Saturday, May 25, 2013

Disneyland for Adults

Sometimes it takes so little to make me happy. A parking space with time left on the meter. The book I want at the library. Free and unlimited popcorn. In each case, without doing anything illegal, immoral or fattening (well, maybe fattening), I feel like I've in some way beaten the system.

And so it was on my last trip. By the two most important metrics, it was successful: the travel itself was trouble free, and the projects went well. I even got a few good meals plus a half a day off in San Francisco where I went biking, and managed to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge just as the clouds broke. All in all, that's what they call a win win win. Maybe even one more win.

But even with all that, there was still one other aspect of the trip that caused me to grin uncontrollably. And while it will be fun to show pictures of the people and places, and even the shack selling bacon donuts (yes, I did, and no, it wasn't that good), the one thing that stands out the most involved standing in a line. Or more correctly, walking past many lines to my own, in which there was no one standing. Yes, fellow road warriors, I now have a TSA Pre designation.

A program run by the Transportation Safety Administration, the idea is to prescreen frequent travelers, determine those that are low risk and give them a pass at the airport. About 1 million passengers had opted in, vs. a total number of annual airline flyers of about 730 million. So with just a fraction of 1% queuing up, you know that that particular line will be very short indeed.

However, I lost my silver status this year, and so wasn't invited in. But then I found a back door. The Department of Homeland Security runs a program to speed entry through customs for international travelers called Global Entry. Anyone can sign up; all you do is fill out an application, pay a $100 fee good for 5 years and appear for an interview with the Feds where they photograph and fingerprint you. Assuming you're clean, you get a card enabling you to use ATM-like kiosks when coming back into the US from overseas. And – backdoor alert – you also get a "trusted traveler" number, which is the membership card into TSA Pre.

This trip was my first real chance to try it out. While not all airports have it in place, I hit the jackpot: my itinerary of Newark, San Francisco and Orlando was a trifecta of working sites. At Newark, my point of departure, the security lines snaked long and deep. But off on the side I saw the TSA Pre logo and headed there. I walked up to the security agent guarding the gate. I produced my driver's license and my boarding pass with the TSA Pre logo on it.  She examined it all, stamped it quickly and waved me through. And there in front of me was – no one.

There wasn't a soul between me and the x-ray machine. Two agents were standing there chatting with nothing to do. They looked at me and smiled, an obvious kid in a candy store. "Just put your bags on the belt, and your phone in a bin. That's it." I just looked at them dumfounded. "That's IT??" The short one smiled: "Yup. Leave your liquids and your laptop in your bag, your shoes, belt and jacket on, and just walk through the metal detector." I all but danced through the machine into the arms of the agent on the other side. She laughed at me: "We see this all time. It's Disneyland for adults."

As the rest of the huddled masses on the lines around me looked on enviously, I gathered my stuff and was through in 2 minutes; less, if you discount the time I stood there marveling at the process. I may never walk on the moon, get an Oscar or be feted at the White House. But for one shining moment, I was the envy of every person who saw me. And so, while I've got no place to travel to this week, I'll go to the one place where I get unquestioned respect: the airport.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is looking forward to his next TSA Pre experience. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Kinder? Gentler?

Much has been written about the economic problems in Greece. You can blame bad management, social programs and public sector employment, and each of those has played a part. But even if all were to be addressed, one of the major underlying causes would still be there: an almost complete disregard for the tax system. Estimates are between that 20% and 30% of the country's GDP is underground. The result is that even as they reduce their need for revenue, they still collect far less than they should.

Contrast that with the state of the tax system in this country. By and large, most people who owe taxes pay in a timely manner. That's not say that the tax system isn't desperately in need of an overhaul. But by April 15 of any given year, either through payroll deductions or quarterly payments, most Americans have squared up their accounts with a minimum of fuss.

Now, if everybody paid what they were obligated to pay, the US Treasury could just deposit the money and on we would go. But of course, the honor system doesn't always work perfectly. Sometimes, there are - how to say this charitably - discrepancies. Deadlines get missed, amounts are wrong or not tendered. And that's where everybody's favorite agency comes in, the IRS.

In terms of numbers, since overall compliance is generally good, the amount of times they get involved is actually very small. Sure there are audits. But more often than not, a letter is dispatched and matters are quickly resolved, a situation not unlike resolving an erroneous charge on your Visa bill.

However, make no mistake: this is not your charge card. And while the agency has followed the lead of any good customer facing organization - courteous and helpful phone agents, online access to account information, electronic payment systems – they are still the IRS. As such, they have some pretty big sticks to use, and are less likely to give you a $25 credit on your next statement just for being a loyal customer.

Take me. As part of my world, I owe a small employment tax: for the last quarter of 2012, it came to a whopping $56. I paid it on time as I usually do, and went on with my life. Then a month ago I got an official looking letter from the IRS. Its tone was pleasant enough, stating very simply that the tax had not been paid, and noting it was now past due.  Since it was in arrears, there was interest as well, and would I please remit at my earliest convenience $56.58?

Since I distinctly remembered making the payment, I did a little digging. And when I examined the cancelled check, I saw the problem. When my account number was entered, it was mis-keyed by one digit. So someone else's account was up by $56, while mine was down a like amount. I quickly wrote a letter, made a copy of the proof, and sent it back.

I assumed the next missive would acknowledge the error and set it right. So when it arrived, I opened it hopefully. Rather than saying "mea culpa," the 16 point type of the first page screamed "You have unpaid taxes as of December 31. This letter states the intent to seize property or rights to property." A quick scan confirmed it was indeed related to the same matter. Then it told me how egregious was my transgression, and why they were ready to take all that was precious to me: "Amount due immediately $57.55."

A call to the agency confirmed that the letter was in error, that they indeed had my return correspondence, and were working through it. In all likelihood things would be resolved shortly, and the next letter should confirm that. But I couldn't help but reflect on the poisonous atmosphere in Washington, how civility has all but disappeared. Was this another example of going from simple disagreement to vilification in the blink of an eye? Or just two letters crossing in the mail?

Yes, they still refer to each other in Congress as "the gentleman" or "the gentlewoman." But there is no doubt as to whether or not they think that gentleperson is a gentle idiot. And so it seems here. Forget innocent until proven guilty. We went from "please pay" to "we're throwing you in debtor's prison" in a flash. It would be nice if they could dial it back a little bit. After all, we're their boss.


Marc Wollin of Bedford pays his taxes on time and in full. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Light Up The Dark

As they say in that AT&T Wireless ad with the guy talking to the little kids, it's usually not that complicated. More is better than less. Faster is better than slower. Two things are better than one. But the key word is "usually." Just because you can doesn't mean you should. As an example, take computer software. Every year or so they pack more features into the same skin. So now, with just a few mouse clicks, you can "create a macro that scans the headings of the current confluence page to dynamically create a table of contents from your page headings." I have no idea what that means, especially when all I want to do is write a note to my mom.

This came to mind when I was looking at the New York skyline recently. As I spun around, I spotted the Empire State Building standing above it all. Around the world it is still perhaps the single most identifiable building in the city. If you live here, you probably also know that the lights on the building change. It's based not so much on the day and date, but rather the occasion. Christmas brings a red/green color scheme, while orange/yellow appears at Thanksgiving. You also see the tricolors of the Italian flag on Columbus Day, and red, white and blue for July 4th. And yes, they make it red for Valentine's Day.

The night I was looking at the building it was a combination of blue and yellow. Very attractive, to be sure. However, try as I might, I couldn't think of a holiday or major event that historically was associated with that day. I queried my companions, but none of them would come up with anything that explained why the building would be lit up in those tones. Thankfully, Google exists for these everyday knowledge crises. A few hunts and pecks and I had my answer. Unfortunately, it was very disappointing.

First, a digression en route to an explanation. Used to be that they changed the lighting the old fashioned way. Hundreds of very large bulbs had to swapped out by a team of electricians one at a time. It was no different from you changing the bulb in your living room, albeit on a quantitatively larger scale. As such, it was a costly and time consuming endeavor, and wasn't done lightly.

But in November of 2012, there was a dramatic upgrade. In came a brand new LED system under computer control. Now, rather than a team of guys crawling out on ledges, all that was needed was a laptop. With a few clicks, a technician could select from a palette of over 16 million colors, including "ripples, cross-fades, sparkles, chasers, sweeps, strobes and bursts." In fact, I would bet that he or she could probably change it from the Starbucks in the lobby with their iPhone.

Remember our entry point here? More, better, faster, cheaper? Yes, it was all those things and more. But what it also did was open the gates to a program called "Empire State Building Lighting Partners." Virtually any organization can apply to have the building lit up in honor or commemoration of something. Sorry, they don't do personal events like weddings or birthdays, political campaigns or figures, commercial events or campaigns, or religious holidays beyond those already done. But within those limits, well, whatever you want to celebrate is possible. So it's green/blue/green for National Eating Disorder Week. Yellow/yellow/yellow is in honor of the 15th anniversary of Disney's The Lion King. And peach all around for the 125th anniversary of The Financial Times. And that blue and yellow scheme I saw? It was in celebration of WrestleMania 29.

Now, I love a party, and believe we should celebrate the good things in this world. But WrestleMania 29? I didn't celebrate 28, 27, or even 25, so I'm not jumping on the bandwagon for this one. Cupcakes with "W29" on them would have been fine; lighting up one of most iconic buildings on the planet seems a bit over the top. Come to think of it, maybe that IS appropriate for WrestleMania.

It seems like the bar is kind of low. Still, in that vein, let's start looking ahead. Come February 6, 2015, I'm thinking blue, gold, a splash of purple and some silver. For on that day, assuming all things being equal, this column will post its 1000th installment. Speaking for myself, that will be worth lighting up about.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves architecture. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Truths, Lies and Maybes

Call them old wives' tales, urban myths or stuff your mother told you and you didn't dare correct her. But the bottom line is that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes true. More correctly, it takes on the ring of truth. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Lighting won't hit you if you're under a tree. "I'm innocent," says Lindsay Lohan. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. In these and a thousand other instances, the accepted maxim has proven to be less than accurate. And in the case of the last, downright laughable.

Probably no area is more rife with these not-so-truism's than health related matters. Most have been handed done through the ages and are well accepted, if not as gospel, then at least as best practice. But here too the reality doesn't necessarily match up.  "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Can't hurt, but there's no one-for-one relationship; actually, research has shown that if you want a fruit that will make a difference, try blueberries.  "You shouldn't swim for an hour after eating." The reasoning had something to do with blood flow to your stomach as opposed to your muscles, and the likelihood of cramps. Not so: studies say that while you might have less energy after chowing down, you won't drown. "Warm milk will help you fall asleep." It's true that milk has small amounts of tryptophan, just like turkey. But to knock you out would take a few gallons. Stick to vodka.

Recently scientists in this area of comparing what we think is real to what is really real, a field know as biostatistics, took a look at some similar myths centered on weight gain. In an article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham took on a number of "accepted" truths about weight and obesity, and compared them to what scientific studies say in the same area. The results debunk some popular ideas, so much so that you may want to rethink that broccoli diet you swear by. And at.

For instance, most people would say that school gym classes help kids stay slim. Not so, says the research; classes typically are not long, often or intense enough to make much difference. Another: regularly eating breakfast helps prevent obesity. The fact is that two different studies found that eating your first meal early in the day had no effect on weight, while another suggested that the effect depended on whether people were used to skipping breakfast or not. And my personal favorite to decertify in the "of course everybody knows THAT" listing: snacking leads to weight gain. Fact: No high quality studies support that, the authors say. Oh, I just have to say that again. Fact: snacking doesn't lead to weight gain. Why do I suddenly hear angels singing?

With that good news in mind, I wondered what other absolute truths weren't? I mean, we all live our lives based on a set of do and don't that define how we act. But what if they're, well, wrong? So I did a search for other "must be trues" that aren't. And I came across a bunch that may surprise you.

Turns out Napoleon wasn't so short, more like 5 feet 7 inches. Bulls can't really see the red in those red capes, but are attracted to the movement. Goldfish have memories that last more than 3 seconds, more like months. If you cut an earthworm in half, you don't get two earthworms; you get one shorter earthworm and one dead piece of earthworm. Poinsettias aren't highly poisonous, just mildly irritating. Waking sleepwalkers doesn't harm then, but they may be dizzy and fall down. You don't lose most of your body heat through your head. Shaving doesn't cause the hair to grow back thicker. And swallowed chewing gum does not take seven years to digest.

Feel better? Or worse? Just think: if even a fraction of what you take to be true isn't, your world can tilt. You can feel OK about things like cracking your knuckles or picking up a toad, neither of which will actually cause you any harm. Of course, some things on which you count are indeed true: men hate asking for directions, and Twinkies are good forever. Those you can take to the bank.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't know what to believe anymore. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.