The Con Man from Another World!

(or, Why You Should Trust Your Children to a VB Programmer and not a Lisp Programmer)

To understand this, you’ll have to read the previous entry and then Dan’s response in his blog.

Teeny-weeny Saturday evening update:

I guess I should throw in some quick explanations for those of you who aren’t familar with these terns.

VB is short for Visual Basic, a programming language designed to be very simple to learn and most often used for building applications for business and building prototype user interfaces. It’s one of the world’s most popular programming languages thanks to its ease of use and the fact that you can be extremely productive using it. However, people who program in it are derided for the same reason.

Lisp is one of the first programming languages, but in spite of being developed so early in the history of computer science, it remains one of the most powerful, expressive and flexible. Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon) has described it as “the only programming language that is beautiful”. It is most often used for developing AI, knowledge-based and geez-is-this-a-hard-problem applications by a relatively small but insanely loyal band of losers, er, dedicated programmers.

I started using VB about 5 years ago and still use it on occasion (I’ve been using the other languages in the Rosetta Stone more often). Dan’s been a Lisp bitch since the tender age 8 and still hasn’t recovered. Now you know who’s who.

Before I begin, I’d like to assure my housemate Dan that what I’m about to say is all in good fun and that there are no hard feelings. However, I reserve the right to break his balls about this for eternity…er, I mean the next little while. 😉

“My kode-fu is good”

“My kode-fu is good” is the pun from which this site’s domain comes. I also use that line on the home page of this site to state that I’m a pretty decent programmer. A little while back, Dan was looking at said home page, came across that line, looked at me and said “uh-uh,” in a dismissive tone of voice. A couple of weeks later, at my friend Rob‘s birthday, he said that having spent most of my career coding multimedia CD-ROMs, desktop applications and GUIs, I haven’t done any real software development or design. I’ve never retorted, because he’s young, and at that age, I “knew everything” too.

I’ll also be the first person to admit that I lack Dan’s 1337ness and should ph33r his m4d sk1llz (for those of you who don’t read “leet”, it says “I lack Dan’s leetness” — eliteness — and should “fear his mad skillz”). Dan grasps functional programming languages while they elude me, he understands lambda functions while I avoid them like the plague, he loves his emacs while I’m most comfortable with Visual Studio’s editor, and while he breathes TCP/IP, I’m always running to look something up. Dan will beat me every time in a 1337 pissing contest.

But I would never be suckered by the same con man twice.

His con-fu is good

In The Thing From Another World, a.k.a. The Thing, the interesting conflict wasn’t the humans versus the eponymous Thing, but one with the idealistic scientists against the practical soldiers. The scientists, for all their intelligence and big ideas, were pretty useless in real-life situations, such as what to do when confronted with a carnivorous vegetable from outer space. In a situation that called for immediate action, the lead scientist was trying to communicate with it (“What if it comes in peace?” “If we can only establish communications with it and find out what it wants…blah blah blah“) and preserve it “for science”. Thanks to his interference, the Thing goes on a murderous rampage and in the end, it’s the brave and noble soldiers — not the “misguided and dangerously naive scientists” — who save the day.

I always thought the scientist-as-misguided-appeaser and soldier-as-practical-hero theme was just a sign of the movie’s times — a tip of the hat to the spirit of antiintellectualism of the 1950’s, when eggheads like Adlai Stevenson and incautious liberals like Robert Oppenheimer were seen as suspect (you could even say that point of view has returned with the “election” of President Dubya and the Current Situation). It might also apply to what happened at my house.

I’ve got to hand it to Dan for writing a nice mea culpa piece in his blog. It was heartfelt, and I’m pretty sure that should Sean return, he will not scam us a third time. I found the parts in which he explains what he was thinking interesting: he wonders why Sean returned, and if he has, perhaps it’s to make amends. His explanations as to why it appeared that he didn’t pay me back sounded plausible.

My reaction, being one who “can’t do real software development” and being too far away to do anything, was to ask why no one was trying to restrain him, pummel him or even just throw his sorry ass out of the house.

The one I found most amusing was his observation on how Sean dressed:

He was wearing business casual slacks and a sweater, plus a jacket, and he had a mobile phone. The accoutrements of a normal person, nothing screaming “thief” in his appearance, anyway.

Ahem. Dan, here is a picture of Martin Lawrence wearing almost the same outfit, playing a thief running a scam in the film Blue Streak. He uses a mobile phone in the movie too.

However, no one was in any physical danger, the eighty dollars that Paul “lent” Sean is a small loss, and Dan’s a little older and a little wiser. As my sister told me via e-mail: “At least Paul is safe! And at least we know not to ask Dan to babysit.”

Dan, you lucky dog, you just escaped diaper-changing duty.

A new policy has been instituted at the household, and framed in terms that computer programmers such as myself (and especially those smarter than me) can understand. Sean is off the access control list, is an untrusted third party, and shall not be granted any capabilities at this house, as computer security experts would put it. allowedP(Sean, house) = nil, as the Lisp programmers put it.

Or, as a dummy like myself would put it:
Do not believe what a liar says, and do not give a thief money.

Okay, that’s enough verbal pimp-slapping. It’s time to do the proper guy thing and stop teasing, slap the guy on the back and say “I love ya, man” (in the “dude” way, not the Quentin Crisp way) and crack open a cold one. All is forgiven, Dan, bless your egg-shaped little head.

Kindness to strangers

You might be wondering if we’re going to give up completely on giving kindness to strangers in need. Probably not. I’ve been brought up Catholic with some Zen tendencies, and Dan’s a buddhist, so we’ve got the concepts of “grace” and “karma” engrained. Once I’ve covered my bar bill, I tend to give away the rest the money I make playing the accordion on the street to street people. I think it’s people who don’t believe in occasionally doing things to help other people that are making the world a worse place to live.

The amount the scammed from us is paltry — equipped with only an accordion, I can make back the money Sean scammed from me in less than an hour, and the money he scammed from Paul in less than an evening. Doing my job, I can make that money back even more quickly.

The irksome thing is the fact that someone swindled us — me and Paul once, Dan twice. We’re guys who are supposed to be on the good side of the IQ bell curve. I’m supposed to have a rep for being able to instinctively handle any social situation and deal with stress with characteristic aplomb (that, and I’ve used my accordion to gain access to places I wasn’t supposed to be). Dan is an infosec guru (he may not agree with being called such, but he’s worked for a computer security firm, needed special security to do that job, counts computer security-oriented people among his friends and even pursues computer security as a hobby. I think the title applies). He knows about social engineering and that the weakest link in a security system is often the human factor.

As for Paul, well…geez, he’s a rube from the midwest. I can see why he got taken for twice as much money as Dan and I. 😉

Recommended reading

The Big Con. Cory Doctorow recommended this book, upon which the film The Sting was based (he reviewed it here). He also tells me that:

The con is truly an art, even a “small con,” “played up against the wall,” as the one you got rooked in was. BTW, we used to get that one about once a week at Bakka [sci-fi bookstore in Toronto — it used to be on Queen Street, around the corner from our house — Joey], and it was compounded by the fact that the Queen W tow-trucks were merciless, so that for every conman with a sob story about a towed car, there were five legit civilians whose rides had been taken down to King and Strachan [where the impound lot is — Joey].

White van speaker scam: Now making the rounds in a city near you!

The Usual Suspects: Sean borrowed a trick from Roger “Verbal” Kint, the character played by Kevin Spacey. “Verbal”‘s lies are so believable because he makes sure to pepper them with details that he culls from his surroundings, things that actually happened, and even the bottom of a coffee mug. Sean did the same thing, embellishing his lies with little details, such as made-up names of neighbours, the story of his mother’s conversion to Judaism, and the like. I guess that means we were taken by a low-rent Keyser Soze!

Charles Ponzi: Learn about the father of the Pyramid Scheme.

The Five Rituals of Wealth: Todd Barnhart’s book on “turning the little you have into more than enough”. One of the rituals is giving to others. I thought I’d try and end this reading list on a positive note.

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