Saturday, February 28, 2015

Taking the Blame

It's not that I wouldn't like to dodge the blame. After all, I could site the pernicious influence of the big box stores like WalMart and Target. And it's easy to say that the ease of shopping at Amazon is a factor. For sure, the internet itself is a major culprit, offering you the ability to compare prices while standing in the store. Taken together, that's a one, two, three punch that laid low a string of brick and mortar retailers of gear and media, from Circuit City to Blockbuster to Virgin Megastores.

But even if it's not all on my shoulders, I still have to accept a solid heaping of "guilty" for the demise of poor old Radio Shack.

You see, everyone likes to think there are masters of something. Some guys were into cars, and on a first name basis with the guys at Pep Boys. Others were lawn and garden aficionados, and could wax poetically about mulch. Still others were grill meisters, with special tools and tricks that turned chicken breasts into works of edible art. Me? I dabbled in all of those a bit, but was a rank amateur at best. But when it came to tech, I was a tinkerer of the first order.

Rarely a week went by that didn't find myself at my local Radio Shack, buying a little this or that. A ganged potentiometer to use as a stereo volume control for a speaker extension box. A quarter inch plug and a mini stereo jack to make a custom headphone extension. A roll of 14-gauge dual strand copper wire and an on-off switch to make a remote light controller. And too many to count RJ11 jacks and F connectors to extend phones and TV antennas to exactly where I wanted them to be.

True, none of them were big ticket items, the kind that generate fat margins and big profits. I would occasionally buy something that costs more than a buck or two, maybe an amplifier or power supply. But for the big stuff, be it a TV or stereo or computer, I usually wound up at a Crazy Eddie or Nobody Beats the Wiz or CompUSA, to name 3 more casualties of the internet revolution. For that, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

On top of that, the name didn't help. I recall hearing an executive of a major corporation discussing the difficulty of naming a new retail chain they were developing. He said it had to mean something to the consumer, and also endure the test of time. As a cautionary tale, he cited Radio Shack, noting that perhaps the name made sense at one time, but they no longer sold radios, nor wanted to be thought of as a shack.  

Still, in spite of all that, I was a loyal customer. But as everything started to become infested with computer chips, and the workings of almost every electric and electronic consumable became more opaque, it got harder and harder to mod it or fix it. More than once I can home from work to find a note from my wife that something stopped working. I unscrewed its cover hoping to find a burned out switch or disconnected wire. Instead, I found a chip that looked like, well, a chip. Nothing in my single college class of solid state physics prepared me to do anything more than know there was a transistor (or 20 or 200) inside. Fix it? Not on my watch.

And so my visits to my local store slowed, then turned to a trickle. The last time I went, which is now several years ago, the front of the store was crowded with cell phones, with MP3 players and tablets just behind it. The section for switches and wires had shrunk to a tiny limited selection in the back corner. "DIY" had become a new spelling for "die."

For sure, there are many reasons a store fails, with some wounds being self-inflicted, while other factors are beyond its control. Overexpansion and poor financial management can be just as damaging as market shifts and the vagaries of style. But in this case, it's also partly on me. However, in my defense, the old girl had changed. To paraphrase the Irish song, farewell Radio Shack, but the way you look today, we hardly knew ye.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still keeps a box of wires and switches in his workshop. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Drugs R Us

My wife was sick. Thankfully nothing too major, but what started as an annoying winter cold seemed to be turning worse. Like many, she hated to make an appointment for the following day to go the doctor, only to a) wake up feeling better, and wondering if she should go anyways and waste time and money, or b) wake up feeling the same, but go only to discover that she had a, well, cold. In either case and as with many minor illnesses, rest, fluids, and some pain killers would likely do the trick in a week, whereas if she went to the doctor she could probably improve that to 7 days.

Since neither of us had been sick in quite a while, our medicine cabinets were pretty barren in terms of applicable OTC remedies. We had done a sweep a while back, and thrown out all the expired chewable cold pills, fruit flavored cough syrups and other staples of the well-stock parent apothecary. We were left with the more adult varietals, mainly stuff for treating emerging allergies, occasional irregularity and almost every headache/backache medication there was. If you wanted it in pill, capsule or caplet form in doses that worked from now to 2 to 4 to 6 to 12 hours, odds are we had a bottle.

What we didn't have was symptomatic relief for feeling icky. Our cough syrup was from the Bush years, while any antihistamine was at peak effectiveness back when "Law & Order" was still first run. So she reached out to a few friends, who suggested some stuff that might make her feel better. She called the local pharmacy, and all were in stock. I offered to go, and she handed me a piece of paper that seemed to be the name of a personal injury law firm, but was in fact what she wanted: Mucinex, Airborne and Zican. ("Good Morning! Mucinex, Airborne and Zican, how may I direct your call?")

Now, I am very good at following directions. Give me a your shopping list, and I will come back with one bottle of drain cleaner, half a pound of chicken thighs, both Spanish and Vidalia onions, and a box of muesli, if that's what you want. It may take me an hour walking up and down the supermarket aisles, but I will find the stuff. But this was three items, and they were likely to be next to each other on the shelf. So I figured zip, zip, before you can core a apple, I would be home and she could be well medicated.  

What I didn't count on was sheer number of permutations that exist for those types of products. Take Mucinex, one of the leading brand names for guaifenesin, a generic medication whose forebears have been around since the 16th century. Lined up on the shelf were a baker's dozen of variations, with the basic ingredient augmented by others. One was for cough alone. Another was specific for congestion. One combined the two. In fact, if you go the product's web site, you'll find a decision matrix listing nine conditions: cough, congestion, sinus pressure, stuffy nose, runny nose, sore throat, fever, headache and sneezing. Depending on which symptoms you select, it spits out the formulation that's best for you.

And that's just the drugs, not the delivery method. There were multiple options: pills, hot liquids, cold liquids, inhalers and more. Same went for the other two products, Zican and Airborne. There were variations in strength, formulation and flavor. Doing a quick mental calculation, I figured there were 1,375,283 possible combinations, with perhaps 36,473 optimized to make her feel better.

I pulled out my phone and called my wife, asking which she wanted. She was as clueless as I. I started to read the labels, but my eyes quickly glazed over. So I went eenie, meenie, miney, moe, picked one from each bucket and brought them to the counter. When I got them home, she dug in, then went to living room, turned on the TV, and pulled a blanket up to her neck.  

I'm pleased to report she's on the mend. While not back to 100%, she is far ahead of where she was. And it only took seven days. We'll have to wait till next time to know for sure, but perhaps if I had nailed better she might have been better in a week.


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

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Paper of Yuks

The New York Times prides itself as being the paper of record. As its masthead says, it tries to carry "All The News That's Fit To Print." In that vein, it views itself as a bastion of serious journalism. And while its coverage and editorial outlook leans left, it by and large holds true to that mission.

As a byproduct of that, it has some of the best writers in the world in its stable. In areas from current affairs to politics to business to the arts to commentary, it boasts names like Nick Kristof and Walt Bogdanich and Gretchen Morgenson to mention but a few. But in addition to their amazing reportage, there are a number of others who have a more acerbic style. As a person who does a little writing, I appreciate the artisanship a pithy one (or two or three) liner. I keep a file of these gems of snark; while hardly my entire collection, herein are some of my favs.

"Because life is short and I have other things to be upset about, I will not dwell on the offensive aspects of 'Blended,' the new Adam Sandler comedy: its retrograde gender politics; its delight in the humiliation of children; its sentimental hypocrisy about male behavior; its quasi-zoological depiction of Africans as servile, dancing, drum-playing simpletons; its -- I'm sorry. That's just what I said I wouldn't do. (A.O. Scott)

"In 'Cluck,' the image of Nadia Tykulsker lovingly trying to coax a raw chicken into flight as she is assailed by lemons was nicely absurd, yet the piece was underdeveloped." (Brian Seibart)

"Olympic opening ceremonies are a little like a first date: The host country, dolled up with costly hair extensions, Christian Louboutin heels and a brand-new black cocktail dress, recounts amusing childhood anecdotes and college triumphs but leaves out her D.W.I. arrest. (Or, in the case of Russia, the gulag.)" (Alessandra Stanley)

"Not all Jets fans were sold. One said that having both Mr. Tebow and the incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez on the roster feels like choosing between 'Police Academy 2' or 'Police Academy 3.'" (Matt Flegenheimer)

"Two weeks ago, they joined hands in a nine-mile ring around the center of Moscow and stood for more than an hour just smiling — an activity Russians tend to avoid and regard as the domain of half-wits and Americans." (Ellen Barry)  

"Coach Bill Belichick could try to bolster his deep passing game by activating Chad Ochocinco and giving him a significant role in the game plan. He could also arrive on the sideline in an Armani suit and start hugging beat reporters." (Mike Tanier)

"Sometimes a movie is so awful that the word awful is not up to the task of conveying its awfulness. The awful 'InAPPropriate Comedy' is such a movie. It is memorably awful. It is stunningly awful. It is so awful that we are fortunate that 'awful' has an adverbial use that means 'very' or 'extremely.' This movie is awfully awful." (Neil Genzlinger)

"A look at women-only gigolos in Las Vegas is a little like a cooking show devoted entirely to vegan steak recipes." (Alexandra Stanley)

"'Lord of the Dance,' which has been touring the world for 15 years, features a large cast of dancers and musicians enacting a barely there story of good (represented, of course, by Mr. Flatley) and evil (represented by some guy in a black costume that makes him look like the kind of bug you'd see as the logo on the side of an exterminator's van)." (Neil Genzlinger)

"The first 'Tron' ended after Kevin vanquished a computer program that looked like a neon Easter Island statue and talked like a SeƱor Wences hand-puppet." (Manohla Dargis)

"The Blooms aren't just excellent at espionage; they are also caterers, who, having retired from the CIA when they got together, are easily talked into working as freelancers as long as they don't have to relinquish marinating fillets. (You need us in Peshawar? Really? I'm sorry, we have the Weintraub bar mitzvah on Saturday. (Gina Gellafante)

"Your watch will tell you that a shade less than two and a half hours have elapsed, but you may be shocked at just how much older you feel when the whole thing is over" (A.O. Scott on "Sex and the City 2")

"At this point, any series about teenagers that imagines a world without vampires feels like remarkable cultural progress." (Gina Bellafante on "Pretty Little Liars.")


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

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Online Me

Like everyone else, I like to save money when I can. So when we made plans to go out to dinner with some friends to a new place, I quickly went to my computer and trolled for a discount. There is no shortage of sites to check, from CouponSherpa to BeFrugal to Wow-Coupons. In each, you might find a chit for a free appetizer or dessert, or a blanket percentage good for the total bill.  

If you're willing to pay up front, there are also deal sites like Living Social and Gilt City. With them you pay a nominal price for a voucher, giving you a discount against the total. So twenty bucks might get you a $40 coupon, netting you $20 in savings. There are restrictions, of course. Your bill has to be over a certain amount. The total doesn't usually include drinks. It often only applies on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. And you can't have the veal piccata. (Actually, the veal is included, but it's not that good; stick with the chicken.)

Most roads like this will lead you to Groupon, the 800 pound gorilla of the genre. That's where I found an offer that worked for us, one which netted us $15 in savings once the damages were totaled. All good, and it was seamless in its execution. The only wrinkle it caused was when the check came. As usual, we split it on our two credit cards. Simple enough, until we tackled the differential calculus of how to offset the cost of the discount against the tip ("Let's see: we bought the coupon for $15, so should you add that to your tip? And I take it off mine? But you picked us up and drove. Hmmm.").

As part of the transaction, I registered with the site, so they now had my physical address and email. Seemed a small enough price to pay for, well, a smaller price to pay. But now the Great Groupon also now had three key facts about me: a) my zip code, b) the kind of restaurant I liked, and c) my email address. And knowing just that little bit was as good as stapling a target to my email back that said "Kick Me!"

Next time I checked my inbox, there was an offer for a new Indian restaurant near us. I clicked on it, and while it looked worth trying, I passed. But by clicking, and thereby indicating my interest, I added another brushstroke to my self-portrait. Next popped up a Brazilian place. After that, a tapas bar, then a spot for sushi. And they kept coming. I thought my picture was skeletal at best: I live in a certain area. I like to eat out. I like international cuisine. Doesn't seem like a whole lot to go on. But for Big Data, that's all it takes. And so based on all I clicked, and all it knew about me and my ilk, well, INCOMING!

An offer for acupuncture. Maybe some bowling. An indoor water park. Tickets to a show. A sampler of red and white wines. A new phone. An ice cream cake. Several times a day a carrot was dangled in front of me. And truth be told, while the emails contained numerous offers, the one above the fold that was featured was tempting. If not dead center in my sweet spot, it was attractive enough to make me at least think twice before deleting it.

But sooner or later the algorithm got a little flabby. Up popped a deal not for restaurants or shows, but for guns. Specifically, for a Utah Concealed Pistol Permit class. Like that clunk that awakens you from a dream with where you are lolling on the beach, it jolted me out of my reverie of food and shows. Nothing against learning not to shoot yourself in the foot, but it wasn't for me. Perhaps a bad analogy, but the target on my email back had gotten a little too wide.

So click went the "unsubscribe" button. Now, no more emailed coupons for nail salons. No more offers for laser tag birthday parties. No more come-ons for a gluten-free subscription service. I'll still go back and troll for a discount code for a given restaurant, but I'm taking my name off the mailing list as soon as I get on it. After all, I want to save money on a 2010 Cabernet, not a 2013 carbine.


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