Monday, October 13, 2008

I'm not Nellie Bly (or, Let Me Hold Your Coat)

When I was a girl, I spent hours curled up on my bed, reading biographies of famous women. I read about Helen Keller, and Marie Curie, and Elizabeth I.

And I read about Nellie Bly, the nineteenth-century reporter who became most famous for writing a long investigative piece entitled "Ten Days in a Mad-House."

Bly wrote the piece after spending, well, ten days in a mad house. She didn't go in as a reporter. She reasoned, correctly, that if she presented herself as a member of the press, the people who ran the place would show her only what they wanted the public to see.

So Bly decided to feign insanity and be admitted as a patient.

It worked. The conditions in the asylum Bly entered were ghastly. Bly wrote about what she saw and experienced in harrowing detail. A public outcry ensued, a grand-jury investigation was launched, changes were made for the better -- and Bly was famous.

I loved that story.

But I'm no Nellie Bly.

I love her, but I'm a lousy liar.

Put it this way -- if I could keep things to myself, would I have this job?

This is all to provide some context to the story that follows, in which I'm accused of being an undercover agent intent on the destruction of a young company. According to its CEO, I have attempted to undermine their work and ruin their reputation by sneaking in and reporting on what I've seen.

I've also been told that if I don't cut this Nellie Bly stuff out right now, said CEO will be forced to "publicly relate the documentation" he has compiled about "this little pursuit" of mine and its deceptive tactics.

Really? You'll tell lots and lots of people who I am and what I've written?

Honey, I'll hold your coat for you.

Better yet, I'll go ahead and publicly relate every bit of that documentation myself.

The company in question is The Extra Reading Company. The CEO is Josh Mason.

I have an article about them in the current issue of SHM. It's posted for free reading on the magazine's site. If you haven't read it, you probably should, or this posting won't make much sense:

http://www.secular-homeschooling.com/004/extra_reading.html

Here are some details that didn't make it into the article.

I spent half of this summer sick as a dog. Early September, I wasn't feeling any better -- and I had a magazine to get out. With a migraine. And the kind of nausea that often goes along with migraines.

So on a particular day in mid-September, I was spending most of my time lying in bed trying not to hurl.

I couldn't work. I couldn't clean.

I could read my email, and I did -- a lot. I needed the distraction.

That was the day that Lisa Proesel was outed on the secular homeschoolers' Yahoo group loop; and that was the day that a member of that loop wrote to ERC, saying how little she liked their tactics. Bear in mind that when you join the loop, you have to tell a little something about who you are and why you want to join. Anyone who wants to get on just to promote something has to just plain lie, or they're not going to be admitted.

Here's the letter the woman on my loop received in reply to her indignant email to Extra Reading. For the sake of my own reputation as a writer and editor, I'll stress that all punctuation and grammar errors are in the original. This is in the loop's archives; I'm simply reprinting what's publicly available:

Thank you for contacting us here at The Extra Reading Company. We always enjoy corresponding with educators from all over the world.

To respond to your inquiry, "Lisa Proesel" is a pen name that many of our employees use in order to promote our company at the grass roots level. Since the far majority of our employees and contributors are current teachers, we ask that they use this, and other monikers so that there is never a question as to whether the school district for which they work is also advocating our products.

Also, many of the home school parents that work for The Extra Reading Company have part-time jobs in many different employment sectors. They also never want it to appear that their primary employers are advocating our products through them as agents.

That said, those who advocate our products do indeed use them in their classrooms and homes. Otherwise they wouldn't feel strongly enough about The Extra Reading Company to work to advocate such.

Thus, I can certainly understand why you may feel as though you were deceived in some manner. However, let me assure you that such is not the case.

The contribution of our advocates who join chatrooms and chatboards at various places on the Internet is simply to make the users of such forums aware of our highly relevant products. In no way, shape, or form did they sign-up for any other purpose or to contribute to the community of a group, in any other manner than to promote The Extra Reading Company.

However, please let me sincerely apologize if such postings have become annoying to you, or other group members. But, deciding whether or not to use the product of a company based on its promotional methodologies would be akin to choosing not to drink a particular soft drink because you see too many advertisements on television for such. Our posts are designed simply to make you aware of our web-site, nothing more.

If the owner of said group contacts us and asks that we stop promoting our company, we are more than happy to oblige.

Please know, that here at The Extra Reading Company, we do not view all promulgations of commercial interests to be "spamming." The posting of our advocates to your group is a targeted effort to make your members aware of our products and how they may assist in the mission of education.

Regardless of the advocacy, we believe the users of such chatboards are intelligent and can decide for themselves if our products are relevant. In short, we don't view a grassroots campaign such as the one we've undertaken to be negative in any light.

In closing, it is my sincere hope that you will receive the tone of this communication as forthright and the overall "opinion" of all of us here at The Extra Reading Company. It is not intended to seem rude or overbearing. Please do not read such a tone into this letter.

Thus, I invite you to rethink your opinion of our company and invite both you and your colleagues to check out our web-site. We already have many home school subscribers and purchasers of our products and enjoy knowing that our materials are being used to help their children properly develop academically.

If you have any further questions/concerns, please feel free to E-mail me in return. I would be delighted to speak further about the benefits of our company.

In Education,
John P. Wellerbee
Vice President of Digital Marketing
The Extra Reading Company


I said I was feeling lousy. And in need of distraction.

I posted the following to the loop:

Saturday, Sept. 13, 3:10 PM

Do you happen to have the guy's email address, or did you just write to the company? I've been feeling like hell on toast for over a week now, and boy would I love to have a legitimate target for the screaming I already had penciled into my busy schedule. I'd like to let this slimy bastard know that the editor of Secular Homeschooling Mag thinks her readers should know about The Extra Reading Company's weasely tactics. Since he thinks his marketing strategies are legit, he shouldn't mind my broadcasting them.


Not nice. Not tactful. Not the least bit secretive. If I'd been screeching any louder, the loop-members wouldn't have had to even turn their computers on to get my message.

That's not the kind of letter Nellie Bly would commit to print right before she snuck in somewhere.

I think I mentioned I'm not Nellie Bly.

The letters I sent to Extra Reading, and paraphrases of their replies, are included in the SHM article. This is what I posted to the loop about that, later the same day:

Okay, I just HAVE to say what’s going on with this company.

I wrote them asking if some of the paragraphs from Sharon's letter could be said to represent their company policy.

I got a letter back explaining that their emails say right at the bottom that no one but the recipient is allowed to read them!

Fine. Thanks for the information. Now, does your company encourage its employees to use the name Lisa Proesel when discussing the merits of the company's products?

Oh, sorry; but this is still about third-party correspondence and I really can't comment.

[Deborah, steaming like a tea kettle]:

All righty. Somebody named Lisa Proesel posted a couple of times on a homeschooling loop, saying how wonderful the products are and how she just happened to find this site when she was searching the Internet for educational materials. She said in so many words that she knew it would sound like an ad, but it really wasn't. Lisa Proesel is a name on your masthead. Is this a coinky-dinky? As I mentioned before, I'll be writing about this for a homeschooling magazine, and would like to get the facts straight.

Still waiting for a reply. I've been signing off as an editor from the very first email I sent them. Do they really think ticking off the press is the way to go, especially this early in their company's existence? I’m not saying I'm the New York Times, but I'll certainly be writing to a chunk of their demographic.

(By the way — my husband is browsing some of their free materials even as I speak, and these people have exactly no right to be as arrogant as they're being. Their writing is second-rate — and they're paranoid as all get-out. Their pages all say “copyright FOREVER”! They really do! Hey, I think I'll copyright this email UNTIL THE TWELFTH OF NEVER! HA HA HA HA HA!)

--Deborah, who clearly needs some sleep

Again: not sweet. Not terribly grownup. Righteously indignant. Flaming all over the place.

Secret spy stuff? Not even close.

I don't keep things to myself. Everyone in our apartment knew that I was exchanging emails with Extra Reading, as is obvious from the reference to my husband, Dominick Cancilla.

What is not obvious, because I didn't know about it, is that said husband decided, having listened to all my ranting and raving, to start a correspondence of his own with Extra Reading.

You don't know Dominick, so let me describe him. He's a man who's able to surprise me every Christmas because we can walk right by a display case featuring what he got me and he won't turn a hair. He also won't look like he's trying not to turn a hair. He'll interrogate me about exactly what I'd like best in such a low-key manner that I won't even notice how much information he's extracting until I'm shocked to see my own heart's desire under the tree. I'll demand to talk to the Vulcan who taught him to mind-meld, and he'll serenely reply that I told him about this six weeks ago. And then I'll remember the conversation in question -- and I'll also remember that he covered his tracks so cleverly that it's only in hindsight I realize what the conversation had actually been about.

Infuriating? Sometimes. Unbearable? Occasionally.

Effective? Always.

I am, as I have said before and will say again, about as subtle as a car door slamming on your fingers. Which means that I can be blindsided by this kind of tactic every time. I know intellectually that the world is full of people very different from me -- but emotionally, I expect the same behavior I exhibit.

I'm no different from anyone else in this respect, by the way. Generous people are surprised by stinginess. Hotheads think everyone has a bad temper. Liars think everyone else is trying to trick them. More about that last one later.

So: while I was lying in bed, trying to read and type on my laptop without actually lifting my head, my husband was over at his desk, taking a close look at the Extra Reading site and the materials they had to offer. Since I'd been telling him every word I'd written or thought about Extra Reading, it naturally (see above) never occurred to me that he, Professor Poker Face, could possibly hatch plans without spilling them to me.

Here's the first email he sent. I was emailing Extra Reading on a Saturday; Dominick sent this the following Monday:

I would like to consider reviewing your products for an upcoming education magazine. Do you have any particular materials you would like me to look at or should I just use the free downloads available on your web site? Also, do you have press releases or key-employee biographies that you think might help me prepare this article? Thank you for your assistance.
He didn't sign his name. He used initials that were not his own.

He also didn't tell me that he was considering writing such a piece for SHM. Probably he was afraid I'd say no, which I probably would have. I didn't like Extra Reading's tactics; I wasn't about to give their materials review space. And I wouldn't feel comfortable editing my own spouse's writing.

At any rate, Dominick received this letter from Josh Mason, CEO of Extra Reading. I'm going to be repeating a lot of Mason's own words in this essay, because he has repeatedly said that I'm in capable of talking about him or his company in an unbiased fashion. If I paraphrase, I can be accused of distortion or worse. Again, all phrasing, punctuation, spelling, and grammar are in the original.

Dear A.C.,

Being such a young company, we unfortunately have no prepared staff biographies or press releases, etc. We really don't have the manpower or revenue to have a public relations department or anything of that nature. Also, many of our staff still teach full-time and usually don't want their names published so that it won't appear as if their school districts are endorsing our educational materials as well. However, depending on the specifics of the publication, I will certainly ask my colleagues if they'd be willing to be personally mentioned.

As for our products, many are still in a "beta-testing" phase, and what is available beyond the free downloads is very sparse at this point. So yes, please view our free materials and if you run across something else that you'd like to see, I'd be more than happy to arrange for such to be shared with you. That said, all of our products that are operational have at least one full free sample available. So, what's available for purchase beyond the free sample is merely more of what you already see. Our business is entirely download oriented, meaning we sell no actual physical product. Educators download and then print the materials themselves.

If you have any specific questions for me, from the standpoint of being at the helm of The Extra Reading Company, I would be more than delighted to answer them for you as well via E-mail.

I would be very interested in knowing more about your publication and ask that in return for cooperation on our end, that we're sent a copy of the finished article and information as to what restrictions you place on its republication. In other words, if it's positive, we may wish to post it on our web-site, etc. But, if the publication for which you work forbids that, we would of course respect your copyright, etc.

Anyway, I hope I've been helpful. Please feel free to E-mail me in return.

In Education,
Joshua S. Mason
President & CEO
The Extra Reading Company

This was sent and received on a Monday afternoon. Dominick replied:

Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. After looking more thoroughly though your site, I see that all of your publications only cost a few dollars, so I'll go ahead and just purchase what I want to review. If my editor ends up accepting the review, I may contact you about the possibility of using a cover or interior page from one or more of your publications as artwork to accompany the article.

One item on your site that I could use help with: is the phrase "Everything (C) Forever" at the bottom of your web pages intended as a statement of philosophy or do you intend it to have legal meaning? Understanding that will help me better understand where you are coming from.

I appreciate the assistance.

Same afternoon, Mason replied:

Dear A.C.,

Would it be possible for me to have your name, the name and business contact of your publication, along with a telephone number at which I could reach you during business hours?

Thank you.

Here's the point at which any accusations of pulling a Nellie Bly could remotely be hauled out. Dominick replied:

Joshua:

This may sound weird, but I'd like to wait a few days before giving you my full info. If I'm green lighted to go ahead with this, I may want to order some of your "custom" products so that I can review the service, and I think we could better avoid any appearance of possible special treatment if you don't know who I am until that business is complete. I hope this makes sense.

Once that's done, I'll be happy to speak with you more directly.

--A.C.
Not my style, as I've pointed out. However, as Dominick pointed out to me much later, Consumer Reports purchases merchandise anonymously all the time. They have to, in order to maintain their journalistic integrity.

Here's the reply Dominick received. He'd sent his email a little after five; this arrived at just before nine o'clock at night:

Dear Deborah Markus (or affiliate),

Why don't you just be forthcoming and explain your goals fully and then tell me exactly what sort of information you're hoping to obtain. Your mission to tarnish the reputation of our company is bewildering to me, but I have no issues with discussing the success of The Extra Reading Company if you do indeed have noble goals and the ability to be both unbiased and objective.

My sincere guess is that you do not meet said prerequisites, based on our customers who routinely keep us up to date as to your rather inflammatory remarks on internet chatboards. I suppose I'd just like to try to understand from where your animosity originates.

This was a surprise to Dominick, who replied with what he later admitted was a lamentable lack of eloquence:

Huh?

Here's the closest I'll come to the kind of investigative reporting I've been accused of. I think Mason belatedly saw what I'd posted about the Proesel letter -- the one supposedly written by John Wellerbee -- and was outraged by my calling Wellerbee a slimy bastard with weasely tactics, because Mason had written the Wellerbee letter himself.

I don't know for sure. I just think it's a strong possibility, given his reaction to what I wrote, and given the similarities in the writing -- the fondness for long words, a tendency to use an unnecessary comma after the word "but," a certain self-conscious grandiosity.

Dominick sent the following email after the one-worder:

Mr. Mason:

I just realized that I forgot to ask you a question regarding this earlier e-mail. You say that I made "rather inflammatory remarks on internet chatboards." Do you recall where you heard this? I haven't posted anything about your company to any discussion forum, aside from my postings to the Skeptoid listserve, which I don't think were inflammatory.

I want to make sure we understand each other, so thanks for clearing this up.

Here's a hunk of what Mason wrote back. He said that he forwarded it to me, both via my own email address (which he had, since I didn't bother trying to conceal it when I wrote to Extra Reading) and through SHM's web site. The letter has the cc's, but I never got a copy of this, even in my junk mail folder. I've received letters from Extra Reading since, but this one didn't come through:

"Huh?" I honestly laughed at that reply. The level of childishness in such was comical.

I gave you both an opportunity to be forthcoming about your intentions. I can see now that I am dealing with individuals whom, for whatever reason, have decided to be far less than genuine.

I'm writing this last communication to both of you to ask that you please halt the charade in which you are involved and be honest with me pertaining to your interest in our company. I'm sure you both think you're involved in some lofty investigative journalistic pursuit. Let me save you some time and energy: we are a legitimate company that produces original, thought-provoking educational materials. There is nothing more to our enterprise.

Quite frankly, I find your deceptive intrusion of our company to be insulting and a waste of time for my employees and I. Based on your chatboard comments that our loyal customers have forwarded to me multiple times, I am of the opinion that both of you lack the ability to be objective and unbiased -- both traits essential for journalism.

Furthermore, I have directed our custom production team to halt progress on your outstanding commissions and have refunded the purchase price of those sales. As of this point onward, The Extra Reading Company will be refusing your business. Our team would much rather spend time on products that are actually intended for use by teachers and students, not as examples to be misconstrued in an attempt to drag a good company's name through the mud.

[Mason here mentions some email information of Dominick's.] Thus, an attempt to deny any of what I've stated above would not be in your best interest.

In closing, I am asking that you cease and desist your interest in our company. I do not wish that your home-published newsletter review The Extra Reading Company at this time. I would appreciate an E-mail in return noting your strict compliance to these requests.

If such compliance is refused, I will be forced to publicly relate the documentation I have compiled about this little pursuit of yours and the deceptive manner in which you went about the task. I would also be forced to formally caution our wide customer base to avoid your publication for the above-mentioned reasons. These are not remedies I would like to use. But, if you insist upon continuing to attempt to tarnish the reputation of The Extra Reading Company simply because you did not agree with advertising methodologies to which I have since halted via company-wide directive, I will be left with no option, but to react just as nonsensically as you have reacted.

End of letter.

As I said, I'm far from standing in the way of Mason reprinting correspondence to or from my husband or me. Really, really far.

Here's a tip: when someone tries to blackmail you, beat him to the punch. If he threatens to reveal who you really are to the big bad world, hand him a microphone.

Here's Dominick's reply. You can tell I didn't write it from all the not-screaming:

Mr. Mason:

I was honestly surprised and confused by your e-mail, hence the "huh?" I admit that I should have been more eloquent, but that's what I get for sending e-mail just before going to bed.

I'm not out to attack your company. In fact, as you apparently already know, I am participating in a discussion about your materials on Skeptoid with the intent of gathering information from a relevant expert to help you correct factual errors in the Jabberwocky item on quantum physics. I don't see how this indicates that I cannot be objective about your company.

I think that Extra Reading has some excellent ideas and an innovative business model. I also think that there are some areas in which you, as a new company, could use some improvement. I'm sure that you understand this yourself.

My idea was to write a critique of some of your materials, let you see it before publication, and then write about how you reacted to the critique. To me, that sounded interesting -- I'd be writing about how a young company changed with customer input. Of course, none of this would work if you knew that you were sending me materials for the purpose of such review as it might bias your writing (hence my not using my name when writing to you).

I am indeed Dominick Cancilla -- no big secret there. You are incorrect about Deborah Markus' involvement with this project, as it is all my own idea and I haven't told anyone about it.

I would love to call our last couple of e-mails a big misstep on both our parts and proceed in a friendly manner of mutual cooperation. I am on the road for most of today, but you are welcome to call me at the office tomorrow at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you would like to discuss anything.

--Dominick Cancilla

By now, as I neglected to mention, it's Tuesday; and by now Dominick has fessed up to me and been screamed at for daring not to tell me everything he ever did, said, wrote, or thought of writing on the subject of Extra Reading. Here's a representative sampling of the reply he received from Mason:

Dear Dominick Cancilla,

I wholeheartedly respect your right to freedom of the press and speech -- even if such contains perceived negatives about The Extra Reading Company. My goal is never to stop you from exercising said rights. I am simply informing you that I'd rather you not write about our company because I do not feel such can be objective or unbiased at this point.

I believe Deborah Markus has crossed a line from critical speech to speech filled with unqualified hostility and anger within comments of hers that have been forwarded to me. My reference to "inflammatory" comments were meant to include only her as a party.

Since your name is on the registration to any and all web-sites connected to her, I must conclude either that you are her husband, or at the least a very close affiliate. Unfortunately, because of this affiliation, I must further conclude that your interest in our company is at the same level as the interest of Deborah Markus.

Being concerned about inconsequential aspects of our company, such as why the phrase "everything © forever" appears on our web-site pages in lieu of the year, also leads me to be suspicious that your focus will be on the tedious aspects of our company that offend or rub you the wrong way. In fact, your inquiry seems to be along the same line of some of the rude comments she has made about The Extra Reading Company. In short, I am forced to believe she is wholly involved in your project.

Here at The Extra Reading Company, we always appreciate being informed of ways in which our company can strive to be better in many areas. At the end of your research, please feel free to forward your ideas for improvement to my attention. However, your affiliation with Deborah Markus will preclude me from cooperating further.

From Dominick, in reply:

Mr. Mason:

I hadn't told Deborah Markus that I was pursuing this possible article as I had hoped to keep her out of the picture until I had a complete article proposal. Since you copied her on part of our correspondence, that's out of the bag and she's already told me that she's now not interested in my writing about your company. For what it's worth, Deborah is much more straightforward than I am and would not have written to you using an alias, even for the purpose of avoiding potential bias while review materials were being produced (as was my stated intention). In the past, I'd never had a problem using an anonymous e-mail to obtain review materials of this sort, but I understand that this is a special circumstance.

It is correct that Deborah's Web sites are registered in my name. I run a small Web consulting business and register all of my clients' domains in my name (because some of them wish to remain anonymous). However, Deborah is indeed my wife. Even so, she was not party to my planning this now-aborted project. I honestly think that both you and I have lost an opportunity here.

Regarding my question about the copyright statement on your Web site: I've worked in corporate communication for decades, and that particular statement seemed potentially very telling. The way that you present yourself online (including the way that your Web site is coded, which is typical of someone who values copyright of in-site text above Google ranking) is not typical of a corporate site, and is more like some of the beginning online publications

I've worked with in the past (I was staff writer and electronic-publication manager for electronic magazines The Spook and Metropole, which had circulations in the tens of thousands). Whether or not you intended this copyright statement literally means the difference between your having a sense of humor that I don't understand and your possibly not having a firm grasp on copyright law. Knowing which it was (or if it was something else) would impact the impression that your whole site gave. The question was, in my mind, not trivial.

I understand that you do not authorize the use of your material in my writing or in Deborah's publication. I assume that you mean this within the bounds of fair use since, as you obviously know, your rights do not extend beyond that.

I won't be writing about your publications, but I have no influence over whether or not Deborah writes about you. She's her own person.

I am very disappointed in how all this has turned out. I had very much wanted to write a positive article about your company -- which I think has great potential -- instead of simply reviewing your materials. And I was very much looking forward to seeing the materials I had ordered (I also run a blog on atheism that has 1,000+ visitors/day) and sharing them with my homeschooled son.

You are still welcome to call me tomorrow if you have any remaining issues that you think could be better resolved by phone.

Two more emails were exchanged, basically quibbling about the design of Extra Reading's site. And then, a blessed silence.

For about a week.

Then, I got this email. It was sent to: me personally; me through the magazine's web site; Dominick; and two other people, one of whom has an email address implying she's a French teacher and one of whom is a woman named Pandora. Pandora apparently sent Extra Reading an email, a copy of which was included at the bottom of the email sent to all of us and which is dutifully reprinted below (though I've deleted Pandora's last name and email address):

Dear Deborah Markus and Dominick Cancilla,

This is your last warning to cease and desist contact with our company before we take action at publicly displaying your methods of deception and report your publication to any and all journalism ethics watchdog groups. We have indicated to you that we intend to refuse your future business and provided the reasons for such. So, please stop E-mailing us. Your obsession is not only annoying, but a waste of time for all of us who work hard at The Extra Reading Company. Our president has notified you previously that he does not wish your home-published newsletter to review our company. It is in your best interest to respect that decision.

You have been asked to cease your contact several times. You have crossed into the territory of harassment. Such will no longer be tolerated.

Thanks,
Patsy Parker
Customer Concern Specialist
The Extra Reading Company

Pandora wrote:

I am a substitute teacher and am thinking of getting some "Jabberwocky" sets made so that I can have something in hand when I am called in to a class at the last minute. I've been reading a conversation about these cards and it sounds like there might be subjects that you have more expertise in than others. That is quite understandable. Can you tell me what subjects you are most comfortable making cards for? This would be for a private-school audience in seventh grade through high school.

I called Dominick and we shared another eloquent "Huh?" moment.

I was thinking of not replying at all at first. That didn't quite satisfy.

Trying to explain or defend myself didn't suit, either.

So I took a tip from my favorite cartoonist, Stephan Pastis, creator of the comic "Pearls Before Swine." Whenever he gets hate mail (and he gets quite a bit, because his stuff is pretty edgy), he sends back an email he pretends is automatically generated. It's almost identical to the one I sent to Ms. Parker, which read as follows:

Dear SHM fan,

Thank you for your kind words. Your support of Secular Homeschooling magazine is appreciated. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming popularity of the magazine, the editor cannot respond to each and every one of her fans personally, but she's glad to hear you enjoy her work.

I figured if we were going to be nine-year-olds, we should REALLY be nine-year-olds.

Parker wrote back that afternoon (ellipses in original):

Dear Deborah Markus,

We're actually forwarding this E-mail around to all of us here at The Extra Reading Company today. Since it's not an auto-forwarded E-mail, it means you had to physically send it yourself. Your ego is giving us all quite a laugh today. Much appreciated...

Sincerely,
Patsy Parker
Customer Concern Specialist
The Extra Reading Company


So I sent her the same letter back again.

Getting back to the subject of why Parker contacted me in the first place:

What I didn't notice until it was pointed out to me is that both the people who emailed Extra Reading and sent them into their paranoia spiral have g-mail addresses.

The reason that I didn't notice is that I didn't know the significance of it, until Dominick (who was born computer savvy, and never mind that he's my age) explained it. Apparently g-mail addresses are easy to get, and free, and people use them as, I don't know, spares.

Look. I'm one of those pathetic people who lives with a tech-nerd and therefore knows nothing about computers herself. I'm using a laptop right now. When people ask me what kind it is, I say, "White." I didn't buy it. I had nothing to do with the software currently installed on it. I didn't get my current email address -- the whole mail system I have was set up for me, and I took an overweening pride in learning this summer how to make subfolders. All by myself. No, really. That was a huge step for me.

Do you bookmark sites? Me, too. Does your list of bookmarks look like a gigantic column of undifferentiated, disorganized addresses? That's what mine is. I am so unspeakably proud of the fact that I learned the two buttons to press in order to bookmark a site that I can't possibly be bothered with learning how to organize them. I don't mean that I haven't organized my favorites yet; I mean I have no idea how to do so. Maybe next summer.

I have about a million other examples of my own patheticness, if you'd like to hear them. Or you could just take my word for it.

So the fact that I'm being accused of being a spy in the house of g-mail would be sad if it weren't so, um, sad.

Hey, just in case you aren't already in love enough with Josh Mason and Extra Reading:

In the SHM "Lisa Proesel" article, I printed Mason's letter in which he swore up and down that he had no idea people were posting about Extra Reading as if they just happened to find it by accident. He said that he'd told everyone involved to quit it.

Being a truthful sort myself, I actually thought I might have been too hard on him in my last paragraph, in which I accused him of being either a lousy CEO or a weasel and a snake.

Turns out I was being just rough enough.

On September 30, here's something that was posted on the secular homeschoolers’ loop:

I just saw the same spam from Extra Reading on another list. They are now using the name Joshua Mason.

I used the sneaky investigative technique of joining the list in question, and hey! There it was! A letter from a Josh S. Mason, saying that he just happened to stumble across this cool company's site, if anyone wanted to take a gander...

Five days before Mason posted as an innocent bystander about the company of which he's the CEO, he decided to try to tell the world how evil I am by editing the Wikipedia entry about SHM. What he posted got taken down immediately by one of those lovable uber-nerds who watches out for purely malicious shots like this; I didn't even know it had happened until someone told me how to look it up.

Since Mason is all about exposing the truth, but got shut down by The Man, here's what he wrote on Wikipedia:

"In September 2008, the publisher of Secular Homeschooling magazine (Deborah Markus) and her husband (Dominick Cancilla) assumed many aliases and opened numerous E-mail accounts, primarily using Google's 'gmail' program, in an attempt to correspond with companies fraudulently and under false pretenses. Their investigative methodologies broke numerous standards of journalistic ethics. Readers should be therefore cautioned about the magazine's integrity."

Remember: you read it here first.

17 comments:

Subspace Beacon said...

My favourite part of this saga is the notion of Lisa Proesel as a universal pen name for all the company's employees.

Lisa Proesel. Just doesn't have the same ring as "I am Spartacus."

Anonymous said...

For someone whose company doesn't have the time or manpower to write a simple owner bio, he sure does seem to have a lot of time for hate mail ;-)

PearlsOfSomething said...

Woah, Nellie! And Mr. Nellie.

Putting ethics aside for a moment (since that seems to be an okay thing to do), I'm always curious as to the effectiveness of spamming.

Any message board or non-private email group I've been a part of has been subject to spam, and it never fails to tick everyone off. Ticked off people don't buy spammers slimy spam products.
Yet, the practice keeps going.

This Extra Reading company is obviously proud to join the ranks of those peddling Viagra knock-offs, boob job financing, and "free" groceries.

I hope I'm not being naive, but I would like to think that consumers of educational products are more intelligent than those being targeted by companies spamming the usual garbage.

This whole thing almost makes me want to look up The Extra Reading Company, just to compare its product to its method. I'm just too disgusted to do it.

Deborah, your "home-published newsletter" makes me happier with each issue, and each blog post. I will never have reason to feel that SHM might promote a company with questionable integrity. Not only can I count on secular content and noted alerts to possible non-secular content, I am also completely confident that SHM content is in line with my own morals, values and ethics.

Quite a feat for a secular publications, eh? ;-)

Thank you both, for your investigation. In return, I believe I will devote a little time each week to Lisa Proesel. "She" is obviously looking to expand her audience.

solemneyed said...

To quote from the vernacular (if such can be done with such): "LOL."

So, after looking through the employee roster (http://www.extrareading.com/about.htm oh noes I have posted their copyrighted url), do we have a headcount of how many of these people actually exist? My theory is that everyone with an initial is imaginary, and that the initial was added in an unconscious attempt at verisimilitude (if such is the correct spelling of such word. Suchity such such such!)

Warm regards,
solemn P. eyed (at - what else) gmail.com

PearlsOfSomething said...

Wanna see Lisa get nasty?

http://groups.msn.com/teacherscafe/general.msnw?action=get_message&mview=0&ID_Message=32167

Janet said...

Wow! I am now totally in need of more information about this reading company and their curriculum. My family is so happy when my attention is focused on ensuring their future reading success.

Particulary interesting is the word usage, grammar, punctuation, and attitude of the correspondence. Do you think they could teach my sons to correspond as effectively and intelligently?

PearlsOfSomething said...

I believe their user agreement demands students be taught to write 'thus' at least once per paragraph.

Thus, therefore, as such, however, and so, furthermore, but, unfortunately, Janet, you may want to keep in mind that their employees are "mostly composed of a talented staff..." who feel it is appropriate for children to call others jerks AND use the term in their little quiz.

I really wasn't going to go to the site, but I couldn't resist. Guess what. My kids skipped reading today. I was preoccupied.

Thus.

Wendy Hawksley said...

And this is one of the reasons why I will subscribe to your magazine forever (after all, such a thing is possible if something can be copyrighted 'forever', right?). Even after my son goes to college, I have no doubt that you will continue to inform, educate and amuse me. Thanks for all that you do!

CD said...

You, my friend, have just stumbled across the seedy world of stealth marketing. Companies KNOW that most people will throw a straightforward advertisement in the trash. So they've found clever ways of wrapping them in people. Customers that are making a little money on the side by plugging their wares. Or, at times, out-and-out actors. I'm not kidding. Camera companies have hired actors to ask passers-by at tourist locations to take pictures of them, so that these "potential customers" can try out their shiny new models. It's a game. When you think you've figured out what an advertisement looks like, you can bet it's being re-defined in a new and less transparent way. I wish you hadn't mentioned the differences between an actual recommendation and a piece of disguised spam. Their marketing department (or someone else's) is going to adjust accordingly, and it'll make it that much harder for those of us with crap detectors to continue to recognize them. If you want to get to the bottom of this shameless deception, look up something called corporate personhood. When free speech stops being applied to corporations, they will lose the right to lie to us.

Eryn at HomeSchooledYear.com said...

I may have to look up the definition of "grass roots."

Obviously it means "having people on your PAYROLL act like they are not" with a second possible definition being "A company that bites itself in the rump by using shady business tactics."

They've done the word a real disservice. Also, I laugh when I think of them bouncing all emails that come from gmail, that's oh, millions of people. I don't expect them to be around long. Thankfully.

Janet said...

I was just rereading the comments on this post (haven't looked since I posted) and wanted to clarify that I was being sarcastic about looking into their program. To quote Sarah Palin, "it was just my lame attempt at a joke."

alisaterry said...

What amuses me is that investigating a company with a false identity is "fraudulent" but advertising a company with a false identity is "grass roots" and "advertising methodology."

Oy.

Sharon said...

Well, I must say, I'm proud of my little part in this tornado. (I'm the recepient of the copywrited email--that I then posted to the list-serv)

AND I have a gmail account. I must be in cahoots.

Kathy said...

You might be interested to see that the Extra Reading Company's website made The Daily Sucker.

I'm a web developer and I've never seen anything like their website.

Pearson said...

Seems like these folks are still around, and still sporting the same crappy attitude. You can see some correspondence between their "Customer Service" and my friend Bridget here:
http://www.theparentingpod.com/The_Extra_Reading_Company.htm

Anonymous said...
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DM said...

Just read your friend Bridget's experience -- WOW! And right after you posted it, this blog received a lovely note from someone who didn't sign a name, but who has about the same maturity levels as your friend reports (and the same fourth-grade language skills, with apologies to all the fourth graders I just insulted). Gosh...I wonder who it was?