Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Elements of 2011

Big news! (Or at least what passes for big news in the world of chemistry.) This year saw the naming of three new elements on the periodic table. As is customary, the scientists involved in the discovery got first crack at coming up with a new moniker, much like naming a puppy. In the case of element 110, they called it Darmstadtium, after the town in which it was discovered. For 111, they went with Roentgenium, in tribute to the discoverer of X-rays. And 112 will be known forever as Copernicium, after the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who proclaimed that Earth was not the center of the universe.

In fact, a number of other unusual elements have also been created this year, just not in a lab. But they too have strange behaviors and structures, and can be hard to pin down. Herein then is a look at those that streaked across the sky in 2011, some to be around for a while, some to never been seen again.

Gaganium: A fast moving particle which almost continually changes its appearance, cloaking itself in bizarre coverings of other elements, including ME(at), SP(andex) and BU(bbles). Has never been seen at rest.

Romnimium: A particle originally discovered in limited amounts in Massachusetts in 2002, there had been talk of the discovery of a large supply in 2008, though that proved incorrect. Again this year there is talk of a large find, though scientists are having a hard time confirming it is the same element as sighted in the past, as many of its properties have almost completed reversed themselves.

Euronium: A particle discovered in 1999 that is actually a combination of a 23 other unique substances, this element was reasonably stable until this year. But as one substance has been decaying, then another, the entire particle has become unstable, with the result that it may disintegrate violently. Scientists in Germany are working to shore up the weakest links, the so called Greek force, to prevent an explosion.

Weddingarium: Discovered in Britain, this particle was created with great fanfare by the joining of two very minor particles, Williamonium and Katium. While the combined particle itself is expected to have little influence on anything at all, the actual melding of the two produced a cataclysmic light show that was blinding in intensity. This intensity also revealed a heretofore hidden substance, the so-called Pipa particle.

Newtonium: A particle once thought to be decaying to extinction, now threatening to render a number of other similar elements inert, notably Bachminium, Perronium and the aforementioned Romniunium. Highly charged, it has been known to attack so called "looker" cells. In its former state it was known as a particle that caused disruption deep inside the complex Beltway molecule, but now appears to act the same way from outside.

Osaminium: An elusive particle thought to be found only in caves in Afghanistan, it was finally discovered in Pakistan in front of a television. Due to its highly toxic nature, scientists destroyed it and disposed it at sea.

Packerarium: A particle characterized by its green and yellow wavelengths, this particle seems to smother most other particles with which it comes in contact. Consisting of 11 quarks at any given time, the one at the center of its structure, dubbed the Rogers boson, may be the most pure boson ever discovered.

Bieberarium: A very new particle discovered in Canada, it creates a strong force attraction for other similarly aged particles, who cluster around it whenever to appears. Interestingly, older particles have no attraction to it. Scientists have no idea of its half-life, and whether it will last another year or decay quickly.

Debatorium: A particle formed briefly when 6 or 7 highly similar quarks, each virtually indistinguishable from the next, come together. Once assembled, it exhibits a very agitated state, throwing off a high level of energy in waves. After a series of these waves, the particle disintegrates, typically reforming far away several weeks later, after which the process repeats. Seen most easily through a Foxscope.

Obaminium: A particle discovered with great fanfare just 4 years ago, it was originally characterized as one with limitless energy and ability to bind with all types of disparate particles. As it has decayed over time, scientists have been puzzled by its move to a lower energy state and its inability to meld with other substances.

There are reports that scientists are experiencing fatigue trying to chart these new discoveries, with their fleeting and complex tracks. Or as one chemist was heard to say, "In the new year, I'd give anything for a good old piece of lead."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is looking forward to new scientific discoveries in 2012. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Santa Ap

"I am Siri's cousin Santi, your holiday personal assistant. How can I help?"

"Santi, I need to talk about Christmas."

"Checking. There is no one named Christmas listed in your contacts."

"No, Santi, I need help with the holiday Christmas."

"Christmas falls on December 25th every year. Would you like me to add it to your calendar?"

"Santi, no. I need help with Christmas presents."

"There are approximately 3.79 million Christmas presents nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Uh, no Santi. I need presents for my family."

"Checking. There are texts in your inbox from Billy Johnson and Carolyn Johnson and Mrs. Marge Johnson containing the word 'present. '"

"Santi, tell me about Billy's list first."

"Billy's List is a web site listing the top horror movies by box office gross since 1950. It was started by Billy Colligan, a 23 year old college drop-out now ranked 746 on the Forbes list of Top Millionaires under 25."

"No Santi! Our son Billy Johnson!"

"I found a Billy Johnson, age 13, in your contact list. Do you want me to call or text him?"

"No, Santi. Just read me the text from Billy Johnson containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Dude, as a Christmas present I would like a new videogame. '"

"Santi, do you know which videogame Billy wants us to buy for him?"

"Checking. There are 197 videogames in stores nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Santi, what kind of video game is best for a 13 year old boy?"

"Checking. Males in the age range of 12 to 15 prefer videogames which include shooting, cars and scantily clad girls. There are 5 scantily clad girls nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Uh, no Santi. Read the text from Carolyn Johnson, age 17, containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Daddy, what I really want as a present is a Kardashian Kollection faux fur coat. You're the best!'"

"Santi, where can I find a Kardashian?"

"Checking. I have found 37 reality shows containing Kardashians. Do you want me to record them?"

"No, Santi! What I meant was at what designer store can I get a Kardashian Kollection faux fur coat?"

"Checking. Kardashian Kollection can be found at Sears, next to the chainsaws. Would you like a map?"

"Later! Santi, read the text from Mrs. Marge Johnson containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Honey, you know the kind of present I like. Whatever you get me will be fine. Love you.'"

"Santi, what kind of presents do wives like?"

"Checking. Wives like jewelry as presents. I found 4 jewelry stores close by. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Santi, is there anything I can get for my wife as a present that won't cost an arm and a leg."

"Checking. I'm sorry, I can find no presents that meet that criteria nearby."

"Santi, one more thing. What is the correct greeting for this time of year?"

"Checking. The correct greeting is Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year."

"Well then, Santi, Happy Holidays to you."

"Checking. There are 27 other holidays which are happy. Do you want me to add them to your calendar?"

"That's OK, Santi, I get it."

Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes all can find a map to a happy holiday season. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Not Tom, Dick or Harry

For a while it looked like Michelle had a real chance. Then it was Rick's turn until he imploded. John hasn't been able to break through, nor the other Rick. And Ron has his core of supporters, but can't seem to go beyond that. But until he bowed out it looked like Herman had a real chance. Despite his perceived shortcomings, Mitt is still a strong possibility. And after being left for dead earlier in the year, Newt has defied all pundits and currently holds a commanding lead at the front.

Notice anything about the leaders in this year's crop of contenders jockeying to challenge the president? Yes, they are all conservatives. Yes, they all are for a strong defense. Yes, they all believe taxes are too high, regulation too widespread and government too big. But look at their names: each has a moniker that doesn't come close to breaking into the top one hundred or even one thousand of the most popular names for kids today. They aren't your usual Tom, Dick or Harry... literally.

All this in an arena where name recognition is the very currency of the realm. On that basis, you would think a John (baby name rank: 26), a Michelle (125), two Richards known as Rick (127) or even a Ronald known as Ron (342) would resonate with the public. Those are names we trust, names we are comfortable with, so much so that we give them to our kids.  But perhaps that is part of the problem: they are so common that they don't stand out. In fact, out of a pool of about 55 million registered Republicans, two of those running for the highest office in the land go by the same nickname, even if one is actually a Richard John and the other James Richard. Perhaps Rick Santorum would be better off if he went with his childhood nickname of Rooster.

In that light, you can also posit that's why Herman (1868) did so well at first, why Mitt (13,906) has never disappeared below the fenceline and why Newt (11,676) is making such a strong move. Forget policies and ideology: considering the sample of just 43 individuals in 235 years, our choices for leaders has been heavily weighted towards the unusual. While it's true we have had three Georges and six James's, we've also had a Millard, a Woodrow, a Chester, a Rutherford, a Grover, a Lyndon and a Ulysses. And this year's contest will pit whoever is chosen against a guy named Barack, a name so unusual in the American experience that despite that fact that his very existence is a role model for many, its ranking on the baby name charts only went as high as 8503.

Perhaps the ultimate name for a presidential candidate would be one that stood out all by itself with no qualifier necessary. Then there would be little confusion with your ex-boyfriend, or that annoying college roommate who drank all the beer in your mini-fridge. Recognition would be immediate, and there would be plenty of room left over on campaign buttons and bumper stickers for slogans. Using that line of reasoning, it's surprising that the party elders haven't started a movement to draft Cher, Madonna or Bono.

Of course, it's absurd to think that voters will select a candidate on the basis of a name. Or is it? This was the year that introduced the binary question on pop culture as some kind of litmus test for voters to use in determining fitness for the presidency. In one debate we found out that Rick Santorum preferred Jay Leno over Conan O'Brien, Tim Pawlenty preferred Coke to Pepsi and Ron Paul preferred BlackBerries to iPhones. What should one read into the fact that Newt picked "American Idol" over "Dancing with the Stars?" And Michelle Bachman couldn't choose between Elvis and Johnny Cash. Does that indicate her inability to pick should it ever come down to a choice between the right to privacy and the need for security? You be the judge.

But names, like relatives, are given and not chosen. Is it fair to hold anyone accountable for choices their parents made? Obviously not. And so whomever is the challenger, whether their name rolls trippingly off your tongue or makes you wonder what his or her parents were thinking, one can only hope that voters do more than take the WC Fields approach when they make their choice: "Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against."


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds the Republican debates the best reality show on TV. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Unempty Nest

It's quiet again. In fact, you could say it's the lull before the next storm. Not that slack time between the freak Halloween snow and the first real accumulation of winter, but rather that interim between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the kids have come and gone and will come again. We went from quiet home to apartment complex and back, all at headsnapping speed. It's not that we don't love our boys and welcome having them back home so we can spend time with them. Rather, it's that we've gotten used to quiet and space, and well, their visits unempty the nest.

It's true that back at the beginning the prospect of the two of us home by ourselves seemed terrifying. After all, we had spent just 4 years alone in each other's company, followed by 21 as a threesome, then foursome. So on a purely mathematical level, we had 5 times more experience thinking of ourselves as a trio or quartet as opposed to a duo. Then 3 years ago our youngest went away to school, and we were forced to sit across the table and talk to each other with no buffer. Many a relationship has faltered on far less.

But wonder of wonders, we got used to it. It wasn't better, merely different, and in this case, different wasn't necessarily bad. Yes, there were still many times where we missed a fresh point of view, or someone with an actual preference on what to make for dinner, or a person with whom to watch a movie or football game. But as we settled into new patterns, we found that there were even positive elements about our newly achieved status quo.

It's not like its anything big. After all, the boys still have their own bedrooms, which lie fallow in their absence. So from a pure space standpoint their presence hardly impinges on ours in any meaningful way. They were always very independent, and so we can still out to dinner or see friends and not worry about them. And we have a third car that they can share if both are home, so transportation is hardly an issue, other than getting a momentary start when we see a vehicle in the driveway that we're not used to seeing there. But still, their departure enabled us to discover a few states of minor bliss that are disrupted by their presence.

High on the list is getting my socks back. When the kids were little and growing, separating a pile of clean clothes was a no brainer: the size of the stuff made it easy to sort out the three sets of male attire. But once they got to be my height, it got harder to parse the load coming out of the dryer. I would find my things in their rooms, and theirs in mine. Once they went away, however, it went back to a simple binary decision: girl stuff went to my wife, boy stuff to me. But when our now 21 and 24 year old were home over the holiday, my socks mysteriously evaporated. Now that the kids have returned to their usual places, so too have my footies.

Likewise, the food situation changes. To be fair, there is always plenty in the house at all times, so other than finding out that the leftover pizza has been scarfed down for breakfast the next day and is no longer available for lunch, it's not a deal breaker. But it's the little things that we've gotten used to. In their absence our supply has contracted to where the entire fridge is no longer taken up with gallons of milk. Leftovers stay leftovers, enough to provide an entire additional meal for one or both of us on a subsequent night. And on those nights when we don't feel like cooking, we're fine with a salad or soup or even a bowl of cereal, as opposed to someone wandering by going, “So what's for dinner?”

Boys, if you're reading this, don't take it the wrong way. We love having you home, and you are welcome any time. But understand that as we are getting older, our ability to adapt and change is more limited. As much as it feels strange to you when you come home, know it is similar for us. So just take it slow when you return. And give me back my socks.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves having his kids home. Really. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

On Beyond Beta

Every morning when I first turn on my phone I see a bunch of icons in the upper corner. A big "M." A little phone receiver. A thought bubble. Finally, a little file with a check through it. Each of the first three means something came in since I last looked which requires my attention, in this case, email, a phone call and a text respectively. The last requires the least attention, but is by far the most interesting. It tells me about problems I didn't know I had, and improvements I didn't know I needed. It's the icon informing me that one of the myriad of programs I have was updated overnight.

Now, on the surface, that's a good thing. It's means that somebody is looking at a product or ap or service, and figuring out ways to make it better. True, just as likely they are ironing out bugs that were there when they first shipped it out the door. But considering that there's a more than excellent chance that I didn't pay for what I'm using, it's hard to complain that it wasn't exhaustively stress tested before it was released to me, the unsuspecting and decidedly cheap public.

It's an attitude that the technical world calls "always in beta." Beta used to indicate a product that wasn't ready for prime time, one that was available only to a select group of techies that signed up and were willing to endure a less-than-final iteration as the price of being on the cutting edge. They were expected to put the product through its paces, and provide feedback to the designers and developers so they could make a final version ready for the public. Indeed, it was a geek badge of honor to say, "Yeah, I'm a Beta tester for Google Voice / Microsoft Office / World of Warcraft." Only the coolest nerds need apply, a phrase which admittedly all but defines the term oxymoron.

But times have changed. In the hurry-up, get-it-out-there, build-critical-mass-quickly, all-but-the-first-is-last world that is technology, there is no time to shake anything out until it's all but perfect. And so anything that can be updated is. That means that once a product feels usable it goes out the door, hoping to gain a toehold while not pissing off too many people with its shortcomings. So what if a few of those angry birds explode collateral pigs without a direct hit. Get the public hooked, and we'll update to sturdier swine come version 1.1.

Thankfully this predominantly happens in the world of software and services, and not with physical things. Imagine a refrigerator whose ice maker randomly hurled cubes across the room, or a car whose brakes intermittently went into anti-lock mode, or a treadmill that sped up every time it clicked over a new mile. Needless to say, you would take it back screaming to the store where you got it. Sure, it's probably fixable, but for what you paid you shouldn't have to walk into your kitchen and duck.

And that may be the key: most of the aps and services that come still in beta cost us zero, or precious little. It's not that $.99 is nothing. But at that price point you have to keep your expectations in line with the deliverables. Sure, my Gmail occasionally hangs up, or Skype will drop a video call between me and the guy I'm chatting with in Paris or Pandora will freeze when playing a song. But considering the cost/benefit ratio involved, I guess I can be a little more forgiving. After all, just today I downloaded Google music, and through it uploaded 8000 songs to some far away computer which enables me to listen to any tune I have on demand on my phone at any time. Cost? Absolutely nothing. So I need to chill a bit if it burps every now and again between "She Came In Through" and "The Bathroom Window."

In that light, perhaps we've moved (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) on beyond beta. "New" doesn't capture it, "improved" is a given, while "final" is a state that will never exist. So if Alpha is the initial release phase of a product and Beta is the testing stage, maybe we're now live in Delta, the Greek letter that is representative of change. Whatever you call it, it is a modern truth: few new things these days ever stay the same.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is continually amazed at what he can download at no cost. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at