Sunday, January 28, 2001

Make Your Own Feet

When you're a kid, you want to try and blend in with your homies as much as possible, whether they're from the projects or the country clubs. Whatever the uniform for the crowd you hang with, be it baggy jeans, crisply pressed chinos, loose sweatshirts, hiking boots or hair pins, you mix and match within narrow confines, all in an effort to fit in with whoever you perceive to be the in-crowd.

But as you grow up, things change, and you begin to put a high priority on individualism. As your personality defines itself, so do the clothes that you select. It might be a trademark hat or a type of shirt or the cut of your slacks. You find styles and materials that you believe make you look good, that you feel comfortable in, that make a statement to all who look at you as to who and what you are. And that's the stuff with which you fill your closet.

That's why there's nothing worse than showing up at work or a party and finding out that you and a buddy are wearing exactly the same thing. Doesn't matter if it's a Donna Karen shirt, a Kenneth Cole belt or an Armani scarf. While you know that anybody can walk into a store or flip through a catalog and find the same merchandise you can, we all like to preserve the fiction that our tastes and style are unique. And few things burst that bubble as much as realizing that you and your associate standing together look like stewardesses on parade.

For this reason, one-of-a-kind items and hand-made sweaters hold endless fascination. They cost a premium, to be sure, and their sizing may not be accurate. But you can rest assured that if you can afford it and it fits you, no one else has a raw wool, Nordic-designed satin-lined knit vest, with handmade stag-horn buttons and leather trim... thank God.

But how often could you really wear something like that? Finding unique articles of clothing isn't the challenge. Finding ones that you don't need a special occasion to wear is. After all, anybody can rustle up a tux or a gown for the big night. The trick is to find something for everyday that's custom, that fits, and is as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.

After all, if there was anything that separated the simply well-to-do from the filthy-rich throughout time, it was having your everyday duds made especially for you. If you were of a certain social and economic level, you could turn to the salons of Paris or Saville Row in London for the other side of couture. If you traveled a lot, you could count on getting something made during a stopover in Hong Kong. But for the majority of us, the best we could hope for was off rack in Macy's or Bloomingdales. Not there was any real problem with this approach; it just didn't do a lot in the name of individualism.

Seeing an opening and looking to leverage computer technology, Levis started a custom manufacturing operation for their jeans a few years ago. However, the goal was less style and more fit. You could spec the inseam, the waist and the rise, but the results were still in denim with rivets and contrasting stitching. True, they fit you better than a pair from The Gap, but they still looked like that's where they came from.

But the era of mass customization is upon us. From diets to portfolios, you have a chance to design your own... whatever it is. Any number of firms will take your likes, dislikes and price range, and roll out a custom built whatever that corresponds to your wishes. And there's no better example of how to do that than Customatix.

Started by a couple of sneaker addicts who cut their laces at Nike and Adidas, the Santa Cruz based company offers custom designed sport shoes and boots for less than the price of a pair of Air Jordans. And we're not talking about just selecting the color of the laces. All told, at last check, their web site offered you 3 billion trillion possible combinations... that's a 3 followed by 21 zeros. With those kind of odds, the chances of you having the same color combination as your jogging buddies is about the same as a national election coming out a, more than that.

The process is simplicity itself. You first select the basic style you want to work with, choosing from among 4 styles of skateboard shoes, 2 styles of slip-ons, 3 styles of runners or 2 styles of boots. Then you pick and choose materials, textures and colors for each of the shoe's components. Depending on your basic model, the choices are bewildering. For instance on the "RoadRage" trainers, you're offered color and texture options on the midsole/outsole, quarters, toe cap, vamp overlay, tongue, tongue tip, quarter logo, heel patch, tongue color lining and midsole toe wedge. And that doesn't count the logo for the side, nor the name you can have stitched into the heel. Oh, and did I mention the 35 different lace choices, ranging from light denim to dark teal? If you're the kind of person who can't decide whether you want Italian or French on your salad, you're liable to have a nervous breakdown.

A few weeks after making your selections, the finished shoes are delivered to your door. Folks who have gone through the process give them high marks for comfort and wearability. As for the design, this is a case where beauty is most assuredly in the eye of the beholder. Users respond that while they like the fit, their homegrown designs tend go a bit overboard. But if neon pink joggers with turquoise stitching, a canary yellow sole and your dog's name embroidered on the heel make your run faster, who is the world to argue?


Marc Wollin of Bedford takes as his personal style whatever is on sale. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, January 21, 2001

Room To Move

If there was a recurring story this holiday season, it was the crunch at the airports. Air travel was at an all time high, with some 15 million-plus of us soaring off to grandma's house. And yet the experience has become less concerned with taking wing and more concerned with taking time. Between weather problems, labor disputes and an overloaded air traffic system, it's getting so that while your actual air speed might be expressed in hundreds of miles-per-hour, the entire trip, when calculated door-to-door, is being challenged by the best times of the pony express.

And yet we keep coming. That's because more and more, air travel is seen as a God-given right of the masses, right up there with fast food, internet access and Starbucks coffee. And while we may shop for the best price, we'll be dammed if we're willing to go without. Drive? Take the bus? Try the train? If you can fly, you must be joking.

But in spite of the demand, airlines know that their seats have become a commodity to be sold at the lowest price. Brand loyalty is defined only by which frequent flyer program you prefer. And so the guys who own the planes have to do something to attract the traveler who has a choice, or better yet, has a few extra dollars in their pocket or their company's pocket to spend on the getting there. Food is one thing, entertainment systems another. But any person who has flown from Atlanta to Boise by way of Chicago, or from New York to Rome by way of London will tell you that the holy grail of air travel isn't hot towels or your own can of soda or complimentary limo service or readable magazines. Rather, it's space.

Given that every extra inch on an airplane means more fuel and maintenance costs, it's not surprising that the airlines try and cram as many seats as possible onto the plane. But popular belly aching being a powerful driver... or perhaps corporate execs getting stuck back in economy on a jaunt from Dallas to Seattle... we're starting to see some expansion taking place. For unlike real estate, which they're not making any more of, one can jigger the square inches aloft to give each a person a bit more room.

American Airlines is offering a few inches of extra legroom, and has based a major ad campaign around it. Some airlines are offering a new class of service, called premium or preferred, with some extra elbow, leg and hip room which lands somewhere between stowage and business. But the greatest land grab has got to be British Airways, and its boast of a bed for every business class traveler.

These marvels of modern engineering are little cubicle-ets, complete with video screens, phones, drink holders, storage compartments, power outlets and privacy screens. But all of that pales next to the seat, which, at the touch of a button, converts from an upright desk chair to a perfectly flat bed, albeit it one exactly six feet long and shoulder wide... sort of an airborne coffin. Of course, compared to attempting to doze in a semi upright, modestly padded coach seat while the guy in front of reclines into your lap, its actually heaven at 35,000 feet.

The seats have proven wildly popular with business travelers, so much so that BA is adding more and more of them to their aircraft. On a recent Atlantic crossing, this writer counted at least 30 rows of sleepers on the main deck, as compared to only 25 rows of coach. At the height of the sack-out, a stroller up and down the aisles could be forgiven for thinking the view looked as much like an adult nursery as a 747.

Everybody makes out...everybody, that is, except the economy traveler. A little math drives this home. One sleeper seat takes up about 3 rows worth of economy, and runs 8 wide as opposed to 9. But the sleepers go for about two grand a pop, while an economy seat can be had for $500, often less when a sale is in progress. That means that the same flying real estate generates about $16,000 in business class, about $13,500 in coach. It doesn't take a biologist to figure out which types of seats will proliferate, and which will become endangered.

And BA's approach isn't the last word. Sir Richard Bramson is promising double beds on Virgin Airlines in the near future. And Airbus Industries has in the works the A380, its new triple-decker jumbo aircraft. These airborne behemoths would be capable of holding up to 656 passengers in their best cattle car configuration. Even at that, its main deck is 43% wider than the largest craft now flying, yet packing just 35% more seats. That means that even the folks in the back of the plane would each have their own armrest.

But the real money is expected to come when they put in fewer seats, and use the lower deck to install amenities to attract the business customer. These include not only sleeper seats, but sleeper cabins, business centers, health clubs, duty free shops, bars and casinos. Can a McDonald's be far behind?

Analysts are predicting that traffic in the skies will double in 15 years and triple in 20. That's a lot of frequent flyer miles, and will require some 14,700 new planes, 1500 of them in the "very large" category. It also works out to nearly 13 billion dollars in business. The folks fielding the planes know they have a captive audience, but a picky one as well. Let's hope that, for the sake of a few bucks, they resist turning us all into sardines.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to always sit in the exit row in coach. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, January 14, 2001


Man does not live by chicken cutlet, tuna casserole and spaghetti and meatballs alone. And that's why no matter how much you like your mom's meatloaf recipe or your famous steak with teriyaki sauce on the grill with a side of mashed potatoes, there comes a time when you walk into the kitchen to make dinner and tire of the old standbys. That's not to say that there's not a place for pork chops and grilled cheese in every cook's lexicon. But it's also true that if you know the night of the week by the cut of the meat, it's time to broaden your horizons.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places to turn for the cook looking to expand his or her repertoire. A score of magazines showcase recipes that are variations on the typical baked chicken dinners, made with such pantry staples as mustard, garlic and ketchup. And encyclopedic tomes like "The Joy of Cooking" and "How to Cook Everything" can help you if you open up the cupboard and find nothing but an egg, three stalks of celery, some pepper and a jar of relish. But if you're willing to spend some time trying to tame far wilder beasts, there are plenty of guides that will take you where no man's stomach has gone before.

Take, for instance, the book which won the Julia Child Cookbook Award from the National Association of Culinary Professionals. "The Story of Corn" gives you umpteen ways to make that maize into something nutritious and delicious, all the while enlightening you on the cultural and culinary history of this most basic of starches. From basic corn soup to corn stuffed spatchcock (don't's a cousin of the chicken), there is no corn recipe left unhusked.

Or perhaps, like many of us, you're watching what you eat, endeavoring to be a bit more healthy with what you stuff your face. In that case, you need look no further than "The Art of Tofu" (the title also neatly satisfies your curiosity as to whether tofu was actually art or science). Belying the notion that bean curd is just... well... bean curd, it features such taste treats as Southern Tofu Fricassee', or Tofu Piccate with Mushroom Caper sauce. Makes you wonder why you struggled to reach the top of the food chain, doesn't it?

If you have an international bent, it's easy to let your stomach take a tour of the world while the rest of you stays in the kitchen. There are books detailing native foods and dishes from Thai to Jewish to Mexican to Ukranian to Slovenian to Russian. And that doesn't count such titles as "The Foods and Wine of Spain," "Café Vietnam," "The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking," "The French Farmhouse Cookbook," "The Food of Indonesia," and two words I never thought I'd see together: "Bombay Café."

No to be outdone, it's worth remembering that in spite of our relative youth, we have a strong culinary heritage in this country as well. That prompts such outings as "The Art of the Grill," "Cookin' Louisiana, The Country Cookbook," "Crème de Colorado," and "A Fresh Taste of Hickory." And true to form, a quick perusal of a baker's dozen of these guides reveals a large helping of recipes concentrating on native American food groups: fat, sugar and meat, prepared by frying and searing. So while they may use more elegant descriptions, the bottom line is that they lend legitimacy to the Quarter Pounder with cheese, a side of fries and a chocolate shake.

The latest source for gustabatory guidance comes courtesy of cable TV. Who would have thought that when Graham Kerr rolled out "The Galloping Gourmet" in 1969 as a more everyman's version of Julia Childs' "The French Chef," he would plant the seeds of an industry? The Food Network features chefs who dish up tempting entrees with personality... both the food and the cooks. Not content to merely chop a little garlic and onion while extolling the virtues of a good whisk, these celebrities with cleavers have enthusiastic studio audiences that rival Leno, house bands that compare to Letterman, and cheers and catch phrases that emulate Arsenio.

The self-proclaimed king of the condiments today is Emeril Lagasse, a Portuguese man-of-war if ever there was one. From his native Fall River, Massachusetts, Lagasse, worked his way up the culinary ladder with stints in Paris and Lyon, before eventually landing at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. From there, he opened his own franchise in 1990, and started to build the "Emeril" franchise, which now includes 6 restaurants, 5 cookbooks and 2 TV shows, not to mention cooking spices, utensils and special ingredients.

His recipes, which he "takes up a notch" with a little additional spice by throwing in a pinch of pepper or garlic and going "Bam!" melds a dozen different cuisines, as befits a foodie from The Big Easy. Some of his favorites are Pimento and Bacon Clams, Vietnamese Style Poor Boys, Tasso-cured Salmon Canapés and Lobster Ravioli in a Fennel and Chervil-infused Nage. And you're having macaroni and cheese tonight for dinner? My sympathies.

Speaking for myself, as a confirmed addict, I can find something to love at Wild Ginger in Seattle and Union Square Café in New York, at Goode & Company in Houston and Soho Spice in London. But I'm also content at McDonald's and Dairy Queen. The bottom line is that as long as it's different, I'm a happy camper. I'm not a religious man, but just this once, I'll quote scripture. To paraphrase Matthew IV, man does not... in fact, can not... live by bread alone.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a reverse food allergy. If he sees it, he must eat it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, January 07, 2001

Play On

Everywhere you look, people have to have the latest and greatest. Palm Pilots weren't good enough; now we have them in color. New cell phones are capable of remembering your entire phone book and working on 7 continents. Having access to all the knowledge on the planet via the internet wasn't enough; now we have to have cable modems and DSL, so we have it 24/7. Our cars are faster, our clothes sleeker, our foods tastier.

So in light of all this, it's curious that the number one CD sold throughout the holidays was a collection of truly golden oldies. "One" was a compilation of all of the number one songs recorded by The Beatles, the most recent of which was 30 years old. Granted, it's great that a new generation would seem to be discovering, albeit with their parent's help, what will be known as one of the greatest bands in history. But truth be told, it's not like they had a lot of other choices.

In fact, given what else was available, it's inevitable that cooler heads prevailed, leading listeners to stick with the classics. It was an infinitly better choice than diving into the queen of pop, Madonna, as she mutilated Don McLean's "American Pie," or cringing as grunge band Everclear butchered Van Morrsion's, "Brown Eyed Girl." Hard to imagine, though, that those weren't even the worst offenders in the race to remake musical history. No, the honor for the year's most appalling cover song goes to Britney Spears, vamping it up on The Rolling Stones "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Oops, Britney, you did it again.

For in spite of Napster and MP3 and home recording studios and cheap digital tape, musically speaking, we seem to be in a vast wasteland. There's lots of stuff, lots of ways to get it, but not lots of good stuff. There was little new, "must have" listening material this past year, the kind that makes you run out and buy a CD, sight-unseen, based on the musicians behind it. Oh sure, a few bright spots poked through, like long awaited outings from Paul Simon, Sade and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights. But in a year when the level of songwriting was defined by the loathing and loathsome homophobic ravings of Eminem on the "The Marshal Mathers LP," the highlights were sparse indeed.

That may have something to do with the industry's realization as to where the money is. At least that's a more charitable explanation than one which argues that musicality is the reason that Britney and her chief rival Christina Aguilera are getting as much press and promotion as they do. And they're just one element of the highjacking of the music business by the under 15-set.

Unfortunately... or fortunately, depending on your point of view... to truly understand the other component, you would need to possess the genes of a 13-year-old white girl. Perhaps then you could differentiate between the cloned boy-bands that ruled the airwaves this past year. In that light, you could be forgiven if you thought that N'Sync, The Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and O-Town were one in the same. After all, they are all made up of 4 or 5 loose-limbed 20 somethings, with Gap wardrobes, permed hair and burger commercials to go with their recording contracts.

But all is not darkness. If the past year showed any promise, it is in the nom de guerres' that enterprising acts took into battle. No more simple "Dave Clark Five" or "Herman's Hermits" or "Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels." Literary flights of fancy ruled. As evidence, just take a look at some of the names that debuted in the bins at your local record shop: Apathetically Driven, Barbee Killed Ken, Department of Grooveology, Funkin' Do Me, Jesus of Borg, Perforated Head, Reggae Death Squad, Rest Area 51, 10 Pounds of Dangling Fury and These Drugs Are Killing Me. Makes The Moody Blues seem a model of restraint by comparison.

But it doesn't stop there. Both new and old groups decided that if they couldn't make music that would stand out in the crowd, they could at least cloak their efforts in pretension. How else to explain the following CD Titles: Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline(Gomez), Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water(Limp Bizkit), Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
(Godspeed You Black Emperor!), fold your hands child, you walk like a
peasant (Belle & Sebastian), Bow Down To The Exit Sign(David Holmes), The Notorious One-Man Orgy(Josh Freese), Niun Niggung (Mouse On Mars), Frankie Pett Presents the Happy Submarines Playing the Music of Dead Voices On Air (Dead Voices On Air), Midnight Snack At The Poodle Factory(Midget Handjob) and Pink Bubbles Go Ape, Chameleon(Helloween). Allan Ginsberg would be proud.

But all that aside, it does come down to the music. And no amount of slick packaging or promotion can change the fact that we're waiting for the next big thing. Disco is dead, rap is passe' and grunge is over. As to what will be the next wave to capture the imagination of the listening public, we're guided by words attributed to the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. When asked for a definition of obscenity, he is reported to have replied, "I know it when I see it." Well, Thurgood, so we'll we... and we're listening.


Marc Wollin of Bedford keeps a turntable in his office to listen to old Steve Wonder albums. His column appears weekly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, January 06, 2001

Must-See TV

While the programming that appears on television has evolved at a torrid pace, the same cannot be said for the technology of the box itself. In fact, there are so few mileposts that they can easily be counted on one hand. There's black and white, then color. Certainly, the advent of cable was a major turning point. And the invention and popularization of the VHS videocassette has to rank near the top. But after that? Well, we're still waiting for high definition, smell-o-vision, interactive, teletext... the list goes on.

While only time will tell if it makes the aforementioned list, the latest and greatest example of technological progress to tickle the fancy of gadgeteers is starting to make the rounds. It has the potential to be as significant an advance as any of the top five, not so much because of the technology involved, but for its economic implication. That's because for the first time, the new digital video recorders, or DVR's, have the ability to truly zap the commercials.

Sold under two competing standards by Tivo and ReplayTV, the boxes are basically large computer disks that enable the user to record what's on the tube and watch them at their leisure. But where the new boxes differ from your garden-variety videocassette recorder is in their ability to call out on a phone line at night, and download a schedule of the what's going to be broadcast over the next several days. This is then presented to the viewer to select which shows should be recorded for later viewing.

Now, by itself, this is a "nice to have," but not a "need to have" convenience... no killer ap here. Certainly compared to your existing VCR, it's easier, but not revolutionary. But because of the technology in use, two additional benefits exist. First, skipping ahead 30 or 60 seconds at 60 times speed is a snap. Also, if you're watching a show "live," you can pause it at any time, then resume viewing the show a few minutes later and skip over the commercials as you get to them. Net net, you get all meat, and no filler.

To the viewing public, this might truly seem like manna from heaven. But to the denizens of Madison Avenue, it is more like the devil incarnate. After all, the ads pay the bills. And if people can watch TV without watching the commercials, who will pick up the tab? Or as one studio executive laments, "we're the only industry in the world who has figured out a way to get rid of revenue streams, rather than create them."

But where there's a will there's a way. Or more specifically, where there's money involved, there's an angle. And so, enter Rupert Murdoch, the Australian broadcaster who is a media force on at least 4 continents.

Murdoch's BskyB is a prominent satellite broadcaster in the UK. As part of their XTV interactive offering, they are offering Replay or Tivo-like set top boxes to subscribers capable of storing 15 hours of programming. However, unlike the their US counterparts, there's a slight difference: an advertiser can pay Murdoch to thwart your ability to skip over the commercials, or more exactly, to disable your fast forward button while their ad is on.

While the exact details are still being worked out, there are bound to be a number of schemes. In one, an advertiser might pay a premium so that the system would skip all ads but his. In another approach, the viewer might be hit with a service charge that would enable them to skip the commercials, or allowed to watch for "free" if they are willing to plow through them. Either way, it means that viewers are liable end up with sprained thumbs as they mash the FF button trying to skip to the good stuff.

While the US might lag behind in this particular race for the hearts, minds, and eyeballs of the viewing public, it is actually a step ahead in a similar competition taking place for your ears. Working the audio side of the ledger rather than the video, some 300 Mobil, BP, Shell Sunoco and Total gas stations in California, Florida, Michigan and Texas are participating in the pilot test. At these locations, while you pump gas, the ad folks are busy pumping up the volume. Except you can forget MTV and VH1: it's time for the Pump Radio Network.

For the 120 seconds that you are standing there filling your tank with regular, you get bombarded with ads and music. You can turn the level down, but not off. You would think that since you're already paying for the gas, they could spare your ears. But it is not to be: whether you like it or not, another DMZ has just been breached.

These two examples reinforce the perception that there is little in the world that can't be commercialized. We see ads on billboards, in print, on clothing, in product placement in movies. Stadiums are named after corporations, golf tournaments are sponsored by drug companies. It's gotten so that even the commercials themselves are sponsored by other advertisers: on the "Imus in the Morning" radio program, ads for Don's clothing company with his brother, the Auto Body Express, are sponsored by Nike and others. They say that the air is free, but mark my's only a matter of time before someone figures that one out, too.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is looking for a sponsor for this column. Interested? If so, your banner can run regularly on the masthead in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer... publisher permitting, of course.