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