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Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Double-Barreled Misunderstanding in Amherst, Massachusetts


Is it time to question Amherst’s water supply? Three weeks ago, an Amherst woman summoned police when she suspected that two construction workers might have been high-profile escapees from an upstate New York penitentiary. Now we turn to the following double-barreled mix-up, reported last week in The Daily Hampshire Gazette:

A woman who mistook two umbrellas for a shotgun prompted a police response to a field near the Amherst Regional High School Tuesday evening.
A resident walking her dog on Cottage Street called police at 8:02 p.m. after she was approached by a man whom she described as angry that her dog was running off-leash in his field, according to police records. The woman then told officers she observed the man handing an object that looked like a shotgun to his wife.
Responding officers determined that what the woman saw was actually two umbrellas, and not a firearm.  .  .

As an indication of the heightened awareness by residents, police were also contacted at 9:05 a.m. Tuesday when a man wearing what a caller described as a military-style protective vest was seen running in the area of Henry and Pine streets.
Police located the man jogging near Puffer’s Pond and identified what he was wearing as a weight vest used in his exercise regimen.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Chris Christie in Taft's Tub

The remote possibility of a Chris Christie Administration in the White House evokes the plumbing challenges of the nation’s 27th president, William Howard Taft.  In 1911, the tub depicted above debuted in the White House Master Bath to accommodate the 330+ pound chief executive. It was seven feet long and 41 inches wide.  For Taft’s long-distance travel before the era of flight, his aides installed one-ton tubs on the USS Arkansas and the USS North Carolina, the latter for a visit to the Panama Canal.

The genial Taft was forthcoming about his weight. He was our weightiest president; Madison was our lightest at 100 lbs. In contrast, the less affable Christie is more candid about his height (5’ 11”) and his recent weight loss (85 pounds owing to a surgical procedure). The bottom line: Christie, as governor of New Jersey owes us nothing on this weighty matter. You’ll have to elect him to our highest office to learn more. Learning, of course, has its price.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Case of Mistaken Identity in Amherst, Massachusetts

Hard Hat & Steel Tipped Shoes at Kendrick Place in Amherst

Two weeks ago, just a day after the police had removed an offending spider from the auto of a driver paralyzed with fear, Amherst’s finest confronted a second, thornier challenge.
The Daily Hampshire Gazette explains:

After getting a tip that the two escapees from a maximum security prison in New York might be walking on the streets of Amherst at 1:28 p.m. Thursday, several police officers spent about 25 minutes trying to identify the two men who were described by a woman as muscular, tattooed, and wearing dark shirts and shorts. Police said the men, found at a downtown coffee shop, were determined to be construction workers and not the escaped convicts serving life sentences at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
With the termination of one convict and the capture of the other last weekend, some Amherstites will no doubt sleep more easily. But they still have their memories of mistaken identities past.
Perhaps the most poignant occurred in November of 2004, when then Town Meeting member Patricia Church, in a fit of pique, removed the Texas state flag from a pole in front of Town Hall. (She was protesting President Bush and his un-Amherstican policies.)  She soon found herself, however, with a lot of explaining to do—especially to Amherst’s Hispanic community. That’s because she had mistakenly pulled down the flag of Puerto Rico.
 Another random act of mistaken identity? Perhaps not quite.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Barista’s Language of Flowers?

A confession. I spend too much time in coffee shops—a regular in not one but three of them. Last week a barista embellished my latte (see above). So far, my inner Rorschach has failed to connect the ornament to the usual suspects: exotic birds and plants. What do you think? To help jump-start your inquiry: a friend thinks it might be a poorly rendered cactus. (A less than welcoming plant—you can almost feel the prick.)

Are we witnessing the birth of a new genre? A barista’s analog to the language of flowers? (You know, yellow roses denote infidelity; the pansy cries out, “Think of me!”)  

So I drank the evidence, but thanks to my smart phone, here is the image. Share it with all whom you cherish and their six degrees of separation from me. And please remember, Wig & Pen is a family blog—its proprietor is no Anthony Weiner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Roll over Turabian!

. . . and Strunk & White and Fowler

This mashup should be in every writer/editor's toolkit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Losing Costanza

Click on photo to enlarge
Is Jason Alexander finally getting the Costanza monkey off his back? At first glance, I didn’t recognize him in the above blurb for his appearance with the Boston Pops this Sunday at Tanglewood. (His many talents include a strong baritone, well-suited for musical theatre and presumably the Pops). Jason seems to have slimmed down. His sumptuous head of hair touched down several years back. Both are differentiators from the Costanza legacy.

In the Tanglewood blurb, the sole (obligatory) indication of his Seinfeld heritage is in parentheses— “Alexander is best-known for his appearances on television (as George Costanza in Seinfeld) . . .” That, of course, remains a selling point, especially since the media just celebrated Seinfeld’s 25th anniversary.

So Alexander must walk a fine line, leveraging just enough of his Seinfeld karma, but not identifying with the short, bald, nebbish that he played, and perhaps at times  embodied,  too well. Like his Seinfeld costar Michael Richard, who has also underachieved, Alexander should avoid self-doubts in light of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ remarkable post-Seinfeld CBS and HBO run. Like her costars, Julia is abundantly talented. She is also way luckier.  

Better to control what you can control, which Alexander has apparently taken to heart. The alternative is self-loathing, deftly explored in the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode below.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Crosswalks to Bear in Northampton, Massachusetts

Path of Pride

A red, white, and blue crosswalk will not grace Northampton, Massachusetts’ main street on July 4th.  Northampton, in fact, is a town in search of an approval process for such an initiative. Veteran’s Day seems like a more reasonable goal, observed board of public works chairman Terry Culhane during a June 25th hearing on the matter.

The tricolor proposal by Northampton resident Katherine Osborne followed two months after the town’s rollout of the rainbow crosswalk pictured above, just in time for the city’s annual Pride Parade on May 3rd. The crosswalk and the rainbow flag that it emulates, of course, are iconic symbols of the gay community, which helps give Northampton its Je ne sais quoi.  I prefer to view the symbol expansively to include once prideful heterosexuals like myself as well.
In any event, Northampton’s Bureau of Public Works gave the rainbow crosswalk fast-lane approval, the mayor and the city council president got on board, and the crosswalk’s chief advocate, Northamptonite Melinda Shaw, raised $1,700 to get it painted. Now apparently a permanent fixture, it debuted tutti frutti for the parade.

Still, some Northamptonites had misgivings. Had pride advocates received special treatment? Did the approval process lack sufficient procedural due diligence?  Stung by such consternation, members of the public works board confessed to having opened a Pandora’s Box. In that uncertain climate, Katherine Osborne’s patriotic crosswalk proposal was not the recipient of fast-track treatment. Instead, it awaits unresolved ground rules that may include aesthetic and other input from the City Council or the Arts Council.  

Pedestrian safety in disappearing ink

Vanilla Fudge. Meanwhile, a traditional vanilla crosswalk (see above) 200 feet up the street at a heavily traveled intersection continues to receive city government shunning a la Rodney Dangerfield. Northampton’s “disappearing ink” crosswalk may be the town’s longest crossing. It is undoubtedly among its most spectral. Pedestrians hit the street late because the cross light has no audio. And many seniors and others less than fleet of foot get stressed out in midstream when the light begins to switch over. The enterprise is an accident in waiting.

You’d think that Northampton’s burghers would be self-conscious given the cautionary reminder pictured below. It, in fact,  is easier to discern from the disappearing ink crosswalk than the d.i.c itself. It's a second crosswalk bordered by phosphorescent barrels topped with amber beacons resembling oversized pinball bumpers.  The town rolled them out in November of 2012, after Pallav Parakh, a physician, was run down by a 25-year-old in a pickup truck.
Northampton gets its priorities straight. . . via the rearview mirror.
Coda: Residents of Northampton and nearby Amherst take pleasure in ridiculing one another's  loopiness.  In the interest of balance, here’s a July 4th sendoff from a card-carrying Amherstite that will gratify Northamptonites. Her letter is apparently an annual 4th of July message to readers of The Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A New, Caffeinated Nobel Peace Prize?


“It was on the date of my daughter’s graduation. I thought, Nobel Prize? College Graduation? Obviously, I’m going to my daughter’s graduation,” proclaimed  fair trade coffee distributor/wholesaler Dean Cycon on Springfield, Massachusetts  ABC Channel 40 on June 26.  According to news anchor Shannon Hegge, Cycon had just netted the Nobel Peace Prize for Business (an assertion which Cycon did nothing to dispel).
What the founder and owner of Dean’s Beans in Orange, Massachusetts had in fact won was one of five 2013 Oslo Business for Peace Awards from the Business for Peace Foundation (BPF).  The honor, which celebrates business-worthy contributions that build trust, stability and peace, catches rays from the Nobel halo via the BPF's  Oslo digs and its judges, all of whom have won Nobel Prizes in peace or economics. But the Business for Peace Award is avowedly not a Nobel Prize. (Even though in some parts, including the Deans Beans web site, you might see it in quotes as the “Nobel Prize for Business.”) Might Dean and his daughter have skipped her graduation for the real thing? Perhaps as a graduation present?

None of this is to dis the foundation or Dean’s Beans, the latter which does admirable work on behalf of local growers, sustainability, and international fair trade.  But virtuous ends don’t justify hypercaffeineated spin-lust, especially by a local business hero. That’s why my friend's explanation (he's a marketing professor) is such a comfort: “Dean must be around coffee a lot; it’s a drug, you know,” he remarks.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Ending for a Dyslexic Deep-Six Holiday Kerfuffle

View more videos at:

Send your dyslexic sons and daughters to trade school, but be sure they steer clear of marmoreal stone cutting/etching. Fortunately, former NYC mayor Ed Koch’s botched birth date (1942 in place of 1924) on his memorial stone was not, in the end, set in stone. Horrified, the stone cutter rose at dawn to make things right. Things, after all, could have been worse: the date was just a number scramble away from the more resonant 1492, a potential affront to Koch's former Italian constituents. 

Dyslexic eye charts from Cascadilla Press are here.
Dyslexic eye chart

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In Praise of Iconic Failure

                                  Click above to view the Agony of De(webbed)Feet

Tuesday's article by Natalie Angier in the Times on dragonflies—Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly, resurrected Andrew Mountcastle's  mini clip, Frog Fail 2.  It is above all an icon of failure deserving of wider recognition. (Not to mention an affirmation of this blogger's own tenuous self-esteem.)
The Sisyphus Sign is from dorje-d's photostream.

Nothing Succeeds like Success Failure. Shouldn't Mountcastle’s froggie share center stage with Munch’s The Scream and the endless loop of  Sisyphus? And how about with the "demotivational" poster below, which  speculates, It could be that the  purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.

It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning to Love the Punch Brothers: Punch/Counterpunch

For this reviewer and hundreds of concert goers, the Punch Brothers’ stellar February 15 performance at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton was just what the music gods ordered. Just as significant, the strong turnout offered evidence that the Brothers are catching on with bigger, broader audiences.

For the band--a confederation of music boundary-spanners who challenge listeners with eclectic compositions and improvisations—that’s sparkling good news. Not that the Brothers invariably turn tradition on its head. (They did, in fact, perform a handful of traditional tunes with impeccable respect.)  But by and large, tradition and roots for the Punch Brothers are points of departure—a key resource for explorations across genres that can take unexpected (sometimes high-stakes) twists and turns. When the train leaves the station, American roots might morph on a dime into indie pop, which in turn may reconfigure, say, into disciplined yet freewheeling excursions with the plasticity of chamber music by Bartok and late Ravel.
Such disciplined freedom gooses up risk-taking by the band’s virtuosic front line players—Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (violin), and Noam Pikelny (banjo)--all three who can navigate any musical byway or conversation. And all five “brothers” (Chris Eldridge on guitar and Paul Kowert on bass complete the set) make a convincing case for telepathy via music.

Punch/Counterpunch. Still, there’s a coalition of listeners who don’t get the Punch Brothers. Not only the roots music police, but indie pop listeners who can’t stand classical and roots, and classical fans who throw up ramparts against trespassers into their magic kingdom. Then there are those who bridle at dissonance, even though the Punch Brothers always maintain a tonal center. (They do use dissonance strategically, for added spice and surprise.)  And still others get thrown by the frequently break-neck morphings of their compositions and improvisations.

For many, though, the above misgivings are precisely what make the music stimulating—they spike the punch. Indeed, they mobilize the neuroplasticity of the listener's brain on music, creating novel neural connections that that keep on giving.
The conservative coalition aside, I'm surprised that Who’s Feeling Young Now? –the Punch Brothers’ splendid 3rd full-length cd, released in early 2012—wasn’t on more top-ten roots album lists for 2012.  It certainly was on mine. If the Northampton audience had its say, you can bet it would have been on theirs. 
Apotheosis Now.  It did, though, in January/February 2013, make the 2012 ten-best list in Songlines, arguably the planet’s premier world music magazine. “String groups don’t get much more exciting or dynamic than this,” wrote Jo Frost, who  with Songlines editor Simon Broughton, made the final picks—most of which were drawn from the ten “Top of the World” selections that appeared in each issue during the previous year. Oddly, when I backtracked to find the original review, it wasn't on any of the monthly Top of the World lists, all whose albums had received five- or and four-star ratings. So, I uprooted the original review in the April/May issue, which gave the album a middling three stars:

All that genre-busting and tricksy instrumental paradiddling might be hugely impressive, but at the end of the day, the Punch Brothers are at their most affecting when at their least adventurous,
wrote reviewer Matthew Milton.

Happily, more adventurous heads and justice prevailed. Progress in music and the joys of neuroplasticity won the day. I'll take odds that Songlines and the Northampton audience are still feeling young now.

Punch Brothers on Austin City Limits "Movement and Location" from Austin City Limits on Vimeo.

Fellow Travelers: The Warsaw Village Band. Like the Punch Brothers, they deconstruct their own roots in the service of cross-genre exploration.  A tour of their latest album, Nord.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Smitten by Caro

The first book to find its way onto my new Kindle was Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate—the third and (so far) longest volume in his unfinished quintet, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Several years ago, I had gotten through 250 pages of the hard-cover version but found myself—an inveterate reader in coffee shops-- nudged toward physically lighter books. With Caro’s energetic, compelling prose, Master of the Senate was hard to put down. But at 1,200 pages and 3.2 pounds, it was even harder to pick up and schlepp to my caffeinated hangouts. I did seal the deal, but it was the Kindle that broke the filibuster. (No disrespect to Caro, who composes the pre-cyber way--long hand and by typewriter.)

Orthopedic Validation.  Two weeks ago in one of those coffee shops, a friend—a public radio personality--confessed: “Lou, I may have rotator cuff issues from reading Caro in bed.”  He had hyperextended his shoulder while hoisting the Caro from his night table. Whether or not Tommy John surgery is in his future, my friend’s experience can serve as a beacon to all who underestimate the power of supersized books to inflict orthopedic challenges.
The Caro Benchmark of Discomfort.  So here is a repurposed role for the hardcover Master of the Senate. Consider it a standard measure of readers’ physical discomfort. That is to say:

One Caro=one hard-cover Master of the Senate
The Caro might bow in as a normalized composite measure comprising weight, number of pages, and surface area. Jiggering the details is beyond this blogger, but it’s no mystery that a proper Caro scale would assign The Complete Miss Marple (4,032 pages) to the right and Strunk & White to the far left. And if someone recommended a good read at ¾ of a Caro, I’d reach for my Kindle.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On Nazi Efficiency, Due Diligence, Branding

Leave it to those meticulous National Socialists.  In 1944 they not only executed an errant priest for joking against the state (i.e., for high treason & sedition), but sent an itemized bill for their handiwork to his family.  The tragedy of Father Joseph Müller and the itemized bill below are from Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany, a chilling survey covering the dark waterfront of post-Weimar humor.  Father Müller exited via the guillotine, a three-minute procedure—certainly more efficient than established alternatives inside  Germany—hanging or the firing squad. Hats (and more) off to the Nazis for their nod to French savoir faire. And in the spirit of Teutonic due diligence—the  bill below includes two itemized postal charges—one presumably for the 24 pfenning stamp on its envelope.

from Dead Funny with Wig & Pen translation  (click on photo for better resolution)
Did He Who Made the Lamb Make Thee?  On an increasingly branded planet, the swastika is goose steps ahead of the crowd as a symbol of evil. With that said, many Westerners have gotten used to its presence (and origins) in Hindu and Buddhist iconography. But as the photo below reminds us, there was a time, before the symbol’s Teutonic hijacking, when it had zero negative valence in the West. The 1918 photo of tricker-treaters below is from the excellent blog, TYWKIWDBI. The photo is disturbing. Credit its insouciance of pre-Nazi innocence, amplified by the children, and combined with the ultimate brand of sinister experience.
Trick or Treaters 1918
from Blake's Songs of Innocence


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Skinny on Consumer First Impressions in Hospitals

Hospital president/cardboard cutout as greeter
Take it from social psychologists (and  marketers): the primacy effect—your first impressions of a person, place, predicament, etc.—often carry disproportionate heft.  With that in mind, it’s not unfair to ask why hospitals and other medical practices often deploy overweight employees in reception and other intake roles. That at least was your blogger’s experience last week at Northampton, Massachusetts’s Cooley Dickenson Hospital, where just inside the main entrance, he negotiated a long carpeted corridor, festooned with friendly but capacious receptionists.
What’s surprising about that? In the medical services cosmos, receptionists earn the lowest salaries, have the lowest education levels, and work the most sedentary jobs.  Why should they be svelter than ordinary Americans, where in 2008 2/3 of adults were overweight

Not to worry. Beyond the magic (intake) curtain, you encounter slimmer and trimmer employees—medical technicians (skill level and weight may correlate somewhat here), nurses, and physicians.

As for primacy—a hospital can’t insist that its receptionists slim down, but it can nudge them via a (this may be a stretch) “preventive”  culture that emphasizes  creative exposure to education, exercise, and diet--all socially and perhaps economically reinforced. Until then, Cooley Dickenson will likely continue to make its best first impression with the life-size cardboard likeness of its trim Harvard/MIT-educated president, Chris Melin. He greets you just inside the door, is easy on the eyes, and offers preventive advice to boot.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Three Little Pigs Mailbox Innovation

[click to enlarge]

Snowplows and practitioners of mailbox baseball have an imposing target in the Hadley, Massachusetts mailbox above—a true fixer-upper triumph. Still, in homage to The Three Little Pigs  playbook on innovation, the resilient Amherst mailbox below must  rule as "best" (c.f.  house of bricks) to Hadley's "better" (c.f., house of wood). If an automatic weapons ban becomes the law of the land, the Amherst mashup will surely keep the wolf from the mailbox door.

You may recall that  mailbox baseball gained its higher profile with Rob Reiner’s second directorial effort, Stand by Me. You can witness Kiefer Sutherland's clear potential for future mayhem (both on and off the set) in the clip below. (apologies for the subtitles)

This blog would be remiss by failing to note that in every at-bat, sultans of mailbox swat commit a federal crime with career-changing  consequences:

Wig & Pen, of course, advocates the full wrath of federal law toward all mailbox miscreants. But it reserves greater wrath still for those who wield unsporting metal bats. True, today’s maple bats lack the durability and overall mojo of their ash predecessors, but that's no excuse for flailing with the equivalent of a (metal) bat on steroids. Still, in the ash-to-maple controversy, the folks in Louisville are in denial. According to a friend who recently took the Louisville Slugger factory tour, a representative of the company ties bat fragility not to inferior wood but to lapsed values among baseball players and you, the consumer. “Remember how when you were a kid they told you to hold the bat’s label toward yourself for bat protection?” he asked. “We've lost that sense of responsibility--Nobody does that anymore.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jesse Agonistes

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
Have you ever seen a photo of a fallen college athlete as tastelessly intrusive as this one?  When Jesse Morgan, a shooting guard and  team leader with the UMass Amherst Minutemen, went down near the sideline  in a January 13 game against Fordham, an AP photographer captured the moment. Two  days later, after the team fessed up that Morgan’s season was over with a torn ACL, the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Daily Hampshire Gazette ran the macabre photo. “It’s Isenheim worthy,” commented a friend, alluding to the expressionist crucifixion in Grunewald's iconic Isenheim Altarpiece.
Agony at Isenheim
Friends who have followed college basketball for 50+ years say that they’ve never seen anything quite like the photo of Morgan with its max headroom intrusiveness.  We give many of our high-profile college athletes  generous scholarship support and celebrity status. In return, we ask much from them, including stressful time commitments and personal risk. Have the Jesse Morgans of the world embraced a faustian social contract that allows for graphic media depiction as practiced by the Gazette? I suspect that the newspaper would have refrained from running a similar photo of Morgan had he fallen on the ice outside the arena. But inside the building, a 21-year-old’s lack of privacy apparently knows no bounds.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Forensics in (Nearly) Everything

Several years ago, when interviewing a partner at one of the planet’s largest accounting firms, I was wowed by her hard-boiled  take on human nature. Evoking shades of  Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating, my interviewee likened opportunities for embezzlement and other garden varieties of fraud to the temptation of having a candy dish constantly within arm’s reach. Just as it’s ultimately futile to resist those  M&Ms on your office desk, trusted employees, she noted, may have opportunities to embezzle as a continuing temptation. “. . . even nice people have been known to take inappropriate advantage of opportunities and gaps in control systems,” she emphasized.
My interviewee, in fact, was a practitioner of forensic accounting, a hot house growth area in public accounting. That’s not surprising, considering today’s bouillabaisse of motives, opportunities, and enabling technologies. And as the textbook covers below reveal, it’s not just accounting that offers a forensic career path. Count on it:  A forensic subdiscipline is coming to a profession near you.

VIDEO: CSI Explores Forensic Astronomy

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