Saturday, December 26, 2009

What Will We Talk About?

While it's always dangerous to generalize, it's probably a safe assumption that most will be happy to let 2009 enter the history books. That's not to say that there won't be challenges and crises a plenty in the new year. But unless you are James Cameron, this was the year that certainly proved that Murphy was indeed an optimist.

Still, all those trials and tribulations provided much fodder for discussion throughout the year. From the coffee shops to the water coolers, from the chat rooms to the twiterati, there was lots to dish, both dirt and otherwise. And since the pendulum in almost any given area seemed to gyrate wildly from one extreme to the other, if you didn't keep up you could be left behind. Indeed, back in March it seemed like the Dow could go to 500 and the Mets could win the pennant... and how wrong both of those outlooks turned out to be.

So what did we thumb type our 140 characters about? The big story that kept us talking was the economy. It was a roller coaster ride that made more than one person lose their lunch, be it from the Four Seasons or McDonald's. Early in the year both the financial and job markets tanked. Interestingly enough your tank didn't tank: while gasoline prices pulled back from their record highs from the prior year, it stopped dropping somewhere below two bucks a gallon, and then started climbing again. While almost all the markets, from housing to stock, have recovered to varying degrees, it has become of late a tale of 2 cities, with the shining one on the hill being Goldman Sachs and the shanty towns being everywhere outside of Wall Street.

Seems we spent even more time talking about the movies. That's because all that economic uncertainty translated into big numbers at the theatres. Movie attendance was up over 4%, with the focus on escapist fare. The top three grossing films as of mid December were "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and "Up." And lest you think they nosed out any high minded, serious films that stimulated soul searching discourse, number 4 was "The Hangover." It's also worth noting that the year in entertainment brought much discussion about vampires, though I don't if that's to be considered a good thing or a bad thing.

In sports, while the Yankees finally won the World Series again, new faces in other arenas offered up lots of possibilities for Monday morning quarterbacking with your buddies. At the US Open in tennis, Roger Federer was pushed aside by Juan Del Potro. Lucas Glover, 71st in the world at the start of the tournament, beat out a clutch of more well-known names to take the US Open in golf. And in March in a dramatic arrow by arrow finish, Yavor Hristov of Bulgaria bested Rafal Dobrowolski of Poland to claim the World Individual Recurve Archery crown, a match that's still got the locals talking.

In addition to swine flu, Bernie Madoff and Cash for Clunkers, there was lots more to chat about, thankfully much of it quickly. Susan Boyle took "American Idol" by storm, much the way the Kanye West took the microphone form Taylor Swift and told her she wasn't as talented as Beyonce. In the "why is anybody surprised," department, David Letterman slept with his interns, and Michael Phelps smoked pot. And in one that consumed many, Jon and Kate split up. My question: who are they to begin with, and why should I care?

So what will we be talking about in 2010? Topic number one will still likely be the economy. The uncertainties will continue, with the system waiting for another big shoe to drop and wreak havoc. Hopefully we've learned enough to corral the damage a little better, but I'm doubtful. Then there's healthcare. With the Senate seemingly gearing up the pass a version, it remains to be reconciled with the House version, hardly an easy task. And don't forget about the Winter Olympics, global warming and Alec Baldwin. The bottom line is that 2010 promises to be anything but boring. If I were you, I would increase my cell phone minutes and switch to that unlimited data plan. After all, you don't want to miss out on a single Tiger Woods revelation.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has no idea what 2010 will bring. As they say, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Ties That Bind

"Good evening. I'm Glenn Beck."

"And I'm Rachel Maddow. And we... yes, we... want to welcome you to this extraordinary cable television event."

"That's right, Rachel. All year long we fight and insult each other and talk about how the other side is crazy. But tonight, for one night only, in the spirit of the holiday season, we are coming together to talk about not what divides liberals and conservatives, but rather what brings us together."

"The ground rules are simple. Each of us will offer up something we love that the other side hates. And then the other side will have to say something nice about them. Ready, Glenn?"

"Sure, Rach, fire away."

"Well, as they say, go big or go home. So let's start big. Glenn, grit your teeth, let a smile be your umbrella, and tell us something nice about our president, Barrack Obama.

"Rachel, that's not fair. He's obviously all that's wrong with the world today. He's creating a totalitarian, socialistic state that will harm generations to come, making every God-fearing American captive to...

"Glenn, put the foam back in your mouth and remember the rules. Like my mother said, something nice or say nothing at all."

"Well... if you insist."

"I insist."

"Well... hmmm... let me think. It's kinda hard. Uh... Wait! I know. He has a beautiful wife!"

"Great, Glenn! We agree: Michelle is indeed beautiful and smart and an inspiration to women of all colors and creeds."

"Wow! I have to say that was a lot harder than I thought, not to mention that funny taste I now have in my mouth. But now it's my turn, Rachel. How about you tackle.... let's see.... I know... Sarah Pallin!"

"Glenn, that's cruel! How can you ask a feminist like me to compliment a woman who represents almost everything I abhor!"

"You know the rules. If I can do it, so can you. Something nice, please."

"Something nice. Something nice. Well... she's actually better looking than Tina Fey!"

"That she is... couldn't agree with you more!"

"You're right Glenn, that was tough! But let's say we get off of politics. How about pop culture?"

"Sure, I'm game. Whatdaya got?"

"How about this? Say something nice about... Michael Jackson."

"You're kidding, right? You want me to say something nice about a pedophile freak?"

"In a word... yes."

"Geez. Michael Jackson... hmmm. I know... he sure could dance!"

"Absolutely! Nobody could dance like him!"

"And I have to say, Rachel, I still can't figure out how he did that moonwalk thing. I just wish he would have stopped grabbing his crotch all the time."

"Glenn, you said something nice...leave it at that. Got one for me?"

"Pop culture's a little harder for conservatives. Hard to be right in left-leaning Hollywood. So let's try the literary realm. Let's see you offer up a compliment on Ann Coulter."

"Ann Coulter!? You call what she's writes literature?! More like drivel in lipstick!"

"Doesn't sound like a compliment to me, Rachel. You're being naughty, not nice. Find something good, or stay quiet."

"It kills me to do this, Glenn, I have to tell you. But, let see. Ann Coulter... Ann Coulter... Got it! She has the most beautiful hair I can imagine."

"No doubt about it. It is gorgeous. Goes to prove that conservatives can be good looking too!"

"I think we've got time for one more quick one, Glenn. How about a short take on President Clinton."

"The lying philanderer? Well, as far as we know, he's not as bad as Tiger Woods. You take the same: George W. Bush."

"Best brush clearer among Texas gentlemen ranchers."

"Well done. I'm afraid, though, that we're just about out of time. Rachel, it's been fun."

"Likewise, Glenn. I still think you're a homophobic Nazi, but tonight you've been a gentleman."

"And you're pretty personable for a lesbian pinko commie."

"Thanks. And to all of you, thanks so much for watching. And remember in this special time of the year, we can all find things that unite us. Have a great holiday season."


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes all have a good holiday, whatever their points of view. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hash Browns and Mutual Funds

It was a Sunday morning, and I was in San Antonio, Texas. Our schedule had us working late that evening, but the offset was that I didn't have to be in until noon. Especially since my body clock was still on east coast time, I was up early with not a whole lot to do. I went for a long run through some nice old neighborhoods, then got back to my hotel room and caught up on a little paperwork. But by 8AM I was getting hungry. I generally hate ordering room service, so packed up my stuff and headed out to try and find a place where I could get a bite, read the paper and do a little more work on my laptop.

As I exited the hotel, I saw a Denny's right across the street. Not that I'm a big fan of the restaurant chain, but certainly on that particular day and time it seemed like a reasonable destination. As I got closer, I scanned the banners flying in the entrance. Indeed, it had some nice breakfast specials ("Southwestern Sizzlin' Skillet") and a bottomless cup of coffee ("Just $1.99!"). But the kicker was something I didn't expect to find, and made it not just an acceptable place to hang out, but the perfect place: it had free WiFi.

More and more establishments are offering free access to the internet as a way to lure and keep customers. Barnes and Noble, Panera Bread and Borders Books are just some of the major chains that have opened wide their bandwidth to anyone who walks in the door. In fact, free access to the internet appears to be the "in" gift to give this year. Google will be providing it at no charge on all Virgin America flights, as well as offering free WiFi in 47 airports through January 15, 2010. Not to be outdone, Yahoo says it will provide free WiFi for an entire year in Times Square in New York City. Even religious pilgrims were able to get in on the fun: Bayanat Al-Oula launched free WiFi service in all holy sites during this year's Hajj.

Lest you think this is just for the geeky among us, think again, or better yet, just look around you. The number of people using laptops, netbooks and WiFi enabled smart phones has exploded. AT&T, the U.S. WiFi leader with nearly 20,000 domestic hotspots, said that in the first quarter of 2009 the number of connections totaled 10.5 million, more than triple the 3.4 million connections in the same period of 2008.

But back to Denny's. When I walked in, I asked the hostess for a quiet spot in the back where I could sit for a while. After I had ordered breakfast and coffee, I pulled out my laptop and started surfing. I read the news, checked the weather and started to do a little prep work for the day. When breakfast came I split my time between some home fries and the stock market, and did a little browsing of the latest releases on iTunes to boot. A refill of coffee or two later I finally got around to doing some research and writing.

I confess I felt a little bad about taking up space that might otherwise have been flipped to another paying customer. Sure, I ordered an extra order of toast to nibble on as I sat there. But I wondered how the waitress felt. When Marta came by to freshen up my cup yet again, I asked her about it. She was unconcerned: she told me that she often had people sit there for 2 hours or more. Some held meetings, and even showed PowerPoint presentations. "Good food, nice people... I don't mind." She left me an extra creamer, and continued on her rounds.

It's certainly a crowd pleasing gimmick, and likely brings in some like myself that wouldn't otherwise choose the restaurant for a business breakfast or lunch. So go ahead and invite that new client to 21, and order the hand-cut Irish oatmeal. As for me, I'll stick with the low end, offer my prospect the Chocolate Chip Pancakes and also be able to show him my latest stuff on YouTube. And even when I leave Marta an extra five bucks on my $15 tab for taking up her space, I'll still be way ahead.


Marc Wollin has made Panera Bread his preferred road office. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Plain Speaking

No doubt about it: Harry Truman was blunt. As a straight-as-an-arrow Midwesterner, he called it as he saw it, with little concession to political niceties. On Nixon: "He's a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." On MacArthur: "I fired MacArthur because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was." On Daniel Webster: "He was a windbag. He made a great many orations, and I imagine he did a very good job, but he was still a windbag " No wonder an oral biography of him was entitled "Plain Speaking."

Candid judgments such as these do more than just entertain: they can point us to which products to buy and which to avoid. It does no one any good to spare the truth, with the possible exception of the creators. That's why it's helpful to have a movie reviewer such as Mahola Dargis offer up this appraisal for the new "Twilight" installment: "The big tease turns into the long goodbye in this juiceless, near bloodless sequel about a teenage girl and the sparkly vampire she, like, totally loves." Think I'll skip that one.

This is especially the case with restaurant reviews. A new place opens up, and you eagerly await the appraisal of the pros whose job it is to take stock. Their detailed assessments help to illuminate the good, the bad and the ugly: "Average food, not worth the price." Or "I hate being packed into a restaurant like a number, there is no personality and no appreciation." Or "Not really my cup of foam." Guess we'll be making pasta at home again tonight.

To make it easier, many reviews cut to the chase at the end and reduce it all down to an empirical total. While the Zagat guide rates establishments on a 30 point scale in each of 4 categories, most make it much more concise. Be it stars or chef's toques or thumbs ups, the math is what counts: if there're four you expect it to be good, and if there's one, you expect it'll be closing soon.

One would think that leaves little wiggle room. Still, trying to be more user friendly, several years ago The New York Times adopted a more plain speaking approach. In its suburban restaurant reviews, it eschewed the purely objective to go with the more subjective. Hence, establishments were noted to be Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory and Poor.

Still, I guess that one man or woman's Good is another's Satisfactory. And in a society where casual speak has become dominant, where "Hey" has replaced not only "Hello" but even "Hi," where every merchant feels it's more friendly to call you by your first name when they return your credit card, those terms were obviously deemed to elitist. And so in a little noticed recent change, they took another swing, and changed the rating to be in more in line with contemporary thought. Henceforth, that new Greek place down the block will be rated Don't Miss, Worth It, In a Pinch and Don't Bother.

It's an increasing moment of frivolity for the Times, which more and more seeks to make itself more relevant to an audience that is drifting away. How else to explain the increasing use of puns in its headlines (For the aforementioned "Twilight" review: "Abstinence Makes the Heart... Oh, You Know." Or this one on Black Friday: "This Year, It May Be Wise to Skip the Shopping Maul.") They do seem to be trying their establishment best to reach out and amuse the masses, though there's little chance that they will be turning into Daily News anytime soon, and or beat my favorite lead from the Post, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."

One wonders just how far the Times will go. Frankly, we're all pressed for time these days, and so even four plateaus is probably too much. What we really want is a Roman Coliseum verdict as to whether that new bar-be-que place merits a visit or not. So I propose they do away with the niceties and give us a straight up or down vote at the end. Call it as you see: from now, simply tell me to Eat Here, or conversely, It Sucks.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves it when a waitress tells him not to order something. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What's Your Number... Again?

I have an old associate I've worked with for years... let's call him Jim Brown. Recently in the normal course of events, something popped up on my radar screen and I needed to get a hold of him. Unfortunately I couldn't remember his number, not having spoken with him in a while. But these days, between computers and cell phones, nobody needs to remember anything. All you have to do is punch in a name, press the little green telephone icon, and you're connected toot sweet.

So I turned on my phone and entered "Jim." Simple enough. But up popped "Jim Brown," Jimmy Brown," "James Brown," "James T. Brown" and "JT." Were they all him? I wasn't really sure. There were a number of different phone numbers and emails, all in different combinations. In fact, since we were working together on a project shortly after Hurricane Katrina, there was even an entry for my then favorite nickname for him, courtesy of President Bush. I can honestly say that, at least for me, "Brownie" did do a heck of a job.

It's all much more confusing than it used to be. When all I had was a simple address book, good old Jimmy would have been filed under "B" for his last name. I would scribble his number and address there, where it would remain. If he gave me a new one, I would scratch out the old and add it, or write the new one with a star next to it. And if I needed to contact Jimbo, all I did was riffle through the pages and there he was.

Then under the mistaken impression that I was making my life more organized and simpler, I decided to "datafy" the whole thing. That meant I bought a program for my computer, and spent night after night while watching TV inputting everybody's name and info into my laptop. It was grunt work of the highest order, figuring how to put the square address of the real world into the round hole of the entry fields. Was "Apartment 22" the second line of the street address? Did the spare fax/phone a friend had go in the fax box, the "other" box or both? And where did one stick the PIN's needed for all those pagers?

Eventually it all made got translated into bits and bytes, and was slowly beat into submission. So what if there were some multiple entries as I forgot where I filed things? It might have been a little jumbled, but it was all there. And the more familiar I got with it, the easier it became to find things.

Then three things happened. Everybody starting changing their cell phone numbers as they got better deals. They also started adding multiple emails to deal with work and play. And address books morphed into contact managers with much more complex layouts. Transferring the old data to the new program, as well as adding all the new info, was a terrifying experience, roughly akin to moving the residents of Brooklyn into Manhattan and praying they wouldn't fight over the parking spaces.

Eventually it all got smushed into your new PDA. Again, there were multiple entries for the same people with slightly different information. Again, new email and new phones kept getting added and prioritized without eliminating the old ones. And again you eventually wrestled it to the ground, learning along the way that your mother was both Mom and Harriett at the same time.

Now here we go again. When you buy a new App Phone, as they're being called, the nice people at the store have a handy dandy device that takes all the information you've accumulated and transfers it to the new one in a flash. But... and they kind of forget to mention this... the new phone has a different filing system. So if you're like me, your new listing of friends and family now contains over 2500 entries, including 37 "Dans," 42 "Steves" and a whopping 51 "Bobs," none with last names. Thankfully there was only one Nestor... but we stopped talking years ago.

Eventually I'll get it sorted out. The database will be a thing of beauty, sliceable and diceable to find people by occupation, zip code or preference for Mexican food. And I'll be able to lay my finger on your number in the bat of the eye. But until then, if you call and leave a message, just make sure to leave your number.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was able to skinny his 2500 entries down to 1858 in just 4 days of editing. He's still going. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Unleashing Our Inner Geek

It wasn't long ago that we as a society were a bunch technological idiots. If a piece of equipment had more than 2 buttons, it was deemed to be too high tech for all but the geekiest among us. Proof could be found in almost any home after a neighborhood power failure, when the VCR in the family room started flashing "12:00," and stayed that way until Uncle Harry visited over Labor Day and reset it.

Contrast with the future as envisioned in virtually any science fiction movie. In some hazy, though not-too-distant time, it seems as if everybody really is a rocket scientist. After all, no matter how complex the equipment appears to be, whether it's a starship, deathray or peanut butter and jelly sandwich replicator, everybody from kids to grandparents knew how to run it. And if push came to shove, there were plenty who could even figure out how to remove the plasma colatation tube from their personal communicator, and use it as a neutrino refloration device to return safely to the earth and ensure world peace.

So what happened? How did we get so smart so fast? Did some genetic mutation kick in activated by cell towers? True, we may not be all the way to that Star Trek or "Jetson's" future just yet, but we certainly have made undeniable progress in a very short period of time. No longer do things with knobs and dials cause us to wake up in a cold sweat at night. Put another way, how did we go within a generation from staring at a television set as if it were a magic transmission from space, to throwing down our cell phone in disgust because it locks up when we were trying to text on it while simultaneously looking up a restaurant review and downloading a new ringtone?

Probably the biggest thing is that we've stopped being afraid. We've discovered that with very few exceptions, pressing buttons does not blow up the planet. Consider our approach to learning gizmos and gadgets. In the old days (just 10 years or so ago) the first thing you did when you unpacked anything new was take out the 50 page instruction book and open it to page 1. Now, most things don't even come with a manual. Once you put in the battery you're pretty much left on your own to figure it out it works by jamming the buttons until you get it to do what you want it to do. And in most cases, you can figure how to get "it" to work, be it make a call or make toast with relatively little problem.

It happened because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other entrepreneur billionaires beat up on the engineers building the stuff and forced them to make things fairly intuitive and usable by all. As such, my mother has gone in her lifetime from marveling as her Aunt Elizabeth tuned her Gloritone radio to her favorite soap opera "Our Gal Sunday," to having a Skype video chat with her grandson who is on an island off the coast of Colombia. That's a long road in a very short time.

I thought about all this as I unpacked and set up my new Droid. This latest touchscreen phone was developed jointly by Motorola, Verizon and Google (yes, it's cool... write me and I'll tell you more about it) and was meant to replace my 5 year old Palm Treo. When I first started out with that particular device, I spent weeks figuring out how to get my data moved onto it, carrying paper copies of everything until I was comfortable enough to rely on it. With the Droid, I bought it on a Tuesday, uploaded all my data that evening, and took it on the road the next day. I flew without a net, and other than some minor stumbles, I never hit the ground. And mind you, this thing has more power than the Space Shuttle.

The great writer Arthur Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In fact we've learned a lot of the tricks, and aren't as amazed as easily as we once were. We may not all be rocket scientists, but it's starting to look that way. Yes, if you stop and think about what we can do with all this stuff you will be astounded. More likely, though, you'll just use it, and drum your fingers on the desk as you impatiently wait for the day when you can use your cell phone to clean your house.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves his new Droid. It's the first piece of tech he's been impressed with in a while. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Getting The Power

In our house, there are certain chores my wife and I share, while some are mainly hers and others mine. As an example, due to my dismal track record, I am basically prohibited from doing the laundry (put a pair of jeans in the dryer and shrink them more than once, and you get a reputation). On the other hand, keeping the family books and dealing with the myriad of statements that come in the mail falls mostly to me.

Also in the "mine" category are most things that are technical or mechanical in nature. In some cases it can be complex, such as troubleshooting the computer network or installing new software. However, it can also be mundane and routine, such as hanging a picture or setting up the Christmas tree. And also in this particular arena is replacing batteries in various gadgets when the need arises.

True, in most cases it's not that hard to do, and my wife can handle it on her own if she so chooses. Be it the remote control for the TV or a flashlight in the glovebox, it's usually simple enough. However, there are other appliances and devices which aren't so user friendly. When they grind to a halt, I usually find the offending item on the counter when I come down in the morning or get home at night. And chief in this category is clocks and watches.

In most cases these items are diminutive in size. That means that replacing their power supply entails 2 major challenges. The first is merely getting to it. Rather than having an easy to remove cover, the compartment housing the battery is usually secured with screws so small that they may as well be invisible. Fortunately, when I first discovered I needed cheaters with which to read, I bought the strongest pair I could. The 2.5 magnification proved to be way beyond what I needed for everyday use. But I kept them, and indeed they proved to be the equivalent to an optician's loupe and perfect for this particular chore.

Once I don the glasses and retrieve the set of miniature screwdrivers bought just for this purpose, I expose the innards. Sometimes it's just a matter of popping out the little button with the edge of a knife. Occasionally it means removing tiny straps and retainers obviously installed by trained squirrels working with tiny tools in slave labor camps in Taiwan. In both cases, it usually ends with me crawling around on the floor as the dead battery shoots across the counter and slides under the kitchen table, there to be found as much by feel as by sight.

Once I retrieve the useless cell, a process which takes several minutes to a solid half-hour, I have to figure out what kind it is. With regular flashlight batteries, you have a choice between cells labeled as D, C, AA and AAA (one wonders what happened to poor B). Telling them apart is child's play, with the size difference apparent. Not so with watch batteries. At first glance there appears to be about 4 possibilities, from dime-sized down to baby aspirin-sized. Look closely, however, and you will see that for some strange reason, like snowflakes, no two are actually the same. A 323 looks like a 326, which suspiciously resembles a 329. And in fact, save for a millimeter or two, they are identical. But that silly little millimeter means they are not interchangeable, unless you use a hammer to install them.

Added to this wrinkle is that different manufacturers designate the same size different ways. It's as if the engineers at Rayovac and Duracell and Renata thought that by giving unique names to their products they would somehow preserve their market share. So when you go the store to get a replacement, you have to thumb through a well worn guide hanging by the shelf which tells you that a 321 is the same as a SR616SW, which is no different from a 611, a 280-73 or a SB-AF/DF. It's a battery Tower of Babel.

After spending way too much time taking one blister pack at a time from the rack and comparing it to the old battery I have taped to a piece of scrape paper so I don't lose it, I have to reverse the entire process. I go home and try and put the whole thing back together again. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it turns out I got the wrong one anyways. That's usually because the size designation, which is etched in 1 point type, is scratched. And so 326 looks more like 328, which is what I actually bought. And so I put it back into its package, return to the store muttering, and exchange it. Thankfully, I’m not armed at any point in the process.

I'm not saying I got the short end of the stick. I’m happy to shoulder my load of the assorted household chores. But, Honey... can I take another swing at the laundry?


Marc Wollin of Bedford just threw out an old watch rather than deal with replacing the battery. Turns out it's almost cheaper to buy a new one these days. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

No matter how good your junk mail filters are, when you open your email there are probably still dating come-ons, fraudulent diploma offers and the odd Nigerian scam letter offering you millions for helping to spirit away a few bucks languishing in some far off place. But by volume, those pale in comparison to the pharmaceutical and other product offers, which total more than 72% of all the unrequested solicitations. In fact, according to a report released by Microsoft, spam accounts for more than 97% of all the email traffic in the world.

That means that if you're like most, you spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning out your inbox. Eventually you get it down to the stuff you want to read. There you'll find a few personal notes, some business correspondence, confirmation of things you bought, and most likely some friend requests from others seeking to connect with you on some social network.

Social networks have emerged as the killer ap that drives everyone to the web. True, none have figured out how to make money at it, and so it's an open question as to how long any of them will stay alive. But just as Amazon lost buckets of money for years before it became profitable... and continued to grow and attract admirers along the way... so too do Facebook and My Space and LinkedIn continue to attract more and more people.

The whole idea behind these sites is to bring order out of the chaos of your many relationships, be it for the betterment of your social or business life. (That, and having a place for your old college roommate to post pictures you'd hope were lost to history and would never see the light of day, like the one of you in bell bottoms and Dorothy Hamill hair.) But keeping up with them is a chore in and of itself, one that can take all your waking moments if you're not careful.

Fortunately almost all of sites allow you to set up alerts to be sent to your email address if something notable pops up. If someone you know posts a new picture or makes a new connection or changes their job title, you get a bulletin letting you know that something has changed in your universe. But it can also be spam-esque to get a million little reminders of relatively inconsequential updates every day. And so many of these services amalgamate the changes that are relevant to you in a once-a-week rundown. Now when I see a LinkedIn update on a Monday morning, I can quickly catch up on the all the goings-on with those with whom I am connected. It's quick and comprehensive, and easy to follow-up should there be a need.

But while I have a reasonable number of contacts on some of these services, not so others. I think I just got tired of signing up, not seeing any real benefits coming from being part of yet one more network with mostly the same people. And it stands to reason that if the universe of contacts on a given service is small, then the updates delivered will be rather narrow in scope.

And so it is with a network called Plaxo. Nothing against the service itself, but I signed up because a client requested it, and then promptly forgot about it. I connected with one other associate named Bob through it, and then just got tired of responding to friend requests, and so pretty much ignored them. However, as a member, I still get weekly "Pulse" updates, which tell me all about what's happening with all the other people with whom I'm connected through the network.

But that's only Bob.

And so once a week, I find out everything I could possibly want to know about what Bob's been up to. And since Plaxo aggregates comments from a number of different services, I get the full range of his activities, some business, some personal, some recreational. On Monday: "Bob will be attending the Design'09 Conference in Washington." On Tuesday: "Bob is now connected to Barry." On Wednesday: "Bob is writing an article for InDesign magazine's new edition." On Thursday: "Bob can't wait for baseball to end and hockey to start." On Friday: "Not a very productive day. Time for wine."

It's all Bob, all the time. Thankfully, I like Bob, I really do. He's a nice guy, easy to work with and always smiles. I'm glad he's doing well. And he's a faithful reader of this space, so I guess turnabout is merely fair play. That being said, as much as I want to know what's happening to those whose company I keep, I trust he'll forgive me if I just delete my next set of updates. After all, you can keep up with the Bobs just so much.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never updates any of his pages. He does, however, update this space weekly, and it appears in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Making the News

With all the battles facing the Obama administration on issues from health care to Afghanistan, you would think they would have little time to squabble with Fox News. Of late, though, they've pursued all out warfare with the network as White House Communications Director Anita Dunn called Fox "opinion journalism masquerading as news," while Senior Advisor David Axelrod said Fox is "not really a news organization." It probably doesn't make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things, but even some Democratic loyalists are starting to grouse that they have more important things to do than poke Glenn Beck with a stick, however satisfying that might be.

Perhaps they should follow the example of Ronald Regan, and ignore the media all together. Or do as the last President Bush did, and dismiss the national outlets while granting interviews to every local morning show from "Good Morning Tuscaloosa!" to "Wake Up Fargo!" And if that fails, at least make it entertaining by getting a William Safire protégé who can create such ripostes as "pusillanimous pussyfooters", "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history". Say what you will about the man's politics, he sure could alliterate.

Better yet, they could take a page from the playbook from one of the most formidable media outlets in the world. The BBC may have reach, Tass may have size and Karai National Radio can claim the title of "THE Voice of Papua New Guinea." But if you want to not just make the news but report it on your own terms, there is no better master at it than Kim Jong Il's own in-house publicist, the Korean Central News Agency of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, known affectionately by their Twitter feed of @kcna_dprk.

Granted, the department doesn't have a whole lot of competition in the super secretive state, and so their byline can be described not as "all the news that's fit to print" but rather "all the news that there is to print." Still, if you read their ongoing feed, they have writers that know how to make silk out of a sow's ear... literally.

Take this dispatch from just last week. Titled "Kim Jong Il Visits Newly-built Pig Farms," it turns a little local meet and greet into the equivalent of a fireside address on... well... pigs. It starts "General Secretary Kim Jong Il gave field guidance to the newly-built September 26 Breeding Pig Farm and October 22 Pig Farm." (Yes, they need to come with some snappier names than just the day the place was built). He gave out some nice attaboys: "He was very pleased with the fact that it has become possible to hand another structure for the eternal happiness of the people down to posterity." And then he brought it home with this rousing closer: "Saying that the construction of this modern breeding pig farm has opened a bright prospect for radically increasing the pork production, he called upon all the sectors and units to raise pigs in a big way."

And so it goes. No sleeping on the job for these scribes; they keep up a steady drumbeat of upbeat stories. Just a few days before, his far ranging knowledge was showcased when this one hit the wire: "Kim Jong Il Provides Field Guidance to Salmon Breeding Institute." Likewise, they have prominent stories on the publication of his latest book in Russia and Nigeria, entitled "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea Is a Socialist State of Juche with Invincible Might." And they even highlight his leisure activities as well: "General Secretary Kim Jong Il enjoyed music skit ‘Our Dear Ones Have Become Heroes' together with servicepersons."

But of course, you have to deal with the critics. And so rather than make the boss take them on himself, they let the people have their say, and report it with this headline: "Revenge-vowing Meeting of Young People Held." According to the official unbiased report, "Reporter and speakers at the meeting recalled that after provoking a war of aggression on the DPRK the U.S. imperialists had massacred people without distinction of age or sex in the most brutal way that would make even beasts blush with shame."

In that light, a little disgruntled prattling from the loyal opposition of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity hardly seems to move the meter. So if Valerie Jarrett wants to provide real counsel to the president, she might tell the White House spin machine to give up on interviews with The Times and the forget the Sunday talk shows, and focus on their press releases. After all, how can you not get mileage out of a feed that starts, "Kim Jong Il Gives Field Guidance to Central Tree Nursery and Ostrich Farm."


Marc Wollin of Bedford will be guidance giving this kitchen dinner Thursday. His weekly feeds found can be in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Go For The Gold

Under the Senate's bill, there would be four levels of benefits —
bronze, silver, gold and platinum... while the House bill calls for
three levels of coverage —basic, enhanced and premium.
The New York Times, October 5, 2009

Well, THERE's the problem.

Forget all the discussions about runaway Medicare costs, about needless procedures, about reimbursement rates. Yes, doctors order too many unnecessary tests, and patients are crybabies that won't do the most basic things like lose weight and stop smoking. And insurance companies are slow to recognize alterative treatments that can save lives and money. Juggling and bringing order to all of those factors and a thousand others like them is the reason that the healthcare debate is the most problematic and difficult social discussion we've had since... well... maybe ever.

And it's not like there's any real disagreement that there is a problem. Everybody... Republicans, Democrats, motorcycle enthusiasts, Barry Manilow fans... will concede that while the system works, it is in serious need of a tune-up. It's not like abortion, where there can an honest debate based on fundamental beliefs on both sides. Or conversely like slavery or denying women the right to vote, where it's hard to imagine a time when people could actually muster up an argument justifying either point of view. No, players on both sides agree that action must be taken. It's a difference in method, not intent, that's making us all crazy.

But at present time one of the big sticking points in hammering out a compromise that all (read "all" as in "all Democrats") can live with is the level of coverage that people will be required to have and that insurance companies will be required to offer. As noted in the above excerpt from The New York Times, the Senate and the House have different conceptions. And just as importantly as the actual dollar amounts involved is the names of the plans themselves.

Normally we are quick as a country to embrace new names and their associated rankings. Who among us doesn't know that "super" is bigger than "big," that "grande" trumps "large," that "red" is more of a threat than "orange." If you asked around, most would agree that "black" is better than "platinum." And note that virtually overnight almost the entire country caught on to the Starbucks conceit that when ordering a $2 cup of coffee "tall" really means "small."

It's important because rankings are the stuff by which we decide what we choose and how we live our lives, be it restaurants or movies or the size of a pizza. Sometimes it's relayed as stars, sometimes as forks, other times as colors or precious metals. But whether the designations refer to quality or quantity, we need to be able to compare A to B to C to know what to pick. And if the designations aren't self evident, we don't know which way to turn. I, for one, am thankful my car takes "regular" gas, because unless I looked at the prices I could never remember which was better, "ultra" or "super."

So a major component of any successful reform bill will be not just creating a system that works, but giving names to the parts of that system. Consumers will need an easy, shorthand way to talk about the thousands of rules and regulations that will be enacted. And that means some kind of across the board sizing system that will make it possible to compare apples to apples. Just as clothes come in small, medium and large, we need a simple way to see what size tee shirt to stretch across our individual health care bellies.

In a classic comedy bit called "The 2000 Year Old Man," interviewer Carl Reiner chats with ancient curmudgeon Mel Brooks about his experiences and observations over two millennia. Among other things, Brooks points out that World War II went on longer than it should because we all listened to Churchill and were intent on finding the "Narzis." He shakes his head and laments that if he had only called them by their proper name of "Nazis" we would have found them sooner, and the war would have been over years earlier.

And so it may be with a health care. We think we know the enemy, but we've got to get our terms straight. And unless we can get together and agree that the "enhanced gold ultra" plan should be taxed while all people should have at least "basic blue regular" coverage, we'll never get anywhere.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders why bronze is the lowest Olympic medal there is. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


As told on radio's "This American Life," when Eric Hayot was 23 he went on an exchange program to China and took an opera class. Before he knew it, he was on stage singing. Accompanying him on a traditional two-stringed fiddle was 19-year-old Yuanyuan Di. Hayot fell for her the moment he saw her, and struck up a relationship. Eventually, however, it was time to return to the States, and he figured that was that. But two years later he returned to China to study, and decided he just had to find Yuanyuan again. He tracked her down through an old music teacher, and rekindled the relationship, which eventually lead to them getting married.

A good story, to be sure. But I was struck even more by a coda that Hayot added: "Everyone always asks you how you met, but no one ever asks you how you stayed together." In his case, there were trials and tribulations once they got married, including cultural and personal challenges. None were as interesting or energizing as the story of their beginning. But they worked through them, the very thing you need to do to sustain a relationship.

I relate this story because this week it has special significance for me, or should I say, for us. Twenty-five years ago my wife and I got married. And while our beginning is not as exotic as Hayot and his spouse, I like to think it has an interesting angle as well.

Back then I was a newly minted freelancer. One day the phone rang, with an inquiry from a headhunter. While I had no desire for the job she was pushing, she suggested we meet for lunch and perhaps help each other by trading contacts. Since she was buying, it seemed like a no lose situation.

We met at a Japanese place, and tried to out-wasabi each other. It was a more than pleasant meal, and as we left, we agreed to stay in touch should either of us hear of opportunities or good people deserving of them. I remember thinking that while I'd like to perhaps take the relationship to another level, she must meet with scores of guys at similar lunches, and I didn't really want to stand in line. So we went our separate ways, and talked every now and again.

One Friday I checked my answering machine to find a message from her asking me if I had dinner plans. (Little did I know her existing date had fallen through, and she didn't want to sit home. So she worked her considerable Rolodex... and since I'm a "W" she was obviously running out of options). Unfortunately, though, I was heading out of town on business, and couldn't make it, and when I returned, she was traveling as well. Eventually we managed to connect, and the rest, as they say, is history. You can say the headhunter, or is this case, headhuntress, filled the position.

All well and good, and perhaps not a bad story. But lots of couples have interesting tales of their beginnings, and part ways at some intermediate point as that high water mark fades into the distance. To Hayot's point, what has kept us going? To be sure, a lot has happened since then to us, some good, some bad, and still we are together. Why us, why not others?

For the record and for the romantics, I love my wife very much. But while that's a good place to start, for a relationship to endure there has to be more. For me at least, I think the reason is both mundane and perhaps exceptional in these times: I want to be with her. When I travel someplace new, I'm constantly thinking of when we could come back together and I could show her what I've discovered. When she's out at meetings it's fine... but it feels empty and lonely, and it's much better when we're both in the house, even if we're in different rooms. And I can honestly say that while we miss both our boys as they start to create lives away from us, being empty nesters means we have more time to remember why we got together in the first place.

Over the many years I've tried to fill this space, I've written about far away places and nearby haunts, and paid tribute to parents and kids and individuals here and gone who have made an impression on me. But I've neglected perhaps the most important one of all. Well, it's time to correct that oversight. If the last quarter century has taught me anything, it's that not only do I love my wife, but I like her as well and want to be with her. That may seem like a small thing. But it's gotten us this far, and I trust it will be the reason we have at least another 25 together.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can honestly say he's happy he's married to Susan. You can send her greetings at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


There are any number of arcane skills that I used to pride myself on that are now useless, skills that at one point I thought would be valuable to pass on to our children. One was the best way to convert a vinyl album to a cassette tape. Another was how to change a typewriter ribbon without getting ink on your fingers. But the one I was sure would stand the test of time was the ability to read a map and find the best way from point A to point B.

Oh, how that belief has been tested. Several years ago my wife got a new vehicle with a GPS system. Dubbed "Beth" to help demystify it, she grew to be the other woman in my life. At first I pooh poohed her, taking great delight in ignoring her advice, forcing her to repeat endlessly, "Make a legal U turn ahead and return to the highlighted route." Eventually, however, I came around, becoming convinced of the device's value on a trip to France, where Beth's foreign cousin (christened "Bethany") enabled us to wander hither and yon, and never be worried about making it back to Paris and a particular stand that made a coconut, hazelnut and chocolate crepe that will live in my dreams forever.

Back on these shores I so changed my tune that I gave in and bought one for my car, where it has taken up residence on my windshield. I'm hardly alone: well over half the cars you pass on the road have the same gadget installed in a similar place. They've gotten so ubiquitous that it's rare for anyone to ask for directions to anything anymore. All one needs is an address and a clear shot at the sky, and even those that get lost in a dead end become either Lewis or Clark.

Of late, though, I've been exploring the deeper functions of the device. The default mode is "get there the fastest way." This provides a mix of highways and local streets, and 99.9% of the time that works fine. Occasionally I'll switch over to "more frequent use of local roads" if there's a tieup and I need a workaround. And I can even set custom preferences, favoring certain parallel highways over others, especially when I know that those are more likely to be traffic-free than others. But my new favorite turns out to be the "take the shortest route" option. If you select this, the computer draws the most zig zag line it can, taking every little nook and cranny available that trims two feet off the journey. Never mind that you might never exceed 40 MPH. If you have the time, it's a chance to slow down and see the world in a whole new light.

For example, in the quiet days of late summer I needed some odds and ends from a hardware store for projects on which I was working. It's a store I've been to countless times, and I know the fastest way to get there. But once I loaded up the car with my purchases, I realized I was in no rush to get home and get started. It was a nice day and I had the top down on the car. So I hit the short cut button, and started out. Almost immediately it had me turn off the main road, diving into some local streets I had always just whisked by before. Before long I confess I was lost, though by lost I mean in unfamiliar territory, less than 10 miles from our home.

Giving myself over to the device, I dutifully followed the directions offered. I passed a small farm, a pristine pond, an old farmhouse melded to a distinctly modern addition. I found what looked to be a hand-build rough-hewn great room standing by itself in the middle of a field. Before I emerged on a road that I finally recognized I had passed horses and goats, and I'd swear I saw a llama as well.

I have since repeated the exercise several times, including to a restaurant we frequent several towns away, another time to a nearby business meeting. In both cases I discovered houses, streams and even a fairground I didn't know existed. In fact, the local Grange (something else I passed that didn't know was nearby) was having a show the next day, and I'm pleased to say we went back to look at the champion chickens.

Robert Frost famously wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." Truth be told, I can't say my GPS wanderings have made a huge difference. But I can confidently report that it has made routine journeys much more interesting.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to drive and look around. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


The room was dark, dark enough that I really couldn't make out her features. What I could make out was long hair and a medium build of some indiscriminate age, somewhere between 25 and 55. Her accent was also non-descript, though it placed her childhood north of Baltimore and south of Boston. She drummed her fingers nervously on her thighs, as if she was working a keyboard... which of course was what this was all about.
"Thanks for agreeing to talk with me. Will you tell me your name?" Our meeting had been arranged through a mutual friend, with the understanding that it would all be confidential.

She shook her head. "No, I'd really rather not. I told Mike I'd talk to you since you were just doing research, and no names would be used. I mean, it's all kind of embarrassing, and you writing for a newspaper and all."

"Then what should I call you?"

"Umm... how about Mia? I've always liked that name."

"Mia it is. So tell me, Mia... when did you realize you were an addict?"

"I dunno. I'd say it's been a year or so. It's nothing I'm proud of. I wish I could quit."

"I'm sure. Well, how did you get started?"

"It was an old college friend. She told me about it, and it seemed like it might be fun. So I signed up, and sent her a friend request, which she naturally accepted. That led to other friends, then friends of friends, then some co-workers and next thing I knew..." She trailed off and sighed. "The next thing I knew I couldn't stop posting."

"You're saying that you've become a Facebook addict?"

"Yeah... and it's ruining my life."

"How so?"

"Well, I have to constantly update my page, posting what I'm eating, what I'm watching, how I feel. And my friends comment on that and I comment back. It's getting so I don't have time to actually do anything worth posting about except the posting itself."

"And what about your friends?"

"They're in the same boat. I never actually see them in person or talk to them on the phone. I don't even instant message with them anymore. All we ever seem to do is throw a pretend pie at each other, or post a score in Word Jumble, or join another group like ‘People against backpacks with wheels.'"

"Well, you must go out sometimes. Then you take a break from your computer, right?"

"Not really. I have Facebook mobile on my phone, so I get updates if I go the grocery store or the gym... both of which I also post about when I'm out. I mean, there's got to be more out of life than being afraid to take a shower for more than 5 minutes because my iPhone doesn't have a waterproof case."

"What do you do when you're at work? You're a...?"

"I work for a real estate management company. All our properties are online, so I spend my day on a computer, updating our listings and seeing what kind of traffic they're generating. So I just open another tab with my page on it, and punch over to it to add or check it."

"How many times a day do you do that?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. I never counted. But I would say I probably post or comment on a post every few minutes. So maybe 10, 20 times an hour."

"That works out to over a hundred times a day!"

"Yeah probably."

"Do you enjoy it?"

"I used to." She sighed. "Now it just seems like I can't stop. I know it steals hours of my life that I will never get back. But I can't bear the thought of not being online, not having people read what I write, even if it's really not that interesting. It's just that..." Her voice trailed off.

"It's just that what?"

"It's just that even if I stop, it'll just keep going. And I can't bear for it to go on without me. So I guess I have no choice."

"Mia, thanks for talking with me."

"You're welcome." Her voice suddenly sounded cheerier. "And thank you too... at least now I have something new to post about." She took out her iPhone and started jabbing at it. Even in the dark, I could see her smile.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still doesn't have a picture of himself on his Facebook page. His column is posted regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Star Power

As the fall season heats up, much of the talk has been about what the most well-known names in show business will be doing. Jay Leno is moving to the 10PM slot on television every night, while Ken Burns has a new multi-part series about to hit the PBS airwaves. Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe and Hillary Swank all have new films, while George Clooney has three all by himself. And Broadway is anxiously waiting for "A Steady Rain," featuring the high-wattage pairing of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

As for me, I've got eye on my favorites, which includes those above as well as any number of other authors, actors and musicians. I want to see how they stretch the limits of their art and branch out into new situations. However I'm also very anxious to see what happens in a similar vein with some of my favorite characters of the 60 second variety, namely Guy, Verizon Test Man and Flo, the Progressive Insurance Gal.

These three characters have become perhaps the most ubiquitous on-camera presence between shows since Madge the Palmolive dishwashing liquid lady and the poor Maytag repairman. But while those figures invariably appeared in the same situations over and over again with minor variations, the three aforementioned icons have been stretching their chops with each new iteration of their commercials. guy and his posse are branching out into new musical styles, while I recently saw Test Guy in hip-high waders. And Flo never ceases to disappoint me with new ways to be perky and retro at the same time.

For the actors who portray these personalities it's likely a mixed blessing. Steady work is steady work, but when a part becomes so identified with you that it's hard to see you in any other role it can be a heavy burden to bear. Just ask Leonard Nimoy, who swore off Spock for years (at least until JJ Abrams asked him to reprise him for the latest incarnation of "Star Trek"). The trick is to figure out how to keep the residual check coming in for lip syncing to a three-chord song about financial woes while getting the audience to take you seriously as Hamlet.

For example, Test Guy is a lot more than a one-trick pony. In real life, he's better known as Paul Marcarelli. Before he struck wireless gold, he appeared in numerous commercials both as an actor and a voiceover artist. A founding member of New York's Mobius Group Productions, Marcarelli produced and performed in works by Eric Bogosian and others. In fact, the group's production of "The Adding Machine," in which he played the lead role, garnered the award for excellence in overall production from the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001. But if you heard him say anything other than "Can you hear me now?" you would likely be surprised.

Then there's Eric Violette. He's the young French Canadian with the curly hair whose credit is so bad he has to drive a used subcompact, be a host in a pirate-themed restaurant and don leggings at a Renaissance festival. In real life he's a graduate of the prestigious National Theatre School in Montreal and is a licensed mesotherapist specializing in Shiatsu. And while he is a musician with his own band, called God Against God, his credit is actually pretty good.

It's no different for Stephanie Courtney. Long before she was cast as Flo, she was a member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. You can also see her in the movies such as "The Heartbreak Kid" and "Blades of Glory," as well as one of four leads in "Melvin Goes to Dinner." More recently you might have spotted her in a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show "Mad Men." In none of those, however, was she required to undergo the two hours of hair and makeup it takes to get that brightly painted look that Progressive wants from the retail help in their store.

Still, none of the three are complaining. The constant repetition of their spots means that they are probably seen by far more people than would see them otherwise. Courtesy of their corporate backers, their characters have their own Facebook pages and MySpace profiles. And their popularity has engendered fan clubs and Tee-shirts, something their individual efforts have yet to generate.

That being said, not all commercial icons are stretching the limits of their character this season. Some are strictly background, giving us all ample reason to use the break as an excuse to go to the bathroom. Too many couples are just sitting in those bathtubs by the lake, and PC and Mac need a new routine. And while he may be cute and have a great accent, sometimes a gecko is just a gecko.


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely watches TV, and then it's more for the commercials than the programs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

21st Century Reader Man

We are a family of readers. Our living room has shelves filled with books, as well as the basement and even the kids' rooms. Even our spare room is lined with them, along with a couple of comfy chairs and a couch, making it the equivalent of the in-house library. It's an eclectic collection, with the titles running the gamut from fiction to travel to history and everything in between. In fact it's not uncommon for us as a family to swing past a Borders for coffee and some browsing as post-dinner entertainment. Not too exciting, I'll grant you, but it passes as a big night out in our world.

So I when I received an Amazon Kindle as a gift recently, I was both excited and wary. I recognized the benefits of this latest e-reader immediately, from the ability to hold many volumes at once when I travel, to the easy-to-hold form factor. But I also love the look of books on the shelf and the ability to share a favorite with others by simply giving them the volume. Still, the advantages along with the novelty of the device have combined to outweigh the shortcomings. Indeed, I find myself reading more and faster than I did in the recent past. And there's the added benefit that when I fall asleep holding it I'm less apt to wound myself, as opposed to when I dozed off while reading "Parting the Waters," a 900 page history of the early civil rights movement. My stomach still hurts.

One of the big draws of the device is both the price and speed with which you can access books. With wireless delivery included, you can pick out a volume and have it downloaded in under a minute for less than it costs to drive to the store and buy it with a real cover. This goes for new releases, like Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" and Pat Conroy's "South of Broad." But it also is true for hundreds of oldies but goodies, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Frankenstein," many of which are available for no cost at all.

In fact, if you sort the list of available books by price, there are over 3800 volumes which cost nothing, perhaps double that if you raise the price to $.99. Lots of classics and political tracts to be sure, but a smattering of new novels by contemporary authors as well. Some are there as loss leaders to entice you try a new writer, others just to help fill out the catalog. But no matter the reason, it's hard to resist downloading a book that cost ten bucks or more in any store when doing it electronically sets you back nothing.

Then again, you get what you pay for. For sure, it's hard to dispute the value of a free copy of "The First Men in the Moon" by H. G. Wells or "The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain. But nestled in the same price range are others I'm not so sure about. For while it's true I haven't read "An Introduction to the Mortuary Customs of the North American Indians" by H. C. Yarrow, and it might just be a steal at the price of zero, I think I'll wait for the movie to come out to make that determination.

Then there're those contemporary novels that sure feel like they might even be overpriced even at that particular price point. Take "Irresistible Forces" by Brenda Jackson, blurbed as follows: "Taylor wants a baby, not a relationship. And sexy, intelligent Dominic has perfect everything. Their procreation vacation is a whirlwind of sensual ecstasy. But when it's over, will either of them be able to say goodbye?" That sound like a winner to you?

But rather than jump to conclusions, let's read the reviews from other readers: "Even as a freebie the book's too expensive. Those are hours you'll never get back people." Or "The plotting is stupid, the writing is excruciating, the dialogue ridiculous. There wasn't a single good part to the book, well, except maybe the part when I realized that I didn't have to finish it." OK... think we know where we stand with this one. And while you can't and shouldn't judge by the title. I think I'll also take a pass on "Zombie Punter," "Murder in the Massage Parlor" and "Data Entry Hell."

It was the poet Robert Frost who said, "Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it." Unfortunately, too many of the latter have discovered vanity publishing. Perhaps they would be better served by an admonition from Will Rogers: "Never miss a good chance to shut up."


Marc Wollin of Bedford publishes this column as a blog available for the Kindle. Currently, it's ranked at 94,019 and falling. Lucky for you can read it for free regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

For the last dozen years or so, one of my weekly habits (to be fair, one of the few good ones) has been to keep us honest. By that I mean that come rain or come shine, I take a snapshot of all of our accounts and come to a final tally of where we are at that particular instance in time. Since I get updated numbers for some accounts daily, others weekly and still others monthly or even quarterly, it's hardly gospel. But by doing what the pros call ‘mark to market" on a regular basis, I've got a pretty good picture of where we are from a financial standpoint.

The good news is that by looking at the big picture you can see some general trends. I'm pleased to say that all things being equal we have had basically an "up" progression. Not straight up, to be sure. Events have pushed it down (the tech bubble bursting, 9/11, the most recent market collapse), as have major purchases (remodeling, cars, college educations). But all in all, paraphrasing Ronald Regan's famous question from the final presidential debate of 1980, I can honestly say we are better off today than we were a decade or so ago.

Ploting the data points gives us an upward sloping "M," a pattern that has probably been enjoyed by many over a similar time frame. But of course, what we're all concerned about is not where we've been, but where we're going. Since the end of that graph was most decidedly down... and in a big way... until about March, the question is what next. And there is no shortage of opinions as to what letter we're in the processing of scribing as we speak.

It would seem that those who profess we're in an "L" have been beaten back. That's where we get to the bottom and just stay there. Conversely, some optimists think that we're in an "N," where once the recovery starts it will be straight up. Still others suggest we're in an "O," where we run around in circles, from bust to boom and back, without having any clear direction.

The big three that have the most credence among professionals seem to be "U," "V" and "W." The who support the U believe that what we're seeing in the economy since March has no staying power, and we'll bounce around at the bottom until structural changes are made and we start back up. Then there's the V's, who think that what's done is done, and we're climbing out, though perhaps a good bit less steeply than we came down. And there's the W's, the double dippers, who think it's going to be a rocky ride and the more recent good news will be met by a dose of realty, then some more upside and back again. It certainly plays to our schizophrenic nature, not to mention when paired with recent history, nicely forming my initials.

These outlooks are all based on the perception that some kind of upside is under way, that we're turned a corner, though how sharp a turn is in question. You might disagree with that basic premise, especially if you look at your kid's 529 college savings plan or were about to tap your Keogh for a leisure-filled retirement or examine the most recent numbers on employment. Or as one poster noted on the Wall Street Examiner website, "What recovery? Did I miss something?"

The bottom line is that nobody has any idea what will happen. As with our own personal chart, it takes years of plotting little ittty bitty points before a true picture even begins to emerge. Just as you can't make out the tune on a record being played at a speed of one a revolution per century, and indeed might wonder if it's turning at all, it's only after you step back and look at the big picture that you can say what actually happened. So it's hard to be writing in script when we've only just pressed the pencil to the paper.

More to the point, it's also worth pointing out the professionals that will be the ones who will eventually make this determination for the history books are the same ones who missed the whole thing in the beginning, who thought that our upwards trajectory would continue to be just that. So any authoritative statement as to what is going on should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Put another way, it's worth remembering that economists have forecasted 9 out of the last 5 recessions... so at this point in time your guess is as good a theirs.


Marc Wollin of Bedford barely remembers what he learned in Econ 101. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.