Saturday, September 23, 2017

07734

You have to be of a certain age and have a geeky technical bent to know what "07734" means. At first glance it would seem to be a zip code, specifically the one for Keansburg, NJ. And while that is indeed the case, if you type the number into a calculator that has an old 7-segment numeric display, and turn it upside down, it will spell out "hello." Yes, a stupid pet trick, but it might light up a few memory neurons in your brain if you ever had a pager.

For most, pagers are a technological horse and buggy. Invented in 1921, they spread slowly till the mid-eighties, and were mostly confined to health care workers and first responders. But once the range increased and alphanumeric readouts were added, usage exploded, and suddenly 60 million units were in use. No longer was it just doctors and firemen who had a little black box on their belts, but plumbers, reporters and expectant fathers.

In the 1990's cell phones started to proliferate, and the era of instant personal two-way point-to-point communication was upon us. As cost came down and coverage went up, their usage spread. Smarter phones started to emerge, to the point we're now marking the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. Today's mini computers in our pockets and purses can do everything a pager does in at least ten different ways and more. And so if you open my bedside table and dig to the back, behind the old wallets and leftover foreign currency you'll find a scuffed up Motorola Bravo Beeper, good for nothing.

Nothing, that is, unless you are in Britain. Turns out that the National Health Service is one of the last bastions in the world of pager use. According to estimates, more than one in ten of the world's beepers are being used in the NHS. The given reason is that while those little black boxes are limited in what they do, they do that very well. When cellular service is spotty, like deep in the bowels of a hospital, calls get dropped or texts don't always go through. But pagers, with their relatively low-tech quick, short bursts of data running on their own network generally connect. Add to that the fact that a single AA battery powers them for a month or more, and they have a place in an environment that requires can't-miss communication.

To be sure, the Brits could replace their nearly 130,000 pagers with newer mobile software, and save an estimated $3.5 million. But consider the comments made by the city manager in Key West, Florida. In the aftermath of Irma slapping the state silly, he talked about the devastation to almost every physical structure that existed. He extolled the soundness of their recently completed high school which was used as a shelter and refuge for those who stayed behind. And he talked about how while their communication infrastructure was decimated, at least they still had a working POTS line.

POTS, which is an acronym for Plain Old Telephone Service, is a throwback to the early days of the Bell system. Like a scene from an old World War II movie, it was real copper wire strung from point to point which carried not only voice but power, making it a self-standing system. Plug in a phone at each end, dial the other, and you were connected. It wasn't sexy or multi-functional or feature rich. But it was also not dependent on internet or cell towers or computers. And so when everything else went down, it stayed up.

Like the Key West POTS lines, those antiquated pagers might someday be of value when a technological tsunami hits. To be fair, they do require some infrastructure beyond a roll of copper. But compared to the 4G networks and fiber optics and touch screens that we access hundreds of time a day, they are tanks compared to the Porsches in our pockets today. As it is there are lots of places I can't get a solid signal on a bright and sunny day while riding the train to work, less than 50 miles from one of most connected cities on the planet. I shudder to think what would happen if Irma or her siblings trained their eye on the Empire State Building. Maybe the pager in my drawer deserves a second chance.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to clear out old things with plugs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Credit Scoring

Seems that the Equifax data hack may affect your ability find a mate.

First, the background. As widely reported, the company said it was hacked in the spring and that the personal data of 143 million people was siphoned off. This follows other notable breaks at companies as diverse as Anthem Health, Home Depot and JP Morgan, plus a host of others including the IRS. In short, unless you have never used a credit card, registered at a web site or paid taxes, odds are that some part of your identity is sitting in a file on a computer in Estonia owned by a guy named Mikhel.

While nearly a 150 million record sets is no small haul, it pales in comparison to the nearly 1 billion Yahoo users hit in 2015. Yet this theft could potentially be the most damaging of them all. That's because Equifax, along with its cousins TransUnion and Experian, are the agencies of record when it comes to our financial lives. They have the most detailed data on each person because they use it to research and issue reports on the credit worthiness of any individual. And that means, as put most succinctly by security Analyst Avivah Litan, "In terms of identity theft, on a scale of one to ten, this is a ten."

That data helps them ferret out every aspect of our financial movements, especially how much we owe and how we handle that debt, which in turn leads to judgements as to how good a credit risk we are. That is used in determining the fabled FICO score, which was created by engineer William Fair and mathematician Earl Isaac in 1956 and named after the first letters of their firm, the Fair Isaac Corporation. FICO scores are, as one scholar put it, "the wizard behind the curtain of the economy." They help companies to determine everything from if we get a car loan, a mortgage, a new credit card or even a job.

But how do they go from influencing things behind the curtain to having an effect between the sheets? Well, according to a study by Discover Financial Services and Match Media Group, more than looks, wit or clothes, your FICO score turns out to be a serious determinant of desirability. True, it's not news that wealth can factor into attraction. But this isn't about wealth per se; rather, it's the ability to manage your finances responsibly as determined by a third party that makes you more or less a catch.

The companies surveyed 2000 online daters, and found that good credit scores are sexier than any other characteristic or virtue you may have. In the study, 69% of respondents rated financial responsibility as an extremely important quality in a potential lover, followed by sense of humor at 67%, attractiveness at 51%, ambition with 50%, courage with 42% percent, and lastly, modesty with just with 39%. And both genders felt the same: 77% of females and 61% percent of men valued financial responsibility highly. And since the FICO score is the most accepted measure of financial responsibility, it seems that a higher score will count more than washboard abs or a little black bikini.

Some have already figured this out. Just like there are dating sites for farmers, Jewish singles or seniors, CreditScoreDating.com seeks to pair like-minded individuals who view personal financial metrics the same way others consider attraction to dogs. Under the slogan "Where Good Credit is Sexy," you sign up and can be matched with others of the same stripe, be it those who are credit challenged ("Credit Clinic") or those who strive for higher levels of perfection ("The 700 Club").

But back to data theft and getting a date. The kind of info stolen from Equifax will make it easier for thieves to open new accounts in your name, take loans without paying them back, and generally create financial havoc to your financial profile. All that could trigger potential downgrades in your FICO score. And that in turn could make you look less desirable to a potential match, causing them to swipe left when before they might have swiped right. That means that the next time you're find yourself sitting home on a Saturday night with the clicker and a quart of Hagen Daz, don't blame yourself. Blame Mikhel.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford has had his data compromised in at least half a dozen hacks. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

To Seal or Not To Seal

I have scoured the web sites of home and kitchen doyens like Martha and Rachel. I have checked out the literature posted by the FDA, the CDC and an alphabet soup of other agencies. I have Googled and Safaried and Firefoxed endlessly through the views of self-proclaimed experts with handles like FreshGuy and SafetySal. And while I find opinions, musings, ramblings, cautionary tales, anecdotes, admonitions and more, I can find no definitive information one way or the other.

The conundrum goes like this. Open up a new container of some foodstuff, and when you take off the topmost closure you will find another one underneath. It might be foil or some kind of stiff paper or a type of plastic. These generally serve one of two functions, and sometimes both. The first is as a safety seal. Ever since the Tylenol incident in the 1980's where bottles of painkiller were laced with cyanide, killing a number of people, manufacturers have used these to guarantee the purity of their product. The second function is to maintain the freshness of the product. Doesn't matter if it's cottage cheese or vitamins, the only way to insure that the stuff inside makes it from the manufacturing plant to your house still creamy or potent is to stop air from getting in. And that's where the seal comes in.

In the first case, once you break it, the jig is up. One and done, the telltale has done its job, proving that you were first and only user. Feel free to dig into that jar of coffee or tub of crumbled feta cheese and enjoy with abandon. You can consume the contents knowing that no one was there before you (or at least since it has left the factory).

And since its mission here on this green earth has been fulfilled, you can most assuredly get rid of the detritus. Whether it comes off as a single piece, or you have to tear it out bit by bit like old flocked wallpaper that's been there for 20 years (sorry, homeowner flashback), it has no need to exist anymore. All it's doing is getting in your way when you go back for a second helping. Unless you want to be use it as some sort of, say, single peanut dispenser as a way of limiting your legume intake, just rip that sucker off like a Band-Aid.

But in the second instance, while the seal has served a useful function up to the moment you open the product, what then? Here's where the research is sketchy at best. Common sense would seem to say that once you let the air into the can or jar or tub or whatever, the damage has been done. From then on it's only a matter of time until all that icky stuff floating in the air takes hold and that cottage cheese goes from pearly white to slimy green.

And yet many carefully peel the seal up on one side, and smooth it back over the cream cheese or margarine when done before replacing the outer cover. They feel that it helps to keeps the contents fresher, or at the very least, makes the outer lid fit tighter. It might not be a Tupperware or Zip-Loc level barrier, but the logic is that that little extra bit of snugness will keep the cream cheese creamier longer.

There are strong feelings on both sides. Similar to debates as to which is the correct way to hang toilet paper, it has a lot to do with what your folks did when you were a kid. And devotees on both sides are passionate about their positions and reasons. Add this to gun control, abortion rights and school prayer as an area where we are divided as a nation.

So in that spirit, while I doubt I will change any minds, here's what I've gleaned from my surfing. 1) Once you break the seal, the damage is done. Air is part of the equation, and no good can come from that. Take it off. 2) By keeping the plastic on, you might actually be making it worse, as every time you have to peel it back you are touching it, introducing another possible source of contamination. 3) If we're talking Pringles, just eat the whole damn can at one sitting, and then there's no issue.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford is seal agnostic. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Hello, It's Not Me

I wouldn't say I'm anti-social, but I rarely answer the phone. Unless I recognize the number that pops up on my caller ID as a client, one of our kids or my mother, I generally let it go to voicemail. Probably 75% of the time there is no message because it's a telemarketer of some kind. Maybe 20% of the time there is a message, but it's either a public service announcement ("this is a reminder that the county mobile shredder will be in your area on Tuesday") or a less-sophisticated robocaller that seems to be in continuous looping mode("-gage rates, press 1. For auto rates, press 2. Hello! Are you paying more for cred-"). As to the remainder that are real people with whom I'm happy to talk, my apologies: leave a message and I promise to call you back.

It used to be the simple way to parse that remaining 5% was to look at the first six digits of the incoming number. That's because among the things that you used to be able to count on (like death, taxes, an insulting tweet from the President) was that when the area code and exchange was the same as yours, with only the last four digits differing, it was likely someone local was trying to reach you. Might be your pharmacist verifying a prescription, the class mom making sure you knew about the bake sale or your pal down the street seeing if there's any chance you had any fresh limes for gin and tonics.

Not so much anymore. The latest phone scam, up over 1500% this year, is called "neighbor spoofing." Numbers used to be assigned by a phone company, and that was the readout that came up on your caller ID. But since the growth of Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, software has enabled users to enter any number they want to appear as the originating caller. And some hacker figured out that calls appearing to come from your hood were far more likely to be answered than those from an area code in Slovenia.

And so that call that looks like it is coming from down the block could certainly be from Sally asking you if you want to take a walk. But it could just as easily be from Serge who says he works for Hilton and is telling you have just won an all-expenses paid vacation to Disney World if you'll only just give him your credit card number to cover a few miscellaneous incidentals. Sally, Serge: easy to get them confused.

But even the best scams are not perfect. After all, there are only so many combinations of 4 randomized digits available to plug into that final position (9999 to be precise if you throw out the obvious faker of 0000). And so some consumers have reported hearing the phone ring and looking at the readout to see that they are calling themselves. You can almost hear the horror movie voiceover: "The call was coming from INSIDE the house. NOOOOOO!"

Experts say that if you get a call that is not from who you think it should be, just hang up. Any interaction only confirms that there is a human there that might be scammable. In the meantime, the FCC is working on the problem, helped along by the fact that Chairman Ajit Pai has been spoofed himself. As he related in a recent interview, "Oh, yeah. It'll seem to be coming from the 202 area code, which is here in Washington, and then our prefix for these BlackBerries. And I know for a fact that it's probably not someone calling from the office. I know most of the folks who would be calling. And sometimes, I answer just for the heck of it. And lo and behold, I've won a vacation from Marriott."  

Chairman Pai says the fix would be to embed some sort of a digital footprint into every number so you know from where it originates. But that tweak is likely years away. Until that time, the agency is also trying enforcement to cow the callers. In June they recommended a $120 million fine against a robocaller who made 96 million spoofed calls.  

Just one problem: they have to get him on the phone to collect.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford usually emails or texts before he tries calling. 
His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

No Speak Emojish

If this weekly outing doesn't make it crystal clear, I'm a word person. Ever since I was a kid I've been collecting passages, phrases, novels, articles, columns, snippets, ads – the format doesn't matter – that catch my eye. Indeed, on a shelf above my desk is a loose-leaf binder I started in the 1960's, a sort of my own version of Bartlett's Quotations. On those pages are quotes attributed to everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Janis Joplin, from Shakespeare to Peanuts, from Mark Twain to Louis Armstrong.  

To be fair, pasted into those pages there are also a number of cartoons, pictures and drawings that struck my fancy. But by and large they did so not because of the image, but because of the supporting text. The time-lapse exposure of a gymnast is indeed striking, but all the more so because of the legend at the bottom: "The trick is to keep moving." Overall my fascination can best be summed up by a comment from the playwright Tom Stoppard that I keep on my desk: "Words are innocent, neutral, precise. But if you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little."

That said, my focus is very provincial: I have no ear for anything other than my native speech. Other that a few pleasantries in Portuguese or Spanish or Italian that I've picked up as a consequence of traveling, I am tone deaf in any other language. Mind you, I'm not proud of it, it's just a fact. Thankfully, in spite of my tin tongue, I've been able to muddle through places like Tokyo, Stockholm and Sao Paulo using English, the lingua franca of the world.

But lately I seem to be at a loss closer to home. It's not because I have a new neighbor from Malaysia, or a coworker hails from Pakistan. Actually, people from places such as those and many others are often fluent not only in their native language, but English and several others as well, making me feel even more inadequate in the communications department. No, my linguistic isolation is because my penchant to use words of any sort is fast being eclipsed by the fastest spreading language the world has ever seen, that of emojis.

While the term itself was chosen as the 2015 "Word of the Year" by the Oxford Dictionaries, their usage since then has only accelerated. While the exact figures vary study to study, the conclusions are all the same: the growth of these little graphic symbols has been meteoric. One says that a third of all users include them in their messages. Another notes that they were used in 777% more marketing campaigns in 2016 than the prior year. And still a third tabulates that use of emojis in email increased in 2016 over 7100% year over year. Any way you look at, that little smiley face is taking over.

Purists debate whether these graphics are symbols, slang or an actual tongue; after all, no one speaks emoji. On the other hand, we talk about computer languages like Java or Ruby or Python, and I've never heard anyone say, "SongType = if song.mp3Type == MP3::Jazz." In that light, it's hard to argue that we're not taking about a complete communication ecosystem when I get a message that consists entirely of a happy face, a thumbs ups, a sailboat and a pizza.

But it's meaning? Ah, therein is where I have issues. Take one I got that was a sad face and a plane. Does it mean it was a bad flight? A broken plane? A missed connection? Looked at another way, the Egyptians created hieroglyphics. And while it enabled them to leave a record, it wasn't an alphabet. It took the Greeks to come up with that, enabling more nuanced messaging. Perhaps that's one reason there is no Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.  

I get this all sounds a little like "These kids today and their rock and roll music!" And don't get me wrong: I love pictures and visuals. I make my living from them, and revel in their power. As tools for communicating emotions and feelings, they are superb. It's just that they do have their limits. Or perhaps as put best by the author Paul Thereaux, "A picture is only worth a thousand or so words, and for a writer, that's the problem."

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words. And sentences. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Escalation

You just knew it was going to happen in the middle of the summer when everyone let their guard down and had hoped to catch a breather. In retrospect, however, it's not surprising that it finally came to pass. After years of incremental advances, the escalation finally came, and an international line was crossed. Of course, by any objective measure, it makes no sense. One would have hoped that cooler heads would have looked at the consequences, prevailed upon those in positions of power, and convinced them of the wisdom of backing down. But that's not the case, and now we have to live with the consequences.

North Korea? Oh, yeah, I hear there's some brinkmanship going on there as well, something about a nuclear device. No, the line I'm referring to is at the International House of Pancakes, known far and wide as IHOP, and their announcement on July 31 that they were introducing French Toasted Donuts.

I mean, we've been blindsided before by over the top creations. But we're not talking about your one-off Texas State Fair concoctions like the fried cheesecake-stuffed apple sundae, or the funnel cake bacon queso burger or Oreo beer. Rather, every now and again one of the big chains introduces something nationwide that sounds for a brief second like it might be worth trying. But then common sense kicks in, and we wonder "what where they thinking?"

Take Taco Bell's croissant tacos. I like croissants. I like tacos. So together they are – what? Light and flavorful? Not so much. Think for just a minute of the combination. Flaky crust. Heavy beans, beef and sauce. What could possibly go wrong? In describing it, "messy" is probably the best adjective, though "unwieldy" and "disgusting" also come to mind.

Or how about Pizza Hut's Hot Dog Bites Pizza, which wraps a peperoni pie with Pigs in Blankets. Again, separately, a pair of winners. But together? And in that category also goes Carl's Jr's Most American Thickburger. A cheeseburger. Fine. Topped with a hot dog. Uh oh. And because that's not enough, it's garnished with - wait for it - potato chips. As one reviewer said, too often "Most American" and "revolting" are synonymous, and this is no exception.  

So in a land where sometimes the sum of the parts is not only greater than the whole but makes a mockery of the components themselves, should we be surprised that Frankenfoods have come to the breakfast table? It just proves that in a world where we have lost the ability to shock there are still bridges to cross. Or in corporate speak from Alisa Gmelich, VP of Marketing at IHOP, "We really felt like we had the opportunity to be bolder in our product innovation and really push forward in the breakfast leadership space." Like I said.

Ergo, the French Toasted Donut. And per the press release, there are not one, not two, but three variations. First, "A cream-filled eclair is dunked in vanilla French toast batter, then griddled, then showered in macerated strawberries, strawberry glaze, and powdered sugar." But, as the commercials say, wait, there's more: "Vanilla French toast batter gives a warm apple fritter its top coat before sizzling on the griddle. When it's done cooking, it gets loaded with cinnamon-sugar apples, powdered sugar, and whipped cream." And because, well, at this point, why not? Because what could be better than all that than that with bacon? "A Bavarian cream-filled eclair-style yeast donut gets dipped in IHOP's vanilla French toast batter before getting griddled. Once golden and crisp, it gets topped with chopped hickory-smoked bacon and a maple glaze."  Just reading them makes my insulin production ratchet up to DefCon 4 levels.

What's curious is that in the world I inhabit the talk is of of whole grains, of more fish and less red meat, of leafy green vegetables and fresh fruits. Yet, IHOP says it got its inspiration for the new products by feedback the brand received on social media channels and from monitoring food trends. Said Gmelich, "We pay very close attention, especially in the breakfast space, to what is really going to resonate with our guests and what is going to motivate them to come in more often." Meaning for every recipe out there for Quinoa Beet salad in "Healthy Living Weekly," there's one for Deep Fried Cherry Taco Pancake in "High Cholesterol Monthly."

Alternate facts, indeed.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford does like a good fried onion ring. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wrong Side

I stuck the key card into the lock, and pushed the door open to find yet another hotel room, my third in as many weeks. It wasn't as well-appointed as the one in Las Vegas, nor as spacious as the one in Kansas City. But it was certainly big enough, containing a couch and a desk along with the usual other stuff. All in all, it was fine. I like to think that as a traveler I'm pretty easy: give me a clean place and hot water in the morning, and I'm basically happy.

Then I saw the bed. It was crisply made and had plenty of pillows. And it was a king, more than ample for the single me that would be spending two nights. No, the problem wasn't the furniture itself, but rather how it was placed. The head was against the wall to my right, with the desk and couch to my left and bathroom behind me. As it sat, the other side was within a foot or so of the opposite wall. The obvious thing was to sleep on this side, the left side, closest to all that was needed.

But I sleep on the right.

Ever since my wife and I have been married, my piece of real estate in our bedroom has been on the right. Like most people, my side is my side. I would no sooner climb in and curl up on hers than I would use her toothbrush. I mean, I suppose I could do it, but it would feel weird, like driving on the wrong side of the road.

And so when I travel I sleep on the right. No one makes me: I could sleep on the right or left or even diagonal. But it would be disconcerting. The right is my home turf. However, in this particular room in this particular city it probably didn't make a lot of sense. I would have to shimmy past the dresser at the foot, and squeeze in against the far wall to get in or out. In the middle of the night, if I wanted to go the bathroom, I would have to circumnavigate the entire mattress and hope I didn't slam my toes into unfamiliar furniture, a journey Francis Drake himself would find daunting.

Let me be clear: I sleep on that side because, well, I sleep on that side. It's not like I really planned it. Research is hard to come by, but what little there is suggests that a variety of factors come into play when couples stake out their turf. These include who needs to be closest to the bathroom, or who gets up for child care, or even security, as the person closest to the door can protect the other (traditionally this would be the male, but then again he's likely to be snoring loudly and wouldn't hear an intruder until awoken by his wife's screams). But there are also factors such as one side being warmer or brighter or softer. Bottom line: no one knows why one side is the wrong side and one side is the right side.

And then there's the UK study done by mattress maker Sealy that says that those who get out of bed on the left are more likely to be in a better mood that those on the right. According to a survey of 1000 adults, lefties were found to have more friends and enjoy their job by a small margin over their mates. Meanwhile those on the other side of the pillow admitted to preferring their own company, being pessimistic, and generally being in a bad mood in the morning. Then again, about a third preferred to sleep alone, with almost half attempting to escape snoring, and a fifth simply admitting they prefer to have the bed to themselves.

But back to my latest hotel room. At bedtime, I gave in to expediency and crawled in on the left. I admit it took me a bit to figure out how the covers worked. But eventually I fell asleep and made it through the night. And the following day I made a new friend and had a good day at work. So maybe there's something to it after all, and left is indeed right. But in our house that's her side, and possession is 9/10's of the law. I have a feeling my future is indeed right.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford sleeps on his side on his side. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Count Steps or Else

It's one of the great names in one of the best bad movies of our time: Snake Plisken in "Escape from New York." If you don't know the 1981 film, it takes place in a then distant 1997, when the President's plane crashes into a Manhattan which has been turned into a maximum security prison controlled by violent gangs. Kurt Russell, as Snake, a "scruffy, one-eyed, famous special-forces-soldier-turned-convicted-armed-robber," is tasked with rescuing him in exchange for a pardon. As an extra added incentive, Plisken is injected with an explosive device that will only be defused if he completes the task. It's not too much of a spoiler to say he succeeds and lives, and is so successful that he is tasked several years later with rescuing the President's daughter from a similar hell in "Escape from LA" or he will not be given the antidote to the virus with which he was infected that time. Thankfully, the fictional president's family was not as large as the size of current occupant of the White House, or Plisken would still be making milk runs.

And what brings this current random bit of movie nostalgia to mind? It's the tale of Dina Mitchell and her activity tracker. Next to smartphones, activity trackers, of which Fitbit is the most ubiquitous, have become the must-have electronic accessory of the moment. At their simplest they have an accelerometer and so are able to measure movement, which they display as steps. The more advanced models can also record vertical changes as in climbing stairs, and even your sleep patterns. For most, the reports they offer are a mere curiosity, good as a gentle form of encouragement, coaching and prodding to get you up off the couch. Others are so obsessed with the readouts that you'd think they were training for the Olympics, and need to know their pulse-oxygen ratio at any given moment.

Still, few would argue that any movement is good movement, and if making the little flower bloom on the face of the device by hitting your target step count does it for you, then go for it. After all, what's the worst that could happen? The flower doesn't grow, that's all. Wake up the next day, and the whole thing resets and you go again. Even if you sync it with your computer, and you've linked it to a support group, it's not like you will be getting hate texts from your pals excoriating you for falling short of your goal. Odds of a Jeff Sessions-like public tweet-shaming are pretty low.

Which brings us back to Dina. Mitchell was a Fitbit user, and wore a Flex 2, given to her a few weeks before as a birthday present. Little is reported about her personal habits, whether she was a casual user or a serious physical fitness aficionado. What is known is that she was sitting quietly and reading a book when the device strapped to her wrist "exploded." She went to a local urgent care facility, where doctors removed small pieces of rubber and plastic from her arm left by the melting device, leaving behind second degree burns.

Fitbit said they were investigating the issue and issued a statement: "We are extremely concerned about Ms. Mitchell's report regarding her Flex 2 and take it very seriously, as the health and safety of our customers is our top priority." They said they have had no other reports similar to this, see no reason for people to stop wearing their Flex 2's, and offered Dina a new device to replace her old one.

You can look at this two ways. Taken at face value, it is a random accident to a poor woman, and it ends there. Nothing more. Or what they're NOT telling us is that this was a next generation device that they were field testing surreptitiously. In that scenario, it goes something like this: Dina's step count was low. Dina should have been up and moving. Dina decided that rather than go to the gym, she would sit in a comfy chair and read a book. Not on my watch, said the Flex 2. And BOOM! Just a little behavioral conditioning. You gotta believe that the next time Dina has a choice between getting on the treadmill, or sitting down and paging through Vogue, she'll think twice.

Just remember what could have happened to Snake.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford refuses to count his steps. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Take A Seat

My grandfather was in retail. My father was in retail. My sister was in retail. Even I was in in retail. While not exactly the family business, we have what you might call history. So much so that I can recall my sister fighting with my father over merchandising when they both worked at competing department stores on opposite sides of the street in Boston. So I guess if you can say something like farming can run in your blood, employee discounts run in mine.

And yet I can't say I understand it. On the surface it seems simple: a company makes or acquires something for a given price, then sells it at a higher one and makes a profit. Except it's never that easy. Ask Macy's. There are loss leaders, discounts, trade-outs, partnering deals, and markdowns. There's franchising and owned-and-operated and direct sales. And then there's the 8000 pound gorilla of it all, Amazon.

To say that Jeff Bezos has changed the face of the business is to understate the situation. In the way that goods are priced, displayed, promoted, advertised, warehoused, reviewed, fulfilled, handled – the list goes on and on – the company named for the longest river in the world has the longest tail in the world, whipping around and rearranging everything it smacks.

Take delivery. Before Amazon, if you wanted something and a store didn't have it, you were more or less out of luck. Sure, they might offer to call another branch for you, or tell you when it might be back in stock. Beyond that, you chose an alternative whatever, or decided you really didn't need a blue and white checked tablecloth.

Then came Amazon Prime. For $99 bucks a year, just about anything in the world can be yours inside of 48 hours. If you decide on Monday that you absolutely must have a left-handed putter with a short shaft and head weight of 350 grams, simply click your mouse, and on Wednesday it will be sitting outside your front door. How can anyone compete with that?

But try they do, though with mixed success. We needed some chairs to replace the Adirondack ones we had that were decaying on our little side patio. In looking online, we found some plastic models, though we wanted to see them in person. Lo and behold, as we drove past the local TruValue hardware store on our way to a movie, they had a stack of 20 or so sitting outside. We pulled in quickly, and agreed they would do the job, especially at a cost of around $22 each. I figured I would swing by later in the week to pick them up.

When we got home, I punched them up again on my computer. Interestingly, I guess to compete with Amazon, the TruValue website had them for five bucks cheaper than what we saw, and you could have them delivered to the store for free. Not quite as good, but not bad. So I bought them and quickly got a confirmation email. But then came a second note, indicating that they would ship, well, soon. Not as good. Being used to 2-day gratification, I called the local store, the one with the stack of 20 sitting outside. I asked if we could come by and pick up the two from their stock, and they keep the two that we being sent to them for us. After all, it was all the same stuff, same company, same delivery truck, same location, no?.

No. Those COMING were ours. Those STACKED were theirs. Never mind they were exactly the same, and you wouldn't be able to tell them apart in a line-up. They said they weren't giving up what they had for what was coming. After all, someone might suddenly decide to have a massive Bar-B Que, need seating, run in to buy 20 green Adirondack chairs, and they would come up 2 short. Could happen.

So we stuck it out. It took a little longer than immediately to make it happen, but all is fine. The chairs look good, are comfy and will standup to the weather. And we somehow survived 2 weeks without them. Who needs Amazon? Then again, if that company's promised delivery drones will bring margaritas, I could be convinced to become Prime for life.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to sit outside on the patio and read the paper. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saved by the Bud

Paul and I went inside to place the order. We were midway through our wait for an outside table and had already killed a bottle of wine, a dozen oysters, some shrimp and some fried calamari. It was no problem: the rain had passed, and it had turned into a nice night. And so having appetizers and some drinks while sitting on the restaurant's patio, chatting and watching the boats go by wasn't exactly rough duty.

But horrors, we realized our bottle of wine was empty. With the place being busy, we decided to head in to the bar and get another ourselves, rather than waiting for a waitress to come to us. We ordered, then both reached for our wallets and started to argue over who would pay. The busy bartender let us go for a few seconds, then had had enough: "Why don't I just split it for you?" We agreed, and he grabbed our cards and turned away. He quickly came back with a new bottle and sales slips. We each scribbled our names, grabbed the cards and the wine, and headed back outside to our wives.

In short order our table was called and we sat down. We enjoyed the food, the view, the remaining wine and the company. When the check came, I grabbed it. After all, Paul and his wife had been most generous in inviting us to their place by the beach for the weekend, and had even gotten the first round of drinks. The least we could do was buy them dinner, and we were still not even-steven. We departed and headed back to their place for the night.

The next morning we all awoke and decided to go to a local spot for breakfast. Once again I picked up the check, feeling that barely equaled their hospitality. Afterwards we headed back to their place, then to the beach for a bit before needing to start for home. They said they were going to do some errands before going back themselves. And so we thanked them and headed out, stopping for gas before we got on the highway.

It was later on Monday when my phone rang with Paul's number. I was wondering if we accidentally left something behind, or maybe took something we shouldn't have. It was neither and both at the same time. Turns out that that day they were also having company, just back in the city. Their nephew was coming for dinner, and so Paul had gone out to get the fixin's. He got spaghetti, ground meat and some salad stuff. For good measure, he threw a six-pack of beer in the cart. When he got to the checkout lane, it got rung up no problem. Until it came to the beer.

Paul's a youthful looking guy, but there is little doubt that he's old enough to drink. Still, a "we card everybody" policy is still a policy, even when you're confronted with a customer that looks closer to Social Security than college. And so Paul pulled out his license to prove that this Bud was for him. Except it wasn't. Because while the license identified him as him, the credit card identified him as me.

In best CSI fashion, we figured it must have happened when the bartender split the tab for the bottle of wine. We both have Chase Sapphire credit cards, which are dark blue with the name embossed in gold. Frankly, they are hard to read in good light, let alone in a busy bar after a bottle of wine. I guess when we got the cards back from the barkeep, we didn't notice the swap.

And so I happily used his going forward from that time. That dinner we bought them? On his card. The breakfast we also treated them to? Same. Even that tank of gas to get us home? Turns out it was all courtesy of our hosts for the weekend. And all he got to put on my card was some pasta and meatballs.

So forget passwords. Forget special three-digit verification codes. None of it stopped us from using another's card. In fact, had it not been for the six-pack and a by-the-book checker, we could have gone to Europe this month on Paul. Damn you, Budweiser.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford used his credit card for most stuff. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Recycling Blues

Our kids were up visiting and puttering around the house. It has been a few years since they lived at home, and in that time we've made a few changes: nothing big, mostly cosmetic. We repainted their rooms, and jockeyed some furniture around, swapping a dresser and a chair. Elsewhere we changed a few pictures on the walls, took a mirror from one place and put it another. And we cut down a tree near the driveway, which is actually more disconcerting than it sounds, as it changes the light inside and the sightlines outside.

But perhaps the most disorienting change for them was in the kitchen. The stove was still in the same place, as were all the other major appliances. Yes, some of the dishes had been rearranged, but the plates were still in the one cabinet and the glasses in another. And depending on your point of view, we evolved or devolved by replacing the coffee maker with an electric kettle. Thankfully, they're young and good with technology, and so rolled with that one pretty easily.

What threw them was the garbage. We used to have two garbage cans, one in the cabinet under the sink, one tucked away in a similar location on the other side of the room. There were equal opportunity refuse receptacles: whichever you were closer to was the one you used. But that all changed a few years ago when the town went to single stream recycling.

If you're not familiar with it, single stream means you can throw anything that can be recycled into a single bin. Metal, plastic, glass, doesn't matter. All is carted to a high-tech sorting facility, where magnets and air jets are used to split it up and gather like with like. And so you don't need to do what we formerly did, which was to use the bins in the kitchen for garbage while keeping a whole set of cans in the garage for stuff that could be re-purposed: one for paper, another for glass and metal, still another for plastic. Now you just needed two: one for chicken bones and banana peels, and one for everything else. And so we tasked the one under the sink with the first responsibility, and the one on the other side of the room for the Frankenstein-ian stuff that could live another day.

To be fair, I can appreciate the kids' confusion. After all, it's taken me some getting used to as well, and it's still not second nature. If I'm having a snack, I have to pause in mid-chew to remember to throw the cheese rind in one place and the empty cracker box in another. Likewise when I'm baking a cake: I have to stop singing long enough to remember that eggs shells go over here, while aluminum foil goes over there. And if it's something like the wax paper that was covering the last piece of chocolate cake and still has icing on it? It's too confusing, unless I lick the icing off the paper. Actually, that's not an issue: I do that anyway.

As the kids were settling in and making themselves at home, they were busy chatting and noshing. It was wonderful to have them there, as they told us about their week and what was happening in their worlds. Then one went to throw a piece of paper under sink. NO! THAT goes over HERE, I explained. They gave me a tilt of the head and that "O. K. Dad" look, but made the switch. We continued talking, until one went to toss a peach pit in the other receptacle. STOP! THAT goes over THERE, I pointed. They did as they were asked, but understood very quickly they were dealing with someone with issues. Their reaction said it all: just go slowly, do as he says, and no one will get hurt.

They eventually got the hang of it, providing proof yet again of the value of a college education. As for me, I have learned to sort unconsciously without breaking a sweat. In a walk-and-chew-gum display of skill, I can actual carry on a conversation while making dinner and disposing of things properly. But my kitchen skills do have their limits: when I set the table, I still screw up on which side of the plate to put the knife and which to put the fork.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to bake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Robo Writer

It's kind of like the bastard child of Mad Libs and the stock market tables. Called Wordsmith, it's a product from a company called Automated Insights that generates short articles base on financial data. Feed it a bunch of info like company names, net income and earnings per share, and it generates a readable narrative suitable for publishing. For instance, if the table has the name Apple, Q1 net income of $78,400,000,000, EPS of $3.36, you get something like "Apple today announced financial results for its fiscal 2017 first quarter ended December 31, 2016. The Company posted all-time record quarterly revenue of $78.4 billion, and all-time record quarterly earnings per diluted share of $3.36."

Content-generating engines like this one from AI and other firms such as Narrative Science, Arria and Yseop are used by companies from the Associated Press to Forbes to Yahoo to generate publishable pieces quickly and cost efficiently. Automated Insights says that its software is used to create over a billion stories a year, so odds are you have consumed it without even knowing it. There are even specialized versions of similar programs focused on specific areas. For instance in 2014, the first published account of a California earthquake, hitting the pages within 3 minutes from when the ground started shaking, wasn't written by a person, but generated by a computer. That program got its data from the US Geological Survey data stream and "wrote" an article about the trembler. The software, appropriately enough, was called Quakebot.  

But surely you could tell the difference between an article written by a machine and one by a human. I mean, a computer-written article would be clunky and formulaic and boring, whereas one by a human would be engaging and pithy and interesting. Right? Well, actually, not necessarily. Mind you, we're not talking Shakespeare here, but rather your basic everyday journalism. And in a study by Christer Clerwall of Karlstad University in Sweden, the data shows that the differences between workaday writing by a person and software were virtually indistinguishable. In "Enter the Robot Journalist" Clerwall writes "we can say that the text written by a journalist is assessed as being more coherent, well written, clear, less boring, and more pleasant to read. On the other hand, the text generated by software is perceived as more descriptive, more informative, more boring, but also more accurate, trustworthy, and objective. But are these differences significant? The short answer is, no they are not."

This all came to mind because you might have noticed a new feature on the bottom of your Gmail window on your phone. Called Smart Reply, it's a context sensitive set of suggestions that you can use to answer a given missive, saving you from having to create a response. It's grown in popularity after being introduced and tested in 2015 in Inbox, Google's own email system. There, 12% of all email replies sent currently are Smart Replies.

It works like this. Unprompted, every inbound message is scanned, and three appropriate answers are suggested. So a note from a client with an updated project schedule arrived with three buttons on the bottom for me to click: "Got it, thanks!" "Thanks!" and "I'll be there." Meanwhile, the next message was a link my wife sent me with some weekend activities, and the buttons said "Thank you," "Let's go!" and "Do you want to go?" Tap one, and the person on the receiving end will think you've actually cared enough to read and respond. Little do they know that some Big Data computer in a server farm Montana is doing the thinking for you.

At this point it's all pretty tame and boilerplate. To be pithy or smartassed still requires an actual human thumb-typing a response. But it's not hard to imagine as the system gets better, it will not only read the incoming mail, but learn your own personal tone from your responses. And then the three buttons will be more than just formulaic responses, but short answers than will really seem to come from you. Then machine generated snark will be possible, and the buttons are more likely to offer up options such as "What a waste of time!" or "That sounds boring!" or "You've got to be kidding!"

Progress. There's no stopping it.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford uses GMail, but keeps his AOL account for sentimental reasons. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

The Master's Voice

In the film "Minority Report" Tom Cruise plays a futuristic cop in a dystopian world. Things seem great, with police able to prevent crimes before they happen. But then (surprise!) something goes wrong, and Cruise is suddenly the hunted and not the hunter. In trying to evade his pursuers, he has to deal with the fingerprint of the day, ID via scanning the retina of your eye. To outwit the system, he has an eyeball transplant. But knowing that his original peepers are the keys (literally) to unlocking the doors in his way, he keeps his old ones in a plastic bag, pulling them out and presenting them to the cameras when he needs to gain access to his old offices.

That scene came to mind when I went to move some money around in our accounts. No, no one asked me to peer into a device or take a picture of my eyeball to verify that, as Popeye said, I yam who I yam. But after I had gotten access to a rep by keying in my password sequence, he asked me if I wanted to be enrolled in the newest security scheme, technically known as voice-biometric technology, or more colloquially, voice print.

Voice biometrics works by comparing a person's voice to a recording of the same on file. It can be active, where you are asked to state a specific phrase that is compared against a previously recorded identical utterance, effectively making your voice itself a password. Alternatively, it can also be passive, where the system "listens” in the background of a conversation with a call center agent, authenticating you during a normal conversation by comparing your speech patterns to those in its data banks.

According to industry leader Nuance Communications, this analysis includes over 140 factors, including speaking under stress. They say this makes it nearly impossible to spoof or duplicate. Translation: that movie trope where the bad guy holds you at gunpoint, and makes you tell the representative to move your entire 401K to his Swiss bank account won't work. (There's also the one about using a hacked-off finger to get past a fingerprint scanner, but that's a discussion for another time.)

How secure is this? Nuance claims that the technology can not only determine between an authentic user and an impostor imitating his or her voice, but even a recording of a voice. And let's face it: it's harder for hackers to imitate or steal your voice than passwords, because it would require them to imitate the voice of a person they may or may not know. Plus, since voice printing would involve just one interaction in a full conversation, even the most rudimentary system would be unlikely to be taken in by a voice purporting to be you that only sounds like you when asked to say specific things.

But the real reason companies are starting to go this way is the weakness of passwords. According to a 2016 Verizon report, in 93% of the cases studied, it took hackers "minutes or less” to compromise a system. Was it their skill at understanding the defenses, or their stealthiness at slipping through firewalls? In a majority of cases, no. In 63% of the over 2000 data breaches examined, the key to gaining access was simply weak, default or stolen passwords. With voice biometrics boasting a 98% accuracy rate, the attraction is a simple case of math.

And so the rep had me ramble on for about two minutes to get a solid voice sample. I talked about the weather, my latest business trip, the plans we had for the weekend, and what we were thinking about for dinner. When I finally came up for air, he told me the system had me on file, and all was good to go. And so the next time I called in, all I did was talk with the rep a bit and the system popped up a confirmation on his screen that I was who I said I was.

So now I don't have to remember the name of my first dog, or where my mother was born, or the theme of my junior prom, none of which I can accurately recall. Even better, I don't have to worry about anyone stealing my eyeballs. But the finger thing? I'm not touching that one (see what I did there?)

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford uses a password manager. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Last New Thing

It's over. And I missed it.

Once again something came and went in all but a flash, and I am just learning about it. If you have school age children, this was likely on your radar; mine, not so much. You may have been buying your first one while I was cleaning the gutters of winter debris. About the time I was getting the grill ready for spring cookouts, you were likely on your second or third. And just as it was finally getting to the point that I could enjoy my morning coffee along with the paper while sitting on the deck, you were wondering how many your kid had to have. Now suddenly, just as am hearing the term “fidget spinner” for the first time, you are chucking them all into a drawer in the basement, happy to be done with them.

For the uninitiated, the fidget spinner was the hula hoop (or troll doll or super ball or Rubik's cube or Beanie Baby or jelly bracelet) of the moment that kids just had to have or their lives weren't complete. Made of plastic and ball bearings, spinners have two or three paddle-shaped blades attached to a central core. Think maple tree seedlings, and you're not far off. Squeeze the core, give the blades a flick and they spin. Yup, that's it, but that's enough. Need proof of their popularity? Recently they held the top 16 spots in Amazon's rankings of the most popular toys, and 43 of the top 50.

While they are purported to be helpful to those with ADHD or autism, there is no real evidence to support that. And why something becomes popular as a toy for the masses is also a mystery. But the physical act of spinning the paddles appeals to many (adults and kids alike) for whom there is a distinct lack of physical stimuli in their everyday lives. After all, we are all glued to screens minute after minute, whether on phones, pads or desks. And ever since the iPhone was introduced 10 years ago, things that you push, twirl or slide have gone the way of the dodo. Everything is now accomplished by sliding your finger around a smooth piece of glass, thrilling at first, but stimuli-sucking as you seem to do it endlessly day after day.

Indeed, as the fidget spinner has waned, it successor has started to trend upward, and in a big way. When the Fidget Cube appeared on Kickstarter, the funding target was $15,000, but the actual pledges came in at whopping $6.4 million. The cube fits in your pocket and sports a different type of satisfying physical interaction on each face: one has a switch, another a gear, another a knob and so on. Sure, you could just click an old fashion Bic pen a few thousand times, but this has buttons!! Three that make noise and two that don't!

I know, what you're thinking: if only you'd thought of that. Well, I did, and still have it in our basement. When our kids were little, like all tykes, they wanted to press and play with whatever moved. And that meant buttons and switches on remote controls and phones and other stuff that was better left alone. So I went to Radio Shack and bought one of every switch they had, along with a bunch of lights, buzzers and bells. I got a big Tupperware box, punched holes in the top and wired it all up to a nine-volt battery. We called it the Buzzer Box, and I should have patented it. Not quite Steve Jobs, but it would have been something.

What's next? There's the Nanodots Gyro Duo, which is made up of two balls that whirl around while repelling and attracting each other thanks to snazzy magnetic technology. Or the Jammer, a sort of weighted mini-duckpin that rolls and flips. Will either be the next big thing to catch the imagination of kids everywhere? There's one sure way to know, and it recalls the time my mother called me to ask me if I heard about the hot new club in the city. My response? “If you're calling to tell me about it, it's no longer the hot new club.” Translating that exchange to this circumstance: if you hear about what's trendy from me, it's already over and gone.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford lives on the trailing edge. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Consumer vs. Patient

I love our doctor. She's everything a medical professional should be: smart, knowledgeable, caring, respectful of me, my time and my life. Not that I like visiting her in her professional capacity, but every time I must it just reinforces how wonderful she is. But whenever I venture beyond her stethoscope, I am reminded that nothing in medicine is simple these days. As we all try and negotiate the new landscape, some things work well, others not so much. And I got to see shining examples of both thanks to my nose.

Without getting too detailed I was having some sinus issues, and was referred to a specialist. He examined me, did some tests, but wanted more to be sure. And so he suggested that the right thing to do was to have a CT scan of my head. He was part of a large practice, and they have a radiology department on site with all of the toys. I called in to make an appointment. They were most helpful, found a time that worked and slotted me in. Done and done.

The paperwork was submitted to the insurance company, and kicked to a benefits manager. These companies exist as middle men, with the goal of keeping costs down. That led to a call from one such company telling me that my test was approved. All well and good. "But," said the rep on the phone, "you may be able to get it done cheaper nearby." I've had these conversations before; usually their version of "nearby" is in a different time zone. Plus the hassle of scheduling and getting authorized by a new place eats up so much of your clock and your sanity that it's not worth it.

Still, I bit. "Where is this place?" I asked. She did a search, and indeed, in this case, a reputable scanner was 5 minutes further down the road. But then the rep did something extraordinary (or at least by the standards I was used to): she offered to help. "Can I call them while I have you on the line and get you an appointment?" Sure, I replied. I heard a new dial tone, and a call being placed. She got right to the scheduler at the other end, explained who she was and why she was calling, and asked me to chime in: "When works best for you?" The scheduler and I worked through some dates, but said she needed the right paperwork to make the appointment. The benefits rep jumped right in: "Sending that to you now, along with the authorization numbers." A few seconds later, the scheduler came back: "Yes, it just came through. You're all set. See you next week."


And the rep wasn't finished. Once the scheduler hung up she asked, "Would you like me to call and cancel your original appointment?" By all means, I replied. She gave me her number in case there were any issues or questions and rang off. For perhaps the only time I can remember, I was treated by Big Medicine not as a patient, but as a consumer.

But there's a yin to the yang. While these benefits managers do get lower prices from suppliers, they also review a doctor's recommendations. And that means that an outsider is looking at paper and not patient, and making decisions. The specialist had recommended some procedures to fix my issues, and we set it up. Then 2 days before the appointed date, a letter showed up disallowing parts of the plan. That resulted in a panicked call to our own doctor, and she reached out to the specialist. Turns out he had spent the better part of an hour explaining what he wanted to do and why to the insurance company. But upon reflection, they felt they knew better, and said no to part of his approach. Not to worry, he told me. He was going to do what he thought he should do, and would work out the magical codes later. And so we proceeded without the overreach of a far away reviewer who was diagnosing me from a chart.

I'm happy to report that all is good, and I can now see why this breathing thing is all the rage. As to the system, there are definite growing pains, some more painful than others. You just have to hope that you get the favorable bounces. And you have to hope you have our doctor: she's the best.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to be a good patient. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Taking Responsibility

Once again, you could see the tracks on the lawn. A couple of days of rain had made the blades heavier, and so slower to bounce back from any intrusion. So as you walked up the driveway you could plainly see two tire-width stripes leaving the blacktop and cutting towards the road. I'm no forensic investigator, but to my untrained eye it sure looked like someone had taken a shortcut to the street.

The last time this happened was about 6 months ago. For regular readers of this space, you may recall our outrage when we woke up to find tire tracks cutting through the clearing between our neighbor's house and ours. Coming in the dawn hours, and finding our New York Times by the back door led us to assume that the carrier had taken a short cut from one driveway to the other. A call to the Times produced no satisfaction, with the response being unless we had a live web feed of it happening no blame could be affixed.

So we held out little hope for any greater satisfaction this time around. Indeed, we didn't even bother calling the paper and registering our displeasure. Since we didn't see this transgression until later in the day, our evidence was less ironclad. The tracks could have been made by the UPS guy or a mailperson or even a friend coming by, not withstanding none of those people came a callin'. Still, we had seen enough "Law & Order" episodes to know that this doubt was more than reasonable. We soothed ourselves with the fact that the lawn would recover in short order.

Still, it was a surprise to find the envelope paperclipped to the inside of the paper a day later. In it was a neatly printed single sheet of paper. The note was short, and to the point: "Dear Mr. & Mrs. Wollin. I want to express my sincere apology for having accidentally driven on your lawn on Monday morning. I was attempting to back out of your driveway, instead of turning around by your garage. It will not happen again. Sincerely, Your NY Times Carrier."

Now, I don't know if the person was man or woman, white or brown, old or young. I don't know their political affiliation, how big their family is, or how much schooling they have. And I don't know if it was the same person who sinned the last time. What I do know is that this person was willing to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. Seems like a no-brainer, I know.

But it turns out that at least in in our town, people with no brains are indeed on the loose. In a recent election for school board, a badly photocopied list of supposed transgressions by one candidate was put in mailboxes and circulated. Whether or not they were factual or not is beside the point; they were anonymous. Whomever the person or group was who wanted to get this particular information out there refused to sign their name and take responsibility. The candidate in question and his supporters would have been happy to challenge them. But how? To whom? Makes it hard to take them seriously. (BTW, he won the election anyway.)

And just this week, the same thing in a slightly different medium. Signs began appearing around town showing a kid hugging his knees next to backpack, with a slogan slamming teachers as greedy. I asked around; it's because the local school board and teachers' union are locked in contract negotiations. Again, you might or might not agree with the point of view. But with whom can you debate that? Since the posters are anonymous, the answer is nobody. Thankfully the town is taking them down, as they do nothing but take up space.

There are a lot of incredibly talented, successful and intelligent people out there with views counter to mine. And I'm fine with that. I count a number as friends, and we have lively discussions about the ways of world. But they stand behind their points of view by standing behind their points of view. They don't hide. Unfortunately that's not the case for all, such as the flyer photocopiers or the poster putter-uppers. For them, no-brainer is indeed the correct descriptor. Maybe our paper delivery guy could teach them a thing or two. Just not about driving.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford signs his name to what he writes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Long and The Short Of It

Consider rice. Not the university in Texas, not the former diplomat Susan, not the great wide receiver Jerry. We're talking the foostuff that is the basis for a thousand meals. A favorite of mine, I like it in jambalaya, in soup, in pudding. I even like it plain, where you take good old Uncle Ben's, add some butter and salt and pepper, and just eat it.

But regardless of the form, there is no doubt about what it is. White or brown, short grain or long, we're talking the seed of a species of grass. After sugarcane and corn, it is the agricultural commodity most cultivated across the planet, providing more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans.
Of course, anything that popular is bound to have pretenders and copycats. In many recipes you have an option of substituting pasta or potatoes to provide a starchy base and binder. To be fair, it's not necessarily a compromise. Lo mein is a nice alternative to fried rice, and chowder works better with tubers than with grains. But each of those is something different, more a case where an alternative is good in some circumstances but not in others. You would never think of a grape leaf stuffed with spaghetti, or dry sautéed szechuan beef over mashed potatoes.

Yet in a sort of a zen koan, when is rice not rice? According to an industry lobbying group, something can only be called rice when it is made of, well, rice. Or as USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward says, "Vegetables that have gone through a ricer are still vegetables, just in a different form. Only rice is rice, and calling 'riced vegetables,' 'rice,' is misleading and confusing to consumers. We may be asking the FDA and other regulatory agencies to look at this."

Why this declaration of principle? Because of an encroaching threat to the established order. In our ever more health conscious world, "cauliflower rice" is starting to make inroads with consumers. The vegetable in its granular form is being touted as a substitute wherever a non-starch plant-based pellet size filler is needed. You can find recipes for Cauliflower Rice and Beans, Cauliflower Rice Burritos, and perhaps most insulting of all, Cauliflower Rice Risotto.

It's a battle that bears an eerie similarity to one that's playing out over in the dairy aisle. More folks are buying soy and almond milk, making the dairy industry grit its teeth.  In a letter this past February to the FDA, the National Milk Producers Federation wrote, "In essence, milk is a product that comes from cows. Products made from soybeans or rice or almonds or any other plant are not milk, and it is a misuse of the term and illegal to call them milk." Alas, wishing doesn't make it so: in at least two cases, judges have dismissed cases in which plaintiffs sought to have companies stop using the word "milk" when marketing soy milk, saying consumers are not confused.

And so the rice folks have a tough road ahead. In fact, I can see the creep happening within our own four walls. While we generally try and eat healthy at home, when I go on the road I tend to stray to foods that are less so, meaning a pork chop or a steak. Likewise, once I'm out of the house, my wife pushes her culinary boundaries. But whereas I go for the stuff I shouldn't eat, she goes for the stuff of which we should eat more of, but she knows for me would be a quinoa soufflé too far. And that includes cauliflower pizza.

We're not talking the vegetable as a topping. To call this pizza is to describe its form. Yes, it is round, topped with cheese and spices, and baked in an oven. But other than that physical similarity, we're talking a different beast. That's because the base is made not from flour, but from the aforementioned cauliflower rice, two words that have as much to do with pizza as guacamole.

And so I feel the pain of a name being appropriated. Still, Big Rice doesn't have entirely clean hands either. They might be fretting over some shredded cauliflower, but isn't that a container of rice milk I see on the shelf? Can rice milk yoghurt or rice milk buttery flavored spread be far behind. Et Tu, Brute?

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Marc Wollin of Bedford drinks cow milk and eats rice rice. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Payment in Kind

Let's be honest: we work for the money. Hopefully there's also some satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie with co-workers and and and. But none of that puts food on the table and gas in the tank. Truth be told, the reason you drag yourself out of bed and head to the store or office or just to the desk in your basement is to get a check to be able to order a new set of steak knives from Amazon.

Of course, there are other ways to be paid. In some areas of the world where physical money can be hard to come by, folks barter goods for services and vice versa. An article in The New York Times told the story of butcher Thodoris Roussos in Greece who needed new tires for his delivery van. Not being able to get the cash he needed, he made a deal with the local auto shop: "Normally, the tires cost 340 euros, but no money changed hands. I paid the guy in meat."

While in my situation the payment was less bloody, and more honorary than compensatory, I am proud to say that I just wrote a speech for an oil change. Actually, a lifetime of oil changes. And flats fixed. And I couldn't feel richer.

As part of my work, I just penned the script for the New Jersey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. The Hall was set up by the state legislature in 2005 as a way to honor individuals from that state who have made contributions to society and the world beyond. It includes a diverse crowd of notables from Frank Sinatra to Albert Einstein, as well as regular citizens worthy of recognition.

This year's class included boxer Chuck Wepner, the subject of a new movie co-produced and starring Liev Schreiber. Known as the Bayonne Bleeder, Wepner was a liquor salesman by day and a boxer by night. He is best known for a fight he lost. In 1975, Mohammed Ali, looking for an easy opponent after taking the title back from George Foremen, plucked Wepner from obscurity. Wepner was a 40-1 underdog, but he turned out not to be a pushover. He knocked Ali down in the ninth, only the fourth man to ever do so, and lasted the full 15 rounds, with the fight called with just 19 seconds left. It made an impression on a struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone, who used it as the inspiration for "Rocky."

As part of the induction ceremony, each inductee gets introduced by someone of their choosing. Schreiber was actually was going to do it, but his schedule pulled him away last minute. In the scramble to replace him, the president of the Board of Trustees stepped in, but Chuck also asked his boyhood friend Bruce Dillin to help out.

Dillin is a true Jersey character. In the movie, he was the little kid that Rocky told to go home and do his homework. Dillin had a million stories, but we narrowed it down to one, and I scripted it out as part of his introduction. He owns an auto repair and tire company, and had gotten Wepner to record a commercial saying "You're not gonna pay a lot for this exhaust system." At the same time, Meineke Muffler had a commercial running with George Foreman saying "You not gonna pay a lot for this muffler." One day Dillin answered the phone to find a Meineke lawyer who said, "Mr. Dillin, we paid George Foreman $4 million to say that. You need to stop running your version." Dillin replied, "Well I gave Chuck a free flat repair and an oil change." The lawyer laughed, but said you still gotta stop or we'll sue. Dillin stopped, but says "I think I got the better deal." He got laughs, and a week later, sent me a note that he was still getting compliments. I joked I should have charged him. He texted back: "Lifetime flats and oil changes."

Mohammed Ali. George Foreman. Chuck Wepner. Bruce Dillin. Me. That's just 5 degrees of separation between me the The Greatest.  But between me The Bayonne Bleeder? I might not be able to last 15 rounds with Ali, but we have the same pay scale. And I didn't need to get hit to collect. I think I got the better deal.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has never boxed. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Chicken Run

When plotted on a graph, the data results in a shape that is a sort of a flattened bell curve: low in the beginning, high in the middle, tapering off at the end. But it's not showing the smarts of a bunch of high school juniors, nor how many people are confused by their smartphones, nor even the number of senators who secretly want to compromise on something, anything, but are afraid they'll be caught in a tweet storm.

Rather, it's the volume of letters sent via the US Postal Service over the last 40 years. Starting in 1926 when the numbers were first available, there was steady growth, though it moderated or modestly decreased with wars or depression. But overall, the trend was most decidedly up. You would have done well investing in greeting card futures.

However, around the beginning of this century the balance started to shift. As the internet started to become part of the fabric of the world, electronic communications began to become the preferred way to reach out. That led in very short order to a point in 1996 where the volume of emails surpassed that of snail mail. And it wasn't long before that bell curve started to cross over the center line and start its downward trajectory. As of the last accounting, the number is back to where it was in 1981, and the trend shows no sign of changing. As more and more commerce and communications moves online, there will less and less reason to stick a stamp on something and find a mailbox. Whether or not that number will drop to zero is questionable, as there will always be offers to review your insurance, appeals from charities and Mother's Day cards to keep your box from gathering dust.

Still, what's a Post Office to do? The business model of delivering letters to people's homes and businesses is in the proverbial death spiral. So the folks in blue have branched out into teaming with major online retailers like Amazon and even overnight delivery services like FedEx to take some of their less demanding traffic. They have tried to become mailing centers, selling not just stamps but packing materials. But there's only so much you can make from the occasional sale of a cardboard box.

In other countries the postal system has moved into other non-mail areas, like banking and investments. However Congress has prohibited that on these shores, and told them to stick to their knitting. But even trying to expand their mail franchise and expertise by selling branded postal meters has met with resistance. Companies like Pitney Bowes said it would cause "immediate harm" to its business, and the folks in Washington shut that down as well. Hell hath no fury like a company threatened with a congressperson on speed dial.  

Perhaps they need to look to other non-traditional yet analogous opportunities. For when you get right down to it, a delivery is a delivery is a delivery. And if they can find their way to my house with a letter or a pair of shoes or a blender, why not with some fried chicken? Or at least that's what they're trying in New Zealand.

Mike Stewart, a spokesman for NZ Post, says the problem is no different there than here: "All post offices around the world are struggling with what to do when mail disappears, we want to survive for another 100 years but we urgently need to diversify our business." And so they've teamed up Restaurant Brands, which operates KFC New Zealand. The resulting pilot project means that a call to the Colonel in Tauranga could result in your order of extra crispy goodness being brought to you courtesy of the same folks who brought you your phone bill.

At this point NZ Post is using contract drivers to make chicken runs using their own cars. But Stewart says that deliveries by actual NZ Post mail carriers and vans are "not out of the question." And when you think about it, it makes sense. I mean, if neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night can stop those carriers from getting you your copy of Business Week, would you want anything less for your bucket of hot wings? And if you're talking growth opportunities which would at you rather be licking: a stamp or your fingers?

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Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't touched a sheet of stamps in two months. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fish Free

If you're a vegan or a vegetarian, you don't eat meat, fish or poultry. That's pretty straight forward. But there are sub groups that take it in slightly different directions. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, but not eggs. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but not dairy products. Pescetarians avoid meat and poultry but do eat fish. All good, as long as you're not inviting them to a party. Fortunately, they're all good with fruits and nuts, grains and vegetables. But most importantly, booze is usually good to go.

Just want to cool off? A Mayflower IPA or a Boulevard Pale Ale will suit you just fine, and no puppies were harmed in the making. Likewise if you feel like a glass of Napa Valley Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc or one of Glen Carlou Syrah, you can do so knowing that the only cows in the process where watching the grapes grow. And even if you want to party hardy, you can do shots of Basil Hayden's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey or Sauza Blue Tequila Silver 80 proof with the complete confidence that no chickens were sacrificed to get that nice burn in your throat.

However it's not all that way. According to the website Barnivore, while many alcoholic drinks are vegan friendly, it's hardly a clean sweep. Make a martini with Boissiere Extra Dry Vermouth and you're stepping over the line. In order to help clarify the product the grower uses a gelatin-based fining agent. Don't think of pouring a glass of Roscato Rosso Dolce red, which uses a component in its filtering that is derived from pork. And Almanac Cerise Sour Blond Beer says "Not sure how strict you are, but parts of our house wild yeast culture is propagated from a dairy medium." Darn, and the name sounded oh so natural.

But there is good news. If you fancied a glass of Guinness and wanted to stay on the straight and narrow, you were out of luck. That's because historically the Irish brew was filtered with isinglass. Despite it sounding like a Gaelic brewing vessel, isinglass is a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. It was not used for flavor or texture but for helping the yeast sediment settle faster, and tiny particles of fish remain in the final drink. It worked well, and like most products with long and proud histories, the brewer was loathe to tamper with a process that had stood the test of time. "Improvements" don't always turn out to be that: think New Coke. And reformulating to keep the same taste while reducing sugar or fat or other key ingredients is notoriously difficult. But this week, at least in Dublin, progress of a sort.

Diageo, the company which manufactures the stout, yesterday confirmed that all kegs of Guinness on the market are now vegan-friendly. Stephen Kilcullen, master brewer and head of quality for Guinness, said that they would have been vegan a decade ago, but the technology did not exist to filter out the yeast without isinglass. "Everything we tried lost that ruby red color you see in the bottom of the glass which shows it's clear. We wouldn't compromise on quality so we had to wait for the technology," he said. In essence, there's now an app for that.

But note that the press release talks about how all "kegs of Guinness" are now free and clear of animals. Nothing is said about bottles and cans. That's because, pardon the expression, the net hasn't been cast that wide. But that is the next great frontier. The hope is to expand the new process to the take-home market. But until then, the only way to knock back a frosty if you are against stepping on bugs is to do so at your local pub straight out of the tap.

To mark the occasion, the company stood Paul Vogel, a founder of the Vegan Society of Ireland, to his first pint in 17 years. Is it what he remembered? "It's nice. I remember what it tasted like because it's so distinctive. It's creamy but has that bite." Music to a brewmaster's ears. But will he have another? "Eh, it could be another 17 years before my next. I just prefer wine now, I don't really drink any beer." Sigh. Back to the fish bladders.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has never been a beer drinker. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Don't Look At Me

I finally gave in and bought a new laptop. My old one was six or seven years old, an eternity in computer years. Yes, it worked fine, more or less, but distinctly less. Just like you and me, while the mind was fine the body started to go. I might have been able to keep it humming along  with updates and judicial pruning of programs. But after I poured yet another tube of super glue into it and still couldn't secure the screen to the base, I decided it was best to let it drift off peacefully to that great Yahoo in the sky.

My new box is sleek and new and blemish free. But while it's screen is sharper, it's innards faster and it has that new keyboard smell, I still headed to my workshop as soon as I got it for an old school modification. There I took a roll of electrical tape and cut a tiny piece less than half an inch long and a quarter inch high. I took it back to the office and carefully placed it over the lens of the build in camera. As I did so I imagined some hacker in Bulgaria watching as his peep-hole view of me and my world slowly went dark.

It's not just me. Luminaries as diverse as the heads of Facebook and the FBI do the same. In an era when hacking a real concern, it's just one of the things you can do to secure your electronic world. Perhaps not as high on the list as having unique passwords, blocking your camera doesn't rise to the level of complete paranoia, but doesn't seem overly cautious either. Like locking your car door when you leave it at Target, it seems that while you should expect the best, it doesn't hurt to plan for the worst.

But while the little camera on your computer (or iPad or phone or even networked home security camera) certainly offers the possibility of someone hacking in and watching you, it's not the same as Amazon's newest product. The Echo Look is the latest of Amazon's family of voice powered computers, and adds eyes to those ears. So now you can not just ask Alexa what the weather is, you can query her if the outfit you're wearing is watertight, stylish and also makes your butt look smaller.

Looking like a giant Motrin on a stick, the Look has a camera and LED lights on its front. Like its sister devices, you talk to it, and it will respond: traffic, appointments, William Henry Harrison's wife's name. But going one better, the built-in camera enables it to take pictures and videos of you. Amazon envisions several uses for this. You might want to see how you look; there's an associated phone app that makes it into an electronic hand mirror. You might want to snap a pic, then create a catalog of you in your clothes so you'll know what looks best. And since you can turn around and hold your phone in your hand, you can indeed see how big your butt looks. Of course, theoretically, so can that guy in Bulgaria.

Using artificial intelligence it even goes one better. With a feature called Style Check, you can take two pictures, then have the Look tell you which looks best based on "fit, color, styling, and current trends." It displays both pictures side by side with a slider showing which "looks better" as a percentage. So a patterned blazer over a navy dress with matching pumps scores 64%, while a pink sweater jacket over the same dress with open toed shoes scores 36%. Would have been interesting to see how it handled a Trump for President tee shirt on one side, and the Hillary variant on the other. Or if it changed over time.

But back to security. Fashion advice is nice, but who thinks it's a good idea to put a camera in your closet, one that is always listening and ready to take stills of videos as you try on different outfits. It's one thing if the NSA comes calling because you're corresponding with a guy named Serge who has an email address in Donetsk. But do really want to chance being called out as a national security risk because you wear plaid pants with a striped top? Big Brother is indeed watching.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford usually gets dressed in the dark. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Tooth Index

Regardless of your political leanings, the one thing all agree upon is the need to push the economy forward. The debate, of course, is in levers needed to do that. Where do you push? Where do you pull? Where do you erect barriers and where do you tear them down? There is no shortage of opinions across the spectrum from politicians, business leaders and intellectuals as to the right mix. Even those whose profession is to study such things don't have unanimity of ideas. It was Edgar Fielder, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Presidents Nixon and Ford who famously said, "Ask five economists and you'll get five different answers - six if one went to Harvard."

Even the mileposts by which that success is measured are hardly carved in stone. Do you look at industrial production? Debt ratios? Retail sales? All tell you something, but not everything. And like every statistic, they are subject to interpretation and nuance, something that our current state of dialog doesn't handle very well. Witness the unemployment rate. Most recently it was down and jobs were up. But does that mean more people are working, or that more people have stopped looking for work? President Trump said the numbers were a fiction when he was running for office, but now they tell the real story. What changed? Nothing really, other than where he was standing when he made the pronouncements.

And maybe those aren't the best metrics anyways. Tons of steel and yield curves are certainly indicators, but you and I deal with more mundane things that give us a window into how we're all doing. Consider the Hot Waitress Economic Index. While the name may give a nod to Bill O'Reilly, this index measures the number of people in service industry jobs with above average sex appeal, both male and female. It is assumed that more attractive people have an easier time finding higher-paying jobs in good economic times. Therefore, if stunners are forced into lower paying jobs, the economy is not doing so well. How to read this? Well, the next time you hit the Starbucks, and your Java Chip Frappuccino is made not but by a dead ringer for Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney but by a scruffy tattoo aficionado, you can assume Apple futures have some future.

Then there's the Tooth Fairy Index or TFI. Since 1998, Delta Dental has been surveying parents across the country as to the payout for a lost tooth. The poll collects average giving, and compares it to stock market activity as an indicator for the economy. How reliable is it? Well, in 12 of the past 13 years, the trend in average giving has tracked with the movement of the S&P 500. Take that, Milton Friedman.

And what does the TFI show this time around? Last year the Tooth Fairy paid about $290.6 million in the U.S. for lost teeth, a 13.5% increase from 2015. Cash payouts for a first lost tooth are up about 10% to $5.72, and first-tooth payouts are typically higher than average. Payouts are highest in the West at $5.96 ($6.89 for the first tooth), followed by the Northeast at $5.08 ($6.31), the South at $4.57 ($4.88), and the Midwest at $4.04 ($5.70). Not exactly a blue state/red state divide, but there you go.

If you dig deeper into the data, there is some plaque you need to brush away. While 89% of the homes the Tooth Fairy hits receive money, the fairy is also known to occasionally leave gifts that promote dental health, such as toothpaste or toothbrushes. And 56% of parents say the Tooth Fairy can be a little forgetful, neglecting to pick up the tooth on the first night. No word if that correlates to credit quality or not.

But like all things, one can see this changing with the times. After all, if you had to cough it up right now, would you have correct change for a molar? As such, don't be surprised when you hear about little Suzy losing her tooth and waking up to find not cold hard cash under her pillow, but an Amazon gift card. After all, spending online will continue to be key for growth. And so brushing isn't the only thing kids need to start doing early. Our economic future depends on it.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks he gave his kids a buck a tooth. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Disconnected

It was quiet. Too quiet. And while that's the way a thousand war movies and film noir stories begin, neither an attack nor a murder was imminent. Rather, the guys working on our lawn had finally come to begin their spring routine, and had unleashed their coring machine. They went back and forth, punching out little plugs of about half an inch across and two inches long in the turf. The resulting holes allow water and nutrients to get below the compacted surface. And our lawn was desperately in need of that kind of TLC.

The process was noisy, but if you cocked your head you could almost hear the remaining blades of grass taking a deep breath. The quiet? That was coming from inside the house. For as the guys went about their business, we started to realize that our internet connection was not working. Come to think of it, there was no dial tone on the phone. And darn it, the cable seemed to be out. It didn't take a PhD in electrical engineering to guess what happened: all that hole punching had made Swiss cheese of our fiber optic connection.

It wasn't really their fault. When the line was run from the house to the street, it was run across the lawn, and then buried by the installers. There is no real spec on how deep it has to be, as there is no danger: a fiber optic cable is just a strand of glass, and carries no power. In a perfect world they go down 6 inches or so. But where we live there are lots of rocks and roots, and sometimes that trench is a little closer to the surface. How close? Well, in this case, I'd say in some spots less than the two inch plugs they were punching out.

A call to Verizon (on a cell phone) confirmed that they weren't seeing our terminal box from their end. The only recourse was to send out a tech to take a look. But since it was about four in the afternoon, the soonest a guy could get there was the next morning. Not bad, considering. But still: that would mean we would be without phone, internet and cable for 16 hours.  

Horrors.

You don't realize how much you depend on all that until you don't have it. Sure, we had our cells, but we live in a fringe area. Texts sort of get through, searches take a long time, and calls work if you stand by the living room window and lean towards the west. And streaming something? Putting aside the fact that we don't have unlimited data, watching an episode of "Victoria" on PBS would reach well into the Elizabethan era.  

So we did without. But we couldn't pull up the recipes we had stored online. We couldn't listen to news or check the weather. We couldn't stream some music as background for dinner. Even our Amazon Alexa stood us up. With no connection, anything you asked her produced the reply (stored locally in her memory) "I'm sorry, I can't understand you right now." We actually had to resort to talking to each other. And that never ends well.

But somehow we made it through the night. And when at a little after 8AM, a shiny Verizon truck drove up with Jack in it, we greeted him like a savior. He took one look at all the little plugs on our lawn: "Yup. Seen it before. They cut the line." I asked him if he was sure, did he want to check the main box on the street, could it just be a coincidence. He gave me a look like a parent would give an errant two-year old, I'm sure calling to mind all they taught him in that customer service workshop. "Nah, it's cut. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but it's cut." He laughed. "No worries. Give me an hour, I'll have you up and running."

Sure enough, under 60 minutes later, Jack knocked on the door. "Give it a try," he said. I ran around the house. Cable? Check. Phone? Dial tone. Internet? Google, my Google. For now, the line ran across out lawn until the burying crew could get to us, but no matter: we were back. Sixteen hours of isolation. Well, sort of. And next time the lawn needs some air, I may just buy don a pair of golf spikes.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford likes being connected. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.