time, we felt ourselves suffering Gastineau Fatigue two-thirds of the way through it. Partly this was because we still felt bored with the characters, and partly it was because we failed to make the Coolness Connection. Glamorous parties and modeling and all that may be lots of folks' ideas of a good time, but they ain't in our book -- we want a reality TV show about bond traders, dammit, and we want one now. CNBC, get to work.

But we digress. Based on tonight's show, we have to revise our initial assessment of the "Gastineau Girls," and so we'll say this: people who have an interest in conspicuous consumption, modeling and a bit of family drama would probably find the show somewhat entertaining. We won't tune in again just because the show really isn't our bag, and it doesn't really carry our interest, although we would watch if something truly amazing were to happen on it. And while we're sure the E! Entertainment Network has already got the 10 ordered episodes ready to go, that amazing something is this:

For God's sake, will someone please redecorate that apartment. We are sorry, but in watching the show tonight, all we could think of was that scene in "Small Time Crooks" when one sees Ray and Frenchy's swell new digs, and everything is covered in leopard-skin. That was horrifying and so is the Gastineaus' apartment, which is treason to interior decorating.

We mean, it's so badly-thought out it's not even funny -- there's more style in our apartment, where at least there's space and furniture that kind of matches up. And we're a 29 year old bachelor who has plenty of excuse for not knowing anything about interior design. In their apartment -- God, those drapes! They're not drapes, they're something from the stygian depths in an H.P. Lovecraft novel. Anyway -- it's a thought. And who knows? If the folks behind "Gastineau Girls" manage to get an Episode 11, perhaps we'll see it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:25 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 19, 2005


WE STILL CAN'T BELIEVE IT, despite seeing it live on television and having confirmed it independently with two other people. The Bucknell Bison, from that small university in Lewisburg, Pa., beat the Kansas Jayhawks in the first round of last night's NCAA tourney.

It is difficult to explain to readers unfamiliar with U.S. college basketball just how big a victory this is for Bucknell. The newspaper reports are saying it's Bucknell's first win in the Big Dance since Bucknell basketball was founded back in the 1890s. For that matter, it's the first time any team in the Patriot League -- in which Bucknell plays -- has managed to win a game in the tournament. And most amazing of all, they knocked off Kansas.

As an example of how Kansans reacted to the loss, consider this grief-stricken report from a dumbfounded Kansas City Star scribe:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kansas lost to Bucknell, 64-63, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Friday night.

You read that right.

Kansas, the No. 3 seed, lost to No. 14 seed Bucknell.

Unable to control the tempo or ever take control of the game, Kansas fell when Wayne Simien's turnaround jumper in the lane at the buzzer couldn't find the mark.

The shot, off a set play with 2.4 seconds to go from underneath its own basket, looked just like Christian Laettner's famous buzzer-beater that lifted Duke by Kentucky.

Except the shot didn't go in.

The Associated Press reports that Bucknell is the first No. 14 seed to advance in the tourney since Weber State beat the University of North Carolina in 1999. Other reports have said that Bucknell, which last appeared in the tourney in 1989, faced a school which had won the dance twice, made 12 appearances in the Final Four and had 33 overall appearances.

In short, this was downright amazing basketball -- especially as it came on the heels of Vermont knocking out Syracuse, a similar type of amazing victory in which 13th-seeded Vermont blitzed 4th-seeded Syracuse. Vermont hadn't won a tourney game since 1950, television reports said.

We just hope the whole tourney's like this.

NOTE TO INTERNATIONAL or NON-SPORT FAN READERS: The NCAA men's basketball tournament, popularly known as "March Madness" because of the excitement surrounding it, is one of the United States' premier sport contests. It's kind of like the World Cup, except it involves basketball and is held once a year. The event, held over the span of just under three weeks, pits 65 college basketball teams against each other. Some have suggested -- and they're not entirely joking -- that the United States declare game days national holidays due to the lack of productivity in offices around the nation.

Perspective on Bucknell's victory can be gained when one considers there are four tournament brackets, with 16 teams starting out in each. A No. 1 seed has done far better during the year than a No. 16 seed -- and the mismatches are generally so great that a No. 16 has never won an opening-round game in the tourney's history. A No. 15 seed last beat a No. 2 seed in 2001. However, there are limits to everything. Oddly, No. 9 seeds tend to beat their No. 8 opponents, and tradition holds that a No. 12 seed will upset a No. 5 seed at least once each year. This year, No. 12 UW-Mil (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) beat No. 5 'Bama (Univ. of Alabama).

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

Haikus for Kansas

WE GLEEFULLY NOTE that, prior to Bucknell's historic win over Kansas this past evening, certain Kansas basketball fans had made sport about Bucknell's chances through a nasty limerick contest.


In that spirit of fun, we thought about writing limericks of our own. But perhaps limericks don't really do the trick. After all, when one wishes to convey snappy sentiment, is there any better form of poetry than the haiku? There is not. So, let us compose haikus in honor of Bucknell's victory:

Behold Kansas' shame:
They lost to a fourteenth seed --
on TV to boot!

Who the hell had heard
of tiny Bucknell, who tarred
and feathered Kansas?

For Bucknell triumphed --
thank God they recovered from
that stupid foul

Kansas is bleeding;
their efforts all went for nought.
Cry us a river.

Here's one really cool thing about this win, in personal terms. We had family go to Bucknell, so not only are they thrilled, the win insulates us from any and all charges of jumping on a bandwagon. However, we will fully take our lumps once our favorite team in the tourney -- that would be the Gonzaga Zags -- gets knocked out.

(actually posted at 2:51 a.m., but timestamp changes were made for page-placement purposes).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:49 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 18, 2005

The Book Meme Everyone's Doing

WE UNDERSTAND all the popular bloggers are informing their readers about how they would react to various farcical situations involving popular books, so we're going to do the same thing. Besides, our marketing people thought it was a good idea too. Therefore, we present ...



Question: You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Answer: That's easy -- the Fireman's Manual, the only book which enjoys the protection of the authorities in Bradbury's dystopia.

Question: Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Answer: We haven't had a crush on a fictional character, no.

Question: The last book you bought is:

Answer: Alvaro Vargas Llosa's Liberty for Latin America, a book examining public policy (or more precisely, the public policy failures) on that continent over the past two centuries.

Question: The last book you read was:

Answer: Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker, which looks at the life of a Wall Street bond salesman during the late Eighties, and the shocking screw-the-customers attitude which reared its head among some Wall Street types. It also looks at the rise of the bond-trading markets, which had long played second fiddle to equity trading. The most shocking thing about Lewis' book is that he admits earning $225,000 in his last year at his brokerage house, far less than today's salaries for high earners. Boy, talk about being a decade too early!

Question: what are you currently reading?

Answer: We hate to say it, but nothing -- we've been too busy to get to the bookstore. Perhaps on Saturday we shall.

Question: Five books you would take to a deserted island --

Answer: Now that's a tough question, especially because it seems to us a "deserted island" is never deserted. After the castaways do some looking about, they eventually find other people. But here are our choices ...

1. How to PROSPER During the Coming Bad Years, by Howard J. Ruff.

We found Mr Ruff's book in the used paperback section of a small English bookstore in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and instantly decided we had to snap it up as a curio. We paid 24 pesos for it, which was worth roughly $2.18 at the time. Our theory was that the prior owner had traded it in for a copy of Dow 36,000 or something like that.

Anyway, Mr Ruff's book was published in 1979, and as all Rant readers know, that means trouble. We had written before about our amazement upon learning that here in the United States of America, there was once something called the "Cost of Living Council" which generally set wages and prices between the years of 1971 and 1974. Mr Ruff's book went further, painting a picture of a time so bleak that no young person can truly comprehend Just How Much it Sucked Back Then. (Double-digit mortgage rates! Rotting cities! 15 pc inflation! Oil shocks! Collapse of the nuclear family! Pension schemes on the brink!) And that's to say nothing of major traumas such as "Mork and Mindy" and the Soviets invading Afghanistan.

Anyway, Mr Ruff's prescription for guarding one's grill against a lawless, dying society was to basically Plan for the Very Worst. Store food for a year! Buy gold coins! Move to small towns if possible! Did we mention gold coins? And silver coins? Oh, and don't forget diamonds either -- a great way to store wealth during really bad times, Mr Ruff advised.

Actually, in all fairness, his ideas back then weren't necessarily bad, it's just the degree to which he prescribed them that we didn't like -- even during the late Seventies, which as we said sucked.

We mean, we could see someone owning gold as a disaster hedge -- but at 1 pc or less of one's holdings, not 15 percent or more. We could also see someone holding pre-1964 silver coins as a hedge, but again, 1 pc or less, not 10 pc or more. Mr Ruff also advised back then that one "should invest no more than 30 pc of your investable assets in diamonds." Well, he needn't have worried about that. Anyone who's seen "Casablanca" knows that diamonds flood the market when you want or need to sell, making diamonds worthy of nothing in one's portfolio. During horrible inflationary conditions, one would think real estate and T-bills would do the job (which Mr Ruff did suggest, although not to the degree we would have liked).

But we have to give Mr Ruff credit. Some time after he wrote his book, he apparently told folks they should sell all their gold and silver near the top of the market (gold for $800 per ounce and silver for $35 per ounce, which was back in the early Eighties). This meant folks who bought low made money hand over fist. And besides, he invented a great inflation hedge of his very own -- a book that sold THREE MILLION COPIES.

Anyway, we digress. We'd take this book along because surely it'd be helpful when the island we were stuck on went into a hyperinflationary spiral ("One cigarette? That'll be 8,900 dates, 87 fish and 23 abalone.") and we needed to convince other lost folks to move to a sounder monetary standard (sand dollar sea-shells).

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The foregoing is merely the author's opinion about certain finance matters and should not be construed as financial advice, which you really shouldn't take from a blogger anyway. Do your own homework, and always consult with a licensed financial advisor and a clever relative before making investment decisions. Read the prospectus carefully before making any investment. Investors can and do lose money on investments, which can carry high degrees of speculative risk, not to mention the risk you'll look bad at a cocktail party for investing in "sure-fire" Argentine bonds. Caveat emptor, leave no stone unturned, etc. etc. Your results may vary.

2. The Bible, King James Version. If we're going to end up like John of Patmos, we may as well have a book which will prepare us to deal with the horrid trauma of being stuck on a deserted island.

3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon. This three volume history is perhaps one of the longest and most-complete histories ever written, and we'd have plenty of time to both read it and decipher all the nasty footnotes in Latin.

4. US Army Survival Manual. Yeah. We'd have civilized our part of the deserted island in no time using the Army's neat guide to surviving using only one's wits. Especially if we woke up one day to find Gilligan and company had crashed a ways down the shore. With the manual, we'd undoubtedly be able to counteract any zany hijinks and wacky shenanigans using a clever array of jerry-rigged weapons and very large rocks.

5. The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto. What's the problem with living on a deserted island? All the capital's dead! Without a proper system to issue titles, the Rustic Beachside Hideaway we constructed couldn't be used as a capital vehicle to provide funds for Fish-Catching Goods, Island-Based Transport Vehicles, or crossbow bolts. Dr de Soto's book would help us create a simple economy based on healthy respect for property rights and the rule of law, and thus formalize the arrangements we'd set up. That would let us engage in trade and industry, as well as engage the services of others on the island who might possess skills we lacked.

So anyway, there you have it -- the book meme completed! Of course, it's an exercise in futility as there's no way we'll ever end up on a deserted island. But hey, it never hurts to plan.

(via Allison)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:46 AM | TrackBack

March 16, 2005

"He Who Will Not Answer to the Rudder, Answers to the Rocks"

THE FRENCH spent more than $4 billion and eleven years building the FS Charles du Gaulle, the sole aircraft carrier in the French Navy. For their trouble, they got a ship slower than the one it replaced, a ship with faulty electrical systems, and a ship with a nuclear reactor that's dangerous to its crew. The ship was so badly built, in fact, that one of its two 19-ton propellers broke while it was at sea.

One can only imagine the conversation which took place when that happened:

ADMIRAL: Commander, plot a course for ... (CRASH) ... Good God, what the hell was that?! Engine room! Damage report!
ENGINE ROOM: It's the propeller, sir!
ADMIRAL: What's wrong with the propeller?
ENGINE ROOM: Aucune -- that's what's wrong with it!
ADMIRAL: Aucune?! Impossible!
ENGINE ROOM: OK, fine! You're so smart, you come down here and fix the damn thing!

Now, the way we see it, it's one thing if European firms build a lousy aircraft carrier, but another thing entirely if European companies build lousy aircraft. After all, the latter are more of a threat. And while we wouldn't want to criticize the entire Airbus fleet, we will admit we're rather concerned about this report recently in The Observer.

In the story, we learn that last week, an Airbus A310 had its goddamn rudder fall off at 35,000 feet. (Capitalist Lion has a picture. His response? "Jeebus"). When one reads on in The Observer article, one finds that "Jeebus" escapes one's lips more than once. The paper writes:

One former Airbus pilot, who now flies Boeings for a major United States airline, told The Observer: "This just isn't supposed to happen. No one I know has ever seen an airliner's rudder disintegrate like that. It raises worrying questions about the materials and build of the aircraft, and about its maintenance and inspection regime. We have to ask as things stand, would evidence of this type of deterioration ever be noticed before an incident like this in the air?"

He and his colleagues also believe that what happened may shed new light on a previous disaster. In November 2001, 265 people died when American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 model which is almost identical to the A310, crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York. According to the official report into the crash, the immediate cause was the loss of the plane's rudder and tailfin, though this was blamed on an error by the pilots.

There have been other non-fatal incidents. One came in 2002 when a FedEx A300 freight pilot complained about strange "uncommanded inputs" -- rudder movements which the plane was making without his moving his control pedals. In FedEx's own test on the rudder on the ground, engineers claimed its "acuators" -- the hydraulic system which causes the rudder to move -- tore a large hole around its hinges, in exactly the spot where the rudders of both flight 961 and flight 587 parted company from the rest of the aircraft.

We should note that Airbus insists all is well with its aircraft design, and says that many engineering experts are assured of the safety-monitoring procedures used to inspect the aircraft. Still, this is the type of story which makes us a wee bit thankful that when we fly, we're generally stuck on Brazilian jets. And perhaps we ought make a point, as some of the pilots quoted in the story do, of flying Boeing craft on the longer flights.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:31 PM | TrackBack

March 15, 2005

That Hideous Strength

JOHN MILLER has a nice article in The Wall Street Journal today about horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. As it turns out, today is the 68th anniversary of Lovecraft's death.

We do think Mr Miller hits on just what it is that makes Lovecraft's work so particularly chilling. He writes:

Central to Lovecraft's effectiveness was his personal philosophy, and this is what separated him from Poe and the others who came before him. He was a thoroughgoing materialist--a socialist in his politics and an atheist in his beliefs. "Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large," he wrote upon successfully resubmitting the original Cthulhu story. "One must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all."

That's nihilism, of course, and we're free to reject it. But there's nothing creepier or more terrifying than the possibility that our lives are exercises in meaninglessness. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," says Gloucester in King Lear. "They kill us for their sport." From Lovecraft's perspective, this gives us far too much credit. In his grim milieu, we don't even rate as insect pests, but we still manage to get ourselves squished.

Squished, or buried, or attacked by zombies, or destroyed by horrible beings which crawl up from the depths or arrive from out of space or which lurk unseen as we go about our everyday lives. The characters in Lovecraft's works, save one (Randolph Carter), may as well simply choose their poison and resign themselves to insanity at best and a truly horrible death at worst. There's no hope in any of his work, and that's where the terror lies.

After all -- as we said, Mr Miller has his finger on this -- we as people would generally like to think two things about our existence. First, that our short time on Earth matters, that we'll be not only be productive and loved and happy, but that we'll have an impact on our society and world as a whole -- even if that comes in ways we might not recognize now. And second, that even if we fail on Earth -- with dreams unrealized or love that fell apart or happiness that just never seemed to arrive -- there is that Redemption of knowing we will move on to what comes after, with its promise of Paradise.

Unless, of course, there is no Paradise, and our works will be forgotten. That's where Lovecraft works his magic. His universe, with complete and hideous chaos at its center, is so cold and so unforgiving and so cruel that only the feverish workings of a few scholars keep mankind safe from the hidden knowledge that would destroy us. That's where the terror comes in, as otherwise normal people go where they ought not tread and learn what they ought not discover.

Yet amidst even that terror there is beauty, as evidenced in Lovecraft's dream worlds, where those who have braved the universe's horrors can find a measure of contentment out of time and space. It is with these that we think Lovecraft made his mark as a writer -- for the imagination which he showed in creating them was so downright impressive that only a few others in the genre have since matched it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:32 PM | TrackBack

March 14, 2005

And Now, a Musical Interlude

THERE IS NOTHING, we submit, as annoying as the self-important musician. As evidence of this admittedly broad generalization, we present to readers this interview in The Observer with someone called Bjork.

Bjork, as we understand it, is an Icelandic musician who does not much care for American culture, although she bravely stomachs spending most of the year in New York. This would be run-of-the-mill for most musicians of the hate-America stripe, except Bjork is particularly ineffective in getting her message across. Consider this quote from The Observer's interview:

"A lot of the time I get obsessed by little nerdy things in my corner that no one else is interested in. I have that nerd factor in my character. So for once I was interested in something everyone else was interested in. I'm not going to talk like I know about politics, because I'm a total amateur, but maybe I can be a spokesperson for people who aren't normally interested in politics.'

Her last album Medulla was certainly her most political - but in a unique way. She came up with an a capella album featuring only human voices: yodelling, beatbox, Icelandic choral music. It was, she says, a way to counter 'stupid American racism and patriotism' after 9/11. 'I was saying, "What about the human soul? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilisation and religion and nationhood?"'

Um, mankind discovered fire. But it was very hot and scary and imperialist in nature, so it took a while before enterprising people figured out how to harness it, which led to ... well, we digress. We don't want to lose sight of the main point, which is that a rational human being in today's world actually concluded an obscure yodelling record would somehow impact the cultural force flowing from a nation of 300 million people. Why The Observer's scribe missed this, we don't exactly know, but we find it unfortunate the scribe felt compelled to write a fawning, obsequious mass of drivel instead of a news article.

But one does not expect much in the way of critical analysis from this musician. After all, earlier in the story, The Observer writes, "She would never wear jeans and a T-shirt, she says, because they are 'a symbol of white American imperialism, like drinking Coca-Cola'."

Gee, and here we thought Bjork would mention the U.S. Naval Air Station at Keflavik. Still, as we said, one cannot take such a person seriously, particularly when her views are so ... downright childish.

BUT MOVING ON. In other Musician Antics news, we note that the bus driver for the Dave Matthews Band has pleaded guilty to dumping a septic tank full of human waste off a Chicago bridge. Such an act might have gone unnoticed, except the waste was dumped onto a passing tour barge with 100 passengers.

We have to admit we feel rather sorry for the band, whch had nothing to do with the incident in question but now will almost certainly have to pay for it. We approve of their donations to the Friends of the Chicago River and the Chicago Park District in amends. But now that the driver has pleaded guilty, we would also like to see restitution paid to the poor bastards on the scenic tour. We think $5,000 would be sufficient remedy for each passenger subject to the unfortunate incident.

(via Tim Blair and Simon From Jersey)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:32 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 12, 2005

And Today's Booby Prize Goes to ...

... TARA REID, who ought not have sued a Las Vegas-based condominium developer for mocking her recent accidental, um, "asset display" in an advertisement.

It seems Ms Reid, who is reportedly an actress, alleges the developers of Sky Las Vegas didn't merely fraudulently exploit her image with their advertisement. No. Ms Reid also charges the developers also libelled her with a tagline in the ad which read, "Dear Tara Reid. Come let it all hang out." This tagline referred to an unfortunate but well-publicized incident in which one of Ms Reid's breasts got loose from an apparently too-confining dress.

According to news reports, the suit claims Ms Reid "has suffered injury to her business in that she has lost value of her reputation." It further claimed the ad "is defamatory because the language carried a defamatory meaning to those who read them rather than an innocent meaning by implying that plaintiff is sexually lewd or immoral."


Anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that the developers' defense counsel is going to have a lot of fun with this case? Let's put aside the fact that Ms Reid is a public figure and, as such, libel will be a high bar to jump; let's put aside the fact that the allegedly-libelous statement in itself is based on a public happening. Wouldn't a really nasty defense counsel -- which is the type one ought hire -- make a point of attacking Ms Reid's reputation as part of his defense? There are a lot of gossipy news reports out there about Ms Reid, after all, and as far as we know, they are all accurate. Couldn't the defense make rather liberal use of these to make a point?

Our point, of course, is simply that Ms Reid's lawsuit could boomerang quite spectacularly. Which would be great fun to watch, although we don't think that would produce the result for which Ms Reid might hope. Besides, in matters of law, there are three big hurdles which Ms Reid's counsel will have to overcome. We haven't been able to find a copy of the lawsuit on-line, so they may have addressed these already -- but these are the questions we see:

First, did they even file in the right jurisdiction? The advertisement appeared in Vegas magazine, a Nevada-based publication. If the ad was aimed at Nevada readers, and wasn't aimed at California residents, one could argue Los Angeles Superior Court isn't the proper venue for her suit.

This leads us to the second point, which is that Ms Reid's counsel will have to prove to a jury of California or Nevada residents, depending on the judicially-determined proper venue, that the ad was defamatory. We would like to wish Ms Reid's counsel a lot of luck in this regard.

The third point, though, might have some teeth -- the question of likeness. Can one mock a celebrity in an advertisement -- thus appropriating the celebrity's commerical likeness, so to speak -- even if the celebrity in question doesn't agree and isn't compensated? This is a good legal question and one to which we don't have an answer. But given the representation (it's a parody-type tagline, not an image or endorsement) we'd be surprised if counsel would succeed on this point.

Anyway, we do hope the developers would go after Ms Reid for costs if the matter goes to trial, but we expect both parties will settle soon enough. That'd actually be kind of a win-win -- although the developers have already won. Even if they lost a case in court, they've gained publicity that money simply can't buy.

(link via Sheila)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:15 PM | TrackBack

Illinois Lawyer Accidentally Sues Self

NO, WE'RE NOT KIDDING. We quote from The Madison County Record, an Illinois newspaper, which has the details on this "only in America" type of story. The paper writes:

Alton attorney Emert Wyss thought he could make money in a Madison County class action lawsuit, but he accidentally sued himself instead. Now he has four law firms after his money - and he hired all four.

Wyss’s boomerang litigation started in 2002, when he invited Carmelita McLaughlin to his office at 1600 Washington St. in Alton. Acting as her attorney when she bought a home in Alton and when she refinanced it, on both occasions she had chosen Centerre Title--a company that Wyss owned--to close her loans.

In the course of the attorney-client relationship, Wyss advised McLaughlin she might have a claim against Alliance Mortgage, holder of the first mortgage. Wyss believed Alliance Mortgage might have broken the law by charging a $60 fax fee when she refinanced.

But the story continues. After depositions in the case were taken and some fancy lawyering by the defense, according to the Record, the trial judge ordered that Counselor Wyss and his firm were to be added as third-party defendants in the case. That's because they collected those allegedly improper fees. Counselor Wyss then understandably quit the plaintiff's case, but is now still on the hook as a defendant.

OOPS. Gee, isn't this is a prime example of "loser pays?" Heh heh heh.

Interestingly enough, though, Madison County is one of those class-action-friendly types of places which the tort-reform crowd has long detested. Perhaps because of this, Counselor Wyss hasn't apparently been able to get out of the jam in which he finds himself; and despite the glee some might feel about Counselor Wyss being hoist on his own petard, he should get out of it. For based on the deposition testimony which the lead plaintiff in the case provided -- it's pretty pathetic -- we would be very surprised if there's a case here.

It's also interesting that, according to the newspaper, there are 61 companies in court next week alone in Madison County. As these entities range from CBS to General Electric, and from Honeywell to The Salvation Army, one can surmise one of two things.

Either the people of Madison County (and perhaps other Illinois locales) are the most maligned, downtrodden, unlucky people on God's green Earth, repeatedly subject to companies harrassing them and eating out their substance -- or some of these 61 cases aren't the shining examples of Fighting for the Little Guy we've been told such lawsuits involve.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:01 PM | TrackBack

Get a Long Letter, Send Back a Postcard

SAN MIGUEL de ALLENDE, Mexico – WE LEARNED an important lesson about vacations this week. When one goes to central Mexico with the idea that one will escape life back in the United States, one ought not watch “The Beltway Boys” after one has finally attained some level of relaxation.

We can assure readers that after two days being cut off from the outside world, listening to Fred and Mort shout at each other for thirty minutes was enough to prompt a nervous reaction worthy of Ren Hoek on his worst day. But despite this one isolated incident, we greatly enjoyed our vacation to San Miguel, a small colonial town hours from any airport which has splendid architecture, great restaurants, and fine mountain air. This last item makes returning home fabulous, as we should have at least two days before our body realizes that we’re no longer at 6,300 feet and therefore doesn’t need to speed oxygen throughout our system.

Anyway, we have much to do in terms of reacquainting ourself with life back home – there are many bills which must be paid, traveler’s checks to cash, unpacking to be done, etc., but we shall have more complete entries about our trip and photos (God help us all) soon enough. When all is said and done, we’re glad to be back – but we’re also very thankful for our very enjoyable respite from toil.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:49 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

March 04, 2005

The Rant is Away ...

... UNTIL MONDAY, March 14. Posting will be limited, but probably nonexistent, during that time. We hope everyone will visit the fine sites listed on our blogroll, read through our archives, etc.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 01, 2005

Let's Toke Up, Gang!

WELL, THIS HAS to be one of the funnier things we've read in quite some time: Iowahawk's "Fear and Loathing in the Mystery Machine."

In his post, Iowahawk reveals "excerpts" from the never-aired Scooby Doo episode featuring guest star Hunter S. Thompson. The plot -- well, it's something readers will instantly get if they remember Scooby Doo, and something they might not get if they don't. The backstory, as Iowahawk relates, is this:

Hanna and Barbera liked my story on hormone doping at the '72 Laff-a-Lympics and proposed that I cover a Harlem Globetrotters game at a haunted Aztec pyramid in Mexico.

Readers are encouraged to click the above link and read the whole thing for themselves.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Patient, Cure Thyself

NOW HERE'S a nice and infuriating story out of -- where else? -- Northern California. It seems that Sarah Nome, an 82-year-old Marin County woman who is upset at the health care she has received, has been occupying a San Rafael hospital room for the past year. The San Francisco Chronicle reports she has not only refused to take part in planning for a move to a nursing home or her eventual discharge, she won't leave until an acceptable Marin County facility is found which will take her.

The hospital in question, Kaiser Permanente San Rafael Medical Center, is unwilling to forcibly remove the troublesome old biddy. Therefore, it has instead run a tab for Mrs Nome's care. This now tops $1.2 million, and is increasing at the rate of $3,090 per day. The hospital has sued Mrs Nome to recover this, and has also challenged the transfer of Mrs Nome's home to her daughter, alleging it was fraudulent. Meanwhile, Mrs Nome is occupying an acute-care bed despite not being sick. Her justification for this, the Chronicle reports, is as follows:

"When you pay Kaiser insurance month after month for 50 years like I have, you expect to be treated like a good patient and a human being," Nome said the other day from her hospital bed. "If I had known that Kaiser would take me for only a couple of days and then would expect my family to take care of me, I would have paid my family what I paid for insurance."

We submit the above suggests that Mrs Nome is either willfully dense or amazingly possessed of that slothful sense of entitlement one normally associates with wanton benefit cheats. We do understand that Mrs Nome, like many aged people, does not want to be a burden on her family in her old age. That said, Mrs Nome's long involvement with the system means she knows full well how it works, and she should accept the fact she will have to make certain sacrifices as a result.

For Mrs Nome's scandalous and reprehensible conduct is a slap in the face to all those hard-working pensioners who have played by the rules, and also a slap in the face to those pensioners' families. We saw how hard our mother and our aunt worked to navigate those rules when our maternal grandmother was sick, and as such, it frustrates us immensely to see Mrs Nome game the system for all it's worth. Mrs Nome's actions are not merely selfish in the extreme, they force others to carry her weight -- an act one would normally think anathema for someone in her generation.

Other writers, notably Ken Summers over at Emily Jones' site, have inquired as to where Mrs Nome's family is in all of this. We also wonder just what the devil Mrs Nome's family is doing. But as the Chronicle does not say in its story, we are forced to reserve judgment on that aspect of things. After all, Mrs Nome is of arguably sound mind if not of body, and it would not surprise us if they've had as much luck as the hospital has had in cajoling Mrs Nome to leave. That's just the way things are sometimes.

Still, stubbornness is not a virtue, and there is the small matter of that hospital bed which Mrs Nome is occupying -- a hospital bed presently unavailable for someone who really needs it.

We do hope her reticence has not meant others have received diminished care as a result of her squatting. We would further hope Kaiser Permanente would be a bit more forceful in its attempts to evict Mrs Nome from its hospital. We would suggest sedation and subsequent relocation to a county nursing facility -- but if that doesn't work, perhaps other tactics could be used. One thing's for sure, the hospital food ain't driving her away.

We are glad that Kaiser Permanente has apparently moved to seize Mrs Nome's former home as part of its fight to drive her from the facility. It would be quite fitting if Mrs Nome was forced to spend the rest of her days in the meanest of situations because she had no money to pay for better nursing care. It is a situation which apparently could have been avoided had she accepted the inevitable from the start. But as the old folks say, "you made your bed -- now lie in it."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:58 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack