Saturday, October 20, 2018

Bodies in Motion

The flight wasn't dangerous per se, certainly no more or less than usual when you consider that you're hurtling through the sky at 500 miles an hour in an aluminum tube at 28,000 feet doing something of which only birds and bats are capable. But with that stipulation, it was bouncing around more than usual because storms had turned what looked like a clear sky into a dirt road after a rain storm. All those thermals and cross winds meant that rather than read or work as usual, I had to close my eyes, turn the vent above my seat to full, and breathe deeply to quiet my stomach. 

That's because I am of the many who is susceptible to motion sickness. About 5% of the population gets it in a bad way, with about the same percentage immune to it. The rest us are at risk with the number of those regularly afflicted estimated to be between 30% and 60%. It's caused by a mismatch between what you are seeing and what your inner ear is sensing, and can happen, in the words of Dr. Seuss, in a boat, on a plane, in a car, on a train. I'm not sure what rhymes with virtual reality, but it can happen there as well, as I can attest. I think I bear perhaps the singular distinction of being one of the few to lose a simulated race at the NASCAR museum because I almost got sick in a stationary Camaro. 

Actually that last point is starting to become a real issue, as VR is finding a toehold. All that soaring and flying over simulated whatevers can cause the same mismatch that you get from riding in car, causing your innards to rebel. No less a luminary than Palmer Luckey, the founder of Occulus Rift, the VR firm bought by Facebook for $2.3 billion, highlighted it as major issue for the industry. In fact, one of his major goals for the next five years is a "universal solution for vestibulo-oculular mismatch in virtual reality." Translation: he wants to make it so you'll be able to put on VR goggles and play Super Mario Brothers without puking. 

In the physical world there are any number of remedies, each of which has individualized and situational success. As I did on my flight, you can close your eyes to eliminate the eye/ear disconnect, breathe deeply and get fresh air. Ginger is also supposed to help as is acupressure, which is like acupuncture but using fingers rather than needles.  And there is medication like Dramamine pills and Scopolamine patches that one can take. 

The latest "cure" is available for preorder in France and just coming to these shores, courtesy of a collaboration between car manufacturer Citroën and startup Boarding Ring. They have developed the Seetroën glasses as a way to calm your lurching stomach. Looking like a Buzz Lightyear accessory as redesigned by Andy Warhol, the glasses consist of 4 "lenses" with no glass, two facing front and two on the side for your peripheral vision. Each has a ring around it filled partially with a blue liquid. As you move your head, the liquid moves in the rings, creating an artificial horizon on the edge of your sight line, soothing your brain and tamping down your breakfast. They say when you first feel ill to put them on for 10 minutes. In that time your brain will resynchronize your eyes and ears, then you can take them off and go back to reading your phone. Anecdotal reviews say they do indeed work, assuming you are a) willing to shell out the hundred bucks or so that they cost and b) are prepared to be laughed at by the other passengers on your conveyance. 

For physical travel, it might be worth trying. As to VR, I'm not sure they would fit under a pair of whatever one wears when teleporting to a 3D world these days. I only know that when I tried to watch Steve Spielberg's "Ready Player One," which takes place mostly inside a video game environment, I felt the earth shifting even though I was sitting in my family room watching TV. So for me at least, glasses or no, I think I'll stick to watching galaxies far far away as opposed to crawling inside of them.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't do well on boats. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hang Ups

We've all become Ernestine. That famous Lily Tomlin character from the breakthrough 1960's comedy show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" was an operator who worked for "The Phone Company." Not the Verizon or AT&T of today, but a composite Bell System of yesteryear, whose tag line was "We don't have to care: we're the Phone Company." It's not that attitude that we have all assumed, but rather her opening gambit, whereby she dialed a number, then counted off, "One Ringey Dingey. Two Ringey Dingeys."

We count because it's no longer as simple as letting it ring until someone on the other end picks up. In college there was an informal metric as to how long you had to wait before leaving a class that no one showed up to teach. If it was an instructor, there was 5-minute slippage factor. If it was an assistant or adjunct professor, the window was 10 minutes. And a full professor was allotted a grace period of 15 minutes before you could leave without repercussions. In that same light, we seem to have developed a sliding scale to hanging up before the beep.

If you're calling someone who works at a desk, where the phone is within easy each, you might give them 2 ringey dingeys, 3 if you're feeling generous. There are either there or they're not. They are either available or they're not. They are either willing to talk to you or they're not. In each of those negatives, all the ringing in the world won't get you answered. 

However if your call is going to a mobile phone, it's somewhat gender and age specific. If it's a teenage girl who has it in her hand, one ring is all it takes. If it's a male or female who keeps the phone in their pocket, a 2 count is sufficient. In both cases, they have the phone at the ready, and are ready for you. Or not. But it's a quick decision and reaction. However, if it's a woman who keeps it in her pocketbook, you have add a few more for the fish-it-out factor. And if it's your mother, double or even triple it be by land or cell.

That said, in almost no case should you actually take the bait and leave a message. Voicemail used to seem like such a great idea. You called to talk, couldn't make the connection, so you left a message. At the other end, the person you were trying to reach could call in at their convenience and hear a recording of you saying exactly what you wanted them to hear. How cool was that?

But that was then. This is now.  And now no one likes voicemail. Not the people leaving it, not the people picking it up. If you're the caller, when the beep occurs, it's like a director shouting "Action" to a scene you haven't rehearsed. And if you're the callee, you have to find the time to retrieve, play and then delete the message. Considering how fast things move today, in many cases that elapsed time from message left to retrieval of same renders the contents moot. With all that in mind, we're starting to see some companies whose phone system will no longer even take a message. A standardized recording asks you to try and reach the employee at another time, or send an email or text. It's more efficient and less costly. The bottom line is that in most cases if you get the beep, you should just press the "end" button and try a different path. And that goes for messages for your mom as well: after all, she likely has forgotten how to retrieve them anyways.

Gawker has a list entitled "Don't leave a voicemail message if." It includes anything time sensitive, anything that you deem important, or if your message is simply a request to call you back. They say it's OK to leave a message is you can't text, if you're going to sing into the phone, or in the words of the old Stevie Wonder song, you just called to say I love you. Oh, and one other possible reason: you're going to die, and want the person at the other end to be able to save your last words. Other that, when you hear the beep, just hang up.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has learned to not leave messages, even for his mother. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Dunkin' Who?

A number of years ago I sat in on a meeting as an AT&T exec gathered a bunch of employees together for a brain storming session about the company's future. On the list of topics to discuss was what to call their retail stores. He pointed out that the future of communications would revolve around new technologies, and while phones might be a part of it they might also be in a different form. In that light, using "phone" in the moniker might be shortsighted. After all, the company only had to look at its own history: AT&T was the official name, but those initials came from American Telephone and Telegraph, highlighting a technology that went the way of the dodo. He also brought up the example of Radio Shack, at the time a thriving firm. An apt name when they were created, but at that point outdated: they didn't sell a lot of radios and their stores were hardly shacks. 

Fast forward, and the company's stores are known as, well, "AT&T Stores." While not the most original nor the trendiest (hard to delete all the vowels when one of the three letters in your name is an "a"), as long as they are still in business and go by that name they are probably protected from having to change the signs out front. The product mix inside doesn't really matter. Should they decide to add AT&T branded shoes, burgers or tennis racquets, they would be good to go. 

Which brings us to Dunkin' Donuts. Or as they will be known starting in January, Dunkin'. Officially, they say the name change is just a nod to streamlining, adopting a name that many already use. After all, they say, look at how Federal Express became FedEx, how Consumer Value Stores became CVS, how Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing became 3M. And not to worry, they say, they will always have donuts. They are just focusing more on beverages, which account for 60% of their business. Or as Thrillist writer James Chrisman noted, "It's also probably time for some existential reckoning when you find you're a donut chain serving tuna." 

(The interesting yin and yang is that another company in that space did the same kind of thing, but in the other direction. Seeing that their future was too tied to just hot beverages, Starbucks Coffee became just plain old Starbucks. They see their growth beyond java, and didn't want to be pinned into a corner by their name. Or maybe both companies just have a Cher-Beyoncé-Madonna-Sting-Bono complex.) 

But just as KFC deleted the "Fried Chicken" from its name, the bait-and-switch is really to convince us that they are more than their namesake. Rather then be known as the "go to" standard for the foodstuff on which they built their reputation, they want to be thought of not as specialists but as generalists. The goal is for the consuming public to think of them more as a "lifestyle brand" than as a simple purveyor of one thing done well. With that name change, or so the thinking goes, they can branch out, moving beyond a product that is increasingly out of favor (in both Dunkin's and KFC's case, foods that are bad for you) and into whatever is most promising (foods that are less bad for you). 

One wonders about the wisdom of this. In this hyper focalized world, that specialization can be an asset. If I want donuts, I go to Tim Horton's or Krispy Kreme or Dunkin DONUTS. Those are the mother ships, done right, without apology. Do they really see a future in trying to out Starbucks Starbucks? That also means going toe-to-toe with Stumptown and Peet's and Coffee Bean. Is that really a caffeine fueled rumble they can win? 

Doing one thing well is no vice. Or as noted so eloquently in the song "One Trick Pony" by Paul Simon, "He's a one-trick pony/One trick is all that horse can do. He does one trick only/It's the principal source of his revenue. But when he steps into the spotlight/You can feel the heat of his heart come rising through." I for one can feel the heat of those Boston Kremes and Toasted Coconuts and French Crullers. And if I all I want is a cup of coffee, there's a cart on the corner.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford requests donuts in place of birthday cake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Points of Interest

It's the first thing I do when I get to the gas station. Before I open the fuel door. Before I select the grade of gas. Before I insert my credit card into the pump and punch in my zip code. Out of the bottom slot in my wallet I slide out my Speedy Rewards card and dip it into the machine. 

Just one thing: I'm not really sure why. 

If we were talking any one of the airline frequent flyer programs of which I am a member, that I would understand. Since these programs were first created back in the 1970's, they have morphed from simply giving out plaques and promotional materials to good customers to becoming self-contained economies on their own that rival many nations. Total membership numbers are closely guarded secrets and hard to come by, plus there is huge overlap from one to another. But estimates of the largest, the American Airlines AAdvantage program, run from 60 million to 100 million members, collecting and spending trillions of miles worth billions of dollars. It's as if you took everyone in Thailand and put them on a plane to Orlando. 

And I am one of those citizens of the air. Like many, I wouldn't dream of booking a ticket and NOT being scrupulous enough make sure my ID number is correctly recorded. For even as they keep ratcheting up the floor and tweaking the earning criteria, after only roughly 1000 flights from here to Los Angeles I can accrue enough miles to fly to Atlanta for free, as long as I travel on a Tuesday evening and am willing to make a stop in Detroit along the way. 

Building up my account also vaults me into the rarified air of elite members.  Depending on the program, these usually include tiers identified by precious metals (silver, gold, platinum), precious gems (opal, sapphire, diamond) or some other precious hierarchy that gives nod to the need to feel superior (preferred, elite, VIP). Doing so gives me additional perks, which in an airlines' case means things like early boarding, lounge access and special peanuts. 

That said, it's worth noting that as the rewards levels have been upped and more people are flying more often, the peaks have become harder to scale. The net result is that whereas it used to be commonplace to score an upgrade, now only the most grizzled road warriors can expect to get bumped to the front. Or as I realized when I looked for my name on the monitors at the gate on my last flight, I was so far down the list that I would need everyone in business class to get off, and then all the people who replaced them to also cancel, and then maybe, just maybe, I might have a shot at a seat close to the pilots. 

Still, that vision of being part of the 1% has so entranced the buying public that any company that sells anything has created a loyalty program to entice and reward their best customers. From the American Express Membership Rewards Program to MGM Resorts MLife Rewards to Marvel Comics Marvel Insider program, there are a million ways to collect points or visits or miles or visits and trade them in for free stuff, discounts or enhanced experiences. Collect enough, and you can ascend from a mere consumer to preferred status, allowing you to claim a free trip (Amex) to a discounted stay (MLife) to an Ironman pin (Marvel). Only you can decide if it's worth listening to a Black Panther Podcast to claim the points. 

Which brings me back to my Speedy Card. I registered for it not because I wanted a free bratwurst from those silver grilling rollers (1350 points) nor a bag of Speedy Gummi Worms (1250 points) but because, well, I don't know. I guess because it filled some deep internal need. After all, as one reviewer noted, these days all customers are children at heart and feel we should be rewarded for our participation. And so almost more important than a 20% off coupon is being flagged as Elite (Run Everything Labs) or Circle5 (Neiman Marcus) or Addict (AHAVA cosmetics). 

So when you see me at the pumps, recognize me for what I am. Not just another schmo filling his tank with 10 gallons of Plus. No, my 4502 points qualify me as a Speedy Rewards Perk member. Show some respect.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford has points in places he will never use. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reduce, Reuse, Rewear

I know you've done it: you start the day in shorts and short sleeves, but as the day goes on you get chilly, so change into warmer stuff and toss the first outfit onto the chair in your bedroom to wear tomorrow. Or you have to go to a meeting, so take off your tee shirt and jeans toss them in the same place. Or you change into a fresh shirt and slacks to meet some friends for dinner, and figure you'll just wear the same clothes for the following night's outing, so add them to the stack. That pile? It has a name: it's called a "chairobe." 

According to Urban Dictionary, the term has multiple meanings. Yes, it includes all the lightly worn cast-offs as described by the situations above. But it also encompasses things you've worn for the day but are still relatively unstained and unmussed, say a sweater or the top layer of a multi-layer outfit. And then there's those various items you cycle through while looking to find the right outfit for your upcoming do, but forgo rehanging in the closet. Regardless of the source, research says that 60% of millennials have just such a pile in their apartments. Anecdotally, I would say you can broaden the demographic of practitioners to Baby Boomers, Gen Xer's, Next Gen's and Whatever-Other-Gen'er's. 

Regardless of your cohort, in the name of water conservation, labor conservation and plain old wear and tear, you can make a pretty good case for not laundering some of these aforementioned items after every use. Of course, there are some articles that should be dropped in the basket regardless of how short of time they are on your body, including exercise gear, underwear and socks. As to the rest, the web site Popsugar has a guide to "How Many Wears Before You Need to Wash." Assuming you haven't spilled anything on them, it marks tops, dresses and leggings at 1 to 2 times, pants, skirts, and shorts at 3 to 4, and jeans, jackets and blazers at 5 to 6. But even if that shirt is in pretty good shape, that doesn't mean that it doesn't need a little freshening up. And that's where Day2 steps in. 

Available at this point only in the UK, Day2 is an aerosol spray from Unilever that does three things: gets rid of odors, removes creases, and softens fabric. It's sort of a combination wrinkle-release spray crossed with Febreze, but made specifically for clothes. It comes in three strengths (based on the fabrics, not how bad your clothes smell) including Original, Denim and Delicate. The instructions say for you to you spray a garment lightly on both sides, smooth out the wrinkles with your hands, hang it up and leave it for 15 minutes, and your duds are ready for another go. Each bottle has enough stuff for about 25 uses, which reportedly saves 16 gallons of water. 

Like many modern conveniences that make life easier or are good for the environment, it's doesn't necessarily make economic sense. While it saves water it doesn't save money: at about $10 a bottle, you could buy an equivalent amount of regular detergent to do 40 or 50 loads. But it's not completely apples to apples: less washing means your clothes should also last longer and not fade as quickly, prolonging their life. So you can make a case that it might be a "better living through chemistry" moment. 

For those really adverse to doing the wash, you might want to consider a triple team on your clothes. If all you have are mussed up duds that need a smoothing, there's Downy Wrinkle Remover. If you drip some coffee or sauce on your pants, a Tide To Go stain pen might erase the damage. And Day2 promises to get you through another 24 to 48 hours without making a trip to machine. After that? Well, as with almost everything else, there's an app for that. Flycleaners, Cleanly and Rise are all sort of Uber-for-Laundry services where you can plug the particulars into your phone, and someone will come to pick up your dirties, do your cleaning and deliver those jeans back to you. iLaundry, if you will. 

Or you could just go through life naked. Your choice.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford generally screws up the laundry without specific instructions from his wife. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Scan I Am

Since I was going to be in the neighborhood, my wife gave me a small list of items to pick up at the grocery store. I dutifully traipsed up and down the aisles, finding the stuff she requested, then headed to the front to settle up. There were several manned checkout lanes in operation, but all had patrons with carts filled to overflowing. On the other hand I was sporting a little red basket with just a few items, so headed over to the do-it-yourself checkout scanners off to the side. 

Those devices have become ubiquitous over the last bunch of years to the benefit of all. From the standpoint of the consumer, when it comes to routine tasks we have demonstrated our preference for quick and efficient process over human interaction time and again. Whether ordering toothpaste online, getting cash from an ATM or depositing a check, why talk to anyone when all you need to do is press a few buttons, swipe a card or take a picture? 

As far as the merchants are concerned, it's a win-win. We are doing their work for them, saving them labor costs, and getting us in and out more quickly. Sure, they can hire people to greet us by name and ring us out. But that's an expensive "hello." It makes more sense to have those folks available to solve problems or offer personalized advice, as opposed to sliding a jar of peanut butter across a scanner, especially if we are willing to do it ourselves. 

And let's face it: in most cases it's a pretty straightforward process. Grab the item, rotate it so the bar code is facing the correct direction, and slide it past the laser. It registers the total on the screen and you're on to the next. When finished, punch the "pay" button and settle up. And off you go, the sooner to do battle in the parking lot and be on your way home. 

That's when it all works the way it's supposed to. But like any system, when put into play in the real world, there are quirks. Sometimes the reader doesn't read, and you have to keep waving the item around until it does. Sometimes it doesn't register being added to the bag on the other side, and you have to pick it up and put it down a second time. But by and large, when you consider all that is happening, the thousands of products to be recalled and priced, and the ease with which an unskilled consumer can manage a complex device, it's actually pretty remarkable. 

Unless you have produce. If all we ever bought were "apples," it wouldn't be an issue. But there are Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Cortland, Gala and Braeburn, and each has a different ID number and associated price. A skilled checker knows them as 7834 and 3343, 2324 and 2122, 1243 and 9473. But we civilians have to find those codes, paging through pages of pictures, dredging up distant memories of second grade math problems. 

And so it was with the cucumber in my basket. Was it Lebanese or Telegraph, Armenian or Muncher? Yes, they are all green, but one costs 82 cents, another twice that. I put mine on the scale, then scrolled the screen looking for the correct match. But all the cukes looked the same. I punched in what I thought was the right code, only to be told it was thee bucks. Couldn't be right. The attendant on duty had seen this play before. She quickly came over, swiped her admin code and cleared out my mistake. Casting a practiced eye over my item, she keyed in the correct code to the tune of 69 cents. She smiled and stepped away, leaving me to try again with a chili pepper. But once more, I was a babe in the produce woods: Serrano or Shishito? All looked pretty much the same on the little icons. Whatever I keyed in cost 2 bucks, more than it should. Again the professional stepped in, waved me away, and corrected my error to be 79 cents. 

Next time, to borrow a Seussian construct, if my basket has nothing but cans and crackers, scan I am. But unless that cilantro has a tag on it with name and serial number, I'm going to the manned lanes. Because it all looks like parsley to me.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford gets confused in the produce aisle. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online , as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Working the System

We were looking to go away, and I was pricing the airfare for the two of us. I punched around a bit looking at different routings and timings, and found something that made sense for about $570. I jotted down the details and moved onto something else, making a mental note to discuss it over dinner. In talking it over we agreed it made sense and that we should go ahead with the purchase. When I finally got back to my computer the next day and had a few minutes to follow up, I entered our preferences once again. Same routing, same timing, same airline, same class of service. No difference, except now the ticket cost $1070. 

They call that "dynamic pricing." It's when you are charged for an item or service based on demand, timing and other factors. And indeed one of the best examples is airline seats, where virtually every person on a given flight is paying a different amount. But now it seems as if every single item you buy is priced within a window which runs from 20% below the cost of the raw materials, up to a markup of 300% over that baseline. It's left to you to bring down the gavel on the number that makes the most sense for your wallet. 

It used to be just antiques and artwork got this treatment. Sure, there might be variations by geography, but pricing was fairly standardized, set by the maker or supplier (the famous "MSRP" or manufacturer's suggested retail price), and then tweaked by the seller as they wished. So a coat was more or less the same everywhere: maybe $100 at Macy's, $104 at Bloomingdale's and $98 at Sears. Sure, a sale at any individual outlet might affect the final tally, but it usually wasn't worth the gas it would take to drive around try to save the five bucks.   

But then Amazon and Google made it possible to compare prices with click of a mouse. And if retailing's head wasn't already spinning, now it simply blew up. There was no way to compete on price when your competition was everyone everywhere in every possible configuration. So merchants adapted to fight fire with fire. Now even the same outlet has different prices depending on whether you get in in the store, purchase it online, or buy it online and have it sent to the store for pickup. 

They also use that same adaptability to tilt the equation in their favor when they can. Take that airline seat. Perhaps in the day between my initial inquiry and the time I went back to purchase the ticket planeloads of people decided they had to fly the same route and timing. And so the price of the available seats, as a simple matter of supply and demand, jumped up.  Possible? Sure. Likely? Not so much. 

More likely is that they noted my interest (with the ubiquitous computer "cookie") and adjusted on the fly. I didn't buy the first time, but came back and looked at the same thing a second. Hence, I must be seriously interested, so why not jack up the price?  Almost doubling the bottom line is an extreme example, but you see the same routine in smaller amounts when looking at pants, toothpaste and computers. And often, just because it's the path of least resistance, you click "buy." 

But not this time. On a hunch, I went into my browsing history and deleted my most recent efforts, making sure it covered the time when I did my initial inquiry. Then I went back and started again. Sure, I had to log in as if I was a new customer, but that was the point. And sure enough, up popped the original price I was offered, as if I was there for the first time. Had those same planeloads of people suddenly decided they didn't need to fly on the day I was going and cancel their reservations? Again, possible. Again, not likely. 

Like "Cheers," sometimes it's nice to have a place that knows your name. But when that means they charge you more, maybe it's better to pull the ballcap down low over your eyes and pretend to be a newcomer. After all, on the internet no one knows if you're a dog. Or a frequent flyer.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford like to beat the system at least sometimes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Mouth of Luxury

Almost anything basic can be made into a luxury item. Doesn't matter if it's a shirt or an iPhone case, a hat or a backpack, a wallet or a computer. All it takes is some interesting trim, an exotic ingredient or two, maybe a non-utilitarian feature, and before you know it the price has doubled and you can't take it out in the rain. 

As to whether it's worth the extra coin or not, well, that's a very individual determination. After all, at the most basic level, there is no difference in a pen from Bic or one from Mont Blanc. Both have ink. Both can sign a check. Both clip to your pocket. But while the latter starts at around $400 and models go well beyond a grand, you can get a pack of 12 of the former for under ten bucks. Yet there are some that would rather be caught with kiddie porn than use a Clic to sign the bill at the Four Seasons. 

You would think that there are some things that are immune to this distinction. Ping pong paddles? You can get them made with reclaimed walnut and leather handles from Tiffany for $650. Ice? Gläce sells 50 round or square luxury "cubes" for $325 a set. Door stop? Take a Savoy vase, fill it with concrete, then smash the vase and you have a stop that will set you back $3500. What's next? Luxury dental floss? 

Actually, yes. 

That's the pitch of Cocofloss. Even though recent studies have questioned the benefits of flossing, dentist Christle Cu was a firm believer in the practice. But her patients weren't doing it, not even her own sister Catherine. Christle started to wonder how she could turn the tide. She knew that when patients came in to have their teeth cleaned, many seemed to love the fact that she had 20 different flavors of polish from which to choose. "It's a luxury to have choices," she noted. And so she wondered: could she extend that luxury to those little pieces of string? 

She started experimenting with different materials, even picking up seaweed from the beach and running it over her teeth. With her sister's help, they called factories and manufacturers around the world before settling on a material. While most of the brands you find in a drug store use nylon or Teflon fibers, they decided to go with a blue polyester string made up on 500 strands impregnated with microcrystalline wax, essential oils and aromas. It's also coated with coconut oil, a nod to wellness enthusiasts and based on a trendy (but unproven) technique for cleaning your choppers by swishing the stuff around in your mouth. All together they say the fibers give it texture, the coconut oil offers some lubrication and the turquoise color helps you see the crud you scrape out of your mouth. You might call that disgusting: Chrystle calls it "immediate feedback." 

As to flavors, they have that too. There's the mint that others sport, as well as strawberry, coconut, orange and watermelon. And the packaging isn't a white box that looks like it belongs in a first aid kit, but rather sleek and modern plastic in splashy tropical colors like tangerine orange, neon green, and bright pink. In all, it's trying to take that Bic and make it, if not a Mont Blanc, then at least a Cross. Of course, buying what they describe as a "beach towel for your teeth" will cost you: as opposed to about two bucks for the regular stuff, a package of bright blue coconut flavored Cocofloss will set you back about 4 times that. 

I queried a dentist I know as to the effectiveness of it, strictly from a clinical standpoint. I know she's a proponent of flossing as part of good dental hygiene. But as to the claims of efficacy of the product? "Coconut oil is the latest rage that is a bunch of snake oil. Zero evidence that it does any good. Save your money." But I pushed her: it's a beach towel for your teeth! It comes in watermelon! It has 500 fibers! Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop endorsed it! Her response was less clinical and more, how shall I put it, emotional: "Make stuff up and get rich. Why didn't I think of this?????" 

Hermes bookmark for $370, anyone?

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford usually buys the basic model of anything. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Drizzle Too Far?

On the surface you would think I would jump at this one. After all, it involves some of the things I care most deeply about. But there are lines you shouldn't cross, even if you can. Take Oreos. More than a hundred years ago the predecessor company to the current day Nabisco knocked off a competitor's product and put some marketing muscle behind it. Whether because of the taste, the design, or the fact that it soaked up just the right amount of milk when dunked, Oreos eventually shouldered Hydrox out of the market and became the standard by which all other mass produced cookies are judged. Over time the line has been expanded to include Fudge Mint Covered Oreos, Double Stuf Oreos and bite-sized Mini Oreos. And while I prefer the original, I can see the appeal of the offshoots. 

Seeking to capitalize on the name the company created other forms, like bars, cereals and ice cream studded with the stuff. OK, at least those are true to the original black and white/chocolate and vanilla scheme. But then they started going too far. Mint and coffee fillings, vanilla outsides and chocolate insides, and orange ones for Halloween. Then in 2013 they jumped the shark and created Watermelon Oreos. See them on the shelves at your local store? No? I rest my case. 

We're talking a Frankenstein-esque creation, right up there with Cheetos Lip Balm, Colgate Beef Lasagne and Gerber Beef Burgundy Adult Singles. Separately, brands and flavors loved and used by millions. Together, not so much. You would have thought that someone sitting in a boardroom somewhere would had said, "Hey, wait a minute. We make and are respected for our lighters and pens. But we have no expertise or track record in fragrance. So tell me again why you're so sure that Bic Parfum is a sure fire winner?" 

So normally if I were to see an announcement of a new product that includes chocolate and peanut butter, I'd be all in. After all, those are two of the major food groups in my life, the former in moderation, the later more prevalent but which I have convinced myself is healthy if not also fattening. Separately, if I saw another rollout touting a fresh idea in doughnuts, a fantasy food I would wallow in more frequently if not for the fact that I have a lot of respect for my arteries, I might be intrigued. But the two together? In theory, in some cholesterol-free heaven, maybe a possibility. However on these shores, it's a drizzle too far. Which might help to explain why I wasn't jumping up and down at the new Krispy Kreme Reese's Outrageous Doughnut. 

It's not that I'm a purist. After all, what is a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup if not the bastard child (though a great tasting one) of a jar of Skippy and a Hersey's Kiss. And it's not like this new thing is even outrageously bad for you, just nominally bad. Clocking in at 300 calories, it's dents your physique about 30% more than a Snickers bar, but still less than a Starbucks Grande Caramel Frappuccino. So as a one-off treat, it's not the end of the world. (I won't point out that for me doughnuts of any type are like crack: I can try and eat just one, but it can't be done. But for the sake of the discussion, let's assume you have self control to which I can only aspire.) 

No, my objection is in trying a little too hard. As they describe it, "Reese's Outrageous Doughnut features a chocolate yeast dough, dipped in Hershey's chocolate fudge icing, topped with mini Reese's Pieces, then drizzled with Reese's peanut butter sauce, and topped with salted caramel sauce." When did they know it was enough? Had they stopped at any of those commas and just skipped to the next, it would have been more than adequate. Instead, they emptied the pantry: "Wait! We haven't used that bottle! Or that one! And what about those sprinkles? Put those on too!" Somebody at corporate should have used a little restraint. Then again, this is coming from a person who stands at the counter eating straight from the half gallon of ice cream because then "I'll only have a few spoonfuls." So on second thought: wanna split a dozen?

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has a sugar jones of dangerous proportions. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Shape Shifted

Most new things aren't really new, they're just new to you. Other than restaurants, movies and songs, most new things are simply the latest iterations of something already created. You can even tell by the name, like Samsung Galaxy 9 or Air Jordan 11. That's not to say that the number always connotes the size of the series: there aren't 365 versions of Word nor 400 of Lexus, but you get the idea. 

That said, there are discoveries of truly new things we didn't know about before. Recently in the sky it was the water on Mars and new moons around Jupiter. On the ground it was a new species of tick, that sound waves float upwards and the finding of a new mineral never seen before on earth. There were also negative proofs: scientists announced that the marine mammal swimming off Hawaii which looks to be a cross between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin is indeed a dolphin hybrid, and not a cross species "wholphin." They say that's not really possible, anymore than a monke-affe, a cow-orse or a demo-publican, though sightings of the latter had been rumored before the 2016 election. Sadly, all are all just unicorns. 

But you don't have too look far to find a radical new thing that really does exist. That said, like the other examples, it's not really new, nor even unobserved. Rather it's been hiding in plain sight forever, and only now is being singled out as something unrecorded. Or more correctly, no one cared about it before, and so it is not so much "new" as un-labeled and un-described. And so as of this past week, joining the ranks of named shapes like the cube, the sphere and the dodecahedron we now have the scutoid. 

In a paper published in the journal "Nature Communications," researchers at the University of Seville describe how, as organisms develop, their organs stretch and get pulled in various directions. They bend and wrap themselves in different ways, resulting in a novel shape being created by the cells that make up the structure of those organs. The key characteristic is that the shape allows for two or more of these three dimensional forms to fit tightly together, enabling the growth of the organ. Or as described in the paper "cells in bent epithelia can undergo intercalations along the apico-basal axis. This phenomenon forces cells to have different neighbours in their basal and apical surfaces." That paints a picture, doesn't it? 

It was left to some of the researchers to try and detail it in English, and more specifically, in a language that we non-mathematicians could understand. They settled on a describing a shape that is six-sided at the top and five-sided on the bottom with one triangular side. Or as Javier Buceta, one of the collaborating researchers from Leigh University described it, "It's a prism with a zipper." Uh, thanks Javi, for that clarification. But to his credit he also added "The way those cells pack together in three dimensions is actually kind of weird." 

The researchers concentrated their work on the embryos of fruit flies, and found  the shape in structures from salivary glands to egg chambers. In short, everywhere where organs curved and twisted, well, there it was. Extrapolating to other organisms, including us, it turns out the living world is lousy with the shape, we just didn't know it was there. It's on your skin, in your nose, under your ear: you are literally teeming with the little zipper-sided suckers. 

As to the name, officially it was chosen as the shape resembles a part of the certain beetles that is called a scutellum or a scutum. Unofficially, it was called a "Escu-toid" after one of the leaders of the research group, Dr. Luis Escudero. Either way, while it's not exactly onomatopoetic, it does have a great sound. That means it's only a matter of time before it works its way into everything from fashion ("a tunic-like top with scutoid sleeves") to recipes ("cut the cucumber into small scutoids") to expressions ("he was acting like a total scutoid"). And come the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Gold Medal in freestyle snowboard will be won by the first person to nail a jump which has two and a half revolutions and three twists, otherwise known as a Backside Half Scutoid.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford loves new things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Keys to the Kingdom

To a certain extent, all this focus on cybersecurity is focused in the wrong place. Yes, the perpetrators are numerous and dangerous, and their past activities justify the huge amount of resources expended to thwart their attempts at breaching our public and private systems. But it's not like they are acting alone. It's not just Russia or North Korea or some shady James Bond-esque villainous organization of criminal masterminds who have banded together to bring the world to its knees by disrupting the global iPhone charger cable market (though that would be truly horrifying). 

If they are sneaking up to the front door, we are the ones providing the key. 

That's the conclusion of a study done cooperatively by Dashlane, a password management company, and the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Tech. Dr. Gang Wang, Assistant Professor there, granted Dashlane's Analytics Team access to an anonymized database of 61.5 million publicly available passwords. The results were published in a paper called "The Next Domino to Fall: Empirical Analysis of User Passwords across Online Services," and the results will surprise absolutely no one: we, the users of all these systems, are complicit in our own problems. 

The researchers looked at the data, and found bad security practices made by those who create passwords, or in other words, you and me. There were obvious keyboard patterns, not-so-randomly chosen letters and numbers, popular brands, bands and teams, and expressions that, were you a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune," you could win a million bucks by getting just one letter. 

A high frequency of the sample included "Keyboard Walking." This is using adjacent letters, numbers, and symbols on the keyboard to create a, well, not so random password. Aside from "12345678" it also includes "1q2w3e4r" and "zaq12wsx." If those last two seem pretty random, take a look at a keyboard: each is composed of a key pattern on the left side you can replicate with one finger. It may save you a few seconds in the typing, but it will take hacker a fraction of that to break it. 

Another large subset was passwords related to love and swearing (though it's not really clear why the researchers conflated these two groups). In the first category, numerous entries were "iloveyou" and "lovelove." On the other side of the emotional ledger (oh, THAT'S the reason they put them together), the flip side of the coin comes up. And so an equally large part of the sample included "f*ckyou," "a**hole" and "bullsh*t." And yes, the last three do contain so-called "special characters," though that hardly makes them more secure.

Favorite brands had a big showing, with frequent entries of names such as "mercedes," "cocacola" and "snickers." Likewise pop culture was well represented with "spiderman," "metallica" and "starwars." (Odds are there has been a recent uptick in "blackpanther.") And you can infer the interests and allegiances of an entire subset whose frequent selections were "liverpool," "chelsea" and "arsenal." 

You might think that you're being clever when choosing one of these combinations, and that some guy named Vladimir or Ei-Bai would never think that you would use that particular key. But forget the image of a guy slaving over a keyboard trying different combinations seeing what will work. As an ethical hacker (one who does this on behalf of a company or agency as part of their security testing) explained to me, they don't actually think about it at all. They take a trove of potential accounts, a listing of the most popular passwords, set up a program to compare one against the other, press "enter" and head out for a pizza. When they get back, before they fire up Grand Theft Auto, they see if they got any hits. So "imbeautiful" is not going to stop anyone. 

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan was asked about cybersecurity and what his company was doing to insure the safety of their data. He said that that business unit is the only one in the company that doesn't have a budget. He didn't mean that they didn't have to account for the monies they spent. Rather, he meant that there was no set amount that they couldn't exceed if that's what it took to do that job. That's said, no matter how massive and sophisticated the lock is, it's easy to open if the key is "iloveme."

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Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to make long and different passwords. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

This Week in Candy

If your focus is politics, it's been a big news week. Russia. Tariffs. Immigration. Broaden your worldview a little and you pick up stories about fires in Greece, record heat in Japan and a catastrophic dam breech in Laos. In sports there were dispatches about the Tour de France, holdouts in the NFL and the first Italian to win a major golf tournament. And further afield you had updates about the finding of water on Mars, fines against Facebook and progress against Alzheimer's disease. It's gotten so if you don't devote a good portion of your waking hours to reading, listening, surfing or watching, you will most likely have to say to someone tomorrow, "Wait a minute. What happened?!" 

So you could be forgiven if you didn't see the candy news. 

It's certainly a sub-sub-sub genre. But it's no less important if your sweet tooth is a major part of your life. Look at it this way: if you are in the market for a car, news about vehicle sales is important. If you have a disease, breakthroughs in treatment warrant your attention. If you need shoes, a sale at Kohl's is of the highest priority. So if you're like me, and can't pass by the cabinet without opening it to see if there is a spare Hershey's Kiss that somehow escaped notice, these stories are of the utmost interest. 

Top of the heap was the big Toblerone announcement. It's been two long years since they changed the look of the iconic bar. While it was still a triangular stick of peaks of chocolate-filled nougat that was designed to echo a line of dancers at the Folies Bergere in Paris, the distance between those peaks was increased, as if there were fewer girls doing the Can-Can. Whether it was at the direction of the candy's overlords, the New Jersey based Mondelez International, or driven by the company's Swiss based confectioners, the goal was to keep the price of a bar down. But this week, on the 110th anniversary of the candy, word came down that it was reverting to form. They hired another dancer, and went back to the original number of chocolate nubbins. Hiring another girl back into the troupe will also likely increase the price, but good choreography costs money. 

Necco wafers share almost nothing with Toblerone other than the designation of "candy" and a birthday a few years apart more than a century and half ago. But on the other side of the confectionary universe where they dwell the news wasn't so good. The company, which had been in bankruptcy and was sold to a new owner, was sold again and shut down, effective immediately. That's likely only to intensify the panic-buying which has been happening since the original bankruptcy announcement back in May. Economics might finally kill off the confection, previously so indestructible that Admiral Richard Byrd took 2.5 tons of them on his two-year exploration of the South Pole in the 1930's. 

If you're like me, in a pinch you've reached for breakfast cereal as a sweet snack. This week comes word that you no longer have to shade the truth, and get your jones on via Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs. That's because Sugarfina released their "Candy For Breakfast" collection. Offerings include is a Fruity Cereal Chocolate Bar, which is a pale pink slab topped with a layer of fruity cereal and rainbow sprinkles, as if Fruit Loops exploded onto chocolate. There are also Cinnamon Crunchies, which are cinnamon toasts are dipped in milk chocolate and covered in a crisp candy shell. And Gummy Eggs, which are orange juice-flavored gummies that look like the sunny side up variety, and which the company says "pairs 'eggscellently' with fresh-squeezed mimosas." 

And if all that wasn't enough, word is there is still a pair of Trolli James Harden Commemorative Gummy Sneakers available on Amazon. Only three of the actual size six-pound confection were made, which features raspberry, lemon, strawberry, and blackberry flavors. The "shoes" cost $2,677, which is the cumulative points Harden scored on his way to becoming NBA MVP, and the proceeds will be donated to charity. The reviews say that the gummy design helps to control foot movement, while also offering up a snack after those long workouts. 

Next week: news you can use in the sock world. Stay tuned.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford is tired of hearing the same stories over and over. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Listening Between the Lines

We have come to think of all of our electronic devices and apps as neutral. While we may favor a particular one over another, we take the delivery of the service or information that they offer to be even handed: they are non-denominational, non-confrontational and non-judgmental. Sure, different people will get different results depending on their input. But regardless of whether you are right or left, male or female, tall, skinny, or bald, the output comes out the same way, with no affect or shading. No "Here's that stupid book you wanted. No "Here's the dress you asked for, but it won't look good on you. No "Here's the directions on fixing the sink, but knowing how you are with tools, you'd be better off just calling a plumber."

When the interaction is with the written word, it's pretty straightforward. As the playwright Tom Stoppard put it, "Words are innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that." That doesn't mean that words have no power. With them you can make love or start a war, and even do both with the same ones strung together differently. Or as Stoppard continued, "If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little." 

But the words you get online generally don't nudge the world, just you. Call up a recipe or a do-it-yourself repair or a list of hotels and, as Sargent Joe Friday used to say on "Dragnet," you get "just the facts, ma'am." It's up to you to parse and evaluate the rundown based on whatever factors are important to you. Is there a pool? Does the project require a circular saw? Does this banana bread have chocolate chips? 

It's no different with driving directions. You may prefer Waze or Google, but it's somewhat a distinction without a difference. In either case you punch in where you want to go, and in seconds are given a dispassionate set of directions showing how to get there. While there is usually a highlighted route, it is generally based on optimizing time and distance. It leads until you lead, then it follows. If it says to make a right and you go left, it simply adjusts. The screen doesn't erupt with "Hey! Idiot! I said go RIGHT! Are you deaf?" All you get is a notice that it is recalculating based on the new information. We could all take a lesson. 

However, as we make the transition to spoken interactions, it is getting a little trickier. The coders have worked really hard to carry over that same neutral affect in the tone of apps and assistants. Yes, you can get celebrity voices and alternative accents. But in general they have defaulted to the female gender and aimed for NPR Newscaster, avoiding haranguing girlfriend, whining daughter and unapproving mother. ("You missed that turn. Your father and I are very disappointed in you.") 

However I noticed a small break in the wall in the latest update to Google Maps. If I'm in a busy area, I've gotten into the habit of using it even when I know where I'm going, as the program accounts for traffic. Recently I set it to navigate home coming out of the city. As I got off the highway, I realized I needed to make a detour to get gas, so I went left versus right. Rather than just recalculating and then giving me a "turn right" at the next appropriate place, she said "OK." Then a pause. Then the directions. 

"OK." Just two letters. An acknowledgement that something had changed. But it was more than that. I actually changed directions to see if it happened again, and indeed it did. Maybe I'm just reading into it, but it also sounded like she disapproved. What came out was "OK, turn left." But the subtext was "O. K. You don't want to listen to me. But you're in charge, so if that's what you want, I'll crunch the numbers and come up with a better way. But this one's on you. Turn left." 

I turned off the program and continued on my way. I got gas and headed home, wondering if maybe I was being oversensitive. When I got home I told my wife about a new project that would require me to be out of town on our anniversary. Her response? "OK." Hmmmmm.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford still prefers typing to talking. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Missing this Marc

Manager Ian Faith was discussing the marketing of the album "Smell the Glove" with the band members in his charge. The proposed cover art of a greased naked woman with a dog collar was deemed offensive, so much so that recording label rep Bobbi Flekman noted that "both Sears and K Mart stores have refused to handle the album." Band member David St. Hubbins observed that fellow rocker Duke Fames' new album had a much worse cover, where he was tied up and being whipped. Faith pointed out that it was that twist, as to whom was being whipped, that made all the difference. A thoughtful St. Hubbins summed it up this way: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." 

You can relate almost anything in life to a sequence from "Spinal Tap," and target marketing is no different. When it works, it seems like magic. Go online and search for an item, looking at features or prices. Make no commitments of any kind. Then come back later, and if the algorithms all work exactly right, every subsequent interaction online tempts you with that product or service. Clever is elevated to brilliant. 

But it's not always that way. Just because you can pair up consumer and consumed doesn't mean there's a taste let alone an appetite. Big data can turn out to be just a big scoop, and not a finely tuned filter. The results, which at first seem prescient, turn out to be simply off base, then comical, then annoying. Or as St. Hubbins noted, just plain stupid. 

How else to characterize Bark? A job and leads generation matching service based in the UK, it appears to scrape the internet pairing up individuals and opportunities. Find people who list themselves as plumber or photographers, and match them with people needing pipes or pictures. Take a little cut of the action, and on to the next. Airbnb and Uber are essentially no different, and they have grown from nothings to forces with which to be reckoned. 

So when I got my first email from the company I didn't delete it immediately. Like many I get loads of junk mail and idiotic offers. Still, the subject was "Event Quote," and while that's not exactly how I describe my world, it's not that far off. Plus just enough legitimate looking information peaked through the first few preview lines of the text to make me curious (and yes, you would not be wrong in calling it "bait"). So I opened the letter. 

"My name is Lisa and I am contacting you on behalf of Latoya looking for Event Planners in Bronx, NY, 10467." Not to jump to conclusions, but most of my clients don't go by first name nor live in the Bronx. Still, I read on. Indeed, it offered to connect me with Latoya if I thought the project was a good fit. While there was usually a fee involved for such a connection, they were offering to waive it the first time as a way of getting me to use their service. By itself, nothing wrong with that; it's what makes the world go around. 

I read further. The size was a little smaller than I usually handle at 50 to 100 people, but not a turn off. The date was good, a slot in late August. But then it went a little further afield. The services requested were "setup and decorating." Not my bailiwick. And the last data point confirmed we were off the reservation. Under "Type of event" was listed "baby shower." Let me say for the record that we have two boys, my wife had showers for each, but the last person you want executing such an event is me. 

But I was in their system. The next day seven offers came, the day after that two more and so on. Events ranged from weddings to birthday parties to more showers. Services requested ran from decorating to entertainment to babysitting. My favorite request was for help at a "Slime Convention." I looked it up: there was indeed an event upcoming in Connecticut popularizing a kid's toy that was expected to attract a crowd north of a thousand. Still, the service requested was "cleanup." Yes, maybe I'm missing a big opportunity to diversify my business and grow my book. But if it means picking up slime, I think I'll take that chance.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford is always looking for new challenges. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Encounters of the Governmental Kind

You can rail against intrusive government, sticking its nose into your bedroom or boardroom. Or overbearing government, forcing you to have clean tailpipes or clean speech. Or big government, with obscure agencies such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Board or the Japan-United States Friendship Commission. Foolish, dangerous or useless, unless you want protection or validation for any of those things. Then it's not Big Brother, but Big Hero. 

Certain agencies can also be whipping posts, though it can depend on which side of the political wind you're on. It wasn't too long ago that conservatives loathed the Supreme Court and loved the FBI, with liberals having the opposite perception. Of course all it takes is a few headlines and flips of the calendar and it's the other way around. As with the weather, wait long enough and it will likely change again. 

That said, there are some perennial punching bags regardless of your political persuasion. The Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration are just two bad boys where rightness or leftness is immaterial. No one likes waiting in actual or virtual lines, and both of these entities have a reputation of being the gold-plated standard for that annoyance. Tell someone you have to engage with either, and they will likely react as if you've just told them you have a terminal disease and offer their sympathy. So perhaps because of that perception I was more than pleasantly surprised in my recent encounters with each. True, it's a low bar, but within the world of the dammed that they inhabit I was actually downright impressed. 

I was forced into the arms of the DMV by virtue of the fact that my license was due for renewal. As it has always been, the process is fairly straight forward: you fill out an application, and bring it and the supporting documentation to the DMV office for validation and a photo. But it's that "visit the DMV" part that can be scary. Not scary as in "guy jumps out with hockey mask and machete," but scary as in "waste most of my day." And in fact when I got there the parking lot was already full, a bad omen. Inside I could see people queuing up through the grimy windows. Sigh. I left my car and trudged inside to join the line. 

But a surprise: it moved quickly. The clerk was quick and efficient. She checked my paperwork, then sent me to another window where there was no one waiting. That clerk scanned my documents, took my picture and sent me to yet another window. A third clerk reviewed all, took my credit card, printed out a receipt and temporary license and sent me on my way. Total elapsed time inside? Less than 30 minutes. If I had known I would have some much extra time I would have put a cake in the oven. 

Round two was with the Social Security Administration. Some kind of mixup caused me to get a form letter saying I had to go online to correct an error in my last filing. I did so, but hit a dead end in the system. Up popped a box asking me to fax (fax!) a letter to them with a copy of the form giving me problems. I assumed it would be well into the 2020 presidential campaign before I heard back. 

But barely a week later my phone rang with the caller ID being the SSA. I warily picked it up. A youngish-sounding gentlemen informed me he was in possession of my missive, and had the account in front of me. He said he found the problem and corrected it. He asked me to log in and give it a go. And sure enough, it all worked. He asked if he could do anything else. Aside from solving the problems in Washington, I told him thanks, he had done quite enough. 

Small triumphs? For sure. The way we would hope government should respond? Absolutely. A portend of future interactions? One can only hope. With so many systems and models in place in the private sector aimed at better customer service, perhaps it was inevitable that some of it would rub off on the bureaucratic dinosaurs. It almost makes me want to call the IRS just to say hi.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to file the correct paperwork. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Of Mice and Cars

It was time for the last of the prepaid service appointments for my wife's car. Nothing wrong with the vehicle, just the usual maintenance items needed after you accumulate 30,000 miles on the odometer. She made an appointment and dropped it off, assuming they would change the oil and filters, and check critical parts like the brakes and such. So it wasn't too much of a surprise when they called to say they had an issue to discuss. She assumed it was the tires or some other normal wear and tear items to which they wanted to call her attention. What she wasn't prepared for was the picture they texted her of the problem they found. Not low treads on the tires nor thin pads on the brakes. 

It was a mouse in the engine.

The little fella was dead but intact. He (or she) was laying in what looked to be a cozy nest that had been made in the wheel well. In the photo you can see the critter curled up as if sleeping, along with some leaves and twigs, and what might even have been some food. Had we found the same thing in the woods outside the house we wouldn't have looked twice. Even if we stumbled across it in the basement or garage we would not have been surprised. But nestled above a size 225-60-18 Yokohama Geolander G91HV All-Season Radial? Not something we expected.

Turns out not to be too uncommon. Seems that when you get right down to it the interior of a vehicle has a lot going for it in the rodent condo department. It's warm and dry, especially during winter months. If you have ever snacked in the car or used the McDonald's drive through, odds are there are a few old pretzels or French fries under the seat providing a food supply. All those little pools of water in the crevices and cracks offer up some thirst quenching liquid. And it's usually quiet after dark, which is prime time for rodent house hunting. Not quite a gated community, but it's a relatively safe place from predators if you don't mind the fact that the bedroom might drive away during the day and return at night. 

In fact, it seems that cars are just one spot that mice and their cousins like to take refuge. Just this week came the story of a broken ATM in India. Where the techs finally got around to opening it up, they discovered yet another furry critter, also deceased. This one had eluded security cameras and slipped into the bank unannounced, then into the ATM. All those freshly printed banknotes proved the perfect bedding and an irresistible place to hole up for the night. By the time they sorted out the gray and purple shreds and tallied it up, they counted about 1.2 million rupees or nearly $18,000 in cash that had been used not to feather the nest, but to become it.

What to do about the problem? Experts say to seal up the spaces they like to go, as well as clean out any junk and food which might attract them. You can also use a repellant, such as commercially available ones made from the dried urine of a predator. If you prefer your BMW not smell like a litter box, you can also use a mint extract, which seems to be the one flavor we like of which they are not really fond. 

Google "mice in car" and you get more than 62 million hits in less than half a second. There are videos, tips, tricks and products to help you out. (There's also a group out of Atlanta called "Mice in Cars," and a link to their single "Good Men Are Monsters." As an indie rock group, odds are they too have slept in their vehicles, so the name is not too much of a stretch.) In my wife's case, they steam cleaned the engine, and returned her car rodent free. To try and hopefully staunch further infestations she opted not to use any commercial applications in favor of some peppermint oil in the wheel wheels, and a peppermint oil soaked cotton ball in the glove compartment. The car now smells like a box of Altoids, but it is Micky free. At least for now.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford uses old fashion mouse traps when the need arises. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Strategic Supplies

Say what you will about the meeting between Kim and Trump in Singapore, but the general feeling is that we've stepped a little further away from the nuclear abyss. That's not to say that we won't see another round of "my button is bigger than your button" between two notoriously thin-skinned leaders. But at least for the present, and probably through a long, drawn-out set of negotiations which may not lead anywhere, odds are that it will take a little more than just simple taunts to start launching missiles. 

But nuclear weapons are just one type of threat. To be sure they are the biggest and baddest. However, to use them is most assuredly shooting yourself in the foot in the biggest possible way. The interconnectedness of today's world means using that kind of weapon is not a zero sum game. You might decimate another country physically and win the battle, but in one sense you will lose the war. That's because your export market goes up in that mushroom cloud along with all the buildings and people. Blow them up, and you are basically plunging a stake into your own economy as well. 

As such, the focus is shifting from physical threats to the economic variety. Other than fighting terrorism, the only way nation states are using the term "war" these days is in relation to trade. We lobbed tariffs at Chinese products ranging from aircraft tires to boat motors to chicken incubators. They fired back with tit-for-tat penalties on a wide variety of goods exported from us, including fresh or dried guava, stainless steel pipes, and fresh or cold boned pig forelegs, hindquarters and their meat. Nasty and probably counterproductive, yes. But in the scheme of things, unless you were just about to pick up a cheap Chinese electrical particle accelerator, relatively surgical and targeted pickings from both sides.   

In fact, in light of current events, any country needs to consider who they are pissing off, and what can kind of leverage they really have. If North Korea's biggest export to us is nukes (the incoming variety) and that is taken off the table, what arrow in their economic quiver can they threaten with or be threatened with? Their biggest export is coal briquettes, which are kind of like the stuff you use in your grill, but made of asphalt. They are also big in processed fish. So I think we may have the upper hand there. 

Then there's the situation with our neighbor to the north. Odds of a shooting war with Canada are pretty slim. But a lot of goods go back and forth across that border. That means their biggest weapon (and also pressure point) may be their dominance of the global maple syrup pipeline. Do we really want to antagonize the country that exports 82% of the world's supply? Pancake eaters from Duluth to Austin should be shaking in their boots. 

That's not to say that it doesn't cut both ways. Canada is having issues right now with tariffs on its pulse exports, which are the dried and edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Seeking to gain some trade leverage, back in March India increased tariffs from 44% to 60% on incoming chickpeas. Still, Canadian chickpea producers aren't panicking just yet, as the main crops sent there from the 18,000 pulse crop producers in Saskatchewan are lentils and peas. Most of the Canadian chickpea crop goes to the US and Turkey. But if we draw a line in the sand over hummus, it'll be a whole different story. 

It's the same all over. Benin has to worry about it's shea butter exports, while Palau has to be concerned with its tuna industry. Tonga is big in vanilla beans, while Jamaica has rum. In Australia it's coal, in Chile it's copper, in Madagascar it's coffee. As Boston's David Ortiz said, "Everybody has a responsibility. Even the batboy." 

But this is all just mosquito bites. Sure, there are pockets in each country that will be hurt by the various nibbles and nicks. If you're a Kentucky bourbon producer, you're not happy. However, making knit caps more expensive or tightening the supply of lawnmower engines is unlikely to bring an economy to its knees. But keep your eyes open. When you start to see tariffs on iPhones and Taylor Swift songs, you'll know that the gloves are finally off.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford wants to protect the domestic peanut butter cup market. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Water Torture

Anyone who has ever owned a home, anyone who has ever rented a home, anyone who has ever lived in a home has had to make repairs. Some are little minor fixes: covering over a nail hole, replacing a light bulb, tightening a door handle. Others requite a bit more knowledge: changing a switch, stopping a drippy faucet, patching a ding in a wall. Still others are major projects that require the right tools and knowledge: fixing a broken window, replacing a faucet, repairing almost any type of appliance. It all depends on your comfort level and skill. Some are at home with a wire stripper or an electric sander, while to others a Philips screwdriver constitutes cutting edge technology. What is child's play to some is terrifying to others. 

There's also the realization that just because it looks easy doesn't make it so. It's tempting to watch the repairman come in, unscrew half a dozen screws, then reach in to the washing machine/dishwasher/refrigerator, pull out the broken frizzit and put in a new one in 10 minutes, and think you can do it yourself and save the $180 service call. But that presumes you know which screws to remove, know what's making the noise, and have bought a 4T32re frizzit. The left handed version. 

It's not like many electronic items, where turning them off, then on again cures 90% of all problems. Regardless of where it is on spectrum, the common bond in repairs is that you have actually do something. The problem comes when you think you know what your doing: it all seems so straightforward until it isn't. 

My particular Achilles heel is things involving water. If it's not too complicated, I'm OK with some carpentry, and can paint competently. Unless it involved the mains, I'm even OK with electrical: the worse that can do is kill you. But plumbing? When that goes south, it goes very south, and winds up costing a lot of money. 

Twice I have approached what seemed to be very simple repairs, only to have them spiral out of control. The first was cleaning out a slow draining sink in the basement of our first house. The drain pipe had a knockout plug on the bottom. I thought I could just twist off that cap, and clean out the accumulated gunk: what could be simpler? So I grabbed a wrench and twisted. And twisted. And twisted some more. Eventually it gave way, along with half the pipe. We had to call in a plumber, who said the pipe was too old to even try and repair. By the time he traced it back to something solid he could latch onto, my simple drain repair cost $1000. 

Or this week, when the supply line from the wall into the toilet was dripping. My wife implored me to call a plumber, but it seemed pretty straight forward. I took a picture and went to the local hardware store. I showed it to the guy, and he led me to a rack with the exact part, a little mini garden hose with twist-on connections at each end that cost eight dollars. What could be simpler? (Now, where have I heard that before? Hmmm.) 

I went home and got down on my hands and knees. I twisted the supply knob off, but something didn't feel right. I turned it back on, only to realize it was stuck in the off position. I twisted it back and forth: nothing. I got some tools, took the handle off and used a pliers to twist the little nubbin: still; nothing. My wife saw me running back and forth between my toolbox and the bathroom. Her look of concern was exceeded only by my own. 

After fiddling with it for a few more minutes I realized that once again I had been had. Knowing at least to stop before I made it worse, I placed the toilet off limits and called a pro. He came 2 days later, and indeed had to drain the system, cut into the wall and install a new valve and feed. Rather than eight bucks, the total was $200 and change. At least I was able to return the little hose to the hardware store. 

For me at least, the lesson learned is whenever it involves pipes and water, call a plumber. What could be simpler?

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford is proud of his screwdriver assortment. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Low Hi Tech

I have spent way, way, way too much time on this. 

It should be easy. There are countless options in multiple formats, and that might just be the problem: too many choices. As Goldilocks said, it can't be too big or too small, it has to be just right. Or to quote someone less famous, more verbose but just as knowledgeable, it was Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who wrote "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." She was talking about beds; he was talking about pornography. No matter, my goal is the same: I want something very specific. 

In this case it's something very simple: a journal. More correctly, it's a mileage log for my vehicle. Years ago I started to keep a small notebook tucked into the little pocket on the door of my car. Since my office was in my house, from a tax standpoint, I was able to deduct the cost of traveling to and from projects and meetings. Every year the IRS publishes a rate that is used to calculate this specific deduction: this year it's 54.5 cents per mile. Drive 10 miles to a job, and you can deduct $5.40 off of whatever you make from that project. It adds up: over the course of a year it can enable you to reduce your taxable income by thousands of dollars. 

The one requirement is that you are supposed to keep contemporaneous records. That means that you are supposed to make a note of that mileage when it happens, along with the date, destination and reason for the trip. Thirty years ago when I started the only way to really do this was to look at the odometer on your car and write it all down as it happened. Hence the state of art was the notebook and pencil. Of course these days, with Google maps and smartphones, you can easily reconstruct it after the fact, and do it while sitting on your couch in your bunny slippers. 

But old habits die hard. On each step up the technological ladder, I adapted my practice to the device. When I got my first electronic personal digital assistant, a Sharp Zaurus, I used it to record my notes. Then I did the same with my Palm Pilot, both first and second generation. I think there also a Sony device in there somewhere along the way, and maybe something from Casio. Eventually I made the jump to a smartphone, and found an app the did what I needed, basically replicating my record keeping with electronic pencil and paper. 

Like many, I've upgraded my phone over time, and had to go through the process of reinstalling my favorites apps, only to find out some are no longer available. No worry: there's usually an updated version, or a similar clone with better looking graphics available. This time around I didn't so much upgrade as rebuild; my phone was getting buggy, so I wiped it clean and started from scratch. It takes a few hours, but it's like a cleanse: all runs much better once you get rid of all that, well, let's just call it "electronic residue" that has built up in the pipes. 

But turns out my old mileage logger was no longer available, and there was nothing similar. All the variants I could find were fancy versions, with GPS and map interfaces, built in calculators for gas mileage and live cloud interface. I loaded one, then another, deleting each as I saw the bloat and overkill they entailed. I didn't like the graphics on one, found the fonts too small on another, and found the cuteness of a third with a little model car annoying. All I wanted was a simple low tech solution; all I got was cutting edge. 

As of this writing I'm still looking. Robert Watson-Watt, a British developer of radar in World War II, said "Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes." I don't even want third best, I just want what works for me. As Justice Stewart said, I'll know it when I see it.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford likes looking for the perfect widget. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Gabe vs. Peter

It's not really much of a grudge match. The protagonists have never met each other and likely never will. Even if they did, it's likely they would get along just fine, swapping stories and anecdotes over their shared interests: no grudge at all. And yet because of those shared interests they are going head to head, with the field of play being me. 

Or more accurately, my books, such as they are. Like many small businesses, I deal not only with what I like to do but also with a myriad of administrative tasks. By and large, those involve areas in which I was never trained. Yes, I know the old saying in the law that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. And you could also reasonably extend that sentiment to these other arenas. Still, in over 35 plus years on my own, I have of necessity often functioned as my own lawyer, paymaster, IT Director and bookkeeper. 

With one exception. When it comes to what I owe the government, I know I am over my head. Even before the latest bill officially entitled "To provide for reconciliation pursuant to Titles II and V of the concurrent resolution on the budget for fiscal year 2018" and more colloquially as the Tax Cut, I knew what I didn't know, and it was most of that stuff. And that's where Gabe came in. 

For more than 30 years he guided me through the thicket of rules and regs, helping me to pay my fair share and no more. A former accounting professor, he worked out of his converted garage, and every single message he left on my machine over three decades started with "Marc, this is Gabe, your accountant." Together we fought our way through 1040's, Schedule C's and the dreaded and incomprehensible K1. Through it all, we (using the papal plural) were only audited once, an ordeal that ended with me not having to pay anything other than a small adjustment, and with Gabe explaining to me the best attitude to have for our protagonists: "Screw them." 

But like Butch and Sundance, all good partnerships eventually come to an end. Gabe called me last summer to tell me he was hanging it up. "I'm 85, "he said. "Enough is enough." I didn't disagree, and offered him best wishes. He offered to see me through the rest of the year, but the handwriting was most assuredly on the ledger: I had to find a new accountant. 

And so we turned to Peter. He came highly recommended from a friend, had experience with my kind of business, and was knowledgeable and personable. Unlike Gabe, who steadfastly resisted all this new fangled com-poo-ter stuff and still faxed me missives, Peter is all electronic all the time. Documents, payments, reviews: all was uploaded and downloaded, scanned and e-whatever-ed. 

There are most assuredly other adjustments. Style, tone, accessibility; different for sure, but all easily negotiated and adapted to on both sides. The most obvious change is in the work product. With Gabe, he translated my scribbles into tax-ese, simplifying and combining my entries. So in the case of mileage, tolls and parking, I would list each separately, only to have him smoosh all together on a single line for "local travel." When I gave the same thing to Peter, he plugged it all in, and his software spit out 4 pages. The result was that while my entire tax transmittal from Gabe was a handful of pages, Peter's first draft almost gave me heart failure: it was 125 sheets long. The bottom line was the same, but many more electronic trees were killed to get me there. 

That aside, I'm happy to say the transition has been relatively painless. Like any new marriage, professional or otherwise, we're finding our level ground. We made it through tax season unscathed with a minimum of fuss. He managed to make sense of my rudimentary record keeping and got us back our returns to file on time. Most critically, he fulfilled the most important request I had. I asked that if in examining our returns over the past decades he found ways we could have saved huge amounts of money, he should just keep his mouth shut. Water under the bridge; I don't want to know. 

He has said nothing; we're getting along just fine.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to keep good records. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Just Between Us

All your pals are checking in. You got an email from Hotels.com, a nice note from Churchill Living and a similar one from NPR. And there were others from Uber, Marriott and Yelp. In fact, almost anyone with whom you've ever transacted online has likely reached out to you this past week to say, "Not to worry. We'll never tell anyone about you. It's all just between us." 

It's not like they are doing this because they suddenly developed a case of the infected privates. It's because the EU forced their hand. Starting way back in 2012, coincidentally the year the Facebook went public, the parliament of the European Union began work on what would eventually become the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. Finally passed in 2016, it gave companies 2 years to get their house in order. And so this past week, on May 25, all companies doing business in the EU territory have to comply with the new regulations. Or else. 

And there most assuredly is an "or else." Unlike so many laws and regulations that contain token penalties that amount to lunch money for the CEO, this one carries some serious bite. If a company is found to be guilty of playing fast and loose with your personal data, they can be fined to "20 million euro or up to 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater." Using Facebook's yearly revenue as an example, that means a penalty of $1.6 billion (that's "billion" with a "B") if found in breach. In fact, on the very first day the regulations went into effect, both Facebook and Google were hit with lawsuits accusing the companies of breaching the regulations and seeking to fine Facebook 3.9 billion euro and Google 3.7 billion euro. So much for a long relaxing Memorial Day weekend. 

The penalties are so onerous that a number of companies quickly blocked access to their sites for EU customers rather than face the possibility of not being in compliance. If you are in France or Luxembourg or Malta, and try to visit the websites of the Los Angeles Times or A&E Networks, you can't get there from there. As the notice on the Chicago Tribune site says, "Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism." Translation: better to bar you than have to pay up because of you. 

Some websites went even further, and shut down completely, turning out the lights rather than update their systems. As posted on the home page of Super Monday Night Combat, a multi-player game operating since 2011, "due to the upcoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline which is May 24th, we are sad to announce that we will be shutting down SMNC on that day." Admittedly over the last 30 days the game averaged just 5 players, but I bet they were disappointed. 

Contrast all this with rules protecting our privacy on these shores. In spite of breeches involving 45 million users at TJ Maxx in 2007 or of 1 billion users at Yahoo in 2012 or 330 million users of Twitter just this year, legislators here have, well, gotten really mad. "I think there is a political dynamic and clearly a policy interest in doing something to stop these breaches, by deterring them and helping people who are harmed by them," said Senator Richard Blumenthal or Connecticut. But while there may be some will, there doesn't appear to be a way, or even the knowledge of how to proceed. Several years ago, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee for Homeland Security Appropriations, John Carter of Texas, started a hearing by saying while it was important, "I don't know anything about this stuff." 

So thank you Kinga Gal from Hungary. Thank you Sergei Stanishev from Bulgaria. Thank you Jan Philipp Albrecht, Barbara Kudrycka and Monika Benova from Germany, Poland and Slovakia respectively. Each is an EU Parliament member who is protecting us from the evils of Google and Amazon and Russian troll farms. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, you could learn a few things.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford promises not to share your comments. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Good Row

Mick Dawson is headed to Hawaii; lucky guy, you might think. He is going there with his buddy Steve Sparkes, known as Sparky, and they plan on leaving on June 2nd from California. Jealous? After all, with the rough winter many of us have experienced it sounds like a trip any of us might enjoy. Well, consider a few notes to the journey. Depending on a number of factors the trip should take between 50 and 70 days. Their preferred mode of transport is a boat. And not just any boat, but a row boat. Mick and Steve will be one of six teams that will be crossing 2400 miles of ocean as part of the Great Pacific Race. Oh, and one other thing: Steve is blind. 

So maybe you'll pass on this one. 

Mick left his home Brighton UK and is currently in San Francisco preparing mentally, physically and logistically for the race. While he's not approaching it lightly, it's not completely virgin territory for him either. He is an experienced adventurer, having crossed the Atlantic twice and circumnavigated the Falkland Islands in a kayak. A former Royal Marine, he is also in the Guinness Book of records as the skipper of the first and only rowing boat to cross the North Pacific from Japan to San Francisco. He did that in 2009 with his friend Chris Martin, a journey of 7000 miles that took more than six months.   

Still, this particular crossing has special significance for him. "Sparky was invalided out of the Marines after losing his sight in the selection process for the Special Forces. In the 80's support for recovering veterans was limited to say the least, and it took ten years before he was given any rehabilitation. I'm glad to say that things have changed now with organizations like the two we're raising money for, The Royal Marines Charity and Blind Veterans UK." 

On a personal level, Mick knows that feeling that comes with doing something truly special, and wants to share that: "I also think this will give Sparky something that was robbed of him when he was injured along with his sight. He will be the first blind person to row the Pacific. Already a legend in the 'Blind Veterans' community helping others, no one could be more worthy of being that first person than Sparky. It will be an honor to help him achieve that." 

Of course, those are all laudable goals, but it still comes down to two guys in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean for more than a month. Not many people's idea of a good time. So why do it? For Mick, it dates back to the formative experience of turning 18 while serving in the Falklands War. "I had my birthday two days before the surrender, and had a highly sharpened appreciation for life, and how quickly it can end. For me it drove me to do something that mattered, and ocean rowing was it. It was a way to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things." Or as he put it in the book he wrote about his epic North Pacific crossing, "The colours are never brighter than when you think you might be looking at them for the last time. That intensity of life can become addictive, and rowing oceans was how I dealt with that addiction." 

Even though he knows the general gist of what he's getting into, Mick knows that there will be challenges: waves, sun, sharks and storms, not mention hours and hours of tedium as he and Sparky row and row and row. The race rules mandate that they do it all unaided, on their own for as long as it takes. They will be able to communicate and post their progress, and for the first time in the race's history, all crews are being provided with video cameras and the ability to upload footage along the way. Still, they will be alone, very alone. I asked Mick what he would miss the most. "There's part of me that wants to say nothing, which to a large degree is true. But obviously loved ones are the one thing you really miss and unsurprisingly appreciate more than ever." But he is an ex Royal Marine, so there is more: "showers, tea kettles, a comfy bed and a decent pint of Guinness!"

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford gets seasick easily. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.