Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ballot Boxed

Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, a devotee of Fox or MSNBC, or a pissed off moderate in the Jon Stewart mould, you have to be thankful for one thing: we settle our differences by the use of the ballot with precious little violence. At it's heart it's very straightforward: on the appointed day you show up, indicate your choice and go home. After all is said and done, the votes are counted up and the winner announced. Barring the odd election in Illinois, there's not much more involved.

Still, any system can use a going over with an eye towards improvement, especially in light of the way we live our lives and the technology that's available. Absentee ballots are one concession to reality. Some states also allow voting in a window of time before the actual election day as a way of making it more convenient. And lately many jurisdictions have been instituting new voting systems and technologies as a way to improve speed and accuracy of results.

Conceptually all of approaches strive to do the same thing: give you a private place to make your choice, then enter same into a central repository where it will eventually be counted. At its most basic, that means marking your X on a piece of paper and stuffing it into a box. Where we live, as in many other locales, machines took over, with the old lever type monsters the standard for years and years. You went into a booth, used a big lever to close the curtain behind you, and pulled a little switch indicating your choice. Moving the big lever the other way registered your vote with a satisfying "clunk," reset the machine for the next person and opened the curtains to let you out.

But those behemoths were big mechanical albatrosses, and qualified technicians to fix and maintain them were getting in short supply. Other jurisdictions tried new systems to replace them, not always with great success, One only need remember the infamous butterfly ballots and hanging chads of Florida in the 2000 Presidential race to see where a supposed improvement was actually a giant leap backwards.

Well, I fear we may heading that way again. This year's primary in our home district featured new and improved voting machines, the Image Cast Optical Scan Voting System. Again, it's billed as a step forward, but in practicality, I have my doubts.

When you got to the polling station, they checked you in as usual by verifying your signature with those on the voter registration rolls. Assuming you matched up, they handed you a paper ballot. Yes, in this e-everything, save-the-planet, don't-print-it-unless-you-have-to world, you're handed a heavy piece of stock longer than a folded New York Times. They then directed you to a "privacy booth" to mark your ballot, which turned out to be a four-sided portable carrel with absolutely no privacy. And you used a "special marking pen," which was a regular Sharpie, to completely fill in the bubble next to your choice. I felt like a fifth grader trying to shield my answers on the test from prying classmates.

Once you had it all together, you took the ballot over to the scanner. There the poll worker armed the machine to record your vote. You then took your ballot which you so kept so carefully hidden out into the clear light of day for all to see, and fed it into the slot so the optical reader could read it and record your choices. As the paper ballot dropped into a repository for later verification if needed, the machine hummed a second, then a little screen lit up to tell you your vote had been recorded.

Progress? Let's add it up. Paper ballots. Filling in ink bubbles. No privacy. Considering we have smartphones and netbooks and Mp3 players the size of a matchbooks, that Google has become like Chinese food, delivering your search results before even you finish typing it, that we've figured out how to order a double cheeseburger with fries and a shake at a kiosk and have it ready to go by the time we drive 20 feet, you'd think we could have figured out a better way to record a vote. At least they didn't make me dip my finger in purple ink: I guess we still have Iraq beat.


Marc Wollin of Bedford voted in the primary just to try out the new machines. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Skating for Freedom

When you walk into a pizza place in New York City, you can reasonably expect to see a couple of things. The first is pizza. You'll also likely spot shakers of oregano, garlic and hot peppers. And without fail you'll see autographed pictures of a number of celebrities signed "Tony: Thanks for the pie!" hanging on the walls, leading you to wonder why Bono was in that neighborhood and why he would stop there to get a slice.

What you don't expect to see is 6 foot tall guy on rollerblades with a crash helmet holding an American flag. Now, this being New York and all, a guy dressed like that is not really that far outside the norm. So encountering him when we went to pick up some lunch merited a glance, not a stare. But he looked harmless, curiosity got the best of us and so we had to ask.

Turns out that Austin Szelkowski is on a quest to skate across America. A recent graduate in engineering from Kettering University in his home state of Michigan, he was waiting tables and trying to figure out how to build a business around his passion, "empowering young people to pursue their own passions and blaze a trail toward the lives they envision for themselves."  Perhaps taking a clue from his university's mascot, a bulldog named General Determination, he hatched a plan to deliver his message on the most grassroots level imaginable: going from town to town on rollerblades over the course of a year. And so the "Freedom Skater" was born.

He drafted a buddy to do publicity and outreach, and they started to lay out their plan. They decided that come hell or high water they would kick off their quest on Labor Day at the Statue of Liberty, even if it meant they had to hitchhike to get there. They enlisted support from friends and family, and got lucky when they hooked up with Dan Hussain, an MIT grad with a venture capital firm and a history of helping startups. They then secured an RV as their mobile headquarters, and got a local sign company to spiff it up. And with that they headed east and put rollers on the ground.

Szelkowski certainly could have taken a more traditional approach to starting a business. After al, even in recession ravaged Michigan, most people looking for work don't take off on skates for a year. Why this direction? He says it had its roots when he spent a semester in Germany. While he and his fellow students felt out of place and out of control, he finally figured out the way to cope was to give that control up and ride the wave. "For just a period of time, instead of living life, I let life live me," he recalls. "It's not to say that I was passive. I just learned to laugh with the punches. I learned to let life be an interesting and unpredictable experience. I let life be an adventure. I've never lived more fully than I did during that three month span. Never."

He decided that the way to start his business was to get out and do it. And so for the next year his goal is to skate, meet young people and skate some more. His connections are helping him set up some speaking gigs at such top tier schools as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wellesley, and MIT. He is looking to connect with kids in person at schools, and of course, online though his Facebook page and website.

What kind of message can a guy in shorts and wrist guards impart? At its most basic level, Szelkowski says it's to "pursue your dreams and live without fear." He throws out a laundry list of drivers: "passion, courage, hustle, innovation, authenticity, entrepreneurship and shared vision." But most of all he says it's about freedom: "I believe true freedom will grow from grassroots, when the seeds of these ideas are planted in the hearts and minds of young people." He envisions a movement that will "revitalize and remake the American economy by inspiring passionate young trailblazers and entrepreneurs to imagine a stronger America and take the steps necessary to build it." To his way of thinking, if those first baby steps have to be on rollerblades, so be it.

Szelkowski will be around the city until the end of month, when he heads south and then west, all with a goal of getting to Santa Monica around September 2011. You might wonder about his method, but it's hard to argue with his message. And so if you see a rather large guy skating by the side of the road with an American Flag (or just trying to get a slice of pizza), give him a wave: that's the Freedom Skater you just passed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will keep his eyes open at the next pizzeria he enters. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Fan Tale

I spend a lot of time in dark places where I can’t see the keyboard on my computer. So when I saw a small flexible light that plugged right into my laptop, I snapped it up. As a bonus, the package also included a similarly powered fan. Built on a long gooseneck, it had a small motor and two soft, flexible blades. At first glance, it seemed pretty silly. But on my next gig, that same dark, backstage space that had no light also had no air. So I plugged the fan in, directed it at my face, and was amazed how just a little air moving past my nose kept me alert and awake. Others looked at me and laughed, until they sat where I sat, and made a note to buy one for themselves.

It became a regular part of my kit until it burned out after a few years of use. I decided to troll Ebay and see if they had it there. Indeed, the very model I had popped up quickly. So I ordered one from "The Good Item Shop," one of the hundreds of Chinese distributors that seem to have an endless supply of small electronic trinkets. The price seemed to defy any rationale explanation: $.99. And they weren’t making it up in the shipping, which was $.95 for halfway around the world. True, it would take 2 weeks or so to get to me, but at that price, I could afford to wait. Sure enough, a tiny envelope showed up half a month later with the fan inside. Into my bag it went awaiting its first real outing.

A week or so later I found myself in yet another dark and stuffy location. Out came the light and the fan. I plugged them in, then wandered away to take care of a few issues. When I got back 20 minutes later and sat down, I felt no breeze. I looked up to see the two blades just sitting there limply. When I reached up to give them a flick, the housing was red hot. I swore once, quickly unplugged it, and assumed that was that.

While I really didn’t think I would get a refund, I did want to warn others. So I went to Ebay and gave the purchase the lowest ranking possible. I signed off, and made a mental note not to waste my money similarly again. But a day or so later, an email popped up from my friends at The Good Item Shop. In slightly fractured English, it said, "Thank you for buying from us. We are so sorry for the troubles caused to you. We have made a full refund to you. Would you please kindly help us to remove the feedback? You know feedback is our life, we don't want to be killed by a person so kind like you. Looking forward to your kindly reply." It was perhaps the most earnest customer service response I had ever had, made even more so by the agent’s name: "Better."

I quickly wrote back, pointing out that while I appreciated the refund, the product was faulty, even dangerous. Not a day went by before another response: "We have resent you a replacement, could you please help us to remove the feedback? Your feedback is very important to our account, we don't want to be killed by a person so kind like you. Thankyou in advance!" And indeed, my account had a $1.94 credit posted. Now the ball was solidly in my court.

Two weeks or so later, another tiny package showed up with a replacement. I let them know I had received it, and if it worked, would indeed revise my rating. Sure enough, a response: "Thank you for your message. Could you cancel the negative feedback to us? Your value is very omportant to us. What do you think about it?" Now I was starting to feel bad. So I plugged in the replacement and let it spin for a few days: no issues at all. It seemed that I did indeed just get a bad egg, and it wasn’t a scam.  I went and revised my rating and wrote them back, thanking them for their followup and response. One more email appeared: "Thank you for your kindness."

All that for a $1.94 sale, from a merchant on the other side of the world, for a single questionable transaction. Peter Steiner had a famous cartoon in The New Yorker of two pooches, one at the keyboard of a computer and the other watching. The typist says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." True, but I guess when everyone can read it, even a little howl can go a long way.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will buy more from The Good Item Shop. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Pre Pre-Election Analysis

Now that all the primaries are done and the story lines are set, we can be definitive in our analysis for the upcoming elections. All done that is, except for the one on September 4 in Guam. And let’s not forget about the one a week later in the Virgin Islands. Then there are the ones on September 14 in DC, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. And of course, Hawaii weighs in on September 18. But that’s it. Honest.
In the non-stop news cycle that we live in, it is indeed the season of the endless election. Everyone started running the day after the last one, and has been trying to validate or disprove any trends that emerged way back in the distant past that was just 20 months ago. And even though these are the just the midterms, they have been held up yet again as the "most important elections in history." And so, seeking to be the absolutely last word in analysis before Labor Day, or at least the absolutely last word before the next one, following are the dominant themes that seem to have emerged and their veracity in light of the results to date.
The Year of the Anti-Incumbent. With dissatisfaction with Washington at an all time high, the early word was that those in power would be toppled. Indeed, some high profile names, like Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania got knocked out of the process, and Lisa Murkowski is on the ropes in Alaska. But money and organization won out in most cases, from the high profile, where establishment figures like John McCain hung on in Arizona, to the low profile, where all 7 current US House members in Florida won against challengers. By some counts, 95% of incumbents cleared this hurtle towards reelection, which proves once again that all members of Congress are horrible, except yours.
The Year of the Woman. With Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, many think that women will finally be moving to center stage. Or as Samantha Bee put it on The Daily Show, "Last night, America, scared and with a poopy in its diaper, cried for its mommy." But as to whether or not it’s a trend per se, perhaps it bears remembering what Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski said the last time this proclamation was made: "Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We're not a fad, a fancy, or a year." More to the point, as in all of politics, the winners are likely to be strong, well financed and well organized. Or as Janet Reitman reported, also back in 1992, when she asked the Alabama delegates to the Democratic Convention about the topic, they replied, "Steel magnolias? Honey, forget that stuff. We're bitches from hell."

The Year Where Nothing Is Different. While there are precious few truths in politics, the following are as close to gospel as they come. 1) The president's party usually loses a slew of seats in the first midterm elections of a presidency. 2) Voters take out their frustrations on the party in power. 3) A president's party will suffer at the polls if his job performance rating is below 50 percent. 4) Above all, the economy is the dominant driver of voting patterns when the unemployment rate is high. If you’re going to put money on any facet of the election, those are the hole cards that tell you how it’s going to break come November.
The Year of the Vote. The 1948 movie "The Naked City" ended with the tag line, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." And so it is with political narratives: there are a lot. But they are also much like Rorschach tests, in which you see in them what you want. For some it’s a matter of conservatives vs. liberals, while for others it’s a proxy fight between Obama and Sarah Palin, while still others view it as a contest between progressives and traditionalists. However, as Chuck Todd pointed out on MSNBC, the defining characteristic of all the elections to date has been that the candidate who got the most votes was the winner. It’s that simple truth that will likely once again be validated. And at least for me, in that light, November 2 can’t come soon enough.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is seriously thinking of not listening to television or radio news until November 3. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.