Saturday, April 30, 2016

Survey Says

In this world of big data every little opinion counts. That's because by itself, your view on the crunchiness of some fried chicken or the squishiness of an airplane seat means almost nothing. But when combined with critiques of other like-minded diners or flyers, smart companies see patterns, and can make small changes that add up to a noticeable difference in their product or service. It's like dumping all that change in your pockets into a jar, and eventually realizing that it adds up to a dinner out. Or as said more succinctly by the late Senator Everett Dirksen, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

Of course, the currency here isn't dollars, but check marks. The more opinions a company can collect, the more detailed the analysis, and the more targeted the actions they can take. As such, gone are the days when all you are asked to do is to rate a service good or bad. Questionnaires routinely run past five questions, past ten questions, on up to short story and almost novel length. You can either spend the evening doing your taxes, or answer a few questions about your recent experience at Trust me: your taxes will take less time.

That's the experience I had after a recent hotel stay. I had a project that looked to run late and start early, and so found a Holiday Inn Express nearby. It's not that I don't like the Ritz or the Four Seasons. It's just that I'm always conscious of the money being spent, be it mine or the client's. And if the bed is clean and the shower hot, I'm basically good to go.

And the experience didn't disappoint. Not that there was anything spectacular about the property. But they had my room as promised, a nice enough guy at the front desk and a reasonably outfitted fitness center. Most importantly, it was 10 minutes from where I had to be. I checked in late, caught up on some paperwork, and went to bed. The next day I was out the door before 8AM. All in all, for $120, it worked out perfectly.

So when they sent me a questionnaire on my stay, I was happy to fill it out. Ten questions or so, with a ten-point scale from poor to excellent. As a matter of principle, I usually give nines on these things, especially when the question is "Number and location of electrical outlets". Responding "10" implies they were somehow magical, charging my phone from across the room. Not the case.

When I got to the last question and clicked, a "thank you" popped up, with yet another request. If I had some extra time, would I mind answering a few more questions? Since I was just waiting for a train I said yes. And up came a whole new slate of one-to-tens, running from "Not at all important to me" up to "extremely important." But these went deeper. Much, much deeper. They forced me to confront things I don't think I've ever considered. At least in terms of a hotel.

To be fair, there were some directly related to picking a place to crash for the night. "Paying less than similar hotels in the area." A legitimate question. "Has healthy food and beverage choices." Well, OK. "My children will feel welcomed." Our boys are 26 and 29, but I get it. But then it started to get weird. "The simplicity of the hotel makes me feel sensible." Uh, I guess, but a little overreaching. "My choice will help me on my path to success." Are we talking Jungian or Lacanian psycho-babble? "I can escape from everyday life." Hey, all I want is free Wi-Fi! Is that too much to ask?

In a series of commercials for the chain called "Stay Smart," they show regular people doing extraordinary things, giving the reason for their above-average performance as "Well, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night." It's a good campaign, and their questionnaire might reflect that hype. Speaking for myself, I'm not looking to change the world, just get a good night's sleep. It might not make me capable of performing surgery, but it'll make me tolerable. And truth be told, to some, that might just be extraordinary.


Marc Wollin of Bedford travels a fair bit for business. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Countdown to Counting Down

NASA uses them for launching thundering rockets into outer space. Basketball, football and hockey all use them to track the time remaining to the end of the game when the cheering can begin. And the MTA uses them at more and more subway stations to let you know when the next train is due to arrive. By and large, countdown clocks are welcome in all of the above situations, telling you when to plug your ears, when to plug your ears, and come to think of it, when to plug your ears.  

The idea is to give you and all concerned fair warning about some impending event or punctuation point that warrants you to take some specific action, be it New Year's Eve or the beginning of a movie. And that's generally a good thing. Time is a precious commodity, and whether you have a specific set of steps to achieve a goal, are competing for a championship or just want to know how late you will be to work, it helps to know how the clock will play a part. After all, nobody like to waste time unless it's on a beach with a drink that has an umbrella in it.

So when CNN hit upon the idea to add a countdown clock on the screen to show the time before the polls closed or the State of the Union message, it wasn't a bad idea. It gave those who were interested in such things a way to plan their time so that they could focus on other items of interest until events warranted their attention. Ten minutes to go? Plenty of time to get a drink and some pretzels. Ten seconds to go? Better find the clicker and turn up the volume.

But anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And CNN has gone completely wacky for countdowns. To be fair, they are not alone, nor did they invent the idea. Other news outlets have similar displays, ticking down the hours, minutes and seconds to everything from government shutdowns to the beginning of a Presidential Town Hall. And the web site TMZ famously had a countdown clock that showed how many days it was until Kendall Jenner reached 18 years old. But that's REALLY important, so it can be forgiven.

At CNN, they have made the call that virtually every event is countdown-worthy. The night before the New Hampshire primary they ran a countdown clock to the date. Then on the morning of the primary, they ran a countdown clock to the start of their coverage at 4pm. At 4pm, they ran a countdown clock to when the first exit polls would come in at 5pm. At 5pm, they ran a countdown clock to when the first polls would close at 7pm. At 7pm, they ran a countdown clock to when all the polls would close at 8pm. You half expected them to then run a countdown clock to the start of the next primary in South Carolina. Too much? As Mark Knoller of CBS News tweeted "Honey - can you check the debate countdown clock? Otherwise how will we know when it's 830pm/ET Tuesday. If only we had personal timepieces."

On top of that, what are they counting down to? For the March 10 Republican Debate, the clock drum-rolled down to 8:30PM. Then – cymbal crash, please – you would think the debate would start. Puh-lease. It was actually counting down to the pre-debate analysis and setup, a full 30 minutes before the first Obama-bashing got under way. Promotion? Misdirection? Lying? As CNN Washington Bureau chief San Feist put it, "Did we start the debate at exactly 8:30? That depends on your definition of when we started the debate." Or as the other Clinton put it more famously, it all depends on what your definition of "is" is.

At least these were all counting down to real things. Back in 2013, the network put up an asteroid countdown clock, counting down to the exact second that a particular space rock would – would what? Hit us? Cause massive tidal waves? Make the sky go dark? No, it counted down to the exact moment when it would pass within 3.6 million miles of earth. Or as Jake Tapper called it, "Near Armageddon." Hardly, Jake. But it will be back in about two centuries. And so, start the clock.


Marc Wollin of Bedford watches too much cable news. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Drawer Wars

What to watch: Saturday. HE SHED SHE SHED 10 p.m. on FYI. 
A man and a woman face off in each episode as they transform
       backyard sheds into supplemental living spaces.
       First: a pirate pub in California and a tiki bar in Texas.
- Actual New York Times Television Listing

TUESDAY 900PM on TBS. DRAWER WARS. In homes and apartments across the country, husbands and wives share bedrooms, but not dressers. And while you might make the room smaller, don't take away any of their drawers. Well, we do just that! Everything comes out and goes on the bed. Then the guys have to give up one, the girls two, and it all has to go somewhere! If he makes it work, he gets NFL tickets. If she figures it out, it's an all-in spa weekend. This week, Marla decides if anything other than crop tops are worth keeping, while Billy agonizes over parting with his blue board shorts.

MONDAY 800PM on HGTV. PULL OUT PAMPERING. Do you like sitting in a sauna? How about kicking back in a mud bath? The problem is that for most people that means driving to the local spa. But what if all you had to do to get some body-lovin' was to pull a handle? That's what PULL OUT PAMPERING is all about. Each week our experts show some lucky homeowner how they can add a spa treatment in their own home where they least expected it. This week, Vinnie shows Amber how with just a pup tent, a folding stool and a simple mod to her dishwasher door, she can create a steam room right in her kitchen!

WEDNESDAY 930PM on TVMD. MEDICINE CABINET MAKEOVER. What's in your medicine cabinet? There's probably some aspirin, expired cough syrup and a few boxes of Band Aids. Hardly the stuff necessary in today's DIY medical world. On this show, each week a different specialist will help an excited homeowner re-outfit that box over their sink so they can do some real doctoring. In the premier episode, Dr. Milton Gasper, a plastic surgeon from Minneapolis, helps Darleen Fitzpatrick restock her cabinet with all the tools necessary to do an eyebrow lift, and then shows her how to do one on herself. The results will amaze you!

SATURDAY 800PM on THE CLOTHING CHANNEL. HANDBAG UNBOUND. It's the search for the holy grail: finding the perfect purse, and figuring out how to put everything inside of it. Next to that, provisioning the space station is a piece of cake. On this new show, each week a woman presents her handbag and its contents to our panel of experts, one from the world of fashion, one a military logistics specialist and one a longshoreman. They pull it apart and put it back together, showing how to make it more efficient, usable and beautiful. In tonight's episode Doris is crestfallen when the bag she and supermodel Brooklyn Decker love won't hold the AR-37 tactical flashlight Major Smithens demands she carry, while Rocco tries to find room for the 21 credit cards Doris insists she needs.

THURSDAY 830PM on DIY Channel. GLOVE BOX GARDENS. Who actually keeps gloves in their glove box? Mints, tissues, ice scrapers, receipts from oil changes, sure. But gloves? So what if you got rid of all that, and PLANTED something in there! Throw in a few seeds, some gro lights, and voila! Fresh basil by the time you drive home! Each week, a different enterprising green-thumber shows how they have remodeled this all but forgotten space in their car to produce fresh herbs and organic produce. In the premier, Molly shows off the rosemary she raised in her Lexus RX350, while Arnold demonstrates the misting system he has rigged up for the cherry tomatoes he grows in his Chevy Tahoe.

SUNDAY 830PM on COOKTUBE. SPICE UNDERCOVER. It's a conundrum that goes back as long as there have been cooks: organize the spice drawer by size, name or what you use the most. Well, help is coming! Each week a celebrity chef drops in on an amateur cook, helps them rearrange their spice cabinet, and then cooks a meal with them. In tonight's episode, Bobby Flay upends Samantha Kincaid's world when he moves the onion powder behind the sea salt with tragic results.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't get all the real estate shows on TV. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Thank You, Lucy

OK, so this gets a little OCD-ish: I just had to know which Warren Zevon song mentioned porte-cochère. Well, maybe "had to know" is too strong a phrase. Nothing was hanging in the balance based on me obtaining this information. No peace deal in the Middle East. No job offer from a Silicon Valley startup. No Republican delegates. But to say I was more than just idly curious would be accurate: it was bugging me bigtime.

If you aren't familiar with his work, Zevon was an enigmatic singer-songwriter who died more than a dozen years ago. Well known for songs he penned for others, most notably Linda Ronstadt, he also had some hits of his own, including "Excitable Boy" and "Werewolves of London." His often dark and ironic lyrics attracted fans from Bruce Springsteen to Jackson Browne to Don Henley, all of whom appeared as guests on the last record he made before he succumbed to lung cancer.

As a lyricist, he seemed to delight in sneaking in words and phrases that challenged casual listeners. In "Mr. Bad Example" he narrates a life of infamy, at one point singing "Then on to Monte Carlo to play chemin de fer." Blackjack would have been a more popular reference, as opposed to this variation of baccarat. Or in "Life'll Kill Ya" he sings "Requiescat in pace/That's all she wrote" when "rest in peace" would have been more easily understood. Nothing wrong with "Yeah Yeah Yeah." But if you were a connoisseur of words and phrasing, he was a master to savor.

But back to the phrase in question. I was relating the details of a particular hotel to an associate, and I told them about the porte-cochère at the rear. When they wondered what that was, I was able to explain it only because I thought I recalled it from one of his songs. At the time I first heard the term, it was unfamiliar to me as well. So I looked it up to find it was a basically a carport, or more correctly, a covered entrance large enough for a vehicle to pass through where people could enter and exit under cover. My associate was curious as to where I had heard the expression, and I credited Zevon with that little corner of my education.

But it made me curious as to which song indeed had included it. A quick search online produced no results, other than a tantalizing clue on a 2010 Facebook page setup to promote the singer's inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There, a Joan Crockett wrote "I don't know of anyone else who could crowbar ‘porte cochere' into a song! Love this man!" But no search of his lyrics turned up a direct reference. Seemed both Joan and I had heard something the rest of the world hadn't.

So I posted my query on a Warren Zevon fan board to see if there might be a devotee all these years later who might be able to help. And sure enough, not five minutes after I hit send, Lucy wrote me back. She said she couldn't find the reference, nor could recall any. But she noted in the song "Disorder In The House" Zevon did write "I'll live with the losses/And watch the sundown/Through the portiere." Portiere. Porte-cochère. While the first is a curtain placed over a door, and the second a pass-through for vehicles, it sounded close enough to be the source of my confusion.

The most egregious example of this kind of misunderstood lyric is probably Creedence Clearwater Revival's "There's a bad moon on the rise" being heard by many as "There's a bathroom on the right." While my mix-up hardly rises to that level of transgression, it is still the same idea. But the real thing that's mind boggling isn't the fact that I remembered this obscure phrase, or that Zevon worked something close to it into a song, it's that I was able to track down the answer to something so obscure so quickly. Comedian Pete Holmes said it best: "There was a simpler time that if you didn't know where Tom Petty was from, YOU JUST DIDN'T KNOW." No more. Today we can Google ourselves silly, finding out just about anything about everything. Or we can just ask someone we don't even know to help us out.

Thank you Lucy, whoever you are.


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

Saturday, April 02, 2016

All Grown Down

Someone once made the rather astute observation that most of life is really just a continuation of high school. The reference is usually to our social proclivities, but it applies to individual attributes as well. So many traits we developed in that period were carried forward in varying degrees as we matured. The tendency towards drama in decision making. A love of gossip about friends and foes alike. The desire to fit in, and the peer pressure that forces us to do so. Sure, we say we are now adults, and have outgrown that immature behavior. But if we're honest, when push comes to shove, what we really want to do is hang out with the cool kids.

Certainly if you were to apply this outlook to what's happening in the political sphere, it would only reinforce this point of view. It's not hard to see an analogue in the current campaigns to the election of the senior class president. There's the initial cull of candidate based on looks and popularity. The race to court friends to your side. The vilifying of those who disagree with you, followed by the 180 pivot once they are no longer a threat. And on it goes. To be fair, what we are seeing happens on both sides of the aisle. That said, people of all political outlooks would generally agree that this year the crop of individuals on the Republican side have taken this behavior to new heights (or lows depending on your point of view).

Still, I was struck by a line in an article in The New York Times dissecting the collapse of Marco Rubio. Titled "The End of Marco-mentum," it was written by the chief national correspondent for the newspaper's magazine, Mark Leibovich. An astute chronicler of political personalities, Leibovich wrote, "For all the thumb suckery that's been expended on the various ‘Why Trump, Why Now' analyses, the lessons of Rubio's failure might be just as instructive."

Did you catch that? "Thumb suckery." Maybe that high school comparison was too lofty. Come to think of it, maybe middle school as well. What Leibovich may have put his finger on, intentionally or otherwise, is that more and more life seems to imitate elementary school as opposed to any other epoch of our Wonder years. In fact, when you get right down to it, maybe the educational period most analogous to the way we live our lives these days is kindergarten.

In 1986, minister Robert Fulghum published a book of short essays called "All I All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Its namesake poem listed the simple things we all are taught as little kids, with his admonition that it would do us all well to continue their practice as we grow older. Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. And on and on. It became a bestseller, and has been widely quoted, updated, reproduced, adapted and parodied.

Unfortunately, it's not hard to see some of the undesirable behaviors we demonstrated back then have taken root as well. The need for instant gratification. The whining when we don't get what we want. The attention span of a toddler. The intense focus on our own needs. The lack of empathy for others. The inability to see the long term. In the context of this year's political shenanigans, you also see the bullying, the making of promises that can't be kept, the inability to compromise, the name calling, the threats of "you better leave me alone or I will get you worse." And yes, when things don't go our way, the need to stick our fingers in our mouth and suck on them, hoping to calm ourselves down, and hoping even harder that the situation will magically change without us having to do anything about it.
No one knows how things will play out in this year's election season. But we can all lament how bad it is, and if we do nothing to change it, can't pretend to be surprised when it happens again. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. That's often the initial approach of a 5-year-old as well. However, kids can, and do learn. Can we say the same?


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks we all need to grow up again. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.