Interview with Charles M. Sparks, www.blackviper.com

Update 11/09/2018: Updated several old/broken links.

Introduction

For those of us in the OS tweaking scene, blackviper.com has been a one-stop shop for all things Windows Services related. Below is my interview with Charles M. Sparks, AKA Black Viper, the proprietor of www.blackviper.com and the author of the guides, rants and content within!

 

Yousef: Many people (myself included) often stumble through search engine results, looking for relevant answers to the questions at hand without stopping to give much thought to the people (or in your case, person) who went to the trouble to get that information out there. I feel that the personal touches (e.g. your picture, bio and favorites) really give your site character, and as a result, keep people coming back time and time again. What can you tell us about the history of blackviper.com and how it’s evolved?

BV: Over the last 12 years, www.blackviper.com has changed a lot, but it all started when I left the US Navy and started work at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern CA. I wanted several things, though, but the website was a vehicle for me to learn how the web worked, examine HTML’s structure and the rather “new” concept of dynamic page presentation (verses static pages in a book or magazine).

I always wanted to be a writer, but knew I could never scrape together enough money to actually publish a book, but the “write once, give to millions” of the internet was just my cup of tea. Granted, my grammar is pathetic, but I at least make a solid effort to get my point across in the best way that I know how.

 After Figuring out HTML, I made a website with pictures of a new house that I purchased and was in the process of being built, my kitty, which he always had more hits on his photos then I did, as well as some geeky stuff that I would, more or less, figure out on my own in the process of learning computers.

 Basically, an effort to give people information that I discovered on my own, while not costing a ton of money in publishing it. I created a page with Windows 2000 Services information and how I had those particular services set for my two computers in order for me to remember the setup when I reinstalled or whatever, and discovered that people were actually going to the page in the server logs. I started updating the information and expanding the content and here I am now.
More history of 
www.blackviper.com is here:
 
http://www.blackviper.com/2002/03/22/bv-and-blackviper-com-rant/

 

Yousef: I’m sure I speak for many (myself included) that you took the time to document your “geeky” pursuits, to benefit of so many. I also enjoy reading your reviews and rants, my favorite being “Jack in the Box”. Some things in life are best left unchanged, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced something like this at one point in time or another, right? Which article(s) and/or rant(s) did you enjoy writing the most?

BV: I really enjoyed the Jack in the Box Rant (http://www.blackviper.com/2002/09/02/the-jack-in-the-box-rant/). Of course, I did not enjoy experiencing Jack in the Box completely screwing up a perfectly good meal, but writing the article was fun. Another one that I enjoyed writing, or actually, venting is a better term, was the “Free Beer” Rant (http://www.blackviper.com/2003/07/27/the-free-beer-rant/). I urged people to quit falling for false email claims, password stealing methods as well as virus attacks. If I helped one person gain a better understanding of what was really going on: people profiting by taking advantage of other people, I won. 

Yousef: And your audience won too! In the words of my favorite author, Robert Heinlein, TANSTAAFL: There Aint NSuch Thing As A Free Lunch!

In one of your rant topics, you discussed a challenging English assignment, are you still in school? I also went back to school as a working adult; do you feel that your maturity has helped you to better appreciate the value of your education?

BV: I am not currently in school but hope to eventually go back when I am ready. I dropped out due to a couple of reasons; I was doing poorly and running out of money.

I like a consistent structure as well as “learning on my own time”. For example, watching the Discovery Channel and learning how a product is made (Modern Marvels ). “Higher Learning” was far from any sort of structure that I ever experienced before. One instructor would format their class with a completely open book exam, multiple choice questions with sentences extracted directly from the book, in order of appearance, so a person would really have to try hard NOT to do well in the class. Yet, on the other hand, I had an instructor that I had to have a Masters in English to even understand the course outline. It truly was a bizarre experience that I was not prepared for.

 On the placement exam, I scored 99% (a person could not get 100% from what I understand) and was placed in English 101 I believe. I had no clue what a verb was (after all, I had been out of school for 15 years), yet I did well on the English placement test because I could identify sentences that “looked and sounded” wrong, but had no idea WHY they were wrong. After bombing that, I dropped down a class to a “pre-college” English course.

 My instructor scolded me that I should not be there but in 101, even though she was well aware I dropped out of the class to begin with. Raving about my writing, giving my writing as an example to the class, all she could do to praise me and my unique writing style… yet, I still did not get the grade I deserved.

 Opinion grading is not my style. 1+1=2. Math I enjoy because a person either gets it right or does not. Considering the writing I am now looking at on the internet, Facebook posts, forum posts, IM’s, emails directed to me, etc. I think I have a decent grasp of the English language, even though I have no desire to point out a Noun in a sentence, I do not need a College degree to understand that. 

Yousef: I can appreciate where you’re coming from! Subjective judgment can be frustrating, especially so when the metrics are unclear. In fact, the very act tests the quality of the teacher as much, or more so than the student being graded, and not every teacher makes the cut. It’s unfortunate that you had to experience this for yourself but know that it’s not all bad, just hang in there!

You also served in the US Navy for 6 years, how did that experience influence your life and work?

BV: I learned two lessons in the military:

  1. The value of a Chain of Command, and…
  2. “I am just doing my job”

In all honesty, the military was what I needed at the time. Being age 20 in a dead-end job, barely making over minimum wage, I had to do something. I joined the military with my best friend to get an education and job skills to help me “get a real job” after leaving the military. In my small home town, I often was harassed by the local police (and looking back, I probably deserved every second of it) and was extremely bitter toward the government. What have they done for me lately? Raised the minimum wage a whole nickel? Thanks Uncle Sam. 

So, going into the military, I decided to give the Government Overlords a chance. Wow. What I experienced is difficult to put into such an interview but it is a whole different world. Different way of talking, a true melting pot of all races and social backgrounds, and extreme structure. A procedure and protocol for everything. I liked that a lot. Sometimes I thought the military had too many Queen Bees and not enough drones, but that was actually a good thing. If a person worked in a local grocery store, what recourse did you have if a dispute between management and yourself happened? Quit? Great plan. Yet, in the military, a person had a chain of command to fall back on as well as their own rank. If you did not like the decisions of your immediate supervisor, you went to your work-center supervisor, then on to your Chief, etc. Convince a higher up of your point of view, and they overruled all that the underlings wanted, but you better have a good story as well as be able to back it up because the Chain is not the place to vent.

Many people I hung out with in high school were “rebels” in their own way, bucking the system the best they knew how and received plenty of moving violations as a result… so the police were out to get them. 

When making the decision to join the military, I knew, if I was told to go into War, “I am just doing my job.” Many people struggle with this fact or not even think of their decisions to do such a thing, but I wanted to serve my Country and in turn, the Government gave me an education and skills I could use after I left, and did just that. 

I never killed anyone in the line of duty (or any other time for that matter,

Yousef: Good to know!

BV: …yet the possibility was always there. Do not blame the police for pulling you over because you were speeding and breaking the law. If they didn’t, you could very well have ended up slamming into a guard rail and then…who would you call? Yeah, that same Highway patrolman that you cursed under your breath because they were only doing their job. Give our military members a break. They are doing what they are told, even if they do not agree… they are just doing their job. 

Yousef: Well said! Clear expectations are very underrated; especially in the IT industry where vague requirements and unclear goals can be very damaging! Speaking of the IT industry, what are some of the barriers you’ve encountered in getting into IT professionally?

BV: It is the same as every other civilian profession available: you need experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience. Absolutely without a doubt, I would always recommend someone that could not directly go to college, due to financial reasons or what have you, join the military. You get training you can use later on and, for the most part… they hire anyone. 🙂 

Yousef: I can appreciate that, its kind a catch 22, but you start out low and totem pole, learn everything you can and work your way up! Still, the industry is very competitive, and so anything you can do to raise your visibility and give back to the community can only help you. In your case, you’ve maintained blackviper.com for almost 12 years now. As I’ve gathered from your writings, this has been a rewarding, challenging, fun and sometimes frustrating and thankless job for you. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently if the opportunity presented itself?

BV: Over the years, I have taken on many challenges with regards to my internet domain. Being involved in everything has its advantages, such as learning, understanding and controlling every aspect of my publicly displayed self. From the colors on the web site to efficient delivery of the media, yet it was, for the most part, thankless.

Granted, over the years, I received tens of thousands of emails, many of them thanking me for my hard work, but I did a lot more than write a couple of rants.

When I technically could, I started serving my own domain from my house on a DSL line because I wanted to control and be part of every aspect that was my domain. In all honesty, I think that did me in. It was a simple idea that turned into an extremely overwhelming aspect of the internet itself. From configuring, monitoring and keeping up to date all aspects of domain hosting, including email, DNS and WWW servers, took a great deal of time out of my entertainment schedule (gaming) as well as the “fun” factor of having a geeky hobby. Sure, tweaking a Windows computer is great and publishing my findings saved my readers lots of time, but having the power go out at my house and then explain to someone in Europe why my domain was down for three hours, it got old… After many years of doing just that, again, money became an issue and I needed to change. I transferred my domain to an external hosting provider and have been very happy with that decision. Even though I cannot reach down and push the power button on the server next to my feet at any time I feel, the act of taking a large amount of stress out of my hands really was the best choice. I plan on creating an article (probably end up being a rant) about all the issues I encountered serving my domain from home at some point.

Yousef: With the ease and simplicity involved with turning up a web presence these days, be it Facebook, a blog or some other free hosting service, most people never learn to appreciate the work that goes into making all of that possible! It sounds like you learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the process! So, what’s in store for the future of blackviper.com?

BV: I really do not know. In the past few years, I have added a forum (BBS), a Services and Process Wiki (MediWiki) as well as a BvLOG (WordPress) to publish my news updates. Basically, I am very happy with how all of it turned out. Now, I just need to add and refine more content, such as my install guides and more personal rants, like the Free Beer and Jack in the Box.

I am also open for suggestions.

 Yousef: Your most recent addition to the website is BV Racing. You mentioned that you grew up around it [racing] and wanted to make the shift from patron to participant. Why now? What was your inspiration?

BV: I have always enjoyed dirt track racing. It is exciting for the fans in the stands and for the drivers, pure white knuckle action. The reasons for “why now” is location, location, location. I live just a few miles from a dirt track and have socialized with some of the drivers that drive that track each season. I just want a piece of the action and the only way I know how is to ask for help on the web. Get a geek into a race car! Of course, getting a “real” race car and keeping it running costs thousands of dollars to start, but I hope to begin slow by getting my “Run what you Brung” car out there on the track and get noticed by, maybe an existing driver or owner with spare parts and hope to jump into a real car this year. I have already been in talks with one driver with a spare Modified. I still need to paint the current car, purchase a helmet and jumpsuit. So my entry level spot will only cost a few hundred, not a few thousand. I do wish to get into a real ‘Modified soon, though.

Yousef: Thanks again for your time, Charles! I really enjoyed learning more about you and your site!

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