Saturday, March 26, 2011

Small Bites

In an article in New York Magazine in 1985, Gael Green wrote that, "Yuppies do not eat... they graze." A dozen years later in The New York Times, Kim Seversen went even further: "The entrée, long the undisputed centerpiece of an American restaurant, is dead." She goes on to talk about the "tapafication of American menus," wherein you see small plates taking top billing at more and more meals. As an early adopter whose wedding more than a quarter of a century ago featured nothing but hors d'oeuvres, (in the belief that what people really want to eat is appetizers, especially if there are pigs-in-blankets), it's a trend of which I wholeheartedly approve.

Even leaving aside the legitimacy of the descriptor (which admittedly was a finalist in 2007 for "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society), it's a movement that has moved beyond edibles. In almost every arena, we seem to prefer to consume in small bites. The drivers are varied: limited time, limited attention span to be sure, but also the insatiable need for nearly constant stimulation and gratification. Or in culinary terms, why have the spring rolls alone when you can have the entire pupu platter?

Certainly we see it in food. Personally speaking, when we go out to eat, we favor restaurants where we can share a bunch of dishes. Thai and Chinese are easiest, but Russian, Indian and even Italian fit the bill. We'll order a bunch of appetizers to get us going, then pool our taste buds and order a variety of dishes to share. Our biggest problem is finding enough space on the table to handle all the bowls, plates and platters that show up. We snack around, having a little of this, a little of that, with each of us favoring certain flavors or textures. And it seems to suit us: it's almost embarrassing how each dish at the end looks as if it's been licked clean by a puppy.

But look at any number of the books that have made a splash this year, and you see the same kind of segmentation. Jennifer Eagan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" just won the National Book Critics Circle award. While described as a novel, it's more like a series of connected short stories or character studies. Likewise Tom Rachman's debut book "The Imperfectionists," and "The Illumination" by Kevin Brockmeister. In each case, the individual chapters virtually stand on their own. In fact, if you them put them down and pick them up later without refreshing yourself as to the most recent goings-on, you might be hard pressed to consider them as a whole.

The same thing happens with TV viewing these days. I don't remember the last time I looked at the clock and said, "Wow, it's 8PM... I better go turn on ‘CSI: Wichita Behavioral Anatomy Unit' or I'll miss it!" Everything I watch is Tivo'd or DVR'd or Hulu'd or whatever. Even then I only watch it in bitesized chunks. The opening 8 minutes of John Stewart, the first skit on Saturday Night Live, Sean Hannity's first yellfest with his "Great American Panel," to name a few. That's at least 3 hours of boob tube cherry picked to under 30 minutes of content... and even then I'm just as likely to hit the clicker or mouse and look for something else if it sags for a second.

Movies are about the only thing that I consume in their entirety anymore. Maybe because it's dark, and I can't find my way to the exit. Maybe it's because I hate to climb over people in the row next to me. Maybe it's because my wife likes films, and so I go whether I want to see it or not. In any case, it's a kind of self-kidnapping: I only watch movies at the theater for the very reason that it's hard to escape. I don't remember the last time I watched a flick at home, where my tolerance to sit for two hours in one place is practically non-existent.

And there's more. We don't talk, we email. We don't email, we text. We don't buy albums, we download singles. We don't read papers, we read articles online. In almost every area, we slice and dice, taking only the parts we want, not only discarding the rest, but never even looking at what we're passing over. Aristotle may have noted that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but these days those parts are what make up the whole enchilada.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to have the time to read the paper cover to cover, finding things he never would online. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Give Her Power

For some women, it's jewelry. For others, it's shoes. Handbags do it for still others, and cars certainly figure in as well. It's not that any of those don't have a special place in my wife's heart, but she had her eye on something else entirely. So the question is posed: What do you give the woman who has (at least from my perspective) everything? Or more accurately, as the Spice Girls sang, "Tell me what you want, what you really, really want."

In her case it was a 10,000 watt generator.

Some background. We live in an area that suffers a fair amount of power interruptions. Back when moved in 20 years ago, it was a serious issue, with the outages occurring whenever the weather turned nasty. These breakdowns could last anywhere from several hours to several days. But we chose to move to a semi-rural, very wooded area, and so learned to accept a certain amount of inconvenience as the cost of doing business.

To their credit, the power company embarked on a concerted effort to improve the situation, and over the intervening years trimmed trees and strengthened poles. And indeed, the outages seemed to decrease in frequency and duration. Sure, a major weather event could still cause the lights to go dark, but if Mother Nature really wants to be a bitch, there's only so much you can do.

More recently, however, we've noticed an uptick in the blackouts. Maybe it's the result of the increasingly erratic weather we've been having. Maybe it's the economics of the power companying trying to stretch manpower and resources. No matter: the results are the same. On any given day we might hear the hard "bang" of every appliance and light shutting down at the same instant as all goes dark.

So we learned to cope. We kept flashlights at the ready, and our computers had battery backups. We trained ourselves not to open refrigerators, and to pull down shades to keep heat from escaping. We even had small pots ready to put on the grill to boil water (we have an electric cooktop).  With cell phones and car chargers, we found we could even keep working from home for a short period. The one major headache was water. We get ours from a well, and so no electricity means no aqua. That means no washing, no showering and no flushing of toilets. We could deal with all the former headaches; the last, however, was the deal breaker.

And so we discussed the idea of the generator. Since I was out more, and might even be away on business, the outages usually affected me less. She, however, was more likely to be stuck in the middle of them. And so our sense of need for said device broke along predictable lines: I saw it as an expensive luxury, she as more and more a necessity. Back and forth we went, with the final verdict being "if you want it so bad, you figure it out." It recalled a former neighbor who gave in to his wife on a swimming pool, then calculated the cost per lap. On a purely economic basis, each dip was exceedingly expensive. However, on the marital bliss scale, one could argue it was a prudent investment.

So she called, shopped, met with electricians and generator companies, and explored options. Eventually she found the best price, the right guy and in it went. A big propane tank, a self starting motor, a new electrical panel and an automatic transfer switch to kick on if the juice went out. Hidden on the side of the house, it was all but invisible save for the hole in our bank account.

Then last weekend, on a clear day in the middle of the afternoon, suddenly came that "bang." The lights winked out, and if got very quiet. It took a minute to realize what had happened: then, "here we go again," I thought. But not ten seconds later, outside my office came a "whoosh" as the genie started, the lights came back on and order was restored. I heard a flurry of feet as my wife ran from her own office, down the stairs and burst in to mine with a grin on her face like she had won the lottery. As a friend said, I should kill the power more often. Or to paraphrase Mastercard, cost of 10 KW generator: too much. Look on my wife's face at that moment: priceless.


Marc Wollin of Bedford didn't think they needed the generator, but is happy to be able to flush the toilet when the power is out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at  

Saturday, March 12, 2011


By any measure, 2010 was a bad year for the videogame industry. Software sales, including games on all platforms, was down 6%, while hardware was off more than double that, down 13%. Still, to put it in perspective, even with those declines the industry took in more than $18 billion. That means that more money was spend on "Angry Birds" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops" than the total GDP of Paraguay.

With money like that being spent on diversions to be played on PC's, phones and game consoles, you might think that traditional toys were dead. But that's hardly the case: that industry saw its biggest sales increase in five years. In 2010, product sales rose by 2% to nearly $23 billion. No matter how you count it, that's an awful lot of blocks, balls and Barbies.

That's not to say that toy makers are content to sit still. Indeed, this past month the elves that work year round in Santa's workshop, or more likely farm their R&D out to the likes of Mattel, Hasbro and Playmobil, showed off their latest wares at the annual Toy Fair in New York City. Yes, there were traditional bikes and dolls in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. But to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of today's kids, regardless of whether they are 6 or 36, they demonstrated they can go way beyond your Justin Bieber Action Figure (though it's true that this year there are both singing and non-singing models).

Take your basic Super-Soaker. Ever since this water-pistol-on-steroids made its appearance back in 1990, it's been the weapon of choice for serious water fights. But while the tank size has steadily increased, you still had to stop to pump it up once the pressure ran down. No more: the new "Thunderstorm" model is the first to have a battery-powered pump, so you can soak your "friends" without ever having to stop to reload.

And what fun is setting up a model race course if you can't ride along with it through those loop-the-loops and jumps? Problem solved with the new Hot Wheels Video Racer. Each of these 3 inch race cars has a camera embedded in the hood, a one-inch LCD on its lower chassis for instant playback and the ability to record 12 minutes of VGA-quality video. It also comes with a dongle to upload the footage to your computer, as well as a mount so you can lash it to your helmet when you go skateboarding, bike riding or skating. So now you can capture footage of those spectacular stunts and crashes, perfect for your insurance claim.

Just because you go to work doesn't mean you have to stop playing. The Desk Pets TankBot is a miniature robotic tank with an autonomous mode that relies on infrared sensors to see and avoid obstacles. That means it can search and destroy without making a mess of your workspace and knocking over your coffee. Even better, if you know your cubicle mate's weakest point of defense, you can steer the Bot there using the accompanying iPhone app, and attack him in mid-spreadsheet when he is least expecting it.

The TankBot cruises along at a few inches a second... good for surprise but not for adrenalin junkies. For that, you might want to turn to the SpinMaster Air Hogs Hyperactive. The fastest remote-controlled car of its size, this speed demon zips around at 20 miles per hour, which is the scale equivalent of a couple hundred MPH. And it has enough torque to spiral its way to the top of a 10-foot cylinder. Not too worry: if all that power is too much to handle, its built in rollbar makes sure it lands upright when it comes flying off the roof.

But if you need to prove brains over brawn, then you'll want to pick up the Radica MindFlex Duel. This brain-to-brain challenge offers up side-by-side tracks for you and your arch nemesis. You each strap on a headset with sensors, which reads your brain waves to levitate a ball and move it down an obstacle course. No, it's not science fiction: it converts Theta waves that come from concentrating into RF signals that control movement. It's a true battle of wits.

George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out that "Youth is wasted on the young." To be sure, these toys would be. So here's what you do: get it for your kid, then take it away and try it yourself. Then you can echo that anti-Shaw, Bart Simpson: "I don't know why I did it, I don't know why I enjoyed it, and I don't know why, but I'll do it again."


Marc Wollin of Bedford misses playing games with his kids. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Let's Get Ready to Colorrrrrr!

The Super Bowl is a distant memory. The NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup playoffs don't kick off till April. We've barely started spring training, so the World Series is just a gleam in Derek Jeter's eye. True, we've got March Madness to work our way through, but even the finals of that don't happen till next month. So if you are a diehard, head-to-head competition fan, and you have to see a championship crowned, what are you to do till then?

You head down to Washington to see Michael "Spaghetti Kiss" Bracco defend his title. Currently ranked number 1, with a record of 7 wins and 2 losses, he'll have to bring it all to hold off the likes of Nick "Ghostfreehood" Borkowicz, Jami "Angry Zen Master" Noguchi and the unpredictable Bryan "Silent But Violent" Prindiville. There in our nation's capital, at a venue called "The Red Palace," those three will be joined by 6 other hot hands as they go canvas to canvas in a Super Art Fight.

Described by one of the creators as a punk-rock mixture of "Pictionary meets Pro-Wrestling," Super Art Fight started in Baltimore in 2008. It grew out of a contest called "Iron Artist" that was held at the Katsucon Anime Convention, a three-day fan fest now in its 17th year. SAF, as the hosts like to call it, was the brainchild of five local webcomic creators: the aforementioned Borkowicz and Noguchi, along with Chris Impink, Marty Day and Ross Nover. Impick also competes, while the other two have settled into hosting duties.

SAF, at its most basic level, is an art showdown with a live crowd cheering the artists on. Each starts with a fistful of markers and a sheet of paper about four or five feet square. Prior to the bout, each participant is given a starting topic, with which they must begin their piece. Once the whistle blows, they have 30 minutes to complete their drawing. But it's not quite that simple: over the course of the bout, each contestant is given a new topic every five minutes to incorporate into their work. Those topics are chosen randomly by a spin of the "Wheel of Death," which has new ideas posted on it as suggested by the audience.  Past helpful suggestions include "monocle" and "owls attack," not to mention "Christopher Walken riding a unicorn."

Finally, to add a little more easel-to-easel excitement, participants are allowed... encouraged even... to "attack" each others art, either by completing a piece left unfinished by their opponent, or by subverting it with their own special additions. So a macabre Gothic leviathan can be "tweaked" by a competitor with the guerrilla addition of a Valentine Day-esque heart in the middle of its chest. Living proof that even in the arts world, war can be hell.

The crowd gets treated to play-by-play and color commentary, courtesy of Day and Nover. The whole thing is accompanied by an indie-rock soundtrack, the cheers and jeers of the audience and the occasional sideline interview with the artists. It's like Iron Chef, only without the pots and pans. And no panel of semi-well know judges here: the winner is chosen by the audience. Loudest cheers means the champion.

In truth, the contest has changed over the years since it began, though "matured" is a putting it a bit strongly. As co-founder Ross Nover explains on the group's website, "The quality of the artwork is now secondary to the quality of the performance. The artists have realized the audience doesn't care if a drawing is amazing or merely OK as long it's funny. They're asking themselves, ‘How quickly can I draw the funny thing?' as opposed to ‘How well can I draw the funny thing?' When we started, the artist really took their time and the competition was the joke. Now the competition has gotten serious to the point where I've had entire conversations about art fight strategy."

"Art fight strategy:" three words you probably never though you'd find in the same sentence. But while it may not have a ball, a helmet, a bat or a stick, its no less a contest than the sports that use those pieces of gear. And If they can call golf a sport, this has got to count too. So lace up your markers, strap on your highlighters, head on down to The Red Palace, and let's get ready to color.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can only draw stick figures. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at