Saturday, October 27, 2018

Can't Rest Rooms

Without getting too specific, let's talk washrooms. Whether you are male or female, once you finish whatever business you have, you rebutton your buttons and rezip your zippers. You thread your belt back together and smooth out your clothes. You tug your sleeves up your arms a bit and approach the sink. Then you commence something that roughly resembles a Kabuki Dance, reaching out your hands and slowly moving them through space in an exaggerated arc, trying to find the sweet spot that will enable you to wash up. 

If you had to pick the most high tech environment we are in on a regular basis, a place that is perhaps a harbinger of what all rooms will eventually be like, you could do worse than a public restroom. More than your office, more than your car, more than your kitchen, this most pedestrian of places has been automated so as to offer full functionality without almost no actual physical contact. That said, it also shows the adjustments we have to make as we ask machines to recognize us and do our bidding. 

Start with that sink. If you're lucky you hit the magic spot the first time and the water comes gushing out. If not, you lock the positions of your hands on the ends of your wrists, and slowly move several fractions north, south, east or west. You're looking for that specific place in space, that trigger point where the electric eye is focused. Often you'll hear a loud click and a mere spit will come out, as the spot is breached then passed through. Then you creep back the direction you came, or maybe alter the trajectory slightly, all with the simple goal of trying to get enough water to moisten your palms. 

But that's only step one. Once you get a little bit of wetness, you have to repeat almost the same ballet to get some soap. Except in this case aim and timing come in as well. From where you are standing you have to calculate the gravitational coefficient vs the expected pump power as the soap comes squirting out. As often as not you hear the motor going off, only to have it squirt a globule of cleaner in front of or next to your hands. Eventually you get a drop or two, and return back to the faucet, there to once again try a Marcel Marceau routine called "Can you find the water?" 

Were that the end of the performance it would have been enough. But the next act is equally confounding. Because if you're wet, you must get dry. Perhaps there is one of those small jet engines that activates when you put your hands under it, or the type that concentrates a super high powered air stream in a tiny slice. Either works fine, though your hearing is liable to suffer. But both are infinitely better than those dryers that might have worked at one time in the Eisenhower administration, but now barely blow warm air as if they are patients on the emphysema ward at Mt. Sinai. 

Alternatively, many restrooms offer you the alternative of old fashion paper towels. However, the crank-out-as-much-as-you-need dispensers are going the way of the dodo, replaced by ones with one more red electronic sensor staring up at you. Again, as if you are Tom Cruise in "Minority Report" sorting the evidence by gesture, you wave your hands in space, conjuring up a piece of paper to be produced as needed. As to how much you'll get, well, it varies. If they want to be generous, out comes a long piece. If it's about saving money or trees, you get a pittance, forcing you to wait until the device resets so you wave again, maybe even a third time. 

Making it work is one of those modern skills we've all had to acquire that our ancestors never had to deal with, like using a mouse or getting on an escalator. If there's any upside, I am firmly convinced it's become a human tell, something only our species can do. And so if there is ever an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, and you're not sure if your buddy is one of them, lead them to the bathroom. If they can't get the water to work or a towel to spit out, run for your life.


Marc Wollin of Bedford often gives up on dryers and wipes his hands on his pants. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Bodies in Motion

The flight wasn't dangerous per se, certainly no more or less than usual when you consider that you're hurtling through the sky at 500 miles an hour in an aluminum tube at 28,000 feet doing something of which only birds and bats are capable. But with that stipulation, it was bouncing around more than usual because storms had turned what looked like a clear sky into a dirt road after a rain storm. All those thermals and cross winds meant that rather than read or work as usual, I had to close my eyes, turn the vent above my seat to full, and breathe deeply to quiet my stomach. 

That's because I am of the many who is susceptible to motion sickness. About 5% of the population gets it in a bad way, with about the same percentage immune to it. The rest us are at risk with the number of those regularly afflicted estimated to be between 30% and 60%. It's caused by a mismatch between what you are seeing and what your inner ear is sensing, and can happen, in the words of Dr. Seuss, in a boat, on a plane, in a car, on a train. I'm not sure what rhymes with virtual reality, but it can happen there as well, as I can attest. I think I bear perhaps the singular distinction of being one of the few to lose a simulated race at the NASCAR museum because I almost got sick in a stationary Camaro. 

Actually that last point is starting to become a real issue, as VR is finding a toehold. All that soaring and flying over simulated whatevers can cause the same mismatch that you get from riding in car, causing your innards to rebel. No less a luminary than Palmer Luckey, the founder of Occulus Rift, the VR firm bought by Facebook for $2.3 billion, highlighted it as major issue for the industry. In fact, one of his major goals for the next five years is a "universal solution for vestibulo-oculular mismatch in virtual reality." Translation: he wants to make it so you'll be able to put on VR goggles and play Super Mario Brothers without puking. 

In the physical world there are any number of remedies, each of which has individualized and situational success. As I did on my flight, you can close your eyes to eliminate the eye/ear disconnect, breathe deeply and get fresh air. Ginger is also supposed to help as is acupressure, which is like acupuncture but using fingers rather than needles.  And there is medication like Dramamine pills and Scopolamine patches that one can take. 

The latest "cure" is available for preorder in France and just coming to these shores, courtesy of a collaboration between car manufacturer Citroën and startup Boarding Ring. They have developed the Seetroën glasses as a way to calm your lurching stomach. Looking like a Buzz Lightyear accessory as redesigned by Andy Warhol, the glasses consist of 4 "lenses" with no glass, two facing front and two on the side for your peripheral vision. Each has a ring around it filled partially with a blue liquid. As you move your head, the liquid moves in the rings, creating an artificial horizon on the edge of your sight line, soothing your brain and tamping down your breakfast. They say when you first feel ill to put them on for 10 minutes. In that time your brain will resynchronize your eyes and ears, then you can take them off and go back to reading your phone. Anecdotal reviews say they do indeed work, assuming you are a) willing to shell out the hundred bucks or so that they cost and b) are prepared to be laughed at by the other passengers on your conveyance. 

For physical travel, it might be worth trying. As to VR, I'm not sure they would fit under a pair of whatever one wears when teleporting to a 3D world these days. I only know that when I tried to watch Steve Spielberg's "Ready Player One," which takes place mostly inside a video game environment, I felt the earth shifting even though I was sitting in my family room watching TV. So for me at least, glasses or no, I think I'll stick to watching galaxies far far away as opposed to crawling inside of them.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't do well on boats. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Hang Ups

We've all become Ernestine. That famous Lily Tomlin character from the breakthrough 1960's comedy show "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" was an operator who worked for "The Phone Company." Not the Verizon or AT&T of today, but a composite Bell System of yesteryear, whose tag line was "We don't have to care: we're the Phone Company." It's not that attitude that we have all assumed, but rather her opening gambit, whereby she dialed a number, then counted off, "One Ringey Dingey. Two Ringey Dingeys."

We count because it's no longer as simple as letting it ring until someone on the other end picks up. In college there was an informal metric as to how long you had to wait before leaving a class that no one showed up to teach. If it was an instructor, there was 5-minute slippage factor. If it was an assistant or adjunct professor, the window was 10 minutes. And a full professor was allotted a grace period of 15 minutes before you could leave without repercussions. In that same light, we seem to have developed a sliding scale to hanging up before the beep.

If you're calling someone who works at a desk, where the phone is within easy each, you might give them 2 ringey dingeys, 3 if you're feeling generous. There are either there or they're not. They are either available or they're not. They are either willing to talk to you or they're not. In each of those negatives, all the ringing in the world won't get you answered. 

However if your call is going to a mobile phone, it's somewhat gender and age specific. If it's a teenage girl who has it in her hand, one ring is all it takes. If it's a male or female who keeps the phone in their pocket, a 2 count is sufficient. In both cases, they have the phone at the ready, and are ready for you. Or not. But it's a quick decision and reaction. However, if it's a woman who keeps it in her pocketbook, you have add a few more for the fish-it-out factor. And if it's your mother, double or even triple it be by land or cell.

That said, in almost no case should you actually take the bait and leave a message. Voicemail used to seem like such a great idea. You called to talk, couldn't make the connection, so you left a message. At the other end, the person you were trying to reach could call in at their convenience and hear a recording of you saying exactly what you wanted them to hear. How cool was that?

But that was then. This is now.  And now no one likes voicemail. Not the people leaving it, not the people picking it up. If you're the caller, when the beep occurs, it's like a director shouting "Action" to a scene you haven't rehearsed. And if you're the callee, you have to find the time to retrieve, play and then delete the message. Considering how fast things move today, in many cases that elapsed time from message left to retrieval of same renders the contents moot. With all that in mind, we're starting to see some companies whose phone system will no longer even take a message. A standardized recording asks you to try and reach the employee at another time, or send an email or text. It's more efficient and less costly. The bottom line is that in most cases if you get the beep, you should just press the "end" button and try a different path. And that goes for messages for your mom as well: after all, she likely has forgotten how to retrieve them anyways.

Gawker has a list entitled "Don't leave a voicemail message if." It includes anything time sensitive, anything that you deem important, or if your message is simply a request to call you back. They say it's OK to leave a message is you can't text, if you're going to sing into the phone, or in the words of the old Stevie Wonder song, you just called to say I love you. Oh, and one other possible reason: you're going to die, and want the person at the other end to be able to save your last words. Other that, when you hear the beep, just hang up.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has learned to not leave messages, even for his mother. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Dunkin' Who?

A number of years ago I sat in on a meeting as an AT&T exec gathered a bunch of employees together for a brain storming session about the company's future. On the list of topics to discuss was what to call their retail stores. He pointed out that the future of communications would revolve around new technologies, and while phones might be a part of it they might also be in a different form. In that light, using "phone" in the moniker might be shortsighted. After all, the company only had to look at its own history: AT&T was the official name, but those initials came from American Telephone and Telegraph, highlighting a technology that went the way of the dodo. He also brought up the example of Radio Shack, at the time a thriving firm. An apt name when they were created, but at that point outdated: they didn't sell a lot of radios and their stores were hardly shacks. 

Fast forward, and the company's stores are known as, well, "AT&T Stores." While not the most original nor the trendiest (hard to delete all the vowels when one of the three letters in your name is an "a"), as long as they are still in business and go by that name they are probably protected from having to change the signs out front. The product mix inside doesn't really matter. Should they decide to add AT&T branded shoes, burgers or tennis racquets, they would be good to go. 

Which brings us to Dunkin' Donuts. Or as they will be known starting in January, Dunkin'. Officially, they say the name change is just a nod to streamlining, adopting a name that many already use. After all, they say, look at how Federal Express became FedEx, how Consumer Value Stores became CVS, how Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing became 3M. And not to worry, they say, they will always have donuts. They are just focusing more on beverages, which account for 60% of their business. Or as Thrillist writer James Chrisman noted, "It's also probably time for some existential reckoning when you find you're a donut chain serving tuna." 

(The interesting yin and yang is that another company in that space did the same kind of thing, but in the other direction. Seeing that their future was too tied to just hot beverages, Starbucks Coffee became just plain old Starbucks. They see their growth beyond java, and didn't want to be pinned into a corner by their name. Or maybe both companies just have a Cher-Beyoncé-Madonna-Sting-Bono complex.) 

But just as KFC deleted the "Fried Chicken" from its name, the bait-and-switch is really to convince us that they are more than their namesake. Rather then be known as the "go to" standard for the foodstuff on which they built their reputation, they want to be thought of not as specialists but as generalists. The goal is for the consuming public to think of them more as a "lifestyle brand" than as a simple purveyor of one thing done well. With that name change, or so the thinking goes, they can branch out, moving beyond a product that is increasingly out of favor (in both Dunkin's and KFC's case, foods that are bad for you) and into whatever is most promising (foods that are less bad for you). 

One wonders about the wisdom of this. In this hyper focalized world, that specialization can be an asset. If I want donuts, I go to Tim Horton's or Krispy Kreme or Dunkin DONUTS. Those are the mother ships, done right, without apology. Do they really see a future in trying to out Starbucks Starbucks? That also means going toe-to-toe with Stumptown and Peet's and Coffee Bean. Is that really a caffeine fueled rumble they can win? 

Doing one thing well is no vice. Or as noted so eloquently in the song "One Trick Pony" by Paul Simon, "He's a one-trick pony/One trick is all that horse can do. He does one trick only/It's the principal source of his revenue. But when he steps into the spotlight/You can feel the heat of his heart come rising through." I for one can feel the heat of those Boston Kremes and Toasted Coconuts and French Crullers. And if I all I want is a cup of coffee, there's a cart on the corner.


Marc Wollin of Bedford requests donuts in place of birthday cake. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.