Saturday, March 31, 2018

No Thank You

It's been covered by Andy Williams and Ella Fitzgerald. Vic Damone released a version, as did Dionne Warwick. So did Billy Eckstine, Aretha Franklin, Perry Como and a host of others. But there's really only one version that matters. The song is from the 1964 musical "Funny Girl" and has become the signature tune of Barbara Streisand. According to her, "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." 

Sorry Barbara. Not so much. 

According to a just released study, people who need people, or more specifically people who need people helping them when they shop, may be lucky but they're a minority. HRC Retail Advisory conducted a survey of 2900 North American consumers about their habits and preferences. They found that 95% of those surveyed said they wanted to be left alone in stores. When they did need help, 85% wanted to be able to check prices at scanners rather than talking to an actual person. When shopping for technology items, 69% said they want to be able to order it online and pick it up at a store, no interaction needed. The only time that a majority wanted an actual person to assist them was when they were looking for help with those aforementioned technology items, and then only by the barest of margins, 52%. Rather than channel Streisand's Fanny Brice and "First be a person who needs people," we seem to prefer parroting Garbo's Grusinskaya from "Grand Hotel with "I want to be alone." 

In some respects this echoes our day to day interactions with friends, family and associates. More and more communication is done asynchronously and electronically via email, texts and posts. To be sure, there is great efficiency in being able to send out a thought or picture or invite to many and enable them to react in their own timeframe. (Of course, that timeframe has to be microseconds after we hit the "send" button or we wonder why there is no response. That so called "dopamine-loop" of hit send/get response has been documented as not a whole lot different than that of Pavlovian dogs, though we prefer to think of it as a little higher level.) 

Even if you know that a person is at their desk and you are at yours, it's not uncommon to swap a dozen one-line emails or texts back and forth to address an issue. The alternative, of course, is to pick up a phone and have an actual (shudder) conversation. But that would mean talking to another person, and who wants that? 

In that light it hardly surprising that we prefer shopping that way as well. We sit at home on a Sunday night in our PJ's and bunny slippers and scroll through pictures, descriptions and reviews of everything from sweaters to cappuccino makers. So when we actually get dressed and decide to do it in person, we want the same. You see similar behavior at sporting events and concerts, where many spend their time watching the giant screen for the best view, or looking at their phones to see the twitter comments about the game. They do that at home, and are reluctant to give it up even if the real deal is right in front of them.

I've bucked that experience first hand. At a classical concert, I put my baseball cap back on to block out the screen hanging over the stage so I focused on the sound of the pianist and not the visual. And I almost got into a row with a guy who stood up blocking my view of the stage at an Alicia Keys concert. When I asked him to sit down so I could see, he told me to watch the screen over the stage. Luckily he went to the rest room when the girl was on fire.

But back to the stores. While people appear to prefer electronic sales assistance to the human variant, that's not to say they don't want people involved. Roughly 70% report taking pictures of merchandise in the store and sharing them with friends and family to get opinions. So it's not that they don't want input, they just want it from people they trust. And that means a whole a whole lot more people online in the store. Which means you'll be hearing this: "Attention shoppers: special on WiFi in aisle 5."


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely goes into stores anymore. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 24, 2018


We are used to things breaking. Cars, coffee makers, phones; the list goes on and on. Usually it's not something that causes a catastrophic situation. Sure, that can happen as well: witness the tragedy of the pedestrian bridge in Florida. But thankfully those kind of massive breakdowns are few and far between. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the failure is of the more pedestrian variety, and the results are hardly the end of the world. Sure, it might cause some inconvenience, a missed appointment or a ruined dinner, but the resulting hardship usually falls into the category of what Louis CK refers to as "white people problems."   

When that inevitable failure does occur, we generally follow a straightforward process. First we generally swear. Then no matter the complexity of the item we attempt repairs by the most basic method; we turn the power switch off and on, then depending on the size of the object, shake it or bang it. Surprisingly, that often does the trick and restores the thing to working condition. If it doesn't, we then proceed to get it fixed or repaired. Oh, and we swear again. Almost forgot that step.

But these days there are things that are so complex that when they break we revert to being cavemen. I don't mean that we bang on them with rocks, though if given the chance we might do that as well. Rather, I mean they fall into that category of technology that we are reduced to just staring at and wondering what to do. It's echoes that observation by Arthur C Clarke that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 

That's how I felt when I recently picked up my little tablet. It's an Amazon Fire version, and I keep it in the family room to check my email and look up stupid things online that I just have to know at that moment (On the Eagles new concert tour, who is filling in for the deceased Glen Frey? Answer: his son Deacon.) By default it uses its own Silk browser, and by default, that browser uses Microsoft's Bing as it's search engine. In general, that's a geek detail too far. Except when it doesn't work. And not because my little $89 tablet is broken or slow or needs to have its on/off switch clicked. Broken as in Bing is broken. 

I typed my query into the box and watched the little whirling beachball whirl for a few seconds. But then rather than give me a list of best business backpacks or recipes for homemade granola bars or whatever I deemed vital to know at that moment, I got a picture of a cute but sad panda sitting down on the ground staring at a dropped ice cream cone that landed upside down. Under the panda was the legend, "It's not you, it's us. Bing isn't available right now, but everything should be back to normal very soon." 

Let's be clear what this was saying. My tablet, something I could fix, was fine. My connection to the internet, something I could fix, was fine. But the thing that was the equivalent of magic to me, the black box that sorted through the millions upon millions of possible answers to my query and returned the answer to my question had stopped working. Bing, owned by Microsoft, arguably one of the five or so most important companies in the information infrastructure, had one of its signature products stop working. Like the aforementioned caveman, I looked at the screen and just stared. After all, it's not often you see the world stop spinning. 

Sure, there are other browsers and way of looking up that info. And it's easy to say I'm making too much of simple technical glitch, one that admittedly was fixed in a few moments, when the screen suddenly twitched and my list of veggie burger recipes or whatever scrolled down the screen. But with all the talk of cybersecurity and hacking, think about what would happen if those bad actors got not to the various companies that use the net, but to the central nervous of the thing system itself. If googling something returned no answers. We might have to go back to books and maps and catalogs and libraries. And that goes way beyond just white people problems.


Marc Wollin of Bedford depends on technology more than he'd like to admit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Power to the People

Right now there are companies that know where you are standing. Tap a few buttons on their app, and they will send a car to pick you up, you won't even have to cross the street. Likewise, there are others that know where you are eating. They will send you coupons for dessert, and prompt you to file a review of the meal for others to see. And of course there are those who know what you are buying. If you order toothpaste they will suggest you add floss; if you select a sweater, they will point out a scarf that matches. It's almost as if someone is watching you, a real life version of "The Truman Show." In that 1998 movie, Jim Carey played an insurance salesman whose life is televised to a worldwide audience. To quote Christof, the fictional show's creator, "It isn't always Shakespeare, but it's genuine."

To be fair, the companies we're talking about were all designed from the ground up to be able to do this. Uber, Yelp and Amazon (and others like them) were built to offer goods and services directly to the consumer and build their relationship with you through that interaction. Other old-line firms have adapted along the way, twisting their business practices to compete against these leaders. Walmart, American Express and NBC are all examples of companies that grew up in one era based on a traditional model where customers were at arm's length. Now they envelope their clients in an electronic hug to fight those aforementioned behemoths.

Not every company gets it and can make the adjustment. In most cases those that don't don't last long: it's easy to vote with your feet when your feet are your fingers on a screen. All you do is type in a different address rather than driving to one. But when your choices are limited, or even non-existent, all you can do is howl at the moon. No better example exists than was provided by the recent set of back to back Nor'easters and New York State Electric and Gas, also known as NYSEG. The regulated monopoly that provides the juice where we live, they seemed to be trying to land the Oscar for "Most Inept Response By a Power Company Following a Serious Weather Event." 

No one doubts the challenge at hand: one, then another major storm brought wind, snow, rain and general mayhem, plunging thousands into darkness. Locally, of the nearly 6500 residents serviced by the company, approximately 85% lost power. But it was no surprise, and if you live where we do you have to be ready for it. You would think the same for NYSEG: just as we lay in supplies and water and fuel, they should have crews and parts at the ready. Rather, they seemed surprised. Wind brought down trees brought down lines? Who would have thought it?

Adding insult to injury was the digital side of the story, the part where they reach out with that electronic hug. NYSEG has a website called "Outage Central" where you can check the status of repairs. It has stats and info at the county, town and street level. All good. Until it posts NO time for restoration: we were marked as "Assessing." And then, poof! We disappeared from the list entirely, as if we didn't exist. Made worse was the phone call and text we got: "Your power has been restored." Uh, no, it is not and we are still here. Many calls and texts and emails later and we were at least restored to the rolls of the afflicted. It was like asking to be put on a list of those with cancer just to prove we weren't dead.

And so it went for several days. Updates from our town supervisor revealed town-wide levels of poor response and erratic information. Thankfully we gave in years ago and bought a generator, so were not as bad off as some. But it still felt like a third world country, where not only was the power grid unstable, but we got no response or inaccurate information when we got any. No, we can't vote with our feet; being a regulated monopoly means never having to say you're sorry. All we can do is lodge a complaint with the Public Service Commission. That rate increase you are asking for? Sorry, you need power for that to happen.


Marc Wollin of Bedford credits his wife for insisting on a generator. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Going Through a Phase

My bedtime is highly variable. I might extinguish the light at 10PM, finally giving in after reading on the couch and dropping my Kindle on my face for the third time. Other times it's at 2AM after getting home following a long and late day. But whether it's my age or my body or my mental state, or just as likely some combination of all three, once I turn the light off I find myself waking up more and more often. These constant mini-sleeps are not necessarily restful, but at least they give me a better chance to remember the trailers playing in my head. 

That's the best way to describe those REM moments that unspool throughout the night. REM in this case stands not for the Michael Stipe band of "Losing My Religion" fame, but rather for rapid eye movement, those instances of fast breathing and heart pounding that happen when you are asleep, and are usually associated with vivid dreams. If you go sleep at 11PM and roll over at 6AM it's not that you don't have them, it's just more likely that you won't remember them. But if you have my schedule, you have a better chance of snapping awake and having a conscious reflection for at least a few moments as to why you were standing on top of Mount Kilimanjaro in your bathing suit with a saxophone while on the phone with your tax preparer defending your purchase of a tutu as a necessary business expense. You too, huh? 

The good news is that unlike when I was 5 years old, a part of my brain now seems have some kind of built-in fantasy detector. It allows me to enjoy these fantasias in their phantasmagorical glory for what they are, and not cause me to look under the bed for the dragon with two heads. But as to whether or not I try and tease some meaning out of them depends on what phase of the night it is. 

I divide the period between turning in and waking up into three phases. The first is "going to bed time." As noted this can be as early as ten (and sometimes embarrassingly earlier) or as late as one, and represents the onramp to real rest. For me it's usually when I get my deepest sleep, and not coincidentally, my weirdest dreams. But it's this side of "real" night, so even if I wake up, I go back to sleep easily and blissfully, aware that whatever challenges are in store for me the next day are miles away. And so I eagerly turn over, close my eyes and activate my mental bookmark to pick up where I left off in any adventure I'm having. 

Then there's the proverbial "middle of the night." Depending on when I started, this is anywhere from midnight to 3AM. It's that nether world where a peek out the window reveals inky stillness, and the only sound in the house is the refrigerator cycling. Dreams here are in little self-contained mini-episodes, kind of like an installment of "Law and Order." It's like I have some awareness of the limited time I have left, and so my brain avoids cliff hangers, wrapping up the action before the final credits roll. 

Finally there's "waking up time." For me this extends from that roughly 3AM marker to when it's time to get up and start going. That can be as early as 330AM or as late as 6AM, and varies every day depending on the project I'm on. It's more catnap than anything else, what one friend calls "production sleep," driven in equal parts of not wanting to oversleep and already planning what has to be accomplished that day. Dreams here are more like coming attractions, short one-act plays that you can almost hear the drama coach in the corner yelling, "And - scene." 

Maybe you simply go to bed and wake up, and this all sounds like some war-torn exotic country you'd rather not visit: I don't blame you. But it was Hamlet who said "To sleep, perchance to dream." I have no problem with the later; it's the former that eludes me. And so if I might, let me paraphrase Shakespeare for my situation: To sleep, perchance to sleep. Wouldn't that be nice for a change.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to sleep when he is tired. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Take a Seat

I was a lab rat. 

Those in charge wouldn't describe it that way, but that's what it came down to. It's not like I was asked to be in the experiment. Nor was I offered a cash incentive or signed a waiver. But simply by virtue of the calendar and my movements, I was tagged and sent into the maze. I can only hope that my pursuit of the cheese will benefit the rest of mankind. Or to paraphrase those appearing before the emperor Claudius, we who are about to sit down salute you. 

I will say I was at least informed, having received several emails from United. Seems that for 30 days starting in February, those passing through Los Angeles International Airport via that carrier would be part of a new boarding scheme. The idea was to get people on the plane as quickly as possible, reducing crowding at the gate and time on the ground. As in gun control, abortion rights and calories on fast food menus, there are various approaches purporting to be correct. And also like those areas, trying to find a workable solution is roughly akin to finding the Holy Grail. 

However, in this particular instance there is an actual "right" answer. Turns out it really is rocket science, or at least the solution was concocted by an astrophysicist. Dr. Jason Steffen, currently a Fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics at Northwestern University, was noodling around this problem for a few years in his spare time trying to figure out how to move all those people onto a plane as efficiently as possible. Based on his experience in just such a queue when traveling to an academic conference, he applied a "Markov Chain Monte Carlo optimization algorithm" to the problem along with some computer simulation. His eventual answer, after allowing families with little kids on first, involved loading every other row of window seats on one side, followed by the same on the other side. After that he fills in the open rows, then does the same with middle seats and aisles. And it's not just a theory: the idea was tested on the web series, "This vs That," and beat 5 other variants. 

But the Steffen method ignores several real world issues. Groups traveling together, especially parents with kids, would not be thrilled about splitting up. Those with any kind of status, be they preferred credit card holders or million-milers that didn't get bumped up would be equally un-thrilled about lining up with the teeming masses, never mind that they would get seated quicker and off faster. It echoes those aforementioned social issues where we all urge others to compromise, as long as our own point-of-view doesn't have to change. 

In my particular Skinner Box, this "new" approach meant having just the first two of five groups line up to board. The rest could "relax and remain comfortably seated until called." While groups one and two were made up of First, Business and Priority customers, the remaining groups were indeed supposedly broken out by windows, middles and aisles, echoing at least a part of Dr. Steffen's approach. And if nothing else, not having 5 simultaneous lines of straining passengers at least gave the appearance of order and a more leisurely process. 

Being in group two meant I was on, stowed and seated early, and so didn't get to witness first-hand how things progressed at the gate. I can say that we were indeed loaded a good number of minutes before our departure time, and took off promptly. Whether that was because of the new system, or the fact that the flight was a red eye back to New York, it was late and we all just wanted to settle in and go to sleep is a matter of debate. Likely it was a combination of the two, though the results were the same. 

As of this writing they are still experimenting at LAX. But if on a future trip you walk up to the gate, and see just two lanes as opposed to the usual five, have a seat. That means that the plan was validated and it works. You should thank the scientist who figured it out, as well as the rats that ran the maze. To that, both Dr. Steffen and I say you're welcome.


Marc Wollin of Bedford flies more than some, less than others. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.