Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Another SEO Scammer Calls Me

I had been getting a number of e-mails from various tech companies wanting to help me improve my website ranking. One in particular got my attention because the language behind it was only slightly off kilter, like speaking to a European who had only been in the United States for a few weeks and hadn't quite gotten hip to the nuances of American English. 

The one line that struck me right away was "There is some lacuna in your website which needs to be improved so that your website becomes visible on top of the Search Engines and eventually help you get more traffic and more business". The author uses the word "lacuna" to indicate "gap" and it's not a word you'll hear commonly used in the United States. I'm only aware of it because it's used to indicate a period of silence within a piece of music. The author of the e-mail used it incorrectly, as lacuna is the singular form and lacunae is the plural, a fact I learned from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the third episode of Season 7, "Interface", we see Commander Data staring at a blank screen when in fact, he what he is viewing is a lacuna within an alien poem. The ancient Doosodarians were known for their poetry that contained lacunae which sometimes measured several days in length. During this pause, the poet and audience are encouraged to acknowledge the "emptiness" of the experience. The Doosodarians believed that while the poem may be blank, the emptiness itself had a poetic meaning, so it could not be considered "nothing" as such.

After some back and forth over e-mail, I finally got a rep from the company to call. As suspected, the caller had a noticeable foreign accent. Clovis answered and passed the phone to Diksmash. After hearing the pitch, Diksmash successfully negotiated a deal with the sales rep where the rep would issue a bill for $1,000, of which Diksmash would keep $500 and kick $500 to the company. Clovis interrupted the call, said he'd been listening the entire time and was going to call the police. The conversation was turned over to a manager who attempted to do some damage control. Clovis kept talking over him, asking him for his company's address. The manager kept refusing, trying to refer Clovis to a doctored up website instead. Clovis responded by singing his ABCs which really seemed to set the manager off. Just before hanging up, the manager exclaims: "go call the police. I don't give a damn. Bye bye".


Monday, April 17, 2017

Kalahari Resort at Wisconsin Dells

Growing up in Suburban Chicago in the 70's and 80's, the Wisconsin Dells was a fairly popular vacation destination among my friends and their families.   Back then, the tourist activities in the Wisconsin Dells centered around small amusement parks, nature tours, the Wonder Spot, Tommy Bartlett's Thrill Show and its various knockoffs and, of course Noah's Ark Waterpark. My own family preferred Door County to the Wisconsin Dells despite the fairly intense advertising blitz that would go on during the warmer months of the year. I can still remember the jingle: "Mother Nature created the beauty, we created the fun! The Wisconsin Dells, a great time for everyone!"  

So, it wasn't without a bit of bemusement that I took my family up to the Kalahari Resort at Wisconsin Dells this past weekend. I had heard that the Dells had been expanding its waterpark offerings since the 90s to the point where Lake Delton is now considered "The Water Park Capital Of The World". I expected to be crush amidst a throng of tourists while being fleeced in every way possible from various theme parks with their hands in my pocket. But, to my surprise, it was actually a very pleasant and fun experience overall. We got a nice, spacious room with two queen beds, pull out sofa, fridge and a very large television. Access to the theme park at Kalahari is included in the room price. Access to the water park is extra, but I didn't feel like it was an unreasonable amount. Kalahari is even nice enough to refrain from locking down the room's television so that it can access USB media, thus allowing me to play movies from my USB drive. The prices at the restaurants and concession stands were pretty reasonable except for a few items (bottled soda being the obvious outlier). And, in general, there was something for everyone. My youngest son was an exception, but he's a rather odd demographic since he's nearly 5 and is very short for his age so he isn't tall enough to go on a lot of the rides in the theme park that interest him yet the rides he's able to go on are too "young" for his age.

I'm nearly petrified of heights, so the ropes course which consists of various climbing elements suspended 2 - 3 stories off the ground was a considerable challenge to me. My five-year-old was a real trooper for most of it and I reasoned that, if he could brave it, then I could too. Plus, they latch everyone in with a rope system so that, if you do fall, you won't get hurt. Still, I wasn't looking forward to the possibility of dangling from a rope while waiting for someone to pull me back onto the course. The rules of the course state that participants should empty their pockets and that no cell phones or cameras are allowed. Still, I brought my smartphone up and took pictures of my son crossing various obstacles. I did get caught by a Kalahari employee at one point, but he was cool about it and just asked me to put it away.

The water park at Kalahari is a lot of fun and I think that there's a decent balance between things to do for adults and things to do for kids. There's a lazy river, a number of kids areas, a swim up bar, an indoor/outdoor spa and a whirlpool spa. There are a number of different water slides to choose from that zip all over the water park. My own favorite is the Tanzanian Twister, a spiral flume ride that spins you around the flume at about 40 miles per hour before dropping you out from the bottom of the flume into the pool below. Now I know what being a flushed turd feels like.

If I have one complaint about Kalahari, it centers around the ability to capture the experience. There weren't many group photo ops available. On every trip, I like to get at least one picture of the entire family together, and it's not easy to do so. Having a photo op managed by resort staff is something I often rely on in order to make that happen. Near as I could tell, Kalahari had only one available and it was only for about an hour or so. There's also the Virtual Area, which I think is a lot of fun, but the lack of video recording availability is a bit of a let down because it would be pretty fun to see how ridiculous everyone acts while they're putzing around in a virtual reality realm. These are just minor nit-picks, though. We had a great time overall.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

RIP J. Geils

John "J" Geils, guitarist and founder of The J. Geils Band, passed away at the age of 71 last night. He was found in his home, and all indications are that he died of natural causes.

This one actually hit me pretty hard. "Freeze Frame" was the first album I ever bought.

It was at the dawn of the Mtv Era. For a kid like me, "Centerfold" was the perfect video. It featured a bunch of pretty girls, of course, but the band itself was an eclectic mix of characters, bookended by a cool lead singer and an aloof guitarist. These weren't the type of people you'd see in music videos today. The band members were in their late 30's rather than their early-to-mid 20s and they lacked a certain polish. That was fine by me, because, at the time, when compared to my peers, I lacked a certain polish. The video for "Centerfold" held a special place in my mind. My fevered adolescent fantasies featured myself as Peter Wolf among the various hot girls who went to my school who wouldn't ever talk to me much less do a dance routine in the middle of the classroom. My mix of misfit friends was cast as the band with my best friend serving as J. Geils.

"Freeze Frame" was the second video from the album. The band was having a great time throwing paint at each other and there was this weird animation thingy in the middle that I found fascinating. I was sold! "Freeze Frame" would be my first official album purchase. The moment I got my allowance, I was off to K-Mart to pick it up. I can remember the moment that I first picked up that record. I pulled it from the rack and raised it up slightly above my eye-level. It was like finding a legendary treasure that you'd only read about in books. Yet, here it was before me in all its vinyl glory! No longer would I have to listen to "Freeze Frame", "Centerfold" or "Angel in Blue" at the whim of Mtv. I was in control now.

There was a slight problem: The final song on the album is "Piss On The Wall". Should my mother happen to see such vulgarity, especially in print, the album would surely have been confiscated. Luckily, my oldest brother was old enough to have fewer restrictions on his purchases. He offered to hold onto "Freeze Frame" for me, as if it were part of his collection. I could listen to it in his room any time I wanted. With the headphones on. I wore down the needle on his record player listening to it.

"Love Stinks" started getting some play on Mtv but, to my astonishment, it wasn't on "Freeze Frame". It was from a different album, one that had come out before "Freeze Frame". What?? There was life before Freeze Frame? With my next allowance, I went out and bought it. This time, however, I did not want go to K-Mart with my mom and run the risk of there possibly being another vulgar song title which my mom might possibly see and use as a reason to veto the purchase, so my brother took me to an actual record store to buy it. When I got there, I discovered that there were SEVERAL J. Geils Band albums that had been made before "Freeze Frame".

Over the next few months, I used my allowance to buy them too. I was astonished at what I'd heard. Instead of happy, goofy pop music, I was treated to bluesy, angsty, soulful music. It was such a departure from what Mtv told me to expect, but that was a good thing. It opened up a whole new world for me because, before they were the momentary darlings of Mtv, the J. Geils Band were the masters of East Coast blues-rock. I started to investigate bands with similar sounds and buy their albums.

This was a serious addiction. I used money that was normally allocated for buying Star Wars guys or GI Joes to buy music. I not only bought albums, but I investigated the stories behind the bands. I wanted to know about them, so I bought magazines like Rolling Stone so I could read album reviews and interviews. I'd even go so far as to look up articles in the periodicals index in my school library. When I reached High School, I toyed with the idea of becoming a music journalist or a DJ so that I could interview my favorite bands. And when I do some side work as a DJ, in the back of my head, I wanted to sit both J. Geils and Peter Wolf down in a room together and have them take me through the conception of each and every song they wrote (which can never happen now). They say that at some point, ever child must put away his toys and take up the implements that make him a man. Well, the J. Geils Band and "Freeze Frame" started me on that journey. I became a man because of that album. And, years later, upon discovering that a middle school crush had become an amateur cam model? Well, my blood ran cold.....

Creative differences between J. Geils and Peter Wolf eventually led to Wolf leaving the band in 1983. They'd reunite several times over the years for one-off shows here and there, but an argument led to the band touring without Geils, who then sued everyone and quit the band for good. I had hoped that the band would get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 and patch things up again. A reunion won't ever happen again, but maybe we can still get them into the Hall of Fame.

Anyway, RIP J. Geils. Your music made me a fan not only of your band, but of music itself.

I'm going to listen to the Best of J. Geils Band, then I'm going to spin up Peter Wolf's "Sleepless", which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest albums ever made. You should too.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Debunking Jefferson's War Against Islam And The Barbary Pirates

Yet another Facebook rant is making its way across my newsfeed. This one offers a distorted account of President Jefferson and the Barbary Wars turning Jefferson's breaking of a high seas protection racket into a post Colonial-era crusade against Muslims. There are various different versions of the text, but here's the one I've seen most often:

A 232 Year History of our fight against Islam & why it is no longer taught in our public schools... 

When Thomas Jefferson saw there was no negotiating with Muslims, he formed what is now the Marines (sea going soldiers). These Marines were attached to U. S. Merchant vessels. When the Muslims attacked U.S. merchant vessels they were repulsed by armed soldiers, but there is more.

The Marines followed the Muslims back to their villages and killed every man, woman, and child in the village. It didn't take long for the Muslims to leave U.S. Merchant vessels alone. English and French merchant vessels started running up our flag when entering the Mediterranean to secure safe travel.

Why the Marine Hymn contains the verse, "To the Shores of Tripoli ".

This is very interesting and a must read piece of our history. It points out where we may be heading.

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that over two hundred years ago the United States had declared war on Islam, and Thomas Jefferson led the charge!
At the height of the 18th century, Muslim pirates (the "Barbary Pirates") were the terror of the Mediterranean and a large area of the North Atlantic. They attacked every ship in sight, and held the crews for exorbitant ransoms. Those taken hostage were subjected to barbaric treatment and wrote heart-breaking letters home, begging their governments and families to pay whatever their Mohammedan captors demanded. These extortionists of the high seas represented the North African Islamic nations of Tripoli, Tunis , Morocco , and Algiers - collectively referred to as the Barbary Coast - and presented a dangerous and unprovoked threat to the new American Republic .

Before the Revolutionary War, U.S. merchant ships had been under the protection of Great Britain . When the U.S. declared its independence and entered into war, the ships of the United States were protected by France. However, once the war was won, America had to protect its own fleets. Thus, the birth of the U.S. Navy. Beginning in 1784, 17 years before he would become president, Thomas Jefferson became America's Minister to France. That same year, the U.S. Congress sought to appease its Muslim adversaries by following in the footsteps of European nations who paid bribes to the Barbary States rather than engaging them in war.

In July of 1785, Algerian pirates captured American ships, and the Dye of Algiers demanded an unheard-of ransom of $60,000. It was a plain and simple case of extortion, and Thomas Jefferson was vehemently opposed to any further payments. Instead, he proposed to Congress the formation of a coalition of allied nations who together could force the Islamic states into peace. A disinterested Congress decided to pay the ransom.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Tripoli's ambassador to Great Britain to ask by what right his nation attacked American ships and enslaved American citizens, and why Muslims held so much hostility towards America, a nation with which they had no previous contacts. The two future presidents reported that Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja had answered that Islam "was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Quran that all nations who would not acknowledge their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." Despite this stunning admission of premeditated violence on non-Muslim nations, as well as the objections of many notable American leaders, including George Washington, who warned that caving in was both wrong and would only further embolden the enemy, for the following fifteen years, the American government paid the Muslims millions of dollars for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages.

The payments in ransom and tribute amounted to over 20 percent of the United States government annual revenues in 1800. Jefferson was disgusted. Shortly after his being sworn in as the third President of the United States in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli sent him a note demanding the immediate payment of $225,000 plus $25,000 a year for every year forthcoming. That changed everything.

Jefferson let the Pasha know, in no uncertain terms, what he could do with his demand. The Pasha responded by cutting down the flagpole at the American consulate and declared war on the United States. Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers immediately followed suit. Jefferson, until now, had been against America raising a naval force for anything beyond coastal defense, but, having watched his nation be cowed by Islamic thuggery for long enough, decided that it was finally time to meet force with force.
He dispatched a squadron of frigates to the Mediterranean and taught the Muslim nations of the Barbary Coast a lesson he hoped they would never forget. Congress authorized Jefferson to empower U.S. ships to seize all vessels and goods of the Pasha of Tripoli and to "cause to be done all other acts of precaution or hostility as the state of war would justify".

When Algiers and Tunis, who were both accustomed to American cowardice and acquiescence, saw the newly independent United States had both the will and the right to strike back, they quickly abandoned their allegiance to Tripoli. The war with Tripoli lasted for four more years, and raged up again in 1815. The bravery of the U.S. Marine Corps in these wars led to the line "to the shores of Tripoli" in the Marine Hymn, and they would forever be known as "leathernecks" for the leather collars of their uniforms, designed to prevent their heads from being cut off by the Muslim scimitars when boarding enemy ships.

Islam, and what its Barbary followers justified doing in the name of their prophet and their god, disturbed Jefferson quite deeply. America had a tradition of religious tolerance. In fact Jefferson, himself, had co-authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but fundamentalist Islam was like no other religion the world had ever seen. A religion based on supremacy, whose holy book not only condoned but mandated violence against unbelievers, was unacceptable to him.

His greatest fear was that someday this brand of Islam would return and pose an even greater threat to the United States .

This should concern every American. That Muslims have brought about women-only classes and swimming times in America at taxpayer-funded universities and public pools; that Christians, Jews, and Hindus have been banned from serving on juries where Muslim defendants are being judged; Piggy banks and Porky Pig tissue dispensers have been banned from workplaces because they offend Islamist sensibilities; ice cream has been discontinued at certain Burger King locations because the picture on the wrapper looks similar to the Arabic script for Allah; public schools are pulling pork from their menus; on and on and on and on..

It's death by a thousand cuts, or inch-by-inch as some refer to it, and most Americans have no idea that this battle is being waged every day across America. By not fighting back, by allowing groups to obfuscate what is really happening, and not insisting that the Islamists adapt to our culture, the United States is cutting its own throat with a politically correct knife, and helping to further the Islamists' agenda.

Sadly, it appears that today America's leaders would rather be politically correct than victorious!

IF YOU DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST, YOU ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT.

The amount of historical inaccuracies and flat-out lies contained within this missive is appalling. Right out of the gate, the author tosses out a falsehood:  The Marines were not founded by Thomas Jefferson. The Marines were founded on November 10, 1775 by Captain Samuel Nicholas under the Second Continental Congress. They were disbanded after the Revolutionary War. They were then re-formed in 1798 in response to the Quasi-War with France. The French were outraged that the United States refused to continue paying its war debts owed to the country after the Revolutionary War. The United States argued that those debts were owed to a previous French government which no longer existed after the French Revolution. The French responded by attacking American shipping. The United States could do little to oppose France, as the Navy had been disbanded after the Revolutionary War. The French could not be negotiated with, so Congress authorized the re-formation of both the Navy and the Marine Corps. This was under President John Adams.

The "Barbary Pirates" refers to corsairs and privateers from the North African countries of Tripoli, Algiers and and Tunis (which were provinces of the Ottoman Empire) along with the independent Sultanate of Morocco. The four countries controlled a large portion of the Mediterranean and had been attacking merchant vessels as a sort-of "protection racket" since the 16th Century.  Indeed, as the rant says, American shipping was protected in the pre-Revolutionary War years due to the fact that American ships were effectively British ships. During the Revolutionary War, American shipping was protected by France via the Treaty of Alliance. The protections offered in that treaty expired in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris and the recognition of the United States as its own country.

No longer under protection from any larger European power,  American vessels were ripe for the plundering from Barbary Pirates. In fact, both England and France encouraged the Barbary States to attack American shipping, as it was cutting into both British and French trade. After Moroccan pirates seized an American brigantine vessel named Betsey in 1784,  the Spanish government stepped in to help negotiate the freedom of the captured ship and crew. Spain then advised the United States to offer tribute in order to prevent further attacks against merchant ships. To that end, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as the U.S. Minister to France, sent diplomatic envoys to Morocco and Algeria to try to purchase treaties and the freedom of the captured sailors held by Algeria. Morocco signed a treaty with the U.S., on 23 June 1786 formally ending all Moroccan piracy against American shipping interests. This debunks the rant's assertion that Jefferson saw that there was "no negotiating with Muslims".

Indeed, negotiations with the three remaining Barbary states did not go as smoothly. The nations wanted more money than U.S. envoys were authorized to spend. No agreement was reached, and American ships were at risk. In 1795, an agreement was reached with Algeris to release the 115 American sailors they had held for a decade for $1 million, which was 20% of the U.S. budget at the time. And they wanted a yearly tribute to be paid to them in order to ensure "protection" within their waters. Negotiations in London between Jefferson and Adams and Tripoli's envoy in 1786 did indeed produce the quote about Islam authorizing its followers to attack non-Muslims because they were regarded as sinners. It was regarded more as a justification than an overall reasoning. Again, the reason for the Barbary attacks was to squeeze "protection" money out of countries too weak to challenge them.

Adams and Jefferson agreed that, since the United States had no navy with which to challenge the Barbary Pirates, tribute would have to be paid. This eventually led to the Treaty of Tripoli being signed in 1796 (again debunking the "no negotiations with Muslims" claim). Although Jefferson bristled at having to pay tribute, the argument between the political factions in the United States centered more on whether or not the U. S. should be operating in the Eastern Atlantic to begin with. Many argued that the country should be concentrating on westward expansion rather than international trade. It was Jefferson rather than Washington who was the one who warned that paying tribute would set a bad precedent and would only embolden the Barbary Pirates. Washington had sought a diplomatic end to the Barbary issues while President and had often advocated for keeping the United States out of the affairs of the "Old World" to begin with.

Tensions were rising again with the Barbary States in 1800 and just before Jefferson assumed the office of President, Congress passed a naval registration act, purchasing new ships and allowing for attacks against pirates in Mediterranean in the event of a declaration of war from the Barbary States. When Jefferson took office in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded a payment of $225,000. Jefferson refused and Tripoli declared war on the United States. None of the other Barbary States followed suit. While at war with Tripoli, the United States along with Sweden imposed a blockade of Tripoli. Hostilities raged on for four years, culminating in the Battle of Derna in which Lieutenant Eaton led a force of Marines along with Greek and Arab mercenaries to capture Derna. And, while American forces did march 600 miles through the desert, they did not go from village to village killing all the men, women and children. It should also be noted that the 200-300 Arab mercenaries in Eaton's force were Muslim, which would again debunk the rant's claim that the Barbary Wars were some kind of crusade against Islam. Also worth noting here is that, at no time did English or French vessels run up American colors on their ships. They didn't have to. Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, was allied with England and the Barbary States relied on free trade with France for supplies.

The capture of Derna gave the United States enough leverage to negotiate an end to the conflict. The resulting treaty still required that the United States pay Tripoli $60,000 for the release of American prisoners, though it was called a "ransom" rather than a "tribute". Jefferson's fear wasn't that Islam as a religion would pose a future threat, rather, he was concerned that rolling over and paying tribute to any country would weaken the United States as a player on the world stage. This is why the United States fought the Quasi-War against France and the First Barbary War against Tripoli.

The rant then goes off into a crazed railing against Muslim encroachment into American culture by citing a number of incidents that may or may not be true.  And even if they are, connecting them to the First Barbary war is impossible to do without an Olympic season's worth of mental gymnastics. The one thing the rant does get right is the saying that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. But, it follows that, in order to remember history, one must study it properly in the first place, something that the knuckle-dragging author of the rant clearly failed to do.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Your Fear Over The Internet Privacy Roll Backs Is Unfounded

I see a lot of people on my Facebook feed decrying Trump's recent rollback of an Obama-era law that placed restrictions on ISPs selling your aggregate browsing data. People are up in arms and are declaring that they are going to start surfing via VPN (usually without knowing what VPN is). The more bold folks on my feed are trying to pool money together in order to buy and publish the browsing histories of their Senators and Representatives. Trouble is, these people have no understanding of what the old law did or what the new law (that rolls back the old law) does.

At issue here is the ability for ISPs to use your browsing data to send you targeted ads. This is something Facebook and Google already do to you, which is why you often see ads on Facebook and in Google for things you have searched for on Amazon or other shopping sites. ISPs take this one step further by selling your browsing data (top level domains only, they don't sell the actual pages you look at on a site) in an anonymous form bundled with thousands of other users' browsing data from similar demographics. Then, a company can essentially ask an ISP to target ads for their product to people who have visited certain domains who fit certain demographic characteristics. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC issued a rule (not a law) that would have required ISPs to get their customers' permission in order to do this. The FCC gained the ability to enforce this rule due to their re-classification of ISPs as common carriers under Net Neutrality.

That law that Congress passed and Trump signed effectively blocked the FCC rule. And here's the real kicker: The FCC rule hadn't even gone into effect yet. This means that nothing regarding the way you use the Internet is changing. There's no reason to be up in arms over this if you hadn't been before the FCC issued the rule. Your ISP will still be selling aggregate data, which they have already been doing for quite some time. There are still laws in place that prevent your own personal information to be tied to your aggregate browsing information. This means that nobody can go to an ISP and purchase someone's browsing history. The best you could do is purchase anonymous aggregate browsing data in bulk that fits certain criteria. So, if you wanted your Senator's browsing data, the best you could do would be to find out his zip code and purchase the aggregate data pertaining to people who live in the same area. And even if you could do that, publishing that data online would be illegal as it would probably be considered proprietary information owned by the ISP that collected and indexed it.

That's not to say that the blocking of the FCC law isn't concerning. It is. Data targeting is huge and advertisers are pumping tons of money into it. That may not seem like a bad thing on the surface. If you're going to see an ad, I'd wager that you'd rather see one that is relevant to you rather than something completely out of left field. Yet, the unexpected side-effect of this data targeting stems from the money that is generated by it. Content is monetized by it and so content providers are increasingly desperate to earn that ad revenue by getting you to visit their site  so that they can get paid for showing you targeted ads. This has led to a saturation of click-bait titles and outright fake stories generated by content providers in order to grab your attention, get you to visit their site, and get paid for showing you some targeted ads. Rather than using the Internet as a repository of information, we're using it as a repository of infotainment. The Internet has become the TV equivalent of "Fox & Friends" or "Inside Edition". Giving customers the ability to opt out of having their data sold like this could have started to push back against the constant din of websites crying out for attention in tabloid headline fashion.

The irony here is that everyone is up-in-arms over the new law, but are upset for a completely made up reason, one that they likely got wind of via a click-bait article with targeted ads embedded within it.