Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Freelance Life

Having been in business for myself for over 30 years, I still enjoy what I do and find it interesting. To be sure, while there are challenges, after more than three decades there is little that throws me for a loop. Yet if there is one area that constantly bedevils my professional life, it is that most mundane of headaches, scheduling. As a solo practitioner, I'm constantly juggling my time to maximize it. It seems that everyone wants me when I'm already busy, and no one calls when I'm sitting round twiddling my thumbs. Fortunately, I have incredibly understanding clients who enable me keep several balls in the air, and are willing to roll with the limitations of my one man band.

All of which brings me to Saudi Arabia.

Now, you might think that that's mighty hard pivot. However, my life as an independent contractor leads me to sympathize with a certain group of like-minded individuals in that dessert kingdom. Those in question are highly skilled and in demand, and as such have the challenge of handling multiple gigs, getting from one job to the another in a timely fashion, all while trying to perform quality work for their clients. True, I am in the communication business, while they are in the execution business. Other than that, however, it's the same thing.

First, a little background. The Saudi monarchy holds the Koran as its constitution and only law. And like strict constructionists in this country with our Constitution, that country's courts apply a literal interpretation of the book as statue. In practice, that means that judges dish out punishment based on medieval ideas of right and wrong, along with associated penalties. Hence, they believe (and practice) in cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers.  

Now, while most Muslim scholars disagree, the kingdom has also generally held that the one and only proper way to put someone to death is by beheading. And if there is one area in which they are liberal, it's in how often that punishment is meted out: more than 75 executions in each of the past 2 years, for offences from murder to rape to armed robbery to drug trafficking.

But here's the problem: there is a shortage of swordsman. According to a report in the Saudi daily Al-Youm, there have been "shortages of official swordsmen or their belated arrival to execution yards in some incidents." That has led to delays and "interruption in regularly-taken security arrangements" when the executioners' skills are required. As such, a joint Saudi committee composed of "representatives of the ministries of interior, justice and health is mulling the replacement of beheading with firing squads for capital sentences."

There are several ways of looking at the issue. Leaving aside the high rate of executions itself, the West has routinely condemned the Kingdom, an important ally, for the barbarous method it employs to dispatch the guilty. On the surface, the proposal deals with the practical issue, and also plays to Western sensibilities. A more cynical point of view might note that with unemployment in the Kingdom running about 12.2%, this might also be looked at as a job creation measure, as a "firing squad" requires multiple gunman, as opposed to a single swordsman. In that light, it's an economically attractive shift.

However, from the aforementioned freelancer perspective, it's an unwelcome advance. It's yet another example of modern technology supplanting age-old craftsmanship. But some aren't standing still. In an interview in the Saudi newspaper Okaz, a swordsman named Mohamed Saad Al-Bishi says (as translated from the original Arabic via Google Translate) "the implementation of the provisions will not convert it to the unemployed." That's because Al-Bishi had the foresight to take weapons training, and so is adapting to new opportunities, and in fact sees a future bright enough that he has brought his son on as an apprentice. He does, however, acknowledge the problem: "This profession is not desired by many, despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."

Yes, we are both freelancers, Al-Bishi and myself. Our concerns, challenges and joys with the job are not that dissimilar at the most basic level. But in lighter moments me and my ilk might allow that what we do is mercenary at its heart. In light of this news from the dessert, perhaps that's one metaphor we will stop using.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been freelance for over 30 years, and has never hurt anyone. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Elevenses and More

Whenever we start a project, I try and gather the team together for a quick briefing. Since every job is unique and our teams are built as one-offs, there is usually no "usual." As such, the more everyone understands the big picture, the easier it will be to make it happen as planned, while also doing it efficiently. I let everyone know the content, the expected schedule and any special issues that might come up. And of course, I give them perhaps the most important information for any professional crew concerned with doing a complex project: what time we will break for lunch.

Like an army, our group runs on its collective stomach. And since our work requires us to be on station for long periods of time, often immediately following or coincidental with a traditional meal time, it's important for people to know when they will be able to eat. It's even more critical when those times are shifted: that is, we aren't able to grab lunch till later, or the dinner break is scheduled to start at 4:30. Say what you will: you can abuse any group with ridiculous demands, but things run a lot better if you remember that a fed crew is a happy crew.

But what to call those moments when you get to grab sustenance? If the call is to be ready to rock at 1130AM, is the meal you grab beforehand lunch? Likewise with a 430PM repast, especially if we're going to bring in pizza after it's over. Not that it really matters: lack of established nomenclature has never stopped anyone from stuffing their faces at 730PM with the leftover bagels provided to the guests that morning.

And then you have other opportunities outside the three conventional ones. On these shores, it's customary to have an afternoon coffee break. (One producer I work with always brings in what we call the “Three O’Clock Cookie.” The man is a saint.) In the UK and Ireland, morning tea is a tradition. In Bavaria, they talk of Second Breakfast, a term also found in literature, where J. R. R. Tolkien writes in "The Hobbit" that the little people prefer to eat six meals a day. And Taco Bell is pushing a late night repast, calling it Fourth Meal. It's gotten so you can eat and eat and eat, and never really stop. Come to think of it, that's what we do. No wonder we have an obesity problem.

Still, the question is how to define these disparate meal breaks. It's one that a friend asked when he went to a restaurant with his kids at 4PM. He posted the question online: what am I eating?  A number of other contacts and acquaintances chimed in with specific answers, from late lunch to early bird special. None were wrong, but all lacked context.

But thankfully one associate did put it all together, incorporating what might best be described as play-by-play and color commentary. I asked Bruce if I might print his response. He was kind enough to permit me to quote him. To wit: "By way of explanation: traditionally 'First Breakfast,' usually light enough to get you out the door. 'Second Breakfast' (the most important Breakfast of the day) is eggs, bacon, steak, ham etc. meant to fortify you for the rigors of the morning. 'Elevenses' is just at that lull in the morning digestion, light with coffee meant to get you through to lunch. ' Lunch' can be anything, preferably served with alcohol. Then of course 'Brunch,' again light, meant really as a bridge to 'First Dinner' or 'Supper' which is informal and light with alcohol. This sets you up for the grand meal of the day, 'Dinner.' Generally post 6'ish but pre 10'ish, and involves all manner of eating and drinking. It is easy to overindulge at dinner so one must be cautious, because you don't want to spoil the 'Late Snack' and 'Midnight Snack,' which the faint hearted often combine. So properly configured: 4 meals, 3 buffers and 2 snacks. I hope this has been informative and helpful."

Indeed it has, Bruce, indeed it has. We all thank you for the explanation, helping us to make sense of our non-stop chowing down. I don't want to make a big deal of it, but perhaps I can spot you a meal as a way of saying thanks: next time, Elevenses is on me.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to eat, and that's the problem. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Friendlier Skies

If you're flying out to skate in the Tahoe Cup in California, you're in luck. Likewise if your son wants to take part in the Boo Bash in Michigan. And if you're entered in the 2nd Annual Southern Classic in Tunica, Mississippi, you're in business. That's because each of those events take place after April 26. And on that day the TSA loosens up, and lets you take (respectively) your hockey stick, lacrosse stick or billiard cue on board with you when you fly out to compete.

As part of its shift from a one-size-fits-all approach (or perhaps more accurately stated, "everyone-is-a-terrorist-until-proven-otherwise" approach), the agency has been refining its rules and regulations. The idea is to use a combination of technology and behavioral analysis to flag the most likely possibilities of a breach to the system. Add in the hat trick of more people using carry-ons to escape check-thru luggage fees, somewhere north of 350 million individuals trying to get to their concourse every year and tighter budgets meaning reduced manpower, and a more intelligent, nuanced approach is the only way to guarantee safety AND eliminate 3 hour check in lines at 6AM in Philadelphia.

If you're traveled recently, you probably have noticed some initial moves in this direction. Most obvious are signs that those under age 12 or over 75 can leave on their shoes and light jackets when going through security. That's because the experts concluded that the likelihood of a 3-year old with a blankie or a grandmother with a walker taking down an Airbus is a low probability event.

And so the most recent modifications follow the same logic. While it's true you can cause havoc with anything, odds are your slapshot isn't strong enough to get through the reinforced cockpit door. And so in addition to the aforementioned sports equipment, you will now be permitted to take on board small pocket knives, ski poles, bats less than 24 inches and 24 ounces (think "Bat Day" souvenirs), and golf clubs, though you are limited to two, and not necessarily a pitch n' putt set. True, James Bond could probably take over a plane with a nine iron, but only if it was a par 3.

Still, one wonders if officials really have a handle on all this. After all, last year they stopped a guy and his 4-year-old son as they went through security in Rhode Island with the child's 3 stuffed animals. Agents manning the x-ray machine noticed that Teddy, Bunny and Mickey, while cute and cuddly, had rather robust internal organs. Upon closer examination, they found that hidden inside were the complete working parts for a .40 caliber pistol, along with 2 rounds.

Good for them, you say: the system worked. They weren't swayed by age or demeanor, and found an obvious breach of safety, and a threat to passengers and crew. However, after airport police, state police and the FBI were called in and investigated, they confiscated the weapon and declared that there was no real threat to airport security. According to their statement, the hiding of the weapon in the toys was merely the result of a "domestic dispute." And the boy and his dad boarded their flight and continued on.

While it seems counter-intuitive to let someone who was hiding a gun on board, perhaps it's not. While I hate to paraphrase the NRA, guns and bullets don't take over planes, people take over planes. After all, it was the late great George Carlin that noted that once on board they bring you a meal with a fork and a knife: "It's only a table knife, but you could kill a pilot with a table knife. It might take you a couple minutes, especially if he's hefty. Hell, you could even probably beat a guy to death with a Sunday New York Times." In that spirit, officials decided that the guy wasn't a threat, gun and wife not withstanding, and let him pass.

Still, let me see if I got this right. With the new, smarter approach to security, we're not just taking things at face value. Behavior, appearance and intent all count. So you can try and board an aircraft with a concealed weapon. And if found, but you have a good explanation, no problem. But don't think of taking more than 3 ounces of shampoo. That could be dangerous.

I think we still need a few more tweaks to the system.


Marc Wollin of Bedford considers himself an expert security lane goer-thru. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Manchurian Target

I like Chinese food a lot. I don't make a bad stir fry. And having been in Hong Kong before and after the Brits gave it back, I told people I thought that things were working out well. So why is the Chinese military after me?

I've come to that realization in light of a report from Mandiant, an American computer security firm. They have released a 60-page study that lays the blame for some seriously sophisticated international hacking squarely at the doorstep of the People's Liberation Army. According to their sleuthing, either the PLA is behind intrusions into a number of corporate systems, or one particular neighborhood in Shanghai has a lot of 17-year-old computer wizards with nothing better to do on date night.

If it were teenage tricksters, it's likely they would be using handles that were associated with the attacks, such as like Ugly Gorilla and Superhard. Yet after examining thousands of computer intrusions over the past 6 years, almost all have been tracked backward to that single geographical area. In what seems more than coincidence, Mandiant says that the neighborhood is also home to Unit 61398, a sort of Chinese military cyber "Mission: Impossible" team. And while they can't actually place the originating computers in the building there which is owned by the army, there's not a whole lot of other plausible explanations. "Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398," said Kevin Mandia, the founder and chief executive of Mandiant, "or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored Internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighborhood."

So how does this tie back to little old me? While the evidence is indeed circumstantial that I am being targeted by Ugly Gorilla and his ilk, consider the pieces of the puzzle. As one of several ways that I circulate these musings, I use social media platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn. I also use Twitter, through an automatically generated dispatch that contains a link to the online post of the column. As such, once a week a Tweet goes out to my legions of readers via this method (actually about two dozen, but it's growing, I swear).

A few weeks ago I got a note from a reader: check your account. Then another, and another (they're a small band, but a hearty one). Seems I, or someone posing as me, was sharing a great way to "lose body fat in just 2 weeks." Almost as I was looking at it myself, wondering if I was sleep-tweeting, another one went out, a variation on the same message, followed by a third. Now, while the topic of food and eating is regularly discussed in this space, the net result is usually gaining weight, not losing it. Ergo, it wasn't me, and my space had been hijacked. I quickly changed my password, and the intrusions stopped.

So let's summarize. A major nexus of hacking has been traced to the Chinese military. At the same time, my Twitter account was co-opted. What other possible conclusion is there, other than that General Zhang Yang, the director of the General Political Department, has added me to the enemies list of the People's Republic.

The big question is this: why? If the goal is to compromise national security, then target any number of governmental agencies. If it's to steal account numbers, a bank or financial house is a much richer source. Even If they want to just create mischief, why not go after a bigger user base, like Google or Yahoo or Microsoft? The only explanation I can come to is they see something in my small mailing list that I don't. Like good venture capitalists, they recognize me and my contacts not for what we are, but for what we can become. And they want in on the ground floor. As such, I suppose I shouldn't be upset by the hack, but honored: they see potential that even I don't see.

So to those of you in my Twitterverse, apologies for the intrusion, but get your house in order. We are destined for bigger things. It may not be tomorrow or next week, but the next time I ask you to melt off pounds, know that we are doing it for a higher calling. And let's make General Yang proud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would love to return to China, assuming they let him in. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Scoop Scandal

Most times when a politician gets caught doing what he or she shouldn't have, I, like most of you, can't understand it. Is it really that hard to play by the rules? Or at least comport yourself as any normal person would, eschewing the temptations we all encounter in everyday life and simply do the right thing? I can walk through a candy store, and tempted as I might be, don't feel the need to reach out and stuff fistfuls of gummy worms into my pockets. Is it too much to ask that our elected officials do the same?

Yet time and again, we see those who have been given the public's trust fall down woefully in this department. Usually it boils down to one of three things. Money is probably the top of the list: with all that campaign cash floating around, funds to be appropriated and lucrative contracts to be awarded, it's awfully tempting to carve out a little on the side for yourself. The net result is that money that should have gone to something or someone else winds up in your pocket. Just ask Jesse Jackson Jr. about that Rolex on his wrist.

If money first, sex is a close second. Simple affairs for sure, but just as often, new ways to show your contempt for your spouse and the voters. Be it professing to hike the Appalachian Trail while shacking up in Argentina with your squeeze (Mark Sanford), prosecuting then patronizing escort agencies (Eliot Spitzer) or sending pics of your boxers and their contents to female voters (Anthony Weiner, in the perfectly named "Weinergate"), it validates the phrase "you can't make this stuff up." Or you can, but no one would believe it.

And then there's power: what's the point of having it if you can't abuse it? Whether it's Nixon's sic'ing the IRS on his enemies, or Sarah Palin (remember her?) trying to ice a state trooper who was in a custody battle with her sister, those in charge can pull the levers of government to work in their favor. And that's just on these shores. There's Betsygate in England (wife in non-existent government job), Piñeragate in Chile (political espionage by President Piñera) and Dunagate in Hungry (illegal collection of information on the opposition), to name just a few. (Sidebar: my favorite ‘gate is named after the affectionate nickname James Gilbey called Princess Diana on surreptitiously recorded phone calls. Hence, Squidgygate.)

In each case, we shake our heads and wonder "what were they thinking?" Did common sense go out the window? Did they not consider the consequences of their actions? Were we in the situation – wait – we would never put ourselves in that situation. They deserve whatever happens to them: shame, hounded from office, a slot on "Dancing with the Stars." Nothing is too severe a punishment.

But then I stumble across a scandal that makes me think differently. To be honest, I'm not necessarily a big fan of Benjamin Netanyahu; he's a bit arrogant for my tastes. He's gotten snared in the past for influence peddling and corruption, as well as drawn into a recent spy scandal over the mysterious death of "Prisoner X." You can argue his culpability in all of them, even if he's never been formally convicted. But speaking for myself, if they're going to nail Bibi for something, they gotta find something better than his ice cream habit.

Or more specifically, his ice cream budget. Seems that the prime minister has a serious gelato jones to the tune of $2700 a year. (Pistachio, if you must know, vanilla for his wife.) At local prices, that's about 25 pounds a month, though it does include sorbets and frozen yogurt, especially in the summer. But in a country facing severe cuts in government spending, his sweet tooth has raised a national outcry.

However, speaking as a fellow sugar-holic, I say leave the boychik alone. If I spent my days fighting with Palestinians on one side and the Ultra-Orthodox on the other, I'd want to come home and have a dish of glida myself. True, I might opt for my favorite, chocolate peanut butter, but that's why there are different branches of Judaism.

So go ahead and nail him for political dirty tricks. Call up a commission to investigate his squirrelling away Golan Heights settlement funds for a condo in Miami Beach. And see if you can find the tapes where he shacks up with some schicksa. I'll be as outraged as you. But leave the man's ice cream alone: after all, he's only human.


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