Saturday, October 25, 2014

Disease Vector

You kind of don't know who or what to believe. Expert after so-called expert fans the flames, so much so that you're not sure just how worried you should be. And then just when you start to settle down and not worry, a new study comes out and you start to panic all over again. It's gotten so that any little twinge makes you pick up the phone to call the doctor, only to put it down as you realize that the reality is nowhere near what the media is hyping.

Ebola? No, not that. Three people have been infected out of a population of about 318 million. Do the math: that's 0.000094%. You have a better chance of getting killed by a bee sting. Or a rollercoaster. Or accidentally shooting yourself. You even have a better chance of getting killed because you partied too hard: every year 88,000 Americans die from alcohol abuse. But Ebola? Unless something changes big time, you can safely take off your hazmat suit before you go grocery shopping.

No, I'm referring to the study much more germane to me and my ilk. By my ilk I mean middle age men who are, how to put it politely, follically challenged. According to a study recently published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology, men with moderate baldness in the front and crown at age 45 had about a 40 percent increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer than men with no baldness at that age.  

What's important to note is that this is a correlation and not a cause and effect situation. In another words, it's a marker: you don't get prostate cancer because you are balding, but it may indicate you might get it. May. Might. Or put another way by Dr. Michael Cook, senior study author and an investigator in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, "While our data shows a strong possibility for a link between the development of baldness and aggressive prostate cancer, it's too soon to apply these findings to patient care." Translation: put down the phone.

While this important study got some modest exposure in the form of a quick hit in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets, it certainly wasn't front page news. This in spite of the fact that prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind only lung cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates a man's lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer is 15.3%, while the risk of dying from it is 2.7%.

Those are significant numbers. Yet MSNBC and FOX haven't devoted wall to wall coverage of the disease, or of what seems to be a possibly important tool in the screening, detection and treatment of a significant health risk concerning half the population. Out of the 151 million males out there, myself included, about 233,000 new cases will be diagnosed this year. Still, perspective is important; it's all about vigilance and awareness, not hysteria.  

In other words men like myself should be more tuned in to the disease, and the symptoms and indications of its presence. Indeed, there have been several attempts at campaigns aimed at men the same way that breast cancer awareness has become a national focus, through things like the Susan Komen Race for the Cure and the NFL's Pink campaign. No doubt lives would be saved if more men paid more attention to their health, and simple warning signs like baldness were confirmed as useful tools to spot the disease.  

But contrast that with Ebola. When you compare the two, I am 1,637 times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than to have to be quarantined because of virus. And so we can debate the best way to stop this horrible disease in West Africa from turning into something broader, be it sending money and troops to the continent, or screening individuals at airports, or a total ban of flights. And to be sure there's room in that discussion that includes not just the medical point of view but the psychological one as well, given the horrific course it takes. But forgive me if I turn off CNN when I see them put graphics on the screen like "Is Ebola the ISIS of Biological Agents?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford is not afraid to fly just because the guy next to him is coughing. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Death, Taxes and FedEx

Most notably, death and taxes are among those things that fall into the category of "it'll always be there come hell or high water." Were your time cycle to match any of these phenomena, you could set your watch by them. And it's not just these big ticket items. On a more prosaic level, there're WalMart sales, the Jets losing and Lindsey Lohan getting into trouble.

But most things are far less sure. In fact, the world in changing at an increasingly rapid pace, so much so that whatever you thought you was here to stay is probably obsolete just about the time you get it down pat. As an example, just about the time you got your home wired with phones in all the right places they went wireless. So you replaced all those old princess models with snappy 900 megahertz models, only to find out they don't ring anymore because nobody calls, they just email. Now email is going the way of the dinosaurs, surpassed by texting. And texting itself is increasingly being pushed aside by things like SnapChat, FireChat and ThisIsEvenNewerChat.    

Still, we look to things that remain rock solid to give us stability and hope. In the category of things we know we can depend on is the overnight service FedEx. While they've updated their slogan over time, the one they started with says it best: "when it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight." Most of us still marvel at the mechanisms involved, and don't know how they actually make it happen again and again. But we have come to take it as an article of faith that if we drop a blue and orange envelope into one of their pickup boxes, as surely as night follows day, it will show up tomorrow at Aunt Helen's in Topeka or Granma Ruth's in Denver.

Seemingly nothing can stop them, with anecdotal stories reinforcing their prowess. One involves the FedEx driver who stopped to retrieve packages from a drop box, and found it couldn't be opened. Rather than go away empty handed, he backed his truck up and took the whole shebang back to the depot to be opened. They even made a movie about the company. Tom Hanks was the focal point of "Cast Away," a 2000 film where he played a FedEx employee marooned on a dessert island after a plane crash. While he uses items that wash ashore after being thrown from the plane when it hit the water, including drawing a face on a volleyball and treating it as a companion, he does find one package intact. He keeps that safe, and following his eventual rescue four years later, returns the it unopened to the intended recipient.  

So I have found it somewhat disconcerting in recent weeks to receive a string of emails from the company's Superhub in Memphis saying that, well, not so fast there, Wilson. Sometimes it just ain't absolutely positively possible to get your handmade oven mitt from here to there by tomorrow AM. In one, headlined "FedEx Service Alert: Volcanic Eruption In Iceland," they use a little thing like a part of the earth exploding as an excuse to not meeting their high standards.

Now, were that the end of it, I would cut them some slack. But several weeks later I got another. It talked about a line of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes that raced through the southeast, and might cause delays in air traffic. Oh well, I guess, you truly can't fool with Mother Nature. Probably another legit reason not to get your "One Hundred Great Quinoa Recipes" cookbook" from Amazon by 10A the next day.

But then this one: "FedEx experienced significant power outages last night at the FedEx Express Memphis Hub that affected our sort operations." That's it? Power outages? Hell, even WE have a generator. C'mon guys. Get some flashlights, some candles, order out from a pizza place that still has juice, and unload the damn truck!

I mean, if FedEx is not as dependable, as assured, as rock solid as I thought, and lets a little thing like a power outage affect its service, what's next? You are tampering with the very things I hold near and dear, the things that anchor my world.  I mean, you might as well tell me Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren't real. What's that you say? NOOOOOOOOOO!


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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hanging Around

Here's my routine for hanging a picture. First, with the frame under my arm, a nail in my mouth and a hammer in my hand, proceed to the open wall. I hold the picture up, squinting to see if it seems about in the right place. Stick a finger on the spot. Gingerly remove the frame, trying not to move my finger. Curse as I reach for the hammer that I placed just out of reach. Scratch the wall with the nail to save the spot. Grab the hammer. Look up to see if that I can't really tell where I I made the mark. Pound the nail in firmly, wincing as it goes through the wallboard into the void beyond. Gently pull it back out a bit, hoping that the angle is enough to support the weight since I didn't hit wood. Hang the picture and step back to admire it. Hopefully straight. Hopefully where I wanted it. Hopefully still hanging.

Your version might differ a bit, but it's probably not that dissimilar to mine. Contrast that procedure with the routine I watched of a curator and her team of two craftsmen from the Smithsonian. They were hanging a restored John Thomas Biggers oil painting that had been shipped to an exhibition in Atlanta. Each wearing white gloves, they carefully unpacked and unwrapped it, and gently laid the painting down on a clean covered pad. They checked the wall where it would be hung, determining where the wooden studs were that would best support the weight. Then they opened a many compartmented box, selecting a mounting bracket that exactly matched the frame. Out came a tape measure, and they proceeded to measure, calculate, measure again and calculate again until they were sure of their plan. They screwed a pair of brackets to the wall, matching others to the frame, and then carefully lifted the painting into place. They stepped back to look. It was straight. It was where they wanted it. And yes, it was still hanging.

I'd like to think that I, and indeed anyone, could learn from what they did. After all, they were skilled professionals entrusted with a valuable property, and gave it the care and respect it deserved. And who's to say that my poster from Ikea, or the photo I took of the kids, or the needlepoint backgammon board my mom made me don't deserve the same care and feeding? It's just that, well, they're them, and I'm me. Were I a pro entrusted with valuable artwork, I'd like to think I would up my game and do it the right way.

But not so fast. In a minor art wrestling match, a Picasso stage curtain, the largest in the US, has been hanging at the Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue in New York City since 1959. The owner of the building wanted to do some renovation to stabilize a rotting wall, the very wall on which the Picasso hung. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, which owned the painting, said it couldn't be moved without damage. Back and forth they went, a Big Apple tussle with money, power and prestige on the line, not to mention "only in New York" kinds of quotes like "if you move it, it'll crack like a potato chip."

The battle went this way and that, charges and counter charges flew, but the final verdict was that it had to travel. The Conservancy would take the painting, get it cleaned, and re-install it at the NY Historical Society. And so over a recent September weekend, a team of workmen slowly eased it off the wall and rolled it up. And what did they find holding up this priceless piece of one-of-a-kind art?  
Velcro and staples.

Yup, that's right. Someone had used a desk stapler on the edges of the canvas to match strips of Velcro to the sides to keep it in place. And along the top, hundreds of staples from a staple gun into two strips of wood supported the 19 by 20 foot work of art. As described in a news report, when they found out the method used, "Peg Breen, president of the conservancy, placed a hand delicately on her chest and walked into a different room."

In that light, I guess my method ain't so bad after all.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually gets a picture to hang straight. Usually. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Are We Up or Are We Down?

 Like most civilians, I have at least a passing acquaintance with basic stock market indicators and some broader measures of the overall economy. Let's be quite clear: acquaintance does not equal mastery. Still, I'm pretty sure it's good if the Dow Jones and the NASDAQ are up, not so good if they're down. Likewise, I know that the GDP is a measure of what we produce as a country, while the price indices, both the CPI and PPI, tell us how fast costs are rising. For the GDP, up is good; the others, well, not so much.  

But we are in an information overload age, regardless of the field. For instance, in football, stats used to be pretty basic, as in Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers has caught 37 passes for 351 yards so far this year. But that is no longer a sufficient measure of his abilities. What is his catch rate? His Effective Yards? His DYAR or Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement? True, only the most die-hard pigskin cheesehead would know the answer (and know why it makes a difference). But as made famous in Michael Lewis' portrait of Oakland's A manager Billy Beane, measures like that are the keys to exploiting the margins, and winning big time.  

And what is the economy if not a giant sporting event? True, it's about dollars and cents rather than balls and strikes, and those that come out on top get money but no trophy. But there are plenty of less well known measures of up-ness and down-ness which the devoted econhead can dive into and exploit to get an advantage. And as in athletic contests, while there are definitely Hail Mary passes, more often than not the difference between winners and losers is knowing how to look at the data, interpret it and then make game time decisions based on that info. If that's not the very definition of "Moneyball" I don't know what is.  

So when I turn on CNBC, I see JOLTS, or "Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey," a stat that gives a more nuanced view of the employment situation. There's the PCE Price Deflator, where PCE stands for "Personal Consumption Expenditure," with the deflator actually being a measure of inflation. There's even Truck Tonnage, or a measure of how much is being hauled by 18-wheelers across the country, from raw materials to finished goods. More stuff being moved, more good.  

Those are all highly quantifiable data points, in theory no different from the number reporting the Money Supply, the Unemployment Rate or Crude Oil Production. After all, you can actually go out and count the number of trucks whizzing past Exit 11 on the NJ Turnpike bound for consumer and factories. But it turns out there are also many more anecdotal measures that, while seemingly silly, actually do offer some intelligence regarding the overall direction of the economy.  

For instance, there's the "Buttered Popcorn Index." The theory goes that to escape bad times, people go to see movies, even bad ones. As evidence of its validity, devotees point to the fact the overall movies sales were way up during the 2009 recession, then flattened out as markets bounced back. Likewise, the "Coupon Redemption Index" says that as things get bad, people turn to more cost savings measures. In 2009, redemption of promotions soared to 3.3 billion. Conversely, the "Plastic Surgery Index" says that when the economy wavers, discretionary tucks and nips go by the wayside. And indeed, plastic surgery declined 9% in 2008.  

It hardly stops there. There's the "How Fast Contractors Call You Back Index" (faster responses means times are slow, and they need the work), the "Lipstick Index" (women turn to lipstick instead of more expensive indulgences in hard times) or the "Men's Underwear Index" (men forgo purchasing underwear during hard times). Actually, that last could be leading, lagging or completely neutral: men's underwear buying has never made any sense.

The bottom line is that you can find an indicator that suits your sensibilities. You can count apps, chocolate sundaes or tube socks, doesn't really matter. History says they likely have as good of a chance of being right as the "official" ones that drive decision making at the highest levels. After all, as economist Paul Samuelson observed way back in 1966, "Wall Street indexes predicted nine out of the last five recessions."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is pretty sure the Laffer Curve isn't related to baseball. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.