Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Rear Wheels to Curb"

Walk down the street in cities and villages of any size and you'll see empty storefronts. The original culprit was the competition from big box stores outside of town. Now even those players feel the squeeze from internet retailers who can deliver anything without you ever leaving your house. Sitting here watching watch inch after inch of snow pile up, that seems an even more compelling proposition than ever. 

Even if you want to shop local to support your community, the math can make it hard. E commerce sites more often than not best the local outlets. Add to that the time it takes to make the trip to and fro, not to mention gas and traffic. And parking, while adding just a few cents, can be a hassle. Yes, local stores give you the chance to see and feel the merchandise, and ask for help. But when you add it all up, it often tips in favor of the locals only if you put your thumb on the scale. 

The one place where the equation is different is dining. Sure, there is Fresh Direct and Blue Apron to get either raw ingredients or ready-to-sauté meals directly to your kitchen. But if you want to choose from a menu and have someone make it for you, you either have to go to a restaurant or be a college kid home on break with a mother who misses you dearly. Amazon won't cut it. 

Even then, location and ease of access make a difference. If you have to travel far or look for a place to leave your car, the equation starts to tip. Regardless of how enticing the menu, if it's a trial to get to the front door of the establishment it's just as easy to pick another. After all, meatballs aren't exclusive. 

Still, when we journeyed to nearby Port Chester for dinner, we knew what we were in for. It's a little farther than a casual jaunt, but it was a quiet night during the holidays. And while parking can be a problem, the main street meters were suspended in the spirit of the season. Besides, I really felt like Peruvian food, something you can't get just anywhere. 

Of course the street was all parked up with folks with the same thought as us. It was a very cold night, and didn't seem worth driving in circles looking for a freebie. So we pulled into a muni lot with plenty of spaces. That meant hassling with a meter in bone-chilling temperatures. OK, so be it: we bought enough time to enable us to enjoy our meal, and headed in for some lomo saltado. 

Ninety minutes later we came out to find a slip of paper on the windshield: a ticket. I knew I had put 2 hours on the meter, so what was it for? Turns out I had parked as I always try and do, backing into the space. Not allowed: the violation was "Rear Wheels to Curb." And it's true, there was one sign saying "Head In Parking" that I discovered when I walked around. So I was clearly in the wrong, to the tune of $30. 

But especially on a night when all the other parking in town was free, on the day after Christmas at 7:33PM, why did a cop decide that THAT was worth ticketing? I reached out to the mayor and members of the Village Board. One responded, explaining that the "Head In" directive was because the town used resident parking stickers which were placed on the rear bumper. And enforcement was easier if the cars were parked front wheels to curb. 

OK, that's their choice. If they mandated that all cars were to be parked upside down, that would be their choice as well. But I wouldn't go there. If you want to attract people to your town, if you want them to patronize your businesses, if you want them to spend money within your limits, knowing the competition you face, why wouldn't you make it as accommodating and easy as possible? 

So I took two steps. I sent a check to the Justice Court of Port Chester for $30. And I made a mental note next time to go to dinner somewhere else. Call me silly. But while the scale may be different, like Amazon, I'm going where they want me.


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

Saturday, January 20, 2018

More Understandable-er

In his book "Thing Explainer," Randall Monroe endeavors to describe and explain the inner workings of complex stuff using line drawings and a vocabulary of the 1000 most common words. As the creator of the web comic "xkcd" and a guy with a BS in Physics, his qualifications and sensibility make him the obvious heir to the work of David Macaulay, whose "The Way Things Work" did the same thing 30 years ago. Using just "ten hundred" words, Monroe reduces things to their most basic elements, starting with the table of contents ("Things in the Book by Page") thru the forward ("Page Before the Book Starts") and on to things like elevators ("Lifting Rooms") and dishwashers ("Box That Cleans Food Holders"). 

Monroe came to mind because of an article about China's development of a rail hub in Eastern Europe. As part of its "One Belt, One Road" program to extend its reach for trade, that country has been buying seaports around the world to increase its footprint. But in this case there is no water anywhere even close to the tracks. Indeed, the hub in Khorgos, Kazakhstan is about as far from the sea as you can get. And – here's where Monroe's expertise at simplification might have been helpful – that particular point has an actual name: the Pole of Inaccessibility. 

Not a babka baker named Wojciech who lives in Krakow and doesn't like to talk to anyone, there are actually eight Poles of Inaccessibility in the world, one on each land mass as well as in the Pacific Ocean. In practice they are generally the most remote places you can be: in the outback in Australia, or in North Dakota in the US to name two. In geographical terms, they are often defined as the furthest location from the coastlines of a continent. In short, if you want to get any from it all, these may actually be the spots. 

But in a 140-character world, that moniker is a bit much. It echoes the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of German linguistic inventions. That language is well known for combining simple words into complex ones that result in a new construct. For example, in English we might describe a guy as the captain of a steamship that plies the Danube. But in the Fatherland that has a very specific word of its own: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. I'll leave it to speakers of that mother tongue to puzzle out the feminine version. 

That's not to say that on these shores there aren't examples where we have slang standing in for official terms. Certain fields have highly technical descriptions that we mere mortals have reduced to their essence. A doctor might tell you to drink water if you have synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, which is the medical description for the hiccups. Likewise, if your physician tells you that that pain in your head is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, you might be think you were going to die. Not to worry: that's the correct term for an ice cream headache. 

The corollary are those compact words or phrases that describe complex actions. You see these perhaps most notably in sports. In baseball if a pitcher aborts his throw after he's started it, we call that a balk. In football, a long throw down the field with little chance of success is a Hail Mary. In tennis, lose a set without winning a game and you've been bageled. And in cricket, if a bowler who would normally spin the ball toward a right-handed batsman spins it away from him, that's a doosra. Reverse it, and it's a googly. 

But back to our geography lesson. There's nothing in the phrase in question that's meant to be ironic or flip. (That stands in contrast to Colin Bateman's book about a hard-drinking bicycle-riding journalist in Northern Ireland, titled after the vehicle that gets him from fight to fight: "Cycle of Violence.") Still, while Pole of Inaccessibility may be technically correct, it's a mouthful that takes mental time to decode. So perhaps going forward, it might be worth taking a page from Randall Monroe's book, and strip it down to its simplest components. In that light, might I suggest "most far away-est place" as a substitute. And that way when you mention the Pole of Inaccessibility, you WILL be talking about that babka baker in Krakow named Wojciech.


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

Saturday, January 13, 2018

In His Image

The quotes don't pull any punches. "Insulting" is one. "Demeaning" is another. "It's a huge disappointment to me" is one more. But when a public figure is blindsided by a revelation coming from a place that he thought had respect for him, the hurt is real. Now, it's possible that you're saying, "Wait. I saw the headlines. I recall ‘Lost his mind.' I recall ‘He's only in it for himself.' I recall ‘He makes himself seem far more important than he was.' But ‘Demeaning?' ‘Insulting?' ‘Hugh disappointment?' Guess I better go back and reread the President's statement on Steve Bannon." 

Who said anything about the President and his former Chief Strategist? Sure, there's been a lot in the press about the spat between former political bros, one that's only surprising in that it took this long. No, the ‘demeaning' quote and others came from Wil Wheaton. Wheaton is an actor who has appeared in movies such as "Stand By Me" and TV shows like from "Criminal Minds." If none of that rings a bell, and it likely does not, this might: from 1987 to 1994 Wheaton played young Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." 

Even that might mean nothing to you if you aren't a full-on Trekie. Wheaton was 15 when he was cast as Crusher, the son of the medical officer on the show and her deceased husband. Wesley was a whiny kid whom Captain Jean-Luc Picard disliked, though to be fair he said he disliked all children. But he wasn't alone: many fans of the show were not fans of the character, pointing out that this kid who had trouble getting into Starfleet Academy managed to somehow save the ship at least seven times. In a poll done by Maxim magazine only Jar Jar Binks from "Star Wars" topped Crusher's level of annoyance. Start to type "Shut Up Wesley" into your browser and you won't even get to the end before the videos pop up. So why was he kept? Well, as in everything, it helps when you have a champion, in this case Gene Rodenberry, the creator of the original show and the spinoff, whose middle name was "Wesley." 

OK, enough Trekkie geek stuff. Let's get back to those insults: just who were the slams directed at? Was it his creator Rodenberry? Or Patrick Stewart, who turned Captain Picard into an icon? No, Wheaton was upset because of a LEGO figure. 

Seems that a company named MiniFig makes made-to-order LEGO characters, as well as ones celebrating pop culture notables from Bruce Springsteen to LeBron James. Just out is the cast of the hit "Stranger Things" as well as a collection from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That set has 8 figures including the aforementioned Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Lt. Worf. And even though he was a relatively minor player, young Wesley Crusher was included as well. Just one problem: rather than smiling, stoic or a "I'm ready to fight aliens" face, Wesley has his mouth inverted in a childlike cry. 

As noted, Wheaton didn't take it kindly. And this in spite of the fact that he agrees with the underlying premise. On his website he writes, "It is absolutely true that, for the entirety of the first season, Wesley was a terribly-written character." Still, even at age 45, the slight hurts. He writes "this isn't about me. This is about thirty years of people kicking Wesley Crusher around." 

True, no one has called Picard "Rocket Man" or talked about "Lyin' Lt. Commander Data." But it's an insult none the less. Still, there are some signs of rapprochement. If you drill down a little on the company's website to the individual characters, you can find two versions of Wesley, one crying, the other smiling. And even though the options available are not "expression" but "color of skin (traditional LEGO yellow or flesh)" it's at least possible you could special order a happy boy ensign. 

Wheaton's not satisfied. He writes, "I don't think that this was done this way to be mean. If anything, it's just lazy. But this isn't the way I'd like to see Wesley portrayed. I just feel the boys and girls he inspired deserve something that isn't making a joke at his expense." Wheaton, chill out: it's a LEGO figure. Or as Picard would say, "Shut Up Wesley."


Marc Wollin of Bedford only watched the original Star Trek, not the spinoffs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

So Now They Know

I may not be a Facebook daily poster or a Twitter frequent tweeter or an Instagram regular filter-er, but it's not like I'm off the grid. Type my name into your favorite search engine, and lots of references come up. Some are about this very column you are reading, some about my business, some about videos I've created. With just a few clicks more you can find out where I live, my age and a host of other details. Thankfully none of the most frequent hits are embarrassing. That said, there is a chance that if you go to page 47 or 63 or 71 there might be a link to a photo of me in bell bottoms and a Nehru jacket, a picture that is forever burned into my mind's eye but which I am hoping is lost to history. 

All that's available to trollers casual or malevolent. Yet certain other entities have a more detailed window into the specifics of my life. I have a Google mail account, and use that company's maps, calendar and address book daily. Likewise I have an Amazon Prime account, and allow that company to know my buying habits and product preferences. And I've signed up for online accounts with banks and airlines and ride sharing services to name but a few. The goal of all is to be able to do all that I want from the comfort of my keyboard on a Sunday night while wearing pajamas and bunny slippers. 

The remuneration I have agreed to in exchange for this access varies. Some of these companies charge me an outright fee, while others fold it into the cost of a transaction. Still others have a freemium model, offering me basic access for nothing, and asking me to pay if I want better services or more exclusive choices. And some cost me nothing at all, but use their time in front of my face to pitch me other products or services I might find appealing. 

Actually, that's not completely correct. All of these services, regardless of whether I ante up one dollar or one hundred demand I give them one thing in return: information about me. After all, we're told that's what is really valuable. Companies want that data to refine their marketing and sales strategies so they can target me better with future offerings. For sure, my preference for a kind of restaurant or type of sweater can be used to entice me the next time I'm looking for a meal or some new clothes. That I understand. But I'm not really sure how knowing when I turn the light on in my bedroom will help them sell me anything beyond new bulbs. 

And yet I am willing to part with a part of me as the price of entry. In order to make the our new smart light switches work, I had to sign up for an account with the manufacturer. I had to give them basic information about me, nothing that they couldn't get elsewhere online. Likewise with the new connected thermostat: name, rank and email required. And so now my turning those devices on or off or up or down is one more brush stroke in the portrait that is me. 

I suppose that someone somewhere could purchase all those bits and put it to use. They could build a picture that would enable them to entice me with some kind of offer. After all, if you know I used a car service in Brooklyn to take me to a dinner reservation at 630PM for 4 people while my lights at home turned on at 700PM and the heat went up to 67 half an hour later, you would know for sure that I was going to – what? What exactly? 

It's hard to imagine the pressure point that info would generate. But it's early days in all of this. Once they get the algorithm perfected, and are able to amalgamate the various disparate bits of information, there's no limit to what they might be able to do. They could target me for urges I didn't even know I have. And then I might indeed log in to find a popup ad for bell bottoms and Nehru jackets. Big Brother can work in insidious ways.


Marc Wollin of Bedford should probably be more concerned about privacy. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.