Saturday, May 27, 2017

Payment in Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Chicken Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fish Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Don't Look At Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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