Saturday, July 25, 2009


It's a beautiful summer's day, a Friday morning in July, and I'm working in my home office on a project... phone calls, emails, the usual. There's not a cloud in the sky, and the humidity hasn't kicked in yet. The weather maps say that afternoon thunderstorms are on the way, but that's for later. For right now, save for the occasional sound of a truck that rumbles by, all is quiet, and there's nothing to distract me from concentrating on my desk and wrapping up early to get a head start on the weekend.

Nothing, that is, until the power goes out.

No warning, none of the usual precursors like thunder or lighting. One minute my monitor is on, the lights are lit and the refrigerator is humming. The next, nothing. Like the famous Zen koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" the sound of no electricity at our place is the sound of squirrels skittering in the tree outside my window.

Thankfully, it s a much rarer occurrence than it used to be. When we first moved to the area, about 20 years ago, it was a disturbingly regular happening. Whenever there was a heavy snow or some ice, or a line of storms marched through the area, it was at least an even money bet that we would go dark. For better or worse, it seemed to happen with incredible consistency whenever I was out of town. It got to be a running gag with me calling in from the road and hearing, "you're not going to believe this..." to find out the juice was out at home. It was one severe winter storm which knocked us out for several days, a fact that I discovered while in Iowa for a week, much to my wife's chagrin.

But while New York State Electric couldn't control Mother Nature, they could equalize the odds a bit more with some prophylactic maintenance. And so over several years they trimmed branches and tightened lines, pissing off more than one homeowner who came home to find their beautiful overhanging trees not so overhanging. They had been pruned to nubbins, the better to protect the right of way that brought juice to others farther down the line.

The result was far fewer outages. And that was a good thing. For living where we do and progress being what it is, when it goes down there is little we can do but read a book. We try not to flush toilets (we can't draw water from our well), we don't open refrigerators (we don't want to let out the cold and have the contents spoil), and we can't use the regular phones (all our lines run through our modems). It's a good... or bad... as camping out.

And so was the case this time. A cell phone call to the help line said it would be a 45 minute outage. But an hour later when it wasn't on, a follow-up updated that to 5 hours in the future. Our son, who is a volunteer fireman, heard that it was a car accident in the adjoining town that took out a pole. No matter: the result was the same. We were powerless.

Thankfully, my laptop had a full battery and my cell phone also gets email. But we're in a dicey area for reception at best, meaning that the phone spends a lot of time hunting for a signal. Between that and actually using it, I knew its juice wouldn't last the duration. So I retreated to the one place in our abode that had reception and power: my garage. Or more specifically, the passenger seat of my car, with the car adapter at the ready. For the next 4 hours I conducted conference calls, typed proposals and did research online from what felt like a ride at Disney World. Thankfully, "It's A Small World" wasn't playing in the background over and over and over.

Of course, once I got most of it in the can and wrapped things up, there was a loud pop and the power roared back on. Like a dying man who sees an oasis, I ran to my office and quickly pressed every button, convincing myself it wasn't a mirage, and the lights were indeed lighting up and staying lit. True, it was hardly as bad as in Bangladesh, where they cope with power outages 249 days out of the year. But for those 5 hours, I felt like Bedford and Dhaka had at least one thing in common.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has thought about a generator, but the power always comes back on. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Sometimes you'll read something and it sticks with you, be it a section of a novel, a short story, a newspaper article or a movie review. It can be because of the language, the ideas or the even the rhythm of the words. And it can happen with writers from Shakespeare to Isaac Asimov, from Woody Allen to Annie Proulx, from Pete Hamill to Tom Wolfe.

When I find those kinds of passages, I tend to jot them down or clip them out. More often than not they go into a file, and simply languish there forever. Other times, though, something I see or hear makes me want to revisit that excerpt. And so it was that the news these past weeks drove me to dig through one of my many folders in order to unearth and then reread an essay by Christopher Buckley from the fall of 1993.

Buckley, of course, if the son of conservative icon William Buckley, and a talented writer in his own right. He is known for his acerbic takes on current events, as well as his books which spin contemporary political themes into slightly off-kilter Saturday Night Live-esque novels. These include "Florence of Arabia," which focuses on a US-sponsored Arab-language television station in the Middle-East which features shows such as a sitcom about a group of ruthless though inept religious police called "Mukfellahs." There's "Boomsday," about a social security program that offers payments to baby boomers who lighten the load on the system by committing suicide. And his most recent work of fiction is "Supreme Courtship," wherein the President confounds the adversarial head of the Senate Judiciary committee by appointing a popular TV judge to the high bench, daring him to reject her in the wake of her sky high ratings. Obama, take note.

The article that I extracted and gently smoothed out was published in the Wall Street Journal and was titled "Our Post-Satirical World." In it, Buckley lamented the abundance of what he called "low hanging fruit" in the political world. That is, the state of public affairs wherein it's hard to write humor because truth is stranger, or at least more ironic and more bizarre than fiction. Jon Stewart may have made a career out of reporting it, but as Buckley pointed out, the level of in-your-face lunacy makes it hard for those whose stock-in-trade is to try and exploit any subtlely humorous moments... mainly because subtlety these days appears to be out the window. Or as he put it, "The satirist's job is the same as the cook's: to simmer the raw ingredients until they're reduced to absurdity. But when they're so fresh, why bother cooking at all?"

Today, not much as changed, and in fact, the fruit seems to have gotten riper. Indeed, it's hard to know where to start. There's South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford telling everyone he's hiking the Appalachian trial, while shacking up in Argentina with his "soul mate," protesting that his infidelity is unlike other's similar transgressions because he really is in love. There's the Governor of Alaska baling out of her remaining term because, by golly, she's not a quitter. There's the New York State Senate being led by a senator who switched sides twice and is under investigation for, among other things, not living in the district he represents because his wife wouldn't be caught dead in the Bronx. And there's California paying suppliers with IOU's while asking for donations to cover expenses related to Michael Jackson's funeral. That sound you hear is the writers at on David Letterman's show hyperventilating.

There're some serious problems out there... health care, the ongoing housing crisis and the economy, to name but a few. Maybe we really should ignore the distractions, and buckle down to listen to Wolf Blitzer conduct an in-depth interview with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the new H1N1 flu vaccine. But wait: here comes Senator John Ensign, known as "Casino Johnny" in Las Vegas, trying to explain how the nearly $100K that his parents gave to his ex-married lover is merely "consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family."

There's an old military term, know by it's inevitable acronym, OBE. It stands for "Overtaken By Events," and refers to situations when realities supersede plans. In today's context, it seems that anything really important has been pushed to the back burner as it's overtaken the stupidity and chutzpah of certain elected officials. Or as Buckley wrote a half a dozen years ago in words that still seem fresh today, "you can't take a step in any direction without bumping into an over-ripe mango."


Marc Wollin of Bedford never ceases to be amazed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Priced to Move

If the events of the recent past have taught us anything at all, it's that many of the economic models and theories we relied on are hardly gospel. In fact, rather than be located in the Bible they might more appropriately reside in "The Devil's Dictionary." After all, it was Ambrose Bierce's classic work from 1911 that describes "commerce" as "A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E." Substitute "subprime mortgage" for "commerce" and you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better definition.

Still, even if any truly analytical comprehension of economics is buried way in your past (or if you're like me, and it never really existed at all), you probably still understand a few of the basic principles at work. Things get sold to make a profit. Generic items cost less than brand names. The further something has to travel the more it will likely cost. None of it rocket science, to be sure, but all helps make the world of business go 'round.

But every so often you come across something which makes little or no sense in light of the laws you know. And so I need a little help in understanding how I can buy a piece of current technology which works perfectly well, is delivered directly to my door from China, and sets me back the princely sum of $1.13.

Let's start with another guiding principle of economics: if it's any kind of gadget and it can help me, I will buy it. Just as some covet the latest in fashion or cars, I yearn for the latest gizmo that will streamline some aspect of my life. That being said, if there is no substantial difference in quality or performance, I see no reason to buy the shiny, name-brand, top-of-the-line model when I can find a no-name clone that does the same thing for substantially less. This leads us to another law: I am thrifty (Or as one of my kids said, "Dad, you raised us to be cheap.").

Which leads to my current puzzlement. I recently discovered that I could sync my smartphone to my computer using the wireless technology known as Bluetooth. Needing the correct hardware and software combination, I kept my eyes open for the appropriate adapter and picked one up via the web. The memory stick-sized dongle worked as advertised, and made me a happy camper.

However, since I use it at least once a day, I wanted a spare to throw in my bag. In poking around online, I stumbled upon the perfect backup. It was much smaller than my current one, barely bigger than your thumbnail. The technical specs were exactly what I was looking for. It came with free shipping from Hong Kong. And the cost was the previously reported $1.13. Indeed, it was delivered as promised and works perfectly. In fact, it is so small and non-descript, one associate christened it a "fortune dongle."

When these devices first came out, they were closer to $50; when I bought my first I paid about $30. Now a quick scan of major merchants finds name brand versions from $20, and no-name clones from $8. On top of that you have to add shipping and taxes, so it's hard to get below $10 all in.

So what I'm trying to figure out is how anyone makes any money on my transaction. The device I received is certainly no brand name, so there are no costs for advertising. There's no customer support, so that doesn't factor in. But there's a listing on eBay, and while the commission there is cheap, it costs something. As for mailing, it costs me 44 cents to send a birthday card to my mom 100 miles away; it's got to cost at least that to send a package from China. And the device itself is actually a pretty sophisticated piece of technology manufactured to a reasonably high standard... the manufacturer had to charge the distributor something. So when you add it up, $1.13 delivered is beyond a loss leader. It may just be the steal of the century.

To be sure, a small profit of even a few pennies can add up with volume transactions. Every sale on eBay can drive up a seller's rating, giving him better visibility for higher priced goods. And low cost items can attract traffic and lead to more sales. But $1.13? Gray market or not, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Or to quote an old article in Wired magazine, information wants to be free, but this is ridiculous.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves it when he finds a bargain. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Life On Screen

If you played word association with the name of the county in which we live, the responses would be fairly predictable. For most, "Westchester" would likely bring up such matches as "affluent," "suburb," "New York" and "bucolic, to name but a few. Some of a certain age might even conjure up "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from the early sixties. After all, it was in New Rochelle that Dick tripped over the ottoman in the living room in the show's opening every week.

That's not to say that it's all green grass and golf clubs. The county does contain cities such as gritty Yonkers and redeveloped White Plains. And a wide variety of people from different economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds call it home. But on balance, I would venture that more would more associate it with wealthy enclaves, power and privilege than with the cutting edge of rap.

That's why it's surprising what you get when you enter "Westchester Trailer" into your favorite search engine. To be sure, a variety of hits come up, ranging from a business that sells a vehicle to ferry horses that you can tow behind your car, to a place that specializes in RV's and related accessories, to a new piece of EMS equipment that the county recently acquired. However, you'll also get links to a series of promotional shorts for a film under development, titled "Westchester."

If you think about it, it's probably not surprising that the county would be fodder for a screen drama. After all, we've had any number of TV shows that focused on young adults and kids in other wealthy enclaves, such as "The Hills," "90210" and "The OC." More recently the genre has moved east, with "Gossip Girl" and its reality spin-off "NYC Prep." So it makes sense that someone would edge a little further north, and tap into the similar zeitgeist those examples share with Chappaqua, Mamaroneck and Larchmont.

The trailer starts down that path. It opens with white on black text in a modern font: "On the outskirts of New York City Culture lies Westchester. The most diverse suburb in the country. Here is a place where kids have seen it all, and will do anything to have it all for themselves." There are shots of big houses, high-end stores and Metro-North trains. So far, no surprises, and pretty much what you might expect. But then it takes a diversion: "It's about where rich meets poor and hiphop meets the 'burbs."

Turns out this flick doesn't take place in your yacht club's Westchester. The show focuses not on rich kids, but those aspiring to be so. And their vehicle isn't Wall Street, but the urban music business. Or as a girl's voice explains after the titles fade, "My boyfriend Twin has a music management company and manages his friend Rome." Hardly the typical labels of Brook, Josh, Summer and Zach you usually find in similar zip codes.

Twin begs and borrows funds from obviously ethnic parents and friends as a way to bankroll his aspirations. Just as Eminen shouldered his way into the hip-hop world and earned respect and a following almost in spite of his race, so too does Twin and his crew hope to strike it rich on the basis of talent. It plays out as the collision of several worlds, from the club scene (for the drinking and macho-posturing scenes) to the shores of Long Island Sound (for the romantic, dreamy, relationship scenes) to what appears to be a Sopranos-esque subculture (for the tough guy, vaguely underworld money scenes). It's all cut together with a thumping music video vibe. Or about as far as you can get from what many consider the highlight of the spring social season, the Mount Kisco Community Fair and Great Rubber Duck Race.

Up until now, Westchester has served as a backdrop numerous times on the big screen, from "Fatal Attraction" (our own town of Bedford) to "Big" (Rye Playland) to "Hell High" (The 1989 B-grade horror film was partially shot on location at Scarsdale High School). On TV, it has been referenced liberally, including serving as the alibi and refuge for many a bad guy on countless episodes of "Law and Order." Should "Westchester" get picked up and made, there's a chance the county may get some name-recognition on its own. True, the portrait may not be the most flattering. But look on the bright side: at least it's not "The Real Housewives of Westchester County." Yet.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers living anonymously. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.