It’s one of the most common Internet conspiracy theories: Facebook is using my phone’s microphone to listen in on my conversations. How else could Facebook know to serve me such on-the-nose super-targeted advertisements? Like the time I went shopping with my wife, Jody, and I asked her which aisle the peanut butter was in and, suddenly, an ad for Skippy appeared in my Facebook feed. 

Search Google to ask if Facebook is tracking what you say in real life and you’ll get 220 million results. Facebook denies doing anything of the sort, of course. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even said so twice, on the record, in front of the U.S. Congress. 

The real answer to how Facebook seems to know what you want even before you do is more unnerving than the conspiracy theory, not just because of what it says about the creepy state of online advertising, but of what it can teach us about how we relate to the biggest questions in the universe: Who created human beings? What caused the Big Bang? Is there a God?

The topic caught my interest when I was listening to an episode of the tech podcast Reply All. A listener named J.P. called the show to talk about the time his mother, Debbie, came to visit from Oklahoma. On her way through security, the TSA confiscated an oversized bottle of Debbie’s favorite perfume. 

When she arrived in San Francisco, Debbie asked her son if they could stop at an airport perfume store. Within a few minutes, an ad for a women’s perfume retailer had appeared in J.P.’s Facebook app.

Alex Goldman, one of Reply All’s hosts, was determined to get to the bottom of these online coincidences. He spoke to ProPublica investigative reporter Julia Angwin, who explained to him that Facebook tracks some 52,000 different attributes about its users, getting as granular as “a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.” 

Facebook’s algorithms know what you click on and how much time you spend on a page or post – not only on Facebook but all over the web. Facebook has a technology that helps businesses decipher where their web traffic is coming from. All they need to do is embed a bit of code on their websites. (Full disclosure: I have it on my own sites.) 

The flipside: it gives Facebook that much more information to improve what it offers to advertisers.

Facebook buys data from third-party consumer credit agencies like Equifax that have files on not only your credit score but your income, your marital status, your legal history and the size of your house.

These data brokers also manage loyalty programs in brick and mortar stores. “They know how often you’ve been buying diapers or cold medicine or birth control,” Goldman explained. 

Facebook has even patented a method to use your previous location data in conjunction with the location data of people you know in order to predict where you’ll be in the future.

When Debbie lost her perfume to the TSA, she searched on her phone for a shop where she could buy a new bottle. But it was too expensive, so she didn’t complete the transaction. Facebook logged that. 

Facebook also knew she was at an airport, so she must be traveling somewhere. When she arrived in San Francisco, Facebook guessed that she was visiting her son (since Facebook knows their relationship status) and displayed the perfume ad on J.P.’s phone.

No surreptitious listening involved at all.

When Goldman laid all this out to J.P., though, he didn’t buy it. He still held that the microphone explanation was correct.

Goldman’s Reply All cohost then challenged Goldman to take some calls from other people who believe Facebook is listening to their conversations. “I would be surprised if you could find literally one person in the world who thinks this is happening, who you could tell them what you’ve learned, and they would be like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

Goldman took up the challenge … and failed miserably, one call after another. Goldman’s conclusion: when the truth is so complicated – as it is with how Facebook is really guessing your perfume or peanut butter preferences – people will opt for the simpler answer. 

As I listened to Goldman’s inability to move listeners from their erroneous microphone beliefs, it occurred to me the same principle is at play when it comes to much bigger, even cosmic issues.

I’ve often wondered why some people, when confronted with what seems to me irrefutable evidence about topics such as human evolution or what caused the Big Bang, default to “God did it.” 

Facebook provides a possible reason.

The human body is incredibly complicated. DNA and the myriad of specialized functions that keep us alive are, for most laypeople, incomprehensible. Wouldn’t it be easier to say “a supernatural being created us ready-to-go?”

Same with the universe. Even if one accepts there was a Big Bang billions of years ago, what came before that? The simplest answer for our limited brains: God.

We use similar shortcuts in other areas. Take healthcare: we don’t know what causes certain diseases, so let’s blame it on vaccinations or genetically-modified foods.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Facebook-is-listening conspiracy theory, it’s that the simplest answers aren’t always the correct ones, but our brains are going to default there anyway, often to our own cognitive detriment.

Something to keep in mind as we ponder the ineffable this Shavuot.

I first made the connection between Facebook and God at The Jerusalem Post.

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Letting go

by Brian on May 27, 2019

in Cancer,Health

You probably remember me. I was the fat kid in elementary school – the chubby pre-teen who was teased and mocked and sometimes smacked; the brainy boy whose academic achievement only added to his awkwardness.

While I eventually slimmed down by the time I got to high school, shedding both pounds and social ostracism, the traumatic association forged between excess body weight and feeling like an outsider has remained to this day. If my stomach distends even slightly, as it is wont to do at my upper middle age, I become obsessed with exercising harder, eating healthier and making sure I never, ever go back to those painful days. 

Then I got cancer. 

One of the first things I noticed, even before my diagnosis, was that I was losing weight. It maxed out at just a few kilos, but I was worried – I hadn’t weighed this little in 40 years. 

I reversed my usual eating patterns and started downing as much as I could: double bowls of cereal in the morning, seconds on everything at lunch, lots of chicken. My weight loss stabilized after I started chemotherapy, then slowly began to climb again.

My cancer eventually went into remission; my weight sensitivity did not. It was as if I needed something to grouse about. 

This went on for a few months – I’m too heavy, I’m too thin – until it hit me just how ridiculous I was being.

I was in remission from cancer, for crying out loud.

That minimally protruding belly was not a curse. It was a sign that I’m still alive. I should be embracing the feeling of skin-on-shirt, because the alternative would be a whole lot worse.

One of the most unsettling aspects of having a chronic cancer like mine – one that is destined to come back, then go away again with treatment, then return anew, repeating over a lifetime – is that you really have no idea what’s coming next. 

You start treatment with statistics saying you’re likely to go into remission after three months, four at the most. But you also know that, in some percent of patients, the cancer will transform into something more aggressive. Which one will you be?

I’ve got a plethora of new aches and pains as a result of my treatment – will they dissipate someday or am I stuck with them as part of the bargain I made with the toxic cocktail devil that successfully shrunk my tumors? 

How long will this remission last? A year? A decade? Every body is different and science can’t make such granular predictions yet.

I want to climb mountains again, work out with the tension level on the elliptical machine set to 11 like I used to instead of the easy 4 I’ve got it on now. I’m tired of feeling fatigued at the end of the day. I’m ready to move on, but my cancer and recovery have other plans. 

I desperately want to let go of these and many other expectations. But can I? Cancer or not, I’m still me with the same brain chemistry, the same disquietudes from before I got sick.

The answer appears to be yes, I can learn. It just might not be because of the cancer.

Jonathan Rauch is the author of the recently published book The Happiness Curve.Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, had fallen into the doldrums in his 40s. He had no idea why. He had a successful career, a solid relationship, his health was good and so were his finances. 

Rauch’s book, based on research first done by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald in 2008, shows that our lifelong happiness is U-shaped. We’re happy as kids, then become less satisfied as we progress through our 20s and 30s, hit a real low in our late 40s, before it turns around in our 50s. From there, there’s a steady rise in satisfaction until we’re well into our 80s.

That’s good news for people like me: follicular lymphoma is most frequently diagnosed at age 55 and up.

The happiness curve seems to be universal, traversing borders. (The researchers looked at people in 72 countries.) Among the forward-looking findings: older people feel less stress and regret, dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions. 

Competing for status becomes less important, as well. As we get older, Rauch writes, “You hear people say, ‘I don’t feel the need to check those boxes anymore.’” 

Science journalist Barbara Strauch came to a similar conclusion in her book The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain.

By the time we get to our 50s, Strauch told NPR’s Morning Edition, “We get higher scores on all our tests in a whole range of areas, including inductive reasoning, verbal memory, vocabulary – we’re better in that span than we were in our 20s.” 

Moreover, we can size up a situation and “get to the gist of an argument faster,” she says. “The brain sees connections; it sees the full picture.”

A faster-thinking brain that’s more satisfied and less preoccupied with expectations might be just what I need to finally learn to let go; to prioritize and focus on what’s really important. 

Getting cancer may not turn out to be the actual source of this life lesson. But if it’s a resurgent belly bulge that prods my thinking in a happier direction, I can be satisfied with that, too.

I first wrote about letting go in The Jerusalem Post.

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“Enough. Just enough. Get on the damn planes.” 

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway speaking at the White House

That was the unequivocal response from local Facebook pundit Paula Stern, who posted just minutes after news broke about the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, north of San Diego. 

The planes Paula is referring to, of course, should be heading to Israel.

“It isn’t about money,” Paula implored her American Jewish readers. “It isn’t about the homes or cars you may have now or may or may not be able to afford at the beginning. It’s about your very lives and those of your children.”

Is Paula right? Have the twin shul attacks in Poway and six months before that in Pittsburgh laid bare the existential danger of living as a Jew outside of Israel in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism? 

On the face of it, the argument – “move to Israel where it’s safer” – hardly seems valid. Far more Jews have been murdered by terrorists in our tiny slice of the Middle East than in the Diaspora. 

So, unless you include the Holocaust in your calculations, or you have a crystal ball accurately predicting the time and place of a new wave of international pogroms, how can you claim that Jews are somehow safer today in Israel? 

On the contrary: the existential threat is here, with hundreds of thousands of missiles aimed our way from Lebanon and the potential of nuclear annihilation from Iran always lurking just around the JCPOA corner. 

Of course, there’s more to living with meaning and purpose than staying safe at all costs. But that didn’t stop our family from fantasizing about escape one Friday night.

Our daughter, Merav and her husband, Gabe, are no strangers to danger. Merav has written eloquently about her life dodging missiles in Sderot, where she is a student at Sapir College. After a particularly brutal few days earlier this year, the couple sought refuge in Jerusalem. They invited friends to drop by after dinner. 

“If you could live anywhere, where is the safest place?” one person asked. The young people, world-weary before they’d even finished their degrees, began listing off regions and countries.

Europe was out – the jihadists had made sure of that. Post Pittsburgh, so was the U.S.

Southeast Asia had seen enough attacks to cross the region off the register even before the Easter massacres in Sri Lanka.

“New Zealand!” one person said triumphantly. “We traveled there after the army. It’s a paradise. The police don’t even carry weapons.”

Then Christchurch happened. 

Although that shooter targeted Muslims, the ideology to which he subscribes makes clear that, there’s no love lost between white nationalists and the Jews either. 

The friends around our dining room table became quiet. In a world where no place is safe, the question becomes less about outright prevention than of who do you want around you when tragedy strikes?

Are you more comfortable if the first responders are Israeli? Does it give you solace to know that some of your fellow citizens will be armed and well-trained to take down a shooter (while in a country that maintains strict gun control laws)? Are you reassured that there is a Jewish army to protect you (even if that force sometimes falls afoul of its own high moral standards)?

Moreover, does the shared trauma and experience of living in a “dangerous neighborhood” actually better prepare Israelis to deal with the violence that will inevitably come, no matter where in the world we may be?

That seemed to be one of the messages from the San Diego shooting. Among those in attendance at the Chabad of Poway synagogue were members of a family who had moved to California from Sderot. (That irony has not been lost on anyone: “We left Sderot because of the rocket fire,” the father of eight-year-old Noya Dahan, who was wounded in the attack, told Israeli radio. “We left fire for fire.”)

Almog Peretz, Noya’s uncle who was also injured, commented to Israel’s Channel 12 that, “this is sad,” but given that he’d lived not far from the Gaza border, “we know a bit about running from Qassam rockets.” 

Peretz credited his experience rushing to bomb shelters for honing his instincts, adding that he “took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran.” He hid the children in a building out back, then returned to rescue another family member who was stuck in the bathroom. 

Israeli Shimon Abitbol, who was visiting Poway for a family simcha, said “without thinking twice I lay down on my grandson and protected him.” Abitbol is a deputy director for the Magen David Adom ambulance service and was the organization’s station chief in Kiryat Shmona during the Second Lebanon War.

So, is Paula right – but for the wrong reasons? “Get on the damn planes” – not necessarily for your physical safety but to know you’ll be in good hands when needed?

I don’t share Paula’s reproach that Diaspora Jewish tragedies like Pittsburgh and Poway should necessarily compel Jews to emigrate en masse. Aliyah is a nuanced and highly personal decision that isn’t right for everyone. Ideally, it shouldn’t be made as a defensive reaction to horrific events but as a carefully considered choice coming from a proactive desire to belong to a people and a place. 

Still, if current events contribute to such reasoning, as we celebrate 71 years of independence, those of us in Israel will be more than happy to welcome you.

I first commented on Pittsburgh and Poway at The Jerusalem Post.

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You want me to swallow … that?

by Brian on April 28, 2019

in Cancer,Health

“You want me to swallow…that?” I blurted out to Yardena, the nurse. 

In Yardena’s hand was an oversized, oval-shaped capsule, the size of a pill bug – that is, if a pill bug got caught under a radioactive beam and grew in power like a high-tech Spider-man.

The bug/capsule had flashing eyes and, instead of DNA, its innards were electronics: sophisticated cameras and a tiny WiFi transmitter that was to send pictures of my gut to a portable device the size of a 1992 Sony Walkman that Yardena instructed me to strap around my waist. 

The whole set-up, formally known as “capsule endoscopy,” is part of an Israeli innovation – now celebrating its 20thanniversary – called the PillCam. It’s a (mostly) non-intrusive way to diagnose digestive problems and it can reach parts of the upper gastrointestinal tract that standard colonoscopies can’t.

With my chronic cancer currently under control but the stomach pains that preceded it still raging, my doctor wanted to check to see if my Crohn’s disease – which has been inactive for 30 years – perhaps had flared and was the cause of my ongoing discomfort.

The PillCam is much more convenient and safer than a traditional colonoscopy. Unfortunately, the prep is no different. I’ll spare you the fiery details; suffice it to say, I couldn’t really leave the house the day before.

Given Imaging, the company behind the PillCam, was an early Startup Nation success story. Given Imaging was founded in 1998 and the first version of the PillCam was approved for use by the FDA in 2001. The company was sold in 2014 to Covidien (now a part of Medtronic) for nearly $1 billion.

The PillCam is one of the clearest examples of how technology originally developed for military purposes – in this case, the cameras used to guide missiles – can be repurposed for a new life in civilian healthcare.

Given Imaging founder Gabi Iddan had been working on optics for the Israeli defense contractor Rafael. The PillCam started as a side project but eventually became too big for Rafael’s labs and was spun off into its own company. Over two million patients have swallowed a PillCam as I was now being urged to do.

Each video capsule costs about $500, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with a colonoscopy which can run up to $4,000 per procedure. The camera snaps between two to six pictures per second during its 12-hour exploration of the gut, for a total of 30,000 images when it’s all done. When you return the Walkman-like device the next day, the data is downloaded and the battery recharged. 

Thankfully, you don’t have to return the pill itself.

In 2012, reporter Michael Mosley swallowed a PillCam and spent the entire day at the London Science Museum while the movement of the capsule through his body was broadcast live on BBC television.

Only two-thirds of patients who should undergo colonoscopies actually proceed as recommended – either out of fear it will hurt or because it’s too expensive and their insurance won’t cover enough of the cost. Wider adoption of the lower-priced and painless PillCam could increase compliance and save lives.

I stared at my personal PillCam for a few long seconds and rolled it between my thumb and pointer fingers. After all the prep I’d done the day before, I wasn’t considering turning back. 

Still, it was a big pill and I have lingering trauma from summer camp in 1972 when I was 11-years-old and we were forced to swallow these enormous salt pills every morning at breakfast as a prophylactic to avoid dehydration. I couldn’t do it and had to wrap my pill in peanut butter to get it down. 

Since then, I’ve become a skilled swallower.

I picked up the glass of water, but first, Yardena, who was supervising the whole process, had a request.

“Repeat after me,” she said.

I looked at her confused. I’d already signed the paper she gave to me – was some additional verbal consent required? 

“May it be your will, Lord my God…” she said, invoking the start of Hebrew prayer.

Wait a minute, I thought. Doesn’t she know who she’s talking to? She clearly hasn’t read my articles on the importance of only saying what you believe and believing what you say.

“Go on, it’s not going to hurt you,” my wife, Jody, who had accompanied me to Hadassah Hospital that morning, urged.

“…that this activity will bring healing to me, for You are the free healer,” Yardena continued. 

This prayer, for taking medicine, is an ancient one, dating back to the Talmud and formulated further in the codifications of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Brura.

I didn’t want to be rude. Yardena was just trying to be helpful and, besides, who says no to a “free healer?” 

To paraphrase King David, “The Lord is my HMO, I shall not argue.”

I mangled some of Yardena’s words in Hebrew, but that didn’t stop the two religious women in the adjacent room from answering with loud Amen’s. 

I took a big gulp and the PillCam’s journey was underway with a little help from above or, more likely, the good folks at Given Imaging headquarters in Yokneam.

A few days later, I received the results. The PillCam did find old signs of Crohn’s disease but a subsequent test showed it to be mostly inactive. My doctor assured me that’s not the cause of my pain. It’s back to the brainstorming table.

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The scam

by Brian on April 14, 2019

in In the News,Technology

It started with a simple Facebook message. “Hello, Brian, you don’t know me, but are you in Las Vegas right now on a book tour? If not, I think someone is impersonating you!” 

That was odd. I did do a publicity tour in the U.S. when my book, TOTALED, was published in 2017, but that didn’t include Las Vegas and I certainly wasn’t there now. Why would someone want to pretend they were me? 

I probably should have ignored the message but my curiosity was piqued. “What is this regarding?” I wrote back. 

“Can you talk with me briefly this morning?” “Alan” responded, perhaps too quickly. “I am available mostly today! Thanks!!! Facebook phone works well…the icon of the phone above in messenger is all that is needed simply click on it…”

I’m smart enough to know never to click on a link sent in a suspicious message, especially one riddled with questionable formatting and too many exclamation marks. But I wasn’t done probing. What was so important that I should call him?

According to Alan, there was someone out there in the dark reaches of the Internet claiming to be the author of TOTALED, currently on a book tour and selling tickets on Craigslist to some tennis tournament in Palm Springs that I’d never heard of before. 

“Of course I feel stupid but sent the money,” Alan admitted. “But I believe I found this low life on FB and I will get him.”

Before I could ask how exactly Alan was going to “get him,” an email popped up from a Samuel Joseph Friedman. 

“Sam” was also claiming that an Internet impersonator with my name was trying to sell tickets on Craigslist, but instead of a tennis tournament in Palm Springs, it was an art exhibition in New York.

Sam explained that when he asked my nominal doppelganger for verification that he really had the tickets he was offering, Sam received a testy response featuring a shocking lack of punctuation that would put Faulkner to shame.

“If you don’t trust don’t buy I’m an [sic] Wealthy author who’s on tour currently doing meet and greets that’s the only reason I’m selling these tickets I can show you my bank account with my name and you can google my net worth I have no problem with that it’s $100 I’m not trying to scam you no offense. Here’s my website check me out brianblum.com.”

The link to my website was real, but me, a wealthy author? I wondered whether I ought to be flattered someone thought so highly of my work.

At the same time as I was being bombarded by Alan and Sam, my wife, Jody, forwarded me a Facebook message she had received from “Amanda.” 

“Dear Judy” – misspelling Jody’s name is always a red flag – “I apologize in advance for imposing. A Brian Blum claiming to be an author is selling an item on Craigslist. Wanted to see if it was a legit transaction. Found your contact on Facebook. Sorry for being nosey, but my intuition errs on the side of caution.”

At least she knew where to put her periods and commas. 

Three messages from three different people, all within an hour of each other, each claiming they were being scammed by someone with my name? This couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.

I decided to play along a bit longer. 

“I can’t find anything about a Brian Blum on a book tour in Las Vegas,” I wrote to Alan. “Can you send me a link to the post?” 

“Where are you currently? Without being specific,” he responded. “BTW, your work sounds fascinating!”

Flattery’s not going to work this time, Alan. 

“Perhaps we should hire an investigator. At least I’m considering it!” Alan exclaimed, again encouraging me to call him. Was this the scam – gain my confidence until I wire him money for a private detective?

Meanwhile, Sam was writing me back. He sent a screen shot from his mobile, but there was something off. The text for his email app’s “to” and “from” was in Portuguese. 

“Are you from Portugal or Brazil?” I asked, trying to be crafty. 

“I live in New York and learned Portuguese whilst at NYU.”

“Whilst?” That’s definitely not the way a real New Yorker would talk. And switching the operating system for his phone to Portuguese to better learn the language, while doable, hardly seemed likely.  

I returned to Alan and reviewed his Facebook profile. It said he was a regional sales manager at a medical technology company. He had more than 2,000 friends and hundreds of posts going back years. 

Creating such an elaborate fake profile would have taken an awful lot of work. Was someone impersonating Alan, too? Or had he been tricked into unwittingly participating in the ruse? 

As “Alan,” “Sam” and “Amanda” realized they were not going to make any headway with me, I was promptly ghosted, as they moved on, I assume, to their next victim. 

A few days later, I checked Alan’s Facebook profile again. There was a picture of him at the tennis tournament. The caption: “TICKETS OBTAINED” in all caps. 

I may never know who the real scammer was or what he or she was after. I was careful and didn’t click on any phishing links. 

Still, if you get a message purportedly from me, selling anything other than my book, or claiming that I’m currently on a book tour doing “meet and greets,” steer clear. 

I first covered this scam (if that’s what it is) at The Jerusalem Post.

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Should Israel be more like America?

March 31, 2019

When I first arrived here in 1984, I wanted Israel to be more like America. It was a common aspiration among immigrants: Israel of the mid-1980s was a much rougher place than it is today, with infrastructure resembling that of a developing nation (remember six-month waits for a home phone line?) more than the world-class […]

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Jews on a cruise

March 18, 2019

When Chetan met Tania, it was not exactly love at first sight. More like love at first rub.  Chetan (from Mumbai) and Tania (from Bangkok) were both working as massage therapists on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship. They quickly fell for each other and will be getting married in July. It’s exactly the […]

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A cure for cancer?

March 10, 2019

Israeli startup AEBi’s claim that it was on the verge of developing a cure for cancer was premature and even cruel. Here’s whats really going on.

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The “benefits” of cancer in Israel

February 18, 2019

While no one ever wants to get cancer, there are a few “benefits” to having the disease. A look at the Yuri Shtern Holistic Care Center.

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Transforming rage into creativity

February 18, 2019

The SUV was right on my tail, flashing his lights and frantically marking his territory like a mean dog without a muzzle. Classic road rage.

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