Saturday, August 29, 2009

Breaking Crisis Alert

If you live in Baghdad or Mogadishu or Kabul, it must take a supreme effort of will to get up every morning. After all, there's likely to be a bombed out storefront on your block, you can't go to get a quart of milk without the threat of death and you never know for sure if the car that stops in front of you is waiting for a goat to cross the street or waiting to blow up. I think most would agree that describing those environments as being in crisis is a fair use of the word.

After all, one of its definitions is "a time of extreme trouble or danger." But the word also has a another meaning: "a crucial stage or turning point in the course of anything." In that vein, you might also use it in describing the current health care debate, which seems to be careening out of control. Of course, whether all the heat and noise actually signals an actual inflection point, or merely a case of the extremely squeaky wheel clamoring for grease remains to be seen.

In any case, when someone describes something as a "crisis," you tend to sit up and take notice. That's why the cable news channels love the word. If you have them on as background during the day, you tend to tune out. But when they suddenly play that trumpet fanfare, start the swirling graphics and the basso profundo voice says "Housing in Crisis," you at least look up from your tuna salad sandwich.

Perhaps that's helps to explain why everything is "Crisis Update," "Breaking News" or "News Alert." After all, if everything is going along quietly, there's little need to turn on the set. But history has shown that viewership jumps on all networks when something is happening, be it a disputed election, a natural disaster or a celebrity happening. That ‘s why CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are praying that the ghost of Michael Jackson will be forced into a runoff for the governorship of California during an earthquake. I mean, a network can hope, can't it?

And it's not just the regular news outlets that use this approach. If you randomly flip to The Weather Channel, you'll likely tune in in the middle of a normal forecast, one which gives you the lowdown on the clouds, rain and sun. You get the info you want, then start to think about watching a rerun of "The Simpsons." But if you don't get to the clicker fast enough, it doesn't take long for you them to try and grab you by the throat.

"Bum bum bum bummmm!" goes the track, as the graphic explodes on the screen: "Storm Alert!" Turns out that somewhere over Kansas there's a possibility that maybe perhaps conditions for a tornado might theoretically be coming together. No worries, you say, you live in Jersey. But using the "alert" approach makes you think twice. After all, as Dave Barry points out, as the plane is going down, you'd hate to be the guy that everyone is laughing at because they have their life vests on and you didn't pay attention during the stewardess's demonstration.

You see the same thing on CNBC with the world of business. Not that you have two nickels to run together, but does the fact that there's a "Crisis in T-Bill Futures" make you want to jump off the couch run to the nearest ATM to... what? Take out some T Bill futures? Or when ESPN flashes "Breaking NEWS!!!" on the screen, does the report that "Manny Ramirez has failed a drug test and has been suspended 50 games" make you drop what you're doing and put off your dinner plans, the better to stay by the tube and learn the dosages?

Turns out that an alert can not only garner you audience, but get you off the hook. In an interview on Fox News, host Trace Gallagher was unable to knock Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow off her talking points regarding her support for the Cash for Clunkers program. So he cut off the interview by pulling out the big gun: "I'm sorry, Senator, we've got breaking news coming in, thank you for your time." He then breathlessly relayed the reason for the interruption: "Just in... behind the scenes at the most anticipated week on television: Shark
Week on the Discovery Channel!"

Breaking news or broken news? If everything is a crisis, then it stands to reason that nothing is. It's like the boy who cried wolf, and everyone ignored him when there really was a reason to pay attention. Or with apologies to Shakespeare, the fault, dear networks, lies not in your stars, but in yourselves.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to flip between Fox and MSNBC to see who is closer to the fringe. His column appears regularly in The record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Breeding Stock

Odds are you have never read, let alone heard of the "Journal of Population Economics," an international quarterly that publishes original research and survey articles on topics dealing with the broadly defined relationship between economics and demographics. And that means you've missed such page turners as Pal Schone's piece on "New Technologies, New Work Practices and the Age Structure of the Workers," or Christophe Hachon's study which seeks to answer the question "Do Beveridgean Pension Systems Increase Growth?" Of course, to enjoy it, you'll first you'll have to look up the meaning of "Beveridgean."

That being said, there's a good chance you will be hearing about a study about to grace the journal's pages. Oxford University researcher Almudena Sevilla-Sanz's paper is entitled "Household Division of Labor and Cross-Country Differences in Household Formation Rates." It's an exploration of gender, housework and children, and the attitudes surrounding those elements. Normally it would find an audience only among academics, while the rest of us would dismiss it as yet another dry dissertation of interest only to those in the field. But this one may break above the horizon because it has a catchy angle. Based on an "egalitarian index" created by the author, it ranks men as to their attractiveness as husbands based on their willingness to help out around the house.

No anecdotal recitation, the study was based on interviews with 13,500 men and women between 20 and 45 from 12 countries. Sevilla-Sanz tabulated the attitudes of both genders towards what was traditionally thought of as "women's work," that is, cooking, cleaning and helping to raise the kids. Then she correlated that information with the number of women in partnerships in a given country, taking into account age and background. She found that women living in countries with the highest proportion of egalitarian men...those who were happy to do their share of chores... were more likely to marry or live with a man. Empirically speaking, women living in less egalitarian countries were between 20 and 50 percent less likely to be living with a man than women living in more egalitarian countries.

OK, so far you're trying to stifle a yawn. But here's where it gets good. She then matched up all this data country by country and voila! You have a ranking of which nationalities make for the best husbands. The results: Swedish and Norwegian men make the most attractive husbands as they'll help with the housework. At the other end were the cads in Japan, Germany and Austria, while Australian men, renowned for their love of sport and beer, came in dead last. We Americans, by the way, placed fourth.

It's worth pointing out that men and women view this all differently. While women seemed to prefer a man who would take out the trash, wipe down the kitchen counters and change a few diapers, men were not so keen on seeking a partner who wanted to split the chores. "While egalitarian men seem to be viewed as a better bet by women, egalitarian women are seen as a less safe bet by men," said Sevilla-Sanz.

Still, if you're husband shopping, you might add nationality into the mix along with his hair, height and earnings potential. All of which recalls an old joke, wherein a gorgeous woman sits down next to a man on a plane. He asks her where she is going, to which she responds the Annual Nymphomania Convention in Chicago. She relates that she will be speaking there, trying to debunk some of the popular myths about sexuality. And what, he asks, are those myths? "Well, there's the one that African American men are the most well endowed, when in fact it's the Native American Indian. And some say that French men are the best lovers, when actually it is men of Jewish descent. Still, the best lover of all seems to be the Southern redneck." Suddenly, the woman became a little uncomfortable. "I'm sorry," she said, "I shouldn't really be discussing this with you. I don't even know your name." To which the man responds. "Tonto. Tonto Goldstein. But my friends call me Bubba."

Ladies, keep that in mind when you're looking for a mate. If Sven or Lief looks good to you, go for it and consider yourself lucky that he will help with the nappies. On the other hand, if you get introduced to a tall, blond surfer named Dingo Bruce, he's all yours. Just realize that you will be the one taking out the rubbish and turning the shrimp on the barbie.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is comfortable with placing fourth. You'll have to ask his wife if he merits a higher or lower ranking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Attack of the Tweets

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you've heard about Twitter, the online service that lets users post 140 character dispatches of their comings and goings. Once you sign up for a free account, you can send such missives to whomever signs up as your "followers," enabling them to tap into your contemporaneous thoughts, observations and activities. It's a cross between email, instant messaging and Headline News, all wrapped into a neat little package for those who feel compelled to star in their own reality TV show.

The real question is if really anybody cares what's happening to you on a minute by minute basis. It's true that in some cases the information can be interesting, as a quick scan of various real tweets demonstrates. Maybe you're in Mission Control at NASA ("Endeavour has completed its deorbit burn and begun the descent for a 10:48aET landing in Fla"). Or perhaps you're on patrol in Afghanistan ("Taliban bomb making team destroyed as they planted an IED"). Or maybe you're Oprah ("Got to hug Whoopi. Haven't seen her since????! What a fun night."). Depending on your particular bent, any or all of these could interest, inform or amuse you.

But if you're like rest of us, the dispatches you make are likely to make for less than compelling reading. Whether current users are talking about daily activities ("up early ready to hit the gym!"), spouses ("Proud owner of dozen doughnuts husband brought home for breakfast... make that 8.") or neighbors ("my neighbor is almost as cute as her dog. go figure."), you wonder why someone wasted the keystrokes.

Still, there is no doubt that it has found a following. Twitter is widely reported to be the fastest growing social networking site on the web. A blog reported that it experienced monthly growth of 1,382% in February, as compared to Facebook's 228%. In June the site recorded 44 million unique visitors. That's an awful lot of "What should I cook for dinner? Cooking must be easy, food yummy, recipe not overwhelming" type posts of interest to somebody... just not to me.

Yet it spite of my apathy, an attack on Twitter this past week was of consternation to many. For several hours, the site was shut down by unknown hackers that seemed based somewhere in Eastern Europe. While it was a non-event for some, others were not so blasé. According to CNN, "Some Twitter users expressed near-panic that the site was not working properly." After all, if you can't tell your friends that you are "Watching some Japanese movie called Death Note... surprisingly it's quite nice," that's a major problem.

But in a bigger context, it turns out that the disruption was actually part of a real conflict, and Ashton Kutcher, Twitter's most followed poster, was merely an innocent bystander. As reported in The New York Times, the attack was an extension of the tiff between Russia and Georgia. More specifically, it appeared to be targeted at one economics professor from Sukhumi State University who identified himself only as Giorgi, and who was revisiting the events of a year ago. Said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer of the Internet security firm F-Secure, it was "the equivalent of bombing a TV station because you don't like one of the newscasters." Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann best take note.

Perhaps that in part explains why the Pentagon is entering the fray. In an order issued coincidently just before the attack, the Marine Corps banned access to social networking sites like Twitter from its computer systems for the next year. "These internet sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries." The order says the sites, by their very nature, expose "unnecessary information to adversaries." After all, there's no telling what tactical advantage a terrorist might have if he reads Brad Pitt's tweet "will be busy the whole week here in Cannes."

Still, as been said repeatedly, we can't let fear rule our lives. And perhaps that's why in spite of the edict handed down to the grunts in the field, those at the top are tweeting as usual. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has over 5,000 followers on Twitter. One his latest posts comments directly on the order: "Obviously we need to find right balance between security and transparency. We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet."

It's not quite the same as "Give me liberty of give me death." But in this day and age, as a statement of principle in the face of adversity, it'll have to do.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't follow anybody and nobody follows him. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Cashing In

When you get ready to go on your summer vacation, there are a number of things you do. You stop the paper and the mail, and empty all the trash cans. You check to make sure the water to the washing machine is turned off. And you put in a little extra time at your desk, be it home or office, making sure any last minute bills are paid or paperwork is taken care of that can't wait a week or two.

If you're the House of Representatives, you kind of do the same thing. But since someone else is taking care of the trash and turning off the taps, you can focus on the really important stuff. And since your recess is not a week or two in length but a full month, it's especially important to clear your desk, because there are so many important issues that affect so many people, and can't wait until after the last Labor Day barbeque.

And so as one of their last official acts before they headed home for their summer break, the House put aside health care, put aside the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, put aside reform of the banking system to work on a really important issue: your driveway. All other business was shelved so they could turn their full attention to extending the funding for the "Cash for Clunkers" program, known officially as the Car Allowance Rebate System... yes, the acronym really is CARS.

Under the program, drivers can give up their old fuel-inefficient vehicles in favor of new fuel-efficient ones and get paid for doing so. In what is obviously a tribute to the IRS, it's not as simple as it sounds. The value of the credit for the purchase or lease of a new passenger car depends upon the difference between the combined fuel economy of the vehicle that is traded in and that of the new vehicle that is purchased or leased. So let's get out our calculators and figure this one together.

The ruling says that if the new vehicle has a combined fuel economy that is at least 4 but less than 10 miles per gallon higher than the traded-in vehicle, the credit is $3,500. If it's at least 10 miles per gallon higher than the traded-in vehicle, the credit is $4,500. So my 2007 Jeep gets 18 miles per gallon in the city, 22 on the highway, for a combined mileage of 19. If I want to buy a 2009 Dodge Caliber, which gets 27 miles a gallon, I would get $3500. If I want a Toyota Yaris, which comes in at a combined rate north of 30, I would get the $4000. Of course, I want neither, so the bounty would have to be a lot higher for me to make the switch.

The program is designed to do 2 things. It's supposed to drive consumers to the showrooms, which will help the ailing auto industry and all those that depend on it. And it will help decrease energy usage, which is good for both the economy and the environment. Both are laudable goals, though critics point out that it's just one more instance of a government handout which will inevitably cause taxes to rise.

That being said, the program has proven very successful, which is why the House had to act. Original estimates were that the original billion dollars allocated would last a year. Instead, demand has been running about a billion dollars a month. That's a whole of lot of Buicks coming off the road, and an equal amount of Hondas going on.

One can surely see where this will lead: other industries will push for similar programs to help kick start them. It's just a matter of time before lobbyists for the beleaguered computer industry push through a "Dollars for Desktops" program. Under that one, you'll be able to trade in your old PC or Mac for a shiny new laptop. The microprocessor industry will benefit from the sale of new hardware, while the internet will get quicker as better virus protection comes online with the new machines. Or perhaps the fashion industry will get their "Shekels for Schmatas" legislation passed, whereby you can trade in last year's outfit for a new one. It will drive shoppers to the malls, and reduce the amount of worn out spandex which can cause rashes.

Then there's the young lady I spoke with who was telling me about her new beau of 5 months. He is perfectly fine, funny and good looking. But then I told her about the upcoming "Bucks for Boyfriends" program, wherein she could trade him in for $1500 and get a new one. Being a conscientious consumer and a patriotic American, she was ready to cut him loose in a New York minute.

Husbands, beware.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad Congress is taking a recess. They need to get back to the real world. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Insultingly Funny

It's so much fun to watch pros in action.

I'm not talking about the Yankees or Lance Armstrong or Stewart Cink. Yes, they are professionals at their specific sports, and they do it very well indeed. What I'm talking about is those whose wit is fast and furious and cutting, who can think on their feet and come back with a retort that makes you wish you had been able to react that quick.

A perfect example came this past week when Jon Stewart had NBC News anchor Brian Williams on his show. Williams is known to have a quick wit, but you need one to match up with Stewart, who makes a living at it. So it was no big surprise when the back and forth began from the very beginning, as Stewart took Williams and his network to task for their coverage of Mark Sanford and Michael Jackson. Some good barbs were tossed from each side. Then the talk turned to recently deceased newsman Walter Cronkite. Said Williams, "He was the guy I wanted to be when I was a kid." A perfect beat, and then, "It was like Carrot Top to you." The audience exploded. Even Stewart couldn't keep a straight face. But not one to be caught with his puns down, he came back hard at Williams: "So... how does it feel to fall so short?"

Now that's give and take. It's so refreshing to see repartee at such a level, many cuts above the usual swearing and cursing that some mistake for insults. Too often, zinging one these days means merely increasing the volume and adding the F word to whatever was just said. Or as Conan O'Brien recently noted, people in New York are especially excited by Judge Sotomayor because she comes from the Bronx and presided over that landmark local case, "Shut Up vs. No, You Shut Up."

In that vein, a recent email crossed my desk collecting some of the more witty insults that have passed people's lips. It's been floating around for a while, but that doesn't make it any less delicious. And while I don't usually just reprint stuff, this one bears repeating.

An exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison." He said, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

A member of Parliament to Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." Said Disraeli, "That depends, Sir, whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

"He had delusions of adequacy." Walter Kerr.

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." Winston Churchill.

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure." Clarence Darrow.

"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." William Faulkner about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's reply: "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." Moses Hadas.

"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." Mark Twain.

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." Oscar Wilde.

"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend... if you have one." George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. Churchill's reply: "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one."

"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here." Stephen Bishop.

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." John Bright.

"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial." Irvin S. Cobb.

"He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others." Samuel Johnson.

"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." Paul Keating.

"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him." Forrest Tucker

"Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?" Mark Twain.

"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork." Mae West.

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." Oscar Wilde.

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts... for support rather than illumination." Andrew Lang.

"He has Van Gogh's ear for music." Billy Wilder.

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it." Groucho Marx.

"There's nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won't cure." Jack E. Leonard.

"He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them." James Reston on Richard Nixon

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any one I know." Abraham Lincoln.

"A modest little person, with much to be modest about." Winston Churchill.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good turn of phrase. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.