Saturday, November 29, 2014

An Unplugged Gift Guide

They say Black Friday won't be quite as black this year, more "Black-ish" if you will. The reasons cited are several. Everything is always on sale somewhere. More people shop online and stay away from stores. But perhaps the biggest reason is that the traditional start of the holiday shopping season has been usurped by Black Thursday (formerly known as "Thanksgiving"), and indeed, the entire month of November.  

Call it Red-Green Mission Creep, but there's no denying the evidence. Target started pushing their gift catalog on November 10, Staples a week later. And both were beaten by the biggest Santa of all, when Walmart kicked things off on November 1. It's some kind of retail Darwinism, where the traits that have made the day after Turkey Day such a success are grafted onto every other one preceding Christmas. The resulting beast is a reindeer with a hump that can endure long stretches of seasonal shenanigans without breaking for water. At this rate, does anyone doubt that the Easter Bunny will soon be using a sleigh to get around?

However, having more time doesn't lessen the central question: what to put under the tree? Leaving aside the littler ones in the audience (and the myriad of tie-ins to "Frozen" and "The Hunger Games") what do the big kids want? To be sure, tech will be the big winner. Aside from getting those on your list an upgraded pad or game console, there are innumerable gadgets to accessories your device. Headphones and Bluetooth speakers along with wearable alerts, both fitness based and other, will top the list. I mean, who wouldn't want a Ringly, a ring that pairs with your iPhone, then vibrates and/or changes colors depending on if you get a call, a text or have a meeting. (I mean, I don't want one, but I'm sure plenty do.)

But what if you just can't bring yourself to buy another something that has a cord? Well, there are still plenty of options out there for the Luddites on your list. Try some of these on for size.

For sheer fun, what's better than flying a paper airplane? Nothing, unless it's a paper airplane with a motor. Just make your favorite design, then get the PowerUp 2.0 Electric Paper Airplane Conversion Kit. This little propeller and rechargeable battery pack hooks onto your glider front and back, and off you go into the wild blue yonder.

Know someone prone to swear, and but catches themselves at the last minute and veers off into more family friendly territory? For your favorite G-rated excitable boy or girl, consider the F-Bomb paperweight. It's just what its name implies: the letter "F" married to a round ball with a fuse sticking out. Use it to hold down your wireless phone bill or other papers that would normally have you cursing a blue streak.

If someone you know always has a water bottle with them, but also likes the flavored variety, maybe the Flavor Infuser bottle is a winner. Looks like a regular water bottle, but with one important addition. Inside is a central tube covered with lots of little slots. Into the tube goes lemons, strawberries or whatever fruit your well-hydrated friend craves. Five to ten minutes later, you have it: DIY blueberry H2O.

Oh, OK: one techy thing. The problem with most electronic games is that they are designed to be played alone or connected to someone far away. But sometimes a game can bring us together. If you and your significant other crave some friendly competition as well as some "us" time, but you can't bear to put down your pad, check out the iPad Foosball table. Other than the fact that it's just 12 inches long and 6 inches wide, it has four spinners on each side just like its full size cousin. But for this Lilliputian version, rather than a hard surface and real ball, just download the app, place your iPad in the center face up, and prepare to yell GOOAAALLL!

There're lots more possibilities. A DIY macaroon kit. A stapleless stapler. An OCD cutting board with grid lines. And there's always a new Nerf gun. The latest model, the Zombie Strike Clear Shot, is perfect for when you are feeling threatened by a blank faced ghoul. Of course, you could just ask your husband nicely for the TV remote, but this holiday being armed is a good plan B.


Marc Wollin of Bedford only wants no bills under his tree. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Too Many Opinions

More than once in the past few weeks, I have turned to the Net to help me make a choice about something. Ten or fifteen years ago I might have asked around or consulted a travel guide or asked a friend. No more. Now I do the same thing as any of you: I punch up Yelp or Google or Amazon reviews, and quickly troll the comments left by others.  

The idea behind these reviews is simple: give voice to the people. Instead of experts anointed by some editor or a panel of professionals, ordinary you's-and-me's would be able to weigh in, and post their opinion unfettered by anything other than their own personal experience. For this, I would be the wiser. My decisions could be crowd sourced, culling out the experiences that I wanted to have, and equally important, those I wished to avoid. It was supposed to make it easier, better. And it was supposed to work whether the choice in question was a new phone, a bottle of wine or a beach on which to lay. Instead, now I don't know which way to turn.

It's not that there are too few reviews; there are simply too many. For every negative there is a positive. For every rave there is a pan. For every, "this was the best movie I ever saw" there is a "don't waste your money on this piece of crap!" And the problem is this: they are all right.

That's because in almost every case they're based on a singular experience. And there are two truths about any encounter anywhere, anytime. The first is that no matter how hard a supplier might try, things can sometimes go wrong. And the second is that bad news is at least as interesting as good.  So you get plenty of posts about good guacamole, but equally as many that says someone found half a cockroach in their burrito. The result is that everything becomes a schizoid nightmare.

Take my own situation. I was going into the city for a project which didn't look to end till 1AM. That was paired with another that required a 7AM startup time the next morning. As such, I decided it would be more prudent to get a hotel room for the night than drive back and forth. Knowing the market in New York can get pricey, and needing just a clean place to catch a few hours of shut-eye followed by a hot shower, I started scanning sites for a modest layover. I figured somewhere between a $500+ room at the Waldorf and a $69 shared bathroom at a Bowery SRO I had to be able to find something acceptable.

Options themselves were not an issue; there are literally hundreds within 5 miles of midtown. Restricting myself to Manhattan, I looked further out to the edges than the center, assuming the cost would be cheaper. And indeed it was. But as soon as I clicked on a place, up popped a review: "Very nice, nice location, friendly staff. But it was paired with "Worse experience I ever had: small, cramped, rude." OK, maybe another. "The room is very small, but nicely kept. " Sounds good, until you read the next: "The quality of everything is bad already, but to have mice roaming around?" Getting to the client early and sleeping in the reception area was starting to seem like a reasonable possibility.  

And it's no different if you look at restaurant reviews. Punch up any random place. First rating: "Really enjoyed the curry." Second one: "Crappy service, ugly place, terrible food." Or book reviews. "This is a subtle and evocative story" is paired with "This book was clearly written for the money." Or dance music: "The best thing out of Austria since Mozart" vs. "Did someone leave the synthesizer running and go to the loo?"  

Garrison Keller famously starts each edition of his "News From Lake Wobegon" by noting that it's a place where "all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children above average." Were you to journey to that fictional place, you know what you'll find when you get there. But if Expedia took you there? It would be matched with "Residents are weak, homely and stupid: find another place to live."


Marc Wollin of Bedford picks restaurants based on proximity to parking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Use It and Lose It

Riddle me this, Batman: what do you use in an emergency, but if you use it, you lose it? Hmmm.  A spare tire? True, but you can repair it and make it a spare again.  A fire extinguisher? While there are lots of disposable models out there (as there are with many things), in their original form you can refill or recharge them and they are as good as new. Likewise with a flashlight; add new batteries, and off you go.

I am sure I will get emails with other possible answers, but I was going for "insurance." Specifically the homeowner's variant. That stuff you buy to cover your abode and all the goodies in it against the perils of man and nature, that gives you peace of mind that all you have spent a lifetime building up has at least as some measure of protection for it.  

For most of us, we get the stuff expecting to never use it. Or at least hoping not to. Save the extraordinary event, like a Superstorm Sandy, most of the stuff that gets damaged around the house requires a phone call to a plumber or an electrician as opposed to your agent. But every now and again something happens that trips the wire, and makes going to the well seem like the right course of action.

And so it was last week for us. The wind picked up to the point one evening where it was sounding like a freight train. The trees were swaying mightily, and certainly gave us pause. But prior events, including the aforementioned Sandy, had pruned much of the deadwood. We had also cabled a bunch of split trees, making them less likely to come down. Still, the sound and fury was both impressive and scary even if the danger was somewhat attenuated.

When we awoke the next morning and looked out, indeed, there appeared to be little damage. When we looked to the side, the site of several large specimens between us and the neighbors, all stood tall, and we could see the other house. It actually took a minute to notice that second point: that we could see the house. That was strange, because there used to be a fence there. And on second glance, it was still there, just flat on the ground. About 60 feet of stockade fence had caught the wind like a sail, and lay like sections of boardwalk across our lawn.  

Luckily, the damage was confined to that, and the no one was hurt. It was too much for me to try and repair alone, and so we called the company that installed it in the first place. They came toot sweet, and gave us an estimate. At the same time I called our insurance agent and reported the damage. After all, that's what our policy was for. He said, yes, we were covered, and deductible aside, no problem no getting recompense.

But when I sent him the estimate, with the calculation that after the deductible we would be due about $400 from our claim, he called back. Might not want to do that, he said. I was puzzled. We were covered, right? Indeed. Any reason to think they wouldn't pay? None at all. Then why would we not use what we had been paying for all these years. Well, he said, you remember that claim you made about 3 years ago when that tree fell down and you had to have guys come and cut it up? Sorta, I said. But that was then, and this is now, no?

It turns out that the insurance companies view their product as protection in the case of a catastrophic loss. Should we sustain major damage, they would have no hesitation on paying off, assuming all the paperwork was square. But a claim for a few hundred last year AND a few more this year, and they see you as a nuisance. And they will drop you like a hot potato.  

Use it and lose it. It makes no sense. But on his advice, we sucked it and paid for the fence out of our own household pocket. We can only hope the next time a tree cleaves the entire place in half; then we would be in fat city.


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

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Election Results

As I write this, it's still several days away from "the most important election in history." Even without knowing the outcome, however, I can predict certain things. The winners are crowing about how they have the kind of ironclad mandate that only comes with racking up 50.1% of the electorate. Meanwhile, the losers are busy working on their finger pointing, while simultaneously staring at another 2 or 4 or 6 years of life at the law firm as a junior partner, and wondering if they can put themselves and their families through the same meat grinder come next election cycle. Was I right or was I right?

But beyond the results themselves, what did we learn? One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. And yet every 2 years we go through this collective exercise in frustration called an election. In it we endeavor to select people to run our lives and and our world, but who campaign on anything but the issues. It's character assassination, pandering, promises that no one thinks they can keep, obstructionism and action plans that always seem to be at least one year longer than the term for which they are trying to get elected. Is it any wonder that voter turnout is around 56%, and drops to the mid 30's in the off years?

Still, some truths emerge. What's astounding is that while they seem apparent to everyone, from voters to candidates to political operatives, no one takes action on them. If you doubt me, write these down, and seal them in an envelope to be opened in 700 or so days. I will wager a ten-spot that very little will have really changed.

Robocalls don't work. There should be a special place in hell for whomever invented this technology. I don't care who is endorsing you; calling me twenty times and paying back a recorded message will not make me think about you any differently. If you're like me, the second you pick up the phone and hear that "click," you can't hang up the phone fast enough. And if you have several lines, and they all start to ring within half a second of each other, you just walk away, assuming you don't yank the phone cable straight out of the wall first.  

Direct mail is a waste. We keep our garbage cans in our garage. To go from our mailbox to the kitchen you have to pass them. All those glossy brochures for you and against the other guy? They never make it past the first can. Unless it's full. Then they get to the second one. Though I guess if you look at them as a private subsidy for the US Postal system, perhaps they do serve a purpose.

Repeating it countless times does not make it so. We're not stupid. We may be lazy, pampered, spoiled, but stupid? No. Just because you say "Jim Smith took money from seniors" or "Sally Jones wants handguns to be free and plentiful" 700 times doesn't make it true. Most positions are more nuanced, and anyone who has ever had to make a decision about anything know that sometimes, just sometimes, thing aren't simply black or white.  

Targeting doesn't work. Yes, it is indeed impressive that you isolate out specific data for Prius driving single women in northern Virginia who care about energy issues. But it's never that simple. Candidates have to take stands on multiple issues, not all of them lining up neatly with Republic or Democratic talking points. The hardest right candidate will be against same sex marriage until he or she has a gay son. The furthest left candidate will be against the Keystone pipeline until their husband or wife gets a job working on it. In neither case do they flip their entire belief system. Rather, like all of us, they accommodate and rationalize and adjust their world view. We are not the sum of our statistics. Rather, they are an incomplete snapshot, one which hardly gives a complete picture of what we want and what we're willing to accept.

But odds are all of these points will fall on deaf ears. All might take the weekend off, but come Monday it will be time to hit it hard. After all, the main event is just two years away. And a good robocall doesn't record itself.


Marc Wollin of Bedford voted a week early by absentee ballot. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Too Cheap

The technical definition of the term inflection point is "the point on a curve at which the curve changes from being concave to convex or vice versa." But it has a broader meting beyond mathematics. It's pushing the thermostat up to the point where you get too hot and have to turn it back down. It's passing cars on the highway until you realize that you're the one going the fastest and slow down. And it's eating that leftover Halloween candy thinking that it's just little itty-bitty pieces (and how bad can it really be?), which takes you right up to the point where you realize you're going to be sick.

Well, I think I found one specific inflection point in the retail world. They say that you can't be too rich or too thin, I'm pretty sure I've found the point where you can actually be too cheap.  

First, the setup from the both the internal and external perspectives. As far I go, I would say I'm frugal or thrifty. (OK, call it cheap.) I don't mind spending money, but I want it to be worth it. To that end, I am fine with off brands as long as they perform like their more storied counterparts. My ties tie the same even if they're not Ferragamo or Brioni. I used to buy only Sony TV's, but I've come appreciate those from Korean manufacturers like Samsung and LG. And while I grew up on Skippy, I'm OK with Jif, especially if it's on sale.

From the other side of the coin, the price per whatever has been steadily dropping over the years, driven mostly by advances in technology. Our first flat screen television cost $1500. Now you can get a bigger, better model for less than $600. Likewise phones, laptops, almost anything you plug in. I'm not an economist, but while things might cost more in absolute terms, the bang you get for that buck can be amazing compared to what you could purchase in the past.  

I'm usually looking for that that trailing edge, or how little can I spend and still get something which does what I want it to do. As to the specific example in question, I often need to play music for a crowd. And every show and client wants something different. Some want jazz, others current pop, still others something more background-y. Year ago we would have to burn a CD, hook up a player and use that. Now the standard is MP3 files we get from iTunes. But that means we need an ethingy on which to play them.

To that end I kept my eyes peeled for a small, cheap MP3 player for just such a use. I don't need a top of the line Apple device or anything close. Just a simple, cheap (there's that word again) device I can load specific tunes onto, and hand over without fear that losing it. I was walking through a computer store the other day, and saw just such an item. Styled to look like a more expensive player, it did exactly what I required, and it was just $15. I asked one of the sales people if they had experience with it. He confirmed what I thought: the technology was old hat by now, and it worked exactly as you would expect. I plunked down my card, and took it home.

Once in my office, I unpacked it and scanned the directions. I plugged it in to charge, and went onto other things. A couple of hours later, I went to play with it. I pressed one button, then another. Nothing. I read the instructions to see if there was a trick. Nope, just on/off and play/stop. But nothing worked. I called the help line in the package (already expending way more effort that I was planning), but they didn't have an answer. Alas, I will have to wait till I'm in that neighborhood again, hopefully within my 30-day return period, and get my money back.

So at least in this one particular case I have found the point where low cost doesn't equal value. I however, have not given up hope. I'm convinced a sub $20 player is out there. And so I will keep looking, confident that someone has invented, if not a better mousetrap, then at least one that catches mice at a substantial discount.


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