Saturday, December 29, 2012

If Walls Could Talk

The end of any December is filled with lists, lists and more lists, and this year is no exception. Best books. Biggest movers in the stock market. Most influential ethnic groups that the Republicans forgot about. But my fav is the best quotes of the year. There are top tech quotes, like the one where Thorsten Heins, the CEO of the company that makes Blackberry, shoots for the moon:  "We have a clear shot at being the No. 3 platform in the market." In entertainment, a promise from singer Adele to stop writing so many breakup songs: "I'm done with being a bitter witch." Or in sports, words from LeBron James on finally winning an NBA title: "It's about damn time."

The top quote, of course, is Mitt Romney's 47% comment, one that depending on your point of view, either uttered a very inconvenient yet important truth, and/or exposed his true feelings. In either case, it proved that words can and do make a difference, as it was widely credited or blamed for being a significant factor in his loss and Obama's re-election. And while most of the most notable quotes for the year did indeed revolve around politics and the election, there were a few outliers. There's the one from South Korean rapper PSY, repeated endlessly: "Gangnam Style." Or the call socialite Jill Kelley (she of the David Petraeus scandal) made to a 911 operator in Tampa, Florida, as to why the cops should rush over to protect her from the media crews circling her house: "I'm an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability."

What you don't see are the quotes that didn't make the list. Or more to the point, the quotes that came before the quotes that made the list. Therefore, as a public service, herein are the unpublished words that only flies on the walls heard, and now you too.

"What's the worse they can do to me? Throw me in jail again? Not gonna happen." – Actress Lindsay Lohan.

"It's just the first debate. I'm sure if I just lay back, he'll hang himself." – Barack Obama.

"Look, if we hang tough, we'll have to cancel four, maybe five games. Then the players will cave, and it'll be over!" - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

"So maybe 10% are old people. Let's call it 8% unemployed. About 28% have low incomes. Throw in another 1% of miscellaneous. So let's see: eight and eight and one is 17. Carry the one, add that to two and one. So we're talking, what? Give or take, about 47%?" - Deputy Romney Campaign Manager Katie Packer Gage.

"It'll be great! We'll have not one, but two, count ‘em, two world-class quarterbacks! Opponents won't know which way we're going to go! What could go wrong?" – Jets Coach Rex Ryan.

"I like Mitt a lot, but it comes down to this: I've always wanted to ride on Air Force One. And to top it off, the Boss will meet us in Asbury Park. Would you say no?" – Governor Chris Christie.

"Don't worry about it. I'll just go out there and tell the country how I feel about him, and make the case for his election. By the way: can you find an empty chair I can take with me in case I get tired?" – Clint Eastwood.

"We'll add room for a fifth row of icons, and call it iPhone 5. Revolutionary enough?" –Chin Pae Hark, Apple developer.

"He has to give in on taxes. We've compromised as much as we can. Let's see what he says now." President Barack Obama.

"He has to give in on taxes. We've compromised as much as we can. Let's see what he says now." Speaker of the House John Boehner.

"Yes, your Majesty, you will parachute into the stadium with James Bond. No, your Majesty, it hasn't been Sean Connery for a quite a while." – Danny Boyle, Director of the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good quote. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Beer, Conversation and God

So a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran walk into an Irish bar. Wait for it, wait for it. But sorry: while it sounds like the setup of a joke, there's no punch line. It's just another night of Pub Theology at O'Connor's Public House. The group gathers, orders some drinks and begins to chat. This being that certain time of the year, the topic for the night is the meaning of Christmas. And the decidedly untraditional setting? It's something new that Paul Alcorn, the pastor at a local church, is trying, or as he describes it to me, "A way of having conversations in a neutral space."

It's an idea popularized in a recent book called "Pub Theology" by Bryan Berghoef, a pastor now living and preaching in Washington DC. When he was in Traverse City, MI, Berghoef founded a faith based community called Watershed. Looking to expand his reach, he hit upon the pub idea. As he writes in his blog "Pub Theologian," it had historical context: "Some of the most important moments in the history of the church took place in the pub. Luther kick started the reformation over a few pints. The Church of England was started in the White Horse Tavern. Seemingly, all the best conversations take place in the pub."

And so he started a gathering at a local watering hole to chat about topics big and small, in a setting designed to attract those who might shy away from the church or even practice a different faith, as well as church goers who might feel more inclined to talk in a less imposing setting. As Berghoef writes, "The format is simple: beer, conversation and God. Everything is up for discussion, no assumptions, no barriers to entry. If you are going to get upset because someone questions something that is important to you, maybe this isn't for you. But if you think that whatever might be true ought to be able to stand up to being questioned, then maybe it is."

It's certainly nothing new. Pub Theology nights have existed for years, and can be found in places from Adelaide, Australia to Seattle, Washington. The sessions run the gamut from traditional religious gatherings held in non-traditional settings, to more informal bull sessions with a spiritual overtone. Calling it a movement is probably too strong, but the idea has garnered a certain following, and has gathered some steam in the wake of the book. As Berghoef sums it up on his Amazon page, "My argument is simple: good things happen when we sit down at the same table together and talk honestly about things that matter - and frankly, having a beer doesn't hurt."

As to our session, it was a small gathering, a generous half dozen. In front of us was beer, yes, but also wine, a drink with a piece of pineapple on it and a Diet Coke. Paul passed around a paper with some questions to get us thinking: Is there really a war on Christmas? If you don't believe in Jesus should you celebrate Christmas? Is it now more a commercial holiday than a religious one? What about religious symbols in public places? His ground rules, printed at the top, were simple: We don't need to agree; we do need to listen.  

The conversation, along with the drinks, was free flowing and respectful. We heard from moms, grandfathers, business owners and academics. It was give and take, challenges and anecdotes, stories and opinions. There were also a generous amount of laughs, and some new friends were made, along with different ways of thinking. And the only voices raised were to be heard over the Knicks-Nets game playing above the bar.

And as to the questions before the group about Christmas? I can't say we came to any definitive answers. We talked about the religious and historical connotations, the spiritual versus secular aspects, and the appropriateness of the church/state split. But the bottom line is that it did indeed came down to a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran sitting in an Irish bar, sharing a drink and having a meaningful conversation. And if that's what the holiday is all about, well, at least from my perspective, you could do a lot worse.


You can find out more about the local version of Pub Theology from Paul Alcorn at Wollin's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What I Don't Want for Christmas

Every year at this time, it's de rigueur for magazines and newspapers, and yes, columnists, to compile their lists of "must have" gifts. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that, journalistically speaking, it's low hanging fruit. After all, if you're looking to fill column inches with crowd pleasing material, why not appeal to greed, desire, selfishness and envy, the emotions that make the world go round.

For the careful writer, it means surveying all the new product offerings of the past year, critically reading reviews, checking satisfaction scores and doing all other manner of due diligence. However, if you're me, that's way too much trouble. And so you wait until all the publications do all the legwork and print their year end lists, and then cherry pick from there. Throw in a quick look at a Target circular, check what's trending on EBay and voila! Before your editor can say "deadline" you have "The Ten Things You Hope You Find Under The Tree/Bush/Wreath/Candleholder/Microwave."

There's just one problem this year: there's nothing I want.

That's not to say there aren't all manner of shiny and interesting things out there. It's just that it all seems to be more of the same. Either my tastes have gotten more discriminating (not likely) or my wallet has gotten tighter (more likely) or the "wow" factor ain't so wow any more (most likely), but I find myself looking at this year's offerings with a certain amount interest but not an equal amount of yearning. It's kind of like "Skyfall," the latest James Bond offering. It's not that there's anything wrong with it. It's just that when 007 started, he was the only game in town. Now, between the "Mission: Impossible" and "Bourne" franchises, plus innumerable other hard charging and spectacular films from "Star Wars" to "Lord of the Rings" to the Batman flicks, you have to do more to make an impression. A gun that reads your fingerprints? A construction crane ripping up a train? An underground subway crash? Ho Hum. Is that all you got? I'm going for popcorn.

Wasn't that long ago that Best Buy made us all drool with images of flat screen TV's. Or Apple showed us what a smartphone could be. Or Cabbage Patch made dolls that caused parents to have fist fights in the aisles. Now, even the cars with giant bows on them all look the same. Remember when Neiman Marcus had their special holiday catalog, and had one, iconic gift that knocked your socks off, something like a trained and monogrammed tarantula? Now, the top gift listed is a pair of his and her watches (admittedly gold and diamond) with animated faces and a trip to the factory that made them. Yawn.

Take Wired magazine. Every year they round up some of the most interesting gift possibilities out there, describing them as "jaw-dropping new gadgets, tools and toys to give and get this holiday season." Usually it's a treasure trove of stuff, at least some of which seems highly covetable. And so this year I made it a point to go to their special New York City store in Soho, and see the list in the flesh.

I wandered around, looking at the supposedly must-haves. There's a Leica camera that only takes black and white photos. Interesting, but for $8000? Going more downscale, a Wawabot water bottle is BPA-free, but other than a do-it-yourself design on the face, much like other bottles and more expensive starting at $25. And does anyone really need another Furby, Hasboro's little tribble-esque doll that speaks in Furbish and now has LCD animated eyes? Sure, this one has its own interactive iPhone App. But these days so do house plants.

Yes, I liked the Nerf Hail-Fire Blaster that fires up to 144 foam slugs before requiring a reload. The Obsessive Chef cutting board engraved with a grid and angles so my dicing will be perfect appeals to my sense of order. And for cheekiness I liked Finn Magee's picture of a desk light that lights up like a real light. They have a picture of a clock too. And yes, it tells time.

But all in, I'm OK without. I'll happily settle for some peanut butter cups. Or maybe a dozen donuts would be a fun treat. As for durable goods, however, I think I'm good. There is, however, one thing I'd like to get from Santa: no bills.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has enough stuff. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Danger, Will Robinson!

How are we still alive? I don't mean that as philosophical or religious musing, though you could certainly take it that way. But as one friend wrote me after my recent appeal to save Twinkies from extinction, "Everyone knows that Twinkies are NO GOOD for you. But WE ate them!!!!!!!!!!! And WE turned out all right, didn't we?????" I would have to agree with him. All in all, there is no known record of anyone ever dying from an overdose of junk food, though in his particular case they obviously inflamed an overactive punctuation gland.

Speaking for myself, considering the innumerable hot dogs, bologna sandwiches and yes, Ding Dongs I've consumed, it's amazing I'm still walking around among you. However, at least in the case of Hostess, it was the company's unhealthy finances that drove them out of business, and not the products. That's not to say that there hasn't been a concerted effort to encourage us all to make healthier choices in our diet. Even prime offenders pay at least lip service to the idea: the former Kentucky Fried Chicken is now KFC and promotes a grilled version of its flagship product, and you get apple slices with your Happy Meal at McDonald's along with a smaller portion of fries. But if success in the world were strictly about nutrition, people everywhere would have risen up years ago and marched with pitchforks on Cinnabon. Rather, check on the chain at any airport: there are lines down the concourse.

Beyond diet, though, it is truly amazing that any of us are still roaming this earth. Whether it was stuff we did as dares, or games we played with our friends, or even officially sanctioned parental behaviors and activities, the list of things we did as kids that should have killed us runs to many pages. And yet, through some combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, the amount of fingers cut off and eyes put out is mercifully small. My wife, for instance remembers riding around with her folks in the family car while standing up in the back between the two front bucket seats. Today, were you to try the same thing, you would be arrested, right after they picketed your house as a child abuser, and just before your kid slapped you with their own lawsuit along with a bill for therapy.

Leaving aside the obviously dangerous teenage years, and the unholy trinity of drugs, sex and alcohol, if you google "dangerous things we did as kids" you get 248 million results. There are books, lists and remembrances (fond ones at that) documenting a catalog that no sane parent would countenance today. They range from simple stuff like climbing trees and drinking from garden hoses, to street surfing by hanging on the bumpers of cars and sledding down a hill through traffic. We ate school paste and poked each other with lead pencils. My personal fav was when the "fogger" truck would come through town spraying mosquito repellant, and we road our bikes behind it in the cloud. Can you say Agent Orange? It was bliss none the less.

You can call it more responsible parenting, the emergence of the nanny state or simply Mayor "No Large Soda for You!" Bloomberg. No matter the label, there is a growing perception that we've overcompensated. That's not to say that you should take that Nerf Blaster away from your kid and replace it with the BB gun you had. But as the book "Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)" points out, the bottom line is that "mastery minimizes danger." And just like eating Twinkies, while it's not necessarily advisable to Superglue your fingers together or lick a 9-volt battery, it likely won't kill you either.

Financial professionals are always going on about the "risk-reward" equation. In investing everything carries some risk; the question is, is it worth the return. However, it's a concept that goes way beyond money. If the price is death or serious injury, then likely not. But if the price is experience and knowledge, and the ability to move to the next challenge or a better idea of how to solve the problem, than it's a trade-off worth making.  Yes, I do ride my bike wearing a helmet. But I also ride it down a hill at top speed while there are cars on the road. So far, so good.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always carried a pocketknife as a kid. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Tweets from the Top

They are numerous ways of counting and bemoaning the end of civilization. Not civilization with a capital "C," meaning mankind and cities and towns. But civilization with a little "c," meaning books by John Updike and face-to-face contact and appreciating art hanging on a wall. For sure you can blame demographics or income levels or even the ozone layer. But in most cases the prime suspects are some variant of technology. Conversation? That would be email. Deep relationships? The usual villain is Facebook. Walking down the street and running into someone, figuratively? That would be smartphones, which cause you to walk down the street and run into someone, literally.

Up until now, the drive to digitize the world has come from the bottom up, and has predominantly revolved around lifestyle issues. Your co-workers post their whereabouts on foursquare and you read books on your tablet. Stores send out electronic coupons to be redeemed on your iPhone, craft show artisans swipe your American Express card through their Square connection and you settle up that bill for dinner with your friends via PayPal. Forget e-mail; it's e-everything.

We're starting to see things, however, of a more consequential nature be influenced by digital advances. The most recent prominent examples were the well documented dispatches from the front lines of the Middle East courtesy of Twitter, which were credited as one of the driving forces behind the entire Arab Spring. That's not to say that your despots and presidents and crown princes don't have an online presence. After all, the web is nothing if not cheap and open, and most governments and rulers at least pay lip service to free media and easy access. They also like to appear contemporary and connected, like Ed Sullivan introducing Topo Gigio as something for the kids in the audience.

But I noted recently something that showed an inversion. The New York Times, the paper of record, an organization that prides itself on primary sources and scrupulous fact checking, is quoting on its front page a Twitter feed. Not the denial of a starlet caught in yet another scandal, nor the strangled voice of some student demonstrators. Rather, as the Middle East is erupting yet again, the Times is talking about the targets the Israeli military is hitting, and using as its authoritative source the army's own Twitter feed.  

Yes, a Twitter feed. One hundred and forty characters, and not a period more. Or as published, "Overnight, as the conflict entered its eighth day, the Israeli military said in Twitter posts that 'more than 100 terror sites were targeted, of which approximately 50 were underground rocket launchers.' The targets included the Ministry of Internal Security in Gaza, described as 'one of Hamas's main command and control centers.'"

 Of course, you don't have to read those tweets in the paper. You can sign up yourself, and join the more than 205,000 others who find out what a country with a iPhone wants say. That means that sandwiched in between friends' musing on Corvettes and sushi, you could get notice of a bombing raid in Gaza, possibly directly from the pilot: "JTLYK, big strike 2day. U r not going to bleave how accur8 we are! CUL8R"

And the etiquette of Twitter demands that should you sign up to follow @IDF, they will at least consider following you back. And whose dispatches does the official voice of the Israeli Defense Forces receive? Among the 86 Tweeters it follows are some you might expect, like @AmbShapiro, the US Ambassador to Israel, and @StateDepartment, the feed from the US Department of State. But it also gets the most up to the minute musings of @MajPeterLerner, who describes himself as an "Israeli with British roots. Serving in the IDF. Loves good humor, spiffy & courteous remarks." And @EytanBuchman, whose profile notes that addition to being Head of the North American Desk in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit, he's "also a pretty good guy, into technology and not bad at lame magic tricks."

And if the Israeli Army can tweet as one voice, what's next? Sure, @Hamas or @UnitedStates, but also other non-official, yet single entities. So sign up now to see what is being said by @Hollywood or @Detroit or @SiliconValley. And be the first to hear from @WallSteet when it tweets, "OMG! Fed does8 have a clue. YOYO!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford still doesn't know how to tweet correctly. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Too Sweet To Fail

Forget the fiscal cliff. Forget immigration reform. Forget sex scandals which compromise the CIA, closing loopholes in the tax code and Iranian centrifuges spinning their way to a nuclear weapon. All important stuff, to be sure, but we have a real crisis on our hands. When a company, and by extension an industry, is so compromised, so jeopardized, that its failure could cause a domino effect that could threaten our very way of life, the government must use its awesome power to step in and prop it up. Consider Bank of America and Wall Street, General Motors and Detroit. The precedent has been clearly established, and whether you like it or not, all signs point to the simple fact that it works. So tell me why, oh why, is that same government not going to act, and allow us to live in a world without Twinkies?

In case you had your head under a Snoball for the last week, Hostess Brands has thrown in the towel. After going into bankruptcy in January, the baker's union and management have continued their ongoing tussle to find an acceptable solution. Unfortunately, there was simply too much take and not enough give, and so the unthinkable happened. "We simply do not have the financial resources to survive an ongoing national strike," Hostess CEO Greg Rayburn said in a statement. And so effective last week it is shuttering its plants and liquidating the 82-year-old business.

In these tough times, the real human tragedy can't be overlooked. Rayburn, a restructuring professional who became the company's head after its former leader abruptly resigned earlier this year, said that the company will "promptly" lay off most of its 18,500 employees and focus on "selling its assets to the highest bidders," a process that he expects will take about a year. He blamed a host of factors, from years of mismanagement to a lack of capital investment to legacy labor costs for the demise of the company, founded in 1927 as Schulze Baking Company.

But let's be very clear here: we're talking about Twinkies! Devil Dogs! Ding Dongs! And how are we going to build strong and healthy bodies 12 ways without Wonder Bread, that always white, always pillow-soft home for a katrillion peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that making the same on whole wheat or seven-grain or oat and barley is like smearing paste on wallboard, with a similar taste and consistency.

And what's this going to mean for the rest? If we let Hostess go, what's going to happen to the others in our all-important national snack cake industry? If Ho Hos and Suzy Q's can't be saved, what are the prospects for Little Debbie Devil Cremes, or Entenmann's All Butter Pound Cake? My wife, when she goes to the store, will occasionally surprise me with a box of Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes, a treat I grew up on near Philadelphia, one for which I would gladly commit a low ranking felony. What about them, huh? I ask you: is a world in which there are no Butterscotch Krimpets a world worth inhabiting? I think not.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Sure, today you can go to your local Stop&Shop and get a 10-pack of Twinkies for $4.29. But for how much longer? There will be only so many and then, no more. No “we expect a fresh delivery tomorrow morning.” According to Bloomberg, the smart recognize this: on EBay that same 10-pack was fetching $24.99 and four 10-packs are listed for $99.99. And the prices will only go up, you just watch.

And so I implore the government to step in. If necessary, purchase the license to the products and make them a ward of the state. No, I confess I don't relish the idea of some government bureaucrat meddling with the recipe, or subjecting the bakery to a low bidder contest, or having Food and Drug investigate exactly how it is that Drake's Cakes never go stale. But just as people were horrified when the Mitsubishi Estate Company of Japan bought Rockefeller Center, I am losing sleep that Bimbo, the giant Mexican baking conglomerate, might snap up some of Hostess' iconic brands at auction. Would a Yankee Doodle taste the same if made in Guadalajara? Are we willing to take that chance? I, for one, think we have to take action, if not for us, then for our children.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves junk food. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 17, 2012

There's an App for That??

If you have a smartphone, be it an "i" or an Android, you've probably come to rely on it for far more than you ever thought possible. Sure, you got it to make calls. But you also check your email, text your friends and surf the web. OK, OK, you also play a little Angry Birds when you have a moment. And you try and keep sharp via Words with Friends. And if you're killing time, perhaps a little Paper Toss. But that's it. It's really for staying in touch. Really. That, and Fruit Ninjas.

But odds are you have stretched the envelope even further. Besides popular programs like Facebook, Yelp and YouTube, there are many special apps that fill a particular need. Using myself as an example, not only do I access the obvious ones like the calculator, the notepad and the camera, but many more. There's Right Track that shows me the next train home. There's Tape-a-Talk, which enables me to quickly make a recording of an idea. And there's My Tracks, which keeps track of my runs, my walks and my bike rides.

I settled on those particular variations after trying similar apps in each category. And while it's true there are fewer possibles for my Android-based phone, it's not like the choices aren't adequate. Yes, iPhone users can choose from over 700,000 options. But those with my eco-system can select from a universe numbering north of 450,000. All in, that's well over a million programs available to smartphone users, a number that climbs by the hour.

However, like many things... actors, companies, items on McDonald's menu... a small percentage of the total attracts most of the attention. And that means there're a lot of apps that don't usually get noticed. In some cases, there's nothing wrong with them, and they might even be superior to the ones to which most people gravitate. In other examples they aren't very good, or they cost more than other alternatives. And then there are those that are, well, strange.

Take iVoodoo. These days if you want to slam someone you are likely to tweet something negative about them, or maybe post something snarky on your Facebook page. But with this app you can revive a lost art. It enables you to paste a pic of the offending party on a voodoo doll, and start sticking pins in it. Good news: the app supports up to five dolls at one time so you can work your magic on a variety of people. And it includes 7 different pins (Positive, Negative, Wealth, Power, Success, Love and Spirituality) to cover the full range of spells.

Or if Paper Toss is too intellectual for you, maybe you'll take a shine to Hold On. The opening screen is a big red button. Press it, a timer starts. And, well, that's it. The object is to see how long you can hold down the button. The best (or should that be worst) thing about it is that you can compete with your friends over Bluetooth.

Or how about Hello Cow. Fire it up, and you get a picture of a cow. Touch her, and she goes "Moo." That's it. Moo. Should you have a 2 year old on your back who won't leave you alone, this might come in handy. Otherwise, not.

Then there's the fact that many folks take the opportunity to check their phone when they are sitting on the can. One developer saw this as a unique community that was underserved. And so they created iPoo. There you can write or draw on the wall of a virtual stall, read random facts to keep you occupied ("The average human eats 8 spiders in their lifetime at night"), get stats on how many others are currently in your, er, situation, even earn points and badges as a Super Pooer. I wish I was kidding; I am not.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice that tells him, "If you build it, he will come." App makers hope for the same thing. If they build it, they hope you will download. But there is a limit: if Shoeless Joe Jackson had walked out onto the field and found iPoo, I bet there's a pretty good chance he would have shaken his head, turned around and gone right back into the corn.


Marc Wollin of Bedford deletes apps almost as fast as he downloads them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ending and Beginning

Even though I write this without knowing the outcome of the election, hopefully I speak the truth when I quote Gerald Ford: our long national nightmare is over.

If you are a strong partisan on either side, it's tempting to disagree and say it is either continuing or just starting. But for a large swath of people, myself included, regardless of your personal preference you are happy that the fisticuffs have finally come to a close, at least for this cycle. Or as one Japanese American answered when asked whom he favored in World War II, "You don't care who wins, you just want it to be over."

Now, lest you think otherwise, I'm not naive enough to think that it doesn't make a difference as to who wins. Of course it does, in areas almost too numerous to mention. Taxes. Women's rights. Health Care. Education. The economy. And that's just the stuff above the fold. There's farm policy, gun control, immigration and more. In most of those there are indeed real differences between the sides, differences which will result in policies that will have specific effects on life in these United States.

But (and here's the qualifier) running the country is different from running for the job of running the country. Mario Cuomo famously said you campaign in poetry, govern in prose. That's a polite spin on what we've seen. From both sides, the reality has been that you campaign in distortions, misrepresentations, fear, pandering, disavowal, cowardice and subterfuge. You can argue that your side is pure of heart, that left alone they would have taken the high road, that they were reduced to those approaches just to respond in kind, the "he did it first" defense favored by eight-year olds. And you might even have a point.

However, most of us grew to nine and some even beyond. We understand that the world isn't made up of us and them, that every issue isn't black and white, that even if we disagree with someone their point may have merit, and that they aren't the devil incarnate. We're not even talking simple bipartisanship, because that implies a very binary view. The fact is that there are far more than fifty shades of gray, and many of them are legal and even accepted in places other than just Nevada.

Yes, there are certain visceral issues where you might take a this or that stand. Beyond that, however, while you may not agree with something, you can find instances where it worked a certain way and others where it didn't.  For sure you can shade the results to bolster your position, but it's hard to say with absolute certainty that taxes should be higher or lower, health care should be private or public, access to guns should be severely restricted or readily accessible. For many years, compromise in these and other areas wasn't a sin, but the way to govern. We lurched one way or another, and if it worked, based on the view of the majority, we kept going; if not, we did a course correction.

Speaking as one individual, I don't believe that Obama is a Socialist, nor Romney a Fascist. I don't think Obama agrees with the Reverend Wright, nor that Romney thinks 47% of the country are leeches. I think each leans a certain way, but leans is the key: I think both will hew relatively close to the center, shading their actions to favor their point of view. And that's OK with me. I may not always agree with them, but I don't think they act with malice. And while I have my own preferences, if 50.000001% of my fellow citizens think that one can do better than the other, I owe it to them to let him try. That's the way the system is meant to work. And if it doesn't pan out, there's always next time.

So at least for now, can we holster the knives, and give the winner a chance? Turn off Fox News and MSNBC. Let whomever wins put their plans into action; they've earned the chance. If it works, good for all of us. If it doesn't, there will be an opportunity to choose a different course. But let's wait until Labor Day of 2016 to go through this nonsense again. We owe at least that much not to them, but to ourselves.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes Red and Blue people. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 03, 2012

In Other News...

No matter who you listen to, no matter where you surf or what you watch, it’s impossible to escape the predictions or feelings of doom, of our lives being ruined. Through an almost unimaginable confluence of events, forces have merged to challenge the very nature of our existence. And if we don't take immediate action, there's no telling if not only we, but our children and our children's children, will ever be able to claw our way back from the dark ages into which we might be thrust.

Now, depending on who you believe, whether you were affected by the storm or feel bad for those folks over there, the name of that force is either Sandy, Barack or Mitt. But while all that is going on, hard as it is to believe, life continues to muddle forward off the front pages. And so, as a public service to those of you who have tired of hearing about how your little piece of heaven will be ruined by the most destructive force imaginable, be it Democratic, Republican or Natural, here are a few other stories from around the country that might have made the grade at other times, but are most decidedly flying below the radar this week.

Nebraska Third Grader Dresses "In Character" Every Day For School. In Omaha, 8-year-old Stella Ehrhart starts every day by looking in her closet and thinking about who she's going to be. According to her mother, it's not about "dressing in costume," but "dressing in character." As described by in the article, "All it takes is a black dress and a red-tissue paper flower in her hair and she's jazz singer Billie Holiday. Or, she's Jane Goodall with a flannel shirt and stuffed chimp tucked under her arm. With a khaki shirt emblazoned with a police badge she's her Aunt Pam, a police officer." And what's her plan for Halloween? "I'm not sure yet," Stella said. "I haven't really thought about it yet as a special day, so probably whatever I had planned."

Traverse City, MI Listed as the 6th Best City for Book Lovers. According to the website, TC was named partly because it has three bookstores, "including downtown's large Horizon Books, which includes the Rise and Shine Cafe." It joins other accolades the town has collected, included being listed as having America's best ice cream in Moomer's, one of America's best foodie towns as picked by Bon Appetit magazine and the 2011 Good Morning America viewer poll recognition of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as one of most beautiful places in America.

Local Girl Scout earns Gold Award. Krisha Desai of New Territory, TX (Rainbow Stars Service Unit-Troop 721) got the highest achievement a Girl Scout can earn, symbolizing outstanding accomplishments in the areas of leadership, community service and advocacy. Her signature project was a Healthy Living Clinic for Refugees in conjunction with the Refugee Week Health Fair held by her church. It's quite an accomplishment: only 5.4% of Girl Scouts nationally complete the award.

Residents Object to Site Picked for Animal Shelter. According to the Macon, GA Telegraph, neighbors living near a site chosen for Bibb County's new animal shelter are voicing strong opposition. At an evening hearing, they raised concerns from noise to unpleasant odors, all of which might lead to reduced property values. According to Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, the chairman of the site selection committee, a number of sites were considered but disqualified because of cost and environmental concerns. The center is expected to handle 3,600 to 4,000 animals each year.

Lame Duck Taos County Commissioner pockets $550 for Jail Training. It turns out that while Taos County NM Commissioner Nicklos Jaramillo's term is up at the end of the year, he recently spent five days attending a training class designed for jail employees, collecting $554 in per diem and travel expenses for the trip (that's $85 per day, plus $129 for driving to and from Albuquerque). While there's no question of legality, since he's only in office for another few months, the question is whether or not it was a good use of funds. But County Attorney Barbara Martínez said that "The commissioners don't ask for the county manager's approval on travel expenses," so nothing was technically illegal.

And there's more: did you know that there was a 3.9 magnitude earthquake in Arkansas on Monday? It was centered just southwest of Parkin in Cross County and happened around 7:39 a.m. local time. Thankfully there was no damage, just some alarms set off. Even so. Move over Sandy, sit down Mitt and stand aside Barack:  the world continues to turn.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is tired of hearing about politics and storms. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Gunk n' Stuff

It seems as though virtually every ad, every article, every product that counts itself as contemporary carries the word "digital" as the two jacks just to get into the game. The library has digital books. You can shoot digital photographs. Your car has digital gauges. There are digital ovens, digital toys, digital vacuum cleaners. And yes, there are even digital gloves, offering the digital experience to your digits.

But what does any of that mean? In its purest sense, digital means the data involved is discontinuous. That is, it makes individual, discrete steps from one thing to another. That's as opposed to the way the world really is, an analog state of affairs. More simply, things are continuous as opposed to this or that, tall or short, blue or red. Forget 50 shades of gray: there are a zillion. And to be really accurate, there are an infinite amount: you can always slide a little one way or the other to something else more illegal, more immoral or more fattening.

Still, we have come to expect that digital is how we manage the world. Partly that's because it's how computers work: they reduce everything to ones and zeros. Partly because it gives us faith that broken things can be fixed: it either works or it doesn't. And partly because it helps to provide explanations for the unknowable: if they bombard enough particles at that collider in Switzerland, sooner or later we will get a digital picture of another that shows how things work, though it's still all mumbo-jumbo no matter how many cute animations they trot out.

And yet things aren't that neat. No matter how hard we try, you can't always reduce things down to a simple yes or no. Certainly we see that in the current political environment. For while absolutes make for great campaign slogans ("No new taxes!" "The fault is with the banks!"), they don't recognize the reality of on the ground. Most issues and explanations bear a more nuanced approach, an analog one if you will. And while it may not be as comforting, it is more in line with the real world.

The best example comes recently from American Airlines. On three different flights over the past few weeks, seats came loose while planes were in the air. We're not talking a broken armrest or tray table. We're talking about whole rows that suddenly tilted back. Forget fasten your seat belt: how about fasten your seat.

While there was some initial speculation that the problem might be tied to lax maintenance in light of labor troubles, by all accounts it's purely a mechanical issue related to cabin remodeling. Still, when pressed to explain the cause of the problem, there was no digital answer. That would have been something like "The R7/S33 opine clamping mechanism was installed incorrectly" or "Upon inspection, the Z81Alpha retaining bolt had a crack in it" or "We've had a failure of the 74G-22 Hyper-rigid frimit." Any of those explanations, while disturbing, would have been acceptable. Something is broken, let's identify it, let's fix it.

But according to airline spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan, the seat lock plunger mechanism got "gunked up over time with people spilling sodas, popcorn, coffee or whatever." Gunk. Is there anything more analog than that? While she may have mentioned the component elements involved, I doubt they have a chemical formula for it. Then again, maybe they do: a product called "Fudge Urban De-Gunk Deep Clean Shampoo" promises to "remove the excess product build up that can leave your hair looking dull and oily!" As a frequent flier, if a bottle of shampoo is what it takes to keep a 757 in the air, so be it.

Still, it is refreshing to acknowledge that things are indeed analog and sometimes mushy. We even saw it in the Vice Presidential debate. You can like or hate Joe Biden, but when he tried to dismiss Paul Ryan's charges and defend the sanctions against Iran, the exchange took a colorful turn. "This is a bunch of stuff," Biden said. "What does that mean?" asked moderator Martha Raddatz. "It's Irish," Ryan said. "We Irish call it malarkey," chimed in Biden.

Stuff and gunk. Makes one wonder: it may be green, but is gunk Irish too? Now, there's something we could use the super collider to figure out.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a lot of stuff with gunk on it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Capturing Grace

The "Five-Stage" model of grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was first put forth in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." And while it was meant to explain the feelings a person goes through at the end of life, it's since been adapted to divorce, substance abuse, even breaking up with a boyfriend. By now it's become so much a part of popular culture that there are five stages to everything from travel (dreaming, planning, booking, experiencing, sharing) to drunkenness (smart, handsome, rich, bulletproof, invisible).

Whatever the intent, the original five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are also applicable to those with a major illness or injury. Be it cancer or a shattered leg, one can easily see the same progression play out as an individual comes to grips with their situation. It's especially true with slower, degenerative diseases such as arthritis or heart disease. But it's a fair bet that with all the permutations she might have considered, Kübler-Ross' didn't look at those with Parkinson's Disease and add a sixth stage of "dancing."

Yet, perhaps she should have. At least that's the conclusion one could draw from a remarkable program that originated at the Mark Morris Dance Company in Brooklyn. Called "Dance for PD," it started in the fall of 2001, and has since expanded to 75 communities around the world, including those in New Zealand and Tel Aviv. In the same way that singing can help those that stutter, the movement and flexibility that is required in even simple dance seems to help those whose muscle control is slipping away.

It's more than just an idea. As David Leventhal, a former principle dancer with the Mark Morris company who now devotes all his time to the program says, "things like balance, movement sequencing, rhythm, spatial and aesthetic awareness, and dynamic coordination seem to address many of the things people with Parkinson's want to work on to maintain a sense of confidence and grace in their movements." However it's one thing to hear the theory; it's another to see it come alive. And that's where Dave Iverson comes in, and his remarkable film "Capturing Grace."

Iverson is an Emmy award winning writer/producer/director with credits a mile long for a variety of PBS shows such as Frontline. He stumbled upon the program while researching his acclaimed documentary "My Father, My Brother, and Me." That film examines Parkinson's through the very personal lens of his own family, where three members have been diagnosed with the disease. That's right: Dave has Parkinson's as well.

"Capturing Grace," as yet unfinished, chronicles the program and some of its participants as they prepare for their first public performance. We meet Joy Esterberg as she slides across the rehearsal space, ending with jazz hands: "You're feeling it, and doing it utterly to the sense you can imagine it, then you're there." Or Carol Eneski, whose body shakes when she talks, but whose arms trace graceful arcs when the music is playing: "I want us to be good. I don't just want us to be good for people with Parkinson's." And Reggie Butts, built like a linebacker, who had to stop attending class when he was admitted to the hospital for a time, eventually making a slow and deliberate yet triumphal return: "When the dance class is going on, there are no patients. There are dancers."

It is a remarkable portrait. To help finish it, Iverson has turned to There you can watch a trailer, but more importantly, help: I and others have contributed funds towards production. Pledges of $5 receive a "Thank You" card from the filmmaking team featuring a photo by Director of Photography Eddie Maritz, while $500 or more garners a special preview along with dinner with Iverson and others involved. They are crossing their fingers: as of this writing, they are about halfway to their modest $15,000 goal with just a few weeks left, and Kickstarter is an all or nothing proposition.

Speaking for myself, I would encourage you to check it out and donate to the film if it moves you. Yes, my father had Parkinson's, as does my good friend Andy. But it's not about me or them or even Iverson. It's a story about people who have decided not to just roll over when hit by a disease that stops many in their tracks. Or as Mark Morris himself says, "The people who come in the building one way leave another way. And I don't mean by a different door. They are transformed."


You can see a trailer and contribute to the production of "Capturing Grace" here. This column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Villain du Jour

If you live in North Korea, you don't have a lot to celebrate. Food is scarce, information is tightly controlled and internal dissent is crushed. So holidays are a big deal. Even within the controlled script that the government gives out, at least it's a chance for music and dancing and parades. Such is the story on happy days like July 27th, the day the Korean War ended, better known there as "Victory Day," or August 15th, the day that Japan surrendered to the Allies in World War II, which opened the door to the establishment of the modern Korea, such as it is.

But come next month there will be yet another day of national pride to be feted. That's because on November 21, after five years or trying, producer FilmDistrict will finally release "Red Dawn," a remake of the 1984 cult classic. I know, you're asking the obvious: not "what does this have to do with North Korea?" but rather "do we really need a remake of a film that features a young Jennifer Grey before she was dirty dancing?" True, it only got a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it was the 20th highest grossing film of 1984, taking in over $38 million dollars, and beating out such well-known classics as "The Terminator" and "The Killing Fields." So remake it is.

To understand the Korean connection, you need to know the film. And so if you've let your Netflix account lapse, allow me to revisit the plot for you. Staring the late Patrick Swayze and a still innocent-looking Charlie Sheen in his film debut, it's about a bunch of teenagers who fight back when their small town in Colorado is invaded and taken over by Communist troops. Calling themselves the Wolverines after their school mascot, they shoot, blow things up and get ugly in a big way, so much so that it was reportedly the first film to earn a PG-13 rating.

And who was subject of all that violence? Why the aggressors of course, those godless heathens that invaded our sacred shores. While today we generally are attacked in films by madmen or terrorists with nukes or chemicals, back in the mid-eighties we still went toe-to-toe with nations fielding big armies armed with conventional weapons. And so in what was just about their swan song on the international stage, the enemies in the film were the Russians and their favorite client state, Cuba.

Of course, twenty years later when they started working on the remake, while we might not exactly have been drinking buddies with Mother Russia, neither was it realistic to think they would send an invading army. And so, get me rewrite: the producers did a little nip and tuck, and voila! While the color red and the commie underpinning stayed, the soldiers' homeland shifted a few thousand miles farther east to China.

All well and good. But while the film got hung up in the maelstrom that was the MGM bankruptcy, the world hardly stood still. And so China went from being a belligerent country that threatened our very way of life to 1) our biggest creditor and 2) a huge market for Hollywood films. And if you don't want to offend the government, nor piss off the common folk who buy tickets, calling them a marauding menace is probably not the best approach.

And (finally) that's where North Korea comes in. Never mind that they have no major transport planes to get soldiers to the US. Never mind that their army is using weapons left over from 1950. Never mind that we've got more spy satellites and early warning systems trained on their borders, and so would know if they launched a tennis ball let alone a major attack. The odds are that offending them won't lead to a loss of ticket sales at the Pyongyang multiplex. And so a little digital manipulation here, some judicious reshooting there, and before you can say DMZ, bang! Colorado is at war with the Outstanding Leader's hoards.

So going forward let November 21st be a cause for dancing north of the 49th Parallel. For on that day, the Hermit Kingdom attacked the Yankee Dog, caught him flat footed and made a go of it. Yes, they were beaten back by a band of kids. But, at least on film, they went mano-a-mano with the big boys and gave as good as they got. Hey: a country can dream, can't it?


Marc Wollin of Bedford will probably skip the remake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 06, 2012

License to Sell

While it may not have started the movement, the appearance of Reese's Pieces in 1982's "E.T." has become the fulcrum for the modern product placement movement. Before that, labels would be removed or products "Greeked" so that a specific brand wasn't highlighted on the small or the big screen. In fact, it was just as likely that Ford or Coke would be extremely wary about letting their flagship brands be part of, and thereby associated with, a show or movie that featured violence or sex.

Then came one of the great miscalculations in advertising. When given the opportunity, Mars decided that an extraterrestrial was not the kind of pitchman they wanted for their cash cow, M&Ms. That left an opening for Hershey to provide the bait to lure the lovable alien into the open, and the world tilted. Depending on which account you read, sales for the candy jumped by a reported 65, 85, 300 percent or more. And never again would the products that appear on screen be the result of whatever the prop person had lying around.

Rather than an afterthought, or a "can we agree on a little upfront money in exchange for a little publicity," product placement has become an integral part of the financing itself. Be it computers or appliances, phones or watches, each appearance is negotiated and scripted. It's reached the current state-of-the-art whereby the new James Bond film "Skyfall" has a reported $28 million dollars in product placement deals, amounting to about a third of movie's cost. Forget license to kill: 007 has a license to sell.

You see it in almost every show or movie. Will Smith wears Converse. Pierce Brosnan drives a BMW. Sarah Jessica Parker collects Manolo Blahniks. Tom Cruise dons Ray-Ban's. It's even become shorthand for character development: cool girls have Macs, rugged guys drive Ford pickups. And speaking of Bond, James Bond, what does it say about the kind of secret agent that Daniel Craig is when he doesn't ask for a "vodka martini, shaken not stirred" but for a Heineken, and in the bottle no less.

Usually the items in question are front and center: food, cars and the like. That way producers can be sure that the logo or label appears prominently next to George Clooney or Sofia Vergara. In the case of clothes, if not the label, at least the design is distinctive enough to catch the eye of those in the know. But in a testament to power of a tie-in, CBS's hit drama "The Good Wife" has taken the next step. The show is moving beyond what the characters are holding or eating and driving to promote they are sitting on or at.

Set Designer Beth Kushnick has had a lot of inquiries as to how she has created the power abodes fans see on the show, both professional and personal. She even got a shout out from star Julianna Margulies when Margulies won her Emmy and thanked Kushnick for her interiors. And so on her blog, the designer tells where to get some of the furniture and accessories that contribute to the look of the show. For instance, if you like Alicia's vanity, you can get it from Glam Furniture and dress it up to match with the same drawer pulls you see on the show from Anthropologie. The console table behind the Florick's sofa comes from Pottery Barn, while the dining table comes from Crate and Barrel.

There is so much interest in the interior design that, to coincide with the new season, CBS Consumer Products has collaborated to create an original line of furniture and home décor items you can get for your own place. Inspired and now used on the sets, designs from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams will focus on home furnishings, while Interlude Home will create accessories, accent furniture and lighting. So if you just have to have a stainless steel and glass desk like Diane's ($1430) or a wing chair just like Kalinda's ($1895), it's all available for the asking. Just supply your own legal and domestic disputes, and you'll be living the dream.

Should this prove successful, watch for other less traditional product tie-ins. If "Revolution" is a hit, watch for branded bows and arrows, while "Guys with Kids" will have baby carriers with room for a beer, and you can pull neighborhood watch in a "Homeland" hoodie. Sure, it sounds stupid. But look in the corner of your closet: isn't that a "Dancing with the Stars" gym bag you're using?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has to have a "Man from U.N.C.L.E" spy briefcase when he was 10. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 29, 2012

By The Numbers

In spite of the oft quoted maxim "there are lies, dammed lies and then there are statistics," management by the numbers is a proven technique. After all, the thinking goes, if you can't measure it, you can't see how things are going. And so as a business exec using that skill set in the public arena, Michael Bloomberg has released his annual "Mayor's Management Report." A compendium of all things municipal, it seeks to quantify everything in the Big Apple so all can see where things stand. From library card holders (up 23% in Brooklyn, but down 10% in New York) to trees removed by the parks department (up 15% from 2011) to pay telephones inspected and deemed inoperable (25%, up from 23% from the prior year), no area is too mundane for the cold cruel light of accounting.

In that vein, I thought I should try and quantify my own pedestrian world, and see where I measure up and where I need improvement. Using a September 1 start date over the past two years, I looked at the books without cooking them: you be the judge as to the implications and trends.

Garbage cans taken to curb: down 2%. While there were the same number of weeks in the prior year in question, it seems I managed to be out of town on more Fridays this year, contributing to a modest decrease in this category. Note this does not factor in garbage taken from the kitchen to the cans themselves, a statistic better left unexplored.

Charges in our household ledger assigned the category labeled "stuff:" up 9%. As opposed to obvious categories like "mortgage" or "doctors," this category contains things I can't seem to figure how to assign. It can be dietary supplements for joints from the Vitamin Store (perhaps better slotted in "Drugs?" "Food?" "Hope?") to a charge from the Pink Cloud Gallery (no idea what we bought there) to a myriad of ones from Target and Kohl's, each encompassing a gaggle of other categories. So "stuff" it is.

Dishwasher unloaded: up 7%. Normal practice in our house is for my wife to load the dishwasher, while I unload it and put the clean dishes away. On most nights, the cycle finishes somewhere in the vicinity of 9PM. And this being a year with a lot of political news, I find it that to be the perfect time to cruise MSNBC and Fox, and listen to them yell about the other. As such, I'm in the kitchen with the clicker anyways when the little light signifying "I'm done" pops on. However, after a continuing burst of activity culminating in the election, I expect this category to drop in the upcoming off-year, as I find myself taking more naps before bedtime and forgetting to uphold my half of the bargain.

Checks Written: down 26%. In the continuing effort to reduce the amount of paper flowing over my desk, we pay more and more stuff online, by direct transfer or through Paypal-esque lke services. I can go three weeks without finding a new entry in the book. When there is one, it's usually a check to someone for a Birthday (up 3%), a reimbursement for a shared lunch or gift (down 4%) or taxes (no change: the number of checks written, not the amount).

Number of ways to waste time cruising the internet at home: up 66%. I used to have a computer, a small netbook in the family room and my phone. Then I got an iPad. While I liked the idea, it was too big to take with me. So I got a smaller tablet to carry in my backpack. But I didn't give up any of the others. So at any given time in the house, I can have my computer on in my office, my phone in my pocket, the iPad setup at the kitchen table and my little tablet upstairs. Oh, and the netbook set up to stream music. Thankfully, at home the cable company doesn't charge me by the megabyte (up 73%).

Those are just a fraction of the metrics available. Others include naps (down 13%), books read (up 19%) and walks taken(up 27%). Of course, there are others, though my "Socks with Holes" and my wife's "Shoes Bought" tallies are better left unpublished. You see, the numbers don't lie. And sometimes the truth won't set you free, it will just make for an unpleasant topic of discussion.


Marc Wollin of Bedford writes his column 100% of the time for The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and for

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sensibly Average

In a spot for Direct TV from 2001, a husband is happily cruising around on his computer, going from web site to web site. Click, click, click again, until there is a pause and a voice: "Alert. You have reached the end of the internet. You have seen everything there is to see. Please go back. Now." He gingerly hits a key, as the camera cuts away. We next see him as he wanders into the living room with a dazed look on his face. "I thought you were surfing the internet," his wife says." "Yeah." he responds. "I finished it."

The commercial came to mind in light of the roll-out of the new iPhone5. First, to put it in context, let's revisit a few headlines. "Hundreds camp out, crazy for the iPhone." That was from 2007, when the first model came out. Or how about this one from 2008: "By 8am Friday, an estimated 350 people were already lined up to buy iPhone 3Gs at the downtown San Francisco Apple Store." Or this one from 2009 for the birth of the iPhone 4: "In what may be the largest consumer electronics launch of all time, jubilant crowds stretched for blocks in many US and foreign locations." In each case, if the announcement wasn't heralded as the second (or third or fourth) coming, it was certainly close.

Contrast that with this past week's introduction. To be fair, we are in the middle of a contentious presidential campaign that has monopolized most of the space above the fold. And events overseas have claimed a lot of attention, whether it be the violence in the Middle East or financial markets in Europe. And it was Fashion Week in New York, so headlines like "Optical disillusion! Kim Kardashian makes another fashion misstep in baggy monochrome dress" were to be expected.

But consider this time there were no front page headlines. Rather, leads like this: "No, This Is Not the Best iPhone Ever." Or this one: "Should I buy the iPhone 5? Some things to think about as you consider your next purchase." Or how about this backhanded compliment: "No one has complaints about the phone itself from the brief time they've spent with it." Or my fav: "This is the first iPhone whose name includes a number greater than 4." If that isn't heresy, it's the closest thing to it: when in the past have the technorati dissed Cupertino so openly? Put another way, it's almost as if they looked at the device and said, "you know, you don't sweat much for a fat girl."

That's right. A public so smitten with tech in general and Apple in particular that just last year it was ready to put Steve Jobs on Mount Rushmore is decidedly cool about the latest toy. And why is that? Arguable, the new device pushes the envelope even if it doesn't break any new ground. It's bigger. It's faster. It's thinner and lighter. But then again, so is everything else. To use Jobs' own term, is it "insanely great?" Or is it merely "sensibly average?"

So the question bears asking: like the guy in the commercial, have we reached the end? Not of new iterations of smartphones: one can safely assume that there will be an iPhone n+1. It might be made of glass. It might be able to drive your car. It might even be edible. But after some 244 million units sold, not only are we not getting worked up about the next model, we barely even notice. And if we're not getting worked out about Apple, forget Google and Samsung and HP and the rest. Why, it wasn't long ago to even mention all them in the same sentence was to invite the scorn of the hippest and savviest among us. And now? Perish the thought, but is Apple in danger of being known not as an innovator's innovator, but as a green tart fruit best used in pies?

We are a fickle lot, to be sure. Or as Jon Stewart pointed out in a less charitable way, we are puppies: "Oh look! Something shiny! Rooof!" Yes, Apple has produced some amazing devices, and raised the bar for all. But in a world where "what have you done for me lately?" is not just a Janet Jackson single but how we live, the public may have started to hit the wall. So you beat Samsung in court: that was so yesterday. And well, tell us: what HAVE you done for us lately?


Marc Wollin of Bedford never drank the Apple Kool-Aid. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Imitation Is...

There's an old saw that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Take the seminal Bruce Springsteen album "Born to Run." The cover features a bearded Boss leaning on the shoulders of Clarence Clemmons. Sesame Street's tribute, titled "Born to Add," featured Burt in the same pose leaning on the shoulder of their Big Man, a saxophone playing Cookie Monster. Or consider Weird Al Yankovic's homage to Michael Jackson's "Bad," which features a leather clad Al in the identical pose as the King of Pop.  The main title is rendered in the same red scribbled font, though his is "Even Worse."

In neither case would you accidentally pick up knockoff and think it's the original. That's because the purpose of these is to, depending on your point of view, parody or honor the original. More often, however, the intent of similar efforts is to build on the success of the former where an exact copy would bring the lawyers running. And so an extra beat is added here, some chrome there. It happens in almost every industry. The most talked about designs that strut down the runway at Fashion Week in Milan or Paris find an "inspired by" ripoff in Forever 21 within weeks if not days. When the public fell in love with SUV's, every manufacturer had one the next season. The trick is to get close, but not too close: just ask Samsung.

And then there are those examples where the intention is, if not nefarious, at least focused on benign confusion in pursuit of the sale. Walk into your local supermarket, head to the cereal aisle and go to grab a box of Raisin Bran. You might first reach for the well know purple box from Kellogg's. But then you might notice the same product from others like General Mills and America's Choice. That's because the name "Raisin Bran" has been ruled descriptive, and is therefore not protected. When the District Court for Nebraska struck down the trademark in 1944 it said "The use of a similar name by another to truthfully describe his own product does not constitute a legal or moral wrong, even if its effect be to cause the public to mistake the origin or ownership of the product." The same can't be said of alternatives to Reese's Puffs, a chocolate peanut butter concoction begging to be in your bowl. And so the Milleville variant is labeled, not as tonguing trippingly, as Cocoa Peanut Butter Spheres.

We're seeing the same thing more and more in areas which used to be somewhat immune. Take films. If you're the kind to get your undead confused, you might pass have passed on this spring's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" to see "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies." Or if you have kids, you might accidentally eschew "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" (sample review: "one of the fanciest, most carefully assembled cartoons ever put on the screen.") for "Life's a Jungle: Africa's Most Wanted." (sample review: "The animation is horrible, dialogue non-existent except for when it's non-sensical, and the sound effects are straight out of a kindercare music class, and not in a good way.") Not that the filmmakers didn't know that going in. Writes Robert Hanna, the director, co-writer, composer and editor of the latter, "It's for little kids, not people who are going to judge the quality of the fur compared to a Pixar movie."

There's even a name for this: mockbuster. The idea is to create a film that will play off the publicity and buzz of a major release with one that costs substantially less. Hence, "Jaws" spawned "Great White," as well as "Monster Shark," while "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman" begat "Village of the Giants." And is there any doubt what mass public conveyance vehicle was being swapped out in 2006's less-than-well-known "Snakes on a Train?"

The same can be said for books. If "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson is too violent, try "I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Karen Peebles. If you're too quick for Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," try "Thinking, Fast and Furious" by Jacob Tudor Baruch. And if "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L.James is too explicit for you, maybe "Thirty Five Shades of Grey" by J.D. Lyte will be tamer; after all there are 15 less shades.

Thankfully, a careful reading of most titles can usually squelch any confusion. Otherwise, you'll be looking to entertain the kids on a rainy Saturday and accidentally drop the wrong thing in the DVD player. After all, odds are Tom Hanks is not in "Forrest Hump."


Marc Wollin of Bedford, for better or worse, has no knockoffs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 08, 2012

There But For the Grace of God

Doesn't matter what sport you like to participate in or watch. Odds are at some point you've let your Walter Mitty mind take over, and wondered what it would be like to be on the court or the field or the pitch. Sure, you mused to yourself, Tiger or Eli or Serena are pros and play all the time. But considering the fact that I golf or hit or serve only on weekends, I'm not really that bad. And how cool would it be if I got the chance to step out on the field with them, and show them just how good I am.

That's why millions were so smitten with the writings of George Plimpton. In books like "Paper Lion," Plimpton rose from his Barcalounger to try his hand with the best. He tried tennis, baseball, even boxing, giving life to daydreamers everywhere. And while he never stuck around for more than a play or sequence or two, he usually exited to applause, as the audience indicated its appreciation of his attempt if not his mastery.

Contrast that with the treatment being given to a class of people being given a similar opportunity. As of this writing, the National Football League is engaged in a contract dispute with the NFL Referees Association, and has locked out the regular officials. And so, as they have been doing throughout the August warm-ups, replacements are set to be on the field when the season kicks off for the year.

Normally we would root for the underdog, for the guy or girl who struggles gamely at the lower levels, then through an accident of fate or chance gets a chance to perform and wow them on the biggest stage. And officiating is, at its heart, really no different from any other endeavor. Individuals start in the lower ranks, pay their dues and work their way up from high school to college to semi-pro and on to the elite. While things there might a) move faster, b)the players might be bigger, c)there's more on the line, or more likely, d) all of the above, the basic skills needed and judgment exercised are the same.  

However, in this case, the best understudies weren't available. Those just below the top, those who ref at the elite college levels, have commitments in place to do just that. Also, those same individuals likely harbor designs a continued upward trajectory, and so don't see any point in pissing off the very people with whom they'd like to be working in the future. And so they have sat this one out, effectively forcing the league to go a bit further afield as it looks for replacement zebras.

That means that the stand-ins have been down a level or two, as opposed to the kind of top level performers you might usually have hovering in the wings. And that has led to predictions of disaster, and the snarkiest kind of chatter. Much of this was driven by mistakes made by the replacements themselves in the preseason. After all, it might have been a case of nerves, but in the very first exhibition game of 2012, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans won the coin toss. Except Arizona did. He immediately made the correction, but the tone was set. And the first criticisms pointed out not that Ochoa had Big Ten experience, but that he had officiated in the Lingerie Football League.

Subsequent errors have been as benign as a ref facing the wrong way from the cameras when announcing a penalty, and as consequential as turnovers disallowed. With the standings and the road to post-season on the line, as well as millions of dollars, it's hardly a trivial matter. Still, it would be nice if fans, coaches and players would give these guys a break. It may be just because the league forbid its members from criticizing the officiating, but at least Andy Reid, the coach of the Eagles, had the decency to say, "They're trying their hearts out."

So until the dispute is settled, games may take a little longer, calls will be questioned and there will be some errors. But as Reid says, it's not for lack of trying. And for anyone who ever thought that they could do better, take notice of what's happening. And recognize that maybe you'd be best to go get another beer, have a seat, shut up and just be happy you're not a target.


Marc Wollin of Bedford feels for the replacements. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 01, 2012

What I Didn't Do This Summer

Clean Out The Garage. I had a plan, I really did. All that stuff we've accumulated over the past 20 plus years has been building up. There're items which did indeed serve a useful purpose, like cans of paint and bottles of garden goop, some meant to help grow and others meant to help kill. Then there're toys with which our kids played, though with them in their twenties it's unlikely they'll be clamoring to use the Air Aviva Rocket Launcher anytime soon. There's wood I was saving for some unnamed project, fishing rods I never untangled and enough balls, pucks, sticks, and bats to equip a good sized summer camp. Nothing wrong with any of it, once you clear off the cobwebs. Looks like those spiders get a new lease on life.

Run a Marathon. I don't run as much as I used to ever since I tore my knee. But a year ago the doctor stitched it up, and it's almost good as new. I ride my bike more, but still clock 5 or 6 miles on a Saturday morning, a circuit that takes about 45 or 50 minutes. And I've always wanted to do more. A friend who has done many marathons says if you can run a solid hour you can make the distance; all it takes is time and focus. I think I could figure out the former. Not a prayer with the latter.

Write a Book. No shortage of ideas, I'll tell you that. There's the one about the videogame developers who come up with a game where they sign up real people to mimic the avatars. There's the coming of age story of a young boy finds himself in a world where he gets to live every day exactly twice. There's the story of the screenwriter who writes a screenplay about the imaginary exploits of his neighbor, only to see what he writes comes true one week later. But it's a long way from having an idea and a first sentence, to developing the story and writing several hundred pages. Many starts, and an equal number of stops.

Learn a Foreign Language. While you can argue (and pretty persuasively) that English is the de facto lingua franca of the world, travel just a bit and you will feel like an idiot. In other locales people speak two or three or more languages effortlessly; here we're lucky if we can handle one. With all the resources available, wouldn't it be smart if I learned how to communicate in someone else's native tongue, so I don't lose the subtlety and nuance of what others are saying? Maybe Chinese would be helpful for the future. Certainly Spanish is a good alternative almost anywhere these days. Or maybe something more esoteric, some Middle Eastern dialect that is in the news. I could buy a CD, download a podcast: how hard could it be? However, turns out my ear for pronunciation is as tin as can be: to hear me butcher "huevos rancheros" is to never order eggs again.

Take More Pictures. On the surface, not really that hard. In fact, easier to do than ever, with cameras on everything from phone to pads to computers to mountable on your bike helmet. But I'm not talking snapshots; I'm talking pictures. It's not about the equipment, it's about making the time and the effort to go and look and see and get down on your knees or up a staircase or under a bridge to see an angle that's more than just walking down the street. Like everything else in life, you have to get off your duff and make more than a token effort. Too bad my duff feels so good.

Eat More Local Corn, Tomatoes and Peaches. Not a bumper crop this year. But I did eat an inordinate amount of fresh cherries and grapes. So consider this one about even.

That's not to say that I wasted the entire summer. I did take more walks in places I've never been, heard more live music from more people I've never heard before, and spent more time reading interesting books with a glass of iced tea by my side. On balance, those all count in the "win" column. I also rode my bike, replaced the fan in the bathroom and ate out a fair bit, as much in a lawn chair as in a restaurant. None of that is bad, to be sure.

But you just wait till next year.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is always amazed at how fast summer goes by. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 25, 2012

From Here to Ethiopia

The cabbie and I exchanged a few words, the usual stuff about weather and traffic. As we continued across town, we each drifted back into our own worlds. A few blocks later, he started singing softly to himself. While I wasn't really listening, I unconsciously started humming as well. He looked in the mirror and said, "Did you know you were singing in the same key as I was?" I laughed, and told him about one of my many theories of the world: that unless you were singing a specific song, you latched onto whatever melody you heard, and sung it until you heard another one. Trying to prove my point, I asked him what he was singing. "It's an Ethiopian pop song," he replied. Well, so much for my theory; there wasn't much chance I would be riffing on it later in the day. But all was not lost: it was how I met Abdi Nuressa.

Abdi was born in a small village in Ethiopia, but moved with his family to the capital city of Addis Ababa when he was a just a baby. He grew up there, going to school and playing lots of soccer with his friends. In 1997 as a teenager, he came to the US to go to college, moving in with extended family in Manassas, Virginia. While he was always singing as a hobby, his aim was not music; rather he was planning on studying business. And so he enrolled at a local college and began to take classes. But as the opportunity arose, he started to sing more and more, performing at weddings and with friends, and pretty soon music started to take center stage.

While he placed great stock in education, he decided he had to at least try and pursue his music. How did it sit with his parents? "Well, my parents were in Ethiopia, which made it easier!" he laughed. That said, he knew the path would be a difficult one: "There is no easy thing in America, especially if you're going to be successful." He started by networking with other musicians, Ethiopian and otherwise, while driving a cab to make ends meet. And he kept singing, catering to an appreciative audience.

That audience is predominantly the growing Ethiopian community in this country, which numbers close to half a million. Washington DC has the largest concentration of immigrants and their descendants, so much so that there is a section of the city called "Little Ethiopia," and an "Ethiopian Yellow Pages" that runs to 1000 pages. And like any immigrant group, many of them seek out not only the food and culture of their native land, but the music that they grew up on, and that is now playing in the clubs and on the radios at home.

Abdi's music sits squarely at that intersection. Additionally, he made the decision to do his singing in Oromiffa, which is the native tongue of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo. While he is Oromo, in Ethiopia that language is just one of a number of native dialects, while schools teach Amharic and English. But said Abdi, "When I started to sing in Oromiffa, I found my roots."

It took him more than three years of driving a cab, saving, performing and recording to make his first CD. Called "Irree Aadaa" (The Power of Culture), it contains any number of traditional songs, but also contemporary tunes, some written by others, some by him. "They are traditional sounds with modernized instruments," he says. It has even produced two music videos, "Aayyaana Laalattuu" (Gold Digger) and "Wal-argaan Hinoolu" (I Don't Know When I'll See You Soon), both of which can be found on YouTube.

Abdi is currently at work on his next CD, recording ideas in his cab on his phone between fares, and honing his craft at a weekly gig at a restaurant in town. He continues to sing at weddings and community events, pulling together a band as needed: "I'm always working," he laughed. As to what he wants people to take away from his singing he says, "I want people to get happiness from my music. Music for me was like a hidden place. I want people to go to that place. And I want them to have a learning experience, especially non-Ethiopians, to learn about the Oromo culture and language."

And all this because we were humming in the same key.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves music and talking to musicians. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Inventing a Better Mousetrap

It's easy to forget as we tap on our phones and swipe our tablets that there was a time not too long ago when coming up with a new idea meant something physical, not digital. Not that Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn aren't impressive pieces of imagination realized. Rather, inventing something new meant far more than writing code. It meant coming up with an idea, sketching it out and then actually building a prototype to convince people that it could really exist.

Originally, the Patent Act of 1790 required that anyone applying for a patent send a model of their invention to Washington. Over the next 90 years, over 200,000 were submitted. Needless to say, owing to the pace of inventing in America, space became an issue, and many models were warehoused where they were eventually destroyed in a fire. Still, there were plenty left to put on display, and it became a major tourist attraction. Just like now, there was a feeling that anyone could invent something and make a fortune.

But space was at a premium. Eventually all the models were put in storage, and the requirement to actually submit one was abolished in 1880. In 1924, Congress started an investigation as to why so much money was being spent to store these now useless artifacts. Some were returned to their inventors, museums took others and the rest were sold at auction. Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of what is now Glaxo Smith Kline Pharmaceuticals, bought the majority and was going to set up a museum, an idea that never came to fruition. After his death, they were auctioned off again and again. Eventually they were acquired by Alan Rothschild, a businessman in upstate New York, who has tried in fits and starts to build them a permanent home.

In the meantime, parts of the 4000-piece collection are on display at various times and places. I stumbled upon one such display in a small gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Called "Inventing a Better Mousetrap" it showcases 32 models that show both the ingenuity of people with an idea, plus the model making talents that anyone who ever build a plastic airplane and had parts left over can't help but look at in awe.

For example, if you've ever sat on a swing when there was no one around to push you, you can appreciate Benjamin Schaffer's 1868 idea for an "Improvement in Swings." You push a foot pedal forward and it glides back. Or Conrad Bartling's 1888 model of his "Fence Making Machine," which shows exactly how the posts and wires get put together as you turn the crank. Or A.F. Kitchen's 1868 Rube Goldberg-like "Theft Protection Device," which consists of a door, a weighted chain and a pistol. You can imagine how it works.

Then there's Henry Rosenthal's brainstorm in 1875. Dr. Rosenthal was frustrated when he went out shooting. When the box of live birds was opened, more often than not they would just sit there as opposed to fly off as targets. According to his patent application, "the pigeons will not leave the trap when it is sprung, and have to be frightened out by shouting and throwing stones, etc., which tends to make the sportsman nervous and frequently causes him to lose his shot." His solution was a crouching cat-like doll with coils in its legs. Open the trap, pull the cord and the cat sprang towards the cage, scaring the bejesus out of the birds and into the air, with no noise to distract the guys with the guns. Today there would be an app for that.

There are many more examples, each a brilliant stroke of inspiration, brought to life in miniature. They range from Abraham Morris' "Sofa Bedstead" (an early forerunner of the sofabed), to John Chase Jr.'s "Improved Brick Pressing Machine" to George Evans' elegant "Extension Ladder." And yes, though there is doubt that anyone beat a path to their door, John Kopas and George Bauer actually did make a better "Mousetrap," and you can see how it works for yourself, complete with stuffed miniature mouse and cheese.

The exhibit will be in Washington through November. You can also see one of the other traveling versions throughout the country, or peruse the models online. If you're really into it, you can make an appointment to see the mother lode at the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, New York. But no matter how you see it, doing so reminds one that ideas can be made real, and there is no limit to what can be imagined... and built.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves drawings and models of real things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 11, 2012

No Good Night

Some mornings I wake up early and am the first to slip into the bathroom to get ready for the day. Other times it's my wife's alarm clock that rings, and so she is up and about before I am. In either case, we each have our own morning routines, and generally don't interact right away. But sooner rather than later, when we cross paths, almost always the first thing we ask each other after we say "good morning" is the simple question: "how did you sleep?"

These days the answer is almost always "lousy." Unlike when we were younger and would put out heads down on a pillow and wake up 8 hours later, our nights are more fits and starts. More specifically, they tend to be a series of catnaps connected by trips to the bathroom, staring at the ceiling or working our way through a mental checklist of things to do the next day. We chalk it up to age or diet, to staying up too late or going to bed too early. Maybe it's because we exercised too much; maybe it's because we moved around too little. But the truth is we have no idea why one night we sleep better and the next worse, though it's mostly worse.

If there's any comforting fact it's that we're not alone: studies show that nearly 20% of people in the country experience some form of insomnia on a regular basis. And it turns out that we have company on a much broader scale. In fact, whether you count sheep in Swahili or Bengali, you are part of what some scientists are calling an emerging global epidemic.  In a recently released study in SLEEP, the official publication of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, researchers say that sleep disturbances may indeed represent a "significant and unrecognized public health issue among older people, especially women" in both rural and urban areas. (Of course, when your field of study is sleep, everything tends to look like a nap not taken, but that's another story altogether).

The study included community wide samples in 8 countries across Asia and Africa, and surveyed 24,434 women and 19,501 men age 50 years and older. It seems that no matter where you are in the globe, if you are getting older, you aren't having sweet dreams. True, some demographic groups fared worse than others: according to the researchers, "there was a consistent pattern of higher prevalence of sleep problems in women and older age groups. Additionally, lower education, not living in partnership, and poorer self-rated quality of life were consistently associated with higher prevalence of sleep problems."

There were a few bright spots on the globe, where a good night's sleep is more the norm than the exception. In India, 6.5% of women and 4.3% of men reported sleep problems, while in Indonesia the numbers are even lower: just 4.6% of women and 3.9% percent of men said they lay awake at night. At the other end of the scale was Bangladesh, where nearly half the women (43.9%) and nearly a quarter of the men (23.6%) reported sleep problems. Since Bangladesh eventually sprung from the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, one could wonder if that division was based not on who was Hindu and who was Muslim, but rather who was awake at night to make the trek.

All of this belies the accepted wisdom that our 24-hour, internet-driven, always-connected lifestyle is what's keeping us up. After all, it's hard to make the same case for the rural populations of Ghana, Tanzania and Vietnam, to name just three of the other countries that were part of the study. Yet, sample populations in each of those locales reported various elevated levels of insomnia, more akin to those seen in Chicago or Dallas. And while it's certainly possible that a large number of 55-year-old women in Thủ Dầu Mộ,, a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, can't sleep because they're strung out over the latest firmware update to their iPhones, it's probably not likely.

Still, there is the thought that misery loves company. A comedian once remarked that we might feel more comfortable if we took all the people who walk around New York talking to themselves, and paired them up so they could at least look they're having a conversation. In that vein, should you find yourself lying in bed at 3AM, sign onto Skype and look for someone to chat with in Bolivia or Peru: bet they can't sleep either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford sleeps when he can, because he doesn't sleep when he should. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 04, 2012

For What It's Worth

Sitting on a shelf in our finished basement are books, some dried flowers and a few random objects. Some might call them knickknacks, some tchotchkes, some simply junk. One in particular is a three-inch high sculpture of a gazelle-like creature with its head tucked back, made out of some kind of resin. It was given to my wife by a business associate who brought it back from Africa more than 20 years ago. Regardless of the original cost, were we to have a garage sale, someone might take a shine to it and offer us a nickel to take it away. 

But pretend for the moment that there was a story associated with it. Not a different provenance, mind you, just a literary connection. Let's say that I told you that it originally belonged to a young English girl named Eileen. Back in 1849, she had ventured with her father, the Duke of Waterford-on-Thames, to Cameroon after her mother had died. There she became friends with a small boy name T-ku-s'more, the son a powerful tribal chief. He gave her the small gazelle as protection. He told her if any bad spirits or rival tribes accosted her, she need only show it and they would understand that she was there as a guest of his father and leave her alone. She kept it with her always. Eventually she went back to England, keeping the gazelle as a reminder of her time with T-ku-s'more. 

I could go on. But here's a question: would this elaborate story make a difference to the gazelle's value? Would it now be worth more than a nickel? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. At least that's the upshot of a fascinating "literary and anthropological" experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. Called "Significant Objects," it started in 2009, and has blossomed into a recently published book of the same name. The idea is to take an item, and invest it with significance by creating fiction about it. According to their hypothesis, "the object should acquire not merely subjective but objective value."  

You can say it's hogwash, but the results says otherwise. To see for themselves, the two "curators" started by buying various castoffs at thrift stores and garage sales, never spending more than a few dollars on each. Then they paired each object with a writer, and asked them to create a story in any style or voice than involved the object. Finally, to test if the object is now "significant," they listed each for sale on eBay. As they say in their ground rules, "care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author's byline will appear with his or her story." 

The results are fascinating. A paper fan which originally cost $1.00 fetched $21.50 when accompanied by a story by writer Lakin Kahn. A one-paragraph description by Colson Whitehead boosted the original price of a 33-cent scuffed wooden mallet to a value of $71. And a small Russian figurine, which originally cost $3.00, when paired with a story from writer Doug Durst, finally went for $193.50. All in, the first wave of $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk brought $3,612.5, which went to the contributors. Subsequent outings have raised sums which were split between the writers and various literary-related charities, such as "Girls Write Now," the first organization in the United States with a writing and mentoring model exclusively for girls. 

By themselves, it's likely neither the object nor the fiction would probably fetch much. So why do they conjure up a buyer together? Perhaps the best explanation comes from a write-up in The Independent of London: "If this is a cynical marketeer's scam, rather than a mildly romantic social experiment, then consider me conned. What a thrill to be the nominal owner of a tale told by a favourite author, and to possess the very thing that inspired them – even if that significant object is too darned ugly for any sensible person's mantelpiece." 

As a writer, it's nice to see that there's value in the words. Or more correctly, the words bring value to something else. And so if you like the story of Eileen and T-ku-s'more, I'm happy to flesh it out. And then, with my wife's permission, I'll package it with the gazelle for your enjoyment. All I ask is that bidding starts at $1000.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been writing for a long time, usually for nominal value. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at