Nothing to Worry About

Some people seem to be a bit gloomy. COVID-19. Crazy US President. BREXIT. Populism. California on fire.

But really. Let’s put it all in perspective. World War 1 and the Bubonic Plague were worse. And let’s face it, WW1 did result in good poetry, for a bit. And Bubonic Plague helped to increase wages of the peasantry and ultimately led to their general freedom from serfdom. Now they’re mostly wage slaves, for the moment anyway- until we get proper AI and brain implants. (Thanks Elon)

As Brian and friends sang- Look on the Bright Side of Life.

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Budget Car Rental- FALSE ADVERTISING

In Day 2 of the saga, we continue to check out the hypothesis that Budget Car Rental customer service is crap.

My wife called the local office this morning. Yes, the local office is a franchisee. Yes, they did put the wrong contract in the car. No they won’t fix anything other than send the actual contract by email to the driver now in Colorado. No they can’t switch the car for an SUV. It must be driven back to original location.

What a shame our actual SUV is at home with the busted driver side window!

Lesson Learned. If you are booking Budget on line- don’t expect the car that you actually ordered to be there. If it isn’t, kick up a stink until they get you the right car.

Be prepared to wait. Complain to Better Business Bureau.

Conclusion: Budget are falsely advertizing on the internet and allowing you to book, disburse real money and then it is a throw of the dice as to what actually happens when you turn up to get the car. Maybe consider alternatives to Budget. I know we will be avoiding them from now on.

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Budget Car Rental=Crap Service- do you agree?

My son just turned 30 and he decided to take a vacation in Colorado with his girlfriend.

Here in Kansas City, his car began emitting white smoke. His girl friend’s SUV had a driver side window that just broke. Dang the luck!

But never fear- this is America and we have car rental companies, not to mention parents with credit cards, and with a pre-existing good experience of rentals.

Mom and Dad stepped in to be helpful- “Hey- we’ll rent a car for you!”

My son’s first reaction was noble. “No dad, we don’t need a handout…”

Undiminished in our parental spirit, my wife found a car on Budget and booked a small SUV for them to pick up today at 8:30am.

Google and the internet are truly wonderful.

And that’s where it began to go wrong.

They turned up, as specified on the dot. But the person administering the local Budget office didn’t arrive until 9am. (it says they’re open from 7:30am on the phone message)

Next, they didn’t have the SUV. Alternatives were offered. Feeling time pressure to get on the road, they accepted a Sedan as opposed to the MiniVan on the lot- based on their assessment of MPG.

As my son and his girl friend drove, they realized that they really would need an SUV. It turns out that the sedan is even low for a regular car. Perhaps it would be sensible to go to another Budget and make the switch to their original choice. Calling home for advice and help, mom and dad dutifully took up the cause to call the Budget help lines to facilitate the switch, while the blissful couple drove through patchy cell phone coverage into eastern Colorado.

Mom discovered that they needed various contract and reference numbers from the paperwork in the car. That was the first call to customer service. On the second call, the person recognized the numbers but they said the car was in someone else’s name. This made no sense to us.

We actually made three further calls and got cut off (or were we deliberately dropped?)

Dad drove to the local office to ask the admin there. She was locking the door at 6pm and said to call the manager the next day. The administrator also said that national customer service would not be able to help, which made no sense to dad. And the lady said that they had been offered three cars and the couple “had put up no resistance”. If they had wanted to wait, they could have got an SUV for them. (The young couple and mom say that they were never offered the options to wait and were only offered two cars. Plus, how would they know that they could have “resisted” and that this would have led to the provision of the correct vehicle?)

But once they were driving, they realized that the sedan was extra low in terms of ground clearance. It would absolutely not be practical and likely unsafe in the mountains.

Budget is an internationally recognized brand. So it came as a huge surprise that when we called customer service there were four occasions when our line to the help desk dropped (I know I already mentioned this- yes we are angry). It was an even greater surprise when the son took a photo of the agreement in the car and we discovered that it was not for him but someone else with a different date. No wonder none of the customer service people quite understood what we were asking for.

Anyway, mom and dad, as persevering detectives on a mission, now had the information to call Budget again to let them know that the car their son was driving didn’t have an agreement, wasn’t in his name and of course to ask for corrective action. You’d think customer service might be able to get on that. After all, they’d surely have his credit card and driver license information, wouldn’t they? Think again. No, the local budget office is a franchisee and for some unknown reason, national customer service can’t help.

Not sure how this ends yet. The young vacationers are camping tonight in Colorado to the east of Denver. Mom will go into the local office tomorrow for 8:30am opening time in an attempt to figure it all out. This is America, land of the consumer. We can Make America Great again.

I’ll update the story tomorrow.

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Creationists and Blinding Light

Leading a sheltered life in the south of England, I had never been exposed to Evangelicals, especially the creationist type, until I went to University in London.
St Johns

I had happily consumed the general approach of the Church of England and had been confirmed; but I knew that I had doubts. As a typical lily-livered conformist, I also appreciated that this should not be revealed and generally assumed that there was much play-acting.

It seemed to me that if God exists, He or She or It, wouldn’t have misled more than half the world’s population and blessed a minority with the exclusive channel to Valhalla or whatever. Luckily I had been born in England. The hymns were good.
My father was a thoughtful blue collar intellectual. Agnostic, he had pledged not to even suggest to his children any hint of his skepticism out of respect for his wife and her family. But he did unwittingly help blow up the calm world view by working in Israel.
Israel is, of course, the confluence of three massive monotheistic religions joined especially in Jerusalem. I had read all about the brave Zionists who founded the land and pioneered new farming techniques. They had also trod new ground with kibbutzim and a parliamentary democracy. They had survived extraordinary challenges in several wars of recent memory and had strong moral force as survivors of the Hollocaust.

On the other hand, I had positive views of the Arabs, noble and strong, leaders in guerrilla war against the Turks with Lawrence. It was obvious that they were the cousins to the Jewish people. All parties had been betrayed by the English of course.

The Holy Land was a bit different when we visited. The trip to Tel Aviv demanded, even in 1976, extraordinary security. There had been a rash of Palestinians who liked to blow up and capture airplanes, especially those with lots of Israelites on board.

We arrived three hours early for the Shin Bet secret police to grill us. Much more to tell, but the key was that as children we were able to observe the reality on the ground of people with extraordinarily different religious and political views cheek by jowl and in particular within the Christian community, competing for dominance.
Much of my awakening, I suppose, can also be laid at the door of the church and temple builders in my home village- Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical Free Church, Catholic, Jehovah Witness. Each thereby chipping away so modestly at the fallacy of exclusivity.

Not to mention the arrival of new people into the City with Seikh, Hindu, and Moslem faiths.
My initial interpretation of all these phenomena-  I decided that I was simply a doubting Thomas, by nature, and maybe that’s a good thing.  In fact, I was a pluralist before I knew of such a concept.
But I had never actually come across a creationist.  In my petty Anglo centric world, I thought they would only be found in America, most likely in southern rural areas. Much to my surprise, I encountered my first real life example when I went to college and discovered that my first room mate, Jeremy, was indeed a creationist. It was amazing.

He seemed to be a sentient educated being, but with this unshakeable glowing faith. He read the bible every night with a Matthews Commentary at its side. I didn’t fight back. In fact, I brought my school hymn book from home to put by my side, just to hint that I might actually be religious. Well, I couldn’t rule it out. Indeed, the pure logic of Pascal’s wager, which I also shortly discovered in my academic labors is hugely persuasive. And yet…
As with many of my judgements, I am often proved wrong. There were no more encounters with creationists until I moved to America. It was in the belt buckle of the bible belt (St Louis) that I realized I was in a serious minority. Everyone was assumed to go to some kind of church. Even the non-believers had a church called the Ethical Society.

We instructed our son, when asked to say “Anglican” as religion, hoping that this would confuse and keep back the marketing recruitment drives that flowed our way. However, at Catholic High School, they knew what it was and wanted to introduce us to a priest of said denomination. Jeepers.
On top of that, I moved jobs to a very exciting technology start up and found that the main technology driver, a super smart scientific man of utmost integrity, was also a creationist. Very strange. I just can’t work it out. Maybe I never will, until I am blinded by that flash of light, and that might be too late.

 

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The Health of America

As an American with an English accent my American friends often wonder or even chide me about socialist Britain, which they often find quite shocking or puzzling or some combination thereof.  Healthcare is often at  the very center of this debate and I have tried to explain many times.

It seems to me that it is high time that I put pen to paper to explain a few things that are not immediately apparent or easily described in chance conversations to upstanding US citizens.

Health is easy to measure.   The CIA World Factbook ranks countries by life expectancy. In the UK it is 80.8. In the United States 80.  Infant mortality per thousand is another measure. In the UK 4.3.  In the US 5.8.  Not identical, but within range.

The OECD also has a fine set of measures that delve into the next level of questions.  How do you pay and fund healthcare.

Ranking Country % funded by government
1 Norway 85.2
2 Germany 84.6
13 UK 79.2
34 US 49.1
Source OECD

It turns out the the UK is not the only “socialist” country and the US actually funds nearly half of healthcare.

So what about spending per capita? (And this is where it gets very interesting)

https://data.oecd.org/chart/52Rs

The United States spends massively more per head than any other country for similar or worse outcomes.  It seems that the most likely explanation is that it has decided not to embrace a greater level of socialized medicine.  Fortunately the overall wealth of America means that this can continue for the time being but I daresay that at some point the urge to become truly competitive with the rest of the world or populist desire for greater equality might change the equation.

 

 

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Welcome to America- the Glenn Beck Immigrant Experience in Kansas

Today was a fantastic day.  My lovely wife Pascale finally submitted to the American dream by taking the Oath of Allegiance.  For a strong- minded independent, it was a big step after twenty years of being here. It wasn’t absolutely necessary; but I was sick and tired of her telling me how to vote!  There were several other good reasons of course.  Perhaps she can opine elsewhere on her motives.  In any case, to properly participate in a democracy as a citizen, one has to take the complete plunge. Thanks to America for providing the opportunity.

However, the baptismal experience itself was a mixed blessing, to say the least. I don’t think Pascale will write all this down, but I feel compelled to exercise my right to free speech “tout de suite”.  In addition, I believe that if I write this down now, it will cause laughter somewhat later down the road, when the memory is blurred, but the psychological scar remains. And most of all, this public bleat may cause other would-be citizens to be better prepared.

The process really begins when you complete a form, in this case many moons ago. Eventually you are asked for an interview.  The supplicant takes a rather pathetic test on the US Constitution and history.  The curriculum is a classic nation-building diatribe, diced with a contemporary dose of political correctness- pas de problème- for a well educated Frog, née Pascale.

Eventually a letter arrives from the bowels of the US Federal bureaucracy to invite Pascale (or maybe you) to a ceremony at a US federal courthouse.  In this case, it simply stated that the applicant should arrive at the courthouse at 9am.  There is a list of various bits of paper to bring and several comical questions to answer on the attached form.  Had Pascale been a prostitute since taking the test?  Is she in a communist organization?  Is she a drug dealer etc…? I would imagine that any self-respecting drug dealers or brothel-keepers are honest when asked, especially by the US government.

Bob Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas

Bob Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kansas

We parked the car, full of expectation in a parking lot close to the Bob Dole federal court house. It was easy to see that several clusters of foreigners were circling around the US government megalith seeking the entrance. Having read “The Wisdom of Crowds” I knew that we should follow the majority of the gathering herd. A friendly US government policeman announced that we couldn’t bring cell phones into the building.  How helpful and pleasant he was, saving us from a lengthy back and forth walk in the summer humidity.  The shuttle was short for me. Pascale entered on her own while I did my manly duty as carrier of our smart phones and photographic devices. ( I really don’t know why we can’t take them in.  I have been to visit other Federal buildings most recently -100 F Street- and was left in full possession.)

Next we entered the edifice through the usual metal detector security in a motley line of Indians, Nepalis, Malays, Bulgarians and so forth. Ultimately corralled into room 180, the holding pen normally set aside for the jury, the families and turncoats gathered, some in their Sunday best. I gave up my comfy chair for a mother with babe-in-arms.  A pregnant woman was eventually made way for by another seated fellow after her mother declared, ‘pregnant woman’, with exactly the right guilt-making tone.

At this juncture, the room filled with perhaps two hundred and fifty people, no one knew what would happen next. I suppose that if you were a Vietnamese boat person, this would all be normal. Standing against a wall, I chatted to a pleasant Mexican woman who had given birth three days before.  We both hoped that we would be done in forty five minutes.  We both knew that the bureaucracy moves in mysterious ways, as Kafka has pointed out.  I didn’t raise the Kafka concept, since she was already anxious.

At about ten minutes past the hour, a man in a blazer started making announcements. Apparently they were going to deal with the ninety five nearly-Americans fifteen at a time. The families would stay in the jury room, though they would be able to visit the cafeteria. It would take at least an hour before the ceremony, which they would be allowed to witness.  Sometimes his instructions were mangled by the cries of infants, but we got the drift.

Kissing Pascale, I made my escape, chatting to the friendly policeman on the way out.  He had visited Edinburgh when he was a sailor.  “Lovely”, said I, as I hastened to get my book.  The book, “Mrs Hemingway” was actually at home. However, it was essential that I finish it and keep myself occupied lest I do a Timothy McVeigh or some such.

The drive home was punctuated by one red light that I accidentally ran. The return with the Economist and Naomi Wood novel was accomplished without such obvious rule-breaking, except perhaps a slight misunderstanding regarding speed limits.  It is amazing what you can accomplish in a 2004 Dodge Neon.

On return, when I looked in at the throng in room 180, every seat was taken, so I wandered about. Serendipity took me to an elevator and the nice white middle class people pressed the button for the top floor- number six.

It was a pleasant and inviting floor with a fresco describing the history of Kansas.  But I was drawn around the corner to an open door that just happened to be the Federal court room where the proceedings, the very highlight of the day, were due to unfold. I strode into the room, making eye contact with official looking people and was lead by instinct and their micro body language signals to a soft chair in the front row of the observer corps congregation.

In just a few minutes, the new communicants strode in to take their assigned seats under the sacred dome. Next the families came in and some unknown privileged people took their place in the jury space, a raised podium to the side, much like a secular choir stall.

After much shuffling about, a female mâitre’d took several of the proto-citizens through their routine. The young latina official would call a name and the congregant would rise and declare the nation from which they hailed. After a dozen had been put through their paces it was decided that everyone understood the routine. Brilliant.

It is worth noting that a group of old men and a boy also came in to sit in the choir stall.  They wore tricorn hats and heavy blue regalia in tribute to the rebel army of the 1770s. They were clearly self-satisfied with their blue coat dress-up role. I was imagining that I could take them all on as the last remaining red coat, but dismissed such fantasy when we rose for Judge David J. Waxse.

Bearded, paunchy, dark voiced and wise, Waxse started on a serious note and gradually worked up to jollity, especially when he got the order of the proceedings screwed up. Unfortunately I didn’t have my smart phone or otherwise I would have recorded the discourse.  They read out the names of the nominees and managed to garble all but the latins and anglo saxon names.  How could one pronounce Pascale Branka Simunich as Pocsalll Brink Simonovitch? (You had to be there to believe it).  But now I knew why recording devices were banned.

The service continued with some singing, pledging, oath taking, marching of the old men in procession with flag and musket and extraordinary speech making by a man who one would imagine was lampooning the classical world-ignorant American, except that he was not.  He is the genuine article.  Scott Kaufmann, a friend of one of the judges for twenty years, advertisement for America, cheered us all up by referencing money, the stock market, freedom of speech, right to carry weapons and so on.  Jollying the doctors, analysts, homemakers, retail associates and scientists along, he was kind enough to use crude hand-written white cards to make points about why America was so great. He wasn’t very good at statistics either.

Kaufmann illustrated at length that the rest of the world is crap. He didn’t use the word “crap” but he openly cited Glenn Beck as his source as to why America is great, so it was as good as. In following this partisan road, he managed to point out that Cuba was awful on account of their poor pay ($20 per week) and that the French only give 1000th of the money to charity that Americans do. Several other countries were dissed but the country that donated the statue of Liberty, that warned their friends not to go into Iraq, that sent a fleet to tip the balance in the Revolutionary War and so on was slighted the most- probably don’t get many French in the US immigration queue. What a welcome for Pascale.

What did the Canadians, New Zealanders think, now freshly minted? Hmmmm. I just don’t know.  Hopefully they loved the old Gipper since Scott Kaufmann cited Ronald Reagan three times in his biased blarney and continued with his self-serving conceited drivel.

Scott Kaufmann, we will never forget. Scott Kaufmann, we will never use your financial advisory firm; and the audience will likely never vote in your preferred direction.  Dear oh dear, how unfortunate. You also knocked our faith in the judge.  Did Waxse know that you are such an arse?  Let’s hope not.

But at the end of the day, Mr Kaufmann, you did make it a memorable occasion! God Bless America.  Congratulations Pascale!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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St Louis has lost US Soccer Mojo to Kansas City. How did that happen?

Now that I live in Kansas City I can see things more clearly (I lived in St Louis 1994-2013). Here are some observations.

St Louis is a proud town, very proud of its role in the game of soccer. It doesn’t take long for any St Louis soccer afficionado, after catching my accent, to let me know that the USA beat England in 1950.  Most of that amazing team was composed of St Louis amateurs.  It was indeed a massive achievement.  Most of the newspapers in England assumed that the 1-0 scoreline was an error. At that time St Louis had USA’s soccer mojo.  This was reflected in St Louis University’s complete dominance of the NCAA through the 1950s until early 1970s.  Their 10 national championships is still a record. But then something happened. St Louis lost its soccer mojo.

Last night I watched the recently revived professional indoor team- the St Louis Ambush.  It raised my hopes that St Louis is back. But my heart was crushed as they lost heavily versus the Missouri, formerly Kansas City, Comets.

It was great to see familiar faces on the St Louis team.  Korey Dowell who played on my national championship youth futsal team of 2004-2005 scored a goal with his first touch. Jeff DiMaria, who helped me prepare the same team for our trip to California is now the Ambush captain and assistant coach. Brandon Manzonelli who used to join us in pick-up games at the St Louis Soccerdome also starred.  Finally they had the tremendous experience of Daryl Doran who is now the head coach. So how did they lose so heavily (26-2)?The sad truth is that St Louis has not shown any constancy toward supporting the beautiful game. Supporters have been fickle. When the teams have won, people generally turned out, but not if it interfered with other activities. As a result, owners and potential owners of professional soccer teams representing St Louis have frequently been burned.  And when the team has struggled, the “fans” have abandoned ship faster than … well I could say something rude.  The original Ambush lasted from 1992 -2000. Sadly, although they won the NPSL national championship in 1995 they folded just five years later because of poor economics. Let’s hope this incarnation keeps going.

As a result of the fickleness of the whole town toward soccer, the current team has difficulty in getting more premium players interested. And it is not that there aren’t premium players around or strong journeymen who can form a back bone.

I perused the Comets lineup. Born – Jamaica, Canada, Serbia, Trinidad, Serbia, Mexico, Liberia, Costa Rica, Argentina.  Where is the immigrant community in the St Louis team?  St Louis is famous for its soccer-mad Bosnians! But I read only one name on the team sheet, and he is injured- Elvir Kafedzic. And yes, there are Latinos, Caribbeans, Africans in St Louis- but they are not on this team.

As to the American born players on the Kansas City roster, I noted that the very able keeper Danny Waltham and telented midfielder John Sosa play for the US national futsal team and that triggers another thought- Kansas City is way ahead in futsal.  There is a futsal scene in St Louis, thanks especially to the unsung efforts of John Sciore, but it is no where near as vigorous as the Kansas City league. In fact, my St Louis youth futsal team won the Midwest Championship in Kansas City in 2004 as u14s and the national championship in 2005.

Image

We were reaching for mojo and briefly held it as you can see! But the national youth futsal championship is held in Kansas City every year because futsal is so strong here.  More youth soccer coaches in St Louis need to commit their teams to play futsal.  It will play dividends down the road. Kansas City proves it.

When you have a truly fabulous fan base for soccer at the grass roots level and supporting the professional teams, good things happen. In KC the fans kept the flame burning through thick and thin.  The MLS franchise team, Kansas City Wizards started in 1995 playing in the cavernous Arrowhead stadium, then they moved 40 miles to a small baseball stadium for a couple of years.  And now they have a state-of-the art soccer stadium with committed ownership which is sold out every match.  The fans followed through all this time. In fact, the renamed Wizards- Sporting Kansas City- won the MLS this year.  The stadium also hosted the MLS All-Star game in 2013. Notably the US National team chooses to play in Kansas City because of the terrific support.  It helps that home-grown hero Matt Besler in the line-up, but that just backs up my previous point about development of youth players.  There are no St Louis players in the squad these days.

By the way, the games I have attended here are a fabulous exhibition of patriotic chest-beating and passion filled soccer. The atmosphere is electric. Kansas City has clearly got the USA’s soccer mojo right now.  Can St Louis ever get it back? Image

26-2.  The Comets force home the point in Independence Missouri, 24 January 2014, that St Louis has truly lost its soccer mojo. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Blues

The Blues

Icy. Empty. No point. No points. Why? Who knows. Now I know why people like it when the Enforcer arrives. It took me a while.

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Hitchens- a soul mate

Pascale most cleverly bought me a splendid collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens- Arguably.

The essays are quite brilliant and mostly agreeable from my point of view. Hitchens is well informed and puts my own literary knowledge to shame. Still I can mostly follow him and his reasoning.

What a tragedy that he smoked so much that he died of cancer at age 62.  Bloody irritating really. 

 

 

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Kansas and Warwick Castle

The bike is still in a nasty state in Missouri.  We have moved to Kansas and hope that we can work out how to get the monster to the Triumph hospital.  It is a question of making time of course.

In the meantime, I am taking care of the Dodgey Neon that has now completed 90,000 miles. It is in the care of those nice chaps at Goodyear who will replace spark plugs, wires and various worn out bits. I am fully expecting the old girl to be quite perky by Monday.

I just hope that no one tells our testy Triumph that we also visited Warwick castle in the UK over Christmas.  I spent money and much time off visiting family and friends over the holiday period.

By the way, I thoroughly recommend Warwick.  It is expensive but the tour will give you a tremendous insight into English history over the last 1000 years.  After this trip you need only visit the historic naval dockyards in Portsmouth and you need never read a book or watch History Channel again.  You might cross check the wiki from time to time, but that is it.  Brilliant.

 

 

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