How to succeed as an IT contractor

I met a young IT contractor a little while back. His talent was sky high. So was his potential. And his rawness. It’s not my place to go into great detail about that rawness, but one thing I noticed about him was that he had a very self-defeating attitude about him. It shouldn’t have been hard for him to succeed as an IT contractor, but he was his own worst enemy.

Several times he started a statement with, “If I don’t get fired,” or something to that effect.

It occurs to me that perhaps my experience as a contractor would be helpful.

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Mr. Genius Man from “Windows Technical Support” gets nasty

I got another “Windows Technical Support” call on Friday evening. My caller ID said Minneapolis, and since I have coworkers in Minneapolis, I answered. But the guy on the other end was a long way from Minneapolis and probably doesn’t know diddly about ice hockey.

I’m pretty sure it was the same criminal as last time, but over a better VOIP connection. I remember the voice pretty well, because his parting lines from last time, “Enjoy your broken computer, Mr. Genius Man!” struck me as funny. And he started the conversation with, “I’m calling you again about your Windows 7 computer.”

My conversation with him revealed a few things about why this scam is likely to be profitable.

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Use Audacity to sneak an extra podcast in each week

If you don’t mind your podcasts sounding like chipmunks, you can shave 10-15 minutes off their length by loading the MP3 into Audacity before sneakernetting it to your car. Simply download and install Audacity, install LAME for MP3 support, then, when you download your podcast, load it into Audacity, select the “Effect” menu and choose “Change Speed,” then enter 20% and click “OK.” You may need to experiment a bit. Then save the file to your MP3 player or USB media and you’ll have it for when you’re on the go.

The benefit, of course, is that if you can keep up with it, those 60-minute podcasts drop down to more like 45-50 minutes, so in theory, if you listen to five of them per week, you can get a sixth one in.

Myspace and blogging isn’t inherently bad

I see some schools are blocking access to Myspace and other blogging tools. The blogosphere, some people seem to believe, is just a bunch of people looking to exploit teenaged girls.

Sure, blogs can be dangerous. So can cars and jobs. I think the Myspace phenomenon exposes weaknesses in upbringing more than anything else.Blogs have only been around for about 9 years so there haven’t been a lot of sociological studies of them–especially since blogging has only been hot for the last couple of years. But there are precedents.

I was very active in a lot of online communities as a teenager. Teens like me were a minority, but there were enough of us. I’m still friends with a couple of people I met online back in those days.

And I’ll tell you something straight up: I ran into a lot of women who were older than me. A lot of, um, lonely women who were older than me. A lot of them had the wrong idea about my age. One asked me where I went to college. But you see, I hadn’t gone yet, because I was only 14.

And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t go any further than that. I’d been taught right from wrong, and I carried myself that way, both online and in person, so the topic never came up.

There were other dark sides of this online world. Software piracy was usually the gateway. And yeah, I’ll admit I downloaded some software that I didn’t pay for. Mostly I stuck to things that were no longer commercially available. And without Amazon.com and Ebay, it was difficult to buy out-of-print stuff. So I wouldn’t have been able to buy the majority of it even if I’d wanted to. That didn’t make it legal, but to my teenaged mind, it sounded moral enough.

Of course most people were interested in the new stuff. And that could lead down a slippery slope. St. Louis wasn’t exactly a hotbed for the latest new releases, so to get the zero-day warez, you had to call long distance. But remember, most of us weren’t 16 yet, so we didn’t have jobs and we didn’t have a lot of money. So I knew an awful lot of people who got into phone fraud. And it often got worse from there. Phone fraud led to credit card fraud, and I heard stories of people who got caught, slapped with the huge bills they’d run up, and turned to dealing drugs to make the money to pay it back.

All so they could be the first one in St. Louis to have the Commodore 64 version of Grover’s Magic Numbers. Yes, there were people who risked all of that to have something that lame-sounding. And no, it didn’t sound any cooler then, but people did it.

I talked with a number of people who were caught up in that. There was a guy in Chicago who called me on a pretty regular basis for a little while. No, he didn’t dial 1-314, if you know what I mean. One day he quit calling, and not long after that, I heard the Feds caught up with him. There was a rumor that he ran away to Colorado after he got out of juvenile detention. Whatever the case, I never heard from him again.

But I never made any fraudulent long-distance calls. I had a 3.6 grade-point average, was in National Honors Society, and I was in Who’s Who Among American High School Students all four years. And I sold my first magazine article before I got my driver’s license. I wasn’t going to throw all that away just so I could make long-distance phone calls on someone else’s dime.

So why was I having anything to do with those people? Simple. We talked programming. Nothing I learned from those guys is remotely useful to me today, but it was interesting then. Sure, those guys made a lot of mistakes, and yeah, they sure did break a lot of laws, but they weren’t entirely bad.

I’m sure if my parents had known everything that was going on, they’d have gotten rid of the modem or at least severely limited what I could do with it. But they couldn’t stand over my shoulder all the time.

And besides, there wasn’t any need to worry. They’d taught me right from wrong, and what I had to lose if I stepped too far out of bounds. Sure I pushed the limits, but that’s being a teenager for you. Come to think of it, I still push the limits sometimes now, even at 31.

The primitive online communities that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were social communities. The only difference between that and the mall was distance. The computer took away the geographical boundaries. In that regard they’re the same as Myspace and other online communities today.

There’s potential for problems today, just like there was 17 years ago. But looking back now, there’s no question why I went online back then. It helped me deal with being a teenager. I could talk with other teenagers who were like me–there were only one or two others like me at my school, and one of them was a major-league jerk. And I could get advice from adults who were further removed from the situation and could give me advice without conflicts of interest. Whether the struggle of the day involved a soldering iron or a girl, I knew at least one person who knew the answer.

I can think of lots of things I’d change if I could go back, but that isn’t among them. So I don’t believe isolating kids today from online communities solves anything. Kids will be kids. Hopefully they know right from wrong and what they can lose if they choose wrong.

Blocking those who would choose wrong doesn’t solve a lot. They’ll find another way to choose wrong.

Denying an important resource to those who would choose right is a greater loss. It’s much easier to find another way to choose wrong than it is to find another way to get wise counsel.

Well, Episode III could have been worse…

I went and saw Revenge of the Sith tonight. I can say it definitely felt good to see a Star Wars story in the theaters one last time. (This is supposed to be the last time, after all.)

What else can I say? They weren’t the atrocities the first two movies were. Overall I still don’t think it was any better than the originals, but I do think there was a lot of room for improvement. (Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers here.)Let’s talk about the good first. First and foremost this is an action movie, which is good, because action is what George Lucas does best. This is a fast-paced movie that doesn’t get bogged down in committees, which is good. If you want committees, you can watch CSPAN and it won’t cost you $8 all the time.

There are plenty of special effects here, but it seemed like Lucas tried to rely on special effects to make up for the shortcomings in the first two movies. There’s less of that in this one. I can’t think of a point in the movie that looked like special effects just for the sake of special effects. In a time when Pixar and Dreamworks SKG each release a movie a year featuring entire computer-generated worlds, that trick doesn’t work anymore, and it’s good that Lucas realized it.

Oh, and what about Jar Jar Binks? He makes a brief appearance, but it’s just a few seconds at most and he doesn’t say anything.

So what’s wrong with it?

Dialogue still isn’t Lucas’ strong point. It’s better this time than sometimes (at least someone asks "What’s the matter with you?" in this one; I remember an earlier movie having a line "What’s troubling you?" which just isn’t the way anyone talks) but the things people say still seem contrived, and at times it seems like the actors and actresses might as well be reading cue cards.

Examples? The most blatant examples surround the character of Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen), of course. The movie centers around Christensen’s struggles. And that’s the problem. We don’t get to see him struggle so much. We see him cry, but that seems out of place. I feel safe in saying this, since I think everyone knows what happens to Anakin Skywalker, so I’ll say it: Would Darth Vader cry? No? So why is Anakin Skywalker, the 20something hotshot Jedi, crying? It’s out of character. So what does someone who can’t let his guard down but really wants to cry do? Unfortunately, you won’t find out by watching this movie.

Similarly, Natalie Portman’s talents are wasted on the character of Padme. There is no actress alive better suited to play the prodigy Padme. Padme would have been a lot better with more Natalie Portman pontifications and fewer George Lucas pontifications coming out of her. The relentlessness of Portman’s character from Garden State is missing. And at at least one point in the movie, she breaks Anakin Skywalker’s heart. Portman proved in the movie Closer that she can break a heart like nobody’s business. Had she been allowed to truly break the heart of Hayden Christensen and every male in the audience, it would have been a better movie.

Both Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) get very angry with Anakin Skywalker in this movie. At one point, Jackson says, "If you’re right, you’ve earned my trust." Inappropriate. Where’s the Samuel L. Jackson attitude? The cold stare? "You’ll earn my trust when you’re right!" is a good start. Of course in most movies, Jackson would include a couple of f-bombs and end the sentence with a word that starts with the letter "b." Especially if the person he’s talking to happens to be male. Lucas keeps that kind of language out of Star Wars, but Samuel L. Jackson can say those words with his tone of voice even without the actual words coming out. He should have been allowed to.

Ewan McGregor is similarly handcuffed. At the movie’s darkest hour, McGregor’s words don’t match his actions. McGregor sorely needed to drag back out some of the attitude he showed in Trainspotting.

The writing suffers also. Some of the characters are inconsistent. There are minor characters in the movie who seemed larger than life earlier in the movie, yet they died without a struggle. I understand needing to get on with the story, but had they died fighting, it would have been all the more tragic. And besides, had those stories been told, maybe then there would have been 30 seconds spent on the love story rather than 10 minutes.

Gatermann tells me there were some lame attempts at humor in the movie. I didn’t catch anything that even sounded like an attempt at humor. It’s not like this movie had bad actors in it, so this movie should have had its moments.

Kevin Smith compares the movie to Othello or Hamlet. Well, for some in my generation, I’m sure it is. But this movie isn’t going to be remembered much past my generation. My generation’s children will like it for a while because we dragged them along to go see it. But will it capture their imaginations the way it did ours nearly 30 years ago? No. Will it take a seat next to The Wizard of Oz, or Gone With the Wind? No.

And that’s what’s frustrating. George Lucas came up with a good story. He did his homework. All the elements are there. He studied his mythology and mimicked it well. His psychology seems pretty sound. And his characters, especially the key characters, are all very compelling.

This movie had all of the potential for greatness. Probably not Shakespearean greatness, but it had the potential to be the movie of the decade, and, like Anakin Skywalker, it just didn’t live up to it. It won’t even be the best movie to come out this year.

That observation does more to help me understand how Obi-Wan Kenobi felt than Ewan McGregor’s acting did. And that’s really a shame.

This is another lame Johnny Ramone tribute

Johnny Ramone died today. That name might not mean anything to the majority of you. That’s OK.

Johnny Ramone was the guitarist for the Ramones, a punk rock band that got started in the ’70s. His bandmates Joey Ramone and Dee Dee Ramone have already passed, all way before their time.My only public Ramones experience was in 1996 or so. I was at Royals Stadium, and the Royals were playing another miserable game under the watch of manager Bob Boone. I don’t remember what the score was and I don’t remember who they were playing. All I remember was the other team brought in a left-hander and Bob Boone pinch-hit for Johnny Damon, and at that point, I was done.

And then the sound of the Ramones came on the PA system: the famous opening to Blitzkreig Bop. "’Ey! Oh! Let’s go! Ey! Oh! Let’s go!"

I responded by singing out another Ramones song, much to the dismay of those sitting around me:

"Bah bah bah bah, bah bah bha bah bah, I wanna be sedated!"

The Ramones recorded simple music. Their songs were really short, really fast, and for their time, really loud. And they never took themselves seriously.

They printed a story in the sleeve of their first retrospective compilation. I guess most would call it a greatest hits collection, except the Ramones didn’t really have any hits. The story was about their first gig. Joey, Tommy, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone walked into a bar, tall, lanky, long hair, wearing t-shirts and leather jackets. The bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment. They got up and played a few numbers, all of them really fast, really loud, none over two minutes. And at the end, the bar owner didn’t know if they were a band or four thugs looking to steal sound equipment.

I’m sure the pair of alternative stations in St. Louis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, far on the left side of the dial, played plenty of Ramones. The problem was you couldn’t hear either 89.7 or 89.5 FM if you were more than about two blocks from their dinky little towers. The first station with any kind of power that would play the Ramones was 105.7, which started playing alternative music in 1993. Back in the days before it turned into all Bush, all the time (which was just before it turned into all Korn, all the time), they mixed in some Ramones along with Nirvana and Matthew Sweet and Sugar and The Pretenders and the Gin Blossoms and the dozens of other bands the Ramones had influenced. But it was too little, too late. In 1996 they released an album titled "Adios, Amigos!" And they meant it. No more tours, no more new records, no nothing. And they vanished. I think I heard about Joey Ramone doing a few cameos on sitcoms or something. But the only time I heard the Ramones on radio again was on a retro station right after the DJ announced one of them had died. Which was fairly often, now that I think about it.

But now there’s no retro station in St. Louis to play the Ramones as a tribute to Johnny. And the record industry doesn’t have the patience these days for bands like the Ramones. The Ramones were like the Velvet Underground, in that they were the kind of band that would sell a few thousand records, but everyone who bought one of those records would go start a band.

I read today that Slash learned to play guitar by listening to Johnny Ramone. Slash! Of Guns ‘n’ Roses!

Ten years ago, they’d have let the Ramones record the first album. Some executive would have liked it. It wouldn’t have sold any better, and they’d have let them record a second album, but only because that first album showed some promise. When the sales figures for the second one came in, they’d tell them to hit the road.

Today, if that first Ramones record didn’t sell a million copies, there wouldn’t be a second Ramones record.

I don’t know that we’ll see another Johnny Ramone again. The world’s changed too much since his day. For the worse.

0wnz0r3d by an electrical storm

We had some more downtime yesterday as my DSL connection got 0wnz0r3d. Not by a script kiddie, but by an electrical storm–thankfully just a rainstorm and not thundersnow–and I fell off the ‘net.
I reset the DSL modem when I got home and all was well.

I’ll be back this evening with a (gasp!) programming piece. Well, pretty lame programming, really. But what good is having the GPL around if you don’t take advantage of it?

Mail: Data recovery 101


From: EP
Subject: dead hard drive
Dave,

I would really like to learn something about getting data from drives that clunk or have a burned board. Your link to 200 ways does not work.

Could you be of any help to me?

Ezra

As far as drives that clunk, unless the system recognizes it enough that you can run SpinRite on it, I don’t know how to do it. A clunk can be indicative of a lot of different things, from a crashed head (very difficult–you’ll need a cleanroom to get anything) to a simple bad sector (very easy–sometimes even something as lame as ScanDisk can save you sometimes; SpinRite almost always will).

Drives that have a burned board are easier. If you can track down an identical drive, you can swap the board and usually get the data back. I’ve done that a couple of times. The hard part is tracking down an identical drive.

Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

Dave

The St. Louis I never knew

Hey, I never said anything about not posting new content here, right? Friday night, Gatermann and I went out to the east side to do some shooting. It was overcast, so we didn’t snap many pictures–I think three between the two of us. We passed some half-demolished buildings with for sale signs in front of them. We passed an apartment complex that advertised cheap rent, and from the looks of the buildings, windows must have cost extra because the buildings sure didn’t have very many. The frightening thing was, there were signs of life in the complex.
We picked up our friend Jeanne (after heading back to south St. Louis–she doesn’t hang out much on the east side, as far as we can tell) and headed north to St. Louis Avenue, home of the Crown Candy Kitchen. Not every St. Louisan knows about the place, which is a shame. Their sandwiches are fabulous, but the real reason people go there is for an excuse to get a milkshake or something else made of ice cream.

Citysearch gave it a one-star review, but they’re smoking crack. The people who’ve actually been there gave it four out of four (and unanimously, I think). Crown was founded by two Greek immigrants in 1913, and they made all the candy and ice cream themselves. The place has stayed in the family ever since, and they continue to make their own candy and ice cream. Those huge multinational conglomerates ain’t got nothing on these guys. Comparing Crown to the ice cream you get in a grocery store or another restaurant is like comparing Schlitz beer to Boulevard.

Crown is across the street from what used to be a bustling commercial district, but there’s not much left in there now besides a hair salon and some social workers’ offices. Two or three of the buildings are condemned. Many of the others obviously were beautiful in their day, and it wouldn’t take much to make them beautiful again. Looking at it made me sad. It hurts to see wasted potential.

If your travels take you through St. Louis, Crown is absolutely worth a stop. It’s just a mile or two west of I-70.

I know the first words my dad will say to me after I die: “David, how come none of your lame St. Louis friends told you about that ice cream joint until eight years after I was gone?”

And he’ll have a point. Living in St. Louis for five years and never hearing about the place is a real shame. It’s 100 times worse than living in St. Louis for five years and never hearing about the Cardinals.

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