Saturday, July 26, 2014

Looking Good

First she had to deal with a bunch of revolutionaries in tattered rags. Next it was a troupe of dancing Arabians in flowing robes. Then it was mobsters in fedoras and pinstriped suits. And that was just Sunday. Monday it was sportscasters describing hockey, while Tuesday meant a couple of business execs explaining earnings. But if you're Belinda, it's just your typical week, especially when you're the makeup artist that everybody wants.

True, not every week has her as the Department Head for the Tony Awards, the key makeup artist for the Stanley Cup Finals or working with the CEO of a major corporation. But if it's not one thing, it's another. It might be a music shoot in Nashville or a network singing competition at Radio City, a photography session for a print ad or even a wedding. No matter: whether it's Billy Graham or Billy Joel, George Clinton or Hillary Clinton (yes, she's done them all, plus McCartney, Sting and more), they trust her to make sure they look good.

Belinda began her working life as a model in her native Florida, and even managed two bars on the beach in St. Petersburg. "I made a lot of money!" she told me, but she didn't like the lifestyle. And so she made a promise that by the time she was 30 she would go on no more auditions and pour no more drinks (unless they were for herself). She enrolled in a vocational school for TV production, graduated when she was 31 and got work with ESPN at golf tournaments.

The connections she made there led her to jobs including the World Cup in 1993 in LA, after which she landed a stint as production manager on the skiing tour for 8 years. She also started doing football, which is where she noticed "The makeup artists were flakey, and sometimes didn't show up." One time in a pinch she ran to the drugstore, got some stuff and did it herself. Later, when another one showed up high at a game at the Orange Bowl, the producer turned to her again. This time she was ready, with a tackle box from Target filled with the necessary supplies. The producer let her double dip as a tech and a makeup artist (freelance slang for billing twice), but even better, she realized that was what she wanted to do.

She moved to LA to learn special effects makeup, and landed a job on "Unsolved Mysteries" with Robert Stack. Meantime she was picking up the art of blood and gore ("I can slash with the best of them!"), eventually working with director Steve Miner on the "Friday the 13th" movies. That led to stints on films such as "Forrest Gump," and an ever broadening set of contacts. She got a gig doing news in Austin, Texas, but found it boring. So when Sony records offered her a spot in New York as the house makeup artist for "Sessions at West 54th," she jumped at the chance. In that roll she worked with musicians from Elvis Costello to Sheryl Crow to Lou Reed and more. And those contacts led to much more on the New York scene and beyond.

But contacts only get you so far. It's about skills to be sure, not to mention attitude. "I treat everyone the same way," she told me. "I study their face for 20 seconds and I know what to do. I'm fast, I don't do things heavy and I don't play around. If they want to talk, I'll talk. I approach it as you are only as good as your last show; screw up once, that's what they will remember. And above all, I'm grateful for the work."

I asked her what her favorite gig was. Without hesitation, she said "The Tonys! Live show, live actors, no attitudes. They have no entourage, they are kind and appreciative of what I do." Her favorite person? "James Taylor. A real gentleman. He just says ‘Hello Belinda' and I melt!" And with all the people she's met and jobs she's been on, I asked if there was anything she would like to do. For the first time, it took her a minute to respond. "I'd like to fly a plane." She laughed. "But professionally? I'm about to work with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. After that, what's left?" For Belinda, what's left indeed.


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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Crash Test Dummy

So I'm reading the owner's manual for my new car (Wait: did he say "new car?" Yes, I did. For those you who have followed my decision process in this space and seen fit to ask me what I finally bought, only to find out that I did nothing these long months, I finally bit the bullet. After looking and thinking and talking and thinking and reading and and and, I hung up my Jeep in favor of a – wait for it, wait for it – MINI Cooper. Countryman model, stick, four door, four wheel drive, dual sun roofs, metallic blue, sticker on the back that's says "It's not cute. It's mean." But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes: owner's manual.)

So I'm reading the owner's manual for my new car, learning about all the things that are really important on today's vehicles. Not the engine or brakes or frame stiffness; who cares about any of those? No, I need to know the details of the radio, the car's Bluetooth connectivity and capabilities of the USB jack. But as I page through the various features I come across a piece of equipment I didn't order and didn't even know was included: the Event Data Recorder or EDR. As explained, "The main purpose of an EDR is to record, in certain crash or near crash-like situations, such as an air bag deployment or hitting a road obstacle, data that will assist in understanding how a vehicle's systems performed." In short, I have a Black Box.

Most typically we associate a Black Box with trains and planes and crashes. They're the thing that investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board consider the Holy Grail in their search for answers. Typically they find one buried in the wreckage, send it to a lab to read out the data, and based on that info are able to answer the question that is on everyone's mind following an incident: "What the hell happened?"

But my new car has one? Turns out I'm not alone. Since the 1990's auto makers, led by GM and Ford, have been putting black boxes into cars on their own, the better to gather data as they seek to improve their technology and systems. Estimates are that 96% of new vehicles already have them, but even that number will go up. While the National Highway Safety Administration first proposed a rule that all cars have them back in 2006, the implementation has been delayed several times. However, it is finally set to go into effect this fall: starting September 1, all new cars will be required to carry an EDR.

The boxes record a variety of telemetry to be used by auto companies and investigators alike. These include speed, accelerator position, seat belt use, airbag deployment and a host of other data points, some 15 in all. Information like this also enables companies to analyze ongoing issues, such as the kind that led GM to recall millions of vehicles due to an ignition problem. It's likely that without said data they wouldn't have been able to pinpoint the commonality among all these incidents, though as we've seen, knowing about the problem and telling about it are two very different issues.

It's also worth noting that while the EDR records those 15 specific data points, they are hardly all the points of failure a car can have. With the myriad of advanced systems in today's vehicles, there are a multitude of other places where things can go wrong. And some not so high tech as well: Chrysler just announced a recall of nearly 900,000 SUV's because the lights on the vanity mirror can cause a fire. Who knew that letting a passenger check her lipstick at 60 mph was dangerous?

According to the manual, my EDR records this information for approximately 30 seconds, then overwrites it, just like its airplane brethren. Unlike its sibling, however, it doesn't record conversations in the cabin, though with the built-in microphone for phone connectivity one imagines it wouldn't be that wouldn't hard to arrange. And while it would be a major privacy breach, one can only imagine how auto insurance companies are salivating over that possibility: "I'm sorry ma'am, but we're denying your claim of swerving to avoid a deer because we heard you just before the crash saying ‘I'm texting Judy the address of the OH MY GOD!'"


Marc Wollin of Bedford misses his Jeep a little. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

I, Robot, Reporting

It was a major media announcement. At some point in the not too distant future there will be a changing of the guard at the news desk. An older, experienced hand will slowly be phased out, replaced by younger talent more in tune with the changing demographics of viewership. But while you're probably thinking about the story from ABC, wherein Diane Sawyer will be moving aside in favor of a tag-team made up of George Stephanopoulos and David Muir, I'm referring to the announcement coming from across the Pacific. That's because 6,737 miles away from New York in Tokyo, Kodomoroid and Otonaroid made their debut as the world's first news-reading androids.

Kodomoroid, whose name is an amalgamation of the words "Kodomo" or Japanese for "child" and android, and Otonaroid, whose name does the same with the Japanese word for "adult," look to the causal eye as a full sized teenager and adult human. With silicon skin, artificial muscles, blinking eyes and real looking hair, one can argue they look no different than certain real newscasters. But stick some copy in their, er, hands, and it's "World News Tonight" in Japanese. True, at their debut their lips weren't working too well, but they just looked like they had had a little too much saké before the show.

Kodmoroid read news of an earthquake and an FBI raid, while Otonaroid had to reboot herself, passing off her faux pas by saying "I'm a little bit nervous." They were so lifelike that they seem poised to jump over the so-called "uncanny valley," that inflection point where we feel unnerved with robots that come oh-so-close to looking and acting human, but not quite. They even sounded like any reality star who gets a taste of the limelight. Said Kodomorid, "My dream is to have my own TV show in the future".

Both were created by robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro as part of his research in the field. The two will interact with visitors at their home in the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, enabling Ishiguro to continue his research on how we relate (or not) to robots. It's not his first effort crafting a lifelike stand-in: he sends a humanoid version of himself overseas to give lectures. His reason? "It cuts down on my business trips."

Meanwhile, in a neat bit of serendipity, the debut of the robots coincided with an announcement on these shores from the Associated Press. Starting this quarter, they will begin to use computer automation to perform one of the most basic and formulaic tasks for any business reporter, that of writing articles about the quarterly earnings of companies. Tapping the services of a company called Automated Insights, they plan to use computers to scrub the facts out of data feeds, and publish articles that look like they've been written by people. The goal is to up production as opposed to downsize labor, as AP looks to increase its output of these types of 100 to 350 word dispatches from 300 a quarter more than tenfold to 4400.

This isn't the first time this has been done, and not even the first time for the AP. They already use a similar system to create text based articles from NFL stats that rank the players' performance. Thomson Reuters uses computers to generate stories from market data, and Forbes uses a system from a competitor to Automated Insights named Narrative Science. In a kind of journalistic Turing Test, most readers have no idea that the dispatches they're reading come not from a hard boiled journalist with rolled up sleeves, but from a motherboard barely breaking a sweat.

Automated Insights has as one of their company tag lines "Our robots write like humans, turning Big Data into plain English." Feed that English directly into Kodomoroid and Otonaroid, and you have entire ecosystem. But consider the bigger picture. After all, humans make the news and humans watch the news. But the news itself can now be processed, digested, scanned, repackaged and communicated all by robots. Some might consider that a problem, having android overlords telling us what they consider important that we should know. On the other hand, there is a different way of looking at it: now it's only a matter of time before those same overlords wonder why anyone should care at all about Kim Kardashian.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't think robots could ever fill this space. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Quiet Car

If you go to and from work in your own vehicle, you carry your own private bubble with you. True, you have to endure traffic and detours and tolls. But your personal space is your personal space. You can make it as cold or warm as you like. You can crank up the tunes, be they country or rap. You can talk on the phone as loud as you like. And if you're of a mind and you can stay awake, you can even ride in blessed silence.

It's not the same if you use mass transportation. There you inhabit a very public living room along with other like-minded souls. And while safety and ease of transport are indeed paramount, a seat that gets you from Point A to Point B is merely table stakes. The creature comforts that exist these days on buses, trains and ferries have become just as important. While the last bar car on the Metro North commuter line went bottoms up in May (it was reportedly the last pure bar car in the entire country), other attractions have been added to entice commuters off the roads. On some conveyances this might include power to keep you going, TV to keep you entertained, or Wi-Fi to keep you connected.  

But for all these individual accoutrements it's still common space. As such, noise is a major issue. People listening to music or watching videos are usually not a problem, as they use earbuds. No, the most offending squawks are those coming from live, in-the- flesh humans. Whether it's the local side of a phone call, or actual person to person (and maybe to person) conversation, they are there for all to hear.  

It makes no difference if the individuals in question use their inside voices or not. Since you are sitting less than an arm's length from them, every exclamation or explanation is effectively delivered in a stage whisper. And so we all get to enjoy the recap of last night's date, the stupid project your stupid boss has you on, the listing of things to pick up at the store, the debate with the insurance company as to why your out-of-network claim should be allowed, the post-soccer game pickup arrangements for your eight-year-old, or best of all, the clinical description of your dog's infected paw.  Thanks so much for sharing.

That's why perhaps the most important improvement they've instituted on Metro North isn't the speed restrictions, or the engineer-conductor buddy system on critical curves, or radio control for braking over 30 miles-per-hour, but the Quiet Car. After all, the first three can merely prevent a catastrophic wreck, but the last will prevent me from being convicted of murder. Well, probably not murder, but certainly manslaughter, assuming I can convince a jury of my peers it wasn't pre-meditated.

In the Quiet Car, things are just that: quiet. No phone calls, no conversations, no loud earphones. I can read, sleep, daydream, whatever, all without having to be distracted. And best of all there is a self-appointed police force, in the form of other passengers. On virtually every trip there seems to be at least one who Is not shy about enforcing the rule of law, usually with a gale force version of "Shhhhhhhhhhh!!!!"

Depending on the hour, this de facto state-of-affairs actually extends its borders to other cars as well. If you take a train in the morning, chances are that the vibe will be more library reading room than party car. While it is not officially verboten to talk, if looks could kill, offenders would be quickly slayed. And if not, there's always your own set of earbuds.  

Such was the case for me a recent 5:09AM train. Three middle-aged women got on at the stop subsequent stop to mine. And while they weren't talking that loudly, it was talking nonetheless. Try as I might, my brain wouldn't tune it out, while all I wanted to do was close my eyes and catch up on the sleep I was missing. I eventually succumbed to taking out my own earpieces. And since music would have been distracting, I fired up a noise generator, looking for an appropriate masking effect. Interestingly enough it wasn't a light rain or waves lapping on the shore that best obliterated their voices, but the sound of an airplane cabin at 30,000 feet. With apologies to dear Will, silence by any other drone can still be just as sweet.


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