Saturday, October 29, 2016

Faint Praise

My mother always used to say that if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all. (She also told me to put on a sweater when she was cold, but that's another discussion.) And in general, that's good advice in just about all aspects of your personal life, whether it's friends, family or casual acquaintances you meet. To be clear, she never said you can't THINK what you want about someone else, just that you shouldn't SAY it. And were she holding forth on that maxim today, she might also note that you shouldn't put it in an email either, as John Podesta can surely attest.

But in other areas, speaking the truth about things is not just encouraged but required. In a work situation, personal appraisals including areas ripe for improvement are part of the normal routine, both to those below you and above you. If you're a critic, whether it's of restaurants or movies, it's your job to cast a sharply-focused eye, highlighting highlights, but also calling out the lowlights as well. And if you're running for office, say President of the United States, well, let's just not go there.

Still, there are ways of being critical while being clever. It's those "You're a lot smarter than I thought!" or "I'd glad you're not so concerned about a particular style" type of comments that make you say "Thanks!" until you think a little deeper. Some call them backhanded compliments, others speak of damning with faint praise. Either way, they are so much more effective than the comeback of "Wrong" as practiced by a certain public figure these days.

You can find them almost anywhere. From Shakespeare: "You kiss by the book" from "Romeo and Juliet, or "If I can remember thee I will think of thee" in "All's Well That Ends Well." Loads in TV and movies, such as in the classic "Amadeus" with Mozart's reaction to Salieri's composition: "I never knew that music like that was possible." There's the motherlode of "Futurama" and Captain Zap Brannigan: "I like your style, you remind me of a younger me! Not much younger mind you; maybe even a few years older." They even crop up in the legal world: a lawsuit against Apple's iPad by Samsung was decided in Samsung's favor by the judge who said their product was "not as cool." And then there is that proverbial elementary school teacher report card comment, "rarely runs with scissors, does not eat too much paste".

This all came to mind when I read the review in The New York Times of the new Pixel smartphone by Google. Writer Brian Chen wasn't overly impressed, but he tried to give it a positive spin, especially considering the current context: "This holiday season, all Google's new phone has to do is not burst into flames. That's because the Pixel is, relatively speaking, mediocre. It is slower than Apple's iPhone 7, the camera doesn't look as good and the built-in artificially intelligent virtual assistant is still fairly dumb. But hey, the it probably won't burn down your garage or injure a child. So if you prefer Android and are hooked on Google, then you probably won't regret buying the Pixel."

Not too inspiring. Still, it's better than the alternative. If you've been on an airplane recently, then you're heard the cabin crew go through their usual "here're the exits, use your seatbelt, put up your tray tables" spiel. But then then append the latest critical safety instruction: "If you have a Samsung Note 7, the FAA says you must turn it off, remove the battery and don't put it in your checked luggage." They may as well add, "In fact, please ring your call button immediately for a bucket of ice water to dump it into." In that light, "won't regret buying it" is almost a rave.

I for one might still consider the Pixel. After all, I'm the target audience: I'm very invested in the Google ecosystem, I haven't drunk the Apple Kool-Aid, I'm not trying to take anything more than snapshots, and I do like a phone that won't explode. It calls to mind a slogan an old friend once suggested for a company we worked with that had the same tenor and tone: "Where good enough is our very best."


Marc Wollin of Bedford just wants a phone that works. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Can I Have Another?

It was a joke. Not a "funny, ha ha" kind of joke, but a "bears no relation to reality" kind of joke. It wasn't meant to be, of course. It was just trying to do the right thing, offering sensible guidance to any person who picked up the container and read the back panel. And while it could have been a jar of peanut butter or a bag of pretzels, it was a box of fish. Red fish. Swedish fish, to be exact.

If you're connoisseur of high end confectioneries, if you can tell the difference between a chocolate truffle from Godiva and one from Lindt, if you buy your candy by the piece vs. the pound, then you might wonder what I'm talking about. Tuna or sardines might come in a can, but what kind of fish comes in a box? But if you are like me, and are well versed in gratuitous sugary nibbles, then you know all too well this grandchild of Tootsie Rolls, cousin of Root Beer Barrels and Smarties, and close sibling of Red Hot Dollars and Gummi Worms. As a person who waxed rhapsodically in this space not once ("Food Sciences") but twice ("Everyday a Holiday") about Peeps, I feel uniquely qualified to weigh in on this topic. And if you don't know what Peeps are, then we most definitely travel in different circles.

But let's get back to the joke of the fish.  

Knowing my weak spot for anything that has a preponderance of sugar as its main ingredient, a friend's wife was nice enough to buy a small box of Swedish fish to have around as a snack for when we were working. So called because Malaco, the company that created them was indeed Swedish, and well, the fishing industry in that country was very large, the candy was developed specifically for the US and Canadian markets back in the 1950's. The slightly squishy soft pieces, each in the shape of a miniature cod-esque aquarian, are known in their native tongue as "pastellfiskar," or pale-colored fishes. And no, in spite of their heritage, while the taste is vaguely cherry-like, neither is it reminiscent of lingonberry.

They are just sugary, chewy tidbits that taste like, well, red and stick to your teeth. Eat one, and you'll eat another. And another. And yet one more. And that's where the joke comes in. On the box it says there are "about" 2 servings per container, each about 7 pieces. But that's a cruel metric: those fishies are like crack. Have one and your body hungers for another. Even as you pry it from your fillings, the box beckons you to take more. Saying a mere catch is only 7 is a pipe dream. Sure. Like that's gonna happen.

But there is nod to reality if you read further. For while the "suggested" serving size is 7 pieces, there is another column. And that one bows to reality, or at least, my version of it. So while the nutritional tallies are roughly double the single serving, it doesn't say "Two Servings." It says "Entire Box." Which is generally what I eat.

I'm not proud of it, but it's the way it is. It's like when the box of cookies says "Serving Size 2 Cookies" as opposed to "Entire Tray." Or when the jar of peanuts says "Serving Size 1 Ounce" as opposed to "Two or Three Handfuls." Thankfully, pizza boxes just say "You've tried the rest, now try the best." Because if they said "Serving Size One Slice" I'd be embarrassed as I would be caught consuming "Most of the Pie."

You can post all the calories counts you want. You can show me the food pyramid in four colors, with delicious looking pictures of whole grains and leafy greens. My wife can have lots of fresh fruit in the fridge, chilled just the way I like it. And I'll gladly try and do the right thing, cutting down on saturated fats and increasing my intake of veggies. But if you honestly think that telling me that 7 Swedish fish is all I'm supposed to eat, the only way that's going to happen is if you tie my hands. Just please do it with licorice whips. I love those.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has a sweet tooth that can't be stopped. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

More, More, More

Mike was having nothing but trouble with his internet connection. It was slow, then it didn't work, then it did. He called his cable company numerous times, asking for assistance, but to no real avail. Finally, he got to one customer service rep who asked him about his modem. While it was an older model and seemed to worked fine, the guy suggested he swap it out for a new one. After all, a few advances had happened since it was originally installed, like running water, air travel and Pop Tarts.

So Mike went and picked up an updated version, an industrial looking box festooned with lights and connections. He took it home and hooked it up, but his service still wasn't singing. So he arranged a service appointment for a tech to come to his apartment and optimize it. At the appointed hour he showed up, and poked and prodded. Finally, he announced he was done, and that not only did Mike have a solid connection, but now he had 5G.

Five G. Not to be confused with 5G's, a brand of marijuana from Rebel Grown, or the 5G trombone mouthpiece from Bach instruments, or the 5G's that Edward G. Robinson demanded in "Key Largo," 5G is the latest standard for wireless communication. Sure, you may have a phone that does 4G, but this? Well, this is one more than that: it has five G's! And more G's are better than less G's, right?

At least that's how we've been conditioned. There's hardly a thing out there that we haven't added a one, ten or hundred to show it's more advanced. After all, if two is good, three has to be better. And four must blow that away. For companies, it's an easy shorthand to indicate their next, more whiz-bang product without going into excruciating detail. We know that the Boeing 787 has just got to be better than the 777 model. The iPhone 7 must be a quantum leap over the 6. And now that Supergirl and The Legends of Tomorrow have joined Flash and the Arrow, we just know that Superhero Fight Club 2.0 will be soooo much better than the initial version.

That said, while it may be better, you might not be able to really tell. There is no doubt that we've made impressive technological leaps in many arenas. But eventually you come to a place where it doesn't really make a whole lot of difference to most of us. After all, anyone can tell the difference between driving 20 miles per hour and 80. But between 80 and 90? At that point fast is fast, unless you're in the pole position at Daytona.

Look at music, or rather, listen to it. When we first started to transition from records and tapes to electronic files, you could hear the digital conversion. But then they figured out the whole MP3 thing, and now only those with truly discerning ears and expensive headphones can tell the difference between a sample rate of 160 and 190. And if that means nothing to you, here's a real world example. Listen to music as you usually do, downloaded to your phone with $20 earbuds while riding on the train. In that environment, the difference between a 99 cent song from iTunes and a $10 archival version of the same is academic at best, pretentious at worse.  

So the fact that Mike has more G's than you may not really matter. It's not that there's no difference; it's just that we mere mortals might not be able to appreciate it. If I can download a file in seconds, another fraction or two might not really make a difference. Or as the tag line went from a long ago Saturday Night Live commercial parody showing why a triple-bladed razor was better than the double-bladed variety, well, it's because you'll believe anything.  

Still, I get that it's a progression, a continuum. And while 5G might not be much different from 4G, 8G will be a lot different from 1G. Then again, as long as your Netflix stream is clean, what do you care that it buffers more bits than it used to? Put another way, it's all somewhat immaterial for most of us because, as the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke famously noted, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't know if he really needs Windows 11. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Flat on the Bottom

We were coming up the back way heading home when we both heard the crack. It was more than the usual rock-shooting-out sound we were used to hearing when driving that stretch of dirt road. Almost immediately a little yellow icon flashed on the dash with an exclamation point inside of it. It was kind of a "U" but with a flattened and spread out bottom. While not as universal as that circle with a red line through it, there was no doubt what it was signaling: I had a flat tire.

However, with my car being a fairly recent model, I also had what they refer to as "run-flats." Likely developed by NASA while they were working on TANG, these marvels of engineering are able to, well, run while they are flat. Either by beefing up the sidewalls or including a hard rubber donut inside, they enable you to keep driving for a limited time until you can get said flat fixed. Note I said "fixed" and not "changed." That's because, more and more, there's nothing to change to. The Automobile Association of America, or AAA, reports that nearly 40% of cars sold today come without a spare tire, mine included.

You might think cost is the main driver. After all, leave it out and the overall price of the car drops a bit. And with tire technology and durability improving, the odds of having a problem are decreasing. Tire manufacturer Michelin estimates that drivers average 70,000 miles between flats. So why include something most will never use? Anyways, given a choice, most drivers would likely punt on the spare in favor of essentials like additional cup holders, built in phone chargers and Bluetooth connectivity.

But it's not the money, it's the mileage. With government fleet standards steadily on the rise, you have to find ways to stretch a tank of gas. You can either defeat the emission system (Volkswagen we're looking at you), or shave off some bloat. So losing a 50-pound dead weight allows you to add flat screens and subwoofers with more than just a few ounces left over.

Still, manufacturers don't want to appear completely oblivious to the possibility of picking up a nail, so they take two approaches. One is to include an "inflator kit," which consists of a sealant and pump. You attach the hose, and goop and air flow into the tire, plugging any leak and allowing you to continue. But tests by AAA show that A) Tire inflator kits can only be used when a puncture occurs on the very center of the tread; AA) The nail or screw has to still be in the tire, plugging the hole; and AAA) That goop means that the cost to actually repair the tire for real after using it is as much as 10 times more than fixing a flat that hasn't been sealed. So other than getting you out of a very particular jam, it's almost more trouble than it's worth.

The other alternative was my situation. Run-flats keep you going hopefully at least as long as it takes to get to a repair shop, where the problem can be addressed the right way. Assuming the mechanic is not off that day, and it's during business hours, you can usually be on your way within an hour for under $30.

Only one problem: I had blown out the side of the tire, not the tread. So while it was flat on the bottom, the hole was further up, and no patch would do the job. The only fix was a new tire, which would take a day or two to get from the shop's suppler. Luckily this all happened close to home and I was in town for the week. So the only casualty was my wife's schedule, as she had to juggle her appointments to be able to drop me off and pick me up at the train.

I guess when I think about it, this all parallels other parts of my life where I have no spare or backup. I walk around with credit cards and no cash. I have my phone but no pen and paper. Then again, I've been walking around for years with a belt and no suspenders, and my pants have yet to fall down. Let's hope there's no reason to doubt that decision.


Marc Wollin of Bedford taught his kids how to change a flat. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 01, 2016


As I finished tying my tie, I picked up my phone and texted a quick question to the crew: "You guys in?" Back came the answer. "Missing paperwork. Waiting for building clearance." I sighed. I was in a hotel room, having gotten 3 hours of sleep after flying in from the last gig. I had been hoping for a hassle free morning, but the best laid plans and all that.

I riffled through my bag to find copies of the paperwork. The location was only a few blocks away; I could be there in 10 minutes. But strike two: I had the forms on my laptop, but hadn't printed them out. Sigh again.

Still, not a major setback. As with most hotels, I assumed here would be a computer in the lobby. I copied the documents to my memory stick, and headed downstairs. No problem, the manager assured me. In the back of the breakfast area was a setup, and I was welcome to use it.

The lounge had a smattering of tourists and business people, and a number of different languages tumbled about. There was a long counter with cereal, muffins and fruit. Next to a toaster and microwave, a young man in a shirt and tie was helping people with the do-it-yourself waffle iron. And at the end of the room, my savior: a keyboard, screen and a beat-up printer.  

I popped my stick into the computer and woke it up. I quickly pulled up the first document, and hit "print," waiting for the comforting hum of the printer going about its business. Nothing. I gave it a few more seconds, but it didn't come to life. I checked the computer and printer, but both seemed to be connected and functioning correctly. Strike three: the day was not getting off to a good start.

I went to the front desk, and explained the problem to the manger. He apologized, but before he could say anything else, the young man from the waffle iron stepped over. "C'mon, sir, I'll help you," he said with a smile. The manager smiled as well: "Not to worry sir. Anthony will get it going for you."

As we walked back into the lounge, Anthony greeted some newly arrived guests: "Good morning! Coffee's over there. Help yourself to anything. If you need help, I'll be right back." He then turned to me. "Sorry for the trouble, sir. I know my printer, and she's getting a little old. But don't worry, I know how to get her started." We walked over to the computer. He checked it as I had done: I tried all that, I said. He laughed: "Oh, so you know computers! Well, this one can be a little fussy. Just gotta show it some love, and she'll work." He opened the front panel and closed it. Then he gave it a little shake, and pressed the button on top. Sure enough, we heard a whir and my documents came tumbling out. I laughed as well and thanked him, as he went over to the help someone make waffles.

While the machine was printing, I got a cup of coffee and watched Anthony. He moved quickly from place to place, showing new guests where things were. He told an obvious boss about a table that was lopsided. When some people asked about the waffle iron, he explained it was for making "gofry." It looked it up later: Polish for waffles. Anthony's linguistic skills had their limits, however. The same folks brought a bottle over to him and asked him what it was. "Blueberry syrup" elicited blank stares. Not easily deterred, he quickly pulled out his phone, punched up Google Translate, and showed them the answer. They grinned broadly.

I stopped on the way out to tell the manager what a great employee they had in Anthony. As he wandered over as well, I told the manager how he not only helped me, but how much he was helping all the people in the back room. His boss smiled and agreed, but also admonished the guy that he had to get to work on time. Anthony grinned sheepishly, a detente of sorts. With that, I headed out. Of course, by the time I got there, the paperwork had been found. But printing it wasn't a total waste: it gave me a chance to meet Anthony.


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