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.