Sunday, April 22, 2018

Getting rid of the question mark in social media life

By now, we've all heard of the Facebook scandal in which Cambridge Analytica allegedly mined the social media accounts and profiles intent on influencing the 2016 election for the Republican party. As a result, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and public face, testified to Congress on the extent of what his company had permitted to happen by opening up their Facebook interface application to developers.

©1971 Walt Kelly
Although Zuckerberg has defended his company's actions and now claims to have placed barriers on many of the designs by which profiles were earmarked and data collected on them, the fact is we are our own worst enemies. To quote Walt Kelly's Pogo comical spin on Oliver Perry's terse report: "We have met the enemy and he is us!"

How many times have we been unwittingly tricked into "sharing" a seemingly innocent-looking quiz that boosts our self-esteem when we more than meet its challenge? "Only four percent will be able to name all 50 state capitals," its banner trumpets. "Can you name these Broadway musicals by these simple descriptions?" We've seen them. Taken them. And just as easily shared them on Facebook.

It's then that a small box will appear advising you that if you share this superb score that the application will be able to access your Facebook friends and gain access to information on your profile. So who could it harm, you reason? After all, don't you want everyone to know that you know that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota and not Pierre?

So, you hit that button and now your friends have been exposed to another dreaded social media disease. That's right. You've just infected your friends and family, who will be targeted for their data too. Nice going.

Every time we share a news story, we are tracked. The New York Times does it. The Washington Post does it. Even liberal thinking Rolling Stone Magazine. They all do it. There is information they embed into those links that allow them to mine your habits, likes and dislikes. So what to do?

Here is a simple way to prevent them from easily tracking your information. It's as easy as asking a question. Or more to the point. It's as easy as knowing a question mark. (What follows is the technical information. If you just want to know the reveal, skip ahead to *.)

All of these articles use basic hypertext markup language or what is commonly known as HTML. It's the language of the Internet and it's not going to go away anytime soon. The Internet defaults to headers that begin with "http://..." or, in those cases where additional security is implemented, "https://..." All browsers from Chrome to Firefox to EDGE know how to interpret these headers and convert the words into numbers and distill them into the binary language of computers, a series of zeroes and ones.

Uniform resource locators are known to computer users as URLs. They are used to find files on your local computers or by browsers to use the Internet to access files on faraway servers that know how to answer your requests. On a local computer the URL might look like this: 


The URL knows it needs to access the C: drive and that the large folder of Users must first be accessed. Within Users is the Alan profile and the file in question is kept under the Documents folder. The slashes used between each segment allow the computer to refine its search.

On the Internet, though, backslashes are used to help browsers refine their searches. Take a look at this made up URL:

The first part of the URL lets the browser know it is using hypertext markup language rather than, say, a file sharing protocol like FTP (those start with "ftp://..."). The World Wide Web nomenclature is extraneous these days. Browsers are smart enough to know how to get to a website by the use of its FQDN or fully qualified domain name without the "www" portion. FQDNs are broken down into two parts - the hostname and the domain name.

Domain name servers or DNS information is not unlike a phone book. Rather than go into how it works, let's just state that top level domains (TLD) like .edu, .com or .net identify large groups of servers that constantly share and update information between each other. All universities use the TLD of .edu, for example. So, a computer from easily knows how to reach a server at and vice versa. The TLD might be considered a surname. All the other information before it could be considered a first or middle name to identify it further.

*If you've kept up with me so far, it's now time for the big reveal. In the example above, the first part of the URL has all of the information needed to share that article on Facebook:

Beginning with the "?," all of the other information is used for tracking and is superfluous. I have been sharing articles on Facebook for years by copying the link UP TO the ? and leaving off that trail of tracking code. Perhaps you might consider doing this. 

Also, if you enjoy taking quizzes, let people know your score without sharing it through the application. It's as easy as taking a screenshot and sharing that. (Just don't click that "Share your results" button.)

If you don't know how to take a screenshot, the ways are varied, but simple enough. On a Windows computer, just click the PrtScn button and paste it into a program like Word (or for those older computers Paint). On a Mac computer, use the Command-Shift-3 keys and it will copy to your Desktop. On an iPhone 8 or earlier, briefly click the top right button (used to power on the device) and the Home button at the bottom. Androids take screenshots by holding the volume down and power buttons at once.

By sharing the screenshot, you can get your score out to your friends and family and they can marvel at what a whiz you are and how nice you are not to share their personal data and profile with these unseen entities who want to sell your likes, dislikes, political leanings, sexual preferences, etc. to other companies for their profit.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead

The latest news of the shootings in the First Baptist Church in Shurland Springs, Texas is just numbing. It has gotten to the point now where this ongoing cycle of gun violence has made me stop watching the news. That is not good for someone who considers himself a journalist.

I simply can't take another death count or see the images of innocent people - too many of them young with so much promise and expectation -  wiped out by bullets from a crazed shooter.

This comes on the heels of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas on October 1 where 59 died and hundreds were injured and last year's horrific anti-gay slaughter at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando where 48 were slain. Lest we not forget there was also the terrorism-inspired tragedy in San Bernadino in early December of 2015 where another 14 died. We have seen a sizable uptick in numbers of people killed in mass shootings.

But while these numbers capture the headlines and keep news anchors busy for a time, the truth is the most damning statistics show that we are a nation at arms with itself. More people die each year by gun deaths than do in automobile accidents. If we were to count up all of those who have died by gun violence in the last 50 years, the number of dead outnumber all of those who died on every field of battle in our nation's history since Revolutionary times.

Read that again. Since 1968, guns have removed more American citizens than those who fought for freedom from the British, contested the Kaiser in the Great War, opposed the Nazis and facists in World War II, confronted communism in Southeast Asia and battled our brothers during the Civil War.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control issued in November of 2017, 12 out of every 100,000 Americans will die as a victim of gun violence. That figure shows a rise for the second consecutive year, whereas previous years had registered as static. Approximately half of them will die from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of who pulls the trigger, though, these Americans are dead as a result of access to firearms and I am now of the opinion, just as the CDC has also begun to indicate, that we are in the middle of an epidemic that must be stemmed.

I love my country. I consider myself a patriotic American who appreciates the liberties we cherish. But no other civilized country in the world has numbers of those felled by gunfire as we do. It is an ignoble record we break year after year without any hint that we may be receding from our relentless onslaught against one another.

In Israel thousands of young men and women patrol the streets with Uzi machine guns and assault rifles. There are an awful lot of guns roaming around among soldiers due to security concerns, but Israel's gun laws are among the most strict in the world. Unless authorities perceive a need for someone to protect valuables or explosives or to use a weapon as a means for hunting, they are not allowed to own a firearm. Residents of the West Bank are granted an exception too, but again only  due to security issues.

The United States would like to call itself "the Leader of the Free World," but as far as gun laws go, it is in reality "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead."

Two summers ago and last summer, angry crowds rose up to affirm that Black Lives Matter. While I do not mitigate the threat to African-Americans from law enforcement officers or for those that support the police with their support of the Blue Lives Matter cause, I must insist that we examine the problem as systemic and not aimed at just one segment of our population. When a bullet hits skin and pierces a body, it sheds red blood. The color we all need to see is red. All Lives Matter.

I am a strong supporter of the Constitution and I believe that we should all have a right to bear arms in defense of our loved ones or those dependent on us. But we cannot forget that the Constitution was written in 1789, a time when a flintlock was standard issue.  A typical weapon could be loaded and discharged within a minute before firing. There is no way the Founding Fathers could have foreseen an assault rifle with automatic fire capability that could have wiped out all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in one strike. And as to handguns, there is little reason to justify stocks with 12 or 15 chambers for bullets unless the intent is to kill a maximum number of human lives. 

Other than for military personnel in a period of war or preparation for the same can I ever see the need for an assault rifle. Just because one can afford to purchase an assault rifle should not given him access to owning one. I might have the funds to purchase a tank. It doesn't mean that I should own one. Obviously, we have limitations on what we deem as proper and normal.

Gun violence can be dealt with by legislation and enforcement. There is the argument that criminals don't follow the law and that is true. But so many people get access to guns that shouldn't, some of whom are mentally unstable, especially through gun shows and mail order firms that something must be  done to clamp down these sales. 

Above all else, there needs to be a new dialogue in each and every household.  All weapons need to be properly locked away and kept out of the reach of those who are too young or too vulnerable to access them. Unless a gun or rifle is needed for protection of the home, professional law enforcement should be called upon to deal with those that threaten life and loss of property. 

I watched in horror 22 years ago when Columbine High School was the scene of devastation. Since then we've seen death and destruction at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and even on Mother's Day four years ago in New Orleans when 19 people were shot during a second line parade. Of all those that were shot, Deb Cotton was the worst victim because she had dared to point a camera at one of the shooters. Years later, after many successful surgeries, Deb confronted her attacker and not only forgave him, but advocated for the possibility of an early release from his sentence of life without benefit of parole. Deb knew the path she strode was unusual, but despite what gun violence had done to her, she continued to seek justice in an unjust world. In early May of this year, Deb lost her fight to survive, a victim of a hail of bullets fired 1,450 days earlier.

We shall see victims perish as a result of injuries suffered in Las Vegas and, sadly, in Florida and Texas and these, too, shall go unreported. But what also will go unreported is the anguish and misery of those whose loved ones are taken so soon and the difficulties spent during a lifetime asking the unrequited question "why?"

I am just sick of it. I can only hope that the tide of popular opinion will rise up in opposition to this epidemic. We need to address this immediately before the next tragedy occurs. Quite possibly, the life you save may be mine or those I love. Please stop. Do something now. Repeat....

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Make America grate again?

Hate groups from neo-Nazis to KKK members. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The hate coming out of Charlottesville is regrettable. But the levels of incitement and violence have proven to be far more concerning from the voices of the alt-right, fascists, neo-Nazis and KKK members than that which has come from the protestors on the left, who are far more reactionary than incendiary.

Perhaps more telling was that one misguided alt-right member was compelled by rhetoric or demagoguery into the criminal act of murder. He drove his muscle car into a crowd of helpless protestors to prove a simple point. It’s a point many of us learned during the era of lynchings that took place between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. It’s the same point that was evident during the rise of the Nazi Party on the streets of Germany when hooligans and street toughs beat, maimed and killed those that got in their way.

With might there is right. Or, perhaps, with might there is alt-right.

It is true that many of these white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and xenophobes are holdovers from the philosophy of Tea Party politics. Rightly or wrongly, they were credited with helping to secure the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President.

Many of their numbers were emboldened when Steve Bannon was selected to be the President’s chief strategist and policy adviser. When Bannon was editor at Breitbart, that website catered to the alt-right blogosphere and advocated for their peculiar brand of politics.

Despite denials from many quarters of the White House that they did not support these purveyors of hate, there had been little in the form of specific pushback from President Trump. Even when the events of confrontation at Charlottesville turned ugly and then deadly, the rhetoric from the President reflected that the violence came from “many sides.” He neglected to honor the memory of the young woman whose life had been senselessly taken away. After both his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and his vice-president Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian, came out publicly to deplore the actions of the white nationalists and anti-Semites, Trump was mute. He appeared in no hurry to call out the KKK and the neo-Nazis specifically.

Then, after two days, he apparently changed his mind this afternoon. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and other hate groups who are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the President said.

Finally, after two days, the moral compass of the Chief Executive has risen to where he can now condemn those whose philosophies we fought both a Civil War and a Second World War to defeat.

Thank you, Mr. President. I could not have expected this ineffectual moral leadership, especially coming from a man some have labeled a firebrand. You told us you would make America great again. Instead your lack of words and moral leadership grates on the sensibilities of all forward-thinking Americans who had expected more from you. You are, after all, the President of all Americans, not alt-Americans.

It’s not about it being too little too late. It’s more to the point that it should be “Not on My Watch” and “Never Again.”

Meanwhile, more alt-right protests are scheduled for this weekend. Will we Americans see more of this new Donald Trump or will his rhetoric slide back to what we saw on Saturday, just after attacks?
Even The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, was compelled to comment: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.”

That is one statement on which both the Nazis and I can agree.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Of mayors, monuments and miscreants

The dust has settled and only the rhetoric remains as the last of the four statues decried as public nuisances first by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and later in a 2015 city ordinance - that of Robert E. Lee - finally came down last weekend. We've had a lot of painful memories stirred up by the controversy as the flames of racism were fanned by radicals on both sides.

The deed is done. The monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was essentially an attempt to overthrow both the yoke of Reconstruction and the gubernatorial election of 1874 by the Crescent City White League, was probably the most egregious of the statues. A plaque added in 1932 during the Depression had attempted to rewrite the history of that bloody battle quelled by federal troops, fallaciously indicating that it had established white supremacy in the state. Enlightened and embarrassed city officials in the post Civil Rights Era in 1973 added yet another plaque on the side of the monument, noting that while the history of the battle was important, the previous sentiments were not in line with modern revisionist and inclusive thinking. The statue was used as a rallying point for David Duke and others for decades and had been taken down during street work in 1989. Its placement on the federally protected National Register forced city officials to restore the monument, but had it relocated to a less visible area in the French Quarter.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was also allowed to be erected at a time when blacks enjoyed little political voice. Davis never sought reconciliation and was an apologist for the Confederacy, contributing to the philosophy of the "Lost Cause," wherein the secession from the Union was justified as reactionary to Northern aggression and the Old South with its plantation economy built on slavery was romanticized as an idyllic way of life.

The last two statues depicted two larger than life figures - Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard. Again, the lack of political pushback from former slaves and their descendants and others who might have pointed out that celebrating military figures who lost a war might not be practical or in the best of taste. Beauregard and Lee, however, did advocate for reconciliation between the states. Beauregard in particular pushed for integration and full rights for the emancipated population. His equestrian statue might have survived scrutiny had he not been shown in full military regalia.

In the weeks leading up to the removal of the four monuments, dozens of outsiders - many of which were hate groups and white supremacists - descended upon the city, unfurling Confederate and other splinter group flags. New Orleanians who had lived with the monuments, oftentimes oblivious to what they represented to the black populace, were sometimes offended more by the methods of removal and the attempt to rewrite history. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being on the same side as members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy.

The organized forces known as Take 'em Down, who agreed with the mayor and the City Council that the four objects needed to be removed, were as vitriolic as the other side. They had flags and banners on their side too as they marched through the city or confronted each other as vigilant New Orleans Police Department officers separated and watched the two factions. Take 'em Down has indicated that it wants to continue to advocate for changing the names of streets bearing Confederate personages or former slaveowners and take down other iconic statues such as that of Andrew Jackson at Jackson Square in the Vieux Carré. Understandably, there is major pushback there for those that still consider Jackson "the hero of the Battle of New Orleans."

It is sad that the polarization of the city these days has sprung up over monuments of bronze, brick and mortar. The city of New Orleans has largely enjoyed a different kind of culture than that found in other areas of the South. Mardi Gras has always been a unique celebration that has unified the city and from its earliest days Creole culture has embraced many non-Caucasian ethnicities. What endures more than statues and obelisks is the humanity of its people and their capacity to love one another.

Now that this bitter chapter has ended, we should all hope that this is the beginning of a positive era of better relations and that we should all mind our own fences. As a city, New Orleans will be celebrating its tricentennial next year. We need to hold high the official flag of New Orleans and proudly declare that we will chart our own destiny, not let outsiders decide for us what we want and try not to erase history, but learn from it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to Our President-Elect

The dust has settled from the contentious election of 2016 and we are now about to swear into office our nation's 45th President. It is not true to say there has never been as colorful a character as Donald J. Trump to be selected as president. Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are probably great examples of figures also cut from an uncommon cloth.

What disturbs me most at this momentous juncture is the tremendous disconnect that many Americans have for the man who will be the leader of the Free World and in whom we will entrust with the unthinkable nuclear option as our Commander in Chief. Whether we recognize him as "My President" or not, the reality is that he will be the face of our nation for the next four or, possibly, eight years.

My hope is that he will grow into the presidency and that he will give up some of the petulance that has marked his campaign and his transition. All presidents should be aware that their every action is recorded for all time and that every decision they make will be examined under the lens of scrutiny by future generations.

President Obama's greatest legacy, the Affordable Care Act, which he was able to see passed despite tremendous opposition, appears dead on arrival once our new President is sworn in and the Republican Congress has its way. Replacing it with something that approaches the current law may take some time and gaining agreement on both sides of the aisle may be a daunting task. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful.

As we say goodbye to the administration of President Barack Obama, I think on the events of the last eight years - a financial crisis and housing market collapse not seen since the Great Depression that was somehow righted, a disengagement from the Iraq war and the death of Osama Bin Laden and the dismantlement of Al Qaida. Then there were his failures: a significant chill in relations with Israel and no progress made in furthering the prospect of peace in the Middle East, the shaky implementation of the Affordable Care Act (known colloquially as Obamacare) and rising costs associated with keeping it in place, gridlock on Capitol Hill, no end in sight on deficit spending and the inability to get Congress to accept his final appointment to the Supreme Court.  Of course, much of the latter difficulties ranged from pushback from the Republican controlled Congress.

No matter how many times critics vilified his name, the constant questions as to his faith and practice or whether he was actually a native-born American citizen, the one thing he always displayed was grace under pressure. It was always clear that he was a family man, first and foremost, and that he grew in understanding about a number of issues by seeing how they affected his daughters and his supportive wife. Along with Vice-President Joe Biden, who helped push the President's acceptance of the right for gays and lesbians to marry, our nation's 44th President will be judged by the image he presented to the American people and to history.

As the dawn of a new presidency greets us, let us all hope that when this incoming administration is remembered in the past that it shall share a measure of the same kind of respect now enjoyed by the Obamas and the Bidens. Yes, there are those who are delighted that today is their last day in office, but the ax swings both ways. Four years or eight years from now, will we be feeling as secure? Time will tell.

The hallowed office of the President should be open and above board. I am hoping that my fellow journalists will be treated with respect by the administration and that the antipathy that exists at present will mellow in the years to come.

The American people wanted change in November and the Trump campaign, despite overwhelming odds against, knew how to win in the states where it counted and achieved a victory in the Electoral College. Beginning today, the incoming President needs to bring the majority of Americans who voted against him into his camp by his words and his deeds. It doesn't matter if he builds a wall or who pays for it. It doesn't matter is he repeals health care legislation. It doesn't matter if he closes America's borders to immigrants.

There are a great many people in America today who are scared. These include the poor and disenfranchised, but it also includes a great many gay Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews, who see a rise in racist activities and hate crimes by many supporters of the President-Elect.

If Donald Trump wants to truly make America great again, he needs to brings us all together with vision and statesmanship, not rhetoric and grandstanding. Mr. President, myself and millions of Americans who are keeping their minds open, want you to be presidential and lead, not react. We need more laws passed to protect us and less mean-spirited tweets on Twitter that make you feel better.

That said, I welcome you to the White House, the symbol of the highest office in the land which you have earned, and I wish you a successful term to come. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brave Bird

Yesterday I saw a bird on wing
And I thought of you.
You, with your dauntless life,
Are like that bird, soaring ever higher,
Reaching for the stars
Climbing to where the air is so thin
That there is no resistance
To your striving to break free 
Of the bonds of earth and sky.
The only thing you must know,
Unlike that bird, is that 
The only thing that will ever
Hold you back, is yourself.
So, fly with all your might
And let not a tree branch
Or bright sunlight deter you
For you are a bird on wing
Called freedom.

©2016 Alan Smason

Monday, July 11, 2016

Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless

The following editorial was published in the Crescent City Jewish News on July 11:

The very public killing of two black men at the hands of white police officers in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota and the horrendous assassination of five white Dallas police officers by a crazed lone gunman in retaliation – all seemingly captured on videotape – was just another typical bloody week for America.

Coming on the heels of the tragic shootings in Orlando last month and the disturbing killings in San Bernadino, in Charleston and the rioting in Ferguson and elsewhere last year, we might think that our nation’s tolerance for pain would be near the breaking point. And yet we would be wrong. 

Within our republic there are occasional challenges to authority and peaceful coexistence that all too frequently resort to the use of guns and the spilling of innocent blood. We seem to accept this as a necessary byproduct of a free and open society. As President Obama so quickly and rightly pointed out, the black man who thought that killing white police officers would accomplish his goal was no less a racist than the white man who felt compelled to kill the black members of the prayer group in Charleston. Bullets are the least racist of all items on earth. They care not what target they strike and the only color they see is red. 

We have seen so much violence throughout our history. It is a sad commentary played out time and time again. It began with the revolutionary fervor of our young nation, broke out into full-scale civil war, continued in the shoot-em-up creed of the Old West, was part of the gangster era of Prohibition, shaped our outrage during the turbulent period of the Sixties when our leaders became targets and has continued in shopping malls, cinema houses and, sadly, in schoolhouses like those in Columbine and Sandy Hook. 

In an average year over 17,000 American children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and by police intervention. Of that number nearly 2,700 kids die from gun violence and over 1,600 children and teens are murdered. The saddest statistic of all is that all of these are preventable. 

Stopping the squeezing of a trigger finger begins with changing the neurons of a brain that reasons that taking a life will improve life. The mourners left behind and the broken and paralyzed victims of the violence that shatters their lives will attest to the fact that killing is morally wrong, reprehensible and need not be tolerated by right thinking Americans. 

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has guaranteed our right to bear arms in the necessary defense of our families and our country. However, it should not be interpreted as a right to callously kill those whom we find too vastly different from us or with whom we cannot accept for whatever reasons. Heed the admonition that such a philosophy of hate loads those very rifles and guns that mow down our most precious of gifts, the lives we treasure most including our own. 

The time for a national debate on gun violence is long overdue. The cycle of violence will continue to take from us our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters and our children as we await the next breaking news event. Left unchecked this will become the sad epitaph on the experiment called American freedom. Haven’t we suffered enough? At what point do we advocate for change? The stakes are far too high for us to maintain the status quo and our children’s lives literally depend on what course of action we decide today. Do we pray for peace, acceptance and tolerance or do we stand idly by and let our inaction load the muzzles that are aimed at the heart of our democratic republic?