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More Dogs on Main Street

I get lots of interesting junk mail. I have a box at the Main Street Post Office and also get delivery at my house in the hinterlands. The mass mailers sort by ZIP codes, and so the catalogs in the two locations are pretty different. Northern Hydraulic is a favorite in the Woodland mailbox. The selection in Park City has been pretty lame the last little while, but I think that’s because any time I buy from a catalog, it ends up at the home address, and so the box in town is gradually falling off the lists.

The most unusual solicitation I’ve had in awhile was a letter from the Harvard Alumni Association reminding me that it was time to renew my membership. This is interesting on a number of fronts, but mostly because I have never attended Harvard. I probably had the grades to get in, and they run some kind of affirmative action program for people raised by wolves on the frontier (i.e. west of Springfield). But the fact is that I have a deep-seated distrust of anything east of Denver, and have always regarded Harvard as the incestuous breeding ground for an American aristocracy that we’d be better off without. So had I gone out of state for college, it certainly would not have been to Harvard.

But now, without ever having to rub shoulders with the effete eastern establishment, I am being asked to renew my membership to the Harvard Alumni Association. I read in the paper the other day that an Ivy League degree typically adds 20 percent to lifetime earnings. I could certainly use a 20 percent raise (which is hard to do without actually having a job). So there is nothing to lose by becoming a Harvard Alumni. It would look pretty good on a resume — member Harvard Alumni Association. Never mind the details of not having attended.

Actually, I did go to Harvard once. I was in Boston and got off the subway at the station that serves the campus. I walked around the general neighborhood for a while before it started to rain. The place was crawling with students with purple hair, pierced noses, and attitude. WASPS gone wild. If that is the future leadership of the country, we are in deep doo-doo. Maybe that was enough to qualify me for membership in the Harvard Alumni Association.

I don’t know where they get their information. But it’s out there. Last week, I stupidly fell for one of those e-mail "phishing" things that appeared to be a request from a business I deal with asking me to verify account information. I have ignored dozens of them, but this one looked official. I was busily entering my credit card number, pin number, mother’s maiden name, etc. when I suddenly thought better of it. As a Harvard Alumni, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. So I cleared all the fields and deleted it. But I had no idea how much information might have been sucked out of my computer in the process.

After a day or two, I began to get concerned. So I called the credit card company’s security department. That was both a model of efficiency and creepiness. Maybe more creepy than anything. The woman on the 800 number could have been in Boston or Bombay. She was very helpful. After a few questions to verify who I was, she brought up the account on her computer, and we started to verify the charges. I like the convenience of using the credit card and had been out Christmas shopping, so it was a long list. With a level of detail that I could not have reconstructed myself, she retraced my life for the prior month.

She knew every store I had been in, where I filled the car with gas, how much the muffler on the truck cost, where I had purchased things online or over the phone. The protocol was that she would read off the charges, and I was supposed to tell her whether they were legitimate or not. "Amazon.com?" "Legitimate." "Chevron?" "Yes." "Target?" "That’s mine." She got them all — the bookstores, the bike shops, car wash, Netflix. There were a few I had to stop and think about. But she was able to provide more details and it jogged my memory.

I didn’t ask, but I bet she could have told me what books I bought. If you ever need an alibi, you might try getting your credit card company to reconstruct your life for you. "I couldn’t possibly have been at the scene of the murder at 1:05 because, according to the Visa card security people, I was at the Factory Outlet mall in the Nike store at 12:58 and checking out at Pearl Izumi at 1:20."

We went down the list. "Quiznos?" she asked with distain for anybody who would have charged a $6 sandwich. "Yes. I hadn’t been to the ATM yet." "Home Depot?" "Yes, that’s legitimate." "Well, the only one left is a charge to the Harvard Alumni Association." She sounded suspicious of that one. "Well, that is absolutely legitimate."

So my account seems to be safe and sound. But knowing that the computers at Visa have my life more fully mapped out than I do myself is just plain creepy. Add in the checking account, the phone bill and a few others, and before long, you get the sense that Big Brother is watching — from a microchip somewhere inside you. With all those computers connected, which they are through credit rating services and elsewhere, the whole concept of personal privacy is gone.

But you don’t have to be a Harvard alum to know that.


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