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.

It Happened to Me

Breach of Security

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott from Star Trek.

Three months ago: The con artist

Back in August, our house was visited by a con man, and we got rooked.

I was working at home that day, Dan was recently laid off by OpenCola, and our other housemate Paul hadn’t moved in yet. Someone buzzed the front door, and over the intercom he told us that he was our neighbour from a couple of doors down and needed our help.

I answered the door and met a guy named Sean. He looked like a U of T student — in his mid-twenties, black, dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, looking rather distressed.

He explained that his car broke down and he needed money to get it towed before the parking authority towed it away. Here in Toronto, the combination of parking fine and impound fee can set you back $300.

He told us that he’d just moved in from Aurora, where if he were there, he could easily get help since everyone knew their neighbours. Now that he was in stranger in the Big City, he didn’t want to impose on a neighbour he didn’t know, but he was in a bind. He said he’d return in a couple of hours to pay us back.

Dan and I each gave him forty bucks, and he gave us his phone number and even offered to let us hang onto his Mac laptop as a guarantee that he would come back and pay. I felt a little guilty about not getting to know all my neighbours and told him it would be all right — the phone number would be sufficient. After that, he was on his way.

It was only after he left that I got the sinking feeling that we’d been had.

Dan said that he got the feeling too, but he kept mum and watched for me to make my move — when he saw me lend him the money, he did the same.

Sean never came back. Upset that he, an infosec specialist who’s read numerous papers on social engineering, got taken by a street-level con artist, went on at length about how he’d “fucking kill” Sean if he ever dared to show his face in the neighbourhood again.

I know capoeira!” he exclaimed at brunch the next day, spitting out flecks of scrambled egg. “I. Will. End. Him.”

Today: The con artist returns

Today, while I was away at work, Sean showed up at the house again.

This time, Paul answered the door. Paul moved in a month and a half after Sean’s visit, well after the con job had ceased to be a topic of conversation. I’m not sure we’d ever told Paul about him.

Sean explained to Paul that he needed a lift to Bloor and Yonge — something about car trouble. Dan came upstairs to see what was going on, and saw Sean. He explained to Paul that we’d loaned this guy some money and he never paid us back.

The story should’ve ended then and there, but it didn’t.

Paul asked Sean about this, and Sean explained that while he didn’t come back that day, he paid me back a month later when I helped him assemble his waterbed. No such event ever took place, and hey, if I’d been paid back, why wouldn’t I have also gotten Dan’s money back as well?

Paul, having no reason to doubt Sean, accepted Sean’s story and proceeded to give him a lift. Dan, beginning to feel a twinge of doubt went downstairs to phone me. Dan explained the situation, and I was livid.

“Why aren’t you stopping him?” I yelled at my phone, helpless since I was miles away.

“I told Paul, Sean explained that you got the money back when you helped with the waterbed. I’m calling to double-check. Sean didn’t call you, did he? He said he called you and got no answer.”

I got no such call.

“Didn’t you explain to Paul that this man is a lying thief?!”

I asked Dan to run out to the garage and stop Paul from giving Sean a ride in his car. I spent a couple of anxious minutes waiting for Dan to return to the phone.

“Gone,” Dan said when he returned.

I had visions of Paul either getting ripped off or worse, being led to some secluded place Sean’s partners in crime were waiting for him to bring back someone to mug.

I chewed Dan out for a little bit for being so lackadaisical about the whole matter. I think I brought up some point about being a little more participatory in the affairs of running the household, and protecting it — you live here, act like it! Dan apologized over IRC, but I was just too pissed it off and logged out.

When Paul got back home, he called me and told me that he lent Sean 80 dollars.

“You’ll never see that again,” I said.

The two phone numbers Sean left were fakes, and the “house keys from his place two doors down” that he gave to Paul as a good-faith guarantee most decidedly did not open the door of the house two doors down.

When I later talked to Paul, he told me that Dan had given him the impression that Sean was a friend who’d just defaulted on paying back some money we’d lent him. Dan did not make it clear that he was a con man who’d ripped us off once before. After all, if he’d conned Dan out of some money, wouldn’t Dan have been a little more confrontational with Sean? Wouldn’t he have made it very clear that Paul should not be doing him any favours?

I’m generally slow to anger, but right now, I’m seeing red. The cavalier way in which Dan handled Sean’s return, plus his allowing Paul to get into a potentially dangerous situation by giving him a lift is just too much.

I am trying not to blow my stack at Dan. I’ve made more than a few boneheaded moves in my time and know that excessive carping just breeds resentment. But he should have known better. We’ve already been burned once. Dan’s supposed to be an infosec guru — Mr. “Security is not a product, it’s a process.

Yet here he was, dealing with the real-world equivalent of a “script kiddie” whom we’ve met before and whose modus operandi we know. And somehow, he casually let Paul go off and give this guy a ride in his car.

He never once confronted Sean and said “Get out of here before I call the cops,” or even “What happened to the money we gave you?”. He most certainly did not use capoeira and “end” him.

The end result: This house has twice been robbed by this petty thief, all because of inaction and stool-softeningly bad judgement.

What’s done cannot be undone. Hopefully, Dan will be a little more responsible in the future. Collectively, we’ve paid a 160-dollar tuition at the school of hard knocks. I will probably be considerably less angry tomorrow. Maybe it’s best to view this as a learning experience for Paul and a refresher course for Dan.

And somewhere, out there, there’s a guy who may or may not be named Sean having a really good laugh.


Twists and Turns

Today, I was amazed at the sudden change in direction an IRC conversation took. This afternoon, on IRC, my friend George gave us a link from The Register about how AOL UK is dropping their support for Mac OS X and focusing on supporting Windows. At one point in the article, a spokesdroid for AOL UK states that localizing the software — the act of “translating” the software for another country and culture — takes “may months of effort”. I mentioned that if localization was so expensive, they could simply use the American version instead. After all, although both countries spoke different variants of English, the American software would still be comprehensible to British users.

And that’s when Adam went off. Adam often comes off as a complete and total prick who needs a good working over with a two-by-four, but he is a dear friend for whom I would take a bullet nonetheless. Adam’s a walking contradiction — the most belligerent peacenik I know, a genius at human-computer interface who generally holds most humans in at least mild contempt. He’s prone to ranting, and especially on matters of Apple-versus-Microsoft (he’s a Mac zealot, sometimes to the point of irrationality) and war. Combine the two, and you’ve got the recipe for an Excedrin headache.

Somehow the thought of making Brits use software localized for Yanks got him on a tirade about American cultural imperialism. He went on about how the Americans naturally assume that the world should adopt their values and be like them.

Steaky baby (my nickname for Adam), you’re talking about protecting the home of the once-mighty British Empire from cultural imperialism? The people who who brought us the Raj in India, the Opium War, never ever installed an ethnic Chinese as governor during their tenure in Hong Kong, caused trouble even in their own backyard and practically wrote the book on imperialism? I think they can handle a little American spelling.

I was suggesting a way to get British Mac users to still use AOL, not a way to turn the UK into the 51st state! Geez, these Limeys (Adam’s descended from ’em) are so touchy when it comes to Queen and country.

One wonders how these dentally-challenged pasty-faced anorak-wearing lightweightsmanaged to take over so much of the world in the first place.

Editor’s Note: Mr. deVilla wishes to make it clear that Adam should not take the above too seriously. Mr deVilla also suggests Adam avail himself of the many laxatives available at a finer drugstore near him. ASAP.

I blame George

It’s George’s fault. He started it. But I will forgive his little faux pas and visit him in New York City in order to celebrate his birthday with him. And embarass him in public by playing “Happy Birthday” on the accordion for him in a very crowded public place.

May I recommend…

Stuff About Things, a blog about stuff and things by my friend and co-worker, John Henson.

Also of note: pony, a blog by my friend and former co-worker, Adina. She has a keen journalistic sense. You can tell just by the way she noticed the rise in incidence of public farting and dutifully noted it in her blog. Look out, Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein!


A Sizable Update to the Rosetta Stone

I’ve been doing a fair bit of work in C#, so I decided to take advantage of that and start filling in the C# and VB.NET blanks. Since they’re based on the same interpreter (the Common Language Runtime) and class library (.NET framework), it was reasonably easy to work on both. You should be able to see my results in the string functions and math functions sections, and to a lesser degree in the new data types section.

Lots to do this afternoon, so I’ll post more later…


Taking the Day Off

One of the nice policies where I work is that they give you a day off for your birthday. The day off doesn’t have to be on your actual birthday, which means you can use the anniversary of your birth to turn a ho-hum original recipe weekend into an extra-crispy long weekend. That’s exactly what I’m doing today.


While Waiting to Compile


I was looking at my friend Xiuzan’s blog, where she says that according to the Geek Test at, she’s 31% geek. I took the test, and clocked in at 58%! I think that’s a little high for my liking — I’ll leave the extreme hardcore geek stuff to the experts (say, my housemate). For my efforts, I was rewarded with this cute little link button. The button says “I may not be cool or good-looking, but I make mad dough”. I must disagree — I am cool and good-looking, and I don’t make mad dough. Oh well. While doing some random Googling, I found the source of the “geek girl” image from the button — a fake shrine to “Bedzie Skagovichski: Most beautiful girl in all of Poznan University” on a fake personal site relying on immigrant humour. Am theenking I am funny, no?

More ways to procrastinate




I’ve been a little on the busy side for the past few days, so I’m a little behind on my blogging. They’ve been keeping me busy at my place of employment by working on a prototype app, which I’ve decided to write in C# because I need to get a UI up and running in a hurry, and there’s no better way to learn a new language than using it on a real project. I suppose I could’ve gone with VB, a language in which a have a number of years’ experience, but as VB tools guru Daniel Appleman (the guy behind Desaware) puts it in this article, “there are going to be managers and companies stupid enough to pay more for C# programmers, and in those cases VB.NET programmers have a moral obligation to take their money”. Sounds like a good enough reason to me.


Last Sunday, my nephew, Aidan William devilla-Choi was christened, and I was named his Godfather. I spent a good chunk of the day talking with a gravelly-throated Marlon Brando-esque voice. About a half-dozen babies were baptized at the same time, the most notable one being related to a family who lookeas if they’d fallen out of a bad sitcom on the WB. They wore the loudest zoot suits this side of American Pimp, but I have to give ’em mad props for representin’. Sometimes you need to say “fuck whitey” and go for the funk. Note to my sister: yes, I’ll post the pictures soon, in my online family album. Promise.

It’s late and I need to go to bed. More later.