Saturday, June 29, 2019

Window into Your Wallet

If you happen to look across the street or head out from your apartment at the right moment, you might learn a little about your neighbor. Maybe there's a new car parked in the driveway, perhaps meaning someone got a raise. Or maybe there's a crib being delivered, indicating a new addition is on its way. Or maybe it's a truck out front with the name of a repair service on it or there's a guy with toolbox banging on their door, leading to the conclusion that the reason all their windows are open is that their AC is on the fritz again.

That kind of observational reconnaissance used to be the only way you could get any intelligence on those around you. Now you have to go out of your way not to know what people are up to. On Facebook and Instagram you see posts not just of kid's ball games and parties you weren't invited to, but also vacation trips and shopping excursions, updated flower beds and botched remodeling jobs, new loves and old hates. Sometimes it feels that if you aren't living out loud and only mentioning last night's dinner to your office mate that you are no better than a hermit.

That's the stuff you want to share with the outside world and make a point of posting for all to see. But as has been reported endlessly, your online activities paint a far more detailed portrait of you than the pictures you post. Your shopping habits and browser searches and driving directions show not just the outer you that you want the world to see, but the inner you of how you think and act. To paraphrase a Dean Martin song of long ago, your selfies may tell me no no, but there's yes yes in your Googling eyes.

But it's not just companies you do business with that have access to this kind of data. If your activities with others involves payment, you likely have to settle up. For a very large number or people, the way to do that is not to throw cash onto the table or split credit cards, but to use Venmo. If you're not familiar with the service, it's similar to PayPal and in fact is owned by them. However, where PayPal has evolved almost into a bank, and is used as a payment service for goods much like MasterCard or Visa, Venmo has focused on transferring funds between individuals. In fact, Venmo's website explicitly states that the service is "designed for payments between friends and people who trust each other." It has become so popular that many use "to Venmo" as a verb.

One of the features of the service is that you have to input a reason for the transfer of funds, either with words or an emoticon. If you don't set your account to private, and many, many do not, all see where you are spending your money. Some folks put the mundane: "Last night's dinner" or "Ride to gym" or "Hair and Makeup." Emoticons tell the story as well: a beer stein is self-explanatory, as is a taco or a slice of pizza. True, you can never tell when it might be an inside gag: "sex and weed" might be a funny reference between friends. But maybe not. An app called Vicemo aggregates transactions that let you see "who's buying drugs, booze, and sex on Venmo." You decide: is a transfer from Samuel to Sydney for "lots and lots of drugs" a goof or a class A felony? 

A study by Berlin-based coder and privacy researcher Hang Do Thi Duc looked at over 200 million Venmo transactions. From them she was able to assemble portraits of a number of users. In one example she determined two people were a married couple, that they owned a car and a dog, shopped for groceries weekly at Walmart, were paying off a loan, and frequently ordered pizza when eating out.

Even in my own world I see patterns that might be better left hidden. One young woman in college, who shall remain nameless, regularly posts payments on Sunday AM for "Shots and beers last night." Meanwhile it's a fair bet she's telling her parents she's staying in studying. She can only hope that what happens on Venmo stays on Venmo. My lips are sealed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has all his settings set to private. 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, 2019

On a Pedestal

Since Stan retired, Steve seemed to be the go-to-guy when we had problems with our heating system and called our oil company. But whereas Stan treated our boiler like an old mare that needed a gentle prod every now and again, Steve treated it like a kid that hadn't done its homework, grimacing and glaring at it with a disappointed air. It was the third or fourth time he had been to our house over the last year or two, each to repair a small problem that prevented us from getting warm. 

In the nearly 30 years we've been in our house we've replaced any number of appliances. In some cases it was because we upgraded stuff that worked fine as part of other projects, like a new refrigerator to go with our new kitchen. In others it was because the old workhorse had broken, and it seemed foolish to invest more money in an aging unit. In those instances we mostly looked to swap what we had for an updated yet equal match. But Steve convinced us that the boiler was a different case. 

This time it wasn't so much not working as not working cleanly. We were seeing a lot of soot, and finally came to the conclusion that it was coming from our heater. We had addressed the issue before, with Steve trying to fix the problem by adjusting the flame and taping the seams in the ductwork. But the problem persisted. And so once again we called the trouble line and asked for a specialist to come on by and take a look. And that's how Steve once again wound up standing in our basement shaking his head. 

While we had gotten a number or years of solid service from our system, and it still was making heat, it seemed like the only way to clean up the mess was to replace it. "They don't even make this model anymore," said Steve. "You'd be better served with upgrading your unit. The newer ones are more efficient, better made, with computerized programs and systems. And if you add in a Riello burner, made in Italy, it will fire quicker and cleaner. It's what I have." That sealed the deal. If it was good enough for Steve, and all that.

And so we said yes. We negotiated the finer points of the sale and set a time. On the appointed day, Billy, one of the other regular guys arrived first. While he drained the system and prepped for our boilerectamy, he waxed poetic about our new system. "Great technology," he said. You're gonna be a lot better off with this new Burnham and the Rielleo. Best combo out there." From his telling it was the Apple Watch of boilers.

And indeed when they uncrated it looked not like our old Bessie, but like a computer. It had a blinking control panel and curved sides wrapped in powder coated steel painted a deep shade of blue-green. When coupled with the Italian burner it more resembled an industrial scale cappuccino maker than a boiler. I almost felt bad that we were relegating it to the back of a room in the basement.

But then a reminder of what it was and where we were. As they wrestled the new unit into the proper spot they kicked a couple of old cinderblocks into place first, then hoisted it up on those. Why, I asked, did they not just let it sit on the floor when it had feet of its own? "It's better to have it up a bit. That way it will still keep working even if you have a flood." For all its design and efficient operation, exotic heritage and hi tech features, it was still a boiler in a basement. And the only pedestal it was on was a couple of old fashioned bricks to keep it out of trouble.

It's probably too much to draw anything from this. But I couldn't help but notice that this most high tech piece of equipment was being protected by the most low tech solution that could be employed. A larger lesson? Is this a parable for a new age? Is low tech the gate keeper to high? Perhaps not: to paraphrase something Freud never actually said, sometimes a brick is just a brick.


Marc Wollin of Bedford often has strange thoughts. 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, 2019

Streamlining Your Condiments

You can't bear to part with that green sweater your mom bought you that doesn't really fit. Nor can you throw away that baseball glove with the ripped pocket that you used to win the softball championship back in high school. Likewise the beer stein from your senior prom, that cassette with the mix tape your first boyfriend gave you and those lucky footies you had on when you got your acceptance letter to college. And that's why your sock drawer is a mess, your garage is a disaster and don't even mention your closet. 

For some Marie Kondo is the answer. The doyen of tidiness has created a cottage industry of throwing stuff out, wrestling your capri leggings into neat rectangles and filling your closets with boxes of boxes. The idea is to be ruthless with what you have, keeping only that "which brings you joy" while tossing out everything else. And it's not just a one-off binge: to keep your life in order you need to worship every day on the altar of folded underwear. 

There is supposedly no part of your life that can't be KonMari-ed. From the office to the car to the kitchen, acolytes ruthlessly and continuously review all they have, winnowing it down to the basics and putting the rest in formation. But no longer do you have to depend on a Japanese methodology to organize one part of your life. For making sense of your refrigerator and keeping juices, vegetables and cold cuts in their place, you can now turn to that most all-American of institutions, Walmart. 

The retailing giant is rolling out a new program to deliver food directly to your icebox, with initial footholds in Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Florida. It goes one better than Amazon's In Home Delivery service, which allows a driver to not just leave a package by the garage, but place it inside your front door. For all the big online retailers, this so called "last mile" into a consumer's life is the promised land, and the one they are all trying to crack. 

In this new program, once an order is placed you go online and pick your groceries, then select InHome delivery. A Walmart employee will package your deliverables and bring them to your home. Gaining entry via some kind of smart lock with a one-time code, they will enter your abode and put away your mayonnaise. 

Of course security is a major concern, and the program takes that into consideration. Employees who want to be part of the program have to have worked at a local store for at least a year. Beyond further vetting, they will also wear a bodycam showing all. You will get alerts to your phone as they progress, and can watch a live stream of your peppers being placed in the veggie drawer, or can watch an archived replay of the entire visit if you're bored with GOT reruns. 

And here's where the Marie Kondo connection comes in. According to the briefing materials, associates who are selected to be part of this service will "go through an extensive training program which prepares them to enter customers' homes with the same care and respect with which they would treat a friend's or family's home, not to mention how to select the freshest grocery items and organize the most efficient refrigerator." 

Did you catch that last part? Not only will they deliver a quart of milk and a dozen eggs, they will rearrange your fridge for maximum efficiency. Never mind that you like to keep your ketchup in front of the mustard. If "correct" procedure as taught in Fridge 101 at Walmart U is the other way around, after an InHome delivery you may have to dig around to find the salsa you had left over from last night's tacos. 

People already routinely allow housekeepers and maintenance people into their homesteads to tidy and fix up as needed. But generally they just police the existing state of affairs. With this new service, you are empowering Walmart employees to streamline your condiments. And what of the future? It's a slippery slope from there to ordering toothpaste and having your medicine cabinet tweaked, or purchasing socks and having your dresser color coded. Better hide your tie-dyed tee shirts while you still have the chance.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his milk right in the front. 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, 2019

Check The Box

There has been a lot of discussion about the inclusion of a citizenship question in the upcoming census. The Supreme Court is set to hand down its decision in the coming weeks, after which the printing of census forms can commence. For while the goal is that most of the country will fill out their own survey online, there will still be a sizable number of people who will use good old paper and pencil.

While the census and its associated form may have changed, it is one of the oldest bureaucratic legacies we have. It was mandated by the Constitution, with the first count being conducted in 1790. It required U.S. Marshals to visit every household and count free white males 16 years and upward (to assess the country's industrial and military potential), free white males under 16 years, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves. 

Aside from the possible inclusion of the citizenship question, this year's version asks demographic information more in tune with the times. Race, ethnicity and sex are noted in a "just the facts, ma'am" short form version. For one in six households, a longer multipage version is used. Called The American Community Survey, it asks questions about a range of topics, including social, housing, and economic information such as education, disability status, employment, income, and housing costs. This data is used to plan and determine funding for a wide array of federal, state, local, and tribal programs.

But while the formats might have changed, the need for the forms has not. Organizations both public and private need to get information from their various constituencies to fulfill their mission. Think how many pieces of paper you put pencil to recently. Maybe an insurance form at your doctor's office, a tax statement for an employer or an application for a new health club. We fill them out without much thought; they are the paving stones in the highways upon which civilization rides. They also help paint the picture of our society: medical reimbursement forms illuminate the state of health care, and tax forms reveal the shape of the economy.

But what of the future? As things change, the choices we will have to make and communicate will change as well. Who would have thought your last will and testament would have to include the disposition of your cell phone plan? Or that you'd have to appoint a proxy for your Facebook page for when you're gone? What other decisions will we need to make, and what forms will we need to fill out to implement those decisions? That's the thought experiment behind "The Future of Forms" by Flash Forward podcast host Rose Eveleth.

As Eveleth writes, "The forms we fill out tomorrow will seem just as mundane as the forms we fill out today. But the design and deployment of paperwork is one of those things that's simultaneously boring and incredibly revealing." To that end she imagines the options we'll have and the choices we'll have to make.

Take your standard HR request. Today a manager has to submit a form if they want to add headcount. But what if that staff is a robot? Under the subheading of "Do You Really Need a Human To Do That Job?" she lists a number of considerations for any future position. Is it repetitive? Is it dangerous? Is it union? Or the calculation as author Dan Bouk puts it, "How likely is this machine going to be more expensive to maintain in the future compared to how likely is this worker to negotiate for better wages?" 

What about medical issues? Today it's about advanced directives, so called living wills. But what about potential digital interventions? What if decisions could be made based on AI algorithms about your possible survival? Who gives the permission to turn off your Facebook live stream as you're being revived? Or as she succinctly puts it, "When You Die, Where Should We Upload Your Brain?"

Science fiction? Maybe. Or maybe just a little early in the cycle. In that light, it's not hard to imagine a form online that asks if you want the item delivered or 3D printed in your own home. Or one at the DMV that asks whether to you want your new license mailed or implanted. Which box will you check?


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders what's next. 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, 2019

A Ballad for Matthew and Jenna

Note: The following was delivered in my roll as the officiant at
our niece's wedding this weekend.

Some of you know one, to a fault you might say
And some know the other, it just happens that way
As time has gone on, you’ve learned more about her
Or maybe it’s him, it all seems a blur

But whether Jenna or Matt is the reason you came
From near or from far, the reason’s the same
To start them off on their journey with a foundation of love
Though when it started it didn’t fit like a glove

It’s a story worth telling, like all good tales to be told
Though there are no monsters or magic or pots filled with gold
Still, let’s begin at the beginning when each was a child
And see if we can determine what’s led to these smiles

Jenna started out quiet. I know… it’s hard to believe
Like blood from a rock, nearly impossible to conceive
But I was there. I can attest. As the last of the cousins
She was shy, though had smiles and laughs by the dozens 

But that quiet didn’t last long, she grew up and expressed
Her thoughts loud and long, you wouldn’t have guessed
That this quiet little lady would grow up to be 
A true Jersey girl who lived life with glee

Now Matt was a sports kid, whatever the play
Hockey, basketball, they all paved the way 
But he settled on baseball as the thing he did best
From Florida to Long Island he put himself to the test

He got hurt once, then twice, it just wasn’t to be
The game could still be played, just less intense, more carefree
It took several stops to find a place just to play
Where it was more about fun at end of the day

Which led him to Ramapo… and here’s where it gets real
For who else found that campus had lots of appeal?
Well, that true Jersey girl we spoke of not moments ago
Jenn was settling in, trying to go with the flow

Then comes the end of one year, and her D Phi E dance
Was coming up quick, and she had to take a chance
And find a date for the spin, to join her sisters and she
But formal it was, and the outfit was key

She asked Matt to join them, he said yes and thanks much
And while a suit he did have, he lacked that finishing touch
He needed a tie. So their first date? The store 
To find a cravat that wasn’t a bore

Now, at the end of that night Matt had a mate for his shirt
But Jenn had spoke nary a word, he thought her feelings were hurt
He thought that would be that, after the dance next to come
It all would all be over... done, done and done

But when dance time came, seemed the quiet Jenn he had met
Was replaced by her twin, a true party cadet
With her girls by her side, they set out and it started 
And Matt found that this girl was not for the fainthearted

From there it just grew, in fits and in starts
As these things just happen, it was an affair of the heart
And over the next weeks and months, and yes, even years
Jen and Matt became one, their path forward became clear 

Yet it wasn’t so easy for Connecticut and Jersey to blend
As both were each trying to tie up loose ends
And jump start their careers in New Haven and York
Not far apart to be sure, but it took time to uncork

With all this hitting the books in a barracks or lab
They spent time together, whatever they could grab
With each other, wherever, as they studied away
Him training as a cop, her focus a P A

And before you could say "what is going on there?"
They seemed like they just worked... it was natural as air
They settled in Stamford and life just moved on
They went here and went there and a picture was drawn
Of a Matt who was smitten by a girl true and sweet
Of a Jenna and her knight that swept her off her feet

And now our story has come to a point, 
Where it both ends and begins on this spot we anoint.
For from this day forward it’s not just Matthew or just Jen
But Matthew and Jenna together, and yes… let’s not forget Ben
(Ed note: Ben is their dog)

They say love is not easy, or maybe better to say
That life together takes work, it’s not always play
But to make it all click from this place we begin
You must have a spark that comes from within
And none here who know you, either Jenna or Matt
Doubts that fire does burn, we can be sure of that

In fairy tales and stories, they end the thereafter
With the words to the effect that they lived happily ever after
Maybe a better way to say about this time now commenced
Is that you both feel as today… but fifty years hence

And so we close today remembering words wise and true
That Love is a gift... for you... and for you
No greater present is given, no greater feeling bestowed
All that is required to let your heart go
And for the other catch it and hold it so near
That nothing else in life is ever as dear

Now Jenna and Matthew, let me turn this back over to you
For words you’ve each written of your commitment so true
With family and friends watching, and the love you embrace
Your new history starts now, in this time and place

We know where, we know when, we just need the how 
Matthew and Jenna, it's time for your vows
Then from here on it's your story, there's no ceiling above
And as you start on your journey we wish nothing but love


Marc Wollin of Bedford is now a registered officiant, available for parties. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.