The breach that keeps on giving

In what should be old news by now, back in June, LinkedIn‘s servers were breached, leaking around 6.5 million user names and passwords.  Hackers were then able to determine (for the most part) what passwords were associated with the hashes and accounts.  While this may have compromised LinkedIn accounts, the greater problem is with any other accounts that happen to use the same username and password.

In my case, the only such pair was LinkedIn and Stamps.com, which was a bit sloppy on my part, but since I’m not in the habit of re-using passwords at all, it hadn’t occurred to me, nor had it occurred to me that this would present a problem until somebody managed to send an express package from the Ukraine, charging my account for it, to the tune of $60 or so.

While I’m kicking myself for this, it could have been a lot worse, even if I were to use the same password for email, which would then have allowed hackers to intercept “lost password” requests for all the accounts I have which don’t use the same passwords.

The lesson I take away is that even accounts I consider “unimportant” because they’re not linked to credit cards or can be used to make purchases should be given random passwords rather than common, disposable passwords.  And, of course, chaining accounts is bad.

 

 

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FreeBSD bsdpan- to p5- migration for perl modules

FreeBSD has a package system to manage installations and dependencies, and so does perl.  Perl on FreeBSD, therefore, causes these to intersect in interesting, and sometimes suboptimal ways.

CPAN can be used to install perl packages that aren’t in the ports tree, and FreeBSD handles this with relative grace by including them in its package database with the prefix “bsdpan,” and be excluded from updates.  An identical package installed from the ports tree will be prefixed with “p5” instead, and be treated as any other port, with dependencies and upgrades handled as part of the ports system.

After trying out a few CPAN modules (which in turn installed their own dependencies) I found myself with a great many “bsdpan” packages, which I’d prefer to tuck neatly into the bsd ports tree rather than continue to manage with CPAN, therefore, I whanged together a shell script to do it:

#!/bin/sh
pkg_info | grep ^bsdpan | awk '{print $1}' > /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5.tmp
> /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5-2.tmp
cd /usr/ports
while read bsdname; do
  name=$(echo $bsdname | cut -c 8- )
  portpath=$(make search name=p5-$name | grep ^Path | awk '{print $2}' | sed -r 's/\/usr\/ports\///')
  shortname=$(echo $name | sed -r 's/(.*)-.*/\1/');
  if [ "$portpath" ]; then
     echo -n p5-$name is in ports,
       echo " adding to list"
       echo portupgrade -o $portpath -f bsdpan-$shortname >> /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5-2.tmp
  else
     echo p5-$name not in ports
     portpath=$(make search name=p5-$shortname- | grep ^Path | awk '{print $2}' | sed -r 's/\/usr\/ports\///')
     if [ "$portpath" ]; then
       paths=$(echo $portpath | wc -w)
       if [ "$paths" -eq "1" ]; then
          p5name=$(make search name=p5-$shortname- | grep Port | awk '{print $2}')
          echo " ... $p5name found, using that"
          echo portupgrade -o $portpath -f bsdpan-$shortname >> /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5-2.tmp
       fi
     fi
  fi
done < /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5.tmp
rm /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5.tmp
echo
echo "Starting conversion ..."
echo
sh /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5-2.tmp
rm /tmp/bsdpan-to-p5-2.tmp

The script tries to automate a manual process of finding the corresponding “p5” port for each “bsdpan” port, and builds a script that replaces each one using the portupgrade tool.

It doesn’t make any attempt to resolve dependencies, so it may take a few passes.  It also can’t help where a search for the port name returns more than one possibility (usually part of a longer name) or when the “p5” name happens to be nothing like the “bsdpan” name, but in practice, there are only a handful of exceptions.

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3D Printing — A Comedy of Errors

Printing a Proper Raft on a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic

Printing a Proper Raft on a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic

I recently acquired a Makerbot Thing-O-Matic, a printer I selected due to its apparent ubiquity and to its price — under $1000 if you do the assembly yourself.  With the heady optimism and overconfidence borne of having not yet attempted something, I dove in with my boxes of parts and wiki instructions.  Besides, I build stuff all the time, which is the point of having a 3D printer in the first place.

Another appeal of a largely community-supported machine is the lack of need to talk to tech support, which is usually a dismal experience.  I contacted a tech support for a popular anti-virus program which would occasionally inexplicably shut down when I was using it on public networks.  Tech support’s answer: don’t use public networks.

At any rate, aside from backtracking a few times (the combination of extra parts and following some outdated instructions led to a few false starts, and a quirk or two of design, assembling the little beast wasn’t a problem.  I didn’t start causing my own problems until I actually started printing.

I calibrated and made little adjustments in order to improve my print quality:

  • The stepper extruder didn’t have enough clearance to grip the filament, so I removed a washer
  • The extruder had trouble pushing the plastic through, so I increased the temperature
  • The raft was blobby, so I lowered the nozzle relative to the build platform
  • The raft didn’t stick to the build platform, so I raised the temperature of the build platform

After all this tweaking and adjusting, I was able to print some pretty good looking calibration cubes, that more or less looked like the pictures I was seeing on the web.  However, absolutely all of these adjustments were exactly the wrong thing to do.  I had managed to put together a set of tweaks that made fairly good, accurate prints, that warped crazily as soon as they were finished.

  • The stepper extruder doesn’t have much clearance for the filament because it grips the filament very tightly.  The filament should have bite marks from the extruder.  Putting the washer back in, I cut the filament in a “v” shape before feeding it in so that it could be gripped.
  • Turns out I could actually lower the temperature of the extruder, now not having any trouble pushing filament through the nozzle.
  • Having the nozzle so close to the build platform was pressing the raft right into whatever I was printing.  Raising the nozzle opened up the raft and allowed it to actually come off.
  • With the nozzle farther away from the build platform, it no longer tended to drag the plastic away from the platform, and the platform temperature could be lowered as well.

Weirdly, even with things boldly out of whack, I was able to produce some very good prints, although they took a lot of clean-up and sanding, and warping was a real issue.  The look of things hasn’t changed much, but less clean-up is necessary and less warping means more things will actually come out shaped closer to how they were designed.

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A Brief Tale of ATM Ripoff and Redemption

I’ve become a bigger fan of Mint.com than ever.  Even though it has a few minor flaws, it provides an excellent dashboard to see current and pending transactions to all accounts at once.

I’m not compulsive about checking my accounts, but I find its phone app handy to check occasionally to plan or check spending, which is where I noticed an unusual withdrawal from my account, from an ATM, for $167.36.  I don’t have a debit card, so this struck me as a fairly unusual amount to withdraw from an ATM, and I made a mental note to follow up as soon as my plane landed.

When I did, I made two additional discoveries:

  1. The ATM withdrawals had been made from Bogotá, Colombia
  2. Enough withdrawals had been made to completely drain my modest checking account

It’s worth pointing out that my ATM card was safely in my wallet, and I’d never given my pin out to anybody.  Nor had I used any dodgy teller machines — I’d like to think I’d notice a skimming device, but they can be fairly sophisticated — at any rate, I do keep an eye out for such things on general principal.

A google consensus links fraudulent withdrawals from Bogotá specifically to compromised ATM’s in La Antigua, Guatemala…  Where six months earlier, I’d spent a month.  At the time, I had been diligent about checking for unusual withdrawals or activity, and it had all been legitimate at the time, and for six months after.  (Articles describing the linkage are here, and here, among other places.)

There’s some rampant speculation in those articles, but I do know enough about ATM communication to know that no ATM uses “unencrypted communications.”  That said, through complicity, skimming, or compromised ATM software, both my card number and PIN were acquired and transmitted to Colombia, where six months later, a copy of my card was used to drain my account.

My bank was relatively helpful, first canceling my ATM card, and saying that they “would investigate.”  I waited a few days and called for more details — and I’m very glad I did, since I needed to fill out an affidavit and get it notarized.  I was gratified by some of its language:

“I fully realize that [this affidavit] may cause the arrest of a person or persons for the unauthorized use of Credit/Debit card identified in paragraph 1 above…”

I should certainly hope so.

I was also informed that the notarized affidavit needed to be in their possession within 10 days or the money could not be refunded.  Nice to know!  I, for one, would hate to lose a bunch of money because a clock ran out that I didn’t even know was running.  (10 days seems like an insanely short amount of time, given that bank statements are usually issued monthly.  I was given a vague reason about “Visa regulations,” which is slightly odd since it’s an ATM card, not a debit card, and I don’t know of any ties to Visa, but I’m not about to argue the point since I actually can get the paperwork back to them that quickly.)

I supposed I can relax a bit since the money is [provisionally] back in my account, but I’d feel even better if I knew that a group of culpable Colombians and Guatemalans were rotting in a jail cell right now.

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On Running the Hell Away

In the 80s, I worked for an economic consulting firm and defense contractor in the heart of Washington, DC.  We had just landed an important contract in Ohio, and I had been assigned as the systems architect — I would need to move.  Invoking the transfer clause in my lease, I terminated the lease in my apartment, moved all my stuff into my car, and prepared to move to Ohio.  However, this left me a few days without an apartment working in the old office before I was supposed to report to the office in Ohio.

A friend offered his couch for a few days, except he wouldn’t be back in town until Friday night, and it was Thursday.  No problem, one night in a hotel wouldn’t be so bad.  Except, not having a lot of money, I figured one night without paying for a hotel would be even better, and hit upon the brilliant idea of spending the night at the office.

Figuring it was better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission and get denied, I thought I’d just avoid getting caught.  People must work late all the time, so surely it couldn’t be that bad if I did get caught.  At worst, I might get fired and not have to move to Ohio, I thought.  I was wrong about that.

Not wanting to prolong the experience, I had a long dinner, and showed up at the office around 10:00 p.m.  It was a large office, and the doors were all badged with access cards, except for a small, unmarked side door that took an actual, physical key.  Months earlier, I’d been handed the key by the manager of the server room to make it easier to move equipment, and I’d neglected to give it back — quite innocently — but now I wouldn’t have to explain why my card showed up on the entry records so late at night.  We did do defense work, after all, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for a spy.

Opening the door quietly, I snuck past the server room and froze, as I saw the beam of a flashlight dancing at the end of the hall.  My access card may or may not get me into the server room at this hour, but that would be a lot to explain.  I flattened against the wall in a side hall and waited.

The security guard didn’t shine his flashlight down the little dead end I’d stuck myself in, and continued on his way.  I figured the safest thing to do would be to go the other way, which would take me away from my cube, where I had originally been headed.  While it might be easier to explain why I was sleeping at my own cube at two in the morning, it hardly seemed comfortable, so I headed past the main reception desk.

It was a big glass desk, too open and visible, for my purposes.  On the desk there was an etched crystal globe about the size of a baseball which I liked, so I picked it up as a talisman, intending to return it at the end of the night.  (At least I was only sort of wrong about that.)

Hearing footsteps from the direction in which the guard went, I left the reception area and ran into the media room just behind it, a large room used for presentations and for impressing guests.  I dove and slid quietly across the marble floor under a “history table” that held various awards and stacks of brochures about our company.  The table was a lot shallower than I’d hoped.  I envisioned the guard’s flashlight beam settling on my backside and my halting attempt to explain just what the hell I was doing there.

Footsteps stopped at the door and I watched the wall light up as a beam scanned the room — it didn’t get below desk height — he clearly wasn’t looking for some idiot hiding under a table.  The footsteps moved on, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

One hall connected to the media room led to “mahogany row,” which wasn’t actually mahogany at all, but referred to a set of nicely appointed offices used by the company higher-ups.  Perfect, I thought, one of them probably has a couch, and maybe even a bathroom.  The hall looped around the front of the office to the reception area, so I wouldn’t be trapped, either.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t occurred to me that most of these offices would be locked with access cards.  I walked down the dark hallway, gently pushing a few doors experimentally, but of course they were all locked — some of our work was classified, after all, and not all of it went to the vault every night.  I got to the corner office — and couldn’t believe my luck — the door stood open about a hand’s width.  I couldn’t see much in the gloom, but I pushed the door open as quietly as I could.

This was Phil’s office, a company vice president.  We’d talked a couple of times, but were too far apart on the food chain to take much notice of each other, much less for me to spend any time in his office.  His windows were huge, and let enough light in for my dark-adjusted eyes to see more than grey outlines.

My heart jumped — there was clearly a man sitting on the floor, not moving.  I followed the man’s gaze to see Phil hanging from his neck from the ceiling behind his desk, his teal tie apparently tied into a noose.  The man on the floor stood up very slowly, and I saw that he was looking straight at me.  He looked classically Russian;  He was a short man, perhaps 5’2″, white, cold blue eyes, and no emotions in his facial expression.  In his gloved hand there was a gun, and he was raising it toward me.

My brain “unstuck” and I felt an adrenalin surge, and good advice sprung to my head, unbidden.  Your priority is to get away.  Then, act, before they think you will.  I threw the globe as hard as I could at the man.  At the same time, I yelled.  At this point, all concerns about evading the security guard melted away — better to be caught and fired than dead.

I should have turned away and just bolted, but I didn’t resist the urge to see where the globe landed.  I had aimed at his head (another mistake, I should have aimed for the center of his body) and he tilted his head slightly away from its path, not taking his eyes off me for a moment.  The globe crashed into the wall behind him, making a hole and sending up a small cloud of plaster dust.  Why are you still here? my brain screamed.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I twisted away and down, heading back around toward the reception area, looking only in front of me, and ran.  The hallway turned sharply, and I looked back again as I turned, to see the security guard crumpled and the small man stepping over him.  (Had I heard a gunshot?  I don’t think so, but my heartbeat is loud in my ears.)

In high school, I briefly held the school record for the 100 meter dash, of which I was fairly proud and considered joining the track team.  (The next day, my record was shattered by a boy who ran in cowboy boots and who later was selected as an alternate for the Olympics, but that’s beside the point.)  As long as I didn’t do anything stupid, that is.

During my brief high-school football career as a wide receiver, I intercepted a pass at the 1 yard line and ran down the field.  As I neared the opposite side of the field, I had a horrifying thought:  was I running the wrong way?  Was anybody chasing me?  I imagined both teams standing at the other end of the field, watching me in disbelief as I did something idiotic in front of thousands of people.  I slowed down a little and looked back … only to be flattened by the other team.  I had run an interception 97 yards and not made a touchdown.

My fellow team members called me “Almost” after that.

I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.  I didn’t stop, slow down, or look back as I vaulted down 5 flights of steps and ran down K street.  Downtown Washington DC is pretty deserted late at night, so there wasn’t a lot to slow me down.  After a few blocks, I stopped running in a straight line and random right and left turns until I was thoroughly exhausted.

At a gas station pay phone (yes, there were such things back then) I called the police.  Not wanting to go back to my car or the office, I took a cab to Alexandria and paid for a hotel.

The next day, I went to the office as usual, expecting quite a scene, but oddly — it was business as usual.  No police tape, no office buzz, nothing.  The globe was back at the reception desk, but was whitish over Eurasia with ground in plaster dust.  I detoured through the media room and looked down (now well-lit) mahogany row — every office was open except Phil’s.  Closed, but not barricaded or guarded.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and I didn’t dare ask.

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Zebra/Eltron/UPS 2844 label printing with Stamps.com

Labels are both more convenient and professional-looking than plain paper for printing postage labels, and the 2844 is a great little thermal workhorse of a printer.  Even better, it’s pretty cheap to pick up a used one, partly because UPS gave these away for free for use exclusively with the UPS service.

On the down side, if you do pick up a used one, it’s probably not going to be quite as easy as just plugging it in and hitting print.  (In particular, it took me a while to sort out why it was printing a blank label for every label it printed, which was surprisingly tricky to fix.)

First, update the firmware by navigating here and selecting “TLP 2844.”  You’ll need the ZDownloader and the latest standard firmware.

Pick up Windows drivers and setup utilities from the same page, under “drivers.”  Note:  if you have a USB model, you might need to guess what virtual USB port your printer is configured on, which may take a few tries.  Mine was on “USB002.”

Go ahead and load 4×6 label stock, then load up the Zebra Setup Utilities, and select Tools->Action>Calibrate Media.  This will scroll through a bunch of labels, but you should only have to do this once.

Also in Zebra Setup Utilities, go to configure printer settings, and set the label size to 4×6.  The defaults should be fine for everything else.

At this point, you should have a Windows printer called “ZDesigner LP 2844,” which is exactly what you want.  You can use it at this point, but it will print out extra labels when used with Stamps.com.

To correct that, right-click on the printer to open properties, then on the General tab, select “Printing Preferences.”  On the “Options” tab, make sure that the setting for “Stocks” matches your label size (if not, go back and set up the stock.)  Then go to the “Advanced Setup” tab, and make sure that double-buffering is on.

LP2844 Miscellaneous Advanced SettingsOnce in the Stamps.com software, “printing on” can be set to “Zebra/Eltron Type – Standard 4×6 label – roll” and then selecting “ZDesigner LP 2844” as the destination.  Of course, I recommend using “print sample” first, to make sure that everything is dark enough and aligned properly before printing actual postage.

 

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Green backups with BackupPC and WOL

In an effort to reduce power consumption, I’ve moved most systems I use regularly onto a pair of virtual servers, enabling me to keep many machines off most of the time, except for occasional use.  There are still a few physical machines, and I do prefer to have current backups of everything, so I decided to use the wake-on-LAN protocol, which seems to work for most modern computers hard-wired to ethernet (on the same segment.)

I started with this post by Salik Rafiq, but my first problem was that I didn’t want to turn every machine on, back it up, and then just leave it on.  Nor did I particularly want to turn every machine off after being backed up, since it’s not unusual for a machine to be backed up while I’m actually using it for something.  The obvious solution is to store whether or not a machine is actually on, then return it to that state afterward.

I made a few other changes, which I’ll briefly outline:

  • My BackupPC sends 5 arguments to ping, so I lazily hacked in arguments 3 and 4.  (There are much more elegant ways to do this.) so this script assumes that the last argument is the machine name.
  • I replaced “ethwake” with “wakeonlan,” for the sake of simplicity (not that etherwake doesn’t work, but since WOL packets require a hardware address anyway, why not just use the hardware address?)
  • Related to the above, I retrieve and store the hardware addresses for each machine using the simple command “arp -a machine > machine.wol” which gives me a file with the hardware address for each machine.
  • Note that I use the hardcoded directory “/usr/tools/wol” for both hardware and state information.  The $WOLDIR directory is used for hardware and state information.

As with Salik’s original script, this replaces the “ping” command for BackupPC, and is reasonable to use with every machine, whether or not it supports wake-on-lan.

#!/bin/bash

#this script is totally designed for the backuppc ping command
#which is the first thing it does before it starts a backup
#this is a substitute which pings the machine, if it is not
#awake then it wakes it using a magic packet - using the wol.bsh script
#then pings again to make sure

PING=/bin/ping
argnum=$(($#-1))
ARGS=${@:1:$argnum}
WAKEHOST="${!#}"
ETHWAKE=/usr/bin/wakeonlan
WOLDIR=/usr/tools/wol
SLEEPTIME=3m

logger "Backuppc pinging $ARGS $WAKEHOST"

function getwol {
	if [ -f $WOLDIR/$1.wol ]; then
	   hwaddr=$(cat $WOLDIR/$1.wol | cut -d" " -f4)
	else
	   logger "No MAC address for $1"
	   exit -1
	fi
}

function fwol {
        TO_WAKEUP=$1
	getwol $1
        sudo $ETHWAKE $hwaddr
}

$PING $ARGS $WAKEHOST >>/dev/null 2>&1

if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
        fwol $WAKEHOST
        if [ "$WOL_RES" = "FAIL" ]; then
                exit 1
        fi
	echo "OFF" > $WOLDIR/$WAKEHOST.state
        sleep $SLEEPTIME
        $PING $ARGS $WAKEHOST
        if [ $? -eq 0 ]
        then
           logger "success waking $WAKEHOST."
        else
           logger "unable to wake $WAKEHOST."
           exit 1
        fi
else
   $PING $ARGS $WAKEHOST
   echo "ON" > $WOLDIR/$WAKEHOST.state
fi

exit 0

To turn the machines back on, I updated my postcmd.sh script (see this post for details) to look up the machine state, and if it was off before, turn it off now:

#!/bin/bash
WINEXE=/usr/bin/winexe
UNAME="Username"
PWD="Password"
WRKGRP="WORKGROUP"
BOX=$1
PID=$($WINEXE -U $UNAME -W $WRKGRP --password=$PWD //$BOX 'cmd /c echo '1'
> c:\backuppc\wake.up')
echo "Rsync and shadow copy unloaded"
if [ -f /usr/tools/wol/$BOX.state ]; then
   read wasoff < /usr/tools/wol/$BOX.state
   if [ "$wasoff" = "OFF" ]; then
      $WINEXE -U $UNAME --password=$PWD //$BOX 'shutdown -f -s -c "Backup
Complete"'
   fi
fi

Although it only recognizes “on” and “off” as valid machine states (it doesn’t detect nor return a system to hibernated, sleeping, etc. states) it at least takes care of the simple function of turning machines on, backing them up, then turning them back off.

For systems that don’t support wake-on-lan, like those connected through wireless, I’m considering using X10.

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Home Water Treatment Plant

Home Water Treatment Plant

Pump, filters, valve

Water in Chicago comes straight from Lake Michigan, and is pretty decent quality in general. Most houses do not have water meters, which I suspect leads to very little incentive to conserve water.  During the summer months, especially during lawn-watering season, it’s not unusual for our water to dwindle to a mere trickle.  A few spot measurements indicate that our water pressure is normally about 30 psi, but can drop to 15 psi or less at points during the summer.  In practical terms, this means that the shower stops if somebody turns on the kitchen faucet.

Meanwhile, my wife requested that I put in a system to remove chlorine from the water, for various health and hairstyle reasons.  Even with large, high-flow filters, this necessarily results in a pressure drop through the filters.

Cramped space

Pressure Reduction Valve

After a number of calculations, and toying with ideas such as placing the hose outlets upstream from the system so as to not bother filtering water that goes on the lawn (a bad idea for an active system, which could potentially draw water into the house from the hoses) I settled on a design which has worked beautifully for months.

In order from the inlet, the system consists of:

The order is important — placing the booster pump after the filters, for example, would mean that the pressure going into the filters could be as low as 15 psi, and therefore as low as 5 psi before the pump.  That’s too low — the pump would refuse to operate — or worse, become damaged.  Water can be pushed, but it can’t be pulled.

Booster Pump

Booster Pump

The pump adds 40 psi, so that if intake water pressure is 30 psi, the pressure at the first filter should be about 70 psi.  I’ve never measured intake pressure above 35 psi, and 75 psi is still comfortably below the filter housing maximum recommended pressure.  The pressure reduction valve ensures that intake pressure to the house doesn’t exceed 50 psi.  Measurements demonstrate that this is remarkably consistent, regardless of variations in intake pressure.

After all this, water in the house tastes pure and clean, the pressure is consistent and wonderful (we can water the plants, run the dishwasher and take showers at the same time.)

After all this work, the main thing I’d do differently is consider smaller filters.  The 4.5″ x 20″ filters are huge.  Each one holds a bit over 5 gallons, which is about 40 pounds of water.  I was primarily concerned with water flow and pressure drop, and bigger filters are better, but I doubt the difference would be noticeable for say, a 2.5″x 20″ filter, which would be a lot easier to change and handle.

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Entreprenurial Steve in Profile

While working for an Internet startup, our founder, CEO, and perhaps most importantly, boss, was a dynamic, unusual personality whom I’ll call Steve. Entreprenurial Steve.

A bundle of contradictions, in some ways I felt perfectly aligned, and in other ways, his thinking was so foreign to me that I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. In all the time we worked together, for example, Steve never let anybody else pick up the check for a meal, and he was generous about inviting us out.  During a period where nobody in the company had any money and we were essentially working for free, Steve didn’t hesitate to take us to lunch every day, and often out to dinner.

Steve had (at least) two BMW’s, which seemed like kind of a status thing, except that Steve wouldn’t hesitate to loan them to whoever needed them.  Our secretary borrowed one and managed to total it in the parking garage (yes, I’m still unclear on how this can be accomplished) and Steve simply shrugged it off, saying, “It’s only a thing.  The important thing is if you’re okay.”

Yet, when I stopped on the street to hand some cash to a homeless person with a sign, Steve was completely baffled.  “Why would you give your money to that guy?  He’s not doing anything for you.”

“Five dollars means a lot more to him than it does to me,” I tried to explain.  “He needs it more than I do.”

“That’s crazy,” said Steve, shaking his head.  “I’m sure you can do something better with that five dollars.”  Weirdly, he handed me a five.  “Here,” he said.  “Don’t give this away.”

At times, it seemed that Steve held the company together through sheer force of will, when paychecks were bouncing and vendors weren’t being paid, his optimism and willingness to do anything to get it done for our customers was infectious, truly believing that our next sale would put us on firmer financial footing (which it always did, for a while) and that stability and prosperity was within our grasp.

Steve always seemed to know who to pay.  Starting, I suppose, with the lawyers.  “Get the most expensive lawyers you can,” Steve once explained to me.  “Even if you have to skimp on everything else.”

Our lights were always on.  Our Internet connection always worked.  Our phones always worked.  Other than that, I’m not sure anybody was paid at all.

Occasionally, a process server would come by, and Steve would invariably be gone.  Otherwise, he always seemed to be around, and I have no idea how he managed it.

Although clearly uncomfortable with kids, my precocious daughter asked him if she could use a computer.  Without hesitation, Steve handed her his personal laptop, explaining that he was going to a meeting and wouldn’t need it until the next day.  She dutifully returned it to his desk before we left.

The next day, we had a meeting with a potential customer.  Our presentations and servers were all online, so there was little prep necessary except for connecting to the Internet.  Steve booted his laptop, and instead of the familiar Windows chime, the room was treated to:

“Uh ohhhh!” from the Teletubbies.

A number of people in the room clearly had kids.  Steve was thrown off kilter, but shook off his utter mortification and made an excellent presentation.  (We got the deal, and I suspect the unexpected presence of the Teletubbies made us seem more human than slick and polished.)

A week later, my daughter asked to borrow Steve’s laptop.  Without hesitating, he handed it to her, but paused before letting it go.  “Try not to leave anything in the drive this time.”

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Unhelpful Reviews

Like many modern consumers faced with a variety of possibly arbitrary choices, I find it useful to consult with others who have purchased similar items.  The Internet brings with it a plethora of unbiased and helpful product reviews, collected and categorized by retailers, bloggers, and, well, fake sites set up to sell stuff.  The Internet also brings with it reviews for which I fail to understand the motivation entirely; reviews that are so intensely unhelpful, they actually damage other reviews by being averaged into the ratings.

My journey started when it was time to replace our snow blower.  I don’t know what it is about snow blower reviews that attracts retards, but these are a sample of reviews that people felt the need to take their time and write:

1.0 out of 5 stars WORX SNOWBLOWER, March 4, 2011

UNABLE TO RATE THIS ITEM. IT ARRIVED A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER THE SNOW AND WAS THUS IMMEDIATELY RETURNED TO THE SHIPPER.

Well, you haven’t helped me select a snowblower, but you have announced to the world that you’re kind of a jerk. Was your original plan to use it for the snow, then return it?

There were equally helpful positive reviews to balance this out:

5.0 out of 5 stars snow blower, December 17, 2010
I can tell you that it not long after I ordered it, it arrived. However, I guess purchasing it was a bit of insurance. No snow as of yet, but I am ready when it does.

You ordered it, and it arrived? I guess if you’re impressed by this, it may call for a review, but this is slightly less helpful to people than reviewing the box it came in based on color choice.

Later, I noticed it’s possible to review a product that’s still in the box, based on your unshakable belief in the brand:

5.0 out of 5 stars still in the box, haven’t even checked it out yet, November 1, 2010
to this day i still have not taken my rangefinder out of it’s box, but real soon, i’m sure i will enjoy what it can do for my hunting, it’s Nikon, i have several more Nikon products and that is why i ordered this rangefinder, if i didn’t beleive in the Nikon name then rest knowing i would have already had it out and checking it, i have not to this day ever had trouble or returned any Nikon product

I guess that’s about as good as a review asking you to rate your religion, but you posted this as the review for a product. Then again, a product that can make you feel this good without even opening the box probably deserves five stars.

Amazingly, this is actually a step up from this review:

3.0 out of 5 stars
Sounds like just what I need., February 18, 2011
I haven’t bought this yet but it sounds perfect for my needs because splitting the stereo into right and left channels is what I want.

Putting aside the fact that you’re reviewing it sight unseen, if it’s perfect for your needs, wouldn’t that be 5 out of 5 stars? Did some voice in your head say, well, I shouldn’t give it a bad review just because I don’t have one, and it shouldn’t get a good review because I don’t have one yet, I’d better just split the difference?

And yet, that still seems better than a review that does nothing but convey your level of extreme incompetence:

2.0 out of 5 stars Flimsy Firepit, January 21, 2011
I put this together and it fell apart cmpletely WITH A FIRE IN IT. Later I picked up the pieces and read the manual I noticed that I was supposed to attach nuts to the screws on the inside where you can’t even see them. This should have been in VERY BIG LETTERS in the instructions but all there was was a little diagram and a small note.

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