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.