Saturday, May 30, 2015

Price of a Slice

The Big Apple is known for many things. The Empire State Building. Yankee Stadium. Broadway. Coney Island. The list goes on and on, almost too numerous to enumerate. And that's just the physical stuff. At least as many people come to New York to eat as to look. You name it, it's served here: French, Italian and Chinese, of course, but also Ethiopian and Caribbean, Barbeque and Cajun, Druze and Jerk. It's a plate of dreams: if you cook it, they will come.

Still, almost none of it beats a simple slice of pizza on the go. And that slice tastes even better when it only sets you back a buck. Mind you, I'm not saying that dollar pizza is empirically better than more expensive slices. I am saying that when you perform a high level quantitative analysis, and calculate price vs. value vs. epicurean satisfaction, it's hard to come out on the losing side of this particular equation.

I won't say I am hooked on the stuff, but am most certainly a user. So when I was running between appointments near Bryant Park in Manhattan, and had a few spare minutes at lunch time, I headed to Sixth Avenue where I knew there were a string of these establishments. But as I turned the corner, I stopped in my tracks. The storefront I was aiming for was still there in all its rundown glory, but the sign up front now proudly proclaimed "Fresh Slice: $1.50." The planet had tilted on its axis.

To be fair, I never understood how they were able to sell a slice for a dollar. At eight slices to a pie, that's, let's see, eight dollars. A whole pie near me usually costs twice that, maybe more. Even allowing for the most bargain basement brands of sauce, cheese and flour, it's hard to see how you get the price down that low unless it's a Chinese knockoff procured via Ebay, which would take 4 weeks to get to you in a shoddy envelope. So a 50% markup was certainly more in keeping with the economic realities that must exist in the pizza making world. Still, it was as if someone had told me that Santa Claus wasn't for real.

Not wanting to accept this glacial shift without confirmation, I walked a few blocks further south to check out some of the shop's sisters. Sure enough, each had a sign out front confirming the new price point. Accepting the situation on the ground, I peeled three bills instead of two off my money clip, stuffed the two slices into my face, then popped a Tic Tac and headed to my meeting.

But as I started to think about it, I realized that all of these places had changed their price at the same time. While it's possible they were all owned by the same Pizza Cartel though some shadowy Cayman Islands blind trust, I suspected otherwise. True, they all seemed more or less clones of one another, and many even sported similar names: Fresh Pizza, Express Pizza, Fresh Express Pizza and so on. But several years ago I recalled a slice price war, where one establishment dropped their price and another matched it, then bested it. Detente was eventually reached, and the "about a dollar" price point was settled upon, with some places posting 99 cent signs, others slightly higher, though a crisp bill usually got you a slice regardless of what the sign stated.  

So if they were indeed different establishments, were we talking price fixing on at least an urban scale? We've seen it in banks and milk, in airlines and art, so why wouldn't pizza slices be fair game for greed and market domination? To be fair, it you're going to try and control a market, the amount of risk and effort it takes seems antithetical to using pizza slices as your vehicle. But I guess that just shows how little vision I have as a robber baron.

These thoughts tumbled though my head over the next few days as I went about my usual business. Then once again I found myself racing between a meeting in midtown at noon and the garage where my car was parked. There, as I turned the corner on Eighth Avenue, was a stand and a sign that proudly proclaimed "$.99 Pizza." Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe there really is a Santa Claus.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford loves pizza. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Thinking in Generations

Having just returned from a trip to the Netherlands, I can confidently say that there is much to like. The people are warm and friendly, the cafes plentiful and welcoming. Lots of museums dot Amsterdam and other cities, and the dress code is casual in just about every venue. It's a relatively safe country, although it must be said that you do take your life in your hands anytime you step off the curb and do battle with the bikes, scooters, trams, buses and cars that zip around with abandon. To be fair, there are some questionable practices: with such treats as herring and cheese, one wonders about the population's fascination with licorice, so much so that they are the world leader in consumption at about four pounds a year per head. Still, even if hash brownies and legal prostitution are your measure of forward progress, while you certainly have a different scale than mine, the country is still a most welcoming place.

But perhaps one of its most attractive qualities isn't any of these things. While I'm sure that the locals have plenty of their own "inside the beltway" spats and issues, it's refreshing to see how united a country can be on a single issue. True, that issue is their very survival in a most literal sense. But to see what they have done and what they continue to do to hold the sea at bay is not only an engineering achievement of the first order, but a demonstration of what can happen when people look beyond next month and next year, and set their sights on a time frame of generations.

It's not like they have a choice. More than a quarter of the country lies below sea level. Throughout their history, this small country, which contains the estuaries of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, has fought an ongoing battle with the forces of nature. More than once people and land have been flooded out by a combination of storms and tides. Think of New York and Sandy, or New Orleans and Katrina. Now expand that image to an entire country, and you begin to get the picture.

While dikes have been used almost since people settled there, it was in the last century that the process accelerated. The nearly 20 mile long Afsluitdijk dike was finished in 1932, and created a vast inland sea in the center of the country called the Ijsselmeer. More efforts followed, with new urgency coming after a disastrous flood in 1953 in the southern part of the country that killed over 1800 people and flooded over 600 square miles. Since then, miles and miles of new structures have been put in place, in some cases to protect the land that is there, while in others the goal is to try and reclaim that which the sea formerly took possession.

It sounds like something from a science fiction movie about colonizing a new planet, but the Dutch are very proud of their New Land. By first damming the water, then pumping it out, they started the slow but steady program of creating virgin ground. A look at a map shows this accelerating addition of space used for both agriculture and housing. Drive as we did through the countryside, and the locals never tire of pointing out what used to be under water that is now a field, a park, a factory, or a housing development. They never tire of it, because it's a process they never stop. They can't: to do so is surrender to a force which has no mercy.

Above the entrance to the engineering building at the University of Wyoming is chiseled "Strive On – The Control of Nature is Won, Not Given." In that light, the Dutch have asked for nothing for which they aren't willing to fight. Yes, it costs immense amounts of money and manpower. Yes, there is much debate about which plan to follow. Yes, there are those that are unhappy with changes which threaten decades old patterns of living. But sometimes you have to take the long view. It's hard, but they've done it. In this country we excel at disaster relief in so many different areas. It would be nice if we at least occasionally put the cart before the horse, learned from the Dutch, and looked at ways of avoiding disaster in the first place.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford had a great time in Amsterdam. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Do Not Hover

There are real problems in the world on which we should focus. Wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Inequality and racism here at home. Plus incivility in public discourse, climate issues and the taint of money in politics, to name but a few. Any one of these or their myriad offshoots are worth serious time, attention and debate.

But today I want to focus on the dangers of hovering.

First, a definition. To hover is to hang over something. We normally think of it as the default state of a helicopter, but you can also hover as a teacher or as a parent. In tech terms, hovering is when you place your finger or mouse or pointer over something and pause. Sometimes it does nothing; it's merely where you park your pointer for a few moments in all the swiping and dragging and dropping that you do. Other times you do so intentionally to bring up a menu or an option or even an explanation of what a particular button or part of the screen does or means.

No matter the situation, the action is meant to be benign. Nothing is being done you can't undo. That's not to say that it always has no impact. Just the fact that you hover might indeed influence the situation. Hover as a teacher, and Sally might actually stop trying to sneak a look at her Facebook page and do the classwork. Hover as a parent, and Jimmy might actually eat his vegetables.

The thing about hovering is that it invites action, even though there is no requirement: you can walk away or not. You must make the conscious decision to say something to Sally or Jimmy, and chance the course of events, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Maybe "Sally, are Meghan's party pics really more important than your algebra?" Or "Jimmy, if you don't eat your broccoli, there will be no ice cream for dessert." If you take action, you let the chips fall.

What I've experienced lately, however, is different, and the reason for my caution. For if there is such a thing as friends with benefits, there is hovering with consequences.

The first time was on the train. I was working on my laptop building a rough draft of an effect I was trying to sell for a project. I had all the pieces arranged on the screen in what looked to be a suitable fashion. I pulled my pointer away, not realizing it was hovering over the "delete all" button. I gazed at the screen, trying to take in the entire effect. And then we hit the bump. The entire car lurched up and down, causing my finger to tap the track pad. And before I could say "Do Not Delete" it deleted. The screen literally went blank. Thankfully, most software has an "undo" button which I immediately clicked, and all was back if not forgiven.

You would have thought I learned my lesson. But on a flight not a week later, the same thing happened. One second I was admiring my handiwork at 30,000 feet, the next I was cursing and searching the menus for the "please go back and make me whole again" button. And when I got to the location for the job? I was sitting on a raised platform that wasn't braced very well. I had just picked some stuff out from Amazon, and was reading the order summary when I had second thoughts. But before I could move from the "Place the Order" button to the "Cancel" varietal, one of our team bounded up the steps to tell me something. Up went the platform, and down came my finger. I guess I needed that extra roll of deer netting after all.

As you grow up there are certain universal cautions that you learn, many of them taught to you by your mother. Others are borne out of years of scientific evidence, social engineering and pure gut intuition. In either case, they provide a road map for survival in the world and peaceful coexistence alongside your fellow humans. By and large good advice all, they are flaunted at their own peril to you and your environs. Don't throw a ball in the house. Don't chew with your mouth open. Don't go to bed without brushing your teeth. Don't hit your sister. To those, let me add my own: hover at your risk.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford still hovers, but cautiously. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Party Pains

It was a lovely affair. A beautiful setting on the water. A picture perfect day. A location under an hour from our house. Some people seem to go a lot of weddings, but for whatever reason, we're not on that circuit. In fact, it had been a while; I was actually having a hard time recalling the last big affair we had attended. No matter: we were looking forward to an evening of food and friends on a festive scale.

Without realizing it, however, time had changed the way we partied. It used be all about eating and drinking and dancing in copious amounts. To be sure, we go to celebrate an event, and show our love and support by our presence. But at the same time who can honestly say they have been at an affair like one of these, and didn't have an extra couple of shrimp or another glass of wine, all the while saying to yourself, "I'm not paying!"  

And this affair was right in that wheelhouse. The hosts were exceedingly generous to their guests for their daughter's wedding. At the post-ceremony reception, it wasn't just a single table of snacks, but multiple food stations, each with a different focus. There was an Italian station, another heaped with seafood. One had Mexican fare, while another sported a miniature kosher deli, complete with franks, sauerkraut and spicy mustard. And plenty of bars pouring top shelf booze and delicious wines. All in all, like dying and going to that big restaurant in the sky.

But those intervening years from our last big affair to this had changed my strategic approach to this kind of gluttony. At home we watch what we eat, focusing more on chicken and fish and salads. As we've gotten older, it's become the norm rather than the exception. And as I walked around the reception, that new mind set was most definitely front and center. Of course I had a hot dog. But just a bite or two. For sure I went to the display of gourmet cheeses. But I selected just a few chunks. And drinking was more about nursing a glass than seeing how many I could quaff.

That's not to say we weren't having a good time; it was grand, just with a certain amount of self-control injected. That is, until the band started up. We love to dance, and this was an actual band playing stuff we knew, as opposed to a DJ spinning stuff "for the kids." From the very start, we were out there for the rock standards, for the Motown medley, for the swing set aimed at the grandparents in attendance. We jumped and spun, stepping off the floor only when the bride and groom took their ceremonial turns or to recharge. Recharging with a glass of cold water, I might add.

We stayed late, getting home well after midnight. We wound down and went to bed long after our customary hours, falling fast asleep with the assurance that we had another day to recover before the work week resumed. And in fact, Sunday morning we slept a little later than usual, each of slowly coming to consciousness and wandering off to different parts of the house. But unlike similar situations in the past, I had neither an overstuffed belly nor a throbbing head. My moderation the night before had the unexpected consequence of giving me a morning after not filled with the downside of a night of excess. No hangover, no heartburn.  

Just one problem: my legs. If I had treated my digestional track like it was in its fifties, I had treated my muscles like they were still twenty-somethings. My feet hurt, my calves ached, and don't even ask about my knees. The stairs looked like Everest, and I found myself holding onto door frames, chair backs, in short anything and everything that helped me stand without wobbling.

So should you invite me to your next event, I will try and be the perfect guest. I will visit with the others, and sample all you have to offer. I will pose for pictures and nibble the canap├ęs. And when the music starts up, I will be one of the first on the dance floor. But maybe that triple side step I learned back when Disco was king? I think I'm retiring that move.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to dance. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Confused By The News

If I'm not a news junkie, then I'm a hard core user. I have multiple all-news stations programmed in my car, and punch between them to get the latest headlines and analysis. I read several papers, both online and in hard copy. And my nightly ritual as I unload the dishwasher is to flip on the TV in our kitchen, and wander along News Alley. With each dish I put away, I punch the remote, spending a few moments on CNN, then continuing on through MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, One America, Fox Business, ending with Fox News, then starting back down again till I hit bottom. If there are a lot of plates and glasses, I can make quite a few round trips.

Of late, however, I've become more confused than well informed. It's not the competing viewpoints. That's an old story, one we all know and take into account. The Wall Street Journal conflicts with the New York Times, while MSNBC says white white white to Fox's black black black. Yes, Wolf Blitzer may promise a middle ground, but while John Oliver said that the only phrase in the English language that promises more boredom than "Net Neutrality" is "Featuring Sting," a close runner up is "This is CNN." And so I prefer to listen to the different slants coming from opposing viewpoints, and use them to triangulate the objective truth. After all, the real story likely lies halfway between Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly.  

No, my confusion comes from the jumbled up timeline that comes with multiple platforms. When Walter Cronkite was the only game in town, you parked yourself nightly in front of the set, and got the stories as CBS lined them up for you. Each subsequent day added a piece to the puzzle, whether it was Vietnam or Elizabeth Taylor's husbands. During the day you might flip on the radio, but that mainly rehashed the prior evening's headlines, while waiting for Walter to break new ground. And so any narrative unfolded in a distinctly linear fashion, like an episode of "Perry Mason."

But today I feel less like Detective Brisco in "Law and Order," and more like Leonard in Christopher's Nolan's "Memento." In that groundbreaking 2000 film, Guy Pearce plays a man with continuing short term memory loss who is trying to discover the identity of the man who murdered his wife. The film is told in a series of snippets wherein Leonard doesn't remember anything that happened in the prior scenes, so repeats each moment with a new twist, guided by tattoos he inscribes on his body. Think "Groundhog Day" without the laughs.

These days, as I follow try and follow events, I get that same dizzying sensation. I'll read a piece on Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Tuesday online, only to see it promoted pre-print on Thursday, then show up in the NY Times Magazine on Sunday as a featured segment. I'll read early word of the troubles involved in the Comcast-Time Warner merger on Monday, stream a 3 minute story explaining the inevitability of the merger on Wednesday, only to wake up to hear on the radio on Friday that the deal collapsed. It's gotten so I can't tell if I'm ahead of the news cycle or behind it.

We're not talking about being first with the news, about getting the scoop and tweeting or posting or printing it before anyone else. We're talking about jumbling the order of the pieces, about the cart coming before the horse. Where editors might have commissioned a piece to run after all the facts were in and known, it now shows up while the ground is shifting under it. And so rather than stories having a beginning middle and end, in the race to attract eyeballs, analysis often appears before narrative, then reappears after the story concludes as epilogue or postscript. (All you English majors out there: please check me, I think that makes sense.)

That means that we sometimes know the answers before we know the questions. It can make it hard to follow the story. Consider me old school, but even with a new Star Wars on the horizon, only Yoda should be able to say things like "Named must your fear be before banish it you can." As for the rest, let's follow Joe Friday, and deliver not just the facts, ma'am, but put them in the right order.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford considers himself reasonably well informed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.