Saturday, June 26, 2010


Having found nothing too pressing on my desk, I gathered together all the little slips of paper that I had piled in the corner and headed out the door. Each was a reminder to drop something off or pick something up: a suit that needed cleaning, some patching material for the edge of the driveway, a piece of some kind of hardware... I wasn't sure what... to fix the loose faucet in our bathroom.

Since it was a nice day, after I dropped off the suit I decided to head a little further a field than the local Mr. Fixit store for the rest. Along the way I spied a gas station with a better than average price. Seeing as how my tank was on the low side, I figured I'd swing in and fill it up. I pulled into the station and stopped at the pump. I hopped out, uncapped the tank and then reached for my wallet. But it wasn't there.

My first instinct was to frisk myself and make sure it wasn't in another pocket: no dice. I stood and thought about it, reconstructing my day. Since I hadn't even taken it out at the cleaners, I went backwards from there, looking for it in any of the freeze frames in my mind. Driving from the garage? Working at my desk? Having breakfast? Getting dressed... ah, there it is. I could see it sitting in the little basket that I throw my keys and money into each night. Not stolen, merely forgotten.

First problem: no license or registration. If a cop stopped me, no doubt about it, I was driving illegally. Nothing I could do, short of scrupulously observing every traffic sign I saw between there and home. I did consider for a moment what I would do if I came to a police checkpoint. After briefly flirting with the idea of pulling a James Bond-like maneuver to get around it, I decided that if that happened I'd best come clean and take the consequences.

Next problem: no cards. No ATM card, no credit card, no Famous Footwear Rewards card. So that there was no way for me to get additional cash, nor pay for a purchase beyond any cash on hand. I did have a couple of twenties in my money clip, and thankfully had remembered to grab that when I got dressed and filled my pockets. But if I suddenly came across a members only two-for-one running shoe sale, I was plumb out of luck.

Little did I know I was square in the middle of a trend. According to recent surveys, payng with greenbacks has become the preferred approach of a majority of the public. Many view this as a reaction to the Great Recession, which resulted in lenders reducing their willingness to extend credit. But consumers also learned the hard way that spending what you don't have can be devastating financially. In either case, the evidence is that people are far more likely to pull out the Benjamins as opposed to the Karls (as in Karl Malden, the “don't leave home without it” spokesperson for American Express).

The numbers paint an interesting dichotomy: it seems that possession isn't 9/10's of the law. While 68% of American adults have a debit card and 67% percent have a credit card, we are taking them out less frequently. The result is that 54% of those surveyed said that they'd prefer to buy with cash as opposed to any other form of payment available to them.

Personally speaking, we use the cards as a convenience, and pay them off in full every month. They work from a business standpoint as well, giving me float for the month, better expense tracking and I don't turn my nose up at the miles and points awarded either. But that option only works if you have them in your possession, a situation I was not in. So back to the flimsy green stuff it is.

I bought twenty dollars in gas and picked up a bucket of patching material. I even found the plumbing thingy I needed; thankfully, it was only $1.25. All in, I was still 2 bucks and change in the black. But that was the end of the line. They say you don't miss something you have until you no longer have it. Usually it's said in reference to privilege or luxury. But my dear Mastercard, I'll never take you for granted again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford uses his cards as long as he gets points or miles. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The disconnect couldn't have been more apparent. It was day one of the World Cup, the most followed sporting event on the planet. On the one side of the split screen was the host of an American morning TV show, obviously bored; on the other, live from South Africa, was an English reporter who couldn't have been more excited. He talked about the teams, the fans, the local color surrounding the event. When he was done, he threw it back to the US, where the American said, "Well, I guess I'll watch some... as long as you can guarantee me that they'll be at least one goal scored during the tournament."

If that doesn't neatly capture the sentiment on both sides, I don't know what does. Talk with any person whose most recent roots are outside this country, and they can likely talk of nothing else. Whether pulling for their national team or a favorite like Brazil or Spain, they are studying schedules, draws and groups, and planning when they can sneak out to a bar to catch some of the action live. For the truth is that far more people in the world had childhood dreams of being Pele or Franz Beckenbauer or Diego Maradona than they did of being Whitey Ford or Joe Montana or even Michael Jordan.

It's never been that way in this country. You could say that baseball is more popular because it's been around longer, but you can't make that same case for American football or basketball, both which postdate the earliest soccer associations. And it's even more surprising when you consider that soccer has been the most popular team activity for kids in the US for several decades, so much so that you'd be hard pressed these days to find a kid who doesn't have a soccer trophy is his or her room, even though it's likely to read "Most Enthusiastic Player" as opposed to "Most Goals Scored."

So why the lack of interest? There are institutional reasons: a historical bias towards home grown sports, a lack of corporate money, a series of unprofitable professional leagues. There are practical reasons as well: the continual flow of a match means no commercials, the lifeblood of any sports franchise. And there is even the nationalistic character/psychological rationale: we are a nation of achievers, and chafe at a game where scoring is miniscule. After all, Pele is the top scorer in the game, with 1284 goals. Compare that with Michael Jordon, with over 29,000 points... and he is merely number three on the list (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is number one).

But some of those reasons could be said about other sports with much larger followings than soccer in this country, such as ice hockey and NASCAR. ANd neither could the lack of acceptance be because of the caliber of the players themselves: no one would suggest they aren't incredibly skilled athletes. Likewise, it's certainly not because of the complexity of the game: other than not using your hands and a few small technical rules, it's far easier to understand than almost any of our favorites.

So it's got to be something else. Of course, it could be the announcers. Since there is no stoppage in play, there's a lot of, "Well, he gave that up, let's see what happens now. Uh, oh, lost it, going the other way." No analysis, no diagramming on screen, no sideline reporters with any inside scoop. Instead, you get such cogent observations as, "I am a firm believer that if one team scores a goal, the other needs to score two to win." Or how about, "You cannot possibly have counted the number of passes made, but there were eight." Or my favorite insight, "If a team scores early on, it often takes an early lead."

Perhaps it's that the game clock counts up instead of down, and they inexplicably add extra minutes to the end of the game. Or maybe it's because the score can and often does end in a tie, many times at nil-nil. And compared to the World Series Trophy, the Stanley Cup or the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the FIFA trophy looks like a melted fire hydrant, and has the winner's names inscribed on the bottom. How stupid is that?

But that's being catty. Even if the best television angle is so wide that watching a match is like watching ants on green carpeting, we might be able to forgive it all. Maybe the real reason is much simpler. Personally, I think it's because that guy really is incredibly annoying: "GOOALLL!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford watched the opening France-Uruguay match. Length: 90 minutes. Score: 0-0. You decide. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Study This

If there's one place where there is no recession, it's in the area of "studies". Not in funding individual research projects per se. Rather, it's in the sheer number of scientific surveys where we have not a balanced budget, but a huge surplus. Curious if a baby's name tells you anything about the educational level of parents? There's a study for that. What about assessing the economic value of sea turtles on the world economy? Yep, one there as well. Want to confirm that chocolate helps with depression? Well, you already know the answer to that one, but there is indeed an empirical review that confirms that a Hershey bar makes you feel better. Feel less guilty now?

There are even some areas where there are so many studies it's hard to imagine there's room for one more. Popular topics such as teenagers and sex are equally crowded, packed with hundreds of angles and variations. Recently oil spills got added to that list. And while I haven't seen it yet, no doubt there's one in the works on teenagers AND sex AND oil spills... together.

Anything you eat, touch or interact with is a prime candidate to be sampled, measured and analyzed. And the newer and more prevalent an item is, the more likely it is to attract money and scientists to examine it. And nothing fits that bill quite like your cell phone.

In the 26 years since they were offered to the public, cells have gone from heavy bricks which cost a fortune to light wisps of plastic given away for free with a service contract. Along the way they have created a number of cottage industries, from cheap leatherette cases, to aps which sell in the millions, and yes, to study after study about their effect on health, productivity and lifestyle (and shortly, teenagers and sex and oil spills and cell phones).

Many of the studies have centered on what is arguably the hot button issue: the health aspect of holding a small device emitting radio waves up to your head for long period of times. Counter-intuitively, there doesn't seem to much in the way of correlation in that area. At least that's the finding of a recently published study in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Overall, it found that cell phone users have no increased risk of two of the most common forms of brain cancer. So while your head may hurt from using the thing, it's less likely the emissions and more likely the constant refrain of "can you hear me now?"

That's not to say that cell phones don't present other dangers. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute released a study showing that the risk of texting while driving far exceeds the hazards associated with other driving distractions. A University of Alabama at Birmingham study shows that children who talk on cell phones while crossing streets are at a higher risk for injuries or death in a pedestrian accident. And leaving no corner un-mined, the Cleveland Clinic reports that phones left on talk mode in the pockets of males can hurt the quality of sperm.

There's even a new study that confirms what we already know: listening to others on cell phones can really piss you off. According to research done by Cornell University, overhearing people chatting on their phones is annoying because you only hear half a conversation. Hearing this "halfalogue" is more distracting than listening to both sides of a conversation because it forces us to predict the flow of words, and make up what we're not hearing. Then we have to adjust that conclusion based on whatever is said next, which leads to stress and anger.

In fact, it turns out that it is not only annoying, but can actually compromise our ability to function. According to the researchers, "Our findings demonstrate that simply overhearing a cell phone conversation is sufficient to reduce performance... [suggesting] that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cell phone conversation."

So now, backed by hard science, you have ample grounds to tell those loud talkers to cease and desist. Sure, you can tell them that are they being obnoxious by talking so loud, but also point out that they are causing lost productivity hours and safety concerns by distracting all within earshot. And then, for good measure, tell them again that they are obnoxious.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to always step away when he has to take a call on his cell. Hs column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Those People








"My gosh, these people in Washington are running the country right into the ground."
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, resident of Washington and member of Congress for 34 years.
"Thank you Congressman Blowheart for talking with us, and congratulations on your new book, 'Taking Back America.'"

"Thanks, and happy to be here."

"I guess I should begin by asking the obvious question: just who are we taking America back from?"

"Why, Congress, of course. Those people in Washington have just gone off on their own, and have no connection with what the American people really want. We have to rise up and take our country back before it's too late."

"But sir, you've been in Congress for a record 27 terms... that's 54 years. Aren't you Congress?"

"Why no, son, I am just a regular guy with a regular job, trying to make ends meet like my neighbors back in dear old Sasquatch, West Virginia."

"But Congressman, with all due respect, you have a townhouse in Georgetown, your kids went to school here and your boat is docked here. The only address we found for you in your home town is a studio apartment above your district office. And the super in the building says the only time he sees you there is when there is a parade in town."

"Well, it's true I divide my time between here in Washington and back home, but this is just where I work... my heart and sensibilities are all Mountaineer."

"Still, sir, when people talk about Congress not being in touch with the regular people, aren't you and your other colleagues, who have been here for extended times, the very definition of the problem."

"Son, that's an unfair characterization, lumping me in with all those others. I have the same concerns and insecurities as my constituents... constituents like Will Powers, who grew up next door to us in Sasquatch. He became a pharmacist, and built his store into a local landmark. Just like Will, I worry about things like affordable health insurance and paying my staff and finding time to exercise."

"But sir, Congress has a gold-plated health plan, your staff is paid for by Congress and you have 24 hour access to the Congressional gym, including a nutritionist and personal trainer. And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Will Powers died last year, and his wife had to sell the pharmacy because of the cost of running the business."

"My heavens, he did? I'll have to have my staff send a sympathy note to Muriel, and make sure they move my prescriptions to the CVS down the block."

"So, Congressman, how do you propose to take Washington back from... well, from yourself?"

"Three things. First, I think we have to ban all those special interests, like the banking and oil lobbyists. Then I think we need to take a hard look at all those pork projects that members get... you know, those million dollar research grants for butterflies or some such nonsense. And finally I think we should begin term limits."

"Sir, let's take special interests first. You mention two of the biggest for sure... banks and oil. But what about the coal Industry? Very big in your state, and a major contributor to your campaigns over the years."

"True, but we also lead the nation in underground coal production, which means it's not a special interest at all... it's American. That's why I killed that pesky EPA bill... there's nothing finer to breath than clean coal emissions."

"And in the area of special projects, why should taxpayers fund the ‘Wilbur C. Blowheart Center for Applesauce?' Isn't that a frivolous waste of the budget?"

"Son, our state fruit is the apple, specifically the Golden Delicious. It was discovered here and grown here since 1912. And I think America's children not only need, but deserve a high level research institution to insure the veracity of their favorite food. After all, what's more American than apples anyway?"

"And term limits?"

"Yes, term limits. HR 3028, the "Blowheart Bill" seeks to institute term limits for those elected starting in 2064. We have to start somewhere... just not with me."

"Congressman, thanks you for your time."

"A pleasure, son. Care for an apple?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford sometimes thinks we should vote against every incumbent. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.