Saturday, May 29, 2010

This One Goes Past A Trillion







Regardless of which side of the political fence you're on, the numbers are hard to grasp. The country's imbalance between money in and money out for the month of April was over $82 Billion. The Troubled Asset Relief program passed in 2008, better known as TARP, amounted to $700 Billion. And the latest estimate for the total Federal deficit is currently estimated to hit $1.56 Trillion by the end of the year. That's "billion" with a "B" which rhymes with "trillion" with a "T," and to paraphrase the "The Music Man," that means trouble right here in River City
But back to the numbers: I don't know about you, but I hate to carry anything bigger than a twenty dollar bill in my pocket. So dealing with numbers like a trillion is an abstract concept at best. Many have tried to visualize it: a football field of $100 bills 90 feet high, a row of $1 bills circling the globe approximately 2.72 times around the equator, the amount of money Lady Gaga spends on wardrobe in a given week, to name but a few. Regardless, most of us will have to be content with talking even if we don't have the credit line to cover it.

However, that's when it's all about dollars. If you shift the discussion from money to information, the numbers don't seem so huge anymore. Or more to the point, they seem to be growing at a rate that is barely able to keep up with our needs. Think of your music, video and pictures. We used to talk about data in terms of kilobytes, or 1000 bytes. Then megabytes, or 1000 kilobytes became the norm. Now we routinely transfer and walk around with memory sticks than hold gigabytes, or 1000 megabytes. And it's not uncommon to find home computers these days with drives that handle terabytes, or 1000 gigabytes, which, coincidentally, is the same as a trillion. In taxes, huge number: in footage of your vacation, not so much.

So where do we go from here? Believe it of not, there is a governing body that actually deals with this kind of stuff. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is headquartered near Paris and is known by its French initials BIPM, is charged with, among other things, maintaining the International System of Units, also known as SI. Based on the metric system, this scale goes well beyond a trillion to "peta," "exa" and "zeta." It currently ends in "yotta," which is a one with 24 zeros after it. So you can factually say "that's a whole yotta stuff," and then count and see if you've gotten shortchanged.

Recently, a student at the University of California at Davis proposed the next step in the scale. Austin Sendek is a physics student who was working on a project in a lab class. His asked his partner how many volts were in an electric field they were studying, to which he answered "a helluva lot." The voltage in question lit up a bulb on their lab bench and another in Sendek's brain, and the next thing you know he had set up a Facebook group and garnered over 60,000 friends who wanted to make "hella" the next prefix in the chain.

It's no joke. With the existing system stopping at yotta, there is indeed a need for a term for when the zeros climb to the next order of magnitude, or 27. Sendek has spoken with an advisor to the international committee, and has gotten a commitment to introduce the suggestion at their next meeting in September. According to a posting, Sendek said the advisor "...thought the idea was very entertaining and he'd get a few laughs from it, but he wasn't sure the scientists would take it seriously."

That would depend on how tuned in the scientists are to popular sentiment. After all, it was a Facebook movement that brought Betty White to "Saturday Night Live," giving the show its highest rating in 18 months. And that has been followed by a similar movement to have her co-host the Emmys with Jimmy Fallon. So if enough people sign onto the hella movement, it could bring a little populism to science.

It's worth noting as well that the SI naming conventions dictate that as the number get larger the prefix ends in "a," while when it gets smaller it ends in "o." So for the record the equivalent smaller or shorter measure would be not "hella" but "hello," as in hello-seconds. And shorter than that? Well, if you live where we do, you know that interval by another name: a New York Minute.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't joined any Facebook groups. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Insultingly Funny 2

About a year ago in this space I brought together a collection of high class insults onto which I had stumbled. Readers responded with their own favorites, and I added a few more over time. As such, below is what now I guess now qualifies as an annual installment in ways to indicate your feelings without raising your voice or using foul language. The intent, however, remains the same: to indicate your opinion in the most sublime of ways.
"His speeches were an army of pompous words marching across the landscape in search of an idea. Occasionally these meandering phrases would capture a straggling thought, and bear it triumphantly within their midst, a slave , until it died of servitude and overwork." H. L.Mencken on Warren G.Harding.
"You may not be the dumbest person on earth, but when he dies..." Anonymous.
"That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can't say 'No’ in any of them." Dorothy Parker.
"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." Thomas Brackett Reed.
"In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yielded easily." Charles, Count Talleyrand.
"She was never really charming until she died." Terence, Roman playwright.
"A sheep in sheep's clothing." Winston Churchill on Clement Atlee.
"He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened." Winston Churchill on Stanley Baldwin.

"A solemn, unsmiling, sanctimonious old iceberg who looked like he was waiting for a vacancy in the Trinity." Mark Twain.
"You've got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it." Groucho Marx.
"She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Dorothy Parker speaking of Katharine Hepburn.
"He has the attention span of a lightning bolt." Robert Redford.
"She is a peacock in everything but beauty." Oscar Wilde.
"There are two things I dislike about you, sir: your face." Anonymous.
"I bequeath all my property to my wife on the condition that she remarry immediately. Then there will be at least one man to regret my death." Heinrich Heine.
"I like Wagner's music better than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage." Oscar Wilde.
"A retail mind in a wholesale business." David Lloyd George on Neville Chamberlain.
"He brings to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match." Aneurin Sevan on Clement Attlee.
"He couldn't see a belt without hitting below it." Margot Asquith on David Lloyd George.
"He has all the characteristics of a dog except loyalty." Sam Houston on Thomas Jefferson Green.
"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." John Bright on Benjamin Disraeli.
"He slept more than any other president, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored." H. L. Mencken on Calvin Coolidge.
"If a traveler were informed that such a man was the leader of the House of Commons, he might begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped an insect." Benjamin Disraeli on Lord John Russell.
"If he fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out that, I suppose, would be a calamity." Benjamin Disraeli on William Gladstone.
"How can they tell?" Dorothy Parker on hearing that Calvin Coolidge had died.
"Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself." Mark Twain.
"I could do without your face, Chloe, and without your neck, and your hands, and your limbs, and to save myself the trouble of mentioning the points in detail, I could do without you altogether." Martial, Roman poet.
"If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell." General Philip Sheridan.
"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." Dorothy Parker.
"The only man who can strut sitting down." Harry Truman on Thomas Dewey.
Bessie Braddock: "Sir, you are drunk." Winston Churchill "Bessie, you're ugly. But in the morning, I'll be sober."
"It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. But I grow lyrical." H.L. Mencken on President Warren G. Harding's inaugural address.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good quote. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Welcome to Our Country"

I had just flown back into Newark airport, and was heading straight into Manhattan to go to work. The fastest way to do that is to catch the shuttle train that circles the airport, then connect to a regular train to the city. I have to assume that space limitations dictated design when they built the Airlink system: the cars are small and cramped, with each consisting of 2 small unconnected cabins. In practice this means it feels less like a subway and more like a horizontal elevator.

The good news was that the airport was relatively uncrowded. I moved to the front of the platform, and when the train arrived I hopped into the empty first cabin. There I settled onto the lone bench seat for the 10 minute ride to the station where I would make my connection.

At the next terminal, the doors opened and a red-coated customer service agent got on pulling a cart piled with luggage, followed by an older gentleman. She motioned for the man to sit next to me. "Where are you going?" she asked me without preamble. I responded that I was headed to the station. "OK," she said as she looked at him and pointed at me, "Get off where he does." She looked at me as the chime rang to indicate that the doors were closing. "There'll be another agent meeting him at the other end," she said as she jumped off quickly.

Great, I thought, now he's my responsibility. I looked at him more closely: he was elderly, very thin and Indian. I smiled; he smiled back. "Thank you," he said in said in a soft, accented voice. "It's no trouble," I replied. I asked him where he was coming from. "I just came from India. And this is my first visit here." Suddenly my attitude changed. He was no longer a burden: more to the point, I was now an ambassador. Without thinking, I said the first thing that popped into my mind: "Well, welcome to our country."

He smiled broadly. "Thank you," he said. "I am very excited to be here." We continued talking. He had flown for 16 hours, and was going to take the train to Philadelphia, where he would be staying with friends. I asked him where in India he was from: he answered with a name I couldn't pronounce nor remember. I asked him how hold he was: 83 was his response. "God bless you, sir," I said. "It takes a lot of courage at your age to travel this far alone." He nodded: "Yes, at least I am healthy and can do this."

As we progressed, I pointed out the Newark and New York skylines. I told him I hoped he would have a chance to visit other places as well as Philadelphia, as our country has many interesting sights. With great pride, he said, "Our country is very diverse as well. Have you ever been to India?" I confessed I had not, but told him I always wanted to. I also told him I loved Indian food, which brought another big smile.

By now we were pulling into the station. Of course, no agent was waiting for us. He looked concerned as I helped him maneuver his trolley and luggage off the train. I told him not to worry: I would get him to the right place. We made our way to the elevator. As we rode up, he looked at me and said, "I am so lucky to have met you." I said it was no problem, but he must do the same for me when I finally came to his country. He grinned, and said "I would be honored."

When we stepped off the elevator, an agent was walking past. I asked her if she could help him purchase the correct ticket and get him to the right platform. She nodded and turned to first help another couple. I moved his trolley near the ticket machine, and turned to say goodbye.

"Unfortunately," I said, "I have to leave here and take another train going in a different direction. I'm sure you'll be fine. Please enjoy your stay, and again, welcome." I reached out to shake his hand. He took it with both of his, then placed it over his heart and smiled. When he let go, he put both his hands together in namaste, and bowed slightly. I put down my backpack, and returned the gesture.

I gathered my bags and went through the turnstile down to the northbound platform. Once I got there I looked over to the southbound one. A few minutes later I saw an agent leading him along, then help him unload his luggage. He turned and saw me: I waved, he waved back. Then our respective trains came, and we disappeared in opposite directions. I'll be looking for him when I finally get to India.


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

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Fourth Screen

Some like being number one, and it takes two to tango. Me, I like three of anything. Whether it's strikes, wishes or Close Encounters (or examples, for that matter), it's a number that just feels right. The faithful might say it stems from the Trinity. Numerologists might say it's because it's the number of sides in a triangle, the strongest of geometrics. And in Chinese the word for "three" is similar to the word for "alive." In any case, most would agree that something is definitely missing if there are only Two Bears, Two Pigs or Two Blind Mice. And there's no way that Two Stooges would be anywhere near as funny as three.

But we're a society that has to have more of everything. And so as comforting as three can be, we have to push the boundaries. Not content with the three dimensions of length, width and depth, we've added the dimension of time. Taco Bell stays open late so that if you're hungry after having breakfast, lunch and dinner, you can get something to eat for what they call "Fourthmeal." And now Nielson says that advertisers actually have four different screens as entries into our wallets.

The first screen was the granddad of them all, television. However, its decline and the decline of the audience watching it are well documented. The computer offered up screen two, one that is ubiquitous on desktops and in laps everywhere you look. And screen three is the mobile one, which started out as a three-line display on a phone the size of a boot, and has evolved, courtesy of Steve Jobs, into the iPhone and iPad. But in more and more places you go... the checkout counter at the grocery store, the health club, even an elevator... you don't need to take anything out of your purse or off your belt to be bombarded with ads. Just open your eyes, and you're likely to see a screen offering up short pieces of information which serve as bookends for innumerable ads. Taken together, this flat panel, location-based world, is know as the Fourth Screen.

It would be easy to dismiss this as little more than moving billboards if not for the numbers. In Nielsen's survey, they looked at 10 different place-based networks. These included Zoom Fitness, which provides programming at health clubs, and GSTV, which has screens at gas pumps. They found that for the last four months of 2009, adults 18 or older were exposed to 237 million video ads per month just by looking up in doctors' offices, bars and elevators. That's an awful lot of promos for Jimmy Fallon... and he's still not funny.

How does this compare to more traditional forms of broadcast media? In October of 2009 the average audience for a prime time commercial was about 3 million adults. In the same period, ads on NCM and Screenvsion's services, which run before the feature starts in movie theatres, reached had an audience of 61.7 million. So in just this one venue it would take 20 commercials to reach the same number of people who plopped themselves down with their popcorn and weren't going anywhere until "Couples Retreat" was over.

Much to advertisers' delight, these audiences are truly captive. At home you can get up and go to the bathroom during a commercial, or speed through them on your Tivo. No one makes you click on the ads that pop up on your computer; likewise on content you access through your phone. But if you're in an elevator, waiting for the movie to start or somewhere around floor 63 on the Stairmaster, its hard to look away when Rachel Ray tells you what's cooking today.

In urban and suburban planning, they call it "creep" when one type of zoning starts to bleed into the next. And so it is with advertising. Pandora, which started as a commercial free internet radio service, introduced display ads several years ago and now includes audio versions of the same. Facebook is looking to team with advertisers to extract data from your friend list to target you when you check your wall. And Twitter has announced plans to add to its 140 characters, giving a few more to marketers in the form of "promoted tweets." It's probably inevitable, but perhaps manufactures would make better use of their budgets if they followed the admonition of the great Will Rogers: "If advertisers spent the same amount of money on improving their products as they do on advertising then they wouldn't have to advertise them at all."


Marc Wollin of Bedford only watches the commercials during the Super Bowl; otherwise he scans past them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Who/What/Where Am I Today?

I'm confused. Admittedly, the older I get, the more that seems to be happening. Doesn't take much... I stay up a little later than usual, I go to bed a little earlier than usual... in short, virtually anything can set it off. However, in this case I think I have a fairly legitimate excuse. That's because in a single week, I'm doing 5 different projects in different locations for 5 different clients.

Keeping the work straight is certainly part of it... heaven forbid I give the wrong budget to the wrong person. But the harder part is remembering the logistical idiosyncrasies of each different location that I visit. Every day is an adventure, requiring that I stop for a moment and make sure I'm not wearing ski boots to the beach.

It starts before I ever leave the house, as I figure out what to wear. Not from a fashionista standpoint: no one would ever accuse me of being trendy. Rather, while most places these days are business casual, not all are. For some, the basic uniform consists of pressed slacks and a shirt and tie, while others amp that up to the full monty and prefer a traditional business suit. Still others go the opposite direction, and the inhabitants therein regard anyone not in jeans with suspicion. Even within the same organization styles vary: while the gang in marketing is business casual, visit the executive floors and a suit is apropos, while a day working with the IT guys means anything but.

Transportation is the next great challenge. No motor memory here: once I pull out of the garage, I have to mentally review the route I'm taking to make sure I'm not heading to the place I went the day before. If it's by train, I get another hour or so to figure out my next move, which may be by foot, subway or a combination. If the location is one to which I can drive, I need to pay close attention, not so much from a safety issue, but in a realizing-I-took-the-wrong-exit-because-I-forgot-where-I-was-going issue.

Then there's security. In addition to my driver's license, I carry half a dozen different IDs. Some are flashed, some are swiped, some are scanned and some require matching fingerprints and bloodwork with a predetermined password derived from the maiden name of my mother's child pet. Or something like that.

Even once I get there, the challenges don't stop. Sooner or later it will be time for a pit stop. In firms that occupy the entire building, all I need do is remember where the facilities are located. But not all the places I spend time in are occupied by one company. Many are smaller firms, who have a piece of a floor in a building in the city. And that means security, not just at the front door, but at the rest room door.

In some cases, the entrance is secured by a combination lock. Of course, every sequence is different, forcing me to act like a second grading trying to remember my phone number. "Let's see, that was 2, 5, then 3 and 4 together, then 6, right?" More that once, as I started to make my way there, someone yells over, "Hey, was that 3 or 4 days we needed to allow for those 6 pieces of equipment to get there in time?" I respond on my way out the door, get to the rest room and punch in what I thought was the right combination, only to have to crawl back and ask for the keys to the kingdom again.

Thankfully, some places make it easier by having a communal key to gain access. However, since people have a tendency to pocket these and then forget to return them to the appropriate spot, more than one place has attached something to prevent this occurrence. It's often a token that not only won't fit into your pocket, but one that is thematic to the business at hand. Audio studios seem to favor CDs, communication firms like telephone receivers and editing facilities like old videotapes. However, some go for things that are merely tough to forget: I've used keys attached to a miniature Eiffel Tower, a Teddy Bear and even a plastic dinosaur.

It all means that by the time I'm done on Friday night, I'm ready for a rest. Maybe that's why I like being home: everything is in the same place day after day, I can walk around in the dark with the lights out and not trip over anything, and best of all, the bathrooms only have knobs.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't remember the last time he was in the same place all week. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.