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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

In the know

Lifestyle/Technology | Web marketers have ways of finding out about you

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

Luddites: early 19th-century British workers who destroyed machinery out of fear that mechanization would take away their jobs. The term has come to mean anyone who rejects technological progress. Becoming a Luddite has increasing appeal when I read headlines like this: "Web Coupons Know Lots About You, and They Tell" or "How Visa Predicts Divorce."

The first story, from The New York Times, explains how a coupon "printed from the Internet or sent to mobile phones is packed with information about the customer who uses it." The info-laden coupons don't look any different from a conventional one, but they convey to the merchant "a startling amount of data, including identification about the customer, Internet address, Facebook page information and even the search terms the customer used to find the coupon in the first place."

The second headline, from The Daily Beast, explains how com­panies use sophisticated data mining methods to determine which customers are higher credit risks. The article cites the experience of Canadian Tire: "Cardholders who purchased carbon-monoxide detectors, premium birdseed, and felt pads for the bottoms of their chair legs rarely missed a payment. On the other hand, those who bought cheap motor oil and visited a Montreal pool bar called 'Sharx' were a higher risk."

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On the anti-Luddite side, there is this: I would not be able to order some of my staple groceries from Amazon.com. People with cars might not realize how wonderful it is to subscribe to black beans, Uncle Sam's cereal, and McCann's Oatmeal online. Instead of lugging cans and boxes from the grocery store, subscribers can get a case of beans or a six-pack of cereal at designated intervals through the mail. And shipping is free for Amazon prime members.

What else might consumers subscribe to? Perhaps Manpacks. Every three months subscribers receive a supply of new underwear, socks, and undershirts, or combinations of items. The website offers four arguments for subscribing: "Replenish Your Supply." "Free Your Mind." "Get Things Done." "Just Enough." Perfect gift maybe for the absent-minded, busy man who might not notice that his socks have holes in the heels.

Waves of spam

By Alissa Wilkinson

Spam-email spam, not the canned kind-is an unfortunate but inescapable fact of life for most people. Curiously, most spam we see in our inboxes is almost unreadable, filled with garbled words and nonsensical phrases, and few of us even give it a second thought. Why do spammers continue to flood us? A recent report by the Association for Computing Machinery helps explain the motivation. According to the ACM, out of 35 million spam emails sent by one "spambot" in one month in 2008, only 28 actually resulted in sales. But astonishingly, when extrapolated to the entire network, that spambot raked in $3.5 million in sales in 2008. No wonder spam isn't going away.

Always on call

By Alissa Wilkinson

The ubiquity of mobile devices like BlackBerrys and iPhones has led to a new sort of addiction. Wherever you look, people compulsively check for new mail, new text messages, new Facebook updates, and more. But employers have complicity in our collective addiction. InterCall, a web conferencing company, recently reported that 30 percent of workers in the United States who use technology in their jobs feel the need to maintain a digital link to their employer at all times, including weekends and vacations. Twenty-five percent of employees believe their job security depends on their ability to be continuously available. Are we saying goodbye to work/life balance?

Chapel tour

By Susan Olasky

Never been to the Sistine Chapel but love High Renaissance paintings? The Vatican has put online a 360º panoramic view of the Chapel's artwork, including Michelangelo's ceiling, navigable through your computer's mouse or touch pad. The art is accompanied by the angelic voices of one of the Vatican's a cappella choirs.

Located searches

By Alissa Wilkinson

Type "apple" into Google, and before you've even finished typing, Google helpfully suggests the rest of your search-apple pie? Apple store? Applebees? While this functionality has been around for a long time, Google Suggest recently updated the feature to consider the city in which you are located. Searching for "tube" in Kansas City will bring up a different set of results than the same search in London. But don't worry. Google isn't spying over your shoulder-the internet address from which you perform your search clues it in to your location.

Making food and money

By Susan Olasky

The magazine Restaurant and Institutions (R&I) recently listed the 100 top-grossing independent restaurants in the United States (total sales last year: $1.37 billion). On the whole, New York City restaurants did well, with five of the top 10 restaurants, and nearly a third of the total. Despite the recession, high rollers still had money to burn in Las Vegas, which had two restaurants in the top 10 and a fifth of the total. Not surprisingly, Chicago, L.A., and the Orlando area were well-represented on the list. The real champion: Little Frankenmuth, Mich. ("Michigan's Little Bavaria," population 4652), which had two.

But money can't buy you love: Tavern on the Green, the New York City landmark, was the second-highest-grossing restaurant and yet went out of business (although a recent court case determined that the name belongs to the city, not the restaurateur, so it's likely another Tavern on the Green will open in Central Park). And lists can't buy long life: Ironically, R&I has also gone out of business. Parent company Reed Elsevier closed both the magazine and website at the end of April.

The big independent restaurants won't be affected by a new rule embedded in the healthcare reform legislation. It requires restaurant chains with more than 20 locations to post detailed information about each menu item's nutritional make-up. The information must be posted on menu-boards, menus, and drive-thru signs. Although some smaller chains fear that the new regulations will be expensive and stifle innovation, the National Restaurant Association actually pushed for the law. Its large members, with restaurants spread across the country, didn't want to deal with a patchwork of regulations passed by individual cities.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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