Saturday, April 27, 2013

You Call That A Threat?

Kim Jong-Un has a problem: no one is taking him seriously. Since his father died and he took power in December of 2011, he has been trying to make somebody – anybody - outside of North Korea take notice. Like a kid in a classroom sticking his hand in the air and waving it back and back forth, he has tried one thing after another to get the attention of the world. In each case, it's like the teacher just nodded at him, and went right on calling on little South Korea sitting in the back.

In April of last year he fired a long range ballistic rocket; it fell into the sea. In August, he said that his army was ready to deal "deadly blows in an all-out counter-offensive" should anyone violate their borders. Trouble was, no one was or wanted to. Then in December he put a satellite into orbit. It got there, but it turns out to be tumbling end over end, and showing no signs of life, kind of like sending a washing machine careening down a hillside.  

More recently he has released photos of a military exercise showing a fleet of hovercrafts staging a mock beach landing. Turned out it was Photoshopped together, showing the same 2 vehicles duplicated multiple times to make up an armada. And he even warned local embassies that they might want to consider sending their nationals out of the country because hostiles were imminent, and contacted a British tour operator by email saying "'The DPRK has now ordered its rockets to standby to destroy U.S. bases if the DPRK is attacked. The situation is now critical with the outbreak of war probably only hours away." Trouble is they sent that email on March 29, and the Yeouido Hangang Spring Flower Festival opened in Seoul on April 12 with a blast, and it wasn't nuclear.

Ah, yes, nuclear. That's the one thing making this more than your state level hissy fit. After all, if Mauritus or Papua New Guinea, two countries with similar GDP's to North Korea's, were making similar threats, we would all laugh and go back to our lattes. But having a bomb that makes that big a boom forces a certain amount of "Such a kidder! (Pause) He is kidding, right?" And even if the intelligence analysis is correct, and any bomb he has isn't small or accurate, just how small or accurate does one have to be with a kiloton or two? Remember the old children's saying "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades?" Well, add to that nuclear bombs.

Perhaps Kim should take a page from his patrons, the Chinese. After all, you don't see Beijing threatening to blow up San Francisco. That's because not only do they like cable cars, but they recognize that our economy is their economy as well. And so they've been sticking us in the ribs by going after the things that really matter to us, and won't hurt them. That means their hackers have been screwing up our Facebook pages and Ebay accounts, and making it impossible to get a clean stream of the last season of "Game of Thrones." Talk about psychological warfare that takes a toll.

Now, North Korea doesn't seem to have the technological chops to compete at that level. So what to do? They just have to think what will get under our skin, while focusing on their strengths which would be low tech, coupled with ample cheap manpower. And so at the risk of helping the enemy, they should be looking for a pressure point that uses those assets. And if we have an Achilles heel that fits the bill it's this: telemarketing.

If I were Kim, I'd set up huge phone banks, and start calling every cell phone number we've got. And when we hang up, call right back. And do it again and again. It's not like he cares if he gets put on the "Do Not Call" list; he's already a pariah. Just think of the disruption this will cause, the phones that will get thrown across the room, the tempers that will fray. Do it enough, and we'll be begging him to take all the rice and beans he wants just to stop. And if we don't ante up, he should threaten to call at dinner. Now, THAT'S a nuclear option that will carry some weight.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks Kim just wants attention. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reason to Celebrate

I'll bet you missed it. There were a lot of goings-on on April 9, and so it likely slipped your mind. Maybe you were celebrating the victory of the Louisville men's basketball team in the NCAA Finals. Or maybe you were mourning the death of Margaret Thatcher or Annette Funicello. Then again, perhaps you were marveling at Ford's announcement that the Focus was the top selling car in 2012. No matter: it's not too late to send a card. For on that particular Tuesday the Iranian people took time to celebrate National Nuclear Technology Day.

After all, who doesn't love a holiday? Here in this country we have numerous big, national days of celebration, like Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, days where all our fellow citizens come together regardless of race, creed or political stripe. There are also religious holidays, from Easter to Rosh Hashanah, as well as pauses more correctly classified as observances, such as Mother's Day or St. Patrick's. Then there are countless dopey days, such as Houseplant Appreciation Day (January 10), Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) and Men Make Dinner Day (November 7th). All provide an excuse to get together with friends and have a drink, or in the case of National Pigs In A Blanket Day (April 24), have a, well, you know.

Of course, we're not the only folks looking for an excuse to have a good time. Almost every country has some kind of Independence Day, celebrating the birthday of their modern existence. So if you want to raise a glass to Day One, you can do so on December 16 for Bahrain, June 26 for Madagascar or September 1 for Uzbekistan. If it's religious celebrations you're looking for, try December 12 for Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, or Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which is a four day holiday usually held in October in India. And yes, other countries have stupid ones too: on a random day in August, people in Nepal celebrate Gai Fatra, or the Procession of the Cows, where every family that has lost a relative during the previous year is supposed to lead a cow (or a young boy dressed as a cow) through the streets. You just have to hope it doesn't fall on the second Sunday in that same month, for that is Turkmen Melon Day, wherein those in Turkmenistan celebrate the musk variety.  

That's not say that Iranians didn't have plenty of feel good opportunities. They too have a national birthday, Revolution Day, which takes place on February 10. And from a religious standpoint, nothing quite says "let's get together with family and friends" like January 12, better known as "Martyrdom of Iman Reza Day." Likewise for July 30, "Martyrdom of Imam Ali Day," or September 2, "Martyrdom of Imam Sadeq Day."

But in a country ruled by a theocracy, the opportunities for a purely "fun" celebration are few and far between. Strike that: they are non-existent. And so the government has stepped in to create holidays which all Iranians can celebrate based on national pride, rather than any specific religious event. Hence you have March 19, Oil Nationalization Day, which this year celebrated the 62nd anniversary of Parliament's throwing out the British company that controlled the key to the country's wealth. Good times!

And in that vein, Dr. Ahmadinejad and his pals have created National Nuclear Technology Day. At a celebration attended by both the President and the head of the country's Atomic Energy Agency, there were speeches and, well, speeches. Two new uranium facilities, one for mining and one for enrichment, were opened (for research purposes only, of course). Also, according to IRINN (the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network), "a domestically made electron accelerator was presented, which will be later manufacture in the country." To assist in the festivities, "Families of the Iranian martyred nuclear scientists were also present." And the capper: "During the ceremony, the President also unveiled five nuclear medicines." Collect them all!

One can only imagine that all over the country schoolchildren were whooping it up. There was the traditional decorating of the bomb shelter, dressing up in radiation suits and yellow cakes shaped like weapons. Or was that uranium yellow cake that was a weapon? No matter, it's a common mistake. But now I can't wait for National Chemical Warfare Day: I have my favorite anthrax spores ready to go.


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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Not On Demand

When I opened our phone/cable/internet bill this month, I glanced as I usually do at the total. Month after month it is usually the same, packaged together as it is. But this month I noticed that the bottom line was a little more, $2.98 to be exact. Perhaps someone in the family downloaded an old episode of "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" as a refresher before the new season started. But no, this was not the case. Rather, we were being hit with a "surcharge" for sports programming. Put another way, I am paying for Alex  Rodriguez's contract.

According to a flyer in with the invoice, licensing fees charged to carry programming are going up. No surprise there, it's been happening for a while. And because the companies supplying the programming to the carriers bundle together stuff you want to watch with stuff you don't, you pay for both, like it or not. It's as if you went to a restaurant and every meal was all in: salad, appetizer, main course and dessert. You want the lamb, you gotta take the pea soup too. Even if you hate pea soup.

In the old model, that was generally OK. Assuming you wanted "cable" (and that's no longer an accurate moniker, as it's increasingly being delivered by fiber or satellite, but you get the idea), you picked the package that worked for you. For a certain price, it might be 50 channels; add a bit more, you got 70 and so on. But everyone paid the same for the smorgasbord that was transmitted, and picked from among those offerings. Depending on the package, you got some sports, some prime time, some national specialty franchises, even some Spanish programming and local access. If you wanted something special like the end cut of prime rib or a richer dessert, in the form of HBO or The Tennis Channel, you paid a little more. However, you could opt in or opt out of those extras as you wished.

But the landscape has shifted. These days, you don't need to have "cable" to watch programming; hell, you don't even need a TV. More and more shows are being consumed online and on computer screens every day; estimates are that 30% of all internet traffic in prime time is people streaming stuff from Netflix. Add in those viewing on tablets and mobile phones while on trains and planes, in coffee shops and in bed, and the traditional image of a viewer settling down at 8PM in a comfy chair to watch a 60 minute prime time drama is a quaint anachronism. The couch potato has been mashed.

With one exception, that is: sports. The live game, be it the big three of football, baseball or hockey, or any of the myriad of other professional and high level contests, is the killer app of viewing. The very fact that it's live is what makes it compelling. With the exception of a small group of diehard fans, most people want to watch it when it's happening, talk about it when it's over and that's the end of it. No binge, delayed, Tivo'ed, DVR'ed, boxed set, director's cut with special DVD commentary will do.  

I get it. And so if the economics of the system have changed so that you want to charge me for that privilege, have at it. Package it however you like. The Yankees charge $29 a year to get every game on your computer. I can get an NBA League Pass for $49 for season and watch hoops till I drop. Fine. I ask just one thing: let me be the judge of whether I think it's worth it or not. Instead, what you've done is hit me up for something I don't want, whether I want it or not. To spin a phrase, it's entertainment without representation.

But I know it's not going to stop. And so if you want me to pay more for sports, like owning stock in a company, at least give me a chance to speak my piece. I'll give you your $2.98, but here's my price: no more grunting in tennis. Change the blue lines in hockey to yellow. And like baseball, make football and basketball coaches wear the team uniform: it'll up the entertainment value when it's a blowout.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes watching sports now and again, 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, April 06, 2013

Thieves Down East

According to the authorities, the current environment and circumstances together have led to an uptick in thefts. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise: after all, you have an increasingly valuable commodity, large amounts of unattended property, and cold nights with moderately warm days. The first two are understandable as contributing factors in any crime. But you might well wonder why weather has anything to do with it. Well, it's an element because those conditions are the perfect ones to cause maples to ooze. And the theft that's on the increase concerns the base ingredient for syrup. Bottom line: somebody's stealing sap.

In a post on the Maine Forest Ranger Facebook page, including a picture of Ranger Thomas Liba (Badge number 4123) at a "Sap Theft Complaint" site, landowners are reporting the violation after walking their property to find tubing and collection bottles affixed to with their trees without permission. Interestingly, in spite of the value of the sap, the rangers report that most of the landowners are more concerned with the damage done to the trees themselves: "We have seen cases where log quality trees are being tapped improperly, with left-open drill holes when the operation is complete. These holes leave an opening for insects and disease." Besides that, the thieves are also slobs: "There is also litter often left behind at these sites."

Still, in spite of the owners concern for their underlying property, it's the sap itself that is big business. As reported by the official government agency "Statistics Canada/Statistique Canada," our neighbors to the north, the world leader in this area, produced "maple products expressed as syrup" in 2012 of around 7.8 million gallons, worth around $315 million dollars at the then average price. It's such an important part of Canada's economy that much as we have oil stashed underground in case a war breaks out and we suddenly need our own secure supply of energy, they have a "strategic syrup reserve" to cushion price swings, or in case residents suddenly have an unquenchable appetite for waffles.

That kind of big business can also lead to big crime. In 2012 there was a heist of about $18 million worth of syrup from a warehouse in Canada. That theft was the stuff of movies, discovered when an inspector accidently knocked a barrel supposed to be full of maple goodness and thought it felt light, only to discover the contents had been siphoned off and replaced with water. It took a number of months, but most of the missing 27 million kilos was eventually recovered. That was good news for breakfast lovers everywhere, as the total heist would have been enough to put a tablespoon of topping on 183 million pancakes.

But back to the locals. Rangers Down East are finding sap theft rising up their agenda as the price of the commodity increases. While the exact amount needed varies based on the type of maple tree, you generally have to boil down about 40 gallons of sap or more to make one gallon of syrup. While the official average price in December for syrup was about $39 a gallon, current retail prices are $40, $50 or even $60 plus. That works out to a price somewhere between $1600 and $1900 a barrel. Compare that to an equivalent measure of oil at about $96, and you can see why the term "liquid gold" isn't too far off the mark.

Speculation is that the tough economy has driven more and more Mainers from hearty outdoorsmen and women to hearty outdoor felons. And it's behavior that seems to be spreading. Why else would the state legislature also be considering Bill LD421, "An Act To Prohibit the Unauthorized Harvesting of Wild Mushrooms and Fiddleheads." Seems that residents of Vacationland not only pilfer sap from trees on private land, but stop along the road and gather fiddleheads for salads and soups. Said Representative Tim Marks, Democrat of Pittston, "I've been a victim of fiddlehead theft for years."

For the Maine Rangers, it's an ongoing problem. Said Jeff Currier, the regional head who oversees activities in southern Washington County as well Hancock, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, "It's a statewide issue and it's a growing issue." And they better get it under control before order in the state completely disintegrates. After all, if it's sap today and fiddleheads tomorrow, who knows where it will stop?


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