Saturday, December 29, 2018

Rest of the Best

It makes some sense in athletics. After all, by definition, sports involves one team or individual playing against another with the goal of winning the contest. That means that, at least in that time and place, one entity is empirically better than the other. You can argue whether a one-off encounter is sufficient to crown the "best" in tennis or football or cricket, but if the goal is to have more points on the scoreboard at the end of the event (OK, less in golf, but you get the idea), then there is little doubt when it's over as to which side can hoist their index finger and chant that annoying refrain of "We're Number 1!" 

Not so in most other areas of life. Be it TV, movies or music, the rankings are subjective, with offerings appealing to one person and not another. That's not to say there aren't "winners" in those areas as well. People vote for the "Best Comedy" or "Best Actress" or "Best Performance by an Orchestra or Instrumentalist with Orchestra – Primarily Not Jazz or for Dancing" (yes, that was a real Grammy up until 1964), and the winner gets bragging rights and a lovely statue. But more often than not we acknowledge that there can be a set of things that are all good options. It's usually not a zero-sum game, unless you are a second grader or are in the White House. 

It's an exercise that reaches its zenith at this time of year. Name an area, and there is a list that some arbitrator has created based on a set of metrics important to them. Type "2018 Best" into your preferred browser, you'll get a dropdown menu with the big ones listed first: best films, best songs, best books.  They are the stuff of cocktail chatter, egging you on to debate with dinner companions or drinking buddies as to whether "Black Panther" bests "A Star is Born," if Cardi B is better than Ariana Grande, if "There There" trumps "Circe." (Note that the drinking buddies for that last discussion are likely sipping port, not beer.) 

But there are far more beyond those high profile rankings. Take yardwork. As one review begins "It can be tricky with so many choices out here to pick the best backpack leaf blower." In spite of that challenge, multiple sites have named the Husqvarna 350BT as the "Best of 2018." Testers remarked on its increased power, though noting it was also somewhat loud. Interestingly enough, that was the exact same critique in another listing for Lady Gaga in "A Star is Born." 

The lists roll on. Best upright vacuum? That would be the Kenmore Elite Pet friendly 31150 which is "no slouch at removing embedded dirt from carpet or tackling pet hair, either." Best Juicer? If you're talking the masticating type, it would be the Omega NC900HDC Juicer Extractor. If you prefer centrifugal juicing (no judging: it's a personal choice), it's the Breville JE98XL Juice Fountain Plus. And in Tamil cinema, a number of critics give the nod to "Pyar Prema Kadhal" partly because of lead actress Raiza Wilson who plays "a character who just cannot seem to make up her mind (in a very Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya Jessie-way)." Want to argue that one? 

Of course, if there's a best, there has to be a worst. In the roundup of "Best Foods" from the Minnesota State fair, the winners were grilled peaches, an heirloom tomato and sweet corn BLT, and an UpNorth Puff pastry filled with "snappy porketta sausage, vinegary dill pickles and — why not? — chopped cheese curds." Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, the oxymoronic Top Ten Worst included a pizza/waffle hybrid and a "Rainbow Cloud Roll" which is cotton candy rolled around three scoops of ice cream and filled with Fruity Pebbles." But even that didn't match up to the winner, a "Zesty PB&J Sausage." 

To truly be a renaissance man or woman you have to broaden your outlook. Sure, you can give kudos to the Apple Watch as the best way to tell time, or Sony headphones as the best way to listen to music. But if you're a dance enthusiast, I'm here to tell you you would be doing yourself a disservice to not look at a pair of Ryka Influence trainers, rated high in the category of "Best Zumba Shoes." Janet, don't say I'm not looking out for you.


Marc Wollin of Bedford does not have a favorite color. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Year in Rhyme

Twas the week before Christmas, and north, east and south
The credit card limits had all but run out
The computer had googled the world around
There wasn't a gidget or gadget that hadn't been found

But while this holiday season hasn't run out of steam
Most were setting their sights on the end of eighteen
A challenging year, one with ups and with downs
And too many twists, things usually not to be found

It started out weird, with the President of course
Breaking norms left and right, always done with brute force
January barely had started, when a low point was hit
He called countries "holes," the kind that rhymes with pit

The palace intrigue continued, Pruitt finally got burned
Manafort and Cohen told the feds what they learned
Rex was booted from State, and soon there was more
Sessions got canned, Kelly's eying the door

If two stories were big with implications for all
It was the Supreme Court fight, elections in the fall.
Wherever you went conversions turned to fights,
There was no chilling out on the left and the right

Now, as much as it seems that DC is the center
Other things as well set the tone and the tenor
Some good and some bad, yes, it's always that way
Eighteen was no different, so much to convey

In every arena of life there was a reckoning on guys
The story's not new, but it reached to new highs
A movement that started so small continued to swell
No pun is intended though it's not hard to sell

Moonves got booted, Harvey got nailed
Batali was cooked, Cosby headed to jail
It's surely not over, there's more on the way
#MeToo's hardly finished, the list grows by the day

Elsewhere too many shootings, no corner safe from the pain
Doesn't matter location, the story's the same
Parkland and Benton and Thousand Oaks too
No shortage of grief, but no answer simple to do

In football, the Eagles, in baseball the Sox
Not white, sorry Chicago, the Red checked that box.
Golden State kicked Lebron, and in dog news to go
The Kennel picked a Bichon, Flynn wins Best in Show

Away from these shores there was news but of course
The Brits headed for Brexit, a messy divorce
No one had the answer, on just one thing they all cared
Meghan and Harry got married, it was a princess affair

As always each year brings some tears and farewells
Of people who lived their lives bold and well
Paul Allen, John McCain, Stan Lee just a few
Philip Roth and Kate Spade are just some known to you

Tom Wolfe, Billy Graham, no longer here
George HW Bush left late in the year
Anthony Bourdain and Jerry Van Dyke
Aretha, Steven Hawking, just some we all liked

So much more has happened, there's not enough space
To review all the happenings in this one small space
Still it's good to look back, it helps us remind
As we turn to look forward and leave this one behind

So let me end this saying to all that look here
Many thanks for reading this space through the year
Merry, Happy, Joyous, and all that that means
Best wishes for the holiday, and a happy '19.


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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Robo Pizza

If there's anything we can all agree upon that is necessary for the future of civilization, it's pizza. Sure, we need doctors and iPhones, security specialists and Uggs, app developers and Netflix. But you gotta feed the people working in those areas and developing all that stuff. And more often than not that falls to what many believe to be the perfect food, one that cuts across class, cultural and geographic lines, one that nourishes college students, office workers and scientists alike.

That ubiquitousness would also seem to make the folks responsible for churning out this most important food group high on the, well, food chain of necessary professions. I mean, let's be honest: who's more important to the future of the world, to making sure all those visionaries have the energy they need to invent the next whatever, the folks running the Large Hadron Collider, or the folks running Vinnie's? 

But just like almost every occupation, technology is starting to have an impact on the field. In March Little Caesars applied for a patent for a pizza making robot. It includes a sauce spreading station, a cheese spreading station and a pepperoni spreading station. Meanwhile in France, startup Ekim has a showcase in Paris where their three-armed pizzaiolo robot takes about 5 minutes to turn out a pie. That may not sound like an increase in efficiency, but slow and steady wins the race, according to Chief Executive Philippe Goldman: "The robot has three arms, can co-ordinate tasks and make several pizzas at once. So yes, making a pizza takes 4 minutes 30 seconds but we deliver one pizza every 30 seconds, which allows us to deliver 120 pizzas an hour when a pizzaiolo can only make 40 pizzas an hour." 

However, to go beyond just proof of concept you need to look to Silicon Valley. There, just a couple of miles from Google across the Bayshore Freeeway, Zume Pizza has fully automated the process, and is delivering bespoke pies, sometime as quick as 4 minutes from your first ravenous phone call. 

The key for Zume is what CEO Alex garden calls "cobotic," where humans and robots work together, each doing what they do best. For people, it's problem solving, customer service and process improvement. For machines, it's repetitive tasks. So Garden as CEO sets strategy, while Rhoda Lesinski-Wolf as president deals with operations. Meanwhile, doughbot Bruno loads the raw pies into the oven, piebot Vincenzo takes the finished crusts out of the oven, and saucebots Pepi and Giorgio handle the sauce. Mushrooms and onions are handled by Bob and Jose, two humans who drive the trucks. 

And those trucks are the key. Specially built with finishing ovens inside, they are loaded up with partially baked base pies and forward deployed to high pizza consuming areas (like Google, in fact). When you place an order with their app, Zume's system figures out the closest truck and sends the order to that vehicle, for what the company likes to call "bake on the way." The driver adds toppings as necessary, puts the pie in the oven, and heads to your door. And before you can say parmesan, your dinner, late night snack or breakfast is at your house. 

When it works, it's impressive. Reviews on Yelp tout the speed and freshness of the pies. Says one, "It came SUPER prompt and hot and in a cool pizza 'pod.'" Another: "The ordering experience is simple and the timing for delivery was on point. The crust was perfectly baked and crisp." And one more: "The website ordering was flawless. The delivery estimate was perfect to the minute. The pizza itself came hot." It concludes, "I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords." 

Is this the future of pizza, and maybe even other fast foods? If you go Deep Throat and follow the money, you would conclude "yes." In a recent filing the company revealed that it got a cash infusion of $375 million, with another equal amount on the way. All in, that would value the firm at about $2.25 billion. That makes it more valuable than such better known names as Squarespace and Buzzfeed. For the record, those companies play in the world of retail and media. And Zume beats them both. Which drives us back to our original thesis that while bandwidth may be nice, the future will be built on a slice with sausage.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves pizza, but so does everyone. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

World's Worst Houseguest

If there is endangered land these days, it is not the beaches of Miami nor the coastline of California. It is the middle ground, a casualty of the extreme polarization of everything. You are either with us or against us, a hero or a goat, a traitor or a patriot. While most people profess to be in the middle, the reality is that more and more we are on one side or another. Black and white is the new gray.

What's perhaps more surprising is how easily and quickly one can flip from one side to the other, intentionally or not. People use to speak of "evolving their positions" and moving to a different point of view after "careful consideration of the issues." But that kind of gradual change is for Darwin aficionados only. Now the political winds shift with hurricane force, rearranging the goal posts and field of play overnight. James Comey and the FBI were hated by the Democrats and lauded by the Republicans for pursuing Hillary Clinton and her emails. But once they decided there was no there there, the dynamic flipped in an instant with Dems coming to the agency's defense and the GOP castigating the same. It's as if you went to sleep with a mountain view, only to wake up and have the seashore at your doorstep.

Then there's Julian Assange. Some call him a whistle blower, others an information terrorist. A crusading journalist, or an immoral muckraker. An independent agent, or a Russian patsy. And in still one more yin and yang, while Sweden has dropped all accusations related to his case, just this week it was revealed that the US has filed sealed charges against him. This last isn't just about what's printed in the papers. It means that setting foot outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been living and has not set foot outside of since 2010, could result in him being seized by the Brits and extradited to this country to stand trial on those charges.

The results of Assange's most recent legal challenge may also force a reappraisal by his supporters, though it's unlikely the other side would rush to his defense. The ruling by Ecuadorian judge Karina Martinez touched on several topics, including those that went beyond the affairs of state. In response to his lawsuit, she rejected his request for an injunction against new foreign ministry protocols which bar him from commenting on topics relating to Ecuador's foreign relations, which the country said made it harder to conduct diplomacy. She also set parameters on his visitation privileges, which he said kept him from seeing his children and conducting his work as a journalist.

However, those two rulings are not the straws that could break a liberal camel's back. No, what may force his defenders to reappraise their support is his personal comportment. It's bad enough that embassy staff complained about Assange riding a skateboard in the halls, of playing soccer on the grounds and of behaving aggressively with security personnel. Those they might be able to forgive, or at least look the other way, as manifestations of the stress from his self-imposed house arrest. But nothing will lose him support faster than the accusations that he makes a mess of the bathroom and worse, doesn't clean up after his cat.

Ecuador is not a particularly wealthy country, but Attorney General Inigo Salvador didn't say that the US$ 6 million it has cost to house Assange was the issue. "If Mr. Assange wants to stay and he follows the rules, he can stay at the embassy as long as he wants." But rules are rules. And in spite of the fact that Assange likes to dress the cat up in neckties and he has given it its own Twitter and Instagram accounts, basic hygiene is more important for both humans and felines than social media presence. Even if that cat is, as its online profile reads, "interested in counter-purrveilance."

In light of all this, Ecuador is probably rethinking the whole asylum thing. When it started, they probably thought what's the worst that could happen? He stays a few weeks, we get some publicity, and on to the next. But every coin has a heads and a tails. They thought they were getting a famous asylum seeker. They got the world's worst house guest.  Can we flip again?


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

Saturday, December 01, 2018

1200 and Counting

Let me be very clear: I am no George Bernard Shaw. That Nobel Prize and Academy Award winning writer, known best for his plays such as "Man and Superman," "Candida" and "Pygmalion" was a literary giant whose work is still studied closely more than half a century after his death. His discourses, literary wit and prodigious output marked him by many as second only to Shakespeare among English writers. That brilliance is somewhat tempered by his controversial views on a number of topics, raging from his admiration for Mussolini and Stalin, and his opposition to vaccination and organized religion.

None of that is me. About the only place where a Venn diagram of the two us might cross is in an earlier period of his life wherein he was a weekly columnist for The Spectator in London. He wrote music and theatre reviews, eventually giving it up to focus on playwriting. Asked why he stopped, he talked about the stress and commitment that was required. He likened writing a weekly column to standing under a windmill: you no sooner dodged one blade and straightened up, proud of yourself for the accomplishment, than another was angling directly for your head. You and me both, George, you and me both.

This all comes to mind as I note that the column you are now reading clocks in at number 1200. It also is just 3 removed from the start my 24th year in this effort. No, they aren't Shakespeare nor Shaw nor anything even close. But like the works of those giants, I recognize that it's a privilege to put one's thoughts together, and know that others are taking their precious time to digest it. It was the playwright Tom Stoppard who noted that words are innocent, neutral and precise, but "If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little." I'm not so self-assured to think I can move the entire planet, but if something I write gives a gentle prod to a reader or two, I'll allow myself a small smile.

People often ask me how I can pen a new essay every week, and indeed, I often wonder myself if I'm approaching the end of the line. After all, the easy and obvious ones were written long ago. Still, it's gotten so the effort to write each one is more or less like brushing your teeth: nothing will happen if I don't do it, and yet if I don't I feel as if I have forgotten to do something important. Added to that is that fact that the number of things that attract my attention is never ending. The trick is figuring out how to make it of interest to you. If there is an overarching goal to any of this, it is that: to share what interests me with you in a way that makes you want to pass it on.

Like many I've always wanted to be the master of something. In his 2008 book "Outliers" Malcolm Gladwell wrote that "ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness." By that he meant that, based on his studies of the best of the best in a variety of fields, "you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good." With 1200 of these efforts under my belt, and an average of a couple of hours each, the math says that I am about halfway to Gladwell's elusive marker. That puts me firmly in the journeyman classification. All it will take is another 1200 columns and another 24 years to become a master of the craft. So I guess now is not the time to quit, being halfway there and all that.

On a shelf in my office I keep a series of notebooks with clippings of each of these efforts. Each time one appears, I scissor it out and slip it into a plastic sleeve. Each book is about an inch across, and holds about 26 double sided pages, which conveniently works out to 52 clippings, a year's worth of output. Today I am headed to the store to buy a new one, marking the 24th black blinder in that series. It's worth noting that when Shaw died, his collected works spanned 36 volumes.

George, I'm coming for you.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will keep writing if you'll keep reading. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Beer Friday

Had you used the term "Black Friday" back in 1869, you would have been referring to the day that the conspiracy to corner the gold market by financiers Jay Gould and Jim Fisk collapsed, sending the stock market into a free fall. Had you been reading the journal "Factory Management and Maintenance" in 1951, that same term would have referred to workers calling in sick on the day after Thanksgiving to create a four-day holiday for themselves. Had you been a cop in Philadelphia in that same decade, the term would have been a reference to the the gridlock that resulted from all the sports fans flooding into town for the annual Army-Navy football game. In fact, it wasn't until the mid-eighties that some revisionist historian thought up the idea that the day after turkey day marked the start of retail's most profitable season, the time when cash ledgers turned from red to black. And now you can't utter the phrase without thinking not of a stock market collapse, vacation days or football, but rather of a flat screen TV for $99. 

These days Black Friday as an orgy of shopping has become so inculcated into the national psyche that it has taken on all the trappings of a semi-official holiday. People gather with family and friends to line up at Walmart and Best Buy. They post pictures of themselves and their loot on Facebook and Instagram as if it were their kids' second grade art project. And they recall past shopping expeditions as nostalgically as they do their honeymoon: "Remember that time we got a Suzy Slurpup Doll for $19.95 from Target? Those were the days!" 

But in some corners of the country the term has morphed yet again. In those locales it doesn't involve lining up at a big box store or the local mall. Rather, for a small but devoted subset of shoppers in cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and Seattle, Black Friday now means Beer Friday. 

It all began back in 2010. Windy City craft brewer Goose Island had been offering up its bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout for nearly two decades. They pioneered this variant, where first-use bourbon barrels are used to make suds, with each barrel used just once. The result is a stout infused with the flavors of the whiskey that was in there first. As each new batch was ready, they released it in waves in different regions. 

Then 8 years ago, as a way to call attention to their Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout, which was aged for two years in 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle barrels, they timed the release to the day after Thanksgiving. (For those not in the know, Pappy is widely regarded as one of the finest and hardest to get bourbons in the world.) Word got out and people lined up. And the beer world has never been the same since. 

Goose Island has continued the tradition, releasing that years' special variations on Black Friday. This year will see eight different stouts, including Proprietor's Bourbon County Brand Stout, made with dark chocolate; Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout, made with Madagascar vanilla beans; Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout, aged in rye whiskey barrels with raspberry and blackberry juice and puree added; and Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine, made with Guatemalan coffee beans. There are also two newcomers: Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout, with tastes of orange peel and chocolate, and Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine, both aged in aged four-plus-year-old Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels. 

Last year about 1300 people lined up at Binney's Beverage Depot in Chicago's Lincoln Park to be the first to get some of the latest models. And the idea has spread. In Milwaukee, an estimated 1600 people lined up in 2017 to grab some of Lakefront Brewery's barrel-aged Imperial Stout Black Friday beer. This year, 11 brewers and brew pubs in that city are getting in on the act, announcing special blends like Urban Harvest Brewing's Imperial Chocolate Whiskey Stout, and Broken Bat Brewing's While We Wait Spiced Winter Ale. 

True, these purchases might not have the staying power of an Xbox game for $47.00. But for some, if it's a choice between Black Ops 4 featuring machine guns and machetes, or Black Friday Vintage Reserve with hints of vanilla and toasted almonds, they know which line to stand in to get the bigger kick.


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

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Small Plate Special

It's both a blessing and curse being on the road for work. You get to meet new people and see new places, but you also spend a lot of time away from family and friends, sleeping in strange beds and walking down endless corridors dragging a suitcase. Everyone has their own routines that make it less stressful, be it working out or eating the same breakfast every day. For me, I like to go sit at a bar. 

Not to drink, mind you (though that's OK too), but to be alone and watch the people. Often the folks I'm working will invite me to dinner, and that's all very nice. But especially after a busy day, sometimes it's nice to be anonymous and alone. I find a place that's a bit aways from the hotel and serves dinner at the rail. I take a book and settle in to have a bite and decompress. And usually the longest conversation I have involves asking the bartender their favorite dish. 

The night in New Orleans started like that. If there was any stress, it was trying to decide what to have. The menu at Cochon is designed around local Cajun and Southern flavors, using locally sourced pork, seafood and produce. Usually I glance at a menu and find one or two things that interest me. Cochon's menu is a home run: there are more things that attract my attention than courses I can possibly order.

Luckily they had small plates as well as big. So maybe the wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter? Or the dirty rice meat pie? And not to gloss over the fresh cucumber and herb salad in vinegar. I asked the barkeep what he thought, and he validated all. He suggested starting with the cukes, and away we went. 

As I sipped my wine, the gentlemen next to me looking at his menu shook his head knowingly: "Yeah, had all of those last time." We commiserated (if that's the right word) over the injustice of only being able to eat so much in one sitting. "This time I'm starting with the fried livers with pepper jelly and toast."  He placed his order and we chatted a bit, the usual "just the facts ma'aam" small talk about home towns, travel schedule and the weather. We were strangers, until the food came out. 

His came first. I tried minding my own business, but his livers looked great, and I don't even like liver. I remarked on it, and before I knew it a portion was on my bread plate. I tried it; it was delicious. So naturally, when he remarked on my dirty rice pie, I reciprocated and shared some with him. We both retreated to our drinks, then he turned away to chat with the gentlemen next to him. A few moments later my new pal put a small plate in front of me, courtesy of his new food buddy on the other side: wood roasted Brussels sprouts with crispy onion topping. I thanked them both, and dug in. Not really a sprout fan, but these were great. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of me, a seat opened and a new fellow inquired if it was available. I told him it was his, and he too started to look at the menu. And like the rest of us, he joined the brotherhood by remarking on the difficulty of selecting a dish. I agreed, and he placed his orders. He glanced at my dirty rice pie and remarked how good it looked. So I gifted him a bite as well. 

Back at the ranch, my liver friend got his next plate, pork cheeks on hominy grit cake. And again, he pushed some my way. I barely finished savoring that before the latecomer on my other side offered me some of his first round, smoked lima beans. I eagerly had a bite of that as my next plate came, a boucherie assortment with pate, mortadella and other goodies. I offered it up and down the bar, but by then all were pretty well stuffed. Except for me, of course. I plowed on and enjoyed it all. Final tally? An impromptu dinner party with 8 courses sampled. An evening low in stress, high in cholesterol, and off the charts in satisfaction.


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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Skycouch Surfing

In an ad for long defunct Southern Airlines, passengers boarding a plane walked into what looked to be a party. Champagne was flowing freely as stewardesses in mini togas frolicked with the passengers, and waiters rolled around plates of lobster tails and shrimp. A plainly delighted gentleman flashed his boarding pass, causing the flight attendant's smile to quickly change to a frown as she pronounced his sentence: "Second cabin, please." She led him a few steps to a curtain which she pulled aside as she pushed him through. He spun around to see a vista that looked like a scene from the Irish potato famine. People in rags wandered aimlessly, a man sat in a corner using a single finger to turn a record on a turntable, and a guy in fingerless gloves dolled out tin cups of mush.

While the real divide might not be that stark, the difference from the front of the plane to the back is growing. Consider the ultra luxury end of the long-haul air market. In First Class of Emirate or Etihad Airlines, you can score your own private suite along with pajamas, luxury toiletries and 32" flat screens. You can even book time in their special shower stalls, allowing you to wash off all that grime that one churns up from the hard, dusty work of flying at 32,000 feet. All it takes is about $15,000 one way.

Meanwhile at the back end they have crammed in as many people as they can. They've narrowed the seats themselves, striped away any excess cushioning and reduced the space between rows so that your knees bear more risk from flying than from being an NFL running back. On all but the longest flights meals are for purchase only. Pillows? Blankets? You'd have a better chance finding a bipartisan bill in Congress.

Seeking to cater to those who wanted something a little better, the airlines created something called Plus or Extra or More Betterer, offering a little more room and a better brand of pretzels. For medium duration lights of 2 to 5 hours, it's not a bad way spend the $35 to $85 or so it costs, especially if it's late or early and you need to catch a little sleep to be able to function once you hit the ground. However having an eyeshade provided free of charge doesn't really help if you're up there for a while. You might be able to grab a nap sitting up straight, but it will usually just file the edges off of your fatigue, and not really give you the rest you need to operate heavy machinery once you land.

Unless you are flying Air New Zealand. They have recently upgraded the design and installed fleet wide their Skycouch seat. Basically they've lengthened the footrest of an economy seat and changed the hinge so that it can be swung up flat against the row in front. Now, for most adults, unless your legs end at the knee, that's not going to do you much good. But with Skycouch you can buy the 2 or 3 seats next to you at a reduced price, enabling you to create a, well couch in the sky. 

If you're a traveling alone, buying the two next to you gives sort of a den sized divan to curl up on. If you have 2 kids in those seats, at no extra cost you can convert them to a small bed perfect for them. And if you're a couple, the promotional materials actually show a pair spooning at 35,000 feet, something business or first class cabin customers can't even do. No word on the number of times stewardesses have seen this arrangement and need to avert their eyes.

The cost is about $500 per unoccupied seat in the set. That means a three-seat set for a single traveler will add about $1000 to the base price, bringing the total to around $2500. That compares to about $5000 for a business class seat with a six foot lie flat narrow single. True, in Business Class you do get better food and bigger screens. But were I making the trip, I might book the couch either way. I have problems sleeping on planes, prefer sleeping on my side, and have lots of experience falling asleep on couches at home.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is spending too much time on planes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Adiós, Paul

There's an old parable about a man caught in a flood in his house. As the water rises, someone comes by with truck. "No," he says, "God will save me." Soon a boat comes by, then a helicopter to get him to safety. He resists them both, shouting "God will save me." Alas, the water finally sweeps him to his death. In the afterlife, he encounters God and asks him why. "I believed in you, and yet you didn't save me." God shakes his head: "I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you need as proof of my existence?"

I'm not a religious person and am highly unqualified to weigh in on matters involving theology. But for me at least, if there is one piece of evidence that proves that there is a higher being, it is Paul Alcorn.

Paul is the minister of the local Presbyterian church, and is retiring after nearly three decades of leading his congregation. I am not a member of that body; indeed I am not even of that faith. And so I will leave it to others to detail all that he did for that extended family. Likewise, there are others who can better catalog the many other examples of his compassion and outreach, like the trips he made to Central America and elsewhere, bringing a thousand adults and kids there to help rebuild houses, the Midnight Runs to offer food and comfort to the homeless, the Emergency Shelter Partnership he helped start, the scholarship money he helped raise, a list that goes on and on and is almost too long to enumerate, but which we most definitely should.

No, I knew him because we have kids the same age, and so interacted as fellow parents. Back then Paul and I weren't that friendly, merely people living in the same small town. We crossed paths on and off, but once our kids got older, had no more than a nodding acquaintance. Then a few years ago, running into him at an event, we reconnected. But we did it as adults, and so the basis of our new renewed friendship was different. And I got to know him not as a religious leader, a former School Board member, a community advocate – all of which he was – but as a friend and person.

It's rare you get to experience someone who has so pure a heart, has no ulterior motive, no ax to grind, a person who has no agenda other than to make the world a better place. He's smart and empathetic and open, all things you want anyone to be, and he is that way without any pretense. I know that all of that is part of his "job" but rarely is there so close a match between what a person truly is and the occupation they choose, or perhaps in this case, one that chose him. 

Several years ago Paul started a group called Pub Theology that meets once a month in a bar to talk about faith. Over time we have had many a thoughtful conversation with an animated group about matters big and small. We all say our piece, but we invariably turn to Paul. There is silence for a bit, as he is lost in thought. He then quietly raises points that that help illuminate rather than color. In those discussions we never solve the problems of the world, but we do feel that maybe we connected some threads, and the person who helped us weave it together was Paul.

At a retirement reception for Paul and his wife Shodie, person after person came up and extolled his virtues, and rightfully so. Paul then spoke, and talked about how much he had gotten back from the community, how much he would miss the town and the church, and how he hoped we all would all continue the good work of which he had been privileged to be a part. As he closed, he rejected "Goodbye" as too finite. Rather, he said he preferred "Adiós." While it is indeed Spanish for the same, its derivation is "May You Be Commended to God," making it both a salutation and a blessing. I might suggest one more for him: Godspeed. For if ever there was a person who deserves that sendoff it's him. As for us, may we all of be fortunate enough to know a Paul in our own lifetime.


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

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Can't Rest Rooms

Without getting too specific, let's talk washrooms. Whether you are male or female, once you finish whatever business you have, you rebutton your buttons and rezip your zippers. You thread your belt back together and smooth out your clothes. You tug your sleeves up your arms a bit and approach the sink. Then you commence something that roughly resembles a Kabuki Dance, reaching out your hands and slowly moving them through space in an exaggerated arc, trying to find the sweet spot that will enable you to wash up. 

If you had to pick the most high tech environment we are in on a regular basis, a place that is perhaps a harbinger of what all rooms will eventually be like, you could do worse than a public restroom. More than your office, more than your car, more than your kitchen, this most pedestrian of places has been automated so as to offer full functionality without almost no actual physical contact. That said, it also shows the adjustments we have to make as we ask machines to recognize us and do our bidding. 

Start with that sink. If you're lucky you hit the magic spot the first time and the water comes gushing out. If not, you lock the positions of your hands on the ends of your wrists, and slowly move several fractions north, south, east or west. You're looking for that specific place in space, that trigger point where the electric eye is focused. Often you'll hear a loud click and a mere spit will come out, as the spot is breached then passed through. Then you creep back the direction you came, or maybe alter the trajectory slightly, all with the simple goal of trying to get enough water to moisten your palms. 

But that's only step one. Once you get a little bit of wetness, you have to repeat almost the same ballet to get some soap. Except in this case aim and timing come in as well. From where you are standing you have to calculate the gravitational coefficient vs the expected pump power as the soap comes squirting out. As often as not you hear the motor going off, only to have it squirt a globule of cleaner in front of or next to your hands. Eventually you get a drop or two, and return back to the faucet, there to once again try a Marcel Marceau routine called "Can you find the water?" 

Were that the end of the performance it would have been enough. But the next act is equally confounding. Because if you're wet, you must get dry. Perhaps there is one of those small jet engines that activates when you put your hands under it, or the type that concentrates a super high powered air stream in a tiny slice. Either works fine, though your hearing is liable to suffer. But both are infinitely better than those dryers that might have worked at one time in the Eisenhower administration, but now barely blow warm air as if they are patients on the emphysema ward at Mt. Sinai. 

Alternatively, many restrooms offer you the alternative of old fashion paper towels. However, the crank-out-as-much-as-you-need dispensers are going the way of the dodo, replaced by ones with one more red electronic sensor staring up at you. Again, as if you are Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" sorting the evidence by gesture, you wave your hands in space, conjuring up a piece of paper to be produced as needed. As to how much you'll get, well, it varies. If they want to be generous, out comes a long piece. If it's about saving money or trees, you get a pittance, forcing you to wait until the device resets so you wave again, maybe even a third time. 

Making it work is one of those modern skills we've all had to acquire that our ancestors never had to deal with, like using a mouse or getting on an escalator. If there's any upside, I am firmly convinced it's become a human tell, something only our species can do. And so if there is ever an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, and you're not sure if your buddy is one of them, lead them to the bathroom. If they can't get the water to work or a towel to spit out, run for your life.


Marc Wollin of Bedford often gives up on dryers and wipes his hands on his pants. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't do well on boats. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, 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.


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, 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.


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, 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.


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, 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.


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, 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.


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.


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, 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?


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, 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?


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, 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.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves new things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, 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."


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, 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.


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, 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.


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