May 02, 2008

USAID to Send Shipment of Combs to London

Hopes Shipment of Fine, American-Made Combs
Will Assist Johnson, New London Mayor

London "Gobsmacked" at American Generosity
Report: Livingstone Blames Americans, Israelis, Indians,
Saudis, Immigrants, Fascists, Media, and Quangos for Loss


By LORD GREEN of Weston-infra-Mare
Far East Economic Rant

LONDON -- Domestic and foreign observers hailed news that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would express-ship a pallet of "high-quality, made-in-America hair combs" to City Hall in London in time for new London Mayor Boris Johnson's inauguration as the city's chief executive.

The shipment of combs, which observers expect will also include quantities of hair brushes, hair spray, pomade and other quality American hair-care products, was reportedly due to leave Andrews Air Force Base about 2 a.m. British Summer Time. The good-will gesture is seen as indicating warmer relations between the U.S. and Britain, although some have grumbled the move is unneeded.

"There's nothing wrong with Boris Johnson's hair, just like there was nothing wrong with English houses before the introduction of central heating," said local Conservative voter Posonby Runciman, OBE, as he prepared to motor into central London. "Next thing we know, the Americans shall start parading around our streets like an occupying army! This, my dear sir, cannot be borne!"

Other Londoners shared this view.

"Right! What do we need with some stinking Yank combs anyway?! British combs'll work just fine, even for a customer like Boris!" said Ted Farnham, an unemployed file clerk who gave his occupation "as a supporter of West Ham United."

"The Yanks can take their bloody combs and sod off," Farnham said.


BORIS JOHNSON, the Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames, is shown here in an unretouched image captured from television. Johnson was elected Mayor of Greater London on Friday, beating incumbent Mayor Ken "Red Ken" Livingstone. As a goodwill gesture, the United States is express-shipping a pallet of combs and other military-issue hair-care products to London for the new mayor, as Johnson's hair has proven impervious to every hair-care product and device in Great Britain.


The American Government is reportedly sympathetic to Londoners' views, and does not wish a repeat of an "admittedly unfortunate" incident in 1995, when newly-elected Paris mayor Jean Tiberi was express-shipped a case of Mitchum deodorant.

"We simply want to reach out to our English friends in a spirit of good will and friendship," said Les Slote, third secretary of the American embassy in London. "We very much value the support and assistance they have shown us over the years, and we thought this would be a nice way to show our appreciation. I mean, yeah, we could have paid for some dentists to come over and take NHS patients, but this was a fast and easy way to show our support for the new mayor."

"Also, we congratulate -- uh, Chelsea Football Club, whatever that is -- on its excellent season and hope they reach the top of the, er, league table," added Slote, reading from his notes.

There was no immediate reaction to the donation from Her Majesty's Government, which was reeling from an "absolutely disasterous" round of local elections. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had reportedly retreated to the Government's stronghold at Belbury with his chief advisors, John Wither and Augustus Frost, to plot a future strategy, which will reportedly revolve around the concept of "elasticity in Government."

Meanwhile, outgoing mayor Ken Livingstone was reportedly engaged in a tirade in his office at City Hall, in which he blamed the Americans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Saudis, immigrants, fascists, the media and "particularly the incompetence of his quangos' get-out-the-vote efforts" for his loss.

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November 07, 2007

"Here Are Our Guests."

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

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

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

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December 12, 2005

Drawn and Quartered

AS PART OF MY continuing fascination with the world outside North America, I've started developing an interest in soccer. Thus far, this has generated both amusement and scorn among those who know me.

Admittedly, I knew and still know very little about European soccer. For instance, I fully admit that I declared my allegiance to the Glasgow Celtic football club solely because Hearts of Midlothian fans booed the late Pope during a remembrance ceremony. However, I'm trying to learn a bit about the sport, and have signed up for the Fox Soccer Channel and GOL TV to watch more matches from overseas. I even watched the Final Draw for the 2006 World Cup in Germany this past weekend, in which the group matchups were drawn.

My feelings on that last item can be summed up as follows: what the hell?

I mean, come on. Unless I missed something, one of the cool things about soccer, and particularly the World Cup, is that it's all about rivalries between teams, nations and regions. What kind of rivalry matchups does the USA have in Group E? None, that's what.

I mean, I can't root against Italy, for God's sake. I like Italy, and they're one of our best allies. And I can't root against the Czechs either, because they're also an ally and they threw out the Soviets and they've been doing well ever since. As for Ghana, it'd be just wrong to root against them, especially since it's their first time in the World Cup. So for the USA's first three matches, I'm kinda stuck. Even worse, we've got to win our group or else we'll probably face Brazil and God help us if that happens.

So, faced with this horrible draw, I fear I'm going to have to live vicariously through my other favorite teams in the World Cup. My strong second favorite is Mexico, and I've decided that I'll root for Korea Republic third (that's the South half) and Poland fourth. There will be some great matchups in their groups, and ones where I'll feel good about rooting both for the teams I like and, in some cases, against their opponents.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:21 PM | TrackBack

November 11, 2005

I Have Bronzed the Introductory E-Mail from Mr Kirk Elder

MR KIRK ELDER, whom Rant readers know as the writer behind such clever lines as "I was convinced I had stumbled into the departure lounge of Hell," and "the Sturmey-Archer gears have three settings: Agony, Inner Turmoil and Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts of Life," now has a blog.


At Mr Elder's blog, you can see plenty of new work several times a week from Mr Elder, such as: "Mr Sean Connery Must Ride In On A Milkfloat Of Human Kindness And Save Edinburgh's Beautiful Cameo Cinema." (Opening line: "I read in The Herald that Edinburgh's Cameo Cinema is to be sold, and its main auditorium transformed into a 'super-bar.' Oh, how the heart sinks.")

Speaking of, I was disappointed to read on Mr Elder's blog that "for many years a columnist on The Scotsman newspaper, he is currently 'in recovery' from the experience." This sounds, as we say in America, Not Extreme. I mean, the Kirk Elder column was the only reason I read that paper.

Anyway, go on over and have a look -- I think Mr Elder's blog may become a favorite for lots of folks.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:12 PM | TrackBack

July 07, 2005

Terror in London

I SAW THIS excerpt from the latest edition of The Economist first at Andrew Sullivan's blog, but I think the paragraph so spot on that it bears repeating in my own small corner of the Internet.

The newspaper writes:

What the attacks also show, however, is that well co-ordinated though the four explosions were, they were not terribly effective. Chance plays a big role in such attacks. The bombs in Madrid last year which killed 191 people might have killed many more had the station roof collapsed. The September 11th hijackings might have killed fewer than the eventual 2,752 had the twin towers of the World Trade Centre not melted down and collapsed. As The Economist went to press, the toll in the four London bombs was not clear, but the estimate of at least 33 deaths was thankfully far smaller than in Madrid. By the terrible calculus of terrorism, the attacks should thus be counted as a failure—a sign of weakness, not strength.

That is an analysis with which I can only second my agreement. I wish I could write what I truly felt but the words aren't coming out right -- today, I have just felt frustrated and angry and sad all at once.

May God grant peace to those killed, and may He protect the injured and comfort their families in their time of need. And may the British know America stands with them.

Related: Andrew Dodge has thoughts and updates from London.

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May 29, 2005

Constitution Blogging

FOR THOSE Rant readers who are interested further in matters related to the proposed European Constitution, I would heartily recommend the EU Referendum blog and the EU Reporter.

As for me, I'm going to simply hope the thing remains dead and buried, and further hope that Britain doesn't wake up one day and learn it's expected to beat it back with a shovel.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:16 PM | TrackBack

Just Asking ...

I SUPPOSE THIS is a bad time to ask, but d'you think this means Americans can go all-out in criticizing France for not being a team player, good ally, respectful of international law and all that?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 05:48 PM | TrackBack

May 12, 2005

Ad Vitam Paramus

I MISSED THIS when it was originally published last year, but the BBC did a really interesting series on life in Somalia, the only country on Earth which does not have a functioning Government.

It's a very sad story; what little order that exists in country is thanks to warlords who have momentarily stopped oppressing the people. Still, gunmen routinely exact tribute from those who work for a living. Consider the wretched fate of Mr Mahamut Issa Abdi, who extracts steel rods from the crumbling U.S. embassy in Mogadishu:

I sell the rods to people who are building new houses. It's really hard work - and very hot - but it's the only way I can support my family at the moment. I have been doing this for about three years and have gone 3km around the wall.

I earn 1,000 Somali shillings (6.5 US cents) for each rod. I get about 20 rods a day but I have to give half of them to the gunman who controls the area I work.

Mr Abdi's fate has improved somewhat -- according to the latest figures from New York, the Somali shilling (SOS) trades at about 3,000 to the dollar. So he actually grosses about $6 per day -- but only nets $3, which still makes it about the worst wage one can draw in the world (he has a wife and three children). Mr Abdi understandably wants to improve his lot, and hopes a new Government could help.

I hope so too.

Go on over to the BBC and have a look.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:55 PM | TrackBack

May 06, 2005

It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing ...

I DON'T KNOW how many Rant readers watched the British elections on Thursday night, but I'll say this -- in terms of on-air entertainment, the United Kingdom does a far better job than the United States when it comes to elections.

And that's just wrong. But I'll get to that in a bit.

For now, I'll simply note it was also wrong that C-SPAN, the wonderful channel that it is, would cut away from coverage mid-way through the night. It should've gone until at least 1 a.m. EDT, and I hope the channel will devote more resources in future to foreign elections. We do need to know what's going on in these places, after all. Besides, it was fun watching everyone at the BBC suffer brain rot by trying to broadcast at three in the morning.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the UK's election process, based upon watching a few hours of the BBC's election coverage, which was simulcast here in the United States:

* SO WHEN DID the Beeb hire Mr Wizard to do their election coverage? Christ, the way that guy in the orange shirt was going on about percentages and vote-shifts, I was half expecting him to break out vinegar and baking soda to demonstrate what happened to Boris Johnson’s hair. But give orange-shirt guy credit for his enthusiasm. Also, the swingometer thingy was cool. We need one here.

* HERE’S PROOF the Brits retain some semblance of cultural superiority over their American cousins.

When WE have elections, our candidates host fancy parties at swank hotels, and only make an appearance after they know the results. When the BRITS have elections, they force ALL the candidates to meet in the local high school gymnasium, and only then do they say who won. The British clearly have the better system, if only because you get to see the guy from the Official Monster Raving Loony Party -- in the wacky suit -- next to the right honorable gentleman serving the constituency of East Perth-Wolverhampton.

* SPEAKING OF CANDIDATES – what was up with those ribbon things? Is that some rule enshrined in Britain’s Unwritten Constitution? Candidates for public office must look like judges at a county fair chili cook-off?

* HERE’S MORE PROOF the Brits retain some semblance of cultural superiority over their American cousins. When WE have elections, we conduct the commentary surrounding them with the Strictest Decorum and Proper Respect. When the BRITS have elections, everyone runs around stabbing each other in the back, especially if somebody lost a seat. They also go after the media too – how great it was to hear Ken Clarke declare, “Your exit poll is boring.”

* ALSO: Six weeks or so is certainly enough time to hold a campaign. Those of you who like longer campaigns should consider moving to New Hampshire. We’re just three years out from Primary Day!

* FURTHER PROOF: In Britain, calling one’s election strategy a “decapitation” scheme will make one look clever. In America, doing the same will earn one a visit from 39 separate federal agencies with police powers, all of which are empowered to stomp all over one’s person.

* I WENT OUT for British food in honor of the election (mmmm! chicken tikka!) halfway through the C-SPAN coverage, so I guess I missed the whole Galloway-Paxson fracas. Or maybe it was after C-SPAN switched off. Anyway, what from what I read of the transcript -- Jesus God Almighty.

Imagine if Jim Lehrer – the only American newscaster in a similar post – just suddenly released 28 years of pent-up aggression and kept asking such-and-such a politician the same loaded, jackass question over and over again. And imagine he did it so smarmily that Dan Rather looked humble in comparison. That is exactly what Jeremy Paxson did in this interview.

Before hearing about it, I actually thought the BBC did an OK job with their coverage – certainly it seemed like they had EVERYONE ON STAFF either behind or in front of a camera!

BUT ANYWAY. As I mentioned before, the BBC's coverage proves that America has a second-rate election reporting system. This must improve immediately.

We need angry and embittered commentators either gleeful or despondent over results, we need passionate on-air coverage, and we need the same anchors on air until they start babbling due to exhaustion. We also need swingometers, neat computer graphics with little fake army guys, and most of all, cute broadcast reporters with British accents. And they say the BBC viewer gets no value for his TV tax!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:16 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 28, 2005

Fun in the Sun

THIS IS Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president. In this Associated Press photo, he is clearly having a fun time visiting the pyramids at Giza. Yeah, he seems downright thrilled. The high temperature on Wednesday, when this picture was taken, was 82 degrees Fahrenheit.

Notice the man has not even loosened his tie. Maybe it's just me, but proper protocol should dictate that a head of state gets to loosen his tie when he's out in the frickin' desert. I mean, my God. He's the leader of the second third most-powerful country on Earth. He ought be allowed.

One can only imagine the fun President Putin would have if he went to Libya, or something.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:48 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 24, 2005

Europe in the Breach

AS AN AMERICAN and a student of history, we have long had mixed feelings about the European Union. On its face, the closer integration of the Continent makes perfect political and economic sense; but when one looks into New Europe's eyes, one finds only stagnation and decay staring back. It has been nearly 50 years since the European Economic Community was established, and even after all the expansion of the EU's size and scope, the Continent still deals with double-digit unemployment, a rigid bureaucracy, industry-choking regulation, social-safety nets coming apart at the seams, and a foreign policy that is both schizoid and ineffective.

Therefore, we don't exactly see how giving the EU superstate even more power to meddle in the affairs of its member states will do anyone any good. Yet such skepticism does not matter to Timothy Garton Ash, the noted Oxford historian. No. Where we see chaos and ruin, Dr Ash sees the birth of ... something wonderful:

Over the last fortnight, I have been in six European cities: Oxford, Madrid, Paris, Hamburg, Gdansk and Warsaw. In all of them, I have been reading Jacques le Goff's wonderful new history of The Birth of Europe, a book that every sentient European should know. Through a sequence of rich but small courses, as in a gourmet meal, Le Goff explores the formation of Europe from the ruins of the Roman empire to Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America at the end of the 15th century. Turning from the book to the streets, and the streets back to the book, I have been thinking about the great adventure on which this continent is now engaged. Shall we call it the second birth of Europe?

So Dr Ash begins his rather dreamy essay in The Guardian, which gives it both an odd title (merely "The Birth of Europe") and a Provocative Subheading ("Our challenge to the anti-Europeans is: where's your story of the future?"). Sadly, Dr Ash does not present such a story himself, as we shall soon see. The germ of it, of course, is there -- apparently, United Europe will mellow out and be happy together and want to buy the world a Coke. Except it wouldn't buy Coke, because that's American, and it couldn't have that. So it will buy Mentos instead. Mmmmm. The Freshmaker.

But we digress. Anyway, Dr Ash seems to believe that this Continent-wide Feeling of Grooviness shall sunder all of Europe's problems. We daresay he is wrong from the get-go. Let us consider his next point regarding "the birth of Europe:"

The birth of Europe, that is, no longer just as a self-conscious cultural, historical and religious unity, the heir to Christendom evoked against the encroaching Muslim Turks in Pope Pius II's magnificent essay of 1458, but as a European Union, soon to include Turkey, which is a single commonwealth, with a set of shared laws and political institutions of which medieval Europeans could only dream. And, increasingly, as an actor on the world stage.

Oh, yes, we can imagine what our ancestors would think of the EU's shared laws and political institutions. Let's channel, for the moment, the spirit of Johannes Koeppel, our non-medieval but still distant ancestor, who in the 17th century ran an inn not far from the EU's parliament building in Strasbourg. We present it with apologies to George Orwell, who had better and gloomier thoughts about such things:

CUSTOMER: Hi! I'd like a pint of beer. The good stuff, please.
JOHANNES: That's one penny. Just a second while I get a mug.
EU REGULATOR: Excuse me, sir!
JOHANNES: Who the devil are you?
EU REGULATOR: I'm with the Metrication Regulation Commission. You offered to sell this gentleman, I believe, a "pint" of beer.
JOHANNES: Well, what else would I call it?
EU REGULATOR: You can't sell pints anymore. Sell him a half-liter.
CUSTOMER: But I don't want a half-liter. I want a pint.
EU REGULATOR: Or a liter. We don't care. But you can't sell pints anymore.
JOHANNES: Why not?
EU REGULATOR: You know, because of ... um ... standardization. Yeah, that's it. Standardization! Anyway, if you wish to make a complaint, just show up at the office in Brussels between 10 and 3 during the week to apply for an appeals appointment. But the point is you can't sell pints anymore. You can sell a 500 milliliter mug of beer, though.
JOHANNES: I don't have any 500 milliliter mugs. What am I supposed to do, go buy 40 more mugs?
EU REGULATOR: That's a good start. Also, is that a wood burning stove in the back? We'll have to make sure it meets safety guidelines. I'll have Fritz on that next week. Oh, and that reminds me -- you charged a penny for that beer.
JOHANNES: Yes, that's what I've always charged.
EU REGULATOR: Clearly you haven't been collecting the minimum 15 percent VAT for each sale. Charge one penny and a third-farthing.
JOHANNES: How'd you like to get charged flat on your ass?

Of course, we kid -- as we understand it, drinking establishments are momentarily exempt from the metrification regulations. Still, it's one thing to harmonize laws for things such as crossing the border and another thing entirely to send forth swarms of officers, armed with yards meters of regulatory red tape, to harass the people and eat out their substance. The EU has done very well at the latter -- and there are oodles of news reports which stand as testament to that. As for being an actor on the world stage -- well, the less said the better.

Dr Ash continues:

The connections between that old Europe and this new one are complicated. History, unlike geometry, has few straight lines. Le Goff has little time for the simplistic, mythopoeic narrative much loved by cultural Eurocrats: "from Charlemagne to the euro". Bad history is not a good foundation for anything. But the connections, the foundations, are there - and you see them clearly on a whistlestop tour through six European cities.

For a start, there is the simple physical presence of this past in architecture, streetscape and art. Those familiar shapes of gothic, renaissance and baroque, from Oxford to Gdansk, make us feel that we are at home even when we are abroad. This is so obvious that we forget just how unusual it is. There's no other continent on which this is so.

Of course, the fact that it's so obvious makes it entirely meaningless. As any American who has moved around a bit can tell you, it's not the architecture which makes you feel at home, it's the people. We don't know about you, but if we were living in London all our lives and suddenly had to decamp to Berlin, we don't think we'd feel some sort of immediate camaraderie because of the architecture. Yet that is what Dr Ash is suggesting. But he keeps on:

Then there are the gaps between the old houses; the gaps where the bombs fell. Most of them have now been filled with more recent buildings, often 1950s drab or 1960s brutalist. They stand out like false teeth. I drove through Hamburg with a friend, looking at the old and new facades. There, we exclaimed, the bombs must have fallen; and there; and there. Sixty years on, the memories of war, Holocaust, gulag and occupation are still everywhere - not just in stone and concrete, but on television, in the newspapers, in conversation.

"You know the story of your hotel?" another friend asked me in Paris, as we walked down the Boulevard Raspail. I knew. During the German occupation, the elegant Hotel Lutetia was the Gestapo headquarters. And here in Warsaw, it's impossible to forget. I turn on Polish television, and there's the Polish president at a ceremony to mark the opening of a new Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Near the entrance to this higgledy-piggledy common European home that we are building, low down in the wall, you can see the inscription on the original foundation stone. It's covered with moss now, since it was laid more than 50 years ago, and many younger Europeans don't even know it is there. But if you look closely, you can still discern it. It reads: "Never again!"

We admit that it's possible for nations which were at each other's throats for centuries to forget about those old wounds and national differences. We just don't think it's very probable. Once things hit the fan, all the old grievances will bubble back up to the surface -- as they already do. Poland supports the Iraq war and France tells them to shut up. France and Germany beat up on Greece for its finances while they themselves fail to live up to the euro stability pact. An Italian politician says something impolite and all the other countries pile on in disgust. The British keep bringing up the war. We could go on, but our point is this: the EU isn't solid enough to stay together should it get sorely tested. There's not enough allegiance to it.

Enough of the heavy stuff. Two happier things unite us: food and football. Le Goff argues that the beginnings of a conscious enjoyment of gastronomy can be found in the 15th century. The range and richness of European national cuisines is amazing. It's a classic example of the continent's "unity in diversity". Gastronomy can even moderate other passions. One of my favourite jokes about contemporary European nationalism is told of the Basques, who are even more passionate about food than about politics. Question: What are the three most important questions for a Basque? Answer: 1. Where do we come from? 2. Who are we? 3. Where are we going for dinner?

Aside from the troubling implications of Dr Ash's joke (apparently Brussels has banned humor), we would submit that one can't build a nation-state on excellent restaurants. We are sorry, but you need something a bit more binding than that.

As for football: it's the European sport par excellence. Is there a European alive who does not know about Real Madrid? If the French and British governments want to win their referendums on the European constitutional treaty, it's not Chirac and Blair they need on the television spots. It's Beckham and Zidane.

You know, he may be right about Becks and Zidane. That said, we can't understand why Dr Ash thinks soccer is a unifying thing. Good Lord. After all, if soccer is so unifying and wonderful, why does the EU make a point of banning rowdies from traveling during soccer matches?

You may say that some of the features claimed as distinctive to Europe are not unique to it. Latin Americans, for example, outdo even our cult of football. You would be right. But that doesn't mean that these elements do not connect us. A chess club is a group of people, usually living near each other, who like playing chess. There are other chess clubs. The European Union is a club of liberal democracies. There are others; and we want there to be more.

Of course the European Union would like more "democracy clubs" -- except in the Middle East, except those which might like the Americans, and except those which might involve Israel.

You may say I'm ignoring all the bad things about Europe. I'm not. Most of our countries have entrenched establishments of shortsighted, time-serving, often corrupt politicians. Contrary to Eurosceptic myth, the Brussels bureaucracy is rather small - but it makes up for it by being even more bureaucratic. Most of our economies are still woefully uncompetitive. Our native-born populations are declining, and we are bad at making migrants, especially Muslim migrants, feel at home. These problems, too, we have in common.

And the solution for all this would be ... what, exactly? After all, if one's Government is oppressive, making that Government even more distant and less accountable probably won't help matters.

Le Goff's book ends with Europe beginning to take over from China as the avant garde of technological modernity, and setting out to conquer the world, starting with America. Now America is the world's leading power, while China is coming back up again with the force of a rising piston. This relative decline of Europe is another reason for hanging together rather than hanging separately.

It's not just a relative decline, it's an absolute decline. After all, as Denis Boyles has noted, Europeans can't even produce enough Europeans to keep up, much less anything else. That said, Dr Ash would be right -- except that sticking together is likely to make the problems even worse, because the EU has policies that don't help matters. For instance, instead of figuring out how to compete with the new countries in the EU, the Eurocrats keep talking about how the new countries ought raise their taxes and regulatory burdens to par with the long-time members. That doesn't sound like a plan for success to us.

Meanwhile, within our own continent we have an amazing story to tell. It's the story of the most successful peaceful spread of freedom in recent history. Thirty years ago, General Franco still ruled Spain, and my Spanish publisher was battling with the fascist censor. Sixteen years ago, in spring 1989, my Polish publisher was still battling with the communist censor. Last year, the front line was in Ukraine. In each and every case, the causes of Europe and democracy marched together. The EU may not itself be very democratic, but it's the world's most successful promoter of democracy.


Dear God -- is he kidding? Please tell us he's kidding. Look, doc, a big part of why the European Union exists today is because your friends and allies across the Atlantic conveniently kept the Soviets from running roughshod over your half of the continent. While we're at it, must we remind you that our generosity regarding security arrangements meant you didn't have to spend all that much on your defense preparations? Which in turn meant you could spend your money on all those generous social programs? Which in turn meant you didn't have all that much to do with containing the menace on your eastern front?

We simply don't understand how Dr Ash can make such a statement. It is so disconnected with reality it's not funny. We mean, some of the countries which now make up the EU weren't always helpful about America's Cold War efforts. Furthermore, when there were hot wars around (e.g. Serbia beating up on Bosnia), the EU didn't do a damn thing to stop it -- even though that conflict was just a few hundred miles away! How do these things translate into "world's most successful promoter of democracy?"

Change always provokes a reaction. Yesterday, I was answering questions from Polish Eurosceptics which could have come straight from the UK Independence party. These opponents of the EU are as much Europeans as we pro-EU Europeans are. In fact, in their very nationalism they are more characteristically old-European than they know. The difference is this: we new, sceptically pro-EU Europeans have a great story to tell - a story that is about the past but also about the future. Our challenge to these old, doggedly anti-EU Europeans is: we hear your story about the past, but where's your story about the future?

Well, we can think of a few ideas for such a story, but the most important one involves freedom. The European Union doesn't seem to like the idea much -- after all, it regulates speech and it stifles enterprise and it makes it as difficult as possible for its people to get ahead. A future without double-digit unemployment, a future where people can manage their own affairs, a future with wealth -- there's something to be said for it. A pity Dr Ash sees fit to discount it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:00 PM | TrackBack

March 16, 2005

"He Who Will Not Answer to the Rudder, Answers to the Rocks"

THE FRENCH spent more than $4 billion and eleven years building the FS Charles du Gaulle, the sole aircraft carrier in the French Navy. For their trouble, they got a ship slower than the one it replaced, a ship with faulty electrical systems, and a ship with a nuclear reactor that's dangerous to its crew. The ship was so badly built, in fact, that one of its two 19-ton propellers broke while it was at sea.

One can only imagine the conversation which took place when that happened:

ADMIRAL: Commander, plot a course for ... (CRASH) ... Good God, what the hell was that?! Engine room! Damage report!
ENGINE ROOM: It's the propeller, sir!
ADMIRAL: What's wrong with the propeller?
ENGINE ROOM: Aucune -- that's what's wrong with it!
ADMIRAL: Aucune?! Impossible!
ENGINE ROOM: OK, fine! You're so smart, you come down here and fix the damn thing!

Now, the way we see it, it's one thing if European firms build a lousy aircraft carrier, but another thing entirely if European companies build lousy aircraft. After all, the latter are more of a threat. And while we wouldn't want to criticize the entire Airbus fleet, we will admit we're rather concerned about this report recently in The Observer.

In the story, we learn that last week, an Airbus A310 had its goddamn rudder fall off at 35,000 feet. (Capitalist Lion has a picture. His response? "Jeebus"). When one reads on in The Observer article, one finds that "Jeebus" escapes one's lips more than once. The paper writes:

One former Airbus pilot, who now flies Boeings for a major United States airline, told The Observer: "This just isn't supposed to happen. No one I know has ever seen an airliner's rudder disintegrate like that. It raises worrying questions about the materials and build of the aircraft, and about its maintenance and inspection regime. We have to ask as things stand, would evidence of this type of deterioration ever be noticed before an incident like this in the air?"

He and his colleagues also believe that what happened may shed new light on a previous disaster. In November 2001, 265 people died when American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300 model which is almost identical to the A310, crashed shortly after take-off from JFK airport in New York. According to the official report into the crash, the immediate cause was the loss of the plane's rudder and tailfin, though this was blamed on an error by the pilots.

There have been other non-fatal incidents. One came in 2002 when a FedEx A300 freight pilot complained about strange "uncommanded inputs" -- rudder movements which the plane was making without his moving his control pedals. In FedEx's own test on the rudder on the ground, engineers claimed its "acuators" -- the hydraulic system which causes the rudder to move -- tore a large hole around its hinges, in exactly the spot where the rudders of both flight 961 and flight 587 parted company from the rest of the aircraft.

We should note that Airbus insists all is well with its aircraft design, and says that many engineering experts are assured of the safety-monitoring procedures used to inspect the aircraft. Still, this is the type of story which makes us a wee bit thankful that when we fly, we're generally stuck on Brazilian jets. And perhaps we ought make a point, as some of the pilots quoted in the story do, of flying Boeing craft on the longer flights.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:31 PM | TrackBack

February 12, 2005

What We're Reading

WE RECENTLY had the good fortune to pick up a copy of Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History at the bookstore. While we have not had a chance to really sit down and read it, the parts we have read have been downright amazing. We mean: wow. We don't think we've ever read a medieval history that has been so lucid, so clear, or so downright on the money it blows everything else out of the water.

Obviously, there's a lot of dated thinking in the book -- Ibn Khaldun did write it in the 14th century. But other parts of his work are incredibly advanced for someone who lived then. People often look to the past and grumble that they were born years or decades or centuries too late; but Ibn Khaldun was a man born about 500 years too early. For instance, he has a downright amazing grasp of economics -- and in some ways, is practically modern in his outlook on that.

That achievement is even more amazing when one considers the world history of the dismal science, an experience which can best be compared to a man in a dark room fumbling for several scattered light switches. The Greeks and Romans had the basics (private property, good! trade, good! currency, good!) figured out, but they were clueless when it came to figuring out larger stuff. That failure to do so sundered Europe for centuries -- and it wasn't until the Late Middle Ages that people started figuring things out again. Even then, it wasn't until Smith came along that people really started to get a handle on things.

So that's why Ibn Khaldun is such an amazing figure, because he gets it. Just consider the following section of his work:


36. Taxation and the reason for low and high tax revenues

It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.

The reason for this is that when the dynasty follows the ways of Islam, it imposes only such taxes as are stipulated by the religious law, such as charity taxes, the land tax, and the poll tax. These have fixed limits that cannot be exceeded.

When the dynasty follows the ways of group feeling and political superiority, it necessarily has at first a desert attitude, as has been mentioned before. The desert attitude requires kindness, reverence, humility, respect for the property of other people, and disinclination to appropriate it, except in rare instances. Therefore, the individual imposts and assessments, which together constitute the tax revenue, are low. When tax assessments and imposts upon the subjects are low, the latter have the energy and desire to do things. Cultural enterprises grow and increase, because the low taxes bring satisfaction. When cultural enterprises grow, the number of individual imposts and assessments mounts. In consequence, the tax revenue, which is the sum total, increases.

When the dynasty continues in power and their rulers follow each other in succession, they become sophisticated. The Bedouin attitude and simplicity lose their significance, and the Bedouin qualities of moderation and restraint disappear. Royal authority with its tyranny and sedentary culture that stimulates sophistication, make their appearance. The people of the dynasty then acquire qualities of character related to cleverness. Their customs and needs become more varied because of the propsperity and luxury in which they are immersed.

As a result, the individual imposts and assessments upon the subjects, agricultural laborers, farmers, and all the other taxpayers, increase. Every individual impost and assessment is greatly increased, in order to obtain a higher tax revenue. Customs duties are placed upon articles of commerce and levied at the city gates. Then, gradual increases in the amount of the assessments succeed each other regularly, in correspondence with the gradual increase in the luxury customs and many needs of the dynasty and the spending required in connection with them.

Eventually, the taxes will weigh heavily upon the subjects and overburden them. Heavy taxes become an obligation and tradition, because the increases took place gradually, and no one knows specifically who increased them or levied them. They lie upon the subjects like an obligation and tradition.

The assessments increase beyond the limits of equity. The result is that the interest of the subjects in cultural enterprises disappears, since when they compare expenditures and taxes with their income and gain and see the little profit they make, they lose all hope. Therefore, many of them refrain from all cultural activity. The result is that the total tax revenue goes down, as individual assessments go down. Often, when the decrease is noted, the amounts of individual imposts are increased. This is considered a means of compensating for the decrease.

Finally, individual imposts and assessments reach their limit. It would be of no avail to increase them further. The costs of all cultural enterprise are now too high, the taxes are too heavy, and the profits anticipated fail to materialize. Finally, civilization is destroyed, because the incentive for cultural activity is gone. It is the dynasty that suffers from the situation, because it profits from cultural activity.


Sound familiar?

Obviously, society still argues today about how low the low ought be, but the idea as a whole is generally accepted. So we look forward to reading the rest of Ibn Khaldun's work, to see what else he learned far before most of us.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:03 PM | TrackBack

February 04, 2005

But Isn't Poverty a Bad Thing?

WE WERE APPALLED to read a story recently in The New York Times, in which the newspaper tells us that Ireland is suffering a major case of guilt and pensiveness. Apparently, the Celtic Tiger has managed to get rather a lot of money over the years, and this is causing the usual suspects to worry. The Times writes:

But that new status is bringing with it an identity crisis, one that is forcing the country, and its government, to grapple with the flip side of wealth and the obligations that money imposes. While few people argue that Ireland was better off 20 years ago, some are beginning to point out that national wealth alone, without introspection, does not necessarily bring happiness. It can, in fact, bring new problems.

How, for example, should a country once known for sending legions of people abroad deal with its own crop of immigrants? What does it mean to be Irish, given that so much of the national psyche is tied up in centuries of poverty?

Irish newspapers have been filled with accounts of the pitfalls of growth, secularization and wealth, some of them trivial, a few of them serious: suicide is at record levels, divorce is increasingly common, property prices are soaring, traffic is horrendous, personal debt is spiraling up, faceless commuter suburbs are sprouting and teenagers are taking too many drugs and buying too many things. Even the high cost of a cup of coffee has become a lightning rod, prompting people here to label the country Rip-Off Ireland.

And this paragraph, later on in the Times story, sums it up quite well:

Eradicating poverty, everyone agrees, is a worthwhile goal. But Ireland was so poor for so long, and its poverty was so ingrained in its identity, that some wonder whether Irish culture and character - its keen sense of community, its sharp humor in the face of hardship - will be steamrolled by the rollicking economy.

We don't know about you, but this reminds us of those stories about the sensitive types who get upset when some village in Africa finally gets electric power. Such complaints are, of course, idle and senseless, because they steamroll the idea the villagers might just want electricity. The same principle, we submit, applies here. So we are glad Ireland's doing so well, and are glad the quality-of-life there is improving, and we very much hope it continues. This is because, last time we checked, it's not fun being impoverished.

But let's not stop there, please. As an example of the pain which impoverishment causes a nation, we present the case of Scotland, which some of our ancestors fled long ago for a better life here in America. And when one compares Ireland to Scotland these days ... it's not pretty.

Consider: were an Irish person abroad to visit Ireland, he would visit a vibrant, pleasant island which is comfortable, wealthy, and where nearly everyone has a job. Not only that, they have an enviable and proud shared culture.

Scots, on the other hand -- well, Scots've got Robbie Burns and haggis. Also we could watch in horror as the respective fans of Rangers and Celtic beat the stuffing out of each other.

This is downright frustrating. It's also frustrating that a full 266,000 Scots are supposedly "incapacitated" and receiving dole payments, and a full one out of four adult Scots have no job. That figure rises to one out of three in Glasgow. In fact, the dependency is so bad that, as Fraser Nelson wrote recently in The Scotsman, that "a two-parent family with a stay-at-home mother, average income and a mortgage is only £4 a week better off than a single-parent household reliant entirely on benefits."

The end result, of course, is clear. As Prof JP Duguid, of Inverness, put it in a letter to that fine publication: "Heavy taxation to fund welfare and its administration crushes businesses and deters careful couples on modest incomes from having enough children. Careless couples and single parents are left to populate the nation with an increasing proportion of badly brought up, ill-behaved children."

We would add, an increasing proportion of children who won't have good jobs or much chance of escaping the poverty in which they were born. This is what happens when one erodes the family unit through well-meaning but badly-conceived ideas.

And as if all this wasn't bad enough, the Scots are becoming a nation of spendthrifts. That's ... they're Scots, for God's sakes. Whatever happened to the values of work and thrift? Whatever happened to "keeping the Sabbath, and everything else?"

Ugh. We can't go on. Anyway, to recap -- poverty sucks. And we're very happy for Ireland, not only because they're doing well, but because they've apparently figured out what not to do. We wish we could say the same of our own homelands.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:21 AM | TrackBack

January 14, 2005

Bookseller Cashiered for Blogging

WE NOTE WITH INTEREST a story out of Scotland today, in which one Joe Gordon, a bookseller for the Waterstone's chain, has been cashiered for venting about his job on his blog.

As we understand it from The Guardian, Mr Gordon's blog sometimes made mention of his boss, using impressively inventive prose. For instance, Mr Gordon referred to his supervisor as "Evil Boss." But he did not stop there. Mr Gordon declared his immediate superior was a "sandal-wearing bastard" and used other colorful phrases to describe the man -- and was so clever in this regard we actually had to look some of those phrases up. Unfortunately for Mr Gordon, Waterstone's was keeping an eye on his blog, and decided to cashier him at its first opportunity for gross misconduct.

Now, we do think Mr Gordon screwed up mightily in referring to his work and his workplace on his blog. This would generally put one on thin ice anyway if this was not cleared first, but to openly criticize one's immediate superior is pretty much just asking for a good kick in the ass. It is no surprise Waterstone's got rid of him, especially if Mr Gordon was giving his boss a hard time.

But Mr Gordon has a few jokers of his own to play. For one thing, he worked in a rank-and-file capacity. As such, his transgressions were necessarily less consequential than if, say, a marketing executive fell into the pool at a company function. For another, we understand Mr Gordon was an experienced employee and quite competent in his work. But we see two trump cards for Mr Gordon that might not otherwise apply in a more normal situation; for instance, if Mr Gordon was a district sales manager for a tire firm.

The most obvious trump card, of course, is that Mr Gordon worked for a bookseller. As such, he will get sympathy up the wazoo, and Waterstone's is going to find itself in the midst of a public-relations nightmare. Actually, it already is. For the story is all over the British press, and pretty much every blogger in the world is going to discuss it in the next three days. For bloggers are kind of like piranhas in this respect: if the piranhas find a cow standing in the water, all of them gang up to devour it. It is impossible to counteract such harsh and overbearing criticism from all corners -- absolutely impossible. If anything good comes out of this, it will be that public-relations folks everywhere now know what not to do when such situations arise. They could have just spoken with him and left it -- he would have gotten the message.

But let's say it again: Mr Gordon worked for a bookseller. As such, there is the very real question of whether Mr Gordon has actually sinned. For everyone expects bookstore employees, like folks working at record shops, to be at least a bit passionate. In our view, Mr Gordon could have written all manner of outlandish things and no one would have batted an eye; it's just that he didn't consider the consequences when calling his boss, and we quote -- oh, hold on. It's the phone.

STANDARDS DEPARTMENT: You are not putting that phrase in your essay. Absolutely not.
Mr KEPPLE: What, a cheeky s-------?
STANDARDS DEPARTMENT: Quit that! It's right out. Who ever heard of a seven-letter curse word starting with S?
Mr KEPPLE: Well, he wrote it. What am I supposed to do?
STANDARDS DEPARTMENT: You may use the word "frack."
Mr KEPPLE: Well, frack. Hey, wait. Doesn't that violate Interoffice Style Memorandum No. 78? The one which forbids us from using words and phrases invented in the Seventies?
STANDARDS DEPARTMENT: Nope. Battlestar Galactica had a spinoff in 1980, in which Starbuck returned in the last episode.
Mr KEPPLE: Yeah? Well, up your nose with a garden --
STANDARDS DEPARTMENT: Do we have to call HR on this?

Frack. OK, anyway. Bookstore employee. Passionate about stuff. Expected. Not a big deal in grand scheme. Especially when his blog is -- or rather, was -- under the radar.

But as we said, this is not the only trump card which Mr Gordon holds in his hand. The other is that Mr Gordon is a Scot, and as such, he can (hopefully) count on the aid of other Scots. Being of part-Scots ancestry ourself, we don't understand how a God-fearing Scot in bloody Scotland can just be expected to not speak up about things. Especially if some English firm cashiers him for speaking up, because that'll just make him speak up on general principle.

So while we do think Mr Gordon did err, we can only wish him the best -- and are confident he'll soon get back on his feet. For as someone long ago once said, "the worst can be handled when it is known."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:27 AM | TrackBack

December 31, 2004

Great Moments in American Stinginess

TOTAL COMMITMENT, four years (1948-52). EXPENDITURE, $13 billion in post-war dollars.
$100 billion in today's dollars. REBUILDING WAR-RAVAGED EUROPE: priceless.

PEACE CORPS COMMITMENT: 43 years. TOTAL VOLUNTEERS: 178,000, in 138 nations.


WE COULD CONTINUE, but you already knew where we were going with that. So you are far ahead of America's Friends in the United Nations, who saw fit to criticize the United States for its "stinginess" regarding tsunami-related relief aid, before wisely deciding to shut up.

Already the United States Government has donated $35 million to relief efforts, a number that is certain to grow as the relief requirements are accordingly ascertained. The U.S. Government has said the $35 million will be the start of a "multiyear, multibillion-dollar international relief and recovery effort." Oh, and that doesn't count the cost of sending 15,000 troops, 16 warships, 17 winged aircraft, and 25 helicopters to help. We'll add that in later.

But Americans' private giving is also quite impressive. The total thus far has well passed the $125 million mark -- and $7.5 million alone has been raised on for the Red Cross. (The neat thing about that latter page is that one can refresh it: thousands of dollars are being donated each second).

In comparison, the Government of Britain has pledged $95 million in aid, Sweden has committed $75.5 million, Spain is offering $68 million, and France plans to spend $57 million. Other nations pledging aid include Japan ($40 million), the Netherlands ($36 million), Canada ($32.8 million), Germany ($27 million), Australia ($27 million), Portugal ($11 million), Saudi Arabia ($10 million) and Qatar ($10 million). But they have not committed the logistical resources which we have. (Aid figures are from the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Of course, it is no surprise that Certain People are complaining about the U.S. response even now. We note this Press Association report from The Scotsman, citing a BBC 4 radio interview:

United States President George Bush was tonight accused of trying to undermine the United Nations by setting up a rival coalition to coordinate relief following the Asian tsunami disaster.

The president has announced that the US, Japan, India and Australia would coordinate the world’s response.

But former International Development Secretary Clare Short said that role should be left to the UN.

“I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up,” she said.

“Only really the UN can do that job,” she told BBC Radio Four’s PM programme.

“It is the only body that has the moral authority. But it can only do it well if it is backed up by the authority of the great powers.”

Ms Short said the coalition countries did not have good records on responding to international disasters.

She said the US was “very bad at coordinating with anyone” and India had its own problems to deal with.

“I don’t know what that is about but it sounds very much, I am afraid, like the US trying to have a separate operation and not work with the rest of the world through the UN system,” she added.

We would suggest this explains why MP Short is the former International Development Secretary. After all, if the United Nations was in charge, the millions which have been pledged for aid would conveniently disappear in a sea of waste and corruption. As such, to get the job done, the United States and its partners must do things on their own.

For those in Europe and the United Nations who would complain about our efforts, we have but one suggestion: stop whining, roll up your sleeves and give us a hand.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:17 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 27, 2004


YEAH. YEAH. YEAH. We are downright thrilled with the news that Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko soundly defeated Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in yesterday's Ukrainian elections. We look forward to Ukraine's continuing progress towards personal freedom and economic well-being for its people, and wish the Ukrainian people all the best in the coming years.

Of course, Mr Yanukovich is not all that happy at losing to President Yushchenko. This is perhaps understandable. After all, had Mr Yanukovich's sympathizers done their job correctly, President Yushchenko would now find himself six feet underground. Had his henchmen done their jobs correctly, no one would have noticed that President Yushchenko "lost" the first election. Therefore, Mr Yanukovich finds himself forced to resort to ... the law courts.

Hoo boy. Well, we can only imagine the arguments Mr Yanukovich's lawyers will dream up in an attempt to wrest the election from President Yushchenko. But we have some ideas ...



10. Yushchenko's side monopolized Ukraine's strategic reserve of hot women, creating a fundamental disadvantage for Yanukovich.

9. Yushchenko's last-minute endorsements from Aquaman and Hawkman violated Ukrainian electoral reform law.

8. Elderly pensioners in eastern Ukraine voted en masse for Pat Buchanan.

7. "Ukrainians Coming Together" revealed as group behind ads linking Yanukovich, dioxin manufacturers.

6. UCT's "Tell Viktor Yanukovich to Stop Poisoning His Opponents" TV spots were slanderous.

5. International poll observers' demands for "rule of law" and "no beating up of the election workers" intimidated Yanukovich voters.

4. The Guardian's letter-writing campaign to swing district of Kompaniivka, in the pivotal Kirovohrad region, didn't work out as planned.

3. Hundreds of pro-Yushchenko ballots "conveniently discovered" in Alice, Texas.

2. Electoral contracts for delivering ballots were awarded to US Airways.


1. Tsar Vladimir I is NOT amused.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:40 PM | TrackBack

December 02, 2004

Bushels of Choucroute

THE AXIS OF Ungodly Specialty Foods has struck again! Repeatedly!

We encourage all Rant readers to look over MEP Daniel Hannan's fascinating -- and disturbing -- account of dealings in the European Parliament. It seems the EU's new transport commissioner, Jacques Barrot, conveniently forgot to mention he was once convicted (and later pardoned) in a political-funding scandal. The reaction to this news, as MEP Hannan writes in The Telegraph, was as follows:

But the way MEPs reacted to (MEP Nigel) Farage's revelation was horrible. One by one they rose to threaten him with legal action. The Liberal leader, Graham Watson, likened him to the football hooligans who had disgraced Britain in Europe. A fomer colleague of Barrot's, Jacques Toubon, rushed up and down the aisle, apparently looking for someone to punch (Robert Kilroy-Silk, recognising him as the minister who had tried to ban the English language from French airwaves, told him mischievously that no one would understand him unless he spoke English, which sent him into a choking fit). All this because Farage was doing the job that the rest of us ought to have done.

MEP Hannan further notes:

We have an agriculture commissioner who makes money from the CAP, a competition commissioner who, after only two days, has already run into conflicts of interest, and an anti-fraud commissioner who was recently involved in a fraud case (although he was acquitted).

We also love this quote from the accompanying news story on the matter:

The furore has baffled officials in France, where the affair - involving £2.5 million of public money, misappropriated for campaign funding by the Social Democratic Centre (CDS) party when Mr Barrot was party secretary - had been largely forgotten.

As for our reaction to this whole mess ... well, we can only encourage everyone to read both articles in full. We would restrain our comment to one of Woody Allen's famous lines, namely:

"What kinda Government you guys GOT here?"

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:42 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 08, 2004

Building a Remedy for Khrushchev and Kennedy

IF THE FORCES of International Terrorism were on the ropes before, Russia's announcement today that it would "liquidate" terror bases around the globe has made us think that terrorism is pretty much finished. It may take a few years, perhaps more than a decade, but we do think it will happen.

It is true the Russians do not possess military strength on par with the United States. However, they do have a complete disregard for Western Europe's opinion on what they ought do, and little tolerance for diplomacy. We do believe that both Western European leaders and the Chechen rebels understand this, given their comments on the matter.

From the Canadian Press:

Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the general staff of Russia's armed forces, asserted Russia's right to strike terrorists beyond its borders.

"As for carrying out preventive strikes against terrorist bases . . . we will take all measures to liquidate terrorist bases in any region of the world," he told reporters.

Baluyevsky made his comments alongside NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. James Jones, after talks on Russia-NATO military co-operation, including anti-terror efforts.

European Union officials reacted cautiously to Baluyevsky's statements, with spokeswoman Emma Udwin saying she could not be sure whether they represented government policy. Udwin said the 25-member EU is against "extra-judicial killings" in form of pre-emptive strikes.

Ms Udwin's statement, we would argue, can be boiled down to: "Uh oh." The last thing the Euros want is for Russia to start acting up again. Yet they must also know there will be little they can do to stop Russia once it moves into action. The Chechen rebels, it would appear, realize this too:

Mr (Akhmed) Zakayev said: "I think these are probably not empty threats, in fact they have already shown in practice that that is the way they do things.

"It is a very disturbing signal they are sending for all civilised countries.

"There are lots of Chechens all over the world and of course they talk freely about how dissatisfied they are with Putin's policies.

"To Putin, that makes them international terrorists. It is a warning to other European countries that Russia may come and carry out an assassination on your soil at any moment."

Rebel envoy Zakayev's statement, we would argue, can be boiled down to: "Uh oh."

After all, the Chechen rebels have severely overplayed their hand. It was one thing when they were fighting for independence from Russia, and only attacking soldiers who had come to put down their rebellion. It was another entirely when they started blowing up apartment buildings and airliners. Now, they've killed hundreds of innocent people at a school. Those barbarous acts not only deprived them of any sympathy they may have once had in the outside world, they got everyone in Russia to sit up and take notice of this troublesome little war on the southern border. The Russians are now going to want very much to win it.

We must say, though, that we're amazed the Europeans misjudged their Russian friends so badly. So much for negotiation and the other useless tactics of which the Euros are so fond! On the other hand, perhaps it's not really a surprise. We note this event that happened in Paris recently:

PARIS, France (AP) -- Madonna drew massive applause from a sold-out crowd at Paris' Bercy stadium when she dedicated a cover version of John Lennon's peace ode "Imagine" to the Russian hostage crisis.

Addressing the audience midway through her Sunday-night show, Madonna spoke briefly about the hostage-taking at a school in the southern city of Beslan that left at least 330 dead. Officials have blamed the deadly attack on Chechens and other Islamic militants.

As video images of war and children were broadcast behind her on giant screens, the 46-year-old pop diva urged fans to think about what happened in Russia and about Lennon's lyrics.

We did our thinking. Imagine getting the bastards, getting the bastards, getting the bastards.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:04 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 27, 2004

America and Discontent

WE ARE GRATEFUL to Sasha Castel for bringing to our attention a particularly horrid little book which spreads gross mistruths about the United States and American culture. This vile little volume, entitled "Culture Shock! USA" contains enough distortions, half-truths and outright falsehoods to rival an edition of Pravda from the Thirties. We borrow from Ms Castel some of the more egregious examples:

From Page 86: "The American dinner has fallen under medical disapproval due to its high cholesterol content. The meal typically consists of a large piece of meat, ketchup, vegetables with butter, potatoes (fried or with butter), and a sweet dessert."

From Page 19: "The Puritans would not have smiled on the conspicuous consumption of today, but they would have admired the unrelenting effort that goes into the acquisition of goods. Americans have much greater admiration for businessmen than most other peoples do. An Englishman who has made enough money may well be happy to retire to his country home. The American only wants to go on making more money, driven as much by the Puritan work by the desire for more money."

From Page 24: "Expect also to find innumerable exceptions to any of my claims about Americans. Just as not every Japanese is hard-working and deferential to superiors, nor every Chinese devoted to family, not every American is ambitious, patriotic, money-grubbing or even unsophisticated."

This last one particularly annoyed us, as we have this thing against comparing the United States with Gomorrah.

Anyway, Ms Castel has noted many more examples, and she understandably writes that even a quick look at this book prompted her to become enraged. We are not amused either, although we note the publisher is based in Oregon, and we suspect that might have something to do with it. (Hey, if you had spent a weekend in Eugene on business, you'd feel the same way).

Now, we admit our first reaction upon reading these awful excerpts was a feeling that turnabout was fair play; but on reflection we felt such a reaction was patently unfair. After all, it would not be fair to blame the Europeans for a work that is entirely American. However, because we are concerned that Europeans might read this book and draw erroneous conclusions from it, we encourage Europeans to read plenty of U.S.-based blogs -- like, say, ours -- to get a full understanding of American life.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:47 PM | TrackBack

June 24, 2004

Bob's Her Uncle

WE WOULD SUBMIT, only somewhat in jest, that the above rationale could be a plausible explanation for how Ms Jackie Ashley managed to get a writing job with The Guardian.

Ms Ashley, you see, has written an amazingly daft essay in today's edition of that newspaper. She takes the plot summaries of a particular American television show, and projects them onto American foreign policy and how Americans view the world. As if this wasn't bad enough, Ms Ashley then has the gall to compare the United States to Britain when the latter nation was at the height of its power. The argument here was clear: we shall suffer the same fate as Old Blighty, and find ourselves with all the troubles that once faced Callaghan.

Now the television show Ms Ashley mentions is "24," which we understand is a popular thriller on the Fox television network. We do not watch it, but we learn from Ms Ashley's column that it focuses on counter-terrorism personnel in the employ of the American Government. Each episode appears to have thrills and chills in plenty, but the end result is the same: we win, and the America-hating Forces of International Terrorism lose. It is at this point when Ms Ashley's argument goes off the deep end:

This is close enough to the political fantasy underlying the "war on terror" to be worrying. Bush presents himself as a moral leader on a different plane from the "evil-doers" around the world, and plenty of Americans seem to buy it. The use of brilliant technology is constantly held up as a kind of magical answer to global threats - somehow "our" computers and hardware are clever enough to fend the dangers away.

Yet we know it's not true. We know that the wretched of the earth, angry with American arrogance and the brutalities of local US-supported rulers, cannot always be beaten at the last minute, by gun-toting agents or clever computer systems. In the latest episode, the villain (an English one - some things don't change) seems to be threatening to kill millions of Americans because he is appalled by US foreign policies around the world. I assume that in the end he will be found and killed, and the United States will be saved: to have a discussion about the politics of the demon poisoner is simply not on the agenda.

People will say, come on, it's just entertainment: Americans get their wider perspective in the real world, from newspapers and TV news and websites and even from books. But we know the power of popular culture, and the depth of US ignorance about the outside world; and that the vivid subliminal messages from a well-crafted popular drama can have more effect than hundreds of editorials. Perhaps it's pure escapism. Perhaps it makes those of a nervous disposition feel better. But the worry is that this is isolationist, fear-stoking drama which sits easily alongside Fox News, and the prejudiced rantings of the radio shock-jocks.

A century ago, a friendly critic of the British empire would have been entitled to look at its popular imperialist culture - the children's tales of English pluck, and the patriotic-sentimental poems, and the paranoid warnings about the Hun and the Musselman - and ask whether this was a sign of confidence or weakness. And a true observer would surely have said it showed a country too incurious about the rest of the world to keep its global domination. In the brilliantly written and crafted television fantasies of 24, we can see a parallel American ignorance which is just as important. Now just be quiet while I settle down to this week's episode ...

No, quite sorry, we shan't be quiet about this, Ms Ashley. You have thrown the gauntlet in our face, and as such we shall take you up on your impetuous challenge to America and its people. It is for your own good, really.

We would note, as a matter of course, that many Americans are divided on what the proper course of action against the Forces of International Terrorism ought to be. That said, we would also note -- as others have -- that one cannot seriously draw moral equivalency between the President of the United States and those involved with terror networks. It is a stupid and facile argument to make, as well as being insulting to both the office of the Presidency and the American nation.

Further, as many other reasonable people have pointed out, it is one thing not to like the President and not to like his decisions, and to have different ideas of how to solve certain problems; it is another thing entirely to say the Leader of the Free World is no different than The Men Who Flew Passenger Planes into Office Buildings. We would suggest, Ms Ashley, that you confine your argument to the former proposition, for making the latter case would lead one to think you are mad as a March hare.

But then, we do not know what to think about Ms Ashley's amazing suggestion that Americans would seriously discuss the politics of terrorists who were planning to unleash a genocidal attack upon America. It is so asinine that it beggars belief. We can only assume that Ms Ashley leads a charmed life, and as such feels safe from terror attacks and other assorted nastiness because she is Caring and Compassionate and Supports Registered Charities. We admit that may be a bit far-fetched, but we cannot come up with any other reasonable explanation for her bizarre reasoning in this regard.

Speaking of bizarre, we are similarly confounded that Ms Ashley is afraid of isolationism breaking out among the American people. We thought she and many other non-Americans would welcome such trends. On the other hand, if that did happen, the rest of the world would have no one to blame when it inevitably sunk into war and economic malaise. That would ruin Ms Ashley's world view something fierce, wouldn't it? Even worse than the knowledge that we, an American, regularly read newspapers from all over the English-speaking world, keep up with foreign affairs, and even have a collection of some 600 books in our two-bedroom apartment. (Most, by the by, are non-fiction).

But the true measure of Ms Ashley's idiocy is presented in her last paragraph, when she examines historical Britain and feebly attempts to draw parallels with modern America. Let's look at it again:

A century ago, a friendly critic of the British empire would have been entitled to look at its popular imperialist culture - the children's tales of English pluck, and the patriotic-sentimental poems, and the paranoid warnings about the Hun and the Musselman - and ask whether this was a sign of confidence or weakness. And a true observer would surely have said it showed a country too incurious about the rest of the world to keep its global domination.

We don't know about you, but if Britons were issuing warnings about the Hun in 1904, they were neither confident or weak -- they were prescient. After all, last time we checked, the Germans DID start two rather prominent conflicts, the first of which ended up killing 22m people and the second roughly 50m people. Out of those, more than one million died fighting for or living in Britain. Here's the list, Ms Ashley. It should make fascinating reading.

That said, we do not get Ms Ashley's point about the Moslems either. The average American can in fact easily distinguish between their fellow Americans living here like everyone else, and the very tiny percentage of Moslems based overseas who have vowed to destroy us. And if there are a lot of Americans who don't know as much as one might hope about the rest of the world, that really doesn't matter either. There are plenty of other Americans, Ms Ashley, who make a point of doing so.

(link via Emily Jones).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:47 PM | TrackBack

May 12, 2004


AS WE HAVE just had a nice evening nap and our merely-adequate dinner is cooking in the oven, we figured we'd use the free minutes to do a short bit of blogging. The over-riding issue, of course, remains our upcoming vacation plans.

We are not, we should note, speaking of our June 2004 travel plans, as we have already decided to spend a week tromping around the East Coast: seeing friends, family, and 2.8 trillion cicada bugs which will undoubtedly all cluster outside the hotels at which we stay.

Nor do we speak of our 2006 travel plans, which we have already decided will involve us tromping around the South, the Pacific Northwest and Canada on a rather long car jaunt. For with this latter trip, we are considering inviting a friend -- that would be Simon -- along. This way, the both of us can engage in a road-trip of epic proportions, and test the limits of human endurance for cabin fever. It will be quite a sight when one of us finally loses it out in the wilds near Flin Flon, Manitoba, and beats the other senseless with a tire iron.

No, the vacation of which we speak will likely be sooner, and likely be solo -- unless God favors us most greatly and provides us with great wealth and incredible charm and really nice teeth. Then it would be a trip for two people, if you get our meaning. However, as we fear this is as likely as a visit from St James' ghost in the dead of night, we shall plan for a vacation on our own terms. And so, we declare that in 2005, we are considering paying a visit to London.

However, we must say that we are only considering it at this point.

For we note with grave alarm that it now takes $1.77 to purchase 1 GBP, when by rights that figure should rest around $1.50. If this unfortunate and irrational state of affairs were to hold, we would arrive in Old Blighty only to find the English people would snicker at us in a most unseemly matter.

But they would do more than just snicker. They would mutter under their breaths at our outlandish accent, and laugh as we exchanged our newly-communised money with its foofy peach and blue hues. About all we could do in defense is tell people we were really in town to buy the Wolverhampton football club, and then things would really get out of hand.

We should also add that as an American, we are naturally "frugal," by which we mean cheap. We have been told by reliable sources that in Britain, things which would generally cost $1 in America cost GBP 1, which means we would be ripped off something fierce on a daily basis and have no one to whom to complain. Also, as an American, we place a big emphasis on "value," by which we mean we secretly exult in getting a deal where we clearly make out hand over fist. We are worried there will be few opportunities in Britain for this, as we know that on the other side of the Atlantic, everything is more expensive and smaller in scale to boot. If the dollar is strong, this will not be as grating; but if it is weak, it would be the financial and emotional equivalent of getting hit in the head with a crowbar each day.

So, clearly we can see that our visit will depend much upon the dollar regaining its rightful post as the World's Premiere Currency. However, while we think it likely that will happen, currency considerations are not our only worry.

For we also understand that London is not all that safe; we heard recently that its crime rate was six times that of New York. Of course, given how well things are going in New York, quick math tells us that would mean London's crime rate is roughly twice as bad as New York's was in the Seventies. This is a bit troubling. New York was, after all, rather disturbing back then, if the films of that decade are any indication. And besides, they had gas rationing.

Of course, modern Britain does not have gas rationing; petrol just costs something like GBP 5 per gallon -- except they use liters, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax but never mind. Anyway, the point is that we would not be able to afford driving; and if we drove nonetheless, we'd end up in one of those tiny little Euro cars with the three-cylinder engines. We could not do this as our friends back home might want to see photos of our trip, and we'd naturally have one of us at the driver's seat of a Ford Commune or VW Bundesbank, and we wouldn't be able to live it down for months. This is another disadvantage.

A further disadvantage, of course, is that we are American. We fear this would not go over well with some on the "British street," especially if they brought up the war and all. The last thing we would need is to get in long, drawn-out arguments about why America really is a great and wonderful place, because we've been told that's frowned upon overseas. Instead, we would be forced to grit our teeth and smile weakly as we were informed we were the Devil's servant.

This would not be fun at all. About all we could do is hope beyond hope that the person was really an American expatriate, for in such cases international law would allow us to deck him without consequence. We have no doubt that once we explained to the constables that we were a crazy cowboy Yank, merely settling a dispute with a compatriot in a traditional manner, they would have no problems with the arrangement.

In the end, though, we'll admit that such fears are generally silly. After all, the dollar will rise eventually, the Internet is great for value-shopping, and "the Tube" is an excellent transport system. Also, we are hopeful that traditional British politeness will prevent any Briton who would criticize our nation from doing so to our face.

But all these things mask our true fear about a potential trip to London.

London really seems like a nice place in all the books and articles that we have read, and all the movies which we have seen. It seems quite cosmopolitan, and very trendy, and there are oodles of learned and erudite people, and one would never run out of things to do. Also, it's seemingly open all night. We approve highly of all these things. So what if we were to end up falling in love with the place? What if we fell so hard for it that we ended up wanting to do something crazy, like move there for good?

Ah well. How did the movie put it? Hang on tightly, let go lightly.

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April 24, 2004

The Shattered Morning Calm

SHEILA O'MALLEY has written a nice post on the difference between media coverage of the Madrid train-bombings, and the explosion at a train station in North Korea. The difference she points out is this: in contrast to the news reports from Spain, when one razors down the tapes of all the news reports out of North Korea, all one really hears is silence.

"And yet the people of North Korea -- what of them?" Ms O'Malley asks.

We were very glad to see that she asked this question, as it seems to us that few people out there are.

For we must say we're amazed this train wreck has garnered so much attention from the press. It is, of course, a newsworthy event: at least 154 people were killed and 1,300 more were injured in the explosion at Ryongchon. But we truly fail to see why an industrial accident should garner such interest, given everything else that has happened in the Hermit Kingdom.

What, the two million dead of famine in the past few years aren't worthy of non-stop coverage? The hundreds of thousands languishing in prison camps aren't worthy of it? The prisoners subjected to chemical experiments and hideous tortures and systematic rape aren't worthy of it? The suppression of religion and the cannibalism and the millions of malnourished children aren't worthy of it? The drug trafficking and counterfeiting and arms dealing and other soft acts of aggression on the DPRK's part aren't worthy of it?

Apparently not.

Because reports do exist about how Koreans in the North live -- both from the Chinese traders who serve as North Korea's main commercial link with the outside world, and from the defectors who managed to get out of the place. It's just that people in the West don't know about them.

So, with that, we shall present a variety of information about the daily life of Koreans in the North. All the following sites are in English.

One can read defectors' testimonies here, from the ROK's National Intelligence Service; one can also get a weekly update on North Korean events there. For more information on human rights issues, and additional testimonies, one should read the Chosun Journal.

For foreigners' travelogues on North Korea, check out this Canadian academic's site. For basic news, Pyongyang Square is also a fine site, and the Asia Times does a nice job as well. We also recommend The Academy of Korean Studies' page.

There are two other sites which we think readers will find interesting.

The first is that of the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which offers its North Korea Report as events or news happens. (Interesting to note: in December 2002, they reported the North's railroads were in disarray).

Lastly, we would point readers to an instructive guide on the Korean language, as spoken in Pyongyang. It is one page long, but speaks volumes.

We do hope, if readers are interested in this subject, that they will take some time to look over the sites we've mentioned. For within their pages, one learns just what has become of the Korean people who live North of the 38th parallel.

And it will horrify you.

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March 20, 2004

Scotland Faces Cultural, Economic Ruin

WE WERE INCENSED TO LEARN recently that Scotland is defunding state university positions in classical-language teaching. Actually, we should say "position," as The Scotsman reports the post being axed was the last one in the entire country dedicated to instructing others how to teach Latin and Greek. This has naturally infuriated academics, who rightly note the connections between the old languages and their modern uses in art, science, and so on.

As if that wasn't bad enough, we note that the Scottish Executive's scheme to get more working-class students into university is failing miserably.

Not that the kids could fall back on a meaningful secondary education anyway. Think back, now: do you recall "The Silver Chair," the fourth Narnia book by C.S. Lewis, in which he describes the horrible post-modern school which Jill and Scrubb attend? Well, apparently every school is Scotland is going to end up just like it, if this article is any guide. It seems that Scottish teachers associate the Protestant and Roman Catholic brands of Christianity as bigoted and out-of-touch with the kids, so out they'll go.

Of course, no matter if the kids merely complete secondary school or go on to university, they're going to have a bleak time of it out in the real world. It seems the United Kingdom's Government is destroying savings incentives and other programs designed to help folks get ahead in life.

Ugh. It's just so appalling to us, and it would be even if we weren't part-Scots.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:31 PM | TrackBack

March 13, 2004

The World's Problems (Condensed)

WE WERE TALKING with Andrew Dodge some time ago, when he mentioned we ought to do as his site had done, and take a look at the world's five greatest problems. We were quite enthusiastic about this endeavor, and would have written about it post-haste if we hadn't had our bout with sinus troubles. Constantly feeling as if one has been hit in the head with a large polo mallet is not, sadly, conducive to the creative process.

In any event, we gave Mr Dodge's proposal much thought, and after some time decided that we ought to try our hand at it. So here goes: our listing of the five great problems in the world.

1. Lack of the Rule of Law

This may seem an unusual Item No. 1., but as we see it, much of the world's problems have this as their root cause. Furthermore, we would say that if this problem was fully resolved around the world, a great many of the issues most of humanity experiences today -- poverty, corruption, forced migration, etc., -- would be notably reduced.

There are a great many reasons why the lack of the rule of law is so widespread. There is political instability, of course, which does not lend itself to a functioning legal system. On the other extreme, you have dictatorial Governments which for all intents and purposes rule by fiat. But much of the world lies somewhere in the middle: there is a recognized legal system, but it is so badly-administered, burdensome and corrupt that people find it far easier or just necessary to work outside it.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has done the lion's share of the labor on this boring but amazingly important issue (see his "The Mystery of Capital" for much more on it).

The issue here is simple, and Mr de Soto does a masterful job of explaining it: illegal capital is not, to use one of our favorite words, fungible. That is, it can't be converted to other uses or purposes. Legal capital, on the other hand, can be. For instance, here in the United States, because a homeowner can prove his ownership via title, his home becomes fungible: he can get a home-equity line of credit, "cash out" equity if his home significantly appreciates in value, and so on. This does wonders for economic growth. But as Mr de Soto points out, so many people in this world go outside the legal route to buy homes, run businesses, and so on, that their capital is -- as he put it -- "dead."

The end result: trillions upon trillions of dollars worth of wealth exists in the Third World, and no one can get to it. Fix this problem, and we might just find that many other problems get fixed along with it.

2. Lack of Political Stability

This is related to the above, but it’s generally a fair statement to say that in the absence of political stability, there is precious little economic stability to go along with it. An absence of economic stability leads to misery and general unpleasantness – and if that wasn’t bad enough, has the potential to cause political instability to both neighboring nations and other places in the world.

3. Slavery

How many slaves exist today? We have seen estimates ranging from 27 million on the conservative end to 200 million on the liberal; and it is perhaps reasonable to say the reality in somewhere in the middle.

It takes many forms, of course, and outright slavery -- the actual buying and selling of persons -- is generally done only in secret. But there is also debt slavery and white slavery (that is, forced prostitution) and child slavery; and the fact this barbaric practice continues in this day and age is horrible. Since many of the nations where this takes place cannot or will not address the issue, we are hopeful our Government will -- and very strenuously.

4. Lack of Personal Freedom

The big five -- freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion and the right to petition the Government -- are sadly lacking in one way or another in most nations. We consider America the most free nation on Earth, and we very much hope other societies will follow our lead in this regard.

5. Lack of Migratory Freedom

We'll be honest -- we see no reason why any person on Earth, if said person is not happy with the way things are going in his country of residence, should not feel free to quit and go elsewhere; provided the elsewhere in question doesn't have a problem with it. Also, it would behoove nations to not tax their citizens up the wazoo if they decide to emigrate, and then keep taxing them after they've left. We don't know who came up with that particular idea -- well, actually, we do -- but we must say that it is awfully unfair.

However, with that said, we should stress that everyone everywhere ought always pay all the taxes they owe -- it's the right thing to do, first; and second, it is a very, very, very bad idea to annoy Governments with unlimited resources at their command. Don't give us that Kentucky forgot to sign the Sixteenth Amendment crap either. Just pay. Yes, we know from experience that paying self-employment tax is about as much fun as getting one's finger caught in a car door. Just pay. It will save you headaches down the line. This has been a public service announcement from Benjamin Kepple's Daily Rant.


GIVEN THE EVENTS in Madrid this week -- to say nothing of the past three years -- we realize many readers may wonder why we have not included terrorism on the Top Five list above. Our thinking on that is as follows.

At the core of it, terrorism is only successful if a) it is sustained, b) it in itself results in bringing about the key objectives its practitioners wish to achieve and c) it brings about significant damage to the political or economic stability of a nation. On all counts, al-Qaeda and their ilk have failed miserably. As for Madrid, we can say that whomever was behind the Madrid blasts has incurred the wrath and enmity of hundreds of millions of people -- people who want nothing more than to tear those responsible to pieces. As such, while those terrorists may have killed 200 people, they have themselves put an end to their movement's ambitions, goals, and lives. If ETA was behind it, they're finished; and if al-Qaeda was behind it, it's well on its way to being finished.

That does not mean that constant vigilance against terrorism is not required. Because certain forms of terrorism could result in items A and C above, it is incumbent upon Governments to protect against it. And the human toll which a catastrophic attack brings is, of course, more than reason enough to guard against terrorist acts ever happening again.

However, because the Governments of the West have realized over the past three years that terrorism is something with which they ought to be very much concerned, we do not believe that terrorism will prove all that successful in future. If those who practice such barbarism have not yet got the message they will suffer the ultimate reprisal for their actions, they will get it -- in the form of a bullet.

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March 11, 2004


WE RECALL THAT on the Saturday following the Sept. 11 attacks, we received an Instant Message from a woman in Australia, completely out of the blue. We talked perhaps for 45 minutes, but the gist of that conversation can be summed up as follows: the Australian expressed her sorrow and her support for Americans, and we thanked her accordingly.

This meant a lot to us at the time, as we were not exactly in a charitable mood, and we very much appreciated it later when the Australian Government stood by us in our continuing war against terror. Another of our allies in that fight, of course, was the Spanish Government.

Today, 192 Spaniards are dead and over 1,200 of them wounded after a terror attack against train commuters during the morning rush hour. We do not have the words to say how sincerely sorry we are that Spain is suffering a horror close to what America as a nation suffered two-and-a-half years ago. But we can say that we will stand with Spain during this most horrible of times, and we sincerely hope that those responsible for this inhuman, barbaric act will soon be brought to justice -- in either this world or the next.

(For further updates on the attack, visit The Command Post.)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:26 PM | TrackBack

March 01, 2004

It is Spring! Be Very, Very Cautious

IT WAS FIFTY-SOME DEGREES here in Manchester today; and as we walked out of work, the weather was actually palatable to the point where we and another colleague could actually have a conversation. How wonderful it was after all these wretched months of ice and snow and cold! Yet we also have this sense of foreboding about it ... a sort of wariness, if you will.

We have not seen any geese flying north for the year yet, but we are hopeful that they will soon pass our way; if in fact any do fly over New Hampshire on their journey. It has been a long time since we actually looked up at the sky to check. In any event, Sheila O'Malley has sighted them, however; and she has a nice reflection on that.

This reminiscence has generated a great deal of conversation on her site, and one aspect to that conversation is how the coming of spring-time makes one feel connected to one's ancestors. This naturally led us to thinking, and we realized that our ancestors probably had very ... cautious ... ways of thinking about the coming of spring-time. We offer the following dramatizations as examples:

ALSATIAN NEIGHBOR: The priest says this is the first day of spring.
JOHANNES KOEPPEL: Oh, swell! Spring! Tell you what: you start preparing the shot and the flintlocks, and I'll go round up the townspeople.
NEIGHBOR: You're getting excitable again.
KOEPPEL: I'm not excited, I'm getting prepared. Who do you think it will be this year? The French or the Germans?
NEIGHBOR: I'm sorry?
KOEPPEL: Look, I just rebuilt the barn we spent six weeks raising a few years back! I'm sick of this! Why can't they ... I don't know ... go fight in Flanders or something?
NEIGHBOR: Oh, come off it. It's what, 1642? This war's going to end sometime soon. Besides, we're miles from anywhere ...
KOEPPEL: You just don't get it, do you?

(three decades later ...)

HANS PETER KOEPPEL: Oh! It's spring!
JOHANNES: Great. Son, I run an inn. Now that it's getting warmer, the villagers of Dehlingen won't come here to warm up and buy our high-quality beer and other spirits. They'll get blitzed at home -- that neighbor of yours has a still, I just know it! And what if they start causing trouble and spreading slanderous lies and rumors?
HANS: What! How could such things happen in this year of Our Lord 1673? It's going to be a great year.
JOHANNES: Yeah, well, even still, I've got a bad feeling about this. The way things are going, there's going to be trouble. I have a feeling I'm not going to exactly like 1674, let's just put it that way.

Thankfully, a few years later, our ancestor Johannes Andreas Koeppel was able to make his way to America -- and knowing modern European history as we do, we are truly grateful that he made that decision two-and-a-half centuries ago. Still, we think these dramatizations explain much about how, subconsciously, we view the coming of spring. For while we are glad when it arrives, we are also imbued with an instinctive caution -- which reminds us everything can all go to hell in a moment's time.

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January 20, 2004

Ofcom? Ofgem? JeCr!

IT IS FITTING that the above was inspired by one of Anthony Burgess' drier-than-dry quips, as it sums up a serious problem in modern British society. Namely, we speak of the UK's horrid yet trendy practice of giving Government agencies awful names. Not merely bad names, you understand, but names one would expect to hear escape the lips of Comrades Smith and O'Brien.

As an American, we find this disturbing.

We're sorry, but Government agencies ought not be named things like Ofcom. It's not just that it rings too much like Minipax or Miniluv, although that's a serious flaw. It's that a name should spell out what exactly the agency does.

Now, that's not to say we don't appreciate regional differences among the English speaking peoples. However, the United States and Canada do a much better job in this regard.

Here in America, our "alphabet soup" system is easy to master. Everyone still uses the long form in official correspondence, but in everyday conversation, the short form suffices handily. In cases where the alphabet soup system doesn't apply, the long form actually describes what the agency does. It's a simple and pleasant concept, and works very well.

Canada, meanwhile, often takes a simple descriptive (i.e. Health, Citizenship and Immigration, Western Economic Diversification, etc.) and sticks the word "Canada" after it. This denotes that one is dealing with the Canadian federal Government, and especially not with the bloody Americans. But like our standard, everyone gets it.

One cannot say this for the present British scheme.

Consider that the learned Mr Mark Steyn, writing recently in The Telegraph, said that he had never heard of Ofcom. As Mr Steyn is a noted commentator on British politics, we offer this as prima facie evidence that the naming scheme is an utter failure. Indeed, it was only with much work that we ourselves found that Ofcom is the recently-created, kinda-sorta successor agency to something called Oftel. And we don't even want to discuss Ofgem. Mr Steyn seems similarly unimpressed, as he makes a foreboding reference to the potential formation of something called OfOf.

We are confident the British will never let it come to that. However, we would suggest that they rename Ofcom the "Office of Communications," instead of having the latter in four-point type below the former's giant logo. They could also call it the Communications Regulatory Authority, or another easily-understandable name. Otherwise, they might find queries for these people end up with these people, and that would prove a total mess.


NOTICE: We would like to apologize to our readers for posting an entry on the naming systems of foreign Government agencies. This type of minutiae must prove exceedingly boring. However, Mr Kepple has final authority on content, and he insisted.


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January 10, 2004

Oh, That's Just Swell.

You're the United Nations!
Most people think you're ineffective, but you are trying to completely save the world from itself, so there's always going to be a long way to go.  You're always the one trying to get friends to talk to each other, enemies to talk to each other, anyone who can to just talk instead of beating each other about the head and torso.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and you get very schizophrenic as a result.  But your heart is in the right place, and sometimes also in New York.

Take the Country Quiz at the Blue Pyramid

THE AUTHOR of this quiz writes: "Just for the record, I really hope no one gets offended by any of this. At times, I try to add some humor into the world of countries, and if I'm not amusing to you, just know I wasn't trying to offend anyone. I just think history and humans are funny sometimes, and the joke is usually on leaders, not peoples."

Well, we are offended! Gad! :-D

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December 23, 2003

What IS It About Europe?

FIRST THE HEAT KILLS 15,000 people in France, primarily because no one could be bothered to keep an eye on them. Now, the cold kills 2,500 people in Britain.

Neither of these things are understandable, at least not to us. Twenty-five hundred people? Good Lord. Here in the United States, a good heat wave will kill a few hundred people at most, and we can't remember the last time cold killed anyone, unless they were lost out in a storm.

So what IS it about things on the other side of the Atlantic? Explanations and comments are welcome -- 'cause we just don't get this one bit.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:23 PM | TrackBack

December 02, 2003

On a Serious Note About Europe ...

WE WERE VERY PLEASED to see that the European Jewish Congress published a report on anti-Semitism on the Continent, which EU officials scrapped for political reasons. Now we will all be able to see how the scourge of anti-Semitism has worsened there as of late.

We would also note our extreme displeasure with how European officials handled the whole matter. It is amazing to think they may have truly learned nothing from the Continent's history.

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