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.


Marc Wollin of Bedford lives on the trailing edge. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, 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.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to be a good patient. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, 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.


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, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Long and The Short Of It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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