Saturday, October 15, 2016

Student Writing: "The Prisoner"

Teaching writing is hard work, but it's also enjoyable and rewarding, and almost always a learning experience in itself. It's wonderful to witness students realizing that language is a tool, one they can learn to master, and that once mastered, it can be used to powerful effect.

Illuminations is the Southeast Community
College magazine of literature and the
arts. This student essay is reprinted with
permission of the author and of the
And sometimes along the way, we teachers encounter a student who loves and respects the language, who is willing to work hard, and who learns to wield the language with both tenderness and ferocity.

This is one of those. Donna is a strong writer and a wonderful person; a former student of mine, I'm now proud to call her a friend.

Compared to the length of my usual posts, this is a bit of a long read, but it's a worthwhile one.

The Prisoner
By Donna Salas

It was a beautiful October afternoon in my small home town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The weather was warm and inviting—as if fall had forgotten to be cold and gloomy, had an identity crisis, and wanted to be spring for a day. The trees had started their annual art crawl across the city, painting its neighborhoods with splashes of red, gold, orange, and yellow. Even the trees that had completely shed their leaves added a beautiful nakedness to the landscape. The seasons were on the cusp of that beautiful blending that happens as spring slides into fall. It was the time when the earth started to settle in for a long, cold nap, and Mother Nature started to slow life down. It was on this beautiful and perfect day that he decided to settle in, too. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to die.

I woke up early in the small apartment in the basement of my parents’ house. I showered quickly, threw on jeans and a t-shirt, and raced upstairs. My mom stood in the kitchen, her back to me, making tortillas. The smell filled my nostrils and woke my stomach, stirring it to growl. She turned toward the stove to flip a tortilla. I could tell she had been awake for hours already. “How’s he doing this morning?” I asked my mom as I kissed her cheek. She looked tired and worn out. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail; small frayed ends of hair framed her face and stood out like fragile wisps at her temples.

“He had a rough night. Didn’t get much sleep,” she said and turned back to the counter to start rolling another piece of masa. I poured myself a cup of coffee and headed out of the kitchen toward his bedroom at the front of the house. I suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore.

His light was on, and the door was open. His TV was on the Spanish channel Telemundo, but the sound was turned down to a muted muffle. His oxygen tank breathed in and out in a raspy hiss like an aggravated cat by his bedside. The police scanner buzzed and beeped on the night stand; disembodied voices broke through speaking in code every now and then. His eyes lit up when I walked in the room.

“Good morning, Dad. How’d you sleep?”

He smiled and said in his most serious voice, “With my eyes closed.”

We both giggled. This was a running joke we said every morning to each other. I kissed his cheek and sat in the big red recliner at the end of his bed.

We made small talk. How’s work? How’s the truck running? (I had been having belt issues with my truck, and he had walked me through changing the belts and setting the timing over the phone.) We talked about everything except his illness. I didn’t ask how he was feeling because I could see how he was feeling. I knew he was in pain every waking second. His body had swelled to twice its normal size. He was an athletic man of 5’9” and about 250 pounds. I remember thinking, “My daddy is the toughest, strongest man alive. Nothing can defeat him.” I could have never in my life believed that he’d be done in by a 12-ounce aluminum can of beer. Now here he sat, his body so swollen that he couldn’t move or walk; he literally could not lift the weight of his own leg. All he could move were his arms and head.

We talked briefly about nothing special when I asked what time it was. I had to leave for work soon. He told me I had about ten minutes until I had to leave. He fell silent at those words. A melancholy fell on him, and he suddenly looked so sad. I pretended not to notice; I refilled his coffee and kissed his cheek. “OK, Dad, I gotta go. I love you, and I’ll see you after work.”

He looked straight ahead, a blank stare filling his eyes, and said, “OK. I love you, too, mija.” He said these words to the nothingness outside the bedroom window, not making eye contact with me. I knew deep in my soul that something was wrong. He didn’t say “I’ll see you later” back.

I worked an uneventful eight-hour day. For some reason, I decided not to call home at lunch like I normally did. I know now I was scared that I would get bad news. I would call, and Mom would have to tell me that he had taken a turn for the worse, and I should get home now! I had told my mom that if she needed to get a hold of me during the day to call my boss’s office phone, and she would come get me. But as my day progressed and Marilyn never came out of her office to get me, I began to think my fears of that morning were just paranoia. Maybe I was overreacting.

3:30 p.m.—I had made it! I’d worked all day and had no word from Mom. As I walked confidently through the parking lot toward my Toyota pickup, I thought about stopping by the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread and other odds and ends to get me through the week. I had my hand on the handle of the truck door when Marilyn came running out of the building.

“Donna! Your mom just called. She said you need to get home now!” My stomach tightened, and my throat closed. For a moment, I just stood there trying to process her words. It was almost like they had been said to me in a foreign language that I knew only the curse words to. The ten-minute drive home seemed to take an hour. I don’t remember much about the drive, but I remember thinking, Please let it be something stupid, like, “Get home now! Your dog made a mess in the basement.”

When I finally pulled in the drive, I noticed my Aunt Cathy’s car parked in the street. Nothing unusual there—she would often come and spend the whole day with my dad. My grandmother had moved in when dad got sick, so my aunt would come over and visit her, too. My aunt and my dad were as close as a brother and sister could be, and there was no place in the world she would rather be than with her baby brother. They shared a birthday, and twelve years later, just a week short of my dad, they also shared their final breath.

What was out of place was Andrea’s old maroon Toyota Camry parked outside. Andrea was a good friend of the family, and I’d known her my whole life. She was also a hospice nurse and had been assigned to us when my dad was put on hospice two months ago. She had been to the house only a few times during the day to help Mom bathe Dad in his bed since he couldn’t get out of it and to change a dressing on his leg when he came down with thrush. Most of the time, she was there was as a friend. This was not good.

I ran into the house through the front door since that was closest to his room. He was laying in his bed, his arms folded on his chest; the fleece blanket Mom had made him a few years ago for Christmas covered his bloated body. We had bought him a hospital bed a few weeks ago, and it took up so much of the room that we had to put it in at an angle, covering up the closet door. My aunt stood on his left, my grandmother was at the foot of the bed, and my mom was standing on his right. I pushed my way into his cramped room and took my mom’s place on his right. I took his hand; it felt cold and still. I scanned the room looking from face to face and saw that everyone looked worried. “I think it’s time, mija,” my mom said as she put her hand on my shoulder.

“Did anybody call Adrian?” I asked, just then noticing that my brother wasn’t there. He would be crushed if he couldn’t be there. He would never forgive us! Looking back now, I know that a small part of me didn’t want him there. I felt that if he wasn’t there, then Dad would not leave. It was a childish wish. My aunt nodded and said he was on his way. Dad’s breathing was so shallow it was almost non-existent. We stood watching him sleep, nobody ready to cry just yet.

Adrian finally ran into the room and took up post on the left side where Cathy had been standing. He took Dad’s other hand. We looked at each other, and a quiet understanding passed between us. We both leaned in at the same time and whispered in his ear, “It’s OK, Dad. You can go now. We’ll be OK.” A silence fell over the room, like someone had sucked the air out of it and we stood in a vacuum. A clock ticked somewhere, and the angry cat hissed in and out on the nightstand. Then, like that, he was gone. We all just looked at each other. Andrea came into the room and checked his pulse and looked for a heartbeat. She shook her head and said he had gone home. And just like that, on a beautiful fall day in October, my dad went to the clearing at the end of the path.

The most profound heaviness fell on me, and I ran out to the front porch and wailed. I cried like I had never cried before. The weight of my grief fell on me like a 20-ton cement block, and I collapsed to the floor. I felt paralyzed and numb from head to toe. My girlfriend scooped me into her arms and carried me into the living room. People all around me were in different stages of sorrow. My brother was in shock and just sat at the dining room table. My mother and Aunt Cathy were holding my grandmother. I went to her and hugged her. I began to cry again. I told her I was sorry that she had to see this. I was sorry she had to watch another son die. No mother wants to see her children suffer or feel sad, but deep down, all parents are selfish and hope to pass away before their children. In the end, nobody wants to lose someone they love and would do anything to not have to feel that pain.

Someone called hospice, someone called my Aunt Joanne, and someone called the rest of the family. I had moved to the back yard with my girlfriend and my brother. He had called his wife, and she was there, too. We began to tell stories about how funny Dad was, and we started to laugh. Our laughter floated into the house, and before I knew it, everybody was outside. One by one, we each told a story, and our tears of sorrow were replaced by tears of joy.

The funeral home had come to take Dad, and they waited with us for over an hour until the last of the family could see him. Family and friends came and went for the remainder of the evening, and by 9:00, we had said goodbye to the last of the visitors. It was just Mom, Grandma, my girlfriend, and me. We stripped his bed and cleared all his medication from his room. We cleaned that room until it was spotless. The hiss of his oxygen machine had been silenced. The TV had been shut off hours ago, along with his police scanner. There was a sense of peace now, like the weight of his sickness had made the room sick, too, and now it was healed.

It had been an exhausting day, and I was surprised to find myself yawning. We were all drained and needed a good night’s sleep. I said goodnight to my mom and grandmother and went with my girlfriend down to the basement apartment. As we lay in bed, she asked me if I was OK. I laughed and said, “Not really—my dad just died,” but I was going to be OK.

I rolled over and looked at her. “I never thought it would be like this. You prepare and prepare, but when the time comes to say goodbye, you’re never really ready. It hurts like hell that he’s gone. It hurts so deep in my soul that I am forever changed—forever. But I also feel this sense of relief that it’s finally over. I’ve lived on edge for months now. I’m not afraid of the telephone ringing anymore. I don’t have to worry about getting THAT call.”

She stroked my arm. I could see the tears running down her face. “But you know what else I feel? I feel honored to have been there. I felt dignity come back to him. He isn’t this sick person that can’t take care of himself anymore. He is a whole man again. He’s not trapped in that body filled with disease and pain.”

I began to cry again, but these were tears of joy. My dad was free, and I didn’t have to worry about him anymore. He wasn’t in pain, and he wasn’t scared! Death had given him his pride back and taken him out of a world of pain and shame. The cell doors had been opened, and he was free from that prison of a body. Death had given him freedom, and because of that, I was happy to let him go.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

"Attending" APCUG

I'm not much of a joiner, and have never really been into club membership. (And besides, as Groucho Marx is reputed to have said when resigning from the prestigious Friars' Club, "I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members." Back when I was editing Smart Computing magazine, I did try to start a motorcycle gang. It was going to be called "Hell's Editors," but the plan came to grief when no one could agree on the placement of a semicolon in what was to have been our Mission Statement.) 

Clubs and organizations do serve a purpose, of course; for us technophiles, they provide an opportunity to discuss, learn about, share, and commiserate regarding new technologies. Hence, the computer club: a place for hobbyists and technologists and just plain old users to get together and share information and advice. (Drinks may occasionally be served, but usually only at the post-meeting meeting.)

Gordon French, one of the cofounders of the Homebrew
Computer Club. This photo was taken in 2013. Photo used
under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license.
Among the earliest of such clubs was the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley hobbyist group that met from 1975 through 1986. (Fittingly, the first meeting was held in a club founder's garage.)

The HCC was an informal gathering of what would prove to be many of the industry's future movers and shakers, including engineer Lee Felsenstein (the designer of the Osborne 1 microcomputer), activist Fred Moore, Paul Terrill (who would go on to open The Byte Shop, an early computer retailer), and Roger Melen, the future cofounder of Cromemco, an early microcomputer company. Steve Wozniak was a member, and Woz has said that the first meeting of the club (at which was displayed the first MITS Altair microcomputer) inspired him to design what would become the Apple I.

So, computer clubs have a long and storied history, although membership seems to be declining now. Perhaps as a technology becomes more familiar and more integrated into the fabric of our everyday lives, the perceived need for special gatherings to explain, popularize, and celebrate the technology is diminished. You never hear of a light bulb club, these days, or an indoor toilet club. (If there happens to be one of the latter, I really don't want to know about it.)

Clubs do remain, of course, often more and more specialized. There are clubs for computer "modders," for instance: hobbyists who modify or enhance their computers to make them faster, quieter, cooler, or simply more aesthetically appealing. (Check out CPU Magazine for some great info on modders and modding, and also to learn more about high-powered computers and gaming in general.)

But organizations aimed at general users (rather than at specialized practitioners of the modding arts) do still exist. The grandfather of those clubs is APCUG, the Association of Personal Computer User Groups, an international group that holds its annual meeting in Las Vegas. APCUG isn't really a "computer club" so much as a consortium of computer clubs, an umbrella organization that has spent the past 30 years encouraging communications among computer-oriented user groups.

I have been privileged in the past to attend the APCUG convention, sometimes just wandering the floor, sometimes manning the Smart Computing booth. In either case, it was always fun to meet with readers, attend presentations, and check in with the many clubs whose members supported the magazine and who seemed to genuinely enjoy talking, learning, and teaching about computers.

And, as luck would have it, I'm about to "attend" the convention once again! Sort of. I'm scheduled to give a remote presentation on some of the tech topics in my book. (The book is called Leveling the Playing Field. I may have mentioned it once or twice.) So, come Saturday, October 22nd, I'll be hunkered down in my little basement office in Nebraska using some of that incredible technology to beam my face and my words to what I'm sure will be throngs of enraptured attendees in Las Vegas, many of whom will no doubt be nursing tremendous hangovers, because . . . hey, it's Las  Vegas!  

Saturday, October 01, 2016

We Have A Winner!!

Aaaaannnnnd we have a winnner! Woo-hoo!

But first, in a blatantly obvious attempt to ramp up the suspense just a bit, let me start by thanking everyone who entered. There were some awesome photos of people reading and posing with their copies of Leveling the Playing Field, and some even awesomer shots of various pets reading . . . well, someone's copy of the book. (I'm almost positive that Roxy-the-Dachshund, being a bit spoiled, has her very own Amazon Prime account, so I'd imagine she ordered her own copy. And also a new Macbook Pro, because she's very tired of trying to surf the web on that antiquated Dell of hers.)

"I bought this book, but I . . . I just realized . . . I don't have any
! Mom! Come open this book for me!"
There were also a number of people who garnered additional entries by sharing my original contest announcement, thereby spreading the word even more. That was greatly appreciated, of course; my ace marketing department informs me that spreading the word is key. (My ace marketing department also informs me that I've been loading the dishwasher incorrectly.)

All in all, it was a well-received contest with lots of entries and quite a bit of buzzand most of all, a lot of people had a lot fun. Fun is always good.

We chose the winner by throwing all of the names up into the air and then trying to decide which person was most likely to invite us out to visit them when we're vacationing in our travel trailer.

No, that's not what we did! My ace marketing department wrote each name down on a Post-it (multiple Post-its for those who had multiple entries) and then shuffled them around while making chanting noises. We then wrote numbers on the back of each Post-it, and I wrote a very sophisticated program to generate a random number between 1 and the total number of entries. 

Well, not really. I just said, "Hey, Siri! Generate a random number between 1 and X." So Siri, being Siri, said, "Hmmm… Let me check on that," and displayed a list of Wikipedia articles about the history of mathematics, a Quora discussion on the nature of randomness, and 37 movie titles, including Random Encounters (2013), Random Acts of Violence (2012), and The Random Factor (1995). (And also an article about malware making its way onto the Google Play store. Not sure how that got in there.)

Brian Wilcox and his prized possession. Also,
he has a book.
When Siri did eventually spit out a random number (OK, so technically it was a pseudo-random number), it turned out to be Post-it #6! So, there you go! Our lucky winner is #6!! We certainly hope that #6 enjoys his or her $50 gift certificate to either Amaz . . . 

Wait . . . I'm being told that we can't give the prize to a number. It has to go to an actual person represented by that number. Sheesh. Man, I didn't realize this was going to be so complicated!! OK, so it turns out that Post-it #6 belonged to Brian Wilcox, of Huntington Beach, CA. We'll get in touch with Brian (or his representative, whose name, we're almost positive, is Alison) and mail him/them a $50 gift certificate for either or Barnes and Noble, his choice.

Stay tunedI'm sure there will be more contests in the near future! In the meantime, keep in mind that the holiday season is approaching, so you'll want to have on hand as many copies of Leveling the Playing Field as possible. Because what could possibly make a more thoughtful and heartwarming gift than a book?! I'm almost positive that you can get a discount when you buy them by the case.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Book Signing Success!

Well, Saturday's book signing at B&N SouthPointe was by all accounts a great success: Lots of people showed up (including my longtime buddies, Bert and Sarah, who flew all the way from Sacramento! [Knowing Bert as I do, this is the point at which he would insert, "And boy, were our arms tired!" Thank you, Bert. You may sit down now.]), many books were sold, most of the people laughed at most of the jokes, andvery importantlyno babies cried or threw up on their parents. (Or if they did, they did it very quietly, which I'm sure we all appreciated.)

I saw several people I hadn't seen for ages, some neighbors that I figured would have had better things to do on a football Saturday (admittedly, the gamesorry, The Gamewasn't until later that day), and a bunch of great folks from work who ventured out on a rainy day. Thank you all.

Again, I have to thank Jen Jackson, B&N's Community Business Development Manager. She works tirelessly on behalf of all the authors she hosts, making sure that there are plenty of books, signage, media coverage, and the whole bit. And that's just one of her many jobs! (In my case, she and my wife and the café staff also made sure we had plenty of cookieswhich we all know is what really convinced people to come out. As I told them during the Q&A, I've now learned two things: The first is that it pays to bribe people to come out, and the second is that my friends apparently bribe pretty cheaply. Always good to know that about one's friends.)

Of course, in addition to Jen and all of people who showed up for the signing, I also have to thank Lesley, my wife and one-woman marketing department. Her support has been and continues to be awesomeand she's so much better at that marketing stuff than I am. Also, she's much better looking. 

I'm not going to list all of the attendees here, but please know that I truly appreciate your coming out and spending a chunk of your Saturday afternoon with me. And I also appreciate your buying all of those books! (You should keep doing that. The holiday season is coming up, after all; you'll probably want a case or twoI'm sure they'll make great gifts.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Signings: Not For The Faint Of Heart

I'm about to do a book signing for Leveling the Playing Field (why, yes, you're invited!), so I've been doing some thinking about book signings in general.

First, they're risky. Especially if you're the only author at the signing (sometimes multiple authors will set up at a bookstore for a "local authors" signing), it can be very embarrassing (not to mention boring) if no one shows up and you're just sitting there, all by yourself at your little table, surrounded by stacks of the book on which you've labored so hard and for so long. There you are, sitting with your lonely, pitiful piles of books, listening to the sound of crickets. Occasionally a tumbleweed rolls by. A rusted metal sign hangs by one corner, rattling and clanking, swinging in the cold wind that sweeps down the muddy street. No, wait! That was a movie I saw a few years ago. Still, you get the idea. It's no fun having quite literally put yourself out there, only to find out that no one cares.

That's actually only happened to me once, and I wasn't alone. Ted Kooser and I did a signing back in 2009. I was hawking a book I had recently annotated, Sailing Alone Around the World, and Ted, naturally enough, was promoting a new book of his beautiful poetry. (Yes, you should check out Ted's poetry. He's awesome! There's a reason he became Poet Laureate of the United States.) The thing is, neither one of us was attracting much attention. I might have spoken to two or three people and signed perhaps one book. Ted spoke to five or six or so, and sold a couple of books. Mainly, we stood around for two hours and drank coffee while Ted told jokes, several of which were what would have been described in a more genteel time as "slightly off color." 

In the end, though, Ted got to go home and relax in a nice leather chair and look at his Pulitzer Prize on the mantle. I went home and sat on the floor with the dog and looked at my 8th-grade dodgeball trophy. I'm sure the experience was essentially the same for both of us, and I happen to know that the dog was quite impressed with my dodgeball trophy.

Now, the first signing I did for Sailing Alone was actually quite well attended, partly because it was a "local authors" event, so there were several of us there. We all sat at little tables arranged in a line that stretched from me at the front to Tosca Lee at the rear. (Tosca was signing copies of Havah, I think.) Many of the people who walked past me were on their way to see Tosca, for several excellent reasons: First, Tosca is truly a wonderful writer, a NYT bestselling author who weaves historical thrillers that are almost magical in their ability to transport a reader to another place and time. Also, she happens to be much better looking than I. And finally, she had brought cookies to the signing. Cookies!! Why didn't I think of that?! I like to think it was the cookies that attracted so many people to her table. Still, in order to get to Tosca's table, they had to walk past mine! So, marketing/sales whiz that I am, as every single person passed, I stiffened my resolve, locked eyes with the floor, and mumbled, "So, you probably don't want one of these books, do you? No, I didn't think so, OK, thanks anyway. Yes <sigh>, Tosca is back this way, behind that crowd of milling people and the heaping mounds of cookies." Nonetheless, I sold and signed a lot of books that day, so I'm not complaining. Also, I got a cookie.

People have the wrong idea about what goes into a signing and how much help writers get from their publishers, so I'll tell you: very little. Unless you're a big-time author, the publisher doesn't help muchand really doesn't look at a signing as a terribly effective marketing tool. So, not much assistance there. If you're lucky, the publisher will send some extra books, maybe print off some flyers for you, and possibly note the signing on their Facebook wall or website. So when you see authors doing a signing, unless they're big names, they're pretty much there on their own; if they traveled to get to the signing, they probably did so on their own dime.

Now, the person who really does help at a bookstore signing is the store's Community Business Development Manager. At the SouthPointe Barnes & Noble, that's Jennifer Jackson, and she works incredibly hard to arrange, organize, and put on book signings, plus she works with educators, libraries, media, and more. Writers who do signings owe Jen and her counterparts at other stores a huge debt of gratitude. Without them, we'd be itinerant booksellers, pushing little carts around downtown, hawking books at passersby. Like those corner hot dog carts we love, but not nearly as tasty. (And with ours, instead of condiments, you'd get little packets of metaphor.)

So, in the end, a signing is a scary beast. The writers are out there naked to the world. (Not literally. It's a metaphor; I got it from one of those packets.) Whatever we've createda novel, a children's book, a biography, or whateveris sitting out there on that little table, ready to be judged by . . . well, everyone who walks past. (And the fact that they walk past is in itself a form of judgment.) One of the reasons that's scary is that I really think that most writers are somewhat introverted, and many of us are uncomfortable with self-promotion; we're good writersor so we hopebut most of us are not terribly good salespeople. In fact, I think I was brought up to believe that self-promotion was somehow . . . unseemly, that it was not the gentlemanly thing to do. Luckily I'm friends with a large number of exceedingly ungentlemanly people who are quite good at helping me sell my books, and very effective at encouraging me to take on those marketing tasks with which I am somewhat uncomfortable.

The bottom line is that we love it when people stop by a book signing, even if they don't plan to buy a book or even if they already have a signed book. So if you have a chance, do drop by the signing next Saturday, September 24th, at the SouthPointe Barnes and Noble, at 2:00 p.m. (That's the same day as the Lincoln Arts Festival, so come earlyor stay late and make an afternoon of it!) I'll do a short Q&A or reading, and then I'll sign books or newsletters or pamphletsbasically, whatever you hand me, I'll sign. Yes, there will be cookies.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Internet: Making Smart People Do Stupid Things Since 1590

Let me tell you a very sad story. (You'll probably need some tissues. I can wait while you get some.... Ready? OK.)

Nichol, a Frenchman stuck in a Spanish prison, has very little time left. He is dying, and the bad food and damp, dank air in the prison are contributing to his ill health and hastening his impending end. He knows he will soon die, but he has something very important to do: He must save his daughter. With Nichol gone, sweet, innocent Mary, only 17 years old, will be destitute. But Nichol has a trick up his ragged sleeve: He has bribed a jailer to deliver a letter to Mr. Fitch, a man of wealth and power who lives in America. The letter notes that Nichol has access to vast sums of money, or would if he were free. The money is in fact hidden not far from where Fitch resides, because Nichol himself, on a previous visit to America, buried the funds in a forest near Fitch's home town. He can direct Mr. Fitch to the money if Fitch will pay Mary's passage to America and then agree to raise the young woman as his ward. Nichol may well die, but at least his fortune and his daughter will be safe.

A real news report about an actual airline disaster, which
a scammer will now attempt to use as part of an advance
fee fraud.
Of course, the saddest thing about this story is the fact that so many people believed it and sent money to Spain so that Mary could live happy and free(And so that they could pocket Nichol's fortune after his demise.) In other words, it was a con. A fraud. A swindle. 

If the con sounds familiar, it's because there truly is nothing new under the sun. This is called an "advance fee" fraud, because the victim is asked to pay a relatively small fee in advance of receiving a much larger payment. Of course, that larger payment never shows up.

This is perhaps the most direct ancestor of such modern advance fee frauds as the so-called Nigerian scam: swindles in which a mark is persuaded to pay various "fees," "insurance," or "taxes" ahead of receiving his share of some enormous fortune. Some versions of the scam may involve checks being delivered to the victim, out of which he is supposed to pay certain fees, taxes, or shipping costs by forwarding a percentage of the received monies to a "government official" or "shipping" company. Of course, the check is bogus; the "shipping company" is in fact the scammer himself, and when all is said and done, the victim is on the hook to the bank, having deposited a bad check into his account and sent his own money to the scammer.

I received this excellent example of an advance fee
fraud attempt on the very day I was writing this post.
Note that the fraudster directs the recipient to a report
of an actual airliner crash (see image above) as a way
of adding a touch of verisimilitude.
There is almost no end to the types of advance fee frauds one might encounter: work-at-home schemes, model and escort agency dodges, employment frauds, cash handling (read: money laundering) cons, lottery scams, and Craigslist ruses in which someone selling legitimate goods is sent a fake check for more than the selling price, with the extra to be wired to a third party. (Once again, the check is bad, and the seller is on the hook for the check and any "purchased" goods he may have already shipped to the scammer.)

There's also almost no end to how much the scammer will attempt to bleed the mark. Once you pay the initial fees, you've established yourself as the type of person a scammer loves most: gullible and affluent. The next step, of course, is to inform you that more fees are due or that some other issue has arisen that requires more funds. This will continue until the mark is bled dry or finally realizes that he's being scammed.

But let's not blame the Internet, because all of this really has little to do with technology, and much to do with the nature of people. We're greedy, and we like to think that we can get something for nothing. We can't. But we never stop trying: This sort of fraud (known during the 19th century as "the Spanish prisoner con") has been going on since the 16th century, and there's no reason to believe that it will ever stop. 

Still, the Internet does help the scammer: Digital communications make it much easier to scam more people more quickly. (Let's hear it for efficiency!) After all, it costs the scammer almost nothing to send out hundreds of scam emails. If the return is very, very small, it doesn't matter, because it didn't really cost him anything. 

Not only that, but the scam quickly becomes self-selecting: The scammers want the smart people, the ones who are a bit wary, to pass on the scam as quickly as possible, because those are the people who would wise up before the scam was successful. The scammers would end up wasting time trying to convince someone who is already wise to the con, so they'd just as soon those people immediately delete the initial scam emails. What's left? Gullible people. Greedy people. Folks who are desperate to make a quick fortune. Those are the ones they can string along for weeks or months, the whole time siphoning off funds that the victims probably can't afford to lose.

And, believe it or not, advance fee scammers do make money. A lot of money: According to Ultrascan, a group of Dutch fraud investigators, $12.3 billion was lost to the con globally in 2013. This is, after all, why the scam is still with us: Dating back to the late 1500s, it's almost literally "the oldest trick in the book," but it still works.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Yep, Your Mom Was Right. Again.

A while back I received a nice, chatty Facebook message from my good friend LaWanda, to whom I’ve not actually spoken face-to-face in several years. (I've changed the name to protect the innocentalso because I really like the name LaWanda.) I worked with the woman a few years back, and we've stayed in touch, more or less, via FB. I get to hear all about (and see photos of) her kids and grandkids and granddogs and new bathroom tile and incredibly intelligent houseplants and the like, and she gets to hear all about . . . well, mostly about my book and occasionally about my incredibly intelligent granddaughter. (But, see, my granddaughter really is incredibly intelligent. And beautiful. Also, if she’s reading this, she should CLEAN HER ROOM!)

Anyway, LaWanda was just "checking in" to see how I was doing. And I thought, "Well, how nice!! This woman not only remembers me, but actually cares how I'm doing. Man, I must be a whole lot more personable than I thought!"

But it turns out that I'm not personable at all. My “friend” jumped right from "checking in" into wanting to know if I'd heard her good newswhich turned out to be that she had won some sort of multi-thousand dollar lottery prize, using secrets that she was willing to share with me. Because I'm just so damned personable.

So, you know where this is going . . . .  When I received the second message, I realized that someone was trying to scam me. And I also remembered that a few weeks before this, I had accepted a "friend" request from LaWanda, even though we were already friends. I would like to say that I accepted the duplicate request because I had thought about it and assumed that for some reason she had had to start a new FB account, but in truth, I'm just old and forgetful, and I can barely remember the name of my dog. (It's "Annie,” OK? The dog's name is "Annie." I'm just making a point here; work with me, alright?) Basically, I was on automatic pilot and didn't give it much thought; I knew LaWanda, and that was good enough for me. Click.

Annie, protecting us from the evil squirrels.
Dumb. But smart enough not to let it go any further, and awake enough to warn the other people (there were only a few, which was a giveaway in itself) on the fake LaWanda's "friends" list that they (and I) had "friended" a fake LaWanda.

This sort of fakery (I almost typed something else there) has been going on for a while now. Facebook is terrible at policing itself and watching for this sort of thing. There are tons of scams littering everyone's favorite social network. Almost any time you see something like, "How many likes can we get for poor Fred here?" it's a scam of some sort. Poor Fred is almost certainly not stuck in some cancer or burn ward in a faraway hospital. (And if he were, your "likes" wouldn't help him. Also, his name's probably not Fred.) And you’re not going to get cheap Ray-Ban sunglasses, either. (You'll get cheesy knockoffs, if you get anything.) You’re also not going to win a red or blue Camaro, a Land Rover or Land Cruiser (not that I can ever remember which is which), an all-expenses paid 3-day trip to a tropical (or any) island, a classic 1970 Dodge Charger (though I would really, really like one of those), or a fancy motorhome. Nor are you going to win that free cross country flight on South West Airlines; the airline does not spell its name that way and its website is not at or, or any of a dozen other almost correct URLs.

Most of these things are either like-farming or survey scams. In a like-farming scam, the crook really just wants to collect as many "likes" and "shares" as he can, so that he can turn around and sell his “high volume” page to other scammers who will use it to do even worse things. 

Yeah, you're not gonna win this (or any) Dodge
Charger. Sorry. Image courtesy of Brett
One of those “worse things” is a survey scam. This is a swindle in which you’re offered something very, very cool (a free MacBook, for instance, or a nice camera) and All you have to do is Like and Share our page!! Except that, really, you’re just going to get sucked into a series of online “confirmation forms” and surveys, and when you get finished there will not be a free MacBook waiting for you. Get it? There is NEVER going to be a free MacBook. Or a free anything, even after you jump through all the hoops. The scammer is trying to collect as much info about you as he can so that he can sell that data to other scammers (or possibly use it himself to steal your identity), and while he’s at it, he gets paid for every dumb “survey” you fill out. (You might also find out that you’ve just signed up for expensive messaging services, etc.)

In other words, the Internet is full of lies. And liars. Which is too bad, because there really is some kid in a burn ward or cancer ward somewhere, and that kid really does deserve our "likes" and maybe even our money, but it's almost impossible to figure out which one of the FB posts about him is legit.

All of this boils down to, “Mom was right.” If something sounds too good to be true, guess what? It’s not true. (Mom is almost always right. She’s the mom, after all.)

Trust Mom. (And also and 

NEXT WEEK: The Internet: Making smart people do stupid things since 1590.