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Louis County

Ghosts from the past…

Wednesday night, 6:35 PM: I was in my South St. Louis County apartment, getting ready for church, when my phone rang. I’d had at least one telemarketing call that night already, but I picked up the phone anyway.
“Hello?” I said, maybe slightly agitated.

“Dave?” a female voice asked. So much for a telemarketer. I recognized the voice but didn’t place it immediately. And obviously she knew me.

“Yes?”

“It’s Wendy.” Ah, Wendy from church. OK.

“What’s up?” I asked. She doesn’t routinely call me–she doesn’t routinely call anyone, I don’t think–so I figured she probably needed something. That’s OK. I take care of my friends.

“What’s it mean when your computer says, ‘Bad or missing command interpreter. Enter path of a valid command interpreter, e.g. c:windowscommand.com’?”

“Oh. That means one of the files your computer needs to get started is blitzed,” I said. “What happens if you type it?”

“You’re gonna hate me,” she said as she typed the filename. “You deal with this stuff all day and now I call you wanting computer advice.”

I could never hate her. She’s too nice. Besides, guys like fixing things, especially for people they like. I probably should have told her that.

“It just repeats the same thing again,” she said.

“I see.” I had her try a couple of other locations–Microsoft OSs have always installed command.com in too many places. But no go.

“Are my other files OK?”

“Hopefully,” I said. “My computer used to do this to me once a year.”

“My whole life is on this computer, Dave,” she said, sounding a little distressed. My heart melted. I hate it when bad things happen to good people. I especially hate it when bad things happen to good people and one of Bill Gates’ or Steve Jobs’ toy operating systems is involved. But sometimes it’s just a minor inconvenience. I hoped this was one of those instances.

“I just need to boot your computer off a floppy, type a command or two, and it’ll probably come right back to life,” I said.

“Do you have time to do this? I mean, really have time to do this?” She didn’t want to inconvenience me.

“Yeah, I’m on my way to church, and you’re on the way, and it should only take me a couple of minutes,” I said as I formatted a disk and copied sys.com to it.

After assuring her again that I was sure, I told her I’d be there in about 10 minutes. I hopped in my car, disk in hand, ready to go be a hero and still make it to church on time. I rang her bell, heard her dog scream bloody murder, and she opened the door. As soon as she let me in, her Labrador warmed up to me. She led me to the computer room, where I sat down and popped in a disk. She yanked on her Lab’s leash, trying to keep her away from me. She wasn’t having much luck.

“That’s OK,” I said to Wendy. “I like dogs.” Then I turned to the dog and started scratching behind her ears. “I’ll bet the most dangerous part of you is your tail. You just like people so much you thump ’em to death, don’t you?” I turned to the computer and booted off the floppy. It didn’t work. So I restarted, and when it asked for a command interpreter, I typed “a:command.com” and got a command prompt. Meanwhile, her dog grabbed onto my hand with her paw so I wouldn’t go anywhere. Shadow, the Cocker Spaniel/Irish Setter mix I had growing up, used to do that.

I ran sys.com and rebooted, expecting to be a hero. Instead, I got the dreaded invalid media type reading drive C error.

I told Wendy I’d need the heavy artillery to fix this problem. I kicked myself for not bringing any more sophisticated tools like MBRWORK. It looked like a blitzed partition table to me.

I rebooted a couple more times to try to get symptoms. The Windows logo splashed up ever so briefly. The drive didn’t make any weird noises. That was good. That meant the boot record was intact, and that some data was intact–obviously, because it was reading the Windows logo. It looked just like the time my Pentium-75 crashed and forced me to cycle power, then didn’t come back up. I didn’t know how to fix a blitzed partition table then. But that was a long time ago.

By now, it was 7:20. “I can go get some more tools,” I offered.

“Go to church,” she said. “I’d feel really bad if you miss church. Tell Pastor John it’s my fault.”

I did my best to reassure her that I could get her data back. I told her the odds looked like about 50/50. In reality I was more confident than that, but unless I’m about 99% certain, I won’t say the chances are any better than 50/50. There’s nothing I hate more than disappointing people.

I went to church mad at myself that I hadn’t gotten her data back. I came home from church, got ready to gather up my tools, and checked my messages. It was Wendy. She said she’d gone to school to work on a paper, that we’d worry about the computer tomorrow but it wasn’t a big deal.

Maybe it wasn’t to her. But it was to me. I hate losing, especially to a computer. I have since I was in first grade and played Atari at my neighbors’ house. True, back then I got mad when I lost at Donkey Kong, but in my mind there’s no difference. Even though it’s a different game today and I lost a lot then and I rarely lose now, it doesn’t make me hate losing any less. Especially when I’m playing with other people’s stuff. Her words echoed in my mind: “My whole life is on this computer, Dave.”

I wasn’t going to let her down. I wasn’t going to let myself down by letting her down. I was going to get that data back, and I didn’t care what I had to do to get it.

I called her back, expecting her not to be there. Her mom, Debby, answered the phone. She gave me a few more clues, told me she didn’t expect Wendy home until late, said one or the other of them would be home about 3:30 the next day. I’d been at work until close to six on Wednesday and saw the possibility of having to stay that late on Thursday. I didn’t make any hard and fast promises about when I’d be there, but I started plotting how I would escape work by 4:15.

On Thursday, I loaded up floppies containing all the standard Microsoft disk tools, plus Norton Disk Doctor, plus Spinrite, plus MBRWORK and a few other partition recovery tools, along with a Windows 98 CD, and took the whole wodge of stuff to work. At 4:20, I called. Debby answered. I told her I was leaving work and I’d probably get there in about 20 minutes.

Along the way, I listened to a bunch of punk rock, really loud, and got myself pumped up. Whether it’s stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with runners on second and third and two out, or just a tricky computer problem, I get myself into the same mental place. The world fades away and I see nothing but the challenge. By the time I got to their house, I was in the zone. I was so in the zone that I walked up to the front door of the wrong house. Wendy’s Lab was in the front yard giving me the “I know you! What are you doing over there? Get over here and pet me!” look. I didn’t notice. The neighbor pointed next door. Feeling stupid, I walked over. The dog congratulated me on getting smart, Debby greeted me, and I went another round with her computer, running MBRWORK. It recovered the partition successfully, it said. I got excited. I rebooted and the computer asked me for a command interpreter again.

Cantankerous computer 2, Dave 0.

I went home, fixed myself a little something to eat, pondered the situation, and wrote my Bible study for Friday night on my company laptop. That calmed me down enough to let me think rationally again. I packed up everything I could possibly need: Norton AntiVirus, Ghost, an extra hard drive, two laptops, a couple of Linux CDs, both versions of Windows 98, utilities disks…

I booted off my disks and tried a few things. Nothing. I booted my company laptop up with the disks–that laptop doesn’t have DOS installed–and added a couple more toys. They didn’t help. Wendy got home and asked if it was a bad sign I was there. I muttered something and probably came off as rude. I was in the zone, after all. I asked her if she had any floppies she wanted me to scan for viruses. She handed me one, and I tried to boot my laptop into Windows. It showed the very same symptoms as her computer.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Virus writers, PLEASE get a life. Get interested in girls or something. Anything!

Wendy didn’t like the look on my face. I told her what happened. She said a phrase I won’t repeat here, then apologized. There was no need. I felt like saying it too. Or something worse.

For grins, I tried booting the laptop into Linux. It booted up like it was cool. Hmm. Boot sector viruses that kill Windows dead don’t even make Linux flinch. I owe Linus Torvalds a beer.

I tried mounting my main Windows partition. Linux reported NTFS errors. Visions of virus writers getting beaten to a bloody pulp danced in my mind.

Since I was now convinced we were dealing with a boot sector virus, I replaced the MBR. No joy. I booted off a Linux CD, switched over to a console, ran cfdisk, and viewed the partition table. One 4-gig partition, FAT32. No problems. Odd.

Wendy started fretting. “You’ve spent all this time and you’ve lost your laptop. I’m about to start to cry.”

I stopped what I was doing, turned to her, and looked her straight in the eye. “I take care of my friends.”

She looked back at me like she thought that was kind of cool.

“I don’t care about the laptop. I can fix that later. I can rewrite the Bible study that was on it. It took me 20 minutes to write, so it’ll take me 15 minutes to rewrite. I’m going to get your data back.”

The Bible study I lost indeed took me about 15 minutes to rewrite, and the second version was a lot better. But I didn’t get her data back that night. Eventually I gave up, pulled her drive, installed a new drive, and installed Windows and Office on it so they’d have a computer that was useful for something. Debby walked in as I was switching drives, noticed the dust inside the case, and gave it a disgusted look. She came back with a rag and Wendy started laughing at her.

“She can’t stand dust anywhere. I guess not even inside electronics,” Wendy said.

Debby lit up when she walked in the room and saw the Windows 98 screen on her computer. Later when Wendy walked back in, she let out a whoop and told her mom she was missing beautiful things in the computer room. I was pretty happy about it too. Windows 98 didn’t install easily–the intial reboot failed and installation didn’t continue until I booted it in safe mode, then rebooted. I gave the computer a lecture as I booted it, reminding it that I have enough spare parts at home to build a computer like it and would have no qualms about destroying it and replacing it with something else. I know it didn’t hear or understand a word I said, but I felt better afterward.

I felt bad about not getting the data back that night. Wendy and I talked for about 45 minutes about other things. I felt better afterward. I forgot to thank her. Around midnight, I packed up the stuff and drove home.

Wendy and I talked the next day over e-mail. I’d taken my disks to work and scanned them on a non-networked PC nobody cared about and found the Form virus. Wendy had taken some disks to school and had them scanned. They contained both Form and antiCMOS. Since antiCMOS resides in the MBR and Form resides on the primary partition, the two viruses can coexist. Form was relatively harmless on FAT16 drives, and although antiCMOS was potentially destructive in 1991, it’s much less so now that PCs autodetect hard drives at boot rather than relying on parameters stored in CMOS. My work the night before would have eliminated antiCMOS, which explained why it wasn’t present on my disks. I did a Dejanews search on Form and FAT32, to see if that would explain the apparent partition corruption. I found that the symptoms were exactly what Wendy was showing. And I found recovery methods that had a high success rate.

I haven’t put Wendy’s drive in one of my PCs yet to recover it. But I’m pretty confident I’ll get her data back. That’s a good thing. I’ve met nicer people than Wendy and Debby. But only once or twice. People like them don’t come around very often, so I’d like to do something nice for them.

Bringing their data back from oblivion would do.

Spammers must die… And it’s possible their enterprises will. With your help.

Hi. My name is Dave Rhodes.
Sorry, that’s not funny. Remember the good old days, when the closest thing we got to spam was the occasional Dave Rhodes chain letter? (I found a joke about him that I found amusing.)

But something great happened today. Besides finding that joke, I mean. I came up with a foolproof way to make buckets and buckets of money through UNSOCLICITED COMMERCIAL E-MAIL. Now, remember, UCE isn’t spam. Spam’s bad.

Here’s how it works. You don’t have to buy anything from me. I’m not going to sell you a CD-ROM full of three-year-old e-mail addresses harvested by some scriptkiddie’s code. You don’t need it. Making money from UCE doesn’t even require you to send out a single piece of e-mail! Not a one!

Believe it or not, your customers will come to you! About the only thing you have to do to build up your list of victims, I mean clients, is to get an e-mail address, then sit back and wait!

Best of all, this method is safe and completely legal! It hasn’t been approved by the Postmaster General. It does, however, have the blessings of the Federal Trade Commission and the legislatures of 17 U.S. states! (Dave Rhodes ain’t got nothin’ on me!)

Did you know that 17 states have laws regarding unsolicited commercial e-mail? Yes, those 17 states have very strict regulations and requirements. Certain types of spam are illegal in those states. So why don’t spam laws work? Because nobody uses them! And in the end, the loser is you!

You see, when a spammer violates those regulations, you can sue them! One attorney in Washington state sues spammers in small claims court and so far has collected more than $13,000! One Missouri resident, bombarded by unsolicited e-mail from a free webhosting service after he cancelled his account with them, sued in small claims court and received $2,525! That’s $500 per unsolicited message that didn’t meet with Missouri law, plus the spammer even had to pay his court costs of $25!

Just think… That unsolicited e-mail that annoys you could be worth thousands! But in order to cash in, you have to be, you know, in the know (wink wink), if you know what I mean. What’s that information worth to you? A hundred bucks? Two-fifty?

Who cares! Go to www.suespammers.org and check to see what your state’s laws on spam are. It’s free. You don’t even have to tell ’em I sent you. It won’t do any good to tell ’em I sent you anyway, because they don’t know me from Adam.


Man. I ought to be in infomercials. I sure know how to use italics and exclamation points. Though most of these creeps think quotation marks are for emphasis. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves.

Someone else e-mailed me at work and sent me a link to a link to a link that led me to this Brian Livingston column, which eventually led me to www.suespammers.org, where I learned that 17 states have anti-spam laws on the books. I looked into the laws, which are printed on the site. Surprisingly, Missouri is one of the more enlightened states. If a spammer sends e-mail to Missouri and fails to include an opt-out e-mail address or 800 number, you can sue the spammer for 500 smackers.

Most spammers include an opt-out Web page. That complies with the spirit of Missouri law, but not the letter of it. Maybe someone pointed out to lawmakers that it’s harder to implement an e-mail opt-out than a Web page opt-out. Who knows. The law is a stroke of genius, whether by design or accident. I don’t know if that’ll hold up in court, because that really is a technicality. But a lot of spam doesn’t provide any opt-out at all, which means they have no defense whatsoever.

This got me thinking. I get tons of spam. I might have $3,000 worth of spam in my inbox just from this week. I probably ought to check. I could make a decent living suing spammers until the laws change.

And this got me thinking some more. Who cares if 55 people buy stuff when they send out 100,000 messages? Fancy this possibility: What if every time a spammer sent out 100,000 messages, 55 of the recipients sued? The number of sales is irrelevant when you’re faced with that many lawsuits. And let’s face it. Most spammers are idiots trying to get rich quick working out of a spare bedroom. They don’t have a lot of resources. I know the type of individual who tries this crap because I’m related to one. (Fortunately for the world, there’s probably not enough left in his head for him to be able to operate a computer these days. But I’m pretty sure if he had my phone number he’d be calling me, asking me to hook him up. Don’t worry. If he ever gets my phone number, I’m changing it the next day.) This type of person is not well-equipped to handle a few dozen separate lawsuits, especially a few dozen lawsuits outside his home state. And he’s dead meat if multiple suits in different states happen to end up landing on the same court date, since generally if you’re not present you lose by default.

It makes no sense to fight a Missouri lawsuit. Unless you live in the same county as the plaintiff, you’ll probably spend more than $500 to defend yourself, and judges aren’t very sympathetic to the plight of a spammer because so many of them are con artists anyway. It’s much cheaper to just settle. The nature of the spammer is to just ignore it, which of course becomes even more costly. Getting on the wrong side of a judge is a lot more dangerous than getting on the wrong side of an ISP.

So, here’s what you and I need to start doing to really make a difference. Spam filters mostly work, yes, but why should we bother with that when we can sue the lowlives out of business and pick up a little extra cash? And no, my libertarian tendencies are against a federal anti-spam law, because it’s much harder to comply with 17 states’ varying laws than it is with one Federal law, which would probably be watered down anyway. And if more of the remaining 33 put laws on the books, it’ll be even tougher to comply. That would be a very good thing. Wouldn’t it be absolutely fantabulous if some state required a toll-free opt-out number? That would significantly raise the cost of doing business…

The Missouri law is good in that someone can make a lot of money by suing people who don’t comply, but the people who do comply can simply disregard the opt-out stuff. I’ve seen spammers use 800 opt-out numbers. I’ve even called. It’s funny how they never pick up the phone. Missouri laws will drive the less-crafty spammers out of business if enough people use them, but it’s the Washington laws that’ll really hurt. They’re stricter still. In Washington, the state holds the opt-out list, and if you spam an account on that opt-out list, you’re lawsuit bait. Period. And apparently, a printout of the e-mail is sufficient evidence. Sounds like some influential guy in Washington really doesn’t like spam.

The difficult part is tracking down the spammer so you can sue them. There’s a nice primer on decoding mail headers here and some more information here.

I know. It’s my journalistic responsibility to go nail one of these creeps and step you through the process. (And get 500 bucks to boot.) Maybe this weekend I’ll start walking down that road. Tracking down a physical address from a mail header so I can slap a guy with a lawsuit in St. Louis County ought to be interesting. But we journalists have ways of tracking down people who don’t want to be tracked down.

And then there’s this. Go here to read about a guy who set up a Paypal account, sent threatening notes to 15 spammers, and netted 300 bucks in 10 minutes. And his page makes it sound like you can go to a state with tougher spam laws and sue them there if you wish. Strange. You can sue somewhere other than in your hometown? Looks like I need the services of an attorney.

There’s a certain poetic justice to the idea that you can make more money off a spammer’s mass e-mailing than the spammer makes, isn’t there? I think we can fight and win this war.

Look out City, Suburban Boy’s coming to visit!

St. Louis makes a huge distinction between St. Louis City and St. Louis County, much like most cities I’ve visited. One thing I’ll say for the City: Being older, it has a whole lot more character. The St. Louis suburbs are, well, for the most part pre-fab, cookie-cutter, chain-infested boroughs. An outsider would have a hard time telling the difference between Mehlville and Oakville. It takes some looking to find a building more than 50 or 60 years old, and chances are few of the buildings you do find will still be standing in 60 years. I live in the county because I work in the county, and the City taxes you if you live in the City but work in the county–the intent of that law is to punish executives who work in the City but live in ritzy suburbs like Clayton or Ladue or Town & Country, but young professionals like me who live in the city because we like it but who happen to be employed in the county take a tax hit. Really, that kind of living should be encouraged–we’re bringing suburban money into the city, and during rush hour we’re driving against traffic, lessening congestion. And young professionals tend to eat out a lot and spend lots of money. If anything, there should be a slight tax incentive to live in the city and work in the county. But, once again, there are obviously issues involved here that are beyond the capacity of my little brain.
So I now live in the suburbs. But I prefer the City because I like character, and St. Louis is an old enough city to have some character (Europeans will scoff at that, but consider our standards–and really, you can develop some character in 150-200 years).

I’m meeting two friends for lunch later today. Both of them live in the City. One asked where to meet and where to go. I didn’t suggest Burger King in Oakville. But, typical of males, none of us could decide where to go, so I piped in. “Well, aren’t we just the bastions of decisiveness. Look, I’m Suburban Boy. There are great places in both of your neighborhoods, but I don’t know what they are. I’ll defer to your better judgment.”

Well, there’s a deli within a mile or two of where one of them lives that’s supposed to be out of this world. So that’s where we’re going. I know, in this day and age Subway has totally homogenized our idea of a deli, so a good local deli, when you can find one, is a delight. Two local chains used to have locations near where I work. There was Ruma’s, in Concord Village, which was good, and there was Amighetti’s in Crestwood, which was to die for. Both locations are now a Quizno’s. Quizno’s isn’t bad but you can’t get a giant pickle there like you could at Ruma’s, and there’s nothing on Earth that compares to Amighetti’s bread–you could cook yourself up a big ol’ hunk o’ tire and put it on Amighetti’s bread and it’d taste good, if not fabulous. And it didn’t hurt that the girls who worked there were all drop-dead gorgeous. Man, I miss that place. St. Louis has a great Italian heritage, and we’re willing to sell it all out to Subway and Quizno’s.

So.. A neighborhood deli where I can eat outside and converse with two really cool people… Sounds great to me.