Saturday, December 28, 2013


Contrary to Edward Snowden's assertions, this past year you didn't have to be the NSA to overhear some pretty damning stuff. Repeated endlessly was President Obama's assertion that "If you like your health plan, you can keep it." But there was also Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's admonition at the Republican National Committee meeting that "We've got to stop being the stupid party." And in an statement that seems like it was uttered by a character in a Saturday night Live sketch, but in fact came from the mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, "Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. Have I tried it? Um, probably in one of my drunken stupors." As writer Christopher Buckley once noted, in the comedy business these statements are what are known as "low hanging fruit."

But it wasn't just politics that provided fodder for the list of top utterances of the year. There was Barry Manilow on the opening night of his Broadway show: "I was the Justin Bieber of the '70s. Really. Ask your mother." Then-IRS official Lois Lerner, in responding to reports that the agency was selectively targeting right-wing groups for audits, noted, "I'm not good at math." And how to take Kanye West (anytime, to be sure, but in particular) when he says" If I had to write my title, I would literally write ‘creative genius' except for two reasons: Sometimes it takes too long to write that, and sometimes I spell the word ‘genius' wrong. The irony." The irony, indeed.

Herein are some of my favs that likely rank below the top ten, but should not pass unnoticed.

"I'm basically the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen." - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

"If you're not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you've got nothing to worry about." - South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on NSA surveillance.

"I always feel like an idiot every time I fly first class because I'm a kid. And I just sit there, and everyone's got their newspapers and they're on the computer, and I'm like, ‘Can I get a coloring book, please? Can I get some crayons?'" - Actress Jennifer Lawrence.

"This administration does not support blowing up planets." - Paul Shawcross of the White House Office of Management and Budget in rejecting a petition for the creation of a national-defense "Death Star."

"I told you Skyler, I warned you for a solid year: You cross me, and there will be consequences." - Walter White in "Breaking Bad."

"The Pope buys a 1984 Renault. Now, there's a man who believes in the power of prayer." - Tom and Ray Magliozzi of NPR's "Car Talk."  

"Some of us feel we are in a circular firing squad." - West Virginia Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito about the government shutdown.

"I'm worried that if we don't win, I'm going to shout out obscenities and that's not classy." - Actress Betsy Brandt on "Breaking Bad" Emmy nominations.

"The daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends. The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting. Eat more. Commute less." - Writer David Brooks in a commencement address at Sewanee: The University of the South.

"There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in prejudice and racism, and they just have to die." - Oprah Winfrey.

"If standing for liberty and the Constitution makes you a Wacko Bird, then count me a proud Wacko Bird." - Senator Ted Cruz.

"They kind of stayed on the perimeter like the Red Sea. I felt a little like Moses." - Kobe Bryant after playing the Brooklyn Nets.

"I was lucky enough to know Jimi Hendrix. How cool is that?" - Paul McCartney at the Bonnaroo Music Festival.

"She can't dance, her body looked like hell, the song wasn't great, one cheek was hanging out. And, chick, don't stick out your tongue if it's coated. If you're going to go that far, then think about it before you do it." - Cher on Miley Cyrus' Video Music Awards performance.

"I share this with my sweet friend Amy Poehler. Amy, I've known you since you were pregnant with Lena Dunham." - Tina Fey on winning a Screen Actors Guild Award.

"I need this job like I need a hole in the head." - John Boehner, Speaker of the House.


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 21, 2013

What You Really Want

See that one over there? Socks. The long one closest to the bottom of the tree? Looks like a tie. And the big flat one near that drooping piece of tinsel? Either a sweater, pajamas or a new robe. All nice thoughts to be sure. But not what you really craved. In fact, odds are that you wouldn't even be wowed by a new flat screen TV, a latte' machine, even a bespoke pair of Uggs. Sure, any of those might be OK for some people. However, I know what you really want . I mean, yes, you NEED new underwear. But WANT? Here's the stuff you really wish you would find under your tree.

iWatch. Alongside the release of the new iPhone 6 next year (yes, they just rolled out the 5. Get over it.) THE tech toy to have will be the iWatch. With the release of Samsung's Galaxy Gear Watch, the kids in Cuppertino are just chomping at the bit to show off. They still have some minor tweaks to work out, like the exact size of the unit and some battery issues, but it's coming. Early prototypes are surfacing, and include such reported "wow" features as the ability to charge wirelessly from a meter away from it's base. Whether it works well or not is immaterial. If you consider yourself cool, you hope to find a picture of this under the tree.

Personal Drone. President Obama and Jeff Bezos aren't the only ones that can have their own remotely piloted aircraft. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV's, are available from any number of sources for as little as $300. What to do with it? You can use it for aerial photography or delivering stuff to your neighbor. One sportsdad is recording his kid's football moves from above for use in a recruiting tape. And rather than a ring bearer, a guy in San Francisco had his wedding bands delivered to him during the ceremony by a drone piloted from the back row by his brother. Just think how cool it would be during your Super Bowl viewing party to deliver that hot dog to your buddy in the den via air.

Self Driving Car. You might have to be James Bond to have an Aston Martin, but you can be you and have an Infiniti or a Mercedes or an Acura, each of which comes with some variation on Radar Assisted Drive. This system regulates your speed in relation to the car in front of you, speeding up and slowing down as necessary. The Infiniti goes one step further, with Direct Adaptive Steering, which severs the direct link between the steering wheel and the turning wheels. A computer not only makes corrections per your movements, but can take over completely, so you don't need to turn the wheel at all. Add in Active Lane Control cameras, the car doesn't VIRTUALLY drive itself, it DOES drive itself. If you're an acronym fan, just tell the salesman you want RAD, DAS and ALC.

Outdoor HD TV. The C SEED 201 is billed as the world's largest outdoor LED display. Rising 15 feet into the air from its underground bunker at the touch of a button, it is a 201 inch screen viewable in broad daylight. Think the HD screens at Cowboy Stadium or Giants Stadium, just backyard size. Neiman Marcus is offering it as part of a package which includes a matching Dolby 7.1 surround audio system, a DirecTV satellite receiver and DVD management system, including 300 movies and concerts to pass the time between football games. The cost is $1.5 million, but you can also upgrade the sound to the C SEED 78 CAT MBX Giant Outdoor Loudspeaker system for an additional $1 million. And who wouldn't?

Health Care Plan. The gift that keeps on giving. Need I say more?

So next week on Christmas morning, remember to smile politely and say "thank you" to your spouse, the kids and your mother-in-law. And then when no one is looking, log into Amazon and return it all for a store credit. Sure, you may have to eat a few shipping charges, but keep your powder dry: the iWatch is due out come September.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is still trying to figure out what he wants from Santa. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sitting in Judgment

It was a week like any other. I ate at a restaurant or two, took a flight back and forth to a project, purchased a few things, resolved an issue with a credit card. Nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly things I have done before in days and weeks and years past and will do again, most without a second thought. But more and more I find I have to have a lot of second thoughts. Actually, seconds, thirds and fourths. That's because I have to relive every experience so that I can respond to the seemingly endless barrage of emails asking me to chime in for the good of all of you, and post my ratings.

No one used to care what I thought. Oh sure, they, they might say "what did you think of the movie?" or "was dinner any good?" or "how was the book?" But it was just fodder for polite conversation. No one really listened to my opinions, or God forbid, made plans based on them. After all, what kind of training did I have in film production or in the culinary arts or as an author? (Well, some, but you get the idea) Like you, I knew if I liked something or hated it. I also knew that as often as not there were others who had the polar opposite reaction: "You LIKED that restaurant? I got food poisoning there!" As my mother said, that's what makes for horse races.

Yet suddenly I'm a professional critic. Within a one hour span this week, I got earnest emails from an airline, a hotel chain and a credit card company. They don't just want my opinion, they crave it. "We NEED your feedback." "PLEASE Tell us about your flight! "How did WE do??" And if I delete the email or forget to respond? Less than 72 hours later, a follow-up kick in the pants request to do my homework: "You haven't responded yet!" "A few moments is all we ask!" "Perhaps you didn't see our request!" I half expect to get to the airport next time, have my ticket scanned at the gate and alarm bells ring: "Sorry, sir, we can't let you board until you complete our survey."

And it's not enough that I give them 3 forks or 5 pillows or 7 ducks. I have to dissect my experience, parsing every aspect of my visit. "Now that you've given us your overall rating, please take a moment to let us know some of the details." I mean, it was fine: what else do you want to know? "How was the bed?" (three snores) "Was the room clean?" (four mops) "Did you enjoy the in-room snacks?" (zero swizzle sticks: it was $7.50 for 4 cashews.)

But wait: there's more. Part 2 encourages me to write a novella capturing the full gestalt of my experience. It starts with tick boxes: "Check all that apply: Romantic dinner. Great view. Foodies welcome." Funny, I never see a box for "rude waiter" or "too much salt." Then it gives me free rein, as if I'm writing an essay to gain admittance to college: "Title of your review? (Example: This hotel has great features!)" OK, how about "Overpriced, but Close to Office." And in an anti-Twittter huff, I'm required to offer a minimum: "Please note that you must write at least 25 characters." So I guess "sucked" wouldn't qualify: it's 19 letters too short.

Finally the kicker: "Would you recommend us to a friend?" After all, in this Facebook-Instagram-LinkedIn-Pintrest world, nothing is thought to be as persuasive as your homies telling you who has the best burger. Interestingly, you always thought that your BFF Cynthia wouldn't know homemade pasta if it bit her on the nose, but these days a nod from her is thought to be the holy grail.  

So in that spirit, before you leave, please complete this short survey. Part 1: "On a scale of 1 to 37.5, please rate this column." Part 2: "Check all that apply: Snappy writing. Great pop culture references. Used all 26 letters." Finally and most important: "Would you recommend this column to a friend?" But I have a Part 4: "If your answers to any of the above are negative, please keep your opinion to yourself."


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually deletes the surveys he gets. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

If You Play It, They Will Come

Ask almost any musician why they do what they do, and they will tell you that they aren't out to make money. That's not to say it's not nice to sell a few tracks or CD's, or give a performance for a paying audience. But the fact is that there are very few Justin Timberlakes or Beyonces compared to the number of talented people performing and recording. For most it's a calling, and the goal is simply to get people to hear what they sing or play. And if they are lucky enough to combine the two, to find a receptive audience and make a living doing it, well, that's as good as hitting the lottery.

Dan O'Connor is one such case. By his own admission, he was "an unknown New York singer songwriter." A jazz guitarist, he wrote and recorded any number of his own tracks, gigging locally and picking up some nice reviews here and there. Back in 2008 he created a one page website to help spread his music, and put 7 songs on it. He got a few hits, but nothing major to speak of. Then he had an idea: "One day I updated the page to say that people could include the music in their videos. Well, the response was overwhelmingly positive. It turned out that small business owners, game developers, video producers, independent artists and online entrepreneurs needed cheap, quick music they could use for commercial purposes." Word got out, and usage started to take off.

He took a two-pronged approach. For those willing to give him credit, Dan offered his tracks for free. All you had to do to use the bluesy "Flying While Weeping" under your travel montage, or the Coldplay-esque "Sunspark" in your video game, was to place a graphic somewhere within the work that said "Music by Dan-O" along with a link to his website. Or if you couldn't do that, you could pay him $10 and then use it as you saw fit. No pun intended, but it struck a chord: "Commercial YouTube videos and Danosongs turned out to be a killer combination." And more and more visual artists of all kinds looking for tracks to back their work found their way to his site.

I asked him why he didn't just charge for his music to all comers. He said that while he does sell it, the exposure he gets from the free uses results in far more listeners than he might get otherwise. And since he maintains a web of availability, with his tracks on iTunes, Amazon and the like, people who see his credit click around and buy the tracks they hear or are led to his other efforts. The net result is that "when anyone searches danosongs or a song name they like, I am one click away on their favorite music service. So it turns out that this one basic idea, to give people a practical use of my music, has created all kinds of income opportunities. It pays a lot more of my bills that I ever thought it would!"

Dan has continued to expand his offerings, and now posts nearly 100 tracks on his site. The basic deal is still in place, along with an option to buy unlimited access to all his tracks for $49, a bargain if ever there was one. Now, some five years after he started the project, many have found his stuff perfect for their efforts. Search "danosongs" on YouTube, and you can find his tracks backing everything from "Intermediate Yoga for a Beach Bod" to "Blue Sparkle Galore Nail Art Design Tutorial" to "St. John Fischer College Countdown to Commencement." At last check, there were over half a million videos that feature his music.

Dan continues to write and record new efforts and post them to the site. When I asked him how he promotes it, he said that he doesn't have to: "The community and word of mouth around Danosongs does 90% of the work. I mainly just create the music and share it. The rest is up to the amazing creative folks who use my music." And that drives him to write and record even more: "It's a real blessing, which offers an incredible artistic freedom that I truly appreciate."


Marc Wollin of Bedford would have loved to have the talent to be a musician. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

And They're Off!

If you are Jewish, the rush, be it emotionally, physically and/or economically, is already over. That's because for the first time since 1888, the holiday most closely associated with Hanukkah is not Christmas, but Thanksgiving. And so if your turkey this year was accompanied by latkes as opposed to mashed potatoes, as the saying goes, stick a fork in you because you are done with your gift gathering. You can sit back and watch the rest of the populace go mano-a-mano in the great tradition known as the "Christmas Shopping Season."

Even if you take the Hanukkah shoppers out of the equation, this year's retail slugfest promises to be even more competitive than the last. That's because through yet another quirk in the calendar, there are just 26 shopping days between turkey day and Christmas, 6 fewer than last year. It's just one more reason pushing big box retailers like Walmart, Macy's, Kohl's and Best Buy to push Black Friday to Thanksgiving Day itself. And lest you think it's just the brick and mortar retailers that are the only ones ramping up the action, Amazon recently announced a deal with the US Postal system to deliver packages on Sundays.

So what are you going to have to wrestle away from that woman in front of you in line just pretending to be a grandmother? For sure there will be tablets and videogames, sweaters and gloves, as well as things that sparkle in the light and others that require batteries to do the same. But a quick look finds some things that really are different, certainly enough so that those receiving them will not be lying when they say, "Well! I never saw that coming!"

For instance, with cold weather approaching, you might want to consider the Call Me Gloves. For sure this pair is cozy warm, but they are also Bluetooth enabled, and sport a microphone in the pinkie and a speaker in the thumb. When your phone rings, just press the "Answer" button the left cuff, and hold your hand up to your face in the universal "call me" hand symbol to talk. Just be prepared for lot of weird looks as people see you chatting into your hand.

If you know someone who takes their barbeque seriously, you might want to consider the Pit Boss Pro BBQ Tool Belt. Just like a carpenter has the perfect spots for a hammer and tape measure, the Pit Boss has a holster for tongs, a loop for a thermometer, pockets for shakers of seasonings and bottles of sauce, and 2 insulated "quick draw" cozys for beer. It also comes with "Chow Chaps" that clip onto the belt and hang down, so the grease on the tongs doesn't get on your pitmaster's pants.

Cyclists, are like golfers, are always looking for that special something to perfect their ride. Odds are the ones you know already have a helmet, water bottle and gloves. They likely also have a handlebar mounted cycling computer or mount for their phone, and a mirror to see behind them. But bet they don't have video. That's right; just like the one in your Lexus, the Rearview Bike Camera with its handlebar mounted screen lets them see behind themselves without turning around. Now they can tell if someone really is following them.

Finally, if your tough guy or girl thinks they have the stuff, the Bear Grylls Survivor Course just opened its US outpost in the Catskills. Gyrlls, know as much for his lack of squeamishness in the wilderness as for the lack of vowels in his name, has taken his popular cable TV "Man vs. Wild" show, and made an audience participation experience like few others. Taking reservations now for the inaugural outings in the spring, you can sign up for a 5-day survival course or 24-hour family adventure. Personally speaking, I'd like to see how he preps his two younger boys to handle survival when they get to middle school: his seven-year old is named Marmaduke, while his 4 year-old is Huckleberry.

Better get going. None of these items will last, and you don't want to get caught having to settle for buying yet another set of socks. Unless you just give up on this year, that is, and set your sights on next: in that light, note that there are just 391 days till NEXT Christmas.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't even started to think about the holidays. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Colder Older

You can debate the cause, haggle over the actions needed or not, and try and link current worldwide shifts to it. But the underlying data and science is indisputable: the world is getting warmer. That has implications for food production, as warmer weather favors some crops and threatens others. It will have health repercussions, as more moderate climates will increase the prevalence of some diseases while decreasing others. And in this country, with 39% of the population living in counties that are directly on the shoreline, rising ocean levels due to ice melt will reshape our population centers, driving people inland. Oklahoma City could well be the new Miami.

So if it's getting warmer, why am I so cold?

Yes, I know it's turning to winter, and the weather snapped last week from 40 on Tuesday morning to sub 20 wind-chills by lunch. But then this week it's inching its way back up, with forecasted 60 degrees or better for mid-November. There is some research that suggests that these increasing and unusual swings are also a result of global warming. Called "weather whiplash," it's not so much these "but I just pulled out my heavy coat, and now you're telling me I just need a windbreaker?" kinds of days. It's a more wholesale change in the overall seasonal variation, the kind that makes for a wetter than normal spring or dryer than normal fall, where the resulting outcome is that crops don't grow.

Still, on a personal level, while I know I should care about the wheat harvest, I'm more concerned about why I feel the need for wool socks. It's true we keep our house colder than many. With a big house, four heating zones and just two of us bouncing around, we use setback thermostats and active fiddling to get heat only where we need it. My wife and I have more or less mastered the situation, pushing up the temperature selectively as we inhabit certain spaces, augmented by almost always having on multiple layers of clothing. That would also explain why our oldest came home for a visit, and appeared at breakfast in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. We had forgotten that other, less hearty souls were entering our custom environment, where polarfleece is de rigeur.

But regardless of the wider and wilder swings outside, we are master of the inside. Still, as I sit here writing, my feet are colder than usual. It turns out that there is good scientific explanation here as well, and it has nothing to do with climate change per se. Yes, there is a chance that I have an underlying medical condition that is causing my discomfort, something like hypertension or diabetes. It could also a side effect of the daily medications I take, just as some antihistamines cause increased sensitivity to light. But as with most things, the simplest explanation is most likely the most correct: I'm simply getting older.

Turns out your mother was right: she really was feeling colder than you, even if she made you put on a sweater too. As we age, our metabolic responses slow down, as well as our circulation. The net of that is that we feel colder even if the temperature is constant. Interestingly, studies have also shown that older people may have lower temperatures in general.  According to a study done at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, mean body temperature decreased with age. In fact, low body temperature turns out to be biomarker for longevity. But the science is still unclear on the correlation itself: are the older colder, or the colder older?

Either way you look at it, I've been pushing the thermostat up sooner and further. Should you come to visit, you can rest assured it will be more comfy and you can safely take off your scarf. By the same token, when I come to your place or head out to work, expect me to almost always have a fleece on over my shirt and under my coat. For now at least, I'll just try and adjust for my own world, and leave the big picture forecasting to the experts to figure out. Or as ex-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda noted, "The only way I'll worry about the weather is if it snows on our side of the field and not theirs."


Marc Wollin of Bedford just bought a new setback thermostat for the bedroom. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Throwing in the Towel

As of this writing, while we have had ongoing discussions as to how much more we can take, we haven't set a pull-out date. But until that time is decided and announced publicly, it would be foolish to let down our guard. So we've erected fortified barriers to protect us. We've undertaken regular scouting missions to find breaches in our perimeter. And we've worked closely with the locals to see if we can turn the tide. But as much as we hate to admit it, we just know are going to lose in the long run. And when all is said and done, they're going to take back their territory.

The Taliban, you ask? No, the deer.

Every year at this time, the leaves turn their brilliant ambers and russets. But what is a sight to behold for us is an indication that the food in the fridge is spoiling for them. And so our four-footed friends, who have been gorging out of sight since spring, start to edge their way closer and closer to those ornamental plants and shrubs around the house. The ones that we've carefully shaped and pruned. The ones that provide screening and coverage. The ones that stay green. They, however, see them in a different light: as a snack just waiting to be gobbled.

And so come Halloween (or actually when I see my neighbor Ron doing it in front of his house), I crawl under the deck and haul out the posts and the plastic fencing. When we first moved here twenty plus years ago, we used thin poles and lightweight netting that "disappeared" when we put it up. It didn't take long to realize that a 200 pound buck would push through that like it was tissue paper. It dissuaded him from nibbling not because it physically stopped him, but because he got tired of a mouthful of plastic. That meant that it worked OK in the beginning, less so deeper into the season as it got jostled by weather and attempted breaches, and then not at all as it got colder and they got hungrier. Several times a winter I had to trudge out in snow boots with a staple gun in hand, and try and rescue the dangling shards and reknit them into a barrier. Needless to say, it was a losing battle by February.

Then one year a lawn guy suggested we put up sturdier stuff. So we moved from the lightweight set we had to a more industrial strength approach. The uprights are now 4 inch rough-hewn posts, while the netting is a black version of the type they use at construction sites to stop people from falling into foundation pits. Held together with plastic tie wraps, it's a formidable defense, though we do feel like we are living inside of Stalag 13.

But it's hardly a permanent installation. With frost heave pushing the post foundations here and there, and snow weight causing the netting to sag and buckle, I still have to make a few excursions in the bitterest of weather to tighten up our defenses.  Occasionally I have to counter-stake a post that won't stay upright, or construct a patch for a spot on the netting that's been eaten through. I feel like the little Dutch boy on the dike, jamming my fingers into holes that keep springing up, hoping the wall will hold until the water recedes, or in this case, till spring comes. And while I may breathe a sigh of relief come April, I know I will only have to repeat the whole exercise again next October.

At the University of Wyoming, on the limestone facade over the engineering department this is chiseled: "The Control of Nature is Won, Not Given." With respect, I would disagree. I think a more accurate construction would be "The Control of Nature is Borrowed, Not Won." Sure, you can hold a river at bay, shore up a dam, or in our case, tighten the fencing. But sooner or later we all give in, and Mother Nature will reclaim her rightful place. The jungle took back Angkor Wat and the Mediterranean is working on Venice. In that light, in our neck of the woods, we know the outcome: Bambi will eventually win.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is ready to toss in the deer fencing towel. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Other Left

Quick quiz: I'll name a cable news outlet, you say "left" or "right." I say Fox News: you say right. I say MSNBC: you say left. Let's move on to web sites. Huffington Post? Without a doubt, left. Drudge Report? Most would say right. Now, newspapers. Wall Street Journal? Right, for sure. Washington Post? Lefty, no doubt. And for the bonus round: CNN? Sorry, there is no category "trying hard to be in the middle and just wind up looking silly."  

Now, subscribing to one side or the other is no sin in and of itself. People have a point of view, and they are welcome to espouse that. Just don't try and pretend otherwise. Is there anyone who really believes Fox News is "Fair and Balanced?" After all, it's a high bar: if you have as your slogan "The Ring of Truth" (Joliet Herald-News ) you hold yourself to an impossible standard. That's because in today's world, virtually any "truth" can be challenged by a competing point of view available within three clicks on Google. Perhaps it would be better for news organizations to stick to more generic slogans. I mean, it's hard to argue with the Telegram and Gazette in Worchester, MA when they say "We've Got News For You!" And who can quibble with the Mason Valley News in Yerington, NV with their proclamation, "The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Damn About Yerington."

But what if you're a so-called "paper of record?" The New York Times deems itself so, famously saying since 1896 that it carries "All the News That's Fit To Print." While that may be the case, there are few who would argue that the paper leans left. As such, to many conservatives, it is just another house organ of the liberal elite, or as Sarah Palin calls it, the "lamestream media."

With one exception, that is: style and grammar. Since 1999, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has been the unseen arbiter of how the paper writes. If for no other reasons than the paper’s history and circulation, that has made it one of the de facto standards of everyday grammatical usage, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. The guide recently received an update, reflecting the changing times. As described in the "After Deadline" column, "We're deleting some outdated entries: we don't expect a rash of college girls or authoresses in our pages. Dated, offensive or insensitive terms like mongoloid or admitted homosexual don't seem to require guidance any longer. And yes, we all know that bikini, for the bathing suit, is lowercase; no reminder necessary."

So it caught my eye when I saw an article in the NYT on a political contest in Alabama, accompanied by pictures from the scene. A modified triptych, it had one large shot of a candidates forum, under which were two snaps of the gentlemen facing off against one another. The captions for all three were contained in a single paragraph, set below and to one side. The first line of text was devoted to a description of the scene on top, while the next line went as follows: "At far left, Bradley Byrne; at nearest left, Dean Young."

Now, there was a construction I don't think I've ever seen: "nearest left." In a row of people, perhaps you might start at the "far left" and work your way across. But in a simple set of two? I would have gone binary: "on the left is Bradley, on the right is Dean." Could it be that the word came down that we wish to discredit one side so much that we will henceforth use left as often as possible, and not even acknowledge the other side of the coin? Or in a nod to the classic sitcom "Newhart " and the brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl, are we now talking about left and my other left?  

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. But these days we find ulterior motives in everything. Apple's new operating system is remaking the world of design, and Obamacare is a threat to our very freedom. In this case, however, it may be just what it seems: a bored writer's attempt to have some fun and slip something past his editor. After all, as Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


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

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Good Bank

They may not be making any profit, but one thing you can say about Amazon: they give good service. If you have a problem, the process and response is almost always painless. Contrast that with the financial arena. Be it a bank or investment company (and they are more or less inseparable these days), trying to resolve a problem with a loan payment or mortgage can mean entering the seventh circle of Hell. But we put up with it because, as Willie Sutton is credited with saying, that's where the money is. (He actually never said that; a reporter made up the quote.) So when I was balancing my checkbook recently and saw a missing deposit, I gritted my teeth for what was to come.

Quick setup: for some accounts, we use Fidelity Investments. Via their online portal, I pay bills and move cash around as needed. Recently, they opened a physical location near us, and I have gotten several calls and emails from John, the guy there who was tasked to be our "prime" contact. But having occasionally gone in to that location and others to deposit checks, and had merely OK experiences, I have been just as happy to transact via mail and web.

So when I discovered the missing deposit, I clicked online and sent a note. It was a relatively small check, one of a weekly series generated by my business. Some weeks I don't even bother depositing them; I accumulate several, and send in a batch. Recently, I started saving the stamp, and used the new "take a photo of your check and the funds magically appear in your account" app. Ain't technology amazing?

My note was bucked to John and his associates, and they sent me an email. Seems the check was marked as a duplicate and was being returned. I assumed human error was in play: it was duplicate amount, not a duplicate check, and someone in their back office just got confused. It happens. Not a big deal, I would just resubmit it. Have a nice day.

When I got it back and tried again using the electronic photo feature, the system rejected it. A little more steamed this time, I sent another note. John responded that the system must be having issues. If I just stopped by or sent it to him, he would resolve it himself. I did so, and a few days later got yet another missive: it was still showing as a duplicate, and they would return it again.  

At that point I had enough. I had the original deposit slip clearly showing two checks with identical amounts, not duplicates. I fired off a terse email, stating that if they couldn't do their job, I would do it for them. I demanded copies of all checks in that amount for the last 90 days. I would show them the one-for-one match, and why it was their screw-up. They wrote back, saying I would have the images shortly. And because they were sorry for the trouble I was having, they put $100 into my account as a goodwill gesture.

Now, I have NEVER had a bank give me anything beyond a refrigerator magnet. It cooled me down a bit as I waited for the copies to arrive. When they did, I went to work, anxious to show them the error of their ways. Of course, you know the punch line: the error was mine. I had deposited the check once via the phone app, not marked it as such, and then sent it in physically as well, the very description of a duplicate deposit. I wrote John and his people a chastened note, apologizing for being yet another stupid client, and asked them to reverse their goodwill deposit. They graciously refused, telling me to keep it as a token of the value they place on my business.

So while there may be official "bad" banks as an accounting gimmick, on the basis on this experience, I have to place at least one in the "good" category. John and his gang at Fidelity earned my trust and their stripes. True, Amazon will let me download music, while Fidelity won't let me do the same for cash. But certainly on the service front, they are closing in on the gold standard. And odds are that the download money thing may not be far behind.


Marc Wollin of Bedford pays his bills online on Sunday mornings in his bathrobe. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hooping the Night Away

In my world, there are often lulls in the action for all involved. During them, it's not uncommon to see a member of the crew sitting quietly by themselves. Most spend the time staring at their smartphones, catching up on email or surfing the web. Some bring a book, or read the newspaper. Colleen was – well – what was she doing? While it looked like knitting, on closer inspection it involved wires and tubing and LED lights. I had to ask, and the answer was not what I was expecting: she was making lighted hula hoops.

That's because Colleen has a company called Hyperbola dedicated to world of hooping. ("Unfortunately, it sounds a lot like 'pooping' when you say it fast. I have gotten some strange looks from people who ask what I do when I forget to enunciate.") She got interested in hooping after a friend she met in Las Vegas on a job invited her to a poi-spinning gig. She explained: "Poi is a Maori performance art originating in New Zealand which uses weighted balls on long strings swung around your body, and are often lit on fire. I am (still) a very bad poi-spinner." But a cousin of poi-spinning is hooping, and it turns out she was (and is) a very good hoop spinner. And so an interest turned into a hobby turned into a business.

Coleen's background in music and dance was a natural fit for twirling a ring around your body. While the basic idea is no different from when you swung a cheap plastic Wham-O model around your waist as a kid, more recently it has been raised to an art form and formal physical fitness discipline, helped along by things such as the Zumba craze. Such well known groups as Cirque du Soleil have integrated it into their shows. And it has even achieved the ultimate in validation, as it is a regular feature of the Rhythmic Gymnastics event at the Olympics.

Colleen has slowly grown the business, though it's hardly full time yet. As a certified instructor, she teaches classes on hooping as part of an overall active and healthy lifestyle. She occasionally does performances and events, often demoing her custom product. And that's what I saw her working on that day: constructing and selling a professional grade piece of equipment, including weighted ones of various sizes and colors, as well as a line that has LED lights, perfect for hooping the night away.

But the question comes of what else can you do other than roll it down the street with a stick or swing one around to a Chubby Checker song. Watch Colleen (and others) in YouTube performances, and you can see how far it can go. To be sure, there are those who can twirl it effortlessly, around not only their waists, but their arms, legs and necks, transitioning from one to the other almost magically. But it's more than that. In one video featuring Colleen called "Laid to Rest," she is shot in a cemetery mostly in silhouette. With a slow, building yet haunting soundtrack from an English band called Dusky that sounds like an electro pop version of Kenny Rankin, it looks less like dance then kinetic sculpture, as she twirls and sweeps the hoop up and around, creating an optical illusion of a rotating circle that stands out against a blue sky. There's something simultaneously relaxing and mesmerizing in the movement.

Right now Hyperbola is a sideline, but Colleen is seeing how far she can take it. During her busy summer season, she makes and sells a lot of hoops at festivals, fairs and the like. Year round she holds classes, teaching and the spreading the gospel of hooping. Overall, Colleen says her goals are several: "I want to share and help others achieve some of the benefits I have reaped from hooping, like a better awareness of my body and how I need to care for it. There's also the self-discipline and structure of practice, and a sense that everything I do is a journey TOWARD but never all the way TO perfection. And it's great connecting with a community of like-minded people that make me love all of my silly ‘faults' and insecurities." But the real kicker? "Hooping is FUN; just try to be sad when you're hooping!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford was never really good at hula hoops. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wish List

My wife and I, we're a little out of the toy market. With our kids in the their twenties, it's been a while since we spent any serious time perusing the latest in games or crafts or things that need "C" or "D" batteries. And since we had boys, we mercifully never got into doll territory: dolls that is, as in babies and Barbies, as opposed to action figures. I'm pretty sure if you root around in our attic, we have at least one complete set of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael, known even to non-parents as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Still, there are no current occupants of our house that clock in under five decades. And so it's hardly surprising that we missed the rollout of the "must have" lists of playthings published by the big retailers for the holiday season. Yes, it seems we just passed "back to school," haven't yet made it to Halloween and Thanksgiving is still a distance mirage. But after Labor Day, all that matters is that the Christmas shopping season is upon us, and so Walmart, Kmart and Toy R Us have already published their "this is what your kids will whine about until you are ready to go out and kill other parents who stand in your way of buying them" manifests for this year.

Described more benignly as "Wish Lists," there are several toys that appear on each, and so would seem as though they will be very much in demand. And while it seems forever from now, the holiday will come sooner than you think. On top of that, if you are of the Jewish persuasion, note that this year your clock is seriously advanced: in this year of 5774, the first candles of the Chanukah will be lit the evening before Thanksgiving. So perhaps it's not too soon to drop a line to Amazon, and get the UPS driver headed your way before he gets too overworked.

What's on the lists? Some new stuff, to be sure, but perhaps more surprising, some variations on oldies that seem to define the term "staying power." For instance, one of the top draws is expected to be the Big Hugs Elmo doll. At 22", he's big indeed, bigger than some of the kids who will get him. He sings 3 different songs, has 50 different sounds and phrases, and encourages kids to make-believe with him in the roll of an astronaut, horse, rabbit or frog. If you hold him up and hug him, he hugs you back. And when done playing with him, just put him on his back: he sings a lullaby and flops his arm as he falls asleep. Personally, I think it looks like he's dying, but hey, I'm not three years old.

Another variation on an old favorite is the latest Furby, called Furby Boom. A cuddly looking egg shaped doll with an outsized personality, it really only comes to life with the associated iPad app. If you put the iPad near the Furby, they pair up, and you can use a virtual shower app to clean it, an x-ray app to diagnose what ails it, and even a toilet app to help it relieve itself, the doll reacting appropriately in each case. Thankfully, you can also virtually flush the loo, and then spray some air freshener. I wish I was kidding; I am not.

Perhaps in the spirit of Obamacare, there's the Doc McStuffins Check-Up Center, encouraging your budding health care worker to operate on and fix up their stuffed animals. There's this year's new Nerf weapon, the Heartbreaker Bow, aimed squarely at girls taken with "The Hunger Games." And the Flutterbye melds a Betty Boop looking elfish creature with a gyro helicopter, resulting in one fairy doll that really does fly.

But proving that there is a toy for everyone, my fav has to the Daft Punk action figures. Even though they're not on the published lists, they are available for pre-order. Each of the two dolls in the "life like" set (sold separately) features the current French darlings of electro-pop in their signature cyber-biker outfits made of black vinyl, topped off by their iconic chrome plated helmets. According to the manufacturer web site, they also come with 7 pairs of interchangeable hands so you can pose them in the manner most likely to help them Get Lucky.

I promise to act surprised when I open it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford really only wants food for presents. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Pick Your Column

Forecasting is a fool's errand. That being said, it is often necessary, especially in the world of publishing. After all, deadlines require that pieces be written and submitted before outcomes are known, whether the topic is sports, elections or Nobel prizes. True, it all depends on the medium in question. If you were writing for the old Farmers' Almanac, you had to predict the weather a year or more out. Contrast that with electronic media today, where you can have a prognostication hit the screen moments before something actually happens, and immediately thereafter. It's gotten so that many watch TV with the clicker in one hand and their iPad in the other, instantly commenting, updating and flaming what's going on. Just watch a Jets game and follow the Twitter commentary: it's Mystery Science Theatre in real time.

And so writing something about the current goings-on in Washington in this space is fraud with peril. By the time I get this down and whipped into shape, all will be back to what passes for normal, or we will be in the midst of THE GREATEST ECONOMIC COLLAPSE IN HISTORY. So to obviate the problem, following are two different musings: pick the one most appropriate to the situation as it stands.  

IF ALL IS RESOLVED AMICABLY. See, that wasn't so hard, was it? Now that this current crisis is behind us, we see that we're not really all that different. Sure, some want more government programs, some less. Some want a greater social safety net, some trust the free market to rise and lift all boats. But all of us want the same thing, which is peace and prosperity. And as anyone who has a significant other knows, compromise is the name of the game. Nobody gets everything they want. And the key to making any relationship work is to give a little and get a little.

Most important, now that we're done yelling at each other, we have to dial it down a little. I heard someone says that the key to making a marriage work is not what you say every day, but the five things you don't. Knee jerk reactions just makes us jerks: just because we disagree doesn't mean we're wrong. The trick is to listen and think about where is the common ground. We all like National Parks. We all think veterans deserve special treatment. We all like Frank Sinatra. So let's start there. And see what we can do so this doesn't happen again.  

IF THINGS DON'T WORK OUT. What are you people, idiots??!! A pox on both your houses! While polls show the Republicans are being handed the lion's share of the blame, don't you Democrats think you're innocent! We out here in the real world, we have finite incomes and regular bills and budgets that we can't stretch by printing money!. And so every day we make tough choices to prioritize what we can afford. And dammit, so should you!

Sure, I like new highways and moon missions and national defense as much as anyone. But I don't want to pay any more taxes that I have to. And so maybe I can't have it all. Yeah, it's a tough call. And there will need to be hard explanations as to why Social Security can't go up or a new weapons system can't be built. But push has finally come to shove. We were just starting to get back on our feet after the last financial mess. And while you can blame greedy corporations or bad loan officers or lax government oversight for that one, this one is all on you!

You tried a "Super Committee" which wasn't so super. You tried a mandatory haircut, the so-called sequestration, which just made stupid cuts. You tried shutting down the government. Each was supposed to force the other side to say "uncle," to make it so unpalatable so as to drive you to compromise. But you didn't get the hint. Hint? It was a 2X4 upside the head! Is it any wonder that your disapproval rating is 89%! More people trust Miley Cyrus than you. So enough! Make a deal and get back to work!

So there you have it: the yin and yang of columns. And by the way, if things change while you're reading, feel free to skip to the other version. It could well happen.


Marc Wollin of Bedford, like most people, has had enough. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Hard Six

The story was published by the AP, and was picked up by The Washington Post, online at Slate, and even made an appearance in The Times of India. Still, for all its distribution it really didn't get a lot of play, and that's not surprising. After all, there was a terrorist attack in Kenya, and the opening session of the UN. Both Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were making their almost-final appearances in the Bronx, and it was Emmy weekend. To top it off, the events in question didn't take place yesterday or even last week, but more than 50 years ago. So when The Guardian newspaper in Britain published some declassified pages about a long-ago nuclear mishap as detailed in Jonathan Schlosser's new book "Command and Control," it's hardly surprising that it barely made a ripple.

But it was almost the end of everything.

Well, that's not technically true. It would have been the end for millions of people who lived anywhere near Goldsboro, North Carolina, not to mention those who would have been in the radiation plume that drifted north and east towards Washington, Philadelphia and New York. For the incident in question was the almost accidental detonation of a thermonuclear device over US soil, a friendly fire incident that would have rewritten history.

Seems that in January of 1961, a B52 carrying two MK39 Mod 2 hydrogen bombs had a fuel leak, and broke up in midair. As it did, the two devices were thrown clear, effectively "dropped" as if they were being used. One stayed inert, and plummeted to the ground. The other, however, sensed the conditions that it was supposed to sense in actual use, deployed a parachute and started to go into its detonation cycle.

Even at that, setting off a nuclear bomb is a lot more complicated than what Wile E. Coyote does with his Acme munitions. One does not just light a big fat fuse, which burns down and goes "BOOM!"  Rather, in the case of the MK39 Mod 2, in order for it to explode, a series of 4 triggers have to activate. Each is designed to be fail safe; that is, without a positive signal to the contrary, they are not supposed to work. But in this particular case, one mechanism didn't work in the air, and two others were rendered ineffective when the plane broke up.

So if you do the math that means we were already 75% of the way towards catastrophe. That would seem scary enough, but it gets worse. It turns out that the one switch that was still operational was a low voltage trigger, and had been tested for failure rates. As the monologist Mike Daisey explains, the tests showed that it actually remained intact at a rate close to 17%; that is, in tests it didn't fail just 17% of the time. As Daisey recounts, he played a lot of "Dungeons and Dragons" as a young man. And when you play that game, you roll a lot of dice, and so you learn to equate percentages to the roll of a six-sided die. And that 17% is about the odds of rolling a six. He puts it this way: "In order to get the world you live in right now, we had to roll a hard six. Right then. No warning. Just right then, there had to be a six. If there was a one, a two, a three, a four or a five, all this - all this - is gone."

Try it yourself. Go to the cupboard or the closet or the shelf in the basement where you stash the kids' games, and rummage through the boxes until you find a single die. Take it up to your kitchen table and cradle it in your palm. Look around at all that is your world: the little plate you bought at that crafts fair, the picture of your family from last Christmas, the drawing your daughter did in first grade. Then roll the die on the table. If it comes up six, then good for you. But it comes up anything else - anything else – all of that might not be. And after you've considered that, go find your wife, your kids or your significant other, and hug them. Because it's likely that someone somewhere else is rolling the dice again tomorrow. And they might not get that hard six.


Marc Wollin of Bedford looks forward, sort of, to reading "Command and Control." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Uncle Ho's Treat

The number is staggering: $61,977. That's the estimated cost for one year of schooling at NYU, now listed as the most expensive college in the country. To be clear, that number includes the costs paid directly to the school, including tuition and required fees, as well as room and board. Beyond that, there are a myriad of other out-of-pocket charges your budding scholar will likely rack up, including the cost of getting to and from their dorm, books and school supplies, and a health care plan if needed, as is now required under the new law. And no, it doesn't include what are arguably the most two important elements of any college education which can add substantially to the bottom line, namely beer and pizza.

But the astronomical sums are just one of the problems with higher education. The other is that regardless of what it costs, kids aren't training for the jobs we need. Look at a list of the ten most popular majors, and you'll see that while some are post-graduation money makers and others are not, most don't include the skills that will be at a premium for our future progress. After all, the number one major is business administration, arguably a most lucrative area. But without passing a moral or value judgment on the profession, will more people on Wall Street or in banking advance the state of gene therapy? And number two is psychology, a wonderful field aimed at understanding people, and good as a basis for everything from advertising to social work to criminal profiling. That being said, it's unlikely be the launching pad for a breakthrough in information processing.  

That's in this country. You have the same basic problem elsewhere, albeit with a slightly different focus. For instance, in Vietnam more students are electing to study areas they think will lead to future employment in that locale. In their developing economy, the hot buttons are communications, tourism, international relations and English. All well and good, but again, not the pressure points the government thinks the country is lacking. And so they have decided that if you want to attract people to a particular profession, you can't just dangle long term possibilities in front of them. Rather, you have to make it economically attractive in the short term as well. And so they have waived tuition to four year universities for students willing to focus on certain medical specialties in short supply, like the treatment of tuberculosis and leprosy. That, and of course the study of Marxism, Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought.

Just as students on these shores have to take a certain amount of US History, so too do Vietnamese pupils have to take three classes in the ideology of the founding fathers of Communism, as well as that country's specific varietal. But just as large numbers of American students find the minutia of democracy less than captivating, so too do Vietnamese students wilt when confronted with extended discussions of Uncle Ho's edicts. Or as one student said in a widely published AP article, "Studying Marxism and Leninism is rather dry and many students don't like it."  

It's a tough sell to say the least. While a degree in American History has never been a ticket to a high paying future job, at least you're studying a political system with some staying power. Contrast that with this Asian dragon's situation, whereby you have to balance an official state ideology against a market driven economy almost completely opposed to the founding principles. Is it any wonder that another student lamented that while it might be interesting, it is "just not applicable to my daily life."

Poor Uncle Ho, the man who famously was right when he said, "You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win." But as with other one-named revolutionaries, like Mao or Fidel, in the end his political revolution couldn't defeat an economic one, perhaps the very definition of winning the battle but losing the war. Then again, under this new edict, if you study him your schooling is free, and that is one of the ten tenets of Communism. Perhaps Uncle Ho would at least be proud of that.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like some day to visit Vietnam. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Give Me an "S"

In an announcement watched by Apple fanboys and girls everywhere, the company trotted out not one, but two new phones to titillate the masses. The Apple 5S is the firm's new flagship, coming in gold, silver and "space gray," while the Apple 5C comes in green, blue, yellow, pink and white. In the arms race that is the smartphone market today, they both come with all of the standard "me too!" stuff you'd expect, like cameras, HD video and high resolution screens. But this being Apple, or just perhaps being the latest phone from any manufacturer, the 5S also sports a number of "groundbreaking" features such as a fingerprint identity scanner, an separate motion coprocessor and a camera that is spec'ed as having "8 megapixels with 1.5ยต pixels," regardless of the fact that no one has any idea of what that means or why you need it.

Interestingly, what is attracting as much attention as the feature sets themselves are the names of the devices. On the last go-round, when the company upped the ante on the 4 to the 4S, the best guess was that the "S" stood for "Siri," its intelligent personal assistant that enabled you to speak to the phone and get an answer or help. But there was also speculation it stood for "speed" or even "Steve" in tribute to the company's founder. This time around the gurus from Cupertino have once again offered no guidance. The initial guesses were for "sensor" in deference to the fingerprint scanner, or "security" for the same reason. While there is no definitive answer, it might simply be that, as with its older sibling, it's just the "second edition" of the phone.  

But if that's the case, what about that "C" on the other model? A knee jerk answer would be "color." After all, it is the first phone the company has offered in anything other than stealthy black or techy white. But it could just as easily be for "China," as it's a phone aimed squarely at that growth market in terms of design and price. Other suggestions have surfaced, including "cute" and "custom" for the look of it, and even "control," as in controlling the market. And while the company would never agree to this adjective with its products, the lower price point makes one wonder is the "c" stands for "cheaper."

The question is this: what next? With smartphones adding features seemingly minute by minute, would anyone be surprised if they add other gizmos and sensors in the next iterations to augment our other senses, and named them to match? I for one would not be surprised to see the new 6H, which would constantly monitor what you said, and then called up the weather when you wonder aloud if you need an umbrella, no button push necessary. By the way, "H" wouldn't be for "helical scanning" or "heptalogical processing," it would be for "hearing." Or the yet to be released 7T, which would sport a pad that enabled you to check the level of spiciness in your Indian curry. The "T" of course, would be for "taste." Or then there's the still in R&D 8O, which would be capable of sniffing the air for that fresh baked smell, and then plotting a course to the local bakery. Since "S" was taken, "O" would be for "odor."

Unlikely, you say? Well, regardless of the manufacturer, there seems to be no feature which is off the table. As to the name, keep in mind the simplest answers are most likely the most correct ones. In an area I'm more familiar with, and back in the day, we all used to work with gear made by a Japanese company called Ikegami. The flagship camera was designated as the HL-78. As to those two initials, you might guess it stood for the something highly technical, like "hyper-longitudinal," never mind that the words meant nothing in the context of the device. But if that was your speculation, you would be wrong. I've never seen it written, and can't say I ever had it definitively confirmed, but it was common knowledge that the designation as the "HL" series, which encompassed some of the first truly portable video cameras, stood for the only thing they really should: "handy-looky."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is a proud Android user. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Here Today, Gone Today

The press release was self-congratulatory, as it had a right to be. After all, it's not every day you create something new. And we're not just talking new, as in a new hiking boot or a new app or a new flavor of granola bar. We're talking new as in never existed before. Never. Well, once. But that was over a decade ago, and no one has been able to make it since, so a little crowing was in order.

"An international team of researchers, led by physicists from Lund University, have confirmed the existence of what is considered a new element."  Big doings, according to Dr. Dirk Rudolph, Professor at the Division of Nuclear Physics at good old Lund U in Lund, Sweden (Go, Fighting, uh, Lundites!). He and his gang were able to create an element with an atomic number 115. Best of all, it fills in a noticeable gap, nestling nicely in between flerovium (114) and livermorium (116), the two additions that made the grade just last year.

If you are like me, and your last brush with the periodic table was in high school chemistry, you might wonder what's going on. After all, wasn't the whole point of the table that the elements were the basic building blocks for everything, and everything else was made of them? If that's the case, how can you have new blocks? Aren't they just combinations of all the came before? Strike that. Let's stick with the veneer that we understand science for a brief moment, and call them what they are: not combinations, but compounds. See, Katy Perry fans, that didn't hurt, did it?

But the bottom line is that, yes, there are just 92 stable elements. However, if you screw with them, you can indeed create something new, even it lasts for a fraction of a fraction of a second. In this case, a thin film of americium (element 95) was bombarded with some calcium (element 20). The resulting clump stuck together long enough to be noticed (hence, the number 115). Actually, not even that long. The researchers deduced its existence from the pieces of debris left over, kind of like my wife knowing I made a grilled cheese sandwich when she sees the George Forman grill with some yellow stuff on it.

It raises an interesting philosophical question beyond the physical one. If you can create something only for a brief period of time, does it really exist? Yes, no doubt that for one shining instant it was tangible, and so at the very least there should a historical record of it. After all, you can say the same thing about George Lazenby as James Bond. But does that mean it merits being listed as a current member in good standing, alongside such stalwarts as carbon (element 6) and oxygen (8), the Cher and Madonna of the periodic table?
Scientists say yes. They say that once we find them, we can figure out what to do with them. The best example they give is the aforementioned americium. Discovered as a part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in 1945, it was first produced in commercial quantities and offered for sale in 1962. And now you find some in virtually every smoke detector in existence. In fact, one gram of americium is worth about $1500 and can be used in about three million detectors. So forget hoarding gold (one gram is worth about $45) or even cocaine ($150). You Fox News viewers should stuff some americium in your safe.

The point is that Professor Rudolph's team has done a good thing, advancing the state of the art. Yes, it does mean that yet again all those charts hanging on science classroom walls are out of date, and will have to be changed. But it's a small price to pay for whatever comes next, if by next you mean after atomic bombs and smoke detectors.

So raise a glass to Dirk and the guys and gals at Lund U and number 115. While it waits for a proper moniker it's going by the label of ununpentium, a corruption and combination of Greek and Latin words for the numerical name. Since the honor of bestowing the name often goes to the founders, lundinimum is a possibility. Or perhaps the good professor is hoping for dirkinium. A boy can dream, can't he?


Marc Wollin of Bedford never really understood nuclear physics. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

On Beyond Twerk

Like it or hate it (and most hated it) Miley Cyrus' bump and grind at the MTV Video Music Awards with Robin Thicke was all the talk after the show. As usual with MTV, it wasn't about the music itself, it was about the spectacle. Something about having a former wholesome Disney star that parents and tween girls loved and looked up to prancing around in a flesh-colored bikini with her tongue lolling out and performing simulated sex on stage with an older male in front of a line of dressed up Teddy Bears struck some as being, how shall I say, just stupid on almost every level. Imagine that.

But if there is an upside (and admittedly that's an incredibly low bar to jump over in this situation), it is that it helped to expand our language. No, it's not pretty, the King's English or even something that you could use in a sentence in the next five minutes without referencing the aforementioned Ms. Cyrus. But twerk, the dance she was doing, is now officially recognized as a word. Yes, you can put away your air quotes when saying it, or so says the Oxford Dictionaries Online.

If there's any solace to you English majors out there, note that the addition is to the online version of the publication only. That's not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary, which considers itself a volume of record, much like The New York Times. The OED describes itself as a "historical dictionary," which forms "a record of all the core words and meanings in English over more than 1,000 years, from Old English to the present day, including many obsolete and historical terms." So at least for now, twerk is not on the same plane as temerity, whilst or onomatopoeia. Thankfully.

But if twerk can be a benchmark as to what constitutes an official word (to be precise, "verb: to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance"), what else makes the cut? Turns out that the ODO adds words quarterly, and twerk was part of a bumper crop this time around. Some entries are simply acronyms that have become speechified (FOMO: "noun: Fear Of Missing Out" or MOOC: "noun: Massive Open Online Course"), while others seem late to the party (Street Food: "noun: prepared or cooked food sold by vendors in a street or other public location for immediate consumption" or Me Time: "noun: time spent relaxing on one's own as opposed to working or doing things for others"). Still, there are enough new unknowns to make the average civilian feel like he or she was dropped into an alien landscape or a college sorority, which is almost the same thing.

There's apols ("noun: apologies"), grats ("noun: congratulations") and jorts ("noun: denim shorts, a portmanteau of jeans and shorts"). You might want a phablet ("noun: a smartphone with a screen size between that of a phone and a tablet"), have your hair in a fauxhawk ("noun: a hairstyle in which a section of hair running from the front to the back of the head stands erect, intended to resemble a Mohican haircut") or wear a pair of flatforms ("noun: a flat shoe with a high, thick sole"). Or maybe you have plans for a babymoon ("noun: a relaxing or romantic holiday taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born") or were at a party where they served cake pops (noun: "a small round piece of cake coated with icing or chocolate and fixed on the end of a stick so as to resemble a lollipop").

In the movie "Annie Hall," Woody Allen characterizes his relationship with the title character this way: "A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark." English doesn't want to be a dead shark, so it constantly wiggles and moves, adding words like derp and squee to keep itself relevant and alive (Go ahead and look them up: they are now officially legit). No, it's not always smooth sailing and the results are sometimes questionable, but it does work. Or put another way: do you know the word for anti-lock brakes or smartphone or botox in Old Norse? No? I rest my case.


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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Greek to Me

Chobani has a problem, but you wouldn't know it on these shores. Chobani, in case you've unfamiliar, is a wunderkind of a company, growing from nothing to over $1 billion in revenue and an industry leading position in just over five years. But unlike most recent business success stories, we're not talking here about mobile phones or websites or apps that tell you where to find the cheapest socks. We're talking yogurt, specifically Greek yogurt, a subset of the market that in those same five years went from 1% of all yogurt sold to 35%.

Until recently, most yogurt consumed on these shores was of a thinner variety. Plain or flavored, it was your basic fermented milk product, with your biggest decision as to whether you wanted fruit on the bottom or top. But throughout the Middle East, and eventually gaining the modifier "Greek style" and then later just "Greek," that same yogurt was hung in bags from which the whey drained. The result was a more concentrated product which gained a toehold in the US, and then quickly started stepping on the toes of such industry leaders as Dannon, Yoplait and Stonyfield Farm, purveyors of the traditional style.  

All well and good in the US of A. Not so much in England and Wales, however, where Greek yogurt was, well Greek. In a suit brought by FAGE, one of Chobani's chief competitors, and who until recently had 95% of the market, they protested that Chobani was importing product made in upstate New York, while calling themselves Hellenic. Or as written in documents filed in the High Court of Justice in London, "It is not seriously in dispute that, with one modest exception, all yoghurt sold to the public in the UK during the 25 years or so before September 2012 with descriptions including ‘Greek yoghurt' in the labels on the pots was strained yoghurt made in Greece." Not that there was anything wrong with the product itself, or even non-strained yogurt, as court documents take pains to point out: "It is common ground that both FAGE's and Chobani 's yoghurt is of the general type which may loosely be described as ‘thick and creamy', by comparison with other yoghurt, to which I will refer without intending to be pejorative as ‘ordinary yoghurt.'"

Still, if you can't sell yourself as "Greek," what do you do? It's the inverse of a similar story from more than a decade ago. Back in 2000, the folks at the California Prune Board had a problem. Their product was seen as old and stodgy, and better known for its laxative properties than for its yumminess. And so after ten years of falling sales, they came to the conclusion that perhaps Juliet was right, and a rose by another name might smell, or in this case, taste just as sweet. The got approval to change the label, enabling their produce to join the small club of "foods-formerly-known-as" (the Chinese gooseberry became the kiwi, while chickpeas became garbanzos). And today Americans recognize those shriveled looking things not as prunes, but as dried plums. (One exception: prune juice is still prune juice. The FDA decided that "dried prune juice" was a contradiction in terms.)

As for Chobani, they had the opposite problem, going from an attractive label to one that is less so. Her Majesty's court ruled against them this spring, concluding that "the use of Greek yoghurt to describe yoghurt not made in Greece plainly involves a material misrepresentation." They are appealing the decision, taking the position that "Greek" refers to the style and not the country of origin. But in the meantime they have to refer to their product as "strained yoghurt." And they have to hope that consumers get it, for, as spokesperson Christine Fung says, "The UK yoghurt market is one of the most sophisticated in the world."

But don't count Chobani out just yet. Greek yogurt is continuing to gain popularity, and like many things, popular acceptance could tip the tide in the UK. It's probably only matter of time. After all, they like ice cream, and Ben and Jerry's has a new flavor sure to be a hit: Pineapple Passionfruit Greek Frozen Yogurt. And then even the Brits will be forced to agree with the ads that it's "Really Greekin' Good."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes Greek yogurt, but doesn't quite get what all the fuss is about. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Looking Over Their Shoulder

Pity the poor baseball umpire. For years his word was law. Strikes/balls, fair/foul, safe/out: the call was his. In a snap, the decision was made, and the ump lived with the consequences. Sure, fans might call him names, and managers might kick dirt onto his pants. But the bottom line was that it didn't matter. Even if the outcome of the game hung in the balance, when it came to the individual call itself, umpires, right or wrong, were like the pope: infallible and unchallengeable.

Then, with the advent of multiple camera angles and high definition video, even the casual watcher could see what they couldn't. Maybe you didn't have the training and instincts to see if the runner beat the throw, or if the ball landed this side or that of the line. But given the benefit of all that technology, 20-20 hindsight became 20-10. Viewers and commentators could scrutinize any call, followed by an accusatory close-up of the offending official. How could you not see that, ump?  Don't your eyes have a 76-times zoom lens and super slo-mo like mine?

Officials saw that the veracity of the game was in question, and so followed other major sports in instituting instant replay. In 2008, they allowed a limited version, whereby managers could question a home run call. In that instance, the officials left the field, huddled together to watch the tapes, after which they came out and informed the crowd of their decision. Perhaps the papal analogy was still apt: they conducted their deliberations in a secret room, then emerged with nary a word but the white or black smoke of a once-around-the-bases sign signifying a score.

Now they have taken the next step. Assuming it's approved, starting in 2014 managers will be able to appeal a large variety of calls. And they can do so by going over the facemasks of the offending crew. Allowed one challenge in the first 6 innings, and 2 in the remaining frames, managers will be able to say, "I dunno about that." They will then tell local officials, who will pick up a "secure phone" to call a SWAT team in New York that is just sitting there waiting. They will jump up, watch the tapes, issue a ruling and call down from the mountain, and all the folks standing around on the field will be allowed to go on about their business.

Couple of things.

First, the obvious mechanics. Football coaches throw out a red challenge flag. What will baseball mangers do, try and bean the ump with a red ball? What if they do hit him? Isn't that a penalty by itself? And what about that committee in New York? What if they're working on a ruling for a game in Detroit, and a call from Baltimore comes in. Do you tell Baltimore, "Guys go out for coffee, we're working here!" Or do they say, "Detroit, we'll get back to you. Why don't you guys take a bathroom break." And what if the guys in New York just ordered a pizza and one guy is downstairs getting it. After all, they'll be sitting around a lot doing nothing, and a guy's gotta eat. Do they start? Do they wait? Do you keep a whole ballpark hanging because Charlie is trying to figure out what to tip for an extra large with pepperoni and a six pack of Diet Cokes?  

Finally, how do you think the fans will react, when a ruling comes down from those New Yorkers as to how their game should be scored? Just wait till the word goes out in Fenway that the guys in Manhattan just disallowed the third out that would have ended a Yankees-Bo Sox game with the Sox ahead. It'll make Egypt look like a picnic.

As much as perfection is a laudable goal, maybe things are better left as is. Sure, replays by a committee of wise men back at headquarters might right a few wrongs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you could say that about almost anything: stock trades, first dates, having children. But there's something to be said for living in the moment, making a call and accepting the consequences, whatever they are. After all, who really knows what the right call is? Or as Yogi put it best, "In baseball, you don't know nothing."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to watch the occasional game, but doesn't care who wins. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Aerial Pandemonium Ballet

All I wanted to do was get from here to there. And so it would seem a relatively straightforward calculation: figure out that it takes this much fuel and that much labor to go from A to B, divide that by the number of people you can carry, factor in capital costs and overhead, tack on some profit, and before you can say Wilbur and Orville, you have a price for a plane ticket. But as anyone knows who has ever bought one, it's nowhere near that simple. From a simple one-price-includes- all model, the airline industry has evolved (or devolved depending on your point of view) to an a la carte approach that is as complex as it is unfriendly. 

Let's say you want to go from Philadelphia to the San Francisco area, a distance of 2500 miles and change. Even a cursory glance at the options available shows a dizzying array of possibilities. Peak costs more than off peak, direct more than indirect, last minute more than advance purchase, major airports more than minor. Sometimes, that is; other times not so much. If you look out a few weeks, there's a fare that gets you to San Jose, 30 minutes away from SFO, in a bit more than 7 hours including one stop. The price? Just $187, a seeming bargain to go coast to coast. However, later that day the same trip can cost you $667 and take more than 10 hours including two stops. Move it up a week, and the spread changes from $258 to nearly $1000. And let's be clear: all get you from the City of Brotherly Love to the City By The Bay. You would need a PhD in logic to understand the reasoning as why one costs more than another. 

And that's just the basic bill of passage. You have to figure out the seating, and not just window or aisle (has here ever been anyone who willing asked for a middle seat?). Because all sets of 17 inches of space at 30,000 feet are not created equal, you can select from the increasingly limited offerings toward the back, or opt for something more specific. Want something towards the front? That's an extra $19 in row 20, $25 if it's in row 12. Perhaps the bulkhead is more your style; $39 on the window, $59 if it's the aisle. And if you want the best seat in a bad neighborhood, the exit aisle? That's $79 for row 25 (limited recline: 1 inch) or $89 for row 26 (full recline: 1.7 inches). The only thing missing is a real estate agent telling you which schools your kids will go to if you sit there.  

It hardly ends there. Assuming you need a few personal items, you likely have a bag. You can try and bring it on, since that costs nothing. But you have to hope it fits overhead or under the seat in front of you AND you're in boarding group one, two or three AND the crew hasn't put their bags in your space. So maybe it's better to check it ahead of time. That will be $25, please. A second bag? Well, that's $35. Unless you're going to Mexico, then it's $40 Brazil? $70. Europe? That's $100. It's almost cheaper to just buy new stuff when you get there.  

Hungry? Because if you are, it'll cost you: $8.39 for a cheese platter, a dime or two more for a wrap or salad. That is assuming they still have something by the time they get to you in row 23. To play it safe, on some airlines, you can now pre-order your "fresh" premade sandwich or salad three days before you take off, to be delivered to you once you hit cruising altitude. No charge for stewardess service. Yet.  

So, if I'm doing the math correctly, depending on the flight you select, the seat you choose, the luggage you take and food you order, you can easily double the price of passage. Or looked at another way, the last three together can cost more than the trip itself. And none of that factors in the time you spend getting to the airport, going through security, waiting in line, and the same at the far end when you return.  

Maybe next time I'll just drive.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has frequent flyer accounts on too many airlines. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Star Sightings

If you walk down the street in New York City, you keep your eyes wide open to see the sights. Sure, there is the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. But the real sights are the residents. Or more specifically the residents whose names are just as likely to be in The New York Times headlines as opposed to those reading them. Wander through certain neighborhoods and you might see Norah Jones going out for coffee in Brooklyn, or Hugh Jackman grabbing a paper in the West Village, or Tina Fey out for stroll on the Upper West Side.

To be fair, you have probably as good or even better chance of achieving the same kind of sightings in LA, the home of the entertainment business. But this being the Big Apple, you might just as easily see celebrities of another type. Countless CEO's and financial types of every level have a pad in the city. The only thing is that their exploits are more well know than their faces. So while you might know that John Paulson makes millions, even billions a year from his hedge fund, you could be standing next to him in an Upper East Side Starbucks and not even know it. Likewise for Tilman Fertitta, the Texas billionaire who leads Landry's Restaurants, parent to such chains as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Morton's The Steakhouse and the Rainforest Cafe. You could see him strolling from his Tribeca apartment to Whole Foods and walk right on by with nary a gawk.

Of course, New York and LA are not the only places that boldface names call home. Almost every city has well known locals of whom they are justifiably proud, and whom out-of-towners would recognize, albeit with a little help. Such was the story when I was recently in San Jose. When I went out for a walk, I passed a number of banners touting famous people from the city (San Jose-ans?). They include Dave Righetti, who started as a pitcher with the New York Yankees and was Rookie of the Year in 1981, and Peggy Fleming who won the Gold Medal in figure skating in 1968. And it's not just sports: turns out Frank Feranna Jr. was born there as well, but you more likely know him by his stage name of Nikki Sixx, the drummer for Motley Crue.

But these days San Jose is known less for its people than for one particular industry. For if Washington is about government and Houston about energy, San Jose is about technology. As the de facto capital of Silicon Valley, it is the original center of that industry that so dominates everything we see and do every day. To that end there is The Tech, a museum devoted to technology, and Woz Way, a street named after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. It is also where, when I went running in the morning, I passed a homeless man reading a Kindle, though to be fair it was an older model.

In San Jo', the boldface names are less the people than the companies whose products we use hundreds of times every day. As you walk or drive around the area, you see buildings sporting logos that feel like stars in their own right: "Look, there's Adobe!" And the parade continues: Cisco, Evernote, PayPal and Ebay. Not far away you have Sunnyvale, with Yahoo and Advanced Micro Devices. North in Mountain View is Google and its headquarters, known as the Googleplex. And just to west lies Cuppertino and Apple, whose address is the inside gag of 1 Infinite Loop Drive.  

Yes, they are just buildings with nameplates. And with the passing of Steve Jobs, you would be hard pressed to pick the heads of any of them out of a lineup. But just going by the buildings themselves makes you feel like you are in the in the presence of something special. Since their products are the labor of countless hours of work by the collective geeks inside, I guess you could stand by the door and ask any employee going in or out to autograph your smartphone, and you wouldn't really be wrong. And it's true that for most it wouldn't be the same cachet as having a tee shirt signed by Angelina Jolie. But in the circles I travel, if I had a Nexus Tablet with a scribble that read "Sergey" on it, I would be the coolest kid in my class.


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

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Rating the Ratings

The popcorn was hot and the soda was cold. We found seats, and only had to switch one time for my wife to get a better view of the screen when the inevitable tall person sat down in front of her. We timed our pre-show rest room breaks in our usual alternating manner to enable us to defend our seats from the encroaching hordes (though to be fair, it was 530PM on a Friday night, so the hordes were at a minimum). We watched the preshow slide show, checked our phones for any last minute emails before going off the grid, and scanned the other incoming viewers for those to avoid. Finally, the lights dipped and it was showtime.

Of course, the film we came to see was a ways away. First came the feast of what they used to call coming attractions, but now go by the name of trailers. A mini-art form in and of themselves, they capsulize the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments of a 2 hour show in 2 minutes or less, usually doing it so effectively that when you finally see the movie you know the story, actors, twists and turns, key sequences, groundbreaking special effects, quotable lines and not-to-be-missed moments so well that the film itself is a letdown.

Stapled to the front of each trailer was the usual title card announcing the rating as bestowed on the film by the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. Since being instituted in 1968 under the legendary Jack Valenti, the letter codes of "G" for General, "M" for Mature (later replaced by "PG" for Parental Guidance), "R" for Restricted and "X" for Adult have provided parents with a handy guide as to what they would let their kids see, while providing kids with a handy guide as to what films they should sneak into that their parents wouldn't want them to see.

Over time the ratings have been tweaked a bit, with 1984 introducing PG-13 as bridge between PG and R, and 1990 seeing the sunsetting of X in favor of NC-17 for No Children under 17 (kind of a reverse version of "No Child Left Behind"). While a voluntary system for film makers, in practice they have become so widely accepted that that the last independent censor board, the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board, shut its doors in 1993, leaving it up to Texans to make up their own minds. About movies, anyways.

Along the way, the MPAA has toyed with the design of the ratings notifications, as well as the information they contain. This spring saw yet another upgrade under the campaign name "Check the Box." As we sat there in the theatre we saw the results in the new green card that started each trailer. In addition to the rating for the movie itself, it also showed the reason for that rating ("Rated R for violence and gore, pervasive language and drug use." Hmm. Maybe I'll skip "Self Storage"). And it tweaks the introductory language from "The following preview has been approved for appropriate audiences" to "The following feature has been approved to accompany this feature."

In short, they are matching trailers to movies. Not just in content, which is what the studios have always done. That is, if you go to see an action movie, odds are you will see trailers for other shoot-em-ups. Go see a sensitive family drama, and you will likely see previews for other angsty films. But now the MPAA is assuring that the trailers match the feature in tone as well as rating. So when you go to see "Care Bears 7: The Great Cotton Candy Caper" you won't be hit with a sanitized trailer for "Hatchet Wars," even if they have removed all the bad words and shots of its signature "Merry-Go-Round-of-Death" sequence.

And our Friday evening out? I counted 6 trailers, though I couldn't remember any of them now. About half looked good, about half I'll pass on. As always, I think I saw the best parts of each, as well as enough to allow me to fake my way through any water cooler talk should I miss the breakout hit of the summer. And oh, yeah: we saw a movie, too.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes going to the 530 show, the dinner after. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Accentuate the Negative

There's not an organization out there, public or private, that doesn't want its employees to do the right thing. To that end, they enshrine those behaviors as a "Code of Conduct" or "Core Values" or "Guiding Principles." Good thoughts all, until you recall this particular set: "Respect. Communication. Integrity. Excellence." Not a bad enumeration of aspirations, until you realize that the company that so wanted to embody those ideals was Enron.

Still, most companies spotlight these behaviors more in the execution than in the breech. But at least one organization isn't so gun shy. And that's an extremely apt metaphor, since the body in question is the Department of Defense. Yes, be a model employee, and you might get tapped for a Distinguished Civilian Service Award, or perhaps a Secretary's Award for Excellence. But be a bad boy or girl, and you might get recognized as well, just in a different forum. More specifically, you might merit a write up in the "Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure."

Published by the Office of the General Counsel, this compendium of all things smarmy is designed to provide real life examples of the consequences when people don't stick to the rules. As it says in the introduction, "Some cases are humorous, some sad, but all are real." It is thoughtfully arranged for the reader by area of transgression, starting with "Abuse of Position" and ending with "Travel Violations." In between, there are stories of misuse of resources, credit card abuse and attendance violations. In short, all the things that make for just another day working for the US Government.

At the low end, you have simple bribery: "An applicant for U.S. citizenship slid $200 in an unmarked envelope across to an Adjudication Officer during his interview, hoping for a favorable outcome. He got a year's probation instead." Or an unreported gift: "As a gesture of thanks, a retailer gave an Army soldier a briefcase after the soldier, using his Government credit card, had purchased office supplies from the retailer. After an investigation, the soldier returned the briefcase and was counseled." Or not really working: "A Government employee was reported by his co-workers for sleeping on the job. When confronted, he admitted that he may have dozed off a time or two, but never actually slept at work." But never let it be said that the DoD doesn't have a heart: his three day suspension was reduced after he revealed that drowsiness was a potential side-effect of his prescribed medication.

Of course, these kinds of faux pas can happen at any company. But this is the DoD, so the ethical lapses can be much more creative. Under the heading "Taking the Blackhawk Out for Lunch," a chopper crew set down their helicopter behind a restaurant and grabbed a meal. Since they had filed the stop in their flight plan, they were technically in the clear. Still, they got "verbal counseling" as their actions gave the appearance of impropriety. Not so light a punishment for a Navy commander in Italy. Under an entry "Sorry, Skipper, But Those Really Aren't Perks," it describes how he appropriated a ferry to take his friends to the island of Ischia for a dinner party. He was relieved of his command and returned stateside.

Not surprisingly though, most of the stuff is simply garden variety bonehead. There's the Public Affairs officer who awarded the contract for a training video to a production company run by himself and his wife. There's the FBI agent who was responsible for recommending which brand of pepper spray to buy, and took $57,500 in kickbacks. And there's the sub commander who had an affair, got tired of it, and decided to end it by sending a fictitious email that he had been killed at sea. When the mistress showed up at his house to pay her respects, he really was underwater.

Years ago a friend, upon seeing a sign at the gate of a factory saying "321 Days Since Our Last Work Time Injury," mused that a better way to drive home the point would be a series of film shorts called "Lost Time Injury Theater." The aforementioned encyclopedia isn't much different. As it says in the introduction, it is intended to "sensitize Federal employees to the reach and impact of Federal ethics statutes and regulations. " If only that sub commander had read it first: he might still be afloat in more ways than one.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad his tax dollars are being used for something colorful. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.