Friday, December 24, 2004

Continuing Coverage

“Welcome back to CNN’s continuing coverage of Christmas Eve 2004. After all the ads, after all the pleading and tantrums, after all the ‘I’ll be good this year’ comments, it comes down to this night. Tonight, we’ll finally see who’s been naughty, and who’s been nice. I’m Wolf Blitzer, and I’ll be joined this hour by a host of analysts who can help to put all that’s happening tonight into perspective. My colleague Judy Woodruff is at the North Pole, literally the epicenter of the evening. Judy, what’s the mood there?”

“Wolf, I think it’s fair to say it’s one of expectation, but also one of relief. After months and months of making toys, opening wish lists and listening to countless children tell Santa what they want, tonight’s the night that it all comes together. This year, for the first time, a new computerized matching system is being employed to pair the perfect present with each deserving child. Developed by a unprecedented collaboration between Apple Computer and Intel, the R200 Ultimate Declinating Overt Level Parcel Handler, nicknamed RUDOLPH, has been busy cranking out page after page of shipping and packing instructions to keep this operation humming like clockwork. Joining me to talk about how RUDOLPH has changed Christmas Eve as we know it is S. Nicolas Klaus, the Chief Operating Officer for North Pole Inc. Mr. Klaus, how important is RUDOLPH to a successful Christmas?”

“Well, Judy, while we’ve done it for years by hand, it’s been a backbreaking task. By Christmas day, all we’ve wanted to do is sleep. This year, for the first time, we hope to have everything wrapped up well before first light, so we can enjoy a little eggnog as well.”

“Are there other benefits?”

“For sure. We expect to see an increase in accuracy, and eliminate slipups like the time we delivered that ‘Make Your Own Children’s Book’ kit to Madonna. We’re still hearing about that one.”

“Mr. Klaus, thanks for talking with us. Wolf, back to you.”

“Thanks, Judy, we’ll check back with you later. We’re coming up to 8PM in the East, when the first children will be going to bed. With me to analyze the early results are James Carville and Larry King. Before we see the first presents tonight, James, any thoughts?”

“Wolf, after all the talk about decorations and about the incessant carols in the stores, I think we have to remember this: it’s the presents, stupid.”

“To the point, as usual. Larry?”

“Wolf, as I was saying to Nancy Regan when we had dinner at Julia Roberts’ house… I was sitting next to Meryl Streep and across from Jude Law… it’s the simple company of close personal friends that trumps a gift every time. The Donald thought that was kind of funny.”

“Food for thought, as always. Gentlemen, thanks to you both. It’s now 8PM in the east, and CNN has he following predictions to make. In Philadelphia, William “Billy” Soltuna, 6 years old, will be getting a Robiosapiens mechanical toy. In Baltimore, little 7 year-old Anna Bruchowski will be unwrapping a Bake It Myself Oven. And in Athens, Georgia, PJ Tamberlane, who is 5, will have a Super Soaker Series 2 Master Blaster Water Cannon under his tree. Jeff Greenfield, it’s a little early to spot any trends, but your analysis of these early gifts.”

“Wolf, as I’ve always cautioned in the past, we in the media can jump to conclusions on the basis of early returns. And I think it’s important to keep that in mind as we see the East Coast coming in first. If you remember back in ’99, there was an early run on Teletubbies, and we said that it would be the year of the TV stuffed animals. But it turned out that the results were skewed due to a PBS fund drive that didn’t extend east of the Mississippi. When the west came in heavy for Nintendo, it completely erased any move towards PBS tie-ins. So other than saying we we’re starting the evening by leaning towards hands-on selections, I think we have to see what really develops.”

“Well, what would be some things that our audience should watch for as being indicative of movement towards a particular style this evening?”

“Well, if we see Jimmy Collins in Fort Bragg score an X-Box, or Melina Del Fabrini in Jacksonville get a Sims Vacation Pack… and keep in mind those are 9 year-olds with a later bed time living in 1 computer households… then I think I would be more inclined to give credence to the “Tech-mas” analysis that some have predicted.”

“Jeff, thanks as always. We’ll be back to you as more results come in. I want to take a moment to remind our audience that CNN will have a special post-Christmas Eve wrap up on Christmas Day, complete with analysis of gift giving patterns in all 50 states. I’ll be joined by our usual line-up of CNN experts, plus a host of correspondents who have been embedded with families in Pennsylvania, Kansas and Oregon since Thanksgving. They will give us an inside glimpse of not only the reactions house by house, but also the thinking that went into everything from which wrapping paper was this year’s favorite to the all important strategy centered around when to go to Wal-Mart to start the return process.”

“We’ll continue our coverage as we approach 8:30PM in the east, and focus on the very influential 8 year-olds in Wheeling, West Virginia, usually a reliable predictor of outdoor trends. But first, a word from one of our sponsors, Tums. Stay with us… there’s lots more to come. This is CNN live coverage of Christmas Eve 2004… we’ll be back in just a minute.”

Marc Wollin of Bedford started and finished his holiday shopping this year by the week after Thanksgiving. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Electial Dysfunction

Our free and open political system is something that is ingrained in us from kindergarten onward. Starting at that early age, we’re all taught about citizenship, the concept of one person, one vote and the superiority of the democratic process. And in the main in this country, it has worked remarkably well. For sure, there have been some bumps along the way, from the civil right challenges of the 1960’s to the court challenges of the most recent presidential election. But while India can claim the crown as the largest functioning democracy, no other nation can claim an over 200 year track record of peacefully replacing our political leaders in a general election.

That being said, I think it’s fair to say that regardless of your political persuasion, you can’t help but be tired and disgruntled by this year’s exercise in democracy. Certainly the events of the last few years have lent an air of gravitas to the proceedings, and in turn taken a certain amount of the fun out of it. But the shift simply can’t be due to the fact that the stakes are so high and the issues so divisive. Look at where we’ve come from: the nation was equally torn in the past during other critical periods, from civil rights to Vietnam. Yet, somehow we muddled through those crises, and didn’t descend into an off-Broadway farce as it seems we have on this occasion.

Blame it on any numbers of factors. To be sure, the candidates themselves have abused the system, all while proclaiming its sanctity. The fourth estate has professed its impartiality, while meantime advancing its own agenda. And we the public surely have to bear some of the blame, for communicating so little and so poorly what we really want from our elected officials, and then wringing our hands when they take us where they want to go.

Still, in this national soul searching exercise, where Jon Stewart on Comedy Central is the most reasonable voice in the process, one has to wonder. And it’s led even the most optimistic among us to wonder about any number of aspects of the whole arrangement.

For instance, take the realization from both parties that the Electoral College system effectively disenfranchises half the voters in any given state. Actually, it’s not that people are unable to vote. Rather, in a winner-take-all system, the views of those whose selection sides with the minority are effectively rendered mute. And that means that the only voters who matter to the candidates are those in the so-called swing states. So the folks in Indiana, Virginia or Nebraska have seen nary hide nor hair of Bush or Kerry. Conversely, the contenders have spent so much time in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida that all four of their children would qualify for in-state tuition.

Nuance is one thing. Changing your positions you learn new information is also acceptable. But I guess that both candidates forgot that with the internet and videotape, it’s not so easy to change your stripes, and yet insist you haven’t. Both have been caught in contradiction after contradiction, from Kerry’s famous, ”I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” to Bush’s, “I never said I don’t worry about Osama bin Laden.” Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but politics appears to mean never being able to admit that you made a mistake.

No doubt that visuals are a powerful tool in our image driven society. And so it was important for Kerry to be able to stand toe to toe in the debates with the President, and look like he could be one himself. But do the Democratic strategists really think that taking time out of debating the issues to put their man in a camouflage outfit, and have him walk through a corn field on a wild goose chase is going to sway sportsmen to his side of the table? I guess so.

On a recent business trip to Atlanta, I had an off night and didn’t feel like sitting in my room. So I found a nearby bar, and settled in to watch the baseball playoffs. The open seats next to me were shortly occupied by two gentlemen in business suits. They ordered, and then focused their attention on the screen as well. While not intending to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but overhear them conversing in German. And while I am completely mono-lingual, it was obvious that one was trying to explain the game to the other.

I politely interrupted and offered to help out if needed. Not that I’m that big a fan, but if you grow up on these shores you generally have the basics of the game down. And so I tried to explain tagging up and what a ground rule double means and what a knuckleball was. All was well, until there was a lull in the action, and I chanced to change the subject, and asked them about how the election was playing in Europe.

They looked at me and sadly shook their heads. How, they wondered, did we get ourselves into such a mess? Here we have the most powerful country in the world, with the most amiable and intelligent people, stuck making a choice between two marginally different candidates who say everything and nothing at the same time. Don’t citizens cringe in their homes, and demand change and accountability and action and leadership? Can’t we do better?

I nodded sheepishly, agreeing with them, offering no answers. We can blame no one but ourselves. Walt Kelly, the writer of the comic strip “Pogo,” famously penned the line for an Earth Day poster in 1970, "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us." Never has it been more true. We can lament all we want the failure to address the issues, the pandering to this special interest group and that, the bitter partisanship and unwillingness to compromise. But the bottom line is that we get what we vote for.

Marc Wollin of Bedford will vote because it’s his responsibility, not because he thinks either side has the answers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Mistaken Identity

You can say one thing about your name: it’s yours and unlikely to change. True, you can adopt a new one it if you wish. It might be for religious reasons, as in the case of Cassius Clay becoming Mohammed Ali. It might be appropriate for artistic purposes: witness Frederick Austerlitz becoming Fred Astaire. Or maybe family situations could have an impact: when Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy Ayer Gardner had a kid, they called him Leslie Lynch King, Jr. But a divorce and a remarriage later, and his name was changed to the one he is more well-known by, Gerald R. Ford, Jr.

And yet, while your friends and associates might know you by the label that your parents gave you, it’s no longer good enough in this interconnected globe. That’s because the proliferation of email has led to each of us having to choose another handle by which to be identified. And while the simplest approach might be to simply replicate your existing monogram, it’s not always possible.

That’s because unlike in the real world, where there can be a thousand people by the name of “Alice” or “Bill,” the nature of the internet is that everyone has to have a unique address. Otherwise, there would be no way for all those Viagra ads and mortgage offers to find you. And so while the first people to sign up were able to go with the names that were on their grade school diplomas, the rest have had to assume a nom de net. (Not to brag or anything, but as one who was early to the party, I was able to stake my claim to the very straightforward and simple Yes, I know that that and $3.25 will get me a tall decafe latte at Starbucks, but you have to take pride where you can.)

Additionally, the nature of the beast is that people shift email suppliers on a regular basis as they find a better service or a better price. But once they sign on with a new company, they find that the easy, good names are all taken up. Test it for yourself: go to any internet service provider offering you an account, and try and register. Odds are pretty good that the first 5 screen names you try to use will already be in use. The system will, however, return some helpful suggestions: Dave167X, Susan3298 or Mathew32AB. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, don’t they?

And so people resort to using pseudonyms in their personnel correspondence that means something to them. That’s why you find when goes home and goes online, he morphs into TennisGuy40. Likewise, you find bankers named DogLady and sales executives known as KindaKrazy. It makes it all seem sometimes that you’re exchanging emails with the fraternity from Animal House.

The flip side of this situation is that having an alter ego might actually be a good thing. While it would surely be simpler to have one way to be identified, the very nature of cruising the internet calls out for a shield to hide behind in the form of an alias. That way you can go where you wish to go, and not give away any more of your personal data than you want. And in a climate where identity theft is said to affect nearly 5% of the population, with losses exceeding $5 billion, that’s not a bad idea.

The problem comes in that it’s tough to keep track of who you say you are, and even harder for those with whom you want to stay in touch. Even if your homies know you as SugarSweety at one place, when you shift over to your new broadband connection, you may find that someone else has gotten there first. And so you have to come up with a new moniker, and communicate it to your circle. Unfortunately, if you don’t do it before you make the switch, there’s a good chance that spam filters will kick out your announcement to your friends… and so they will never know that the GitarMan of yesterday is the RockAnnimal of today.

That was the situation I was confronted on the receiving side. As I was working online recently, at least half a dozen times a little bell went off, and a notice popped onto my screen. It seems that I was being approached to have an instant message session with someone called JerzyGrl345.

Now, not recognizing the name, and having been the target of many a scam, all of which I dodged, I wasn’t stupid enough to say yes. So I dismissed it and went on with my business. A few weeks later, the same approach ensued, followed by the same soon after that. On the last occasion, I was surrounded by some coworkers. I called their attention to it. One laughed, and commented, “It’s probably a hooker. Make sure you respond with your credit card number!”

Turned out to be my 11-year-old niece.

Her folks had switched internet providers, upgrading to a high speed connection. But true to form, all the obvious names had been spoken for. So when Jen tried to get “Jen” or some obvious variation for herself, nothing was available. She opted for the very grown-up JerzyGrl345, and passed the word onto her friends… but forgot to tell me. And so I confused my pint-sized relation with the Olsen Twins poster on her wall for a $100-an-hour call girl.

Jen was mad at me for snubbing her and calling her a hooker, though she’s gotten over it. And now I know that an exchange with JerzyGrl345 is more likely to be about who won “American Idol” than about sex. I’ll put her on my buddy list… but unless I want the same to happen to me, I have to remember to tell her that I’m contemplating changing my own handle to CuddlyBear99.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can barely remember his own name, let alone those he uses online. He has a printed list to help. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The College Dance

For us, it’s just beginning.

As parents, we’ve had it pretty easy. When both our boys were little, we had the usual bumps along that way, from bad dreams to bullies. As they moved into their teens, the normal growing pains presented challenges, both physically and emotionally. But for all intents and purposes, and based on the anecdotal information we’ve gleaned from others who have gone before us, we were very lucky and coasted through baby-hood, toddler-hood, little kid-hood and adolescent-hood with the greatest of ease.

However, our oldest is just now hitting that age. And I’m not referring to challenges with sex, cars, money or studies. We actually have all of that under control, and have a mutual understanding, if not agreement, on most of the thorny issues that affect us. In the spirit of compromise, we’ve given up on the battle of keeping one’s room clean, while insisting that taking out the garbage is indeed a necessary task in the pursuit of one’s allowance. But as a high school junior, he… or should I say we… are flirting with that next chapter in our adventure, the search for the right college.

With somewhere near 4000 choices available in the US alone, it’s a daunting task. Obviously, each school has its own unique blend of academics, geography and social setting that makes it right for someone. But in our case, even if you set up the coarsest of filters and eliminate schools 9 hours away by plane (University of Hawaii), those that have strong Grazing Livestock Systems programs (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and those ranked by The Princeton Review as the number #1 “Party School” in the nation AND #1 in the “Their Students (Almost) Never Study” category (University of Colorado at Boulder), there’s still a lot from which to choose.

But it’s not a simple equation of, “I like this one, therefore I’ll go here.” Schools have gotten pickier as the pool of applicants has grown. Enrollment is an all-time high of more than 15 million, up about 3 million from the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Education Department. And those numbers are expected to grow another 19 percent by the end of the decade. That means that even if you are ready, willing and able to send your budding Einstein where they want, and can fork over the $40,000 a year many top schools demand, they might not accept you.

So you visit and read and study and research, looking for angles and contacts and implications. On the one hand, you’ve got to get your kid, whose biggest decision to date has been which tee shirt to wear to school, to decide what institution will be the first step on the road to rest of their life. On the other hand, you’ve got to package that kid as if he or she has known from birth what school they have been aiming for, and show how every step from the time they first ate solid food has been aimed at making them a valuable addition to that campus. To say there’re some inherent contradictions in the system is putting it mildly.

Luckily… or maybe not… there’s no shortage of help. In addition to the wisdom from guidance counselors, teachers, friends, family, all of which have their own take on the topic, there are lots of outside sources of information. There’re the colleges themselves, which pluck your kid’s name from standardized testing registration lists, and clog your mailbox with glossy brochures and posters. College guides abound, each offering their spin on the institutions and their unique attributes. At about $20 plus a pop, no potential applicant feels complete without at least 3 or 4. And web sites are ubiquitous: a Google search for “college review” returns over 5 million hits.

Then there are the ranking services. Some of these are merely sophisticated sorters. Put in your vital data and test scores, and they will return a list if institutions that match your criteria, and rank your chances with them. In the free services, you find and Stepping up a bit is, where $8.95 gives you an assessment of your chances of being admitted to 150 colleges. And further up the ladder is and College Confidential, which for $79 and $89 respectively, profess to do a more scientific job of rating the probability of making the cut at a particular school.

And finally, in this spin crazy world, come the counseling services. These organizations profess to be able to guide you through the maze to admissions. They help you pick the right school for you, and then shape your application and resume to make you that much more attractive to the institution. "We are strategists," advertises, a site that offers kids unlimited admissions advice. The cost for that expertise? $18,000, with no money-back guarantee.

And so we spend our evenings reading guides (at last count, three), our vacations visiting campuses (at last count, thirteen), and our sleepless nights wondering if we’ve missed anything( at last count, too many to count). We ‘re trying to keep a level head, and resisted the temptation, as one individual suggested, to spell our last name with a space after the first two letters so our son might be mistaken for an ethnic minority. We’ll see where the path might lead, but just in case… you don’t happen to be a trustee anywhere, are you?


Marc Wollin of Bedford applied to one college, got in and went there. So far, it’s worked out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.

Friday, January 16, 2004

EZ Felon

If you drive a lot, especially longer distances, one of the greatest advances is the automatic toll charge system that has been instituted in a variety of localities. Going under a number of banners, such as Fast Lane or EZ Pass, they all employ technology to speed your trip... not in the form of better engines or aerodynamics, but through remote access to your wallet. In each system, you attach a transponder to the windshield of your vehicle. Then, as you approach the tollbooth, a specialized overhead receiver communicates with the transponder. It reads your number, looks up your account, debits the appropriate amount, and raises the toll gate, all in less time than it usually takes you to hand a quarter to the bored clerk on duty. As the Chef of the Future might say, "Zip Zip!" and you're on your way.

As the system has been rolled out, it has coexisted with the more traditional toll baskets or takers. In some cases, lanes are set up as either cash or credit. In others, some are exclusively reserved for those that have made the leap into 21st century accounting. But while the basic technological installation has to be considered a success, the bottom line is that it doesn't exactly fulfill all the goals for which it was reaching.

That's because the stated intention of all this hardware and software is to speed your trip. And while those in the chute certainly go through it faster, getting there is still a battle. When traffic starts to bunch up several miles before the tolls, those with this space age technology are trapped in the pack just like those with old-fashioned coins. Only when you get close to end game do the queues start to form appropriately, so that the last 100 yards or so move expeditiously.

To deal with this reality, the traffic gurus are starting to construct specialized lanes designed for higher speed passage. These are generally located to the far left, and marked well in advance. While those built in the shells of old tollbooths are made a little wider than usual by the removal of the existing structure, newer ones are designed as wide-open roadways with overhead readers, allowing drivers to navigate them faster and safer. Set apart from the usual lanes by zebra stripes and/or concrete barricades, they offer a true expressway for those who opt in.

While safety considerations restrict some of these lanes to 35 miles per hour or less, others take advantage of the system's ability to read transponders at speeds of 55 or 60 MPH. And so once you've had the experience of zipping through the lanes, habits start to form, and you know that in spite of the signs that are posted, higher speeds don't set off alarm bells. And after all, isn't the goal of the system to speed your trip? Since the lanes are automatic, you've signed up for the service and they've spent millions installing the hardware, pushing the envelope is a normal reaction, and seems the citizenly thing to do.

But it doesn't work that way. Rules are rules, and those that break them have to be brought to heel. And based on notices received in my mail, it seems I am one such felon.

Taking a different way home than usual a few nights in a row, I transversed a particular bridge with the new express lanes installed. I dutifully moved to the left, out of the steadily backing up stream of traffic, and headed for the thru lanes. Moving steadily with my fellow drivers, I shot through the chute, and came out the other side, easily gaining a 10 minute advantage on those who still used their Washingtons and Lincolns to pay their way.

So imagine my surprise when 6 weeks later I received a "You're a bad boy" notice from the authorities. Seems at that particular crossing the express lines are posted as 20MPH, while I was doing 25. And since I had flaunted the rules 2 days in a row, I was getting a slap on the wrist until I toed the line.

Now, I know I drive fast, but it's hardly unsafe. I've never the fastest car on the road, and get passed often. But since I do a lot of driving, I'm fairly comfortable playing at the upper range of the limits. And we all know that if you actually drive the speed limit, people pass you like you're standing still.

Still, wrong is wrong. And if they caught me, I'll pay the piper. Just one problem... the payment is in hard time, not cash. The penalty assessed is suspension of my account privileges for 60 days. So to teach me a lesson, they're going to gum up the system further, and throw me back in with the huddled masses. I'll have to go back to using cash, adding to traffic congestion and being late for dinner. And frankly, I'm now more likely to speed after I leave the toll booth rather than when I go through it, making up for the time I'm losing needlessly when I know how efficient I was before. It may not be right, but just like Mother, you can't fight human nature.

The good news for me is that my schedule doesn't call for me to use the system for a while, or I can go around most of it. Still, sooner or later I'll have to deal with the issue. And so, when those occasions come when I must, I'll show that I've learned my lesson... I'll just take my wife's car.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is actually a pretty good driver. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.