Saturday, December 30, 2017

In Case You Missed It

Let's face it: this has been an intense year for news. In other annums you could close your eyes, go away for a few days, drink yourself under the table, and not much would have happened when you finally surfaced. This year, if you didn't click on the headlines the second you woke up, you might miss a war or a hurricane or another well-known figure in trouble over sex or money or Russians or all of the above. And that's just before breakfast. 

So as a public service the folks in the GA Newsroom have collected just some of the other important stories you might have missed in the last 12 months. Partisans of both sides, stand down: there's not a Trump among them. 

January 3. Bartell Drugs in Pullman WA issued a recall for an $18 pair of Strideline socks supposedly sporting a Washington State University Cougars theme. However, the logo on the socks was from the school's arch rivals, the University of Washington Huskies. The error was the result of someone on the design team failing to switch out the mascots when the sock design was adapted for the Cougars. "It's pretty unfortunate," co-founder Jake Director told the Seattle Times. 

February 8. Customs officers in Texas examining a shipment of key limes from Mexico discovered nearly 4,000 pounds of marijuana disguised as citrus fruits. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents used a non-intrusive imagining system and canine team and found that 34,764 of the "limes" were actually small packages of weed disguised to blend in with the fruits. They estimated the 3,947.37 pounds of marijuana had an estimated street value of $789,467. The case was turned over to Homeland Security Investigations agents. 

March 17. A Washington state Costco shopper had to shed his pants when his cellphone abruptly caught fire in his pocket. A store manager said the phone's flames had died down by the time employees arrived with a fire extinguisher. He said the man had managed to remove his pants fast enough to avoid being injured. However, the manager did note that the phone left a scorch mark on the floor of the aisle. The shopper was given a new pair of pants. 

May 11. Officials at a Connecticut school said a sign that misspelled "entrance" as "enterance" went unnoticed for several months. North Branford Public Schools Superintendent Scott Schoonmaker said the "North Branford High School Main Enterance" sign was put up in August after being made by an outside company. "I've probably driven by that sign a thousand times," the superintendent said, "but you're not paying attention, you're coming and going." 

August 30. An Indiana couple finally achieved their decades-long quest to eat at all 645 U.S. Cracker Barrel locations. Ray Yoder and his wife Wilma celebrated his 81st birthday by traveling from their 40-acre farm in Goshen, IN to dine at the final location on their list in Tualatin, OR. Most of the couple's Cracker Barrel stops had come by car as part of previously planned vacations, but the restaurant chain decided to fly the couple out to the west coast on an all-expense paid trip for their final stop. The couple enjoyed their favorite meals of blueberry waffles and eggs with sausage. 

October 6. A strange smell that prompted a hazmat response at a Baltimore high school was found to have a seasonal, but not unusual cause: a pumpkin spice air freshener. Officials evacuated Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and summoned emergency personnel including the Baltimore City Fire Department's hazmat team to investigate. "Five members of our community were transported to area hospitals as a precautionary measure," said Baltimore Fire Chief Roman Clark. "After extensive testing, the BCFD determined that the building was safe. It's pumpkin spice. It is not hazardous at all." 

November 20. England's Doncaster Council held a series of Twitter polls to allow the public to name its two new salt-spreading vehicles. They were joining a fleet that included "Mr. Plow," "The Subzero Hero," "Gritney Spears," "Brad Grit" and "Usain Salt." The winners were "David Plowie" and "Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney." Said Deputy Mayor Glyn Jones, "We look forward to Usain Salt, David Plowie and the rest of the gang keeping our roads safe this winter." 

So now you know.


Marc Wollin of Bedford reads the paper cover to cover. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Under the Radar

The tree at Rockefeller Center. The windows at Lord & Taylor. The Christmas markets in Grand Central and Union Square and Bryant Park. These and a hundred other holiday installations are the usual seasonal manifestations that blossom all over the city. And that's just in the 212 area code. If you call Boston home, it might be the tree on the Commons. In Chicago you could go to watch the carolers at Cloud Gate. And in Dallas you might gather along Commerce Street for the Holiday Parade, this year marking the 30th outing for the dancing elves. 

Change the focus from wide to tight, and you see the same thing on a more granular level. There are holiday displays in stores and shops. In the office buildings uptown and downtown there are huge decorated trees along with collections of toys donated by generous individuals for kids not so fortunate. Add to that a dusting of snow and a snap of cold, and the usual grimy edges of the city turn soft and white like a print by Currier and Ives. 

Yet as often as I was in New York City these past few weeks, I had the impression that the holiday was lying low. True, I made it a point to avoid the big tourist draws, like the main floor at Macy's or the skating rink under the tree. But on several multi-hour walks across different parts of town, and in meetings both business and casual, it seemed like people were going through the motions. They were more caught up with the onslaught of news stories about elections and sexual harassment and tax reform, and less with a spirit of hopefulness and good cheer that suffuses all at this time of year. 

It was that way on a personal level as well. True, it has been several years since we have had little kids in our orbit, either close or extended, and so the wild-eyed wonder of the whole Santa thing was absent. For various reasons, we set up our Christmas tree in another room where it seems we don't go as much, and so on some nights we have even forgotten to turn on the lights. And while we have certainly had the chance to catch up with friends and family, it seems the talk is less about the spirit of the holiday and more about the difficulties of the world. 

It was summed up by a Nativity display I passed in an office building. A beautiful Christmas tree was accompanied by a large creche. Gathered together were Wise Men and Mary and Joseph, along with an assortment of animals and villagers. They were all clustered around, gazing adoringly at the center of the circle. But whether because of religious sensitivities or fear of theft or just because someone lost it in the storeroom where it was crammed between the Halloween and Easter decorations, the focal point was empty. Rather than staring at a baby Jesus, the figures were admiring an empty floor. In the world at large, as in that display, something appears to be missing. 

Regardless of your religion and what you observe, this time of year has always been about a spirit of hopefulness and possibility. To be sure, it is a holiday because of what it commemorates, the birth of Christ, and not because of a sale at Saks. A recent survey found that more than half of the country celebrates it as a religious observance. But the rest don't ignore it, as if it were some festival recognized only by true believers. It is celebrated as a cultural holiday, with its themes of new beginnings, possibility and the joy of being together. But this year? It seems presumptuous for me, a non-Christian, to lament the diminishment of the holiday, but it feels that way.

Mind you, I'm not saying there's no recognition of that Christmas feeling, be it religious or secular. It's rather that the real world seems to have put its thumb on the scale. People aren't afraid to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays," but there are so many distractions that are competing for attention, and sadly winning. Put another way, regardless of your political persuasion, it would have been more in keeping with the spirit of the holiday to look under the tree and find socks versus a reduction in the corporate tax rate.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is hoping for a quiet holiday. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down?

If you go online to buy a product or look for a restaurant or select a movie, odds are you read the reviews. Maybe not every one, but you likely glance at those at the top, scroll down a bit to see what's buried in the list, and maybe punch to the next page to see if the sentiment holds. Russians not withstanding, it's almost like judging an Olympic figure skating competition: you throw out the high and the low, and average those remaining to get a sense of how good or bad something is. 

Taken together, those reviews give you a reasonable sense of what you're looking at. After all, they are truly random: they can come from any place, person, age, gender or race. Sure, there are shills in there from friends, employees, paid endorsers or even reviewing "mills" in Asia. But the sheer number in and of itself can be a defense against fraud. For the top-rated items in question, an awful lot of people weigh in with their opinions and experiences, meaning it takes a lot of fakes to overwhelm the legit ones. Looking for pots and pans? Amazon's featured set has over 1700 reviews. Need running shoes? The best selling ones on Zappos have about 2500 positive and negative impressions. Want to see the latest superhero saga? "Justice League" garnered over 114,000 posts on Rotten Tomatoes. Spoiler alert: it was mostly splats. 

But for many products, the sample size can be surprisingly small. That's because there are so many products and outlets, fragmenting the consumer universe. After all, once you get off the well-worn path of 50" flat screen TV's at Best Buy, the possibilities are basically limitless. The result is that the top rated bread maker at has just 90 reviews. A top rated coffee maker at Bed Bath And Beyond clocks in with just 61 reviews. And maybe it's just that Santa hasn't made his rounds yet, but even at Walmart the Barbie Fashionistas Style So Sweet Petite Body Doll, as of this writing, has just 3 reviews. Now is Ken's chance. 

All of that means that your opinion of a less trafficked item can really count for something. Take something as pedestrian and unsexy as a name badge. For many of the events I deal with there are a lot of people swirling about, both staff and guests. It's not uncommon to for the client to provide some variation of a "Hello My Name Is" placard. But often we're on site and busy working long before the name badge machine shows up. And so I wanted a generic one to throw in my bag should the need arise. 

A quick scan online brought me to Better Badges, a small company in California.  For less than eight bucks delivered, I could have a pair (one to use, one as a spare) of a basic engraved plastic plate with my name. I filled out the order form, typed in my credit card info and hit send. A few days later, a small package showed up. I opened it to find my badges: simple, clean, just want I needed. Packed alongside was a note thanking me for my order, and asking me to leave a positive review, or to contact them if I couldn't. 

Well, I couldn't. While the physical quality of the product was fine, the spacing on the printing was not. There was slightly more space between some letters than others. So I wrote them a note, saying that it was not the "5-star quality" they promised. They quickly wrote back and said they would remake and resend. A week or so later I got 4 replacements with a note apologizing for the error, asking me not to mention the first screw-up, and to leave a positive review this time around. 

All this for a minuscule order where the postage and replacements probably cost more than the total sale. But with such a small pool of customers, every opinion carries a lot of weight. I could be a giant maker, or a giant killer (badge division). I thought about what to write so as not to be misleading to another buyer. I settled on "Good price, good service." All true. I just hope their next customer has that exact experience, only the first time around.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually doesn't write reviews, he just reads them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

No, This Way

In June of 1989 during the protests in Tiananmen Square in China, a single man stood in front of a column of rolling tanks, forcing it to stop. The footage of Tank Man, as he became known, ricocheted around the world, and became a symbol of what one person can do in the face of authority. And this in China, a country and a culture where individual shows of defiance are few and far between. 

It's a bit of a stretch to draw a direct ink between Tank Man and 28-year-old Xiao-Cai who lives in the city of Lianyungang in that country, but then again maybe not. While the identity of the man from 1989 has never been definitively established, we do know some things about both individuals. Both are Chinese males who saw an injustice and were willing to stand up to it. Both took matters into their own hands. Both were willing to risk their lives to accomplish their goals. But while Tank Man was trying to stop a potential massacre, Mr Cai was just trying to get home from work on time. 

At least that's what he told police after they tracked him down. Actually, "tracking him down" was pretty easy, as he was still on the site of his act of defiance, identified easily by the paintbrush in his hand. Seems that Mr.Cai took a bus to work each day, and was constantly bottle-necked and delayed at the intersection of Keyuan and Cangwu on his way home. While he was sitting there looking out the window and not moving, he noted that there were open lanes for left turns, while his lanes for going straight were jammed. Depending on where you live, think 5PM and the Holland Tunnel in New York, the I5 between the 710 and 605 in Los Angeles, or Interstate 35 virtually anywhere in Austin. 

If you conjure up your own local road-rage locale, you know how Cai felt. But while there are those among us that would just keep reading our books or listening to our tunes or napping, he had had enough. So one day he decided to make things better, at least for his particular situation. As you can plainly see on the surveillance footage, he showed up at the offending intersection with a ruler, a bucket of paint, some professional reflective finishing sand, and the aforementioned brush. 

In plain sight as traffic swirled around him and pedestrians walked by, he very carefully added a "straight ahead" arrow to the (in his estimation) under-utilized left-hand turn lane. Not wanting to inconvenience those who did indeed need to go that direction, he also added a "waiting area" to some shorter stretches of pavement further down the road. No stick figures here, the arrows are in the same style as the official markings, and other than their newness, blended in with the existing symbols. 

In fact, so perfectly did he create his little revolutionary modification that had the cops not caught him in the act, it's possible that the markings would have completely escaped detection until some traffic engineer stumbled upon them. As it was, either someone glanced at the surveillance camera monitor, the cops happened to drive by or someone called it in. No matter: there was Cai, paintbrush in hand and unapologetic. According to the police, he "acted ignorant" when questioned. But the tape left little doubt. And so they hauled him in, fined him 1000 yuan, or about $151, and painted over his handiwork. 

One wonders if Cai was just improving upon the exploits a deliveryman in the city of Jinhua from earlier in the year. There, officers walking patrol were baffled by a series of strange markings on the pavement. After viewing surveillance footage, they found that the man had pulled his van over in an area where there was no parking, then got out of the vehicle and drew his own space with chalk. However, his lines were incomplete and easily identifiable. In that respect Cai was an evolutionary step up. 

Small chafes against authority, to be sure. But you gotta admire Cai's inventiveness. After all, who among us hasn't tried to buck the man, and brought 13 items to the empty 10-item-only express checkout lane? It might not be a tank, but sometimes the situation requires you to take matters into your own hands.


Marc Wollin of Bedford takes deeps breathes when he gets to toll booths. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Size Matters

No, it's not about that. 

It's about a place to sleep. Specifically, one of the several lightly used bedrooms in our house now that we are empty nesters. It's not a new state of affairs for us: our kids have been out of the house and on their own for a number of years. Like many parents, when they first moved out we kept their rooms pretty much as they left them. It was partly sentimental, partly bait, partly inertia. Why changed what worked for so many years, especially when it might induce them to visit, and no one was forcing us to change anything? 

Not surprisingly, they preferred their new lives and digs, and came back to stay infrequently. Their rooms started to look more like museums, with old trophies and certificates gathering dust, and cracked and peeling paint. All in all, it was time to clean them out and up, throwing away boxes of school projects ("The History of the Submarine") and awards ("Music Student of the Month/January"). We gave them a fresh coat of paint and shuffled the furniture around to make them more inviting to potential visitors, even if they hadn't earned a Third Place Youth Soccer trophy. 

The one upgrade we didn't deal with was the beds themselves. The existing singles had been purchased originally as big-boy beds. At the time those mattresses seemed so large for little kids. But life happened, along with innumerable growth spurts, and they were never replaced as the boys grew older. Their feet might hang off the end a bit, or they would sleep with their knees bent, but no one thought to complain (much). Until they went away to college and experienced extra-long twins, it never even seemed worthy of a discussion. And when they finally came home after school, it wasn't to stay, so those potential user-driven requests for an upgrade never happened. 

But with our DIY makeover, I became one of those users. More and more as we are getting older, our nighttime schedules are shifting. Our asynchronous body clocks meant that my wife and I evolved a habit of reading in different rooms and drifting off separately. She took our queen bed, while I squatted elsewhere on an easy chair or one of the twins, eventually returning to our room late at night. And yes, those singles were uncomfortable: my feet hung over the edge, and my knees hurt from bending. It's amazing the boys hadn't had us hauled up on charges of child abuse. 

We had an old double in the (official) guest room, but it was really not much better. Wider, yes, but not longer. It was OK for an occasional visitor or if you were under five and a half feet. I found myself going bed to bed in search of the perfect fit, though it wasn't firmness I craved but size. Nothing felt right. The result was that when I came down in the morning I more resembled Papa Bear as opposed to Goldilocks. 

We talked about it and considered our options. We looked at catalogs and surfed online. We decided to add to our sleeping inventory, but were overwhelmed with all the possibilities. Then one night on my way home from a meeting in Philadelphia, I found myself passing Ikea. Enough talking. With 40 minutes left till closing, I swung in and raced to the bedroom display area to find a simple frame and mattress. I flopped around on several models like a fish, then scribbled down the unpronounceable all-in-capital names and part locations. I flew to the open warehouse, grabbed a cart and loaded it up with a KOPARDAL frame, LÖNSET base and MORGEDAL mattress. Some Tetris-esque maneuvering got it all in the car, as long I drove slowly and didn't hit the brakes too hard. 

The next day we spent several hours hopscotching furniture from one room to the next, then several more with the hieroglyphic directions to put the new queen together. Eventually we finished it off with a SÖTVEDEL comforter, the VÅRÄRT cover and the NATTJASMIN sheets. Exhausted from text-screaming in Swedish, I couldn't wait for bedtime. When it came, I anxiously slipped between the sheets with my book. It was warm. My legs were straight. And I fell asleep and never made it back to our own bed. 

Not too long, not too short: just right.


Marc Wollin of Bedford sometimes takes a nap before bedtime. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.