Friday, December 22, 2000

A Christmas Carol

"Ebenezer.... Ebenezer..."

"What!? Who's there!? What do you want!?"

"Ebenezer, I am the ghost of Christmas past."

"A ghost? But why have you come to visit me? What have I done?"

"It's 2000, Ebenezer, the last Christmas of this millennium... or the first Christmas of the next... whatever. Either way, you have to account for all of those bad gifts you've given."

What do you mean, bad gifts? I've always been exceedingly generous, with family, friends, business associates..."

"Have you, now? Well, let's look back and see, shall we? Do you remember this holiday?"

"What's that appearing in the mist? It's.... it's... me! But I have long hair. And a peace necklace and bell-bottoms and a fringed vest. My, I must have been just a teenager...."

"Nineteen, to be exact. The time was 1971. And you came home on Christmas day to be with your family. Do you remember?"

"Why yes! Mom had a turkey and all the trimmings. And Dad had a pitcher of eggnog and the football game on. They were so happy to see me! I remember bringing presents and everything... though I don't recall exactly what they were."

"Indeed. Isn't it amazing how you remember some things so clearly, while others... Well, keep watching."

"I see Mom unwrapping the present I just handed her. Gee, it look's like... apron with Richard Nixon and a B52 on it?"

"Uh huh. And..."

"And dad is holding up.... a tie with... is that Fidel Castro?"

"Yes it is. A real beauty, don't you think?"


"Trying to make a statement, there, son?"

"Uh... I know at the time... I mean, they seemed like the right things to..."

"Well, let's not dwell on that. Let's move on, shall we?"

"Why? Where else are you taking me?"

"Just a little jump on the calendar forward... recognize the setting?"

"It looks like a classroom...and there's my daughter, Lucy. Why, she can't be more than five."

"Six, to be exact. She's in first grade. And that's her teacher, Mrs. Apple. Do you remember her?"

"Yes, she was an old bat. She was nice enough to Lucy, but always seemed cold to me in conferences. I always wondered why...."

"A good question. Can you see what she's doing?"

"Well, it looks like the kids are having a Christmas party in school, and she's opening presents that the kids are giving her. Yes... that's it. And there goes Lucy with... what is that? An envelope?"

"Keep watching."

"Well, I don't remember exactly, but I'm sure we gave her tickets or a gift voucher for Bloomingdale's or... no!!"

"What do you see?"

"Not a McDonald's gift certificate! We couldn't have!"

"You did, indeed. You're lucky that she didn't take it out on Lucy."

"But she did so much for Lucy in reading and math... and we gave her a Big Mac????"

"Not even. It was a $1 certificate. Big Macs cost more."

"Oh, I'm so ashamed...."

"Let's make one more stop before we return home, shall we? Tell me what you see...."

"I can't quite tell. It... it seems to be an office."

"It is... but not just any office. You spent a lot of time there. Ring any bells yet?"

"Well...those cubicles look familiar. Wait! That's it! It's my first management job. My, those were simpler times. But what a great team I had. In fact, there's Bob and Judy and Sanjit and Wing Lu. We spent many a late night trouble shooting that system. But I don't see me...I wonder where I am."

"Again, your memory is a bit selective. You're not there because you never really worked late, did you? You always left at five and told them to have it ready by morning."

"Well, I.... I was always there when they needed me! And I always showed them my appreciation!"

"Did you, now? Let's listen for a moment...."

"... there was nothing in my paycheck. How about yours, Sanjit?"

"Not an extra cent. That son of a bitch didn't give anybody a bonus... even Wing, who saved his ass on the rollout. Right, Wing?"

"Yeah. All he ever did was send in one of those tins of popcorn with a 'Happy Holidays!' note on it. He walks off with a couple of grand, and all we get are cavities from munching on caramel corn...."

"...a different take, huh, Ebenezer?"

"But they said they LIKED caramel corn!"

"You were their boss... what were they supposed to say?"

"I... I...just thought..."

"Well, you thought wrong. Any lessons you might have learned?"

"My God, what have I done? I have to be more generous. And give people gifts I would want myself. Let me start with you. But're fading away!"

"Just remember....remember... remember...."

"I will remember. I must find Tiny Tim and get back that mouse pad before he opens it. I know he wanted a Palm Pilot...."


Marc Wollin of Bedford apologizes profusely to Charles Dickens. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 16, 2000

All I Want For Xmas

It's that time of year again, when good little boys and girls of all ages sit down and make up their wish lists for Santa. The little kids are easy; it's the big ones that are tough, especially since we all know that the only thing that separates men from boys is the price of their toys. So while it's easy to impress if you're willing to lay down the big bucks, be it $3000 for a laptop, $10,000 for a high definition TV or $100,000 for a Porsche, the trick is to do it on a budget. And so, what follows is a highly selective list of goodies... all for under seventy-five bucks... that should wow the child on your list, regardless of their age.

For those whose parents... or spouses... won't let them have a pet, the hot seller this year is the robotic dog. While the cream of the crop is the Sony Aibo which sells for $1500, there are lots of others to choose from. For instance, this past August, Tiger Electronics' robotic dog, Poo-Chi, was the number one selling toy introduced in 2000, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America. So it's logical to assume that the follow-up, Super Poo-Chi, listing for $49.95, will be the pick of the litter for Christmas. Both react to light, touch and sound, so if you pay attention to them, they're happy. You know this because their eyes light up in the shape of a heart. And Super Poo-Chi responds to six different voice commands, including sit, lie down and stretch, and has a wider range of motion. The good news is the only "presents" this pup will leave for you around the house is batteries; it takes 3 "C" cells.

If your intended has questions that need answers, don't go looking for a magic eight ball. Better yet, pick up an e-Fortune. This neon-colored, electronic fortune cookie pulls apart to reveal an LCD screen. Depending on the color, they can find out their horoscope (lemon), future (cherry) or fortune (lime). Best of all, at just $15, you'll have plenty left over to get some vegetable lo mein, some spicy chicken and peanut, and the real thing for dessert.

If you know someone who wants to recapture those magical lo-tech days when the height of interior design was the lava light, then consider the IceLite. Consisting of a plastic base which includes a candleholder and a clear, heat-resistant container filled with water, the device is simplicity itself. Take the top and freeze it. Then light the candle, and assemble the top to the bottom. As the ice melts, the pattern changes... offering them hours of time to contemplate whether or not this diversion was worth $29.95.

Even been in the car with someone flipping through stations when they finally hear THAT song, but miss the artist and the album? Well, the eMarker might be just the ticket. Press the button on this little $19.99 torpedo shaped beauty, and it registers a time and date stamp. Then when they get back to their computer, they simply slip it into its base, and it leads them to online playlists that identify the tune. So now they'll be able to find that that old Monkeys tune that they kept humming in the shower.

Of course, not all gifts are frivolous by nature. For the more practical... and fussy... significant other in your life, consider Otres Kitchen Sponge Sanitizer. A mere $49.95, this clamshell device plugs in next to the sink and provides a resting place for that moldy piece of cellulose you use to swab the deck. Place it in the dish, and it bathes the contents in purifying ozone, killing all the ick within and withon. Lord knows what it would do to an Oreo.

If your givee's tastes run more to... well... tastes, then Williams-Sonoma's Remote Thermometer is right up their alley. Combining the best features of a Perdue Pop-Up indicator and a walkie-talkie, it consists of two parts. Stick the radio probe deep into your bird, and go sip eggnog with the gang. Then, when the internal temperature hits the magic number, the pager size receiver beeps to let you know its time to get the cranberry sauce ready.

Is your target the kind who can't remember if the tune they set their cell phone to ring with is the William Tell Overture or In-a-gadda-da-vida? Make sure they don't miss that important call with a Flashing Antenna. They can easily unscrew the nub on their Nokia and replace it with one of these little multicolored devices. Then, when they receive a call, up to 8 LED's flash to let them know it's their belt that's making noise. At just $3.99 a pop, you can get a bunch for you and your friends, call each other, and poof! Instant disco.

But maybe all of these cheapies won't make the splash you hope for under the tree. In that case, you could save your pennies, and spring for one gift that'll really make an impact. And in my mind, that would have to be O&K Mining's RH-400, the biggest hydraulic excavator in the world. Able to grab 80 tons of whatever in one bucket, it has a 60-foot reach and runs for hours on its 4227-gallon gas tank. So from your back yard, you could deal with offending kid down the block and his loud guitar by simply scooping up his entire house and dumping it out. Granted, at $10 million dollars, it's a bit over our $75 cut off, but, hey, that's why they invented low minimum monthly payments.

Keep in mind that with all of these the clock is ticking, and the holiday is just a week or so away. At last check, all the items contained herein were still available, and FedEx said they can make the cut-off... well, maybe not with the excavator. But other than that, the ball's in your court. So forget the socks, slippers and underwear. It's time to play Santa.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to beat the rush, and is already returning gifts for even exchange. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 07, 2000

The Code Boat

When you consider the wherefores of your next vacation, a couple of critical criteria probably come into play.  You want to be able to get away from the daily grind, leaving the phones and distractions of your world behind.  You look for a location that offers activities that appeal to you and your family, whether that means lying on the beach or skiing.  You yearn for a different locale, one where the discovery of new and interesting sights and sounds provides a relief from your everyday routine.  And you consider the cost, so that when the bills finally come in at the end of the trip, your next sojourn won't be to the stroke ward of your local hospital.

To accommodate those desires, the whole travel and vacation industry has evolved.   Las Vegas, founded by gamblers and gangsters for gamblers and gangsters, now has reinvented itself as the next Disney World.  And Club Med, fabled in sound and story as the swinging singles resort, now features Baby Clubs and serves as much chocolate milk at meals as it does wine and beer.

Some destinations, seeking to lure jaded consumers, have even restyled themselves as glorified summer camps, expanding the typical offerings.  And so you see weaving, rappelling and acrobatics right up there next to tennis and golf.  Others have added classes meant to cater to the mind, focusing on such subjects as the stock market and Shakespeare.  Still others have embraced the concept of theme packages, creating such offerings as a "Star Trek" cruise or a weeklong getaway focused on gardening.  The goal hasn't changed, only the bait needed to lure the paying customer.

But the customer has changed as well.  Just as you don't see packs of kids roving the neighborhood playing soldiers or capture the flag or tag or hide and seek, so too are there less people at resorts who are dying to go roller blading or biking or play badminton or shuffleboard.  That's because kids and adults are as likely to be exercising their thumbs these days as they are their bodies, parked in front of their computers and cruising  the web.

There's no doubt that computers have become a major leisure activity.  And so it stands to reason that a successful holiday company would incorporate that particular aspect of life into their programs.  And so you find data ports in the rooms and internet cafes off the lobby, as well as classes such as "Fun with Computer Graphics" scheduled at the same time as "Introduction to Indian Cooking," and "Getting The Most Out Of Photoshop" slotted in right after "Rhumba to Relax."

Even the cruise industry has gotten into the act.  In fact, one entrepreneur noted that the true chipheads like himself in the crowd, while happy to swim and fish and paddle, yearned for a chance to pull up a lounge chair and hack for a while.  And so Neil Bauman put together the first ever cruise mixing the inside passage of Alaska, all-you-can-eat buffets, spa treatments and Java programming classes.  What's it called?  Why, Geek Cruises, of course.

This past spring, Bauman lured some 600 aficionados of the Perl computer language aboard the Holland America line's SS Volendam for a weeklong jaunt entitled "Perl Whirl."  On that outing, classes and seminars on the intricacies of coding mixed with stump-the-hacker quiz show games, screenings of B-movie classics like "Barbarella" and more traditional cruise activities like whale watching and glacier hikes.  For less than $2000... less than the cost of a similar retreat at the Marriott, in fact... computer nerds were in pig heaven, able to don their baggies and Hawaiian shirts to sit on the pool deck and fire up their laptops, knowing that they would find not ridicule but kindred souls.

The organizers provided all sorts of help to ensure that the kind of person who usually prefers tanning under florescent light in a cubicle won't feel out of place on the high seas.  In his letter of helpful hints, Bauman answers such typical cruise questions as "What kind of clothing should I pack?" ("Daily life aboard ship is laid-back and casual, so where what makes you most comfortable") and "Will I get seasick?" ("Probably not.  All ships are equipped with stabilizing fins that counteract more than 80% of the roll of the sea").  But with an eye towards his special constituency, he also handles such queries as "On board, what Net connections will be available?" ("The ship is equipped with internet connectivity via an internet CafĂ© which is open 24 hours") and "Will my PC work aboard ship?"  ("Each stateroom is equipped with 110-volt, 60-cycle alternating current)."  The feedback from the first venture was so positive that Bauman has created a whole menu of choices to cater to the techie who wants his Sun workstation and sunscreen at the same time.  Industry experts have been lined up, ships have been reserved and supplies of commemorative pocket protectors have been ordered.  Caribbean cruises are planned with names like Database Discovery, Java Jam, Linux Lunacy and Windows Whimsy, while a transatlantic crossing is being readied to delve into the intricacies of the web itself.

Are any of these for you for you?  Well, unless you give equal weight to a good tan and good Ethernet connection, probably not.  But shop around.  There are jazz ranches, gambling excursions, basketball holidays, cartoon character weekends, even a "Time of Your Life" cruise focusing on women's hormonal health.  Pick the right one, and you can enjoy your version of a perfect vacation, perhaps with suntan lotion in one hand, and a Palm Pilot in the other.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers that human interaction on his vacations be held to the bare minimum.  His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, April 07, 2000


Pity the star-struck depressed illiterate.  That's because if you like celebrities and are unhappy, but are unable to read, you're missing out on what has become the mainstay of the publishing industry.  How else to explain that not a day goes by without some celebrity formula for fulfillment vying for bestseller status.

This week's publishing event comes courtesy of Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of the Duke basketball team for 20 years.  His just released, "Leading with the Heart," is an exhortation addressing how to take control of the different "teams" in your life... family, work and so on.  Also jostling for position in the red zone that is the morning talk show circuit is Mary Lou Retton, former Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics.  She's making the rounds with "Gateways to Happiness," a personal exploration of the different "gateways" you have to pass through to be happy... work, family and such.   Both of these follow similar efforts from Oprah, Joan Lunden, and a host of others.  It's only a matter of time before we see the "The OJ Simpson Approach to Keeping a Positive Attitude."

The subject matter of each of these tomes isn't the problem... it's the authors.  By their very nature, these well known personages have advantages and opportunities that remove them from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.  That's not to say that they don't have challenges and problems in their worlds.  It's just that reading how Lauren Hutton came to terms with her weight problem when she felt her wet suit was a little snug for that dive in the South Pacific rings a little hollow for Jane Doe.

What we need are self help books aimed at the average Joe that are written by the average Joe.   No glamorous starlets, no hunky leading men. The advice I want to see when I turn on the Today show at 7AM should come from somebody who is more like me.  In other words, I want tips from the guy I see every morning taking the 7:36 to Grand Central who's struggling with his gutters.  To paraphrase and with apologies to Langston Hughes, "Boring Like Me."

"Welcome back.  Next, we're thrilled to welcome the author of the just released 'Commuting to Success:  How to Catch The Express,' Mr. Kevin Dougherty.  Kevin, welcome."

"Katie, it's my pleasure."

"Kevin, tell us a little about yourself."

"Well, I'm married with 2 kids.  My wife Betty is the manager of the lingerie department at Periwinkle's Department Store.  My son, Bobby, is 12, plays clarinet in the middle school band and is a B- student.  My daughter, Amanda, is 9, has already become a clothes horse and is working on her green belt in kempo karate."

"And what about you, Kevin."

"Well, for the last 23 years, I've been with Ultrabank in the city.  Currently, I run the passbook savings audit department.  In my spare time, I work on the lawn, and occasionally get to play a round of golf on the public course near our house."

"Sounds pretty uninspiring.  So what made you write this book?"

"Well, every morning for the past 23 years I've been taking the same train.  Well, of course, there have been some schedule changes, so the 7:36 used to be the 7:34 back in '89.  But other than that, I've been riding in the same car with the same guys I don't talk to for 5 days a week year in and year out.  And yet, in spite of that, I've managed to leap over all kinds of qualified folks and get promoted to the head of my department."

"Wow.  How many people is that?"

"Well, if you count the part timers, we're talking 3 or 4.  So it was no small feat."

"I'll say.  And?"

"And I thought, gee, there must be lots of poor guys out there just like me who might be able to benefit from the lessons I've learned along the way.  So I pulled out the old keyboard, and this book is the result."

"Pretty mundane.  Can you describe the basic idea of the book?"

"Well, I tried to look at life as your morning commute.  When you get on, you have a goal.  But along the way, it's tempting to look out the window and dream about where else you could be going.  To that way of thinking, most of the stops can be viewed as distractions that keep you from getting to your ultimate destination.  Now some may be worth checking out... the zoo, a park or a new store.  But if you focus, stay on the train, and don't get caught up, you'll eventually get to your destination."

"Can you give me an example?

"Sure.  Chapter 7 is called 'The Hobby Stop.'  It would be real easy to lose your focus and get off the train to play golf, or play computer games, or go fishing.  Now, some people do that, but it delays them getting to their destination.  And some like the stop so much, they forget to ever get back on the train, and never make it.  The same goes for other stops, like family, vacation and so on.  Each can be tempting, but they distract you from the end of the line.

"And your advice for dealing with this?

"Nothing special.  Just suck it up and stop whining."

Now, that's the kind of lifestyle and advice I can relate to.  It might be entertaining to get advice on kids from Melanie Griffith, hints on marriage from Harrison Ford and career strategies from Martha Stewart.  But to tell you the truth, the stuff that really interests me, the stuff that I can use, runs more to how the guy at the end of the block got rid of his crabgrass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is the writing the forthcoming bestseller "Clean Your Harddrive and Succeed!"  Until it's published, his column can be found weekly in The Record-Review.