Sunday, April 29, 2001

Thinking of Hue

As the stock market continues to sink slowly into the sunset, there is some spreading realization that the party may finally be over. With the carnage spreading from the dot coms to the old line techs and finally to the blue chips, no haven seems safe. After nearly 20 years of constantly escalating values, people are beginning to accept the fact that what goes up must come down, a somewhat obvious truth that didn't seem so obvious just a year or so ago.

Aside from the implications to the portfolios of millions of investors, there are plenty of other effects from this cause. The perceived loss of wealth will affect all kinds of decisions not directly associated with stocks and bonds. As such, we'll probably see a reduction in spending, from big-ticket items to international vacations to luxury automobiles. New home construction may moderate. The high priced restaurants that cater to the bonus pool crowd will likely get a bid quieter. And we'll probably see more tan.

This last is according to well know British design guru Sir Terence Conran. We all know anecdotally that certain colors make us feel a certain way or reflect a certain mood. For instance, green is said to ease stress, help gain self-respect and soothe anger, while blue helps overcome hurt, resolves conflict and helps self-acceptance. At the same time, purple helps accept responsibility, relaxes and soothes fears, and helps tune in to the inner voice, while red is the color of courage, self-esteem, sexual expression and mental clarity. Finally, it is believed that orange soothes anxiety, resolves conflicts and reveals emotions, while yellow resolves conflicts and contributes to feelings of harmony.

There is also scientific evidence that color is much more than just a reflection of moods and feelings. In fact, research has demonstrated that that correct use of color can increase motivation, concentration, learning, retention and recall by 55 to 78 percent. The results of these studies can found painted on the walls of factories and hospitals. That's why it comes as no surprise that the battle room on a destroyer or the control room at a nuclear reactor isn't painted flaming red, but rather soothing gray or green.

But what does all of this have to do with the movement of the stock market and interest rate hikes? Well, according to Conran, earth tones would appear to reflect a downtown in the economy. While it's true these non-primary shades don't rate their own lab rats, according to Sir Terrence, they are indicators none-the-less. Says he, "I've been through four recessions. And in bad times, people turn to beige." Actually, they turn to whiskey and scotch, but both of those are in the beige family, so he's probably right.

So color becomes more than just a window into our souls, but into our wallets as well. That's not terribly surprising, when you consider how it has become shorthand, whether slang, metaphor and colloquial expression, for a myriad of things. You can be feeling blue, seeing red, or be green with envy. Perhaps your neighbors are blue bloods, or you gave your boss the red carpet treatment. Then there's William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism, Mao Zedong and the Red Guard, and Audie Murphy and the Purple Heart. There's even precedent when talking about economics, capitalism and trade. After all, who hasn't heard of goods available on the black market, or a corporate takeover involving the search for a white knight?

Now, before you start scrutinizing Alan Greenspan's ties for clues as to what the Fed will do, it's worth noting that colors don't mean the same all over the world. Most in the west would say that the bride should wear white as a symbol of purity. Yet in China, white is a symbol of mourning. And in India, wearing pure white with no other color is inviting widowhood and unhappiness. So while green may be the color of money and prosperity here, it might be saying "credit tightening" somewhere else.

But back to Conran. His prediction of tan squares nicely with the collapse of the technology sector. How so, you inquire? Well, the experts say that in the new millennium we will draw our color inspiration from the natural world rather than the cybernetic one. Or, put another way by Ken Charbonneau, color-marketing consultant for Benjamin Moore & Co., "We are looking for colors that appear as if they are made from 'real' materials. Colors that appear to be artificial or chemically produced, as in fluorescent colors, will not be part of the consumer palette."

That means that, generally, top-selling colors will reflect nature. So tan is in, as are favorites like water blue, hunter green and those old standbys, black and white. However, color experts are quick to point out that no color can be discounted. Savvy and more sophisticated than ever before, consumers are becoming less slavish to fashion and better in tune with what pleases them most. Consequently while some colors will have more appeal than others, no single color or color combination will be totally "out."

In fact, in a recent survey, when asked to pick the "color of the new millennium," folks didn't opt for brushed silver or metallic gold. Rather, over 40% of respondents selected something else. Now, I'm not making any predictions, but if you take this to heart, perhaps you'll know we've hit a market bottom when the new color from Range Rover is dark red-purple.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes any color except puce. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, April 14, 2001

Results Not Typical

Ever since advertising began, claims have been made that aren't exactly 100% on the level. From snake oil salesmen to Charles Atlas to Fen-Phen, listeners have been told that by using a given product they can live longer, weigh less, grow hair, have better sex and get more gas. We've been told that it slices and it dices. That there's a money back guarantee. That it's new and improved. In the last election, we were even told that all the votes would count. Is it any wonder we're a bunch of cynics?

To combat this perceived lack of truth, laws have been written which basically say that if you can't back it up, you can't say it. Or if there are extenuating circumstances, they have to be disclosed. To most of us, this means that you can't swear to it if it isn't true. But if that were your response, it would merely point out that there is no future for you on Madison Avenue. For on that fabled thoroughfare, they've interpreted the statutes to mean that you can say anything you want, as long as you add a disclaimer.

Disclaimers are why God created 6-point type. Generically, they are the fine print that appears in the lower corner of the commercial, ad or billboard, and says it ain't necessarily so. Conceptually, they're not much different from their distant cousins, the warnings printed on the back of medicine containers. These FDA mandated legends offer cautions that say, "don't operate heavy equipment while taking" or "may cause diarrhea or vomiting" or "report promptly to your doctor any incidences of hives, male pattern baldness or an inability to turn off Barry Manilow recordings." But while those statements describe exceptional negative experiences to the rule, disclaimers do the opposite. They point out that the exceptional positive experiences described shouldn't be taken as gospel in the normal course of events.

For instance, take ads for weight loss products and programs such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. Their commercials show lots of happy, thin people... happy presumably because the product helped them shed their excess flab. They generally focus on one individual, with a "before" picture showing him or her occupying two or more time zones, and the "after" picture displaying a body that would make Ally McBeal look obese. But what's that tiny line of type hovering at the edge of the screen? If you stillframe your VCR and get out a magnifying glass, you'll see the legend, "results not typical." In other words, even with a sample of tens of thousands of people giving it their all, statistics show that the odds of taking off substantial poundage is about the same as Jennifer Lopez becoming the spokesperson for Junior's Cheesecake.

And even if weight loss isn't the issue, other claims are. Slim Fast shows people having fun, losing weight and engaging in all kinds of vigorous physical activities. The implication is that the drink helps you shed bulk and lead an active lifestyle. But again, that ignominious line of type makes its appearance, in this case proclaiming, "energy from carbohydrates, not from drink." So you might fit into your new summer suit if you can stick stomach a mocharific shake three times a day, but the only way you'll have enough energy to go swimming is to down a plate of pasta. Kind of counterproductive, wouldn't you say?

And it's not just weight loss products that make boasts that are hard to back up. You routinely see automotive ads touting and demonstrating the exceptional handing ability of a vehicle, with the tiny legend, "Professional driver on closed course." Of course, they don't mention that the professional driver has an equally professional team of mechanics and engineers with him who have tuned the suspension to be on a par with a Formula 1 racer. Should you try the same demonstrated maneuvers in your off-the-floor Chevy Malibu, you better have you will up to date.

Likewise, claims about gas mileage with the note, "Results not typical, your mileage may vary" can bare little semblance to reality. That's because the numbers in the commercial weren't achieved with a tank of regular bought from the corner service station in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, but rather with a super high octane mix, a following wind and a guy pushing.

There're lots more where those came from. An ad for a condominium says, "Oral representations cannot be relied upon." In other words, the salesperson that answers the phone can't be trusted. Or an offer for a free month of health club visits points out that the offer is "subject to change without notice." Translation? We can start to charge you whenever we want. That cheap long distance rate whispers at the bottom of the page that "surcharges may apply." The meaning is clear: we're not as cheap as we look. And, of course, there's that all purpose favorite," Offer void where prohibited by law." In other words, we'll suck you in with something we know is illegal, but we'll tell you that little fact after we've had a chance to sell you something else.

My current favorite is an ad running for the Subway chain of sandwich shops. They focus on losing weight by eating their product. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with the concept; the sandwiches are fresh and tasty, and if you select the turkey and some veggies with a little vinegar dressing, it's far better than a Big Mac. But you can also lose weight at McDonald's if you stick with a McGrilled chicken sandwich, or at Joe's Pizza if you have a salad pie with no cheese. Of course, the disclaimer points all this out, in a "don't have the tuna salad with chips and cookies and expect to look like Jennifer Love-Hewitt" statement. But with that proviso, they feel comfortable promoting their sandwiches as an alternative to liposuction.

You can pick your favorite cliché. Caveat emptor. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A fool and his money are soon parted. Regardless of the maxim, the bottom line still holds. There are suckers born every minute, and they're the ones that don't read to the bottom of the page.


Marc Wollin of Bedford notes that this column is not guaranteed to be funny. With that qualifier, it appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, April 08, 2001

The Winners

There's an old saying that you can win the battle, but lose the war. It's applicable in many venues, from business to sports to actual warfare. And in a skirmish first given shape and substance by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and Ti-Grace Atkinson, it applies to the battle of the sexes as well.

That's because while the first rounds would certainly seem to go to the men, there is considerable tightening in the spreads as the contest continues. Sure, there are lots of gender gaps still in evidence, in everything from pay to occupants of the executive suite to governmental responsibility. In bodies as diverse as the military to congress to the Fortune 500, men still rule. But all it takes is a little looking to see the erosion around the edges, the subtle shifts in the balance of power as women pull up equal. In fact, it's easy to make a case that you don't have to wait fifty or a hundred years to see the outcome of this particular race. That's because while males may have triumphed in a bunch of the skirmishes, the women will win the big kahuna.

After all, to be a woman at the dawn of this new century is to be blessed. OK, sure, there the yucky realities of childbirth and all its biological nitty gritty to deal with, but let's start at the beginning. Assuming your progeny is female, it's likely she'll sail through school, beating those stupid boys in every subject, from home ec to engineering. When she's unsure or worried, her friends and parents will listen: if not, then there's plenty of media support for her, from Oprah to Rosie and the like, all of whom will encourage her with their "go-get-'em-sista" attitudes. She'll have boy bands and girl bands clamoring for her attention, all grinding out positive songs about love and relationships. And she'll have positive role models to admire, from Cokie Roberts to Condoleezza Rice, from Carly Fiorina to the Williams sisters, from Diane Sawyer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

She'll know that Grrl Power is a right, and have access to higher education and job opportunities in everything from nursing to oil drilling, from investment banking to teaching. She can dream of being a lumberjack, mom, doctor, pop star, genocidal Latin American dictator... whatever it is, her parents will likely say "you go, girl." She'll be confident in the knowledge that if she's harassed at work, she'll sue the sexist dinosaur for all he's worth. She'll use her money as she pleases, on products made just for her: female-friendly cars, women-only gyms, holidays with the girls. And she'll be courted to buy books, films, homes, fashion and pensions designed specifically for today's assertive, independent women. She'll be in completely in control of her sexuality. Marriage? If she wants. Children? When she's ready. It's all up to her.

Emotionally speaking as well, she'll have brought the world around to her point of view... or least the half that's not female. Once upon a time, monogamy, fidelity and commitment were what women wanted, but men feared. Not any more, according to a new survey of young British males. A thousand British men between 18 and 36 were interviewed for an hour about contemporary relationships. And the results say that they aren't looking for good looks, great sex and a female-free Sunday afternoon with the telly, but rather fidelity, friendship and a good sense of humor. Of the three, fidelity easily emerges as the single most important factor: A whopping 46% claimed they had never been unfaithful; nearly half claimed they would not cheat on their girlfriends even if there was a 100% guarantee they would not be found out, while 54% said they would consider continuing a relationship if they found out their girlfriend had cheated on them. Of course, the cynical view is that the participants were lying en masse, just to pick up the interviewer....alas, always a possibility with guys.

Men, on the other hand, see our world crumbling around us, and are understandably perplexed. We've been educated... or shamed... into showing our sensitive side, watching our language, making sure to put the seat down when we're through. True, we've also learned that it is sometimes advisable to listen to people when they speak, and that collaboration can be more productive than mindless competition. But when asked to imagine the world as run by women, we got not an end to war and hunger, and fluffy bunny slippers on our feet, but Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. Is it any wonder we're confused?

The lessons start early. One woman with a small boy describes how if a girl of the same age pushes him, she is lauded as "feisty," while if he commits the same childish crime, he is lambasted for "being a boy." An elementary teacher says in explaining one child's actions and behaviors, "he's just a kid. And he's a boy. So what do you expect?" What do we expect, indeed.

If women are the victors and men the vanquished, both better be prepared for what they get. Confused and frightened men are no good to anyone. And yet, that's what is left. Sure, you can argue that men should learn and accept all the lessons that women have accepted for centuries. But we're slow on the uptake, and so it could be a while before things settle into a comfortable rut. Don't forget that men realize that the key to being happy with a woman is to love her a lot and understand her a little. But women need to recognize that the converse is also true: with men, it helps if you love them a little, but understand them a lot.


Marc Wollin of Bedford knows that half of those reading this agree with him, while the other half think he's a just stupid male. Guess which half is which. Other musings can be found regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Thursday, April 05, 2001

The Past is Prologue

An interesting statistical anomaly surfaced amidst the crush of data released from the government about the year gone by. According to reports, the number of deaths in the first weeks of the year 2000 was way above normal. While experts have no concrete explanation for this phenomenon, some analysts speculate the reason that lots of folks who might have moved on at the end of 1999 didn't was that they wanted to live to see the new century. As such, they buckled down and rather than held their breath, they actually breathed. In essence, they willed themselves to hang on and see the ball drop, just so they could say to themselves, "I did it."

Well... welcome to the future that they wanted to see.

It's easy to lose sight of that as you rush for your train, get your kids lunches ready, do the departmental budget or just sort through the junk mail at the end of the day. Hard as it might be to believe, this is that time fabled in song and story. By now, according to prophetic writings by authors from H.G. Wells ("From the Earth to the Moon") to George Orwell ("1984") to Arthur C Clark ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), we were supposed to be rocketing hither and yon on a regular basis, colonizing other planets, and generally enjoying robotics, teleportation and zero gravity. But last I checked, the biggest traffic jams were still on the Long Island Expressway, and not at the Kennedy Space Center.

Yeah, this is it. No doubt that it's far removed from "Leave It To Beaver," but it's also a long way from "The Jetsons." Sure, we have computers that control almost everything, yet we are buried in an avalanche of paper produced by those same computers. Yes, we all have personal communications devices called cell phones, but spend more time on them going "hello, hello, can you hear me?" than having actual conversations. It's as easy to travel to the next country as to the next town, though you'll likely to be late because there're planes stacked up in one case and cars in the other. We're not all clothed in metallic spandex. We don't have daily flights to the moon. And the best thing to eat is still chocolate ice cream. In short, the future looks suspiciously like the past.

It's not that the seers were wrong completely. After all, if you give yourself just a moment to stop taking everything around you for granted and examine your environment, it's easy to be wowed. I write this not on a cave wall or on paper, but on a machine that's less than an inch thick with enough computational power to search the entire Library of Congress in seconds. In the sky over my head is a conveyance of aluminum capable of ferrying hundreds of people thousands of miles, in time measured in hours rather than weeks. By keyboard or voice, a few taps on a keypad can connect me with virtually anyone anywhere on the planet. Not that I have anything I want to talk about, but it's there if I want it.

That's not to say that there are no serpents in Paradise. Most major diseases have been eradicated or controlled, and yet we struggle with AIDS in humans, and hoof and mouth disease in animals. An incredible variety of foodstuffs is relatively cheap and abundant, yet there are pockets throughout the globe where famine is rampant. The prevalence of super drugs has given rise to the appearance of super germs. And while we have Velcro, Peanut M&M's and "The West Wing," we also have soap scum, headcheese and "The Michael Richards Show." Into every life a little rain must fall.

But on balance, we haven't done too bad. And while it's true that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it, those who don't look to the future are bound to be surprised by it. What's coming down the pike? While there are no guarantees, and crystal balls are often cloudy in hindsight, there are some fascinating speculations.

Many revolve around the next great frontier of biotechnology. In that vein (no pun intended), guesses range from "perfect" organ replacements to the introduction of "second skins" and artificial sensory systems that will enhance human sight, hearing, memory, and physical strength. And once ethical considerations are worked out, there are few who would discount the likelihood of widespread human (and other) cloning, and eventually the trading in of biological bodies for more stable forms.

As to where the next computing revolution will lead, we're talking consumer robotics and personal virtual realities, as well as thinking appliances from your television to your refrigerator. Further out there's the wedding of intelligence to robotics in the form of androids, and the replacement of biological entities with nanotechnology. In matters beyond our world, there's lightspeed transport, the colonization of Mars and Venus, and faster-than-light communications.

While the global marketplace will most likely will mean the end to world wars (they're too expensive and bad for business), we're likely to see environmental decline due to pollution and an over harvesting of natural resources, increased religious conflict and terrorism on a widespread scale. On the more mundane level, we're probably going to see a serious threat to the worldwide internet when junk email reaches epidemic levels.

Will any of these ideas come to pass? Time, of course, will tell. But it's wise to keep in mind this caution from Vinod Khosla of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins: "Most of our predictions are based on very linear thinking. That's why they will likely be wrong."


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes that by 2172, someone will invent a dishwasher that empties itself. Other predictions can be found regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.