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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Deep-Sixed in the Heart of Texas

Following a funeral at the King David Memorial Sanctuary in Falls Church, Virginia, I stumbled--just  down the road--onto a second cemetery that also sports an Old Testament theme—The Noah’s Ark Pet Cemetery. What a comfort, I thought, to receive perpetual care one day in  the general vicinity of my significant other, Bootsie the Cat.

While that prospect bodes well for Bootsie and me,  I’ve discovered that in the great state of Texas our options would be better still. Last May, the Texas Banking Commission, which regulates funerals and cemeteries [does that make sense to you?], deep-sixed burials of pets in cemeteries for homo sapiens. But Texas still welcomes human burials alongside animals in pet cemeteries. For folks like Ken Martin

And there is more. As the clip reveals, some Texans are also opting for their own burials--sans Bootsie---in pet cemeteries. The cost of room and board, notes the clip, beats its counterpart in people cemeteries by a mile. So why not think outside the box?

Because in Texas, times remain tough—not only for the 6.8% unemployed, but for what author and NY Times reporter  Gail Collins describes in her book,  As Texas Goes . . . , as the state’s “long-standing first-place ranking for jobs at or below minimum wage." But Texas is looking up. "In 2011, " she writes, "it finally managed a tie with Mississippi for the honor.”

Also on Wig & Pen: Marmorial Multitasking

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Blog Post for Dummies

For evidence of branding run amok, Wig & Pen blog  turns to the For Dummies instructional books series, which began modestly in 1991 with the alliterative potboiler, DOS for Dummies. Today, more than 2,000 for Dummies books explore acne, fishing, forensics, Chihuahuas, etc.—you get the idea.
I’ve collected a sextet of inspirational titles below, where the hegemony of the For Dummies brand/franchise is—to be charitable—inappropriate. For one thing, I recommend losing the unfortunate Alzheimer’s For Dummies. By substituting Dementia For Dummies we reconnect with the series’ alliterative roots.



And for Wig & Pen's edification:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Free as Air? Showdown at the Pumps

Traditional, consumer-friendly pump
 Photo by Andy Castro.
Who knew? The company that invented and grew flush from the pay toilet also brought us the first coin-operated air pumps at service stations in the late 1970s. By the mid-1970s, Indianapolis-based Nik-O-Lok was reeling from national angst over pay-toilets that had brought the business to its haunches. Scampering for a new market, the company debuted its coin-operated pump—4 minutes for a quarter (1 minute per tire)—in 1977 in Pittsburgh. Within a year, it added 500 more pay-as-you-go pumps in service stations (perhaps better described from then on as gas stations) in the Midwest and Northeast.

Consumer reactions ranged from amazement to fury. “It’s part of the traditional aspect of service stations to provide such necessary service as free air,” observed (former New York Republican senator) Alfonse D’Amato, who at the time (1978) was town supervisor of Hempstead, LI. The town promptly passed an ordinance banning monetized pumps. By and large, though, that was exceptional:  pay-as-you-pump continues in all but two states—Connecticut and California, which banned the practice in 2005 and 1999.
Philanthropy in the Air [click on photo to enlarge]
Back in the late 1970s, the advent of monetized air triggered a hefty endowment effect among consumers, i.e., disproportionate resistance to the prospect of losing a previously taken-for-granted “possession.” (Today you can see the endowment effect at work whenever “free” services on the internet become monetized.)
Compressed Air Is Not Free. Forty years down the road, resentment toward fee-for-air pumps is alive and well. Witness the thriving, consumer-active web site,, which identifies and advocates its namesake nationwide. An enduring ingredient in the air-must-be-free argument is air’s symbolic cachet as an iconic free commodity. But compressed air with its cost-based inputs of electricity and machine upkeep is decidedly not free! (although providing it at a profit versus at cost are two very different things).  Gas stations that choose to offer their compressed air for free will foot the bill through cross-subsidized fees for other goods and services or float free air as a cost of good will.

An Inflationary Red Herring. But don’t over-weight quarters-for-air as the disincentive in Americans’ well-documented neglect, i.e., under-inflation, of their tires--a penchant associated with garden variety flats, blowouts, and fuel inefficiencies. (A 2003 NY Times article reported that only 11% of drivers check their tires monthly as recommended.)  In truth, price itself is often an over-rated factor in a constellation of disincentives, including consumer-unfriendly pumps with hard-to-decipher pressure gauges and stressful timers. And for many a driver, getting down at tire level can be orthopedically and sartorially daunting.  

So we’d do well to have a serious policy conversation about making tire inflation more consumer friendly--a conversation that considers better air-pump design, driver education, and, of course, economic incentives for motorists and service stations. But to begin, we need to exorcise the red herring that compressed air must be--excuse the expression--free as air.
The Unanswered Question

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Jewish New Year Challah Puzzler

Click to Enlarge (Photos: Jim Neill)

Each year the Woodstar Café in Northampton, Massachusetts takes Challah orders for patrons of the Rosh Hashanah persuasion. Hours before the liminal event, a Wig & Pen confederate photographed the deafeningly polite queue of Challah bags that grace this blog post. Clue: If you can’t identify the odd-bag-out below, read from left to right.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Amherst, Massachusetts Wants to Party

[click to enlarge]

With its first-ever annual downtown block party a fait accompli, the Town of Amherst showed thousands of students and others a thing or two about partying. Months in the making and spearheaded by the Amherst Business Improvement District--an economic development organization of local property owners--the festivities, from 6 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, September 13 convened along a makeshift pedestrian-only segment of the town’s main drag, North Pleasant Street.  And Amherst’s town government made sure that those best laid plans were immunized from naysayers--including its own previous warnings about the life-threatening Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) virus (a threat underscored by the Mothra-sized mosquito photo atop the town’s web site.) 

"The Celebrate Downtown Amherst Block Party .  .  .will be held as scheduled, announced Amherst Health Director Julie Federman via the town’s web site on the day of the party. “I am comfortable that an event of this type can be held safely in our downtown. Event organizers at my request will have two tables for mosquito repellent, one next to the Post Office and one near the Kendrick Park stage. The tables will also have advisory materials from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. If you are outdoors after dusk be sure to wear long sleeves and long pants and use mosquito repellent with DEET."

But two days before, a robo call to Amherst residents and web site advisory, both from Ms. Federman, had strongly urged residents to avoid outdoor activities from dusk to dawn when feasible until the first hard (mosquito killing) frost. (Several horses in nearby towns had come up positive for EEE in postmortems.)    If residents had no choice but to be outdoors, she recommended covering up and applying DEET. That message followed on the heels of  decisive action by the town’s biggest employer, the University of Massachusetts. The week before it had canceled all dusk-to-dawn outdoor activities on campus until the first hard frost.

The Centers for Disease Control’s description of  EEE outcomes presents a grim story--You’d  avidly  opt for ticks/Lime Disease, given the choice. While most folks bitten by an EEE infected mosquito fail to develop symptoms, one-third who do die and most who survive come away with significant, lasting brain damage.

Amherst parties on
When I told my physician  that Amherst’s party would go on as scheduled, he shrugged and noted that mosquitoes seek human body heat and that large gatherings of homo sapiens (like the Celebrate Downtown Amherst Block Party) create a concentrated heat island—in other words, parallel party-time for  mosquitoes. Oh, and the CDC notes that if EEE symptoms do manifest, it’s  4 to 7 days after a carrier bites you. So we await September 17-20.   Sic transit gloria Amhersti.

More on the event from Larry Kelley here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Zero-Risk ATM Winnings: Are they Training Wheels for Slots?

Last week, with casino gambling on the horizon in Massachusetts, the gaming giant MGM wowed the struggling city of Springfield with an $800 million casino-based urban development proposal—a potential economic game changer for the city and the surrounding region.  Given this heady news, it's only right to  commend neighboring Easthampton Savings Bank for offering its own ATM-based version of risk-free gaming for its customers. (It's hardly surprising that a community bank, knowing the pulse of  local values, would hatch the  inspiring promo above. No big bank behaving badly here!) 

According to the above display ad, which ran in the August 28 Daily Hampshire Gazette, the bank’s new ATM at its Loan & Banking Center on Northampton Street in Easthampton will be dealing  occasional fifties in place of  twenties through September 10th. In other words, you might experience the frisson of unexpected winnings without the downside of personal risk. And don't forget, any shekels that you put into the ATM are FDIC-secure. But the current value proposition isn't about deposits, it's about withdrawals. In that spirit, who would spite Easthampton Savings Bank for the disclaimer below?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Living Large with Apps & Mirrors

After inhaling a cone, your blogger gazes smugly into Herrell Ice Cream's low-guilt mirror.   
“Steve Herrell is the godfather of American ice cream,” notes Alan Richman in Conehead, his critique of many-things ice creamicious in the August issue of GQ. The owner of Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton, Massachusetts is an avid consumer of his own “premium” offerings.  So what, if he, like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, casts a capacious shadow?  His shop’s premium ice cream salvos are real and they’re spectacular.

So what if 68.8% of American adults  are overweight or obese? Ultimately, though, having one’s desserts and maintaining a svelte umbra and penumbra when the angle of the sun is reasonably aloft is on you. But you’ve got the necessary self-discipline and vigilance to avoid  mindless eating, don’t you? With that said, chez Herrell offers the opposite of  a confession booth in the  the back of  the Northampton shop, where you can mug in front of a fun-house mirror that elongates whatever horizontality you may have incurred over the past decade. In other words, you can admire yourself as slimmer than when you came in.

When I pointed this out to the co-owner of a Northampton coffee shop known for its distinctive pastries, he confessed that his own culinary output might not figure in America’s solution to its obesity crisis. Then, he flipped open his smart phone asking, “I wonder if I can find an app that makes you look thinner?” Faster than lifting a runcible spoon, he produced a self-image-saving app and then another and another.  Here is a link to one of them, weight So now you can live large while sharing your willowy likeness with envious, clueless friends in your online network.  Bon appetite from the fooderati at Wig & Pen!
Before and After via weight

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Tanglewood Medical Mashup

Tanglewood  is ever poised for its key demographic. You can’t miss the  L'il Medic Vending Machine and Philips HeartStart Defibrillator just inside the main gate at Ozawa Hall—Tanglewood’s smaller venue devoted to weeknight chamber concerts. On a recent visit by this blogger, the L'il Medic was filled to SRO capacity with packets of Benadryl, Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, DayQuil, Bayer Aspirin, Advil, Tylenol Extra, and Trial Antacid.  Beside it, the defibrillator, suggesting an oversized fire alarm, offered added assurance.


Although a roving eye revealed discreetly nested folding wheelchairs in the back of the hall, superannuation’s  magic horn also had its youthful moments last Thursday at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music. Second on the bill was Elliott Carter’s buoyant, mercurial Double Trio, composed in 2011. At age 104, Mr. Carter and his music proved inspirational to the much younger seniors in the hall and to the musicians in their 20s who performed the piece with energy and conviction.

Coda: I Screen, You Screen . . . 
Meanwhile, Wig & Pen has noticed what may be an age-based divide in the much larger Tanglewood music shed. For several years, three large screens have given viewers in the back third of the shed sparkling high-definition close-ups of the action on stage.  This option has value because the distance and sight lines from those seats can make viewing challenging. In spite of this visual “equalizer,” Wig & Pen, through observation and conversations, suspects that many senior concert goers are more reluctant to embrace the screens than younger audience members.  Perhaps life-long concert-viewing habits die hard? Or veteran concert goers are less comfortable with innovative visuals than screen-obsessed younger generations?  If you’re a social scientist reading this blog on your computer or iphone screen, you may want to look into this.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pussy Riot's Pioneer Valley Invisibility Cloak

from P. Riot's Facebook page 

It’s 2012 and The Daily Hampshire Gazette—the flagship newspaper for the liberal Massachusetts zip codes of Northampton, Amherst, and the Pioneer Valley--aided and abetted by the L.A. Times--is too timid to reveal the name of the female Russian punk rock trio whose members face serious jail time for “staging a brief, obscenity-laced musical protest in Moscow's cathedral of Christ the Saviour, calling on the Virgin Mary to "throw Putin out."   [L.A. Times, 7/30]

The condensed blurb on July 31 in the Gazette with an L.A. Times by-line neglects to mention the trio's true name--Pussy Riot--instead calling it a punk group with a profane name. This is apparently a case of double standards by the L.A. Times. The risk-averse bowdlerized blurb went out to the provinces via the paper's news feed, but the full story in the Times itself did not pussy foot in revealing  the band’s true name.

from the Daily Hampshire Gazette 7-31

Of Pussies and Posses
So what if  the name Pussy Riot is a  tad overstimulating?   It’s small beer compared with a  dreaded  moniker like Insane Clown Posse, which for some evokes evil clowns on the verge of violence and mayhem. Coulrophobia aside, I suspect that the posse’s name will prove forever inviolable  with the Gazette, the L.A. Times, and other American newspapers—yet another example where violence plays better in Peoria  and Amherst and Northampton than a libidinous alternative. Where have we encountered that before?

Ultimately though, it's baffling to behold the odd coupling of questionable censorship in Northampton via L.A with a story about the prospect of draconian punishment in Russia over freedom of expression. In that, I'm grateful to be on America's side of the bed, but these are strange bedfellows, odd bed-time stories.

No sad clowns need apply


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Making Clean Copies: Mr. Clean Tries Multitasking

A true Eureka moment—the realization that the hunk making copies in the ad above was none other than the venerable Mr. Clean. That image, which appeared three weeks ago on the front page of, was from a two-year-old ad campaign by Xerox, which  boasts that it “helps iconic brands [notably Mr. Clean and Bulls Eye the Target dog] with business processes and document management, freeing them to focus on what matters most – their real business.”
If you’re a literalist, that would free up Mr. Clean to follow his bliss, i.e., getting rid of dirt, and grease, and grime (in just a minute). Why, though, is Mr. Clean making copies in the first place? Initially, I thought, he’s expanding his skill set (and marketability) in a grudging economy where unemployment continues to hover above  8%.  But unlike Mr. Clean’s basic mop-and-wipe métier, which seems pretty much bullet-proof to outsourcing and automation, making copies has become increasingly automated with more than its share of downsizing, especially on the feed-and-copy, noncreative end.

But note the passage below and the dust rag in his  right hand: He’s pumping up Procter & Gamble’s bottom line through judicious multitasking [not every cat's pajamas]. Xerox explains:

Can you imagine Procter & Gamble's powerful Mr. Clean digitizing millions of documents while also cleaning; or a Marriott Hotels & Resorts’ bellman providing exceptional guest services and processing invoices at the same time? Don't you think Bullseye the Target dog could use a hand customizing Target’s direct-mail program?

The campaign takes brand characters out of their expected roles and shows them doing business processes such as invoicing or digitizing documents with exaggerated results. The campaign demonstrates there are better ways for companies to handle back office work – by innovating and partnering with Xerox.
But weep not for Mr. Clean.  Demand for his next-to-godliness skills are unassailable--not to mention his distinction as a pitch man who transcends  generations and the business cycle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Checklists, Checklists Everywhere

By elevating the humble checklist to center stage, Atul Gawande’s 2009 management best seller, The Checklist Manifesto, struck a chord for simplicity in a world preoccupied with complexity. For Gawande, who practices endocrinal surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the checklist agenda underscored in his book focused on extreme complexity with high-stakes outcomes—in enterprises like jet engine manufacturing, skyscraper construction, and, of course, surgery.

Gawande's exceptional narrative gifts combined with the simplicity and adaptability of checklists themselves have inspired ordinary folks to try out a checklist or two in their own domains. No surprise to see, then, that checklist books have mushroomed on Amazon via titles like Checklists for Life, The Style Checklist (fashion advice), Checklists for the New Dad, and my exe's own personal favorite, The Gay Husband Checklist for Women Who Wonder.

An unbeatable value, the latter offers checklists for "reading" telltale signs of spousal cheating and for preventive action through self-examination (i.e., the Checklist for Women Who Attract Gay Men). Cutting to the chase, the book dispenses the 20-item Gay Husband ChecklistThe four entries below typify the larger list:
  • His sexual performance is more mechanical than passionate with a lack of satisfying foreplay.
  • He admits to having a homosexual encounter in the past.
  • He erases the computer history on a regular basis.
  • He starts to spend more time at the gym and works on changing his appearance.
I, for one, smell a confirmation bias with miles of rope for hanging innocent spouses from the highest bedposts.  My advice to Ms. Kaye and her minions: consult Dr. Gawande's own fail safe--his "Checklist for Checklists" in the appendix of his book. Not that the Gay Husband list has much in common with the doctor's concerns, which seek to telegraph critical nodes in high-risk projects.

But there's still much for gay-sayers to gain from his work.  Among other things, Gawande urges that each checklist item prove  absolutely critical to the process at hand. And he asks,  "Is each item . . . not adequately checked by other mechanisms?” In other words, keep things simple by avoiding entries that offer duplication and (wherever possible) overlap with other entries.  

In this spirit, Ms. Kaye and her followers have a golden opportunity to substantially reduce the false positives in their midst--Not that there's anything wrong with true positives themselves, as Seinfeld  might  have said were he a stats geek.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Memory Mash-up: The Case of Sherlock Holmes and Fingerprints

The image of Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker hat peering through his magnifying glass is iconic. But if your memory has him poring over fingerprints through the glass, you are mistaken: Your brain is constructing its own recollection that mashes up two iconic images: Holmes with his magnifying glass and detectives sleuthing out fingerprints. It’s much like the confabulation by many Americans who say they saw footage and photos of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk in the U.N. General Assembly. (It did take place, but there are no bona fide images of N.K. in the act.)
I got to thinking about the Holmes iconography while reading the June 8 installment of the New York Sunday Times weekly feature, Makers:

But recently—with the rise of DNA evidence—fingerprints have begun to seem like relics from the Sherlock Holmes era, noted Pagan Kennedy in Who Made Those Fingerprints?  
The article traced the origins of police finger printing to the late 1800s. Conan Doyle’s 56 Holmes tales (and 4 novels) began appearing in 1887 and ran until 1927. They covered the era from the 1880s until the dawn of World War I.

While Pagan did not directly attribute fingerprint analysis to Holmes, her mention of him was evocative, at least for me. But being a bit of a Baker Street irregular, I recalled the haziest of memories linking Holmes with fingerprints. So I bought the Kindle version of The Complete  Sherlock Holmes from Amazon and did several searches. The only hit with conviction implicated a hand print from the 1903 tale, The Norwood Builder.

The jury was in: the fictional detective spent a great deal of time ogling through his magnifier at footprints (animal and human), wheel prints, and powder and ink stains—but not at fingerprints. Cross-checking with the BBC’s Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett yielded similar results. Some other irregular besides me will have to tackle the Basil Rathbone movies—I’m forensically all in.
Holmes (and Khrushchev) aside, the moral of this exercise is generic and cautionary: more often than we’d care to admit, our memories can prove imperfect, even (no disrespect to Holmes) clueless.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry Captivate Amherst, Foster Dave Carter's Legacy

Grammer photo
Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry's June 2nd concert at Amherst, Massachusetts' Nacul Center for the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society was her final local appearance as a Valley resident. To the community’s good fortune, Henry, a gifted guitarist and songwriter, will continue to grace our zip codes. Two days after the concert, Grammer moved from Greenfield to northeast Pennsylvania, framing nearly a decade of involvement in the Valley that began tragically with the death in 2002 of her partner and musical collaborator, Dave Carter. In a story that has become legion in the folk music community, the couple had traveled to the Valley to play the Green River Festival in Greenfield. Carter died after a run on the rail trail bike path near their motel in Hadley.

Since then, Grammer has devoted much of her artistic energies as an advocate and archivist of Carter's exceptional body of songs. An American original (with unique cerebral wiring and Ivesian radar into the byways of American culture), Carter offered a quirky take on small-town America through lyric excursions that were both quotidian and cosmic. For him, the artistic liaison with Grammer, an accomplished violinist and vocalist, sealed the musical deal.

Although they gig together infrequently these days, Grammer and Henry have played together since 2003 (from Fairbanks, to Florida, to France, she notes). The Amherst concert showed them to be musically symbiotic (they shouldn’t let geography come between them in joining forces more often).  Seated in close quarters, the audience of 75 was wildly appreciative—they knew  a dynamic musical duo when they heard it.  Grammer and Henry (a polished vocalist and masterful guitarist) proved above all to be ensemble players. Both emphasized mutual rather than individual musical outcomes. With technique a given, they placed a premium on musical nuance and emotional immediacy. As the evening progressed and the musicians and audience bonded, Grammer and Henry relaxed and played their best.

The hour and 25 minute concert alternated Carter originals with tunes from the American roots tradition, including songs by Henry. Home to Me, affirming his attachment to the Pioneer Valley, offered a light-hearted counterpoint to Grammer’s own impending departure. Sound of the Whistle Blow, also by Henry, merits status as an American roots classic.

The duo’s celebration of Carter, which spanned his career, underscored his versatility as a songwriter. Q.E.D.—the same dude who wrote Evangeline and Ordinary Town was the progenitor of Crocodile Man.  And Grammer and Henry also performed Gypsy Rose, an anchor song on Grammer’s latest album, Little Blue Egg, a collection of stripped down tapes, recorded in Carter & Grammer’s home studio between 1997 and 2002. Henry helped Grammer digitize and otherwise resurrect the recordings, which have garnered critical acclaim and considerable play on folk radio [yes, there is such a thing].

For Henry, the road ahead promises little down time with his commitment as Mary Chapin Carpenter’s guitarist for the third summer in a row. Grammer is focusing on festivals—Falcon Ridge, Oak Grove, and Kent. She’s also devoting energy to the Dave Carter Legacy project. A nonprofit venture with Folk Alliance International, the project will celebrate and disseminate the Carter canon. My recommendation to Grammer: Broaden your own repertoire and energize Dave’s legacy by searching out and performing songs by others who share his creative impulses and commitment to song. Candidates would likely be passionate about small town America and wordsmiths with the ability to resonate and surprise. But above all, they should be advocates of song as art. Listeners should respond: "That was unexpected and elevating!"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Economist Gets Crunch?


In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen displays considerable cred as both an economist and a foodie.  But it’s his economist’s take on our passion for eating out that makes Lunch special.  Read the book: you’ll view  upscale eateries, ethnic restaurants in strip malls, street food carts, and everything in between in a whole new light—thanks to your new lens on  producers costs and incentives.

Another useful topic is restaurants’ cross-subsidization of low-margin offerings with higher-margin offerings (like keeping the prices of entrees down by overcharging on drinks). That leads to a discussion of how local cinema operators make up for scant margins on tickets with higher-margin receipts from the refreshment counter. (Overall, about ½ of ticket receipts and sometimes up to 90% go back to the movie makers during a film’s typical opening weekend, writes the author.)

In their mission to refresh, cinemas cast popcorn in a stellar role.  Raw materials are inexpensive; popping is a snap—via production that the cinemas control. Movie operators also enjoy flexibility in pricing and have been known to stimulate demand through a witches brew of fat, salt, and oils.

No crunch at the cinema (click to enlarge)
Popcorn Is Quiet. But I can no longer remain silent: popcorn  becomes cinema’s über-snack only when you add its sonic properties to the mix. It is a snack without crunch. That’s high-functioning design, given the near intimate distance between patrons in a crowded theatre. So don’t expect to score chips and unshelled peanuts at your local cinema’s refreshment counter (you might find nachos, but they’ll be hot and flaccid.) After cinemas introduced popcorn in the early 1930s, the high-margin snack helped keep them afloat during the Great Depression, notes Cowen and his alpha source, Popped Culture. But a sotto voce snack was at a premium for another reason: beginning with talkies in the late 1920s, you ingested dialog with your ears, not your eyes.

No need to get up: it's in the frigid-chair.
A Gateway Snack. With popcorn leading the way, snacking in the cinema has excelled as a role model for subsequent mindless eating wherever Americans watch TV. Perhaps Mr. Cowen’s next econ text will highlight TV dinners and TV trays as complementary goods?  “TV,” laments Brian Wansink in his cautionary Mindless Eating, “is a triple threat."
Aside from leading you to eat, it leads you not to pay attention to how much you eat, and it leads you to eat for too long. It’s a scripted conditioned ritual—we turn on the TV, we sit down in our favorite spot, we salivate, and we go get a snack. Eating or drinking gives us something to do with our hands, and it occupies us while we focus on the plot of our television show and on the questions that it raises: “What else is on?” “Have I seen this one before?” “Did the Flintstones really happen?” (103)
Mindless eating in front of the TV and silver screen has inspired descriptors of “trance eating” and “negative multitasking.” What could be timelier than the latter, given our market-driven cult of fractionating our attention span via multiple devices and activities. So what else are you reaching for as this excursion pulls into the station?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Abigail Washburn: World Music "Rock Star"

My fellow Americans, you just might have missed it: banjo virtuoso Abigail Washburn has become a roots/world music rock star on the British music scene. With added persuasion from her outstanding touring band, her latest album, City of Refuge, released in January of 2011, was a top-ten critics pick of the year in fROOTS and Songlines, Britain’s leading roots/world music magazines. In May of 2011, Washburn graced the cover of fROOTS and last week she was one of four finalists in Songlines’ artist of the year award.
In the U.S., Refuge has gotten strong reviews but less than the UK’s royal treatment. It wasn’t among the Times annual picks or on the many best-of annual lists on NPR’s audacious music web site. It did turn up as number 27 in the No Depression community’s top releases of the year.

Why the Anglo-American disconnect? Do Brits and other Europeans, given their location and enduring cultural connections with their former colonies, embrace a broader palette of multicultural musical influences? Abigail Washburn’s current work certainly fits that eclectic bill. It’s an uncommon hybrid of indie pop, Chinese and other East Asian influences (Washburn has lived in China and speaks Mandarin), and of course, American roots music.

Click to Enlarge
There are many moving parts in this broader discussion: Does the United States still embrace vestiges of musical and cultural isolationism? Our internal cultural diversity, of course, is second to none. (although we do melt much of it down via American pop music)  Do our exceptional domestic musical assets distract us from overseas influences?
Some of our top artists, of course—Ry Cooder, YoYo Ma, and Washburn’s husband, Bela Fleck--have been passionate in creating hybrid music that reaches beyond our shores. And college campuses and other venues periodically host leading lights on the international scene. Still, when did you last  listen to Eleftheria Arvanitaki, Titi Robin, Kala Ramnath, or Bassekou Kouyate? --all world music artists of the highest order.

When I spoke with Washburn’s symbiotic musical collaborator Kai Welch  after an October 2010 concert by the band at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, he agreed that the group's music would have been impossible two generations ago. How the world has contracted!  Back then, (my own salad years in the late 1960s), America’s idea of world music (the term, of course, hadn’t been coined) entailed Latin Jazz, jazz meets bossa nova, Olatunji, Makeba and Masakela, and, of course, George Harrison sitar riffs.

Co-conspirators Washburn and Welch

Through his songwriting and indie sensibilities, Welch—a gifted vocalist and multi-instrumentalist--has nudged Washburn toward greater emotional resonance.  (Her previous cd, the Sparrow Quartet, with a violin, cello, and two banjos, was no less multicultural, but many considered it too cerebral.)
Like  Sparrow, Refuge offers beautifully nuanced arrangements and ensemble playing, but it’s far more grounded, more emotionally immediate. And when you hear the group live (as in the clip below), you’ll appreciate its improvisational prowess as well. That clip is from a video accompaniment to Bob Boilin’s show on NPR. Prepare for musicianship that is disciplined yet adventurous in support of genre-transcending music. So forgive me for the earlier label of world music rock star!

Monday, April 23, 2012

I’m with Mensa

What's worse than being stuck in glacial traffic at rush hour on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge outside Northampton, Massachusetts?  Answer: the same predicament but with the bumper sticker Mensa Member staring you in the face. Not the more common, less self-congratulatory version that simply reads "Mensa Society," but the one that  proclaims the bearer’s membership in the cult. (and, hence, his unambiguous superiority) So I sat in traffic behind this egotist who might just as well have flipped me the bird for five minutes palpitating, “I’m smart! And then some--I’m Mensa smart!”
I did try to ignore the barrage, but five minutes behind him in dead-cat-bounce traffic seemed an eternity and a Mensatudinus day. If you ever have the need, do what I did:  undress the felonius bumper sticker in your mind's eye and substitute the sticker below.

For the final word on intelligence--emotional, social, Stanford-Binet--we turn to the sons of Gama Rex in Gilbert & Sullivan's Princess Ida. They begin their ditty about 33 seconds into the clip below:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

LBJ & The Invisible Gorilla of Succession

Last week’s excerpt in The New Yorker of Robert Caro’s account through the prism of  LBJ's biography of the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath (The Transition) offered one riveting insight after another. My favorite was an Invisible Gorilla moment of inattentional blindness when at Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital, Johnson and his retinue, having just learned that Kennedy had expired and fearing the prospect of a conspiracy, elected to leave the building before the press discovered Kennedy's fate.
Caro writes in The New Yorker:
As the new President of the United States headed out of the hospital, Robert Pierpont of CBS News caught a glimpse of him but did not follow. No other reporter followed him, or apparently knew he was even leaving. "We weren't thinking about succession,"  Newsweek's Charles Roberts explained later.  .  . Nobody attempted to follow him although he was then President of the United States."
[With Kennedy’s death, Johnson immediately became the country’s 36th president. The subsequent oath was a ceremonial formality.]

Only one member of the press, the official White House photographer, Captain  Cecil Stoughton, had the independence of mind  to follow the new president’s decisive exit to his limo and the airport. It was Stoughton who later snapped the iconographic photo of LBJ--framed by Lady Bird and Jacqueline Kennedy--taking the oath of office on Air Force One.

Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon's Invisible Gorilla experiment asked subjects viewing a video of basketball players to count passes on a gym floor. When a man in a gorilla suit appeared in the frame, a significant number of the observers (typically 50%) failed to notice. The experiment revealed the diminished cognitive/perceptual flexibility that accompanies hyperattentiveness in a demanding cognitive task--a task that was also reinforced by the subjects'  emotional commitment to completing the exercise itself.

The emotional valence at Parkland Hospital was, of course, through the roof—fueled by an uncertain, unfolding, epic tragedy-in-the-making. Little surprise, then, that the press was hyperfocused both emotionally and cognitively on JFK. Since becoming vice president, Johnson had morphed from his leonine days in  the Senate into a nexus of self-doubt. His swagger had become a shrug; he feared expulsion from a second-term ticket. Why focus on a decidedly second fiddle when you might miss the outcome to the story of the decade? But with the news of his own assumption, Johnson was reborn.  His posture straightened,  his facial expression waxed determination and fierce concentration. And he became the  cool, decisive leader that his aides had known in the Senate.
The New Yorker article is excerpted from The Passage of Power, the 4th volume--due out in May--of Caro's magisterial LBJ biography. Without question, Caro is Johnson's Boswell.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dr. House's Big Product Placement Adventure

House's uber-pill

In homage to the final season of House, let's reconsider the series' high-profile product placement of the good doctor's addiction of choice, Vicodin. Many a review and Web comment have assumed that Fox and the drug's manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories, are in bed via some sweetheart product placement deal. (As far as I know, both have been mum on the matter.)  Uncritical attribution of joint sleeping arrangements, I think, borders on conspiracy theory.

One thing, though, is for sure: the prescription drug has become a household word thanks to Vicodin's hold on House. A year ago, Nielsen tracked viewer recall of product placements on network dramas and sitcoms from February 1-28. The House-Vicodin team placed second. The drug, in fact, has been conspicuous throughout the series and is every bit the match in scarfability of Reeses Pieces in E.T.

But is that the sort of brand recognition that Abbott Laboratories craves? And does it translate into sales?  When I want/need a prescription drug for pain, my physician typically writes a scrip based on his recommendation. Lately I've refrained from asking, "Doc, my brand of choice is Vicodin" or, alternatively, "I'd like a scrip for the stuff that works so well for House." (Perhaps I need to take greater charge of my own medical destiny.)

Mucho  Street Cred

My physician, of course, didn't  learn about Vicodin from House. He already knew about it as a  pill- prescribing cognoscento. That leaves a final market where the House-Vicodin buzz may have made a difference: the illegal street trade. Here, it's no stretch to imagine that Vicodin,  combined with Dr. House's  "attitude" (he even uses his walking stick on the wrong side to spite the medical establishment) has gained big dividends in street cred and popularity.

It would be cynical though--even for this blog--to assume that the good folks at Abbott Laboratories might somehow approve. Still,  we'd do well to survey whether and how much Vicodin's sales have morphed with its higher profile. And, for that matter, whether the  drug's negative role on the show correlates with sales. (The sales numbers, a marketing professor friend confided, are there for the taking.)

Raising Canes. Drugs aside, House has done great things for another byway of the economy--the market for walking sticks and canes. Begin your makeover at the cane and stick emporium, fashionable canes and walking sticks, which offers ten variations of walking sticks that have appeared on the show, including the Flame, Alpaca Feather, Derby, Tourist, and, of course, the Skull Handle.

Source: fashionable canes and walking sticks
Take it from a Web site that knows its marketing:
Whether you prefer one of Dr. Gregory House's more classic looks or the racy, exciting designs of either the House Flame Canes or the more recently used "Death's Head Cane," you are sure to appreciate these exact replicas of the walking canes used on the show!
And remember, House canes will keep on giving as you keep on aging.  Ditto for the House mystique. Remember, he's not dead, he's in syndication.

Click here for the product placement forerunner, Paris 1882: Edouard Manet Meets Bass Ale.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Amherst, Massachusetts Votes: Super Tuesday 2012

Click to enlarge
At 8:45 a.m., a lineup of "reserved for voters" parking spaces outside Amherst’s Bangs Center—the town’s  largest polling place—revealed one of rural Western Massachusetts’ secure wide-open spaces. That’s because the primary is a de facto Republican affair and  Republicans in the feistily Democratic college town are as scarce as declining tuitions at its colleges and university. A visit to the polling center revealed several dour douenas from the League of Women Voters hunkered down for a long haul (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.) of  linoleum watching.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Amherst, Massachusetts Contemplates Moral Hazard

Moral Hazard at Reichenbach Falls

Two weeks ago, firefighters from Amherst and surrounding communities rescued 22-year-old Scott Merrick, who had fallen 25 feet from the top of Bare Mountain in the Notch, a popular hiking venue in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park. Merrick’s mishap occurred late at night when he ascended the hill alone, following a dispute with his girlfriend at the bottom.  The rescue involved 35 firefighters, including members of the department’s technical rescue team, who responded at 11:30 p.m. to the girlfriend’s call. They wrapped things up at 3:30 a.m. Merrick, who sustained minor injuries, left the hill on a stretcher and was transportated by ambulance to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. The cost of his rescue: around $10,000.
Charging Merrick for the rescue “is not something I’m actively pursuing at all, Amherst Town Manager John Musante told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “Implementing a fee-for-service component—does that have the unintended disincentive for people to call for help when they most need it?” With that said, Musante, who is admired both for his financial acumen and kind-heartedness, may have been primed for his response: he recently spent several months out of circulation after falling  in September while walking his dog.

Still, $10,000 is no bag of shells. A year ago, State Representative Stephen Kulik, a liberal democrat from Worthington, Massachusetts, introduced a bill (H.650) that would allow municipal and state governments to recoup emergency response costs attributable to reckless or intentional behavior. Many of the communities that Kulik represents have more vertical topography than Amherst; they also have tighter resources, making costs tougher to absorb.

A light at the end of the spelunk

But when there's clear negligence, why should the towns foot the entire bill? Consider the 12-hour rescue in 2010, for example,  by Amherst  responders of 25-year old Maya Hersh from a cave in the hills of nearby Leverett. Ms. Hersh got stuck in a cave's narrow orifice. To her discredit, she confessed to having been  stuck and unstuck there before (the first time without emergency assistance).

Whether Kulik's bill becomes law or not, Scott and Maya would do well to read Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival.
In Survival, the author warns that overconfidence nurtured in the low-risk milieu of home and culture can get us into unforgiving trouble in nature. With dire results, climbers often over-weigh the challenges and goals of ascent while treating descent as an afterthought. Experienced hikers get disoriented in the woods when poor visibility, adverse weather, and other natural forces scramble their mental maps. Skiers  who venture just off the path at ski resorts may encounter frictionless slopes and unstable geology. And unwary swimmers at some of Hawaii's beautiful beaches are just a rip tide away from their final aquatic adventure.

In recent posts, this blog has examined the dangers of other wishful perceptions:  viewing interspecies liaisons as central casting in a peaceable kingdom and experiencing what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls amnesiac vacations.  Happily, we can all learn from Scott and Maya's picaresque adventures. One question  does, however, cry out: Given the lightening learning curves and voracious networking skills of this blog's readers, do we still need a Kulik bill to become a Massachusetts law?