Saturday, September 26, 2015

I Want My TTV

 I've gotten so much free advertising, it's like nothing I'd have expected.
 When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 
100 percent Trump, so why would you need more Trump during 
the commercial breaks?
- Donald Trump

"Welcome to TNN, the Trump News Network. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Yes, that's right. For the duration of this electoral phenomena, we are officially changing our name to give you want you want."

"Before we go on, a few words of explanation. Way back in 1993, when we were CNN, we had our best numbers ever: a Larry King special featuring Al Gore and Ross Perot debating NAFTA. That night 16.8 million of you tuned in. But with Jake Tapper leading the charge for Wednesday's Republican debate, and doing yeoman's work inserting Donald Trump into almost every question, we averaged 23.1 million viewers. That was about the same as the NFL's season kickoff on Thursday featuring the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots."

"We have always prided ourselves on giving you non-stop coverage of what you seem to be most interested in spite of any other news, whether it was the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370 or the death of Michael Jackson. And so once again, we want to be your television home for what really interests you. Hence the change to TNN."

"But enough background: let's get to it. I'll be here quarterbacking our coverage at the newly christened Donald Desk. But our entire TNN news team will be weighing in on every aspect of this unprecedented political movement. So before we get started, let me introduce some of our major segments. First let me throw it to the aforementioned Jake Tapper, who will lead our non-stop Trump Roundtable. Jake, once again, congratulations on a phenomenal job."

"Thanks, Wolf. It was an honor to be part of it. And welcome to you, viewers, thanks for joining us. Here we will have a non-stop conversation with political and cultural experts about the Trump candidacy. Joining me for our inaugural edition and to give us the traditional analysis is Chief National Correspondent John King and Chief International Correspondent Christine Amanpor. But in keeping with the Trump approach, to give us that outsider's perspective, we'll also be joined by a rotating group of cultural luminaries whose entire political expertise is gleaned from places like People Magazine. And so tonight we're joined by Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus. Welcome all. It should make for an interesting conversation. Wolf?"

"Can't wait for you all to weigh in. To complement Jake's panels, we have several highly qualified journalists staffing some very special desks. Let's begin first with Dana Bash, our Chief Political Correspondent, and also a questioner at the debate. Dana, welcome, and congrats on a job well done to you as well."

"Thanks Wolf. I'm thrilled to be heading up the Trump Insult Desk. As you can see here, we have electronic representations of all the candidates, both Democratic and Republicans. As Trump insults each, that particular body part will light up, and the exact quote will appear. We'll be able to see it in real time, and analyze exactly how the insult is being spun or retracted. I should also add there's a matching app you can download , where you'll get notifications of each new insult. However, we do suggest you turn the sound down when you go to bed so you won't be woken up repeatedly."

"Good advice, that. Thanks Dana. Another of our specialist desks is being helmed by Ashleigh Banfield. Ashleigh?"

"Thanks Wolf, and welcome viewers to what we're calling the 'Trump or Truth' Desk. Here we will examine each new utterance of Trump in light of actual facts. Vaccines and autism? Training camps for terrorists in Nevada? Mexican Immigration, the economy, healthcare? We'll parse each of them, talk to actual experts and show you data as to which are correct, which carry some truth and which are, well, just Donald being Donald. Needless to say, Wolf, we expect to be pretty busy."

"Indeed you will Ashleigh, indeed you will. Thanks. We also have teams covering all the other candidates, not to get their views on Iran or education policy, but to see what they say about Trump. So stick with us: if it's about Donald you'll see it here. We'll kick it off right after this commercial break.  Stay with us: this is TNN."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is just about to never turn on TV news again. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blue Car, Blue Screen

Jay and I were coming back after our discussion session, wrapping up various loose thoughts from the evening. We are part of a group that meets the second Tuesday of every month to chat for an hour about a variety of topics. Called Pub Theology, it's always an interesting evening of thought provoking conversation which touches on society, philosophy and more. (See GA #890 on 12/22/12: "Beer Conversation and God"). Since his house is enroute to the meeting, I usually offer to pick him up and drop him off as I pass by.  

It was a warm night, and I had the music low and windows open on the car. My current vehicle is a bright blue Mini Copper, and it has a large screen right in the middle of the dash centered inside the car's signature speedometer. Since I was playing tunes off the USB stick I had plugged into the entertainment system, it displayed not only the name of the song and artist, but also a good sized thumbnail of the album cover. I wasn't really paying attention to the screen or the music, having seen and heard it all before, and was focused on Jay. That is, until I saw the BSOD.

That's "BSOD" as in "Blue Screen of Death." If you're a Windows user, you're likely familiar with this full stop that occurs when something goes suddenly, massively wrong. (If you're Mac user, stop smirking out loud. Now.) You can be in the middle of something as complex as rendering a video or as simple as replying to an email, and WHAM! You hear the bytes drop their collective pants, and a blue field with tiny white type fills your screen, informing you that something somewhere has completely, irrevocably failed. All you can do is restart, cross everything you have a pair of, and hope all is OK.

Wherever and whenever it last happened to you, odds are you were literally sitting down. Even if you were on a train or plane and were in motion, your computer likely had nothing to do with that movement. It was an annoyance for sure, but nothing more. And while I was in a sitting position as well, it was inside a roughly 3000 pound container of steel and fuel on a dark night on a windy road at over 40 miles per hour. Like most vehicles out there, more and more of its critical functions are controlled by a variety of interconnected computer systems. And the main screen had just gone blue.  

We're not talking hacking here, which has also been in the news of late. Several highly publicized stories have demonstrated more than just proof-of-concept. As Andy Greenberg wrote about one such demo in Wired, he was driving at 70 MPH on a highway in St. Louis: "Though I hadn't touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass." It was all good fun until the hackers cut the transmission as a semi was coming up behind him. Luckily, he was able to roll down an exit ramp and pull into an empty lot to regroup. (As a direct result of this demo, Chrysler issued a recall for 1.4 million vehicles to plug a hole in the system that allowed it to happen.)

No, what we're talking here isn't hacking, but crashing. Something random had occurred in the file that was playing back, causing the processor to seize up. Thankfully, it wasn't a critical component, like one that controls the fuel mixture to the engine, or the way power is allotted to four-wheel drive system. It was just entertainment. But it doesn't take too much imagination to see how it could have been something more, and the consequences far more catastrophic than simply disrupting a song by Imagine Dragons.

I powered down the entertainment system, then back up. No harm, no foul. But think about that the next time you read about Google's self-driving cars. True, when they work, they are demonstrably better and safer drivers than many of the idiots on the road today. However, when they have issues, and they will, that Blue Screen of Death will take on a whole new meaning.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his Mini a lot. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

When Two Equals Nine

If someone says you are number two, that's usually not too bad. At least that's what I thought when my boarding pass came spitting out of the terminal. Under the listing for "Group" was a large "dos". Should work out fine, I thought. Being in the second group means that I should have no problem getting on board early and finding space to stash my rollaboard, have plenty of time to check my email before they close the door, even have time to use the rest room on board if needed. I mean, all that's standing in front of me is Group One. And how big could that be?

But it turns out that the size of group one is almost the least significant factor as to when you get on the plane. That's because, like the search for the Holy Grail, airlines have been playing with the contradictory goals of getting people loaded in the most efficient way, while also rewarding frequent flyers with early boarding. The combinations they've tried would take a supercomputer most of next year to work out, and still leave you standing in the aisle while someone tries to fit a body bag into the overhead bin filled with souvenirs from Wally World.

It starts with any number of basic approaches. United uses Outside-In, while Delta uses Blocks. Airtran has had some luck with Rotating Zones, while most of the others go Rear-to-Front. Southwest basically just throws up its collective hands and does a random approach, assigning slots as you check in for both seats and boarding order, first come, first served. This leads to determined travelers hovering over their keyboards exactly 24 hours before their flight departs, counting down the seconds when they can mash the "check in" button, ensuring them of an emergency aisle seat AND a coveted "A" boarding slot. Truly two mints in one.

But layered into these purely moving people calculations is the need to stroke the egos of frequent flyers. These are usually businesses travelers who have some say in their choice of airline, as opposed to those cruising Expedia and Kayak and Orbitz, looking for the cheapest flight from Kalamazoo to Houston. They want to get on and get their gear stowed ASAP, and not deal with the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Seat 37B.

And so we go back to my flight. First they called for those needing extra time, be it because of age or medical reasons. Hard to quibble with that. Then they offer boarding to First Class and Military personnel. Again, hard to argue: if you are willing to fight our country, or pay $3,724 for a seat, you deserve priority. Next should be Group One, then me. Right?

Wrong. Now it's Business class. OK, I'm good with that, too. If not $3,724, then $2,345 should get your more than just a glass of juice before takeoff. Then they call their BFF's, Platinum Card Holders. Got it; I used to be one of those, so hard to feel put out. Then their codeshare partners at a similar level, Emerald or Sapphire cards. OK, that makes sense as well, though I do wonder who came up with the precious stone ranking. But I digress.

I should be second to next, right? Not so fast. Now the Gold members. Then the Ruby members. (Those damn stones again!) And finally, Priority and Group One. And what comes after One. Yup, finally: me. Actually, at that point 90% of the plane has already boarded, so the gate agent doesn't even give us the satisfaction of calling our group exclusively: "Groups Two, Three and Four, and all others may board." She could have just as easily said, "All you remaining losers, get on the damn plane."

Thankfully, in spite of my late entry to the race, I knew how to game the system. I chose a seat near the back, and had kept refreshing the seat map on my phone, jumping row to row to find one with an open middle. (That's a story for another time.) So while the front of the plane was reasonably full, the ghetto in the back was not. As such, I had plenty of stowage and stretching room after all. Still, it was a lesson in airline math as confounding as anything todays' third graders face: two seems to be the new nine.


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

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Refresh. Repeat.

In an early scene in the 1972 Michael Crichton novel "The Terminal Man," a staff neurosurgeon is interviewing a potential patient. The man says he came to the hospital after reading about their work in a magazine article: "Is it true that you can put wires in people's brains so that you feel pleasure? Intense pleasure?" The doctor says yes, and then secretly summons a team to watch the interview from behind a one-way mirror. "Well," the man says after some back and forth, "I want the operation done on me." After being told that the hospital doesn't do brain surgery without a real reason, the man storms out. The doctors sit back, stunned. They discuss it, until one sums it up this way: "That man is an elad."

That's "elad" as in "electronic addict." Hardly science fiction, it's a concept based on studies done on rats in the 1950's by James Olds and Peter Milner. They were investigating whether rats might be made uncomfortable by electrical stimulation of certain areas of their brain. In the experiment, rats were jolted if they went to a certain corner of their cage, with the assumption they would learn to avoid it. Instead, they came back quickly after the first stimulation and even more quickly after the second. In later experiments, they allowed the rats to press levers to shock themselves. Some did it as much as seven-hundred times per hour.

I'm not proud to say it, but I am that rat.

I had that realization as I hit the button to check my email for the umpteenth time today. No surprise, there's was nothing new there. All the big projects from the first half of the year have wrapped up, and those slated for the second half haven't really gotten going yet. With Labor Day being so late, those who aren't at the beach are in the mountains, or just lounging by the pool. And the spam filter is doing its job, and catching all the flotsam and jetsam that is lapping on my electronic shore. But really: nothing? I hit the refresh button, then check the connection, then refresh again. Nada. Crickets.

Perhaps you're not so different. We have been so conditioned to the constant inflow of stuff, be it important or stupid, that we suffer withdrawal if it stops. Sure, like that overused phrase "work-life balance," we talk about the importance and desirability of "downtime" and "disconnecting." But if you look closely, I don't actually think that's what we want.

We actually want to be connected all the time, just one way at times. We want to see the office gossip, and know what's happening, but not be required to react. We want the Facebook updates, the Twitter feeds, the Instagram, Pintrest and Flipboard dispatches. We want it all: we just don't want to feel that we have to do something about it. It's bending the rules of physics. It's action without reaction.  

This harks back to an earlier time when responding took actual effort as opposed to just fast-twitch muscles. You got a call on your answering machine, or maybe a letter in the mail. It imparted news of some kind, good or bad or even neither. But no one expected a response immediately. You had time to digest, consider and formulate your reaction, and even think about the best means to deliver said message. You might not even respond at all. And that was often OK as well.

Nowadays you no sooner send something out than you expect an answer. And if you don't get one, you figure something must be wrong with your connection. It's almost inconceivable to you that someone somewhere doesn't immediately drop everything they are doing in order to react to your post/tweet/email. Even a single letter like "K" is all it takes to validate your efforts, whether it's a request for a meeting, a recipe or a Justin Bieber sighting.

But that's the response side. For now, I am on the receiving end, and there's nothing being received. Nothing. Like the rat that I am, I hit refresh; still nothing. Again. Oh, look! An update on a concert series we've attended in the past. Interesting, but I'll be out of town when it happens. Delete. Refresh. Nothing. Hmmm. I wonder if the internet is broken.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always seems to have a device within reach. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.