Saturday, March 25, 2017

On Appeal

Once again, the courts have to weigh in from the very geographical edges of our country. Once again, on a matter affecting a particular group of people, those in a position of power have tried to bend things to their point of view. And once again, the outcome hinged on the written record and the very particular language and formulation used, and, at least at this point, upended what the writers of the law thought was a straight ahead argument.

Immigration? Yeah, I heard there was news about that, but we're talking something else. Hawaiian court? No, I was looking east, not west. Muslims? Uh, no, I was talking about dairy delivery drivers. And while it's possible some of them are indeed followers of Islam, it really has nothing to do with this case. (Though I hear that that association is the same argument there are using in this immigration thing, whatever that is all about).

No, we're talking about is a case in Maine were it all comes down to a comma. An Oxford comma, to be specific. Regular readers of this space might remember an exploration of that very subject (GA #978: "Punctuation Wars") where this writer was taken to task for not being among the Oxford faithful. For those of wondering what incredibly useless English-nerd minutia we're talking about, the Oxford comma is the one that you insert before a conjunction in a list of three or more. It is supposed to make it clear that the final items are separate parts of a list, rather than a final phrase, with the most famous example being the book dedication "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Adding the Oxford comma would have made it clear that the author's parents, while worthy of praise, were not so well known.

In the case at hand, a group of delivery drivers in Maine at the Oakhurst Dairy went to court against the company, claiming that they are not exempt from the state's overtime laws and should receive the pay they were denied. The basis for their claim? The state law enumerating the acts that are ineligible for overtime is written this way: "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: Agricultural produce; Meat and fish product; and Perishable foods."

All well and good. But as written, the implication is that "packing for shipment or distribution" only encompasses the literal act of packing a truck for shipment. In court the drivers argued that they don't physically pack the trucks; they only distribute the items inside. So even though the dairy argued that the intent of the law was to keep "distribution" as a separate act, it didn't read that way. Had it been written "packing for shipment, or distribution" it might have been interpreted differently. But that's not how the court ruled. They said that since drivers don't pack, they aren't exempt from overtime pay.

At least in The Pine Tree State, the decision of the First Circuit has justified not just the careers of lawyers but of English majors. In fact, all of Maine's laws are written without the Oxford comma, as prescribed in a state-issued style guide on legislative drafting. And indeed, Oakhurst's attorneys had cited just that point in their defense. But the judges picked up on a following paragraph in the same guide: "Be careful if an item in the series is modified." It then sets out several examples of how lists with modified or otherwise complex terms should be written to avoid the ambiguity that a missing serial comma would otherwise create. Net-net: this might not be the last Oxford comma case that winds up in court.

As with most states, you can argue that some of the laws on the books in Maine are strange or need to be updated. To be sure, the statewide statute that says that shotguns are required to be taken to church in the event of a Native American attack, or that you may not step out of a plane in flight could use a reexamination. But they should add to that a major statewide punctuation review. Or as a wonderful book on the topic is named, it will lead locals to wonder if an animal at the zoo is guilty of murder if, as the sign on its cage says, it "eats, shoots and leaves."


Marc Wollin of Bedford generally plays fast and loose with English. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Giant Step

Talk about innovation! What would you say if I told you a company had figured out how to make something way better. It uses completely new technology and fewer parts, resulting in lower cost and less chance of failure. It gives you back hours of your day, and reduces frustration by a factor of at least five. It even ships lighter, saving freight costs not to mention your back. You'd say "What did Apple come up with?" Or "I knew Amazon could do it!" Or "That's the reason Google is such an inspiration." But you'd be wrong every time.

Because you didn't think of Ikea.

The Swedish home goods maker is known for a lot of things. There are the labyrinth stores that let you in one end and make you wander past endless demo rooms until you escape two hours later through the lingonberry jam gift display at the far end. There's the seemingly infinite variety of basic furniture like beds and bookcases and coffee tables. And there are the model names always screaming at you in upper case, showcasing consonants and vowels in tongue twisting combinations, like VOOKEGHLEAR and SAANGHWODNFION.

Those hallmarks are all familiar to the most casual furniture shopper. But if you've ever bought a CJEODWORJAAS desk or a NEQQUAISLFOOB shelving unit, the single thing that likely stands out is the assembly process. Open up your FIIKISTOOOR stereo stand, and what tumbles out is an assortment of puzzle pieces, a set of hieroglyphic instructions and a plastic bag filled with screws, dowels, glue, nuts, bolts, metal sleeves and a single hex wrench in a size that fits nothing else in the known universe.

Assuming you've had both a stiff cup of coffee and a dose of anti-anxiety medication, it's a simple matter to assemble all the pieces into your new BAATRONQQUIN vanity. You just have to insure that screw #3 which is 2 millimeters wider than screw #4 is used on the back vs. the front. And that dowel #9 is glued on the narrower end first, while you start with the fat end of dowel #13. And once it's all done, wonder which shelf is missing a metal sleeve #2, as you seem to have one left over. Or was it just an extra in the package? Hint: it the shelf tilts when you put something on it, it wasn't an extra.

Ikea is not totally ignorant of this challenge. And so the R&D folks back in Stockholm have been hard at work doing other things beside coming up with new ways to use pressboard. In an advance that ranks right up there with the invention of the PIZENATOOBORG combination paper towel stand/lemon holder, they have reimagined how you put the stuff together, and created the wedge dowel.

Essentially a ridged end on one piece and grooved hole on another, it enables the various components of a table or chair to seamlessly "snap" together. What used to take hours and sometimes days can now take just minutes. But beyond the benefit of not needing tools or incurring skinned knuckles, there's another upside. According to IKEA's Jesper Brodin, the system allows you to easily disassemble, move the furniture and reassemble it without losing any strength or durability. Brodin was quoted in industry publications as noting "people move a lot more frequently, and there are more divorces. So if you get kicked out [of your house] in the morning you can reassemble your table in the afternoon." No doubt that the first thing you're going to thinking of as your laundry winds up on the front lawn is rebuilding your GLOOPERINGENSAAB dresser nice and tight, but at least you know something in your life at that point will work.

Regardless, it's a notable advancement in DIY furniture construction. IKEA intends to roll out the wedge dowel system across its entire furniture range. Look for it first in LISABO tables and chairs later this year, and eventually to the vast majority of its offerings. This all points to that time the not-too-distant future when your kid graduates college, and you help them set up their first apartment. As they effortlessly snap together their YOOSLQUIIP bed frame, you say, "Boy, in my day, we needed an allen key to do that!" And they go, "Dad, what's an allen key?"

Mark my words: that day is coming.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has put together more Ikea furniture than he cares to admit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Watch Your Step

The credit usually goes to Chief Seattle, a prominent leader of the Suquamish tribe, and the person for whom the city is named. A skilled speaker and diplomat, he gave a speech in the 1850's to more than 1000 members of his tribe that has been romanticized as a manifesto encouraging respect for the land and animals. It laid out broad themes that have become the underpinning of the environmental movement today.

However, contrary to popular belief, he never really said any of it. Not "The earth is our mother." Not "How can you buy or sell the sky?" Not "What is man without the beasts?" Those and other pithy naturalistic touchstones turn out to constructs of newspaper men and Hollywood screenwriters and attributed to the Chief for dramatic effect. Still, if you have to give someone props, Chief Seattle is as good as any. And so let's believe another fiction attributed to him, that whenever you travel you should "Take only memories, leave only footprints."

Yet these days that maxim needs to be updated. With the proliferation of smartphones, memories are less about synapses and more about pictures. While photography has been around for nearly 200 years, it's only been recently that almost everyone has a camera on them all the time. And that means that virtually everything is being documented every instant of every day. So perhaps Chief's Seattle's non-mantra should read "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."

But even that falls short. Because like the old adage about a tree falling in a forest, have you actually been anywhere if you don't have a picture of yourself as a part of it? Walk around and you will see people not looking at a given site, but with their backs to it, the better to capture a shot of themselves at that place and time. Sorry, Chief, call rewrite once more: "Take only selfies, leave only footprints."

Then last week that approach went horribly wrong. The Hirschhorn Museum in Washington is mounting a major exhibit by Japanese artist and writer Yayoi Kusama. Kasama came into the art world in the late 50's, exploring almost every media from painting and drawing to film and fiction. A fixture of the 1970's pop art movement, she became known as the "Priestess Of Polka Dots" when she created dresses with that design, as well as painting dots on naked participants and staging them as performance happenings. It all fed into her obsession with infinity, captured nicely in her comment "Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos."

That obsession is best realized in her mirrored rooms stuffed with abstract forms. The rooms vary, but are sculptural, architectural and performative all at the same time. The shapes and mirrors combined to create endless disorienting views with names that reflect that, such as "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" and "Love Transformed into Dots."

The current popular exhibition at the Hirschhorn is no different. Consisting of six of her installations, one of the most popular is "All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins." It is a small mirrored room filled with lighted gourds decorated with polka dots. A small viewing platform accommodates only 2 or 3 people at a time, giving them a visage that hard to explain to others. Not content with Chief Seattle's original manta, most people don't trust their memory, and so move on to our first rewrite, snapping a photo to capture the view.

But what is art if you're not a part of it? And so many visitors move to the third iteration of the Chief's words, and pose for a selfie. However, that observation platform is pretty small, and denoted only by a small barrier just several inches high and across. There's no way of knowing for sure what happened, as once visitors are inside the room and on the platform, the door is closed. But the results tell the tale: some hapless Instagramer looking for the perfect angle put a foot over the barrier, crushing one of pumpkins.

A tragedy for sure. The room was closed while the artist was consulted and a replacement was being secured. At least only a pumpkin was hurt. But perhaps we need to update the Chief's words yet again: "Take only selfies, and be careful where you put your feet."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to take pictures, mostly without himself. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Internet Sensation

Let me be very clear: this is not about me.

Yes, I have an assortment of social media accounts. But I readily admit that I'm more a stalker than a poster. Other than this column, I don't put up anything. Mind you, I'm not casting aspersions on those that do. I just prefer to live my life a little quieter. If I'm being honest, I don't think that 95% of what I do is interesting to anyone besides my immediate family. And even then I'm not so sure.

Still, I do admit to occasionally scanning Facebook and Twitter and the like. I enjoy seeing some of the kid shots, some of the sassy comments, some of the new ventures in which people are involved. But it's hardly a regular thing. Yes, I'm sure I'm missing the latest cute cat picture, but it's a sacrifice with which I've made peace.

That helps to explain why I was ignorant to what I was happening around me. I was at the NBA All Star Game in New Orleans munching popcorn when three people sat down behind me. They looked like regular fans - a mom, dad and an older college-aged kid. Other than the fact that the woman had on a rather ugly sweater with "NBA Champs" on it, nothing made them stand out. I smiled and said hello, and turned back to the action on the floor. But while I wasn't really paying attention, I sensed a few people around me mildly excited by their presence. Indeed, some even got up and came over with comments like "I recognize that sweater. Are you really her? I love you! Can I get a picture?" They grabbed a selfie and went back to their seats. I began to wonder: who was "her?"

The game started, and I noted the three wildly applauding Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two All Stars from the Golden State Warriors. I turned and asked if they too were from California. The son nodded and indicated his tee shirt, which had a Golden State logo on it. At the same time a person wearing official looking NBA credentials came over and had a quick conversation, checking on their seats, seeing how they were faring and thanking them for coming. None of that answered who she was, though she was obviously someone.

A few minutes later another NBA staffer came over, this one with a headset. He introduced himself to "Robin", and started to explain the drill. "You ready?" he began. Robin nodded. "So at the next timeout, here's how it will go. On the screen we'll do a ‘Wheel of Fortune' kind of thing. The first will be a robot cam, then a kiss cam. Next will be the Dancing Mom cam. We'll take 2 other random moms, then come to you. You should start, but keep going after they go on to the next. The announcer will suddenly realize it was you, and we'll come back. Then it's all yours. Any questions?" Robin indicated she understood completely.

Still not sure what I was sitting in front of, I realized that if she was going to be on camera, I would be that hapless guy in the foreground wondering what was happening behind him. I jumped up and sat down on the stairs across from my seat. I apologized to the guy I was crowding, but he was beaming watching Robin as well. So I asked him: who was she? Thankfully he knew it all. Robin Schreiber was a 60-ish retired school teacher and a 28-year season ticket holder who became an internet sensation when she jumped up to dance when the camera picked her up at a game in November. Since then, she has danced with the Warrior's cheerleaders at center court, Steph Curry and even Coach Steve Kerr. And she was about to do it again for the entire arena.

Sure enough, it went down just as described. First the people doing the robot, then a few kisses, then some other dancing moms, all to the audience's mild amusement. Then they came to Robin. She jumped up and started, and the place went wild. If you watch you'll see her patented hip pump, her hand waves and her arm flares. You'll see the people round her applauding and taking pics. But the best part?

You won't see me.


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