Saturday, November 26, 2016

Everything and Anything

This is not about politics. It's not about right or left, conservative or liberal. It's not about agreeing or disagreeing, about protesting or promoting. But the fact is that it is a new world order, and we need to figure out the lay of the land. You don't have to like it; you do have to deal with it.

To say few saw Donald Trump becoming our next president is an understatement. As such, the contingency planning for just such an event was pretty slim. Even his own transition staff was grinding along, seemingly going through the motions as opposed to doing actual planning. It was even reported that the president-elect refused to discuss the transition himself out of superstition. But if it wasn't a lost opportunity, it's certainly one deferred. And since his world view differs greatly from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as the person who was the presumptive next occupant, the reshuffling of the deck chairs promises to be greater than expected.

Coupled with that is the fact that our new leader preferred to focus on broad thematic ideas as opposed to detailed policy initiatives. To be sure, they were certainly more memorable ("Build the Wall") as opposed to mind numbing ("A 14-step plan to Securing the Borders"), and probably were a major factor helping him to get him elected. But as the old saying goes, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, though in this case it might be adapted to say you campaign in Twitter and govern in, well, Twitter. The problem is that 140 characters is a little lean to explain the nuance of a nuclear deterrent strategy.

And so all kinds of things need to be fleshed out in excruciating detail. As we sit here there are opinion pieces and analyses and position papers being written at a furious rate in the areas of economics, immigration and energy policy to name just a few. Make no mistake: whether you agree with their point of view or not, it's not that there aren't skilled and intelligent people with the requisite skills and training ready to offer an opinion and the outlines of a plan in each individual area. It's just that no one took building them out as an imperative.

To be sure, what happens in the government is of paramount importance. But an equally flat footed response took place just about everywhere else. Few expected the outcome, and so few planned for it. Companies and even entire industries didn't develop "Plan B" scenarios. For instance, insurance companies, hospitals and other health care providers have heard about the repeal of Obamacare for so long it became part of the background noise. But now that it has moved from the nuisance buzz of a tiny mosquito to the angry BUZZ of a large wasp, the question is what to do. It's not that there aren't ways to strategically plan for it, it's just that nobody bothered to do it until now.

Even interested parties in areas outside of national policy are wondering what the change in the White House will mean in their world. Will there be a switch in how the arts are funded? Will the fashion scene change now that Michelle cedes the stage to Melania and Ivanka? Does the emphasis on conservative and American values mean that the growth in international restaurants in Washington and elsewhere will slow? After all, the president-elect likes well-done steaks, McDonalds's, and bacon and eggs. If meatloaf is his idea of haute cuisine, and his staff is cut from the same cloth, that little Thai place down the street from the White House is likely going to wither and die.

And that's just the top level. He doesn't use a computer or email; other than Twitter, he's a Luddite. So what about the future of tech? He's rarely seen in anything other than a suit and tie; what does that do for the polo shirt industry? What are his views on gardening? Cooking? Movies, TV and video games? His affection for or against any of those, or a push in any specific direction could mean more James Bond movies, a greater national emphasis on fried foods or the decline of kale. Make no mistake: there's a new sheriff in town, and it remains to be seen if dancing will or will not be encouraged.


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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Margin of Error

Let's talk weather.

When meteorologists tell us what to expect, they give us their forecast not as certainty, but as probability. They never say "It will rain" but rather "There's an 80% chance of rain." Implied in that statement is that there is a 20% chance it won't. And we understand that. Indeed, everyone of us at one time or another, upon hearing such a forecast, has taken an umbrella and carried it around the whole day unused. True, we might grumble about the competence of the forecasters. But we aren't really surprised. After all, they never said it was a lead pipe cinch we would get wet, just that there was pretty reasonable chance. Staying dry wasn't excluded; in fact, it was well within the margin of error.

Contrast that with the whiplash virtually everyone felt with the results of the election. But why is that? No one, including the most partisans on either side, ever said that Hillary was a lock to win, nor Donald a lock to lose. The numbers may have been skewed in a direction, but they always included ample wiggle room for the opposing outcome to take place. Indeed, in the ongoing post mortem, while the news media is mea-culpa-ing all over the place, the pollsters are standing somewhat firm. While they acknowledge that perhaps they too bought into the overall narrative, they say they never guaranteed anything, and indeed, always said there was a chance of this happening. Shortly before the election I heard one pollster describe the chance of being wrong as akin to an NFL placekicker missing a 30-yard field goal. And on that very day, three guys missed three 30-yard field goals. So there.

And yet we took the predictions as gospel, as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. On reflection, maybe that's not surprising. In a world where virtually every single organization defines itself not as a car company or an insurance firm or as an online retailer but as an information company, we have come to rely on data as the atomic structure of everything. And just as electrons don't lie, we came to accept the polls not as measures of possibility, but markers of probability. But there's a reason the term is "margin of error" and not "indicator of reality."

Of course, we shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, history is filled with examples where smart people, using the best available tools they had at hand, coupled with years of finely tuned instincts, pronounced this or that destined for success or failure, only to have to eat crow down the line. Ken Olson, the president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Legendary movie producer Darryl Zanuck predicted that "Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." And in 1962, the A&R folks at Decca Records listened to a tape and said "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." Based on that appraisal, they decided to pass on signing a band called The Beatles.  

One reason might be that predictions for elections are based not on immutable data, but on mutable humans. And people change their minds, shade their responses and flat out lie for a variety of reasons. As such, the underlying assumptions are hardly carved in stone. Not so something like climate change. Oceans aren't embarrassed to state their temperatures, nor ice flows afraid of what others will think of their melt rates. And so while you can say experts don't always get it right, there is a distinction between social scientists trying to forecast what people will do, and physical ones forecasting what atoms will do. In other words, one day, despite wishing to the contrary, Pennsylvania will indeed be ocean front property.

But still, it begs the question: if the best and brightest were wrong about this, what else have they gotten wrong? Forget Oscar picks and Super Bowl winners. Did we really land on the moon? Are there alien spaceships stored in Roswell? In hindsight, more than ever, a certain amount of skepticism is warranted when we're told what will happen. Put another way, maybe Elvis hasn't really left the building.


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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

In Other News

When intelligence agents where trying to weed out any potential Fifth Columnists during World War II from the thousands of Japanese herded into internment camps, they often asked," Whom do you want to win the war, America or Japan?" One man said, "It's like your father and mother are fighting. You don't care who wins, you just want them to stop." While I write this without knowing the outcome of the election, and the analogy is an imperfect one at best, the end result is the same. For while I may care who wins, I just want it to be over.

With our long national nightmare of an election behind us (though for roughly half the population the next four years will be a nightmare of another sort), many share my feeling. We have been battered and bruised by the seemingly endless campaign. Even if you consider yourself a political junkie, it's been a like a record stuck in a groove that repeats endlessly. After all, I don't care how much you liked Barbara Alston, Dee Dee Kenniebrew, Patsy Wright and Dolores Brooks, but if all you heard for 18 months was "Da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron," you would have grown to hate The Crystals.

On top of that, it's been like a black hole for other stories. The world didn't stop turning, and items of interest good and bad have been happening. But they didn't stand a chance of seeing the light of day if the headline didn't contain the phrase "Email" or "Hot Mic." Thank goodness there wasn't an alien invasion; no one would have paid any attention. It recalls comedian Robert Klein's observation that when he was a kid the air raid sirens were tested at 12PM. He noted that someone at the Kremlin should figure it out: "Ivan! Why don't we attack at noon? They think it's lunch!"

As such, there were lots of items that never saw the light of day. Herein a selection.

The American Chemical Society reported that you can die from a sugar overdose if you eat 13.5 grams of sugar for every pound of your body weight in one sitting. Since the average American man weighs 195.5 pounds, that means that 251 Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, 155 fun size Snickers, or 102 fun size packages of M&Ms is a death sentence. Women are generally smaller, so they have an even lower tolerance of death by Milky Way.

When fans of Girl Scout cookies place their orders next year, they may have to wait weeks to get them, but only until morning to eat them. General Mills announced plans for limited-edition Girl Scout cookie cereal. It will come in two flavors, Thin Mints and Caramel Crunch. And don't even ask how much sugar they have in them.

According to a new study from Yale University, chubbier dads live longer than other men. Even more interesting, they are more attractive to women. First, the health angle: seems that when you lose a little muscle mass and gain a little fat, it actually helps your body shift some of its resources toward your immune system instead of your physique. As for the other angle, researchers say that a dad with some chubbiness is implying he's focused on kids above his appearance, making him a more desirable mate. (See last two paragraphs for method to achieve this as well as cautions.)

Finally, researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia found that people liked their meal more when they had a mismatched appetizer. Their theory is that when you eat foods that are similar, you compare them to each other. Better to start with something different, then each stands on its own. Researchers had people eat pasta with garlic and oil after an appetizer. Half of them started with minestrone soup, and half of them started with a Thai soup. The second group enjoyed each course more, while the first compared one to the other. Seems that if you have foods that don't belong together, it's easier to mentally keep them separate, and you're evaluating each on their own merits.

Now that this democratic equivalent of a demolition derby is over, maybe some other important items of this type will rise into our vision. So let's kick back, have some spring rolls followed by a taco, and get back to normal.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't care if he ever hears the word "poll" again. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Mistaken Identity

I'm not usually mistaken for anybody. Well, Scott sometimes. Not only are we about the same age, married and have two kids, we look somewhat similar. How similar? Years ago we were on a road trip, walking down a street trying to find a restaurant. We stopped a couple of women to ask for directions, and before we could say anything they blurted out "Are you guys brothers?" More recently, I've encountered clients we both worked with previously who have moved on to new situations. When I've gone up to say hello, before I can reintroduce myself they say "Scott! Been years! How are you?" Implicit in their tone is how pleased they are with themselves for remembering my name. Usually, I let it go, not wanting to burst their bubble.

Beyond that, I'm not usually confused with anyone. Occasionally someone's brother-in-law, a few times an old college acquaintance, but no one in particular. I don't look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt or my friend Andy who lives down the street. I do occasionally get that I sound like Alan Alda or Al Michaels, but I don't hear it myself. As Popeye said, "I yam whats I yam, and that's all what I yam."

So I was pleased when the special United Airlines Global Services agent spotted me and came up with a smile. I was standing at the gate in Houston waiting to catch an early flight home. Because traffic was so light at 530 in the morning I had gotten to the airport a bit earlier than planned. After grabbing a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, I headed over to my assigned gate. Fearing that if I sat down I would fall asleep, I decided to stand in my assigned group lane.

If you've traveled recently, you've no doubt encountered full planes, more limited schedules and this element of efficiency. As a pilot with 22 years of experience said while waiting for our plane, the business has never made much sense. Too much capacity and too many cheap fares were great for passengers, but bad for business. More recently that has shifted. Consolidation, fewer flights carrying more people and lower fuel prices have all combined to lift profitability.

More streamlined processes have also played their part. That means that crews help clean planes, and passengers are boarded in a more orderly fashion. I was Exhibit A in that last point. My boarding pass said I was in Group 5, the last of the last, to be let on after the wheel chair patrons, families with kids, uniformed military, First Class, Business Class, upgrades and basically anyone else. But I knew the drill. So rather than rush the gate at the appointed hour, I obediently took my place in the rope and stanchioned row allotted to my lowly number in line if not life.

If I was the lowest, Global Services was the highest. United awards that distinction to its best customers, and does all it can to make them feel special, including dedicated agents and early boarding. While they won't confirm the criteria, it's generally thought to be about $50,000 a year in plane tickets. Hard to begrudge anyone a little preferential treatment when they spend that much money and time on air travel.

Because of the way the small gate area had been set up, my lowly Group 5 was actually closest to the jetway. And since I was there first and early, it looked like I was queuing up in front of everyone else and expecting to hop on as soon as the door opened. Hence the Global Services agent's confusion. My physical position had given her some indication that perhaps I was deserving of special treatment, and she didn't want to make me ask for it.

But it was not to be. I informed her I was no one special, just a regular Joe waiting to fly home. I explained to her why I was standing there, and that she had mistaken me for someone far more important. She responded as I'm sure she had been taught: "No one is lowly. You are very important to us." Yes, that may be true. And I might have been somebody. But alas, no, I was me. Or to paraphrase George Orwell, while all passengers are important, some passengers are more important than others.


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