Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Grand

It's finally here. I, for one, thought it might never come, given the distractions and detours that seemed intent on sidelining the event, making it seem hardly inevitable. But if you kept an eye on the calendar, and ticked off each week, there was no doubt that we were advancing at a steady pace. And then just when it seemed that it might really never happen, you turn around, and sweet God of Mercy, it's actually here.

The Super Bowl? Oh, that too. I understand from reliable sources that it's taking place in Arizona this weekend. No, I'm talking about the 1,000th edition of this column.

That's right, number one thousand. A kilo, a grand, a stack, one large, a bag of sand, a biscuit, a yard, call it what you will, it's a one followed by 3 zeroes. It's come at a steady pace every week, like Sherman marching through Georgia. A regular year has 52 weeks plus an extra day; in the leap version, you get an extra 2. So if you do the math, it means I've been at it for 19 turns of the calendar plus 10 additional weeks. You'll forgive me if I round it off to 20 years for the sake of this discussion.  

In that light, perhaps we should pause, take a collective deep breath, and ask where have we been, where are we now, and where might we be going. For starters, what has 20 years brought you and me? If you've been here from the beginning, you've traveled with me to places like Japan (#174 "I Had A Dream"), New Orleans (#529 "Ground Below Zero") and Russia (#777 "St. Petersburg 101"). We've eaten grilled lamb together in Omaha (#124 "Mideast meets Midwest"), noodles in Singapore (#358 "Eating in the Village") and hot chicken in Nashville (#994 "Hot, Hotter"). And we've met adoptees (#676 "Pasha & Nikita"), singers (#873 "From Here to Ethiopia") and even hula hoopers (#934 "Hooping the Night Away").

More often than not, however, we've looked at all the "stuff" that we otherwise might not think about at all. Usually it's not the headlines above the fold, nor even those found on page 32. One week it might be the names of sports teams ("#251 "Let's Go Lugnuts!"), while on another we might focus on public bathrooms (#496 "Separate, Not Equal"). We've looked at weight limits for boats (#805 "Tack to Port(ly)") and corporate anthems (#345 "Sing a Song of IBM"). And we've wondered about everything from perfume (#106 "The Nose Knows") to salad dressing (#205 "It's What's On Top That Counts") to freebies (#951 "The Joy of Swag").  

You might well ask what's the unifying theme here. It's simple: whatever catches my attention. Each week I try to pick something that normally would go in one eye and out the other, and dig a little deeper. Yes, it's writing, but it's also exploring, questioning, translating, wondering. The goal, if there is one, is to find something that interests me, and see if I can make it interest you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but hopefully we've gotten on base more often than we've struck out, and maybe even hit the occasional home run.

As for next week? Well, next week we will get back to making fun of the foolish. Maybe we'll try to understand how naps and peanut butter cups are proof of a higher power. We'll see what connections we can draw between the mysterious ways that Congress works and how Taylor Swift dresses. I can only promise you what I have before: if you'll keep reading, I'll keep writing. I'll try and keep my eyes and ears open, use all 26 letters where possible, and bring a smile to your face at least once a week.  

One last thing, however, before we continue: know how grateful I am for your attention and time, both of which are in short supply and high demand. As any reader of this space knows, I like to travel, be it in person or in my head. And it's a lot more fun to look out the window when you have someone with which to share the journey. So thanks for taking the ride with me. And now? Well, break's over: let's get back on the road.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never thought you or he would still be here. Thanks for sticking around. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Destroyer of Data

From a hacker's point of view, I would have to say I'm a low value target. Put another way, any breach of my data isn't going to be earth shattering. Sure, I may have called someone a twit in an email, or groused about a client to a co-worker, or told my accountant how I really made out in Vegas. But even if the North Koreans or ISIS or some kid with too much time and too little sense bothered to dig into my files, short of not being able to look my mother straight in the eye, the potential for serious damage is pretty low.

Having said that, it doesn't pay to leave the keys to the car just lying around and the doors open. Like many diseases, getting your electronic laundry strung up for all to see is minor unless it happens to you. And with account numbers and the like, some serious meddling is indeed possible. So like everyone else, we have passwords and patterns, all intended to thwart any active intrusions into our electronic thingies, wherever they may live.

That's for the stuff currently in circulation. But what about the gray pile of electronic castaways that is in the corner of my office, or maybe your basement? It might be old cell phones or obsolete laptops or underpowered desk machines, each of which cost you dearly and was state-of-the-art at the time, but is now barely worth scrap. In fact, ever check the value of that pristine iPhone 3 or whistle-clean NEC Versa laptop you've been hanging on to? After you go through the questionnaire (Is the screen cracked? Is the case blemish free? Does the battery hold a charge?) the trade in value pops up at $1.25, $1.50 if you have the charger.

But I'll put twenty bucks on the table that whatever the exterior condition of the unit in question, were you to power it up you would find lots of stuff you wouldn't want in enemy hands. All those highly confidential files that you carefully protected when the machine was live are still there even if it's virtually dead. And so just tossing or recycling the lot is not advisable, at least until your scrub them of anything illegal, immoral or fattening.

Now, assuming you still have the charger/monitor/keyboard with the right plug/format/connector on it, you can take a stab at wiping them clean. Unfortunately, just hitting "delete all" won't actually work. In the inner working of computers, all that does is remove the name of the file so the space can be overwritten. All that juicy data is still sitting there, waiting for any 23 year old with a year of coding under his belt to lift easier than you can say "here's my credit card number."  

That's the situation I was in as I cleaned out my office, eventually lining up a baker's dozen of old computers that were ready to meet their electronic maker. So I downloaded a "data destruction" program and went to work. It used a Department of Defense protocol to overwrite the info on the hard drives numerous times with random letters and numbers. I think I can safely say that the odds of someone checking out a book using the library card number I had stored on my old WinBook is virtually nil.

But there were a few machines I couldn't get to power up. And if I couldn't turn them on, here was no way I could electronically cover my tracks. So I turned from the high tech method to the low tech variant. I broke out a screwdriver, opened up the case, yanked the drives out by their roots, and planned on their physical destruction.

My friend Jim is a musician and audio engineer blessed with a pair of ears I will never have. He will play something for me and say "Hear that?" I cannot, but I don't doubt that he can. Like many purists, he prefers the more nuanced and warmer sound that older technology gives him, so much so that his email signature contains the phrase "Analog Rules." But Jim, on this occasion I can do you one better. Because I am going to take those drives outside, and smash them with a sledge hammer. In this instance, analog will not only rule, it's going to kick digital's ass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford took 3 carloads of electronics to be recycled. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Streaming Sweat

God created two types of exercisers. There are the soloists, who clamp headphones on or push earbuds in, then and run/walk/bike to their hearts' content. Often their aim, as much as giving their body a workout, is to block out the outside world for a little bit. No small talk, no pretending to listen. Just them and their sweat.  

Then there are the ensemblers. For them, having a partner or group helps to keep things going. It might be a pal with whom to run, or a class with an instructor. Were these same folks told their only option was to walk on a treadmill, they would likely look for the nearest couch. But offer them a Zumba or Lyengar or CrossFit class, and they're happy to drip along with other like-minded gym rats.
While there is no real breakdown of the $27 billion dollar fitness industry, walk into any gym and you will see the split. Now is an especially ripe time to do it, with January being the number one month for new memberships. A combination of too much food over the holidays, new year's resolutions to get in shape, plus the fear of what you might look like come bathing suit time drives people in droves to fork over for the privilege of leaving their nice warm homes to go stretch and flex in a box in a strip mall.

But it doesn't take long for the bloom to wear off that rose. The calculation that drove you to get out of bed early or not head straight home after work will start to tip. You will pass by the gym with a huge pang of guilt, then a smaller one, then smaller still. Finally you will view it as just another storefront, no different from the hardware store or flower shop. And you will say, you know, I can do all that same stuff at home and make it work just fine.

If you're in our first group, it's certainly possible. True, you might not have all the high end equipment, those elliptical trainers and tread climbers, each costing many thousands of dollars. But you can still buy a cheap stationary bike and read the paper. Or talk a walk and work your way through past episodes of "Serial." You can even do sit ups or leg stretches and squats, all while watching the football game. Works the same, and your heart-rate won't know why it's elevated if you don't tell it.

However, if you're the class type, it's a little bit harder. Sure, you watch "Hip Hop Abs" or "Kettlebell Kickboxing" or "Turbo Barre Ballet" online or on DVD. Each features smiling buff instructors yelling instructions and encouragement while a diverse set of classmates follows along behind, some going for the gold, with at least one sweat-er filling the "Gee, she looks uncoordinated but can still do it, so I guess I can too!" demographic. But it's kind of like watching an old tennis match. You know the players, you know the outcome, and you can stop it at any time and come back. Not exactly motivational.

But if you've got two grand, plus $39 bucks a month, check out Peloton Interactive. They bill themselves as the first live-streamed spinning class. The 2K buys you a high end spinning bike fitted out with a 22" video screen. Hook it into your home network, and you can sign up to watch a live, multi-camera feed of a class emanating from their New York studio. You can start the day with Cody Risby's 6AM 45 minute "Rhythm Ride" or end it with Robin Arzon's 830PM "Metrics," or nearly a dozen others during the day. You'll see and hear it all as if you were there, without ever having to leave your basement, nor listen to the gal next to you huff and puff.  

At this point, it's all one way, but it's not too hard to envision a Skype return feed, so instructor Lisa Niren can look at her screen and yell, "C'mon, Nicole, over by the old ping pong table, pump it up!" Might be right if you need the crowd for motivation. As for me, I exercise alone for a reason. It's not that I don't want to talk, it's that I need to take in as much oxygen as possible. After all, when I run, breathing is number one on my list.


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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Let Me Count the Ways

It's hard to make sense out of all the, well, stuff out there. From smartphones to surgery, from toothpaste to travel, from retirement to restaurants, there is nothing of which there is not too much. We want it all, dammit, but we can't figure out which one of the all we want. And so we turn to ratings and reviews and rankings.

But even there it's hard to cut through the clutter. Punch up any movie or burger joint or oven mitt, and there are literally hundreds of competing viewpoints. On a recent visit to Washington DC we went online to check out a restaurant. It had the kind of food we liked, was in the neighborhood we would be in, and looked attractive from the pictures. First review: "Great place, friendly staff, good prices!" Next review: "Sucks. All the reviews you see here are lies." What's a mother to do?

And so rather than crowdsource, we turn to supposed impartial sources. After all, there are a million websites that rank, curate, sort, compare, dish, judge and otherwise determine where any individual thing fits in the global order of similar things. They seem to come in two flavors, the ranking and the listing. But in each case, there are issues as well. For the first, it's mostly spurious objectivity; for the second, it's spurious subjectivity. The result is that it can be simultaneously amusing, informative, yet still not helpful.

Consider the first, the empirical ranking. You would think it would be of value to know the "10 Best Family Cars" or the "5 Best Beaches on the East Coast." But according to whom? And what's the criteria? Do you need seating, cupholders or a kick-ass entertainment system? This is truly a case of one man's SUV being another soccer-mom's minivan. Or vice versa.  

For instance, Bankrate publishes a list of the "10 Best States for Retirement." A helpful guide, you would think, especially since it's not based on any single person's anecdotal experience, but on tangible metrics. According to the notes, it included "the local weather, access to health care, cost of living, crime rate and tax burden." Not content with even those broad measures, they continue: "This year we fine-tuned the process by evaluating government statistics on health care quality, and we improved our measurement of weather to include levels of sunshine and humidity." They also threw in some touchy-feely liberal stuff, like the "Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a comprehensive survey gauging people's satisfaction with their surroundings."

The result of all this spreadsheet crunching? Honey, pack the dog, we're moving to South Dakota.

That's right: the result of all that analytical mumbo-jumbo is the Mount Rushmore state. Now, nothing against the folks there. And perhaps on a point-for-point basis it does stack up well versus, say, Massachusetts. But let's be frank: have you ever heard of anyone heading there to while away their golden years? Yes, crime and taxes may be low, and it's health care system may be ranked high, but there's NOTHING THERE. And look a little deeper to one of its other nicknames, mainly the Blizzard State.  You tell me if you want to be age 70 sitting in Box Elder (population 7,800) wondering if you can get to the Pizza Hut before the roads close.

As to the second type, the listing, they are subjective in the extreme, both in topic and inclusion. That said, it's hard to argue with "10 Clothes Middle-Aged Women Should Avoid" (Number 7: hair gadgets) or "5 Breakfast Crepes Worth Waking Up For" (Number 4: Cornmeal Crepes with Figs and Pears). But my career choice is unlikely to be affected by "5 Dream Jobs You Probably Didn't Know Existed" (Number 5: Water Slide tester). And I'm pretty sure I would know I was in trouble even without "7 Signs You Don't Make Enough Money" (Number 2: You Can't Cover Your Bills). Then again, it was helpful, if not necessary, to know "5 Things Starbucks Won't Tell You" (Number 3: You can order a Fruity Pebbles Frappuccino).

I guess any help is still help. After all, I'd like to lose a little weight, so "7 Ways to Eat Less" is a welcome guide. Still, while number 4, "Put your fork in your non-dominant hand" might work, I don't know if I have enough napkins.


Marc Wollin of Bedford only needs one reason to have a cookie. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

He Said, She Said

By his own account, Fred Shapiro was a trailblazer. As a student back in 1978 at Harvard Law, he says he was the first person to use the fledgling Lexis research database to find out the earliest citation for the word "mootness." Whether or not you consider that historically significant or not, it was emblematic of his lifelong interest in words and quotes, an interest that continues to this day on a professional basis as an associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law, as well as author of the Yale Book of Quotations.

It's also the driver for him to publish his yearly list of top utterances, something he's done since 2006. Not surprisingly, this year the mantras of the recent protests against police brutality "I Can't Breathe" and "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!" came in first and third respectively. They were split by Bridget Anne Kelly's email directive that it was "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Other notables included number six, Hillary Clinton's assertion that "We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt." And while the final spot was a three way tie, it included Joe Biden's gem, where he sympathized with the second in command in Harvard's student government association, "Isn't it a bitch? I mean, this vice president thing?"

But with apologies to both Spinal Tap and Doctor Seuss, if you go on beyond eleven, you find a number of other mutterings that should not go completely unnoticed. While they may have flown a bit below the radar, herein are some of this year's favs that shouldn't be allowed to escape the bright, clear light of day.

"There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity." - M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

"I feel like a doughnut coming out of the fryer, rolling in the sugar." - Michelle Wie on winning golf's U.S. Women's Open.

"We've changed our internal motto from ‘Move Fast and Break Things' to ‘Move Fast with Stable Infrastructure.'" - Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook's evolving culture.

"Personally, I just hope they suck forever." - Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on the L.A. Lakers, who aren't having a very good year.

"Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a dead hooker in the bathtub." - Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) in the movie "The Judge."

"I understand that my career is over, but people are giving you well-wishes like you're about to die." - Derek Jeter as he played his final year before retiring.

"The founders of Snapchat last year turned down a $3 billion offer from Facebook and a $4 billion offer from Google. It was a surprising show of integrity from the guys who invented the app that lets you look at pictures of boobs for five seconds." - Comedian Cecily Strong.

"I think Jesus could probably coach this team pretty well, but outside of him maybe Mohammed, maybe Gandhi, someone like that." – Phil Jackson, former NBA player and coach, currently president of the NY Knicks.

"It's kind of like the horse - you know, the horse was good until we had the car." - Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on broadcast television.

"If there wasn't a Republican in a race, I wrote in my dog." - Lynne Rothermel, a voter in Baltimore MD on Election Day.

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon." - Elon Musk in an address at MIT.

"You are graduating today as the most diverse class in Yale's long history. Or as it's called in the NBA, Donald Sterling's worst nightmare." - Secretary of State John Kerry at Yale's commencement.

"I came in third, Amy. Even the Nazis came in second." Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) after losing the NH primary on HBO's comedy "Veep."

"When I suck, I'll retire." - NE Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"You want to be reelected? You want me to be elected? Then zip up your pants, shut your mouth and stop banging the help." - Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) on "The Good Wife."

"I'll tell you something - if I was Jay Leno and I was retiring, you know what I'd do? I'd go out and buy myself a car." - David Letterman on his retirement.

"Any pizza is a personal pizza if you believe in yourself." - Madi Genz, Iowa City High School Class of 2014, under her yearbook picture.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good quote. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.