April 25, 2006

Gee, I Guess You Can Go Home Again (Kinda Sorta)

KALAMAZOO, Mich., Apr. 12-13 -- WHEN A DRIVER leaves the I-94 at Exit 75 and hangs a right on Oakland Drive, the first sign of commercial activity appears in a couple of miles. When I was growing up in Kalamazoo, the first things I would see taking that route were the Superior Cleaners dry-cleaning service and the D&W supermarket. When I went back to Kalamazoo after nearly a dozen years, those were still the first things I saw upon my arrival.

It is true, as I wrote in my last post about Kalamazoo, that parts of the town have changed. But much to my surprise, I found that Kalamazoo hadn't changed all that much since I left. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that certain parts of town -- like my old neighborhood -- remain practically unchanged. As such, I came to the natural conclusion that my old subdivision was caught in some weird Twilight Zone time warp, and furthermore, that I would soon be in thrall to the sway of a daemonic fortune-telling machine stuck in the back of Theo & Stacy's. But I digress.

Anyway, the old neighborhood was practically the same, and Simon From Jersey's old house was practically the same and Loy Norrix High School was practically the same (as seen from I-94, anyway). Much of the time, it just seemed like folks had thrown a fresh coat of paint on things. Heck, even the Kalamazoo Hilton -- I'm sorry, the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center -- was largely the same, even if it did have an entirely new exterior design and new shops inside. It was still the grand hotel of Kalamazoo County and its surrounding environs.

Of course, some things did change. Much to my dismay, the old bowling lanes where I hung out were gone, and the pool hall where I used to play was torn down and replaced by a bank, and the old bookstore I liked couldn't hack it against the national chains. However, downtown Kalamazoo actually got a lot nicer. I mean, it was a place where one could go and actually do stuff after the close of business. It certainly wasn't like that back when I was growing up. Oh, and Western Michigan built this huge new campus out on Parkview Avenue, in an area of town that was once entirely farmland. That was a real shocker.

Best of all, though, I got to see Josh Grant on my trip, a Loyal Rant Reader and an old friend from high school. We had dinner downtown at the London Grill, a pub-like place which had the clever idea of serving British food along with Indian food. This was a lot of fun. Aside from the sheer novelty of ordering vindaloo in Kalamazoo -- this was once a town where it was tough finding good Italian -- it was great to catch up with Mr Grant, and find out that he was doing well (and getting married in May!).

I don't know whether the years since I've been gone have been good or bad for Kalamazoo -- based on my trip, they almost seem like a wash. But I was glad to find two things out the morning I left. First, the Michigan News Agency on West Michigan Avenue -- one of the few truly great newsagents out there -- was still in business. Second, so was Theo & Stacy's just a few doors down. I don't care where you are in America, but in my mind, any place where restaurants serve up eggs, bacon, pancakes and a large Diet Coke for $5.83 has the potential to be called home.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 24, 2006

My Ford Taurus Has Me Locked In

WHEN PEOPLE TALK about being "locked in" to their cars, they're usually talking in the context of being "locked into" a car lease. This painful and unpleasant experience often involves making regular payments for a car one no longer wants, plus extra payments for having driven too many miles in the car one no longer wants. Then at the end of it, one is stuck without a car.

However, I'm pleased to announce that I'm locked into my 1997 Ford Taurus for a different reason. You see, it's now so cheap to insure the bloody thing (it has 123,000 miles or so) that I'm going to have to drive it until it completely and utterly gives up the ghost. I don't know why, but this makes me feel like I've hit the jackpot.

Most people, I guess, would take this as a sign that it's time to buy a new car. Personally, though, I think my Taurus drives fine. Oh, sure, it's not something I'd take on a cross-country trip, but it gets me where I need to go and everything appears to run just as it should. Not only that, but it costs -- oh, it appalls even me. I mean, we're now talking in the hundreds, and not thousands, of dollars each year for insurance.

Maybe I'm so happy because I know that it can't last. I mean, a preschooler on a tricycle could run into the car and my car would be totaled. Plus, with the way gas prices are going, I won't be able to drive all that much. Still, there's something to be said for a good old fashioned win, and right here, I daresay I've got a winner.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:16 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Just Remember How Icarus Bought It

SETH STEVENSON has a nice article in Slate today in which he gives two thumbs up to Dunkin' Donuts' new advertising campaign. Apparently, the coffee-and-donut chain has embarked on a quest to bring the goodness of Dunkin' Donuts across the land, and thus is trying to convince people that Dunkin' Donuts is -- well, about the donuts, but mostly about the coffee. Mr Stevenson, who gives the campaign an "A," writes:

Dunkin' Donuts is spreading its wings. The chain is expanding nationwide and plans to triple in size within the next 10 years. According to a Dunkin' press release, this new ad campaign "marks the most significant repositioning effort in the company's 55-year history." A big part of the goal here is to introduce the brand to Americans not yet familiar with it ...

The ads are very watchable, and I think the campaign nails the brand image Dunkin' is striving for. Down-to-earth, value-oriented, but still fun and just a tiny bit hip. As for that new slogan, America Runs on Dunkin'? Given the calorie counts on some of those donuts and flavored coffee items, it might be more accurate to go with America Waddles on Dunkin'. But I guess that doesn't scan quite as well.

Now, as heretical as this might seem to my New Englander friends, I think the jury might be out a while on Dunkin' Donuts' efforts. You see, back in the Eighties, when I was growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., Dunkin' Donuts was seen as a second-rate competitor to the local donut chains. This determination was made solely on the quality of Dunkin's donuts, because back home, coffee was not a necessity but simply an optional add-on (unless one was retired and was a daily customer). I don't know if this has changed all that much in Kalamazoo and places like it. Oh, people back home like coffee, but would they go to Dunkin's for that alone? We shall see.

Of course, to see, Kalamazoo will need another Dunkin' Donuts. Apparently the old one closed a while ago, for according to Dunkin's Web site, the closest one is apparently in Battle Creek -- some 30 miles east of the Celery City.

However, that's not to say that Dunkin' Donuts won't succeed elsewhere. When I lived in Los Angeles, a friend of mine with Massachusetts roots once searched desperately and fruitlessly for a Dunkin' Donuts, only to find there were none. At the time, I didn't understand why it was so important to him -- a donut is a donut is a donut, no? -- but I do now. So if Dunkin's hasn't yet gone after the large Western cities, I would think they ought -- just because those places will undoubtedly be full of expat New Englanders who want their coffee.

And now that I've been in New England for five years, I can assure you that New Englanders won't let anything get in the way of their access to coffee. Don't believe me? Dig this article on various coffee-related products in New England.

If you still don't believe me, consider this: here in Manchester, N.H., we have 30 Dunkin' Donuts locations within ten miles of downtown. One of these is at a local hospital. Practically no one so much as raises an eyebrow.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 22, 2006

Tag, I'm It!

AH, THERE'S NOTHING like Saturday morning. It would have been a better Saturday morning had our beloved Red Sox not blown it against the Toronto Blue Jays last night, but never mind. This Saturday morning, I'm going to write about several interesting things you previously did not know about me, especially because Allison tagged me to do so and said she would find it fascinating if I did. So here we go!

SIX THINGS YOU PREVIOUSLY DID NOT KNOW ABOUT ME

1. I'm cooler than most people. Literally. The normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and one can arguably say that anywhere in the 98s is a reasonable range. As for me, however, my normal body temperature generally runs about 97 degrees even, and sometimes falls into the 96s. I have no idea why this is, although I do wonder if this explains why I tend to dislike very hot temperatures.

2. I have perfect pitch. This makes me useful to my musician friends, as they don't need a tuning fork to tell them whether their guitars are tuned correctly. The upside is that I can tell if things are in tune, I associate noise with musical notes (the dryer buzzer, for instance, has a note) and I can amaze my friends and confound my enemies ("How the hell do you do that?!"). The downside is that I can tell when things are off key or out of tune, and when they are, it's almost painful to listen.

3. I do sums to relax. If I'm trying to concentrate on something, or I am worried about something, or what have you, I do figures in my head to work through those issues. I don't know why I find this relaxing but I do. Plus, it helps me keep my mind sharp for when I need to do math in my head.

4. Occasionally, I maliciously lie about a particular scar. On my neck, I have a rather visible scar, from when I had a tracheotomy as a baby. (If you look at the masthead photo of me, you'll see it right around the K in Kepple) When I was growing up, I was mercilessly teased about this.

You see, kids -- being wretched little bastards -- would not know what the scar was, so they would politely ask me what the hell that thing on my neck was. Most of the time, this would result in a long and drawn out explanation of the tracheotomy process, after which the kids would continue making fun of me. After several years of this, however, something prompted me to tell one particularly stupid questioner that I had, in fact, been shot, and that was in fact a scar from being shot. The reaction -- I had him going for quite some time -- made me put this whole routine in my mental "witty comeback" file.

Now that I'm older, very few people ask me any more about the scar, and those that do are generally acutely familiar with tracheotomies. However, will I use the line again if the chance presents itself? Damn right.

5. Despite my college education, I still can't figure calculus out. This annoys me like you wouldn't believe. I'm great at doing figures and analyzing reports and familiar with statistics and what not, but I couldn't calculate an integral if my life depended on it. Well, maybe if my life depended on it, but still. The only time I ever felt I understood calculus, to be pefectly blunt, was when questions were put to me about marginal cost or something like that.

6. I'm listening to this album right now. This being Kirsty MacColl's "Tropical Brainstorm." Try it, you'll like it!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:45 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

April 21, 2006

The Mr Horse School of Economic Analysis

EARLIER THIS WEEK, news agencies proclaimed that the number of American millionaire households had hit an all-time high, to some 8.3 million. The stories were based on a survey from the Chicago-based Spectrem Group consultancy, which conducted mail and on-line surveys about household wealth with roughly 1,000 people. According to Spectrem's research, the number of millionaire households jumped 11 percent compared to the prior year, while the number of "ultra high net worth" households (those with over $5 million) grew 26 percent, to 930,000.

Sounds great, right? I agree. However, at least to me, the numbers don't make empirical sense.

For instance, Spectrem says there are 8.3 million American households worth more than $1 million -- excluding the value of their primary residence. But with 105 million households in the U.S., that would mean 8 pc -- or one out of every 12 households -- are millionaires. Furthermore, if Spectrem is right, just under one out of 100 U.S. households is more than $5 million.

Think about that. One out of every 12 households has more than $1 million? I mean, that's quite a statement -- and certainly something worthy of running through the Mr Horse School of Economic Analysis. Here's what I got when I did:

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"No, sir! I don't like it." -- Mr Horse

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You see, the numbers just seem awfully high -- especially when compared to the CapGemini Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report, which is the gold standard for these types of studies. Here's the most recent edition (PDF file). The new one should be out soon, but the 2005 WWR report -- using data from 2004 -- is most illustrative.

On page 15 of the report (page 17 of the PDF file), look at Figure 10. You'll see that on a worldwide basis, there are only about 8.3 million people with more than $1 million in investable assets -- and just about 10 percent of that number have more than $5 million. (Just under one percent have more than $30 million). In the United States (see page 27 of the report), there are roughly 2.5 million individuals with an estimated worth of more than $1 million. If we extrapolate from there, we can estimate there are roughly 250,000 U.S. individuals worth more than $5 million, and 25,000 worth more than $30 million.

If we further assume that these numbers translate to households -- a simplistic assumption that necessarily increases the frequency of the rich -- we find that one out of 52 U.S. households has more than $1 million, that one out of 520 has more than $5 million, and that one out of 5,200 has more than $30 million.

Now, I fully admit it's possible that some weird economic happening took place in 2005 that would account for such a wide spread between Spectrem's estimates and Capgemini/Merrill Lynch's. However, I'm not aware of any such happening. To my mind, the Capgemini/Merrill Lynch numbers seem to make more sense than the numbers which Spectrem derived from its surveys. Furthermore, Capgemini/Merrill Lynch's methodology makes it clear that while its survey may not be exact, it does draw from a wide variety of data sources and does considerable economic analysis on that data.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 18, 2006

An Open Letter to the Ford Motor Co.

MEMORANDUM

TO: Bill Ford, CEO, Ford Motor Co.

FR: Loyal Ford Owner Benjamin Kepple

RE: Sedan design

Dear Mr. Ford,

As a loyal Ford Taurus owner for the past several years, I recently rented a late-model Ford Taurus for a road trip vacation. Over the past two weeks, I drove roughly 2,600 miles in this car, traveling through 13 states and the District of Columbia. While I was pretty pleased with how the fourth-generation Taurus handled itself on the road, I must say I was disappointed in one aspect of the vehicle. Specifically, I refer to the wretched soft paternalism that Ford, for some weird reason, has apparently introduced into its vehicle design.

You see, shortly after I took possession of the rental, I was driving it out of the Manchester Airport parking garage when an alarming beeping noise shattered my peace of mind. I soon found that this noise, which had a volume and tone that made me think the transmission had fallen off, was actually informing me that I had not yet fastened my seatbelt.

OK, fine, I thought. The prudent motorist is supposed to wear his seatbelt, and I always wear mine as a matter of course. Thus, I resolved to fasten the belt as soon as I got into an area with significant vehicle traffic. Before I could do so, however, the damned beeping started up again, and I can assure you it scared the bejesus out of me a second time. During my trip, I found that the wretched buzzer would intermittently beep until I fastened my seatbelt, even if I had reasonable cause for not wearing it (such as while maneuvering around a parking lot). Even worse, it beeped whenever I had passengers not wearing their seatbelts, which was embarrassing and annoying.

In my travels, I learned from a knowledgeable source that it is possible for a motorist to turn off the aggravating beeper thingy. However, I was told that actually doing this requires significant study of the owner's manual, considerable mechanical prowess, and using the horrible Shining Trapezohedron to summon The Haunter of the Dark.

Also, as if that wasn't enough, The Haunter of the Dark will apparently demand offerings -- reportedly, products from the Franklin Mint -- in return for its otherworldly help. However, any inclination I may have had to try disabling the thing was tempered with the realization that doing so would anger a far more powerful entity -- namely, the car rental agency. Thus, I was stuck with the stupid beeping thing going off throughout my trip.

My question is this: what in God's name prompted the proud Ford Motor Co. to introduce a feature one would expect to find in some soulless cookie-cutter Toyota Camry or Honda Accord? I mean, come on. A seat-belt buzzer, even one loud enough to make a driver think an atom bomb went off in the trunk, is not something one associates with a firm that builds "Ford Tough" vehicles. What's next, those annoying electric seatbelts that automatically lock into place when one turns on the car?

I mean, really. A soft chime upon ignition and a dashboard light are perfectly sufficient reminders that one needs to wear a seat belt while driving or riding in a motor vehicle. Besides, I'm from New Hampshire, and I don't have to wear my seat belt if I don't wish to do so. So there. Anyway, I just wanted to mention my concerns about the seatbelt thingy, as my present Ford Taurus is nearing the end of its useful life, and I'll soon be deciding whether to buy another Ford sedan (or similar).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:58 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 04, 2006

The Rant is Away ...

... UNTIL TUESDAY, APRIL 18. Until then, enjoy our archives, visit the good, fine people listed on our blogroll, and ... be excellent to each other. Yeah. See? I told you I was hip and with it!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 02, 2006

Malthus Was Wrong, and So is This Guy

IF THERE IS NOT already a hue and cry over the weird remarks of University of Texas-Austin ecologist Eric Pianka, there soon will be, so let's just get the criticism out of the way quickly.

As this article from The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise shows, Dr Pianka reportedly thinks the following: a) that the Earth is overpopulated; b) that nature or man will cause a massive reduction in the human population; and c) that this is a good thing. The Gazette-Enterprise reports Dr Pianka said, "[Disease] will control the scourge of humanity ... we’re looking forward to a huge collapse."

It boggles the mind that with such ideas, the Texas Academy of Science would name Dr Pianka the Distinguished Texas Scientist for 2006. It's not simply because the ideas are abhorrent, it's because they're wrong, and have been wrong since they were dreamed up two centuries ago. Simply put, we haven't seen a Malthusian catastrophe yet, and we never will.

As for the idea that disease will somehow wipe out 90 percent of mankind, that's also a bit much. After all, the Black Death in the 14th century only killed about a third of the European population, even though people then were working on bad assumptions about what caused the plague, how it spread, and how to treat it. Even if some sort of superbug were to develop, modern medical science and public health methods would undoubtedly prove up to the task of controlling it -- as was shown during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

So there.

I will leave it to my readers to ponder Dr Pianka's idea, mentioned in the Gazette-Enterprise story, that human life is no more valuable than other life on Earth, and that human life is not the central element of life on Earth. I would get upset about it, except it's late and I'm tired and my sinuses are acting up and I'm feeling the effects of Daylight Saving Time, so I'll just say that it's a bit backward, and leave it at that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 01, 2006

Daylight Saving Time is the Handiwork of Beelzebub

SOMETIME IN THE dead of night on Apr. 2, millions of Americans will have a precious hour of their time involuntarily taken from them, without so much as a by-your-leave. Many won't discover the theft until long past sunrise, when television shows start appearing at the wrong hour, or church services come to an end when they ought have just started.

All this, of course, is due to Daylight Saving Time, that wretched and foul device which stands as an affront to both God-fearing citizens and natural law. Every year, Americans "spring forward and fall back," and every year, bad things happen as a result. For instance, there are more auto accidents, and people at work are grumpy and irritable. And don't get me started on what happens in Indiana.

Yet even though there's no good reason to make the Daylight Saving Time switch, we keep doing it. It's absolute madness and I hate it.

This is not to say that I'm entirely opposed to the idea of Daylight Saving Time. In times of national emergency, I can see that Daylight Saving Time might prove useful. However, the only emergency most Americans are facing right now involves a shortage of potato chips and not finding the remote control prior to the big game. Thus, having DST, and turning me into EVEN MORE of an irritable grouch for the next week or so, sucks something fierce.

I suppose I can look at the bright side: in October, I'll get my stolen hour back, although without any interest or compensation for it. Besides, next year, it'll be even worse: back in 2005, Congress voted to extend the DST period starting in 2007.

Gee, that's just swell.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:44 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack