Saturday, November 25, 2017

Tis The Season

It was the first week of November, and I had just landed in Florida after a job in Texas. I checked into my hotel, unpacked my suitcase and called home. By the time I was done, it was getting dark and I was getting hungry, so I walked up the main street to get a bite. The first few blocks were residential, but I could see a business district up ahead. This being a Wednesday night the storefronts were pretty quiet, with a just a few restaurants still open, and some late diners lingering at streetside tables. But a crew of guys and trucks was busy on both sides of the avenue, blocking traffic and scurrying this way and that. Seeing it as better amusement than anything on my phone, I grabbed a table next to a bunch of Hasidim at a Kosher tapas and sushi restaurant to have some ceviche while watching the gang from Miami Christmas Lights wrap the palm trees for the holiday. Only in America.

Yes, it's that time of year again, when retailers thoughts turn from red to black, when "Carol of the Bells" reappears on iTunes' "Most Downloaded" list and when you convince yourself that your significant other really would enjoy a Himalayan Salt BBQ Plank or a pair of Michael Jackson socks. It seems to come earlier and earlier, but make no mistake: this day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is the official start of the seasonal madness known as the Christmas shopping season.

As always, the search is on to find that special something that for that special someone. And it's no slam dunk: every year it gets harder and harder for Santa to impress. Socks and ties and pajamas are so boring. You did the scented candle and cute coffee mug thing a while back. And they still haven't opened up that jar of plum marmalade from last year that was under the tree. It's a conundrum, to be sure: after all, how many Astroturf iPhone cases does a person need? 

Depending on your constituency, the experts try and help. Cosmo says that guys really want hot sauce. They suggest Senor Lechuga's collection, a trio of hand-made small batch toppings, available in flavors like Pineapple Garlic Reapers, Chipotle Salt Reapers and Habanero Onion Reapers. Esquire has an idea for a "Game of Thrones" fan, a mug with Tyrion Lannister's favorite saying, "That's what I do, I drink and I know things." Toy Insider says that "Kids are once again interested in slime" and recommends Make Your Own Unicorn SLIMYGLOOP. And Etsy's resident trend expert Isom Johnson says without equivocation, "One of the most exciting gifting trends this year is personalized presents for your pet." Water bowls with my name doesn't do it for me, but then again I'm not a schnauzer named George.

So what do you get the person who has everything? The feature list is very specific: you want unique, you want distinctive, you want easy, you want something they wouldn't buy for themselves. Oh, and you want all that for under fifty bucks. Not an easy list to check off every box. But I did find one: ice.

Not just any ice, but crystal clear ice. Both complex and simple, the True Cubes tray makes just 4 ice cubes at a time. But to call them regular "ice cubes" is an insult. These are indeed frozen water, but perfectly clear, with no bubbles or cracks. You fill the three-tiered silicone tray with regular tap water (hot is recommended), slide it into your freezer, and remove it 18 to 22 hours later. Remove the topmost tray, give it a gentle twist, and four glass like sub-zero (centigrade) blocks are ready. Your Pappy Van Winkle deserves nothing less. (Sorry, I know that's sacrilege: Pappy should only be served neat. But you get the idea.)

Beyond that, there are other ideas. A French Press in the shape of R2D2. A section of flatbreads from around the world. A Nerf Doomlands Impact Zone Desolator (OK, it's just this year's version of a Nerf gun with a weird name.) The point is that if you look around, there's something for everyone. True, not everyone wants the Ultimate Tassel Earrings set featuring over 100 possibilities, but that just might be the thing to light up mom's face.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants to start and finish Xmas shopping this week. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Brain Nap

Thank you Itzhak Fried of UCLA. Thank you Yuval Nir of Tel Aviv University. Thank you Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And thank you unnamed epileptic persons who stayed up all night with electrodes stuck in their heads. Those brave souls allowed the aforementioned researchers to record their brain activity as part of a newly released study. The patients had not responded to traditional drug therapies, and were admitted to the hospital and wired up to see if they could be helped. The idea was to keep them up all night, making them sleep deprived with the goal of forcing a seizure. And since they would be hooked up to recorders when that seizure came, the researchers hoped to be able to pinpoint the spot in their noggins that caused the problem, and then be able to surgically fix it. Fun way to spend the night, huh? 

But you don't just ask someone to pull an all-nighter unless they're a college student, and not expect them to nod off. So the researchers kept them awake and focused with memory games, face matching exercises and the like. Not surprisingly, the longer the subjects stayed awake, the less sharp they were. Their responses slowed and got sloppier. None of that was unexpected. The researchers point out that the changes in cognitive performance that come with sleep deprivation are quite similar to the decline that comes from drinking alcohol. 

What was surprising was that as the night wore on, parts of the brain didn't just slow down, they turned off. As Dr. Nir put it, "Most of the brain was up and running, but temporal lobe neurons happened to be in slumber, and behavioral lapses subsequently followed. As the pressure for sleep mounted, specific regions of the brain caught some sleep." Or in layman's terms, you may be awake, but parts of your brain are taking a nap. 

Finally, vindication: I do with my entire body what my brain is doing naturally to itself. 

For so many, myself included, sleep deprivation has become more than just a grumbling point. Lack of a good night's rest has been cited as a contributing factor in everything from hypertension to diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke, not to mention vehicle accidents and medical errors. The causes of insomnia are many, from physical ones like age and anxiety, to environmental culprits, including overstimulation from all our devices. But regardless of the root cause, a whole body of work says that if you can't fix the underlying problem, then a patch might be order. And that patch may be taking a few moments to purposely shut down. 

Most recently, a study by Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found a short sleep in the afternoon improves people's thinking and memory skills, and makes the brain perform as if it were five years younger. The team studied 3,000 elderly Chinese people and looked at whether those who frequently took afternoon naps performed better on mental ability tests. Scientists found people who took a nap after lunch did better on the tests than those who did not sleep in the middle of the day. They also made it through Monday Night Football.

It doesn't work for everyone, and it's not always possible. Personally speaking, if I'm busy I'm fine. But if I'm just sitting at my desk and grinding out proposals and budgets, a little shut-eye helps. In light of the studies above, rather than let selective areas of my brain shut down on their own, the smart move is to shut it all down for some recharging. More than once that short interruption has gotten me to the end of the task at hand, columns included. 

Best of all, I know I have company at the highest levels. Pope Francis recently told CathloficTV2000 that "When I pray, sometimes I fall asleep." His explanation is that in prayer Christians feel like children lying in their fathers' arms – a place conducive to napping. He said that the Lord actually likes when that happens, as it indicates how at peace they are. And he cites historical precedent as well: "Saint Therese did it too." 

So to summarize: my brain is going to do it whether I want it to or not. Napping will make it perform as if its five years younger. And the Pope assures me it's OK with God. I don't need any more encouragement: wake me in an hour.


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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Name Game

The album is called "Melodrama," and has already spawned four singles, "Green Light," "Liability," "Perfect Places" and "Sober." It's Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor's long-awaited sophomore effort, and she is touring and promoting it heavily, performing on "Saturday Night Live," at the Billboard Music Awards and on BBC Radio 1, as well as doing interviews on outlets from Billboard to NPR. If you've never heard of the artist and wondering how your musical radar missed her, not to worry: you probably have listened to her stuff and might even have her first CD. It's just that you don't know her by her birth name, but rather as Lorde. 

Having the right name counts for a lot. While the underlying product will rise or fall on its own, a good moniker makes it easier to promote and for fans to remember. Lorde had ample precedent in coming up with a catchy nom-de-star, as many artists have taken on pithier stage names, including Demetria Guynes (Demi Moore), Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra (Meg Ryan) and Krishna Pandit Bhanji (Ben Kingsley). (By the way, Lorde chose her stage name because she was fascinated with royals and aristocracy. However, she felt the name "Lord" was too masculine, and so added an "e" to make it more feminine.) 

And it's not just people. Companies do it: Philip Morris became Altria, and Andersen Consulting became Accenture. Products as well: Opal Fruits became Starburst, and Prilosec switched to Nexium. It even happened to Girl Scout Cookies. For contractual reason the Scouts had to switch bakers in certain parts of the country, and that meant names as well. And so depending on where you live, Trefoils might be known as Shortbread, while Tagalongs go by Peanut Butter Patties . Not to worry: Thin Mints are known as Thin Mints from Brownie to shining Brownie. 

Even cities can make the change. Saigon was the capital of French Indochina, until the south lost the war. Then the victorious north renamed it Ho Chi Minh City after their revolutionary leader. Constantinople was originally named in honor of Constantine, a Christian. In 1930, in recognition of the Islamic nature of Turkey, it was renamed Istanbul. And it has happened on these shores as well or else the Bronx Bombers would be known as the New Amsterdam Yankees. 

Countries are not immune either. Persia became Iran, Siam became Thailand, Ceylon became Sri Lanka. In each case, the name change was to better acknowledge the local culture and history as opposed to that of a former colonial or conquering power. And that's what sort of happened this week in Kazakhstan. 

I say "sort of" because the country didn't actually change its name. What President Nursultan Nazarbayev did do was to sign papers that changed his country's official alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. It's supposed to be gradual process, with the full changeover not expected until 2025, when all official papers will be in the new alphabet. But it's not going to be easy. The Kazakh version of Cyrillic has 33 Russian letters and 9 unique Kazakh ones, while the Latin equivalent has 26. That means when you text your local sweet shop to deliver some "йогурт бар Құлпынай," you better write it as "yogurt with strawberries" in Kazak Modern or you'll go hungry. 

Indeed, while one of the reasons for the change is to assert the country's independence from the Russian sphere, it's also about modernization. Those 42 letters don't fit well on a modern electronic device, forcing users to use every key on the keyboard to just to get in all the letters. After all, how can a country expect to be a player on the world stage if you can't use an iPhone to order from Amazon while sitting in the stands watching kokpar, the traditional nomadic game of goat polo. 

So what does all this have to do with the name of the country? Well, in Kazakh Cyrillic, Kazakhstan is spelled Қазақстан. In the new official spelling system the letter "Қ" with a descender doesn't exist, and will be replaced with a "Q." That means that the country's name will then be rendered as Qazaqstan. It means map makers will have to produce a new edition. It means a change in marching order at the Olympics. And perhaps most importantly, it means that the Kazak Krusher's team jerseys will indeed become collector's items.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always been known as "Marc." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Text of Record

I recall almost nothing from the one law class I took in college. I probably have as much legal knowledge from that single semester as I do from three seasons of watching "Law and Order." But I do remember the difference between libel and slander (writing that a person is an idiot vs. saying it). Also, you can't be placed in double jeopardy (you can't be tried twice for being an idiot, unless you are stupid on different occasions). And that even if you are an idiot, your word is your bond. Or in more formal language, a verbal contract is as good as a written one. 

Those among you with esquire after your name will tell me there are all kinds of caveats and qualifiers and exceptions to that last rule. But what I took away from it is that form is less important than intent. Indeed, it seems that in many legal issues, while the letter of the law is a significant factor, what is actually more important is the underlying driver behind the action. 

Fortunately I've never had to test that understanding in court. Still, the concept came to me as I read of the ruling of a judge from Down Under. In the case of Nichol vs. Nichol, the Honourable Justice Susan (Sue) Brown had to grapple with just such an issue, though one more unique to our times. The fact that it surfaced in Australia as opposed to on these shores does nothing to diminish the significance of the case. Indeed, it is likely only a matter of time before something similar pops up in Duluth or Abilene or Katonah. 

It's all about the last wishes of Mark Nichol. Nichol took his own life in Queensland about a year ago at the too-young age of 54. A man of modest means, he had struggled with depression, and indeed had attempted suicide in the past. This time he succeeded, leaving behind his wife Julie, brother David and nephew Jack. Also left behind was a note: "Dave Nic you and Jack keep all that I have house and superannuation, put my ashes in the back garden. Julie will take her stuff only she's OK gone back to her ex AGAIN I'm beaten. A bit of cash behind TV and a bit in the bank. 10/10/2016 My will." It also included directions as to where his wallet was located and his bank PIN number. 

By itself, nothing remarkable. A direction as to disposition of assets. A personal comment. A date. A declaration of the document's purpose. All common attributes of final directions. There was just one small wrinkle: it was an unsent text message. 

His wife Julie and her nephew contended that the form itself invalidated the product. By law, a will usually has to be in writing, signed by the person making it and witnessed by two people. Except for the writing, none of that applied in this case. But judges in Oz are given discretion in the form of "remedial" power over documents, including electronic ones, that don't meet older standards. The Court can take into account evidence related to the way the document was executed, as well as a person's intentions and other factors. 

And so when brother David and nephew Jack took it to court, Judge Brown took it all into consideration. After thinking it through, she was satisfied that the message was admissible as a last well and testament. Indeed, the fact that it was not sent was not persuasive against it, as wife Julie contended, but rather a factor for it. the judge ruled that since the phone was with him when he took his own life, and the message had not been sent, it indicated that he was of sound mind. Sending it would have alerted his brother of his intention to commit suicide. Not sending it and allowing it to be found later showed forethought and planning, all marks of an effective testamentary document.

Legal purists might scoff at this, saying a text message can hardly be taken as a formal document. It'll never happen here, they might say: we take our jurisprudence much more seriously. Then again, look at Washington, where the President makes foreign policy via Twitter. In that light, how long before we do jury service via Skype? As Dylan said, the times they are a changin'.


Marc Wollin of Bedford knows just enough law to be dangerous. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.