Saturday, February 25, 2017

Three Little Words

Remember when someone asked you to come by their house? Remember when they gave you an address and some rough sense of how to get there, like, "we live a mile behind the center of town, down the street from the 7-11?" Remember how you pulled out a map and used your finger to trace the best route from your place to theirs? Remember how you got lost, and had to pull into a gas station to say, "Hi there. Can you tell how to get to Cedar Lane?"

Ah, the good old days before GPS. You had to have some sense of north, south, east and west. You had to have a reasonably current map, and hope the grape juice stains and the torn crease didn't blot out the entrance to the highway. And you had to have a sense of adventure and courage to boldly blunder through dark side streets with no signs to find your destination. My, how times have changed. Now any directionally-challenged moron with smart phone has at least as good a chance of arriving on time as a bird colonel who aced officer training school.

But not so fast. GPS usually works fine when you plug in a given street address that's in the database. Yet sometimes that gets you close, but not there. Or perhaps the directions are more generalized, like when someone says "meet me in the park." Or maybe there's no street to have an address, a situation you find commonly around the world in less developed locales. In any of those situations, as the old saying goes, close isn't so good, and only really counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

That was the situation in Tonga, a South Pacific archipelago of 170 islands covering over 700,000 square kilometers of ocean. The nation's 103,000 residents primarily live on 36 islands with only a few named streets. That meant it was tough for Tonga Post to deliver the mail, with the result that addresses like "past the goat farm near the big tree" meant your Christmas card to Taulupe Taulava never made it. And that's why Tonga became the fourth nation in the world after Mongolia, Sint Maarten and Cote d'Ivoire to adopt a system called what3words.

The London-based company that invented what3words has divided the world up into 57 trillion 3-by-3 meter squares. Using their own special algorithm and a 40,000 word dictionary, they assign a unique three-word label to each square. A smartphone app decodes the actual grid location and lays it over a map, enabling much more specificity to a given location. So while the Empire State Building is located at 350 5th Avenue in New York, that address covers the better part of a city block. If I told you to meet me there, I would have to tell you which entrance on which street, or we could be standing around waiting for each other for a while. But if I told you to meet me at many.clots.cooks, you would know I would be standing on the 33rd street side about a quarter of the way down the block. Likewise, if I said I would be at advice.fats.couple, you would look for me at the end of the building on 34th street, right near the DanceSport store.

While the system works just fine, thank you, the major criticism is that in adopting it a country is ceding control of identifying public infrastructure to a private company. And that goes against the open-source transparency that we say we want. It's as if in order to start up a business or get credit we have to be given approval by some private company. But in point of fact we already have that in the form of Dun and Bradstreet business ID's, or credit scores from Equifax. In Tonga's case, the trade-off was worth it, or else Dopeti Paumalolo who lives "past the turtle pond in the shade of the third date palm" might never get his new slow cooker from Amazon.

Will what3words catch on elsewhere? Time will tell. But in a world of big data where every tiny bit if information is worth something, perhaps being able to differentiate between the front corner of your house and the top of the driveway will be worth something. In fact, I'd love to chat about it. Meet me at my favorite table at hound.sharpening.outgrown and we can discuss it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always been fascinated with maps. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Capital Idea

I have a real problem with the North American Free Trade Agreement. That’s the three-country accord that created a unified trading block on these shores, linking Mexico, the United States and Canada. It was negotiated back in the 1990’s under President George H. W. Bush, then ratified by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton at the end of 1993.

Covering major aspects of goods, agriculture, intellectual property and transportation, the goal was to create an open and efficient market involving the three countries. Opinion on it ranges widely, from "A first rate trade agreement" (Carla Hills, US Trade Representative 1989-1993) to "The worst trade deal in history" (President Donald Trump). Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

But my issue with it has nothing to do with how well it has protected jobs, or reduced prices or mitigated common environmental issues. Rather, I don’t know what to call it, or more specifically, how to write about it. Of course, we’re way too busy to use "North American Free Trade Agreement" every time we want to talk about it. And so like many things, we abbreviate it, using the first letter of each of the key words. But I ask you: are we talking about NAFTA? Or Nafta?

Like the agreement itself, it depends whom you ask. The New York Times’ practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer. That gives you NATO (North American Treaty Organization), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and PIN (Personal Identification Number). More than four, and only the first letter is capitalized. And so you wind up with Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) and Nasdaq (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations System).  

But the Times is hardly the final word on this. Other major publications, including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor all prefer to go all-caps all the time. This leads us to the US Navy’s keyboard-breaker for the Administrative Command, Amphibious Forces, Pacific Fleet Subordinate Command, better known as ADCOMSUBORDCOMPHIBSPAC. Oh, to be back in the USSR.

Actually, you might think that will all the airtime it’s been getting of late, both NAFTA and Nafta would be incorrect in favor of going all lower case, or "nafta." After all, there is ample precedent for acronyms to become diminutive with increased usage. Those tanks you wear when you go diving? We call it scuba, though it really stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. That light that comes out of your optical mouse? It’s a laser, though that too is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Even the stuff your mom sent you at summer camp is in the mix. The candy, soap and toothpaste that made up your care package was originally aid sent out in the aftermath of World War II, and was more properly known as the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe.

In the same way, some proper names have lost their capitalization as they’ve gotten more usage. Think of Xerox becoming xerox, meaning "to copy" or more recently, Google becoming google, as in "to search." Can you velcro things together without Velcro? Or create some fake news by photoshopping an image without Photoshop? And who knows where we go when the trendy name starts with a lower case letter. Consider what might happen when smartphones get so ubiquitous that they are made by 500 different companies as opposed to the current 5 or 10 major players. Does the generic description become IPHONE so as not to infringe upon on Apple’s lower case "i" trademark?

So NAFTA? Or Nafta? Or nafta? Hard to tell, and harder to muster the opposition or support if you can’t agree on what to all it.  It recalls Mel Brooks and Carl Renier’s classic "The 2000 Year Old Man." In the routine, interviewer Reiner chats with ancient curmudgeon Brooks about his experiences over two millennia. Among other things, Brooks points out that World War II went on longer than it should have because we all listened to Churchill. "He kept calling them 'Narzees.' Meanwhile, the rest of the world is out looking for the 'Natzees.' The war could have been over sooner if we were all looking for the same group of guys."


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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Art to Eat

My dad was a buyer for department stores, and among other things, was responsible for candy. Once he took my sister and me with him to the Philadelphia Candy Show, where the latest products and equipment were showcased. For me, the most magical thing was an enrobing machine. A slowly moving conveyor belt carried whatever you put on it through a chocolate waterfall. I stood there making chocolate-covered soda crackers for as long as Dad let me. If there was a heaven on earth, this was it. We were literally kids in a candy store.

That came back to me as I stood in Joan Coukos' workshop and facility. The owner of Chocolat Moderne, her 9th floor production space in New York is a place where dreams are made. A self-professed foodie, she grew up in a Greek household eating unusual foods: "Calf brains and caviar at six!" But she was more eater than cook: her mother and grandmother wouldn't let her into the kitchen because she made such a mess.

Dual degrees in in Russian and French from Duke, and an MBA from UNC led her into international finance and a lot of travel, and she eventually became a banker in Moscow for three years. Enroute to Belgium for a vacation, she read an article about chocolatier Pierre Marcolini, a top pastry chef in Europe who treated his chocolate creations like fine pastries. Once in Brussels, while taking a stroll through the market at La Place du Grand Sablon, she stumbled upon some antique chocolate molds, and was stricken. She saw it as a sign, pointing her in a new direction.

She returned to New York, and starting learning all she could about making chocolates. In her tiny apartment she made batch after batch, her co-workers being the beneficiary of her experiments. "I knew this was it. I had a million ideas, I trusted my palate and I had a lot of confidence." She did research, took classes and sought advice from food luminaries like Danny Meyer of Union Square Café. Each step brought her a little closer to her goal. Eventually a reorganization at the bank led to layoffs. Deciding it was now or never, she took her severance and savings, and in 2003 started Chocolat Moderne.

Her goal was to combine her loves of food and art, making chocolates that were delicious, unusual and beautiful. Working in small handmade batches, she uses premium Valrhona chocolate as the base, adding flavors and fillings she creates. For the eyes, she and her staff hand-paint the chocolates with colored cocoa butter, some with Jackson Pollack drippings, others with Peter Max swirls. Then there're the tastes. Her original assortment, now in its twelfth year, includes her signature flavors of grapefruit, single-malt scotch and raspberry. But she has gone far beyond those with her Kimono Collection, featuring chocolates with Shiso Lime, Matcha Green Tea and Soy Miso flavors, and her Greek Revival assortment, showcasing caramels with Kalamata Olive flavoring, others infused with Pomegranate and Rose Water. Her originality and quality have won her numerous awards, features on TV and distribution in high end stores like Barneys, Saks, and Dean and Deluca, whose Japanese catalog this month features Chocolat Moderne on the cover. She's also moving into new channels, including being featured in Amazon Prime's Surprise Sweets program, a special chocolate offering at Starbucks and premium chocolate distributer Chococurb.

I asked Joan what she wants people to get from her chocolates. "I want it to be memorable," she says. "It should start when you see it: first you eat with your eyes. And the taste has to be unique, like no other." She wants to keep growing, but only as long as she can maintain the quality. And she has ideas. The next big thing? She smiles: "I don't like to say ahead of time. But I have my eye on an ingredient that's always been popular, but in a new way."

Joan proudly points to a high shelf in the front of her space. There, nestled next to a display of trophies she's won, are the two antique molds that started it all. And I realized that the feeling I got as a kid sending crackers through that chocolate waterfall is the same she gets when she makes her creations. The difference? I was a kid in a candy store. Joan's still a kid at heart, and she owns the store.


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

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Seat of Power

It took some doing, but it's an example where people with opposing views actually did come together. The parties put aside their vested interests, considered what was best for the common good and gave up their entrenched ideas and positions about what was right and wrong. The result was a compromise for all, but one that holds out the promise for a better future.

Gun control? Not a chance. Minimum wage? No way. Tax policy? Not in my lifetime. This is about bathrooms, but not about transgender rights, or parity for male and female restrooms, or even the size of facilities on airplanes. Each of those is too thorny a problem to resolve by mere reasonable discussion. Rather, we're talking toilet seats.

To be very specific, we're talking Japanese toilet seats. The country that gave us such leading-edge technologies as the Walkman, the Game Boy and instant ramen noodles didn't stop at the bathroom door. Not content with upgrading their traditional squat models to western fixtures, they did what Sony and Nintendo and Nissin Foods have done time and again: take something that we think we have a handle on, and improve upon it in ways we never thought possible or that we even needed. Or to paraphrase "Field of Dreams," if you build a toilet that raises the lid with the push of a button, they will come.

That's just one of the tricks they've been able to teach the old dog. Along with raising the lid you can also raise the seat. There are often buttons for both large and small flush, a water saving approach you see more and more of around the world. And since it's a country with a limited amount of room, it's not uncommon to find a bidet feature built in, with both front and rear warm water sprays. Some even have a warm air drying function, making the full-function models a Porsche for your derriere.

There's just one problem. While 76% of Japanese homes have some variation on the, uh, well, all-in toilet, it's not something with which many westerners are familiar or comfortable. Add in the country's overall push to make itself friendlier for the 2020 Olympic Games, which will bring millions of visitors and associated loo visits, and you have a situation where (to beat the Porsche analogy senseless) there will be millions of student drivers sitting in the driver's seat and stepping on the gas when they should be hitting the brake. Mind you, if it WERE a car, the worse you could do is kill yourself. The horrors of a toilet seat accident are too horrible to contemplate.

And it's not just theory. According to a 2014 survey "I did not know how to use a Japanese-style toilet" and "I did not understand the role of various operation buttons" were the top complaints by tourists, clocking in at over 25% of all the responses. Additionally, "I pressed the emergency button" was cited by nearly 9% of foreign visitors. That said, there is no "emergency" button, though it's easy to see how someone could panic when sitting in a small stall in a strange country with your pants around your ankles when warm water suddenly squirts on your butt.

So market leaders Toto, Panasonic and Toshiba got together with the other companies that make up the Japan Sanitary Equipment Industry Association, and hammered out a standardized set of eight pictographs for all toilets. Think Ikea type directions for when you need to do your business. Now even confused Americans will be able to discern the proper buttons to push when they need to flush big time, as well as hopefully avoiding closing the lid when they think they are cleansing their posterior. It might not merit a Gold medal, but will go a long way towards making Japan the Miss Congeniality of the games.

While the unified signs will be used for all new toilets sold starting in April, and retrofit packages will be available for existing installations, the Japanese have grander aspirations. Said Madoka Kitamura, head of the industry group and president of Toto, the world's largest manufacturer of toilets, "We hope to welcome foreign tourists with clean toilets and spread them to the world." In other words: Japanese Toilet Seats First.

Uh oh: I think I see a potential problem here.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders about the potential for hacking the bathroom. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.