Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Tooth Index

Regardless of your political leanings, the one thing all agree upon is the need to push the economy forward. The debate, of course, is in levers needed to do that. Where do you push? Where do you pull? Where do you erect barriers and where do you tear them down? There is no shortage of opinions across the spectrum from politicians, business leaders and intellectuals as to the right mix. Even those whose profession is to study such things don't have unanimity of ideas. It was Edgar Fielder, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Presidents Nixon and Ford who famously said, "Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard."

Even the mileposts by which that success is measured are hardly carved in stone. Do you look at industrial production? Debt ratios? Retail sales? All tell you something, but not everything. And like every statistic, they are subject to interpretation and nuance, something that our current state of dialog doesn't handle very well. Witness the unemployment rate. Most recently it was down and jobs were up. But does that mean more people are working, or that more people have stopped looking for work? President Trump said the numbers were a fiction when he was running for office, but now they tell the real story. What changed? Nothing really, other than where he was standing when he made the pronouncements.

And maybe those aren't the best metrics anyways. Tons of steel and yield curves are certainly indicators, but you and I deal with more mundane things that give us a window into how we're all doing. Consider the Hot Waitress Economic Index. While the name may give a nod to Bill O'Reilly, this index measures the number of people in service industry jobs with above average sex appeal, both male and female. It is assumed that more attractive people have an easier time finding higher-paying jobs in good economic times. Therefore, if stunners are forced into lower paying jobs, the economy is not doing so well. How to read this? Well, the next time you hit the Starbucks, and your Java Chip Frappuccino is made not but by a dead ringer for Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney but by a scruffy tattoo aficionado, you can assume Apple futures have some future.

Then there's the Tooth Fairy Index or TFI. Since 1998, Delta Dental has been surveying parents across the country as to the payout for a lost tooth. The poll collects average giving, and compares it to stock market activity as an indicator for the economy. How reliable is it? Well, in 12 of the past 13 years, the trend in average giving has tracked with the movement of the S&P 500. Take that, Milton Friedman.

And what does the TFI show this time around? Last year the Tooth Fairy paid about $290.6 million in the U.S. for lost teeth, a 13.5% increase from 2015. Cash payouts for a first lost tooth are up about 10% to $5.72, and first-tooth payouts are typically higher than average. Payouts are highest in the West at $5.96 ($6.89 for the first tooth), followed by the Northeast at $5.08 ($6.31), the South at $4.57 ($4.88), and the Midwest at $4.04 ($5.70). Not exactly a blue state/red state divide, but there you go.

If you dig deeper into the data, there is some plaque you need to brush away. While 89% of the homes the Tooth Fairy hits receive money, the fairy is also known to occasionally leave gifts that promote dental health, such as toothpaste or toothbrushes. And 56% of parents say the Tooth Fairy can be a little forgetful, neglecting to pick up the tooth on the first night. No word if that correlates to credit quality or not.

But like all things, one can see this changing with the times. After all, if you had to cough it up right now, would you have correct change for a molar? As such, don't be surprised when you hear about little Suzy losing her tooth and waking up to find not cold hard cash under her pillow, but an Amazon gift card. After all, spending online will continue to be key for growth. And so brushing isn't the only thing kids need to start doing early. Our economic future depends on it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks he gave his kids a buck a tooth. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


It was quiet. Too quiet. And while that's the way a thousand war movies and film noir stories begin, neither an attack nor a murder was imminent. Rather, the guys working on our lawn had finally come to begin their spring routine, and had unleashed their coring machine. They went back and forth, punching out little plugs of about half an inch across and two inches long in the turf. The resulting holes allow water and nutrients to get below the compacted surface. And our lawn was desperately in need of that kind of TLC.

The process was noisy, but if you cocked your head you could almost hear the remaining blades of grass taking a deep breath. The quiet? That was coming from inside the house. For as the guys went about their business, we started to realize that our internet connection was not working. Come to think of it, there was no dial tone on the phone. And darn it, the cable seemed to be out. It didn't take a PhD in electrical engineering to guess what happened: all that hole punching had made Swiss cheese of our fiber optic connection.

It wasn't really their fault. When the line was run from the house to the street, it was run across the lawn, and then buried by the installers. There is no real spec on how deep it has to be, as there is no danger: a fiber optic cable is just a strand of glass, and carries no power. In a perfect world they go down 6 inches or so. But where we live there are lots of rocks and roots, and sometimes that trench is a little closer to the surface. How close? Well, in this case, I'd say in some spots less than the two inch plugs they were punching out.

A call to Verizon (on a cell phone) confirmed that they weren't seeing our terminal box from their end. The only recourse was to send out a tech to take a look. But since it was about four in the afternoon, the soonest a guy could get there was the next morning. Not bad, considering. But still: that would mean we would be without phone, internet and cable for 16 hours.  


You don't realize how much you depend on all that until you don't have it. Sure, we had our cells, but we live in a fringe area. Texts sort of get through, searches take a long time, and calls work if you stand by the living room window and lean towards the west. And streaming something? Putting aside the fact that we don't have unlimited data, watching an episode of "Victoria" on PBS would reach well into the Elizabethan era.  

So we did without. But we couldn't pull up the recipes we had stored online. We couldn't listen to news or check the weather. We couldn't stream some music as background for dinner. Even our Amazon Alexa stood us up. With no connection, anything you asked her produced the reply (stored locally in her memory) "I'm sorry, I can't understand you right now." We actually had to resort to talking to each other. And that never ends well.

But somehow we made it through the night. And when at a little after 8AM, a shiny Verizon truck drove up with Jack in it, we greeted him like a savior. He took one look at all the little plugs on our lawn: "Yup. Seen it before. They cut the line." I asked him if he was sure, did he want to check the main box on the street, could it just be a coincidence. He gave me a look like a parent would give an errant two-year old, I'm sure calling to mind all they taught him in that customer service workshop. "Nah, it's cut. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but it's cut." He laughed. "No worries. Give me an hour, I'll have you up and running."

Sure enough, under 60 minutes later, Jack knocked on the door. "Give it a try," he said. I ran around the house. Cable? Check. Phone? Dial tone. Internet? Google, my Google. For now, the line ran across out lawn until the burying crew could get to us, but no matter: we were back. Sixteen hours of isolation. Well, sort of. And next time the lawn needs some air, I may just buy don a pair of golf spikes.


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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Color of Empire

Pity the poor Brits. They used to say that sun never set on the British empire, a nod to the fact that its possessions circled the globe. From India to Egypt, from the Sudan to New Zealand, historians estimated that the Union jack flew over roughly 25% of the world's land mass. However in a relatively short period of time, day became night. And now the United Kingdom is just the four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yes, there are still 14 overseas territories and 3 Crown dependencies spread far and wide. But if you factor out their Antarctic claim, you're left with such footholds as the Falklands, Pitcairn Island and Montserrat. All together they add up to an area less than the size of New Jersey. Hardly the British Raj.

In other arenas where they used to rein supreme it's no different. In culture high and low, they used to set the tone, with names ranging from Shakespeare to Benny Hill, from Laurence Olivier and Mr. Bean, from JRR Tolkien to Monty Python. In music the names of favorite sons defined rock and roll: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. But then they go and produce the Spice Girls and One Direction. How far they have fallen.

This past year saw perhaps the biggest retreat of all, with Brexit pulling the UK out of the European Union. It seemed like a good idea to some, a chance to reclaim their old glory and run their own ship. Never mind that it's safe to say that not everyone thought it through: immediately after the vote the most searched question on Google was "What does it mean to leave the EU?" Now, a year later, banks are shifting operations to Berlin, Richard Branson pulled out of a deal that would have brought 3000 jobs to the UK, and Lloyd's of London is setting up Lloyd's of Brussels.

Still, some good might come of it after all. Putting aside the economic ramifications, a large part of the reason for the vote was to get the country out from under the thumb of the EU. They wanted to be free its onerous regulations, including such rulings as "all bananas must be free of abnormal curvature," while cucumbers were to be "practically straight" and bent by a gradient not to exceed 10 millimeters per every 10 centimeters in length. Not that the English themselves were completely devoid of stupid rules: it is still on the books that placing a postage stamp bearing the monarch's head upside down on an envelope is considered as act of treason.

But perhaps the best reason of all was for the UK to get back its manhood. Well, not its manhood per se. But starting in 1988, the country's passports were redesigned to be in compliance with a common format agreed upon by the EU. And that meant the cover included the phrase "European Union" over and above "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." As if that weren't demeaning enough, the color also changed from a dark royal blue to what some called burgundy, others called maroon, but what many considered pink.

Just how big a deal is this? Conservative Member of Parliament Andrew Rosindell said "The restoration of our own British passport is a clear statement to the world that Britain is back. The humiliation of having a pink European Union passport will now soon be over and the United Kingdom nationals can once again feel pride and self-confidence in their own nationality when travelling, just as the Swiss and Americans can do." A word of caution: while I can't speak for the Swiss, I do have to tell my English friends that the fact that my USA passport is blue isn't going very far in making me feel confident about what's happening here at home.

Still, every little bit helps. But it's not a given that the old blue book will make its return. The Home Office has invited businesses to apply for a 490 million pound redesign contract. As perhaps a preview of possibilities, design magazine Dezeen had a contest asking for suggestions. Among the finalists are a bunch of blue variations as well as other hues, a half pink/half blue design for those wishing an escape hatch, and one emblazoned with the legend "Full United Kingdom - Resident" which is also abbreviated on the cover in large letters as "FUK-R." Take that, Brussels.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always has his passport ready. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Picture This

The location: Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The date: September 19, 1982. The time: 11:44AM. The scene: A bunch of computer scientists on an early interconnected bulletin board, the precursor to the internet, having a back-and-forth about how to flag any jokes they were posting. Some suggested an asterisk, while others suggested a percentage sign. One researcher, Keith Wright, thought that the best symbol would be an ampersand because "Surely everyone will agree that ‘&' is the funniest character on the keyboard. It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter). It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times). I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum of the CRT it would even smell funny!"

Fellow researcher Scott Fahlman had a different idea. In a moment that ranks up there with the groundbreaking leaps made by Gutteneberg and Whitney and Jobs, Fahlman suggested that a sequence of characters would be best. You can see the entire thread online, but the relevant portion goes thusly: "I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-). Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use :-(." And with that, the smiley face and frowney face emoticons were born.

As their use grew and email and texting spread, creative users added more and more variations. At their core, emoticons were sequences of existing characters that, if you squinted and turned your head this way or that, sort of conveyed an idea without having to use actual words. As they grew in popularity, more and more people starting using them, especially in Japan, a country whose very language is basically a series of pictographs. Phone company DoCoMo noticed this, and decided to jump on the bandwagon big time. But they took the idea one step further: rather than being a series of characters, they created a standard set of symbols which existed as entities unto themselves. And so the emoji was born.

What started as 176 individual symbols including a shoe, a train and a snowman has evolved over 9 generations to include nearly 2000 pictographs. You can argue that taken together they constitute the newest and fastest growing language in the world, one that transcends cultures and borders. As administered by the Unicode Consortium, an international organization devoted to developing, maintaining and promoting software internationalization standards and data, the "tongue" is regularly updated as users ask for more and more symbols to help them better communicate entirely in pictures. The most recent iteration, released last year, includes new and requested emojis representing, among other things, peanuts, a drum and a pregnant woman (see if you can use those three in a sentence).  

As you scroll through the list you'll see a running tally of mainstream symbols representing all the important things in life. Dog? Yup. Flower? Of course. Umbrella, tennis, motorcycle? Yes, yes and yes. But to some, there is a glaring omission. If you wanted to describe your breakfast there are symbols for pancakes, for bacon, even for croissants. But what you won't find is what my mother has every day: you won't find an emoji for a bagel.

An outrage to be sure. If you want to communicate your morning repast to a friend via text, you have to settle for a doughnut emoji, and hope they mistake the sprinkles for poppy seeds. But some aren't sitting still. The New York Bakery Company (interestingly enough, based in Rotherham England) has started a petition asking Unicode to create a bagel emoji.  As they say, "Do you really need 4 different coloured notebooks? 16 variations of cyclist? A dragon? A horizontal traffic light? Despite consuming over 320 million each year, bagels are yet to make the digital leap." It's an outrage ripe for addressing.

As of this writing, Unicode's 2017 list has just been finalized, and includes updates such as a zombie, socks, as well as the much-requested person vomiting. But no bagel, poppy or otherwise. Is it too much to ask that one be included? You can lend your voice by signing the petition at  Already, the powers that be are starting to compile a list of possibles for generation 11, due out in 2018. So far, emojis representing a firecracker, a red envelope and a mooncake are in the running. So hop to it and sign the petition: don't leave your sesame version out in the cold.


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

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Music to Live By

If you've going to do a little gardening and want a soundtrack, some tunes come to mind. Maybe "Green Green Grass of Home" by everyone from Elvis to Joan Baez to Tom Jones. Or "Dandelion Wine" by The Hollies. And of course "Octopus's Garden" by the Beatles. Or let's say you're cooking and want something to set the mood. There's "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs. Or perhaps "Coconut" from Harry Nilsson. Try "Storm in a Teacup" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Cleaning house? Go with "Come Clean" from Hilary Duff, "Car Wash" from Rose Royce, and top it off with "Washing Dishes" by Jack Johnson.

Pick almost any activity, and there's bound to be a couple of tracks that capture that spirit. Walking the dog? "Me and You and a Dog named Boo" by Lobo. Doing laps? "I Go Swimming" from Peter Gabriel. Driving? I'd go with "Life is a Highway" by Tom Cochrane. And let's not even talk about love and relationships, which account the vast majority of all songs in recorded history, not to mention anything Adele has ever sung.

But it turns out that music can not just represent stages of life, it can actually be responsible for saving a life. Yes, I know The Fray laid out all the steps in "How to Save A Life." But more practically New York Presbyterian has published a playlist of 40 songs that you can actually use to save one, especially if it belongs to a person who's heart has stopped beating. Not emotionally gone cold, mind you, but literally no longer going thump thump thump.

When people are taught to do the lifesaving technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, better known as CPR, they are taught to put one hand over the other on the distressed person's sternum, and pump deeply and frequently. Two metrics are important. The compressions are supposed to be about 2 inches deep, which is what it takes to force blood out of the heart and around the body. And the speed of those compressions is supposed be about a little less than twice a second, or about 100 times per minute.

Unfortunately most people have a poor sense of time and pace. But fortunately most people also have the ability to remember stupid stuff like pop songs. And so some genius came up with the idea that you could marry the need to pump at 100 beats a minute with songs that hummed along at that tempo. And voila, the dead could be revived by the Bee Gees "Stayin' Alive" in more ways than one.

Of course, that seventies disco classic is not the only song that was recorded to that particular metronome setting. Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" is another that meets the proper pumping threshold, making two tunes whose titles neatly fit with this intended off-label use. Not so a classic Queen title. While it too clocks in around the requisite 100 BPM marker, you hate to be banging on someone's chest while belting out "Another One Bites the Dust."

The New York Presbyterian playlist offers up more than two hours of life saving (if not necessarily life affirming) musical selections. That means that there's a little something for almost everyone across the musical spectrum. If you're into pop there are offerings from Missy Elliot, BeyoncĂ©, and Justin Timberlake. Are your tastes more edgy, more alt-rock?  You can be the hero while singing out tunes by Fall Out Boy, Modest Mouse, and the All-American Rejects. But sorry, no death metal listings. For should you scream out something like "Symptom of Terminal Illness" by Dillinger Escape Plan to keep pace, you'd be hammering some poor soul at 360 beats per minute. As one fan noted, "The person you save won't see a tunnel of light before they're brought back to life, they'll see the bottom of a mosh pit."

You just have to be careful which version of the tunes on the "WNYP" playlist you use. For while "Crazy" in on there, it's important to note it's the Gnarls Barkley version. That indeed clocks in around 112 beats per minute. But if you start singing the Patsy Kline chestnut, you would only be pounding on that chest at a rate of 71 BPM. In that case, that Queen tune might not be sending wrong message after all.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes the idea of doing CPR to "Walk Like an Egyptian." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.