November 30, 2007

ETFC Saved!

AH, SUCCESS. How I love it. As Loyal Rant Readers know, a few weeks back I bought a tiny number of shares in E*TRADE Financial Corp. (NASD:ETFC) at roughly $4.21 per share. Immediately after I did so, the stock skyrocketed and I have been completely insufferable ever since. For it was a completely speculative play but one that -- so far, anyway -- has actually paid off. Thursday, we got good news about ETFC -- at least for investors like me. Day traders, not so much. But we'll get back to that in a bit.

First, the good news. Citadel Investment Group agreed to inject some $2.5 billion in capital into E*Trade, which had been flailing about like a clothesline in a gale. The Wall Street Journal has a great story on how the deal came together -- it's really wonderful reporting. Anyway, the gist of the deal is this:


* Citadel bought E*Trade's crappy $3 billion portfolio of asset-backed securities for roughly $800 million, which works out to 27 cents on the dollar. The bad news is that E*Trade will take a $2.2 billion loss on the portfolio. The good news is that E*Trade doesn't have the damn thing hanging over its head any more, and now someone else can worry about the portfolio and its tranches (crap, super-crap, and uber-crap). And hey -- 27 cents on the dollar beats zero cents on the dollar.

* Citadel is pumping $1.75 billion into E*Trade. In return for this, Citadel will end up with roughly 20 pc of the company and get paid 12.5 pc per annum on ten-year notes. It's getting roughly 84 million shares of ETFC, which have a market value today of about $420 million. That's like the cherry on top the sundae of $1.75 billion in ten-year notes. Those notes should be very profitable in the meantime for Citadel, and could especially be so depending on how the notes are structured.

The good news is that E*Trade gets a bunch of cash it needs. The bad news is that E*Trade's managers have diluted the stock in agreeing to the deal, meaning less earnings in future for tiny shareholders like me. Also, the debt payments will reduce those earnings even further. But I don't have $1.75 billion, so I'm not complaining until my position goes under water.

* Citadel gets a seat on the board. This is good because it means the hedge fund will continually go after management to boost the company's valuation, which is good for speculators like me.


Now, the announcement of this deal also brought other things to light: perhaps most notably, it brought to light more proof that day traders are generally stupid. Particularly day traders who post messages on Internet bulletin boards. Consider: when the deal was announced, the stock shot up -- it opened at more than $6 per share. At the end of the day, the stock price actually went down and closed at $4.82 per share. Then, in after hours trading, it went back up to $5.06!

Quite frankly, I could care less because I bought in at $4.21. Furthermore, since my entire position is predicated on the assumption the whole thing could blow up tomorrow and I'll be out the whole thing, I can live with fluctuations -- and I'm happy as long as it stays above $4.22. (Well, above $5 would be nice). But my God! the caterwauling from the day traders who are getting blown out after having bought in the high $5 range!

Here are some of my favorite discussion threads on Google:


"What's moving this down ... shorts being covered?" *

(BJK: "And Ivan Ackerman -- always the wrong answer. Always.")

"Why is it falling?" **

(BJK: Key quote from discussion: "I bought this at 6.03 at opening. What do you suggest guys?Should I retain for next day trade or sell out?" Uh oh.)

"I am worried." ***

(BJK: The writer of this bought at $5.47 per share and lost $600 by COB. Now he's got a case of nerves?)


Aside from that, though, as details of the deal emerged, it became pretty clear that Citadel hit a home run in offering a deal that E*Trade felt it couldn't refuse. So I have to congratulate them on their cleverness, because it seems almost certain they'll make a boatload of profit off these transactions. Still, even with Citadel sinking its claws into E*Trade, I'm not yet convinced they have sunk deep enough to cause any lasting damage. Instead, they have probably rescued a company that was dangling from a cliff -- and now E*Trade can move forward, hopefully without too many nasty surprises in store.



* Sorry, I couldn't resist being snotty there, but it boggles the mind that an investor -- much less a speculator -- would have such a wrong impression about short-selling. I mean, there's a lot of money on the line here.

For those readers not investing-minded, a "short" seller is someone who essentially bets the price of a stock is going to go down. He borrows the shares from someone else to get the transaction started, and when he divests himself of the position he buys the shares back. Thus, if a speculator shorts 100 shares of a stock at $6 and the price drops to $4, he reaps $200 on the deal. But in buying the stock back, he contributes to its price going up, not down.

** Indeed, why does a stock fall? Truly there are as many reasons as there are grains of sand upon the beach, or as there are stars in the sky. And yet, sometimes, there is no reason at all. It just is. Become one with the ebb and flow of the market, and you will achieve enlightenment. Or you could just stop checking the price constantly, which also helps in that regard.

*** Scared money does not a good investment make. Particularly when it's, you know, an investment in the most volatile frickin' stock we've seen in years.


OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I can't emphasize how great the risks are associated with speculating in ETFC right now, so don't buy anything just because I put in a tiny amount of cash into this. I mean, my God. It's probably one of the most volatile stocks on the market today, it's bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball at a table tennis tournament, and it's still conceivable the whole thing will blow up. In short, the risk of losing money is very high and you should discuss this with an actual financial professional before you make an investment decision. Better yet, take the money and buy some nice Christmas presents for the kids.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 29, 2007

A Stranger in the House of Ayer

THERE'S A PITHY ACRONYM in the blogosphere known as RTWT -- for Read the Whole Thing. Like many pithy acronyms, it is often watered down due to overuse, and so I make a point of hardly ever using it. But there are times when articles come along that are so well-written and so thought-provoking and so bloody interesting that even I feel compelled to say -- Read the Whole Thing.

Boston Magazine has published such an article -- "A Stranger in the House of Ayer." Consider it a cautionary tale. It's a story about an old and wealthy family worth some $600 million, the outside manager who had worked for them for decades, and the alleged siphoning of nearly $60 million from that fortune. The lesson I drew from this story? If you let somebody else drive your car, make sure you keep an eye on how they handle the wheel.

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November 28, 2007

Pittsburgh Football!

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Civility, How We Miss Thee

OVER AT DEAN'S WORLD, Celia Farber wrote a nice post on the utter lack of civility which she encountered in two particular instances -- one recent, at a New York bookshop, the other at a restaurant. The first instance involved Mrs Farber bringing in books to sell at the store, in which she felt she was treated rudely by both the first employee she met and then the book-buyer; the second involved an experience with a rude waiter, who was so over-the-top in his incivility that she and her husband departed from the restaurant without settling the check.

Almost comically, this post has received a wealth of relatively snarky and rude comments.

While I do believe she and her husband ought not have walked out on the eatery -- she dropped payment off later -- I think it would certainly be appropriate in such a situation not to tip the waiter. I have only not tipped a waiter twice in my life and in both cases it was due to the overbearing wretchedness of the men in question. Normally, even with atrocious service, I'll leave 10 percent, because that's message enough; I typically leave 20 percent, and one time in a fit of generosity I even left a C-note. But if the service is truly rude and obnoxious I see nothing wrong with stiffing a waiter at a restaurant to which I'll never return.

As for the situation with the bookstore, I think Mrs Farber was right to complain about her initial reception, although I think she read too much into the book-buyer's attitude. That's just commerce, and the proper response would have been to haggle over the offer made. Still, I would have been furious had I received such an initial response upon entering the store and particularly contemptuous in return. Given that, I thought she handled the situation rather well.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Pros and Cons of the Celebrity Culture

RECENTLY, IN AN INTERVIEW with Time magazine, the writer Stephen King heaped much scorn and ridicule upon what Mr King termed America's "celebrity culture." It was a rather fascinating interview, and during it, Mr King said:

I think there ought to be some serious discussion by smart people, really smart people, about whether or not proliferation of things like The Smoking Gun and TMZ and YouTube and the whole celebrity culture is healthy. We've switched from a culture that was interested in manufacturing, economics, politics — trying to play a serious part in the world — to a culture that's really entertainment-based. I mean, I know people who can tell you who won the last four seasons on American Idol and they don't know who their fucking representatives are.

OK, Mr King, here ya go.

Of course it's not healthy -- but not for the reasons one might think.

We can start off the discussion looking at the celebrity culture of which Mr King speaks. The people, Mr King laments, pay an inordinate amount of attention to the zany antics of movie actors, pop singers and -- to a lesser extent -- sports figures. The news media and other media outlets, who have figured out that people will pay for information about these zany antics, thus focus an inordinate amount of attention on these shenanigans. The movie actors, pop singers and sports figures, who have figured out the news media and other media outlets are quite interested in them, thus indulge in more zany antics. This gives them free publicity, which translates into paid subscriptions and bunches of advertising for the media, which allows them to try to satisfy the people's insatiable lust for information about their heroes. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

Meanwhile, as the people argue incessantly about whether Britney Spears is a horrible mother, the Important Issues of the Day go unnoticed. The weak dollar and the federal deficit and efforts to reconcile the AMT and disputes over resource extraction -- to say nothing of things happening outside America's borders -- are brushed aside with the argument that only the elites care about such things, and if they are really interested in them they can buy the goddam New York Times. Meanwhile, boatloads of ink are spent disseminating the latest news about Paris Hilton, who is a celebrity yet no one can understand why.

Given this, one could argue that Americans are thus devolving into two separate camps: a technocratic elite that cares deeply about things like Federal Reserve policy and the environmental concerns surrounding extracting oil from the Rocky Mountains, and the easily-distracted commons, who care deeply about things like whether they can find naughty pictures of movie starlets on the Internet.

But I would argue this is not the case. After all, even "smart people" need a bit of brain candy once in a while, while "average Joes" often care about matters like the environment and trade issues, even if they do not take part in the political process or hold just rank-and-file jobs in the economy. There is no reason why one cannot be interested in both subjects, even if the interest in one or the other may seem mystifying to an observer. Furthermore, American culture has long been interested in celebrities -- arguably, ever since the Roaring Twenties, when the entertainment industry and an increasingly well-off public really discovered each other. And even before that, most people were not interested in the weighty subjects of the day, as H.L Mencken observed so wittily.

So why are things different now? I would argue the inordinate focus on celebrities we see today is the direct result of alienation among the American people -- alienation that exists among all economic classes and people of all social backgrounds. To borrow from Kissinger, it is much easier to focus on trivial matters because the stakes are so small. After all, one's life is not going to change tomorrow if one's favorite actress dyes her hair green, or one's favorite quarterback gets caught fighting dogs. Thus it is much easier to be interested in such things.

It is also worth noting this inordinate focus comes as people move away from the traditional support structures this society has offered its people -- the Church, the family, the Government. When people turn away from those support structures, they inevitably look for something to fill the void and the celebrity culture fits the bill. We can see how the celebrity culture has risen even as religiosity, family bonds and trust in Government have waned.

This trend is also apparent in certain aspects of our celebrity culture, which is much different than the culture extant in the pre-war and post-war periods in terms of the aspirations people have.

Back in the Fifties and early Sixties, as various scholars have noted, people aspired to act like the rich, who were well-regarded in society. Thus, people read literature and took an interest in classical music and generally worked to get on board with what society deemed proper. Today, on the other hand, popular culture is very much a reflection of the various troubles affecting the poor: glorification of the street life, glorification of violence and criminality, glorification of consumption and petty decadence. Back in the day, stars were rich and they acted like it. Today, stars are rich, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one who knew the meaning of, or would even flinch at, the age-old insult of parvenu. Thus the only aspiration for regular folks is economic -- they want a bathroom they can play baseball in, as the popular song puts it, and hang everything else.

That, I think, also ties in directly with the economic uncertainty many Americans face: something I would argue reaches well into the upper-middle class. After all, how many people out there actually feel secure in this day and age? I certainly do not, and I daresay I am in a much better position than most (the whole bachelor/no kids thing helps). This, I would submit, is a further level of alienation that separates people from their society. They don't trust the Government, they worry about their jobs and their employment, and their financial situation is -- if not precarious -- at least not where they want it to be.

So if people don't have faith in their own situation, don't have faith in themselves, don't have faith in God, don't have faith in their jobs, and don't have faith in the Government, they turn to the one place where they can have faith, or something that does a fair enough job of approximating it: their favorite stars. They feel they can depend on them because they have nothing else on which to depend. I would also argue people with an inordinate interest in celebrities also probably are lacking in conviction about themselves.

And this is a tragedy. It really is. As such, I find it tough to blame the "celebrity culture" for our problems when its ascendancy is a direct result of society's other institutions dropping the ball.

The way I see it, any solution to this problem -- if one considers it a problem -- must be two-fold. The first, and more important part, must involve Americans getting themselves on a better footing. If Americans rediscovered the values of living frugally, and religiosity, and a strong family, I think people would generally be better off -- or at least have a lot less to worry about. The second part involves society's institutions doing a better job at reaching out to a populace that clearly is in a lot of need. Religious groups need to be more effective, Government needs to be more competent, and businesses need to be more in tune with the communities in which they do business.

OK, thus endeth today's lesson. Which is good, because now I'm depressed. To cheer myself up, I'm going to get work started on another search-engine query post. Yeah.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 27, 2007

Attention K-Mart Shopp -- AAAAAAAAAAAAA!

OH BOY! OUR FIRST GOOD Christmas-season shopping fight! This story comes from the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, in which angry shoppers got into a fist-fight over a credit card promotion deal. This soon turned into a giant brawl after several men intervened in the initial fight between two women. Among the injured was a poor store employee, who got smacked in the face and went flying through a glass display case. The man suffered a broken nose and the lacerations one would expect from flying through a glass display case.

Now the fun part of the story, as I see it, is that it shows the suburb of Wauwatosa, Wisc., has a lot of stupid people or attracts them like a flame attracts moths. Apparently, the fight started after a rush on credit-card applications, as a computer glitch approved everyone applying for the card -- even if they shouldn't have qualified. This somehow turned into the idea that K-Mart was giving away free money, as WISN-TV reports:

Nearly a dozen Wauwatosa squad cars responded to the call just before 11 a.m. Saturday for what was called a large fight in progress.

"It was a nice brawl. It came from inside to outside. If you go up there, you'll see hair, earrings, all pulled out on the ground," Wilson said.

What started as a fight between two women in the crowded store evolved when several men intervened.

A store employee got punched in the nose and crashed through a glass display case. He was treated for a broken nose and various cuts.

Two suspects, a 22-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy, were arrested, accused of battery.

Meantime, Kmart is still trying to clear up the credit card mess.

Two employees confirmed for police that anyone who applied was being given instant credit -- from $850 up to $4,000. They also told police that people started calling other people to the store for so-called free money. The store ran out of credit applications.

Really, now. What kind of moron equates a credit card offering with free money? While the K-Mart folks were giving away $10 to anyone who applied for the card, it seems clear from the story that the "free money" designation referred to the credit offering. If that's the case, this level of financial illiteracy is shocking. However, I am glad to see that at least one enterprising soul cleverly figured out a way to profit from the situation -- and it wasn't the folks at K-Mart:

One witness told police someone went to another Kmart, got some applications there and was selling them in the Wauwatosa Kmart parking lot for $20 apiece.

Kmart would not comment on how many people got the credit cards who shouldn't have or how much merchandise they were able to buy with them.

Now that's clever -- selling credit applications for $20 each! I hope this smart individual -- who was clearly the most intelligent of the entire bunch at the Wauwatosa K-Mart -- took him- or herself out to a very nice steak dinner afterwards. Let's just hope the credit-card companies don't figure this one out, or we could see yet another fee show up on our bills.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 26, 2007

This Had Best Be Some Kind of Sick Joke

THE OLD SAW has it that one buys on rumor and sells on news. Of course, that also works the other way around: sell on rumor and buy on news. To be perfectly frank, this rumor scares the hell out of me: Kirk Ferentz, of Iowa, could be Michigan's next football coach.

(slow motion)
(/slow motion)

Sorry. This is clearly an "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" moment. Please, God, let this not be true. Please let it be a trial balloon cleverly designed to see if the people would stand for such a thing. Please let Michigan actually conduct a normal search and get a coach that doesn't suck, like Les Miles. Please don't let Michigan figure a way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory once again.

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

The First Credit Crunch

AS THE CREDIT CRUNCH continues to keep Wall Street mired in a financial morass, it's worth noting that credit crunches -- and the economic contractions that have gone with them -- have been with us for millenia. In the Middle Ages, the Fugger bank was one of just several major banking operations that was thrown for a loss when its risky loans to warmongering princes -- the original subprime loans -- went bad. Before that, the economy of the late Roman Empire was ruined due to runaway inflation. Long before that, the famed archon Solon of Athens threw a giant monkey wrench into the city-state's works when, through governmental fiat, he abolished all debts in the early 6th century BC.

However, interestingly enough, Yale finance professor William Goetzmann has noted perhaps the first recorded instance of a credit crunch in 1788 BC, in no less a place than the ancient city-state of Ur.

In a particularly interesting work (see link), Prof Goetzmann relates the case of the ancient businessman Dumuzi-gamil, who became wealthy through building large bakeries and lending silver at high rates of interest. While the Government at the time had lending caps in place -- interest on loans could not top 20 pc -- enterprising types like Dumuzi-gamil got around this through arranging short-term loans, generally between one and three months in length. But in 1788, Prof Goetzmann notes, it all went down the drain when local warlord Rim-Sin decided to abolish all debts, throwing the once-thriving financial markets of Ur into chaos and pretty much destroying the economic engine of the city.

But wait, you say. Who the devil was this Rim-Sin, king of Larsa? Well, there's a reason no one has ever heard of him: it's because the great Hammurabi, the guy who handed down all the laws (with death being the typical punishment), came along and kicked his ass a couple of decades later. Of course, had Rim-Sin not ruined his local economy, he might have been able to raise the capital to raise an army capable of defeating Hammurabi. But there is little in the historical record that suggests the economy came back to life anytime soon: about all that exists in the record after 1788, as Prof Goetzmann notes, are lawsuits.

It is perhaps a bit harsh to condemn the ancients for their lack of knowledge about economics and finance, as the knowledge we have today of those subjects far outpaces that which they had. For instance, the quantity theory of money -- the basis for understanding inflation -- wasn't first guessed at until the 16th century, when people finally drew the connection between rising prices and all the precious metals coming over from New Spain. The math of probability wasn't really known until the 17th century, which was also when the joint-stock company was formally developed. Price controls have never worked, as Diocletian famously found out back in the third century, yet up until the 1970s the Western world at times seemed to think they were a good idea.

Still, this sad saga from long ago holds many lessons for people today. For instance, the easy way out is not always the best way out. Hopefully, folks will keep that in mind when considering how to address Wall Street's present dilemma.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 25, 2007

Today's Football Needs a Bit of Rouge

LOYAL RANT READERS might be surprised to hear this from me, but there are some weeks in the midst of the NFL season when even I have trouble mustering up excitement for the greatest sport on earth. This is one of those weeks. Here in New England, we have two early games on tap: Buffalo v. Jacksonville, and Minnesota v. the New York Giants. Both of these games are less than special -- Jacksonville is beating Buffalo, as one might expect, while the Giants are getting their heads handed to them. Admittedly, this is kind of fun: the trouble is that the Vikings are doing the head-handing, and so it's kind of pathetic.

The late game isn't much better: Baltimore v. San Diego. I think we all know what's probably going to happen here, considering that this year, evil Baltimore stinks. So it will be enjoyable to watch for the first quarter or so, until Baltimore falls apart and San Diego runs to glory. The Sunday night game between the Pats and the Eagles will suck, and although I will watch the Monday night game between the quasi-glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and the lowly Miami Dolphins, I will be one of the few in America to do so.

In times like these, you've got to look elsewhere for excitement. Thus, at 5:30 EST, I'm going to watch my beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Grey Cup in beautiful Toronto. It may not be American football but it's championship football and we're a few weeks away from that down here in the States. The game is being broadcast on NESN in New England; check your local listings to see if the game is available near you.

Oh, and the entertainment is sure to be, uh, different, in that Canadian way.

For those readers unfamiliar with the joys of Canadian football, here's a quick summary of the differences between it and American football:

FIELD SIZE: The Canadian game is played on a field 110 yards (100 m) long, known as a "metric football field." This is in keeping with the Canadians' weird use of the metric system.

DOWNS: In Canadian football, you get three downs to go 10 yards, not four. This means there's a lot more passing than in American football.

PLAYERS: Each team has twelve men out playing, as opposed to 11. This is a convenient way for the Canadians to make sure they have more actual Canadians on their teams. Also, it makes it different. Canadians are big on being different from Americans, even if those differences are only noticeable to them.

SCORING: If you kick the ball into the endzone but miss the uprights, it counts for a point, meaning you can score on a kickoff or a missed field goal. This is in keeping with the Canadian tradition of being nice and forthright even when a team fails miserably.

Anyway, in three hours' time I am going to be rooting on the Melonheads to victory. Hope you'll consider doing the same, as it might just be the only decent football game available in much of the country today.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 24, 2007

Firing Blanks

Oh No!
It's Time For Yet Another Installment of ...

Today's Feature: "Hitman"

Plot Spoilers Ahead

IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME since I have written up a "Bad Cinema With Ben" feature -- more than a year, actually -- but I am pleased to report that finally, I have come across a movie bad enough to write about. The dearth of posts on this subject was primarily the result of me watching good movies, which aren't as fun to write about because everyone else has already said everything that needs said.

Of course, I could have watched a good movie Friday after I got out of work -- and "Hitman" would certainly be my third choice if one looks at the eight choices on offer at the theater. Let's look at the list.

Four of the films were out of contention immediately. "Bee Movie?" It's been done. "Fred Claus?" So. Not. Money. "Enchanted?" Wikipedia called it a "comedy-fantasy-musical," and I'll pass. Then, last but not least on the immediately out-of-contention list, was "Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium." Given the title, I initially thought what any right-thinking American would think -- that the movie took place in and around a seedy Brooklyn sex shop, the type of place where people furtively buy adult novelties and pay quarters to watch pornographic videos. However, as it turned out, this movie was actually some sort of family film. That also ruled it entirely out of contention.

Next on the list was "Beowulf." I would have been down for Beowulf except Grendel's mother somehow turned into Angelina Jolie, and as such was treason to the old epic. Grendel's mother is not supposed to be hot, even if she's hot in a way I don't particularly dig. Then, you had "The Mist" -- my No. 2 choice on the list. But then I remembered that old Stephen King story scared the hell out of me back in elementary school and there was no frickin' way I was going to bring back those memories. Finally, you had "American Gangster," which I should have watched because it was clearly the best movie at the multiplex. But the showing was too late and the movie is like three hours long and by the time it had finished I would have been due for afternoon tea, and that would not have worked. So I went with "Hitman."

The previews to "Hitman" were particularly uninspiring. First, there was a trailer for "I am Legend," which involves Will Smith as the sole survivor of a horrible plague which has turned everyone else into crazed mutants. Gee. This sounds familiar. Then there was a trailer for "Jumper," a movie about annoying people with the ability to teleport. I am not a fan of superhero movies, so I thought this looked dumb. Also, there was a trailer for "Wanted," yet another uninspiring movie about some lame-o who discovers that his father was an assassin and gets recruited into a shadowy agency that apparently conducts assassinations as part of its work. This movie also had Angelina Jolie in it, which didn't impress me.

Thus, a question: why is it all of a sudden we're seeing myriad television shows and movies about lame-o beta males getting drafted into the service of shadowy Government agencies that conduct intelligence work? I can only assume they are popular and indicative of market demand for such product, but nonetheless I find them disturbing. Quite frankly, I do not want lame-o beta males anywhere near shadowy Government agencies that conduct intelligence work. Shadowy Government agencies that conduct intelligence work are expensive, and as a taxpayer, I want maximum value for my killing-America's-enemies dollar. Get some Navy SEALs in there or something, not some whiny sunken-chested 24-year-old who will get all antsy and angst-ridden about knocking off Castro. Simply put, I want to see leaders in these movies, not some hormone-addled snot whose attraction to the alpha female lead brings to mind Charles Colson's famous quip: "Grab 'em by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow."

Along these lines, I was particularly annoyed with the "Wanted" trailer because it openly pandered to soft and weak notions about the meaning of power. Morgan Freeman's character, who is apparently Chief Spook in the film, delivers a lame soliloquy about how one can decide to be a "sheep" or "wolf," the former living a boring life in an office environment and the latter being a maverick and thinking outside the box and committing various violations of the U.S. Code. Now, perhaps it's just me, but this is kind of pathetic. Unmanly is what it is. In this day and age, power is not about blowing stuff up or driving dangerously -- power is about not having to raise one's voice.

But I digress. We were discussing "Hitman," were we not? Yes. Anyway: stupid, stupid film. One would think by now that Hollywood would have realized that you have to make the movie first and then develop the video game to make a boatload of cash, not the other way around. Yet here we were with another video game-turned-movie franchise. Oy vey.

Anyway, here's the plot. Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) is a master assassin who was trained from birth to do this work in some evil mystical school devoted to producing master assassins. No location for this school is ever shown, but it's fair to say it's in Secaucus, N.J. Anyway, after Agent 47 goes through his training, his evil masters inexplicably tattoo a bar code on the back of his bald head. I'm sorry, but what the hell's that all about?

TRAINER ONE: Quality control wants us to do what?
TRAINER TWO: We've got to tattoo UPC symbols on the back of everybody's head. Didn't you see the memo?
TRAINER ONE: What memo? Jesus Christ, I work for the funny farm. That's the stupidest --
TRAINER TWO: Well, if they wanted your opinion, they'd've asked for it, wouldn't they?
TRAINER ONE: Help me out here. We've spent millions training this kid and now we're going to put a freshness seal on his head?
TRAINER TWO: Yes, and we've got to do 40 by the end of the week. Now get the needle ready.

I mean, come on. Right there we've crossed the line into Cosmic Stupidity of the Highest Order. I'm sorry, but if you're training master assassins, the last thing you're going to do is put an identifying seal on them that everyone's going to notice. Of course, no one ever notices the fact Agent 47, nor any of the other hired blades, has a goddamn proof of purchase seal in plain sight on the back of their heads. This is just dumb.

Anyway, despite having an even worse disguise than Clark Kent, Agent 47 is very good at what he does. He is so good at what he does that he has come to the attention of Interpol and various Government agencies. Interpol is annoyed with Agent 47 because he's going around killing people and causing property damage and assaulting customs officials. Various Government agencies like Agent 47 because he's a subcontractor, and allows them to do their work without having to pay the salary and benefits associated with full-time help.

We learn early on in the film that Agent 47 has been hired to do away with the President of Russia, who is not Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He does so impressively, yet we soon learn he has not killed the President, but rather a body double. Or vice versa, I couldn't tell which. Anyway, Agent 47 realizes he has been set up and now has to escape a rather nasty situation.

Into this mix comes the intrepid investigators from Interpol -- which represents our second Cosmic Leap of Stupidity. This is because Interpol, being an international agency, has no power at all. About all it can do is ask really nicely for people to keep an eye out for nasty criminals operating across borders, and even then it's a crapshoot. Yet here we have Interpol agents rushing about and giving orders to -- wait for it -- the Russian FSB.

Now, in real life, this would be the end of the movie, because the FSB officers would shoot the Interpol guys and send a mesage back to Interpol HQ saying, "Oops." Yet through the entire film the Interpol guys rush about and try to catch Agent 47, whom as we noted has a giant frickin' UPC code on the back of his head.

Agent 47, meanwhile, realizes he has been set up and absconds from the scene with the girlfriend of the late/not yet dead Russian leader, who for some reason is in St. Peterburg and not Moscow. This leads to a variety of implausible chases and fist-fights and explosions. Along the way, Agent 47 manages to dispatch several of his targets to Hades in a variety of inventive ways. He then sets in motion an elaborate plan to kill the Russian president, who may or may not be a body double, and the President's scumbag brother, who is engaged in the traditional Russian profession of arms-dealing. This eventually leads to an enjoyable scene in which a helicopter gunship strafes a cathedral. The triumphant Interpol investigators capture Agent 47, who then escapes, thanks to the benificence of his friends in the American Government. The movie ends with Agent 47 cleverly faking his own demise to fade back into the shadows.

There are a lot of negative things one can say about this movie, even if it wasn't horrendously bad in terms of its acting. The plot was stupid. The script was stupid. The idea was stupid. Oh, and the bar code bit? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Quite frankly, the whole thing reminded me of that story a while back about the crazy Canadian guy who got charged with killing a bunch of people, yet was let into the United States with a blood-encrusted chain saw. It's entirely possible Agent 47 could have gotten away from The Powers That Be's notice one single and solitary time, but beyond that, the guy was going to end up in a cement mixer.

It's a shame this movie didn't end up in a cement mixer, but was instead greenlighted with a reported $70 million budget. It has thus far returned $8 million, according to Box Office Mojo, in the past two days. Perhaps when all is said and done, the only folks taking one between the eyes will be those who bankrolled "Hitman."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 20, 2007

Winter: A Musical Interlude



Sung to the tune of "Karn Evil 9"
(with apologies to Emerson, Lake & Palmer)


to the snow that never ends
We're so glad you could attend,
stay inside, stay inside!
Look outside the glass and see the icy cold morass;
see all the drivers crash, move along, move along!

Get inside, the snow's about to start
It'll blow your sinuses apart!
Rest assured there's no reason to delay
though the snow's staying until late May
You've got to see the snow, it'll make you throw
You've got to see the snow, it's damp and cold, oh --

Right before your eyes, see the cursing from the guys;
and they laugh until they cry, and they cry, and they cry.

Get inside, the snow's about to start
It'll blow your sinuses apart!
You've got to see the snow, it'll make you throw
You've got to see the snow, it's damp and cold, oh --

Soon the driving teens in giant SUVs
will around the streets careen, what a scene, what a scene;
Next upon the roads -- you'll want to lay real low --
are the speeding maniacs, foot on gas, foot on gas

Roll up! Roll up! Roll up!
See the snow!

Driving 'round like tools are these imbecilic fools
cut you off on the freeway, lose your cool, lose your cool;
We would it like to be known the idiots who were mocked
make life a living hell -- yes, just hell -- yes, just hell.

Come and see the snow! Come and see the snow!
Come and see the snow!
See the snow!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 18, 2007

Ave Maria!



*** ENDITEM ***


AVE MARIA! TE DEUM LAUDAMAS! The Associated Press has reported that Lloyd Carr, the University of Michigan's football coach, has decided to retire on Monday. Carr confirmed his decision to the news agency in a telephone call on Sunday.

I know that some of my readers may take the position that God Does Not Care About Football, but the way I see it, He has answered my prayers and those of so many other Michigan fans. It took a while, of course, but who am I to question His authority on the matter? Clearly, Michigan fans have been wandering in the desert for many years now and surely the promised land awaits us. One can only hope that Les Miles will lead us there.


SPEAKING OF AVE MARIA -- check out this hit on poor Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan. Amazingly, the Eagles managed to beat the Clemson Tigers on Saturday night despite this hit, which incredibly enough did not knock Ryan out cold. I mean, my God.


IN OTHER FOOTBALL NEWS, I am pleased to report the Saskatchewan Roughriders, my team in the Canadian Football League, defeated the British Columbia Lions today to advance to the Grey Cup. They shall play the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL's championship game.

Those readers who follow the CFL -- surely some of you must -- are undoubtedly a bit surprised to see Winnipeg make it into the championship. Winnipeg went 8-10 this year and was clearly the third-best of the four teams in the CFL's eastern division. But they defeated both Toronto and Montreal and have made it to the final. Saskatchewan, on the other hand, turned in a solid 12-6 performance and after squeaking by in their playoff opener against the Calgary Stampeders, knocked out the hated Lions today. Glory!

The Rant, for the record, expects the Roughriders to emerge victorious in Toronto. 29-18 sounds like a good score.


SO TODAY AT BILLY'S SPORTS BAR WAS INTERESTING -- from the moment I walked in at 1 p.m. Consider this conversation between me and Hapless Browns Fan Rick:

ME: You had a tough week last week.
HAPLESS BROWNS FAN RICK: (narrows eyes, glares)
ME: I know it was a tough loss.
ME: OK, fine, I'm not unhappy the Steelers won!
HAPLESS BROWNS FAN RICK: Oh, man, we should've won that.

But the Cleveland Browns DID manage to win today in a downright thrilling game against the Baltimore Ravens. It may seem strange for the words "downright thrilling" to be associated with a match between the Ravens and the Browns, but boy! What a game! The ending was especially good, considering the last-second field goal which forced the game into overtime. Sadly, I don't think the clip of this field goal is on-line, but dig this:

Browns kicker Phil Dawson launches the rock on a 51-yard field goal attempt as time runs out. Dawson's kick flies up, hits the goal post and bounces inside the goal, hits the post leading into the crossbar and bounces out into the endzone. It took the referees about five minutes to decide that since the ball made it through the goal posts -- if ever so slightly -- that it was good. The Browns went on to win in overtime with a much easier field goal try.

That in itself pretty much wraps up the weekend's football news, and ---


What? That's it. Nothing more to see here! Let's go! Move along!

READERS: Uh, didn't the Steelers play today?

No! Not at all! They're playing ... uh, Tuesday! Yeah, Tuesday!

READERS: Last time we checked they were playing the New York Jets.

Do we really have to discuss this now? I mean -- look over there! The Buffalo Bills are only two touchdowns behind the New England Patriots! What? Oh, all right. Fine. Let's talk about the Steelers.

You know, I'm wondering if in fact this may not be our year after all. There are some games where we show up and play spectacularly and crush our opponents. Then there are games like today, when we lost to the New York Jets. THE NEW YORK JETS, FOR PETE'S SAKE.

I mean, this was a team that was 1-8 coming into the game. ONE AND EIGHT. This was a team that could do absolutely nothing prior to this week. Then we show up and the Jets go gangbusters on us. Of course, they were aided by the fact that a) our famed defense decided to take the week off; b) our offensive line continues to get overpowered and c) our special teams aren't very special. By "aren't very special," I mean "completely and utterly atrocious" and "deserving of someone getting their walking papers on Monday."

I mean, come on. Even though we were playing the Jets, it was an important game for us to win. After all, we're now only one game ahead of the Browns for the division title, and we're a game behind the Colts for the second bye spot in the AFC. We're playing ourselves out of the bye spot and at the rate we're going, we're going to wreck our own season. I can only hope Coach Tomlin opens an industrial-sized barrel of whoopass at practice this week and starts reminding the players why they're paid so well. Because if we have this conversation next week after we play Miami, we're going to have some problems.

Finally, I would note one other thing. As I watch the Patriots deliver a beatdown against the Bills, I've noticed that Tom Brady -- although amazingly accurate with his passes, as usual -- is whining to the officials a lot. I can only hope the Steelers defense gives him a hell of a lot to complain about Dec. 9. But you know, I'm not too optimistic about that right now.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:37 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

And Now, Some Good News on the Currency Front

PERHAPS THE MOST FASCINATING thing about the continuing fall of the U.S. dollar's value, at least to me, is how it has moved from a strictly financial matter to one recognized in popular culture. Consider that the dollar's weakness compared to the Canadian dollar has just been lampooned in The Onion, America's premier humor magazine; and the clever rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter has just produced a music video in which the currency of admiration is not $100 bills, but €500 notes. And Mr Carter is not alone among celebrities in singing the praises of the continent's currency.

As with any financial development that suddenly receives public notice, there is plenty of associated wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. That makes it especially important to take the long view of this situation and avoid the emotional highs and lows that go along with it.

For many Americans -- including me -- there is a knee-jerk emotional reaction that goes with having a weak dollar. It is bad enough we must always listen to the Europeans gripe and moan about how the backward Yankee imperialist hypercapitalist running dogs are screwing everything up, but even more annoying is that their foofy currency -- once worth a pleasing U.S. 86 cents about five years ago -- is now worth roughly $1.47. The dollar once bought 32 Russian roubles and now only buys 25, it once bought 120 Japanese yen and now buys 110; and when it once bought nearly $1.60 Canadian, it now buys a mere 97 Canadian cents. This last item is particularly galling for me; as a college student I remember going to Canada with my strong dollars and spending loonies like they were pesos. No more. No more.

I mean, it's getting to the point where Americans have to hold their tongues when the Europeans and others start in with their myriad complaints, and that's frustrating as all get out. It's kind of like that episode of "The Simpsons" where the family, to raise money, turns their home into a boarding house for snotty German tourists. They may act up, but we can't do anything about it because we need their euros. And pounds and loonies and rand and francs.

However, taking the long-term view of this situation tends to blunt these emotional and irrational fears. After all, in most cases the immutable laws of economics are driving the situation, so there is no use getting upset over things that are far beyond the ability of anyone to change. Also, while the fall in the dollar's value does make goods from abroad more expensive, when was the last time you bought something other than wine, food or high-end clothing products from Europe? Most people would have trouble recalling such a situation, since Americans generally buy imports (clothes, electronics, vehicles) produced in Asia or Latin America.

For most Americans, the only true downside to the fall in the dollar thus far is that it makes it more expensive to vacation in Europe. But again: how many Americans have actually been to Europe? 10 pc? Five? Plus, one can argue that so far, only America's upper and upper-middle classes are the ones really feeling the bite of this, since they're the only ones buying Bordeaux and Roquefort and expensive frippery.

Of course, there are risks if the dollar keeps falling (STAG-FLATION!) and it is possible, although certainly not yet probable, we could find ourselves in some horrible Seventies-era economic malaise as a result. But the risks to the rest of the world are far more pressing. Already our exports are becoming more competitive and our manufacturing sector is starting to rebound. If their currencies keep rising, it will inevitably wreck their economies and leave us in the driver's seat once again. That's enough to make a $1.60 or $1.70 euro tolerable, if you ask me.

In the meantime, it's worth noting there are plenty of countries out there whose currencies aren't rising against the dollar. True, many of these nations are complete basket cases, which means they're not exactly good tourist destinations. But some of these nations are relatively prosperous, enjoyable to visit, have ancient and rich cultures, wonderful food and delightful people.

Mexico is clearly at the top of this latter list, and I would encourage Americans to consider taking their vacations there; not so much in Cancun but rather places like San Miguel de Allende and Tlaxcala and Zihuatanejo. I must admit surprise the Mexican tourism authorities haven't gone full-press in promoting the relative inexpense of traveling in Mexico. But I've an idea in this regard:

Hey, you never know -- it might just work!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Dia Tarde, Bolivar Corto

WE HAVE LEARNED from The Associated Press that Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, has demanded an apology from His Majesty, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, following His Majesty’s very public rebuke of Col Chavez at last week’s Ibero-American summit in Chile.

For those who don’t immediately recall the diplomatic donnybrook, Col Chavez was in the midst of delivering one of his rhetoric-fueled harangues when the rather annoyed king intervened. Col Chavez had declared the former prime minister of Spain, Mr Jose Maria Aznar, a fascist, a move which understandably prompted protest from Spain’s current premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. As Col Chavez held his ground and insisted upon the rightness of his position, His Majesty entered into the fray, asking Col Chavez, “Why don’t you shut up?” and emphasizing his point with a finger directed at the colonel.

This was an especially damning comment because of the way His Majesty delivered his rebuke, which the American press missed but other journalists did not. The king’s exact words were, “Por que no te callas?” – “Why don’t you shut up?” However, in doing so, it is worth noting he addressed a fellow head of state with the tuform, which added a whole ‘nother dimension to his remark. Now, I suppose if one is the King of Spain, one can tutear anyone one wishes. Still, it was an added little dig -- and perhaps the best way to thus translate His Majesty’s remark is, “Son, why don’t you shut up?”

For in Spanish – just as in French and many other tongues descended from Latin – there are different ways to say the same thing.* The usted form is formal whilst the tu form is informal. Thus, one would use the formal term when talking with one’s supervisor at work, while using the informal term when talking to the six-year-old child of one’s supervisor at a company picnic. It’s similar to how in English, one calls one’s boss at work “sir” or “Mister” until he is given permission otherwise.

Of course, in the United States, it’s understandable how such a distinction would get lost in translation. Such formalities have long gone by the wayside, to the point where with many people, they get annoyed with being called “sir” or “Mister.” Why this is, I don’t know, although I suspect it has to do with the fact it serves as an unpleasant reminder of the recipient’s own age. I mean, it certainly depresses me when I hear it from someone, even though it automatically earns bunches of style points in my book.

His Majesty’s rebuke of Col Chavez, as Loyal Rant Readers also might expect, earned bunches of style points in my book. Col Chavez’s continued involvement in politics became tiresome long ago. It is one thing if he continues to wreck his own country but another thing entirely if he goes about spouting his backward ideas within earshot of rational leaders elsewhere. This goes especially when one considers Col Chavez called a democratically elected leader of Spain a fascist, which is particularly rich given that up until the Seventies, Spain was sadly rather familiar with that ilk.

This makes Col Chavez’s demand now for an apology from His Majesty a bit much. He has apparently claimed he never heard nor saw the king deliver his rebuke. However, since the incident was captured on camera, and the king made a point of jumping in during Mr Zapatero’s more measured response to the colonel, and the king was all of twenty feet away, this seems difficult to believe. On the other hand, it may be possible the colonel did not hear the king’s remark. After all, Col Chavez did not launch into an hour-long harangue condemning Spain for everything under the sun, which one would have expected from this third-rate disciple of the Maximum Leader. But on the whole I would think that Col Chavez’s demand for an apology is a day late and a dollar short. Or, if you like, 2,147 bolivars short.

* Also, do remember: ditez vous quand vous parlez une dame.

RELATED: Dude! We don't want your crappy sour crude.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 17, 2007

A Disappointing End to a Disappointing Season

WELL, THAT'S THAT. Michigan ended its disappointing college football season with a disappointing loss to the evil Ohio State Buckeyes, marking the sixth such Michigan loss in the last seven games between the two squads. While the Michigan Wolverines will still go to a bowl game this year, it will undoubtedly be an ugly game. Barring some kind of miracle, Michigan will probably go to the Capital One Bowl, and meet a powerful team from the Southeastern Conference. The way the Wolverines have played in big games this year, the as-yet undetermined but still hated SEC squad will crush us mercilessly.

There's been talk this will be Lloyd Carr's last year as Michigan's football coach, and I can only pray to God that will be the case. During the game, Musburger and Herbstreit were going on about how Michigan fans should look at Carr's "whole body of work" over the past ten years or so. However, for most of the past several years, Carr's work has been a disappointment. His continued failure to beat Ohio State and win big bowl games are perhaps the most telling highlights of his recent coaching career, and one can only hope he will see the writing on the wall and retire. If he does not retire he should be cashiered. It is not going to get any better with him as the boss.

While the coaches certainly can be blamed for their stupid play calling and general ineptitude over the years, there is no denying Michigan's players did not stand up to the task before them today. Henne at least had an excuse: a separated shoulder. Hart at least had an excuse: the ankle problem. But the miserable failure of other players -- such as Mario Manningham, who suddenly forgot how to catch a football -- to perform up to par cannot be excused. They blew it. Some of them blew it for the fourth year in a row. I can appreciate Musburger and Herbstreit's charity, but college football at Michigan is not a realm where one should expect to receive it. I mean, it says something when you look at Michigan's play and one can make a case for punter Zoltan Mesko to be Michigan's most valuable player.

That said, it is hard to blame the defense for falling down on the job; they did the best they could, and they only gave up 14 points to the Buckeyes. It was the craptacular play of the offense that was truly hideous. The Wolverines' offense was lucky to clear 100 yards of offense during the game, Henne's completion percentage was awful and our offensive line got their heads handed to them.

One can only hope Michigan -- with a new coach, a new recruiting class and a clean slate -- can perform better in 2008 than they did this year. It was only two years ago they went 7-5 -- an appalling performance for a Michigan squad -- and this year they turned in an 8-4 performance in a season that was stillborn, thanks to the Appalachian State loss. So stick a fork in this season and let's get ready for the next one, because the sooner I can forget this disaster of a year the better.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:46 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

November 14, 2007

Atlanta Man Pilloried as Jerk for Water Use

AS THE SOUTHEAST suffers through an extreme drought, an Atlanta man has been pilloried as a selfish jerk for using some 440,000 gallons of water in October at his palatial home. This amount of water, we learn from no less a source than ABC News, is roughly equal to the water use of 60 average homes in the area. As one might expect, this story has infuriated pretty much everyone in greater Atlanta.

The man in question, Mr Chris G. Carlos, had attempted to hide from the inquiring press, but things apparently got so bad that he issued a statement basically saying: I had no idea I was using so much water, and I'm going to reduce my use accordingly. Apparently, he has already cut back to roughly 121,000 gallons per month, which is about as much as 10 typical homes use. So that's a start, I guess. He does have a very nice home with very nice landscaping and a pool, so I'm not going to criticize the guy too much, even if he probably should have thought about this sooner. I mean, when the governor is organizing prayer services to ask for relief, that's kind of a tip off that all isn't well.

Speaking of thinking about things sooner, I daresay Mr Carlos would have noticed how much water he had been using if prices had been adjusted accordingly to discourage excess consumption. Why the local water authority has not taken such a strong stance is beyond me. According to the Cobb County Water System, there are five tiers of use for residential customers -- ranging from $2.29 per thousand gallons for up to 8,000 gallons to $5 per thousand gallons for customers using more than 50,000 gallons per month. (The top two tiers had their prices recently adjusted upwards, from $2.98 per thousand gallons, but that's clearly no salt off one's back for a customer using that much water).

Now, I am no expert in water use, but it seems to me the proper way to discourage consumption is to enact a heavy price for excess use. So dig my idea:

* First, the System should establish a per-household usage ceiling (call it a caput, for tradition's sake) for how much water each household should -- on general principle grounds -- use in a month. This can vary accordingly due to drought conditions: in severe drought conditions as we have now, the caput could be set at 10,000 gallons per month, or roughly the typical home's use. These customers would be charged a very low fee for their water use, say $2 per thousand gallons (I am a fan of round numbers).

* Second, the System should increase prices ever more sharply as usage increases and as drought conditions worsen. For instance, use from 10,000 gallons to 20,000 gallons could be charged at $4 per thousand gallons. Use from 20,000 to 30,000 gallons could be charged at $10 per thousand gallons. Use from 30,000 to 40,000 gallons could be charged at $20 per thousand, while use from 40,000 to 50,000 could be charged at $40 per thousand. Use above 50,000 could be charged at $50 per thousand, and so on. Extreme users could face even larger charges; for instance, $100 per thousand when one hits 100,000 gallons per month.

True, this would result in heavy expenditures for some users. For instance, under the current regime, Mr Carlos' reduced 121,000 gallon use will cost him roughly $494 per month for the water as a commodity. Under my idea, Mr Carlos' use would result in a total commodity charge of $5,360 per month. I would submit that if annual water charges of $5,928 are not getting Mr Carlos' attention, then an annual water charge of $64,320 definitely would.

* Third, to get folks used to the new price regime, the System should offer conservation credits based on a user's water consumption the prior year. These would be based on percentage targets and be inversely correlated with water use. For instance, let's say the conservation goal is 10 pc, as it is this year. Anyone who gets below that benchmark would get a credit for doing so on their water bill. For homes using under 10,000 gallons of water a month, that could be a $2-per-thousand credit. For homes using between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons, it could be a $1-per-thousand credit, and so on, up to say a nickel for users above 50,000 gallons.

Thus, a home that used 10,000 gallons a month and got it down to 8,000 gallons would receive a $4 credit, or a 20 percent bonus. A home that used 20,000 gallons and got it down to 16,000 would receive a $4 credit as well, or a 6.67 percent bonus. If Mr Carlos got his 121,000 gallons down to 60,000 gallons, he would receive a credit of $3.05. That's not much at all compared to the $1,060 per month he would pay under my swell plan for water use, but it's something and it's important to provide everyone incentives for this to work. Obviously, the goal is to get the small users -- of whom there are a LOT more -- to conserve; for Mr Carlos, the real savings comes in not paying the higher charges.

Ideally, this is a plan that would only be used in severe drought conditions. If water is widely available, it wouldn't be just to charge even heavy users an arm and a leg for the stuff. However, in situations when water is scarce and everyone is on alert to not waste it, it would make sense to make sure supplies of this public good are carefully guarded. A well-designed water pricing scheme would go a long way in doing that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Every Man a Speculator (Including Me)

Your science cannot take account of her;
She controls, takes decisions, executes them
In her kingdom, as other gods do in theirs

Her permutations go on without truce;
Necessity ensures that she is rapid;
So you no sooner have a thing than you lose it.

-- Inferno VII: 85-90

DANTE’S WORDS about the demiurge of Fortune resonate still today, although I daresay I now find myself at the mercy of another VIXen. You see, in a moment of weakness -- well, more precisely a moment of hubris, vanity and overconfidence – on Tuesday I became what I have most abhorred. Yes, I have become a … speculator.

You see, on Tuesday morning I was at home relaxing and reading the financial press, and I came across a story about the great tumult surrounding shares of the E*Trade Financial Corp. (NASD: ETFC), the on-line brokerage and banking institution. For those of you unfamiliar with this grand saga, you should know that on Friday night, an analyst for Citigroup proclaimed that E*Trade was in most dire straits due to an asset portfolio it holds.

This portfolio contains some $3 billion worth of asset-backed securities, including some $450 million in dreaded collateralized debt obligations, as well as some bullshit securities based on second mortgages. These nasty little instruments are what’s responsible for the turmoil in the credit markets, because these formerly swell investments have turned to crap. They’ve turned to crap because people have realized that bunches of the mortgagees basically engaged in fraud to get the loans. Also, the loans are cruel and designed to squeeze every penny out of the borrowers. This would be fine except the borrowers don’t have the money to make their rapidly-rising payments, leaving the lenders stuck.

Anyway, the Citigroup analyst basically said the company was screwed because of this, forecasting a 15 pc chance of the firm going under. This prompted the company’s shares to crash on Monday and by Monday night they were off 59 pc and trading somewhere about $3.55 a share. Thus, I had a “What’s up with that?” moment.

The way I saw it, this was a complete overreaction.* So the company’s going to have to write off some of its CDOs. So is everyone else. Besides, at $4 or so, that gave ETFC a P/E Ratio of … three. Yes, three. Its expected forward P/E Ratio was 12. The company also said it could write off $1 billion of that portfolio and still be on solid ground. I mean, it was so out of whack that the company’s cash accounts were worth more than its market capitalization, meaning that if someone came and bought the whole stupid company right then and there, the buyer would essentially get paid to do so.

As a result, I bought ETFC after about ten minutes of quick investigation.

After doing it, I thought I needed a shower. I mean, I could FEEL the disapproval from my father, who has spent the last 31 years informing me about the importance of avoiding speculative traps, why one ought buy and hold, why one ought not act before prudently evaluating a situation. About the only saving grace was that I had bought a trifling** amount of the stock, with a bit of the capital scraped up from the odd dividend here and there and the leftover bits of cash from other investments.

Thus, the way I saw it was that if the company did tank, I’d be out a trifling amount of cash. You never want to lose money, of course, but if I did, it wasn’t like I would have put my retirement at risk. The upside was that the stock could well rebound and have a bright future. Arguably, there was an 85 percent chance of that happening, based on the gloomy analyst’s report. Besides, E*Trade has a strong brokerage business, so what the hell. I bought in at about $4.21.

A while later I checked back and the bloody thing had skyrocketed to like $4.70 and by the time I got in to work it was up to $5.42. It closed at $5 but rebounded in after-hours to $5.24. That’s twenty-five percent in a day. And despite the small actual gain – it was truly marginal – I had a spring in my step the whole bloody day as a result. I mean, I was really and truly happy. On one hand it was completely ridiculous but on the other hand I felt like I really got in, if not on the bottom floor, on the second.

True, the trading was absolutely insane. I spent some time watching it in awe, as giant blocks of $100,000 and $200,000 worth of shares were bought and sold and the ask price slowly rose up. At the end of the day, some 250 million shares had been traded, which is like HALF the company’s shares. So clearly day traders and speculators everywhere were in on this, and that was undoubtedly fueled due to speculation about a merger or takeover and the fact Jim Cramer said reassuring things about the company***. Conveniently, all these things happened after I bought the shares.

Of course, I am acutely aware this could all go to hell and the company could vanish and I’ll be left with two cents on the dollar and E*Trade will go the way of**** Plus, God knows what the speculators will do to the thing on Wednesday. But I do plan to keep the shares for a long time coming. On Tuesday, I got in at the bottom, and I’ve either scored a huge coup or caught a falling knife. We shall see how it turns out.


* Efficient market my ass.

** In investing terms, a “trifling” amount is in the three figures. This is below a “small” investment in the four figures and a “rounding error” in the two figures.

*** BOO-YAH!

**** If that actually happened, that would make for an excellent commercial some day, wouldn’t it?

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: OK, so I bought a few shares of ETFC. This does NOT mean you should as well, if only because the price has gone up and you’ve missed your opportunity to get in at the ground floor. Investments can and do lose money, and God knows I’m taking the risk of that happening here, especially if Cramer spills soda on his shirt and hits the wrong sound-effects button and suddenly everyone watching him sells the thing short. You should always talk over any investment decision with an actual professional and carefully review all paperwork explaining potential risks before investing. And for the love of God, don’t buy those overpriced proof sets of commemorative coins.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:06 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 13, 2007

Report: Networks to Shovel More Crap Onto Airwaves

IT'S TIMES LIKE THIS I'm really glad my television viewing is limited to football and the occasional dose of CNBC. No less a personage than Nikki Finke reports that due to the television and movie writers' strike, the television networks are working on developing a host of crappy game shows to fill airtime.

If this isn't proof the networks are cutting off their nose to spite their face, I don't know what is. As Ms Finke's descriptions of the "game shows" in question show they're all, well, amazingly stupid, I suppose I'm just going to have to hope for a lot of good pro football over the next few months, plus a lot of good football methadone during the horrible seven-month NFL off-season -- arena football and spring football and Canadian football.

You know, Direct TV is starting to look a HELL of a lot more attractive.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chicago! (Whoa-oh!)

CHICAGO, Nov. 9 -- SO THERE I AM in Chicago with my friends Mark and Norm and we're standing in the lobby of the Chicago Board of Trade on Friday afternoon, trying to wheedle our way into the glorious temple of capitalism. Alas, it was not to be: not only had the exchange closed before we arrived, it was no longer open to the public, and like many of our nation's grand institutions it now required Knowing Someone on the Inside to visit. You know, for security reasons.

Gee, was that disappointing. I mean, it's the CBOT -- where commodities of all kinds are traded, in the name of God and profit, by crazy people wearing funny looking jackets. After being denied at the security desk, I had thought to myself that perhaps we could harass one of these traders to let us in, as a few of them were rushing about. But that didn't seem to be much of an option, because those traders had looks on their faces that seemed to say, "Christ! I'm down-limit on pork bellies!"

So we were disappointed and left without seeing the floor of the exchange. That said, I have to think this whole matter of "security" seems a bit much. I mean, it's the CBOT. If there's any group of people capable of ripping apart limb from limb those who would disrupt their work, it's the people on the CBOT floor.

So yeah, I was in Chicago this weekend on a business trip. Fun stuff and enjoyable all the way around. Got in Friday afternoon and went into the city for much of the day. After dark, we saw the cityscape from the top of the Sears Tower, and it was starkly beautiful; it looked like something out of a science-fiction movie. Then, we made our way back out to O'Hare, where our conference was being held, with a side trip to procure beer.

READER: So where was your conference held exactly?

Shoeless Joe's Sports Bar in Rosemont.

READER: Wait, what?

OK, it was actually held in the Sheraton on the other corner, but much of the scant free time we had was spent in Shoeless Joe's. This was a great sports bar, and especially good for anyone who likes Big Ten football, like I do. Another advantage: Midwestern portions. On Saturday night, whilst watching the Boston College-Maryland game with my friend Norm, my friend Norm got an entire chicken coop's worth of wings, while I can say my order of fried calamari represented the first time I've been presented with a whole squid.

It was a crazy weekend for college football and I am actually glad I didn't get to see most of it. Amazingly, all three college teams of my crew lost this weekend -- Michigan, Ohio State and Boston College. It was downright bizarre. First, Michigan fell to Wisconsin, and then the Fighting Zooks of Illinois stomped Ohio State, and then Maryland beat the Eagles. I did, however, get to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers make an amazing comeback against the Cleveland Browns in NFL action. True, I had to watch at a cramped bar in Concourse B of the United terminal at O'Hare, but I still got to see most of it. I would have preferred, though, to see the game at Billy's Sports Bar back here in Manchester, if only because I think Hapless Browns Fan Rick's head may have exploded.

I'd like to say Pittsburgh, which is now 7-2, is the No. 2 team in the AFC. However, I can't. Such a statement, you see, relies heavily on the idea that one actually knows which Pittsburgh team is going to show up in any given week. There are some Sundays when we look like a Super Bowl team and others when we look, well, like we did last year. Ugh. Still, I think all can agree that Pittsburgh remains the No. 3 team in the AFC, and that ain't all bad.

But back to Chicago, whose football team stinks this year. I like Chicago. I was duly impressed with its mass transit system, which actually works. A good mass transit system is invaluable if one lives in a big city and Chicago's seemed to fit the bill. My only regret is that I wasn't able to get some Chicago-style pizza while in town -- but hey. If I ever truly have the yen for it, I can order it on-line!

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November 08, 2007

It's A Small, Small, Small, Small World

SOME YEARS AGO, as part of my day job, I had the opportunity to interview Dr Niyi Osundare, an acclaimed Nigerian poet and professor of English at the University of New Orleans. Unfortunately, it was not under the best of circumstances, for Dr Osundare was temporarily staying in New England following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. After I had written about Dr Osundare's ordeal, he got in touch with me and thanked me for the article -- and mentioned that a friend of his in Ethiopia had seen the story on-line!

This, as one might expect, caused me to about fall out of my chair. It's one thing for people you know to mention they've seen your work, but the idea of people halfway around the world reading it is an entirely different kettle of fish. It's an amazing feeling, and when I heard the story from Dr Osundare, it was very much proof to me that globalization is here, and here to stay.

I had another experience like this just tonight.

As Loyal Rant Readers may recall, I have been a supporter of a fantastic Web site called Kiva, which allows donors in the developed world to loan capital to worthy businesspeople in the developing world. I am proud to report tonight that one of the two loans I made to small operations in Mexico has just been paid back in full. The borrower, a widow who operates a shoe store in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, was able to use my cash and that of many other donors to purchase inventory for her small shop, which she was in the process of expanding. (My other loan, made to a widow who operates a small grocery in Cd. Acuña, Coahuila, is in the process of being paid back and is on-schedule).

Anyway, with the loan repaid, it meant my $25 share of it was also repaid. That left me searching for a new business for which I could act as a Tiny International Financier. My original hope had been to invest again in Mexico, as I am a strong believer that trade between our two nations will lift everyone's boat. However, I couldn't find a business in Mexico to invest in -- a function, perhaps, of the site's recent popularity. (There were only two loans available, for construction projects, and while these are certainly worthy endeavors I prefer to focus on small business).

So on a lark I expanded my search preference from "North America" to "All" and stumbled across a couple in Azerbaijan who operate a cattle-breeding business. They had asked for the sum of $900 to buy a cow. This sure seemed like a winner to me, as one cow -- aside from producing milk or eventually being used as beef -- can also produce calves, and they can go forth and multiply, and thus wealth is created. But what really sealed the deal was where the borrowers were from: the small city of Beyleqan near the Iranian border.

You see, several months ago I interviewed Mr Ayaz Guliyev, the chief executive of the Ashikhli Credit Union, located in -- guess where -- Beyleqan. Fortunately, I was able to meet Mr Guliyev and several of his Azeri counterparts in happier circumstances -- they were touring New England to see how credit unions operated in the United States. It was a great interview and it was pretty cool to learn from Mr Guliyev and his counterparts about the state of business in Azerbaijan. So having that "connection," if you will -- well, it made the decision to invest that $25 pretty easy for me. It would be pretty cool if some of my loan money, through the normal course of commerce and business, were to eventually end up in Mr Guliyev's operation.

The long and short of it, though, was that this again reinforced my feeling that globalization is here, and here to stay. We'll see how this latest venture turns out but I am confident in its success -- and confident my small investment will help the couple in question build a better life. For more information about Kiva, visit here.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 07, 2007

It's Hard to Find Good Help These Days

A FEW DAYS AGO, The Wall Street Journal's "The Wealth Report" blog had an interesting post on a Troubling and Serious Issue facing America's salespeople. Apparently, the salespeople are now annoyed because -- quelle horreur! -- they can't tell whether the customers are wealthy anymore. This situation means they now have to be nice to everyone.

My initial reaction to this story was to feel good about living in a country that prizes capitalism. After all, there's something to be said for a nation when so many people have money they can do their own thing without giving two cents about what others think of them. Then I got to thinking about it, and I thought: why the devil are the salespeople being smarmy to potential customers?

You would think that salespeople, particularly those selling luxury goods, would realize the master-servant dynamic of such a commercial relationship and exploit it to their benefit. Being nice, last time I checked, has never killed anyone, and neither has providing good service. When you provide good service to a customer, or a potential customer, you are usually rewarded in the end -- either through a commission or a tip or what have you.

This goes especially when your customers actually are wealthy, because they usually have a soft spot for people who do good work for them. Even upper-middle class and middle class consumers would tend to be receptive in such a situation, because they value both the service and the fact the salesman at the fancy boutique did not look down on them. Salesmen, for that matter, have no business looking down on anyone. That's not part of the job description. The job entails selling product and as long as a customer has cash or credit, that should be enough.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:56 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Here Are Our Guests."

COURAGE UNDER FIRE. It's pretty damned impressive how this broadcast anchor responds to the Government of Georgia invading his television station and shutting it down.

HERE'S ANOTHER VIDEO of a reporter on the scene as Government troops lob tear-gas into a crowd of protestors:

I wish I knew more about Georgian politics, because then I could make some sense of all this. I know Georgia's President, Mikhail Saakashvili, is pro-American and the country's economic system has improved markedly for businessmen compared to other former Soviet states. That's partly why I don't understand why Georgia's Government would go out and oppress its people and shut down opposition media, things that aren't normally associated with free countries. I guess we'll see how this turns out.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 06, 2007

BBC: Cleveland "Sub-Prime Capital of the United States"

THE BBC HAS PUBLISHED a fascinating account of how the sub-prime lending crisis is plowing through the greater Cleveland area like a really nasty case of necrotizing fasciitis. According to the corporation, one out of ten homes in Cleveland is now vacant and entire neighborhoods are falling apart as the houses in them are foreclosed upon, boarded up and summarily vandalized.

Perhaps most astounding are the graphics the BBC has compiled, showing the horrific economic carnage. In huge swaths of the city and its inner suburbs, at least 57 percent of the mortgages are sub-prime, and entire sections of greater Cleveland appear to have been foreclosed upon. I was talking about this at work with a friend of mine, and he remarked on a chilling change in economic conditions that has occurred as a result. The old saw has it that lenders don't mind offering mortgages because even if the loan goes bad, they still have the house as collateral. But what happens if you can't sell the house? It sounds as if that's happening in Cleveland right now.

Here's another map from Case Western Reserve University showing the percentage of bank-owned homes in the greater Cleveland area. In some communities this is close to ten percent.

Take a look at the maps and graphics. They show a city that is flat on its back.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 05, 2007


OH, GLORIOUS NIGHT. I mean, it's great when your team just embarrasses an opponent, but it's fantastic when your team embarrasses the Baltimore Ravens. I mean, it wasn't just a 38-7 beatdown. It was 35-7 at HALFTIME, and the Pittsburgh Steelers did the following:

* Forced three fumbles and an interception, resulting in 28 points for the Black and Gold.
* Five first-half touchdown passes for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
* OLB James Harrison forces two fumbles, makes an interception, and gets 3.5 sacks -- IN ONE GAME.
* Shamed their arch-rivals on national television, thus proving to the world we're the ... well, No. 3 team in the AFC. But that's a good place to be right now.

Anyhoo, that's all for now; must go to bed; but God! -- what -- a -- night! Go Steelers!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

And Now, Some Intrastate Sniping

THE RANT NOTES with displeasure that Michigan State University's football coach, one Mr Mark Dantonio, has decided to talk smack despite his squad's continued failure to defeat their betters from the University of Michigan. While I am somewhat impressed at Mr Dantonio's fighting spirit, this is tempered with the knowledge that the game is over. As such, Mr Dantonio's words are about as impressive as Scrappy Doo's fighting antics, and almost as annoying.

Still, as a Michigander, I do not take these words lightly, and as a Michigan native, I must respond accordingly. I have placed a good summary of my response to Mr Dantonio in the "extended entry" portion of this post, as it is more blunt than eloquent. OK, it's profane (and borrowed too). That said, though, let's look at Mr Dantonio's words. The coach said the following, according to the Detroit Free Press:

Michigan State plays Purdue this weekend, but head coach Mark Dantonio had much more to say about MSU’s 28-24 loss to Michigan last Saturday and the extracurricular activities that took place after the game.

Dantonio was asked if he was amused by U-M’s players pausing for a “moment of silence” at midfield. The action was intended to mock Dantonio’s statement on a radio broadcast after U-M lost to Appalachian State. When informed of that loss, Dantonio jokingly asked if he should have a “moment of silence” for the Wolverines.

“I find a lot of the things that they do amusing,” Dantonio said on Monday. “They need to check themselves sometimes. But just remember, pride comes before the fall.”

Dantonio also addressed Mike Hart’s comments after the game in which he referred to MSU as the “little brother” of U-M.

“Does Hart have a little brother or is he the little brother?” Dantonio asked. “I don’t know, he’s…”

Then Dantonio placed his hand up to his chest to illustrate Hart’s stature.

“I don’t know, I didn’t really see that comment, but like I said… let’s just say I won’t comment on that.”

He paused for two seconds.

“I guess I can’t help myself. As I said earlier, it’s not over. I’m going to be a coach here for a long time. It’s not over. It’s just starting. I’m very proud of our football team and I’m very proud of the way our football team handled themselves after the game as well.”

“We don’t have to disrespect people. We’ll come to play. We don’t have to be disrespected; we don’t have to disrespect people. But if they want to make a mockery of it, so be it. Their time will come.”

Oh, please. This guy started out the season making fun of Michigan and spent most of the season being disrespectful to the Maize and Blue. Then, after he and his team get their heads handed to them at home, suddenly he's the paragon of virtue and gentlemanly behavior. Come on. Don't talk to us about needing to "check ourselves," pal. Go home. Take a powder. Take a nap, with your crappy second-to-last spot in the Big Ten standings and your continued inability to win even a game of medium importance, much less a big one.

If Mr Dantonio was smart, he would forget about Michigan and start focusing on his other games, like Purdue and Penn State. Otherwise, he and his team are going to be spending the entirety of bowl season at home, instead of heading off to some bowl of middling import. Because even a crappy bowl would be a victory after the way their season has gone.

But my response to Mr Dantonio can be summed up as follows:

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 04, 2007

If Time Equals Money, Then Washington Owes Me Interest

ONE NICE THING ABOUT this weekend is that it marked a return to Standard Time -- or, as it is known here at The Rant, God's Time. Like all right-thinking people, I am glad to have my hour back but not so glad to have had it stolen from me in the first place. This was made even worse by the fact the Government, always eager to perniciously meddle with the lives of its citizens, decided to push back the return to Standard Time a week, thus extending the agony of Daylight Saving Time even longer than before.

Now, if one operates under the assumption that time equals money -- and I do -- then Washington owes me and everyone else in America roughly one minute and 34.5 seconds for borrowing the hour in question, at least based on the going interest rate for Treasuries. But do we get anything in return for our slaving away under the Government's diabolical time scheme these past months? No, of course not. So now my sleep schedule is all screwed up and I'll have to spend a good week adjusting to this new time scheme. By the time I do adjust, of course, we'll be back on Daylight Saving Time and I'll be in a fog then too. It's enough to make one wonder why we go through this annual charade every year.

But oh well. I guess I should be happy I get my hour back. Oh, and I guess I should be happy I didn't live during the 16th century, when the God-fearing people of Europe had ten entire days stolen from them as part of the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar. (It was even worse for countries that switched later on).

However, I realize all this is quibbling. Particularly when one considers that with winter's approach, I am now about to fall into an unpleasant and agonizing seasonal depression which should last until about April or so. The days are growing shorter and colder and more desolate, and the next thing I know, I'm going to be moping around in the gloom. Winters here aren't fun, especially when one considers the overall atmosphere is somewhat akin to the movie "Blade Runner," except not as cheerful.

I mean, for God's sake, the sun set at 4:30 today. 4:30! And in December it will set around 4:10 or so. That's just wrong. True, the sun WILL rise at about 7:15 or so even during the shortest days, but it's still ridiculous. As we get into mid-December, we'll receive all of nine hours of sunlight a day. Nine hours! Even back home in Michigan, we got nine-and-a-half. And in California we got ten hours.

It could be worse, I suppose -- I could live in some place subjected to horrible polar darkness, which would drive me into hibernation or complete and utter insanity. But still -- it is bad enough so that I'm going to take a winter vacation this year, to someplace warm. Warm and dry. Yeah. That's the ticket.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:40 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ah, Crap

WELL, I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN. The one day in my life I end up rooting for Mr Sign My Melon Rocket Arm, he manages to blow it and lets the New England Patriots salt away their -- dammit -- ninth victory of the season. I am so annoyed right now. Here the Colts are, up 20-10 with nine minutes left, and they let the Patriots score two touchdowns in half that time? What the hell? And then Laser Rocket Arm fumbles the ball and it goes right into the arms of the Patriots' Roosevelt Colvin, practically putting the game on ice? Come on.

Oh, I know, I should look on the bright side. After all, this will only make the classic matchup between New England and the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 9 even better, because it will give Pittsburgh -- the league's top defensive team, I would note -- a chance to ruin the Patriots' perfect season. It would be just and right for the Steelers, America's favorite football team, to crush the Patriots -- or at least beat them on a last-second, Jeff Reed field goal. Because you know the weather is going to be just awful on Dec. 9, and it will be a glorious football game, and it's going to be difficult to throw those long bombs when the field is covered with ice.

Besides, SOMEBODY has to stop them and it may as well be us. Why not us? It's not like anybody else on the Patriots' schedule will be able to do it, particularly when you look at their divisional games. Crikey.

But I shouldn't get ahead of myself here. We must defeat the evil Baltimore Ravens tomorrow night. No, we must rout them and crush them and leave them pleading for mercy, only to have our defensive line mock them with impunity. After all, Baltimore is 4-3 and beating them would put us two games up above them in the AFC North. If we -- heaven forbid -- actually lost to the Ravens, that would mean they would be tied with us in the division. For that matter, the Cleveland Browns would be tied with us in the division, and we'd have three teams at 5-3. (The Browns just beat the Seahawks in overtime, amazingly enough, 33-30).

Wait a minute. The Browns are 5-3. How'd that happen?

In other football news, the Detroit Lions pulled a New England on the Denver Browns and beat them 44-7. Now the Lions are 6-2. Now the Lions are in Serious Playoff Contention. What the hell's next, a plague of locusts?

That's about all I could find noteworthy and exciting this week in pro football -- after all, the Steelers didn't play today, so that kind of made things somewhat blahed -- but I will soldier on, even though I'll now be subject to more nauseating hype about the Patriots for several weeks. Maybe I need to move back to Michigan, or Pennsylvania, or California; I mean, at least in those places I could escape all the hype about the Patriots. Oh, and maybe I could find an affordable house. But I'm in New England, for God's sake. Ugh.

Actually, to be "sporting," I suppose I should offer my congratulations to the Patriots. They did play a hell of a football game, and they didn't beat the Steelers, and the way I see it, it's possible they could really play great throughout the entire season and then blow it in the playoffs, like San Diego did last year. That's the great thing about football -- it could happen!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:32 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 03, 2007

An Open Letter to Michigan State Fans

TO: Michigan State University Fans

FR: Benjamin Kepple (A.B., University of Michigan)

RE: Reminder


Oh -- and SPACE!


Actually, I can't believe we won. What a game!

I am glad, though, that we did. After all, had Michigan managed to blow the 14-3 lead they had at half time, the papers would have all talked about how the Wolverines blew it. Now, the papers will talk about how the Spartans blew it after the Wolverines blew it. Yeah, it was that type of game -- a heartburn-inducing roller-coaster of a game in which Michigan got out to a big lead after the first half, then blew the lead because our offense got stuffed until there was seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter, at which time we turned on the after-burners and scored two touchdowns to win, 28-24.

Besides, I would have had to eat a double helping of crow after my downright gleeful predictions about Michigan's chances all this week. My God. I would have arrived at work next week to find my desk festooned in green and white, and my desktop background changed to a picture of Mark Dantonio, and my home page changed to that Appalachian State video -- just because. But Michigan's victory has ensured all is right with the world. Once again, we have rightfully claimed the top spot in Michigan's football lore, and once again, we have triumphed thanks to our squad's discipline, teamwork and honor.

Oh, and also because some idiot Michigan State player delivered an egregious late hit on one of our receivers, giving us 15 free yards in the middle of a crucial drive. Thanks, Michigan State! Cowtippers!

I mean, talk about a mind-numbingly stupid play. As much as I hate to admit it, State had Michigan in a tight spot and had the player NOT hit our guy some six or seven seconds after the play had ended, Michigan probably would have managed to screw things up, and we would've had to punt. Instead, we got into Michigan State territory and went downtown shortly thereafter.

That aside, though, I have to give Michigan State credit for playing a generally fine game of football. They could have given up the ghost after the first half, but they came out from halftime with all cylinders firing. For this Michigan fan, it was a rather unpleasant surprise. So I think Michigan State can feel good about itself even though they lost, as they represented their school well.

Their second-place school.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:57 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 01, 2007

Strike! (Based on an Idea by ...)

SINCE IT APPEARS QUITE LIKELY the Writers Guild of America will go on strike within a few hours, The Rant would like to offer its open support to the WGA and its member scribes in their fight against the entertainment-industrial complex, also known as the "Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers."

As a former Los Angeles resident, who made the acquaintance of some folks within the entertainment industry during my time there, I am somewhat aware of the unpleasantness writers out there face. As a rule, writers are constantly getting screwed over. Their credits get stolen; their payments get "held up;" incompetent producers ruin their work. As it seems clear the proposals from the industry side are designed to screw over the writers even more, I think everyone should support the writers should they decide to walk out.

Admittedly, this is not an issue that affects me, other than the fact I myself write for a living (in another trade) and I generally have a policy that it is good for writers to be paid, and paid well. I have, however, been surprised at the vitriol that has been spewed in the writers' direction, particularly the attacks against their work. Some wags have quipped that one would hardly be able to tell if the writers walked off the job, while others have been more direct and said the writers' work is shit.

I don't think this is an entirely fair argument. After all, it's not like the writers determine what ends up on screen. That's the work of people, often overpaid and undertalented, above them in the food chain. If the final product turns out to be shit -- and there's an increasing amount of shit out there, it seems -- it is not generally the fault of the writers, but the producers and other executive-types who decide something needs sexed-up or more bathroom humor or what not.

I mean, come on. Think of the poor bastards who got stuck writing "Big Momma's House 2," or "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," or "Alone in the Dark," or "From Justin to Kelly." You think they wanted to write those? You think a writer gets up in the afternoon and says to himself, "Boy, I can't wait to get to work on this crappy sequel!" Hell, no. A writer gets up and says to himself, "I can't believe what they're charging me for this earthquake insurance," and then starts churning out something like "My Little Pony: the Movie." And then they STILL get screwed over.

So I would encourage Loyal Rant Readers to support the WGA in their strike. Doing so would hopefully lead to better-quality entertainment in the future. Of course, in the short term it will be a slog, because the God-fearing American public will be forced to watch reality television programs and game shows and various other shows featuring the cream of America's bumper moron crop. But that in itself could have good effects, such as having people watch more football.

Anyway, I wish my fellow writers good luck and all the best in their struggle. You've got at least one guy out in flyover country* rooting for you.

* Well, actually, not really. I do live in New Hampshire now. But I am a Michigander at heart, so take that for what it's worth.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack