Saturday, May 31, 2014

This to That

If you like to play around with numbers, some might call you a numbers geek. If you like to play around with statistics, some might call you a stats nerd. But if you like to play around with how things do or don't relate to one another, or the difference between causation and correlation, then they would call you Tyler Vigen.

Homeschooled by his mom, Tyler found that in spite of his love for science and math, they weren't areas at which he was particularly good. That didn't deter from studying, however; he has an AA in Liberal Arts from Normandale Community College in Minnesota, an AAS in Intelligence Operations from Cochise College in Arizona, a BA in Criminal Justice from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, and is currently studying for his JD at Harvard. Still, in spite of his interest in the law, "if someone offered me a job sweeping up the dirt underneath the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, I would very seriously consider taking it."

So what's a boy with that interest to do when he gets bored studying the intricacies of restraining orders? Most people might sit and watch a rerun of X-Men, or play a few rounds of Call of Duty. Tyler, he creates a website. ("Where did I learn to code? My mom sent me to the library and said, ‘learn how to make a website.' So I did!") And since he has a particular interest in statistics and numerical research, he decided to focus on correlation and causation.

Now, if you consider balancing your checkbook on a par with particle physics, your eyes might be rolling up in your head about now. But think of it this way: every day you get up and the "Today" show is on. Also, every day the sun comes up. One doesn't happen without the other. So does the sun cause "Today" to happen? Is it the other way around? Or what?

It's a scientific challenge that has been around literally forever. There are lots of things out there, and lots of other things that are somehow related. The question is does one make the other happen, or is it just coincidence? Does smoking cause lung cancer? Do people cause climate change? Was disco responsible for the demise of records? Or maybe for us landing on the moon? After all, both happened at the same time.

And that's the point. Just because two things happen together doesn't mean one caused the other. To prove the point, Tyler decided to take several sets of data, and map one against the other. The result is his website "Spurious Correlations." At last count it showed 23,299 examples where one set of data is compared to another. For instance, using number sets from 1999 to 2010, he shows that there is a very high correlation between the number of people who were electrocuted by power lines, and the marriage rate in Alabama. Likewise for suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation, and the number of lawyers in North Carolina. Does one cause the other? Well, does it?

Tyler puts it this way. He notes that the divorce rate in Maine somewhat matches the per capita consumption of margarine in the US, while that the number of worldwide space launches lines up with the number of sociology doctorate awarded. "Everyone knows there is no connection between margarine and marriage. But everyone considered the hypothesis for a split second, and said ‘are we launching sociologists into space?' And that's the part that's so cool! We were scientists, if only for a moment." And that's what we wants people to realize:  while research is about discovery, and computers can help, only humans can make the decisions and distinctions that advance our understanding.

Tyler said that he hopes that people think more about connections, and which are real and which are not. "I also hope," he says, "that people are less inclined to believe sensationalist headlines where researchers ‘find a connection' between two things." As for now, he's just having fun with the numbers. And while the site has created a bit of a buzz, with links appearing multiple places and even being translated into Russian, he notes that the best reaction he has gotten so far was that "someone emailed me specifically to say that I need to change my hairstyle." The big question I have: what does THAT correlate to?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always liked numbers.
Tyler's connections correlate to 
Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Allison in Rwanda-land

Over the past several months, I've been on the road: Washington, New Orleans, Phoenix twice. Not bad if you like to travel, but nothing too exotic. So I was a little jealous when Randy told me about Paris, and Bob mentioned heading to Hong Kong. But all of that paled when I was chatting with Allison. "How's work?" I asked her as we caught up at a dinner party. "Good," she said. "I just found out I'm leaving next week for Rwanda for 3 months."

I'd say she's got Randy and Bob beat.

Allison works for Indego Africa, a nonprofit that serves as a gateway for cooperatives made up of female artisans in Rwanda. They provide marketing and economic support for them to sell their products, and use all the profits to support training in business and literacy. As outlets for the goods, they partner with some of the biggest names in style, from J. Crew to Eileen Fisher. Allison wound up interning there fresh out of college, and it's a good fit: she spent part of her junior year in Cameroon, has an intense interest in Africa and focused her job search on organizations working there.

But it's one thing to work in the office or staff the sales table at an event. It's another to be asked to hop on a plane to fly 17 hours to a country most people associate with genocide. Still, it's the kind of break that doesn't come along often, and it was the kind of experience for which she was hoping. And so she put her U.S. life on hold, and flew to Indego's home base in the capital of Kigali.

If your image of an African city is based on movies, and you think Mogadishu or Khartoum, you might question her sanity. The reality, however, is far different. While Rwanda is still recovering from the horrific events of 1994, the country is stable politically and has strengthened economically over the past two decades. It's been hailed as a model on reconciliation issues, and its tourism industry is growing. All in all, a third world country with designs on moving up.

As to Allison, she quickly moved into her new home in an ex-pat filled neighborhood a short distance from downtown. As described in her blog ("Bonne Journée," French for "Have a Nice Day"), her housemates are 5 young adults and a dog named Kenya. The house has plenty of running water, a washing machine and a full kitchen with a food processor. She's been here just a few weeks, but so far her take is that it's "a completely different experience than living in Cameroon – It's just like being in any city (but with dodgier internet service and public transportation)."  

In fact, life so far sounds not a whole lot different from her routine when she lived in Astoria. "On some days, I might stop by the grocery store on my way home to get something to make dinner with, but I have leftovers from last night, so I'm just going to eat that. Then I'm going to watch last night's episode of ‘Game of Thrones' with one of my housemates!"  There are accommodations though: "I have discovered with the peanut butter here (it's from Kenya), PB&J sandwiches are a lot better when the bread is toasted – I cannot explain why."

She's finding adventures big and small. Language is one: "My main accomplishment of the morning was learning (and remembering) how to pronounce Abaharaniramajyambere (the name of one of the cooperatives Indego works with)." Getting around is another: "To find the fruit market, I was told ‘walk down the street with all of the shops and people until you see a really big building. The market is in there, down the stairs.' Hmm." And there are some discoveries that feel right at home: "This is definitely the one: Inzozi Nziza!!! Sweet Dreams! An ice cream shop created by a drumming cooperative of Rwandan women with the help of some ice cream shop owners from Brooklyn where I ate in 2012!"

Allison's got a few more months to go, and is aiming to return to these shores midsummer. Until then she's eating a lot of passion fruit, making friends and practicing her Kinyarwanda. Or as she might say, it might not be Queens, but at least it's starting to feel like urugo.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to travel. You can read Allison's blog at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Axis of Evil Contests

Joy is a photographer. Joy takes travel photos. Joy sees that the National Geographic Society is having a Traveler Photo Contest. Joy picks out her best travel photos. Joy reads the rules to make sure she is sending them in correctly. But Joy can't enter the contest. Why can't Joy enter the contest? Simple: Joy lives in New Jersey.

Other than the fact that every sentence in the prior paragraph contains "Joy," what is wrong with this story? If you seized on the last passage, you'd be right. But the rules for the contest are very clear. You have to make sure your entry is submitted between March 18, 2014 and June 30, 2014. You have to have model releases for people and written licenses for any art work included in a given shot. And you have be willing to grant the Society an "irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide non-exclusive license to reproduce, distribute, and display" any photos you submit.

That's all pretty boilerplate stuff. You find that kind of thing in just about any contest, whether it's about photos, poetry or creating a limerick for the back of a cracker box. You have to get your entry in by the deadline, you have to affirm that you're submitting your own work and not someone else's, and you have to grant the rights for your entry to the sponsoring organization of the contest. For most people, none of those bars are too high to clear, even if you're from Essex County. And in Joy's case, it was check, check and check.

But as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!" In this particular contest, the third paragraph of the rules states who is allowed to enter. As with many of these things, employees or their family members are not eligible. Then there's the usual catchall prohibition to cover all untouched legal bases, "contest void where prohibited." But then comes this line, stated very clearly in capital letters: "CONTEST IS VOID IN CUBA, IRAN, NEW JERSEY, NORTH KOREA, SUDAN AND SYRIA."  

Yup, you read that right. New Jersey, the state that gave us Bruce Springsteen and the Boardwalk and Frank Sinatra is on a list of Axis of Evil members and their ilk. In the eyes of the National Geographic Society, that means that a person in Weehawken or Rumson or Summit is no better than one in Havana or Homs or Tehran. Put another way, they are equating Chris Christie with Kim Jong Un. And that's unfair. (I'll leave it to you to decide to whom it is unfair, but I digress.)

Of course, you have to wonder why this is. It turns out that a photo contest is classified as a "skill contest." This differs from a sweepstakes or promotion in that an entry fee can be required; in the case of NatGeo, it's $15 per entry. In the past, a smattering of states have seen fit to prohibit skill contests if they require a fee, assumedly because they discriminate against those that can't afford to enter. Over the past several years, most of those have tweaked their laws, and so it's now legal for such contests to be entered by residents from such formerly banned places as Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont.  

Not so in the Garden State. Because of a number of case law rulings centered around the state's gambling industry, many contest sponsors felt it was easier to exclude Joy and her fellow Jersey girls and boys rather than get caught up in the state's legal system. And so living as she does in Maplewood, NJ, Joy could enter a contest at Amazon to win a Victorian Lace Gourmet Food and Spa Gift Basket Set, or one on to collect a Nutribullet 12 –piece blending/juicing system. But enter one of her gorgeous photos of the Cape Cod shoreline with the Society? Not a chance.

But change is hopefully coming. Seeking to put its residents on equal footing, the state legislature in Trenton passed a bill just this past January clarifying the law. And assuming it passes muster with National Geographic's lawyers, the 2015 variant of the contest will accept Joy's pictures with open arms. That gives her a year to take some new shots to send in. I just hope she doesn't plan on vacationing with her camera in Damascus: it might be a gray area.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves Joy's photos. You can see them at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Three Sheets to the Wind

The meeting on the new project was no different from a hundred others. As I was listening to the client explain what they wanted, my lower arm began to itch. I idly reached over to scratch it, rubbing from the elbow towards the wrist. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed something begin to emerge from my sleeve. Almost before I realized it and stopped, it looked as if my shirt was morphing into one from Edwardian England, with a frill at the margins. I don't think the others noticed, or at least I hoped they didn't. I quickly reversed direction, and it receded back from whence it came. But I'm no dandy, and this was no piece of lace; rather, it was a sheet of Bounce.

Yes, a humble dryer sheet. You probably use them yourselves, a little white rectangular piece of paper-esque material that comes on a roll, sporting names that just ooze freshness like Snuggle or Breezy. Throw one or more into the dryer with some clean clothes or sheets, and your laundry comes out all but new. That's because these miracles of modern chemistry and material science coat your textiles with a fabric softener, a sheen of fresh fragrance and an anti-static-cling molecular modifier (actually, I have no idea how they stop things from sticking together, so I just made that up).

Even when no longer up to their original task, they still have life in them. Plenty of web sites detail 10, 20, or even 30 things you can do with those that are lightly tumbled. Aside from the obvious ones, like tucking them into closets or cars to make them smell fresher, you can use them to clean glass screens and wooden furniture, with the anti-static properties pulling dust from the surfaces. Stuffed into a hole or crack, they stop mice from getting into your house or apartment; seems they are uncomfortable to eat through and smell funny to the critters. You can even put them into vents to both freshen and filter the air, creating your own little NASA-like air scrubber. Don't be surprised if one day when aliens invade us they scoff at our iPhones and GPS and Fit Bits as primitive technology, and yet don't completely write us off as uncivilized because of these marvels.

There is, however, one eensie-weensie little problem with these things. While they prevent other fabrics from clinging annoyingly to one another, they themselves stick to those same items like grim death. In fact, not only do they stick, they burrow deep into the most hidden nooks and crannies, the better to travel like a tick to their next location undetected. I have found them in shirts, in pants, in socks, in sheets, on towels, in underwear, in fleeces, in pajamas - in short, everywhere.

However, unlike many parasites, they don't usually jump to the next host and infect them. Rather, they pick the worse time to emerge from hibernation, times calculated not for maximum damage but for maximum embarrassment. Not only have they crawled out of my sleeves in meetings, but they have slithered out of pants when I walk into a room, and crawled out of a jacket as I get ready to make an exit. Like a rabbit popping out of a hat, all they lack is a punchy "Presto" like phrase to announce their presence. Thank God.

But according to some, their penchant for appearing at inopportune times is hardly their biggest sin. Some point out that the chemicals used in them are potentially dangerous as well. And perhaps they have a point. After all, you take a clean shirt, and throw it in with a sheet impregnated with a devil's list of potentially carcinogenic or neurologically toxic substances, from chloroform to camphor to linalool to pentane. In that light, some sticky clothes are a small price to pay.

Still, speaking for myself, you need to pick you battles in this minefield we call a world, and perhaps this is one I'll live with. After all, on some level, having your pants ride up and stick to your socks is far worse than getting a rash from exposure to alpha-terpineol. So in our house we will continue to Bounce away. I just gotta vet my clothes better when I get dressed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford had a three sheet day: in his shirt, his pants and in his pillowcase. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Everyday A Holiday

It's a momentous weekend. Not just because Saturday is the DC Funk Parade in Washington, DC, or the day of The Biggest Little Air Show in San Carlos, CA, or even because it's the fifth annual Bach and Roll Casino Night supporting the Community Music School in Raleigh, NC. Each is an exciting event in its own right, and worthy of attention and attendance. But each is also strictly local in its orientation, catering just to those in the area or passing through. No, the weekend is a big deal because all across this great land of ours we'll all be able to go out as one people and for the first time purchase Peeps Minis.

You probably though that because you didn't pick up a box of regular Easter Peeps a few weeks ago that your ship had sailed. True, you figured didn't have to wait a full year until next Easter, since Just Born, the manufacturer of the little marshmallow chicks, also makes summertime ones in lemonade and bubble gum flavors, as well as Halloween and Christmas variations. But should you have been in the mood for an intense sugar rush dusted with sweet crystals in a styrofoam-esque wrapper in June, you would have been out of luck. But no more. That's because you (or someone who looked a lot like you) responded in enough focus groups that yes, you would be thrilled to have them all the time. And so Peeps Minis are here.

Make no mistake: these are not your mother's Peeps. They're designed for a millennial generation that likes things small, intense and easy to digest, be it their technology, media or their candy. And so Minis are about 40% smaller than the usual Easter chicks, and come in sour watermelon, strawberry creme and chocolate crème flavors. But to pop one in your mouth is still to bring back memories of bunnies and chocolate eggs and all that goes with it. Or as Brian Bachrach, the senior marketing manager at Just Born says, "We're making every day into a holiday."

It's building on a trend that candy makers across the spectrum have been seeing for the last few years. Peeps was already at the forefront of one of them, the increased demand for holiday themed goodies, from Reese's hearts on Valentine's Day, to red and green M&M's at Christmas. But two of the other big trends that have been on the rise are candies with intense flavors, as well as smaller, more bite-sized goodies. And the new Peeps Minis play nicely into those two niches.

Perhaps that's why the company is not just expanding its retail offering alone, but broadening its overall footprint. Currently there are three Peeps stores (near their home base in Bethlehem, PA, on the National Harbor in Baltimore, MD and at the Mall of America in Minnesota) where you can buy not only the candy, but Peeps gift items, stuffed animals and themed clothing (a tee shirt proclaims "Certified Chick Magnet"). The company has signed promotional deals with Six Flags, Disney and Toys R Us to increase visibility. And if they can make a Lego movie, you know it's just a matter of time until there's a Peep show (sorry). In fact, Filmmaker Adam Rifkin ("Detroit Rock City") has optioned the rights to make a family-friendly film "about an adventurous young Peep who gets separated from his sugared brethren on the eve of a championship Peep diorama contest." As for stars: Meryl Peep? (sorry again.) Justin Peeper? (one more, please?) Liam Peepson? (OK, I'm through.)

But back to the new Minis themselves. From a dietary standpoint, making them bite sized is probably not a bad idea. Falling somewhere between Tic-Tacs and a Snickers bar on the nutritional spectrum, there is no mention of Peeps of any size in the FDA's food pyramid. Containing as they do just sugar, corn syrup and gelatin (and trace amounts of preservative, flavoring and a little wax for the eyes), they're not going to have a major impact on your recommended daily intakes of any food groups. One Mini equals about 14 calories, and has just a few grams of carbohydrates and sugar, and a tenth of a gram of protein. But what did you expect? After all, remember: they just look like chicken.


Marc Wollin of Bedford used to love Peeps, until everybody gave him some. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.