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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

Family Garden Trains has a Fan, or a Stalker - We're Not Sure Which!

Updated August 17, see below.

Model Railroaders are as good with a joke as anybody else. Naming their railroads things like "Gorre and Daphetid" or their industries things like "Carter's [Little] River Mills" (as opposed to "Carter's Liver Pills") is old hat. Why else would the hand-painted vinegar cars on my New Boston and Donnels Creek line be called "Piçande Vinegar" (The "cedilla" under the Ç character gives it an "S" sound)? So this story is about a joke, I think, and to let "Den" know I got it, I think.

But to explain the joke (if that's what it is) to the rest of my readers, I need to provide a little background.

Over the years we've been operating, we've occasionally snagged a good quote from someone who wrote us to say something nice about the site. Some of the more memorable quotes have been posted in the article: What Members of the Large Scale Community are saying about Family Garden Trains(tm). It's worthwhile to note that these "testimonials" include quotes from professional garden railroading writers and editors, garden train company managers, master gardeners, and even television producers. Many of the most satisfactory quotes, however, come from "just plain folks" who knew little or nothing about garden trains, stumbled upon our site, and got informed and motivated enough to order a starter set and get out the shovel. Comments like "thanks for everything you've done to take the 'sting' out of building a garden railroad," and "your page has help me out a lot" are the most rewarding of all.

Since we started a Mailing List Signup page and a more formal feedback page, we've been getting even more nice comments faster. Some come in just because people have a question or want to be on the mailing list and they say something nice on the "signup" form. When a reader says something nice about our articles that hasn't been expressed exactly that way before, we may add the comment to the testimonal page. At the same time, if a reader asks a question that hasn't been asked exactly that way before, we try to add the question to our "Letters to the Editor page. Generally, we only post a bit of the message either place, and we never provide contact or e-mail information of any sort. But up until several days ago, we have only posted feedback from folks with verified working e-mail addresses. This is a story of what happened the first time we made an exception.

By the way, in case you're wondering what I do with the e-mails from people telling me what's wrong with the site, or how garden railroading has ruined their lives or some such, the answer is that I don't get any such e-mails. I DO occasionally receive an e-mailed minor correction, but that's inevitably in the context of a reader who's found the rest of the site very helpful. Nine times out of ten, when you see the name of another person in an article, it got there because that person wrote us to tell his or her "side of the story" on a particular topic, and we incorporated his or her comments directly into the article to make certain we were providing a balanced picture. In every such case, the contributors were glad to see their feedback incorporated and to be added to our list of contributors for that article or for the site in general. Since Family Garden Trains was started in 1996, we've only had one really negative letter, and that was from a fellow who became furious when we caught him plagiarizing our web pages.

Okay, now for the joke part. Sometime in mid-July, I received an e-mail from an obviously fake address, but claiming to be from a garden railroader of six years' experience. I thought, okay, the guy doesn't want to be on any mailing lists, but he has something nice to say; I might as well include it on my "testimonal" page. So I added it in the following format:

    Very interesting website. Keep up the outstanding work and thank you... - Den, a garden railroader for over six years
If you've seen the rest of the "testimonials," you know that this is in line with 90% of the legitimate comments there. I probably wouldn't have bothered adding it except that "Den" claimed to have had a garden railroad installed for six years, and that is an accomplishment.

But a few days after I incorporated "Den's" comments, I received another anonymous e-mail from a person also claiming six years' experience, with a similar obviously fake return e-mail address. I've lost it now, but it was followed by several more, all from fake e-mail addresses, all claiming to have their railroad installed for over 6 years, none of them specific enough to indicate that they were coming from different people or even from people interested in Garden Railroading. Here are a few examples:

    It\'s a great and valuable site! - Bob [I eventually got this one three times from two different fake addresses.]

    Hello admin, nice site ! Good content, eautiful design, thank ! - Genry [This is the second from "Genry," I deleted the first one before I decided to write this blog.]

    You have an outstanding good and well structured site. I enjoyed browsing through it. - Dnnys

    Your website looks very good!!! - Den [Yes it's a repeat of the first name used.]

By the time I got the third message, I realized I was being "had." I have since gone back to my "testimonal" page and removed the message that I had posted there. Still, this person has gone to a lot of trouble to send us these. I have no way of knowing if:

  1. the poster was a legitimate, but shy fan wanting us to be really, really encouraged, or
  2. the poster was a practical joker who thought it would be fun to see his comments find their way to my "testimonial" page, or
  3. the poster is also sending along some graphic or other embedded code that is supposed to worm its way into my system or betray something about my setup. Since I use a text-only-reader to receive reader messages, any of that would be stripped before it gets to me, so I wouldn't know one way or the other.
I actually hope that the second explanation is the right one, though I've been involved with the Arpanet, er, Internet long enough to know that the 3rd, most cynical explanation is the strongest possibility.

Removing the fake quotes from my testimony page didn't stop the new messages from coming in. For a while they became more surreal, though. My favorite was:

    Perfect site! Anything superfluous, all is laconic and beautiful. Thanks! - Bob

For those of you who are not English majors, superfluous means "showy but unhelpful," and laconic means "curt or pithy" (as when someone gives you a curt, one-word answer to a legitimate, but difficult question). I also received a message from "Andrea," but it was a repeat of one from Den or Bob (I forget) so I deleted it. Still it's nice to know that "Den" is putting some "diversity" into his scam, whatever it is. And, so far, not one of "Den's" alter-egos have asked me to play "Misty" for them.

If you really are reading my web site, "Den," then, Tag, You're It! Here's hoping that you have a laconic and superfluous August!

Update, August 17

Okay, my ISP broke the web interface I've been using (the one that filters ALL HTML and images before I see the e-mails). So I've had to use their "new, improved" one which doesn't allow me to restrict HTML and images from showing -bah! Now I can see that about 2/3 of these wierd messages have embedded advertisements for viagra or some such. Okay, so they've figured out how to bypass my spam filter by making their image look like a legitimate feedback image. But I have other ways of filtering them now that I know what they're up to. Still, it was a pretty funny mystery for a while, and I'll always be pleased that Den thought my site was: Anything superfluous, all is laconic and beautiful.

Best of luck, all,

- Paul Race

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