Explaining Facebook to the teenager

The 17 y.o. came to me this morning full of outrage about something one of my friends had posted on Facebook.

Here’s what I told her: That outrage you’re feeling? That’s what Facebook is designed to produce.

What my friend posted was just her venting. People do that, among friends, after bad experiences. They make outrageous generalizations and say things that aren’t literally true, because they’ve been hurt or they’re frustrated and they just need to blow off some steam. An understanding friend knows how to listen to that and take it for what it really is.

But Facebook exposes that venting to the world, or at least to a wider circle, where it becomes subject to analysis, interpretation, criticism, debate.

Facebook wants to keep you on the site. The more emotionally engaged you are, the more ads they can show you. So it’s designed to make you engaged and keep you that way.

Anger and outrage are among the easiest “engaging” emotions to provoke. All Facebook has to do is show you some emotionally charged content (that may have been someone venting) and encourage you to respond to it.

So if you are easily outraged (as the 17 y.o. is) and you want to make Mark Zuckerberg even richer than he already is, by all means, spend more time on Facebook. You’ll spend a lot more time being angry and upset, though.

Explaining Facebook to the teenager

Occult America (book notes)

image of Occult America book coverI was under the weather the entire first week of July, so I spent July 4 in bed, reading this book by Mitch Horowitz. Published in 2009, Occult America is an entertaining survey of a variety of “occult” religious trends that blossomed over three centuries of American history.

Horowitz starts his account with the arrival of the Shakers, a somewhat controversial choice since the Shakers weren’t especially “occult,” even by Horowitz’s very broad definition: A belief in a mysterious, hidden world that controls what happens in the visible world, and which can be used to understand or control the visible world in ways that aren’t accessible to most of us. But it’s a good point to start the discussion of enthusiastic, sometimes radical outbreaks of charismatic, contagious spiritualism.

In subsequent chapters, Horowitz covers 18th-century spiritualism and Freemasonry; 19th-century Theosophy and Mormonism; the self-reliant spiritualism of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey; African-American hoodoo; Wicca, Ouija boards, tarot, and mail-order spiritual supply houses; Manly P. Hall; and the rise of the New Age.

Occult America makes a persuasive argument that many of these movements were closely linked with women’s suffrage, abolitionists, and other progressive causes, and that as a result they had a substantial impact on the development of this country’s values, politics, and government. The fact that many of these movement were founded by women and/or included many women in leadership positions is no coincidence. (Side note: A research paper by Mary Bednarowski (.pdf), from the 1990s, found some interesting parallels between various outside-the-mainstream groups’ theologies and the leadership role of women.)

Some tidbits of interest:

The “Shaker formulation”: “Keep hands to work even as hearts soar to God”

Madame Helena Blavatsky and her companion Colonel Henry Steel Olcott were not just the founders of Theosophy, but also played a huge role in defending Hindu and Buddhist practices from colonialism, in India as well as in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Blavatsky: “The Theosophical Society means, if it cannot rescue Christians from modern Christianity, at least to aid in saving the ‘heathen’ from its influence.” [p. 47]

Poet James Merrill’s book The Changing Light at Sandover was composed in part with a Ouija board, which Merrill and his partner were so obsessed with that Truman Capote referred to their house as “Creepyville.” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath also experimented with Ouija-based poetry composition, less successfully it appears. Merrill, on the reality of spirit communication:

“If it’s still yourself that you’re drawing upon,” he said, “then that self is much stranger and freer and more far-seeking than the one you thought you knew.” And at another point: “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!” [p. 79]

Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery was aided in part by a mysterious man he met in the woods, “Sandy,” who gave him a root (called “John the Conqueror” or “John de Conker”) that, he said, would make him impossible to beat in hand to hand combat. The next day, Douglass resisted the slavemaster and fought him to a standoff. The incident gave Douglass a sense of inner confidence and power: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” [pp. 120-121]

“Man has been an alchemist from the time when first he raised himself,” [Manly] Hall wrote. “… Experiences are the chemicals of life with which the philosopher experiments.” [p. 152]

The word “science” was used by New Thought advocates and mentalists like Phineas T. Quimby, as well as Marcus Garvey, to connote magical practices. But it also indicated that certain practices were deterministic, and could be used to better oneself: “Get you[reself], as the white man has done, a scientific understanding of God and religion,” Garvey told a Jamaican audience in 1928. [p. 135-136]

Occult America (book notes)

Marathon swimming

According to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, the minimum distance to qualify a swim as a “marathon swim” is 10 kilometers. By that definition, I guess I’m now a marathon swimmer.

nautical chart showing the course from Capitola to Santa Cruz
Course map for the Santa Cruz Pier-to-Pier swim, from the MBSA

Yesterday I joined about 20 others in a 10km (6.2 mile) swim from the Capitola pier to the Santa Cruz pier, by way of a rather arbitrary point about 2 miles due south from Capitola. The swim was hosted by the Monterey Bay Swimming Association. I got up early in the morning to meet Naji, my kayaker, at the train station at 4:45am, then we drove down to Santa Cruz, arriving about 6am. By 6:30 or so, swimmers were starting to gather as the sun rose.

Excerpt of a safety waiver for the pier-to-pier swim from MBSA
The safety waiver warns about “high, gale force winds; dense fog; great and swift seas,” and many other dangers.

Once we had all checked in and signed away our rights in one of the most terrifying safety waivers I’ve ever seen, we piled onto a party bus that drove us east along the winding coastal streets and roads until we reached Capitola. We got out, smeared on sunscreen, and generally got ready to go as the organizer, Scott Tapley, explained to us what would happen.

After a bit of prep our kayakers launched themselves into the water just to the right of the Capitola pier, than paddled around to the end of the pier and waited for us there. We swimmers assembled to the left of the pier and waited for the all-clear. At about 8:45am, Scott gave us the signal to go, and the group of us strolled down to the water. (None of the running and sharp elbows you might find in a bigger crowd of swimmers.) A few moments later, we were in the water, swimming out.

The course took us straight out to sea, due south from the beach, along the pier and then beyond it. Naji and I quickly found each other near the end of the pier and off we went, continuing south into the Monterey Bay.

photo of a translucent moon jelly against a black background
Moon jelly photo from Flickr user Kris-Mikael Krister

As we set off on our adventure, the water was smooth, the morning sunny, and the air still. The water, at a comfortable 60 degrees F (about 15 C) maintained its same shade of jade green but became much clearer as I swam beyond the surf break and the end of the pier: I couldn’t see anything below me, but as I looked at my arm in the water, I could see it clear and sharp. At one point I saw a luminous, translucent white moon jelly, about the size of my head or maybe a little smaller, floating alone a foot or two below me. Another time, I stopped briefly to watch a flock of geese or cormorants flying past, heading south parallel to our path, with the sunlit coastline leading up to Pleasure Point in the background. This sunlit outbound leg of the swim was my second-favorite part of the day.

Kelp was the biggest potential obstacle throughout this swim, with huge beds of thick bull kelp just offshore through much of the coast. It’s a wonderful thing, kelp, and the return of kelp (thanks to the return of sea otters, who eat the sea urchins that once decimated Monterey’s teeming kelp forests) has been one of the great environmental success stories of the past four or five decades. Kelp forests are richly diverse ecosystems and have helped bring about an explosion of new marine life in the Monterey Bay. But kelp is a pain to swim through and it can be terrifying to dive through, as its swaying tentacles seem designed to entangle the flailing limbs of the hapless human swimmer.

Naji did a good job of steering me around the biggest kelp beds, so it wasn’t much of a problem in the end. But occasionally I did have to swim through, and over, a few swaying columns of bull kelp. Their leaves were yellow-green, and many of them bleached or spotted with lighter patches, a sign of sickness or old age maybe. They were a little scratchy but not a big problem, though once I had a nice long loop of free-floating kelp “tubing” looped around my right arm for a few strokes.

After heading due south for about an hour and fifteen minutes (roughly two miles), we reached the turn point. The lead sailboat, “Nomad,” had dropped a big, yellow, inflatable tetrahedral buoy at this point, leaving it anchored to the floor of the ocean thirty or forty feet below. I swam to it, came around it, and then Naji put us on our new course: west-northwest, toward the Santa Cruz wharf, which I still couldn’t see.

a packet of Hammer Perpetuem
So extreme, this fuel is called HAMMER

On a swim like this, you feed every half hour or so. Naji would call me over every thirty minutes by waving a sports bottle at me, then he’d toss it to me on a line and I’d drink while floating there. When I was done he could reel the bottle back in on the line, and sometimes I used that time to backstroke gently and pee. (Also essential on a long swim!) I used two kinds of endurance fuels made by a company called Hammer Nutrition: Sustained Energy, which has a sort of sweetish, slightly milky non-taste, and Perpetuem, which is sweetish, more milky, and sort of orange vanilla tasting. Both are powders I mixed with lots of water before the start of the swim, and I tried to drink half a bottle (12 ounces of water and half a packet of powder) at each feeding. Even for liquid food, it’s hard to consume that much while floating on your back or treading water, with a mouth full of saltwater taste, breathing hard from your exertion, and knowing that you’re going to go right back to exerting yourself pretty hard. So I have a lot more respect now for the skills of channel swimmers who have to work out how to feed regularly, and fast, on their long crossings. Anyway, they’re not delicious, but these feeds are essential, and yesterday they worked as advertised, giving me a pretty continuous feeling of energy and power throughout the day.

Shortly after that turn, I realized I could no longer see the coastline to my right. Fog had come up, and while it was a light mist, it reduced visibility to maybe a quarter mile to half a mile, and filmed the sun with a greyish hue. Naji couldn’t see the next waypoint, but he could follow the kayakers and swimmers ahead of us, so he kept us on course by following them. I think we may have swum for an hour or so during which I couldn’t see land or anything else except the occasional fishing boat, and in one case a fairly large group of recreational fishing boats off to our left.

Meanwhile the sun got fainter, the air cooler, a slight breeze picked up, and the water got a little lumpier. On the outbound leg we’d had nice, soft rollers at most; here the waves were coming at me from my left front quarter and they were a little choppier. I took a fair amount of water up my nose and in my mouth, even choking a bit once. Naji asked me if I was okay, or if I felt like quitting, and he says that when I snapped back at him, “I’m not quitting!” he knew I was all right. He also claims that was the only time I seemed irritated at all, so maybe I’m just good at hiding things. The entire middle stretch, maybe two hours long, felt rough, difficult, and slow.

One thing made this leg easier, and that was the presence of another swimmer, Jennifer from Santa Cruz, who I’d met on the beach before. It turned out we were almost exactly the same pace, and once our kayakers figured this out, they let us swim side by side, with the two kayaks on either side of both of us. For an hour or more Jennifer and I swam three to twenty feet apart, always in sight of each other. This helped keep me going, because I saw how strong she was swimming and I figured I wasn’t about to slow down if she wasn’t. And she told me on the beach afterward that I’d had the same effect on her. So without exchanging a word we were communicating and urging one another on, which was pretty powerful.

Eventually we came within sight of the Santa Cruz pier and the big hotel behind it, so I could sight on that — and after awhile, the big yellow tetrahedron that had been placed off the end of the pier was also visible, so I could aim for that. It took me awhile to realize that the long horizontal black mark just below the hills was the pier, though.

The Santa Cruz pier is huge, about half a mile long, and here’s the thing about huge things: You can see them from a long way off. And then, as you approach them, they can seem exactly the same distance away for a very long time. Eventually, even when you get close enough to see individual pilings and to realize that yes, it is a pier and not some long horizontal band of black rock, even then it can take a long time to get to the end of the damn thing and to the point where you can start swimming in to shore along it.

Fortunately, after about six years, that moment came. And then, there we were, swimming up the pier from the end, careful to stay far enough at that we didn’t irritate any of the sea lions we could hear barking under the pier. Naji had to peel off to go land the kayak some distance away, where the surf was lower, so I swam this last half mile — roughly 20 minutes — mostly alone, though there were two other kayakers keeping an eye out for me a bit.

Swimming along a pier is something I enjoy immensely, and that’s what made this my favorite part of the swim. It is easy to see that you’re making progress, because you can mark the distance between each breath (or even each stroke) by watching the pilings go by. And in this case, the Santa Cruz boardwalk was visible behind the pier, a series of square, pastel-hued postcards framed by the massive dark-brown and black bulk of the pilings and the green of the water below. It was like watching a slide show go by, making it one of my favorite kinds of swimming: One in which you are making palpable and visible progress, and you get to watch a show as you go.

Eventually I was swimming into the surf, then stumbling a bit and finally walking up out of the water. There was a small crew of waiting MBSA volunteers holding towels and cheering for me, and one of them drew a line in the dry part of the sand and told me I had to cross it. I hopped over it with both feet, she wrapped me in a white towel, and my swim was over.

View of the point to the west of the Santa Cruz municipal wharf, with a full moon in the sky
The view from the wharf at the beginning of the day: Sunrise behind me, full moon setting in front of me. I wouldn’t see this again until about 1pm.

Postscript

My time was nothing to brag about, but I will brag about it anyway. I came in after 4 hours, 27 minutes, and 17 seconds — about 43 minutes per mile according to the official course. (This is very slow compared to the speedy marathon swimmers, who can do two or even three miles per hour.) The organizer, Scott, told me that the fog and northwest breeze pushed a lot of people off course, so most swimmers did between 6.5 and 7 miles, instead of the official 6.2. That means we had both a longer course and were fighting current and/or wind much of the way, which explains — to my satisfaction anyway — why I swam consistently hard but still came in slower than I expected. The fastest on the course were much faster, and there were a few who endured the swim for much longer than I did, but all the same, I did my best and I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’m glad I did it.

I drank two and a half 24-ounce bottles of the Hammer fuels/water mixes, leaving 1.5 bottle un-drunk. Maybe I should have drunk a bit more. I’m not sure which fuel worked better for me but the Perpetuem seemed easier to drink — at least it had a taste. I used SolRx sunscreen, and on top of that I put a layer of extra-strength Desitin (zinc oxide) on my face and arms, and didn’t get too burned. Afterwards I warmed up with a thermos of tea, some cookies, and a banana, and then proceeded to eat a leftover bagel, a 7-11 hot dog, an ice cream sundae, and pretty much anything else that came into my field of vision and sat still long enough.

As I seem to do after long swims, I felt immensely happy and giddy — “fizzy” I would say — for most of the day. Eventually that faded, as the evening wore on, into a sort of mellow, relaxed, almost high feeling.My throat felt scratchy and swollen most of the afternoon, because of the saltwater that had been forced into my face for hours. Today I’m sleepy, a little sore, and weak as a kitten, but none the worse for wear.

One final note: There is a myth that distance swimming is a solo sport. Yet I don’t know anyone who does epic marathon swims all by themselves. (Well, I know two guys who are epic marathoners and regularly do 10K or 12K training swims in the Bay by themselves, but apart from them nobody does this solo.) For most of us, maybe all of us, swims like this are impossible without a huge amount of support: Swim organizers, boat captains, kayakers accompanying us and feeding us, and our families making time and making allowances so we can sink hours of every week into our training. I felt all of that support yesterday.

As I swam, I was physically supported by the water buoying me up, and spiritually supported by the love of all the people helping me swim and keeping me safe. That, perhaps, is the most powerful thing I took from the swim. There is support all around, and for that, I’m immensely grateful.

Marathon swimming

Back in the water.

photo by Fran Hegeler

It’s Spring, since yesterday, and I’m swimming again. The familiar soreness of the arm and shoulder muscles, the cup of the middle ear sometimes retaining water until midmorning, the occasional feelings of wavelike or boatlike “floating” when I’m at my desk, working, hours after emerging from the water — all remind me that I’m back at it.

I’ve been back in the water for about two weeks now. I’m not yet committing to a serious training plan, not fully, but I have a couple of ambitious long swims in mind. My “pre-training” plan is to spend four or five weeks getting used to the water again, and building up to a decent base of weekly training miles, before making a decision about whether to carry out a more serious plan. For me, that base is about 7 miles and 5.5 hours a week of swimming. Because my mileage often includes open-water swims that are assisted by (or hampered by) tidal currents, the time is more significant than the mileage. But in general, with a mix of pool workouts and Bay swims, that’s the near-term, pre-training goal. It breaks down roughly like this:

Monday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool

Tuesday – 1 mile, 0.75 hour in the Bay

Wednesday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool

Thursday or Friday – 1.5 miles, 1 hour in the Bay

Saturday or Sunday – a longer swim in the bay, 1.5 or more miles and over an hour

That feels to me like the minimum I need to begin considering a long swim. A serious training plan would add mileage, intensity, and distance to this base, with longer pool workouts, a pool workout replacing one of the more relaxed weekday Bay swims, and progressively longer distance swims on the weekend, eventually building up to several hours at a time in cold water and waves.

The rule of thumb for long-distance swims seems to be this: Train for about as many miles per week as the swim you plan on doing. So for a 12-mile swim, like a Tahoe crossing, 12 miles a week. For a 22.5-mile English Channel crossing, 22.5 miles a week.

If you do the math, you realize that channel swimmers are putting in an enormous amount of time in the water before they ever start their crossings. Just finding a way to fit all that training into a busy week is a challenge. This is why the decision to plan for a long swim isn’t mine alone: I have to make it together with KJ, and the kids. If I do embark on a longer swim, the training means I’ll be waking up earlier, going to bed earlier, missing large parts of the weekend, and being tired and distracted more than usual. It’s not a decision I can make on my own. It’s not something I can undertake lightly.

In the meantime, however, I’m simply blissed to be back in the water. Swimming nearly every day brings me joy and settles my brain. It makes me feel — to use a word that seems out of place when talking about an activity that involves floating in water — grounded.

Back in the water.

A few thoughts on ModPo

I was reluctant at first: A friend had taken the ModPo poetry course — twice — and she’s now pursuing an MFA at Columbia, living in a 4th-floor walkup while her wife remains here in San Francisco. I don’t need that kind of hassle in my life.

Eventually the draw became irresistible, thanks to my friend’s recommendations and my own growing shame at the many gaps in my knowledge of 20th century poetry. Plus, the course is online, accessible on a smartphone, and free. So last fall, I spent 10 weeks taking the course.

The format of the course is perfectly suited to what it is: A poetry appreciation class. There are not really any lectures. You read poems. You listen to recordings. You watch videos of poets performing. But you spend most of your time watching videos where the professor, Al Filreis, leads discussions with small groups of U. Penn undergrads.

You can do this on your phone while commuting to your day job. The Coursera app has lots of problems but the bugs don’t usually stop you from enjoying the course content.

Most of the course videos were recorded several years ago but many of the students are still involved in the course as TAs, helping out in discussion forums and the occasional live webcast.

It’s fun to watch the discussions and get to know the personalities as the weeks go on. Sometimes you get distracted by imagining back stories for these people who you only know through their appearance in the class sessions. (Just like a real life poetry class I suppose.)

The online discussion forums are lively. Somehow Prof. Al manages to stay on top of it all and makes the occasional comment on something you wrote, which makes you feel warm and special and singled out, as if a rock star had signed your t-shirt.

Sometimes one of the TAs will notice something you said, which makes you feel like a member of the rock star’s backup band had signed your t-shirt. Also awesome!

Eventually, no matter what the topic, the forum discussions seem to evolve into people sharing their own poems. That is the point at which I tuned out.


Al Filreis may be the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the formal aspects of modern poetry. He’s engaging and entertaining and a bit dorky and funny. He knows more about 20th century poetry than almost anyone I know in real life.

But what I really valued from the course was not Al’s comments so much as the sense of wonder at watching poems unfold over the course of a close reading in a group, like tea flowers in hot water. There’s something remarkable that happens to many of these poems during a group reading.

In the same way that I have found memory to be deeply social, this course showed me that reading poetry is, too.


The course speeds breakneck through the late 19th and 20th century and on into the first decades of the 21st, and in so doing imposes more of a narrative arc than I think the history can actually support.

That arc, summarized: Poetry advances through innovation in form. The most interesting poets are those who bend forms or break new ground, formally speaking, in order to more accurately express the fragmentation and confusion of life as it is lived.

Thus the history of poetry, per ModPo, is an endless forward march: From formal and understandable to radical, free, and seemingly incoherent.

The arc is free of all but the most glancing references to political or social contexts that shape the meanings of these poems or the lives of the poets who wrote them.


Two modes of reading: appreciative and critical. The scholar’s mode and the editor’s. The classroom and the workshop.

Overwhelmingly the only mode used in ModPo is the former.

Troubling to me: Almost the only time a critical mode of reading emerged was during the discussion of Harlem Renaissance poets and of Communist poets of the 1930s. This was one of the few if only times that anyone asked: Does this poem succeed? Does its form match the content it’s trying to express?

This was also the only time I recall seeing an African-American student in the videotaped discussions.


Critical reading: I keep wanting to ask: What makes this poem so special?

Or to put it another way: Why did an editor or publisher choose this poem above all others? What if the poem had not been so chosen? Would we still be admiring it and looking for evidence of formal invention and assonance and allusion and more?

What if it was simply a Facebook update from a friend instead of a published poem from a respected poet?

What if it bore the name of John Q. Public or Anonymous instead of a respected poet?

What if it was the guy next to you on BART babbling his every thought instead of Ron Silliman writing down his every thought during a BART ride?

This is particularly apparent in the works of some Language poets and some conceptualists.

What if it was written on notebook paper and discarded on the street? If you picked that scrap up, would the genius shine through? Or does your appreciation of the poem to a certain extent depend on knowing who wrote it, what journal published it, whether it appeared in a book, and so forth?

Obviously the latter.

Given that this is the case, it is a shortcoming of the course that more attention is not given to the social and political circumstances of these poems, of those who wrote them, and of the editors who first published them.


Journalists and newspapers are regularly used as foils — as if the opposite of a poet was a journalist. As someone who often wrote and edited news stories, I understand the impulse. Like John Ashbery, I too have sat in my office, working on a boring manual, daydreaming of Guadalajara. But I think it stems from a naive understanding of both forms. Journalists, the best of them, in fact are much savvier about the form of their writing than this opposition would suggest. No newspaper editor would subscribe to the direct, purely representationalist view of language that Filreis seems to attribute to them. Most editors and reporters seek artfulness too, as well as honesty, if not a naive sort of truthiness.


Do we really want to address the modern era’s blurring and confusion of language by crafting poetry that is also blurry and confused? Now that public discourse is getting even more incoherent and multivalent, do we really want our poetry to do the same? ModPo seems to suggest we do. I am not so sure. Personally I would appreciate a return to someone like Oppen, or the Imagists, who sought a more crystalline, precise use of language.

Or maybe we want to think about the ways language could be used magically, in an incantatory way, like Jack Spicer.


Overlooked: The slam and spoken-word poetry movement of the past two decades. The poetry being written by rappers (arguably one of the most vibrant genres of writing today). The poetry of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Neko Case for that matter.

Also missing: Berryman. Bishop. Lowell. Moore. Plath. Hughes. A whole long list of midcentury giants that don’t fit into the arc of ever-advancing formal innovation but are nevertheless geniuses of modern poetry.

Most of the tenth week (on contemporary conceptualists, flarf poets, and other bullshit) pissed me off and left me cold but I admit a grudging admiration for Christian Bök’s virtuosity in “Eunoia.”


Not to let this override my gratitude to ModPo for showing me how deeply a close, group reading can change my feelings for a poem.

Nor for showing me how great Gertrude Stein can be (and how radical her innovations — in many ways they make later poets look far less radical by comparison).

Hell, I have a new appreciation for Kerouac, and I never saw that coming. Not that I am likely to curl up of an evening with “October in Railroad Earth” — even though it turns out that where I live is exactly what Kerouac meant by “railroad earth” — but I understand his manic, incantatory style better, and even like it.

I also have a deeper appreciation for Ashbery and Williams (and I remain ridiculously, dorkily fond of “Danse Russe” — so sue me).

But the poems that shot through me like blades of light were Stein’s. And Emily Dickinson. Lorine Niedecker.  Gwendolyn Brooks (“Boy Breaking Glass”). Bob Kaufman. Lyn Hejinian. Charles Bernstein (“In a Restless World Like This Is.”) Susan Howe. Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments. Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings.” Laynie Browne’s sonnets.

I’m not sure where this leaves me but I have a stack of new books to read, and fresh lenses to read them with.

And since I used all my reading time for the past two months to take this course, I am looking forward to reading poetry books again.

So: back to the books.

A few thoughts on ModPo

How to Fake an Email From Almost Anyone in Under 5 Minutes

"Fraud" photo by Michele HubacekIn my day job as the communications guy for ValiMail, I spend a lot of time explaining how easy it is to create fraudulent emails using an email address that doesn’t belong to you.

A faked “from” address, in fact, how the majority of email attacks happen. And email attacks (aka phishing) are how the majority (actually the vast majority) of cyberattacks begin. So the ease of faking emails from people is a major vulnerability.

But, you ask, why would I bother faking an email from “company.com” when I could just register a fake lookalike domain (like c0mpany.com) and use that? Or create a Gmail account (randomaddress1347356@gmail.com) and give it a friendly name that looks like the CEO of a company?

Well, actually, it’s significantly easier to forge the address of a real person at a real company than it is to register a fake domain, or even to create a throwaway Gmail account.

Here’s how easy it is.

Website mailer

Find a website like deadfake, which describes itself as “a site that lets you send free fake emails to anyone you like.” Or anonymailer.net. Or spoofbox.com. There are dozens. Many of them are free, some cost a little money to send mail. Then:

  1. Enter your recipient’s email address in the To: field.
  2. Put whatever email address you want in the From: field.
  3. Craft your message and press the Send Now! Button.

Here’s a message I sent to myself using President Trump’s address. Note that Gmail is a suspicious of the source — that’s why it put a little red question mark next to the address.

Unix command line

If you have a computer that’s set up with mail services — or you can telnet or SSH to a computer that has mail services — you can forge a from address with one line. Just type this:

mail -aFrom:whatever@anydomain.com

That creates a message that says “whatever@anydomain.com” in the From field. Type in a subject line and the rest of your message, press Ctrl-D when you’re done, and off the message goes.

This doesn’t work in every version of Unix, and whether it works at all depends on how your system is set up (whether it’s connected to Sendmail, etc.). Still, this is the basic idea and it works in many systems.

PHP

Because I’m not very sophisticated about programming I use PHP when I need to code stuff for my personal websites. It’s fast, easy, and used by about 90% of the people (like me) who don’t know any more about programming than they were able to pick up through Google searches and by stealing snippets of code published on various public forums. (Which is also why PHP is often accused of being insecure.) Hey, I built a whole website content management system in PHP. If I can figure it out, how hard can it be?

Without getting into all the pros and cons of PHP, I will say that it is perfect for email purposes. You can forge emails with five lines of very simple PHP code:

<?php
$to      = 'nobody@example.com';
$subject = 'the subject';
$message = 'hello';
$headers = 'From: webmaster@example.com' . "\r\n";
mail($to, $subject, $message, $headers);
?>

Note: These are actual lines of code used as an example in the online manual for PHP’s mail() function. I took out a couple of lines you don’t actually need.

Again: configurations vary; maybe this won’t work on every version of PHP on every server.

Email Is a Very Trusting Place

The email world, until quite recently, was an entirely trusting place. Most of it still is. No matter who I am, if I use the Unix mail command or PHP mail(), the email goes off into the internet and the internet obligingly delivers it to whomever, with the exact headers that I specified. Nobody checks to see if I own the address I used in the from field. Nobody cares.

Well, almost nobody: As I noted above, Gmail and some other mail clients are starting to flag mail that looks suspicious, like my anonymailer message. Still, that’s dependent on the client you use and/or the receiving mail server.

Granted, these spoofing tools are pretty simplistic. If I want to do some fancier formatting and make my messages look even more realistic, it takes a little more work. But the basic forgery is just that simple.

The only thing truly stopping fake From addresses is email authentication using a standard called DMARC. But that only works if the domain you’re trying to fake has published a DMARC record and set it to an enforcement policy. Then, and only then, will almost all email servers that receive messages (Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc.) block the faked emails.

Fortunately for fraudsters, most of the Internet’s domains haven’t done this yet. For example, only about 4% of .gov domains have protected themselves.

As for other  96%? Fraudsters can forge emails from those domains all day long with no repercussions.

Domains like justice.gov. House.gov. Senate.gov. Whitehouse.gov.

And also domains like democrats.org, dnc.org, gop.com, rnc.org. And DonaldJTrump.com.

All of them can be easily faked by email scammers with access to a Unix command line or some rudimentary PHP skills. And, as we are learning, scammers have been taking advantage of that vulnerability. For instance, according to one source, one in four email messages from .gov domains are fraudulent.

And that’s why I am trying to get the message out: It’s way too easy to fake emails from most sources. We need to start authenticating our email, today.

How to Fake an Email From Almost Anyone in Under 5 Minutes

Why do we keep using Facebook?

To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.

John Lanchester’s long essay about Facebook in the London Review of Books has been getting shared a lot in my circles; Wired editor in chief Nicholas Thompson called it “the most intense, critical essay on Facebook that I’ve ever read.”

While it covers a lot of familiar ground (tl;dr: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”) Lanchester makes a couple of points that have been troubling me. One is the statement above, about Facebook use correlating negatively with happiness.

Lanchester cites a number of studies to support his point:

  • American Journal of Epidemiology: ‘Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study’
  • Computers in Human Behaviour: ‘Facebook Use, Envy and Depression among College Students: Is Facebooking Depressing?’
  • Current Opinion in Psychiatry: ‘The Interplay between Facebook Use, Social Comparison, Envy and Depression’
  • Plos One: ‘Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults’
  • Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking: ‘The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being’

But here’s the question: If Facebook makes people unhappy, and the more they use it the unhappier they are, why does usage continue to grow? Not only are more people using it, a higher proportion are checking Facebook at least once a day.

My experience correlates with this: The more I use Facebook, the unhappier I am. And yet I keep returning to it: That’s where my friends are. It’s where organizations I belong to post useful information (about my children’s school, for instance).

Using social media makes me feel more connected, albeit unhappier. In a fragmentary suburban environment, with few opportunities to form and maintain long-term friendships; as a parent, with no time for a social life; as a full-time salaried worker and commuter whose job demands constant attention — with all of these conditions social media is often the only social interaction I get outside my family and work life.

This is why, despite occasionally signing off Facebook and Twitter, despite removing their apps and trying different ways to limit my access, despite trying to be mindful about my use of social media and its effects on my mood, I always come back.

Facebook offers a terrible bargain: It gives you the connectedness you crave, but it’s unfulfilling and leaves you wanting more. It’s like drinking Coke, or eating McDonald’s, except you don’t even have to pay for it. No wonder we guzzle it down, when all the evidence, and even our own eyes and hearts, show us how bad it is for us.

Which brings me to the second point I can’t get away from: Lanchester’s comments about how Facebook is effectively “the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in human history.”

What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

I am looking for a way to use social media like Facebook that doesn’t make me feel like shit.

Amanda Scurti’s comic-essay on Twitter is a relevant read. She takes a hiatus but finds her way back to Twitter based on the creative communities she’s part of there, and the values they provide to her: Empathy, understanding, communication. She concludes that the secret is knowing when to disconnect, and using Twitter responsibly, particularly if you have a large following.

Scurti’s essay is thoughtful and hopeful but has an unsatisfying conclusion. For me, Twitter is somewhat less troubling than Facebook because Twitter is far less effective at surveillance, thanks largely to the ease with which people can create pseudonymous accounts. But I’ve found Twitter is just as mood-affecting as Facebook is, and I can’t say I’ve found the communities there to be particularly conducive to empathy and communication.

In short, I’m still looking for a way to share ideas, and stay connected with people I like, without feeling like shit.

In the meantime, I guess you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Source: John Lanchester reviews ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu, ‘Chaos Monkeys’ by Antonio García Martínez and ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin · LRB 17 August 2017

Why do we keep using Facebook?

The meaning of a solar eclipse

“What is the meaning of a solar eclipse? To the ancient Chinese, solar eclipses meant that dragons were devouring the sun. To the Czechoslovakians, they meant that ice giants, bitter enemies of the sun, were conquering it. To the Romans, they meant that the sun was poisoned and dying.

To the Jews, solar eclipses meant that the moon was passing between the sun and the earth, thereby blocking the sun’s light.”

Ask the Rabbi

The meaning of a solar eclipse