Saturday, August 30, 2014

Punctuation Wars

The Middle East is devolving further into chaos. A virus is rampaging through Africa defying control. A little known St. Louis suburb shows we're not quite as post-racial as we'd like to think. There's trouble in the Ukraine, mudslides burying neighborhoods in Japan and even a cheating scandal at Notre Dame. The world is going to H - E double hockey sticks in a hand-basket, and what am I dealing with?

Punctuation issues.

Let me say at the outset that I was not an English major, nor do I play one on television. But by virtue of that fact that for nearly 20 years I have been occupying this particular space, wherein I put my thoughts, opinions, interpretations, ruminations and outright fabrications on very public display, I have had to deal with the blowback. Actually, blowback might be a wee bit too strong a description. In addition to the occasional attaboy, I get a few polite corrections thrown my way. But still, when you sit alone in front of a keyboard late at night, it can feel like an onslaught.

Some of those comments are about substance, comments I am happy to take under advisement and respond to in kind. But I have also been drawn into several technical disputes about the words on the page. Or more correctly, not the words themselves, but rather the way those words are delineated. Yes, with all the aforementioned turmoil in the world, I have had to focus not on Ebola but on ellipsis, not on separatists but on spacing.

I was first drawn into a discussion where I was taken to task for not using the so-called Oxford comma. For those of you (like me) who didn't know what it was, the Oxford (or Harvard or serial) comma is the optional one before the word "and' at the end of a list. To wit: apples, peaches, and pumpkins. But it's optional, so apples, peaches and pumpkins is also acceptable. Yes, it can be used to clarify, as in the oft cited example "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Another comma would have eliminated the demon spawn that the prior construction references. And yes, in that case, I would have used it as well. But optional means just that, and so I stand my ground, even in light of such posts as "You'll pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands." (Note the comma.)

Likewise for two spaces at the end of a sentence. I do it as a reflexive process that stems from learning to type. (There, I just did it again!) But you don't see it, because my editor insists I eliminate it. And so before I submit a column I do a global search and replace, and remove the offending white space. A recent online post entitled "Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!" blames it on the mechanics of the typewriter and the monospacing that device did for every letter. The post goes on to say that considering the current state of technology that double spacing at the end point is anachronistic at best and ignorant at worst.

But that's hardly the last word. While the typewriter rationale is enshrined for many as the reason two spaces should go the way of the dodo, further research shows that typographic "rules" and rationales are elastic, and have been through time. Way back in the 1700's, when there were important issues such as Independence to be discussed, they were debating typography as well. And so about a hundred years before the typewriter was invented you can find parchment with the equivalent of "Yea, thou shalt use but a single m quadrat after a full stop, or thou is an ignorant sow!" The weight of history, indeed.

So to all who take me to task for violating the so-called universal laws of punctuation, just look around you. In a world of tweets and txts and emoticons and emails, the way language gets used and laid out is fluid at best. Maybe I don't always conform to what The Chicago Manual of Style says is "correct," or hew completely to the gospel that is Strunk and White. I only say to you read some Cormac McCarthy or E.E. Cummings, and get over it. And spend a little more time worrying about the Crimea.


Marc Wollin of Bedford writes like he speaks, for better or worse. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Same Name, Different Stuff

When I go to the grocery store for my own shopping, I tend to act like a tourist in Paris. I wander up and down the aisles, looking at all the pretty colors and unusual variations. I pick up a package of something that attracts my attention, and stand there wondering if I could if find a recipe that would include it, especially if it's on sale ("hmmm - chicken thighs - figs - I wonder"). Now and then I find a few new items of interest I can't wait to try ("nobody told me they have chocolate chip coconut butterscotch cookies!"). Then I gather it all up, only to get all the way through the checkout to find a piece of paper in my pocket reminding me to get milk and bread, the two things I forgot.

Contrast that same trip with one where I am dispatched by my wife with a shopping list. In that case, I insist on very specific instructions. Not only do I want to know that I have to buy cereal and toilet paper and crackers, but I want to know, a) what brand I need to buy, b) what size it should be, and c) what exact variation of that brand. Don't just tell me "we need detergent." When last I checked, there were at least 239 different brands on the store shelves. There are national brands, store brands, organic offerings and specialized products, all promising to make my clothes some variation of "cleaner than clean! " That's good, right?

So that why I had a more than a passing interest in the latest news from consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble. According to CEO A.G. Lafley, the company plans to "significantly streamline and simplify the company's business and brand portfolio" by getting rid of 90 to 100 current brands. While he wasn't naming names, the keepers would have to fit into the company's core business strategies of beauty, health and home. Said Lafley, "If it's not a core brand – I don't care whether it's a $2 billion brand, it will be divested."

P&G will keep 70 to 80 brands, those that together currently generate 90 to 95 percent of the company's profits. These likely include such names as Head & Shoulders shampoo, Pampers diapers and Crest toothpaste, each the 800-pound gorillas of their respective categories. While there are also some major brands which would likely be divested, such as Ivory soap and Scope mouthwash, if you were a betting man you might also put some money down on some less-than-household names like Zirh men's grooming products, Glide dental floss and Zooth toothbrushes.

Still, if history is any guide, less brands doesn't necessarily mean less products. The concept of "brand extension" means leveraging a well-known and trusted name into areas with which it wasn't formerly associated. Take Swiss Army knives. Legendary makers of, well, knives, Victorinox has licensed the name far and wide. So now you can have a Swiss Army backpack, a Swiss Army watch, a Swiss Army pair of swimming trunks and even Swiss Army Eau de Toilette for my lady, with top notes of blossom and the oh-so-subtle whiff of corkscrew.

P&G has already started in that direction. Take the aforementioned category of detergent. Its elephant-in-the-room is the jolly orange giant Tide, which has more than twice the sales of Gain, the number two brand. Within the category they have stretched and morphed plain old liquid soap into multiple variations in formulation (With Bleach, Without Bleach, Cold Water, Hot Water, Sport, Ultra, etc.) and form factor (liquid, powder, pods, pacs).The Tide product page lists 27 variations of the brand, not to mention the assortment of sizes and packaging in which the products are available. If fact, if you put one of each type and size of Tide products end to end, you would likely reach from where I am standing to P&G Corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. Trust me, I've measured it.

And so the next logical step is to leverage the name beyond detergent. In that light, it's not too hard to envision a Tide toothpaste, Tide diapers or Tide deodorant. And beyond that? Tide cologne, Tide toilet paper and Tide batteries are all possibles. And while there is no talk of edible Tide, give it time. I just don't know if it will go with figs.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to go the grocery store to wander, not to shop. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Forget Security

It's astounding the amount of useless, non-sequitor things I have trapped in my head. Sure, there are the times tables and proper way to address an envelope. But just ask, and with almost no hesitation I can also quote you the chorus of obscure Steely Dan songs ("Bad sneaker and a pina colada, my friend/stomping down the avenue by Radio City"). Or key lines from certain MASH episodes (Frank Burns to Margaret Houlihan: "It's nice to be nice to the nice."). Or the correct DOS command to list computer files in a widescreen mode page-by-page (DIR/W/P). It's sad to say, but no, I didn't Google a one of them.  

That's me. For you, it might be sports scores or players. Or Simpson episodes. Or sneaker designs. The point is that each of us is capable of maintaining multiple data points in our brains that are rarely germane to our everyday pursuits. And while they may not as important as memorizing the different nerves in the arm if you're a doctor, or the correct way to cite a prior ruling if you're a lawyer, it can be helpful. After all, if you can recall the combination to your gym locker or the exact address of your accountant without having to retrieve the cheat sheet from your wallet, it can save you a few minutes when you need to access the information. And so it used to be for passwords.

Passwords used to be about access, not security. We put them in place so that casual wanderers who got to the front door didn't just wander in. It was kind of like locking the door and taking the keys of a convertible, but leaving the top down. It wouldn't stop someone who wanted to pretend it was theirs or even hot wire it. But it deterred some smart-aleck from doing something stupid, like hopping in or taking a joyride, the very definition of a crime of opportunity.

Now, in the wake of the discovery of a billion plus passwords stolen by some Russian crime ring (yours and mine likely among them), experts are once again telling us all to step up our vigilance. More to the point, they are telling us to stop trying to remember our passwords by using simple, easy to recall combinations. No more Yankees1 for you. No, the smart thing to do is forget all that, and cede the task to an app or program. That way we can have a unique code for every different site, and each code can approach un-guessability in its design. So your Amazon key becomes 7sa^Js9#, while the one for the New York Times is n&n19!8H.

Sort of makes sense. But there's a dirty secret. Count the numbers, letters and symbols. In spite of the seeming complexity of the latter two, all three variants are still just 8 characters in length. And so, to a hacker, they're not that big a deal. There are various sites purporting to offer to test your password for crackability based on the program being used, the speed of the processor and so on. But even with their different results, the scale is instructive. So at one site, while Yankees1 will take just 2 seconds to break, the others will take just 2 minutes. That's right, about as long as it takes to read this column. So why bother?

It turns out that in password security, size does matter. Every extra character you add makes it more secure, even if it's just letters. So just typing 4 words in a row works. So while u&sk$SgG takes a few seconds to crack, glancingaskancemarcwollin would take 35 trillion years. Capitalize the first letter of each word, tack on 2014, and it goes to 37 nonillion years. That's a one with 30 zeros after it. Break that, Vladimir.

True, since the experts also say that you shouldn't reuse your passwords, you could have 10 or 20 or 30 multiple word combinations. So, yes, there's no chance I will remember them either, and yes, I still need a program to help. But it's far more secure than using the other resident eight digit combinations in my head.  So no more using the serial number of the Starship Enterprise. (By the way, it's NCC-1701, and no, I didn't need to look up that one either.)


Marc Wollin of Bedford is slowly changing all his passwords to make them longer. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Shelf Space

Say what you will about my wife and I and our approach to the world, but we are both generally the organized types (please, no snickering from those of you who know us well). It goes for most things we do individually and as a couple, from cooking to packing to household chores. And it includes the way we've arranged our various spaces. In my office there are lots of shelves to hold files, tapes and source materials for projects. Likewise, in hers we installed large filing cabinets to hold the papers that were the lifeblood of her occupation. And in the joint personal environs that is our home, we did the same: we insured there was plenty of space for the collections we would add to, namely books and CDs and videos.  

But were we starting from dead level today, we could put Zen gardens in every one of those locations for all the traffic they get.

It's one thing to say we live in a "digital" world, it's another to come face to face with the historical underpinnings. In all of the above referenced locations, there is space after space filled with an accumulation of physical items that we selectively and proudly added to, then organized by color or size or date or alphabet, the better to be able to retrieve exactly what we wanted in the shortest period of time. Yet as of this moment, almost none has been touched in periods best described in years.

It's not like there's anything wrong with the stuff itself. We're not talking about the uselessness of the items in question because they are not the latest or the most stylish or because they don't work. Quite the contrary. In fact, partly due to the care we took in cataloging them, most are in pristine condition, save a light layer of dust that has accumulated over time.  

No, in our household as in yours, the things that we likely spent thousands of dollars on can't find an audience for love nor money. Today We read our books electronically on Kindles and iPad and smartphones. CD's would have a hard time finding a player to play them. And physical papers and folders are either out of date or faded into illegibility. Put another way, even if we cleaned that layer of dust off, you literally couldn't give any of it away.

Indeed, it has changed the way we look at space itself. We had always tried to lay out our environs to accommodate both things and people. It was a state of constant change, as the stuff seemed to continually expand in volume and quantity from its starting point, the people not so much (as long as we're not factoring in the "cookie dividend"). But with flat screens and mobile devices and cloud storage, the stuff has reached stasis or even contracted its local footprint. As such, it is occupying square footage that is now fallow and can be redeveloped.  

It's kind of like one of those future dystopia movies, where Washington Square turns into a weed-choked lot. Once these shelves were active, vibrant spaces constantly updated with the latest music, videos or books. And now? Now, depending on your point view, they are filled with nostalgic, retro or simply lame examples of past states of the art, stuff you would be embarrassed to admit owning. Can you say "Let's Get Physical?"  (For further proof, see WNYC's "Soundcheck" video of three schoolchildren reviewing 1994's "The Sign" by Ace of Base: "The song made me feel sad – sad for this person's life.")

Sure, we add to our closets, but strip away the bell bottoms and wide ties. We buy new types of cookies, but the old ones are consumed. We stockpile ever more sports equipment, holding out hope that those cross country skis will still fit when it once again decides to snow. And shoes multiply like rabbits, because you never know when you'll be invited to a country and western concert, and need that pair of cowboy boots.

But as for the analog analogues of our current digital standards? They lay neglected, unloved and unused. And when I can fit literally the equivalent of everything on those shelves onto my phone, the die is easily cast. Put another way, to some sound purists, analog may rule, but digital takes up far less space.


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

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Not Responsible

It was a stupid television commercial, no different from a hundred others. Actually, on second thought, it was stupider than most. A guy having lunch at an outdoor café with his friends. As he takes a bite, a splotch of tomato sauce falls from above onto his shirt. He looks up to see a giant meatball parachuting onto his table, there to do battle with him. As they begin to tussle, an announcer intones "When your favorite food starts a fight, fight back with TUMS." The spot cuts to a pit of fire, into which a TUMS tablet drops, extinguishing the flames. And on screen, a graphic with one word: "Dramatization."

Really? You're kidding me, right? It doesn't happen like this in real life?

And yet it's hard to find something, anything, that doesn't sport some kind of disclaimer. It used to be just ladders, the poster child for "things that have warnings telling you all the things you already know not to do or we won't be responsible." The one in our garage has a half dozen stickers, including ones telling me that the top is "not a step," that the feet should be "firmly on the ground and level," one even providing a geometric model of how to lean it correctly. There's also a note that I should "keep ladder clean of foreign materials" which precludes getting paint on it, which is the reason I bought the thing in the first place.

That being said, it's not like there haven't been warnings on things before. But if there' a "patient zero" to the current epidemic, it's Stella Liebeck. Liebeck was the 81 year-old woman who spilled hot McDonald's coffee on herself back in 1992. When she sought $20,000 to cover her injuries and expenses, the company offered just $800. She brought in a personal injury lawyer who tried to settle, but the company also rebuffed him, opting for a trial. But that didn't work out so well: even though it was subsequently reduced, the initial jury award was $200,000 for compensatory damages and $2.7 million for punitive damages. (On the bright side, it did produce a memorable "Seinfeld" episode, which sported the line, "You get me one coffee drinker on that jury, you gonna walk outta there a rich man.")

Since then, everything carries a disclaimer. There's obvious stuff like machinery: "Stay away from moving parts." And diet plans: "Your results may vary." And cleaning supplies: "Keep away from eyes." But it goes further. Emails: "This email was intended for the recipient only." Good point ,that. Or movies: "The events portrayed are fictitious." That's why I go to the movies! Or almonds: "May contain nuts." Uh, OK.

It's tempting to blame all you lawyers out there for this mess, and to be honest, there's little downside to that approach. But the evidence doesn't really bear that out. According to recent data, just 10% of injured Americans ever file a claim for compensation, and only 2% file lawsuits. All told, tort cases represent just 4.4% of all civil caseloads, a number that has been steadily declining for years. Still, the perception of Americans has having their doctor in the second speed dial position while their personal injury attorney is in the first is the one that stays with us. Hence the continuing expansion of disclaimers.  

But it's not like they actually work. After all, they don't stop people from doing something they shouldn't, and courts and juries tend to look at individuals harmed in spite of the notices as clueless rubes. While James Sinclair was writing about the email variant in "McSweeney's Internet Tendency," his comments are applicable to all of the genre: "This disclaimer is not unlike the ceaseless blaring of a distant car alarm—a once-sincere warning that has evolved into an unpleasant nuisance, rendered meaningless by its own ubiquity."

Still, you can't be too careful. And so before we move on to other things, let me say this explicitly: "Any action you take upon the information you find herein is strictly at your own risk, and we will not be liable for any losses and/or damages in connection with said information." Now, where were we? Oh yes. If you stand on the top step of your ladder, you can usually reach the highest shelf in your closet. But be careful. And don't say I didn't warn you.


Marc Wollin of Bedford sometimes wonders how stupid we really are. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.