Saturday, July 28, 2012

Landscapes and Tigers and Zombies, Oh My!

It was a beautiful day for an outdoor art show. The heat and humidity had broken, and the sun was shining brightly over the water. We strolled along, wandering in and out of the various booths, looking at paintings, photographs and various other objects d'art. There was an artist who created abstract sculptures in wood, another who made mobiles out of shiny metals. But by and large, the vast majority of subjects fell into a few large categories, including landscapes, animals and beach scenes. 

And zombies. 

Yes, zombies. The undead, the possessed, the bewitched, call them what you will. You probably think of them as flesh eating, humanoid monsters wearing rags and dripping blood. And that's certainly one interpretation. But at booth 64 sat Greg Stones. And while the directory listed his medium as "watercolor," which was certainly true, it didn't list the zombie part. 

Let's be fair: zombies are hot. Also werewolves and vampires. HBO's "True Blood" is entering its fifth season, and has just been renewed for a sixth. There's the mash-up books by Seth Grahame-Smith, including "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," the former on the big screen this year, the later slated for next. Speaking of movies, Tim Burton's remake of "Dark Shadows" is just the latest big budget entry in a long line of films. And it's hard to even count the number of video games that mine the genre, from "Resident Evil" to "City of the Dead" to "Atom Zombie Smasher." 

There's even an ap for that. "Zombies,Run!" is an exercise program to pace you on your morning run. In it, you play the part of a messenger in a post-apocalyptic world . As you jog, between songs on your music playlist, you hear radio transmissions directing you to speed up or slow down to avoid a zombie attack. Do so successfully, and you capture needed supplies to play the game when you return. And if that's not enough motivation to get moving, every now and again you hear rattles and groans from the approaching hoards. 

But back to Stones. Until now, at least as far as I know, the fine art world hasn't really keyed in on flesh eaters. And neither did Stones when he started. True, about a dozen years ago he accidently splattered black paint on a watercolor. "After freaking out for a few minutes, it occurred to me that I could turn those specks of paint in the sky into flying saucers," he writes. "That opened up my brain in a really good way. Soon flying people and nude blue aliens entered the mix. I was having more fun creating my art, and people were having more fun looking at it." 

Then in 2004 he saw the George Romero classic "Night of the Living Dead," and as he put it, "had no choice but to start adding zombies to my paintings." Stones' zombies, however, are well dressed, even if they have the usual zombie tendencies. And while you can certainly buy individual prints of his work, he makes it easy to be fully versed in the ins-and-outs of the particular proclivities of the undead in his collection called "Zombies Hate Stuff." 

This little 64 page book chronicles in delightful images (if zombies can be said to be delightful) all the things zombies really hate: kittens, hippies, sharing, war re-enactors and llamas, to name just a few. Thankfully, if you ever do run across a zombie and need to make idle chatter, the book includes a few things they don't mind, like skiing, babysitting and Canadians. Asked (by himself to himself on his Amazon web page) if the book could actually help us survive a zombie apocalypse, Stones responded, "Yes, obviously. If you know that zombies hate clowns, you will not become a clown, with the added bonus that there will be one less clown in the world. Based on this fact alone, ‘Zombies Hate Stuff' benefits the entire planet." 

Picasso and Monet both had blue periods, then evolved their style to include other tones. Perhaps Stones will move on to other colors or creatures. He went through a penguin phase, and ones that included Bigfoot, aliens and robots. None, however, appear as productive as his zombie period. Speaking as one observer, the art world needed that. And if he continues to grow as an artist, one can only hope that what he did for zombies he does for cupcakes. Or whatever.


Marc Wollin of Bedford gets bored looking at the same stuff. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Olympic Fever

Short of Obama and Romney having an arm wrestling contest on David Letterman, they are about to fade from the front pages. Likewise, JP Morgan, Barclays and Goldman will all be able to get back to some serious market manipulation away from the recent glare of media attention. And if Tom and Katie waited just a bit to split up, there's a reasonable chance no one would actually know about it until Tom was suddenly seen on the town with Katy Perry on his arm. 

That's because next week is the start of the 2012 Olympics from London. And it's a fair bet that the myriad of stories coming out of the games will squeeze out just about everything else in the news. Not to worry, though; all your favorite categories will still be represented. Security issues? Got it. The company handling the hiring of guards has come up woefully short, and some of those they have trained reportedly can't pick a grenade out of your luggage. Fashion? Covered. Ralph Lauren has outfitted the US team in the finest from Guangdong Province. Food? Major kerfuffle. McDonald's, the official junk food supplier to the games, mandated that only their fries can be served, unless the chips come with fish. Diplomacy? It's in there as well. Mickey D's and the London Committee reached an accommodation, so you should be able to find a shop that enables you to satisfy your craving for a Chip Butty (if you didn't know , that's a buttered-bread and French-fry sandwich).  

As for the events themselves, they will be covered like white on rice. Back in 1960, when CBS had Walter Cronkite host the opening ceremonies from Squaw Valley CA, the total on-air time was 15 hours. A little more than half century later, NBC is going all out and then some. Of course, every night will be a non-stop packaging of the best of the games, with heavy focus on gymnastics, swimming and other marquee sports and events. The networks' cable properties like MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo will be given over to games programming as well. And on you will find the Olympic World Feed, which carries every second of every competition, including the awarding of all 302 medals. All in, we're talking about 5,535 hours of coverage.  

You're also about to be subjected to a mind-numbing collection of completely useless information. Not just the records and back-stories of any number of the athletes, but a million bits of fluff that the London Committee and the NBC have spent years gathering to fill any moment of dead air. This goes well beyond the fact that this is the third time that London has hosted the games (1908, 1948 and 2012), or the names and origins of the official mascots (Mandeville and Wenlock, who "depict two drops of steel from a steelworks in Bolton"). If you didn't know, you will also soon find out that the Equestrian events are the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete on equal terms, that the Olympics site will have 525 bird boxes and 150 bat boxes and that there have been free condoms in Olympic villages since the '92 Barcelona Games. 

Then there's the "official." The games are a marketers dream: a worldwide audience that cuts across every demographic, be it age, sex, politics or religion. There are the big names, to be sure: GE, Panasonic and Coke are just a few of the "worldwide partners" supplying money and support. More specifically, you have the official Olympic Song ("Survival" by Muse), the official Olympic Car (BMW) and the official Olympic Phone (Samsung Galaxy S3). There is even an official Olympic Treat Supplier (Cadbury Chocolates) and an official Olympic Smoothie (Innocent Smoothies, available in a variety of flavors including their newest, Blackberries, Strawberries & Blackcurrants). 

In short, it's about to be all things Olympic. Somewhere between all the hype and commercials and feature stories about a 15-year-old archer from Bhutan who trains by shooting birds off the horns of yaks, you may even see a race or two. All you need to do is find out where in that five thousand hours of coverage it is, and plant yourself in front of a screen. Good luck: you'll need the same kind of endurance the athletes have to catch it all.


Marc Wollin of Bedford isn't sure how much if any of the games he'll watch. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What We Care About

If you read the papers online or off, or listen to the news from a network major or minor, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing on the minds of Americans is the race between Obama and Romney. Or the growing crisis in Syria. Then again, perhaps it's the continuing pressure on the Euro, or the increasing belligerence of Iran. After all, those are the stories to which the professionals in  newsrooms are devoting time and manpower, the ones that are gobbling up minutes of airtime and column inches on paper and screen. 

But that's a third party view. It's like when any member of Congress says, "The American people want X." Just where did they hear that? Who are they talking to to get that information? I can't honestly say that in the grocery store or on the train I've heard people discussing trade policy or Medicare reimbursement rates or defense authorization.  

No, if you want to know what people are really thinking about, you need to eavesdrop on their conversations in said store or train, or perhaps even better, look over their shoulders as they tap into their iPhones and iPads and computers. Not as they call up their Facebook pages or their Twitter feeds, but rather the things that puzzle them enough to make them call up a search box and type a few words in the blank space in the middle of the screen. After all, could there be any more direct portal into the collective mind of our fellow countrymen and women than what we all troll the internet about?  

Fortunately, you don't have to invade your neighbors' personal space and actually look over their shoulders. That's because you can you can see what they're doing from the other side, courtesy of Google Trends. Trends is a window into the search engine's workings, one that enables the average user to compare the frequency of one or more search terms to others. For instance, put in "hot dog" and "hamburger," and you will see that over the last 30 days "hamburger" was generally on more minds, save July 4th, perhaps driven by the desire for news of the winner of the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Competition (If you didn't know, Joey Chestnut captured his sixth consecutive title, and tied his own world record by eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. But that's another column). 

Trends let's you slice and dice the data, looking at locales ("coffee" is a clear favorite over "tea" in the US, while it's the other way around in Hungary, and about even in Singapore), time frames (there's almost always a spike in interest in "peanut butter" over "jelly" in December), even languages ("sofa" eclipses "chair" in Danish, while it's the other way around in English). But perhaps the most intriguing feature is a newly redesigned one, one that focuses less on the historical record and more on the current state-of-mind. 

Called "Hot Searches," it gives a snapshot of the fastest rising search terms updated on an hourly basis. According to a post from the official Google Blog, "an algorithm analyzes millions of searches in the U.S. and determines which queries are being searched much more than usual." And in that light, just what is the thing that is most important, most pressing, most urgent in people's minds? 

God help us, but at the moment I am writing this, it's Katy Perry.  

To be fair, she has a new movie out, with its associated splash of publicity and curiosity. Not long before that, the hottest topic was "Andy Griffith," as word of his death at the age of 86 spread. And shortly after that were a raft of Fourth of July related searches, from "fireworks" to "desserts" to "American flag." Now, a day later, as that's all faded, "Jason Kidd" and "Steve Nash" are leading the way, as we move on to the really important stuff, the makeup of NBA teams for the coming season. Not a presidential candidate, tax policy or social issue in sight. 

Basically, all this confirms what we already know. Our attention span is nill, our interests are pedestrian and our focus lies somewhere between that of a puppy and a baby. It's not pretty but it's true. Speaking for myself, I can say that I'm not so easily dis... oh, look, there's a new Oliver Stone movie out. Think I'll google it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford just typed "bathroom fan" into his search engine. He needs a replacement. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Free? Trial!

Free is generally a good thing. Free food, free beer, freedom. In almost every case, the idea of getting something and not having to give anything has almost no downside. But not always. Consider two examples I've been hit with in the recent past. 

In the first, I was looking for a way to share some files with a client. I wanted to post them to a central spot, then have others be able to retrieve them with no hassles. One would think with this cloud-thing that "they" keep talking about that "they" would have figured this one out. So I google-ed and bing-ed around, looking to see what was out there. Some services seemed easier, some harder, some more limited in practice. I felt a little like Goldilocks: at first blush nothing seemed to fit the bill. It would take sitting in them a little longer to suss out which one would be just right for me.  

Luckily, any number offered a free trial with a limited number of days and capabilities. Perfect: I love to try before I buy, especially if I can try, use and be gone before I have to buy. I signed up for one. But in a quick test drive the interface was too clunky (too hard!). I tried another, but the security was lacking (too soft!). Still another and another, all ending on a slight variation of the same result: they just weren't right. In frustration I gave up, and moved on to other projects. 

Shortly thereafter I checked my email, to find a message from one of the services. "It's been an hour since you signed up, and it doesn't look like you're using us!" Well! Nothing like chasing me down. I ignored it. Next day, the same thing: "Hi there. It's been a day since you took us for a test drive, but we haven't seen you sign up for the full package!" Right you are. And you won't. And again the next day: "You're two days into your free trial. How can we help you?" Enough already! And a week later. And a week after that. "You're almost at the end of your trial." Indeed I am. Thankfully. 

Then there is the mailing service I use to send out this column to a more far flung audience. Indeed, some of you read this in that quaint old time medium called a "newspaper." But others in more distant environs see it virtually as delivered to their inbox on a weekly basis. For nearly a score of years it has gone out like clockwork to delight or harass that crowd, depending on your point of view.  

With my account coming up for renewal, I did some shopping around to see if there was another service which would fit the bill. After reading reviews and some small test runs, I settled on one. Again, the ubiquitous free trial was offered. I filled up the address list, uploaded my latest opus, and programed the hammer to drop as it usually does at 430AM on a Saturday morning. Then I went to bed, anxious to see the reaction pour in from my adoring public. Or at least from my mother. 

I work up and checked by inbox. Nothing. I asked around. Nothing received by my wife or son. I quickly checked the site, to see it hadn't gone out, with no explanation offered. Swearing loudly, I deleted the service, then went back to my old haunt, reactivated the account and proceeded to annoy people in the usual way. I typed a poison pen note to the newbie who let me down, with a subject line which was fairly self-explanatory, or so I thought: "You suck!" 

So it was curious when I got an email a few days later with a note from them: "Hi! Just checking in to see how your first week with us was!" Needless to say, I repeated my withering mantra, and hit reply. No response. A few days later, the same chirpy "Just checking how satisfied you are with us!" came back. I responded again, pulling no punches, but losing any hope that I would sear anyone's eyeballs. It is now a chapter best left to history. 

Lesson? Free always comes at a price. All the computerized systems in the world won't replace people if you're selling to people. And please, please: read your mail, and make free trials more free, and less trials.


Marc Wollin of Bedford concedes you sometimes do get what you pay for. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at