Saturday, June 30, 2012

Name Change

It's unusual when a company is happy you've never heard of them. Or when the guy who runs it says, "I'm going to be in the background; I'm going to be boring." But that's exactly the case with Ted Wright, president and chief executive of a firm called Academi From the name, you'd likely guess that it's a company somehow related to education, or perhaps research. But you'd be wrong. That's because Academi is the latest moniker for the company formerly known as Xe. Still drawing a blank? Go back one more masthead, and it might ring a bell: Blackwater Security. 

Yes, Blackwater, the company involved in number of high-profile dustups in Iraq, including a deadly 2007 shootout. Following the outcry over that, they reorganized and rebranded, but it wasn't enough. And so once again they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They're still in the security business, and once again lobbying Baghdad to grant them a license to bring guns and guards into the country to work as a private army for hire. But they're doing it with new business cards. 

It's a tactic that has worked before for many other companies that were seeking a break with their tarnished pasts. Airtran Airways is doing very well as a discount airline, thank you very much. Only those with long memories recall its former incarnation as ValueJet, and the fact that it was grounded after a horrendous 1996 crash in the Everglades. Likewise for Accenture, now a world-wide respected business consulting brand. It's former name? That would be Andersen Consulting, which didn't seem so bad until its parent, Andersen Accounting, became synonymous with "accounting scandal" in 2001. 

Of course, sometimes a change in name isn't driven by scandal. Sometimes the marketing people actually get it right, and find a label that works better than the original. The Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation changed its name in 1924 to International Business Machines, and later tweaked it to IBM. United Telephone was also associated with Centel, which had a piece of Central Telephone, not to mention a stake in Carolina Telephone. None of those really sung, so they dumped them all and consolidated under the name Sprint.  And the recruitment firm TMP Worldwide realized that its best foot forward was the label of its online portal, and so changed the name of their entire company to Monster. 

Then there are those that outgrow their humble beginnings. Jerry Yang and David Filo were students at Stanford when they created what would become the world's #2 search engine and web directory. They called it "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web." Seemed a little cumbersome, so they made an acronym out of "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," and came up with Yahoo. Or take pharmacist Caleb Bradshaw's attempts at a soft drink. He combined carbonated water, sugar, vanilla, rare oils, and cola nuts. The stuff, which he called "Brad's Drink," started to gather a following, so much so that in 1898 the name was changed to Pepsi-Cola. 

In that light, it's not surprising that just recently the Corn Refiners Association tried to polish the image of one of their flagship products. The trade group represents firms that make high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that almost singlehandedly has been blamed for America's bulging waistline. They petitioned the United States Food and Drug Administration to start calling the ingredient "corn sugar," arguing that a name change is the only way to clear up consumer confusion about the product. Or more to the point, it would take the heat off. Alas, their wish was not granted. This just in from Washington: sugar is a term used for a food that is "solid, dried and crystallized." And while liquids can become solids, it usually takes more than just a name  change. 

However, if I were the CRA, I wouldn't give up so easily. They just have to go with something a little more catchy. After all, when "fried" started to become a dirty word, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC. Likewise for Philip Morris and its tobacco business, which rebranded itself Altria.  And if ever was an example of a hard pivot that worked, consider Diet Deluxe. The original name was supposed to put a positive spin on one of the most hated activities any individual can undertake. But when that didn't work, they didn't change the product, they just changed the label. The new name? Healthy Choice. Now doesn't that just feel better?


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thinking of changing his name to M, if only because it's quicker to text. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, June 23, 2012


I looked at my watch, and realized that I had missed the train home. It was late, and the next wasn't due to depart for another half hour. So rather than sit at the station, I wandered into one of the last big box electronics stores in existence. Traffic in the store was light, and the few shoppers that were there were almost outnumbered by the salespeople, many of whom stood around watching a basketball game on TV. I bounced from department to department, eventually coming to a point I never thought I'd reach.

I got enough stuff.

Just as when I was a kid and thought I'd never willingly eat vegetables, or enjoy reading anything that wasn't science fiction, or actually want to put on a sweater, so too did I assume that this day would never come. Surely there would always be one more gadget out there that I'd crave. After all, back then every month there was something shiny and new featured in Popular Science or the Radio Shack catalog that I just had to have. And up until that night last week, while the venue for drooling had shifted to the internet, nothing really had changed.

That's not to say I don 't keep an eye out for things to upgrade my current crop of technological toys with more powerful, updated stuff. Or quickly run out to buy a replacement for something if it breaks. No, what I 'm talking about is adding something new, something that will expand my capabilities, something that will make me grin, even while faced with the truth that my backpack is already heavier than a grunt's in Afghanistan.

When I walked into the store, a shiny display of digital cameras was perched on the counter. I love these things. But I've already upgraded several times. And besides, while I'd love to take the time to take more artful photos, most of those I take these days are quick snaps which I 'm more interested in emailing than printing out and framing. For that I have a phone, a tablet and a computer. Enough is enough.

Cell phones were in the next aisle. Like most people today, I have a box filled with old ones accumulated as I changed carriers and technology. The one currently in my pocket isn't perfect, but it does all I need and then some. It has a built-in address book with room for more numbers than people I know, it tells me when I have a message and actually makes a pretty nice phone call. It tells me train schedules, the weather and has a stopwatch, a calculator and even a compass. In truth, it might be powerful than my laptop, but my fingers are too fat and my eyes too poor to consider that kind of change.

A short stroll brought me to the video department. I have a video camera which I never use, and my phone records motion as well. Move on, sir, nothing to see here. As for TV's, we have screens in every room in our house where you'd want to watch anything. And between the Tivo and online connections, we have plenty of ways of watching movies or old episodes of The Honeymooners. Our cable can be down for days and we'd never know it.

The computer section was last. Lots of shiny new desk machines, laptops and tablets. Got ‘em all. And the new ones basically don't do anything I can't do already. Sure, they're faster and sleeker, but I already waste way too much time staring at glass that isn't a real window. And the keyboards, whatever style, still only have 26 letters. So?

GPS units? My phone and tablets have maps galore. Mini shelf-stereos? I've finally gotten the components at home wired the way I like them. Satellite radio? I've got an unlimited data plan, and gigabytes of music on a chip the size of your pinkie, so another connection doesn't really impress. And in terms of videogames, I was never able to beat Pac Man, so gaming consoles hold no appeal.

I glanced at my watch, and realized it was time to get moving, or miss this train as well. As I walked out past the DVD section, I was reminded of an old Robert Redford film called "The Candidate." In it, he plays an idealistic lawyer who runs for Congress by saying whatever he wants, because no one expects him to win. Of course, he does. In the final scene of the movie, he turns to his aide and utters the words that I too felt appropriate at that moment.

Now what do I do?


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

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Taking a Stand

The problem with politicians these days is that they too often take knee-jerk positions on any topic. Driven by the intense partisanship that exists on both sides of the aisle, you rarely hear a senator or congressman say, "You know, there are two sides to that issue. Yes, I have my own personal feelings, but my job is to listen to the people who elected me, some for it, some against it. I will then do my best to convey those feelings to my colleagues, and see if we can reach an agreement which will represent the will of the people while respecting all viewpoints."

Indeed, recent elections have shown that approach to be fraught with peril. A number of legislators with a history of carefully trying to seek middle ground have been axed in both red and blue states, or have decided it's not even worth trying anymore. And so a member of Congress these days who says out loud that he or she will carefully consider all options before making a decision is, to borrow Jack Kennedy's phrase, a true profile in courage.

And so it is with Max Baucus. The senior Democratic senator from the great state of Montana displayed his legislative evenhandedness in response to a bill sponsored by Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi in May. It would have been easy to sign on to Enzi's legislation, and gather accolades from like-minded voters. But Baucus isn't taking the easy way out. In the words of a press release, "Max is focused on passing legislation that will help Montana businesses create jobs, and looks forward to hearing from Montanans before taking a position." Courage, indeed.

The legislation in question which requires such soul searching? That would be Senate 3248, the "National Bison Legacy Act" to designate the bison as our national mammal.

First, the obvious question: we don't have a national mammal? That would be right. We have a national bird (bald eagle), a national flower, (rose) and a national tree (oak). We had a national Christmas tree, a Colorado blue spruce that was planted on the Ellipse south of the White House, but it died last month. And we do have a lot of other national symbols, from Uncle Sam to Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty. But no mammal.

Obviously we can't call ourselves a real nation without one. Bangladesh has as the Ganges River dolphin and Mexico has the Jaguar. Papua New Guinea has the Dugong, a walrus-seal-manatee kind of thing. And Australia officially has the kangaroo and unofficially the Koala. True, neither are mammals, but rather marsupials. But it's Australia and they're adorable, so cut them some slack.

But back to Enzi's bill. It has no practical effects in terms of conservation or funding. However, in a time of such bitter divide in our country, he sees it as one way for us to bridge the gap that separates us. Says Enzi, "The North American bison is an enduring symbol of America, its people and a way of life." Dave Carter puts it in perspective from a political standpoint: "The one thing we do note is that there's broad support for the bison act, not only just from senators in the West, but across the country and across both parties. This is a non-partisan issue, and it should be a non-controversial issue." However, it's worth noting that Carter is the executive director of the National Bison Association, and so is squarely in the pocket of, well, Big Bison.

Of course, there is a contrary point of view. In Montana, livestock producers and property rights advocates have filed lawsuits to stop the spread of an animal that ranchers say can tear down fences, spread disease and compete with domestic cattle for grass. In Boulder, Colorado, city officials rebuffed a proposal from Ted Turner to donate a bison herd for viewing along U.S. Highway 36, citing cost and public opposition. And we haven't even heard from the other candidates. While proponents are rolling out a "Vote Bison" campaign, there is no word if some deep-pocketed donor is being courted as we speak. After all, Sheldon Adelson backed Newt Gingrich. In that light, is "Vote Cow" really out of the question?

Clearly the national mood needs to be sampled, and debate is just beginning. All those who feel that Congress has lost its stature as a deliberative body are on notice. And kudos to Baucus for, well, not stampeding with the herd. Vote Bison? Maybe. But let's make sure Max gets the input he needs to make an informed decision. Our Founding Fathers would want nothing less.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants the chipmunk to be named as our national rodent. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Big Brother, Big Sister

OK, time for an unscientific poll. Anyone who believes that their personal privacy is sacrosanct, that the only information others should have is what you allow them to have, that no one person except yourself should be the gatekeeper of all the data that exists about yourself, raise your hands. OK, you can put them down.

Next question. All of those who use Facebook, or have an iPhone and use Siri, raise your hands. Now, if you raised them for both the first question and for the second, boy, do I have bad news for you.

First, there's Facebook. If the internet was the first big wave of interconnectivity (computer to computer), and the world wide web the second (a common language all could search and access), then Facebook may well be the third (person to person). Unless you've been buried under a log for the past 10 years, you know that it allows people to post stuff about themselves, and see likewise from "friends."  What's easy to miss is that it is a closed universe: you can't search into it from outside, and those inside hit roadblocks on the way out as well.

In actual use, that may seem like a good thing. Do a Google search for yourself, and while you may get any number of hits, none will be from Facebook. That means that all those pictures of you drunk at that party, or you posting the latest off color joke, or you espousing a political view opposite that of your boss, are not readily available to those not in your orbit. So far, so good. Private life here, public life there, and never the twain will meet.

But not so fast. Just this past week we saw how it doesn't work out quite that way. A front page story in The New York Times told the cautionary tale of one Nick Bergus. Seems Nick has a Facebook page, and posted a link to a funny ad he found on Amazon for a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant.  What he didn't fully appreciate was a little clause deep in the pages of legal gobbledygook we all scroll past to click on the "I agree" button when setting up almost any account these days. That clause gave Facebook the okeydokey to take his "like" and turn it into an ad. And so it wasn't long before his face was married to the product and showed up on others' pages as an advertisement, noting his endorsement as a selling point.

With that in mind it's worth also noting that deep in the filing documents of Facebook's IPO, amid all the discussion about risks and markets, is an acknowledgement that while the public now has a piece of the action, they still don't have much of a say: Mark Zukerberg still controls 57% of the voting rights for the company. So I hope that Nick likes his lubricant: the policy that links him to it isn't something the shareholders will be discussing anytime soon.

And then there's our gal Siri. Apple's voice assistant is the "it" girl of the tech world. But can she keep a secret? Is what you tell her just between you and her? Not so much. The reason is that, once again, as stated in the agreement you clicked on happily when you got your new iPhone 4s, "By using Siri or Dictation, you agree and consent to Apple's and its subsidiaries' and agents' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri, Dictation, and other Apple products and services." In other words, whatever you say, be it an address, a birthday, an appointment, a phone or account number, goes into the maw of Apple for their use down the road. In response, this past week IBM announced it is blocking the service in its facilities. Of course, the Ghost of Job would never do anything nefarious with such information. Would it?

The bottom line is that if you use the internet in any way, from buying a product to checking the weather, to some extent you are living in a fishbowl. Companies see what you're doing, track your interests, and respond in ways calculated to reel you in. You can argue it's the price of doing business. Or you can argue the price of doing business is too high. In either case, like what you like, but just be ready to like it out loud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never posted anything on Facebook except this column. It also appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, June 02, 2012

On Beyond Average

Even if you barely stayed awake in math or psychology or almost any class for that matter, odds are you have heard of the bell curve. It's a way of describing the phenomenon that, when sampling virtually any group, be it human or animal or mineral, the distribution is such that most will fall somewhere in the middle, tapering to fewer at either end. Doesn't matter what you are measuring: size of rabbits, weight of kid's backpacks, shoe size. In almost every case, the vast majority can be defined as "average" with a decreasing amount above or below that marker.

You see this reflected in almost everything around you. If you go to the store, you will find more shirts in medium, fewer in large and small, still fewer in XS and XL. Same goes for automobiles: most are mid-sized, with Smart Cars at one end and Chevy Tahoes at the other. And if the balance starts to shift, the theory still holds: the center moves with it, and the relationship stays intact. Yes, we are all getting fatter. But as the average weight increases, so too does the definition of what average is, and so the distribution plays out as per what you'd expect.

We also think of this as the rule of human achievement, with most of us solidly in the middle, and a decreasing number of superstars and poor performers as you look further out in either direction on the scale. Indeed, schools are designed with this basic assumption in mind, with classes and lesson plans catering to those in the middle, and a few for others who need remedial work or who can fly beyond the material. It's the same be it chemistry or music or gym.

But what if that wasn't the case? What if that so called "normal distribution" was not a report of what has happened, but rather a system that actually forces people to settle into it? That's the conclusion of researchers Ernest O'Boyle Jr., of Longwood University's College of Business and Economics located in Farmville, VA, and Herman Aguinis at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, in their study with a slightly skewed pizza-box title, "The Best and the Rest."

O'Boyle and Aguinis surveyed four broad areas of performance: academics writing papers, athletes at the professional and collegiate levels, politicians and entertainers. They looked at 633,263 people involved in those endeavors, spread over five separate studies involving 198 samples, each surveying achievement in a group. And what they found, contrary to popular belief, was that a small percentage of superstars accounts for most of the performance, while the rest of the population is actually not average, but below average. When plotted they found not a normal "Gaussian" distribution, but a power law "Paretian" distribution. Put more simply, rather than the aforementioned bell curve, you find a sloping right triangle, with a few heavyweights on the far right, and the rest of us clustered to the left on the low end of the scale (Speak for yourself, you're saying, but the truth can hurt).

Take academic paper writing as an example. As the researchers explain, "A normal distribution and a sample size of 25,006 would lead to approximately 35 scholars with more than 9.5 publications. In contrast, our data includes 460 scholars with 10 or more publications. In other words, the normal distribution underestimates the number of extreme events and does not describe the actual distribution well." Or consider achievement in more popular fields, as defined by "Award nominations (Oscars, Emmys), expert rankings (Rolling Stone), and appearances on a best seller list." In every case, a few individuals stand out time and again (I'm looking at you, Meryl Streep) while most others rank their achievement in "People" mentions as opposed to actual accomplishments (can you say "Kardashian?).

The "why" of this anomaly is a question. Perhaps, the paper muses, it's because human achievement is often constrained by outside events, be it an assembly line, classroom or an election. Superstar craftsman, students or politicians can't shine, and so most get lumped into the middle, producing the bell curve we find so comforting. Remove the shackles, goes the reasoning, and more widget makers of whom we can be awed will rise to the top.

Food for thought for the future. In the meantime, you can certainly hide in the center of the curve, comfortable with the rest of us. Or you can throw off the fat part of the curve that is holding you back, move towards the right side, and call Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, and Beyoncé your new homies. Just don't be bound by the numbers. Turns out Mark Twain was right: there are lies, dammed lies, and then there are statistics.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to be extraordinary in an average sort of way. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at