Saturday, July 30, 2016

The End of 12:00

We have a tendency to fetishize certain old objects. Long after something newer and shinier has come along, we remember them adoringly. It can be something you wear, be it a dress or an old jacket. Maybe it's a utilitarian item, like a pocket watch or a fountain pen. Or perhaps it's something merely decorative, like a vase or picture frame. That said, the veneration is in the eye of the beholder: one person's antique, classic or collectible is another one's piece of junk.

Technology is no different, though to be fair there may be some concrete reasons. Vinyl records may be fragile, but they have a sound that MP3's can't duplicate. Certain old stereo amps may require hard to find tubes, but have a warmer, more nuanced tone than the most modern solid state replacement. More recently, Blackberries can't hold a candle to current smartphones, but no one has ever made a better keyboard for thumb typing. They call them Crackberries for a reason.

Then there are the emotional reasons for fondly remembering an old piece of gear. For example, while cassette tapes may have been hissy and jam prone, for many of us they represented the first time we able to take control of the soundtracks of our own lives. As best explained in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," the mix tape on cassette was low art writ high: "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

Still, I suspect there will be no tears shed for the announcement from Funai Electric. A large Japanese manufacturer of consumer electronics, it makes everything from Smart TV's to dehumidifiers, and owns such well-known brand names as Magnavox, Emerson and Sanyo. But while it has kept pace with such innovations as home cinema sound systems, it was also the last place on earth where you could get what was once a cutting edge technology now laid low. But as of August, no more: the company announced that it will cease production of that first brick in everyone's home entertainment system, the VHS tape player.

Introduced to the home market in 1977, the Video Home System, better known by its initials, was deemed inferior to Sony's competing Betamax. No matter. It quickly became the dominant format, and just 10 years later represented 90% of the $5.25 billion market for home decks. But just a decade later and the end was beginning: the DVD was introduced in 1997, and VHS was over almost as quickly as it began. Well, not quite: as of 2005, nearly 100 million Americans still had a deck in their homes, likely accompanied by a boxed set of Disney movies.

And now it is no more. No more hearing that "RRRRRRR" as a tape rewound. No more hearing that "zzzZZZZZZzzzzz" as a creased part of the tape passed over the viewing heads. No more hearing that "cccKKKKKRRRSSSS" as the tape unspooled into the innards of the machine. And no more "&%@#*" as you hit the eject button and pulled magnetic spaghetti out of the slot.

Like telephone answering machines with beepers and faxes with thermal paper, it's hard to imagine collectors getting together to admire a Sanyo VWM-710 Player-Recorder in silver, even if it is in mint condition. But it's easy to underestimate their impact. After all, their ability to record episodes of "MASH" or "WKRP in Cincinnati" to be watched later made them indispensable, and established them as the Neanderthal ancestor of Netflix.  

Yet, one vestige of the decks that will survive in song and story is the clock in front. Most models took a degree in quantum mechanics to figure how to set it and program it correctly. As such, it was not uncommon to get the second hour of "Good Morning Minneapolis!" when you were aiming for "Hill Street Blues." Still, even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And so at least you had an excuse to get a sandwich whenever, since half the homes in America had front panels that flashed 12:00 PM all the time.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still has the Star Wars Trilogy on VHS. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The World is Round?

"Arggg," was all I could say.

It was 11 at night and I was building directors chairs, those foldable wooden and canvas constructions that take their name from the perch used by movie bosses on the set. Comfortable, easily transported and relatively inexpensive, they come in a multitude of heights and colors. For this particular project, the client had requested them as seating for a panel discussion, and so we pulled a bunch from the shop and threw them on the truck.

When we set them up that afternoon, all liked the look. Up to a point, that is. While the backs and seats were black, the frames were natural, a lacquered pine tone. Not unattractive, but not what the client was after. Any chance we had them in black? they asked. A call to the shop returned a negative response. But a quick check with a Pier One store not far away turned up half a dozen in the requested tone. I told the store to set them aside, and headed downtown to pick them up.

The helpful salesperson I had spoken to had them waiting for me when I got there. As we were walking to the register to settle up, she asked me if I needed the canvas backs and bottoms. No, I replied, I had them on the natural chairs I already had. My plan was to shift them over, and save a few bucks. I was good, I said. I flagged a cab, tossed the frames in the boot, and returned back uptown.  

When I got there a hotel bellman met me and asked where I wanted them taken. I considered bringing them up to our staging room and trying them out, but decided there was no point. Directors chairs are directors chairs, whatever the color. I would swap the backs and bottoms when we finally got around to setting up. I gave the guy a tip, asked him to stash them in the package room, and deliver them to the ballroom with all our other stuff later that night. Off I went, complimenting myself on my quick problem solving.

That is, until the bewitching hour. As the lighting guys worked on lights and the sound guys on sound, I worked on the chairs. I broke out the new ones and slid the canvas off the old ones. And that's when I made the discovery. Every directors chair I had ever encountered to that point had canvas seats that ended in a round dowel. You simply slid the rod into the round slot on the chairs to attach it. But these new black frames had no such round slot. Rather, it was a flat channel, half an inch across and a quarter inch deep. Same idea, but a completely different shape. They say you can't put a square peg into a round hole. From my experience that night, I can attest that you can do the opposite. But it won't stay put.

The round dowels fit in the available channel, but popped out immediately when the chair was tightened. No amount of finagling made them safe to sit in. I tried shimming it, jamming it, even nailing it. Nada. There was no system I could come up with didn't find me gently lowering myself into the seat, only to have the chair collapse around me. Arggg indeed.

Why, oh why, did someone change a perfectly good system to another one? It's not like it was an improvement, or there was a deficiency in the old approach. It was just a different. It’s like Apple and its legendary reinventive touches, seemingly done just for the sake of change. In fact, word is that the new iPhone 7 due out this fall will eliminate the standard round headphone jack in favor of a flat Lightning connector. That's right: if you're an Apple devotee, your favorite earbuds will be obsolete come September.  

You can argue all the reasons that a flat connector makes technical sense, from thinner phones to tighter connections to better sound. But the bottom line is Apple is being different because they like to be. Then again, maybe the chairs were the early harbinger of a trend. Maybe history needs to be rewritten. Maybe Columbus was wrong after all. And maybe, just maybe, the world really should be flat.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a directors chair in his office. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Give a Man a Minnow

The rising sun shines through a magnifying glass, burning a hole in a hot water bottle. The water drips onto the head of a sleeping pet, causing it to wake up and walk away. The string tied to its tail turns the crank on the jack-in-the-box, causing the conductor to pop up. The makes the monkey crash his cymbals together, squeezing the suspended orange. And fresh orange juice drips into the glass to greet you as you open your eyes.

As conceived of and drawn by Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg, this is just one example of over-engineering a complex solution to the simplest of problems. Goldberg was a master of these flights of imagination, delighting readers with a range of convoluted inventions for back scratching, fly swatting and napkin wiping. Widely admired and copied, his drawings were the inspiration for real life contraptions brought to life by a varied group ranging from Honda to Pee Wee Herman to my personal fav from OK Go.  

But while we might not go as far as Goldberg did, we do have a tendency to overcomplicate things. American ingenuity is legend, but we often take a big stick to a small problem. While it turns out not to be really true, the "Space Pen" anecdote captures this the best. As told and retold, an American astronaut was commiserating with his Russian counterpart about the difficulties of writing in orbit: "The pens that we use work with pressure and gravity. But in space, there is no gravity. So we created a battery operated pressure pen. It creates pressure at back side of the refill and constantly pushes the ink to front. What do you do?" Replied the Russian, "We use a pencil."

There are numerous real examples as well, not all in the vastness of space. Motivational speaker Scott McKain talks about arriving in a town to give a speech and finding that he forgot his cufflinks. He visited store after store trying to find replacements: no dice. Finally, a sales associate at a Walmart suggested he just buy a shirt with button cuffs. Duh.

In that vein I was most impressed with the notice from our county. We get these missives periodically, detailing everything from recycling drives to passport renewals to anticipated traffic issues. In this case it was focused on the upcoming summer season, a time when mosquitoes are on the increase. Used to be all you had to worry about with the little buggers were if you had enough calamine lotion. More recently, the focus has been on the West Nile virus. But this year it gets scarier, with the expected arrival of Zika.

The notice from the health department contained the usual warnings and precautions, including covering exposed skin by wearing long-sleeve shirts, pants and socks, and putting screens in open windows. It talked about traps and spraying to kill the critters buzzing around. But these are all methods designed to stop them once they are in the air. Any expert will tell you the best control starts at the source: get 'em before they start flying and your disease vectors go way down.

So higher on the list is dumping water from old tires or catch basins where eggs are laid. Next up is distributing "dunks," or larvacide that can be placed in standing water like bird baths to kill the little ones. But my favorite is bullet point number one, and something I'm not sure I've ever heard as a public health control measure: free fish.

The county is giving away free minnows to any resident that wants them. Turns out that the little swimmers love to feast on the mosquito caviar which floats on top of water: each good size fish eats hundred a day. The fish breed like rabbits, so they come back season after season to do the job. And at pennies each, the cost vs. other methods is extremely low. Throw a bucket in your backyard pond, and without chemicals, sprays or other nasties, you squelch the bugs at their source. It's Darwin writ small.

Usually you have to pick one thing or another. The saying is that you can have it good, fast or cheap: pick two. Here, it's simple, and no choice is necessary. And while you do need fish, you don't need monkeys, wind-up toys or whoopee cushions. Sorry Rube: less fun to be sure, but less itching as well.


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

Saturday, July 09, 2016

No Cash On Hand

I was working late on a project in the city and needed a drink. Not an alcoholic one (though that might have helped as well) but a cold one to satisfy my thirst. I walked across the street and into the ubiquitous drug store to get a bottle of iced tea. While I usually use a credit card for purchases, maybe because this was for less than two bucks, I reached into my pants to pull out some cash. And that's when I noticed the twenty-dollar bill with the two red marks on it.

It wasn't the marks themselves; they meant nothing to me. And it wasn't the bill, either; that was your standard issue US currency. What caught my attention was that I had noticed that bill with its red marks when it first came out of the ATM. Again, nothing remarkable about that transaction either; I had realized I was low on cash, and stopped by the bank one night on my way home. What was curious was that I had made that withdrawal six months prior. In another words, I had gone half a year without using the twenty dollar bill in my pocket.

Depending on the chapter of your life, the term "financial security" can mean different things. It might mean a having good job with a steady paycheck. It might mean having a retirement fund for that magical milestone. Or it might mean having a nest egg to be used "just in case" for when the boiler leaks or the car breaks down. More likely it probably means all three, plus a few other buckets not even mentioned.

All those ring true to me as well. But personally it always meant one more thing, and that was having a few actual dollars in my pocket. In the beginning, long before I qualified for a credit card, it was the only way to buy anything, whether it was candy at the store on the edge of town, or the latest edition of MAD magazine. The sum wasn't much, and it was just as likely to be in coin as in folding money. But from that time, when the only cards I had in my wallet had baseball players on them, I quickly got to the point where I wasn't comfortable leaving the house without having some amount of legal tender in my pocket.

Over time the sum grew. Five bucks would last me several weeks when I was in elementary school, when penny candy really cost me a penny. Later, I would stretch it out to ten or twenty before I had to replenish my supply. And once I hit adulthood, I was a regular visitor to the bank teller, each week starting out with $50 or more to cover the various miscellaneous items one has to pay for each and every day. (That's when you learn that 2 slices and a Coke is great for your wallet if not your cholesterol.)

Once I started carrying credit cards, the equation shifted. I wasn't spending more (well maybe a little) but I was spending it differently. At first it was only for larger purchases; I would never think about pulling out plastic if the total sale was under $20. In fact, merchants had limits as to how small a purchase could be where they would even take a card.

Now I find myself whipping out a card regardless of the damages. These days I think nothing of buying a box of mints with my American Express, a payment method I previously associated only with airplane tickets and hotel stays. The economic equation where anyone makes any money when you invoke an entire financial ecosystem to buy a box of Tic Tacs for $.79 on credit makes your head hurt.

But that's how we do things today. And so I walk around with the same $20 bill in my pocket for months on end. Pretty soon I literally won't have any cash on hand. Willie Sutton famously said he robbed banks because that's where the money was. These days it's never been more true. But we might be getting to a point where, at least when we're talking cold hard cash, they don't bother having it at all. After all, if we ain't using it, maybe they don't need to keep it either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a nice money clip he hardly ever uses. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Just In Case

Like many who have an office, I have a cache of supplies. Tape, paper, staples, all the usual miscellany required to maintain a semi-ordered life. I try and buy in bulk when I can, enabling me to have some backup on hand so I don't run out. Hence the box of 100 file folders and tins of paper clips. But then there are those spindles of blank DVDs and CDs. I thought I was being a smart consumer stocking up on 500 at a good price. Unfortunately, I didn't get the memo that they would be obsolete almost overnight. Computers don't even come with CD drives anymore. And when was the last time you rented a DVD? I hate to throw them out, but can't figure out what to do with them if I keep them. Giant mirrored coasters, anyone?

That's just one example of the stuff that I've kept where perhaps I should part ways. It's not there's an emotional attachment to any of it. In fact I'm not generally the sentimental type, though I do still have my high school letter jacket, my 35mm SLR camera and my demo cassette for college radio. But those things have special meaning, reminding me of younger days and personal milestones. And so I indulge myself by hanging on to them, even though the chances of anyone wanting to hear an 18-year-old me say "More Music More Often" are pretty slim.

And it's not like I don't throw stuff out. It might take some time, but I do eventually make a meaningful dent in the pile. It was earlier this year that I finally bit the bullet and took the old TV's and computers stashed in the back of my office to the recycling depot.  Every PC or laptop worked, though some slowly. And those Sony Trinitron TV's made fantastic pictures and still powered up. But there is not much call for a machine tricked out to shine on Windows 3, or a TV that weighs 165 pounds and only shows you 2/3's of what current screens exhibit. (But damn fine pictures!)  

What I'm talking about is stuff that just doesn't have a place in today's world. Take my fax machine. You remember faxes: those point to point paper transmitters, where the paper was thermal stock that greyed and curled almost the minute it came out. We still have ours, taking up space and resetting loudly every time there is a power interruption. But the last time we got a fax was, oh, I don't know, maybe 10 years ago. Still, we keep ours; you never know when the Reagan years will need to send you something.

Then there's my turntable. For fun I set it up in my office and dug out a handful of classic records. Of course, then I had to dig out an old stereo amp that worked. And I had to dig out speakers that connected to the amp. And I had to dig out wire to connect the speakers to the amp. Once that anklebone-connected-to-the-shinbone process was complete I was ready to play one of the best double albums ever, Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key of Life." I dropped the needle on it, and then quickly remembered why I had downloaded a clean MP3 version that wasn't scratched. But I still might someday want to listen to The Doobie Brothers or Hall & Oates. Right?

As I look around my house I see a bunch of other goodies. In that corner is a boom box: never know when I might need some music outside while cooking on the grill. There's an old answering machine: not sure I trust this voicemail stuff. And yes, I still proudly have a box of maps. When all those GPS satellites come crashing down, you'll be coming to me to figure out the best route to take from Harrisburg to Albany.

I know, I know: I don't need any of that stuff. It might work, but there are better, smaller, faster replacements for almost every one. And so I should pile it all into the back of the car and make another trip to the dump. No reason to keep any of it. But I will tell you one thing: you will have to pry my cold, dead hands apart before I let you take my original Nerf gun.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to throw out stuff. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.