Saturday, September 24, 2016

I Agree

My father taught me many things. Some are quaintly outdated, while others have stood the test of time. In the first category are balancing a checkbook and reading a map. While it made sense back then, with online banking and GPS, no real need to do either of those these days. On the other hand, he also insisted I learn to back into parking places. I still get strange looks when I do it, but studies show that it decreases accidents when the first thing you do when you get into a car is to go forward, not backward. Thanks, Dad.

He also taught me to read what I was signing. Maybe not every word, but certainly you should at least skim a piece of paper that requires your signature. I'm no lawyer, and so can't profess I would understand all the fine print even if I did take the time to read it. But I generally do look down the page and see if the boilerplate looks like the usual boilerplate. And I'd wager I'm hardly alone: even the solicitors among you probably barely take the time to review every clause and sub-clause in the routine stuff we autograph daily.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the online world. Apps, software and even some websites require you to check off a box attesting that you agree to their privacy policy and Terms of Service (TOS) before they let you take it out for a spin. You'll find that box usually at the bottom of a multi-screen form that purports to establish your rights, privileges and the avenues of recourse you agree to in exchange for downloading music or booking a table. Be honest: like me, you check it and move on without ever looking at it.

There's good reason for that: you have a life to live. A 2008 study by Aleecia McDonald and Lorrie Faith Cranor of Carnegie Mellon University looked at privacy agreements for the most popular 75 websites, finding they ranged from 144 words up to 7,669 words, with the median being around 2,500. Using a standard pace of 250 words per minute, that means most privacy policies take about eight to ten minutes to read. They calculated that if you actually bothered to read all the ones you encountered on a daily basis, it would take you 250 working hours per year, or about 30 workdays just to get through your iTunes agreement and its ilk.

And so we click the box and move on. Most times, the result is benign. But there might be gold in them there words. In a sort of canary-in-a-coal-mine experiment, the developers of PC Pitstop Optimize tucked a clause into their TOS that offered cash to anyone who would respond to it. It took five months and more than 3,000 sales before a single person read it and reached out, for which he was sent a check for $1000.

Of course, it can go the other way as well. In a recent study, 543 undergraduate students were offered entrance to a fake Linked-In-like service. Called NameDrop (pretty good name for a fake!), they had to first agree to the service's terms by clicking the ubiquitous box. But contained in the TOS were two unusual clauses. The first said NameDrop may be required to share your data with the government including the NSA. The second said all users agree to give their "first-born child" to NameDrop, with an exclusive claim to that child through 2050.

In the end, the study said 74 percent of the participants skipped the TOS and privacy policy and signed on. Those who did read them spent around a minute skimming them, when they should have taken 20 or 30 minutes to digest it all. But perhaps strangest of all is that some of those who actually did read the whole thing, including those clauses, signed up anyway. Guess they don't like kids.

We can pretend to be outraged by all of this. We know that the agreements are meant less to protect us than the companies, as well as give them access to our data for marketing and sales purposes. But no one is compelling us to give away our rights and anonymity. And truth be told, most of us have accepted this deal with the devil, if only to be the first to know when that new Coach bag is released.


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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Coded for Life

It's math of the newest kind. 212 is equal to 646. Sometimes it can be also be equal to 917. And all three will be equal to 332, but only starting in 2017. But we're not talking your regular addition and subtraction, nor some esoteric quantum branch of mathematics practiced by a bunch of geeks with slide-rule tie clips. We're talking about simple multiplication, as in how to double the number of phone numbers available in a given area.  

It's all part of the evolving master design that is the North American Numbering Plan or NANP. Created in the 1940's as a way of taming the unruly growth of the various parts of the Bell System, it divided the country into 86 Numbering Plan Areas, or NPAs, each of which were given an area code. Originally used by operators to connect to different central stations, the system evolved to make it usable for consumers. That was first demonstrated on November 10, 1951, when Mayor M. Leslie Denning of Englewood NJ dialed 10 digits, and 18 seconds later, Mayor Frank Osborne of Alameda CA answered the phone. According to the Associated Press, they talked about the marvel of it all and the weather, with Mayor Osborne closing the call by asking a question about which many on the west coast wondered: "Is it true the people in New Jersey ride mosquitoes the same as we ride horses out here?" Amid laughter, the reports said that Denning replied that he "hadn't been bitten in years."

All was well and good for more than 40 years. But then it started to get a little cozy at the inn. The growth in landlines, fax machines, computer modems and those new-fangled mobile phones started to crowd the system. And there's comes a time when you can no longer just add "1" to get a new number. And so in 1995, Alabama, a state not normally associated with hi tech, became ground zero in the telecommunications revolution. A new confederacy was started, when the southern half of the state withdrew from the north, or to be more accurate, was withdrawn. And where before all Crimson Tiders lived together harmoniously in 205, now half lived in area code 205 and half lived in 334.

As the need picked up, the pace picked up. Texas and Washington, Florida and Massachusetts all divided like so many amoebas. In New Jersey alone, there were three splits in two years. In 1997 the folks in New Brunswick, Rahway and the Jersey shore jumped their 908 ship for 732, while the 201's of Newark, Paterson and Morristown decamped for 973. And in 1999, some 609'ers set up shop as the 856's of Camden and Vineland.  

Realizing their had to be a better way than making people reprint their business cards over and over, a different approach was tried. A new area code could be overlaid on top of an old, allowing those original homesteaders to keep their numbers, while the new kids on the block would get a different address. That did mean that whereas before neighbors in a given area code could skip dialing those first three digits, overlaying necessitated "mandatory 10 digit dialing." You should send a "thank you" note to Silver Spring, Frederick and Cumberland Maryland residents for being the first to attempt this technological sleight-of-hand.

And that's where we are today. Add in the provision in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which allows you to take that 10-digit number to whatever company you choose, plus the fact that most new lines today are of the mobile variety, and you have a situation where you are area coded for life. Wherever you go, whatever mobile plan you sign up for, that number will work. You can have 914 if you move to Chicago, or 917 if you set up shop on LA. And while it might confuse the people you talk to, the system is designed to make it all work seamlessly.

Funny how we are told to safeguard so many numbers: social security, bank account, credit card. Yet at the same time we freely give out our phone numbers, when those are becoming the one clue that reliably tells people our origin. Yours is 732? A Jersey Boy at heart. You a 669? You're a Silicon Valley girl. It could put the NSA out of business.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is a 914 in spirit and fact. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sara's Smile

I have seen the future, and its name is Sara.

The funny thing is I don't know all that much about her. We were in Stockholm, and taking a day trip to an outlying island in the archipelago. The capital of Sweden is made of 14 islands itself, connected by 57 bridges. But that's nothing compared with the dots of land sprinkling the sea on the city's east side. Exactly how many islands is debatable, with headcounts ranging from 14,000 to 100,000: the general consensus is around 24,000. But ask almost any Swede, and they will have their favorite and gush rhapsodically about it.  

We were on our way to Utö, which sort of rhymes with "pewter." The island sports a hotel, a few restaurants, a mining museum, a bakery, a miniature golf course, a tennis court, and plenty of hiking and biking trails. But when we were there the first week of September, all but the hotel were already closed for the season. No matter: the trails were well marked, the view of the Baltic sea was breathtaking and the herring was delicious.

To get there requires a train/bus/ferry combo from the center of town. If you speak Swedish, it's likely not much harder than going to the Jersey shore from Manhattan. But at least for this English-speaker, the danger lay in spraining my tongue as I tried to confirm the directions with the ticket taker at the train station: "So I take the Nynäshamn train as far as Västerhaning, then catch the bus to Årsta brygga, where I get a Waxholmsbolaget ferry to Gruvbryggan. Right?" Go ahead: you try it.

We managed the first leg no problem, and were looking for the bus stop. On an hunch, we aimed for a spot where people were congregating. There were a bunch of young teenagers loaded with camping gear, and what turned out to be a club of pensioners on a day trip. I approached a woman in the second group, and asked if they were also headed to Utö. It took her a moment to decode my pronunciation, but then she smiled broadly, confirmed it and invited us to follow them.

While we waited we chatted with the pensioners about travel and such. When the bus came I chose a set of two seats facing two others, hoping some of our new acquaintances might join us. But down flopped 2 young girls, jabbering madly with their friends. They piled sleeping pads atop duffel bags, and settled in for the short ride to the ferry.

Turned out they were middle schoolers going on a field trip. Sweden is a very homogeneous country; most people walking down the street are blond and blue-eyed, and the locals we spoke to confirmed it as well. Diversity means people with long hair and short hair. In that light, both Sara D and her pal Sara H stood out not because they were wearing tie-dyed shirts that said "North Carolina," but because both were dark skinned with a mix of features.  

Sara D was the chatty one. Her family was from Kurdistan. They had been in Sweden a year, and she loved it. She especially liked that girls were equal to boys. She spoke 5 or 6 languages (she wasn't sure if two dialects of Arabic counted as one or two). She said her old home was a difficult place in which to live, but she loved the freedoms and ease of her new one. And while she wasn't sure what she wanted to study later, she knew she wanted to be a boss. She told us about her studies, quizzed us about our trip, lighting up the entire time. Unfortunately, when I asked her, she also realized she had forgotten the marshmallows for that night.  

We often say that with all the problems we have today, our best hope for the future lies in our children. They have a different world view than we do, one that looks past many of the divisions that separate us. When we say that, we usually think of our own kids; nothing wrong with that reference point. But now when I think of what's ahead, and the kind of person that will make a difference, my kids will be joined in my mind by another. For we can only hope that the future is also partly shaped by people like Sara D.


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

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Name Me The Money

As we've been told repeatedly, this electoral cycle is unlike any other in history. The pros say that in style, tone and substance, we've never witnessed a contest that goes as far as this one does on both sides. That's debatable: there have been nasty fights before, beginning way back in 1800. In that contest, high-minded Founding Father Thomas Jefferson lost to rock-solid Founding Father John Adams. Yet it was hardly a campaign of just lofty ideals. Jefferson supporters claimed Adams was a "hideous hermaphrodital character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams' campaign spit back, calling Jefferson a "mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Makes "Crooked Hillary" and "Crazy Donald" seem mild by comparison.

Still, one thing that seems safe to put in the "never seen it quite like this" category is the way money is used, how it is obtained and the amounts involved. At both the top and bottom, the flow (there seems to be no ebb) is indeed unprecedented in scope and scale. At the high end you have the effect of the Citizens United ruling, wherein organizational money is gushing like a river. At the same time, at the low end, the ability to reach out over social media has meant a million small trickles of cash from individuals. The net result is that a torrent of dollars is deluging the system, soaking everything in its path. (I think I've just about exhausted the water analogy, don't you?)  

Some of that money is in direct contributions to either Clinton or Trump. It comes from individuals, companies or even the candidates themselves. Some is from organizations such as their respective national party organizations. And some comes from Political Action Committees or PACS, which are not supposed to have any direct coordination with the candidate themselves (wink, wink, nod, nod). There are also a whole host of independent organizations who spend for or against a candidate, based on their alignment with that organization's goals, be it abortion rights or for gun rights. Sorry, one more drop in the analogy bucket: all those streams for and against the candidates combine to more than half a billion dollars of attempted influence pedaling as of the latest listing.

A scan through the Federal Election Commission reports shows who gave what to whom. As you would expect, the respective campaigns are the largest contributors to their namesakes. Then there are a gaggle of PACS promoting each candidate. For Clinton you have Priorities USA Action, Correct the Record and Ready PAC, while Trump has Great America PAC, Rebuilding America Now and Make America Great Again PAC. While funds seem to be unlimited, key words for names seem to be in very short supply.

As noted there are independent organizations with other agendas who see kindred spirits on one side or the other, and so put their monetary thumbs on the scale. For Trump you have the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party Majority Fund, while Clinton has the backing of Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters. Then there are independent groups that really have no other agenda than promoting their fav. Some carry names that are deliberately ambiguous, such as For Our Future for Clinton. Other wear their hearts firmly on their sleeves, like Patriots for Trump.

There are also those for and against that haven't given a cent (and probably have no intention of doing so), but have registered if no other reason than to make sure their names show up on the official list. There's the anti-Clinton PACS Hillary Schmillary and It's About Killary, as well as Dick Morris' Just Say No To Her! My personal favorites are two PACS targeting Donald, Dump Terrifying Rhetoric Undermine Mainstream Politics (DumpTRUMP) and TuckFrump.

As of this writing, the polls and pundits give Clinton an edge, but a lot can still happen. And all of this money means that from now through election day there is cash aplenty for ads, direct mail, pop-up banners and robocalls. And so while they say nothing is a sure bet, there is one predication I think I can safely make with 100% assurance: you will be very happy when it's all over.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks November can't come fast enough. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.