The second-cheapest way to get household necessities

The topic at lunch at work turned to saving money around the house earlier this week, largely because one of my coworkers suddenly found himself with full responsibility for his two pre-teen nieces. The coworkers who are parents started talking about the best places to get good used clothes, the best places to get food cheap, and other stuff. Not being a parent, I just listened. I’m not at that stage in life.

I’m in a different stage of life, still a relatively new homeowner. Yesterday I paid a grand total of $5 for an ironing board and a stepladder, two things I’ve been surviving without. I’m about ready to quit going to the hardware store and to Kmart.The secret is estate sales.

Estate sales are usually crowded affairs, as people swoop in from all corners of the globe to cram themselves into tiny houses in search of things that are rare, things that are cheap, or best yet, rare and cheap.

I see two types at estate sales. The first is the well-to-do, who are there in hopes of securing antiques and collectibles for pennies on the dollar. The other is recent immigrants, who are generally there in search of inexpensive household necessities. They already know the secret.

The best time to go to estate sales is either really early or really late. If you get there early–it seems like people show up an hour early sometimes–you’ll get the best selection but you’ll pay top dollar. In some cases I’ve seen things priced at literally 10 times what they’re worth. In less extreme cases, I’ve seen tools priced the same as a new one at Sears.

Then again, yesterday I bought a pair of small pruning shears for 50 cents and a sharpening file for a quarter.

If you get there on the last day, reality has kicked in, the sucker prices have generally gone away, and dickering becomes the rule of the day. Prices drop by a factor of two or three, and the later it gets, the more willing they are to listen to prices.

If you’re shopping for household necessities, this is a good thing. The antique furniture dealers have no interest in ironing boards and laundry baskets and trash cans. Recent immigrants do, but chances are they already have those things. Stuff like this is often priced low to begin with, and it gets cheaper as time marches on because the chances of someone buying it are pretty low.

You can get household appliances cheap too. I saw a 20-inch Zenith TV marked at $50 yesterday. I know it works because they had it turned on. I’ll bet someone will get it for $20 today. I saw a washer and a dryer priced around $200 each yesterday. The washer was less than two years old. The dryer was a bit older but it was a Maytag. Those prices were decent, and could go way down if they sat long enough. If you’re willing to live without a warranty, you can save yourself a bundle. Two years ago I paid $900 for a washer and a fridge. A friend gave me a dryer. It looks like it could be 25 years old but it works and I was happy to save $250.

But yesterday I wasn’t looking for appliances. I wasn’t necessarily looking for household necessities either, but I’ve been needing a stepladder and a full-size ironing board. So when I spotted one marked at $4.50 and $6, respectively, I wasn’t going to pass them up. It was around noon, and it was a Friday-Saturday sale. They’d be closing up shop in an hour or two. Anything under $20 was automatically half price. I dragged the ironing board and the stepladder up to the checkout. “Five dollars is fine,” she said.

And it was fine with me too. I still remember the day when I went out to either Wal-Mart or Kmart (I try not to shop at Wal-Mart anymore but I did then), days before I moved out of my mom’s house for good, to buy household necessities. After spending more than $200 on things like trash cans and laundry baskets, there was still a lot of stuff I lacked.

If I’d known then what I know now, I probably could have gone to three sales, spent a grand total of 50 bucks, and ended up lacking a lot less.

Help! I do tech support for everyone I know! (Version 1.1)

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?

(If this sounds vaguely familiar, yes, this is a revised version of something I wrote a year and a half ago.)This was a question Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked two Christmases ago. I thought it was an unbelievably good question. I had to think about the answer for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. Sometime within the last couple of years it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. It can also be a good way to meet lots of interesting people. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

I’ve been in that situation. Once I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out. A couple of years before that, someone in Washington was running a computer company and using me as his primary (unpaid) technical support, often taking an hour or two of my day, and getting upset if more than about 12 hours passed without me responding.

I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to not like situations like this. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and we were in the middle of dinner or a movie. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

Sometimes that means not answering the phone. In this day and age when 50% of the population will answer their cellphone even if they’re sitting on the toilet, this is heresy. I usually make a reasonable effort to answer the phone. But if I’m in the middle of something, I won’t. At least one time when I made no effort to answer the phone when my girlfriend was over, she took it as one of the biggest compliments she ever got. (That relationship didn’t last, so maybe I should have answered the phone, but hey, at the time I didn’t feel like it.)

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have left a message or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.) For the record, when I call Dell or Gateway or HP, I jump through all the same stupid hoops. Even though I’ve written a computer book and I’ve been building and fixing computers my entire adult life.

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but the moment you’re seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time. No matter what you do, you’ll be wrong sometime. And one of the easiest ways to be wrong is to run your mouth when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a bevy of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a busload of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, amassing a large collection of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Can’t afford $17 CDs? Buy them used on Half.com then.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend. It’s trivially easy to make e-mail look like it came from someone else. If someone who knows both of you got a virus, you can get virus-infected e-mail that looks like it’s from that friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

Don’t take responsibility when someone asks your advice and then refuses to follow it. That unpaid gig doing tech support for a computer company in Washington ended when he had a computer that wouldn’t boot. He sent me the relevant files. I told him how to fix the problem. The next day he complained it didn’t help, and sent me the files again. It was obvious from looking at the files that he didn’t do what I told him to do. I called him on it. He got defensive. He caught me on a bad day and I really didn’t want to hear it. The next day he sent me a long list of questions. I answered the first two or three, then said, “Sorry, I’m out of time.”

I never heard from him again. But at that point it was just as well. Why help someone who doesn’t respect you enough to follow your advice?

A less extreme example was when an ex-girlfriend’s younger brother refused to give up Kazaa. Every time I fixed the computer, he reinstalled Kazaa and one problem or another came back. Finally I told him, her, and their parents that I’d fixed the problems, but they were going to keep coming back as long as he used Kazaa. Ultimately they decided that free music was more important than a stable computer and staying within the law, but that was their decision.

Have other interests besides computers. My former high school computer science teacher took me aside a few years ago and asked me if it wouldn’t be great if someday people asked me as many questions about God as they were asking me then about computers.

I have relatives who know I’m into Genealogy, and they know that I’ve traced one branch of my family through William the Conqueror and all the way back to before the time of Christ. But some of them don’t know I fix computers for a living.

Some nights when I come home from work, I don’t even turn a computer on. I go straight to the basement, plug in my transformers, and watch a Lionel train run around in circles. I might stay down there all night except for when the phone rings (there are no phone outlets in my basement) or for dinner. Ronald Reagan used to do that. He said it helped him relax and take his mind off things. My dad did too. It works. And no, there’s no computer hooked up to it and there won’t be. This is where I go to escape from computers.

So I don’t find I have the problem anymore where people only want to talk to me about computers. Balance is important. Don’t let your computer knowledge keep you from pursuing your other interests.

Charge money. I don’t charge my family members, but with very few exceptions, I don’t do free technical support. I do make sure I give friends, acquaintances, and neighbors a good deal for their money. But if helping them is going to keep me from mowing my lawn, or if it’s going to force me to cancel plans with my girlfriend, then I need to be compensated enough to be able to pay someone else to mow my lawn, or to take my girlfriend out for a nice dinner that more than makes up for the cancellation.

It’s all about balance. So what if your entire block has the most stable computers in the world, if your grass is three feet tall and you have no friends and no significant other because you can’t make time to meet anyone for dinner?

I’ve had employers bill me out at anywhere from $50 to $75 per hour. Under ideal conditions, where they drop the computer off with the expectation of getting it back within 2 weeks, I bill myself out at significantly less than that. But for on-site service at odd hours, I believe it’s perfectly appropriate for a computer professional to bill at those kinds of rates.

Even if you’re a hobbyist, you need to be fair to yourself. Computer repair is a skill that takes longer to learn than mowing lawns, and the tools required are every bit as specialized and every bit as expensive. In St. Louis, many people charge what amounts to $25 an hour to mow a lawn.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. One Sunday when a family member called me with a noisy fan in a power supply, I found him a cheap replacement. I’ve fixed girlfriends’ computers before. The last computer I built was a birthday present for my current girlfriend.

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

A link for the artistically inclined

If you ever need to etch something out of metal–building lettering for your model railroad, funky lettering or a custom fan grill guard for your l337 modded-up computer case, or anything else that floats your boat, here’s a link you’ll want to bookmark:

Cheap photoetching, step by step.You need little more than a bottle of photo etchant from Radio Shack ($4), a can of lacquer thinner ($3 at Kmart), some aluminum cans, a permanent marker (I’ll bet you’ve got one of those), and a handful of other household items.

One tip: The author suggests using a permanent marker to color in the side opposite your drawing. Depending on what you’re wanting to make, that could take a while. You might want to invest in a spray can of the cheapest paint primer you can find, and use that for the opposite side.

Just keep a few cautions in mind when working with this stuff.

Aluminum cans are very light gauge. If you’ve ever sliced your hand open while working in a $12 computer case, the hazards are the same. Wear work gloves while cutting and handling the aluminum prior to etching.

Lacquer thinner is nasty, nasty stuff. One chemical commonly used in it, methyl ethyl ketone (a.k.a. MEK) is alleged to cause cancer, and its fumes are bad for your liver. It would be prudent to wear rubber gloves and a mask while working with it, and only work with it outside.

Advice on troubleshooting and buying printers

I gave some out-of-character advice this week when someone came calling looking for help troubleshooting an inkjet printer.

Essentially, I told him that unless the problem turned out to be a problem with his cabling (it was–his USB hub had gone bad), he’d be best off just buying a new printer.

Read more

Who wants to build an MP3 jukebox when you can go shopping?

I was going to cannibalize a computer to turn into a Linux-based MP3 jukebox–I figure get the OS up and going on it and figure out later what software to run on it. It’ll take me a while to get the sound card and wireless NIC working in it, I’m sure. Especially in Debian. If it turns out to be too much of a struggle, I can cave and run Red Hat or SuSE on it since they’re likely to just autodetect the stuff. And then I’ll be a Linux wimp, yeah, but hey, I’ll be a Linux wimp with a really cool sound system.
I ended up going to the store. A couple of stores. I needed vitamins and shampoo and fabric softener. It was really weird hearing “A Letter to Elise” by The Cure as background muzak in Kmart. Not that I was complaining.

I also wanted that Plumb CD I asked about yesterday. I could have saved some money by ordering it online, but I was impatient. It had a once-in-a-lifetime song on it and I wanted it. It was a longshot but I looked. Nope, no Plumb at Kmart. Just Newsboys and DC Talk–the kind of stuff my post-college girlfriend Rachel tried to get me into in 1997. I know a lot of people like them but I just couldn’t get into them.

I guess for me it was a good sign. As far as secular music goes, if it’s sold at Kmart I probably don’t like it. So I should probably expect the same for contemporary Christian music too.

Best Bait-n-Switch had it. So I got it, hopped in the car, put it in the CD player, and turned the volume up a bit. Maybe it’s just how my brain is wired, or what’s been on my mind lately, but “Real” just resonates. To me, it’s an instant classic, like “Day After Day” by Badfinger or “If You Leave” by OMD or “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division.

I’d tell you about the rest of the album but I’ve had that one song on repeat play for most of the night. I think the last time I did that was six years ago with “Want” by The Cure–which turned out to be a smart move, since there wasn’t much else listenable on that particular record.

Replacing wall warts with PC power supplies

I wrote a long, long time ago about my adventures trying to find a wall wart for my old 8-port Netgear dual-speed hub. The other day I stumbled across a novel idea for a replacement.
I won’t rehash how you determine whether a unit is a suitable replacement–read the above link if you’re curious–but suffice it to say a $5 universal adapter from Kmart is fine for my answering machine or my cordless phone and can probably provide the 5 volts my Netgear needs, but my Netgear also needs 3 amps and the universal adapter I keep around can only deliver 20% of that. The beefiest 5v unit I could find at Radio Shack could only deliver 1.5 amps.

A PC power supply delivers 5V and 12V on its hard drive connectors. And PC power supplies deliver plenty of amperage: one of mine will deliver 25 amps on its 5V line, and 10 amps on its 12V line.

In a pinch, I could just obtain a suitable plug barrel that fits my Netgear from Radio Shack, clip the power connector off a dead CPU fan, and solder the plug to the red wire (5 volts) and a black wire (ground), put it in a PC, and use that to run my Netgear hub. The increased power draw would be equivalent to putting three typical PCI cards in the system. Just be sure to wire things right–reverse polarity can kill some devices.

Rather than using one of the PCs I actually use, it would be better to obtain a cheap microATX case, short the green and one of the black wires on the 20-pin motherboard connector with a paper clip, insulate the paper clip with electrical tape, and then wire things up to the drive connectors. Or, for that matter, you could use some of the other leads available on the 20-pin connector if you have a device that needs 3.3 volts (pinout here.) You could also just use a bare ATX power supply with a paper clip connecting the green wire and one of the black wires on the 20-pin motherboard connector, if you’re into the ghetto look.

An AT power supply would also work and it offers the advantage of being really cheap and common (here’s a nice writeup about an AT power supply’s capabilities), but most AT boxes require you to hook up enough 5-volt devices to chew up about 20% of its rating on that power rail before they’ll power up. I have a 200-watt AT power supply that delivers 20 amps on its 5-volt rail, so my 3-watt Netgear hub probably wouldn’t be quite enough on its own. So it might be necessary to either connect an obsolete motherboard to the power supply or connect a 1-ohm resistor between a +5 lead and ground, if you don’t have a plethora of power-hungry 5-volt devices to plug in.

But PC power supplies provide a cheap and commonly available way to replace odd wall warts, or at the very least, to reduce the clutter around the computer room.

Will this go down as my greatest crime against humanity?

I can’t decide if I should feel distressed that one of my Wikipedia entries directly led to the creation of the Martha Stewart entry on Wikipedia.
Allow me to explain myself. A link to a non-existant article about Frank W. Woolworth on a page in my watchlist was bugging me. So I wrote up Mr. Woolworth, which led me to do a writeup about the company he founded. Now I was born long after the five-and-dime’s heyday, but the concept was so central to many people’s memory of the 20th century that it bothered me that it wasn’t there. And even though Woolworth’s company is a shadow of its former self today–so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought it was out of business–Frank Woolworth invented the techniques that made Sam Walton the richest man in America.

I guess a cynical take on history could be that Frank Woolworth dramatically changed the look of downtown America, a century before Sam Walton destroyed it.

Woolworth’s five-and-dime stores evolved into the modern discount store we know today, which led me to write up an entry on Target Corporation and make significant additions to the entry on Kmart Corporation, since Woolworth at one time had two chains that competed directly with two of Kresge’s (now Kmart’s) chains.

Then someone noticed the Kmart entry didn’t mention Martha Stewart. Next thing I know, Martha Stewart has an entry in the Wikipedia.

Now Martha Stewart joins the long list of pop-culture icons who have entries in the Wikipedia.

I guess I really should go back to researching Microsoft.

Help! I do tech support for everyone I know!

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?
Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked a really good question, didn’t he? I had to think about it for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. In the past year, it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

So if you get into a situation like I got into a year ago, when I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out, I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to be a bit upset. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and I was fixing her dinner or watching a movie with her. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

I remember a week or two ago, I was sitting on my futon with my girlfriend, watching a movie, arms entangled in the weird way the way they tend to do when you want to be close to someone. The phone rang. I didn’t move. “You’re not going to answer that?” she asked. “No,” I said. Since when is it rude not to answer your phone? They didn’t know I was home. If I don’t want to talk at that instant, I’m not obligated to. Besides, both of us would have had to move for me to pick up the phone. So I ignored it. She looked at me like I’d paid her some kind of compliment, that I’d rather stay there with her than yak on the phone. Call me old-fashioned, but that used to go without saying.

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.)

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time (you won’t).

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a cocktail of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a cocktail of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, acquiring a cocktail of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Half.com is your friend.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. A family member called me just this past Sunday with a noisy fan in a power supply. I found him a cheap replacement. I went over to my girlfriend’s family’s house Sunday afternoon and fixed their computer. (It made me wonder if the “4” in Pentium 4 stood for “486.” Its biggest problem turned out to be 255 instances of spyware. Yum.)

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

We can’t give hackers anything else to work with

Thanks to David Huff for pointing this link out to me (the good Dr. Keyboard also passed it along). Steve Gibson was hacked last month, and he wasn’t very happy about it. So he set out to learn everything he could about l337 h4x0rs (elite hacker wannabes–script kiddies). What he found out bothers me a lot.
Kids these days. Let me tell you…

In my day, 13-year-old truants (those who had computers and modems) used their modems to dial 800 numbers over and over again long into the night, looking for internal-use-only numbers. Armed with a list, they then dialed every possible keycode combination looking for PINs. Then they’d use that information to call long-distance on the telco’s dime. They’d call BBSs, where they’d swap the previous night’s findings for more codez, cardz (credit card numbers), warez (pirated software), or porn.

I never did those things but I knew a lot of people who did. They’d drop off the face of the earth on a moment’s notice, and rumors would go around about FBI busts, computer equipment being confiscated, kids being hauled off to juvenile detention center… And some of them never came back. Some of them cleaned up. Others, who knows? I heard a rumor about one of them running away to Las Vegas after he got out. And some just got hold of their old contacts and went right back to business. One of my friends cleaned up–the huge phone bill he got was enough of a reality check that he stopped. Whether it was a moral reason or just fear of getting caught again, I don’t know. I knew another who got busted repeatedly, and he’d call me up and brag about how his line was tapped, throwing in the occasional snide remark to whoever else might have been listening. I remember our last conversation. He sent me some code (all of the guys I knew were at least semi-competent 6502 assembly language programmers) and we talked music. I’d been fascinated by that subculture, though I never did anything myself–I just talked to these guys (partly out of fear of getting caught, partly because I did want to have some semblence of a life, partly because I didn’t want to kiss up to a bunch of losers until I’d managed to prove I was elite enough), but at that point I was 16, I’d published once, and I realized as the conversation ended that my fascination with it was ending also. It was 1991. The scene was dying. No, it was dead and pathetic. These “elites” had become the butt of jokes–they were risking arrest so they could call Finland for free and pirate Grover’s Magic Numbers, for Pete’s sake! I guess I was growing up. And I never talked to him again. (I don’t even remember this guy’s real first name anymore–only his handle.)

I guess if I’m going to be totally honest, the only thing that’s really changed are the stakes. I want to say my generation wasn’t that bad… But I don’t know.

Essentially, some guy going by “Wicked” had zombies running on 474 Windows PCs. Some of “Wicked’s” buddies took issue with Gibson talking about script kiddies–they thought he was talking about them–so they told “Wicked” to take him down. And he did. And he bragged about it.


"we will just keep comin at you, u cant stop us 'script kiddies' because we are
better than you, plain and simple."

Now, when someone annoys me, I find out what I can about the guy. At 26, I do it to try to get some understanding. At 13 I didn’t necessarily have that motivation, but I did at least have some basic respect. And anyone claiming to be better than Steve Gibson… Gimme a break! That’s like walking up to Michael Jordan and saying you’re better on the basketball court, or walking up to Mark McGwire and saying you can hit a baseball further, or walking up to Colin Powell and telling him you can beat him in a war. And anyone who’s ever written a line of assembly language code and read any of Steve Gibson’s stuff knows it. And it’s not like the guy’s exactly living in obscurity.

Well, Gibson was diplomatic with this punk. And his reasoning and his respect softened him. He called the attacks off. Then they suddenly started again, and Gibson got this message:


is there another way i can reach you that is secure, (i just ddosed you, i aint stupid, im betting first chance ud tracert me and call fbi) you seem like an interesting person to talk to

Say what? You want to talk to someone, so you blow away every other line of communication and ask if you can talk? Now I can just picture this punk once he gets up the nerve to go talk to a girl. He knocks on the door, and the first words out of his mouth are, “I just tesla coiled your phone line so you couldn’t call the cops, but…” Then he’d toss some Kmart pickup line every girl’s heard a million times her way, and hopefully she’d smack him and run to the neighbors’ and call the cops.

For some reason people get hacked off when you do something malicious to them.

Well, Gibson reverse-engineered some Windows zombies and followed them into a l33t IRC channel where he had another interesting conversation. I won’t spoil the rest of it.

Now, I admit when I was 13, I was a mess. I was insecure, and I had trouble adjusting. My voice was cracking, my skin was oily, and I was clumsy and gawky. And I didn’t like anyone I knew when I was 13, because I was the class punching bag. Part of it was probably because I was an outsider. This was a small town, and I wasn’t born there, which was a strike against me. If you got all your schooling there you were still OK. I came in the third grade, so strike two. And I didn’t want to be a hick, so strike three. I liked computers, and in 1987 that was anything but cool, especially in a small town. And everyone thought I was gay, because I didn’t hit on girls and I didn’t have a huge porn collection–and there aren’t many worse things to be in southern Missouri, because it’s still a really bigoted place (and since girls made me stammer, it’s not like I could have proven I was straight anyway). And I had goals in life besides getting the two or three prettiest girls in the class in bed. (Yes, this was 7th grade.) So I guess I was oh-for-two with two big strikeouts. And since I was five feet tall and about 90 pounds, if that (I’m 5’9″, 140 now, and I was scrawnier then than I am now) I couldn’t exactly defend myself either. So I was an easy target with nothing to like about me.

I guess “Wicked” sees Steve Gibson as a five-foot, 90-pound outsider with a really big mouth, so he’s gonna go pick on him. Then he’s gonna go hit on the 13-year-old girl who looks 18, and he thinks taking down grc.com is going to make her swoon and tell him to take her to bed and lose her forever. But since she has a life, she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether grc.com is up or down, so hopefully she’ll smack him but I doubt it.

Yeah, I want to say the solution is to make things like they were in 1987 but bullies are bullies, whether it’s 2001 or 1987 or 1967. AD or BC, for that matter.

I want to say that accountability to a higher being will solve everything and make kids behave, but I know it won’t. That grade-school experience I just described to you, with 13-year-olds making South Park look tame and trying to get in girls’ pants? You know where that happened? A Lutheran grade school. Introducing the kids to God won’t fix it. Establishing a theocracy won’t fix it. In college I wrote a half-serious editorial, after a pair of 6-year-olds in Chicago murdered a four-year-old by dropping him out of a 20th-story window after he refused to steal candy for them, where I advocated the death penalty for all ages–maybe then parents would keep an eye on their kids, I reasoned. But I know that won’t fix anything either.

Steve Gibson doesn’t offer any answers. He’s not a social engineer. He’s a programmer–probably the best and most socially responsible programmer alive right now. And what Gibson wants is for Microsoft to cripple the TCP/IP code in Windows XP, so the zombies these script kiddies use don’t gain the ability to spoof come October.

Frankly, I wish such a castrated TCP/IP stack, with raw sockets capability removed, were available for Linux. My Linux boxes are a minimal threat, being behind a firewall and only having a single port exposed, but I’d cripple them just to limit their usefulness to a script kiddie just in case.

Why? Screw standards compliance. The standard for mail servers used to be to allow them to be wide open so anyone could use one, just in case their mail server was down. It was all about being a good neighbor. Then spammers trampled that good faith, so open relays are now the exception, not the rule.

Maybe there’s some legitimate use for raw sockets. I don’t know. But I know nothing I use needs them. So why can’t I run a stripped-down TCP/IP on all my boxes, so that in the event that I do get compromised, my PCs’ usefulness is limited?

If software companies want to provide a full, standards-compliant, exploitable TCP/IP stack for esotetic purposes that need them, fine. Do it. But don’t install it by default. Make it a conscious decision on the part of the systems administrator.

Let’s just get one myth out of the way. The Internet isn’t going to change the world. So when the world does stupid things, the Internet’s just going to have to change instead.