Saturday, July 30, 2011

Build and Destroy

Actor and writer Robert Benchley famously observed, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't." If you're in the first group, you probably also have your favorite way of dividing the populace: people who read instructions and people who don't, those who follow the rules and those who make the rules, or those who hang the roll of toilet paper over and those who hang it under. Or as defined in "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" with Clint Eastwood, "those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."

Another way is look at it is those who like to build and those who like to destroy. When you're little, there is ample opportunity to do both. In the first category are Legos, sand castles and blocks. Come to think of it, in the second category are Legos, sand castles and blocks. And that's half the fun: you get to have one fantasy as you create something from nothing, still another as you reduce it back to its elemental nature.

Once you're grown up, however, the chance to do either one diminishes. You spend more time fixing stuff than conjuring it up, more time disposing of things than reducing them to rubble. And somehow replacing a washer in the bathroom faucet or taking down the kids' old swing set doesn't have the same psychic satisfaction as building a tinkertoy tower, then smashing it to smithereens.

Thankfully, others have seen this conundrum, and stepped into the void. This spring saw the opening in of "Dig This" in Las Vegas. "Dig This" is best described as an adult sized sand box with real trucks. The idea came to New Zealander Ed Mumm while he was operating heavy equipment to construct his home in Steamboat Springs, CO. He had so much fun clearing trees, constructing a road, building a pond and digging foundations that he wondered if others would as well, and if they would pay for the privilege.

That led him to create the first "Dig This" near his home. After a year of operation and tweaking his model, he closed the original and moved to a more accessible location, the mecca of adult entertainment. There, on the site of an of an old amusement park a few minutes off the Strip, his 5 acre fun zone is now open for business.

The most popular offering on the menu is "The Big Dig." This three hour experience starts with an equipment and safety orientation. An in-cab orientation follows, where you get buckled in and your instructor goes over the controls. You then warm up as your instructor gives you directions via a 2-way head set, after which you're unleashed on a major dirt excavation exercise. It all gives credence to the old saying that only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys: guests operate either a Caterpillar D5 track-type 10 ton bulldozer or a Caterpillar 315CL hydraulic 15 ton excavator. Of course, women are welcome as well.

But if you're more a tear-down kind of person than a build-up one, you might want to ask around and see if you can score an introduction to "The Destruction Club." To join this members-only New Jersey group you have to be invited in by a current member. An interview is required, along with an annual fee, the signing of a waiver and agreement to abide by the rules of the group: no use of firearms, no living things or paperwork can be destroyed and no alcohol or drugs can be used during the destruction session. If that all works for you, then the menu is open.

You first pick your object of scorn: maybe china plates or a vase, an LCD TV, even a car if you're so inclined (per session charges are a sliding scale based on the object to be pummeled). Then choose your weapon from their arsenal: baseball bats, golf clubs, axes, swords and even chainsaws are all available. You put on protective gear and are led to a rooftop location where the cameras are rolling. And off you go: chop, batter, smash, splinter and destroy to your heart's content. And again, lest you think it's a "guy" thing, club representatives say 40% of its members are women.

Build or destroy: take your pick. Whatever your state of mind, there's something out there to help you soothe it. Of course, unfortunately, as with most things in life, in this case you do have to choose. As an adult, you can't necessarily have your cake and eat it too; if you could, you would be Congress.


Marc Wollin of Bedford like to build things, but usually they look like they should be destroyed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Economics with a Beat

If you've been following even a little bit of the fight going on in Washington over the debt ceiling (and who hasn't), you might be having a hard time understanding what is so hard (and who doesn't). Yes, there is bloat and waste in a thousand places in the government which could be trimmed. But also, yes, there are loopholes and inequities in the tax code which could be closed to raise additional revenue. Common sense says that grownups would look at the situation, understand the need for action and the necessity for compromise, and meet somewhere in the middle. But this is Washington: common sense doesn't necessarily prevail.

The key to understanding why the two sides can't seem to come together lies in their underlying philosophies: it's less about the actual numbers, more about the approach. A front page story in The New York Times called it "A War Over Government." White House correspondent Jackie Calmes wrote, "President Obama wants deficit reduction, including tax increase for wealthier Americans and corporations. Congressional Republicans... want a vastly smaller government constrained by lower taxes. The two are not the same thing."

So what exactly is the theoretical base that drives each side? Well, if you didn't sleep through Econ 101 (and I hate to say it again, but who didn't) you would have focused on two of the key theorists of the modern era. That would be John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who advocated for central control of economies through the use of fiscal and monetary policy, and his counter, Fredrick Hayek, an Austrian economist who was a proponent of free markets.

Of course, those are simplified summaries. To understand it, you need to dive into the details, dealing with phrases like "aggregate demand" and "price stickiness"(Keynes) or "inflationary credit expansion" and "catallaxy"(Hayek). Tough sledding for most. And even if you did manage to keep your eyes open through class lo those many years ago, it was, well, lo those many years ago. I can't remember where I put my keys, let alone economic theory touched upon briefly when I was twenty.

That's why I'm thankful for John Papola and Russell Roberts. Papola is an award winning producer/director in broadcast entertainment and marketing, while Roberts is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Seeking to learn and understand more about the economy, Papola stumbled upon Roberts, his blog "Cafe Hayek" and his podcast "EconTalk." Papola approached Roberts about collaborating on a video that would explain economics in an entertaining way. And that led to in 2010 to "Fear the Boom and Bust," and in April of this year "Fight of the Century."

Styled as rap battles between the Keynes and Hayek, the lyrics tackle the underlying theories of the two. In "Fear the Boom and Bust" Keynes kicks it off: "BOOM/1929 the big crash/We didn't bounce back—economy's in the trash/Persistent unemployment, the result of sticky wages/Waiting for recovery? Seriously? That's outrageous!" Hayek responds: "Whether it's the late twenties or two thousand and five/Booming bad investments, seems like they'd thrive/You must save to invest, don't use the printing press/Or a bust will surely follow, an economy depressed." Together, they sum it up: "We've been goin' back n forth for a century/ [Keynes] I want to steer markets/ [Hayek] I want them set free/There's a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it/[Hayek] Blame low interest rates./[Keynes] No it's the animal spirits."

In "Fight of the Century" the two are called to testify to Congress. The ranking member of the panel raps to them, "Which way should we choose?/more bottom up or more top down/the fight continues/Keynes and Hayek's second round." They continue to throw down, with Keynes rapping, "We could have done better, had we only spent more/Too bad that only happens when there's a World War/You can carp all you want about stats and regression/Do you deny World War II cut short the Depression?" Hayek's answer: "Wow. One data point and you're jumping for joy/the last time I checked, wars only destroy/There was no multiplier, consumption just shrank/As we used scarce resources for every new tank." The gallery nods and bobs to the beat, including a Ben Bernake look-alike in the front row, who turns out to be Papola's father.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously said that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. I don't think I ever heard him say you create monetary policy in committee, but rap it in hearing room. But perhaps he should have. Papola and Roberts have done what very few can do: make economics entertaining and understandable. Now, if they could only come up with a similar effort to help me understand synchronized swimming, I'll be all set.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks he took Econ 101, but then again, maybe not. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Winning the Lottery

For most of us the term "winning the lottery" means stopping by the corner newsstand, buying a ticket and scratching off some part of it to see if we've won a million dollars. But for some, it means something completely different, like the chance to start a new life in a new country. And so it was for Ertugert, or as he offers to be called by us linguistically challenged Americans, E.

E is Albanian, and lived there with his father and mother. A very poor country on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Albania was communist until the early nineties. "Today you are either very rich or very poor," E said. And so with limited options on the home front, each family member applied to the US Diversity Visa program, better known as the "Greencard Lottery." Through this program, 50,000 people a year are offered a chance to come to the US and try and make their way. His father's number was drawn, and after an extensive interview process, and a cousin already here guaranteeing they wouldn't become wards of the state, they packed up and settled in the Bronx.

Of course, it's one thing to get an opportunity like that, still another to seize it. But E was a go getter, and set about looking for a job. One barrier? His command of English was, well, limited. He knew a few phrases, like "What time is it?" and "How do I get there?" but not a lot else. For instance, in combing the classifieds, he saw an ad looking for a bookkeeper. That might work, he thought. "In Albania, every office has stacks and stacks of handwritten ledgers," he told me, "and I figured I could keep those books with the best of them." The guy interviewing him began by asking about E's degree. E knew that degrees had something to do with temperature, and since it was hot out, he said there were lots of them. A few more confused exchanges led to the inevitable conclusion: the man set him straight on temperature, education and modern record keeping, and suggested he look for a different line of work.

Slowly his language skills started to improve, courtesy of the Hispanic guys he played soccer with in his new neighborhood. Eventually he heard about a job at an Italian deli in Brooklyn. Since he spoke some Italian learned back in his home country, he went for it. The proprietor, hearing his accent, asked where he was from. Upon learning it was Albania, he told him to keep it to himself, as the older Italian customers wouldn't take kindly to him. Still, he got the job.

But the language, both Italian and English, were still a challenge. Things took longer and needed explanations, such as when he was asked for a plain bagel. "OK," he told a customer, "Plain, but what do you want on it?" He didn't get that plain meant no seeds, so salt, not what was schmeared in the center. He lasted 4 days.

Next he got a job with an electrician, a skill he had picked up in Albania. And since the current there was 220 volts as opposed to our 115, he checked for live wires by grabbing them with his hands; after all, the shock was nothing compared to home. But then he saw shortcuts being taken, and one guy almost get electrocuted. He quit shortly thereafter.

Painting came next. They gave him a roller, a tool he had never used. He had fun making big patterns on the wall, but that didn't go over so well. He insisted on a brush, but that meant he wasn't terribly productive. They eventually made him the sander, since he was tall and could reach up high. He lasted until they taught him to put up wallpaper, only to return the next morning to find it falling off the wall. Eventually he met a guy at his church, a fellow immigrant from Germany, who started to teach him about computers. He picked it up quickly, and began working for companies doing graphics and networking.

Now, some ten years after he arrived, E is the very definition of a successful immigrant. He became a citizen in 2006, is married and has a child. But it was a challenging road. "You have to work hard for what you want here: nothing is given to you on a silver plate." And while he's not blind to the issues we have as a country, from race to economic challenges, he acknowledges the opportunity it has given him. "As to the future, I can see myself having my own company," he mused. Should that happen, you could say he will have won the lottery twice. Says E, "It would be kinda like having my own ‘American Dream' come true."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to meet new people with stories to tell. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Files Not Deleted

As analysts work their way through the trove of hard drives that were seized when Navy SEALS dispatched Osama Bin Laden, the latest revelation is that he was contemplating changing the name of organization. In one letter he was composing to others in the organization, he wrote that he was upset that "Al-Qaeda Al-Jihad," which translates as "The Base of Holy War" had been shortened in practice to "Al Qaeda," or literally "The Base." True, in practice the terror organization wasn't usually confused with the German indie rock band of the same name, singers of the hit song "Blame it on the Moondog." But as a label to help promote worldwide religious fervor and uprising, dropping the end of the phrase made it easy to forget you were dealing with an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the west, and instead brought to mind an internet news site ("Breaking news from The Base: Kanye disses Snoop!")

It's a strategy that has worked for others, from Blackwater (now Xe Services) to ValuJet (now AirTran) and Philip Morris (now Altria). Not wanting to lose the most important part of the name, namely the reference to "Jihad," he had some trial ideas to float. He was doodling on "Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad," meaning "Monotheism and Jihad Group," or maybe "Jama'at I'Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida," meaning "Restoration of the Caliphate Group." In the wake of this revelation, others have made suggestions online, many unprintable, some more In keeping with a bumper speaker mindset, such as "The Muslomaniacs." Even NPR got into the act: their news quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" offered up "Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad," which roughly translates to "I Can't Believe It's Not Terrorism."

What else will they find? Surely he had other documents on which he was working which never got polished enough to send out to his followers, or files he kept just for himself. In that light, the discoveries are sure to keep on coming, despite the challenges of unearthing them.  First they need to find Arabic translators who speak his particular Saudi dialect. Then assuming he was as sloppy as the rest of us and never deleted anything, they have to weed through all the old versions of AOL and Netscape that he never uninstalled. And they have to crack his passwords, though odds are "jihad123" will work for most. But once they jump those hurtles, they're liable to find files such as these.

Productivity Killers V4.doc. "Americans are prone to devote inordinate amount of time to non-essential, mind numbing, useless activities. We should try and exploit this vulnerability. Should we accomplish this, think of how much we could damage their economy as they sink every increasing amounts of their capitalist wealth into decadent activities which siphon off time, money and drive. Perhaps a TV show about mindless, vapid individuals at the beach, easily played portable games where you throw upset animals or fowl, or an online community where people spent time posting pointless updates about their lives. Odds are none of these would succeed, but we should not let that deter us from trying."

Passwords.xls. November 2002: caves2002. July 2003: caves2003. February 2004: caves2004.

Mortgage Offer.doc. "Mr.& Mrs. Bradley O'Hara, Dessert View Apartments #4C, 39744 Saguaro Drive, Phoenix, AZ 85017 Dear Mr. & Mrs. O'Hara; Congratulations! On behalf of Bank of America, I am pleased to inform you that you qualify for a no-verification mortgage of $1 million dollars for the property at 73653 Cactus Flower Drive. All you need to do to finalize the loan is to complete the simple one page attached form, return it the nearest local branch, and a check will be sent to you within 7 days. We look forward to calling you homeowners!"

Boom Rockets. High score: osama 1672. Second: Osama 1431. Third: obl 1123. Fourth: osama b 956. Fifth: Osama BL 893.

Open House V2. "We've moved! After several years on the run, come and join us as we celebrate our new home in Pakistan. We will be hosting a barbeque and flag burning at our new compound on 12 Safar 2009. Bring bathing suits (men only), and your favorite firearm to show off! Location of pickup to be delivered via courier. Blindfolds required to get on bus. Please RSVP by the next new moon on my Facebook page, Jerry Gibbens of Souix City, Iowa."

Wives/Sizes/Fav color.xls. Najwa/8/Black. Khadijah/12/Black. Khairiah/6/Black. Siham/4/Black. Amal/16/Black.

JS.doc. "Dear Snooki; I think you are the hottest! Don't let the Situation get in your face so much. And tell JWOWW to turn down the drama. From an overseas fan."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has lots on his hard drives he hopes never sees the light of day. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Crunch Too Far

It's a balancing act, to be sure. Security vs. privacy. Excitement vs. safety. More taste vs. less filing. Whenever you want to do one thing, there's usually a counterweight on the other side. True, sometimes the decision is an easy one, like when you can actually get two mints in one ("It's a candy mint. No, it's a breath mint.") But more than likely you have to come down on one side or the other, and then somebody is going to be unhappy. Just ask Obama about Afghanistan, the New York Senate about same-sex marriage or Congress about anything.

Still, when Frito-Lay set out to do something good for the environment and spruce up the bag for their SunChips brand of crisps, they thought they could have it all. The chips, which are billed as being a healthier alternative to traditional potato chips with less salt, less fat and more whole grains, were a natural for some eco-friendly packaging. So back in April of 2010 the company introduced a "green" package that was billed as its first compostable snack bag. And while most of us usually prefer chips with nearby adjectives of "tasty" or "crunchy" as opposed to "compostable," anticipation at the company's home base of Plano, Texas was high.

Then the product hit the shelves. And rather than kudos from consumers, the biggest reaction was "Speak up... I can't hear you over the bag!" Turns out that while the new packaging may have been environmentally friendly in terms of landfills, that wasn't the case in terms of its contribution to noise pollution. While a normal chip bag clocks in at about 70 decibels, the new bag crinkled and crackled somewhere around 80 db, with some measurements putting it at a "deafening" 95 db. To put it into perspective, 70 db is the loudness of a conversation, while 90 db is about the level of a lawnmower. Stand on the platform of a subway, and you're enduring 95 db of noise. And since experts say that a listening to anything at a sustained level of 90 to 95 db may result in hearing loss, eating a big bag would mean you could get both fat and go deaf at the same time.

The outcry, when it could be heard, was substantial. Articles in publications such as the Wall Street Journal liked the change to such bad product moves as New Coke in 1985, and Proctor and Gamble's recoloring of Prell shampoo from green to blue in 1991. Even the "Today" show did a segment. And it wasn't just the mainstream media. On a grass roots level, a page on Facebook called "Sorry but I can't hear you over this SunChips bag" gathered over 55,000 "likes." (Some sample posts: "Every time I went to get a chip, my cats ran away terrified." "The perfect burglar alarm. Throw a couple on the floor by your front door!") In the currency of today's consumer society. that's a whole lot of static.

Frito-Lay tried to weather the storm, turning the liability into a marketing asset, by adding signs to supermarket shelves that read "Yes, the bag is loud, that's what change sounds like." But sales dropped and so they eventually gave up, retreating with their bag between their legs in October of 2010. Fast forward to earlier this year, when they rereleased the original flavor of the product with a retooled, quieter, compostable bag. Customers came back, seeming to prove that you can be environmentally friendly both below ground and in the air, and still enjoy that crunchy, multigrain goodness. If ever there were proof of better living through chemistry in today's world, this is it.

Or is it? In May, in an exclusive interview posted on, whose masthead is "Breaking News on Industrial Baking & Snacks," Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay's R&D director, said that the bag is home compostable within the 14 week claims made by the company, but... and here's the rub... "only under a hot active composter temperature that needs to reach above 45-55 degrees Celsius." He admitted the company had received some negative feedback from some home composters, but added that others have reported the successful turning of trash into dirt.

So it comes down to this: we're all for environmental sustainability and preventing global warming, as long as it doesn't interfere with being able to hear the dialogue at a Woody Allen film. Who said modern life is easy? Or put another way, with apologies to Al Gore, I think we've settled on the very definition of an inconvenient truth.


Marc Wollin of Bedford actually likes Sun Chips over Lay's Potato Chips, as long as they come in the original flavor. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at