Saturday, September 30, 2017

Onion Ash and Burnt Corn

Sometimes, all you want are some noodles.

Like many, we enjoy eating out. And while we have our favorites, in general we're pretty open. Chinese or Japanese, Indian or Italian, Greek or even Peruvian, if it has a menu (or even if it doesn't) we're gonna be just fine. Add in the old standbys of burgers, pizza, salads and sandwiches, and the one thing we won't do is starve.

That said, the hottest trend in restaurants is to push the envelope, along with the commensurate price. On the surface I'm fine with that; I enjoy trying new things in new ways, and don't mind paying for something that's demonstrably better. But we're talking about culinary sleights of hand that go well beyond a little extra spice here, or a new way of using cheese. Chefs are taking the building blocks of food, reducing them to their essence and even creating something from nothing. Or in the case we came across, nothing from something.

The restaurant that managed this feat was one of a bunch that served the "New Nordic" style of cooking. I guess that was to be expected, as we were in Copenhagen on holiday, and eating was one of our major activities. The city is full of these high-end inventive and expensive places, partly as an outgrowth of the Noma diaspora. That restaurant was ranked as the "best restaurant in the world" by Restaurant Magazine four times. And while it closed earlier this year, the chefs and staffers who worked there over the years have fanned out and tied to rekindle that same magic under new names.

On top of that, the aforementioned New Nordic manifesto turns out not to be an appellation bestowed by a critic, but an actual thing. In 2004, Claus Meyer, one of the founders of Noma and a sort of Danish James Beard crossed with Bobbie Flay, gathered together some top Scandinavian chefs. They penned a guide to raise the visibility and level of cuisine from their home countries, emphasizing local ingredients and traditional flavors in new ways, with an emphasis on "purity, simplicity & freshness." And so Noma began and begat Amass and Sletten and Barr and a hundred others, and has even landed on these shores with Meyer's own Agern and the Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central.

But back to the food. Of those three guiding principles, I can most readily corroborate the last. Everything we tried was fresh, like it had just been made, baked, caught, dug up or plucked. As to purity, there were certainly no processed ingredients that stood out: the beef was beef, the chicken chicken and the grilled duck hearts were - well - we didn't try those, so can't say. But I would bet they were the real thing.

It's that last focal point with which I would take issue. To me, simplicity means just that: taking the component part as it is and, well, that's it. Yet these folks seemed to go out of their way to turn that on its head. For instance, the turkey with risotto and mushrooms was fine. It was the garnish of burnt corn that threw us. And not kennels, but popped, like you would find at the bottom of the Jiffy pan. Or the tuna with apple and – wait for it - elderflower & grilled kale. Yes, edible flowers and crispy leaves. And the aforementioned headturner for us, the grilled pork cheeks (don't ask) were topped with onion ash. Not onion itself, but the same roasted for hours until it turned black, then pulverized, turning to ash. Then again, I guess when you can order a dish described as "Bonito, Salted Turnip, Black Garlic, Dried Lambs Heart" you can't really act surprised when that's what they give you.

While all were interesting, and some better than others, dinner was somewhat exhausting. We tried to keep track and discern the various flavors and techniques, but it got to be overwhelming. And so one night we opted out and found a small Thai place. While the menu was in Danish, the owner was only too happy to help us translate it into English. And there we found red and green curries and noodles like we were used to.  Unless you're from Bangkok, what does it say about your choices when Pad Thai turns out to be comfort food?


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to try new restaurants. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


You have to be of a certain age and have a geeky technical bent to know what "07734" means. At first glance it would seem to be a zip code, specifically the one for Keansburg, NJ. And while that is indeed the case, if you type the number into a calculator that has an old 7-segment numeric display, and turn it upside down, it will spell out "hello." Yes, a stupid pet trick, but it might light up a few memory neurons in your brain if you ever had a pager.

For most, pagers are a technological horse and buggy. Invented in 1921, they spread slowly till the mid-eighties, and were mostly confined to health care workers and first responders. But once the range increased and alphanumeric readouts were added, usage exploded, and suddenly 60 million units were in use. No longer was it just doctors and firemen who had a little black box on their belts, but plumbers, reporters and expectant fathers.

In the 1990's cell phones started to proliferate, and the era of instant personal two-way point-to-point communication was upon us. As cost came down and coverage went up, their usage spread. Smarter phones started to emerge, to the point we're now marking the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. Today's mini computers in our pockets and purses can do everything a pager does in at least ten different ways and more. And so if you open my bedside table and dig to the back, behind the old wallets and leftover foreign currency you'll find a scuffed up Motorola Bravo Beeper, good for nothing.

Nothing, that is, unless you are in Britain. Turns out that the National Health Service is one of the last bastions in the world of pager use. According to estimates, more than one in ten of the world's beepers are being used in the NHS. The given reason is that while those little black boxes are limited in what they do, they do that very well. When cellular service is spotty, like deep in the bowels of a hospital, calls get dropped or texts don't always go through. But pagers, with their relatively low-tech quick, short bursts of data running on their own network generally connect. Add to that the fact that a single AA battery powers them for a month or more, and they have a place in an environment that requires can't-miss communication.

To be sure, the Brits could replace their nearly 130,000 pagers with newer mobile software, and save an estimated $3.5 million. But consider the comments made by the city manager in Key West, Florida. In the aftermath of Irma slapping the state silly, he talked about the devastation to almost every physical structure that existed. He extolled the soundness of their recently completed high school which was used as a shelter and refuge for those who stayed behind. And he talked about how while their communication infrastructure was decimated, at least they still had a working POTS line.

POTS, which is an acronym for Plain Old Telephone Service, is a throwback to the early days of the Bell system. Like a scene from an old World War II movie, it was real copper wire strung from point to point which carried not only voice but power, making it a self-standing system. Plug in a phone at each end, dial the other, and you were connected. It wasn't sexy or multi-functional or feature rich. But it was also not dependent on internet or cell towers or computers. And so when everything else went down, it stayed up.

Like the Key West POTS lines, those antiquated pagers might someday be of value when a technological tsunami hits. To be fair, they do require some infrastructure beyond a roll of copper. But compared to the 4G networks and fiber optics and touch screens that we access hundreds of time a day, they are tanks compared to the Porsches in our pockets today. As it is there are lots of places I can't get a solid signal on a bright and sunny day while riding the train to work, less than 50 miles from one of most connected cities on the planet. I shudder to think what would happen if Irma or her siblings trained their eye on the Empire State Building. Maybe the pager in my drawer deserves a second chance.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is trying to clear out old things with plugs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Credit Scoring

Seems that the Equifax data hack may affect your ability find a mate.

First, the background. As widely reported, the company said it was hacked in the spring and that the personal data of 143 million people was siphoned off. This follows other notable breaks at companies as diverse as Anthem Health, Home Depot and JP Morgan, plus a host of others including the IRS. In short, unless you have never used a credit card, registered at a web site or paid taxes, odds are that some part of your identity is sitting in a file on a computer in Estonia owned by a guy named Mikhel.

While nearly a 150 million record sets is no small haul, it pales in comparison to the nearly 1 billion Yahoo users hit in 2015. Yet this theft could potentially be the most damaging of them all. That's because Equifax, along with its cousins TransUnion and Experian, are the agencies of record when it comes to our financial lives. They have the most detailed data on each person because they use it to research and issue reports on the credit worthiness of any individual. And that means, as put most succinctly by security Analyst Avivah Litan, "In terms of identity theft, on a scale of one to ten, this is a ten."

That data helps them ferret out every aspect of our financial movements, especially how much we owe and how we handle that debt, which in turn leads to judgements as to how good a credit risk we are. That is used in determining the fabled FICO score, which was created by engineer William Fair and mathematician Earl Isaac in 1956 and named after the first letters of their firm, the Fair Isaac Corporation. FICO scores are, as one scholar put it, "the wizard behind the curtain of the economy." They help companies to determine everything from if we get a car loan, a mortgage, a new credit card or even a job.

But how do they go from influencing things behind the curtain to having an effect between the sheets? Well, according to a study by Discover Financial Services and Match Media Group, more than looks, wit or clothes, your FICO score turns out to be a serious determinant of desirability. True, it's not news that wealth can factor into attraction. But this isn't about wealth per se; rather, it's the ability to manage your finances responsibly as determined by a third party that makes you more or less a catch.

The companies surveyed 2000 online daters, and found that good credit scores are sexier than any other characteristic or virtue you may have. In the study, 69% of respondents rated financial responsibility as an extremely important quality in a potential lover, followed by sense of humor at 67%, attractiveness at 51%, ambition with 50%, courage with 42% percent, and lastly, modesty with just with 39%. And both genders felt the same: 77% of females and 61% percent of men valued financial responsibility highly. And since the FICO score is the most accepted measure of financial responsibility, it seems that a higher score will count more than washboard abs or a little black bikini.

Some have already figured this out. Just like there are dating sites for farmers, Jewish singles or seniors, seeks to pair like-minded individuals who view personal financial metrics the same way others consider attraction to dogs. Under the slogan "Where Good Credit is Sexy," you sign up and can be matched with others of the same stripe, be it those who are credit challenged ("Credit Clinic") or those who strive for higher levels of perfection ("The 700 Club").

But back to data theft and getting a date. The kind of info stolen from Equifax will make it easier for thieves to open new accounts in your name, take loans without paying them back, and generally create financial havoc to your financial profile. All that could trigger potential downgrades in your FICO score. And that in turn could make you look less desirable to a potential match, causing them to swipe left when before they might have swiped right. That means that the next time you're find yourself sitting home on a Saturday night with the clicker and a quart of Hagen Daz, don't blame yourself. Blame Mikhel.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has had his data compromised in at least half a dozen hacks. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

To Seal or Not To Seal

I have scoured the web sites of home and kitchen doyens like Martha and Rachel. I have checked out the literature posted by the FDA, the CDC and an alphabet soup of other agencies. I have Googled and Safaried and Firefoxed endlessly through the views of self-proclaimed experts with handles like FreshGuy and SafetySal. And while I find opinions, musings, ramblings, cautionary tales, anecdotes, admonitions and more, I can find no definitive information one way or the other.

The conundrum goes like this. Open up a new container of some foodstuff, and when you take off the topmost closure you will find another one underneath. It might be foil or some kind of stiff paper or a type of plastic. These generally serve one of two functions, and sometimes both. The first is as a safety seal. Ever since the Tylenol incident in the 1980's where bottles of painkiller were laced with cyanide, killing a number of people, manufacturers have used these to guarantee the purity of their product. The second function is to maintain the freshness of the product. Doesn't matter if it's cottage cheese or vitamins, the only way to insure that the stuff inside makes it from the manufacturing plant to your house still creamy or potent is to stop air from getting in. And that's where the seal comes in.

In the first case, once you break it, the jig is up. One and done, the telltale has done its job, proving that you were first and only user. Feel free to dig into that jar of coffee or tub of crumbled feta cheese and enjoy with abandon. You can consume the contents knowing that no one was there before you (or at least since it has left the factory).

And since its mission here on this green earth has been fulfilled, you can most assuredly get rid of the detritus. Whether it comes off as a single piece, or you have to tear it out bit by bit like old flocked wallpaper that's been there for 20 years (sorry, homeowner flashback), it has no need to exist anymore. All it's doing is getting in your way when you go back for a second helping. Unless you want to be use it as some sort of, say, single peanut dispenser as a way of limiting your legume intake, just rip that sucker off like a Band-Aid.

But in the second instance, while the seal has served a useful function up to the moment you open the product, what then? Here's where the research is sketchy at best. Common sense would seem to say that once you let the air into the can or jar or tub or whatever, the damage has been done. From then on it's only a matter of time until all that icky stuff floating in the air takes hold and that cottage cheese goes from pearly white to slimy green.

And yet many carefully peel the seal up on one side, and smooth it back over the cream cheese or margarine when done before replacing the outer cover. They feel that it helps to keeps the contents fresher, or at the very least, makes the outer lid fit tighter. It might not be a Tupperware or Zip-Loc level barrier, but the logic is that that little extra bit of snugness will keep the cream cheese creamier longer.

There are strong feelings on both sides. Similar to debates as to which is the correct way to hang toilet paper, it has a lot to do with what your folks did when you were a kid. And devotees on both sides are passionate about their positions and reasons. Add this to gun control, abortion rights and school prayer as an area where we are divided as a nation.

So in that spirit, while I doubt I will change any minds, here's what I've gleaned from my surfing. 1) Once you break the seal, the damage is done. Air is part of the equation, and no good can come from that. Take it off. 2) By keeping the plastic on, you might actually be making it worse, as every time you have to peel it back you are touching it, introducing another possible source of contamination. 3) If we're talking Pringles, just eat the whole damn can at one sitting, and then there's no issue.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is seal agnostic. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Hello, It's Not Me

I wouldn't say I'm anti-social, but I rarely answer the phone. Unless I recognize the number that pops up on my caller ID as a client, one of our kids or my mother, I generally let it go to voicemail. Probably 75% of the time there is no message because it's a telemarketer of some kind. Maybe 20% of the time there is a message, but it's either a public service announcement ("this is a reminder that the county mobile shredder will be in your area on Tuesday") or a less-sophisticated robocaller that seems to be in continuous looping mode("-gage rates, press 1. For auto rates, press 2. Hello! Are you paying more for cred-"). As to the remainder that are real people with whom I'm happy to talk, my apologies: leave a message and I promise to call you back.

It used to be the simple way to parse that remaining 5% was to look at the first six digits of the incoming number. That's because among the things that you used to be able to count on (like death, taxes, an insulting tweet from the President) was that when the area code and exchange was the same as yours, with only the last four digits differing, it was likely someone local was trying to reach you. Might be your pharmacist verifying a prescription, the class mom making sure you knew about the bake sale or your pal down the street seeing if there's any chance you had any fresh limes for gin and tonics.

Not so much anymore. The latest phone scam, up over 1500% this year, is called "neighbor spoofing." Numbers used to be assigned by a phone company, and that was the readout that came up on your caller ID. But since the growth of Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, software has enabled users to enter any number they want to appear as the originating caller. And some hacker figured out that calls appearing to come from your hood were far more likely to be answered than those from an area code in Slovenia.

And so that call that looks like it is coming from down the block could certainly be from Sally asking you if you want to take a walk. But it could just as easily be from Serge who says he works for Hilton and is telling you have just won an all-expenses paid vacation to Disney World if you'll only just give him your credit card number to cover a few miscellaneous incidentals. Sally, Serge: easy to get them confused.

But even the best scams are not perfect. After all, there are only so many combinations of 4 randomized digits available to plug into that final position (9999 to be precise if you throw out the obvious faker of 0000). And so some consumers have reported hearing the phone ring and looking at the readout to see that they are calling themselves. You can almost hear the horror movie voiceover: "The call was coming from INSIDE the house. NOOOOOO!"

Experts say that if you get a call that is not from who you think it should be, just hang up. Any interaction only confirms that there is a human there that might be scammable. In the meantime, the FCC is working on the problem, helped along by the fact that Chairman Ajit Pai has been spoofed himself. As he related in a recent interview, "Oh, yeah. It'll seem to be coming from the 202 area code, which is here in Washington, and then our prefix for these BlackBerries. And I know for a fact that it's probably not someone calling from the office. I know most of the folks who would be calling. And sometimes, I answer just for the heck of it. And lo and behold, I've won a vacation from Marriott."  

Chairman Pai says the fix would be to embed some sort of a digital footprint into every number so you know from where it originates. But that tweak is likely years away. Until that time, the agency is also trying enforcement to cow the callers. In June they recommended a $120 million fine against a robocaller who made 96 million spoofed calls.  

Just one problem: they have to get him on the phone to collect.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually emails or texts before he tries calling. 
His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.