Saturday, May 28, 2016

Of Interest

If you go to a conference, you hope to learn about some particular topic. It might be financial, maybe it's technology, or perhaps human resources. But whatever the focus, the speakers will try really hard to make it interesting. They might use funny stories or personal anecdotes or colorful graphics. But no matter the wrapping, it can be an uphill climb. After all, when the title of the talk is "Next-Generation Performance Management to Drive Performance" or "Successful HR Plus Medical Affairs Integration Equals A Sum Greater Than Its Parts" even the most determined listener while soon find their eyes rolling back into their head.

So what if you called it what it was, and had a conference that was, by definition, boring? That is, the topics were selected with an eye towards being sleep inducing. Well, in a world that is upside down in so many ways, there is such an animal. In fact, they just had the sixth annual one in London. It was sold out. And according to those who attended, it was captivating.

The Boring Conference, as it's appropriately called, was started by a guy named James Ward who has a blog called "I Like Boring Things." There you will find such posts as "Things I Held In My Left Hand In 2015" and an entry about the time he was offered free mash potatoes. Starting in 2007 there were a series of occasional gatherings called "A Conference of Interestingness." Sort of a low cost TED talk, they featured a variety of presentations on various things that the sponsor thought were, well, interesting. It ran for several years, but then folded. Ward thought it might be fun to stage it's ironic opposite. And for some reason, his effort caught on, and is still going strong.

What would you have seen if you were in the audience in Conway Hall in Holborn this year? To set the proper tone, Ward himself had the keynote. His presentation? "Pedestrian Crossing Signals used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (1961-1990)." He was followed by Jason Ward, whose topic was "An Evening in Paris." But wait: it that sounds like it might actually be interesting, thereby going against the theme of the day. Fear not. Jason actually unboxed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle by that name. Then he did it. Live. On stage. And streamed it as well, at one point topping out at 13 viewers worldwide. Need I say more.

And the boring didn't stop. Dr. Eleanor Herring, who has a PhD in Architecture and Cultural Studies from the University of Edinburgh, presented "Lamposts: For or Against?" Nicholas Tufnell talked about his lifelong fascination with the serial numbers found inside toilet paper rolls. And Peter Fletcher reproduced on stage the famous statistical experiment known as "Fisher's Exact Test," which was based on whether you can tell if your tea tastes better if you put the milk in first, than the tea, or the other way around.

Sandwiched between all that was Dawn Foster's "A Brief History of Bricks," Erica MacArthur's explanation of "How to be a Portrait Model" and Edward Long's presentation on "Paper Bags from Independent Bookshops." And for the first time, a presenter upped the ironic quotation by an order of magnitude, when Russell Arnott gave a talk on drilling, titled, of course, "Boring."

Attendees were wowed by all this. Tweets from the event included, "I'm at a conference. Speaker rates Abney Park as one of top 5 cemeteries. And loves bookshops and paper bags. This is my tribe." Another: "Watching a man do a puzzle on stage. It's actually very therapeutic." And this: "Had the most entertaining and informative day at #BoringVI! @NicholasTufnell's talk on serial numbers on toilet paper was the best thing." But perhaps this one said it best: "Preparing for a whole day of boredom. My childhood reborn."

As part of my work life, I attend a lot of conferences. I'm not there as a participant; rather, I'm one of those guys in back of the room or behind the screens making it all happen. And while I have to focus on my job, I do get to hear to a wide variety of speakers on a wide variety of topics. Some are interesting; many are not. But at least at the Boring Conference, they call them as they see them. And that's somehow very interesting.


Marc Wollin of Bedford like to learn new things, interesting or not. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Excitement! Not!

It was a typical call with a customer service agent, and as with so many things these days, it was conducted online. Companies love this: chatting agents typically handle 3 simultaneous conversations, resulting in a 50% savings over traditional one-on-one phone assistance. Customers like it too: they usually get through faster, and have a record of the interaction. And if you're like many others (me included) you can resolve many simple problems without having to (shudder) talk to a real person.

In my case, I had had an issue with a new phone, and had gotten a replacement. But they forgot to include a return label for the broken one, so I went online to get it. I was connected quickly, and routed to someone pecking away in Sioux Falls or Hyderabad or Manila. I explained what I wanted, and "Jonathan" responded: "I completely understand how important it can be to return your phone! I can assure you that you've came to the right place! I will do everything that I can to help you today!"

Now, I'm glad he was being enthusiastic: it's better than the alternative. And I'm sure he was trained to be initially upbeat with customers. But where I was it was a Sunday morning before 10AM. And all I can say is that it was good our exchange was in writing. Had he brought that level of intensity to a spoken conversation, I would have hung up immediately.

Still, I was a little surprised when he continued in the same vein: "I truly am sorry about this! I can absolutely get you the shipping label sent to you!" Johnathan, chill: it's just a label. I gave him the account info, he went away for a bit, then returned: "I've just sent the return label and instructions to you! You should have them in your mailbox within a few days!" Tone aside, it was an efficient exchange, and I thanked him for his assistance. I just wish he'd put down the coffee: "Thank you so much for chatting with me! I do hope that you have an amazing day!" After I signed off, I had to go take a nap.

You can blame social media. The way we write online has changed thanks (or no thanks) to Twitter, Instagram and the like. And it's spawned weird abbreviations, unusual constructions, and yes, lots of exclamation points. On this last topic, writer Beth Dunn and illustrator Tyler Littwin have created a great flow chart. It starts with three questions: Is it hugely important? Is it super exciting? Is it an actual emergency? In most cases, the answers to the questions lead to one inevitable conclusion: no.

The Brits have gone so far as to enshrine the "proper" approach in the pedagogy for younger kids. New Department for Education instructions for those assessing the writing of seven-year-olds has decreed that an exclamation mark will be deemed to have been correctly used only if the child has begun the sentence with "How" or "What" and used "the syntax of an exclamation." So "What a lovely day!" and "How exciting!" are smashing. But it's a narrow runway: "A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation."

While that might put a crimp in the tweeting and texting by good little UK boys and girls, the kids do have a defense that is, well, sterling. After all, one of the things they are likely studying are the greats of English literature. And there is considered no higher paragon than the bard himself, William Shakespeare. So how would the Whitehall guardians of sentence structure deal with a little seven-year-old Billy S. from Stratford-upon-Avon, who writes, "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" Or maybe, "Good Night, Good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow." Or "Out, damned spot! out, I say!"

Bad Billy, they would say. But elsewhere the Sweet Swan of Avon did conform to the rules. In a passage in "Much Ado about Nothing," he started with a "what," ended with an exclamation mark and followed the correct syntax. So maybe he had the bureaucrats in mind when he wrote, "O, what dare men do! What men may do!" As he himself might say (and formatted correctly) "What doth utter rubbish thou is!"


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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Studio 2

If you're a music fan, you know Studio 2 as a part of the EMI stages in London where the Beatles recorded much of their iconic music. And you also know that EMI changed its name to reflect its location, and is now Abbey Road Studios. However, if you're Lefty, Zeek, Rocky or Smokestack, you know it as Mecca. That's because those are the stage names of The Weeklings, and to call them a Beatles tribute band is missing the point. Sure, they can cover the Fab Four's tunes, note for note. But along with the usual stuff, what they play are Beatles tunes you've never heard unless you are a rabid fan, along with originals that you'd swear were old Lennon-McCartney chestnuts that you just can't place.

In real life, The Weeklings sprang from the friendship and shared sensibilities of Glen Burtnik and Bob Burger. Burtnik (Lefty) was nine when he watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show: "I wasn't quite sure what I was watching, but it was riveting. Something was definitely happening here. Dad wasn't impressed and my oldest brother Ron thought it was silly. But Ringo got my attention."

Burtnik's fascination with the band led him into music professionally, and in 1978 to portray Paul in "Beatlemania." He started writing songs, built a solo career, and became a well know player in Asbury Park, NJ, part of the local musical fraternity that included Springsteen, Southside Johnny and many others. He toured with Styx and currently plays with The Orchestra, a group which includes former members of ELO. But his Beatles pedigree kept him in the band's musical afterlife, performing at fan fests and conventions. Burtnik and Burger (Zeek) were already playing together, and it was on the circuit they eventually connected with John Merjave (Rocky) and Dave Anthony (Smokestack).

They performed for the first time as The Weeklings at a gig at a library. The audience reaction was such that they thought it was worth pursuing. But it was more than just the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr sound. Says Burtnik, "We've come to the realization it's not simply about The Beatles. We are inspired by not only them, but a long list of bands in a style some call power pop. It's that combination of rock n roll with melody and harmony and the attitude of the early sixties, when pop bands were exploding."

A year ago they released their first album, containing six original Beatles-inspired tunes, as well as six actual Fab Four tracks that were demos and the like, but had never gotten a proper airing. Reviews were great: "The Weeklings contains 12 tasty slices of melodic bliss that will warm your heart and capture your imagination." And "When an album is as joyous and as entertaining as the debut record from the Weeklings, we feel like shouting our joy from every rooftop around." Another summed it up succinctly: "It doesn't get much better than this."

For the boys, the next move was obvious: for their sophomore effort, they booked that legendary Studio 2. They wrote new tunes, and dug even deeper into the Beatles archives for other stuff never recorded. And on June 8 and 9, in that very same space where musical history was made, they will see if they can conjure up the ghosts of George Martin and his charges. Says Burtnik, "I'm not a kid and I've had much experience recording records in my life. So I don't expect to freeze up or anything. But I'm certain I will be thrilled, standing in the footprints of giants."

Of course, recording doesn't come cheap. And so the band has created a GoFundMe page to enable fans and others help them out. All pledges of support are welcome, with premiums ranging from CD's to house concerts. But sorry: the violin bass that Lefty will use (just like early Paul) has already been claimed.

It isn't often that lighting strikes twice. And Ed Sullivan's not around to invite The Weeklings on his show. But that's OK. These guys play because 50 years ago a bunch of kids saw and heard something extraordinary on TV, and spent their lives trying to capture it themselves. It started them down a path they have been happily walking ever since. And now it's their turn in that same studio to make their own magic.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has had the good fortune to work with Burtnik. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Just Watch. Just Listen.

In the course of a given year we go to a good number of concerts. Most are smaller as opposed to big arena spectacles. Some are part of a "coffee house" series, held in small spaces from all-purpose rooms in libraries to activity spaces in churches. Others are jazz performances on little stages tucked into the corner of a restaurant. And our favorite series is held in a park, where several hundred people gather weekly to hear all types of music, with the audience arrayed on lawn chairs and blankets with home-made picnics, take-out food and bottles of wine.

But regardless of the venue, the audience at most of these gatherings is made up of people who came to hear the music. I know that sounds like a no-brainer: you go a concert to hear the music. That's because, like sporting events, live music is one of those things where attending in person produces a very different experience as opposed to participating remotely. That's not say that watching on a screen is all bad. There you get better and varied sight lines, and are able to enjoy views you can't experience in person. The sound is perfectly mixed and transmitted, and optimized to be heard where you are sitting. And the experience isn't marred by the fat guy with the beer singing off key in front of you. That is, unless you invited your brother-in-law over to the house.

Still, there's a reason that some people have attended 32 Bruce Springsteen concerts. It's partly because every performance is a little bit different. It's partly because they like the shared experience that comes with gathering with other like-minded individuals. And it's partly because they are fans, and that's what fans do. But whether it's a major name like Coldplay or Beyoncé, a well-respected niche performer like Cecile McLorin Salvant or Hot Club of Cowtown, or a dogged touring artist like Sloan Wainwright or Mayer Hawthorne, it's also a chance to do something you don't get to do every day, and that's to experience in person a little magic.

At least to me, talented musicians are practitioners of a mystical art. They speak a language among themselves that defines beauty and ease, what ever the genre. To get the chance to listen to them display their talents, whether it's a full band in a stadium or a guy with a guitar in the corner of the room, is an opportunity that shouldn't be taken lightly. And one which can truly only be appreciated if you do nothing but focus on the space where the lights and the microphones converge with just your eyes and your ears and nothing else.

That's why I was dismayed at one recent performance in Nashville. I really didn't even know the performer; I had to look him up online. But he was a true talent, and had been around for a long time. The theatre was first rate, as was the sound system. And so when he came out and sat at the piano and started to sing, even without being a fan, I gave him my full attention.

But there was a distraction. It looked like a hundred giant fireflies had snapped on. Fully a third of the audience whipped out their cell phones and pointed them towards the stage. They proceeded to watch song after song on a four-inch piece of glass. After each number, a bunch flipped their phones around, and spent half of the next song uploading what they had just shot to their social media pages. They may as well have been at home as in the theatre. Fans or not, they weren't there for the music; they were there to say they had been there.

In one of my favorite essays entitled "The Cerebral Snapshot" Paul Theroux notes that a friend with whom he was traveling who took photographs had to ask Theroux what was happening around them. That's because he was too glued to his eyepiece to take in the bigger picture. And so it is in a concert. It's right there before your eyes and ears. To reduce it to the view through the viewfinder is to miss the bigger experience, the nuance of the performance. Put down the phone. Listen. Watch. And see how it makes you feel. As opposed to a shaky video with bad sound, then you'll really have something to post.


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