Saturday, September 27, 2014

Us and Them

Much is written about our current Democratic/Republican or Blue/Red duality. And while that's a convenient shorthand, you can split our national identity other ways as well. Coffee vs. tea drinkers, exercise buffs vs. couch potatoes, network viewers vs. Netflix binge watchers. However, all of these are a conscious choice: you look at the available options, and gravitate towards the one that best reflects your world view. That, plus some additional weighting if you missed an early season of "Breaking Bad."

Other ways of splitting the populace are based less on choice, more on the accident of birth. For sure, race tops the list: to be born black vs. white ensures very different life experiences. (Whether it should or not is not the question: the fact is that it does.) Likewise, gay vs. straight has moved like lightning over the past several years to the front of the national conversation. And geography plays a part as well: there's no doubting the differences between the coastal/urban zones as opposed to the great heartland of the country. Just watch a tourist from Oklahoma or Nebraska try and navigate a Starbucks in Boston or Miami. Less than 2000 miles separates the locations, but they are actually several light-years apart.

A recent piece of news has further divided our great land into us vs them based on the governmental boundaries that define us. If I asked you to pick a state that differs from the rest, a knee jerk reaction might be Texas with its frontier sensibilities. Some might have thought of Florida, our national home of wacky true-crime stories. And California has proven itself a quirky individual time and again, most recently being the first state in the nation to pass a law protecting people's rights to post negative reviews on Yelp. But odds are that of the 50 possibilities, Minnesota would have been far down on your list. And yet a recent legal settlement singles them out from us all.

If you have an ethingy of some type that lets you read ebooks, turns out you were ensnared in a price fixing scheme perpetrated by five of the leading publishers in the business and Apple. While you weren't looking, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Penguin colluded with the tech darling to keep the costs of books artificially high in the face of a major competitive challenge from Amazon. Somebody figured it out, and brought a lawsuit, actually a bunch of them. As happens with these things, it turned in a class action affair, with Attorneys General across the country banding together to fight the evil Cupertino. All across the nation, that is, except for the AG from Minnesota.

Maybe there a particularly good Golden Gopher football game going on, or perhaps hockey season had just started when it was time to sign up. But whatever the reason, Minnesota opted not to be part of the big lawsuit. As such, they went it alone, and filed their own. Now, normally one might think that as the self-chosen orphan stepchild, when they started handing out the settlement monies that they would get the leavings. But in a somewhat surprising turn of events, turns out that those from the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" actually got 10,001.

In Amazon's email to all its customers impacted by the settlement, they set out the way they are divvying up the $400 million that Apple is providing to soothe the aggrieved souls ensnared in their scheme. If you live in Topeka or Texarkana, Shilo or Summerville, and bought an ebook of a New York Times bestseller, they will give you a credit of $3.17. But if you bought that same book and live in Badger or Gilman, Lake Benton or Zumbro Falls, all towns which all fall within the North Star State, you get $3.93. And the same goes for non-bestsellers. If you live in Schenectady, you get a 73 cent credit; hail from St. Clair, and you get 94 cents.

And so once again we see how our country breaks down along the boundary lines of haves and have-nots. However, the latest accidental millionaire turns out not be some twenty-something in Palo Alto who invented an app that lets you order custom candy bars with your name on it, but a forty something housewife in Duluth who ordered the "How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook."  Hmmmm. I read a lot; I wonder if I can become a Gopher retroactively.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is dependent on his eReader. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

If a Tree Falls

My home office is oriented so that when I sit at my desk I face a sliding glass door that looks out into the woods behind our house. At this time of year it is still dense with greenery, with dappled sunlight playing off the leaves and trees. It's not uncommon to have chipmunks and squirrels scampering about, and birds flying through. Occasionally I'll see a deer poke its head out; later in the season they will get bolder in their quest for food, but for now they pretty much stay further back in the thicket. The occasional cat wanders by, and I have even spotted a fox or two, though they're usually gone almost as soon as I recognize what it is.  

On this one particular morning I glanced up as I was trying to digest the implications of a budget which had just been sent to me. I wasn't really looking much beyond my nose, but as I considered dollars and cents I shifted my focus further away. My gaze alighted on one particular tree. It wasn't close, maybe 50 yards, half a football field away. It attracted my attention because the sun was shining on it just so, almost as if it was being hit with a spotlight from the balcony. And as I watched, I noted it began to sway a bit more than its neighbors.  

We're not talking a little twig here. This was a pretty good size oak, a solid two feet across, and maybe a hundred or more feet tall. It was far from dead, with a thick green, spreading canopy that I could clearly see. It was the kind of tree that you could hang a swing from, or build a treehouse in, or gather the family around for picture. In short, it was the kind of old growth that was here long before I appeared, and one I would have expected to be here long after I'm gone.  

But as I watched it I saw ever-so-slow movement near the base. I quickly shifted my eyes upwards, and saw its leaves begin to accelerate against their neighbors, moving far more swiftly than the gentle breeze could claim credit. As I watched, I saw the entire length begin to pivot, and heard the unmistakable sound of tearing wood and rushing air. It accelerated through the neighboring branches and leaves, ripping and thrashing its way to the ground as only a ton and a half of hardwood can do when it has  gravity on its side. With a resounding thud it buried itself in the brush and dirt which was its immediate neighborhood, kicking up a small cloud of dust and detritus.  

Almost as fast as it began, it was over. A casual glance towards that same spot revealed nothing amiss. Sure, perhaps it wasn't as dense in that one exact spot as it had been moments before. But peering along the axis on which I was sitting showed no discernable difference. It's just that that one particular tree was gone from my sight, causing me to wonder if it was ever there in the first place.  

I stepped out into the yard and walked into the woods. It was just as still as it had been before. On the ground lay this massive piece of nature, horizontal rather than vertical, but impressive none the less. Like others I could see scattered about, nothing suggested the transformation I had just seen; it could have been created that way. Only its splintered base gave evidence to the violent act that had happened perhaps a week, a year or a decade before. Except I knew that it was barely a single minute.  

It's an age old question, and I can't say that I have the definitive scientific answer. Indeed, some strange rearranging in the natural world might have occurred at the exact spatial coordinates where I was sitting. Just the very fact that I happened to look up and watch it might have caused the celestial volume knob to be twisted to the open position. But at least for purposes of this discussion, put those caveats aside. For whatever it's worth, in this particular little corner of the world that we inhabit, I, your faithful correspondent can indeed report with absolute certainty this fact: when a tree falls in the forest, it does indeed make a sound.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to look out his window in all seasons. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www., as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dewey Be Dammed

I like to have things that go together be together. Some stuff is easy: the fridge has a vegetable drawer, my dresser has one for socks and the middle one in the bathroom is mine. Red wine goes on the rack, while white goes in the fridge. And while I'm not obsessive about it, short sleeve shirts hang together, pens go in one cup on my desk and pencils in another, and in my workshop every tool has a specific hanger. (That being said, I love the approach of guy I worked with, who, when I asked if I could borrow a pliers, directed me to his toolbag. It had three big sections: Squeezy Things, Cutty Things and Pointy Things.)

With printed matter, whether paper or electronic, it's even more important. After all, if a pair of underwear accidentally mixes in with the socks, it's pretty easy to separate. No so with a bunch of books or magazines all about the same size and shape, or computer files with names like taxstuff.xls and taxthings.xls. Of course one peek inside will tell you if you have National Geographic or Playboy (actually, maybe that's a bad example), but it's still time you won't get back.

Then there's the library, the very paragon of organization. Not only does it have everything in a very specific place, but it catalogs it all as well. And not just fiction or non-fiction, but on beyond the alphabet: architecture has a different home from art, as do history and hieroglyphics. Find the book in the card catalog or its digital equivalent, and thanks to Mr. Dewey's efforts you know that "Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock" can be found on the shelf marked 791.4302/33092, while the "Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas" is elsewhere at 598/.09788.

But because of a variety of factors, almost all revolving around the electronification of data and the internet itself, libraries are wrestling with the most basic of concepts. After all, why organize it all if you don't need organization? Pick a topic, any topic: let's say staircases. Type the term into your favorite search engine, and up comes how to make one, where to buy one, and songs, movies and books with that in the name. If I add a few more search terms I can find other examples more specific to my needs, like plans to build one for the deck. I don't need to know where it lives or how it's classified. Click and I have it.

My librarian friends will likely take me to task for this heretical outburst. Someone has to organize it all, they will likely say, I'm just enjoying the fruit of that labor several steps removed. And they have a point. The links that enable me to find anything are just a different technical system of accessing information, one whose mechanics are transparent to me but no less real. I could as easily take my point of reference the Library of Congress catalog, the Metis system of holistic knowledge or even Tom Lehrer songs. ("There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.")  

Indeed, we're even seeing different ways of organizing and teaching knowledge in general. There's the much debated Common Core, and Bill Gates' promotion and roll out of the Big History Project, which links lessons on the Big Bang to Einstein and the hydrogen bomb. For some the most dominant platform for a survey of all things turned out to the recent 12 day "Simpsons" marathon of all 552 episodes. There you could learn about the cosmos ("Deep Space Homer"), immigration ("Much Apu About Nothing") and even the criminal justice system ("Marge in Chains" and the iconic line, "Come out with your hands up, two cups of coffee, an auto freshener that says ‘Capricorn,' and something with coconut on it.").

But back to the library. As an avid eBook borrower, the system most useful to me has rearranged knowledge in yet another form. When I log in, I'm greeted with an interface that offers me a chance to slice and dice the available choices multiple ways. But in this ever growing collection, the most useful drop-down turns out to be "Added to Site." And so on one page I get Henry Kissinger's "World Order," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the travel Guide "Best Chef's Tables in Portland" and Stacy McKitrick's "Bite Me, I'm Yours." Now, that's a new world order indeed.


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

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Name Changer

Consider the predicament of Matt Broomfield and Peter Endicott of London, the editors of the student magazine at Oxford University. Or Jim Fleshman from the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco TX, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the International Species Information System. Likewise Dr. Herbert Bernstein from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, the President & Chief Scientist of the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies. Each of them probably envies Mayor Lorraine Pyefinch in Queensland, Australia. You see, back in 2008, Mayor Pyefinch and her constituents dodged a bullet when they redrew the local governance lines. That's when their name changed to its current incarnation of the Bundaberg Region. Before that, had you journeyed down under, you would have had to call it by its former name, one that is shared not only by the aforementioned groups, but with one entity more in the news these days. For that area of Queensland was formerly known as the Shire of Isis.

While you can pin a lot of things on Australia, being the home of today's most notorious terrorist group is not one of them. The current ISIS, or "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," has grown from an offshoot of al-Qaeda to a self-declared Caliphate straddling the border between those two troubled countries. The group has become known for their extreme ideology and brutality, and taken the name of the Egyptian goddess of fertility to places it was never intended. That's not to say it hadn't gotten a workout before this. After all, it is also the name of a pharmaceutical developer, a line of lingerie from the British company Ann Summers and a post-metal rock band whose 2009 album "Wavering Radiant" on the Ipecac label opened with the well-received "Hall of the Dead."

Then there's Verizon. Back in 2010 the communications giant and its partners were looking for a moniker to differentiate their new mobile payment venture from PayPal and Google. I'm sure when they tallied up all the focus group responses and marketing research, ISIS Mobile seemed like a clear winner. But odds are better than even that their branding gurus are having second, third and even fourth thoughts right about now.  

After all, aside from the difficulty of creating a marketing message ("Triumph with ISIS" or something similar), there are some practical issues as well. Any web search for ISIS results not in connections to the platform, its mobile apps and all the great advantages it has over its competitors, but to images of marauding thugs in black hoods. Sure you can find links to ISIS Wallet, but they are three pages in. And oh, about that web page. The one the company registered is Since exchanging money with terrorist organizations is a federal offense, people might not rush to buy their potholders from Etsy using the platform. As Michael Abbott, CEO of Isis Mobile said in a statement, "As a company, we have made the decision to rebrand." Good call, that.

But it might not be necessary. Officials and the media have tried several nom de guerres to see what resonates with the public. And in fact, in recognition of the group's larger ambitions, both the U.N. and the U.S. State Department have recently been referring to ISIS as ISIL. That stands for "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," where Levant is a broader term for the region, encompassing not just Syria, but Turkey as well as other countries. In that light, Verizon and the others might wind up in the clear after all is said and done. But in a case of one man's ceiling being another man's floor, one can only imagine the anguished conversations among the attendees last week at the annual convention of the right-leaning Libertarian group the "International Society for Individual Liberty." After all, their initials are – well - you can figure it out.

If there's good news, I guess it's that either abbreviation is as lightly used and known as it is. Imagine the gnashing of teeth, sleepless nights and endless meetings that would ensue if they had taken the name "Waji Hali Monafa' Lana IllHeta Iradicali'." A rough translation of that Arabic is the "Front for the Organization of the Radical Divine." In that light, "Built FORD Tough" takes on a whole new meaning, doesn't it?


Marc Wollin of Bedford uses MW when required, and is hardly ever confused with a terrorist organization. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.