Saturday, November 11, 2017

Name Game

The album is called "Melodrama," and has already spawned four singles, "Green Light," "Liability," "Perfect Places" and "Sober." It's Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor's long-awaited sophomore effort, and she is touring and promoting it heavily, performing on "Saturday Night Live," at the Billboard Music Awards and on BBC Radio 1, as well as doing interviews on outlets from Billboard to NPR. If you've never heard of the artist and wondering how your musical radar missed her, not to worry: you probably have listened to her stuff and might even have her first CD. It's just that you don't know her by her birth name, but rather as Lorde. 

Having the right name counts for a lot. While the underlying product will rise or fall on its own, a good moniker makes it easier to promote and for fans to remember. Lorde had ample precedent in coming up with a catchy nom-de-star, as many artists have taken on pithier stage names, including Demetria Guynes (Demi Moore), Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra (Meg Ryan) and Krishna Pandit Bhanji (Ben Kingsley). (By the way, Lorde chose her stage name because she was fascinated with royals and aristocracy. However, she felt the name "Lord" was too masculine, and so added an "e" to make it more feminine.) 

And it's not just people. Companies do it: Philip Morris became Altria, and Andersen Consulting became Accenture. Products as well: Opal Fruits became Starburst, and Prilosec switched to Nexium. It even happened to Girl Scout Cookies. For contractual reason the Scouts had to switch bakers in certain parts of the country, and that meant names as well. And so depending on where you live, Trefoils might be known as Shortbread, while Tagalongs go by Peanut Butter Patties . Not to worry: Thin Mints are known as Thin Mints from Brownie to shining Brownie. 

Even cities can make the change. Saigon was the capital of French Indochina, until the south lost the war. Then the victorious north renamed it Ho Chi Minh City after their revolutionary leader. Constantinople was originally named in honor of Constantine, a Christian. In 1930, in recognition of the Islamic nature of Turkey, it was renamed Istanbul. And it has happened on these shores as well or else the Bronx Bombers would be known as the New Amsterdam Yankees. 

Countries are not immune either. Persia became Iran, Siam became Thailand, Ceylon became Sri Lanka. In each case, the name change was to better acknowledge the local culture and history as opposed to that of a former colonial or conquering power. And that's what sort of happened this week in Kazakhstan. 

I say "sort of" because the country didn't actually change its name. What President Nursultan Nazarbayev did do was to sign papers that changed his country's official alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. It's supposed to be gradual process, with the full changeover not expected until 2025, when all official papers will be in the new alphabet. But it's not going to be easy. The Kazakh version of Cyrillic has 33 Russian letters and 9 unique Kazakh ones, while the Latin equivalent has 26. That means when you text your local sweet shop to deliver some "йогурт бар Құлпынай," you better write it as "yogurt with strawberries" in Kazak Modern or you'll go hungry. 

Indeed, while one of the reasons for the change is to assert the country's independence from the Russian sphere, it's also about modernization. Those 42 letters don't fit well on a modern electronic device, forcing users to use every key on the keyboard to just to get in all the letters. After all, how can a country expect to be a player on the world stage if you can't use an iPhone to order from Amazon while sitting in the stands watching kokpar, the traditional nomadic game of goat polo. 

So what does all this have to do with the name of the country? Well, in Kazakh Cyrillic, Kazakhstan is spelled Қазақстан. In the new official spelling system the letter "Қ" with a descender doesn't exist, and will be replaced with a "Q." That means that the country's name will then be rendered as Qazaqstan. It means map makers will have to produce a new edition. It means a change in marching order at the Olympics. And perhaps most importantly, it means that the Kazak Krusher's team jerseys will indeed become collector's items.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has always been known as "Marc." 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, November 04, 2017

Text of Record

I recall almost nothing from the one law class I took in college. I probably have as much legal knowledge from that single semester as I do from three seasons of watching "Law and Order." But I do remember the difference between libel and slander (writing that a person is an idiot vs. saying it). Also, you can't be placed in double jeopardy (you can't be tried twice for being an idiot, unless you are stupid on different occasions). And that even if you are an idiot, your word is your bond. Or in more formal language, a verbal contract is as good as a written one. 

Those among you with esquire after your name will tell me there are all kinds of caveats and qualifiers and exceptions to that last rule. But what I took away from it is that form is less important than intent. Indeed, it seems that in many legal issues, while the letter of the law is a significant factor, what is actually more important is the underlying driver behind the action. 

Fortunately I've never had to test that understanding in court. Still, the concept came to me as I read of the ruling of a judge from Down Under. In the case of Nichol vs. Nichol, the Honourable Justice Susan (Sue) Brown had to grapple with just such an issue, though one more unique to our times. The fact that it surfaced in Australia as opposed to on these shores does nothing to diminish the significance of the case. Indeed, it is likely only a matter of time before something similar pops up in Duluth or Abilene or Katonah. 

It's all about the last wishes of Mark Nichol. Nichol took his own life in Queensland about a year ago at the too-young age of 54. A man of modest means, he had struggled with depression, and indeed had attempted suicide in the past. This time he succeeded, leaving behind his wife Julie, brother David and nephew Jack. Also left behind was a note: "Dave Nic you and Jack keep all that I have house and superannuation, put my ashes in the back garden. Julie will take her stuff only she's OK gone back to her ex AGAIN I'm beaten. A bit of cash behind TV and a bit in the bank. 10/10/2016 My will." It also included directions as to where his wallet was located and his bank PIN number. 

By itself, nothing remarkable. A direction as to disposition of assets. A personal comment. A date. A declaration of the document's purpose. All common attributes of final directions. There was just one small wrinkle: it was an unsent text message. 

His wife Julie and her nephew contended that the form itself invalidated the product. By law, a will usually has to be in writing, signed by the person making it and witnessed by two people. Except for the writing, none of that applied in this case. But judges in Oz are given discretion in the form of "remedial" power over documents, including electronic ones, that don't meet older standards. The Court can take into account evidence related to the way the document was executed, as well as a person's intentions and other factors. 

And so when brother David and nephew Jack took it to court, Judge Brown took it all into consideration. After thinking it through, she was satisfied that the message was admissible as a last well and testament. Indeed, the fact that it was not sent was not persuasive against it, as wife Julie contended, but rather a factor for it. the judge ruled that since the phone was with him when he took his own life, and the message had not been sent, it indicated that he was of sound mind. Sending it would have alerted his brother of his intention to commit suicide. Not sending it and allowing it to be found later showed forethought and planning, all marks of an effective testamentary document.

Legal purists might scoff at this, saying a text message can hardly be taken as a formal document. It'll never happen here, they might say: we take our jurisprudence much more seriously. Then again, look at Washington, where the President makes foreign policy via Twitter. In that light, how long before we do jury service via Skype? As Dylan said, the times they are a changin'.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford knows just enough law to be dangerous. 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, October 28, 2017

What's Love Got To Do With It?

I love Triscuit crackers. They are salty and crunchy, break easily in half and have enough tensile strength to handle peanut butter. Like many products, they've been gussied up over time, adding line extensions like smoked gouda, and balsamic vinegar and basil. But I'm talking the original here. In that varietal, the list of ingredients runs to just three: wheat, salt and oil.

It's not that I'm a purist. Quite the contrary: I like Italian heroes and chocolate peanut butter ice cream and hot dogs. In none of those goodies is there any pretext of "back to nature." To be clear, it's not that I seek out foods with ammonium sulfate (stabilizing the yeast to make a better sandwich) or xanthan gum (an emulsifier that keeps my sundae creamy). Given the option, perhaps I might pass on those and other additives. It's just that I've made it this far, so the chances of getting hit by a bus are at last as high as succumbing to an overdose of potassium nitrate. Still, to be safe, I'll just keep driving myself to Nathan's.

That said, I do appreciate that the FDA is ever vigilant on my behalf. In that mission, they are constantly checking on the makers of foodstuffs, assuring that the ingredients they are using will do me no harm, or at least only one in 10 million parts of harm. Which is why they went after the Nashoba Brook Bakery.

NBB is an artisanal bakery in West Concord MA that started in 1998. They call themselves a "slow rise" bakery, eschewing artificial ingredients and creating their goods by hand. They produce 6000 loaves a day including your standard sourdough, rye and whole wheat, as well as specialty products such as Pugliese and Pepper Jack Bread. They distribute to restaurants and caterers in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, as well as serving and selling sandwiches, soups and whole loaves in their own on-site café.

The bakery recently received a notice about their facilities from the FDA which warned about products that had been "prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby they may have been rendered injurious to heath". The note detailed a variety of conditions wherein the FDA inspector listed conditions which were not up to standards for the handling and preparation of food for human consumption. Good. That's what we want: government watchdogs watching and then dogging when appropriate.

Included in that warning letter was also a section on "Misbranded Foods." In that list of transgressions was a flag that their whole wheat bread also had some corn meal in it, as well as other items which didn't have the proper nutrition labeling. Again, all well and good. There are regulations for all this, and there's no reason not to follow them: every other manufacture has to as well.

But then there's this: "Your Nashoba Granola label lists ingredient 'Love.' Ingredients required to be declared on the label or labeling of food must be listed by their common or usual name. 'Love' is not a common or usual name of an ingredient, and is considered to be intervening material because it is not part of the common or usual name of the ingredient." To be clear: if they wanted to, they could include sodium stearoyl lactylate or azodicarbonamide or calcium propionate in their bread, all of which are approved by the FDA, as long as they are listed on the label. But making their product with "love" is illegal, whether listed or not. By law they could make it with "heart," though regulations require manufacturers to state the origin of a product, so adding "human" might cause its own set of problems.

It's good that NBB got called on the carpet for unsanitary conditions. It's not so good that they can't make their product anymore with love. CEO John Gates told the Associated Press that "The idea that we have to take the word 'love' off of the ingredient list for our granola feels a little silly." Still, a law is a law. Just be happy the FDA doesn't regulate kids. With little girls, sugar might be fine, but what spice are we talking about? And as for little boys? I shudder to think about what's in puppy dog tails.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford eats most things without looking at the labels. 
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, October 21, 2017

Don't E Me

As was typical these days, I was putting together an entire project across the country without ever  speaking to a single person. Everything was being done online using the full range of electronic options. The initial approaches to suppliers was via email, with links to web sites to see and show relevant examples of workmanship, followed by texts to follow-up on little details and outstanding questions. I guess I really shouldn't have been surprised if the company in LA turned out to be a robot or a Russian hacker. After all, as Peter Steiner's prophetic New Yorker cartoon pointed out in 1993, on the internet no one knows you're a dog.

That's how we do things these days. It's not that we can't talk to people, but rather that we choose not to. Sure, sometimes a conversation is more expeditious and cuts out a bunch of back and forth. But that also leads many times to comments such as "You know, let me think about it and get back to you." As a practical matter, often it's easier to conduct communications in an asynchronous style. It lets you read and respond when you're ready, able to write and edit as you see fit and not be put on the spot with a response. Shooting from the lip is a thing of the past, unless you live in the White House.

So if this is how we roll, why make any distinction between methods? The interaction is the same, agnostic as to channel. If it's the first time I call you on the phone, or meet you at a party, or connect with you via an email, the logical thing to say is some variation of "Nice to meet you." The method doesn't change the sentiment, nor does it require any explanation. I don't say "Nice to hear that you can talk" or "A pleasure to see you in the flesh." And yet one individual who was referred to me started off with "Nice to e-meet you." 

E-meet: is that to differentiate it from "p-meet" as in by phone or "r-meet" as in real life? I mean, we've been using email for how long? Depending on when you first plunked that AOL disc in your computer, you've heard some variation of "You've Got Mail!" for over 30 years. It's woven into our everyday life, hardly something worth calling attention to. It's not like when you first got a mobile phone and started off every call with "You're not gonna believe this, but I'm calling you from the grocery store!" If it comes by email, is really necessary to say we're e-meeting? That's roughly analogous to saying "I'm car-driving over to meet you." 

That's not to say that we don't make distinctions as to the form and format. In Facebook, the operative verb is that you "friend" someone, even if you are not really friendly. And when texting a person, it's likely to be reduced beyond words to a scrunchy face emoticon, wherein you have to decipher the message as if you're in a Dan Brown novel and you're scanning a Pharaoh's tomb. But I've never F-met someone on Facebook, nor T-met them on text. 

The point is that even an extra letter detracts from the story line of what you are trying to say. Lincoln famously said that he thought no one would remember his remarks at Gettysburg. Yet his 272 word address has been enshrined as one of the most amazing pieces of rhetoric in history. He trimmed the extra words and qualifiers to be just the essence, a technique described in the TV show Dragnet years later as "just the facts, ma'am." Kurt Vonnegut's fifth rule of writing was to "start as close to the end as possible." And it was Shakespeare who wrote in Hamlet that "since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief." The point is to cut the extra stuff you don't need, and leave the stuff you do. My own personal goal is in the form of an admonition I clipped from a long ago ad for USA today, one which sums up what I try and do whenever I put fingers to keys: "Not the most words, just the right ones."

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Marc Wollin of Bedford believes editing is at least as important as writing. 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, October 14, 2017

What to Wear?

Packing for any trip is as much art as science. There's the obvious stuff: toiletries, enough underwear and socks for the time away, exercise gear if the schedule allows. But beyond that, it's a matter seeing of into the future, coordinating colors and outfits so they play together nicely, and trying to carry the least amount of stuff. My personal best was two weeks on the road with only one carryon suitcase and my backpack. True, it was only possible because I had back-to-back projects that required the same outfit, which made me the Henry Ford of traveling: any outfit as long as it was black. 

Usually it's not that hard: you take a look at what your schedule is and figure out what you'll need. If it's a holiday or vacation, you have a little more flexibility. But if it's business, you have to consider with whom you will be interacting. If there are client meetings or presentations, you might need a suit or a dress. Other than that, unless you're in the world of finance, business casual is pretty much the norm almost everywhere. If you are lucky enough to have some down time, you might add a pair of jeans or tee shirt, maybe some shorts or even a bathing suit if the hotel has a pool. But to paraphrase Wimpy, regardless of the type of trip, as long as you can plan that you will wear on Tuesday a striped shirt today, it's not a problem. 

The trouble comes when you don't know what the dress code is. I work with many clients in many environments. Some are more formal, others more casual. Whatever it is, I want to blend in and be as much a part of the gang as possible. But when you're wearing a suit and the crowd is in golf shirts, you look like an undertaker. Conversely, if they're all in ties and you have a tee shirt, they don't take you too seriously. Or as Jean Shepherd wrote so memorably in "The Endless Streetcar Ride into the Night and the Tinfoil Noose," there is that sudden realization that not only don't you fit in, but you are in fact the blind date. 

Working a recent gig brought me just that level of insecurity. Not about my skills: in that area I'm pretty comfortable. Rather, I didn't know what to wear. I have been burned before, bringing what I thought was the right stuff, only to be asked if I had a jacket or tie so I blended in with the others. It's not like I didn't ask; it's that either the person hiring me didn't explain themselves completely or correctly, or I misunderstood their request. I, of course, prefer the former interpretation. 

And so in this case I asked very specifically what was preferred. The word came back "Business Smart." Well, I guess I'm not very, because I didn't have a clear fix on it. So I googled it, and found what I'll call the "Hierarchy of the Collars." At the bottom is the tee shirt of tech, or maybe a polo shirt or Henley. Next up is Business Casual, a structured collar on a buttoned shirt. Keep climbing to Smart Casual, which adds a jacket and its associated collar to the above. Business tops it off, which pairs the former with a suit and tie. And yes, those are basically male choices. My heads hurts even trying to convert that to female. 

But note the request was for "Business Smart." Seemed like a hybrid of the above. I took it to mean a suit and business shirt, but with no tie. I wrote back to confirm, but two words came back: "tie, please." Giving up, I choose not to try to understand, but to conform as requested. And in fact, once I got to the site, I blended in if because of the non-conformity. Some had no jackets, some had no ties, some wore golf shirts, and some had on sweaters. It was attire bedlam. 

The fact is, as one recent study pointed out, usually no one cares. Unless it is egregious, most time people don't react negatively or even notice as much as you think they might. With one exception. In the immortal words of Mark Twain, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

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Marc Wollin of Bedford loves wearing show blacks because it's easy. 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, October 07, 2017

Top and Center

I'd been fighting something for a week. The doctor agreed, and put me on some antibiotics which seemed to do the trick. But while the underlying germ was vanquished, some of the attendant symptoms were slower to depart. I was left with a cough that was unpleasant not only to me, but to those nearby. It caused me to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to hold it in, looking like I'm trying to impersonate jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. And I seem to have an ongoing snootful, making me wish I had purchased stock options in tissues.

There's a box by the bed, a box by my desk and one in the family room. They are within reach in the kitchen, in each bathroom and in my car. Before I walk out of the house I grab a "pocket pack" for my pocket and toss another into my backpack. In the beginning of the week I was a chain sneezer, with mere minutes going by between uses. Mercifully the tide has turned, and the intervals are lengthening. Still, spend that much time with a particular product, and it leads one to contemplate it in ways that I can only describe as mildly obsessive, or alternatively, with a Seinfeld-esque focus on nothing.

First, in the heat of the moment, brand doesn't matter. To be sure, Kimberly Clark's "Kleenex" brand owns the market with a nearly 50% share, and so statistically I used a lot of their products. But when you feel that itch in the back of your nose, and you start reaching around like a rat on crack for something to absorb the oncoming convulsion, a Puffs or a Scottie is just fine. In that same vein, color or pattern doesn't matter. White is traditional, but designer shades or styling are fine as well. If possession is nine tenths of the law, when a sneeze is imminent proximity to said tissue is ten tenths.

Only one thing makes a difference and it's not the tissue itself. Yes, some cheaper products are a bit rougher, but any port in a storm. Some try to distinguish themselves with a fresher scent, others with aloe to sooth your nose, still others with antibacterial chemicals to help prevent the spread of germs. You may like one variation or another; for me it matters not. What I have come to appreciate is the genius that is realized in a feature that was enshrined in one of the original patents, and rolled out to the public in 1928. It has been copied endlessly and improved upon, but never bettered: the center-slot pop-up box.

A Kleenex innovation, it was a system for folding subsequent sheets one upon one another in a manner so they when you take one, another pops up cleanly in its place. It has been adapted, and become the defacto-standard for not only tissues but napkins, paper towels and rolling papers. In terms of standards in their respective spaces, it ranks up there with shoelaces, forks or number 2 pencils.

I speak from experience. As noted we have numerous tissue boxes in various places around the house. Randomly it seems that some are the direct descendants of that center pop-up box, while others have a side cutaway revealing a stack of tissues. Reach for one from the pop-up box, and another takes its place immediately. Reach for one from the side saddle vehicle, and you're apt to leave a trail of paper behind. Or get three when one will do. Or not be able to get one quickly and individually. And so you grab a handful, slap them to your face and explode, and wind up throwing out a stack. You can almost feel a tree leprechaun die every time it happens.

Because patents expire after 20 years, Kleenex no longer has the exclusive hold on this innovation. And so you find the same delivery system in other brands, be they major label or discounted store. Which makes it even more puzzling why some choose not to take this approach. I suppose if your goal is to grab a stack to use for later, the side opening makes sense. But otherwise, for the use that they were intended, as a disposable alternative to handkerchiefs, the top center dispenser is the standard. Put another way, it is the iPhone of tissue world.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford is feeling better, thank you. 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 30, 2017

Onion Ash and Burnt Corn

Sometimes, all you want are some noodles.

Like many, we enjoy eating out. And while we have our favorites, in general we're pretty open. Chinese or Japanese, Indian or Italian, Greek or even Peruvian, if it has a menu (or even if it doesn't) we're gonna be just fine. Add in the old standbys of burgers, pizza, salads and sandwiches, and the one thing we won't do is starve.

That said, the hottest trend in restaurants is to push the envelope, along with the commensurate price. On the surface I'm fine with that; I enjoy trying new things in new ways, and don't mind paying for something that's demonstrably better. But we're talking about culinary sleights of hand that go well beyond a little extra spice here, or a new way of using cheese. Chefs are taking the building blocks of food, reducing them to their essence and even creating something from nothing. Or in the case we came across, nothing from something.

The restaurant that managed this feat was one of a bunch that served the "New Nordic" style of cooking. I guess that was to be expected, as we were in Copenhagen on holiday, and eating was one of our major activities. The city is full of these high-end inventive and expensive places, partly as an outgrowth of the Noma diaspora. That restaurant was ranked as the "best restaurant in the world" by Restaurant Magazine four times. And while it closed earlier this year, the chefs and staffers who worked there over the years have fanned out and tied to rekindle that same magic under new names.

On top of that, the aforementioned New Nordic manifesto turns out not to be an appellation bestowed by a critic, but an actual thing. In 2004, Claus Meyer, one of the founders of Noma and a sort of Danish James Beard crossed with Bobbie Flay, gathered together some top Scandinavian chefs. They penned a guide to raise the visibility and level of cuisine from their home countries, emphasizing local ingredients and traditional flavors in new ways, with an emphasis on "purity, simplicity & freshness." And so Noma began and begat Amass and Sletten and Barr and a hundred others, and has even landed on these shores with Meyer's own Agern and the Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central.

But back to the food. Of those three guiding principles, I can most readily corroborate the last. Everything we tried was fresh, like it had just been made, baked, caught, dug up or plucked. As to purity, there were certainly no processed ingredients that stood out: the beef was beef, the chicken chicken and the grilled duck hearts were - well - we didn't try those, so can't say. But I would bet they were the real thing.

It's that last focal point with which I would take issue. To me, simplicity means just that: taking the component part as it is and, well, that's it. Yet these folks seemed to go out of their way to turn that on its head. For instance, the turkey with risotto and mushrooms was fine. It was the garnish of burnt corn that threw us. And not kennels, but popped, like you would find at the bottom of the Jiffy pan. Or the tuna with apple and – wait for it - elderflower & grilled kale. Yes, edible flowers and crispy leaves. And the aforementioned headturner for us, the grilled pork cheeks (don't ask) were topped with onion ash. Not onion itself, but the same roasted for hours until it turned black, then pulverized, turning to ash. Then again, I guess when you can order a dish described as "Bonito, Salted Turnip, Black Garlic, Dried Lambs Heart" you can't really act surprised when that's what they give you.

While all were interesting, and some better than others, dinner was somewhat exhausting. We tried to keep track and discern the various flavors and techniques, but it got to be overwhelming. And so one night we opted out and found a small Thai place. While the menu was in Danish, the owner was only too happy to help us translate it into English. And there we found red and green curries and noodles like we were used to.  Unless you're from Bangkok, what does it say about your choices when Pad Thai turns out to be comfort food?

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Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to try new restaurants. 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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.