Saturday, June 25, 2016

Keep it Simple

I'm naked as a jaybird, standing in a strange shower in a strange hotel room in a strange city. It's 330AM, and I have a 530AM flight not heading home, but to yet another city. I've been on the road for two days, have another two to go, and this is week six of spending multiple nights in a rented bed. To say I'm in a very vulnerable state doesn't begin to capture it. And so the last thing I need is anxiety over how to get hot water. And yet that's what is turning my knees to jelly.

Doesn't matter if it's a shower or a coffee maker, a computer or a remote, a teapot or a phone. The holy grail of industrial design is threefold: make it beautiful, make it functional, make it intuitive. Do that, and the world will beat a path to your door. Or more likely these days, to your web portal, Ebay store or Amazon cloud page.  

But beyond those three guiding principles, there's one more: make it simple. Wrapped up in all that is the idea that if you're making toast or a flying an aircraft, the controls should be reduced the simplest ones possible. There's nothing worse than having to make an adjustment of any kind and having to spend time figuring out how to do it. If you're taking a picture and you can't figure out the flash on/off button, your kid can go from adorable to bratty before you snap the shutter.  

Of course, the challenge is much higher with intricate pieces of equipment. Nuclear reactors, automobile climate controls, your new phone: each of these sports complexity and optional states that are several orders of magnitude over turning on a light or opening a garage door. In each of those cases it takes skill and creative thinking by the best minds available to figure out how to make it obvious and intuitive to prevent a meltdown, defog the windows or order a pizza. Consider the pencil sharpener: even if you had never seen one before you would know how to run it. And in short order you would be ready to write or jab your kid brother in the arm.  

Which brings us back to that shower control. The old arrangement of one knob for hot and one for cold was simple, intuitive and functional. But it missed the mark of beauty. True, you can have nicer knobs or levers, but they're not going to win any design awards. So designers tried some alternate configurations. There's a single knob or lever that revolves and increases in temperature as you go. There're levers that rise or fall, with temperature being a function of deflection from center. And a dozen more schemes that someone came up with in the quest for a more perfect shower.

And then then there was this particular monstrosity shaped like an X-Wing fighter. Maybe it offered massaging jets. Maybe it offered variable pressures. Maybe if offered finely regulated temperatures. Maybe it had disco lights, conference calling and room service chicken wings. No matter: at 330 in the morning, all I wanted was to turn it on and not get squirted with ice water and I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT HOW TO DO IT.

I had to go get my glasses and stand directly in front of it puzzling out pictographs that made an Ikea instruction manual read like Shakespeare. After several minutes of thought and consideration, being no closer to the answer than when I started, I threw caution to the wind. I tossed my glasses on the vanity, gritted my teeth and turned the first knob I came to. Of course, out shot a frigid stream, causing me to yelp loud enough to wake up the adjoining room. I jumped back, mashing my elbow on the marble wall, and almost slipping and killing myself. The water went from cold to hot. Very hot. I jumped out, then contorted my arm to get to the controls. Finding a knob that seemed promising, I twisted it, only to have jets shoot straight out like lasers. I quickly twisted it back, then tried another. This time the spray went from needles to pulses. I set it back then tried another. Finally, the temperature moderated, and I stepped in. Fail, fail and fail.

Next time I'm taking a sponge bath.


Marc Wollin of Bedford must have a hot shower in the morning. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Trading Places

It's pretty common in sports: a coach or a player leaves one team and goes to another. Of course, they're not being disloyal; it's just the nature of the business. This year, in fact, was first time a basketball player played for both finalists in the same season. Anderson Varejao started with Cleveland, and was an important part of that team early on. But then he was traded to Portland, and eventually to Golden State, who also had a record setting year. So technically, whichever team wins, he is entitled to a ring.

Often it happens because things haven't quite worked out as hoped. That was the story with Rex Ryan. After 6 seasons with the New York Jets with what can charitably be described as "mixed success," he and the team parted ways. Less than two weeks later he was hired by the Jets' intra-state rival, the Buffalo Bills. All he had to do was move about 400 miles northwest and swap his team cap. Oh yes, and have the tattoo of his wife wearing a Jets green jersey darkened to Bills blue.

But sports isn't the only venue for this switching of teams. You see it in politics as well. Katrina Pierson, the national spokesperson for Donald Trump, used to work for Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton ran against Barrack Obama, then worked for him as Secretary of State. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush fought it out until Reagan won the nomination. Rather than walk away mad, Bush took back most of what he said about Reagan's "voodoo economics," and became his Vice President.

It even happens in the world of celebrity endorsements. Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan first appeared in multiple Coca Cola ads in India, but then endorsed Mountain Dew, a PepsiCo product. Nigerian actor and comedian Hafeez Ayetoro promoted mobile phone provider Etisalat in his home country, then was lured away to push calls by rival MTN. And tennis superstar Andre Agassi switched to Adidas in 2005 after a 17-year-long association with Nike.

Then there's Paul Marcarelli. A journeyman actor, he was a founding member of New York's Mobius Group Productions, and has performed in works by Eric Bogosian, Warren Leight, and Richard Nelson. He has appeared in commercials, as well as done voiceovers and acted in industrial films. He has even won awards for both acting and producing at the New York International Fringe Festival. Yet he is known less for all of that than for the 5 words he said over and over and over from 2002 to 2011: "Can you hear me now?" That's right: Marcarelli was the Network Test Guy in those ubiquitous Verzion Wireless commercials.

Up there with the Madge the Palmolive dishwashing liquid lady and the Maytag repairman, the Network Test Guy was one of those advertising Hall of Fame creations that, well, just worked. But even legends come to an end. After nine years, Verizon moved onto other campaigns, and Marcarelli was out of a job. That said, he wasn't too broken up. He told The Hollywood reporter, "Don't feel bad for me; I'm definitely glad that chapter is over. Most people my age are now trying to trade in their street cred for money, and I kind of made my money."

He continued as an actor and producer, doing film, TV and stage work. But then the folks from Sprint had an idea. And so this past week a new spot debuted. In it, Marcarelli plays in essence the same character. It's just that his pitch is different. "I used to ask if you 'can hear me now' with Verizon," he says. "Not anymore. I'm with Sprint now, because guess what? It's 2016 and every network is great." He goes on to talk about how Sprint's reliability and other carriers are similar, but their rates are much lower. They then twist the tag line just a bit: "Can you hear that?"

Only time and the market will tell if Switch Man has the same success as ancestral Test Man. If so, his old employer should consider the case of Roger Federer. He endorsed Rolex timepieces, switched to rival Maurice Lacroix, then back to Rolex. True, Lacroix was paid a hefty breakup fee, as Roger's contract was still in effect. But for Rolex, it was money well spent. Could Verizon entice Marcarelli back? Maybe. Then again, you know how hard it can be to break cell phone contracts.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has had Verizon phones for years. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Crossing

The Atlantic Challenge is a race in the narrowest sense of the word. Yes, it has both starting and finish lines, and they time how long it takes to get between the two. However, when the distance is measured in thousands of miles and the time in weeks, you're not dealing with your garden variety dash. But that's the race that Phil Theodore and his partner Daley Ervin signed up for: a contest to cross 3000 miles of ocean on their own, a race subtitled, "The World's Toughest Row." And so on December 20, 2015, they joined 25 other teams of singles, pairs and foursomes as the horn sounded, and they pushed off from the Canary Islands.

Phil said within an hour or two they were basically alone. Their boat, while high-tech with solar panels, navigation gear and transponders, was only 21 feet long. It was just big enough for the two of them, with small enclosed compartments forward and aft to hold food and the like. The race rules said they had to carry enough supplies and equipment to ensure their safety, but no auxiliary propulsion system. It was them and them alone. And so they named their boat "Hope" and gave it the number 38, for the number of days they hoped it would take them to make the crossing.

Their routine was physically wearying and mind numbing: 2 hours on, 2 hours off, all day, every day. Phil said their bodies took a beating, with pressure sores forming on their butts and hands, which were made all the more painful by the constant exposure to salt water. As for his mind, he said he listened to music and books on tape to stay focused. When they weren't rowing they did maintenance, posted updates to their web site, ate to keep up their strength, and tried to get some sleep.

The days of monotony were broken here and there by moments of excitement. "I was taking a 15-minute power nap on day 19 when Daley started yelling at me to get on deck immediately," he wrote in their online blog. "He was screaming we're being attacked by a shark." Turned out a 7-foot long visitor had taken an interest in their bright orange rudder. "There is a gaff on board so I handed it to Daley, and he climbed up on the back solar panel of the boat to lean over and try to shoo it away." Eventually the shark left. Thereafter they noted some dorados chasing the boat, and realized that the fish were probably attracted to barnacles on their hull. But barnacles not only attracted fish, they created friction which slowed them down. The only solution was to jump overboard and scrape them off. Daley had already done it once, so it was Phil's turn. As for the shark, they had some repellant. But would it work? He wrote, "We have this snake oil and are hoping that it does the trick. If not, Daley will let you all know."

If it wasn't sharks, it was weather. When the water was smooth, it was a steady glide. Other times, not so much: "One night the sea changed to a thick rolling giant piece of taffy that we had to slog through. It was like rowing though oatmeal." And then there was Alex. The race is held at that time of year because the weather patterns are usually quiet. But not this time. Alex turned out to be one of earliest hurricanes on record. It meant three days of battening the hatches and hanging on, as they rode out 30 foot seas. "It's hard to visualize," he told me, "but look up at a three story building, and imagine going up and down that day and night for 72 hours."

But they were nothing if not determined. And so 45 days after they left, they rowed into Antigua, as horns blew and Phil's parents and wife waved from the shore. Phil had dropped 30 pounds and had a full beard: the pictures of him then are hardly recognizable from the way he looks today. But they had made it, coming in 7th overall and setting a new US record. They also raised over $1 million for food banks and nutrition awareness with their Team Beyond foundation. And so considering their accomplishment, they can be forgiven if their first meal back on land was cheeseburgers and beer.


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

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Water, Water Everywhere

"That's the first time I ever saw a guy carry on kayak blades," I said. I was sitting on a plane waiting to take off when Phil stashed the pair of 2-foot long appendages over my head. He laughed. "They're actually oars for rowing," he explained. What about the pole part? I asked him. He told me he sawed them off, and tried to get them into his luggage, eventually just keeping a piece. As we settled into our seats, I asked the obvious question: Why? Turned out Phil had used them in a race. To row a boat. Across the Atlantic. As in ocean.

There are extreme sports and athletes, and then there are guys like Phil Theodore. In real life he has a business background. His firm, Ironhawk Advisory, is a strategic consulting firm that specializes in undervalued, distressed and turnaround situations. But he got the bug a long time ago, and his work allows him the flexibility to pursue his somewhat unusual hobby: beating his body into the ground.

Tall and fit, he's done marathons and Iron Man triathlons ("a dozen or so"), but those have gotten too popular and crowded. So he started in with ultrasports. He's done the North Face 50 Mile Trail Run, the Bandera 100K Trail Run and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run. And he's done the Winter Spartan Death Race and the Summer Spartan Death Race. Twice. Those last two are events where the organizers say "Races have lasted over 70 hours. We provide no support. We don't tell you when it starts. We don't tell you when it ends. We don't tell you what it will entail. We want you to fail and encourage you to quit at any time." Fun, huh?

Of course, he tried the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix France, a footrace in the Alps where you run-walk for up to 40 hours straight (he made it through 26 hours). Sitting in a pub after with his buddies a guy came up to them. "So you think you guys are tough, huh?" he said. Phil said, "I was like, oh man, I don't want to fight this guy and wind up in a French jail." Turned out his tone was not confrontational, but rather informative. He told them about the Atlantic Challenge, a race to row from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, a distance of almost 3000 miles. Right up Phil's alley.

When he got home, while lying in bed one night with his wife, he punched up the web site for the event, and was hooked. He mentioned it to her as trial balloon. Her response? She took off her glasses and looked at him: "You do that, we're getting divorced." He'd heard that before, but at least knew where he was starting from. He reached out to his buddy Daley Ervin who agreed to be his partner. And with that, Phil wired $1000 as a down payment towards the $35,000 fee. A few days later, he came home to find his wife holding a thick envelope with the name of the race on it. "What the hell is this?" she demanded. But to Phil, it was like Christmas had come early.

They knew they would need money and sponsors. After all, the boat alone was $125,000, and they needed certifications and training. But as Phil conceded, ultrasports are very selfish. A lot goes into them, and the focus is on the individual. So he and Daley set up a foundation to broaden their reach. With nutrition and health being such an integral part of their world, they decided to focus on that: raising money for local food banks, and using their adventure as a jumping off point to teach kids about healthy eating. And so Team Beyond was born.

For two years they trained and raised money, visited schools and worked out the details. Finally, it was time. This past December, they flew to the starting point in the Canary Islands. There, from the harbor in San Sebastián de la Gomera, 26 teams of singles, pairs and fours would push off on December 20, 2015. Their goal was Nelson's Dockyard English Harbor in Antigua, on a journey that would be defined by two things: what the human body and psyche can endure, and what 3000 miles of ocean could throw at them.

Next week: the crossing.


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