July 31, 2006

Socialismo, Muerto?

REPORTS OUT OF Miami say that Fidel Castro, ailing after intestinal surgery, has for the moment turned over power to his brother Raul. Val Prieto is providing regular updates.

UPDATE, 11:40 p.m.: Well, it certainly would appear something big is happening, based on the comments and updates at Mr Prieto's site. Apparently, it's being reported Castro could be out of commission for months following the surgery. Of course, it's always possible he could be out permanently.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Parker Lewis Can't Really Be 35 This Year, Can He?

WHILST SURFING the Internet and the myriad blogs which contribute so much to this grand life of ours, I stumbled across a rather alarming post regarding nostalgia for the early Nineties. The alarming part didn't have to do with the nostalgia; I rather liked the early Nineties, even though I was stuck in high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., and going to high school was like attending a minimum-security prison.

Rather, the alarming part had to do with the topic addressed. At this point, we'll turn things over to blogger Spinachdip, the New York-based writer who first discussed the matter. Mr Spinachdip writes:

"I was all ready to do an early-90s nostalgia post, but one huge problem - the scarcity of YouTube clips of Parker Lewis Can't Lose. So I figure I could just put a Parker Lewis DVD on my Netflix queue and rip some footage. But guess what? There is no Parker Lewis DVD. How could this be? Do we, as a nation, no longer care about synchronizing our Swatches and eluding Larry Kubiak?"

Mr Spinachdip goes on to write about other disturbing matters, such as an actual Biz Markie doll (wearing -- wait for it -- a Boston Bruins-esque jersey). But never mind that. Do mind the picture of Parker, Mikey and Jerry which Mr Spinachdip posted. Did you click there and then return here? Good.


I mean, my God. What the hell's happened to me? What the hell's happened to all of us? How did the time go so quickly? It feels just like yesterday that I, a youthful innocent, was watching this show on the five-inch black-and-white portable television I had in my room. Now, I'm overweight and anxious and stressed and an ex-smoker* and unhappily single, and it's my own damn fault. My own damn fault!

As if that wasn't enough, the guy who played Parker Lewis is turning 35 this year. Dear God. Also, the guy who played Kubiak got all the work after "Parker Lewis" wrapped up. Like you, I never saw that one coming.

* well, that's good, actually.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Almost There...

ON SUNDAY, AUG. 6, the NFL's Hall of Fame Game will be played in Canton, Ohio, kicking off the league's preseason. The game, which will be televised, also officially ends the horrible months-long sports drought through which most professional football fans suffer each year. Remarkable as it may seem, many football fans don't have access to the life-sustaining arena football games or Canadian football TV broadcasts which let lucky folks (like me) get through the long spring and summer months. As such, Sunday's game will be a welcome development for all, but especially for those in football deprived areas like northeast Ohio.

Interestingly enough, this year's Hall of Fame Game is being played between two teams not known for any recent accomplishments: the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles. As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I hate both of these teams, and would like nothing more than for each to go 1-15 during the regular season*. However, I realize that in the world of football realpolitik, one must govern one's passions accordingly.

As such, here's a little video to celebrate the start of this year's NFL season, and with it my implicit hopes for how the Hall of Fame Game turns out this year. I'm ready for some football!

* Unfortunately, it's downright impossible for both teams to go 1-15. Furthermore, if they did, that would conflict with my hopes that the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins also go 1-15. Still, one can dream.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:03 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 29, 2006

Manchester Wolves Update: They're Playoff Bound!

NOW COMES the hard part.

On Friday night, your humble correspondent watched cheerfully as the Manchester Wolves rolled on over the Quad City Steamwheelers in a 79-48 blowout. Yes, you read that right: 79 points for the home team. In utterly crushing Quad City, the Wolves pulled off the four-game winning streak they needed to earn a playoff berth. Just like another championship-winning football team.

We’ll know on Sunday how the playoff scenarios have worked out, and consequently whether my favorite minor-league arena football team has earned home-field advantage for their first playoff game. I hope so. The atmosphere at the arena was really quite something. When 8,000 people get together, and the management hands out those inflatable soundsticks, and everyone cheers on the home team, it’s just fun. I have to admit, though, I was a bit worried at the beginning.

Going into the game, I did my best not to underestimate Quad City. That took a lot of dedication on my part. After all, the team’s from the Quad Cities. According to no less a source than the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Quad Cities area includes “Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Moline/East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, and surrounding communities.” Oops, hold on, we have a question from a reader. Go ahead, reader!

READER: Um, you’ve listed five cities.
KEPPLE: Yes, that’s right.
READER: So shouldn’t it be the Quint Cities, and as a result, the Quint City Steamwheelers?

Say, that’s a very reasonable question! So reasonable, in fact, that one also wonders what would happen if the “surrounding communities,” like some place called “Riverdale,” were included. However, the Duodecimal Cities doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Besides, it’s Iowa. Quite frankly, you’ve got to expect things like this from those yokels. I mean, they named their minor-league arena football team after a paddleboat, for God’s sake. Also, they have that damned political caucus of theirs, with its byzantine nominating process and its unfortunate affiliation with the Seventies. Oh, and we can’t forget the lameness of their state quarter, which has a one-room schoolhouse on the reverse, and the motto: “IOWA: Foundation through Education.” Oooooooooooh. Boy, that makes me want to visit Iowa something fierce!

But I digress. My point was, Quad City wasn’t about to roll over. I kept reminding myself they had not won seven of the season’s 15 games due to dumb luck. This strategy of having an overly-pessimistic outlook paid off in the beginning of the game, when Quad City scored almost immediately after getting the ball.

It also paid off when Quad City managed a decent comeback near the end of the first half. The Wolves’ comfortable 28-13 lead evaporated to 28-27 after two quick Quad City touchdowns, one resulting from a disasterous blocked field goal try which gave Quad City the ball on Manchester’s one-yard-line. But the Steamwheelers weren’t able to keep the momentum going and they fell apart soon after the third quarter started.

As for Manchester, its offense was on fire. Soon after Quad City scored a quick touchdown in the first quarter, QB Steve Bellisari threw a long pass to WR Wendell Williams, who was wide open and easily scored a touchdown. The next time around, QB Steve Bellisari threw a long pass to WR Wendell Williams, who was wide open and easily scored a touchdown. Notice the pattern.

Williams alone scored four touchdowns in the game: three on pass plays and one rushing touchdown. On the third passing touchdown, Williams broke four (!) attempted tackles and ran something like 40 yards to score. As for Bellisari, he threw – God, I don’t know, a whole bunch of touchdowns. He was just on fire. In addition, the running game was excellent, and the kicker did his job too. Perhaps the most amazing play during the game was a 56-yard kickoff return from new WR Tony Stallings. It was in the last minute of the game, and it didn’t have any effect on the game, but it was icing on the cake.

Let’s hope the Wolves will soon get to enjoy some rum cake down in San Juan.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:19 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 26, 2006

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

USA TODAY ASKS: "Are you ready for a little more football?"

That's like asking if you're ready for a little more cake. Everyone loves cake! Anyway, a new football minor league will start up in 2007 -- hey, that's next year!

The All American Football League plans to field eight teams based in college towns, feature players from local schools and conferences, and cater to regional audiences. Players will earn about $100,000 per year, according to USA Today. The AAFL won't compete with the NFL -- it plans to draw its players after next year's NFL draft, will play from about mid-April to mid-June, and use college rules.

Sweet. The only way this could get any sweeter is if the University of Michigan's athletic director, Mr William C. Martin, were to announce, "Why, yes, Michigan is a part of this exciting venture. Ann Arbor shall have a team, and it shall be called the Michigan Panthers. And it will rule."

Also, if the AAFL could schedule its games to be televised on Sundays, that'd be nice too. This way, they wouldn't conflict with potential NFL Europe/Arena Football League games, which are generally played on Saturdays and Fridays or Saturdays, respectively.

UPDATE, 7:18 p.m.: Purdue?! Uh, no. Michigan, please.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 25, 2006

My Bloody Oath

SO ON THURSDAY, I went down to my local blood donation center and gave blood for the first time. I realize the apparent generosity of such an act may prompt surprise among some of my readers, but I can assure you the reward for donating – in this case, a decent barbecue dinner – represented a fair exchange for my pint of A-negative. Besides, a good guy in my trade union organized the drive, so I thought attending would be nice.

The only downside to the whole affair was that my body and mind were not on the same plane about the donation. My mind’s train of thought went something like this: donate blood, help people in need, perform public service. My body’s train of thought went like this: donate blood, get stuck with really large needle, have precious bodily fluids sapped and impurified. Must – resist – Communist – subversion.

I don’t know why my body has this autonomous resistance to needles. Sometimes I wonder if it has something to do with my long hospitalization as a newborn, in which I was stuck with IV needles for something like three months. Whatever the cause, my subconscious resistance is real and documented. I’ve even been told that, as a child, I once ripped out an IV needle placed in my arm and threw it at a doctor. The fact I was on an operating table at the time, and out cold under a general anaesthetic, was apparently not enough to stop my body from resisting.

Now that I’m an adult, and much more used to unpleasantness, I don’t consciously have any issues with needles, or various nasty medical items like surgical tape or that foul-smelling iodine solution they use to prevent infection. Unfortunately, I also don’t have any accessible veins close to the surface of my arms. As a result, whenever I have blood drawn for tests, I have the technician draw it from one of my hands with a smaller “butterfly” needle. This is much simpler and easier for all concerned.

They don’t draw blood with butterfly needles.

Now, the blood donation process is actually very easy. You go in and fill out some forms. Then you go through a survey with a technician in which you are asked a variety of questions, generally dealing with whether you have one or more godawful diseases, many of which you have never heard. Particularly if you’ve traveled.

TECHNICIAN: Do you have Chagas’ disease?
ME: No – uh, do I have what?
TECHNICIAN: It’s from some bugs in Mexico.
ME: Ah. Uh, no.

After this is all done, you go lie on a “bed” (that is to say, a glorified lawn chair), another technician comes to draw your blood, sticks a needle in your arm, and checks back in ten minutes. Unless you’re like me, in which case it takes a while for the technician to actually find a usable vein, and the vein is so deep that the technician has no choice but to jab and shift the needle back and forth to draw blood. Then, instead of just leaving you to bleed quietly, the technician has to spend all her time making sure the blood keeps flowing, because your vein might run dry (for some reason, I’ve had this happen as well).

The good news, though, is that I was able to successfully complete my donation. Now, someone in need will end up with my pint of A-negative. Meanwhile, I got a decent barbecue dinner from this place. I also got a nasty bruise on my arm – but that’s a small price to pay for good North Carolina-style barbecue.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 21, 2006

Finally, A Decent Summer Movie

THERE’S NOTHING like a round of plotless action films, insipid remakes, and iffy horror films to make one wish for the halycon days of high school, back when Hollywood made really inspired movies for the summer movie season. This summer’s movies have been so bad that the high point has been waiting for “Snakes on a Plane” to make its debut in August. Yeah. “Snakes on a Plane.”

However, I think we’ve turned a corner. For today, I went out and saw “Clerks II,” the long-awaited sequel to “Clerks,” the iconic 1994 movie which inspired and defined a generation. Well, at least it inspired lots of people my age, who were born in the mid- to- late-Seventies and grew up with Star Wars, and who react to most circumstances in life with a combination of passive-aggressive behavior, ranting aloud and terminal ennui. Yeah. Ennui.

Anyway, even though it’s been ten years since the first “Clerks,” and even though it was impossible for director Kevin Smith to top “Clerks,” the sequel is a damn fine movie and, even better, a damn fine sequel. I laughed hysterically at the very first scene and kept laughing throughout, and the ending was unexpected and even a bit poignant. Perhaps the best – and most amazing thing – was how Smith managed to keep things fresh, all while addressing the fact that ten years have passed since the first movie.

Also, “Clerks” fans can rest assured the main characters remain the same. Dante is still high-strung and dissatisfied with his life, while his partner-in-crime Randal is still sarcastic, bitter and a complete schmuck to others. I mean, more so than usual.

Thus, “Clerks II” is definitely worth seeing if you’re between the ages of 25 and 34, which I guess is kind of the “Clerks” demographic, and you’re not offended when curmudgeonly characters (by which I mean Randal) say truly horrible things just because it sets up a really good argument between Randal, Dante, and anyone else within earshot. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is sacred.

But then, nothing ever was in “Clerks,” and that was partly the joy of it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:58 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 19, 2006

An Open Letter to the Ford Motor Co.


TO: Bill Ford

FR: Benjamin Kepple

RE: Possibilities

Dear Mr Ford,

AS A PROUD Ford Taurus (or similar) driver for roughly 15 years, I have been extremely pleased with my cars’ performance, reliability and safety features. My Ford vehicles, both new and used, have consistently made my drives greatly enjoyable and quite economical. I’m also convinced that, during a bad accident on the highway, my Ford Taurus even saved my life.

That said, if you don’t stop airing that “Possibilities” commercial during Red Sox games, I’m buying a goddam Honda.

Well, OK, maybe I wouldn’t. Still, for the love of God, please make the commercials stop. They are single-handedly ruining my Ford ownership experience. Even worse, they are destroying any smidgen of coolness which may have been associated with Ford ownership. These commericals of yours are so bad they’re tagging the Ford brand with a distinct aura of lameness; an aura which shouts to the world, LOOK UPON MY CAR, YE PEOPLE, AND SNICKER.

I’m sorry, but it’s just depressing. A proud customer of one of America’s two remaining carmakers ought not have to suffer through lame commercials in which some yokel singer spins around like an aging baby boomer overdosing on disco music. I don’t care if the man won “American Idol.” He’s spectacularly uncool and spectacularly annoying and spectacularly miscast. Plus, as I have it on good authority, the song gets stuck in everybody’s heads and drives people crazy. This fills people with an undying hatred of Ford and Ford products.

For that matter, what the hell were your advertising people thinking when they signed the winner of “American Idol” to star in your commericals, commercials with the stated aim of emphasising Ford’s “bold” attributes?

Dude. Having the winner of “American Idol” star in your commercial is not bold. Having the winner of “American Idol” sing a lame-ass paean to baby boomer rebellion is not bold. Having the winner of “American Idol” spin around like a whirling dervish while singing it is roughly as bold as having a high school drama class perform “The Music Man” at its spring concert. In other words, not frickin’ bold.

Now, look at this commercial. This is bold. It’s also rather funny. But in general, it fits the definition of bold:

See! That’s bold! Bold wins! Unfortunately, in this case, it also means that Toyota wins. As such, maybe you should try to develop commercials like Toyota has done. For instance, perhaps you could emphasize how well the Ford Taurus protects its drivers and passengers, even during a massive collision with an eighteen-wheeler on I-94. After all, you’ve pretty much caught up on the quality front, so now it’s just a question of being cool and with it.

In the meantime, be bold. Start by going down to JWT Detroit and breaking things in the account manager’s office, or something. Don’t worry, at Ford, there’s precedent for that sort of thing. Besides, J. Walter Thompson wouldn’t have put up with this crap, and neither should you. After all, last time I checked, Quality is still Job #1.

All best,

Ben Kepple

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 15, 2006

Manchester Wolves Update: They’re Better Than Bad, They’re Good!

TWO WEEKS AGO, your correspondent watched as the Manchester Wolves went down to an ignoble 59-49 defeat at the hands of the Louisville Fire. That put the Wolves, a minor-league arena football franchise here in New Hampshire, in a tough position. Basically, to have any chance at the playoffs, they would need to win their last four games of the season – not an easy task.

Well, they’re halfway towards pulling an improbable, Pittsburgh Steelers-esque comeback towards a playoff berth. Not only did the Wolves beat Green Bay last week in an amazing comeback, they pounded the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers into the astroturf on Friday night, 45-14. No, that’s not a typo: 45-14. Furthermore, the score doesn’t really do justice to how well Manchester played, and how inept Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (“WBS”) proved.

Consider: WBS didn’t manage to score until there were six minutes left on the game clock -- IN THE THIRD QUARTER. How exactly that happens in arena football is beyond me. The field’s only 50 yards long, there are only eight players on each side, and the game is passing-intensive. It’s difficult not to score. Yet WBS pointedly failed to advance the ball, even when Manchester’s endzone was just yards away. I mean, I haven’t seen a football blow-out like this since – well, actually, Cleveland’s 41-0 loss to Pittsburgh last year was worse. But not by much.

True, things started out slow – so slow, in fact, that I wondered if I’d have to award the Lady Wolf Pack Dance Team best performance honors again. You see, Manchester fumbled on the first play of the game, and WBS recovered deep in Manchester territory. Yet WBS failed to convert and turned the ball over on downs. On the next drive, Manchester’s new starting QB, Steve Bellisari, either got hit as he released a pass or the ball got tipped, resulting in an interception. But the interception was voided due to defensive holding!

Manchester was able to drive the ball down to WBS’s one-yard-line, only to screw up a running play which pushed the team back to the WBS 7. Then we missed a field goal try. Then WBS turned it over on downs again. Then, after all that, Manchester WR/DB/KR Steve “Speedy” Gonzalez finally scored a touchdown with roughly four minutes left in the first quarter.

Several WBS turnovers later, it was halftime and Manchester was leading 24-0. My sole thought at this point was: what would happen if Manchester shut out WBS? Would that be some kind of record? Would they drop confetti or launch pyrotechnics? Would WBS’s offensive coordinator get liquidated in some kind of Soviet-style purge? I didn’t know what would happen, but I was hopeful a shutout would take place.

Sadly, WBS scored in the third quarter to make the score 31-7. After some more special-teams and defensive fun, the game concluded at 45-14. A little while later, I was home and blogging; a little while after that, I discovered (via the af2 stats service) the Bossier Battle Wings actually held this year’s af2 season scoring low. The Battle Wings managed to score just three points (!) against the Tulsa Talons, who scored 72 points in their game on Apr. 22.

Anyway, here’s the recap:

MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: With only the indeterminate reward of “prizes” awaiting them, four otherwise-normal boys voluntarily moved piles of wood from one large cart to another large cart as part of a contest. It wasn’t clear exactly what the boys won, but it was proof that P.J. O’Rourke wasn’t kidding when he said age and guile beats youth and a bad haircut. This “contest” was so surreal I was expecting the “Log” theme to be played over the public-address system (and speaking of --)

MOST CRINGE-WORTHY PLAY: Late in the game, Manchester WR/LB Wendell Williams was hit with such force that it practically sent him airborne.

MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: A defensive player for WBS decided he would publicly display his own pride and joy after making a crucial stop, yet ignored the fact his team was losing 38-7.

MOST INVENTIVE HECKLER’S REMARK: “If that was holding, he would’ve had to hold the player, not hit him.”

MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE: QB Bellisari and WR Williams made for a great team during the game – particularly during one play, in which Bellisari threw a bullet of a pass to Williams, who caught it despite the two defenders in the area. It was a great play which broke any hope WBS had of recovering.

Next week, Manchester plays at Albany (5-8) – and if we win that, we’ll just have to take on the Quad City Steamwheelers (6-7). Although, as we learned this year in the NFL, that last “gimme game” can always turn out more of a challenge than one expects. We’ll see how things turn out!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:29 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 14, 2006

The Good Life, Revealed

RECENTLY, I READ this fascinating column in a Boston newspaper about a couple in the Southwest who retired in their mid-50s, travel around the country frequently, and are having the time of their lives. The fascinating part is that they're doing it on a net income of $2,000 a month.

As writer Scott Burns notes:

Jim and Chris Rett aren't rich. At least they aren't rich by the usual definition -- having lots of money. I call them Reimagined People.

Officially, they are domiciled in South Dakota, but they have never lived there for any period of time. Instead, they are ``full-timers" -- people who live in an RV and travel the country. Earlier this year they were living in Big Bend National Park. Come October, they will be moving on. Now 58 and 55, they have been full-timing for three years.

``This is a surprisingly inexpensive way to live," Jim told me. ``We're Escapees, and we spend a couple of months a year in Benson, Ariz." (Escapees is the name of the organization that provides services and campsites to full-timers and aspirant full-timers.)

How inexpensive?

Try $2,000 a month for expenses, including medical insurance, and an additional $200 a month for federal income taxes. That, he told me, is what they've averaged per month so far this year.

Two thousand a month! Gad, that's -- you know -- reasonable!

I have to say I found this story incredibly cool, even after doing my own analysis about the Retts' living situation. As Mr Burns relates, the Retts paid for all their travel equipment (truck, trailer, and so on) with cash from their home. Also, Mr Rett converted a "major part" of his savings into an immediate life annunity.

I did some back of the envelope calculations and found that a 55-year-old man could expect to pay about $350,000 for an immediate annuity paying about $27,000 per year. This would result in about $2,000 per month net of taxes.

Now, in a way, that figure is a bit disconcerting. After all, $350,000 is a lot of money to a) scrape together and b) put in an immediate annuity. After all, if one inconveniently dies, the money stops (although there are certain guarantees against that for which one can pay extra).

At the same time, though, the figure is also very heartening. It's natural for people (myself included) to look at their Magic Numbers and groan because it seems impossible they'll ever reach them. Yet this makes retirement seem both possible and fun on limited means, and that's rather nice.

(via Boston Gal's Open Wallet)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Kyrie Elesion

TRULY, THERE ARE few things more pathetic in life than a thin-skinned entertainment writer. One can only look on with pity at the poor sap who shrieks at the uncaring world for not recognizing his genius; not just long ago, when he still had dreams, but even now, when he has achieved some measure of accomplishment.

That was certainly how I felt when reading a recent essay from Mr Todd Leopold, a CNN entertainment producer. In his essay, Mr Leopold bravely but unwisely attempts to defend movie reviewers for practicing their craft. Unfortunately, he does a rather poor job of it. You see, instead of offering a well-reasoned and humble response to the craft's critics, Mr Leopold insults the general movie-going public, belittles their opinions, and generally presents himself as a preening fuckwit, viz. and to wit:

Reviewers are people, not royalty, and they aren't in the business of agreeing -- with the public, nor even with one another. They're in the business of giving you their opinion of a film. They're a guide. You can agree, you can disagree -- and you can always read somebody else.

Perhaps a small film can be damaged by bad reviews (or saved by good reviews), but a big-budget blockbuster like "Pirates" is going to do well regardless of what a critic thinks.

And yet so many readers take reviews personally, as if the reviewer impugned motherhood and not a two-hour slice of entertainment. Hey, the movie doesn't care -- it's an inanimate object, nothing more -- and as for the moviemakers, they know they're not going to please everybody.

For some reason, the idea persists that popular equals good. Popular equals popular. Few would argue that McDonald's makes the best hamburgers, or that the 1963-64 season of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is the greatest TV season of all time. They're satisfactory; they're entertaining; maybe they're good, maybe they're not.

"Good" usually lasts. The story goes that just 3,000 people bought 1967's "The Velvet Underground and Nico" when it came out, but every one of them started a band.

On the other hand, does anyone still listen to Mr. Mister's "Welcome to the Real World," one of the best-selling albums of 1986?

Kyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiie elesion! Kyyyyyyyyrrrrrrrrrr...

Oops. Sorry.

But anyway. As I said earlier, it is tough to work up anything more than pity for Mr Leopold, a balding hipster-type apparently prone to wearing tinted glasses indoors.

However, it can be done: and after a while, one can easily feel contempt for the poor schmuck. After all, Mr Leopold works for the same network which regularly airs Nancy Grace and Anderson Cooper. As such, broadcast boy has some hell of a nerve lecturing others about what's good and what isn't. I mean, this is the same network which sent out a "breaking news" e-mail announcing that Bob Denver died. Jesus Christ.

Besides, Mr Leopold's essay doesn't make much sense.

For instance, Mr Leopold claims that "big-budget blockbusters" are going to do well no matter what critics think. Well, if that were so, it would make absolutely no sense for critics to write about them. Yet bad critical reviews helped sink "The Hulk" a few years back, a movie which audiences also hated. Heck, even on a small scale -- by which I mean The Rant's "Bad Cinema With Ben" feature -- a bad review can prevent people from wasting their time and money at a bad movie. So reviews do matter and do have an impact.

Furthermore, it's only natural that people get worked up about things important to them. Why, some radio stations make amazing sums of money day after day by simply letting armchair sports fans call up and scream at each other for hours on end. This is no different.

Finally, though, there are Mr Leopold's strange views about popular culture. Mr Leopold doesn't seem willing to admit that popularity and quality can easily go hand-in-hand, and that popularity is inherently indicative of some base level of quality. After all, if a product was truly lousy, people wouldn't buy it. That state of affairs doesn't necessarily make McDonalds the best producer of hamburgers, to take one of Mr Leopold's examples, but it does mean that McDonalds' service is good enough to attract a good share of the market.

It's worth noting, by the by, that if someone really wants to pay top dollar for a top-notch hamburger, they can easily do so these days. Now, perhaps Mr Leopold, whom one can imagine likes smaller productions, might not like such an analogy applied to the movie business. But when one gets right down to it, is there really that much difference?

(via Emily Jones, who has also written an entry on the matter).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 10, 2006

Because It's Not There

AT THE END OF SUMMER, when most folks will start returning to their typical routines of school and work, I’m going on vacation to the Southwest. Ironically, my vacation will likely involve visits to places I wanted to visit when I actually lived out there, but never actually got around to visiting. You know, because I always thought I’d have the time …

But now I’m older and wiser and this fall I shall have the time. At present, I plan to spend most (perhaps all) of the trip in California – first visiting friends in Los Angeles, then heading out to Death Valley National Park, and perhaps the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park as well. Then, if time permits, it will be off to the Grand Canyon and driving around the Arizona desert.

Things are all still very tentative at this point, and my plans will depend a lot on flight schedules, hotel availability, and so on. It may be that my California trip only lasts a few days, followed up by a nice long weekend here in New England. Still, as my plan goes right now, on the second part of that trip, you can see I’m going to a lot of places because of what’s, well, not there.

Of course, I must say I’m not going to be too adventurous on the trip, at least not outside the urban settings with which I am familiar. I’ll be doing nearly all of my traveling via car, and will stay inside it except for sightseeing and what not. That’s because continued exposure to nature is foul and dangerous. Why, in certain circumstances, continued exposure to nature can prove both embarrassing and fatal.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Observe the National Park Service’s Web page on “hiking smart” in the Grand Canyon. Note how the first image involves some pasty-looking white guy on the canyon floor, laid out flat on his ass. Note how said pasty-looking white guy is receiving help from rescue crews. Furthermore, note that said pasty-looking white guy hasn’t even yet received the bill for services rendered, which officials often issue when the person being rescued is an idiot.

All of these things are not good. This is why, as a pasty-looking white guy myself, I intend to stay far and away from anything more strenuous than a brisk walk during my trip. It is also why I intend to stay as close as I can to places with the little things – indoor plumbing comes to mind – that I’ve come to consider somewhat essential in life.

On a more serious note, one thing I do plan to do prior to my trip is to pay for the thing “beforehand.” There’s a lot to be said for staying in nice places and eating out at great restaurants, but especially so when the rooms and meals have been a) paid for in advance or b) paid for with money set aside for the purpose. As with prior vacations, my plan is to take my base estimate for my costs and then double it, thus ensuring that I have extra cash to spend and very little guilt about spending it. Yeah.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 07, 2006

Celebrating What Makes America Great

THIS WEEK, Americans have paid much thought to the Fourth of July’s deeper meanings. Our Independence Day reminds us of our freedom from tyranny and our freedom to pursue happiness. It reminds us that our property and capital is protected from the wicked and the strong, and that we are free to worship God in any way we please.

Now that the holiday’s done, though, I don’t suppose it would be entirely blasphemous to cheerfully note Independence Day also means it’s roughly a month until professional football starts again.

Oh, sure, it’s the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, and the game is between the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles, but the important thing is that it’s football. No longer will I have to hope my minor-league arena football team makes the playoffs; no longer will I hunt in vain for Canadian football on television. Real football, professional football – even though it’s the pre-season – will have returned!

As such, it’s a fitting time to look at this year’s prospects for the greatest football franchise ever in the history of sport, the Pittsburgh Steelers. My prediction, which all will agree is bold and daring, is that the Steelers will win the Super Bowl again this year. Furthermore, I think we’ll do so after winning the AFC North division, and knocking out the New England Patriots somewhere along the line.

It will not be an easy task. First and foremost, this is because the Steelers play in the AFC North, the toughest division out of the eight we have in the NFL.

It’s worth noting the Cincinnati Bengals actually won the AFC North last year, with an 11-5 record. Even though Carson Palmer was hurt, he’s apparently recovering well and they remain a strong squad. They’re going to want to win it again more than ever, this year, and they’d like nothing more than to prevent Pittsburgh from reaching the playoffs.

The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens also would like nothing more than to prevent the Steelers from reaching the playoffs. Like Cincinnati, these teams hate Pittsburgh and all for which it stands. Their motivations are a little different than the Bengals’ are, but nonetheless, they want to utterly crush the Steelers and run roughshod all over Heinz Field.

The trouble for Pittsburgh is that the Browns will be good this year, perhaps even very good. As the linked article notes, they got rid of their useless quarterback, Trent “Dillweed” Dilfer, and put QB Charlie Frye in the starter’s job. They got some good defensive draft picks. Furthermore, they got WR Joe Jurevicius from the Seattle Seahawks. Jurevicius is a fine wide receiver and quite capable. Perhaps the most ominous thing of all is that the Browns’ organization seems – at least from here -- to actually have its act together. This could prove problematic if the Browns go at least 8-8, as I think they will.

One can also never count out the Ravens. Although the Ravens are an evil franchise worthy only of scorn and ridicule from decent people, they play well enough to potentially trip up the Steelers at a crucial time. They certainly pose no danger this year in terms of winning the division, but could cost Pittsburgh a much-needed win along the way.

Pittsburgh will need every win it can get. The Steelers’ trouble stems from its tough division and correspondingly tough schedule. In certain divisions (*cough* AFC South *cough*), the imbalance between teams can mean an easy four, five or even six wins for a team in a sixteen-game season. Pittsburgh has NO easy wins available to it in divisional play.

But then again, neither do the other AFC North teams. However, due to the vagarities of the scheduling process, the Bengals will have the toughest schedule of all the AFC North this season! That first place finish they were so happy about last year means they’ll play the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, while Pittsburgh gets to play the much weaker Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars. Heh.

All the AFC North teams will play the NFC South this year – yawn – but they’ll also play the AFC West, which will be exciting. The AFC West is the second-toughest division in football and there will be plenty of good games with all the AFC West teams.

Anyway, here’s my out-on-a-limb predictions for the AFC North. These will undoubtedly come back to haunt me:


Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Explaining the Unexplainable

DAVID POST, a law professor who writes for The Volokh Conspiracy blog, has put forward an interesting finance question: why the devil do business journalists write stories that attribute the day’s market moves to outside events, even when the impact of said events may prove negligible? Mr Post argues that such stories are silly:

It's complete and utter nonsense. The market did in fact fall yesterday. But how could anyone possibly know that it was due to "concerns about interest rates," or "anxiety about North Korea's missile program"? Hundreds of thousands -- millions -- of individual trading decisions go into determining whether the market goes up or goes down on any given day. I don't get it -- I really don't. Are we really so desperate to believe that we can explain everything that we take some sort of comfort from stories like these?

The comments to Mr Post’s entry are quite extensive, and offer many valid answers to his question. One writer in particular observed that in most cases, the rationales are useless, unless there was some really big news – usually about interest rates – that moved the market.

This was a spot-on observation, and one reason why I wish the various news services would limit offering rationales for why the market moved. That way, when the truly exceptional happened, readers would have no qualms about accepting it. As things stand now, one often sees market jumps or dips attributed to things which are the financial equivalent of lame excuses. That, I think, does one’s readers a disservice, particularly when it has to do with “anxiety” or “worry” about this or that.

The people who move the markets back and forth each day are not the small investors saving for the future, or the retired folks on Main Street, or your neighbors with an affinity for strange ETFs. The people who move the markets are professionals, working for institutional investors and hedge funds. They are very good at what they do. So good, in fact, that they are the last people on Earth to have concerns about anything. Where regular folks see danger, they see opportunity, and they’re not afraid to do what needs done to make a profit.

I mean, really. When you’re dealing with people who’ve figured out how to make money from trading orange juice futures, do you really think they give a flying fig about North Korea firing blanks into the ocean? Only if it makes them money.

Now, that’s not to say I’m unsympathetic to the folks writing the stories. If one looks on the wires, as Mr Post’s commenters note, one can see the market stories change as the day goes on. It’s not easy to write those stories, and a seesawing market can whipsaw the poor writer on deadline.

The stories also aren’t easy to write because of one’s audience. The journalists writing them have to balance writing for their specialist and general audiences. It’s a challenge to make things accessible to the layman yet smart enough for the professional. I think that may partially explain why we see these pat explanations attached to market stories.

Another reason for the pat explanations, as Mr Post’s commenters have noted, is because the present story-writing system doesn’t allow for “non-event events” to have an influence on the market. So even though the market moved due to things best be described as inside baseball, one still gets the North Korea explanation.

Let’s take a look at this state of affairs in depth. Here's a perfectly plausible scenario about a series of events which happen during the last hour of trading:

(1) 3 p.m.: NYSE floor trader Brant Sinclair sparks a sell-off in the United States’ broader markets after CNBC airs footage of him using a mobile phone from 1986. (2) 3:15 p.m. The sell-off deepens as hedge-fund employees in Greenwich, Conn., watch the footage and wonder what the hell happened to their lunch orders anyway. (3) 3:30 p.m. The sell-off hits its nadir as Dave Champlain, Sinclair’s arch-rival, shouts in triumph at Sinclair’s national humiliation. (4) 3:45 p.m. Calvin Murgatroyd, a managing director of trading firm Chinese Wall Zombie Bond LLC, announces to his team that he’s sick of this crap and wants to end the day on a positive note. By 4 p.m., everything is over and done – except for poor CNBC reporter Bob Pisani’s attempts to explain what happened to Maria Bartiromo in a way which causes her to finally ask some decent questions. He will fail.

OK, so that’s a bit farfetched even for Wall Street. Still, you can see the trouble here: even though the market went back and forth, it was due to entirely meaningless minutiae. But the writer still has a deadline.

Perhaps this situation could be remedied if the wire services produced two or more daily market stories, each tailored to a different audience. General readers would still get the basic summary, while specialist readers would get a numbers-heavy deeper analysis. A fine example of the latter product can be found at Investor’s Business Daily (a former employer), which has an excellent markets wrap-up. It is chock full of numbers and keeps news focused on sectors and individual equities. Rightly so.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 03, 2006

So I Just Paid $20 for Eight Bottles of Beer

THIS HAS NOT been a day for restraint here in Manchester. Not only did I start my day eating breakfast out, I stopped before work at Dunkin' Donuts and actually paid $3.55 for an orange-flavored Tropicana (TM) Coolatta (R). This beverage, which can best be described as orange juice reduced to a slush-like consistency and served in a plastic cup, is so over-priced that one can easily see why retirement experts warn daily purchases of it will mean working until the age of 80.

But God Almighty -- how good did the thing taste! The broiling sun and the wretched humidity were what made the difference this morning, and what justified the purchase. The day started out hot and it stayed hot and it remains hot even now: 81 degrees, as of about 8:45 p.m. It is the perfect time to sit back, relax, and celebrate the Fourth of July -- particularly with one of the eight bottles of beer that I purchased a few hours earlier. I bought the beer at a "select specialty beer store," by which I mean my local supermarket.

Specifically, I bought two special packages of the Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection. These four-bottle packages of specialty beer, as one learns from the company, were brewed in homage to our nation's beer-loving founders. As such, they stand as a testament to the many great virtues -- hard work, Yankee ingenuity, free markets and an abiding hatred of insane tyrannical autocrats -- which help make the United States the last, best hope of mankind. Yeah.

If you ask me, they seem like good beverages with which to celebrate the Fourth of July. So, I would invite my readers to raise a glass along with me and toast the United States of America as it turns 230 years old, and toast the principles which have truly made it a shining city on the hill for all mankind. May God bless and keep this great nation of ours.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack