Saturday, August 26, 2017

No Speak Emojish

If this weekly outing doesn't make it crystal clear, I'm a word person. Ever since I was a kid I've been collecting passages, phrases, novels, articles, columns, snippets, ads – the format doesn't matter – that catch my eye. Indeed, on a shelf above my desk is a loose-leaf binder I started in the 1960's, a sort of my own version of Bartlett's Quotations. On those pages are quotes attributed to everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Janis Joplin, from Shakespeare to Peanuts, from Mark Twain to Louis Armstrong.  

To be fair, pasted into those pages there are also a number of cartoons, pictures and drawings that struck my fancy. But by and large they did so not because of the image, but because of the supporting text. The time-lapse exposure of a gymnast is indeed striking, but all the more so because of the legend at the bottom: "The trick is to keep moving." Overall my fascination can best be summed up by a comment from the playwright Tom Stoppard that I keep on my desk: "Words are innocent, neutral, precise. But if you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little."

That said, my focus is very provincial: I have no ear for anything other than my native speech. Other that a few pleasantries in Portuguese or Spanish or Italian that I've picked up as a consequence of traveling, I am tone deaf in any other language. Mind you, I'm not proud of it, it's just a fact. Thankfully, in spite of my tin tongue, I've been able to muddle through places like Tokyo, Stockholm and Sao Paulo using English, the lingua franca of the world.

But lately I seem to be at a loss closer to home. It's not because I have a new neighbor from Malaysia, or a coworker hails from Pakistan. Actually, people from places such as those and many others are often fluent not only in their native language, but English and several others as well, making me feel even more inadequate in the communications department. No, my linguistic isolation is because my penchant to use words of any sort is fast being eclipsed by the fastest spreading language the world has ever seen, that of emojis.

While the term itself was chosen as the 2015 "Word of the Year" by the Oxford Dictionaries, their usage since then has only accelerated. While the exact figures vary study to study, the conclusions are all the same: the growth of these little graphic symbols has been meteoric. One says that a third of all users include them in their messages. Another notes that they were used in 777% more marketing campaigns in 2016 than the prior year. And still a third tabulates that use of emojis in email increased in 2016 over 7100% year over year. Any way you look at, that little smiley face is taking over.

Purists debate whether these graphics are symbols, slang or an actual tongue; after all, no one speaks emoji. On the other hand, we talk about computer languages like Java or Ruby or Python, and I've never heard anyone say, "SongType = if song.mp3Type == MP3::Jazz." In that light, it's hard to argue that we're not taking about a complete communication ecosystem when I get a message that consists entirely of a happy face, a thumbs ups, a sailboat and a pizza.

But it's meaning? Ah, therein is where I have issues. Take one I got that was a sad face and a plane. Does it mean it was a bad flight? A broken plane? A missed connection? Looked at another way, the Egyptians created hieroglyphics. And while it enabled them to leave a record, it wasn't an alphabet. It took the Greeks to come up with that, enabling more nuanced messaging. Perhaps that's one reason there is no Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.  

I get this all sounds a little like "These kids today and their rock and roll music!" And don't get me wrong: I love pictures and visuals. I make my living from them, and revel in their power. As tools for communicating emotions and feelings, they are superb. It's just that they do have their limits. Or perhaps as put best by the author Paul Thereaux, "A picture is only worth a thousand or so words, and for a writer, that's the problem."


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

Saturday, August 19, 2017


You just knew it was going to happen in the middle of the summer when everyone let their guard down and had hoped to catch a breather. In retrospect, however, it's not surprising that it finally came to pass. After years of incremental advances, the escalation finally came, and an international line was crossed. Of course, by any objective measure, it makes no sense. One would have hoped that cooler heads would have looked at the consequences, prevailed upon those in positions of power, and convinced them of the wisdom of backing down. But that's not the case, and now we have to live with the consequences.

North Korea? Oh, yeah, I hear there's some brinkmanship going on there as well, something about a nuclear device. No, the line I'm referring to is at the International House of Pancakes, known far and wide as IHOP, and their announcement on July 31 that they were introducing French Toasted Donuts.

I mean, we've been blindsided before by over the top creations. But we're not talking about your one-off Texas State Fair concoctions like the fried cheesecake-stuffed apple sundae, or the funnel cake bacon queso burger or Oreo beer. Rather, every now and again one of the big chains introduces something nationwide that sounds for a brief second like it might be worth trying. But then common sense kicks in, and we wonder "what where they thinking?"

Take Taco Bell's croissant tacos. I like croissants. I like tacos. So together they are – what? Light and flavorful? Not so much. Think for just a minute of the combination. Flaky crust. Heavy beans, beef and sauce. What could possibly go wrong? In describing it, "messy" is probably the best adjective, though "unwieldy" and "disgusting" also come to mind.

Or how about Pizza Hut's Hot Dog Bites Pizza, which wraps a peperoni pie with Pigs in Blankets. Again, separately, a pair of winners. But together? And in that category also goes Carl's Jr's Most American Thickburger. A cheeseburger. Fine. Topped with a hot dog. Uh oh. And because that's not enough, it's garnished with - wait for it - potato chips. As one reviewer said, too often "Most American" and "revolting" are synonymous, and this is no exception.  

So in a land where sometimes the sum of the parts is not only greater than the whole but makes a mockery of the components themselves, should we be surprised that Frankenfoods have come to the breakfast table? It just proves that in a world where we have lost the ability to shock there are still bridges to cross. Or in corporate speak from Alisa Gmelich, VP of Marketing at IHOP, "We really felt like we had the opportunity to be bolder in our product innovation and really push forward in the breakfast leadership space." Like I said.

Ergo, the French Toasted Donut. And per the press release, there are not one, not two, but three variations. First, "A cream-filled eclair is dunked in vanilla French toast batter, then griddled, then showered in macerated strawberries, strawberry glaze, and powdered sugar." But, as the commercials say, wait, there's more: "Vanilla French toast batter gives a warm apple fritter its top coat before sizzling on the griddle. When it's done cooking, it gets loaded with cinnamon-sugar apples, powdered sugar, and whipped cream." And because, well, at this point, why not? Because what could be better than all that than that with bacon? "A Bavarian cream-filled eclair-style yeast donut gets dipped in IHOP's vanilla French toast batter before getting griddled. Once golden and crisp, it gets topped with chopped hickory-smoked bacon and a maple glaze."  Just reading them makes my insulin production ratchet up to DefCon 4 levels.

What's curious is that in the world I inhabit the talk is of of whole grains, of more fish and less red meat, of leafy green vegetables and fresh fruits. Yet, IHOP says it got its inspiration for the new products by feedback the brand received on social media channels and from monitoring food trends. Said Gmelich, "We pay very close attention, especially in the breakfast space, to what is really going to resonate with our guests and what is going to motivate them to come in more often." Meaning for every recipe out there for Quinoa Beet salad in "Healthy Living Weekly," there's one for Deep Fried Cherry Taco Pancake in "High Cholesterol Monthly."

Alternate facts, indeed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford does like a good fried onion ring. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wrong Side

I stuck the key card into the lock, and pushed the door open to find yet another hotel room, my third in as many weeks. It wasn't as well-appointed as the one in Las Vegas, nor as spacious as the one in Kansas City. But it was certainly big enough, containing a couch and a desk along with the usual other stuff. All in all, it was fine. I like to think that as a traveler I'm pretty easy: give me a clean place and hot water in the morning, and I'm basically happy.

Then I saw the bed. It was crisply made and had plenty of pillows. And it was a king, more than ample for the single me that would be spending two nights. No, the problem wasn't the furniture itself, but rather how it was placed. The head was against the wall to my right, with the desk and couch to my left and bathroom behind me. As it sat, the other side was within a foot or so of the opposite wall. The obvious thing was to sleep on this side, the left side, closest to all that was needed.

But I sleep on the right.

Ever since my wife and I have been married, my piece of real estate in our bedroom has been on the right. Like most people, my side is my side. I would no sooner climb in and curl up on hers than I would use her toothbrush. I mean, I suppose I could do it, but it would feel weird, like driving on the wrong side of the road.

And so when I travel I sleep on the right. No one makes me: I could sleep on the right or left or even diagonal. But it would be disconcerting. The right is my home turf. However, in this particular room in this particular city it probably didn't make a lot of sense. I would have to shimmy past the dresser at the foot, and squeeze in against the far wall to get in or out. In the middle of the night, if I wanted to go the bathroom, I would have to circumnavigate the entire mattress and hope I didn't slam my toes into unfamiliar furniture, a journey Francis Drake himself would find daunting.

Let me be clear: I sleep on that side because, well, I sleep on that side. It's not like I really planned it. Research is hard to come by, but what little there is suggests that a variety of factors come into play when couples stake out their turf. These include who needs to be closest to the bathroom, or who gets up for child care, or even security, as the person closest to the door can protect the other (traditionally this would be the male, but then again he's likely to be snoring loudly and wouldn't hear an intruder until awoken by his wife's screams). But there are also factors such as one side being warmer or brighter or softer. Bottom line: no one knows why one side is the wrong side and one side is the right side.

And then there's the UK study done by mattress maker Sealy that says that those who get out of bed on the left are more likely to be in a better mood that those on the right. According to a survey of 1000 adults, lefties were found to have more friends and enjoy their job by a small margin over their mates. Meanwhile those on the other side of the pillow admitted to preferring their own company, being pessimistic, and generally being in a bad mood in the morning. Then again, about a third preferred to sleep alone, with almost half attempting to escape snoring, and a fifth simply admitting they prefer to have the bed to themselves.

But back to my latest hotel room. At bedtime, I gave in to expediency and crawled in on the left. I admit it took me a bit to figure out how the covers worked. But eventually I fell asleep and made it through the night. And the following day I made a new friend and had a good day at work. So maybe there's something to it after all, and left is indeed right. But in our house that's her side, and possession is 9/10's of the law. I have a feeling my future is indeed right.


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

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Count Steps or Else

It's one of the great names in one of the best bad movies of our time: Snake Plisken in "Escape from New York." If you don't know the 1981 film, it takes place in a then distant 1997, when the President's plane crashes into a Manhattan which has been turned into a maximum security prison controlled by violent gangs. Kurt Russell, as Snake, a "scruffy, one-eyed, famous special-forces-soldier-turned-convicted-armed-robber," is tasked with rescuing him in exchange for a pardon. As an extra added incentive, Plisken is injected with an explosive device that will only be defused if he completes the task. It's not too much of a spoiler to say he succeeds and lives, and is so successful that he is tasked several years later with rescuing the President's daughter from a similar hell in "Escape from LA" or he will not be given the antidote to the virus with which he was infected that time. Thankfully, the fictional president's family was not as large as the size of current occupant of the White House, or Plisken would still be making milk runs.

And what brings this current random bit of movie nostalgia to mind? It's the tale of Dina Mitchell and her activity tracker. Next to smartphones, activity trackers, of which Fitbit is the most ubiquitous, have become the must-have electronic accessory of the moment. At their simplest they have an accelerometer and so are able to measure movement, which they display as steps. The more advanced models can also record vertical changes as in climbing stairs, and even your sleep patterns. For most, the reports they offer are a mere curiosity, good as a gentle form of encouragement, coaching and prodding to get you up off the couch. Others are so obsessed with the readouts that you'd think they were training for the Olympics, and need to know their pulse-oxygen ratio at any given moment.

Still, few would argue that any movement is good movement, and if making the little flower bloom on the face of the device by hitting your target step count does it for you, then go for it. After all, what's the worst that could happen? The flower doesn't grow, that's all. Wake up the next day, and the whole thing resets and you go again. Even if you sync it with your computer, and you've linked it to a support group, it's not like you will be getting hate texts from your pals excoriating you for falling short of your goal. Odds of a Jeff Sessions-like public tweet-shaming are pretty low.

Which brings us back to Dina. Mitchell was a Fitbit user, and wore a Flex 2, given to her a few weeks before as a birthday present. Little is reported about her personal habits, whether she was a casual user or a serious physical fitness aficionado. What is known is that she was sitting quietly and reading a book when the device strapped to her wrist "exploded." She went to a local urgent care facility, where doctors removed small pieces of rubber and plastic from her arm left by the melting device, leaving behind second degree burns.

Fitbit said they were investigating the issue and issued a statement: "We are extremely concerned about Ms. Mitchell's report regarding her Flex 2 and take it very seriously, as the health and safety of our customers is our top priority." They said they have had no other reports similar to this, see no reason for people to stop wearing their Flex 2's, and offered Dina a new device to replace her old one.

You can look at this two ways. Taken at face value, it is a random accident to a poor woman, and it ends there. Nothing more. Or what they're NOT telling us is that this was a next generation device that they were field testing surreptitiously. In that scenario, it goes something like this: Dina's step count was low. Dina should have been up and moving. Dina decided that rather than go to the gym, she would sit in a comfy chair and read a book. Not on my watch, said the Flex 2. And BOOM! Just a little behavioral conditioning. You gotta believe that the next time Dina has a choice between getting on the treadmill, or sitting down and paging through Vogue, she'll think twice.

Just remember what could have happened to Snake.


Marc Wollin of Bedford refuses to count his steps. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.