Sunday, February 25, 2001

Captive Audience

While America waits for Tony Soprano to once again take to the airwaves and prove that crime does pay (or at least buys you a schmaltzy house and a strip club of your own in New Jersey), his opponents are working on their side of the ledger. I speak not of the different families that the gang is facing off against, but rather the government and its forces. To do their job, they need tools as sure as Tony needs cement overshoes for the likes of Pussy and his ilk.

In real life, after all, the Justice Department has reported that the incarceration rate nearly doubled over the last decade, from one in every 218 Americans in 1990 to one in every 147 in 1999. And that rate is expected to continue, so much so that this year the number of guys and gals behind bars is expected to reach the 2 million mark. That's a lot of handcuffs.

It's no different at the big house than it is at your house. For the proprietor of the inn, the range of structural necessities is exceeded only by the number of cute tchotchkes available. It's all a matter of taste and style, mixed in with the inevitable budget considerations. That presents the enterprising entrepreneur with a truly captive market. And so the merchants are lining up to display their wares during the upcoming Jail Expo, held annually at the American Jail Association's annual confab. A quick glance at the offerings shows why it's the place to go shopping for that perfect cell and accessories.

There's no area that doesn't require special manufacture when the user is serving 10 to 15 for armed robbery. Take clothes, for instance. You can't just toss a pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt through the bars. You need to consider such things as a stylish short sleeve cut, designed so that it's nearly impossible to conceal a weapon. Or for those hard to control guests, there's a suicide watch gown for use on individuals placed in isolation. It includes break away hook and loop shoulder straps that shorten or lengthen the gown up to 48", along with three hook and loop front / side closures (metal snaps could be used for other purposes, and there are no proven cases of anyone being taken hostage by Velcro). The outer shell is made of tough Cordura or combat nylon, with an inner lining of rip-stop parachute material for added warmth. A steal at just $94.95, it comes in stylish blue or orange, and will work for even those hard to fit 10XL prisoners.

But let's face it: prison is not just about fashion. The cell environment itself is key. So there are plenty of companies and contractors ready, willing and able to help make that perfect home, keeping in mind that the occupants will be spending a lot more time in theirs than you do in yours. PX:Direct Jail products recommends that the minimum size for a cell is approximately 5' x 7', slightly larger if a toilet is to be installed.

From an economic standpoint, they point out that the least expensive approach is to build from 1 to 3 walls with cinder block and purchase bars for the remaining walls. Why a cell size of only 5' by 7'? Well, as grill walls cost between $32 per square foot for a woven steel rod wall and $40 per square foot for a barred wall, while a solid steel door runs from $800 to $2000 (not counting observation panels and food pass-throughs), larger cells can easily equal the cost of a suburban kitchen. And mind you, these don't come with granite countertops... more like stainless steel bunks, a bargain at just $279.95 extra.

But what makes a house a home is those little touches that you provide for the residents. And the Expo will feature a full line of favors, designed to placate the most difficult of inhabitants. There're classics from the American Handcuff Company, as well as Hiatt-Thompson Restraints. Both feature wrist and ankle models, as well as belly ropes, hobbling chains and leg irons. For those frisky types, Hiatt's new high security handcuff is equipped with a uniquely keyed tumbler lock in addition to the standard handcuff key-lock. Locking the tumbler lock performs two functions. It double locks the cuff and, more importantly, disables the regular handcuff key. So no more leaving the table until you're good and ready to let them go.

For that special hard to control someone, Humane Restraints presents a full line of strait jackets and padded wrist and ankle restraints for use in securing individuals to beds or chairs. And don't miss their unique patented Transport Leg Brace, which locks the leg in a standing (but not seated) position. This allows a restrained subject to walk but impedes running or kicking. They even have a show special: buy a pair, and get $20 off individual price of $199.

There are definite signs that the economy is cooling. As the dot.coms fade into the sunset and computer makers struggle with their products turning into commodities, we're all looking for the next big wave in which to invest our pensions. And while there's an old saying that crime doesn't pay, though you can't beat the hours, perhaps we've been looking at the wrong side of the equation. After all, if anti-spitting hoods go for $3.50 each in lots of 1000, there's money just waiting to be made. And for those used to dealing with demanding customers, for once you don't have to worry that the consumer is always right.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thinking of purchasing an anti-biting guard for use with his more difficult clients. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

A Prune Is Still A Prune

There can be no doubt that when it comes to food, taste rules. In a blindfolded test, more of us would prefer cookies to crackers, apples to broccoli, ice cream to cottage cheese. But other senses come into play as well: sight, smell and touch also influence what attracts us and what repels us to different edibles. And while it has little to do with the senses, there is also no denying that the name of the consumable plays a part as well. After all, putting aside all other factors, which do you find more attractive, Spam or gelato?

While all of these issues come into play when you're cruising the aisles at your local market, looking for items to stock the larder for the coming week, it is the last that would seem the most fungible. And yet, it can make the difference between a purchase and pass by. And so, for a certain set of growers and food processors, the big news out of the Food and Drug Administration is not that a new cancer drug has been approved or that mad cow disease is not a threat on these shores. Rather, it is that the agency finally gave its long awaited approval to rename prunes to dried plums.

In the works for years by the California Prune Board (who will obviously now need new stationary and monogrammed luggage), the name change was sought as a way of counteracting flat sales. While there was steady consumption by the over-65 set, it seems that younger consumers shied away from a food with an old fogy image and name. Recognizing that a moniker more in tune with a healthy lifestyle might do something to kick start sales, the Board petitioned the FDA in May of 1999 to make the change. Little progress was made, until the state's senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, lent their support to the cause. Now, some 18 months later, we have the coming out party.

Why the delay? After all, nothing was happening inside the box to the fruit: no different chemicals or methods were being use, no artificial colors being added, not even a dramatic new de-pitting scheme. Rather, according to Richard Peterson, the group's executive director, the FDA wanted reassurance that "consumers would not be confused and that we would educate them." Forget standardized test scores, school vouchers and merit pay: perhaps this is what happens when the White House makes the e-word a "top priority."

The conundrum faced by the manufacturers was how to re-brand a food so that legions of Medicare consumers wouldn't cause a panicked stampede on the Shop Rite, while at the same type attracting yuppies in SUV's to the newest health snack. After lengthy negotiations with the government, new regulations were issued that call for concurrent use of "prunes" and "dried plums" for about two years. After that, a manufacturer can go either way it chooses, even packaging the same product under different names for different markets. That means that a box of the shriveled dark fruits can be called prunes in Miami Beach, while the same box can carry the label dried plums in the Hamptons. Mind you, the change is optional. So there can still be prune danish, your boss can still be prune-faced, and your fingertips can still wrinkle up like a prune after hours in the water.

On the surface, this would seem to be an innocent enough adjustment. But should it be successful, it could open the floodgates to all kinds of changes. After all, there are numerous foodstuffs which languish needlessly on your supermarket shelves as much because of their identities as for their taste. Aside from the aforementioned Spam, there's headcheese, turnips and tripe, to name just a few. But if this plum thing works, just give them each a snappy French influenced name, mark them low in fat and calories, and watch them fly out of the store.

This identity updating is a tried and true method to capture market share. Perhaps the best example is hanging in your hall closet. Odds are that just 10 years ago you wouldn't have been caught dead walking around in anything labeled "polyester." It was natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, or go naked. Now, if you're like the rest of the country, you have numerous Polar fleece garments hanging there, from vests to jackets. But check the label closely on that $185 Hard Wear anorak or the zip-out lining of that $265 four-season Gortex parka. The fibers may be labeled virgin, but it's still polyester.

But for some things, the name change just doesn't work. British Airlines has renamed their economy cabin as World Traveler, but the seats are just as uncomfortable. Classic Coke was supposed to be the alternative to New Coke, but New Coke tasted so bad that Classic went back to just being Coke. And Rob Van Winkle may have changed his name to Vanilla Ice, but he couldn't change the fact that he had no talent.

In fact, even the Prune Board recognized the limits of their campaign. While you'll soon be able to find whole dried plums, pitted dried plums and even chopped dried plums, it's worth noting that they gave up the fight when it came to the liquid form of the product. After all, like military intelligence and jumbo shrimp, dried plum juice seemed to be an oxymoron just waiting to happen.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will eat peanut M&M's whatever they call them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Say What?

When I pulled out the headphones on the Japan Airlines flight coming back from Tokyo, a slender box about the size of a lipstick was attached somewhere in the middle of the cable. It had a single switch embedded marked "on" and "off," as well as a little red light to indicate its operation. No directions were offered, no explanations were attached. Just earphones on one end, a plug on the other, and this strange little contraption in the middle. I held one of the earpieces up to my ear and flipped the switch. The red light glowed, nothing more. No color change, no siren erupting, no temperature drop. So I switched it off and plugged them in, the better to while away the 12 hours it takes to travel from the Far East to the Near East.

Somewhere over Alaska I was deep in the middle of a bad movie. I was getting restless, and so started to play with the seat controls. I moved myself up and down, turned my reading light on and off, tried to stiffen up the backrest. Invariably, my thumb wandered down my headset cable to that little black box and switch, which I idly slid to "on."

Suddenly, the noise subsided while the movie continued; that whirring and rushing sound that was the plane slipping through the atmosphere at 500 miles per hour disappeared. My stomach turned, as I ripped off my headphones, thinking that perhaps the engines had quit, and I should have paid better attention during the safety demonstration. But no, the sounds in the cabin seemed equal to what they had been earlier. I slipped the earpieces back on, only to hear the same movie and the same silence. I flipped the switch off; the rush returned. On, and it went away again. It seems that in my fidgeting I had stumbled upon better living through chemistry, in the form of noise cancellation.

A search through the seat back pocket turned up a flyer describing the device. Through the use of little microphones built into the outside of the earpieces, the pattern of incoming sound is reversed and applied to itself, effectively neutralizing it. You're actually listen to twice the amount of static, but since one is positive and one is negative, nothing remains to hear. It's acoustic arithmetic, where one plus minus-one equals zero. Or more conceptually, it's Star Trek, Episode 37, where some mad alien threatens all the matter in the universe with an anti-matter device and Captain Kirk has to save us all, writ small.

Now, when you think about devices that have the power to improve your lot, this would seem to be one that would be high on the list. Whether it's the lawn mower, a garbage truck beeping as it backs up or just the crickets that start in earnest at first light in the summer, just think what peace you might bring to your world if you applied this technology liberally.

Unfortunately, the device itself seems just to work well with repetitive sounds. However, if the manufacturers want to broaden the appeal, they should invest in some R&D and see if they could get the gizmo to work on human voices that aren't going "Om" again and again. Then you could offset offending spouses, tune-out troublesome bosses or filter frantic children. Now we're talking some serious quality of life issues.

But the big advance would come if they could take that final step, and produce not just a negative sound image, but a counterbalancing one. The difference, I grant you, is a subtle one. The idea is that that rather than combating a fire siren with a negative fire siren, produce a waterfall instead. Or if they can get the human voice thing to work, a person wearing the headphones wouldn't hear, "Wilson, your work on that project stunk" but rather "Wilson, your work on that project was brilliant." Now, that's user-friendly electronics.

In the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry television comedy of the sixties, Don Adams played a bumbling secret agent working in a farcical intelligence agency named Control in "Get Smart." Written as a spoof of James Bond movies, it included the requisite villains, women, outlandish plots and evil organizations. Don, as Maxwell Smart, also had the defining gadgets that proved his covert pedigree, including his trademark shoe phone. But to many viewers, one of the funniest bits happened when there was something critical to talk about and Max asked the Chief, his boss at the agency, to "lower the Cone of Silence." They stepped under a Plexiglas hood, from which no sound was supposed to escape. Invariably, they wound up screaming at each other to overcome its effects, or the buzzing of a fly trapped underneath was amplified to deafening levels. In trying to counteract the forces at play, they eventually banged their heads on the hood, or grew hoarse from screaming. Either way, the device didn't work as advertised.

But these headphones did. I have since seen commercial versions advertised in upscale magazines for a hundred bucks or more. That's a steep price to pay to offset the rush of the wind or the drone of an engine. But if they can work out the human voice thing, I for one might be interested. After all, how much would be worth to change, "Honey, go take out the garbage" to Honey, go take a nap." As they say on the Visa commercials...priceless.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a nasty habit of hearing only what he wants to hear. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, February 04, 2001

Information Overload

OK, so you like being able to instant message your buddies. And it's great to be able to get a map plotting the exact route from your house to the tennis tournament this weekend. And who could live without being able to tap into the sports scores, recipes, product reviews, music downloads, news summaries, on-line games, digital photos, jokes and emails that are out there? Forget my MTV; I want my cable modem.

In fact, information of all types is proliferating at a rate that makes a hutch of rabbits look like a Benedictine monastery. Researchers at the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkley forecast that humans and their machines will create more information in the next three years than in the 300,000 years of history dating back to cave paintings. Mind you, they're not editorializing as to the worth of any specific information, saying that Entertainment OnLine's list of the ten most popular TV pets is of more value than Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." They're only pointing out that pound for pound, we're churning it out at a far greater rate than ever before.

That's good news for the folks who make the bookcases of the computer age, the storage companies. Whether it's chips or zip drives or CD's, we're talking your basic demand-supply relationship here. The more we make, the more we need, the more they can sell. One of the industry leaders, EMC, has predicted that any given individual could have a terabyte of personal information by 2005. That translates to about 250 million pages of text, spreadsheets, pictures and records, not to mention bad jokes forwarded 23 times, mp3 files of your kid's high school band, composite photos of you and Jennifer Lopez, bookmarks for web sites with guacamole, and that all-important buddy list featuring your pals with names like ilovefrogs and rubjellyalloverme.

The problem is that computer hard drives are like basements or walk-in closets. You can put more and more stuff into them without worrying that you will ever be called to account for it. True, you may never look at any of it, but it's somehow comforting to know you have it. Of course, when's it's time to move, or in this case, get a new computer, you have to pay the piper. But it's a lot easier to transfer 79 megabytes of files with names like "letter about the dog.doc" and "best sushi bars.xls" to your new machine than it is to move that moldy cardboard box with Grandpa's collection of Harper's magazine from the depression... again.

But information isn't valued by volume. Rather, it's the impact it generates. After all, it's widely believed, even if it's not confirmed, that the CIA intercepts and collects billions of cell phone calls, satellite photographs and radio transmissions. Listening or looking at any of it is not an exercise in wealth management; rather it's an exercise in excruciating boredom. It usually means sifting through tens of thousands of "I love you calls" and hundreds of thousands of pictures of people walking their pets. It is mind numbing and generally worthless work... worthless, that is, until you come across the phone conversation that goes, "Yes, Sadaam, we are planting bomb in White House tonight." Then perhaps, it was worth the trouble... depending, of course, on for whom you voted.

From the perspective of historical record, all of this has elevated the status of the common man from certain schlub to potential prophet. That's because countless people who thought that they would leave no mark on society are instead creating a rich personal tapestry for future sociologists, anthropologists and historians to review and puzzle over. No longer do you have to be a movie director, a politician, a writer or a millionaire to leave your legacy to future generations. Now it's all captured in electronic form for someone a hundred years in the future to view: your note to the kid's teacher stating why you have you couldn't figure out the second grade math homework, that spreadsheet listing all of your hockey teammates with comments on their game, a photoshop file where you tried to see what you'd look like if you dyed your hair blond. Unlike letters that grow brittle and turn to dust, it'll all be there for someone to see... if they care to.

That places the burden squarely on our individual shoulders. For unlike landfills brimming with the debris cast off from everyday living, our electronic bookshelves crammed full of stuff with no value are easy to purge. But, like a good pair of jeans or an old pair of slippers, it's as hard to part with a lot of it on an emotional as well as practical level. And so it accumulates in the back, scarcely remembered, barely appreciated, taking up electronic real estate at a frightening rate.

Let's face it: the odds are that, if you're like most people, you have given up doing any electronic housekeeping. That means that all that stuff you used to scribble on paper and throw out when you cleaned out your pockets is now lodged deep in the bowels of your computer, just waiting to be discovered. And while some of it may be charming or informative or illuminating to future generations, most of it is probably just junk. So think of your children, and their children's children and their children's children, and do them all a favor. Take a minute and see if what you're saving is worth the trouble. In words that lie somewhere between Jesse Jackson and Johnnie Cochran, if a level of importance it does not meet, you must delete.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to decide if the itinerary of his Vancouver vacation is worth preserving for all eternity. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and the Scarsdale Inquirer.