March 31, 2008

Behold -- the Wolves' Season is Practically Here

OH, PRAISE GOD -- I have picked up my season tickets for the Manchester Wolves' 2008 season, and I am glad.

Of course, spring football has been underway for a month now, and that's been a lifesaver up here in cold New Hampshire. I've been able to watch several of the Arena Football League's games broadcast on ESPN, and those have been fun to watch. Still, I can't wait for the Wolves' season -- particularly since my tickets are seven rows from the field, and practically at midfield. I couldn't ask for a better seat in the house, because there isn't one.

A lot of my excitement, of course, has to do with team loyalties. Although the AFL games are fun to watch on television, the trouble for me is that I don't live near an AFL team. The closest AFL team is in New York. That means there's no regional coverage of the league up here in New England. Consequently, I have to rely on ESPN's broadcasts to get my football fix. Since the national broadcast schedule doesn't feature my two AFL teams -- the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Cleveland Gladiators, respectively -- it's not as cool as getting to watch either Grand Rapids or Cleveland take the field of battle.

As a result, for me the ESPN AFL broadcasts are somewhat like watching NFL games between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, or between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. I like watching them, of course, but I'd much rather watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns, or one of several other teams instead. (Oddly, Pittsburgh does not have an AFL team; if it does get one, it's clearly going into first place on the loyalty chart).

The good news on that front, though, is that I'll get to watch both Cleveland and Grand Rapids in person this year -- and not against each other -- thanks to some clever planning. The Grand Rapids game should be a good one, because they're playing the Kansas City Brigade, which is an even worse team than Grand Rapids. Cleveland, on the other hand, is a good team -- and they're playing the Dallas Desperadoes, which is probably the second-best team in the league. That game should be spectacular.

But I'm understandably psyched about watching the Wolves play. The Wolves are my "third team" -- behind the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and the hallowed Michigan Wolverines. I love watching them play for all the reasons why minor-league sports represent everything wonderful about America -- the players all striving for something better, the friendly atmosphere, the underlying good-naturedness of it all. But for me, watching the Wolves offers the perfect emotional balance: I'm thrilled when they win, but not crushed when they lose.

Why the difference? Well, I think it comes down to a few things. For one, the stakes are a lot smaller: when you have guys giving their all for just $250 a game, it's hard to get too upset with them. Instead, you feel bad for them, because you know they're feeling that loss a lot worse than you. For another, I don't have the long-term emotional investment the way I do with the Steelers and Wolverines. I've been rooting for those teams for a long, long time. Also -- and I think this is the key -- I don't have my hopes and expectations dashed.

For let's face it -- a lot of the fun associated with the NFL and college football is the long, slow buildup to the fall, when one's teams finally take the field again after seven or eight long months away. During that time, you have optimism and you have hope: hope this will be the year your team emerges victorious with a Super Bowl ring or national championship. You have hope your team will throw down your hated rivals; you have hope your team will make you proud of your roots.

What happens most years? That hope gets ground into the turf -- mercilessly and brutally. It is a painful and often-traumatic experience. The agony of having one's dreams destroyed again; the shame of losing to one's hated rivals; it all involves a tremendous sense of loss. But with the Wolves, I don't go into the season with raised expectations and dreams of beating rivals. Don't get me wrong: I want them to win, and I want them to win a championship. I want them to beat our opponents. But if they lose, I don't have to bear it -- or hear about it -- the way I do when Pittsburgh falls to a divisional rival, or Michigan loses to Ohio State. In that regard, there is a purity to watching the team that is special.

Now, on to the Wolves.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to pick up my season tickets and was quite impressed with the shindig the team threw. The team was introduced to all the fans in attendance and we all cheered; the coach was emotional and exuberant and made clear he wanted to bring home a championship for Manchester. We have a new coach this year, Danton Barto, and I like the guy. I like his enthusiasm and the way he carries himself.

I was also impressed with the team, although I'll admit I was a bit concerned beforehand. From what I could tell, most of the players on the team are rookies -- and that had me wondering. It takes a while to pick up arenaball; it's not the same as traditional football, and the players have to learn the ropes quickly. But I'm hopeful our squad will do well this year. We're ranked 11th out of 29, according to a pre-season power poll. And the Wolves, which play in the af2 development league, have sent a lot of players to the Arena Football League. This group certainly looked as if they had the potential to head upstairs.

Plus, I got a lot of cool swag. I got a nice T-shirt -- and although Loyal Rant Readers know I don't wear T-shirts, the T-shirt is well-made and subdued, the type of thing good for me to wear around the house. I also got a bumper sticker and a couple of license plate holders: after the party, I spent some time installing those. Oh, I also inquired about getting a Wolves necktie. The team doesn't have those, and I admitted I didn't know what the market might be for them. But as someone who likes a good football tie, I was certainly interested in getting one.

Also today, I also learned about a couple of other exciting developments regarding the league. The first was that the ArenaCup, the af2's championship game, will again be played at a home stadium, instead of at a neutral site. I applaud the league for doing this. Since the ArenaCup is played in August, it would make it practically impossible for me to get the time off to go see the game if the Wolves made it in; now, should the team have a great season and go all the way, I'll have a good shot at seeing them play here.

The second development was that the af2 has devised a scheme to televise away games over the Internet. I tried out the broadcast system today, and was pretty impressed. The bandwidth will be an issue for me, I think -- and I don't think I'll be able to get enough to make it work like an actual TV broadcast. But what I really liked about it was that the audio was crystal-clear, and the video was good enough so that I can at least get the gist of what's going on and what things are like at the away site.

Even better, I can get feeds for ANY af2 team playing -- and THAT is very cool. Today, I got to listen to the Green Bay-Spokane game -- and both teams' announcers! That's something I never could have done last year. Later in the season, when I want to listen in on games with playoff implications, I'll be able to do so. If the league's service provider can somehow figure out a way to boost the bandwidth accordingly, I should be sound as a pound.

We'll see how things turn out on April 5, when Manchester travels to give the Mahoning Valley Thunder a Youngstown tuneup. As for the Wolves, their first home game is on April 18 against the evil detestable generally hapless Albany Conquest. I -- can't -- wait.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 30, 2008

(Stop) Loss

IN FINANCE, the phrase "stop-loss" refers to a particular stock-trading manuever, in which one directs one's broker to sell a given position should it fall below a certain price. It can be used to lock in profits or pare losses. For instance, if you bought Stock A at $50, and it rises to $80, you can have the position automatically sold should it fall below $70. If you bought Stock B at $40, and you wanted to make sure you didn't lose too much money on it, you could put in a stop-loss order once Stock B fell below $35. It does not always work -- if your stock gets cut like a harvest-ready stalk of wheat on some horribly bad news, you'll have to take what you get. But it generally does the job.

As it happens, the Government also uses the phrase "stop loss." In its case, it refers to the military's practice of keeping servicemen on active duty beyond the time specified in their enlistment contracts. The practice is enshrined in federal law and the contracts themselves.

This past week, the twain have met. Apparently, a movie about the military's practice -- unsurprisingly called "Stop Loss" -- opened on Friday and did rather poorly, despite good reviews. The film pulled in just $4.6 million over the weekend. Subtract half of that for the theatre operators, etc., and that leaves $2.3 million in revenues on a film which -- although its budget isn't known for sure -- supposedly cost at least $30 million to produce -- if not $40 million. As for the semi-official spin about the opening weekend, Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily has the key quote. She writes:

"It's not looking good," a studio source told me before the weekend. "No one wants to see Iraq war movies. No matter what we put out there in terms of great cast or trailers, people were completely turned off. It's a function of the marketplace not being ready to address this conflict in a dramatic way because the war itself is something that's unresolved yet. It's a shame because it's a good movie that's just ahead of its time."

I suppose my question for the moviemakers, then, is this. If nobody wants to see Iraq war movies, why the hell did you release it now? It's not like you didn't have any indication these types of movies weren't popular -- there have been some pretty spectacular blowups before now. So why not wait for a while? Why not put it in the can for a year and see if it would hold up?

Of course, one could argue it might have been a good idea to wait on making the thing in the first place, but perhaps that relies too much on 20-20 hindsight. But the combination of a) the war and b) the film being a bit of a downer wasn't exactly a recipe for box office success. I mean, I just don't understand how the producers could so badly misread the moviegoing public.

I mean, come on. First, we're in a war, a war that many people don't think is going all that well. Second, the economy is weak and getting weaker even as I type. Third, people are facing myriad personal and financial challenges as a result of the first two matters. They're facing skyrocketing costs for fuel and food, turmoil in the housing market and worries about the stability of their jobs. Given all that, I don't see how any reasonable person could conclude that people would flock to the movies and fork over fistfuls of dollars to be reminded of all this. Getting hit in the head with a crowbar would take a lot less time and cost a lot less money.

When things are going badly in people's lives, they want an escape. Why Hollywood hasn't been churning out smart comedies and romantic comedies and fast-paced thrillers is beyond me. Of course, some of these have been produced and they've done all right, but God -- I mean, ramp up the throttle here. When the subprime mess hit early last year and the credit crunch hit last summer, Hollywood's executives should have green-lit any comedy that came their way, to get it into production and fast.

It is not too late, of course, for Hollywood to turn things around. But they'll have to move quickly -- or hope beyond hope this recession won't be a short one.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 29, 2008

Hail to the Burgers

GAD, I MISS COLLEGE. Why, you ask? Well, one of the nice things about college was that it was very easy to get upset over things of practically zero consequence. At my alma mater -- the glorious and wonderful University of Michigan -- some students are upset over yet another of these piddling matters.

You see, there's a new burger joint in town. This burger joint, known as "Quickie Burger and Dogs," has as its logo a woman in cowboy dress riding astride a succulent, tasty burger, and grasping a mug of beer in her outstretched hand. This has angered a group of students on campus, who complain the logo is offensive and degrading to women. They want the owners of the establishment to change the logo accordingly. However, thanks to plucky bloggers, this eminently local and penny-ante dispute has now received national attention.

I must admit I find this whole thing very strange -- and here's the most important reason for that:

Now, although I am sure the good people at Quickie Burger have excellent food, provide prompt service and let patrons watch television while eating, there's already a perfectly good burger joint in town. That would be Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger, at 551 S. Division St. That's less than half a mile away from Quickie Burger, which is at the corner of State and Hill.

So it seems to me that people truly upset about Quickie Burger's logo -- all six of them -- should stop whining and Take Bold and Decisive Action: namely, go to Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger, which has been Cheaper Than Food since 1953. What's that? You think some of the students, because they're complaining about a sign logo, might not eat meat? Everyone knows Blimpy Burger has vegetarian options, such as the Veggie Burger Blimpy Style.

I mean, as long as the students follow Blimpy Burger's Important Ordering Rules, they'll be fine. True, if they inexplicably fail to follow the Important Ordering Rules, they "may risk the scorn and derision of the cooks and be subject to groans of agony from the patrons in line." You think I kid? That quote's from Blimpy Burger's own Web site.

Of course, healthy competition is good for everyone, and I am sure the burger market in Ann Arbor is big enough for both restaurants to coexist, even if they're within half a mile of each other. I am also sure that Quickie Burger, based on reports of its popularity, serves up a good burger. Still, speaking as an alumnus of the University, I can't see why anyone would eat a burger at any place other than Blimpy Burger: if only because the roughly 2.1 billion burger combinations available at Blimpy Burger allow everyone to get what they want, made how they like it.

The Rant, for the record, orders a quad with blue cheese and grilled onions, on an onion roll, and has an order of fried mushrooms to go along with it. How could it be otherwise? For some things, like Blimpy Burger, are timeless. Also, I can assure you that when I walk into Blimpy Burger next month and order this, it will be just as good if not better than when I had this very meal ten years ago.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:20 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 27, 2008

For God's Sake, It's Almost April!

THE WEATHER FORECAST calls for four to six inches of snow to hit on Friday. You have got to be kidding me. It's almost April. We're supposed to be done with all this winter crap.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saving the Planet and Other Ill-Advised Plot Devices

OVER AT STEPHEN SILVER'S site, the following was listed as his "quote of the week" -- and it was so good I'm blatantly using it as the basis for my own blog post. Mr Silver, in noting an enjoyable post from The Onion AV Club's Web site about "amusingly-misguided eco-friendly entertainments," recognized in particular Item Eleven, which references no less than Saved By the Bell. Yes, that Saved By the Bell, God save us.

The AV Club writes as follows:

Similar to Paul Thomas Anderson's epic capitalist fable There Will Be Blood, only dumber and cuter, the '90s teen sitcom "Saved By The Bell" explored how wanton greed and blatant disregard for the harmful side effects of oil prospecting can wreck the souls of men, as well as blond boys who talk to the camera. "Saved By The Bell's" oil episode begins, in the series' usual inexplicable fashion, with irrepressible preppie Zack Morris making friends with a duck named Becky he has accidentally hit with a baseball behind the high school. Just as Daniel Plainview's son H.W. comes to represent all the inner good the father eventually betrays, Becky is a metaphor for Zack's kinder, gentler side, which is soon poisoned by dreams of vast wealth after Slater discovers oil in the football field. In spite of the efforts of the muckraking Jessie Spano, whose Upton Sinclair-esque newsletter No Oil In Bayside is ignored by the 10-person student body, oil companies come in to drill the field. Tragically, there's a spill, and Becky is killed. Zack Morris—and the audience—learn a sad, valuable lesson: If you discover oil in the football field behind your high school, keep it a secret. Otherwise, your beloved duck friend will die. Unfortunately, this environmental lesson is applicable only in a world controlled by hacky sitcom writers.

Thanks to the Magic of the Internet, I did about two minutes of research and discovered this particular episode aired on Oct. 26, 1991. Do you have any idea what the price of oil was back on Oct. 26, 1991? I'll tell you -- $23.12 per barrel. $23.12! I mean, my God, gasoline was at 64.72 cents per gallon on the NYMEX. It's a hell of a lot easier to pontificate about the Myriad Evils of Crude Oil Exploration when the stuff and its distillates can be had for a song.

Of course, this was "Saved by the Bell," so it had no bearing in reality. After all, let's say this scenario happened at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Mich., back in 1991, and the football team discovered there was oil at the 50-yard-line. The following would have happened:

One. Kalamazoo, being a God-fearing town, would not drill for oil on the football field, which was holy and sacrosanct. Instead, it would drill for oil in someplace more convenient, like the baseball field, the teachers' parking lot behind the school, or the Robert I. Quiring Gymnasium. It's oil, for God's sake.

Two. The idea of drilling for oil would lead to all manner of arguments in the local press. These arguments would all come to a crashing halt once people realized a) this would create industrial jobs, and b) this could conceivably result in lower schools taxes.

Three. A chain restaurant serving bland American fare -- like a Bill Knapp's -- would be built next to the drilling site. This would be universally hailed as Kalamazoo's latest step forward into the modern age. Remember, it was 1991 -- this was all we had. I mean, as much as I love the auld sod, you'd have trouble finding good Italian food in Kalamazoo back in '91.

Four. Once the students at Loy Norrix realized oil drilling was taking place -- this would be about when the well's gas flare was going full-bore -- it would cause protests among the preppier and with-it students, who labored under the delusion that protests which high-school students conducted had any bearing on the machinations of the larger world.

Five. The protests would fade away when the students got distracted -- for instance, if a really good fight was taking place in the "M" wing -- or more interesting things to do presented themselves, usually involving driving at unsafe speeds.

Six. Morning classes would be skipped. (No, wait. That was later, in '94. Apologies).

Seven. Some time later, after the precious oil had been flowing from the ground for months, a teacher would attempt to appear cool and with it through uttering the line, "I drink your milkshake! I DRINK IT UP!" Little inspiration would result, and the school's abysmal drop-out rate would continue unabated.

(You think I kid. If I remember right, when I started at Loy Norrix back in the day, I had about 400 students in my freshman class. When I graduated, I had ... oh, 235 or so classmates. That doesn't appear to have changed much, either -- in an Oct. 30 AP article printed in the Detroit News, "Michigan stung by study's dropout list," my alma mater was listed as one of several Michigan high schools where no more than 60 pc of the freshmen starting there made it to their senior year).

And that was back in '91. Now that oil is more than $100 a barrel, a drilling operation could literally open Pandora's Box in the process and it wouldn't stop the well from being built. Not that I could blame folks, either -- things are tough back home.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the works mentioned in the AV Club's article hailed from the Nineties -- when it was more important to care about environment issues than actually do anything about them. Strange how that all turned out. But do give the whole list a read -- if you liked No. 11 on it, you'll undoubtedly like Nos. 1-17 inclusive.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:18 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 26, 2008

Ye Olde Fable of the Shoeshine Boy, Revisited

SO I WAS DRIVING into work this morning when the disc jockey on the radio -- I will not use the term "radio personality" -- started complaining about the alarming fall in his company's stock.

Now our disc jockey in question works for a station belonging to Clear Channel Communications Inc. (NYSE: CCU). Today, much to the horror of the firm's investors, the much-discussed buyout deal that would have paid shareholders $39.20 per share for the company officially blew up. It blew up because the banks funding the deal got snakebit.

Apparently, loans for leveraged-buyouts aren't worth what they once were, and so the $22 billion the banks were going to put up would have resulted in huge losses on their books. Now, why would a big loan, generating immense amounts of interest, somehow result in huge losses? The idea on its face makes no sense and at first glance is, to use the technical Wall Street term, "completely insane."

However, there's a good reason. It's because the banks would have to value the giant loan on a mark-to-market basis. Since the credit crunch has thrown the whole business of loan pricing into turmoil, what was once a sought-after deal has become the financial equivalent of Dutch Elm disease. So the banks essentially told the private-equity buyers and CCU shareholders they were out of luck. This has infuriated the buyers and shareholders, who argue that a deal is a deal, so loan us the money you told us you would loan us. The matter will almost certainly head to court, and the deal could still well happen -- although the outcome is now very much in doubt.

But back to our disc jockey. This morning, CCU shares suffered a project beating: they fell to $27 per share, which is not Bear Stearns bad but still a drop of 17 pc. In after-hours trading, they recovered a bit, but still -- they got hammered. So it was understandable that our disc jockey, on the air and broadcasting to the Greater Boston area, would wail and gnash his teeth about his losses. Exactly what his holdings were weren't clear. They could have included both stock and options, as the word "underwater" was used, although one draws inferences from a disc jockey at one's own peril. Still, that the man had suffered losses was clear, and he was morose.

It was at this point that one of the man's cohosts made the salient, although untimely, point that everyone on the show still had each other and that all they needed was love. Although I cannot argue with the sentiment, I daresay this was not exactly comforting at the time. When I have a bad day on the market, it takes me six or seven minutes to get to a "love and sunshine" moment. In the interim, I think about disemboweling the wretched, short-selling hedge fund trader who has conspired against my positions, and pray that he contracts syphilis and the gout. Still, the disc jockey showed admirable restraint, and ended the show with some shared gallows humor.

On the remaining minutes of my drive, I pondered the following alarming thoughts:

* When the hell did radio people start worrying about their investments? It's radio, for God's sake. Hardly anyone makes anything in radio.
* The disc jockey on the Top 40 station, one of approximately six stations I receive clearly up here, is talking about his investments. On a typical day, this station breathlessly talks about celebrity shenanigans and chides the people who call into it. It's not like it's Les Nessman being alarmed that his shares in Polaroid went kaputski.
* If a disc jockey is talking about his declining investments, it means we're clearly in a recession.
* Why the hell didn't the disc jockey talk about his investments when CCU was doing somewhat well? I mean, it was around $46 just a few years ago and was rangebound in the $30s for a long time.
* If the disc jockey had talked about his investments when they were going well, I could have applied the Joseph Kennedy Principle and switched all my holdings to cash, thus spectacularly timing the market and saving myself a bundle of money. (So the story goes, the elder Joe Kennedy sold his stocks in 1929 when he got a hot tip from a shoeshine boy).

But oh well. Such are the breaks of investing -- and one learns quickly that hindsight is 20-20. Also, it did highlight one benefit to recessions: as Fred Schwed once put it, "Are you quite sure you would care to see all those people who had big money then have it again?" That is not a bad point. Besides, as it turns out, hedge funds are among those suffering losses as a result of this whole mess. And how could one turn down an extra helping of schadenfreude?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Let No One Say the Sport of Kings is Crooked

OOPS: Owner fails to back own horse in 33-1 win.

Key quote: "Two people asked me earlier should they back him and I told them no way."

This story is even funnier when one considers the owner in question is none other than Michael O'Leary, boss of the European budget airline Ryanair.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:00 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Could Iceland Spread Financial Contagion?

IT COULD INDEED, argues Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. It seems the country has had to raise interest rates to an alarming 15 pc to stem the plummet in its currency -- and similarly-placed countries could find themselves in similar pickles.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 25, 2008

Yeah! We're No. 24!

JANE'S INFORMATION GROUP, the British intelligence firm, has released a study ranking the world's nations in order of their relative stability and prosperity. This will come as a shock to many readers, but the United States of America is ranked ... 24th. Yes, 24th, out of 235. Although many of the top 50 nations aren't far apart -- the top nations earn a score of 99, compared to America's 93 -- this is a troubling state of affairs.

I mean, depending on how once looks at it, one can argue America's rank should be far different. Some might argue America should be ranked No. 1, because we rule. Others -- like me -- would put America at No. 6 or No. 7, behind super-stable and super-tiny states like Luxembourg. Still others would look at the No. 24 ranking and say, we should be down in the forties or fifties. No matter what one's view, everyone can stand up and say, "Hey! We're America, goddammit! We're a hell of a lot more prosperous / stable / mercenary / dangerous than 24th! What the hell's up with that?!"

I myself wonder how the ranking came about. Did the guy from Jane's get stuck on I-94 near Detroit, or the Cross-Bronx Expressway? Did he get heartburn in Phoenix? Did he get lost in East St. Louis? Did he turn into the wrong alley in New York, and find himself accosted by the criminal element?

MUGGER: Gimme your wallet!
JANE'S MAN: What!
MUGGER: You deaf or something? Gimme your wallet!
JANE'S MAN: No!
MUGGER: That's it!
(a struggle ensues)
JANE'S MAN: Of all the antisocial things I've ever --
MUGGER: What the hell's this? Don't you have any euros in here?
SECOND MUGGER: No, man, those are pounds! They're better than euros!
MUGGER: Yeah, but there's like ₤45 in here.
JANE'S MAN: Ah, but those are worth $900 in American dollars.
MUGGER: Who asked you?
SECOND MUGGER: Dude, you're right. Let's see if he has any euros on him.

In any event, let's look at the nations Jane's ranked, most of which inexplicably ranked higher than the United States. This might be alarming for some of us Yankees, so remember -- if you come across something you think is crap, start chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! loudly. It freaks out the foreigners.

--------

1. VATICAN CITY
As a Roman Catholic, I can only take pride and joy in this ranking. I mean, of course the Vatican is No. 1. Apostolic succession, baby! Besides, just because only 800 people actually live there is beside the point: this is a country with 1.1 billion people around the world obeying (well, kinda sorta) its commands. Also, the Papacy has its legions -- well, legion -- well, battalion -- OK, company -- of Swiss Guards, who have swords and fancy uniforms. Of course, as every Catholic knows, the Vatican has plans in place to seize Naval Base San Diego for its own -- but only if push comes to shove.

2. SWEDEN
One fails to understand how a nation with an expensive social-welfare scheme -- to say nothing of the fact it produced ABBA -- ranks second on a list ranking stable and prosperous nations.

3. LUXEMBOURG
Ah, Luxembourg! It's like Liechtenstein's older brother. Actually, this one makes sense.

4. MONACO
Yay Monaco! Would love to visit this charming place. No income tax! The Grand Prix! Wonderful!

5. GIBRALTAR
Eh? Gibraltar? But don't the Spanish want it back? Isn't that a bit problematic?

6. SAN MARINO
Yeah, that would make sense too -- after all, everybody from Rome on down pretty much ignored the place until now, and you know, it doesn't seem like that will change.

7. LICHTENSTEIN
This was 3rd prior to the LGT scandal!

8. GREAT BRITAIN
Dear God! What an idea! Britain? Eighth? They must be mad; or, if not mad, have forgotten the old Biblical admonition that one ought not point out the mote in someone else's eye whilst ignoring the beam in one's own. I mean, my God. It's Britain. The Government is taxing everyone to death, the politicians have crippled the military, the criminals run rampant throughout the streets causing strife and mischief, and the middle classes are oppressed. Britain! Eighth! What an idea!

9. THE NETHERLANDS
Give it time. Something will happen here. After all, it was pretty prosperous and stable before the panzers zoomed through back in 1940.

10. IRELAND
If the Jane's folks had stayed a week longer, they might have given it a better ranking!

11. NEW ZEALAND
Gained 30 places once Jane's realized New Zealand would be the only place left standing in the event of a thermonuclear war, and simply because the bad guys forgot about it.

12. DENMARK
Placed 12th, at least until they publish some more cartoons.

13. AUSTRIA
Still hasn't fully recovered from the 30 places it lost when Falco gained international fame in 1985.

14. ANDORRA
This makes sense too. I mean, this is a country that declared war on Germany in World War I -- and didn't settle things officially until 1957, primarily because Wilson forgot to invite them to Versailles.

15. GERMANY
Fünfzehntes! Ach du lieben! Ach, Warten Sie eine Minute! Ihre Papiere, bitte! Ihre Papiere!

16. ICELAND
This was published before the Icelandic krona fell through the floor and landed on its head in the basement.

17. SWITZERLAND
Damn the European Union and its money-laundering laws!

18. PORTUGAL
A nice country that is known for its enjoyable and pleasant beaches, scenery, and so on. This may explain its 18th ranking.

19. AUSTRALIA
Tentative ranking. Permanent ranking 42nd, after Jane's men subjected to hours-long rendition of "Waltzing Matilda."

20. NORWAY
20th place obtained after accounting for oil money (+37), herring (-18).

21. MALTA
Originally ranked 53rd, but score improved after offering second passports to Jane's men.

22. FRANCE
Feh! We spit on your Jane's Information Group and your filthy rating scheme! Why, everyone knows Jean's Information Group has ranked France first, no? Qu'est-ce que c'est? Les banlieues? Les no-go areas? Minor irritations, we can assure you! Vive le France!

23. CANADA
Oh, for crying out loud, we're never going to hear the end of this from the Canadians, are we?

24. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!
All right! 24th! Yeah! ... uh ... wait a minute. We're 24th?! WTF? Who came up with this stupid list anyway? Who? Never heard of them ... well, there's got to be some mistake. I mean, 24th ... there's no mistake? Uh ... U-S-A! U-S-A! Sorry, I can't hear you. U-S-A! U-S-A!

25. BELGIUM
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold the phone a minute. Belgium's 25th? Their whole stupid country's coming apart at the seams and they're 25th, and we're 24th? What the hell?

26. SPAIN
Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!

27. ITALY
Italy would care about this, except it is too busy enjoying a nice lunch with some great wine. Also, it won the World Cup, so it does not have to care what the English think.

28. JAPAN
Japan got screwed. Second largest economy, no crime whatsoever, pretty country -- and it's 28th.

29. FINLAND
The Finns are reserving judgment.

30. CZECH REPUBLIC
This sounds about right, actually. Not that I have any basis for saying that, it just feels right.

....

42. ST. PIERRE and MIQUELOT
An idyllic French overseas territory that oddly exists just a few miles from North America. This unfortunate geographic happenstance accounts for most of its low ranking, as either the Canadians or Americans will get fed up with this someday and invade it.

....

229. ZIMBABWE
Do you think a dollar should be worth a dollar? Well, thanks to 100,000 pc inflation -- that is not a typo -- one dollar is worth Z$70 million (or, alternatively, Z$70 billion if one discounts the revaluation of Aug. 1, 2006). A quarter-century ago, the ZWD and USD were at parity. Of course, these figures were relevant as of Mar. 19. It is now Mar. 25, meaning six days have passed ... and God only knows how far the ZWD has fallen since.

You know, for once, even I'd agree that it would be a good idea to buy gold.

....

234. SOMALIA
Well, yes, the whole "no functioning Government" bit might cloud things.

235. GAZA/WEST BANK
Just for the record, it's really bad when your country -- or territory, I guess -- ends up being ranked below a place with no functioning Government. Of course, I suppose the problem here is that Gaza and the West Bank have two functioning Governments -- both of which hate each other, and one of which has apparently no problem with angering its much larger neighbor by lobbing missiles at it. This is not exactly what one would call a recipe for success.

----

BASED ON THE ABOVE, I'm starting to think America's 24th place ranking might not be so bad, after all -- even if it is a little annoying. I mean, come on -- did we have to get ranked lower than the Canadians? It's bad enough their dollar is worth as much as ours is -- now we have yet another indignity with which to deal. As for Britain, I remain convinced that its 8th-place ranking (technically, tied for seventh) is a bit rich. But then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder ...

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 23, 2008

Credit Crunch Making Iceland Affordable Again

AS MANY TRAVELERS know all too well, the annoying weakness in the U.S. dollar is good for our exporters but not so good for our tourists, who travel overseas to find their dollars are increasingly becoming less and less valuable. As one wit famously put it, having dollars in London -- where the dollar now buys just 50p, compared to 72p or so back in 2001 -- is like having Mexican pesos to spend in New York.

But of course, the pain is not just limited to Yankees buying sterling. The dollar once bought 1.20 euros -- now, it buys just 65 euro cents; when it once bought about 135 Japanese yen, now, it buys just 100. The dollar once bought 8.3 Chinese yuan -- now it buys just seven. The once-mighty dollar once bought 1.80 Swiss francs -- now, it takes a penny more than a dollar to buy a Swiss franc.

One could go on -- and why not? Even once-toxic currencies like the Russian rouble and the Argentine peso and the Lebanese pound have been appreciating against the dollar. I mean, my God. Nearly everywhere you look, it's an utter rout.

But the key word is "nearly." There are some bargains out there, if you look closely. Jamaica, for instance. It is not someplace I would want to go, but the Jamaican dollar has weakened steadily over the past several years. Mexico, a place I do like visiting, is so closely tied to America's economy that its peso has been stable. Then, there's Venezuela's bolivar -- that's gone to hell since Chavez took power and started wrecking the place. So there's a little unrest -- it's cheap! Take two weeks!

And then, there's Iceland. Yes, that Iceland. You've seen pictures! You know the drill -- 300,000 people, all of whom look like models; midnight sun; hot springs; lots of seafood; kickass ring road that takes you around the whole damn place. Oh, you can also eat whale meat. OK, so that's not a selling point for most people, but I'd give it a go.

Anyway, as it turns out, the international credit crunch is playing havoc with Iceland's economy. The country's banking sector is in a world of pain, and prices on credit-default swaps have risen dramatically. For a look at the troubles facing the Icelandic economy, here's a good overview. The upshot for us, however, is that Iceland's krona is now depreciating against the dollar, and Iceland's loss is our gain. In just this past week, the ISK has fallen from about 71 to the buck to 79 -- at one point hitting 82. This is good news for Yankee tourists, because only a short time ago it took just 60 ISK or so to buy a dollar. The way things are going, perhaps things will get worse, and the Icelandic people will be even more welcoming to foreign tourists with strong, valuable American dollars.

At least, I hope so, because I'd like to think I could afford a nice exotic vacation someplace cool. And the way things have been going with the dollar, even Canada has suddenly become expensive. Gah!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 22, 2008

Basketball Haikus (Part II)

No. 10 DAVIDSON, 82; No. 7 GONZAGA, 76

What! Gonzaga lost?!
Once again, my dreams are dashed
as the Zags are crushed

How did this happen?
Oh -- Davidson's star player
put up forty points?

Well, that would do it;
but I feel for Gonzaga
who once again failed;

After all, without
Michigan, just who am I
supposed to root for?

No. 12 WESTERN KENTUCKY, 101; No. 5 DRAKE, 99 (OT)
No. 13 SAN DIEGO, 70; No. 4 CONNECTICUT, 69 (OT)

Overtime glory
propelled underdogs to win
intense victories

Are there glass slippers
on these teams the sharps forgot?
Or hard boots of lead?

Perhaps the latter;
they could face UCLA;
but then again, no --

The Angelenos
are getting pounded tonight;
they're down by ten points.

Cinderella teams
could meet in the Sweet Sixteen
oh, how that would rule.

No. 7 WEST VIRGINIA, 73; No. 2 DUKE, 67

HA! HA HA HA HA!
Oh, praise the Lord's sweet mercy!
For Duke has gone down!

There's a CBS poll
that asks for folks' reactions;
three of four like it.

One cannot complain
about Duke's ignomious loss;
their pride has cost them.

One could only hope
Duke's football team can improve;
they're not gauche at all.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:05 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

You Know, I Think This Story Beats the Guinea Worm

LOYAL RANT READERS may recall a post I wrote two years ago -- Gad -- about the primal horror known as the Guinea worm. At the time, I was convinced there was no worse pestilence on earth than this hideous parasite, which burrows through the still-living flesh of its victims. However, yet again, this world continues to amaze me, 'cause I just read a story I think is worse:

SEWER RATS ATTACKING PEOPLE ON THEIR TOILETS.

Yes, that's right. Horrible, plague-bearing, pestilential vermin actually climbing up through the plumbing and attacking God-fearing people in their apartments. This is clearly screwed up beyond all recognition, as a story from The Daily Telegraph of Australia shows, citing a dispatch from London:

A DISABLED woman has told of her horror at being attacked and bitten by a group of rats which came up through her toilet while she was sitting on it.

Maxine Killingback, who lives on her own, jumped up in shock when she felt the rat bite the top of her leg and fell over onto the floor, hurting her back.

After drowning the rat herself using a plunger and barricading the toilet to stop other rats which were trying to get out, she phoned Greenwich Council in London only to be told she would have to wait three weeks for them to come and sort out the problem. ...

Ms Killingback, who has rheumatism in her legs and back, said the rat was still trying to get out of the toilet after she fell on the floor.

She tried flushing the toilet chain twice but the creature came back each time. ...

Ms Killingback, who says she has a nervous disposition, then jammed a bleach bottle next to the plunger and kept it there until the rat had drowned.

She said: "Then there were more coming up, I could see their noses poking through the gap.

"I just put two big boxes of washing powder and other things on top of the toilet to block it and shut the bathroom door. I've never known anything like it. My next door neighbour came in to verify what had happened because I thought I was going mad."

A council spokesman said it was not possible to make an immediate appointment for its free rat control service due to high demand.

He said Ms Killingback had declined to be put on a standby list and an offer of advice on how to contact a private pest control contractor but would be visited by a pest control officer on April 7.

The spokesman said: "There are no records in the past 12 months of other complaints about rats in that block, and no immediate evidence of runs or holes."

I have to admit I am stunned to hear about such a thing, particularly in London, which last time I checked was one of the Western world's chief cities and a beacon to all civilization. But then again, perhaps I should not be. Apparently, our unfortunate Ms Killingback -- now there's a name -- lives in what is known as "council housing" in England, which is the British equivalent of our public housing here in the United States. However, despite the similarities in name, there are key difference between the programs.

In America, roughly 3 pc of our people (about 8.5 million) rely on public housing, although far fewer (about 0.8 pc, or 2.4 million) actually live in municipal housing projects. The rest rely on various other Government programs to assist them with their housing needs, most notably the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Essentially, the tenants pay their landlords low rents, while the Government pays the landlords a nice subsidy to make up for the rents they could have charged. The tenants get reasonable rents, the landlords get guaranteed income, and the Government -- well, it's the Government, that's what they do. That's the carrot angle.

The Government also has sticks: if the tenant screws up or trashes the place, he can get cast into Byzantine Government Housing Purgatory, in which he is struck off from getting Government housing aid in future. The landlord has to make sure the housing is clean and safe, lest he end up losing the Government's rent payments. The only trouble is the program's popularity: it is so popular, in fact, that most people who apply for it end up in Byzantine Government Housing Limbo, in which they are placed on a waiting list about as long as that for season tickets to the Green Bay Packers.*

Things are apparently different in Britain: about 15 pc of the people there live in "council housing." I don't know enough about Britain to say why so many more people live in Government housing there than do here. It is, of course, a much smaller country; it is also more in sync with the concept of socialism. The trouble for Britain, however, is two-pronged. First, since the Government owns many of the council estates, no one actually has a stake in them, so they become neglected and wretched. Second, because of the peculiar caste system in Britain and Europe held over from the old days, there are lingering class resentments bubbling below the surface -- the middle-class fear and mistrust the working class, and the working class hate and despise the middle class, while the upper class would prefer to not talk about any of this whilst enjoying cucumber sandwiches.

I would suggest a combination of these two factors might be why the civil servants of Greenwich Council have been so particularly unhelpful to Ms Killingback. Then again -- and this is the more likely reason -- they could just be complete and utter bastards. So dreadfully sorry, Ms Killingback, we shan't be able to immediately investigate. We can fit you in in about three weeks. Our apologies. No, there's nothing we can do. Good morning, Ms Killingback, good morning.

I do find it interesting, though, the dual reports about Ms Killingback's situation. There have been no instances of vermin trouble in her block in the last twelve months, despite Ms Killingback's report that rats have physically attacked her in her water closet. At the same time, however, Ms Killingback cannot receive free rat control services right away because the demand for them is so high. One wonders why it is the pestilential rats, known for their cunning and guile, have conveniently managed to stay away from her block for so long. They, unlike men, have no inclinations towards prevarication.


-------
* There are roughly 74,000 names on the Packers' wait list right now. With an average attrition of 70 tickets per year, a person joining the list now could expect to get season tickets in oh ... AD 3,065 or so. This analysis puts it at AD 3074, although I've seen calculations as high as AD 4,360. It all depends on how one runs the numbers.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:23 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 20, 2008

It's That Time of Year Again: Basketball Haikus!

ONCE AGAIN, THE RANT shall look at one of America's truly great sporting events, the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, and record the glory and the heartbreak, the suspense and the excitement, the victories and defeats -- in haiku. The first day of this year's tournament was an interesting one, so let us begin with an introductory poem:

March to the trenches
the autumn wind, a pirate
-- oops, that's the wrong sport

Sorry. My brain is tired; very tired; for I can assure you I got home from work at like 10:15. Let's try again, shall we?

Alas, Michigan
Basketball is not your game
and Threet's your QB

Well, two out of three lines isn't bad, anyway. Anyway, now that I'm in a basketball frame of mind, now let's commence:

No. 3 WASHINGTON STATE, 71; No. 14 WINTHROP, 40

A project beating
was delivered on Winthrop;
not pretty to watch.

A team with high hopes
folded like a cheap lawn chair;
it completely sucked.

Winthrop's grim humbling,
that brutal execution,
shan't be forgotten;

After all, Winthrop
used to be an all right team;
what the hell happened?

No. 2 DUKE, 71; No. 15 BELMONT, 70

You rotten bastards!
Escaping by just one point!
Damn your wretched luck!

How the world wished
Stinking Duke would crash and burn;
all would seem just, then;

But you shan't escape;
for sharks circle the wounded,
and laugh at weakness.

May you fall broken
in the second round of play;
that would be enough!

No. 11 KANSAS STATE, 80; No. 6 USC, 67

Song Girls' beauty
will not mask your grim failure;
nor soothe gaping wounds.

Your loss carries joy
to the great plains of Kansas;
I exult with them.

Slain at Omaha,
and the multitudes rejoice;
how could one blame them?

Remember -- palmam
qui meruit ferat -- aye,
recall, and shudder.

No. 3 XAVIER, 73; No. 14 GEORGIA, 61

Our brackets are saved!
cried the people 'cross the land;
Xavier came back!

Rome's faith had wavered
in the Cincinnati squad,
but then, that last half!

How did Georgia fall?
Did Providence take action,
skew the final score?

Well, no, one doubts that --
for it is just basketball;
but God is cryptic.

That's it for this edition of NCAA Basketball Haikus. But we've got plenty of basketball to go, too, so let's make the most of it!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 18, 2008

Not the Brightest of Ideas, Perhaps

AS I UNDERSTAND IT, on Mar. 29 various well-meaning people around the globe (as of now, about 142,000, or .002 pc of the world's population) will shut off their lights for an hour to take part in a consciousness-raising exercise about global warming. Along with these 142,000 folks, some 24 cities around the world -- including Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta -- will also take part, thus potentially cajoling millions of others to join along.

I have to admit, being the contrarian I am, that news of this initially made me wish my electricity use was time-priced, so I could take advantage of the lowered demand on Mar. 29. Sadly, my power supply is not so rationed, and as such I can derive no benefit from any well-meaning person taking part where I live. Still, although I certainly can't complain about well-meaning people wanting to show they're well-meaning, I have to wonder whether this is the most effective way of promoting an agenda that at its heart is focused on less consumerism. Consider how some Australians are celebrating the mass-switching-off, according to The Sydney Morning Herald:

When the international campaign to raise awareness of climate change was launched last year, several restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne turned their lights off. The Carricks (Shaun and Margarita) were also keen to participate but their first Earth Hour dinner started as a fairly informal affair when some of their B&B guests asked if they could join them for their evening meal.

"We said, 'You're welcome to have it with us but we're doing the Earth Hour, turning all the lights off,"' Margarita recalls.

This year looks set to be more lavish, with about 15 guests joining them for three courses of organic patés, wines, meats, fruits and vegetables grown on their Pine End Organic Farm or sourced from local organic suppliers.

The evening will open with a petanque tournament and a selection of homemade cheeses, before the sun goes down and lights go out at 8pm. Ten per cent of the evening's proceeds will be donated to the WWF, one of the organisers of Earth Hour.

Petanque is a fancy term for lawn bowling, or so I am told. I have never lawn bowled but I understand that socially it is on par with croquet, another fancy lawn sport at which I was never very proficient. As you can see, the Carricks and their friends are of the proper sort and so it would be bad form to suggest having 15 people over for a grand dinner party might use more energy than that which would be saved during the hour of diminished lights. Even if some are already staying at their bed and breakfast. Also, shouldn't the cheese course follow the dessert?

But I quibble.* As I said, if people wish to switch off their lights for an hour because it makes them feel good, by all means they should go for it. Still, after that -- why not get some solar panels, or switch to wood-fired heat, or plan to buy a more fuel-efficient car, or buy a bicycle and actually use it, or take other very real and very concrete steps towards reducing one's consumption? Since increasing standards of living across the globe will subsequently mean higher prices for things we in the Western world already enjoy -- too much money chasing not enough goods -- why not act accordingly? It might even help more than one's pocketbook.

--------
* It might also be bad form to note that out of the 142,000 or so people committed to take part, 113,265 are from the G-7 nations and Australia, while only 3,221 are from the BRIC nations -- Brazil, Russia, India and China.

(via Tim Blair, whose reaction leads one to believe that during Earth Hour, he might crank up his diesel generator).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:41 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 17, 2008

Après Ce, Le Déluge

STUNNED BEAR STEARNS employees report to work. Key quote: "I've been at Bear for 11 years and I want to vomit." Also, apparently some joker taped a $2 bill to the front entranceway, in reference to the firm's share price, which leads to the second key quote: "Where is the $2 bill? I might need that tomorrow!"

Among the highlights of the linked story: a clever real-estate agent who handed out his card at the door. Also, the local coffee/bagel vendor is understandably concerned.

STUNNED INVESTORS: It's time to lawyer up. Key quote: "I can't divulge privileged conversations, but shareholders don't contact me when they are happy with the way things are going with their investments."

STUNNED NEW YORKERS: Uh, this can't be good for the local economy.

STUNNED RETIREMENT PLANS: The Toronto Globe & Mail reports: "Bear Stearns employees wiped out." Former top boss Cayne's stake reportedly falls from $900m to $13m in value. That has got to suck.

STUNNED EXECS LEARN BEAR DID ONE THING RIGHT: No golden parachutes! Oddly, the Reuters story describes this as "insult to injury," although it seems more like getting "hit in the head with a crowbar."

PRESENTED WITHOUT COMMENT: Here's a report on Cramer's take on Bear Stearns.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 04:17 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Well, At Least Not Everyone's Doing Badly

IF ANYONE HAS any extra money lying around -- yes, I'm talking to you, the guy who had the Bear Stearns puts -- you might be interested in this fancy deal: the chance to buy twelve personalized bottles of Champagne from Perrier-Jouet. The Champagne will be largely based on the house's 2000 Belle Epoque Champagne, but each twelve-bottle set will be customized with Champagne liqueur from varying years.

What's that? The cost? Oh, mon Dieu ... Monsieur, if one must ask ... each unique and personalized half-case, which will be one out of just 100 specialized half-cases, and which comes with a tete-a-tete with M Deschamps, the house's cellar master, along with storage in the house's cellar, will be offered for the most reasonable price of €50,000 (US$1.8 million).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The IRS Has Pleasantly Surprised Me

WHEN I HEARD ABOUT the IRS's plans for issuing the Government's stimulus payments, I experienced a feeling that can best be summed up in a line from a James Taylor song: "after the laughter, a wave of dread." Since the IRS tends to send the payments based on the last digits of Social Security numbers, I tend to get screwed. I figured that long after most people had gotten their checks, blown them, recovered from the hangovers associated with blowing them, then spent more money just for the hell of it, I would get my stimulus payment sometime in August or September.

True, there would have been advantages to this. For one thing, the way the economy is going, the money would have arrived just as I needed to stock up on canned goods and other necessities. After all, if we extrapolate things out, it's certainly possible -- although admittedly not probable -- that by summer, civil authority will have broken down and armed gangs of men will rove the streets of my fair city, looking to waylay any traveler who has more than half a tank of gasoline in his car. However, as I understand it, these types of disturbances are now confined to a few small pockets of the Rust Belt, so I have nothing to fear as of yet.

But much to my surprise, the IRS did NOT stretch out the payments schedule and so I will get my payment in May like pretty much everyone else. Here's when the payments will be issued. (note: .doc file) So I am pleased, and based on the schedule, so should we all. Of course, until we get thrown into another Depression and ... well, apres ce, le deluge.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 03:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 16, 2008

Two Bear Shares Now Equal One Cup of Coffee

J.P. MORGAN & CHASE CO. has agreed to buy the ailing Bear Stearns investment house for the stock equivalent of $2 a share, according to the Wall Street Journal and plenty of other news outlets. No, that's not a typo. $2 a share. Two. As in, $2 will buy you two-thirds of a gallon of gas, or $2 will buy you half of one of those fancy coffee drinks at Starbucks. That $2.

My reaction can be summed up as follows: Holy Mary Mother of God.

Oddly, the headline on the WSJ's piece says, "J.P. Morgan Rescues Bear Stearns." I don't know about you, but if anyone in future ever tries to rescue me in the same way -- please, let me drown and kick me in the teeth as I go over the waterfall. $2 per share is not a rescue. $2 per share is a calculated, cunning, brutal and utterly ruthless offer. It's the Wall Street equivalent of some Soviet commissar in World War II going into a failed general's office, and offering him a gun with one bullet in it. It is absolutely and totally merciless. It is also completely and totally brilliant.

This, by the way, would make me very happy if I was a shareholder of the J.P. Morgan & Chase Co., because Bear Stearns did have a book value of $80 per share. (Their building alone is worth more than $1 billion). After all, it seems unlikely J.P. Morgan would buy into the thing if it was too toxic, and they're getting Bear Stearns for practically nothing. Sadly, I am not.

I would be absolutely furious, however, if I was a Bear Stearns shareholder. I mean, can you imagine how people are reacting right now, learning they're getting two bucks a share? Thank God, though, I am not one. The destruction of wealth that's occurred here is incredible. I mean, my God -- can you imagine it? A week ago, shares in this company were worth $70. $70! It reminds me of some old verse from France back in the 18th century, after the Mississippi Company scandal broke:

My shares, which on Monday I bought
Were worth millions on Tuesday, I thought
So on Wednesday I chose my abode
In my carriage on Thursday I rode
To the ballroom on Friday I went
To the workhouse next day I was sent.

Of course, we are enlightened these days, and we do not have workhouses any more. This may or may not be comforting to the poor bastards who now find themselves in a world of complete and utter pain.

The deal values Bear at roughly $236.2 million. At $2 per share, that works out to 118.1 million shares. These shares were once worth $169 each, back in the good old days of January 2007. At that rarefied price, Bear was worth just under $20 billion. What an amazing collapse; what an incredible destruction of wealth. Although the effects won't nearly be as bad as it would have been if Bear collapsed, the cascading effect of the per-share drop from $70 to $2 in a week could still be considerable for the larger economy. When you wipe out $8 billion in wealth in a flash, it can't be anything other than painful. According to Bloomberg, some of Bear's larger shareholders have lost unimaginable sums of money. One guy supposedly lost more than $1 billion. Yes, with a B.

As for the little guys -- well, God help them. The WSJ says:

Many well-known investors, from billionaire Joe Lewis to Bruce Sherman, the head of Legg Mason Inc.'s Private Capital Management Inc. money-management firm, have seen the value of their stakes in Bear Stearns plummet. The pain could be most acute for Bear Stearns's employees, who are steeped in a culture of personal ownership -- and hold about a third of the firm's shares outstanding.

Wow. A third.

I feel really bad for the back-office and middle-office guys at Bear. God knows I have no inside knowledge of anything going on there, but in big collapses like this, it always seems like the little guys and the middle guys are the ones who get squeezed like an overripe grapefruit. Plus, they're the ones who tend to get thrown overboard first should any job losses -- which the WSJ seems to think pretty likely -- come down the pike. Of course, the senior guys are almost certainly feeling a lot of pain too -- how much of their money, one wonders, was tied up in Bear stock and its options? But you'd think they would have an easier time landing on their feet elsewhere. Wouldn't they?

Of course, as for the rest of us -- hopefully Bear's troubles won't cascade too much, and the sale will right the overall Wall Street ship. Then again, Japan and Singapore are both off three percent right now in morning trading. Australia and New Zealand are down too.

You know, this could be a tough week.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 15, 2008

Rant Conference Call on AAFL Season Postponement

---------------

UNKNOWN: Was that how you really responded when you got the e-mail about the All-American Football League being postponed for a year?

Mr KEPPLE: Well, it's a good enough approximation -- are we on? Hello? Gad, I can never figure these things out, it's pound-three to ... (BEEP)(BOOP) ... goddammit! Hello? Hello! Konnichi wa! (BEEP)(BEEP)

-----------------

OPERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the conference call for Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant Inc. With us today is Mr. Benjamin Kepple, The Rant's chief executive, from Hamilton, Bermuda. Mr. Kepple, are you with us?

Mr KEPPLE: Hello? Hello! (BOOOOOP)(BEEP) Wretched godrotting phone system!

OPERATOR: Mr. Kepple will commence the conference call, after which there will be a question-and-answer period. Your phones will be on mute until that time; to ask a question, press "star-one." Mr Kepple?

Mr KEPPLE: Hello, everyone. All right.

As you know, on Feb. 27, I announced on The Rant I would undertake a trip to Michigan in April for the purpose of spending my Government stimulus money. However, I am afraid I have some bad news. As you know, I was planning to head to Michigan to watch Team Michigan of the All-American Football League play Alabama as part of that trip. Unfortunately ... unfortunately ... the league has postponed its launch until spring 2009.

According to published reports, the league's backers were facing liquidity issues related to the Wall Street credit crunch, and couldn't find new investors to pump more cash into the project before it launched. The key quote here, for those of you wondering, is this: "When I told the board I would subsidize the league, that was before the bond market collapsed."

So, anyway, they called the whole thing off and hope to restart next year. Needless to say, this didn't impress a lot of people, but I am hopeful the league will start in 2009. You know, we need spring football. OK, let's open things up to questions.

ANALYST: Yes, this is Harold Marcuse from Catch a Falling Knife LLC. We've been looking over the Rant's financials and are wondering if this means you'll get your ticket money back.

Mr KEPPLE: Yes, the league will refund all ticket purchases shortly. Besides, I paid with a credit card, so I'm all good. So in a way, this isn't so bad, because I'm $73 on the upside.

REPORTER: Kieran C. Hooft from Reuters here -- are you calling off your trip?

Mr KEPPLE: You must be joking.

Mr HOOFT: Actually, I'm not.

Mr KEPPLE: Ah. Well, of course I'm not calling off my trip. I mean, I already paid for the plane ticket. I made all my reservations. Plus, I'm going to an Arena Football League game in Grand Rapids. Yeah. That said, I did try to see if there were any other arenaball games -- AFL or af2 -- in the area, but there weren't. I mean, as much as I love the Manchester Wolves, I'm not driving to Scranton on my long weekend to see them. It's Scranton. Anyway, there's plenty of things to do in Michigan on a Saturday, so I'll figure something out.

REPORTER: Any chance football will be involved?

Mr KEPPLE: Can you believe Kalamazoo's indoor-football league team -- not arena football, but indoor football -- has a bye-week that week? Gad. For that matter, can you believe there are entire leagues of indoor football that aren't part of the arena league system? I mean, my God. I'm still trying to get my head around it.

I'm not kidding, either -- they're the Kalamazoo Xplosion. That's the name. They play in the Continental Indoor Football League.

REPORTER: They're called the Xplosion? That's the best name they could come up with? The Xplosion?

Mr KEPPLE: I guess it fits. I mean, if you can imagine it -- SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNNNN-DAY! GET READY to EXPLODE!

(Laughter).

Mr KEPPLE: The mascot is Xplodey the Coyote.

REPORTER: You've got to be kidding.

Mr KEPPLE: No. You know what the kicker is -- every other indoor football team I could find in Michigan is playing away that week. Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon -- they're all playing away games. If I really wanted to see a game, I'd have to go to Fort Wayne to do it. For all you non-Midwesterners, that's just over the border in Indiana.

Hey, wait a minute.

Yeah. Fuck it, I'm going to Fort Wayne on Saturday night! FORT WAYNE FOOTBALL!

(Silence).

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, come on. You know this is the exact type of crazy stunt I would pull, just because I could.

REPORTER: So let me get this straight. You're going to go to -- how to put this -- a minor-league indoor football game that's so minor-league it's not even part of the arena system, and you're going to do it when you could theoretically get tickets to the NBA or NHL playoffs in Detroit.

Mr KEPPLE: It'd make a hell of a blog entry.

(Murmured assent).

REPORTER: You're completely insane!

Mr KEPPLE: Dammit! I planned a football trip! That was the whole point! And no stupid economic crisis, no stupid hedge fund, no frickin' deleveraging of investments is going to stop me from doing it! Football is part of what makes America great! For that matter, minor league sports are part of what makes America great -- the striving and the guts and the glory of it all! Are you with me?!

REPORTERS: YEAH!

Mr KEPPLE: Plus, tickets are only FIFTEEN BUCKS! And they're good seats! GOOD SEATS!

REPORTERS: YEAH!

Mr KEPPLE: ALL RIGHT! Let's get out there and do this! Football will be ours! Football will be ours!

ALL: ... FOOTBALL WILL BE OURS!

(Pause).

REPORTER: You sure you're not going to see the Red Wings?

Mr KEPPLE: Somebody grab him!

REPORTER: This is a conference call, how the -- (BEEP)(BOOP)(BEEEEEEEEEP)

OPERATOR: Thank you all (BEEEEP) for taking part in today's conference call (BOOOP) with Benjamin Kepple of Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant Inc. This call will be archived and transcribed on The Rant's Web site, at benkepple.com, where (BOOOP) it can be downloaded on demand. Thank you.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:08 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 14, 2008

The Stupidest Thing I've Read in Years

AFTER DOING SOME SEARCHING in my archives, I know I've been prone to using the above phrase in the past. For instance, I used it back in 2005 when a Colorado woman sued her teenaged neighbors for leaving cookies on her doorstep. I used it later in that year when Forbes ran a stupid story about how to deal with criticism from bloggers. I also used it in October, when George Monbiot wrote something I thought was particularly dumb.

Still, I don't use the phrase lightly, and I'm about to use it again.

You see, I wasted precious minutes of my life reading Rachel Beck's hagiography of Eliot Spitzer's crusading reforms against Wall Street, and couldn't believe some of the things written in it. Not about Spitzer, mind you -- I don't really care about that -- but about business and about Wall Street. I mean, can someone explain to me how the Associated Press's national business columnist can write something like the following, yet somehow not be mortified at doing so? (emphasis added)

Whatever he might have done in his personal life, though, doesn't tarnish that he made the investment environment more open and friendly for individual shareholders. Before Spitzer got involved when he was New York's attorney general, no one knew of the conflicts that existed in stock research or that mutual funds were giving trading perks to wealthy investors and hedge funds.

"No one knew of the conflicts that existed in stock research?" Are you kidding me?

Now, I'll admit that novice investors -- perhaps even investors with some knowledge of the markets -- might have taken the advice they received at face value back in the day. But certainly not everyone did, and I would submit that even back in the good old Nineties, there was a pretty strong correlation between "experience in investing" and "distrusting stock market analysts." And by the good old Nineties, I mean the 1890s, because anyone who knows Wall Street's history knows trust is a precious and scarce commodity there.

But even in the 1990s, most investors had to know (or should have known) something was up, even if they didn't operate on the sound principle of trusting no one. All one had to do was analyze the companies being touted. If the financials were shaky and the fundamentals weren't sound and the business plan wasn't sound, then the stock was crap and you didn't buy it, never mind what some analyst said about it. And if one did operate on the trust no one principle, one just assumed the analyst was lying (or worse) and paid no attention to what he said. Looking at analysts' recommendations in the aggregate also paid dividends, because even if the stock was a dog hardly anyone actually said to sell it. Thus, the "buy means hold and hold means sell" principle.

In the days before disclosure -- which rightfully became popular after the tech crash -- I was taught to view stock recommendations with deep suspicion. I remember when I made my first investment, which I decided upon after reading about it in a financial newspaper. I had to justify it; I couldn't rely on the simple fact it was listed as a good pick. It didn't matter what the writer said, even if he was as morally pure as an angel, because you had to operate on the assumption he had already bought the stock, and so had his friends. That was a lesson I remembered very clearly. (This is one reason why, on the rare occasion I talk about my investments, I tell you what I own).

Yet Ms Beck goes on. She writes:

After the dot-com bubble had burst and companies long heralded as corporate America's finest were collapsing under the weight of scandal, Spitzer went into attack mode. His first targets were the big investment firms that had made so much money during the stock market's surge in the late 1990s. Little did we know that much of it was at our expense.

We would soon learn that their game was fixed: Research analysts were recommending stocks so that their investment-banking colleagues could win more lucrative business from those same companies. Spitzer subpoenaed e-mails from Wall Street firms and used those messages to build a solid case of how they misled investors.

The findings were shocking, especially for anyone who bought a high- flying Internet stock during the market boom.

One e-mail showed star Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Henry Blodget describing InfoSpace Inc., one of the firm's highest-rated stocks, as "a piece of junk." Another exchange had Salomon Smith Barney telecommunications analyst Jack Grubman telling a friend that his recommendation of AT&T stock helped secure spots in an exclusive Manhattan nursery school for his twin daughters.

Ten Wall Street firms eventually agreed to a $1.4 billion settlement, and new rules were put in place that separated banking and research. Independent research was also made more available to investors, and the firms were required to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

I would contrast Ms Beck's words with those of Mr Fred Schwed Jr, who wrote (in "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?") the following about the validity of financial predictions:

On the theoretic side our chief preoccupation will be an inquiry which is quite simple, but which is more awful in its implications than any Senate investigation. It has to do with what has become the major part of the business of Wall Street -- the foretelling of price moves. Concerning these predictions, we are about to ask:

1. Are they pretty good?
2. Are they slightly good?
3. Are they any damn good at all?
4. How do they compare with tomorrow's weather prediction you read in the paper?
5. How do they compare with the tipster horse-race services?

Mr Schwed -- who wrote those words in 1940, for Pete's sake -- was a bit more charitable in his assessment of these predictions, essentially chalking them up to foolishness and human failure than downright avarice. But his opinion of them is pretty clear:

It is hard to find a Wall Street man, from the oldest partner to the youngest "runner," who is willing to be just a croupier. This causes a great deal of anguish in the long run, and the reasons for it are both human and economic.

For one thing, customers have an unfortunate habit of asking about the financial future. Now if you do someone the signal honor of asking him a difficult question, you may be assured that you will get a detailed answer. Rarely will it be the most difficult of all answers -- "I don't know."

The average male likes to sit at breakfast and tell his wife and children what Adolf Hitler will do month after next. This is a harmless vanity. But from this it is an easy step for him to go downtown and start telling people what United States Steel will do month after next. That is liable to lose someone's life savings for him.

Of course, if you want avarice, there are plenty of books detailing that. In 1923, Edwin Lefevre wrote "Reminiscences of a Stock Operator." In the 1980s, Michael Lewis wrote grand books about Wall Street's excesses. Still, considering that skullduggery involving stocks has existed since the Mississippi Company debacle in 1719-20 -- hell, since the Amsterdam Stock Exchange was founded in 1602 -- it's kind of tough to be "shocked" at anything Wall Street does. I mean, Daniel Drew would be shocked people actually got in trouble for the stuff Spitzer crusaded against, which he would have considered child's play. (This was because Mr Drew was ruthless).

Dismayed at Wall Street's actions, on the other hand -- well, God help us if the $415 trillion in derivatives contracts come unglued. You-know-who has the story. Again.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 13, 2008

Vatican Creates "New" Sins

ONE OF THE THINGS I discovered about the Roman Catholic Church, back when I was considering joining it, was that the Church has a great regard for intellectual tradition. This was, in fact, one of the big reasons why I became a Roman Catholic. Every article of doctrine, every tenet of faith, every spiritual statement, is backed with reams of theological argument -- case studies, if you will. Thus, even if one does not agree with every position of the Church, one must respect the thought process that goes into the formulation of its arguments, and intellectual dissension accordingly requires grappling with those arguments.

So I was a bit distressed to find some people have snickered at the annoucement -- reported breathlessly in the secular media -- that the Vatican has somehow created new sins out of whole cloth for the modern age. Yes, they're sins. Yes, they're now spelled out in doctrine. But the sins listed represent an application of Church doctrine to modern developments. (If you're interested in what these new sins are, you can find them here). Therefore, it is no surprise the Vatican would issue such an announcement as a matter of routine: regulatory guidance for the spiritual world, one might say.

Of course, as with any pronouncement, there are some things that make the list, and some things which are sent back for further review.

As it happens, though, I have a source in the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, and I know there were several other pronouncements under consideration, but which haven't yet made the cut. So for all Roman Catholics out there, it might be a good idea to keep these in mind, because they could be released any day now. Oh, and these potential sins also apply to Protestants as well.

What's that? You thought that just because you went out on your own, you're free? Not so fast, my friends! Let's be perfectly blunt about things: even though you've been in schism with the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church for 490 years, we Catholics remain confident you'll return to the fold -- especially when we unveil the Sacred and Most Blessed Potluck Dinner in a few months. I mean, it's not a tough equation -- Calvinist doctrine or lemon squares? Gee, I wonder what will win out there.

(That said, we must admit the Orthodox have nothing to fear, primarily because their potential punishments for sinning already far outweigh anything the Roman Church has in place. I mean, they do not mess around).

But I digress. Anyway, here's a list of the potential "newer sins" that could soon be released. As I understand it, if they're approved, an addendum to the Catechism should be released shortly. (For those of you unfamiliar with the "traditional" expected punishments for committing these sins and then failing to be absolved of them, here's a handy guide).

------------------

WORKING DRAFT -- CONFIDENTIAL

PROPOSED ITEMS FOR CONSIDERATION ON THE LIST
OF MORTAL SINS, VICES, VENIAL SINS, and OTHER ACTS CONTRARY TO MORAL LAW,
AND COMMANDMENTS RELATING THERETO

-----------------

I. THOU SHALT NOT HOLD THE WAITRESS RESPONSIBLE
FOR THE FAULT OF THE KITCHEN.

Punishment: Third Circle, perhaps Fifth

IN THE PARABLE of the maidens and the bridegroom, the LORD compared Heaven to a marriage celebration (Matthew 25:4), in which half the maidens, being foolish, did not bring extra oil for their lamps, while the wise maidens brought extra oil along with them. When the bridegroom was delayed, the foolish found their lamps going out, and called upon the others to aid them. But the wise maidens could not. Thus, the foolish were forced to go scamper about searching for oil, which was especially difficult on a Saturday night, and when they returned from Wal-Mart the celebration had already begun. And lo, the bridegroom's in-laws, who had spent a fortune on the party and were cheap, claimed it was dark outside and they had no idea who these people were.

Yet behold the maiden who runs low on oil through no fault of her own, but rather the incompetent kitchen manager who hadn't paid the supplier promptly, thus resulting in a shortage. Truly it would be unjust for the customer to blame the waitress and leave her a bad tip for the manager's ineptitude. The just man would tip the waitress well, but call for the kitchen manager, and chastise him for his bad management, or at least try to get an entree voided on the bill. Verily, the man who stiffed the waitress by leaving ten percent -- or even worse, nothing -- would risk the wrath of the LORD. For that man would say (Luke 12:19-20) to himself, " 'Thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.' But God would say unto him, 'Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?' "

Behold, the man who stiffs the waitress shall be cast into the Third Circle, and there face an unending rain of ice and hail, and groan in the grim darkness; and if he makes a scene, he shall be cast down to the Fifth Circle, where the angry wail and gnash their teeth.

II. THOU SHALT NOT DEFY ONE'S HOMEOWNER'S ASSOCIATION.
Punishment: Seventh Circle

WHEN THE LORD spoke to Ezekiel, He said (Ezekiel 17:12): "Say now to the rebellious house, 'Know ye not what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon is come to Jerusalem, and hath taken the king thereof, and the princes thereof, and led them with him to Babylon." In other words, the covenant the homeowner agreed to when he bought the McMansion in the fancy subdivision is sacrosanct, and breaking it will mean a host of plagues, up to and including swarms of officers sent to harass him and eat out his substance. And the LORD said (Ezekiel 17:18): "Seeing he despised the oath by breaking the covenant, when, lo, he had given his hand, and hath done all these things, he shall not escape."

For the LORD has made clear one shall not paint one's house an appalling shade of fuschia, nor fail to keep up one's yard, and any man who dares lower his neighbors' property values shall suffer and pay recompense on his own head. And the LORD will spread His net upon him, and he shall be taken in His snare, and only then will he realize the absolute world of pain that awaits him. Behold, any man who defies his homeowners' association -- at least, really unreasonably so -- shall be cast down to the Seventh Circle, and there made to suffer the tortures of the Phlegethon.

III. THOU SHALT NOT DRESS INAPPROPRIATELY FOR A COURT HEARING.
Punishment: Fifth Circle

AND THE APOSTLE Timothy (2 Timothy 2:20) said: "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour." Behold, the District Courts and the Superior Courts and the Supreme Courts -- which is really the Superior Court in New York -- give you plenty of time and notice to appear before them, unlike the LORD, Who would remind you again that no man knoweth the day nor the hour. Must you handle these vessels of gold and silver as you would the vessels of wood and earth? Must you not even take the trouble to ensure you're wearing a pressed shirt -- and a real shirt, not the cheap T-shirt you bought in Atlantic City that reads, "I'M WITH STUPID?" Let us also recall the words of 3 Timothy 19:14, in which the apostle writes: "Would it really kill the Galatians to wear ties once in a while?"

Behold, the man who attends a hearing concerning him before an Honorable Court, which beseeches God to save it, in anything other than proper attire shall be cast down into the Fifth Circle with the sullen, unless he is already in the dock and wearing the garb of the local House of Correction, in which case he gets a pass, provided he demands to wear street clothes and is denied.

IV. THOU SHALT NOT BUY OPTIONS ON MARGIN.
Punishment: Fourth Circle.

AND IN THE EARLY PART of the decade, the Brown & Co. brokerage created an advertisement, in which a client inquired at her brokerage (that was not Brown & Co.) about trading on margin. And lo, the clueless client representative responded, "You want to ... trade ... butter?" And the client said no -- on margin. So then the clueless client representative had a conversation with his colleague, which went thusly:

"Hey, Bloated Rates?"
"Yeah, Useless Overhead?"
"What's the rate for trading on margin?"
"Eight and a half."
"Eight and a half?"
"No, wait -- nine!"
"Nine!"

Then, the client protested -- but that's as high as a credit card!

Yes, it is. Thus, any client of any brokerage should not buy options on margin, even if (perhaps especially if) you have a "hot tip." For the hedge funds and institutional traders control the markets, and lo, they are as the kings described in The Revelation to John (Rev 17:12), which are each given great power but only for an hour. And that hour is a human hour, between three and four p.m. Eastern time.

During these hours, they shall hold sway over all the earth and its dominions, and their strategems and cunning shall overwhelm your positions, and you shall be out of the money when triple-witching day comes. Then, you shall wail and gnash your teeth, but it shall not save you when your broker calls and demands you pony up your margin money, lest your other positions be sundered. Behold, any client who buyeth options on margin shall be cast down with the moneygrubbers and wasters on the Fourth Circle, destined to forever roll heavy weights to and fro in misery, and be smitten in the weights' inevitable rotation.

And the LORD, by the way, saw the commercial and saw that it was good, but yet, one cannot find it on YouTube.

V. THOU SHALT NOT PURCHASE THE EXTENDED-SERVICE WARRANTY.
Punishment: Fourth or Seventh Circles

NOW THERE WAS a day (Job 1:6-12) when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, "Whence comest thou?" Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it."

And the LORD said unto Satan, "Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?" Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not Thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all his fancy electronics he bought from Best Buy? Thou have protected him from power surges and bad factory manufacturing and dropping his new 42-inch LCD TV. But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face." And the LORD said unto Satan, "Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand."

So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD, and laideth a curse most foul unto Job's electronics, and lo! Job's television did fall from its stand, and his hi-definition stereo shorted out, and his mp3 player broke, and Job rent his garments and fell to the ground and worshipped the LORD. Then, he rose and said, "Hey, wait a minute. I am Job, and I live in the land of Pasadena, and the LORD has granted me and all in Pasadena a wondrous trade imbalance with the Chinese. Thank you, LORD!" Thus Job went forth, and for little money replaced his television and stereo and all his electronics from the Easterners, and the LORD chuckled as Satan was defeated by his misunderstanding of the modern capitalist system. Then the LORD unleashed the moonwalk upon Satan, and Satan was chagrined. Then Satan saith unto the LORD, "Let's see how Job likes it when he ends up with boils. I said, frickin' boils!"

Behold, even if the Devil himself should curse one's electronics and cause them to fail, the LORD has made a hedge around the economies of East Asia, and artificially depressed their currencies, so that their products are cheap. Rejoice, for the LORD has made it so one does not need to shell out extra money for the extended-service warranties the people at the electronics stores push. And behold, those that have no faith in the LORD, and buy the extended-service plans and waste their money, shall be cast down into perdition.

VI. THOU SHALT NOT BE A JERK TO ONE'S GIRLFRIEND.
Punishment: varies -- Second Circle to Ninth Circle, but probably the Eighth

BEHOLD THE WISDOM of Reagan, who declared that women were the civilizing influence on men. For men in their primal state, without women, are prone to all manner of sloth and vice, ranging from not eating properly to not showering for days on end just because they can. Do not women cause you to clean your bath regularly? Do not women cause you to appear neat and clean? Do not women know how to coordinate colors and all that, and make your apartment appear as if an adult lives there, and not someone just out of college? Verily, they do. Plus, there are the other benefits, if you catch our drift, which by the way you're not supposed to enjoy until you're married, but we'll talk about that later.

Yet many men abjure their responsibilities, and conduct themselves in a most appalling manner, and drunkenly cavort in seedy bars despite being in a relationship with a woman who is too good for them. Even worse, some men fester and rot in pursuit of idleness, even as their women hold down a steady job and then do all of the housework. Did not De Niro say, "Be a man. Don't be a pimp," or something to that effect? Yes, he did. And even worse than that, there are those men who cannot control their base urges, and pursue other women despite the fact they are already in a relationship. That's just wrong.

Behold, any man who is a jerk to one's girlfriend shall reap what he sows, and open himself up to a world of incredible and amazing pain, and suffer accordingly, with the pain to be determined by Minos himself, who in Hell's vestibule shall wrap his hideous tail around himself and bite it, and condemn the man to the Chasms of Fraud. (In the meantime, the Chasms of Fraud may or may not be worse than the tortures exacted by the girlfriend and her friends, however).

VI-B. THOU SHALT NOT STOP ONE'S BOYFRIEND FROM WATCHING FOOTBALL.

(After much consideration, the Holy See has decided adhering to this commandment pretty much absolves women in a relationship from pretty much everything else, particularly if women agree to let men watch football on non-traditional days like Thursday nights, plus bowl season. However, "pretty much everything else" notably does not include, "Cheating on one's boyfriend with his best friend," which remains right out).

VII. THOU SHALT NOT TALK ON ONE'S MOBILE PHONE DURING DINNER OUT.
Punishment: varied; from Third Circle to Ptolomaea (Ninth Circle, Third Zone)

AND THE APOSTLE JAMES wrote (1 James 23-24): "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was." James, being an apostle, was too polite to say that any man who would stare admiringly at himself in a mirror is a cad.

Do not James' words apply doubly to the man who talks loudly and abrasively on his mobile phone during dinner out, insulting his guests and annoying others in the establishment where he dines? Yeah, we think so. For Christ's sake, put the phone away. It can wait. We don't care if the stupid Poindexter account blew up again -- it can wait until you get home, when you're at an actual computer and can do actual real work. Don't you type under the table with your Blackberry either. God! Please, get some backbone. If you're really that important, you don't have to prove it to your guests -- who are theoretically your friends -- or the other people in the restaurant, who don't really care that Finnster is an incompetent poltroon who would screw up the Poindexter account anyway. And if you don't get some manners, you're going to Ptolomaea, home of traitors to guests, whom God has damned and damned justly. Wretched, putrid scoundrel!

-----------

IMPRIMI POTEST
CONGREGATIO PRO DOCTRINA FIDEI

Vaticanus omnia sibi vindicat iura

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March 11, 2008

The Other Shoe

SO ABOUT 1 p.m. today I finally had a chance to take a break at the office and look -- with trepidation -- at how the market was doing. I was surprised to find green arrows where there were normally red, and even more surprised when I checked later and found the arrows were still green. After all, it's been a bad past few days. But I figured, hell -- the market still had an hour and a half to go and I was sure the other shoe would drop, and the hedge funds and computerized trading models would kick in and do their thing and we'd be screwed again.

Much to my surprise, though ... the market kept going up and had its best day in more than five years. It's still going up even now -- Japan and Singapore are up about 3 pc in morning trading there.

Normally, I would be ecstatic at this ... but you know, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop right about now. I really am. Maybe that's just because this whole "market turmoil" thing has left me a bit jaded. But it could be worse. I could have owned Wellpoint Inc., which on this banner day lost 28 pc of its value. IN ONE DAY.

The fates, they are cruel and cunning.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:27 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

It's Not Just an Adventure ...

... IT'S A WAY TO GET BACK the ladies from the corrupt local bigshot -- the corrupt local bigshot with his fancy foreign car, conspicuous gold jewelry and fashion sense derived from a bad American music video! Yes, the Ukrainian Army -- join up today!

(The best part, if you ask me: when the local bigshot says the Ukranian equivalent of a slow-motion "NOOOOOOOOO!")

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

... Then Again, Maybe It Is

THE RUSSIAN ARMY, on the other hand, focuses a lot on "blowing stuff up" and "meeting old friends who haven't been ground into the dust by the Army's sadistic officer corps."

If that doesn't get the kids to sign up, well, maybe the bad Russian Army rap will get them interested.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

This Would Be My Future in the Service

A WHILE BACK, I decided that if war or other national emergency compelled me to join the armed forces, I'd sign up for the U.S. Navy. There's a few reasons for that. One, family history. Two, Pug Henry was in the Navy, and Pug Henry kicks ass. Three, you don't need a reason three with Pug Henry as reason two. Oh, and four, Navy has a better football team.

However, I have a feeling the Navy would look at me and figure I would ... well, fit the profile of this recruitment video.

I mean, hey. I've been on ship, OK? It's embarrassing when you try to climb all those ladders -- which are straight up, dammit -- and after four or five of them you're starting to flag and you start wondering if all the sailors are covertly rolling their eyes and snickering at you, Mr Out of Shape Civilian. Especially the hot girl sailors. Crikey, that was almost enough to start making me think about getting into shape.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

But Nothing Tops These Guys ...

ON A MORE SERIOUS NOTE, NO ONE does commercials like the Marines. No one.

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March 06, 2008

Oops

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS when "catching a falling knife" turns into "we caught the knife, but it sliced our wrists in the process." Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has the full story:

Property investment trusts shares have crashed on panic selling in New York after an affiliate of the private equity giant Carlyle Group fell into default on mortgage losses.

Carlyle Capital Corp (CCC) said it had missed margin calls to seven creditors and lacked collateral to cover its trading exposure to mortgage securities.

The news sent shockwaves through the financial markets. Carlyle Capital has leveraged itself to the hilt, taking out debt at a ratio of 32:1 to invest in the US mortgage assets. It held securities worth a $21.7bn (£10.8bn) last month, raising the spectre of distress sales on a scale large enough to trigger a cascade of liquidations by other funds.

Fears of forced sales ravaged real estate investment trusts, which also own big holdings of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt. Anworth Mortgage shares plunged 24pc and Capstead Mortgage was off 25pc.

Thornburg Mortgage crashed 60pc after revealing an SEC-filing in New York that it had missed a $28m margin call to JP Morgan Chase. It has suffered from the collapse in investor demand for so-called jumbo mortgages.

An analyst report that UBS was engaged in a "fire-sale" of mortgage securities worth $24bn accelerated the flight from risk. Most of the assets are alleged to be Alt A securities, the next notch up from sub-prime. The Dow Jones index fell 164 points in early trading to 12,090.

Leverage. It works both ways.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:32 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Important Milestone Achieved

THERE'S NOTHING like a productive day at the home office. Today, I hit an important milestone with my finances -- I figured out how to configure my home-finance computer program so that when it starts, it plays the sound of the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell rather than an annoying musical tone. Sweet.

I am hopeful this move, which replaces the musical tone with the repetitive, obnoxious, ball peen hammer-like sound of the opening bell, will help soothe my nerves when I see how much money I've lost each trading day.

UPDATE: 10:36 p.m. No it does NOT soothe my nerves. Christ Almighty!

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Please, Lads, DO Hold the Line!

THE NEW YORK TIMES has an interesting piece up today on the machinations of the European Central Bank, which due to concerns over inflation has held its interest rates steady. That's in stark contrast to how the Federal Reserve here has acted, as the Fed has basically figured a little inflation is better than having growth disappear.

Of course, the trouble with the ECB's scheme is that interest rates in Europe -- now at 4 pc -- are greater than those here in the US, where the Fed Funds rate is 3 pc, and will probably fall. This interest-rate imbalance has understandably led to the euro shooting up against the dollar: it now stands at -- God in Heaven -- about $1.538 to the greenback! That's roughly 32 pc higher than when the euro was introduced back in the day and nearly 88 pc higher than the euro's all-time low, which was something like 82 U.S. cents.

As a result, I have to think European firms -- particularly those that do a lot of exporting -- are just screaming at the currency-borne pain they're going through. But since it doesn't seem like the ECB will change its tune anytime soon, my question is: will the ECB's paranoia about inflation throw the Eurozone into a recession? It's possible to have inflation without growth, of course, but if there's one thing that causes inflation, it is growth. Take growth away from the equation ...

Of course, as an American, this is exactly how I want the ECB to manage its economy. A super-strong euro only helps American exporters and weakens European importers -- and since I have no plans to travel to Europe or buy European goods anytime soon, this is only to my benefit. True, it will require some sacrifice: the lox portion of my weekly bagels-and-lox will have to be Alaskan rather than Scottish. But in these tough economic times, we all have to do our part.

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

March 04, 2008

Arenaball is Back

SO I WATCHED and enjoyed every bloody second of Monday night's broadcast of the Arena Football League game between the evil San Jose Sabercats and the likable Chicago Rush. Chicago won, which I liked, and it did so rather handedly, thanks to a bunch of turnovers (or, as we say in arenaball land, "key defensive stops.") In front of more than 15,000 fans -- sweet -- Chicago beat San Jose 70-47 in a game that was actually quite close until midway through the fourth quarter.

One surprise: Bobby Sippio, the Chicago Rush's star wide receiver, got a promotion up to the National Football League, where he is now a Kansas City Chief. Thus, the Rush had to replace their all-star wide receiver, and did so with none other than Damian Harrell, a longtime AFL wide receiver who last night proved he is very good at his job.

I must admit this somewhat disappointed me, as I had seen Mr Harrell play in person when he was playing for the Colorado Crush. I did not care for his antics then, as I was rooting for the Grand Rapids Rampage, and found Mr Harrell's behavior a bit ... well, a bit Florida State. Boorish, to put it bluntly. But he displayed none of that on Monday night and performed brilliantly. I was also very impressed with Chicago's new quarterback, Sherdrick Bonner -- I can't believe the man is 39.

In other arenaball news, the recently moved Cleveland AFL team got 17,391 fans to turn out to the team's inaugural game in the city. That's higher than the typical attendance at an NHL game. Even better, Cleveland beat New York, 61-49. One thing I found particularly amusing: there were reportedly chants of "Pittsburgh sucks" at the game. This would be more impressive if Cleveland was actually playing Pittsburgh. You know, if Pittsburgh had an AFL team. So my opinions are divided. First, I am proud of Cleveland for turning out to watch some great football. Second, these guys clearly -- clearly -- have issues.

***

YES, I'm going to blog about arena football this year. NO, I don't care what anyone thinks about it. But if you're one of my many readers who wonder why I blog about it; well, I guess I think the game has a lot going for it. The good news, however, is that I plan to blog about a lot of stuff besides arena football, so you'll be all set.

***

SPEAKING OF REGULAR FOOTBALL, though -- let me be the first to wish Brett Favre well as he (finally) retires from the game. I'm saving the snark for the end, so bear with me before you pounce on my curmudgeonliness.

There is no denying Favre was everything one wanted in a quarterback. Not only was he an excellent quarterback, he was a fan favorite whom everyone in Green Bay loved. He was a great talent and from all accounts is a great human being, and the sport will be diminished now that he has left the game. This is a man, after all, who won a Super Bowl and set all sorts of records, and it will be a long time before those records are broken.

That said -- and I think I speak for the 89 percent of Americans who are not Green Bay Packers fans -- I'm glad to see Favre finally retire, if only because I don't have to listen for months on end about whether the guy will actually retire. Jesus Christ. It got so bad there I would have almost -- almost -- preferred listening to people blather on about Terrell Owens. Now that Favre has actually left the team, I look forward to a few years free of having to listen about the Packers, except in the context of the squad being worse than Detroit. That's not to say I won't have a soft spot in my heart for Green Bay -- after all, it is Green Bay, the last of the small-town franchises -- but come on. Enough already.

While I'm on a roll here, Packer fans, enough already with the cheeseheads. I'm serious. For one thing, the cheeseheads are a baseball-related invention -- it's true -- and, as such, are lame. For another, it's not even like they're an old-time football tradition -- they got invented in 1987, for Pete's sake. 1987. I was 11. That's not old-time football. Do something old-time football instead, like bring yellow dish towels to the games. You'll find your team gains strength and performs gloriously when they are waved furiously in the chill November wind. Trust me on this.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 02, 2008

Football Round-Up

I WAS ANNOYED when the Patriots fans stole my Hines Ward car magnet. But thanks to some recent news about the New England Patriots' conduct over the years, now I'm really annoyed.

According to no less a source than Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the shameless Patriots filmed the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers at least four times over the years, including in two AFC Championship games. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports this has Sen Specter, who is wisely a fan of the Black and Gold, upset:

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday that he has a list of witnesses and will pursue the "Spygate" case against the New England Patriots that he said involved four games against the Steelers, including two AFC championship games.

"I think Steelers fans have a lot to be concerned about this and I'm one of them,'' Mr. Specter told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an interview yesterday, adding that "maybe Steelers ownership should think about it a little."

Specter met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for more than an hour Wednesday to discuss why evidence turned over by the Patriots that documented their illegal videotaping of opposing coaches' signals was destroyed. He said he was not satisfied with Mr. Goodell's explanation.

The story also quotes former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who says any taping would have given the Patriots an advantage, although it didn't impact the outcomes of the games in question. Right. Sure.

Still, it seems clear to me the best revenge is for the Steelers to utterly crush the Patriots, thus restoring themselves to their rightful place on top the American Football Conference. Especially because Mr Rooney basically said, "Drop all this taping talk." Yessir.

***

IT WOULD BE EASIER for the Steelers to utterly crush the Patriots if Randy Moss went away and played for Buffalo or something. That could just happen, according to published reports. Meanwhile, The Boston Herald had a story about the teams to whom Mr Moss might jump if contract issues can't be resolved.

Oddly, Team No. 3 on this list is the Pittsburgh Steelers. Clearly there was some sort of typo, because the Steelers would be No. 30 on any realistic list of the teams to which Mr Moss would jump. Let us remember the Steelers are run by Mr Rooney, the son of the original Mr Rooney, and as such would never sign a player with Mr Moss' troubled history. Also, the Steelers are notoriously cheap. The team never pays top dollar for good players from outside; instead, it develops its own players from within (e.g. James Harrison) while replacing veterans who have become too expensive to keep around (e.g. Alan Faneca). Speaking of Mr Faneca, he has gone to the New York Jets and they could well have a very impressive offensive line this year. Good.

It seems clear Mr Moss would most likely end up with the Dallas Cowboys (because they are scoundrels) or the Philadelphia Eagles (because they're masochists).

***

DEAR GOD, IT'S ME, Ben Kepple. PLEASE give the Pittsburgh Steelers decent special teams players this year. I'll be good, really I will! Please please please ...

***

I WOULD BE REMISS if I did not note the death of Pittsburgh sports legend Myron Cope, the team's longtime radio announcer who invented the Terrible Towel. However, I hope -- as a one-time journalist -- Mr Cope found humor in his obituary, as written by The New York Times.

Here's the Times on Mr Cope:

Myron Cope, the longtime broadcaster for the N.F.L’s Steelers who became a sports treasure in Pittsburgh with his distinctive vocabulary and his creation of the fans’ Terrible Towel, died Wednesday in Mount Lebanon, Pa. He was 79.

At the end of the story, here's Cope on Cope:

Notwithstanding his enormous popularity as a broadcaster, Mr Cope took pride in his years as a writer.

“I’ve often thought that when I kick the bucket, there’d be a story that said, ‘Creator of towel, dead,’ " he remarked upon retiring from his broadcast work for the Steelers. “I would like to be remembered as a pretty decent writer.”

***

AS MUCH AS I hate to admit it, I am somewhat concerned about the Cleveland Browns this year. After all, think of all the improvements they made during the 2007 season. They discovered their backup (later, starting) quarterback could throw the ball. Braylon Edwards relearned how to catch the ball. Now, they've acquired Donte Stallworth from the Patriots, who is a pretty decent wide receiver and should help free up Mr Edwards. Also, they acquired Shaun Rogers from the Detroit Lions and the Lions got Leigh Bodden ...

... which may or may not be a good thing for the Browns.

Mr Bodden was a sharp cornerback, and as one who watched Browns games pretty frequently during 2007, I thought he really improved over the year. True, Cleveland's defense stunk up the joint overall, but I thought he was a good player and so I'm surprised Cleveland let him go. Mr Rogers is a great defensive tackle but from everything I have read, he is undisciplined. So it seems Cleveland is taking a chance on this one. But it could pay off.

***

THIS WEEKEND, as I always do when I get out of work on Saturday, I called my parents at home. Mom informed me about all of Cleveland's personnel moves and we got to talking about Brady Quinn. My mother and I have different views on whether Cleveland should keep him around. Mom pointed out that Cleveland doesn't have a decent backup quarterback, and also noted Mr Quinn is a fan favorite. I think the guy's trade bait and should get sent along to the highest bidder. Surely there are teams out there who need a good quarterback, and the Browns could get some much-needed defensive help through trading Mr Quinn.

As for my father, he and I discussed Browns' fans irrational hatred for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which Steelers fans don't really share for the Browns. True, the Browns have not managed to beat the Steelers since Oct. 5, 2003, and so far this decade Pittsburgh leads the rivalry 15-2. I would like to think this year would make it 17-2, but I'm not nearly as confident as I was in years past. Who knows? Perhaps the Brownies will make up for their past humiliations at the Steelers' hands -- humiliations like that Dec. 24, 2005, game which is still famous in Kepple family lore. *cough* 41-0 *cough*

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

US Air Force: Blogs "Sap and Impurify" Precious Mental Readiness

By SKIP ARGYLE
Rant Defense Weekly

WASHINGTON -- The US Air Force has banned its servicemen from accessing blogs for official use, warning the Web sites could "sap and impurify the precious mental readiness" of its airmen.

The news was first reported in the Air Force Times, and media outlets such as Wired then picked up the story. The news outlets reported that although many blogs are banned, through a process the USAF's Cyber Command oversees, many regular news services remain available to airmen. Wired writes:

AFNOC has imposed bans on all sites with "blog" in their URLs, thus cutting off any sites hosted by Blogspot. Other blogs, and sites in general, are blocked based on content reviews performed at the base, command and AFNOC level ...

The idea isn't to keep airmen in the dark -- they can still access news sources that are "primary, official-use sources," said Maj. Henry Schott, A5 for Air Force Network Operations. "Basically ... if it's a place like The New York Times, an established, reputable media outlet, then it's fairly cut and dry that that's a good source, an authorized source," he said.

The policy is the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Thaddeus "Buck" Surpelson, who reportedly believes blogs provide "information notably lacking in purity of essence."

"These Web logs, or 'blogs,' have no regard for the proper dissemination of information. For this reason, I want to impress upon you gentlemen the need for extreme watchfulness," Surpelson said recently at a meeting of Cyber Command officers, according to a source present. "We all know the Reds are tricky, and can broadcast disinformation through a variety of means. Trust no blog, no matter its credentials, unless the author is known to you personally. Even then, be wary, for its author may be a secret Communist agent."

"I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify the precious mental readiness of our airmen," Surpelson said.

Among Air Force personnel, opinions on Surpelson's directives are divided.

"Gee, those Communists sure are tricky," said Senior Airman Clyde Percival, as he browsed one of the few remaining sites available to airmen, a Web site devoted to the life and music of John Philip Sousa. "I had absolutely no idea that Instapundit, Powerline, Dean's World and all these other sites I enjoyed were actually written by seditious, Commie-loving turncoats, ready and willing to destroy our way of life at a moment's notice. Thank God we were made aware of this before it was too late."

"What do you mean, 'we're not fighting the Russians?'" Percival added.

"This is completely insane. For that matter, Surpelson is completely insane," said an Air Force lieutenant, as he pounded his computer's keyboard in vain. "I can't even call up my favorite football blogs. What the hell was he thinking? Communists have not infiltrated the National Football League!"

"Never mind the fact a lot of these blogs provide a window into the morale and everyday conditions facing our airmen, which many of them understandably won't openly mention to their superiors," said the lieutenant, as he desperately tried to find news about the Denver Broncos.

Interestingly, the new Air Force policy still allows airmen to access Web sites such as The New York Times and other mainline media. Some speculated this was done to prevent the major media from taking notice of the ban, although others said the move was made with more practical considerations in mind.

"I hate to say this, but The New York Times does a much better job of providing information about our war plans than strategic command does," said an anonymous Air Force captain.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:54 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack