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.


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, 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.


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, 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.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to bake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, 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.


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, 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?)


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