Saturday, June 29, 2013

They're Watching You

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and we were contemplating what to do for the evening. We had no real plans, so discussion turned to a movie. We settled on one, and I moseyed over to the computer to find out where it was playing. A quick search showed it was not far away, and in fact near a little Italian place we liked that had outdoor seating. I checked their dinner specials, looked at the show times and we were good to go.

So far nothing in this sequence of events is unusual or remarkable; in fact, it defines pedestrian. But that little bit of typing and several clicks had drawn me in deep. I'll leave it to you to decide if the web in which I was caught was amazing, intrusive, terrifying, or a little bit of each. But by going online and tipping my hand as to what I was thinking, I had fallen into their clutches. Not the NSA, but Big Data.

That's the term used to describe the massive amount of information that is generated not only by our web searches, but also from our GPS devices, cell phone signals and purchase transactions, to name just a few sources. It's basically everything that is out there today about everyone and everything, by some counts a total of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day.

But if the volume and variety of information is staggering, it's a third "v" that's really amazing: velocity. Instead of just swirling around independently, it's being filtered and matched and analyzed and – here's the scary part – acted upon almost in real time. You've seen this at its most basic if you've ever searched for something online. Type a few letters, and a list of possible choices comes up. Used to be those were culled from a list of words that started the same way, with no regard for context: type "new" and you got "new age," "New Albany" and "New Amsterdam." But sitting where I am right now, if I type those same three letters into a Google search bar, I get "New York Times" "News 12" or "New York Lottery." Hardly an alphabetical choice, but rather driven by where I am, what I've done in the past and what others near me are doing. You see this with book choices from Amazon, plane tickets on Expedia, even stuff for sale at Target.

So what does any of this have to with my wife and I on a Saturday night? Well, when we finally got our act together and started to head out the door, I grabbed my keys and phone. I powered it up to make sure it was working, and unlocked it to see if there were any last minute messages. And up popped a bunch of "cards" from a program called Google Now, the very embodiment of Big Data.

Mind you, I had not touched my phone all day. But there on the screen was a card showing the theater we were going to along with the show times coming up. There was a link to a review of the movie. There was a map showing me the best route to get to the theater, along with a report of traffic along the way and estimated drive time. There was even a card with a link to the restaurant we liked, along with a notice of their "Lasagna Night" promotion.

Other than the fact that I prefer pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe in garlic and oil, it had me down pat. And I had done nothing to get that information. Well, not exactly nothing; I had told "it" what I was thinking by my searching. To be sure, had I looked up the show times in the newspaper, my phone would have only shown me that it had downloaded an update to Angry Birds. But with just a few clicks on my keyboard, I started computers from Phoenix to India analyzing me, predicting my behavior and offering up actions to be taken.

Big Friend or Big Brother? It's both of those and more. But make no mistake: it's here. If you don't like it, then don't go online, throw away you smartphone and disconnect your cable. Other than that, they've got you. As for me, I'm actually starting to develop a craving for lasagna.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is amazed by what pops up on his phone these days. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

By the Numbers

Pick up a paper, watch a news program or read a magazine, and there's likely a headline with a number in it. And not just a number, but a statistic. From the Wall Street Journal: "People With Disabilities Face 13.4% Unemployment Rate." From NBC News: "Cutting CT Scans in Kids Could Reduce Cancer Risk by 62%." From the New York Times: "Global Ticket Sales for Movies Rise 6%." There is virtually no field that can't be sliced, diced and quantified by a stat. From Fine "Blame It On The Guacamole: Avocado Consumption Is Up 100% Over 6 Years."

But what do those numbers really mean? Obviously many people with disabilities do find work, many kids have CT scans without getting cancer and not all movies do better at the box office. As for you, are you really eating twice as much guacamole? Do you even like guacamole? These kinds of questions fascinated both Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. The former is an author, journalist and BBC Radio 4 broadcaster, while the latter is a Professor of Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. And they've laid it out, in a fashion, in "The Norm Chronicles."

In it we meet, well, Norm. Norm is 31, 5 feet 9 inches, just over 182 pounds and works a 39 hour week. He likes a drink, doesn't do enough exercise and occasionally treats himself to a bar of chocolate, preferring milk over dark. He's also a married parent, and drives a Ford Fiesta. Norm isn't just average: Norm IS the average. Along with his two friends, Prudence (who is scared of her own shadow) and Kelvin, (who tells Norm where to shove his statistics), they wander through life where everything is a choice based the interplay between risk and chance. Should I fly or take the train? Have a baby? How about a drink? What harm could another sausage do? These are questions Norm, Prudence and Kelvin each face every day, as do you. Even if you don't like sausage.

The trick is that the answers, in the form of statistics, have to be tempered by what you know to be true. After all, the stats say that the average person has 1.9999 legs. In that vein, as the authors point out, most accidental infant deaths occur within the parental home. That means that a parent truly concerned about his or her child's safety should leave them outdoors at all times. Likewise, not feeding them also substantially reduces the possibility of them getting a fatal dose of salmonella. Or in Norm's case, he notes that most murders are committed by people known to the victim. His answer? Have no friends.

Since the numbers can get overwhelming, they quantify much of Norm's adventures in a unit called MicroMorts, or MMs. An MM is a "one-in-a-million chance of something horribly and fatally dramatic happening to Mr. or Ms. Average on an average day spent doing their average, everyday stuff. One MicroMort, in other words, is a benchmark for living normally." A more concrete way of looking at it: "A MicroMort can also be compared to a form of imaginary Russian roulette in which 20 coins are thrown in the air. If they all come down heads, the subject is executed. That is about the same odds as the one-in-a-million chance of the average everyday dose of acute fatal risk."

Using this yardstick, it's easier to compare apples-to-apples. For example, the risk of death from a general anesthetic in a non-emergency operation in the UK is roughly 1 in 100,000. Converted to MircoMorts means that dying from anesthesia has a value of 10 MM, or 10 times the ordinary average risk of getting through the day without a violent or accidental death. Skiing has a value of 1MM, meaning schussing down the slopes has about the same value as getting killed tomorrow. Compare that to riding a motorcycle 28 miles (4MMs), scuba diving (7MM's) or walking 27 miles (1MM).

Of course, risk and chance are not the same thing. One in a million is a long shot. But the "one" does happen. Norm, skittish Prudence and reckless Kelvin each spot a bag in the Tube. Prudence has them evacuate the station. Kelvin opens it and finds a laptop. But Norm? Norm it ignores it, until it blows up; sadly for him, it was a bomb. What are the chances of that? You'll have to read the book to find out.


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

Saturday, June 15, 2013

You're My Security

If there is a single word which crosses every aspect of our lives today it is "security." Doesn't matter the venue – economic, physical, virtual – surveys show that people place feeling safe at the top of their list of concerns. To insure it we buy guns, put locks on our doors and ask our husbands to watch, watch, watch our pocketbooks when we go to the rest room (I know the last from years of experience). And more and more, we rely on passwords.

The last used to be simple. Before there was anything really anything important online (because there was no online), the purpose of the password was less about real security and protection, and more about denying casual access. But three decades later, and that same password could just as easily protect your bank account, your Ebay store or your Twitter feed; you decide which is the most important.

Like most things, the state of the art has advanced a bit as well. In addition to a password, you are often asked to put in a "CAPTCHA," an artistic rendition of a letter-number combination designed to thwart a text reading programs. (Yes, it is correctly spelled with all capitals, as it's an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart.") You might also have been asked to set up one or a series of security questions. Your elementary school. The street where you grew up. Your first pet. Forget the keys to your car or house; remembering the answer to these questions are the real keys to your kingdom.

But with all that is available online, the answer to those and questions like them isn't really that elusive. A few clicks and I can find out you went to Millard Fillmore Elementary (and were awarded Most Improved Speller in second grade), that you lived on Apple Lane, even that you and your dog Speckles were inseparable. So what next? How can any web site prove you are you when you tap in, and not some meanie looking to rip you off?

I hit this next frontier when I got a new phone. In the course of getting it set up, I had to reinstall all the apps I used and reregister them, proving in each case that I was me. Each app or site presented me with some combination of the aforementioned methods; password, CAPTCHA, security questions. And then I came to Facebook. It offered me a choice: security questions or pictures? I decided to try pictures, assuming it would show me shots I had posted and ask for details I had entered. But it took a different approach; it showed me you.

When I clicked go, it randomly pulled up a picture of someone with whom I was friends. And not their profile picture, either. Rather, it was one they had posted on their own page, while a multiple choice list of who it might be was posted below.  So I got a picture of Maryann, not alone but with her niece at the little girl's five year old birthday party. Next was a softball team gathered around a bar; I think I saw my friend John in the background. Then a grainy out of focus shot of what looked to be Paris, with Emily off to the side. A counter below kept score; I was being given five chances. Get three right and I was in. Blow it and I was locked out and would have to get my account reset.

That means that "friend me" takes on a whole new meaning. That's because going forward you could well be the key to my security. So now I have to care enough about you to learn what you looked like when you had hair back in 1986. I have to be able to pick you out of a shot from your college sorority rush class. I have to know what your nieces and nephews look like, what countries you've visited, and what your wore for Halloween in 2004.

Still, I feel safer. Knowing that you are standing guard for me makes me feel much more secure. Now, if I could only remember half of things about myself, I'd be fine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never posted a picture on Facebook. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, June 08, 2013

In Smoke We Trust

We were setting up for a project with a gang that had been together many times. The clients were doing their thing, the techs theirs, each working in their own space and nodding politely to one other. My job, as usual, was bridging the divide between the two. As part of my rambling small talk, I asked one of the techs named Chris how his side business was going. He mentioned that the coming weekend would have him and his partners working their biggest event to date. One of the clients politely inquired over her shoulder as to the type of business they had. When Chris told her, conversation stopped. All turned to him, and they started swapping stories and tricks; it was all I could do to get us back on track. And the reason I lost control? Chis and his mates have a team that competes in professional BBQ.

BBQ is one culinary arena that inspires passion like no other; Mitch and Chris can wax philosophically about it for hours. Mitch says it best: "My whole life I was under the impression that BBQ was burgers, chicken, or even ribs drenched in sauce, then abused over super high heat on a propane grill. Never knew it was the exact opposite: taking your time, an all-day event, babysitting a hunk of meat in a smoke filled vessel, basting it until it becomes very tender, as it slowly caramelizes. Really putting some love into it. Very few things in life are worth that amount of time." Mind you, that's not his wife he's talking about, but a pork butt.

While Mitch got hooked at a shack in Atlanta called Daddy D's, Chris' epiphany was in 2009. "I met a guy named Tom Bera of Philly Blind Pig BBQ. Got a glimpse of his operation and I was hooked. Within the next year I bought a basic smoker from Home Depot and started learning. In 2011 we started competing in sanctioned events, and in 2012 I bought a tow behind Meadow Creek Barbecue TS250 smoker with a BBQ 42 Chicken cooker mounted on the front." Your daddy's Weber this is not.

Both guys have put some serious money and time into it, spending much of their off hours perfecting their technique, going to competitions, and more recently, selling their edible art at festivals. Their team, Zombie BBQ, won a bunch of awards over the past year or so, including 3rd in ribs at Smoke in the Valley in Green Lane, PA, 4th in brisket and 5th in pork at the New Holland Summerfest in New Holland, PA, and 4th in pork at Pork in the Park in Salisbury, MD.

Though the prize money does help offset an expensive hobby, competing isn't really about winning. Says Chris, "Everyone is really nice and willing to give you tips, tricks. It's a very friendly and fun environment. Every competition is like a mini vacation for us." However, it's a tiring vacation: "We start smoking around 8 pm on a Friday and run the pit all night until around 12 pm on Saturday. Since I usually have to feed the fire of my smoker ever hour or so, I don't get much sleep."

Each has their favorites. For Mitch, "Good brisket burnt ends can make your knees buckle, and great ribs are just a beautiful thing." Chris is a big brisket fan too, but has a few other specialties: "Something that I've been making lately for friends and family is pulled pork and Sriracha infused coleslaw egg rolls with hot pepper buffalo cheese, served with an oriental style BBQ sauce." No, you can't have his address.

In the documentary "American Smoke" that Mitch is making about the world of grillers, he opens the trailer with a shot of a bearded fellow competitor. Off camera Mitch asks, "Is barbequing better than sex?" The man gives a short laugh and the music starts. Some might think that laugh is there because the answer is that nothing could be better than carnal pleasures. But those in the know know better. The guy laughed for the simple reason that to many it's a rhetorical question. For them, the question isn't which position do you prefer, but do you like your ribs wet or dry. For them, BBQ and sex are merely two flavors of the same thing; it's just a matter of what produces the smoke.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes the guys invite him over for lunch. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Confused and Betrayed

I try and do the right things, I really do. But I'm confused.

Take recycling. Like any good liberal weenie, I made sure to place all used cans and plastic containers in a clear plastic bag, and used newspapers in a brown paper one. Then I faithfully consulted the schedule the refuse company sent us (note that I'm such a weenie that I didn't even use the term "garbage"), and on the appropriate alternate weeks, brought one or the other to the curb along with the regular weekly can.

Now they tell me it's not necessary. With so called single-stream recycling, they tell me to throw it all into one bag. Not to worry, they say: if you just give us all the stuff that can be reprocessed together, we'll figure it out at the other end. Still, years of conditioning aren't so easy to shake. So we still use two different bags, but bring them out together early Friday mornings, and watch the guy on the garbage truck (whoops, I slipped) toss it all in the same hopper. In the name of Al Gore, I just have to trust them.

Plenty of other similar conundrums abound. We used be taught to pump the brakes to stop; now we are told to jam them on and let the anti-lock system do the job. We used to religiously backup all our data locally; now we're told to do it all online in the cloud. It's as if Woody Allen's 1973 movie "Sleeper" has come to life. In it, a man is frozen for 200 years, and when he wakes, requests a breakfast of wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk. "They were thought to be healthy," says one doctor." Another: "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?" Says the first, "Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true." They both shake their heads: "Incredible," they agree.

Incredible indeed, yet that's precisely where we are. In a new study published by cardiologists at Duke University, researchers looked at two of the most common recommendations for better health. The first involves a class of drugs known as statins. Statins reduce cholesterol and appear to have few detrimental side effects, a one-two punch that helps make them the most prescribed pharmaceuticals in the world. As a person with genetically high cholesterol, I count myself as a taker. Indeed, between some dietary changes and the pills, I can report that my levels have dropped below my former 2 pieces of pizza a day marker, a result my doctor and I find encouraging.

The second area the folks at Duke looked at involved exercise. You have to have been living under a rock not to know that virtually every health care professional says that that doing some sort of physical workout is a good thing. Walk, run, bike - doesn't matter what. Any getting up and out is a good thing, and so I do it all. As long as I don't get hit by a bus when jogging, doc and I are both happy.

So one would think that if get your pills down and your heart rate up, living to 137 is possible. Well, maybe not 137, but at least you have a better chance of getting closer than a couch potato with an LDL of 200. But not so fast, say the researchers at Duke. Turns out that statins and exercise don't mix so well. When they tested a bunch of volunteers, as the study so dryly puts it, "Cardiorespiratory fitness increased by 10% in response to exercise training alone, but was blunted by the addition of simvastatin resulting in only a 1.5% increase." In other words, if you want to get healthy, you can exercise or you can take statins. But doing both? Well, let's just say they go together like Lindsey Lohan and authority figures.

As for me, once more I'm confused. I know that peanut butter and chocolate go together. I know that rainy days and naps have a synergy. But beyond that? At least for now, I'll keep taking my pills and running a few miles every few days. But please figure this out. Or that getting hit by a bus option is starting to look a whole lot more attractive.


Marc Wollin of Bedford runs slowly, but at least he runs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.