Saturday, August 25, 2018

Review: Back To Black: A Tribute to Amy Winehouse

Allison Polans, vocals
Imani Roach, vocals
Ryan Williams, vocals
Ginger Coyle - vocals
Martha Stuckey - vocals
Ginghy Miles - vocals
Dan Finn, keyboards
Adam Zielinski, guitar
Drew Parker, guitar
Nate Gonzalez, guitar and keyboards
Vince Tampio, trumpet
Mike Kania, tenor saxophone
Thor Espanez, baritone saxophone
Brendan McGeehan, bass
Alec Meltzer, drums

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing "Back To Black: A Tribute to Amy Winehouse" at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland on August 24, 2018. For big fans of Amy Winehouse (like myself) who never got to see her perform, this was a sublime experience. For others, I imagine it may be a mixed bag. The show is the brainchild of Allison Polans and Imani Roach, two singers from Philly (my hometown) who wanted to make a tribute to Amy while donating proceeds to her foundation. One thing for certain is that the admiration for Amy was clearly evident, from both the performers and the audience. (The couple standing next to me was singing along to every word, and the guy boosted his cred with a large Amy tattoo along his right torso.)

The first half of the show featured several songs from Frank (Winehouse's "other" album) and a few miscellaneous B-sides. Then the stars aligned for the wonderful performance of "Back To Black", in precise order from the album, start to finish. Finally, the group came out for two encores - the spirited "Valerie" and then the ensemble leading the audience in "Amy, Amy, Amy".

How do you solve the problem of handling Winehouse's massive vocal range? The innovative solution here was to have six different singers rotating in and out throughout the show, each bringing their own sensibilities and life experience to the task. After each song, a new "Amy" came out for the next one.

The first Amy to take the stage was Ginger Coyle. She looked (and dressed) the most like Amy. She truly shined on "You Know I’m No Good", possibly the highlight of the evening as she writhed on the floor just in front of us in the front row. She also performed "Our Day Will Come", "Mr. Magic (Through The Smoke)", "Best Friends Right", and "Tears Dry On Their Own". Her attitude was spot on.

Next was Imani Roach, whose songs included "Just Friends", "October Song", "Stronger Than Me", and then closing out the show with "Addicted". Along with Williams and Poland, she was most spectacular when doing background vocals, which she did throughout the show.

Allison Polans formed the backbone of the show, performing the titular "Back To Black", as well as "Valerie", "What Is It About Men", and the heartbreaking "Love is a Losing Game". She handled the lower registers of the Winehouse ouevre with great skill and emotion.

Ryan Williams stepped in for two of the earlier songs, "Will You Stil Love Me Tomorrow" and "F*** Me Pumps". He was outstanding, even though he did not sport the thick corner-flared eye liner of the other Amys.

Martha Stuckey (who also performs with the band Red 40 & The Last Groovement), was a bit out of place as she had more of a Kelly Clarkson vibe, lacking some of the coolness of Amy that the others brought to the stage. However, she delivered good vocal performances on the gritty "Take the Box" and "Me & Mr Jones".

The low point of the show was Ginghy Miles. She began with "In My Bed", resulting in a hot mess which she could not keep up with. The band played on adroitly, and Miles jumped in and out when she could grab on. She apologized at the end of the song, and said she would get the next one. But then she had similar struggles on "Cherry", which she actually stopped at one point and re-started from the beginning. Fortunately, she managed to make it all the way through "Rehab", which is good since for the casual fans in the audience this is likely the only song of the evening that they would recognize.

If I could have added anything to the show, it would have been great to hear this crew take on "Monkey Man" or "Between the Cheats". But they certainly covered all of the essential songs. Since Amy only released two albums, this show was able to cover almost all of her work in two hours time.

Among the band, Meltzer was fantastic on drums. He effortlessly played through all of the jazzy tempo changes and the multitude of performers. Also standing out was Finn on keyboards. Of course an Amy Winehouse show is all about vocals, but the entire band was excellent as well.

In summary, on behalf of the audience I would like to thank all of the above performers for putting this show together and taking it on the road to the DC area. It was a true pleasure to witness, and I would look forward to seeing it again if they are able to keep it going in Philly. I think Amy would have been proud of this tribute to her, and if she were in the crowd she would have certainly grabbed several stiff drinks and sang along.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Alone: A Love Story

I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard the song Oh, The Divorces! by Tracey Thorn. It’s one of those songs where you hear those first three plaintive notes repeating on the piano and instantly know that you’ll have to stop what you’re doing and hear it out. Midway through the first verse, the sadness starts washing over you:

And each time I hear who's to part
I examine my heart
See how it stands
Wonder if it's still in safe hands
Ms. Thorn is reminding us of that gut-check moment when we hear of a divorce and it makes us question everything that we thought we knew about ourselves. Towards the end of the song, the imagery becomes almost unbearable:

And oh, oh, oh
The honeymoon, the wedding ring
Oh, oh oh
The afternoon handovers by the swings
I recently listed to the entirety (seasons 1 and 2) of Alone:A Love Story. In this podcast, Michelle Parise takes it to another level by sharing with the listener her personal and heartbreaking divorce story. You could take each word from the aforementioned song (honeymoon, ring, swings, charmer, karma, …) and rest assured it is covered in great detail in these episodes.

If you happen to be someone with empathy, this podcast is not an easy listen. Perhaps the primary message in season 1 is that there is so much pain and anguish in this world, it may be more than humanity can bear. You can sense that Ms. Parise carefully prepares each line, like a chef seeking the ripest fruit, until is dripping with raw emotion. She casually drops in phrases like “why do we have the capacity to be so cruel to the ones we love?”. And truth be told, I find that the closer I get to Ms. Parise as the story goes on, the more my heart is aching along, right on cue.

By episode 6, the listener quickly learns about a level of grief that transcends essentially everything. In a particularly memorable incident in episode 7, even a random road rage incident is no match for the power of a sadness that ultimately brings the two unexpected combatants together in their humanity. The segment ends with the stark realization that “Sometimes a total stranger believes in you more than the one you love most”.

When my friends and I watched the Twin Peaks reboot last year, the penultimate episode was so amazing and complete that we briefly considered not even watching the final episode for fear that it could not possibly top what we had just seen. And in some ways I wish we hadn’t. The final episode went in a completely different direction, and opened up a lot of questions that will never be answered.

In much the same way, season 2 of Alone: A Love Story takes a different turn. Although it was no less entertaining than the first season, it changed the themes around and made it difficult to reconcile what to think of the decisions made by our protagonist. And of course it ended with a lot of open questions, which we are now left waiting to see if they might be answered in future episodes. It is a bit titillating to know that, as I write this and as you read it, our hero is living out the life that we may one day get to hear about (or perhaps not).

There were several interesting choices made in this podcast. The first was brilliant. The “bomb” that is going to be dropped is revealed right at the beginning, before it happens. This allows the listener to avoid treating the story like a mystery, and to focus on it for what it is – a real-time, first person account of a tragedy and its repercussions. There is also a nice static audio effect that makes it easy for the listener to keep track of when the narrator is bouncing forward and back in time.

The second choice is one that I’m not sure about. All of the male characters in the story are referred to as inanimate objects. One is “The Scientist”. Another is “The Man in the White Shirt”. And so on. I suppose it does make it easier to keep track of the characters, and avoids the baggage that comes with using names (or fake names). Maybe since it’s her real life, Ms. Parise couldn’t legally or morally use real names. Anyhow, it comes off a bit strange, but does give it a unique feel.

Of course over time we come to realize that the title of the podcast reveals exactly what we are all rooting for – which is that our friend can fight through her demons and finally embrace living alone. She is still struggling through this when season 2 runs out. For now we can only hope that, like any great love story, it will have a happy ending – and that we will someday get to hear it!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jigsaw Puzzles With Pre-Completed Pieces

A friend posed the following question the other day -

When you open a new jigsaw puzzle and you find a few pieces that are still connected, should you pull them apart or leave them connected and consider it a free bonus?

This was my answer:

Imagine a hypothetical example where you open the box and ALL of the pieces are connected. You could just flatten out the puzzle and it is complete. By definition, you would have to break apart the pieces in this case, because doing the puzzle requires that you visually figure out how the pieces fit together. Now imagine the same scenario, but this time only 999 of the pieces are connected. Surely any rational actor would agree that only the fool would triumphantly pop in the final piece and declare that he had done the puzzle. Continuing with this logic, you can keep reducing the size of the pre-connected clump by one. Now the question simply becomes: for what minimum value (n) would this same logic no longer apply, such that you should flip your behavior and not break up the completed pieces? I would argue that selecting any value of n greater than one would be arbitrary and capricious. Thus, you must take the pieces apart.

Sadly, my friend decided to go with the crowd consensus which was to leave the pre-connected pieces and not pull them apart. This despite nobody coming up with a counter-argument to my logic above.

Monday, January 01, 2018

New Years Resolutions

2018: Be more precise with my language (and create a crossword puzzle that meets NYT standards)
2017: Try not to complain about things
2016: Have a positive attitude
2015: Put all tasks in task manager
2014: Do the things that you ought to do
2013: If you make a mistake, or almost make a mistake, immediately put a process in place that will prevent you from making the same mistake in the future
2012: If you agree to do something for someone, do it right away
2011: Hear everything that people say
2009: Make use of the things I have
2008: Be mindful of daily goals list every night
2007: Watch a maximum of one sporting event per week (week runs Sun-Sat). There are two exemptions: watching with others in a social setting, or watching while exercising.
2006: (1) Do not watch the 11:00 local news (2) Finish reading the Sunday paper by Tuesday night
2005: Never place anything in a location where it could cause a problem if left there
2004: Perform any activity immediately if it will take less than 1 minute

Permanent resolutions:
(1) Maintain an even and calm temperament
(2) Think without deceit
(3) Tell the truth at all times
(4) Do right by others
(5) Temperance in food/drink
(6) Moderation in all things
(7) Tranquility

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Does the New York Times Adequately Pay Its Crossword Puzzle Constructors?

This article addresses the supposition that the New York Times (NYT) does not adequately pay the constructors who create its daily crossword puzzles. We will provide some information and analysis, but leave it to the reader to decide whether they find the arguments to be compelling.

Let’s begin with some general facts:
  1. The daily puzzles printed in the New York Times are created by the general public. Anyone can submit a puzzle to the editor (currently Will Shortz). He culls the submissions, selects which puzzles to use, and works with the constructors to create the finished puzzle.
  2. Constructors are paid approximately $450 per puzzle that is used (depending on a few factors, such as whether it’s a Sunday, and how many of their puzzles have previously been used).
  3. NYT has approximately 350,000 digital subscribers to the crossword puzzle, who each pay approximately $40/yr. Of course there is some additional income, which is harder to quantify, that the puzzle generates by enticing customers to purchase the print edition of the paper. And in sales of crossword collection books and other merchandising.
  4. There are 365 NYT crossword puzzles published each year. (They also provide other daily puzzles that we will mostly ignore for the purpose of this discussion.)
Moving on to the analysis, I have seen two primary arguments for why NYT crossword constructors should be paid a higher fee for each published puzzle:
  1. Fundamental fairness requires adequate payment for revenue-generating services
  2. Higher fees will result in higher-quality puzzles

 We will now take a look at these arguments individually.

1. The Fundamental Fairness Doctrine

This argument is similar to the concern where corporations are raking in large profits while paying their CEO hundreds of times the salary of the average worker. It just seems wrong to do this, at a basic level of justice and morality. In this case, the argument is not so much that the editor (Shortz) is overpaid, but rather that the newspaper is taking massive crossword profits in their coffers and not returning them to the constructors whose sweat and tears are creating the product.

One flawed argument that you may see in this regard is to estimate the total annual crossword income (e.g. $40 x 350,000 = $14 million), divide it by the number of daily puzzles (365), and compare that per-puzzle revenue figure ($38,356) to the amount that crossword constructors are paid for each puzzle ($450). It is easy to see that $38,000 coming in is a lot more than $450 going out. This argument completely ignores the expenses of running the crossword puzzle operation. Mr. Shortz has multiple employees on staff, including Deb Amlen and Sam Ezersky. Another huge expense must be technology. Digital subscribers have very high expectations with regard to quality of the website where the crosswords are hosted. This includes uptime, user databases (storing past results and statistics), QA testing, and support across multiple platforms including browsers, devices, apps, and so on. The annual IT budget is likely a very significant expense, with a large contract between NYT and the company managing this enterprise. Then of course there must be miscellaneous other expenses such as cyber insurance, advertising, travel, reference materials, NYT office overhead, and maintaining crossword databases, to name a few.

It should also be noted that digital subscribers are getting access to thousands of past puzzles dating all the way back 24+ years to (currently) November 1993. And there is content being developed each day beyond just the daily puzzles, as mentioned earlier. So for many subscribers, not all of their $40 is being spent for the sole intention of doing the singular daily puzzle. And we should keep in mind that it is not generally considered immoral for a business to have some profit centers that make up for other divisions that are loss leaders.

Can we think of other endeavors that rely on individuals who are underpaid? One example that comes to mind is blood donation. Human blood is a billion dollar industry, with its contributors typically receiving no more than a few donuts and maybe a t-shirt. If large sums were paid to blood donors, the unintended consequences would actual harm the blood supply. (People in high-risk groups would be more likely to lie on the questionnaire, for example.) Then there is The Masters golf tournament - another 100 million dollar annual enterprise that employs thousands of volunteers who simply have a love for the course and tournament. Is it possible that people truly love the NYT crossword? Well, surely there are quite a few who would love to see their puzzle published, regardless of the remuneration.

So how much is the net revenue being generated, and how does that compare to the stipends being given to the constructors? Do constructors receive additional payments when their puzzles are sold in compilation books? Only a few people deep inside the NYT building would know the answer to these questions, and they are unlikely to release the budgetary numbers that would help us put this question to rest. But surely it is not just a simple matter of comparing $38,000 to $450.

2. Higher Fees Would Result in Higher Quality Puzzles

This is perhaps the more subjective and tantalizing topic. Assume for the sake of argument that even after factoring in the expenses noted above, NYT could afford to pay out ten times as much for each puzzle ($4,500). Would this result in higher quality puzzles? This is such a subjective question that it almost seems silly to talk about it. But we will try anyhow.

Is there evidence in other fields that higher prices yield higher quality? For a tangible asset that can use better materials, this makes sense. But constructing a crossword seems closer to a discipline like poetry or art. It is hard to imagine a poet who can “flip a switch” and create “better” poems for a bigger fee. Perhaps a steep commission could even have an adverse effect on such a creative endeavor. And when we think about art, many people would likely have a hard time establishing the “quality” of a million dollar piece over a $100 one.

Is there a group of top constructors who are forsaking the NYT puzzle because its paltry fees make it not worth their while? Surely most in the industry would agree that Brendan Emmett Quigley is one of the top constructors today. He has submitted 176 published NYT puzzles, including several in 2017. Patrick Blindauer – 64 puzzles, including several in 2017. Patrick Berry – 227 puzzles, several in 2017. So it would seem unreasonable to say that NYT is not regularly attracting extremely talented constructors. On the other hand, certainly there are some top constructors (Matt Gaffney? Peter Gordon?) who choose not to submit to NYT due to the low payment rates.

The next question is whether doubling or tripling the pay rates would encourage an extra cohort of would-be constructors to get off the fence and pick up their constructing pencils. On the surface, this seems like an expected and desirable result, since presumably more total submissions equals more quality puzzles for Mr. Shortz to select. On the other hand, anecdotal reports indicate that he already receives many more puzzles than he could ever publish. So any marginal increase in submissions could ultimately translate to just larger piles of candidate puzzles stacked up on his desk. And would these extra puzzles coming in turn out to be of a higher or lower average quality than what he was getting before the increase?

There is something else that could happen when you raise constructor fees. Perhaps a group of professionals will begin spending a lot more time generating puzzles for NYT, which could crowd out the amateurs. The puzzle could lose some of that special feeling it has on those frequent days when there is a first-time constructor. This has already started to happen, as new full-time staffer Sam Ezersky has been recently publishing more puzzles than a random contributor (with no disrespect to Mr. Ezersky, an excellent young constructor himself). More generally, there is a romantic notion of an amateur working to create a great puzzle for the love of the craft, or just to see his or her name on that byline, as opposed to a career constructor cranking out puzzles as a daily occupation.

Finally, a personal example. I used to work as a volunteer for a municipal fire department. We knew the town saved millions each year by not paying us (other than a small monthly clothing allowance), but it was something we loved to do. The city leaders determined that a paid firefighting staff was not necessary, as the volunteers met all of the goals of the fire service. They concluded that making a change to paying full time wages would not meaningfully increase the quality of the department. Perhaps, even in our modern capitalist society, there are still some disciplines where money is not the only route to quality.

In summary, could the NYT afford to pay more to its crossword constructors? Very likely yes, but not hundreds of times as much based on a simple calculation. Would paying the constructors more improve the quality of the puzzles? Until such time that they agree to run a double-blind study with varying fee schedules, this is destined to remain a topic of pure speculation.

Looking Ahead

Taking a step back to look beyond the NYT puzzle, crossword puzzle construction does not seem to be a lucrative profession. We do not find it alongside Computer Programmer and Nurse in any lists of top positions for new college graduates. Can anything be done to bring more money into the profession?

One thing about our modern capitalist society is that the quality or value of an activity is not what drives its success; only whether the activity is capable of generating dollars. In an ideal world, you can have government fund those activities that are for the greater good but just don't generate capital (having a taxpayer-funded Poet Laureate, for example). And we do that to some extent. Should we be advocating for government subsidizing of crosswords? That is probably not going to be a popular solution.

The other problem the crossword industry has, and maybe the elephant in the room, is one of scale. If you have a group of 350,000 people, they all need a separate mattress and a separate house, but they can all do exactly the same single crossword puzzle. So if you think about it, how many crossword constructors do we really need? Perhaps the problem isn't that the payouts are too low, but that we just don't need very many constructors.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

End of Year Review

I am trying something new starting this year. On the last day of the year, I will look back and list anything new that I did that year for the first time. The goal is to have at least one significant item each year.

Here are my items looking back at 2017:

  • Wrote a play and submitted for performance
  • Wrote a song and coded it up in Musescore software
  • Went to Paris, France
  • Had a "clean run" through a crossword tournament
  • Went caving
  • Canceled cable TV service
  • Restored files on a crashed computer from an online backup
  • Kayaking on the Potomac River
  • White water kayaking
  • Played golf with temperature below 30 degrees

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Thinking Out of the Box When Choosing a Health Plan for Open Enrollment

Now that the days are getting shorter and there is a chill in the air, it’s that special time of year when families come together and make their Open Enrollment elections for their health plan. Ok, maybe that’s not your idea of holiday bliss but today we have some tips to hopefully help you think about this annual chore in some different ways.

Last week, my company had our annual conference call where an insurance company rep bewilders us with the various options for next year’s health plans. The one question that never seems to get answered in these meetings is “How do I decide which plan is the right one for my family”? In this article, I will share some of my experience as an Actuary to suggest some ideas that you may not have considered when trying to answer this question.

First, let’s take a quick look at the typical choices offered by most companies. (Your options may vary a bit, but the concepts I will discuss below should still apply.)

1. PPO or HMO – This plan typically has the highest premium (i.e. deduction from each paycheck), but also offers the richest coverage. Many preventative services are covered 100%, and if you get sick or injured you’ll pay just a small percentage of the claims (i.e. medical bills). The PPO is a bit more flexible, while the HMO restricts which doctors you can see. For the sake of this article, we will lump these together since most companies typically offer only one or the other. Also, they tend to behave similarly from an employee cost perspective.

2. High-deductible HSA – This plan has the lowest premium. You then hope that you have a healthy year, because you’ll be on the hook for most costs up to a certain deductible (maybe $5,000). After that, you’re still responsible for a percentage of additional costs up to a maximum out-of-pocket amount. The “HSA” feature sweetens the pot by allowing you to put away tax-free money to pay these costs.

3. Lower-deductible HSA – This plan is similar to the High-deductible HSA, but lowers the risk (deductible and out-of-pocket maximum) in exchange for paying a higher premium. You can think of this as being in the middle of the above two extremes.

If you’re like most people, once your head stops spinning from reading the available choices you put on your accounting hat and try to calculate your best option. Of course, this requires that you accurately guess what your medical expenses are going to be next year. This might be possible if you have some expensive medical condition, or conversely are very young and healthy. But for the rest of us in the middle, this is like walking into a casino where we have no idea what the odds are. In other words – hopeless.

Before pulling out your calculator and getting sucked into this exercise, I argue that you should first think about your values and objectives. (Hint: money is only one of them.) First and foremost, what exactly are you trying to optimize? This comes down to analyzing your personal values, and the answer will not be the same for everyone. Here are a few key areas to think about:

·        Health - Who knew that health would be something to consider when selecting a medical plan? If the most important factor to you is maintaining your health, you should probably go with the PPO or HMO plan. There is a dirty little secret they don’t tell you about High-deductible plans: These plans discourage you from going the doctor. If you don’t believe me, sign up for one for a year and see what happens. When you realize that a trip to the doctor for that sore throat is going to cost you $200, you quickly decide that waiting the extra day to get better doesn’t sound so bad. If your good health is the primary consideration, put away the calculator and take the plan that will give you the inner peace to get yourself treated for every cough, muscle strain, and head cold.

·        Happiness – Studies show that one of the principles of monetary happiness is “Pay Now, Consume Later”. What this means for health plans is that, surprisingly, the HMO or PPO is likely to make you happier over the course of the year than the high-deductible plan, even though it will likely cost you more money in total. First, most of the money is coming out of your paycheck for premiums before you ever see it. Your additional cash outlay is very low. Second, you are achieving monetary happiness as you are “paying now” by deducting the higher premium, so you can “consume later” in the form of your medical claims throughout the year. On the contrary, relationships can be strained by High-deductible plans. Each time a family member incurs a claim in such a plan, with a hefty out-of-pocket cost until the deductible is reached, the employee who signed up for the plan may be asked “why did you sign us up for this stupid plan where we have to keep paying for everything.” The subtlety of the massive premiums that were saved is lost at such a moment.

·        Least Total Expense - Ok, if you are not into behavioral economics you may not be so concerned with the above “Health” and “Happiness” arguments. You just want to know which plan is going to have the lowest cost over the course of next year. The answer is, almost always, the HSA plan with the highest deductible. When I was studying Actuarial Science in college, there were some basic mathematical proofs that demonstrate this. This is especially true if you are a savvy consumer who is willing to shop around for cheaper medical care. And it will also help if your family is not a band of accident-prone hypochondriacs. Yes, there will be years where this option could cost you the most. But that will be offset my many other years where your expenses are low. For the lowest average outlay, go with the High-deductible HSA plan.

·        Lowest Maximum Expense – A different consideration for you might be: in the worst-case scenario, which plan is going to cost me the most? After all, the whole point of insurance is to avoid a situation that will put you out of house and home if someone in your family has a catastrophic event. If this is a real concern for you, you should focus on the “Out-of-pocket limit” for each plan and simply choose the plan with the lowest limit. This will sometimes be the PPO or HMO, and sometimes the HSA plan. Since the answer on this one will vary, you’ll have to check the detail in the particular options offered by your company.

·        Early Retirement – If you are trying to save up for an early retirement and/or like to minimize what you pay in taxes, the HSA plans have a lesser-known benefit that can be enormous. Each year, you can sock away a huge amount of pre-tax dollars in your personal HSA account ($6,900 in 2018). This is on top of the annual 401(k) savings limit ($18,500 in 2018). And you can invest the HSA money in aggressive funds just like you do with your 401(k). This is a massive tax break that should tip the scales for anyone who can afford to go for maximum tax-free savings each year. If you want this tax break and also care mostly about Health and Happiness, go with the Low-deductible HSA plan. Select the High-deductible HSA plan if you just want the lowest total cost without regard to psychological incentives.

Hopefully you now have a more complete picture of some things to consider when making your annual health plan elections. And if you get it wrong, there’s always another Open Enrollment this time next year!