Stretching the Truth to Find Love Online


For Scott Birnbaum, finding Tracy Podell was akin to solving a complex math problem.

Mr. Birnbaum, a data-mad web executive looking for love, found himself taking deep dives into the algorithms and user behaviors that drive some of the largest dating websites. He emerged with a solution for gaming the system to his advantage, creating a profile that attracted Ms. Podell, even if it wasn’t entirely accurate.

Mr. Birnbaum, now 39, considers himself to be “a first-adopter” and a life hacker, whose pursuit of an efficient existence through apps and other gizmos can sometimes infect him with paralysis by analysis. “It took me six months to switch phone plans because I was like, which one is the best?” he said.

He readily admits that his initial forays into online dating were lackluster. While living in Seattle, he found that his friends were getting a lot more hits than he was. So he investigated how he could improve his profile and began tinkering with multiple accounts.

“I started noticing that everybody said the same thing in their bio,” he said. “And I was like, well, I’m not going to stand out very much if I do that. I should write profiles that — while they, you know, weren’t necessarily lying — accentuated different parts of things I was interested in.”
This led him to experiment with various personalities on In one account, he was a “geek,” selling his interest in computers and reading. In another he was a “hipster,” playing off his encyclopedic knowledge of film and indie rock music.

For another profile, he wondered: “What if I just put out there that I’m like the most successful I’ve ever been? Would I attract a real Type A person?”

“I thought it was a great idea and encouraged it,” said Michael Blend, with whom Mr. Birnbaum had been working at Demand Media, and for whom he now works as a vice president for operations at OpenMail, an email data company in Los Angeles. “Our shared colleague had a saying: ‘Sometimes the best strategy is all strategies.’”

And still, when it came to increasing his page views and dates — whether on or sites he used to a much lesser degree, like eHarmony and JDate — he remained relatively unsuccessful. But he kept at it.

Mr. Birnbaum, who stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, ultimately determined that the key issue was his height.

“I was working at this company that at its core was all about S.E.O. — search engine optimization,” said Mr. Birnbaum, a native of Austin, Tex. “Thinking about online dating from a search perspective, I’m like, ‘What are people searching for and why am I not showing up in their searches?’ And so one of the filters was this height thing. Women generally want a guy that is taller than them in heels,” he said. “I was getting weeded out by that.”

Inch by inch, he began raising his stature in his profiles until he discovered that 5 feet 8 inches was the search parameter under which even the shortest women were reluctant to dip their glass slippers.
So Mr. Birnbaum continued tweaking his profile on OkCupid, figuring that the height increase was so minimal that people would give him the benefit of the doubt. Of the handful of dates he had using his false stats, he said he never was called out.
As his fake body grew, so did Mr. Birnbaum’s page views. “Fundamentally, people exaggerate all of the time,” he said, “and they present an idealized version of what they think they are.”

That’s when Ms. Podell, an online content marketer and sometime actress in Los Angeles, who is 4 feet 11 inches, reached out to him in 2012 on OkCupid, ostensibly wanting restaurant suggestions for a trip she had planned.

Ms. Podell, now 32, sensed Mr. Birnbaum was different. For one, she liked his profile.

“He had longish hair at that point, so there was this lovely combination of like, ‘I have a great job and also I look a little bit like I’d be at a concert with you,’” she said. Of his thoughtfully rendered reply and its spot-on restaurant picks, she said, “I was like, ‘ahhmazing.’ He did it the way I do. I have my New York restaurant email that I send to people.”

Mr. Birnbaum said, “I probably overwhelmed her because that’s just sort of my nature.”

A first date soon followed at the Churchill, a gastropub in Los Angeles. Mr. Birnbaum was sitting on a bar stool and stood up to greet Ms. Podell when she walked in. Even from her diminutive perspective, she was quite sure Mr. Birnbaum was shorter than advertised, but she waited until a couple of dates later to press him on the topic. She focused instead on his personality.

Scanning the menu, she said: “He was like, ‘All right, I would have this, this, this, this, this. Which ones do you want? And I was like, ‘Fantastic — someone who’s decisive.’”

Considering the misses she had experienced in her own extensive online dating, Ms. Podell had the capacity to be forgiving with Mr. Birnbaum. She recalled how one of her online dates had made a wayward joke about Asperger’s Syndrome after learning that one of her sisters had it, and another went off to Spain for a couple of months after spending a blissful time with her, and she never heard from him again.

On their third date, Mr. Birnbaum invited her for a swim at the Hollywood Hills bachelor pad he shared with a bunch of guys. Unbeknown to her, it was his birthday.

At one point she teasingly asked him, “You’re not 5-foot- 8, are you?”

He got quiet, and then came clean.

She let it go. “I think I just enjoyed making him squirm a little bit,” said Ms. Podell, a native of Short Hills, N.J., and an N.Y.U. graduate who had moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to pursue acting.

For her, the height requirement she had set on OkCupid represented nothing more than her desire to be with someone taller. “Many of the guys I had dated prior were rather tall,” she said. “My two-year ex out of college was 6-foot-5.”

As for Mr. Birnbaum’s own tall tale, she said: “I understood the reasoning and I thought it was funny. It’s not like he was doing something bad or wrong. If anything, it probably made me more attracted to him, because it was smart and it worked. It showed he was pretty capable.”
For Ms. Podell, a child of musical theater who studied at an early age under Juilliard graduates, inhabiting other personalities is not a foreign concept. “When I was 9, my favorite musical was ‘Falsettos,’” she said. “I saw ‘Rent’ on my 13th birthday, in previews, and then I saw it like 12 times.”
“Having had to lie about my age for acting for so many years, and understanding what it means to hustle and to work every angle, I don’t think there’s anything immoral about it,” she said, referring to Mr. Birnbaum’s conceit.

Later that afternoon in the pool, they shared their first kiss.

As Ms. Podell transitioned from acting to becoming a marketing director at the streaming network Pluto TV, she and Mr. Birnbaum bonded over digital culture. They discovered a mutual affinity for podcasts like “WTF With Marc Maron” and “99% Invisible,” and the comedians Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. They like to travel, venturing to Nicaragua and Cuba, with a honeymoon planned in South Africa and Botswana.

The couple discovered that they have overlaps in their family histories; both come from Jewish families with Texas roots.

Upon hearing about Mr. Birnbaum, Ms. Podell’s mother, Patricia Podell, a Dallas native now living with her husband in Morristown, N.J., immediately called her Texas cousins and said: “Tracy met this guy and this is his name and he’s from Austin. And my first cousin said: ‘Oh no, the Birnbaums aren’t from Austin, they’re from San Antonio. I know all of them. They were in my fraternity at the University of Texas and this and that.’ He goes on and on.”

Both Ms. Podell and Mr. Birnbaum consider the same moment in 2013, about seven months into their relationship, a defining point in their development, but for different reasons.

They attended a concert at the Hollywood Palladium celebrating the release of Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” documentary. Mr. Birnbaum, a die-hard music fan with a Pitchfork sensibility, discovered to his dismay that Ms. Podell had never heard of one of the night’s performers, John Fogerty, nor his former band, Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Ms. Podell remembered this disconnect leading to an argument shortly before they left the venue. “In the middle of fighting, he was like, ‘You know I love you, right?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I love you, too.’” It was then that Mr. Birnbaum had an epiphany: his future wife didn’t need to share his appetite for music.

They moved in together six months later.

This past Valentine’s Day, they congregated under a canopy in front of the Barr Mansion, an old Victorian house on the northeastern outskirts of Austin, where, per Jewish tradition, Ms. Podell approached Mr. Birnbaum and circled him.

Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Ms. Podell’s childhood friend who became a Universal Life minister for the occasion, welcomed the “small and loyal clan of Texas Jews” and performed what the bride described as a “Jew-ish” ceremony.

During the ceremony he acknowledged that Ms. Podell, his theater-loving friend, had taught him “more about ‘Rent’ than any middle schoolboy should know.” He then touched upon the humility of the bride and the groom, conceding, “You even joke together about being short.”
Later that evening, Mr. Birnbaum and Ms. Podell participated in the hora, seated for a moment high above everyone else during the dance.

The groom’s father, Robert Birnbaum, a lawyer in San Antonio, explained their matrimony like this: “It took creative marketing on my son’s part in order to get there. But you’ve got to get them in the door to make the sale.”


Source New York Times


Jennifer Piro and Michael Balkin: A Match Backed by Experience and Data


Jennifer Beth Piro and Michael Golding Balkin were married Feb. 27 in Scarsdale, N.Y. The ceremony, at the Rowsley Estate, the headquarters of the Scarsdale Woman’s Club, was led by two friends of the couple who became Universal Life ministers for the event. Jessica H. Hirschey legally solemnized the couple’s New York City marriage certificate and led the couple in their exchange of rings; Jacob Condon led the couple in their vows.

The bride, 30, is taking her husband’s name. She is a manager of events and corporate membership in Manhattan for the Morgan Library & Museum. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts and received an M.B.A. from Baruch College.

She is the daughter of Jeanne Piro and Michael J. Piro of Pelham, N.Y. The bride’s father is the chief information officer at Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn. Her mother teaches English as a second language, and coordinates that program at Public School 119 in the Bronx.

The groom, 32, is a service manager in Manhattan for B. R. Guest Hospitality, a company that owns bars and restaurants. He graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

He is a son of Bridget Golding and Joseph Balkin, both of Manhattan. The groom’s mother is an instructor in English as a second language at Hunter College. His father retired as an associate professor of statistics and psychology at John Jay College.

Mr. Balkin met Ms. Piro in September 2007 on his first day of work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was hired to manage a cafe and a restaurant at the museum along with Ms. Piro, who had already been there two months.

“I remember walking into the office that we shared and seeing Jennifer for the first time,” Mr. Balkin said. “She was stunning and beautiful, and I was very excited that we would be working together.”

They soon struck up a friendship and began palling around at bars and Yankees games, and in Central Park, where they tossed Frisbees and basked in the sun.

“Although we were friends, I was definitely attracted to her,” he said. “I laid down a number of not-so-subtle hints to let her know that I was very interested.”

But Ms. Piro had not yet turned to that same romantic page.

“I had just finished college,” she said. “Though Michael was a great guy and someone I knew I could trust, I just wasn’t ready for anything more than a platonic relationship.”

By 2009, they began to spend less time together but would occasionally meet to catch up on each other’s lives.

“By that time, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that we would never be more than friends,” he said. “But in the back of my mind, I never gave up hope.”

In January 2012, Ms. Piro signed up for eHarmony. After completing a lengthy questionnaire regarding the type of men she preferred, the site’s algorithm computed her best potential matches and steered her toward several profiles, the very first of which belonged to someone named Michael. “All it said was that Michael was 29, but there was no last name or photograph attached,” Ms. Piro said.

She clicked on the profile to read more, and soon realized that Michael was in fact her longtime buddy Mr. Balkin.

“I was shocked,” she said. “Of all the men in Manhattan, of all the men in the world, I found Michael again. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”

After deciding to “sit back and think on it for a while,” she told him about their computer connection in March 2013.

“I was in disbelief but very excited as well,” Mr. Balkin said. “I’m not big on superstition, but if there were ever a sign that we should be together, that was it.”

That month, they went on their first official date, to a restaurant in Manhattan.

“At that point, we had known each other so well and for so long,” she said. “We knew that there was no turning back, and that we were meant to be together forever.”


Source New York Times

For Two Frequent Fliers, a Trip Down the Matrimonial Runway


Her life revolved around research institutes and fellowships. His moved along the edges of business and government. He traveled a lot. She moved often. There were planes to catch, seminars, grant proposals, a book to write, classes to teach, a whirlwind that rarely stopped. Rebecca MacKinnon and Bennett Freeman had known each other professionally for years, had sat in the same room for meetings, but cannot recall having a single conversation outside of work.

Everything changed when their paths crossed one day in Washington.

She was starting a fellowship with Open Society Foundations, a group dedicated to civil rights, democracy and government accountability. He walked into the group’s office building on his way to a meeting. They spotted each other, said hello and agreed to have a drink a few days later at Hank’s Oyster Bar.
It was supposed to be a business drink — short and sweet and to the point. The Global Network Initiative, a group dedicated to human rights, freedom of expression and privacy, which they both had a hand in starting, was up and running, and they wanted to compare notes.
At the time, his marriage was ending and the divorce settlement had just been determined. He had not even begun to think about dating.

“I had no intention of this becoming a date, let alone a relationship, let alone a marriage,” Mr. Freeman, 58, said. She was only going to be in town for six weeks. He lived in the capital but was getting ready to fly to the Persian Gulf.

“We were enjoying the conversation enough we decided to continue, order dinner at the bar,” Ms. MacKinnon, 46, said, “and at some point during the dinner it started to feel a little bit datey, and then as we were leaving he asked me out.”

The National Symphony Orchestra was playing Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra the following weekend, he said to her.

“Without skipping a beat, she began to hum the melody,” said Mr. Freeman, who was amazed Ms. MacKinnon, who played violin in high school, was so familiar with one of his favorite classical pieces, especially from a composer not frequently hummed outside a bar, or anywhere for that matter.

That was early in 2009. They kept in touch as Ms. MacKinnon traveled for work at a frantic pace. She can tick off the countries, though she is not sure if they are in the right order.

“After that six weeks in D.C., I went back to China for a while,” she said. “And then I came back to D.C., and then I went back to Hong Kong. And then I went to Australia, and I went to Egypt, and I went to London. Or some sequence. I forget.”

They met in London that summer. She went to the Bahamas for her brother’s wedding. They spent some time near San Francisco, where Mr. Freeman grew up. By Thanksgiving, they were in London again.

“I was really kind of circumnavigating the earth a couple of times,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “He likes to say I was an international bag lady, you know, kind of living out of suitcases.”

Mr. Freeman’s sister, Rachel Freeman, who was living in Africa, visited her brother in Washington shortly after the couple started seeing each other. She was supposed to meet her brother for lunch. He didn’t show up.
“I said, ‘Where are you?’” she said. “He said, ‘Rebecca, Rebecca.’ That was the beginning. It was clear, this was important.”

For Ms. MacKinnon, the same feelings were emerging. “He’s deeply enthusiastic about kind of everything, and just has a love for life and a love for people,” she said.

Mr. Freeman’s friends say that in high school, when everyone else talked about sports, he was interested in apartheid in South Africa. He has been known to talk about Chinese nationalism in the middle of a baseball game.

Larry Baer, a longtime friend of Mr. Freeman’s and now the president and chief executive of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, described the couple as “two whirling dervishes.”

“They say that opposites attract,” Mr. Baer said. “But in that world, whirling dervishes attract.”

Mr. Freeman studied history at the University of California in Berkeley, where he graduated with honors, and went on to study at Oxford. He campaigned for Walter F. Mondale’s presidential run, sleeping in Mr. Baer’s dorm room at Harvard and canvassing by day when the campaign swung through Massachusetts. He worked with the State Department during the Clinton administration and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. His work eventually led to a position with Calvert Investments, which he left in April 2015. He served on boards and committees that championed corporate responsibility and continues to do so.

Ms. MacKinnon grew up in India, Hong Kong, China and Tempe, Ariz. Her father was a professor of Chinese history at Arizona State University, her mother a writer and businesswoman. She went to Harvard and was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. She worked at CNN’s bureau in Beijing, eventually becoming bureau chief, and later Tokyo bureau chief.

She left CNN in 2004 and started to research Internet censorship and surveillance with fellowships at Harvard and Princeton, centers and foundations devoted to a free press in a rapidly changing world. She was a founder of Global Voices, and taught at the University of Hong Kong. She started writing a book, “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom,” which led to a fellowship, a trip to Washington, the drink at Hank’s Oyster Bar and what would become a long-distance relationship.

“We’re two people who have struggled our entire adult lives with being hard driving, ambitious,” Mr. Freeman said. “Working day and night, nights, weekends. Neither of us has had a healthy balance between our professional and personal lives.”

They were both “high octane,” he said, together “combustible,” a perfect match, perhaps, but they lived in different cities.

Ms. MacKinnon kept writing, traveling and looking for grants and fellowships. She spoke before House and Senate subcommittees on human rights, and they saw each other while she was in Washington. She found a research organization, some funding and a place around the corner from Mr. Freeman. Other opportunities came, from Boston, the West Coast, Asia. She passed on them.
“What’s sort of amazing is that they were able to stay in one place long enough to fall in love,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and a longtime friend of the couple.

The couple were ready for a singular cloud-to-ground moment in their lives.

“Lightning struck, and there we were,” Mr. Freeman said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

They took vacations, hiking in places where the pace of life is slower, the cell service weak and spotty. Iceland. Death Valley. The Canadian Rockies. Glacier National Park. The Swiss Alps.

The miles stacked up, and when Mr. Freeman became a member of United Airlines’ MileagePlus Million Miler program in the fall 2014, he asked her to share his designated Premier status. They were spending some time on the West Coast when he proposed, outside a Cowgirl Creamery near Point Reyes, Calif.

“He said something like, ‘Well, someday when we get married we can get a house out here,’” she said. He had made such comments before, but “this time for whatever reason I said, ‘You know, you never asked me.’”

So he did, and she said yes.

Their wedding celebration spilled across four cities in the course of a month: a party for 100 in Washington, the ceremony in Phoenix on Valentine’s Day, a gathering for about 50 in San Francisco the following weekend and another party for about 65 in London the weekend after that.

As they said their vows, standing before Rabbi Dean Shapiro and about 50 guests at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, quail chattered and choir music drifted in from another event at the outdoor space. After the ceremony, guests sipped craft beer and wine, and the classical guitarist Domingo DeGrazia played as evening came to the desert. One wedding. Four cities.

Before their party in San Francisco, their time on the West Coast was not spent sightseeing. Instead they were consumed with speaking engagements, meetings and phone calls, because the whirlwind rarely stops.

“We’re going to be busier than ever,” Mr. Freeman said, “but our pledge is to make more time for each other along the way.”


Source New York Times