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out of the blue

Somebody just tried to hack me

Caller: “I calling from technical support. We found issue with your PC.”
Me: “What company are you with?”
Caller: “CSA is the name of my company.”
Me: “What’s our business relationship?”
Caller: “We found issue with your PC. Our technicians found your PC is running slow.”
Me: “Do you realize I wrote the book about PC performance? No, really, I wrote a book about it. I guarantee my computer is faster than yours. I also possess multiple security certifications.”
Caller: “Go on.”
Me: “You need to find someone else to social engineer.”

The caller stammered a little bit, tried to assure me it wasn’t a scam and wasn’t going to cost me money, then hung up.
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No, the government isn’t going to come take your trains

Friday’s news that the Department of Health and Human Services have added formaldehyde to the list of known carcinogens and styrene to the list of potential human carcinogens caused a rumble in some of the circles I run in.

Let’s calm down, everyone. This doesn’t mean the government is going to send FBI agents to your door, guns in hand, confiscating your plastic trains and toys. The bottom line is that there is some danger for industrial workers who are exposed to the raw chemicals, but comparatively little danger to the consumers who posses plastic products made from those chemicals.
Read More »No, the government isn’t going to come take your trains

Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

You’ve probably heard by now about Vanity Fair publishing an excerpt from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s autobiography,  which doesn’t give the most flattering portrayal of Bill Gates, his former business partner.

I’ve heard most of these stories before, though I’m trying to figure out where. What surprises me is the people who are acting like this stuff came out of the blue. If I’ve heard most of this stuff before, then so have a lot of people.
Read More »Paul Allen’s tearing into Gates seems familiar

Fixing my b0rken WordPress installation

A little over a week ago, WordPress started acting weird. First, it just got dog slow. Then my site stats page started freezing until I scrolled down and then back up again. Then I started seeing a logon screen on my site stats page. I had to look that account up. Thank goodness for Gmail. Then my Akismet spam filter quit working. Then my stats page stopped working entirely.

I lived with it for a couple of days. I figured maybe WordPress and Akismet had changed something. Or maybe my Linux distribution had. And maybe some update messed things up, and some other update would come along and fix it. No such luck.Read More »Fixing my b0rken WordPress installation


So an ex-girlfriend finds you on Facebook and contacts you out of the blue 12 years after the fact. What do you do?

1. Jump up and down like a giddy schoolgirl because someone’s interested enough to find you after all that time?

2. Passive-aggressively sit on the message?

3. Tell her exactly what you never had the chance to tell her?

Although option 2 crossed my mind, I thought it best to handle it a little bit differently.

My wife wasn’t home at the time, so I actually had a few minutes to think about it, which is probably good. The answer really was pretty easy.

I didn’t even open the message. When she got home, and after our son went to sleep, I told her, and I asked her to read the message and tell me what she wanted me to do with it.

Just this past Sunday, our pastor said in his sermon that one thing destroys marriages the fastest: secrets. To me, this seemed like a classic example of something (most likely) completely innocent that could very easily turn into something out of control under the wrong circumstances.

While my option certainly could be construed as overkill, it eliminates all possibility of misunderstanding. And it sends a very clear message that she’s more important than the ex.

Nothing in the message made her feel uncomfortable or threatened. Curious certainly, but not threatened. She spent some time poking around the ex’s Facebook profile and asking questions. And that was fine. It’s better for her to know than to wonder.

Maybe I handed over more control than some people would be comfortable handing over. But since this was completely innocent, what was there to be afraid of? I trust my wife, and this tells her that in a big way.

An hour or two later, I wrote a reply. I was cordial. Cordial is the appropriate tone. I’m not interested in being best friends. And being hurtful 12 years after the fact accomplishes nothing. Well, nothing worthwhile anyway.

And I was brief. This is also appropriate. Minutes after I saw the message, I talked to one of my best friends for the first time in months, and we talked for about 15 minutes. If that’s all I have right now for the guy who was the best man at my wedding, then I shouldn’t have more than that for someone who broke my heart 12 years ago and–I’ll say it–wasn’t very nice about it.

All relationships are different, but I can’t think of any good reason for two people, both married to someone else, to be writing long epistles to each other 12 years after the fact. That only invites the mind to go all sorts of places it shouldn’t go. "Your Wildest Dreams" by The Moody Blues doesn’t need to be cuing up in your head, and neither does anything by Barry Manilow.

I asked my wife to read my reply before I sent it. It’s all about checks and balances. She knows what’s going on. I was going to say it also prevents me from saying things I shouldn’t say, but self-restraint in e-mail is a requirement for my job and I’ve had lots of practice. But everyone is different.

"So are you going to friend her?" my wife asked. I said I didn’t know.

That, too, is a situation where everyone is different. If the parting wasn’t especially bitter and two people can both gain something by corresponding occasionally, why not? On the other extreme, if the sight of a person’s name triggers fight-or-flight mode, then it’s obviously not a good idea.

If the sight of a person’s name does cause you to go into fight or flight mode, I will say, speaking as someone who’s been there, that you need to deal with that issue. I don’t say that flippantly; I spent a lot of time and money working through it myself. It’s not easy but it’s necessary.

Ultimately the most important thing to do when a situation like this crops up is to keep priorities straight. There’s no reason to say, write, or do anything on account of 12 years ago that might mess up today or tomorrow.

Depending on what you make of it, this situation can sow seeds of trust or seeds of doubt. Personally, I’d rather have trust.

Dealing with being laid off

Well, it’s been just over a year since I was laid off from the only job I was ever willing to relocate for. Layoffs are never fun. Dealing with being laid off is hard. Looking back, with the perspective of a year and two days now, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

But I’ll be honest: That doesn’t make it hurt much less. But I know the shoes I was in a year ago try on someone new every day, and every year around this time, one or more of my former coworkers finds themselves in those shoes. I don’t know if I can help, but I’m going to try.

It’s harder for guys. For men, work is a big part of their identity. In most parts of the world, when you’re introduced, the second question people ask after your name is what you do for a living. (In St. Louis, that’s the question they ask after where you went to high school). But seriously, losing your job involuntarily is a really big deal, so feeling bad about feeling bad about it is counterproductive. Of course you feel bad about it. Grieve. Don’t hold it in–you’ll just get depressed, and everyone around you will sense you’re depressed, and it’ll make it that much harder to get another job.

Be a miser. You just lost your job. You don’t need it to cause you to lose everything else. I haven’t talked to a lot of homeless people, but more than one of them was once a highly skilled, productive worker with a lot of education. Homelessness is a complex thing, but loss of job plus depression plus running out of money can equal that.

You can’t know when you’ll have another paycheck, but you can figure out how long the money you have will last. You have a pretty good idea what your mortgage or rent and utilities cost. Throw in a couple hundred for expenses like groceries and gasoline, then divide that total by what you have left, and you have a pretty good idea how quickly you need to find a job.

Cut all the non-essentials. Quit eating out, buy generic products instead of name-brand, and do what you have to do to stretch what you have left.

Occasionally, my lunch was a package of Ramen noodles, half a can of fruit and half a can of mixed vegetables. Extreme? You bet. Fun? No way. But it helped keep me out of debt while I looked for work.

Search. Go to the library and get your hands on a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? The current year’s edition is always checked out. Don’t worry about it. Things change year to year, but that doesn’t mean the 2003 edition is worthless. The world doesn’t change that quickly. This book helps you find a job, but the more important thing it does is help you figure out what you should be doing. If your job isn’t worth having, trust me, Bill Lumbergh will notice it, and you’ll be on his list of jobs to cut. Lumbergh may not know anything about running a business, but he knows enough to keep the people who are happy to be there.

Interview. I called up everyone I knew who might know about a job opening somewhere that I would be qualified to do. I got my first job interview less than a week after I lost my old job. I lost the job on a Thursday, and I think I had an interview on Tuesday. I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t get one from the second place I interviewed with either, but they got me in the mode.

I will say one thing: If you get a second interview somewhere, don’t turn down an interview somewhere else. I quit looking for a couple of days because I thought I had a job in the bag. That didn’t pan out, and I lost valuable time and momentum. Interview at multiple jobs–you know they’re all interviewing multiple candidates, after all.

There are books that coach you on interviewing. Reading about interviewing is helpful, but frankly, a magazine article’s worth of advice on interviewing is all you need. Dress like you’re interviewing for the position of CEO, make sure you give a firm, warm handshake (visit the bathroom and wash your hands with hot water and dry vigorously just before the interview if you’re like me and you’re known for having cold hands), and be confident and personable. You don’t really need a 200-page book to tell you how to do that. Practice is what you need the most.

Trust me. From ages 16 to 25, I interviewed for exactly five jobs, and I got all five of them. At 25, I interviewed for another one and didn’t get it, but the guy interviewing me had his mind made up that he wanted a C++ programmer, something I’ve never pretended to be, so I didn’t get that. I’m 2 for 6 since age 30–but given what was going on at those four companies that didn’t hire me, nobody would feel bad about being turned down by them.

Think twice about taking the first offer. I got my first job offer about five weeks after my layoff. The main interviewer told me during the interview that the company was in trouble. One of the guys with him didn’t like me from the start and I could tell. They offered me the job. I took it, for a variety of reasons. I was going stir crazy. I’d just gotten married and my wife wasn’t working either. It paid $6,000 a year more than I had been making, with less responsibility.

I had a bad feeling about it, but I was desperate. I took it. It might or might not have been the best decision. Five months later I was looking for a job again. It wasn’t anything personal, they were just out of work for me to do. Had I clicked better, they may or may not have tried harder to find work for me to do. I’ll never know.

My point is, if you have a bad feeling about it, talk it over before you say yes.

Find someone to talk to. When it’s been a couple of days since the phone last rang and you’re feeling down about the situation, find someone to talk to. Talk to a trusted friend in the same job field. Talk it over with your SO. Talk it over with family members.

If you can’t do that, or you need more, there are other places to turn. The State of Missouri happens to have a career center within walking distance of my house. Had I not gotten my current job when I did, I probably would have gone there the next week. I would imagine every state has that type of resource–employed workers are good for the state, and unemployed workers are bad for it, after all.

Barring that, find a church. Seriously–even if that’s the last place you’d ever go for any reason. Walk in and tell whoever’s there that you just lost your job and you don’t know what to do next. Tell ’em you’re not asking for money, you just need some idea what to do next. A large percentage of pastors today weren’t always pastors, so they’ve dealt with being in the workforce and the issues that go along with it. And pastors in some denominations can be dismissed from their church with little or no notice, so some pastors live with less job security than everyone else is used to having.

Take a chance. While I was trying to find work, I also prowled the library, looking for books about business, trying to come up with a business to start.

I didn’t find a lot of viable ideas. There are better books out today than there were a year ago, but even those aren’t perfect. I probably had a dozen ideas. I actually tried three. The third one–the one that seemed like the longest shot–was the one that worked.

What that business was doesn’t matter. What matters is finding something with low overhead that you can do better than anyone else–something that matches your skills and interests.

My wife was the key on this. For the most part her strengths are where I’m weak, and vice-versa, so we cover each other’s weaknesses. I’ve always suspected I’d be good at selling a product I believed in, and it seems I was right. And as it turns out, my wife is good at it too.

She kept the business going after I went back to work. I help out on Saturdays and on the occasional evening. Some months she makes more money doing this than I made at the job I lost in the first place.

Stay away from “network marketing” (a fancy word for pyramid schemes). You want to actually be in business for yourself. Look for some business books, and if you find places where the author is wrong, you’re on the right track. Think about things you like. If you like music, think about reselling vinyl records. If you like sports, think about reselling baseball cards. If you’re really good with computers and not an extreme introvert like me, go into business doing computer service.

If you happen to be outgoing, you really have it made. The secret of the most successful sellers of vintage Lionel and similar trains is that they talk to everyone about it–they literally hand out their business card to the other people standing in line at the grocery store and say, “If you’ve got old trains or if any of your neighbors do, I’ll buy them. If you refer anyone to me, I’ll give you a commission.” I would imagine the same trick would work a whole lot better for computer service. These days, everyone has a computer, and nobody’s happy with how well it works. And people don’t look at you funny if you talk to them out of the blue about computers.

If I had enough nerve to talk to five strangers a day, I’d probably be a millionaire.

So starting a business might be a good way to go. You’ll probably need to find a regular job for a while, since many businesses are actually a drain on your resources for the first 18 months or so, but if you can find a job to keep you on your feet in the meantime, being in business for yourself could be the ultimate solution to dealing with a layoff.

Some baseball players entertain; Dave Dravecky changed my life

This evening I looked at the list of short biographies I’ve written. Some were requests. A number of them were people I found fascinating. And in the case of Lyman Bostock and George Brett, they were men who changed the way I lived life.
I asked myself who was missing. And I came up with some names.

Dave Dravecky.

Dave Dravecky. Man, what can I tell you about Dave Dravecky? He happened to be pitching on one of the worst days of my life. I won’t go into details–it wasn’t his fault. The day would have been a little bit better if he hadn’t pitched those two shutout innings, but not much.

Three years later, my dad scored tickets to Game 2 of the 1987 National League Playoffs at Busch Stadium. Dad and I made a career of living in eastern Missouri and hating the Cardinals; we donned our Royals gear and watched Dravecky pitch the best baseball game I ever saw in person, tossing a sparkling two-hitter. Amazing. I remember thinking that must have been what it was like to watch Lefty Grove or Sandy Koufax pitch.

The next season, Dravecky started feeling sick. Doctors found cancer in his pitching arm. They took half his deltoid muscle and froze the humerus bone. The doctors’ goal was to kill the cancer and leave enough arm for him to be able to do things like tie his shoes. Dravecky’s goal was to pitch in the majors again.

You can probably guess what’s next, since the story’s not over yet. He pitched two games for the San Francisco Giants in August 1989. The first game was a drama. Not a masterpiece like the game I saw at Busch, but a solid 8-inning performance that he won 4-3. The second game, he felt his arm start to tingle in the fifth inning. In the sixth inning, it broke as he threw a fastball to Tim Raines. The Giants were headed to the World Series that year and everybody knew it, and Dravecky wasn’t going to be able to contribute any further. It was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking because he’d been through so much. And it was heartbreaking because the Giants lost that World Series, and Dravecky’s left arm probably could have won it for them, and what a story that would have been.

Dravecky’s arm broke in a second place during the celebration as the Giants won the last game of the playoffs. Dravecky was asking God some questions after that. Not “Why me?” but rather, “Why was I so stupid?”

Well, some good came of it. A doctor was examining the x-rays to make sure the two breaks were lining up. The good news was, they were. The bad news wasn’t that he’d never pitch again. The bad news was what else he saw.

The lump was back.

Two surgeries later, the cancer was gone, but Dravecky’s once strong arm was a dead limb. He had no range of motion and he was in pain and it was constantly infected. Two years after his aborted comeback, he had to have the arm amputated. Now he really wasn’t going to pitch again.

So now Dravecky is a former baseball player, as well as an author and evangelist. His 1992 book, When You Can’t Come Back, is inspiring. I read it in high school. Flipping through it to find details for his bio, I decided I really need to read it again.

There are other names that came to mind. Ron Hassey. I’ll never forget a game in 1984, after he’d been traded to the Chicago Cubs. He went from the starting catcher for the cellar-dwelling Indians to a little-used backup for a contender. One day, out of the blue, he was playing first base. Not his usual position. And at one point in the game, he stretched to make a catch, and pulled a muscle. He made the catch, then he collapsed, grimacing in pain. Players surrounded him. And you know what Hassey did? He rolled, squirmed, stretched, somehow made his way over to first base, tagged the base, and made the out. Then they carried him off the field on a stretcher and it was two months before you saw him again.

How he noticed that he could take advantage of the situation and get a cheap out, I have no earthly idea. I admire people like that.

I like people like that. People who give 100%. Even when their 100% is a mere 1% of what it would be on any other day, people who still give whatever it is they’ve got. I don’t know how many people remember Ron Hassey, but I’ll never forget him.

And I know I’ll never forget Dave Dravecky. Dravecky lost everything. For as long as he could remember, his left arm was the reason people were interested in him. Then, one day, it was gone. He learned what he could do with what he had left. He could give people courage. Hope. It took him some time. But he’s afffected thousands of people in a powerful way. Not bad for a guy who wondered what he had left.

There are people who give momentary thrills, and there are people who change your life.

I know which one I’d rather be.