Saturday, June 30, 2018

Strategic Supplies

Say what you will about the meeting between Kim and Trump in Singapore, but the general feeling is that we've stepped a little further away from the nuclear abyss. That's not to say that we won't see another round of "my button is bigger than your button" between two notoriously thin-skinned leaders. But at least for the present, and probably through a long, drawn-out set of negotiations which may not lead anywhere, odds are that it will take a little more than just simple taunts to start launching missiles. 

But nuclear weapons are just one type of threat. To be sure they are the biggest and baddest. However, to use them is most assuredly shooting yourself in the foot in the biggest possible way. The interconnectedness of today's world means using that kind of weapon is not a zero sum game. You might decimate another country physically and win the battle, but in one sense you will lose the war. That's because your export market goes up in that mushroom cloud along with all the buildings and people. Blow them up, and you are basically plunging a stake into your own economy as well. 

As such, the focus is shifting from physical threats to the economic variety. Other than fighting terrorism, the only way nation states are using the term "war" these days is in relation to trade. We lobbed tariffs at Chinese products ranging from aircraft tires to boat motors to chicken incubators. They fired back with tit-for-tat penalties on a wide variety of goods exported from us, including fresh or dried guava, stainless steel pipes, and fresh or cold boned pig forelegs, hindquarters and their meat. Nasty and probably counterproductive, yes. But in the scheme of things, unless you were just about to pick up a cheap Chinese electrical particle accelerator, relatively surgical and targeted pickings from both sides.   

In fact, in light of current events, any country needs to consider who they are pissing off, and what can kind of leverage they really have. If North Korea's biggest export to us is nukes (the incoming variety) and that is taken off the table, what arrow in their economic quiver can they threaten with or be threatened with? Their biggest export is coal briquettes, which are kind of like the stuff you use in your grill, but made of asphalt. They are also big in processed fish. So I think we may have the upper hand there. 

Then there's the situation with our neighbor to the north. Odds of a shooting war with Canada are pretty slim. But a lot of goods go back and forth across that border. That means their biggest weapon (and also pressure point) may be their dominance of the global maple syrup pipeline. Do we really want to antagonize the country that exports 82% of the world's supply? Pancake eaters from Duluth to Austin should be shaking in their boots. 

That's not to say that it doesn't cut both ways. Canada is having issues right now with tariffs on its pulse exports, which are the dried and edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Seeking to gain some trade leverage, back in March India increased tariffs from 44% to 60% on incoming chickpeas. Still, Canadian chickpea producers aren't panicking just yet, as the main crops sent there from the 18,000 pulse crop producers in Saskatchewan are lentils and peas. Most of the Canadian chickpea crop goes to the US and Turkey. But if we draw a line in the sand over hummus, it'll be a whole different story. 

It's the same all over. Benin has to worry about it's shea butter exports, while Palau has to be concerned with its tuna industry. Tonga is big in vanilla beans, while Jamaica has rum. In Australia it's coal, in Chile it's copper, in Madagascar it's coffee. As Boston's David Ortiz said, "Everybody has a responsibility. Even the batboy." 

But this is all just mosquito bites. Sure, there are pockets in each country that will be hurt by the various nibbles and nicks. If you're a Kentucky bourbon producer, you're not happy. However, making knit caps more expensive or tightening the supply of lawnmower engines is unlikely to bring an economy to its knees. But keep your eyes open. When you start to see tariffs on iPhones and Taylor Swift songs, you'll know that the gloves are finally off.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants to protect the domestic peanut butter cup market. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Water Torture

Anyone who has ever owned a home, anyone who has ever rented a home, anyone who has ever lived in a home has had to make repairs. Some are little minor fixes: covering over a nail hole, replacing a light bulb, tightening a door handle. Others requite a bit more knowledge: changing a switch, stopping a drippy faucet, patching a ding in a wall. Still others are major projects that require the right tools and knowledge: fixing a broken window, replacing a faucet, repairing almost any type of appliance. It all depends on your comfort level and skill. Some are at home with a wire stripper or an electric sander, while to others a Philips screwdriver constitutes cutting edge technology. What is child's play to some is terrifying to others. 

There's also the realization that just because it looks easy doesn't make it so. It's tempting to watch the repairman come in, unscrew half a dozen screws, then reach in to the washing machine/dishwasher/refrigerator, pull out the broken frizzit and put in a new one in 10 minutes, and think you can do it yourself and save the $180 service call. But that presumes you know which screws to remove, know what's making the noise, and have bought a 4T32re frizzit. The left handed version. 

It's not like many electronic items, where turning them off, then on again cures 90% of all problems. Regardless of where it is on spectrum, the common bond in repairs is that you have actually do something. The problem comes when you think you know what your doing: it all seems so straightforward until it isn't. 

My particular Achilles heel is things involving water. If it's not too complicated, I'm OK with some carpentry, and can paint competently. Unless it involved the mains, I'm even OK with electrical: the worse that can do is kill you. But plumbing? When that goes south, it goes very south, and winds up costing a lot of money. 

Twice I have approached what seemed to be very simple repairs, only to have them spiral out of control. The first was cleaning out a slow draining sink in the basement of our first house. The drain pipe had a knockout plug on the bottom. I thought I could just twist off that cap, and clean out the accumulated gunk: what could be simpler? So I grabbed a wrench and twisted. And twisted. And twisted some more. Eventually it gave way, along with half the pipe. We had to call in a plumber, who said the pipe was too old to even try and repair. By the time he traced it back to something solid he could latch onto, my simple drain repair cost $1000. 

Or this week, when the supply line from the wall into the toilet was dripping. My wife implored me to call a plumber, but it seemed pretty straight forward. I took a picture and went to the local hardware store. I showed it to the guy, and he led me to a rack with the exact part, a little mini garden hose with twist-on connections at each end that cost eight dollars. What could be simpler? (Now, where have I heard that before? Hmmm.) 

I went home and got down on my hands and knees. I twisted the supply knob off, but something didn't feel right. I turned it back on, only to realize it was stuck in the off position. I twisted it back and forth: nothing. I got some tools, took the handle off and used a pliers to twist the little nubbin: still; nothing. My wife saw me running back and forth between my toolbox and the bathroom. Her look of concern was exceeded only by my own. 

After fiddling with it for a few more minutes I realized that once again I had been had. Knowing at least to stop before I made it worse, I placed the toilet off limits and called a pro. He came 2 days later, and indeed had to drain the system, cut into the wall and install a new valve and feed. Rather than eight bucks, the total was $200 and change. At least I was able to return the little hose to the hardware store. 

For me at least, the lesson learned is whenever it involves pipes and water, call a plumber. What could be simpler?


Marc Wollin of Bedford is proud of his screwdriver assortment. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Low Hi Tech

I have spent way, way, way too much time on this. 

It should be easy. There are countless options in multiple formats, and that might just be the problem: too many choices. As Goldilocks said, it can't be too big or too small, it has to be just right. Or to quote someone less famous, more verbose but just as knowledgeable, it was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who wrote "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." She was talking about beds; he was talking about pornography. No matter, my goal is the same: I want something very specific. 

In this case it's something very simple: a journal. More correctly, it's a mileage log for my vehicle. Years ago I started to keep a small notebook tucked into the little pocket on the door of my car. Since my office was in my house, from a tax standpoint, I was able to deduct the cost of traveling to and from projects and meetings. Every year the IRS publishes a rate that is used to calculate this specific deduction: this year it's 54.5 cents per mile. Drive 10 miles to a job, and you can deduct $5.40 off of whatever you make from that project. It adds up: over the course of a year it can enable you to reduce your taxable income by thousands of dollars. 

The one requirement is that you are supposed to keep contemporaneous records. That means that you are supposed to make a note of that mileage when it happens, along with the date, destination and reason for the trip. Thirty years ago when I started the only way to really do this was to look at the odometer on your car and write it all down as it happened. Hence the state of art was the notebook and pencil. Of course these days, with Google maps and smartphones, you can easily reconstruct it after the fact, and do it while sitting on your couch in your bunny slippers. 

But old habits die hard. On each step up the technological ladder, I adapted my practice to the device. When I got my first electronic personal digital assistant, a Sharp Zaurus, I used it to record my notes. Then I did the same with my Palm Pilot, both first and second generation. I think there also a Sony device in there somewhere along the way, and maybe something from Casio. Eventually I made the jump to a smartphone, and found an app the did what I needed, basically replicating my record keeping with electronic pencil and paper. 

Like many, I've upgraded my phone over time, and had to go through the process of reinstalling my favorites apps, only to find out some are no longer available. No worry: there's usually an updated version, or a similar clone with better looking graphics available. This time around I didn't so much upgrade as rebuild; my phone was getting buggy, so I wiped it clean and started from scratch. It takes a few hours, but it's like a cleanse: all runs much better once you get rid of all that, well, let's just call it "electronic residue" that has built up in the pipes. 

But turns out my old mileage logger was no longer available, and there was nothing similar. All the variants I could find were fancy versions, with GPS and map interfaces, built in calculators for gas mileage and live cloud interface. I loaded one, then another, deleting each as I saw the bloat and overkill they entailed. I didn't like the graphics on one, found the fonts too small on another, and found the cuteness of a third with a little model car annoying. All I wanted was a simple low tech solution; all I got was cutting edge. 

As of this writing I'm still looking. Robert Watson-Watt, a British developer of radar in World War II, said "Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes." I don't even want third best, I just want what works for me. As Justice Stewart said, I'll know it when I see it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes looking for the perfect widget. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Gabe vs. Peter

It's not really much of a grudge match. The protagonists have never met each other and likely never will. Even if they did, it's likely they would get along just fine, swapping stories and anecdotes over their shared interests: no grudge at all. And yet because of those shared interests they are going head to head, with the field of play being me. 

Or more accurately, my books, such as they are. Like many small businesses, I deal not only with what I like to do but also with a myriad of administrative tasks. By and large, those involve areas in which I was never trained. Yes, I know the old saying in the law that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. And you could also reasonably extend that sentiment to these other arenas. Still, in over 35 plus years on my own, I have of necessity often functioned as my own lawyer, paymaster, IT Director and bookkeeper. 

With one exception. When it comes to what I owe the government, I know I am over my head. Even before the latest bill officially entitled "To provide for reconciliation pursuant to Titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018" and more colloquially as the Tax Cut, I knew what I didn't know, and it was most of that stuff. And that's where Gabe came in. 

For more than 30 years he guided me through the thicket of rules and regs, helping me to pay my fair share and no more. A former accounting professor, he worked out of his converted garage, and every single message he left on my machine over three decades started with "Marc, this is Gabe, your accountant." Together we fought our way through 1040's, Schedule C's and the dreaded and incomprehensible K1. Through it all, we (using the papal plural) were only audited once, an ordeal that ended with me not having to pay anything other than a small adjustment, and with Gabe explaining to me the best attitude to have for our protagonists: "Screw them." 

But like Butch and Sundance, all good partnerships eventually come to an end. Gabe called me last summer to tell me he was hanging it up. "I'm 85, "he said. "Enough is enough." I didn't disagree, and offered him best wishes. He offered to see me through the rest of the year, but the handwriting was most assuredly on the ledger: I had to find a new accountant. 

And so we turned to Peter. He came highly recommended from a friend, had experience with my kind of business, and was knowledgeable and personable. Unlike Gabe, who steadfastly resisted all this new fangled com-poo-ter stuff and still faxed me missives, Peter is all electronic all the time. Documents, payments, reviews: all was uploaded and downloaded, scanned and e-whatever-ed. 

There are most assuredly other adjustments. Style, tone, accessibility; different for sure, but all easily negotiated and adapted to on both sides. The most obvious change is in the work product. With Gabe, he translated my scribbles into tax-ese, simplifying and combining my entries. So in the case of mileage, tolls and parking, I would list each separately, only to have him smoosh all together on a single line for "local travel." When I gave the same thing to Peter, he plugged it all in, and his software spit out 4 pages. The result was that while my entire tax transmittal from Gabe was a handful of pages, Peter's first draft almost gave me heart failure: it was 125 sheets long. The bottom line was the same, but many more electronic trees were killed to get me there. 

That aside, I'm happy to say the transition has been relatively painless. Like any new marriage, professional or otherwise, we're finding our level ground. We made it through tax season unscathed with a minimum of fuss. He managed to make sense of my rudimentary record keeping and got us back our returns to file on time. Most critically, he fulfilled the most important request I had. I asked that if in examining our returns over the past decades he found ways we could have saved huge amounts of money, he should just keep his mouth shut. Water under the bridge; I don't want to know. 

He has said nothing; we're getting along just fine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to keep good records. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Just Between Us

All your pals are checking in. You got an email from, a nice note from Churchill Living and a similar one from NPR. And there were others from Uber, Marriott and Yelp. In fact, almost anyone with whom you've ever transacted online has likely reached out to you this past week to say, "Not to worry. We'll never tell anyone about you. It's all just between us." 

It's not like they are doing this because they suddenly developed a case of the infected privates. It's because the EU forced their hand. Starting way back in 2012, coincidentally the year the Facebook went public, the parliament of the European Union began work on what would eventually become the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. Finally passed in 2016, it gave companies 2 years to get their house in order. And so this past week, on May 25, all companies doing business in the EU territory have to comply with the new regulations. Or else. 

And there most assuredly is an "or else." Unlike so many laws and regulations that contain token penalties that amount to lunch money for the CEO, this one carries some serious bite. If a company is found to be guilty of playing fast and loose with your personal data, they can be fined to "20 million euro or up to 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater." Using Facebook's yearly revenue as an example, that means a penalty of $1.6 billion (that's "billion" with a "B") if found in breach. In fact, on the very first day the regulations went into effect, both Facebook and Google were hit with lawsuits accusing the companies of breaching the regulations and seeking to fine Facebook 3.9 billion euro and Google 3.7 billion euro. So much for a long relaxing Memorial Day weekend. 

The penalties are so onerous that a number of companies quickly blocked access to their sites for EU customers rather than face the possibility of not being in compliance. If you are in France or Luxembourg or Malta, and try to visit the websites of the Los Angeles Times or A&E Networks, you can't get there from there. As the notice on the Chicago Tribune site says, "Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism." Translation: better to bar you than have to pay up because of you. 

Some websites went even further, and shut down completely, turning out the lights rather than update their systems. As posted on the home page of Super Monday Night Combat, a multi-player game operating since 2011, "due to the upcoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline which is May 24th, we are sad to announce that we will be shutting down SMNC on that day." Admittedly over the last 30 days the game averaged just 5 players, but I bet they were disappointed. 

Contrast all this with rules protecting our privacy on these shores. In spite of breeches involving 45 million users at TJ Maxx in 2007 or of 1 billion users at Yahoo in 2012 or 330 million users of Twitter just this year, legislators here have, well, gotten really mad. "I think there is a political dynamic and clearly a policy interest in doing something to stop these breaches, by deterring them and helping people who are harmed by them," said Senator Richard Blumenthal or Connecticut. But while there may be some will, there doesn't appear to be a way, or even the knowledge of how to proceed. Several years ago, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee for Homeland Security Appropriations, John Carter of Texas, started a hearing by saying while it was important, "I don't know anything about this stuff." 

So thank you Kinga Gal from Hungary. Thank you Sergei Stanishev from Bulgaria. Thank you Jan Philipp Albrecht, Barbara Kudrycka and Monika Benova from Germany, Poland and Slovakia respectively. Each is an EU Parliament member who is protecting us from the evils of Google and Amazon and Russian troll farms. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, you could learn a few things.


Marc Wollin of Bedford promises not to share your comments. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.