December 31, 2005

Well, Look Who's En Fuego Today

OK, SO I FINALLY updated the blogroll: fixed broken or dead links, replaced several now-defunct blogs, and so on. This will hopefully prove helpful to you, the Loyal Rant Readership.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:57 PM | TrackBack

Why I Don't Order Coffee Out

I FULLY ADMIT that I'm not much of a coffee drinker, preferring instead the sweet artificial goodness of Diet Cherry Coke. However, that's not because I dislike the taste of coffee. I actually rather like it. It's just that Diet Cherry Coke is cold (a plus) and easier to procure (just open the fridge), leaving coffee as an occasional drink.

As such, I only rarely have coffee at home, and almost never have it out. In fact, the last time I remember buying coffee for the sake of buying coffee -- or, more accurately, a sweetened coffee-flavored hot beverage -- was in 2003. Then, I had something called a caramel macchiato, something which I had enjoyed when I had been in Washington the year earlier. (In both cases, I had to pay more than $3 for it, which I did not enjoy).

However, it turns out my shock and amazement at being asked to pay $3 for coffee was well-founded. Dig what former coffee-shop owner Michael Idov wrote regarding the markup on coffee:

Thanks to the trail blazed by Starbucks, the world of coffee retail is now a rogue's playground of jaw-dropping markups. An espresso that required about 18 cents worth of beans (and we used very good beans) was sold for $2.50 with nary an eyebrow raised on either side of the counter. A dab of milk froth or a splash of hot water transformed the drink into a macchiato or an Americano, respectively, and raised the price to $3. The house brew too cold to be sold for $1 a cup was chilled further and reborn at $2.50 a cup as iced coffee, a drink whose appeal I do not even pretend to grasp.

I know that when life hands you a lemon, you're supposed to make lemonade. But that's just wrong.

In any event, I can see paying $1 per cup for coffee, based on the following:

We know, thanks to clever people on the Internet, that one pound of coffee beans will produce roughly 240 liquid ounces of coffee. We also know that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, considered among the best coffee in the world, runs about $40 per pound. Thus, it's nearly impossible to spend more than $1 per cup of coffee if one prepares it at home.

From that, we can deduce that $1 is a fair price to pay for decent coffee while out, because of overhead, labor, those plastic stirrer thingies, and liability insurance. Furthermore, we can deduce that any price above $1 for decent coffee is tantamount to highway robbery and price gouging after a natural disaster.

OK, well, maybe not. But it still pains me to fork over more than $1 per cup of coffee, and I can't ever see myself paying $3 or $4 unless I'm in a social situation and I must buy the stuff. I mean, it's not as if the poor coffee growers are getting any of the markup, and the guys behind the counter probably aren't doing all that great either. Actually, in Mr Idov's case, his own little coffee shop ended up destroying his life. But that's another story.

(via Sheila O'Malley)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

2005: The Year in Review

GEE, I'M GLAD this is the last day of 2005. I mean, I'm downright excited about bidding adieu to this wretched and miserable year, in which far more bad things seemed to happen than good.

Sure, there were bright spots, like me quitting smoking (9 mos. and counting) and getting to spend lots of quality time with my family, something which I have greatly appreciated. But then, there were not-bright spots, like me going through weeks of serious discomfort before having my gall bladder vacuumed out. Other not-bright spots have included various car repair hassles; mood changes which have caused me to experience more ups-and-downs than a swingset at some municipal park; and frustrating dealings with the medical profession, particularly its back office, insurance, pharmaceutical and equipment-supply sectors. That's only a partial list of not-good things which have happened.

I'm also not pleased that I haven't kept in touch with my friends as well as I ought have this past year. This, of course, is entirely my fault and I feel badly about it, and I will do better in future. In a similar vein, I feel I've let the blog go to hell ever since I had my gall bladder operation, and this aggravates me to no end. So I will do better in future here too.

Also, I'm not pleased that my frickin' sinuses keep acting up. Come on, it's winter. Surely I should get some respite in winter, for Pete's sake.

But hey. It is the last day of 2005, and soon it will be over, and I'll be cheery and optimistic yet again as I bask in the righteous knowledge that 2006 is right around the corner, and that good times lie ahead. I hope, anyway.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:09 AM | TrackBack

December 29, 2005

Wanted: New Football Coach

NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. Position needs filled ASAP. Job entails hiring new slate of assistant coaches, recruiting and retaining talent, and devising offensive plays which could reasonably fool a competent defense. Capability to beat evil archrivals and win bowl games in national spotlight a must, particularly in games with historic import.

Applicants with track record of three-loss seasons or better preferred. Salary negotiable, but will offer at least one honeymoon season in contract. Please send CV and references to: University of Michigan Athletic Department, Schembechler Hall, 1000 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:36 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

December 21, 2005

Merry Christmas, and Good Day

THE RANT will be away until Tuesday, Dec. 27. Until I return -- and in all honesty, that's probably around Dec. 28 or Dec. 29 -- have a good holiday. 2006 will be better in all respects -- I can feel it!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:56 PM | TrackBack

December 16, 2005

Detroit's Orange Revolution

WHEN THE PEOPLE of Ukraine defied that nation's Government in 2004, they used the color orange as their standard. Now, long-suffering fans of the hapless Detroit Lions football team have started their own Orange Revolution.

Yes, that's right. An outfit called The Lions Fanatics has declared an "orange-out" for Sunday's upcoming game at Ford Field against the Cincinnati Bengals, which as it happens have orange as their team color. The group argues that Matt Millen, the Lions' president whom fans despise, has failed miserably at his job and deserved to be cashiered.

When one sees how badly the Lions play -- this past week, they somehow managed to lose at Green Bay despite having the game pretty much won -- one finds it difficult to disagree with that idea. The team that Millen built has had an abysmal past five years, and there's very little hope their next five years will be better with him in charge. This has annoyed fans greatly.

In addition to the "orange-out," WDFN-AM -- Detroit's version of "The Fan" radio format -- is staging an "Angry Fan March" before the game on Sunday. If you're in the Detroit area, here's all the information you'll need. We'll see how well Detroit's Orange Revolution turns out, but at the very least, it's good to see fans are taking action and refusing to give up in such dire circumstances.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:17 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 15, 2005

My Side. It Hurts.

I ABOUT FELL out of my chair laughing at this look at Dungeons & Dragons.

What's really disconcerting is that, back during my tormented years as a junior high school student, I took part in a few after-school role-playing sessions which were just as glamorous and exciting. Gee, just think, when I could have spent my time trying to secure invites to the "in crowd's" parties, I was instead -- well, never mind!

(via Meg McArdle)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:06 PM | TrackBack

December 14, 2005

It's Always Coldest After the Sun Rises

I BLINKED, and winter arrived. As of this writing, it's a balmy 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15.8 Celsius) here in Manchester, according to the weather station located a mile or so away.

The temperature will drop a bit before long. The sun hasn't risen yet, but that doesn't much matter: it is always coldest after the sun rises. It's due to temperature inversion or something like that; one of those neat weather facts one learns in New Hampshire.

It's days like this when I fully appreciate the fact America has stayed on the God-fearing Fahrenheit system for measuring temperature, as opposed to the cold, scientific Celsius scale. The advantage to the Celsius scale is that it's practical for indoor use: one knows how far one is from the freezing, melting or boiling point of water. The advantage to the Fahrenheit scale, on the other hand, is that it's practical for outdoor use: one knows whether the weather outside has a chance of killing you. That's not a small concern in some parts of the United States, including here. This morning, I must go up to Concord, where the air temperature is presently -11 F.

Yes, that's right. -11. And technically, it's still fall.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:58 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 13, 2005

Oh, This is Just Ridiculous

HOW, ONE WONDERS, did this actually happen outside of a movie set?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:26 PM | TrackBack

How to Live Within Your Means: A Tutorial

MEG McARDLE HAS POSTED a downright fantastic series of personal-finance essays on her blog looking at living below one's means, why one ought sacrifice today to benefit tomorrow, and related topics. For readers interested in personal-finance matters, these essays are must-reads: they boil down a lot of the wisdom out there, leave room for enjoying one's priorities in life, and so on.

One thing I would add is that living below one's means doesn't merely let one save money for the future; it also means one has freedom of action. It's a lot easier to take opportunities or deal with tough shakes in life if you have ready cash on hand.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:09 PM | TrackBack

Attention Canada: We're Not Kidding

BACK IN 2000, when we were all much younger and the world was a much simpler place, I wrote in the Ottawa Citizen about my disappointment regarding the minor undercurrent of anti-Americanism then existent in Canada. It seemed to me, I wrote back then, that such sentiment was "silly" for Canadians to hold, given how much the U.S. and Canada had in common, and that our two nations should be friends.

Well, it seems America's ambassador to the True North has said something similar, except for one thing. The ambassador was really rather annoyed when he said that, and to the point where one suspects the old friendship between the two countries (as Gordon Sinclair so exemplified) might be wearing a bit thin.

The Reuters news service reports:

In a hard-hitting speech in Ottawa, U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins lamented what he called relentless and incessant criticism of his country, which he speculated might begin to sow doubt about the strength of the binational relationship.

"Canada never has to tear the United States down to build itself up," Wilkins said.

"It may be smart election politics to thump your chest and constantly criticize your friend and your No. 1 trading partner. But it's a slippery slope and all of us should hope it doesn't have a long-term impact on our relationship."

Now, Ambassador Wilkins is a diplomat. As such, he knows full well that tearing down the United States is a tradition for many Canadians. I've experienced that myself in my personal life. But there's a difference between good-natured ribbing (e.g., a Canadian complaining about American beer) and sentiment expressed with malice aforethought. More and more, though, it seems as if Canadian sentiment towards the U.S. has had elements of the latter as opposed to the former.

That can't be good for our binational relationship, and it's concerning when the U.S. ambassador makes a point of mentioning it. Ambassadors, after all, do not do things in a vacuum.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:50 PM | TrackBack

December 12, 2005

Aw Yeah, Go Pittsburgh

AH! THE GLORIOUS Pittsburgh Steelers have triumphed over the fearsome but ultimately overhyped Chicago Bears, a sweet and needed victory for the Steelers crew. Plus, all of our competition for the AFC's wild card lost, so we're sitting better than we were last week.

I hope the Steelers won't let down their guard against the Minnesota Vikings this week. Even though the Vikings play in a dome, an unnatural contrivance which takes away key elements of the game, they're still a really good football team. As such, we're going to have to power ahead and fight, and leave any smack-talking until after the game.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:18 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Drawn and Quartered

AS PART OF MY continuing fascination with the world outside North America, I've started developing an interest in soccer. Thus far, this has generated both amusement and scorn among those who know me.

Admittedly, I knew and still know very little about European soccer. For instance, I fully admit that I declared my allegiance to the Glasgow Celtic football club solely because Hearts of Midlothian fans booed the late Pope during a remembrance ceremony. However, I'm trying to learn a bit about the sport, and have signed up for the Fox Soccer Channel and GOL TV to watch more matches from overseas. I even watched the Final Draw for the 2006 World Cup in Germany this past weekend, in which the group matchups were drawn.

My feelings on that last item can be summed up as follows: what the hell?

I mean, come on. Unless I missed something, one of the cool things about soccer, and particularly the World Cup, is that it's all about rivalries between teams, nations and regions. What kind of rivalry matchups does the USA have in Group E? None, that's what.

I mean, I can't root against Italy, for God's sake. I like Italy, and they're one of our best allies. And I can't root against the Czechs either, because they're also an ally and they threw out the Soviets and they've been doing well ever since. As for Ghana, it'd be just wrong to root against them, especially since it's their first time in the World Cup. So for the USA's first three matches, I'm kinda stuck. Even worse, we've got to win our group or else we'll probably face Brazil and God help us if that happens.

So, faced with this horrible draw, I fear I'm going to have to live vicariously through my other favorite teams in the World Cup. My strong second favorite is Mexico, and I've decided that I'll root for Korea Republic third (that's the South half) and Poland fourth. There will be some great matchups in their groups, and ones where I'll feel good about rooting both for the teams I like and, in some cases, against their opponents.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:21 PM | TrackBack

December 09, 2005

So Cold. So Very, Very Cold

IT'S BEEN A WHILE since I've seen snow this heavy. Perhaps that's simply my own sense of perspective playing tricks on me, but it's just noontime and we already have four or so inches of snow. Here's Manchester's weather conditions right now: look down near Boston, where they have that hurricane-eye like thingy on the radar.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:04 PM | TrackBack

A Fitting Day for Narnia, All Things Considered

DO YOU REMEMBER what the Pevensie children -- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy -- discovered when they first went through the magical wardrobe in the Professor's mansion? They found a land which was very cold and very windy and where, due to some sort of evil enchantment, it was always winter.

No, I'm not talking about Narnia. I'm talking about Manchester, New Hampshire, where it's 22 degrees outside and we're in the middle of a nor'easter, and there's not only heavy snow but something called "freezing fog." We're expected to get a foot of snow today -- the expected totals keep rising -- and God knows when we'll ever see spring or warm weather again.

Also, due to an evil enchantment which the Evil Nabobs of Television Programming have cast, the daytime television stinks to high heaven. I mean, I've pretty much got one of four choices: the cable news channels, which will undoubtedly talk about the weather; CNBC, which doesn't seem to have anything new; reruns of "MacGyver" on that man-oriented channel; or "The View," which -- oy vey. "The View." God help us all.

Still, all things considered, it's a fitting day for "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to open in theatres, even if no one in snowbound New England will get to see it. From what I understand, it's quite a good film, and I do plan to see it -- when the snow stops.

I'm sure the snow will stop some time. It must. Surely, it must.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:38 AM | TrackBack

December 04, 2005

I Guess Brent Musburger Was Reason 53

FOOTBALL BLOG Every Day Should Be Saturday has, like most God-fearing American sports fans, had it up to here with the ESPN/ABC sports-broadcasting machine. Accordingly, one of the blog’s writers, who goes by the clever name of Orson Swindle, has produced a clever list of 52 reasons why he hates the franchise.

Amazingly, this list does not include sportscaster Brent Musburger, although this is perhaps understandable. Musburger is now nearing age 70, and as such, his often-annoying play calling now seems like a quaint throwback to an earlier, simpler time, when all people had to worry about was stagflation. Well, that and oil shocks. And Communist aggression. And getting a decidedly not-groovy case of the cl—

Well, anyway, let’s fast forward a bit. Consider what the conspicuous omission of Musburger from the list means. It now means that, in the world of football broadcasting, there are at least 52 things worse than Musburger’s playcalling during key matchups – even when Brent is pontificating upon the college game. Clearly, football broadcasting as we once knew it is in big trouble, and it certainly seems as if the ESPN/ABC folks have a lot to do with ruining the experience for everyone.

Here is, perhaps, the best reason of them all (a slightly-edited No. 18):

For a long time college football existed as a fiefdom apart from the Sportstainmenttastic! world of ESPN–pleasantly stodgy, frills-free coverage of a sport that allowed you to soak in the atmosphere of each game through the screen. Now we have Nick Lachey interviewing people and Big and Rich suggesting that we need more Ying with our Ying Yang. Two old pieces of redneck jerky–including one who one of our readers pointed out, bears a striking resemblance to Phyllis Diller–who were pulled out of a hat at random by marketing schmucks in New York who were like, “Okay, people. Red state sport—we need us some edgy country!” Total, horrid, absolute fecality soiling the last show we watch on the network.

As of this writing, the list has generated a mere 518 comments, the last of which is from some whiny Nebraska Cornhusker fan who apparently thinks his third-rate school deserved to share the 1997 national college football title with the much better Michigan Wolverines. Even though everyone knows that Nebraska had an easy schedule that year, and that the split was due to sympathy votes for the retiring Nebraska coach, this fan refuses to accept the obvious. And like ESPN/ABC’s many infractions against the sport of football, that’s just wrong.

In happier college football news, though, I’d like to offer my sincere congratulations to the Akron Zips, which won the MAC championship game on a last-second touchdown play against the vaunted Northern Illinois Huskies. It was a hell of a game and I wish the Zips well in the Motor City Bowl.

(via Steve Silver)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:21 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

December 03, 2005

First the Flux, Then the Typhus

Oh No!
It’s Time for Yet Another Installment of …

Today’s Movie: "Aeon Flux"

WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE, “Aeon Flux” was one of several cool shows on television, a well-crafted and intelligent and clever escape for those interested in science-fiction. I daresay its ten half-hour episodes remain, a decade later, some of the best animated television of all time.

That’s what made “Aeon Flux,” the live-action movie of the same name, such a godrotting disappointment. I mean, come on. The filmmakers had an amazing reservoir of intellectual capital and story development, plus a pretty impressive cast to go along with it, and what do they produce? A stunted wreck of a film which not only can’t compare with its predecessor, but doesn’t even stand up on its own merits as a movie. Simply put, Aeon Flux, the film – and my own moviegoing experience – can be summed up in one word: ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Now, Aeon Flux wasn’t horribly bad like “Gigli.” Oh, no. It just wasn’t any good: the acting was wooden and the characters weren’t developed and the plot was thin and – oh, like I said, the whole experience was disappointing. That’s because it all could have been so much better – starting with the theatre.

In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for me to choose the giant multiplex out in the suburbs. The place was crowded with unruly children and teenagers whose long-suffering parents were nowhere to be seen. The adults who were present seemed divided into two camps: those thankful for a night away from their wretched offspring, and those observing the whole scene with quiet horror. Near the arcade, there was a group of Beavis and Butthead clones engaged in horseplay; in the center of the lobby, teenagers rushing about hither and thither. One foul high schooler rushed past me as I stood in the ticket line, and without so much as a by-your-leave, stabbed the heel of her shoe into the ingrown nail of my big toe. In short, the scene was a microcosm of what happens when parents fail.

Speaking of failure, general principle requires me to denounce the gastronomic monstrosity I witnessed at the theatre concessionary. I do not refer to the wretched chocolates and the hideous reheated pre-fried snacks and the flavored water, of which the last was on sale for, so help me God, $3 a bottle. Oh, no. One expects such things from the cash-strapped theatre operators. I was, though, horrified to realize just how they served up popcorn these days.

Now, everyone loves popcorn, particularly when it is cooked properly (that is, cooked using oil) and served hot, preferably with salt and a bit of butter to go with it. Yet while this theatre had an actual popper, from which came incredible quantities of hot and delicious popcorn, none of this popcorn was immediately served to the public. Oh, no. Instead, I watched as it was put into giant plastic bags. Then, in horror, I watched as the concessionary workers instead served up popcorn which had been warmed up in some sort of a reheating device. I mean, that’s just wrong, especially given that one could buy lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken for less.

But as for Aeon – oh boy. Spoilers follow, so if you’re still planning to see the movie, don’t read any further, because it will likely ruin your enjoyment of the film. That said, quite frankly, you might as well go ahead – the movie bites and it’s not like you’re not going to be able to figure things out anyway.

Here’s the plot: A few years from now, humanity gets hit with a plague that makes the Black Death look like a nasty summer cold. Fast forward to the 25th century, when the few remaining survivors live in a modern industrial city in which no one actually works and there’s no real entertainment available. It’s kind of like Pyongyang, except there’s plentiful electricity and food.

As it turns out, though, some citizens of the city are in revolt against their scientist overlords, and run around breaking things, overturning carefully-arranged plates of hors d’oeurves, and so on. Also, they’re trying to knock off Trevor Goodchild, the city of Bregna’s chairman and chief executive. Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) is the revolt’s best assassin, so they choose her to shoot Trevor – except she can’t, because she and Trev have issues. And besides, Trevor’s not such a bad guy after all, and –

Uh, wait a minute. Yes, he is, even if Aeon’s in love with him and he with her. That was part of the original dramatic tension. So could someone please explain to me why the movie’s Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) isn’t evil?

In the TV show, Trevor – who was a great character – was egomaniacal, vain, ruthless and cunning, and at the very least, partially evil. The movie’s Trevor Goodchild is an emotional, sensitive, mealymouthed sap who can’t take five steps without waxing lyrically about helping mankind. The man couldn’t manage a convenience store, much less establish himself as the future’s Kim Il Sung.

As if to recognize this flaw, the screenwriters threw in an evil Goodchild brother (Jonny Lee Miller) who wants to seize Bregna and rule it as his own private Idaho. This doesn’t really work, and it further mucks up a muddled and confused plot, as does the addition of:

* Frances McDormand, who plays “The Handler,” the rebellion’s leader. There are two things wrong with this: first, McDormand’s hair and costume would have led any competent secret police to detain her as a troublemaker; and second, it was Frances McDormand, and all I could think was, “Oh geez, Marge Gunderson’s leading the revolt!” I’m sorry. I know that’s bad of me. But it’s not my fault: if the script had been better, my mind wouldn’t have wandered.

* Pete Postlethwaite, who plays the “Keeper.” Now, I think Pete Postlethwaite is an amazing actor, and I thought for sure he’d get a kickass role. That’s one of the reasons I went to see “Aeon Flux.” How silly I was. He gets a minor role in which his talents are completely wasted, and it is so frustrating. I mean, my God – this is the man who played Kobayashi in “The Usual Suspects.” If there was anyone who would have played an evil brother well, or a loyal second-in-command well, Pete Postlethwaite was it. Instead … oh, I can’t go on, I’m still so annoyed.

* The extras playing the city’s citizens, who can’t even properly panic when hideous and awful things start happening as their dystopian society starts falling apart. There’s something to be said for running about and screaming.

Anyway, perhaps the most frustrating thing while watching “Aeon Flux” was knowing that it had the potential to be so much better. Sure, the imagery was beautiful and the colors were vibrant and the black hair really worked for Charlize Theron. But the plot was convoluted and the acting was generally grim and the directing flat-out bit and – ah, one could go on. Now that all is said and done, though, I think it’s worth noting that one can buy the animated Aeon Flux DVD box set for a mere $28. Given the prices of movie tickets and popcorn these days, that might prove a better investment.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:59 AM | TrackBack

December 01, 2005

The Business of Blogging

DEAN ESMAY has an informative post up about the continuing saga of Pajamas Media, the blogging world's latest advertising scheme and its latest Next Best Thing.

Since Pajamas Media has been heavily promoted as the Next Best Thing, thanks to its New York launch party, its several million dollars in venture capital, and so on, the outfit has attracted both effusive praise and withering criticism. In short, people are still worked up about it, even now. What's surprised me about this whole Pajamas Media debate is that discussions about its basic utility haven't gotten much play, and that to me seems the most important aspect of it. Fundamentally, this is about writers getting paid for their work. Writers getting paid for their work rules.

I do, however, think that every over-the-top Pajamas Media triumphalist out there should read Roger Lowenstein's When Genius Failed, an examination of how Long-Term Capital Management collapsed back in 1998. That's not because I think the Pajamas Media idea is doomed to fail, but rather because Mr Lowenstein's book shows how annoying triumphalism can be, and how it has a way of coming back to bite.

NOTE: Due to my own circumstances, I accept no advertising here on The Rant, and I should note The Rant is my own completely independent endeavor, etc.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack