Thursday, September 29, 2011

All's Fair in Words With Friends

As if Facebook wasn’t addictive enough, I now have another distraction in the Zynga app for Facebook called “Words With Friends.” Words With Friends (WWF) is essentially Scrabble with unlimited opportunities for participants to cheat.

WWF is played on your computer or other electronic device which sort of makes it Scrabble on steroids. One can play several different games at the same time, and there is no time limit during which you must make your move. This latter feature is critical as it affords one the opportunity to go make nachos or vacation in Paris between moves.

But WWF, like it’s cousin the World Wrestling Federation, is not just a game but bone-crushing, contorted , and sometimes serious competition. It certainly gets one's competitive juices going, and in some instances it keeps people from carrying out important daily activities like working, sleeping or going to the bathroom.

It's especially distracting when people send me game requests or "moves" during the business day, which is loosely defined as "when I happen to be sitting at my desk." Last week I was in a critical phone discussion about a real estate contract that will certainly never close and pay actual money. Thus, I put the party on speaker phone while I scoured my computer screen trying to find a strategic placement for the “Q” and other random letters which I’d been dealt. When asked an important question about a key paragraph in the contract, I started to blurt out “Quasar!” As if this wasn’t bad enough, I contemplated concluding the call by saying “while I have no substantive issues with this contract, I believe your use of the word ‘estoppel’ should be disqualified because it might be a proper noun.”

WWF causes one to contemplate drastic things like cheating, stealing, and opening a dictionary. The other night in a desperate attempt to keep my wife from taking a three game lead in a best of seven series, I started dreaming of buying vowels on the black market from a Colombian vowel-lord. Since there is no time limit for making a play in WWF, one has unlimited opportunities to consult friends, relatives, or the late Noah Webster. If particularly devious, you may consult Scrabble websites by asking questions like “What’s a five letter word that starts with Z and ends with R and has a J as the third letter?”

I would never do any of these things, unless the game is against my wife. She is a wordsmith, par excellence, so I will resort to all manner of deceptive practices in my attempts to beat her. Last week while she was taking a shower, I happened to walk by her computer and noticed the game we were playing against each other right there on the screen in front of me. It was her turn so I decided to help out by making a move for her. It just so happens the word “IT” was the only play I could see in the three seconds I had to make the decision. Can I help it if “IT” is only worth two points? She should’ve logged out before taking a shower....

Not only is my wife extremely competent--dare I say talented--but she knows words that I shouldn’t know. The best example is her use of profanity against me. While engaged in WWF competition, I will not resort to using synonyms for “defecate” and the like, but she employs them freely, demonstrating no shame in the lengths she will go to ensure my humiliation. As a gentleman, I will not resort to the use of such words, unless of course they are recommended by

I highly recommend WWF, unless you have burdensome demands on your life such as a job or family. If not, then have at it, but don’t let the intensity of the competition change who you are at your core.

I must go now. I’ve got an 11 o’clock with a Proper Noun who represents the Consonant Cartel.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Penny Pilfered is a Penny Earned

It was a plain sign, barely legible in black marker and affixed with a clear piece of tape to the cash register. Yet, as it hung over the little container of pennies on the convenience store counter, it spoke volumes about the state of the U.S. economy. Its words were simple yet eerie: “Need one or two, take ‘em. Need three, get a job loser!”

The sign in this rural convenience store in the Upper South went up shortly after one customer took fifteen (15) pennies from the small, brown tray so that he could apparently purchase an 89¢ can of Dr. Pepper for 74¢. Showing little regard for his fellow consumers who would follow, he emptied this community chest and forced dozens of subsequent customers to break nickels and dimes, and in a couple of extreme instances— Susan B. Anthony Dollars.

Yes, we have indeed fallen on hard times. Forget indicators such as housing starts and retail sales and unemployment and manufacturers’ orders. Apparently the American consumer, in a desperate need to pinch pennies, has stooped to pinching pennies, literally, from the community penny pot.

Economists disagree as to the origin of the community penny pot. Indeed, this practice represents a relatively new medium of exchange and it is almost exclusively the domain of the convenience store. I figured this out when I asked the clerk at Dillard’s to slide me some pennies to supplement by maxed-out AMEX card for a recent clothing purchase. She had obviously never shopped at Lazy Lee’s Bait and Convenience. But the community penny pot, like most good ideas, was borne from a desire to solve a problem—bankruptcy. No, actually that is the problem Mr. Dr. Pepper was trying to solve.

Initially the community penny pot was designed to rid or minimize ourselves of annoying loose change. You’ve seen the signs—“Need a penny, take one; got a penny, give one.” Sure the concept reeks of socialist principles, but it has worked and given us pride as in some small way we would leave the convenience store thinking that we’d beaten somebody out of something and helped us forget we just spent $1.69 for that 20 oz. Co-Cola. We could also leave satisfied knowing that we had just given two cents to the next guy in line, even though we would never consider taking him to lunch.

Unfortunately, I believe excessive penny pilfering is not isolated but in fact widespread. It offers us evidence that much larger economic forces are at work. Like most economic laws, like life insurance, these forces are not easily understood and undoubtedly global in scope. Let’s dig a little deeper—under the cushions if you please—and see if we can tell what’s going on.

One theory: increased copper prices. After all, copper is trading at about $4 per pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange. These numbers reflect a jump of about 100% in just a few short years.

Let’s do the math here. According to my Pitney Bowes postage scale, ten pennies weigh .8 ounces. Everyone knows (except for me 10 minutes ago), however that a penny is no longer 100% copper but instead 2.5% copper with the remaining 97.5% comprised of donut glaze, Snicker’s residue, and caramelized dryer lent. The rest of the metal is actually copper plated zinc, and zinc is spotting at around a dollar per pound.

If copper and zinc outstrip the face value of the coins, a veritable avalanche of economic repercussions will follow. People will begin robbing children’s piggy banks. Consumers will take to making change out of offering plates. The man who once pilfered 15 pennies for a Dr. Pepper will now do something much more ethical but equally troubling economically and toss back three nickels.

Another Theory: Uh, don't have one. Read on....

The resurgence of penny popularity will have far-reaching implications. Indeed, the fallout will impact economic and non-economic walks of life. In random acts of physical exertion not seen in post-depression America, I foresee a day in the near future when people young and old will once again, stop in their tracks and actually bend down and pick up one of these little coins. I can see a new demand  for 50¢ rolls of coins. I can see people paying pennies for thoughts worth much less.

I can see children across the country once again wearing money belts and nerdy money changers. I can see businessmen proudly wearing new shiny pennies in Italian loafers, finally understanding the coins are worth more than the shoes. I can see parents and children thinking twice before putting a penny and three quarters in a theme park vending machine with the intent of transforming the coin into a trinket.

But most importantly, I can see a day when Mr. Dr. Pepper will once again get a job. And then, and only then, will we be reunited with economic equilibrium.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tons and Tons and Tons

Have you ever heard expressions like “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” or “He made tons of money?” How about “My wife has gained a ton of weight!?” (These words have never come from my lips and are only uttered by men who have little regard for their lives) Or have you ever read a sign that said something like the following: “Bridge Ahead—Weight Limit 5 tons?” If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, then congratulations! You now have a frame of reference from which you can appreciate this column.

A ton is a lot of weight. In case you thought one size fits all for tons, I offer you a brief tutorial. A “short ton,” to be exact, is 2,000 pounds. It is a generally accepted notion that if we want to speak about things that weigh a whole lot, we speak in terms of tonnage. Sometimes we invoke the term “metric ton.” A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 pounds. The metric ton has some unknown and unnecessary correlation to liters, Celsius temperature, kilometers, and the French.

Most metric measurements, like the French, are wimpy and effeminate. However, there is something very manly about anything, even fanny packs, purchased by the metric ton. One does not need to know how to convert metric tons into any sensible measuring unit, like the bushel. It is simply enough to know that the ton is a whole lot of weight. We men look at one another knowingly, and exude respect for a fellow male who orders anything by this measurement.

But something about tonnage changed after I moved to the country. It suddenly became a fairly insignificant unit of measurement. The biggest, baddest dump truck I could find could only hold 20 tons of sand and about the same amount of gravel. (“One inch Clean” not a “Crusher Run”)

There is something very satisfying about a dump truck backing down your driveway. It signals to all within earshot that you mean business. The dump truck declares to all who draw near that a country man is hard at work. Dump trucks carry the stuff with which boyhood dreams are forged—sand, gravel, dirt, and dead animals. These boyhood dreams come to life at the first sighting of a dump truck approaching a grown man’s property.

Recently I ordered 20 tons of sand for three reasons: I had built a sandbox, I wanted to build a golf green and sand trap, and that was how much Jimmy Ghin’s dump truck could hold. I had no idea how much twenty tons of sand was. I thought, when delivered, it would create a 30’ mountain on my property and, once leveled across my 9.73 acres (per survey), that 20 tons of sand would make my property look pretty much like the Sahara Desert and a maybe even a lot like the set of Rat Patrol.

Upon delivery, I found my little sandbox took 1-2 tons. Then, the rest was distributed between my green and sand trap. It eventually melded into the landscape until I hardly recognized any difference. In fact, I even needed some more but even though the cost was only $14.95 per ton, I was told for delivery there was a 15 ton minimum order. What sort of world do we live in when a guy can’t order 14 tons of a macho commodity like sand, gravel, or cow manure without being considered a lightweight?

It was a lot of fun ordering sand and gravel and such by the ton. But something else gave me even more satisfaction than the dump truck backing down my driveway— the sight of my kids playing on the ten ton pile of sand on the “green” before we smoothed it out.

From where I sat, they appeared to be having tons of fun. And for me that was worth every penny of that $14.95 per, metric or otherwise.