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.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Missing this Marc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Encounters of the Governmental Kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Of Mice and Cars

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

It was a mouse in the engine.

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

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

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

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

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


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