May 29, 2009

The Garden of Financial Delights

IN THE BEGINNING God created risk and return. And the risks were myriad and treacherous, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and said, “Let there be profit.” And God saw the profit, and saw that it was good; and He divided its sources into debt and equity. And the debt He called bonds, and the equity He called stocks. And the bonds and the stocks were the first instruments.

And the LORD God took the man, and did shew him the market, and put him into the market to dress and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every sector of the market thou mayest reap rewards. But of the Sector of Alternative Investments, thou shalt not reap from it; for in the day thou reapest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Now the salesman was more subtle than any man which the LORD God had made. And he said to the man, “Behold, art thou earning but a pittance on thy savings accounts, and on thy muni bonds, and did not Business Week proclaim the death of equities?” And the man said, “Don’t remind me.” And the salesman said, “Thou should invest in the Sector of Alternative Investments, for thou canst reap great rewards many times that of the market, if only thou let me use the Fount of Leverage and draw from the River Forex and conjure Forces from the Pit of Shortselling.” And the man said, “Just what type of great rewards are we talking about?”

Verily the salesman looked at him and said, “Behold, I shall give thou the world and everything in it, and all for a mere two percent each year and twenty percent of the gains.” And the man said, “We’re good.” And lo, the salesman did go and produce great gains, and drew succor from all parts of the earth, and other men clamored to invest. And the salesman did create something from nothing, and all were in awe of his power; and the salesman went on to create funds of funds, which did the same thing but took even larger fees. Then men said to themselves, “Behold, the Sector of Alternative Investments is vast and powerful; and who can stand against it?” For those who controlled it had rode the bull and tamed the bear, and were portrayed in Fortune.

And the LORD God called to the man and said, “What is this thou hadst done? Didn’t I tell thou to stick with slow and steady growth?” And the man said, “Ooooooh, slow and steady growth. My fund’s alpha is through the roof and I’m partying at a mansion tonight with all these models from Eastern Europe.” And the LORD God looked at the man, and said, “Thou shalt reap what thou have sowed.” And the man looked at the LORD and wondered, but quickly dismissed the LORD’s chastisement, for the man didst score frequently with girls he met at nightclubs and partook of the Pool of Bollinger and Moet & Hennessy.

But the man had forgotten about the serpent, who stalked the fields and offered his money to those who dwelt in rental units and smallholdings, saying, “Come, thou can afford a dwelling of thine own, or I can refinance thou mortgage and bring thou vast wealth.” And the people said, “Really?” And the serpent said, “Yea, verily, for the housing market always goes up.” And the multitudes did rejoice and bought flat-screen televisions and went on cruises and traded up to sport-utility vehicles.

But the multitudes were overcome with fear when their mortgages reset, and hid in their dwellings from their creditors. And they cursed the serpent, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and they feared being cast into the outer darkness. And the storekeepers and the merchants and the industrialists all wondered at this, and said, “Oh, shit.” And the LORD opened the gate to the Pit, and a black smoke arose from it, and the man heard a voice crying, “One month LIBOR for 4.5 percent, and three month LIBOR for five percent, but oil will crash from $145 to $50 a barrel.”

Then it came to pass there was a great earthquake in the markets, and the sun turned black like sackcloth, and the moon was as if it was made of blood. The stars in the sky fell to earth, and the sky receded like a scroll, and every stock and mutual fund and hedge fund was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains, and called to the Fed, “Hide us from the wrath of the Great Deleveraging, for the great day of its wrath has come, and who can stand against it?”

And the Fed did act, but it was too late for the man, who wept and beseeched the LORD for succor, saying, “LORD, forgive me, for I have sinned and didn’t really expect the whole risk thing while I was enjoying my returns.” And the LORD hid His face from the man, and cursed him, and sent him forth covered in sore boils and leprosy; and the man was ruined, and cursed his fate and the markets and the day of his birth. Thus the man left the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, which is just outside Toledo, and became a vagabond, amidst the ravaged multitudes.


(Details from Hieronymous Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," c. 1504)

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May 27, 2009

So Much for My Career as a Gunslinger

SO I WAS at the grocery this morning when a most amazing thing happened. There I was, standing in the deli section, when I noticed a nice old lady puttering along in one of those motorized carts. Suddenly, the nice old lady took out an entire display of pita chips with her cart, and appeared well on her way to take out one of the bakery displays, before store personnel intervened and convinced her she ought lay off the throttle.

I mention this because I realized today that I really don't have a very good reaction time to sudden physical events. While other people had realized something was amiss and moving to help, I stood there like a deer in the headlights and watched in fascinated horror before my brain kicked in and said, "Hey, smart guy. Why don't you help the old lady who is careening towards the bulkie rolls?" Looking back, I didn't even have the excuse that the cart was heading right towards me. Which is probably a good thing, since knowing me, I probably would have ended up face down in a nearby container of chicken salad.

Anyway, this does not bode well for my prospects in the growing and exciting field of gunslinging, in which I would traverse the West and bring law and order to tiny hamlets. Nor, for that matter, does it bode well for my prospects in a formal law and order career. Or the military, for that matter. Although the military, unfortunately, is right out for me -- I'm pretty sure I'm 4-F, if they still have that any more.

Which is too bad. I was really thinking about joining the Navy, but I'm not medically fit, and I can't get medically fit either. These aren't issues of weight or body fat, which can be fixed -- rather, I looked over the medical qualifications and found ... well, a lot of different grounds for disqualification. I think the Navy would overlook one or two if they were minor, but I think we're past the minor issue category here. And they're not my fault, either -- it's not like I wanted to have flat feet, bad sinuses, a bad shoulder or a bit of asthma. And I needed the tracheotomy when I was a boy.

On the other hand, though, that might not be a bad thing -- at least, for the Navy anyway. I'm not bad at shuffling paper, but when it comes to gunnery practice, they might want guys who wouldn't end up accidentally shelling the officers' club.

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May 26, 2009

In Which I Have a Fit of Pique

PRIOR TO RETIRING this evening, I was scanning the newswires when I noticed a story from the Agence France-Presse which rather annoyed me. Apparently, President Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court has won favor with diabetic activists. This is because Judge Sotomayor has Type I diabetes, the youth-onset form of the disease in which the body does not produce enough insulin to process the sugar in one's blood.

Now, I will certainly not deny this is heartwarming in a way, particularly if it brightens the day of an eight-year-old some place who can't have ice cream. But what got me was this quote, from no less than the American Diabetes Association:

"As this process moves forward, the diabetes community expects that Judge Sotomayor's nomination will be evaluated based on her qualifications and years of experience -- and not her diabetes. To evaluate her in any other way would be a disservice to the United States."

Wait, what? Where the hell did this come from? Does the American Diabetes Association seriously believe that Judge Sotomayor's opponents will denounce her because she has ... diabetes? Do they expect a scurillous whispering campaign against her because ... she has a relatively common ailment? "Oh, well, she'd be a great Supreme Court justice, but it just wouldn't do if they had to lop off her feet?"

For that matter, since when is there a diabetes community? When have people with diabetes ever decided they're part of a big group? And looking at it on a malady-specific basis, when have diabetics ever been consigned to, say, lepers' colonies? I mean, announcing one has diabetes does not, as far as I can tell, lead one to be cast out into the outer darkness, whereupon there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh but this kind of gnaws at me, as I myself am a diabetic (Type II) and don't exactly appreciate all this sympathy-mongering. It's diabetes. It's not cancer. It's also not AIDS. It's also not tuberculosis, malaria, dengue fever, leishmanaisis, cholera, progeria, elephantiasis, Kaposi's sarcoma, gout, cystic fibrosis, or muscular dystrophy. Oh, and it's also not leprosy. It's diabetes. It's eminently treatable.

This is not to say that being diabetic is fun. It's not. For one thing, you really have to cut down on refined sugars, and you can forget about things like regular soda. For another, you can forget about getting decent health coverage outside of a group plan, because you now have a pre-existing condition and as such are anathema to prospective health insurers. You can't even sign up for those lame-o event-specific plans that pay you if, say, you get hurt and miss work. (Trust me, I found this out myself).

But worst of all, you now suddenly find yourself set upon by a veritable army of do-gooders who want you to embrace your condition, like it's your long-lost brother Rex who left home many years ago. Great. Wonderful.

I mean, I'm sorry, but if I'm stuck with the Mark of Cain stamped on my medical dossier, I don't see why I should suddenly become one with the stupid ailment. My identity is not wrapped up in the fact I have diabetes. Nor, for that matter, is it wrapped up in the fact I have sleep apnea, wretched sinuses, a nagging pain in my right shoulder and several other ailments of which I'll spare you the details. And I have to say, I resent the idea that a physical malady should somehow put an imprint on my soul.

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May 22, 2009

Yuppie Larvae Miss White House Tour, Steelers Blamed

LEAVE IT TO a bunch of whiny suburban parents to rain on the Pittsburgh Steelers' parade.

Yesterday should have been a day to again celebrate the Super Bowl victory of the nation's greatest football franchise, and with the President, no less. Unfortunately, this great event was overshadowed, thanks to the self-absorbed antics of some witless Virginia parents.

You see, their kids' school had arranged a trip for a large group of kindergarten students to tour the White House on Thursday morning. According to the White House, their tour was supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m., and they had been given a grace period of up until 10:15 a.m. Despite this -- and "heavy traffic" was supposedly to blame -- the kids' bus did not arrive until after 10:30 a.m., and thus the mandarins in the executive mansion said the tour could not proceed. Naturally, in the eyes of the parents, the White House has become the bad guy -- as WRC-TV in Washington reports:

Parents say they tried to make it on time, but their chartered buses hit heavy traffic that slowed them down substantially. They thought they were supposed to show up by 10:15, but they say they arrived at 10:25 instead, and couldn’t get in.

"The person who headed this White House trip up came out and said, 'I’m sorry, the White House tour's off.' There were a lot of crying kids," parent Barbara Stine said.

The White House tells a slightly different story. A spokesperson said the group was actually supposed to be there at 9:30, but they held the gates for the group until 10:30, 15 minutes longer than they told the group, but when they still hadn't arrived, they had to draw the line.

Paty Stine said the White House staff should have made an exception. She feels the kindergarteners were snubbed for the Steelers.

"Here we have President Obama and his administration saying, 'Here we are for the common, middle class people,' and here he is not letting 150 5- and 6-year-olds into the White House because he’s throwing a lunch for a bunch of grown millionaires," Stine said.

Well, lady, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the good sense to show up on time.

Honestly. It's not like you can just show up at the White House any time you want. These things have to be cleared well in advance, it usually requires assistance from Capitol Hill to arrange, and there's always the chance the tours may be called off. You know, 'cause the Government may have something come up. It is a high honor and a privilege to visit the White House, and when such requests are granted, they ought be taken seriously. If that means showing up 30 minutes or an hour early, and spending the time out on Pennsylvania Avenue talking to the kids about the Old Executive Office Building, then that's what you do.

One would hope the kids would learn something from this whole debacle, but one doubts that. You see, even though the White House graciously offered to reschedule the kids' visit, the parents are naturally now in a snit, and won't likely take the rain check, WRC-TV said:

Thursday night the White House released this statement: "The President and First Lady are dedicated to opening the doors of the White House to the public, and it is unfortunate to see young people miss a tour. The visitor’s office is already working to reschedule the group."

Parents say it's probably too late. The school year ends in a few weeks and they doubt the tour can be made up in that time.

Dare I say it, but this is probably a good thing. Besides, let's face it: the parents and kids are from Stafford County, which is a bit south of Washington, D.C. As a result, the parents' animus and disgust must undoubtedly be rooted in support for the Washington Redskins. I mean, it makes sense to me -- after all, Redskins fans are generally (generally, I said) annoying, obnoxious and unpleasant. So it's understandable they would take out their frustration on the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat them soundly in Week 9 of the 2008 season.

23-6, I might add. Yeah. Go Steelers!

My suspicions about this are also raised due to WRC-TV's impolite cutline for a picture posted with the story, showing the President with a Steelers jersey at the special ceremony to honor the team. As of now, it reads: "President Obama enjoys his new Steelers jersey after making children cry."

This is not the type of comment one expects from a professional news organization, and only lends credence to the idea that Redskins fans -- deluded in their belief that the NFC East is football's toughest conference, and deluded in their belief they'll make the playoffs this year -- are behind this sinister plot to discredit the Steelers.

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Finally, the Terminator Movie We All Wanted

SO I WENT AND SAW "Terminator: Salvation" tonight. It ruled.

This was something of a surprise to me. You see, I haven't really been a fan of the Terminator franchise, if only because the series doesn't make a lot of sense. For one thing, the idea that a self-aware military defense program would try to destroy mankind with nuclear weapons is laughable. It's a computer. It's smart. It knows this wouldn't work. Besides, even if it did try it, it would soon realize the bug in its system.

GENERAL: Dear GOD. It's launching our nuclear missiles! We've only got thirty seconds --
PROGRAMMER: Hey! Computer! Got news for you! When those nukes go off, it'll create a giant electromagnetic pulse that will fry your CPU, not to mention the entire infrastructure you need to survive.
GENERAL: The blue screen of death! You did it! You did it!
PROGRAMMER: Yes, I did -- say, where's Major Kong?

Also, the whole time travel thing? Yeah, that's a bit silly. You know the drill, of course -- SKYNET, the computer program, sends its killing robots back through time to prevent the birth (or simply liquidate) John Connor, the resistance leader, while Connor sends back his own agents to prevent that. Then, when Connor's team triumphs, SKYNET tries it again, and Connor foils it again. If this kept up, it would get a bit silly. The next thing we'd know, SKYNET would send back a terminator robot to liquidate the chef at John's favorite lunch place in the hopes he would contract botulism.

Still: let's be clear, though. This is a fun movie. It is mindless and enjoyable and things blow up to spectacular effect. For that matter, the effects themselves are spectacular. The cinematography is outstanding and the desert landscapes -- it was shot in New Mexico, apparently -- really make for a gritty yet enjoyable war movie in which approximately eight million rounds of ammunition are fired, giant machines tromp around the landscape and wreak havoc, lots of things explode, and the resolution is satisfactory, but not to the point where there can't be any sequels. And if there are sequels -- well, I'll be there for them, at least if they're anything like this.

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May 21, 2009

Rubbing Salt in the Wound

AS A WRITER, I know perfectly well the importance of a good lead. Properly executed, it can draw in readers to a story they would otherwise ignore. It can soften the heart, it can inspire the imagination, and in some cases, it can cause one's blood to boil and prompt a frantic search for one's nitroglycerin.

With his incendiary introduction to an otherwise sedate essay on the economics of journalism, Robert Picard could not have succeeded any better in drawing that last reaction out of his targeted readership.

You see, in the pages of the Christian Science Monitor, Prof Picard has argued that journalists deserve low pay for their work, arguing it has little economic value. He could not have garnered more attention if he had walked into a newsroom, pulled a fire alarm, stripped off his clothing and preached his gospel whilst standing on the police reporter's desk. Prof Picard writes:

Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.

Actually, journalists deserve low pay.

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days.

Until they come to grips with that issue, no amount of blogging, twittering, or micropayments is going to solve their failing business models.

Gee. Thanks for the tip, Mr Helpful.

Of course, if one was cynical -- and I am certainly not -- one might point out that Prof Picard is a professor of media economics at something called Jonkoping University in Sweden. As such, he is rather ballsy to suggest that journalists are deserving of low pay, as most academics produce little to nothing in the way of economic value. 90 pc of their research is published in obscure journals and forgotten; 90 pc of their insights are so specialized as to be meaningless to the general public or even educated laymen; 90 pc of their work does nothing to advance the human condition. True, there is value in their teaching; but even then, most of the work is fobbed off on starving graduate students, whilst the tenured professor spends his days ruminating on the modern-day relevance of Marx and Fanon.

Prof Picard tries to weasel out of this; he argues journalists do not have specialized knowledge, such as "professors" and "electricians" do. But comparing academics to electricians is an insult to electricians. Besides, there is no denying whose labor is more valuable when one's electricity fails and you have a refrigerator full of perishables.

Also, I would take issue with Prof Picard's characterization of how journalists view their work. My view may be different than most in the field, as I'm a now-underemployed business journalist, but I've never considered my work a holy calling. Certainly I don't value it enough to take a vow of poverty along with the job. When I covered business, my job was simple: present facts and useful information to my readers so they could then make informed decisions about their finances or business operations. For that matter, that's how I approached every other topic about which I wrote.

Still, I don't mean to slight Prof Picard's argument too much. When it comes to the larger points, he is right: media companies and the journalists who work for them must provide economic value to their readers. Otherwise, the readers won't buy what they're selling. As Prof Picard writes:

Well-paying employment requires that workers possess unique skills, abilities, and knowledge. It also requires that the labor must be non-commoditized. Unfortunately, journalistic labor has become commoditized. Most journalists share the same skills sets and the same approaches to stories, seek out the same sources, ask similar questions, and produce relatively similar stories. This interchangeability is one reason why salaries for average journalists are relatively low and why columnists, cartoonists, and journalists with special expertise (such as finance reporters) get higher wages.

Across the news industry, processes and procedures for news gathering are guided by standardized news values, producing standardized stories in standardized formats that are presented in standardized styles. The result is extraordinary sameness and minimal differentiation ...

... If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable by and relevant to their audiences.

One cannot expect newspaper readers to pay for page after page of stories from news agencies that were available online yesterday and are in a thousand other papers today. Providing a food section that pales by comparison to the content of food magazines or television cooking shows is not likely to create much value for readers. Neither are scores of disjointed, undigested short news stories about events in far off places.

In other words, media firms must make use of their comparative advantages if they want to succeed. A newspaper in Poughkeepsie, for instance, ought focus on Poughkeepsie -- because that's what's important to its readers: not, as Prof Picard points out, day-old wire copy repeating what they've already seen on-line or on television.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 20, 2009

Your Money and You

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

An occasional Rant feature

IT WOULD APPEAR that my most recent installment of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! was, to use the technical term, a hit. Readership is up, it got a nice mention on something called Twitter, and people seemed generally pleased with it.

Thus, I’m going back to the well again for a special second round of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! Today, we’re going to look mostly at matters dealing with finance and economics. Why, you ask? Well, it was the most popular topic the last time. Reason enough for me. Besides, in these tough economic times, more people than ever hope to understand how our economy works. I’m happy to help. So, without further ado, let’s go to this edition of … Your Search Engine Queries Answered!

QUERY: assume that smith deposits $600 in currency into her checking account in the xyz bank. later that same day jones negotiates a loan for $1 200 at the same bank. in what direction and by what amount has the supply of money changed?

ANSWER: The supply of money will increase by $900. Here’s why.

Smith has put her money into a checking account, which means the bank will treat it as payable on demand and won’t loan any of it out. Thus the net increase there is zero. As for Jones, although he might negotiate a $1,200 loan at his branch, he’ll find out later the loan officer will get overruled by his boss, who is under orders not to actually loan money. This is because his boss’s boss is under orders from his boss not to loan money because the bank is trying to repay its TARP money, which the Treasury tricked it into taking.

However, when the bank tries to repay its TARP money, the Treasury tells it not only to pound sand, but that a senator from the bank’s state is holding a hearing on why it isn’t loaning out any money. So then the bank goes back and argues internally, and eventually decides that it can loan out Jones $900. Jones then takes his $900 and hides it under his mattress, thus technically adding it to the local money supply but really just contributing to the Paradox of Thrift that has been destroying our economy. Q.E.D.

QUERY: what is jpmorgan chase & co.’s p/e ratio hypothetically if the company issues equity in order to raise $10 million of capital?

ANSWER: The same as it was before, for all intents and purposes. What is $10 million to the House of Morgan?

QUERY: nonincentive stock option sell to cover

ANSWER: As a general rule, you should think about selling enough of your options to pay the appropriate tax due on them. Otherwise, you’ll end up like all those techies when the dot-com bubble burst, who owed oodles of tax when their options for vested at $89 each and then went to zero in little under a year. No one’s going to mind if you do this.

QUERY: what are the markets going to do next week

ANSWER: Ah, the timeless question: how will the markets do next week? I have no idea. So I turned to the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination, and posed it your question. The I Ching said:

The present is embodied in Hexagram 5 - Hsu (Waiting): With sincerity, there will be brilliant success. With firmness there will be good fortune, and it will be advantageous to cross the great stream. The third line, undivided, shows its subject in the mud close by the stream. He thereby invites the approach of injury. The situation is evolving slowly, and Yin (the passive feminine force) is gaining ground.

The future is embodied in Hexagram 60 - Chieh (Limitation): There will be progress and attainment, but if the regulations prescribed be severe and difficult, they cannot be permanent.

The I Ching thus tells us that he who holds the line, and does not sell his shares in a panic, will garner great wealth and fortune in the long term. The mud by the stream represents institutional investors and hedge funds, who are targeting certain sectors -- *cough* commercial real estate *cough* – and may decide to go super-short on them, thus causing much distress and anguish to those who can’t bear to see their real-estate fund drop nine percent in a day. An increase in Yin represents selling pressure and caution among small retail investors, who would prefer not to lose any more of their money.

As for the future, this shows there will be upward momentum among financials, unless the Government steps in and crushes them under its foot. The I Ching has spoken. Behold its wisdom.

QUERY: on the pernicious speculation action and corresponding supervising countermeasures in the stocks market of china

ANSWER: As a market, China scares the hell out of me. For one thing, like any emerging market, it is prone to speculative bubbles, and if I remember right, it had a good one going until the Reds took the air out of it. This leads to the second reason why I’m scared of it – China’s Government makes Darth Vader look slow to act when it comes to changing the terms of a deal midway through. So you can keep Shanghai and Shenzhen, for all I’m concerned.

QUERY: how much money did it take to make xenia back to normal after 1974 tornado

ANSWER: Since when was Xenia normal? I mean, come on.

QUERY: hey bloated rates

ANSWER: How can this commercial STILL not be on YouTube? It was a classic. This was the one for Brown & Co. where the lady comes in and wants to trade on margin, and the front-office doofus thinks she wants to trade butter. (“No, MARGIN!” “Oh, right.”)

Oh, speaking of commercials you could see on CNBC all the time, here’s one for … well, I was hoping this would be a surprise, but NOOOOO -- YouTube's stupid preview screen ruins it. But hey! It's Smilin' Bob!

I loved these commercials, if only because they're so downright ... blatant. (Readers at work might want to turn off the sound or wear headphones, if only so your colleagues don't get any funny ideas). As for why these commercials aired constantly on the all-stocks channel ... well, I'll leave that for readers to discuss!

QUERY: operational research decision tree for an orange owner in florida faces a dilemma. the weather forecast is for cold weather and there is a 50% chance that the temperature tonight will be cold enough to freeze and destroy his entire crop, which is worth some $50 000. he can take two possible actions to try to alleviate his loss if the temperature drops. first he could set burners in the orchard; this would cost $5000 but he could still expect to incur damage of approximately $15 000 to $20 000. second he could set up sprinklers to spray the trees. if the temperature drops the water would freeze on the fruit and provide some insulation. this method is cheaper $2000 but less effective. with the sprinklers he could expect to incur as much as $25 000 to $30 000 of the loss with no protective action. compare the grower s expected values for the three alternatives he has. which alternative would you suggest the grower take? why?

ANSWER: The orange grower should take none of these steps, and instead make a claim against his insurance in the event of a catastrophic frost. Barring that, he should apply for disaster aid from the Government, allowing him to get his $50,000 back at a nominal rate of interest, which would cost him just a couple of thousand dollars per year.

QUERY: never donate to alma mater

ANSWER: Good decision! One should only donate to one’s alma mater if one can deduct it from one’s taxes and wants really good football tickets.

QUERY: what does audibilize mean?

ANSWER: “Audibilize” is an Americanism that means the quarterback is improvising and has changed the previously-agreed upon play, known as “calling an audible.” For more on this, look under “trickeration” in your General Dictionary of American English.

QUERY: can a film director rewrite a script?

ANSWER: Not only can he rewrite the script, he can screw you out of your writer’s credit if he’s clever enough. So unless you want a “based on an idea by” credit, call your lawyer.

QUERY: how much is a legitimate markup

ANSWER: As much as you can get away with, just up to the point where people start thinking you’re a real jerk.

QUERY: i did everything right then everything went wrong

ANSWER: Ah, yes. I know the feeling! The important thing to remember is that you’ll rebound from this.

QUERY: how to speculate currency

ANSWER: Currency speculation isn’t my thing. But if you’re interested about this and other matters related to market trading, you might want to visit the good people at TTS Trading Ltd. in Vancouver, B.C. TTS Trading Ltd., according to its Web site, provides "insight, intelligence, and education for the self-directed active trader" – and they gave me a shout-out on Twitter for my last Your Search Engine Queries Answered! This sent bunches of readers my way. Thanks, guys!

QUERY: you have just noticed in the financial pages of the local newspaper that you can buy a $1 000 par value bond for $800. if the coupon rate is 10 percent

ANSWER: This is a trick question, because local newspapers don’t print bond listings any longer.

QUERY: i am consuming 50000 gallons/month of water. is this good

ANSWER: No, it’s not good, you stupid prat! What are you wasting that on, a replica of the fountains in front of the Bellagio? Also, you’re going to have the inspectors from the water utility fining you for your stupid manicured lawn.

QUERY: report in how to spend ur money economicly

ANSWER: Spend less than you earn. Next!

QUERY: guy billed $62 000 for downloading wall-e

ANSWER: I’m sure he deserved it.

QUERY: canadian football league run by idiots

ANSWER: Well, I can’t disagree with you there, if only because – once again! – I can’t get any telecasts of the CFL’s games this year. Jesus Christ. The season starts in July. That’s two months of real football I could be watching but can’t, and so I’ll have to listen to the games on Internet radio again.

QUERY: indoor football games fun to watch?

ANSWER: YES. Particularly in person. Get a seat a few rows up – trust me on this, because you don’t want a linebacker flying into your seat – but not too far up, and you’ll find it exciting and thrilling.

QUERY: american idol broadcast in san miguel allende mexico

ANSWER: You’re in San Miguel and you want to watch American Idol? Are you well? I mean, come on. You’re in San Miguel. The only television shows you’re allowed to watch are sports broadcasts and CNBC.

QUERY: summary of rich dad poor dad gold miner advice

ANSWER: Who the hell ever heard of asking a gold miner for financial advice? I mean, really. Here you have Prospector Jed out in Death Valley panning for gold or something, and twenty years later he’s … still out panning for gold. I mean, let’s get realistic here.

QUERY: towels are kinda scratchy meaning

ANSWER: Congratulations, Verizon – your advertisement has now become a topic for philosophers to debate.

QUERY: is a television a durable good?

ANSWER: You mean the box itself or what’s on it?

QUERY: goodwill inadvertant unwind

ANSWER: How do you inadvertently unwind goodwill? It’s goodwill. It sits on the balance sheet and does nothing. Well, OK, it reminds a company it overpaid when it ate a smaller company, but other than that, it doesn’t have any intrinsic value. And what if it’s negative? Then what? Do you have “badwill?” Actually, that’d be kind of cool on a balance sheet.

QUERY: next week market forecast

ANSWER: Oh, not this again. All right, here we go. A moment, please.

All right, I’m ready. The I Ching said:

The present is embodied in Hexagram 14 - Ta Yu (Possession in Great Measure): There will be great progress and success. The topmost line, undivided, show its subject with help accorded to him from Heaven. There will be good fortune, advantage in every respect. The situation is evolving slowly, and Yin (the passive feminine force) is gaining ground.

The future is embodied in Hexagram 34 - Ta Chuang (The Power of the Great): It will be advantageous to be firm and correct.

Well. I suppose this means … BUY! BUY! BUY! Clearly the I Ching means that buy-and-hold investors will be rewarded for their fortitude, because Hexagram 14 indicates institutional investors and hedge funds will all start going long. Unless, of course, the I Ching means that we’re all doing pretty well now, but that the hedge funds will all go short and we’ll hemorrhage red ink out of our pores until the market eventually turns around.

That’s it for this edition of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! Tune in next time, when we examine the foibles of Terrell Owens, why it’s a bad idea to do electrical work at home, and our standard boilerplate policy on financial matters, which is this:

DISCLAIMER: This entry is not intended to act as financial advice or serve as a substitute for financial advice from a qualified certified financial planner or other knowledgeable professional. Investing can and does involve risk and carries with it a chance of losing all your money, as we’ve found out over the past several months. Buyer beware. And if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 16, 2009

This Year's NFL Predictions

OH, NOW THIS is fraught with peril. Although I've been known to have some success with my prognostication, I have well learned that predicting how all 32 teams in the National Football League will do in the upcoming season will ... well, difficult. Certainly my picks last year were largely off, although I did accurately predict Pittsburgh and San Diego would win their respective divisions, and my call for the Steelers to go 11-5 was one game shy of the team's actual achievement.

So I'm going to give it another try. Here's how all 32 NFL teams will do next year. You're welcome.


Pittsburgh: 13-3
Baltimore: 10-6
Cleveland: 9-7
Cincinnati: 4-12

Pittsburgh's schedule is much easier than it was last year and I can really only see three games they could conceivably lose: the first, against the Tennessee Titans; the second, against the San Diego Chargers; and third, probably one game against the Baltimore Ravens, who are evil. Baltimore surprised me last year and so I think they'll do well this time around too -- particularly if quarterback Joe Flacco improves. I'm also hoping beyond hope that lowly Cleveland will get a winning season, although they won't make it to the playoffs or beat the Steelers; and as for Cincinnati, well, God help them!


Tennessee: 12-4
Indianapolis: 11-5
Houston: 8-8
Jacksonville: 6-10

I'm thinking Tennessee might still be pretty good. I think the Colts will be too, although I would like nothing more than for the Colts to crash and burn and go 2-14. Also, if Peyton Manning could start off the season rusty again, and then end up griping and moaning because he can't throw the ball when he gets forced out of the pocket, that would be great. Houston ... well, I feel bad for Houston, because I like them and they're in a really tough division, so what are you gonna do? As for Jacksonville -- meh. 6-10 if they're lucky.


New York: 10-6
New England: 10-6
Miami: 9-7
Buffalo: 7-9

The Jets, to my eye, have the easiest schedule this year -- so they'll probably end up winning the division. No, really. Plus, if their rookie quarterback turns out half-decent, he might be all right. New England got screwed with its schedule and I'm not impressed with the team so far, even though Brady will be Brady (if he wasn't going to be Brady, the Pats would have kept Cassel). Still, it will take time before he's the old Brady everyone hates. I mean, loves. Miami will have a tough go of it due to its schedule, and Buffalo -- good luck with that, Buffalo.


San Diego: 9-7
Kansas City: 8-8
Denver: 5-11
Oakland: 3-13

San Diego is the toughest squad in this cupcake of a division. Kansas City will be better but they have a long way to go, the Denver Broncos will be a disaster and Oakland -- well, that's what happens when your team is dysfunctional.


Chicago: 9-7
Detroit: 8-8
Green Bay: 6-10
Minnesota: 5-11

STOP LAUGHING. Detroit is going to go 8-8 this year. You mark my words. Plus, they might even exceed that and get a wild card spot. STOP LAUGHING, I said.

He who underestimates Detroit will get a boot in his ass come game time, for Detroit still has Calvin Johnson and now has that Stafford guy and more importantly Larry Foote, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Larry Foote is not going to take shit from anyone. Larry Foote's presence is worth at least two games in the win column. So sayeth me.

Based on how the Vikings fans react down at Billy's every season, there is no way Minnesota will ever do anything unless they get rid of the team's coach, whom they affectionately refer to as "Baldy." I have it on good authority that Baldy must go, now, or he's going to ruin the entire season. Plus, they don't have a decent quarterback.

Green Bay? Please. Team's going downhill. As for the Bears ... well, they'll probably win the division and go on to the playoffs, only to get knocked out pretty quick.


Atlanta: 10-6
Carolina: 9-7
New Orleans: 8-8
Tampa Bay: 4-12

I could care less about the NFC South, which only becomes important to me once every few years, or whenever it appears one of their teams could make it into the Super Bowl. Atlanta will come out on top, I think. Oh, and Tampa Bay's going to stink, 'cause they're not spending money on talent.


Arizona: 10-6
San Francisco: 7-9
St. Louis: 4-12
Seattle: 3-13

Arizona! They're like the Steelers, except they're out West, and they play in the desert. Also they're in the NFC West, which is a cupcake division and nothing like the AFC North. So they're going to win the thing. San Francisco will get better this year, but won't be spectacular; St. Louis will stink as usual and Seattle ... heh. I don't care how loud that stadium gets, they ... kinda suck.


Philadelphia: 12-4
New York: 10-6
Washington: 8-8
Dallas: 7-9

Oh, I know -- sacrilege. How dare I say America's Team will end up last in the NFC East? I don't know, maybe it's because they choke like nobody's business? And they haven't won a playoff game in 12 years? And every time the Cowboys lose an angel gets its wings? Even though they have a pretty easy schedule this year, I still say they're going to fall apart like they always do.

Washington: they'll be better, but they'll still kind of stink. New York will be pretty good. But the best squad is clearly Philadelphia, which is still going to be angry they didn't make it to the Super Bowl last year. The good news, however, is that they'll once again fail to get to the Super Bowl this year, and as a result will collapse in enmity and frustration.

So there you have it. Also, Pittsburgh wins Super Bowl XLIV over the Atlanta Falcons, 27-14.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

All the Time in the World

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

An occasional Rant feature

LOYAL RANT READERS -- and there are a few hundred left, apparently -- may recall the timeline of events over the past few months. I was quite busy, and then became exceedingly busy for several months earlier this year, only to find myself now not busy at all.

As a result, I now can work on yet another edition of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! For those readers unfamiliar with this exercise, this involves me looking over the various search engine queries through which people have arrived at the site, and chuckling over them. Then I write (hopefully) clever responses so you too can chuckle at them. So, without further ado, here we go!

QUERY: accidentally served meat in restaurant

ANSWER: I don't understand why this is a problem. Oh, I'm sure it was traumatic and upsetting to get the roast duck served up to you, but here's the thing -- it's meat. Glorious, wonderful meat. As such, you can tell it's meat on the plate, which means you ought have discovered this before you consumed it. Furthermore, unless you possess some odd malady where meat consumption causes your gastrointestinal system to instantly corrode, the arguable ill effects of this are consequently de minimis.

QUERY: student suits against universities involving breach of contract

ANSWER: I always find these amusing, as it helps prove the old maxim that students are generally wrong about everything. I mean, come on now. No one forces people to go to university -- and generally speaking, I have to think university is not the best choice for many people. This goes particularly when one realizes one can be a plumber or electrician and make a decent, middle-class lifestyle.

QUERY: enterprise class of 94 commercial

ANSWER: I hate this commercial. You see, I graduated from high school in 1994. So every time I see it, I realize that even showing up in a rented Cadillac sedan would give me no luck in picking up any of my single ex-high school classmates.

QUERY: bad office team names

ANSWER: The Synergizers sounds pretty bad, no?

QUERY: a man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was

ANSWER: ... a COMPLETE disaster! I mean, my God. Look at those drapes.

QUERY: romantic things to do at purdue

ANSWER: Oh, good luck with that.

QUERY: go to jail for stealing newspaper ?

ANSWER: Yes, you can and should go to jail for stealing a newspaper. Why, a newspaper is a fine and worthy product deserving of your 50 cents each day (or lesser amount, subject to subscription discount). Besides, when you steal a newspaper, the actions of your theft multiply into many dollars. It's true.

QUERY: houston texans anonymous blogger

ANSWER: I'd be anonymous too if I blogged about the Houston Texans. Gad. I mean, why not just show up to the stadium with a paper bag over your head? Better yet, why not just invite Peyton Manning to hit you in the head with a crowbar every week?

QUERY: eminent eminent people one and all members of the society for the prevention of fantasy

ANSWER: Yes, as well they should be. After all, imagination is not conducive to production. In these dire economic times, people must especially not give into flights of fancy, imagination, whimsy or joy. Prevent decadence! Prevent time-wasting! You'll be happier tomorrow for it!

QUERY: explain to me and show me how to do a portfolio i have 90 000 thousand and i want to invest it in 5 different mutual funds i want to ivest $30 000 for a wedding $20 000 for retirement $10 000 for vaction $10 000 for a home $10 000 for education $10 000 for emercy

ANSWER: You have $90,000? Really? Dang. I don't know anyone with $90,000. What's that? OK, so I do. Never mind. But I certainly do not have $90,000. I was kinda getting close to that, once. Goddammit.

Anyway, why the hell are you going to spend $30,000 of it on a wedding? 'Cause let's be clear -- money that goes towards a wedding is not invested, but rather takes the express train to money heaven. Same goes with the ten grand you want to spend on vacation.

The fact you're spending a good forty grand on a wedding and a vacation, and that you're considering investing it in the stock market, is prima facie evidence you should pay me 2 pc per annum plus 20 percent of gains to manage the remainder for you.

QUERY: how far is michagan from ohio

ANSWER: Not far enough?

QUERY: is qdro illegal pension gouging

ANSWER: No, no matter how much you're annoyed with your ex-wife.

QUERY: i have $240 what should i do with it

ANSWER: This really ain't my concern.

QUERY: what does if you seek a pleasant peninsula look around you mean

ANSWER: It means that if you live in Michigan, enjoy the natural beauty and wonder of the state for the three months in which it isn't snow-covered, because you have all the time in the world. You know, because there aren't any jobs.

QUERY: how much money is michigan getting for the stimulas

ANSWER: It could be as much as $3 -- maybe $4. Ask your Canadian overlord.

QUERY: 30 years old getting over high school crush

ANSWER: Oh my. Uh ... look, you've really got to move on.

QUERY: big chair corporation has an roe of 16% and a plowback ratio of 50%. if the coming year’s earnings are expected to be $2 per share at what price will the stock sell? the market capitalization rate is 12%.

ANSWER: It depends on whether the analyst covering it for a major Wall Street firm has gotten dirt on Big Chair Corp. from his hedge-fund friends who are shorting it. Have you learned nothing? Besides, if you want me to apply the Gordon model, you've left out the discount rate and the dividend payout.

QUERY: what does a negative alpha of a stock means

ANSWER: You should vote against all the management-sponsored ideas that show up on your proxy form.

QUERY: the american media has been strangly silent vatican hosts darwin conference.

ANSWER: They're all on furlough.

QUERY: why people hate sport?

ANSWER: Good question, since most people who hate sport don't own televisions, and thus have no basis on which to make their claims. Also jealousy, because really -- who should earn more? An extremely successful athlete at the top of his game in what will almost certainly prove a short career, or an assistant professor of sociology?

QUERY: a day when everything went right

ANSWER: Feb. 1, 2009.

QUERY: what was the reason that herostratus burned down the temple of artemis

ANSWER: He thought it would land him a place on a reality-television show.

QUERY: the profit motive of capitalism market is proof of the foolishness of the system. the society cannot flourish when individuals are constantly trying to squeeze profits from the production process

ANSWER: Please look up an old bit about the "tragedy of the commons" and then resubmit your query.

QUERY: search used cars for sale under one thounsand dollars in cleveland ohio

ANSWER: This recession is really starting to hurt. No, really. It's like the Thirties. Well, except with no bread lines and no 25 pc unemployment and no Hoovervilles and no general societal malaise.

QUERY: no one thanked god academy awards

ANSWER: I did -- because I didn't have to watch the wretched, awful thing. Ugh. The Academy Awards!

QUERY: reasons to date a journalist

ANSWER: There are fewer and fewer these days. Oh, sure, we're still good at dinner parties and fun to be with, and generally all that and a bag of chips. Trouble is, there's that whole "steady income and benefits" thing, which has degraded our dating potential significantly. Seriously. How the hell am I supposed to date anyone when I'm doing all I can trying to keep my head above water and not dip into my seriously reduced retirement savings?

QUERY: my wife put mitchum anti-deodorant on her lips. is it dangerous

ANSWER: I think you should ask your marriage counselor that question.

QUERY: ticketmaster what the hell convenience charge

ANSWER: Well, it sounds better than the Bend Over and Grab Your Ankles Because We're the Only Major Ticket Outlet Charge.

QUERY: which auto companies name is adapted from the latin word for i rolled

ANSWER: General Motors.

QUERY: why give tips to hotel housekeepers

ANSWER: Because they have an absolutely lousy job and it pays pretty much nothing. So tip 'em.

QUERY: why do doctors hate lawyers?

ANSWER: Oh, gee, that's a tough one.

QUERY: if there s a speed limit of 75 miles per hour why cars can go faster than that ?

ANSWER: Because this is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, that's why, and we don't need any lame-o busybodies taking that away from us too.

QUERY: walmart discontinued jimmy dean extra mild sausage

ANSWER: My God. The horror.

QUERY: in the long run we are all dead

ANSWER: Well, there's a cheering thought on which to end this edition of Your Search Engine Queries Answered! Tune in next time when we examine other important issues, such as how to get a decent hamburger in New England -- any ideas? -- and why the Pittsburgh Steelers will win Super Bowl XLIV. No, really. They will. You heard it here first.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 09, 2009

A Bad Night at the Verizon Wireless Arena ...


The result of Saturday night's game between the Manchester Wolves and Quad City Steamwheelers was bad enough, but we'll get back to that in a bit. First, though, I want to extend my best wishes to my favorite player on the Wolves squad, wide receiver Emery Sammons.

Remember at the end of last year's NFL regular season, when the Cleveland Browns mowed over glorious Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? Remember how it took like 15 minutes for the medical staff to get Big Ben all set up and then carted off the field? And everyone was really worried but still somewhat hopeful when Big Ben gave the thumbs-up sign as he was taken away?

Well, it was pretty much the same deal tonight at the Verizon Wireless Arena. Late in the first half, Mr Sammons was going for a pass reception about midfield when he had a bad collision with a Quad City* defender and -- most unfortunately -- the side wall. Mr Sammons, whose head collided with the wall, was then down for the count.

You know things are bad when the paramedics come out, and both teams' benches empty and every player goes to kneel around their injured comrade, and you can see the ambulance is ready and waiting to go to the hospital.

But we did learn a spot of good news soon afterwards. According to no less than Wolves beat reporter Ian Clark -- who writes about football for a living -- the fuss was taken as a cautionary measure:

Sammons left the game on a stretcher late in the second (quarter) after taking a hard hit along the boards. Sammons gave the crowd a thumbs-up as he was carted off, drawing a large cheer (and sigh of relief) from the crowd.

"When he left, he was talking to me. It's not his neck or anything. It was precautionary," (Wolves Coach Danton) Barto said. "He was worried about calling his mom to let her know he was all right."

Still, according to the team, Sammons was undergoing CAT scans for a head injury last night, which I hope only means they're checking to see if he had a concussion, and not something more serious. Still, I am hopeful Mr Sammons will be all right and hope he will make a quick recovery.

I have it on good authority Mr Sammons is a nice guy, and having watched him play for the Wolves I know he is quite talented. Should the Arena Football League return next year, I have to think the guy's in line for a promotion -- and if not in "Arena One," then perhaps one of the second-tier gridiron leagues that may or may not launch soon.

Now, as for the game itself ... well, let's cue Jim Mora.

Along those lines, let me start by saying Manchester's 50-48 loss to an iffy Steamwheelers** squad should not be blamed on the defense. I mean, at least one of our players had a career night. Defensive lineman Bryan Robinson had, by my count, three sacks -- one of which resulted in a forced fumble and consequent Manchester touchdown. And generally speaking, the defense played pretty well, even though Quad City scored quite a bit and beat them on a few big plays.

So it may not have been an exceptional defensive performance overall, but it should have been more than enough for the Wolves' offense to step up and get the job done. It wasn't. Defense wins championships, even in arenaball, but in arenaball you need your offense to keep firing.

Where does one start with this? Near the end of the third quarter, Manchester was leading 42-28. Near the end of the fourth quarter, Manchester was down 48-42 and the team was fighting for its life. It was an absolutely stunning collapse and the offense is to blame for it. I mean, if I can borrow from Coach Mora, the Wolves gave this game away. It sucked. There is no polite way to put it.

Let's just look at the fourth quarter. Manchester was up 42-35 and had the ball: one more score and the team would have enough breathing room to make victory relatively certain. What happened? Quarterback James Pinkney -- who is usually pretty darn good -- threw up a ridiculous pass into the field of play, which was easily picked off. This soon led to a Quad City touchdown. Then, when a miracle of miracles happens -- Manchester blocks the point-after attempt, and keeps the lead -- the offense goes and blows it again.

On Manchester's very next possession, Quad City managed to tackle Pinkney in Manchester's endzone, resulting in a safety. (Manchester also committed a holding penalty in the endzone on the play, making the safety certain). Suddenly, Quad City was up 43-42 and even worse, had the ball again. Gee, that's just great.

That led to another touchdown, and Manchester had about a minute to push it down the field for an equalizer. But even after scoring one, the Wolves needed a two-point conversion to send it into overtime. They went for a running play. It got stuffed.

With the loss, Manchester now falls to 3-3 while Quad City goes to 4-2. More importantly, though, it also means Manchester finds themselves in a tough spot when it comes to playoff positioning.

Due to bad planning, Manchester is in the same division as the evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers, who are one of the best teams in the league, and also evil. Not only are they 6-1, they have already beaten us twice on their home turf -- where, being evil, they almost never lose -- and have plenty of games in which they'll run roughshod over hapless opponents.

This situation basically means the Wolves have to play in top form for the entire rest of the season if they want any chance of winning the American Conference's East Division. Already, the Wolves are placed sixth in the conference and the team has got to start gaining ground if it wants any hope of playing at home in the playoffs. Winning the division almost seems like a pipe dream at this point, because evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton already has a 3 1/2 game lead with 11 games to go. The only things going for us at this point are these:

1) WBS does have to play three teams as good as they are down the line, and
2) their luck has to run out some time.

Of course, along with that, Manchester does have two chances to exact revenge against evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton later in the season, and it may be they can take advantage of those. The Wolves can also do well if they blow the doors off Albany and Youngstown*** in the seven remaining games they have against those teams. Sweeping both squads, which is not outside the realm of possibility, would give Manchester at least 10 wins.

I am hopeful, of course, the Wolves can turn things around. It is worth noting that in the past two weeks, they have lost their games by a total of five points. It is also worth noting the team is kicking itself and is not at all happy about losing these games. I am confident they'll be good and angry when they play Albany next week, and I expect Coach Barto will make them good and angry after practice.

Other than that, though, going to the game itself was fun as always, and I look forward to returning in two weeks when we play Youngstown. Yeah. Manchester's going to have a tune-up waiting for them!


* Yes, I know the region is known as the Quad Cities. The name of the team is "Quad City." Why? How the hell should I know? They're from Iowa, for God's sake.
** Yes, I know it sounds like a funny name, but it is "Steamwheelers" and not "Steamrollers." A steamwheeler is essentially a steam-fired paddleboat. Don't ask me why they named the team after a paddleboat. They're from Iowa, for God's sake.
*** Yes, I know the Thunder are actually named after the "Mahoning Valley" and not the city of Youngstown, Ohio, where they play. But you know what? They're from Youngstown, and they should have the guts to stand up and say they're from Youngstown. I'm serious. A Youngstown team deserves to be named after Youngstown; anything else and it sounds like the team is embarrassed to say where they're from. Since I think that's crap, I call them Youngstown.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 07, 2009

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner (or, KFC Rolls Big Red)

ATTENTION MARKETING FOLKS -- when you promise people free food, they're going to come out of the rafters to come get it. When you promise Americans free food, they're not only going to come out of the rafters, they're going to invite all their friends, have a tailgate party and celebrate at the good fortune Providence has bestowed upon them. Add in a recession, and well, it's going to cause a bit of a ruckus.

Along those lines, when you promise Americans free food, you had best have a LOT of it on hand. Otherwise, you're going to have a lot of unhappy Americans. And when Americans get unhappy ... well, it's not a pretty scene.

Consider what the poor people at Kentucky Fried Chicken are going through. They thought they had a marketing coup by getting Oprah Winfrey to advertise a giveaway in which people could receive two (2) free pieces of a "grilled" variant of their chicken. Now, why exactly anyone would buy "grilled" chicken at a fried-chicken outlet is beyond me, but there you go. And besides, it's free chicken.

Unfortunately, KFC apparently didn't adequately prepare for the onslaught of customers they would receive as a result of their promotion. Across the nation, people reported they couldn't redeem the Internet-based coupons they were told to get from the Internet. In New York, angry customers reportedly launched a sit-in upon not receiving their free chicken. In Annapolis, the giveaway was apparently being operated by managerial fiat, with predictably poor results. And it would appear, based on media coverage of this story -- 'cause it's one now -- that KFC's logo needs a "FAIL" stamp put on it.

Not only that, but El Pollo Loco came in and told KFC -- in so many words -- to step aside and let the professionals handle it. Oh, hell yeah.

Now, as a former California resident, I am quite familiar with El Pollo Loco, which is where people in the Golden State go if they want not-fried chicken. I can also say that, as a former California resident, I would go to El Pollo Loco over KFC any day of the week. Also, New Hampshire needs an El Pollo Loco, just like it needs an In-N-Out Burger, a Jack in the Box, and a Del Taco. Maybe El Pollo Loco will save me from what by all means can be considered a fast-food desert up here.

But I digress. Anyway, El Pollo Loco noticed that KFC's free chicken giveaway wasn't good on Mother's Day. I don't know why it's not, even though I personally would sooner cut off my own head rather than take a girl to KFC on Mother's Day. I have no desire to discover the secret recipe for sleeping on the sofa for three weeks. But anyway, El Pollo Loco came out and said, "Fine. If KFC has something against mothers, we'll honor the damn coupons on Mother's Day, plus throw in two side dishes and tortillas." Oh, snap.

Also -- as CNBC reports -- El Pollo Loco caught stupid people from KFC calling into their comment line and talking up the Colonel's product while denigrating the citrusy goodness of El Pollo Loco. Then El Pollo Loco went and made an ad about it, using the taped conversations and Caller ID information. ("Highway 5? In California, it's The 5.") Oh, snap.

Besides, as at least one commenter I saw pointed out, KFC serves Pepsi products. Ew. Coke is it, people --

-- or, if you're like me, Coke Zero, 'cause it has no sugar in it. Yeah.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 06, 2009

Hello Cleveland!

OFFICIAL TOURISM ADS always have a bit of lameness associated with them. This is not often the fault of the advertising people who create the spots, but rather, it's indicative of the rather difficult subject material with which they have to work.

Take Cleveland, for instance. Now, you would think a tourism ad involving Cleveland would involve a thirty-second slow-motion clip of LeBron James slam-dunking a basketball, and that's all. After all, Mr James is cool. Thus, by extension, Cleveland is cool. But no. Instead, whomever conducts tourism campaigns for Cleveland came up with a lame-o five minute video extolling the virtues of The Forest City. And here it is:

Now, normally, I wouldn't post such a video, because it's lame -- and for the following reasons:

* The narrator is woefully miscast. He was clearly chosen as a blue-collar, steelworker type. However, he then goes on to spend the first minute going on about the cultural wonders of Cleveland, such as its symphony (which is admittedly quite good). The trouble is, you can't help but think the steelworker would prefer having a Bud and listening to Bob Seger after his shift at the foundry.
* Cleveland ... stretches a bit. For instance, around the second minute, the movie focuses on the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is not in Cleveland. It's in Canton, which is not only not in Cleveland, but 60 miles away and closer to Akron.
* Also, at 2:23 in the video, the Pro Football Hall of Fame clip clearly shows a Steelers jersey in the background, said jersey appearing to be that of "Mean Joe" Greene.
* The clip, which is an amazing five minutes and twelve seconds long, does not focus on sports until the final minute. This is ridiculous, considering going to a sporting event in Cleveland is an amazing experience. I have known people who were so impressed by what they saw that they raved about it decades later. It's not so much the prowess of the athletes but rather the passion and excitement sports fans in Cleveland show for their teams that makes it a fun time.

But hey. I did post the video. Also, it presents a great backdrop for the following video to which I was recently alerted. This was posted on YouTube showing tourists ... well, a different side of Cleveland. (Do note: if you're at work, put on your headphones, 'cause there's not-appropriate-for-work language in it, unless you're a journalist).

"Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video"

The video was made by a Clevelander, so don't take it too seriously. Besides, Cleveland isn't all that bad of a place -- and I'm not laughing too hard. At the rate things are going, I may be back there in a year and a half.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 05, 2009

Kalamazoo 1, Hideous Sewer Stench 0

AND TO THINK -- it only took them nine months or so to figure out from where the rotten stench was emanating. Still, this result beats the alternative!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:06 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Well, I Could Have It Worse

BY WHICH I MEAN, I don't live in Michigan, because the place is apparently turning into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Back home, according to no less a source than The Detroit News, my fellow Michiganders are engaged in a rather ghoulish kind of commerce for cash. They're selling their hair. They're selling their blood plasma. They're subjecting themselves to medical experiments. Women are even selling their eggs. At this rate, it shouldn't be much longer before Michiganders are selling their kidneys; after all, God has mercifully provided all of us with two of them, when we really only need one.

Of course, one could argue this type of commerce is not really ghoulish, since it involves willing participants on both sides and the articles being handled do not generally make up what economists call a "repugnant market." It's not, after all, as if the good people of Michigan are robbing graves to pay for their kids' college tuition. Still, even for a devotee of free markets like myself, it's kinda offputting.

Why, you ask? Well, I feel bad that anyone has to actually do those types of things for money. Also, I think these folks are getting a raw deal.

I have long thought the American system of "donating" blood and organs is a rather bad deal -- not so much for the recipients, but for the donors. A pint of blood goes for $150 or $200, so why shouldn't I, as a donor, get $30 or $40 for my rare type A-negative? After all, I'm the one doing the hard work.

Along those lines, I'm not exactly thrilled about the idea of being an organ donor, even though I am one. I've had second thoughts about this, but it'd be too much of a hassle to go down to the Department of Motor Vehicles and change it, so there you go.

Now, as you can imagine, I have no plans to die anytime soon. In fact, my own projections indicate I will live to 110 years of age, as I figure my strategic spite duct (a small organ next to the liver) has enough bile, ichor and sheer disgust stored in it to last me until 105 or 106. And even after that's exhausted, my desire to watch sports should prove a strong incentive not to kick the bucket.

But if, God forbid, I should die in an accident or something, why should my estate get nothing if I were to donate my skin, my bones, and my vital organs? I mean, some estimates place the worth of a human cadaver at no less than $200,000.

Now, I know I can't take it with me, but that's not the point. The point is that if I "donate" my dead body for medical uses, other people will profit off it while my estate gets nothing. What's up with that? I mean, it's almost as bad a deal as going to a strip club. And if there's one thing that annoys me in life, it's being on the wrong end of a bad deal. Just because I'd be dead does not mean I suddenly wouldn't have an interest in monetizing, well, me, particularly if it paid for a relative's college tuition. Or a really nice obelisk for my grave site. Or even a mausoleum. Yeah. With nice stained-glass windows, and a phone line in case I suddenly materialize and want pizza.

And if I'm not properly compensated for my monetization when I die, I'm warning you now -- I am going to come back and haunt the hell out of everyone. I'm serious.

MORGUE WORKER: That's odd.
MORGUE WORKER: Got cold here all of a sudden.
SECOND MORGUE WORKER: It's just your imagination.
ME: Why you wretched -- ah, God, it's not working! Stupid incorporeal body! All I want to do is strangle him for a minute with my cold spectral hands!
DEATH: Ah, yes. There's a bit of a latent period before you can do that. No one told you?
ME: No, no one told me! And look at these invoices! I mean, I should get thirty thousand at least.
DEATH: Well, you've got a month to figure it out. After that, I get docked on my commission for delivering you late to Purgatory.
ME: Oh, well -- wait, what? You work on commission?

Of course, I don't mean to criticize anyone who is a willing blood or organ donor, and does so out of the goodness of one's heart. That selflessness is noble and the sacrifice is certainly valued. But given the waiting lists for organs, it seems pretty clear that donations aren't enough to get the job done. Also, it seems clear to me that our culture of donation serves up a pretty raw deal for people who are willing to literally give of themselves.

This goes particularly when it comes to women donating eggs. Obviously, they're doing a great service for the recipients, and offering a gift that in many ways is priceless. But as the News reports, the compensation they are given -- capped at $5,000 -- seems far too low to adequately address the very real risks they face. It's no joke to donate anything from one's body, and I think the least we could do to be fair about it would be to offer fair market values for the things donated.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 04, 2009

It's a Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left

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

Today: The Special Summer Movie Preview

AH, SUMMER. Truly there is no better time to revel in the sun and heat. That's why many Americans, your correspondent included, will spend much of their time this summer cowering in dark, air-conditioned movie theatres.

Of course, it's not as if we're all going simply to avoid the sun and heat -- it's not as if we're going to watch the Los Angeles Clippers. There are plenty of potentially good movies out there this summer, and I'm looking forward to seeing many of them. Then again, there are also plenty of stinkers just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting American people.

So in an admittedly biased, unscientific exercise, I'm grading this summer's films in advance, solely based on my like (or dislike) of their plots and subject material. So you've been warned -- some of these films may be great, but I'll never see them because the subject material has no interest to me; while other films may seem deadly dull to you, but which I'll go see because I want to do so. And with that -- well, here we go!

Opening Date: Now Playing

PLOT: Executives at Marvel Entertainment Inc. discover a magic formula to make bank like nobody's business and extend the life of a movie/comic franchise, thus causing various "Marvel Universe" superheroes to relive their origin stories.
UPSIDE: For the ladies, I guess it's Hugh Jackman. For everyone else -- meh.
DOWNSIDE: I'll be honest -- I'm not a fan of superhero stories, unless the superheroes in question are clever types like Batman. For one thing, the superheroes have it all too easy; they rush around and break things and foil perfectly good attempts to take over the world. Plus, the superheroes got silly. It used to be superheroes could do things like bend steel and what not; now they're causing tornadoes and sucking the life force out of people. Call me when they start doing really amazing stuff, like accurately predicting the fortunes of the S&P 500.
Also, Wolverine is not -- from what I can tell -- a graduate of the University of Michigan. And why not, one asks?

Opening Date: May 8

PLOT: Paramount Pictures goes where .. well, we've kind of been there before, but this actually looks pretty cool.
UPSIDE: The original Star Trek story, given a modern update and expanded back story, could actually turn out pretty damned special. I guess we'll see, but this certainly seems like it could work out. Let's just hope they don't treat McCoy, who was the best character on the old show, like a third wheel.
DOWNSIDE: Installing young kids -- by which I mean actors who look like they're in their twenties -- in what are now iconic roles could prove risky.
WILL I SEE IT: I just might.

Opening Date: May 15

PLOT: Much bad dialogue and convenient plot devices likely ensue as Tom Hanks' nutty professor works to save the Vatican from the Illuminati, who supposedly still exist even though they got wiped out in 1785. Also, the intellectuals are really ticked off.
UPSIDE: None that I can see, particularly since I'm a Roman Catholic, and thus would have to say like 80 Hail Marys if I saw this movie.
DOWNSIDE: The Church has overreacted to what will almost certainly be a crappy Hollywood movie. This would have been an excellent time for the Holy See to remember it is the Holy See, and does not need to defend itself against Hollywood.
WILL I SEE IT: I'm spending enough time in Purgatory as is.

Opening Date: May 21

PLOT: FINALLY we get to see the remnants of mankind fight the machines in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
UPSIDE: Did I mention mankind fights evil machines? Oh, and it's a fair bet to say things blow up real good. Also, the director's from Kalamazoo, so -- you know -- I got to represent.
DOWNSIDE: What downside? Mankind! Fighting! Evil! Machines! SWEET!
WILL I SEE IT: I -- am -- so -- there.

Opening Date: June 12

PLOT: John Travolta's character hijacks a New York subway train, and forces the straphangers to watch "Battlefield Earth."
UPSIDE: Denzel Washington.
DOWNSIDE: Meh. It's been done.

Opening Date: June 24

PLOT: The Decepticons come back and attack Earth. The Autobots try to stop this. Megan Fox looks pretty.
UPSIDE: Gee, I guess Optimus Prime didn't have prostate cancer after all!
DOWNSIDE: Gee, I wonder how this is going to turn out.
WILL I SEE IT: Highly doubtful. The Transformers were fine when they were a marketing vehicle in my youth for various toys, but nowadays, I'm not at the point where I'll spend $10 to go see a bunch of robots create havoc on screen.

Opening Date: July 1

PLOT: John Dillinger runs around robbing banks during the Depression.
UPSIDE: Hey, somebody figured out how to make money in bad economic times. Could be a valuable teaching tool! (I kid, of course. Besides, let's remember how Johnny's career ended).
DOWNSIDE: Dillinger was kind of a jerk.
WILL I SEE IT: Better than even chance.

Opening Date: Aug. 7

PLOT: The good guys at G.I. Joe fight the bad guys of COBRA, the evil terrorist organization which seeks to take over the world through a variety of hare-brained schemes.
UPSIDE: I have to admit that, as a boy, I rooted for COBRA while watching the cartoons. Especially Tomax and Xamot, who as I understand it went on to sell collateralized debt obligations on Wall Street. Although they're not apparently in the film, which is disappointing. They'd be great villians.
DOWNSIDE: Film could, in theory, be serious and not contain key elements of old cartoon, including everyone going along with yet another stupid idea from Cobra Commander, and uplifting moral lessons during the end credits.
WILL I SEE IT: Doubtful.

Date Opening: Aug. 14

PLOT: Aliens land in South Africa. However, instead of trying to conquer humanity, they're forced to work for a multinational corporation, which seeks to make money from their alien secrets and technology.
UPSIDE: Finally, we have a realistic alien-encounter movie. I mean, let's face it: we would try to reverse-engineer the aliens' technology to make money from it. Also, the trailer and the associated Web sites make this movie look really, really good.
DOWNSIDE: Not seeing any.

Date Opening: Aug. 21

PLOT: Our Boys kill Nazis during World War II.
UPSIDE: Tarantino directs, so we know Our Boys will absolutely kill every Nazi in the room.
DOWNSIDE: What downside? I mean, aside from the title's spelling errors, which make me wince.

Obviously, these aren't all the movies being released this summer. There are, for instance, a bunch of romantic comedies, which didn't look all that appealing. Plus, there are a bunch of family films, although as I don't have a family, I'm freed of any obligation to actually go see them. As for the rest -- well, we'll see how these actually turn out.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 03, 2009

Oysters, Check. Baseball, Check. Summer, Check.

SO IT OCCURRED to your humble correspondent, as he was pondering what to do after being given an incredible surplus of free time, that he ought embark on a Massive Road Trip. This will not surprise Loyal Rant Readers, who know I go on road trips pretty frequently and on the flimsiest of pretexts. But this road trip was special for a few reasons.

For one, I spent much of the trip (which ran from Sunday, April 19 to Tuesday, April 28) traveling with Simon From Jersey, who as it happened also had a bit of free time. For another, much of it was spent in the Deep South, which is known for its surplus of fresh seafood and barbecue. For a third, it was the longest road trip I've ever done. As in 4,100 miles long. In ten days. No, I'm not kidding. Not only did I hit every state on the Eastern Seaboard, I hit every state in the Deep South east of the Mississippi.

Now, I will not deny this destination raised some eyebrows among my friends back here in New Hampshire. One conversation I had, with a friend of mine originally from New York, summed up many of these talks.

FRIEND: So you're going to Alabama. On vacation. Who does that?
ME: I do! Besides, it's warm and cheap.

There is a lot to be said for the South. This was my second visit to that part of the country and I have to say it is a pretty nice place, all things considered. But we'll get to that in a bit. First, though, I must share certain observations made on the drive down to Dixie and back up to the Granite State:

1. When listening to terrestrial radio stations, it is theoretically possible to drive from one end of the Eastern Seaboard to the other listening only to the song "Blame It" by Jamie Foxx (feat. T-Pain).

2. In Virginia, many small communities located along I-81 are listed as "certified business locations." I didn't know whether this meant the business owners are actually certifiable because they're trying to do business in the ass-end of Virginia, or whether some ISO standard organization came along with a checklist and did a few site visits and determined that yes, Marion, Va. is a fine place to engage in commerce. Then, after looking on Google, I found the state of Virginia no longer certifies towns as Certified Business Locations, apparently because everyone went and got certified. Yeah, you ain't kidding about that.

3. The first day's drive was a grueling 15 hour journey from Hopewell, N.J., to Birmingham, Ala., started at 5 a.m. on a Monday. By 9 a.m. we had left greater Philadelphia far behind and had actually made it to Winchester, Va., which is perhaps 30 miles from the Pennsylvania border. When we went in to grab some breakfast at a local burger establishment, the manager of said eatery used the phrase "y'all" frequently. I submit this as proof the South takes the Mason-Dixon line rather seriously.

4. The South has a chain of hamburger eateries known as "Krystal," which is a knock-off of the White Castle chain of hamburger eateries. That's not to take away from the places, though. Their burgers are pretty damned good. Also they have these miniature hot dog things. Plus, they have the benefit of not being based in Columbus, Ohio.

5. The route back, which went from Auburn, Ala., to Richmond, Va., to Hopewell, N.J., innocently passed within a few hundred yards of the only Del Taco outlet within 1,000 miles. It's fair to say this was my main meal for the day. Amusingly, several of the customers in the store were from or spent time in the Southwest. Attention Southerners: you deserve Del Taco, and you can get it if you travel near Spartanburg, S.C.

6. I have learned that M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore does not care if you stare at it from the freeway and mutter curses in its direction. I hate M&T Bank Stadium because it is the evil home of the evil Baltimore Ravens and the Ravens' fans, who by extension are evil.

7. I have realized the idea of me saying "y'all" in an unironic context is so ridiculous I struggle to even fathom it. This is not because I have anything against the phrase, but rather because I sound ridiculous saying it. I tried once and found my mouth grinding around the word like I was chewing nails. I mean, I'm from Kalamazoo, Mich., for Christ's sake. It comes out "you all" no matter what I do. About the only way I can see myself saying y'all is if I was using the rare all y'all form of the phrase, as in: "All y'all can go to hell for supporting the Tennessee Titans."

But anyway. The South!

As I said, I rather like the place. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic and the weather is great, except in summer, but this is why God invented air conditioning. Also, I can assure my fellow Northerners that the stereotypes we all secretly hold about the South are not true.

Not all Southerners are like this. Northerners, on the other hand -- well, how you doin'?

What's that? Yes, you do think that way. Come on, Northerners, admit it. You associate the South with a lot of things, most of them bad -- things like waving the Confederate battle flag and Bull Connor and racial oppression. Also, you associate it with bad country music, stock-car racing and the consumption of hideous domestic beer. All these associations are patently unfair in this day and age.

Now, this is not to say the South did not have a troubled history for a very long time. It's also not to say that backward racial attitudes don't still exist here and there in the South. Nor do I deny Nashville produces bad country music, or that auto racing isn't popular in the South.

But the thing is, as Rod Serling once put it, people are alike all over. God knows the North has its backward racialists, even if they largely exist in secret, and people in the North enjoy bad country music and auto racing as much as people do in the South. And a lot of what the North thinks about the South is rooted in a past that no longer exists.

Besides, if the South was truly an intolerant place, would U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Toyota City) so openly and brazenly attack the domestic auto industry, and would foreign automakers flock to set up shop in Alabama? I think not!

Oh, wait, I said that out loud. Oops.

Anyway, my point is this: if you haven't been, give the place a chance. Force yourself to open your horizons, and limit your irrational beliefs to things where it's OK to be irrational -- such as hating the South's college football teams. Especially Florida. And Alabama. And Tennessee. And Arkansas. And Florida State and Miami and -- oh, you get the point.


That's because there's a lot of cool stuff in the South. Especially in Birmingham, Ala., where my trip began.

Let me first say Birmingham surprised the hell out of me. After all, who the hell knows anything about Birmingham except what we see in old newsreels? Trust me when I say the city is surprisingly cosmopolitan and yet maintains a lot of Southern charm.

Now, Birmingham may seem like an odd place to stay on vacation, but as it happens my friend Simon From Jersey is actually a native of the Magic City. We stayed in The Hotel Highland, a really nice boutique hotel in the fashionable Five Points district. The hotel is well-appointed and good for both business and leisure travelers; weekday rates were about $130 a night for a standard room. Tip: don't use the valet to park one's car; simply park it yourself in the garage behind the hotel. There, I just saved you $14 a night. I rule.

Anyway, as I said, the hotel was really quite nice, and I have to credit Simon for doing a great job at booking our hotels along the stay. (In comparison, my efforts were only adequate). The hotel is in the middle of a nightlife district and there are great restaurants and bars within walking distance.

As for things to do, there's plenty for one day, and arguably two days, in Birmingham, depending on what you want to do. One thing Simon and I did was to travel around the city's nicer neighborhoods -- and yes, the city has plenty of actual, real, old-style neighborhoods that feel like, well, neighborhoods and not soulless suburban tract developments. Interestingly enough, the city has plenty of hills and an actual mountain -- it is apparently at the base of the Appalachians, so there are some great views to be had, particularly at Vulcan Park.

This is me at Vulcan Park, relaxing, with the city in the background.

Vulcan Park is notable for a giant statue of Vulcan, the ancient Roman god of fire and metallurgy or something like that. The statue is something like 50 feet tall and impressively enough was somehow hoisted long ago on top of a giant base, which must be a good six stories high. It symbolizes good things like progress and industry, as we can see in this picture.

This is me standing optimistically in front of the statue, hoping for more progress and industry.

Also, the Vulcan statue is a bit ... well, it's kind of risque.

You know how there's that statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang? And all the Western tourists are taken to it to, I don't know, prostrate themselves in front of it and listen about the Dead Eternal President's Towering Achievements? Well, word has it that you can only take pictures of that statue from the front. The authorities at Vulcan Park might want to consider politely asking tourists to do the same. Yes, yes, I know, this is America, and we did pay $6 each to go up to the top of the view tower, and we have rights and all that. But ...

... Vulcan's asscheeks are in full view of the God-fearing public. See what I mean about the South being a tolerant place? Giant, well-formed, iron asscheeks! I can bet that required some explaining back in the day.

SOCIETY MATRON: The Ladies Club of Birmingham wishes to welcome the Ladies Club of Montgomery to our wonderful Vulcan Park, with its views over the Magic City, and --
VISITING LADY (looking up) Well, this is certainly quite some -- EEEEEEEEEEEEK! (*keel* *thud*)
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Help! Fire! Murder! Mrs Haversham has taken ill! And -- DEAR GOD! LOOK AT IT!
SOCIETY MATRON: Oh, get out the epsom salts.

One can only imagine the newspaper headlines. ("City Reels as Giant, Unbeclothed Posterior Unveiled at Mountain Top.") ("Citizens Complain Over 'Asscheeks Each the Size of an Oldsmobile.' ")


But then it was time to deal with far more serious matters.

Our next stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the city's past racial troubles are presented in shocking detail. Seeing the Institute's exhibits really made the injustices faced by the South's black population hit home. One certainly can't describe the visit as fun; it was very sobering. But it definitely brought home the very real injustices that Jim Crow brought upon millions upon millions of people -- and the sheer, outright wrongness of it all. Near the Institute -- actually, on the same corner -- are Kelly Ingram Park, where decades ago demonstrations for civil rights were brutally repressed, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing which killed four young girls, hurt 22 more people and badly damaged the church.

All these things are worth seeing, even if they are not easy things to see. So take an afternoon to do so.

Still, after seeing what I did, I felt a bit of hope. The things I saw presented a stark picture of how things were, but they are not how things are now. The old ways were so alien to modern life that I'm hopeful we'll be able to eradicate these attitudes and prejudices once and for all. We may still have a way to go, but I think it's a challenge we can meet.


If there are two types of food in which I would suggest visitors to Birmingham indulge, they are barbecue and seafood. The barbecue aspect of it may not be a surprise; it is the South, after all, and so barbecue is a pretty standard thing. We had it twice in the city: first for dinner, after our long drive, at Jim 'n' Nick's, a chain with a location in Five Points; and the next day for lunch at Carlile's.

Barbecue, I realize, is one of those intensely personal and subjective things, in which everyone believes what he likes is the best of the art form. For instance, I myself am partial to Carolina barbecue, particularly that known as Lexington-style barbecue, where the sauce is based both on tomato and vinegar. Other people, of course, like Texas barbecue or Memphis barbecue or what have you. According to my friend Simon, who would know, Alabama barbecue is a Memphis-style variant.

And quite good, I might add. When the meat is prepared correctly and you have a good sauce, it's hard to go wrong, and in both cases the meals I had were fantastic. One thing Alabama barbecue has going for it is that, generally speaking, the meat is only one part of the presentation. That's not to say it's not the focus, because it is. But with Alabama barbecue you're almost certain to get a lot of other good food along with it, usually including expertly-prepared vegetables. The greens and other side dishes were almost as good as the barbecue -- and again, that's not to take away from the barbecue!

But Birmingham also has good seafood. Simon had one restaurant in mind that he highly recommended, although I was so much enjoying having drinks outdoors in Five Points that I convinced him we ought stay in that vicinity for the evening. I had a fish sandwich at the Five Points Grill that was downright spectacular, and one that beat any fish sandwich I've had in New England. It was that good. Take a piece of fish, grill it, then serve it on fresh French bread with onions, top-quality leaf lettuce and remoulade; you have something close to perfection.

This brings me to another fine point about the South -- it is difficult to eat badly even when -- especially when -- one pays little for a meal. A good breakfast can be easily found for less than $10, as I found when we visited one of Simon's old haunts in Birmingham, Bogue's Restaurant. At Carlile's, for instance, lunch was perhaps $12, and it served as the main meal of the day. My light dinner, that fish sandwich,was $8. This is not bad for vacation, particularly when one considers it is difficult to get fast food for $8. On Wednesday morning, when we had breakfast in Five Points prior to our departure, the value was even more ridiculous.

This was at the Original Pancake House, and although a chain, the values there were ... well, dig this. I ordered buckwheat pancakes for breakfast. The waitress, upon returning with my meal, presented me with a giant helping of pancakes -- four massive buckwheat pancakes. Then she apologized; she had screwed up my ticket, she said, and was thus delivering just a half-order.

I'm sorry, what? Well, how many are in a full order, I asked? Six, she said. Oh. My God. Whatever would I do with just four pancakes? As if I didn't have enough trouble finishing those -- and for $4.50, no less!


From Birmingham we went south to Mobile and Biloxi, Miss., on Wednesday. This was primarily because we wanted seafood, and boy did we get it:

Mr. Kepple gives the universal Seal of Approval following his, uh, American-sized seafood meal.

If there is one regret I have about this trip, it is that I only ate two dozen raw oysters on it. Raw oysters are fantastic and I love them. In Mobile, we ate at the Original Oyster House overlooking Mobile Bay, and it was fantastic. Along with our oysters -- for all of $8 a dozen -- both Simon and me got a giant platter of fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried crab claws (which worked, surprisingly) and fried fish. Said platter booked in at $14.95 and it was FANTASTIC.

I do wonder, though, if I would not have been advised to follow the lead of the two older gentlemen at the next table, who were also on a road trip. I am guessing they ordered three dozen raw oysters each, and were chowing down like the oysters were manna from heaven.

But there was more seafood to come. In Biloxi -- actually, in Gulfport, Miss., -- we ate at the Blow Fly Inn and each had a downright decadent crawfish etoufee. Each was all of $12. Add in fried green tomatoes (which are a way for me to eat actual tomatoes, which I oddly don't much like, even though I love tomato sauce) and the total bill including tax and tip was like $23 each. Almost as amazing as the food was the view outside -- it overlooked a bayou, and you could see flying fish pop out of the water and bounce along the surface.

Now, Loyal Rant Readers may have noticed that my friend Simon and I often ordered the same thing. I found this quite amusing, as we would independently come to our determinations, and I submit it as proof that when you know someone for a very long time, you get to know what the other person is thinking. This point was driven home on the trip, during one point when Simon was driving.

(silence in car)

SIMON: Let me drive, Ben.
ME: What? I didn't say anything!
SIMON: Yes, but you were thinking it. I had plenty of time to get over there. I was just keeping an eye on that truck behind us and seeing what he was doing, which is important when you're driving someone else's car.
ME: I didn't say anything!


ME: But you're right. I was thinking it.


One cool part about the Mobile-Biloxi swing was seeing the USS Alabama, a World War II-era battleship now on display in Mobile Bay. The battleship is open for tours and so we went hither and yon upon its decks, staring in awe at the massive guns and, really, the fortifications built on this massive ship.

I did realize, however, that I may not be cut out for a career in the Navy, should it ever come to that. The trouble with scampering up ladders in an old battleship is that you eventually have to climb down them, and having been on a modern ship I know it hasn't gotten much easier. Eventually it got to the point where it was like, "Oh! Another goddamn ladder!" and I would grit my teeth and try to manuever down it without cracking my head. It got so bad I started thinking the Air Force would be a better career decision!

The last day in the Deep South was really quite relaxing. We drove from Biloxi to Auburn, Ala., by way of the Gulf Coast. This allowed us to tour Dauphin Island, off Alabama's coast, take the car ferry across from the island to the other side of Mobile Bay, and then drive to the extremely enjoyable Flora-Bama Lounge and Package, a roadhouse on the beach in Pensacola, Fla.

Now, this place was fun. You can have raw oysters here for $9 a dozen and get a giant box full of boiled crawfish. You can drink beer. You can do so just steps away from the beach. Also, there are girls in bikinis everywhere. You really can't go wrong with this place, and you could do a lot worse than if you decided to just spend an entire day here relaxing, drinking beer, and eating seafood.

And in Auburn, before the trip home, we had one last dinner of barbecue before heading home. It too was pretty damned fine.


But the trip wasn't over, not by a long shot. After I dropped Simon back at home in New Jersey on Saturday, I headed back south to Washington, D.C. on Sunday, where I joined several of my old college buddies for an annual lunch we have. As with all said lunches, we had Mexican food -- although we switched up the venue this time. Instead of going to Lauriol Plaza in Washington, we went to Los Tios' in Alexandria, Va.

After having an excellent frozen margarita there, I am convinced Los Tios alone accounts for roughly half Mexico's sales of tequila. I mean, the size of this margarita -- which was $14 -- is difficult to describe in words alone. I daresay it involved a quart of liquid and God knows just how much actual tequila, but it was downright fantastic. Also fantastic was the food, particularly the steak. The company was great too -- it was fantastic to see my friends again. Of our Grupo del Cuatro, tres de nosotros are, to use the Spanish phrase, "unemployed," but in all other respects everyone seemed to be doing pretty well.

On Monday, I headed up to Wilmington, Del., and saw my old friend Scott Rubush, who works at a think-tank there. On tap that night: the baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals. Yes, that one with not one but TWO grand slams in it!

True, the pitching on both sides was downright horrendous -- but to see TWO grand slams in one game? Including a game-winning grand slam? Boy. You can't ask for more than that at a baseball game!

The seats we had were fantastic. They were nosebleed seats in the fourth deck, but with a great view just a bit of the left behind home plate, and one could see all the action taking place on the field below. Also, the seats were quite reasonably priced -- $22 each.

Citizens Bank Park is a nice ballfield and I have to give Philadelphia credit for arranging its sports complex the way it did. Across the way from the ballpark is Lincoln Financial Field, home of the (evil) Philadelphia Eagles, and all of it is admittedly very nice. It was also nice to see all the tailgaters out before the Phillies game, and a group of Scott's friends and me took part in this tailgating, cooking burgers and drinking beer. Of course, this is what baseball is all about -- it's not really about the game, although it's fun, but about the socializing and relaxing and enjoying oneself.

This was especially fun because I got to meet some new friends and, well, had a great time on a nice, summer-like day. It's hard to go wrong with that. It was also fun to see the reaction of one of those new friends' fathers, who had come to the United States on vacation from Scotland, to the whole thing. He was really impressed with how much fun everyone had at the game and particularly before it, although I don't think the baseball particularly impressed him. Had the sporting event been held in Scotland, he related, the pre-game events would likely have devolved into partisan fighting and public drunkenness.

It was a shame to hear that. Come on, Scotland, man up.

Fortunately, you don't see much of that any more at American sporting events, if only because the authorities have taken steps to crack down on licentiousness and boorish behavior at games. Plus, the culture is different: you don't have the organized hooliganism that exists across the pond. Besides, why argue with another team's fans when your teams will settle their differences on the field, and your team will undoubtedly prove superior?


And then, on Tuesday, I drove home.

It was good to get back, but I have to say it was good to get a bit of summer early. Although it is already starting to arrive here. The trees are green and the weather is starting to get nice, and before we know it, summer will be here. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack