Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Good Row

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

So maybe you'll pass on this one. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Anti-Starbucks

It had the usual accoutrements you find in any coffee outpost these days, be it Seattle's Best, Peet's or a dozen others. There are custom made drinks hot and cold, as well as a small selection of nibbles and slightly more substantial snacks. There are seats and tables in a variety of styles, as well as outlets to charge your precious electronic assistants. And there are other fellow travelers working away before, between and after appointments, redefining a modern version of Willy Loman in the gig economy. 

But the differences between the aforementioned establishments and their brethren with the place I was at were as profound at the similarities. Sure, you could order a latte at both. However, rather than tell a barista your choice and then queue up as they yelled out your order, in this place you tapped your selection in on an iPad, and several minutes later it emerged silently on a conveyor belt like at a Kaiten sushi restaurant. Yes, both have a variety of places to perch, but this one includes not only dark wood bars and stools, but hammocks and moon chairs. And while its' not uncommon for a patron at the first to doze off in spite of the caffeine in the air, the second not only actively encourages it but provides a separate floor with beds, headphones and a starry sky. 

You might call it the Anti-Starbucks. They call themselves Nap York.  

Occupying a four-story building at the busy corner of Seventh Avenue and 36th Street, the first thing that catches your eye is the color. No bright tone or flashing signs, it's dark, a veritable back hole on the streets of Manhattan, seeming to suck light and sound into it, or more correctly, to shield you from that hubbub. An emoticon looking sign outside admonishes you to keep your voices low and limit conversation, as if you're about to enter a terminal ward at Bellevue. Open the door, however, and vibe is not funereal but restful. The entry level cafĂ© has a wall of live green plants backing the aforementioned conveyor belt that delivers your drinks and snacks. Large monitors display pics of people relaxing, zen-like photos and menu items. And the sound? Well, there is none, save the whispered conversations of the staff and patrons using the place. 

But if the first level is a nice contrast to the usual vibe, the second is positively in another world. The "recharge floor" has napping pods in various configurations. Each is sound proofed and has an Airweave mattress and pillow, the "newest innovation in sleep surface technology." A blackout curtain, fresh linens and dimable stars overhead complete the decorations. Pay ten buck for 30 minutes, slip your shoes under the bed, set your phone to silent and stare at the inside of your eyeballs to rest and get ready for the rest of your day. 

Other floors have a similar feel, just with different furnishings. There are hammocks and moon chairs, as well as desks with reclining chairs where you can put your feet up and noodle on your novel in peace. And if you need help with relaxing, an on-site yoga and meditation studio helps you find that inner peace for twenty bucks or less per om. You can even carry the feeling into the real world via their shuttle service to local airports, riding of course in that most silent of vehicles, a Tesla. 

Far from bearing the old stigma as the sign of a slacker, napping has become the mark of a mover. Just like a power workout in the middle of the day, you recognize when your peak capabilities are at an ebb, and take a snooze to recharge so you can once again be a master of the universe. David Lloyd Clubs, a gym chain in the U.K., is actually combining both techniques by introducing Napercise, a hour-long class featuring a 45-minute nap with a little stretching afterward. On these shores companies like Google and WeWork have nap rooms on the premises. Even the New York City Police Department, recognizing that long hours and intense situation means cops can get run down, turned to Nap York for help creating a nap pod for one of its detective squads. Put another way, it seems as if napping has become the new black.


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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

One + One = What?

Say the word "hybrid" and what comes to mind? For many the most likely reference is to a car, a type made by a variety of manufacturers that combines a gas engine along with an electric motor. In animal terms you might think of a beast that similarly combines elements of two different species, such as a mule being the offspring of a female donkey and a male horse. Or in fruits or flowers it might call to mind a tangelo or a roselily, the first a blend of tangerine and pomelo, the second a blend of, well, you know. 

In any of these, the goal is for one plus one to equal three. Doesn't make a difference if it's mattresses, bikes or securities. You try and combine the best traits of two disparate items to create a new superior entity. After all, there's really no point in picking out the worse traits and putting them together unless you're trying to end up with something like Congress. 

Sill, in each of the aforementioned examples, the blending takes place using things in the same space. You might try and make create a hybrid of a kiwi and banana, or an equity and bond. You can debate the combo's success or failure based on any number of factors, in the first case taste and shelf life, in the second stability and return. But you hardly ever see thing that are inter-species, like nectarine sandals or gasoline powered giraffes. 

With one exception: technology and anything. It's not enough that they can create phones that are  also music players, or watches that are also fitness trackers. These days anything can be "smart," anything can have an "i" in front of it, anything can have an app associated with it. That doesn't mean it should, just that it's possible, and someone thinks they can make money on it. And so you wind up with a host of hybrid gadgets that may function fine but have dubious value. 

Take Petris, a "pet health technology company," which is developing products and software to help pet owners better respond to their pet's health needs, or as they say, "the tale behind the tail.". To that end they have created the "world's first Smart Pet Bed, Activity Tracker, and pet Health and Nutrition App." The idea is to help you track Fido's weight, activity levels and rest periods, so you can help him live a healthier live style. After all, as they point out, there are over 80 million cat and dog households in the United States, and over 53% of those have overweight pets. It's worth noting that 7 in 10 American humans are overweight, and the Serta Bed Scale has yet to hit the market. 

Or consider the Sonomox Robotic Cuddle Pillow. A squishy gray blob resembling a peanut the size of a 2-month old, the device plays soothing sounds and feels like its breathing. It also has sensors in it that could be used to report your sleeping patterns, so you could wake up to a data dump of your nighttime experience.  The idea is to comfort you and make you feel relaxed, though speaking for myself, it would more likely creep me out and keep me up all night. 

Then there's the Colgate Connect E1. It is best described by two words you wouldn't think would appear together: smart toothbrush. With Artificial Intelligence in the handle and Bluetooth connectivity, it will track how much and how well you scrub in pursuit of the best oral health. It maps your mouth and coaches you to improve your technique to obtain optimal results. And is you are really bored, it has associated smartphone games like "Go Pirate" which turns the brush into the game controller. The more and better you brush, the higher your score. There's even a family mode so you can compete against others in your household, though no word if you can go teeth to teeth. 

Unlike all-weather coats, which usually don't keep you particularly warm nor dry, there's no doubt that these things work. But unlike the aforementioned jacket, there is not really a need for the stuff in question. Of course that doesn't stop them from being invented. Automated floss dispenser? Bluetooth Toaster? The iLounge iPod dock and toilet paper dispenser? I only wish I was making this stuff up.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants things that do one thing well. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The United States of Amazon

It's easy to list the things that divide us. Political? There's the obvious delineator of party, be it Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Socialist. Views? Well, there are those that consider themselves conservative or liberal, free market or protectionist. Social? Take your pick: guns, abortion, gay marriage. The list and lists go on and on.

There are softer areas as well, ones where views are equally intransigent though not as consequential. There are those that like pets, those that don't. Metallica fans as opposed to Taylor Swift lovers. Vegans vs meat eaters. (Though to be fair, unless it's for medical or religious reasons, that last category can be very fungible, especially if we're talking ribs.) 

Other than the broadest of conceptual ideas, like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it's hard to find any area on which we all agree. Almost anything that brings some together drives others away. But there is an exception. The president may rail against it for the taxes he says they don't pay, or the advantage he says they take of the postal system. Both dis's are highly questionable, and likely driven by the underlying politics of the founder and his media holdings. Either way, it's hard to find a more unifying force in the country than Amazon. 

You'd be hard pressed to find a person who hasn't shopped them, or invited them into their home, or used their online services through an intermediary. Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO, announced in his shareholder letter that Amazon Prime, it's premium service for fast deliveries coupled with a host of other "member benefits," now has more than 100 million members. If Primemetastan were a country, it would have more people than Germany, Vietnam, or Egypt. And yes, it would have 2-day mail delivery. 

So what does one do when more people than ever have asked to let you charge them just so you can buy stuff from them? (Sidebar: consider the upside-downness of that business model: I'm paying them to allow me to pay them. But I digress.) You raise the price, of course. The company announced this week that they are upping the cost of Prime membership 20 bucks to $119. Still, if you shop the site and use just some of the perks that come with it besides rapid and free delivery, you are likely more than making out. Or as RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney wrote, "There are three great deals in America today -- the Happy Meal ($3.29), Netflix ($10.99), and Prime (even @ new price of $119 – up 5 Grande Lattes a year)." 

This week they also announced several new initiatives based on their take of consumer needs. Border walls may a matter of debate, but let's face it: the border security we all care about regardless of political affiliation is for our homes. And so using the company's smart products like Ring doorbells and the Echo coupled with its Cloud Cam, they will sell you a complete home security system including installation. No, Mexico won't pay for this either, but it should keep bad hombres out of your family room. 

As more people have asked for more products to be delivered there has been a commensurate increase in thefts of packages left by the back door or near the garage. So called "porch pirates" have become a modern scourge right up there with carpal tunnel syndrome. And so Amazon has looked to find ways to secure those precious packages of yoga pants, diapers and Instapots. Staring this past week, if you have a late model GM car with OnStar, you can sign up for in-car delivery. Give them access and location, and a courier will be able to pop your trunk and drop your case of ramen in to await your return. Just make sure you have removed other valuables or bodies from the boot. 

So let's put it all together. An organization that people like so much they pay to be a part of it. That same organization gets people to pay even more because of the perceived value. They create new products and services in response to the needs of its customers. And they does it all without any ideological bent but rather in the name of service. I don't know about you, but I'm liking the sound of President Bezos.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually shops Amazon first. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.