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DnD: Nostalgia Makes a Welcome Appearance

One of my recent successes outside of tech is returning to Dungeons and Dragons (D&D, or as I prefer to call it, DnD). I played as a teenager in Israel two decades ago, back when the rest of my classmates were trying to party or arguing the eliteness of IDF army units.

I recently picked the hobby up again thanks to a friend from work who connected me with a couple looking for players. A perfect fit for me and my partner. Now, after our third game night, I’ve finally decided it’s time to give DnD its own page on my Wiki (which basically means I’m getting serious with it).

The first couple of times were a lot about learning the rules, of which there’s a book with over 300 pages. Last time we all talked about our characters’ traits and bonuses, discussing game rules, negotiating different “deals” with our DM. It was fun.

I noticed I’m role playing (RPing) RPing  better, partly because I know more of the rules and partly because I got more comfortable with our friends and opened up. Usually, I start to zone out around 2100 and completely fade around 2200, which is basically my bedtime, but this time I managed to remain alert throughout the whole thing. I got home after midnight and had about five hours of sleep. Not nearly enough, but it was worth it. The sessions usually last more than 6 hours.

DnD does a lot of good things for me. I am starting to see, as I’m learning the rules and getting more comfortable, that yes, this could be a great hobby again. It leads to writing, art, socializing (it is a drinking night with friends, after all), and it’s always a fun break from the daily grind.

DnD is a game like no other. It has the socializing aspects of a board game, but creativity and roleplaying abilities that go far beyond a simple board with game pieces. It is a game about storytelling that takes your creative juices (horror mixed with goth and some dark sexual elements in my case) and gives it life. I highly recommend it.

Elementary OS And The Importance of Not Asking Why.

Two weeks ago I tried Elementry OS on my Mac at work.

Elementy OS is an Ubuntu (thus, Debian-based) Linux distro Operating System, which doesn’t make it unique. What does make it unique though, is its approach to simplistic, polished design. It seems like the guys behind this project have built an operating system inspired by Apple’s Mac OS.

Elementary OS was not going to make my work easier or more efficient. In fact, it failed within the first day, because I just couldn’t keep working with shortcuts and workarounds under regular work pressure, it was too much of a high step. I might try again in the future.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For you, people who read this, the question is probably: “why the hell would you want to install Linux on your work Macbook Air?” My job is to support Mac users both of software level and hardware. We all use Macs, which is why it makes sense that the guy who fixes them has a Mac as well. So, Why?

Why? I’m not sure I can answer this question. The same way I can’t answer why I love technology, or why, after a long week at work, I pass my weekend learning how to code, design my website, or trying to hack my own WiFi for fun while watching Netflix. It’s just my thing.

It’s an impulse I can’t let go of, sometimes strong enough to wake me up from my sleep with a new exciting idea. It’s just something I gotta do, man, and if you don’t get it — well, you just don’t.

Some of you understand the “itch.” You know what I’m talking about. You don’t do something because it’s cost effective, efficient, good (or bad), or helpful. You do it simply because you think you can. And if you fail, well, that’s just a whole bunch of fun to make it work anyway.

 The worst question you can ask yourself is “What for?”

As an IT professional, someone who is expected to deliver a certain service within a certain time frame at a certain cost, I understand where the question is coming from. But as a technologist? It’s a death blow to creativity and innovation.

“What for” is the same as saying, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. “What for” is a question usually coming from folks who rather play it safe and stick with what they know. But if you stick with what you already know, how can you learn what you don’t?

So, it took me a week to decide to scrap the whole idea of Elementry OS on my Mac. Technically it’s still installed, but I stopped trying to boot into it. You’d say I lost, that I failed.

did I?

In a single weekend, I managed to install, update, and customize a new Linux distro on a Macbook air. Installing Linux on a Mac can be a major pain, but this was not the first or second time I’ve done it – hence the value of learning. Things you take for granted, like the computer hydrating when you close the lid or the screen’s brightness automatically adjusted by the light in the room stop working. But it can work. I’ve done it before. And each failure like that, each “wtf” moment, brings another promise of triumph.

I might try Elementary OS again. Perhaps as a side project, try to get it to work smoothly, and install different tools that usually come with Kali or Ubuntu. There’s absolutely no sense in keeping that small partition on my already too little Mac hard drive. At it’s best, the Elementary OS-powered Mac will function at perhaps 70% at what it used to be under Mac OS. No matter.

That’s not the point.

 

 

Rootkit Makes me a Better Windows User

At home this weekend, I had to re-install Windows 10 twice due to a particularly nasty malware (rootkit!). It came nicely bundled in and installation file I downloaded from Torrentula.

The rootkit was sophisticated. It prevented Malwarebytes from launching by running in the same memory address Malwarebytes runs in (I believe this is called stacks overflow, but someone more experienced could maybe fill me in here?) Meanwhile, Windows Defender kept finding malware and infections and prompted me to restart the computer after cleaning – which only meant all the infections mushroomed again as if nothing happened.

I decided then to just nuke everything and format my hard drives from the Windows Live CD setup screen. I don’t store crucial personal information I need on my C drive (for this reason among others) anyway.

Here are some interesting things I learned from reinstalling Windows 10 Pro:

  • Re-installing Windows 10 is very easy. In my experience, it takes less time than installing Mac OS. All you need is the Windows 10 Live CD ISO. Make sure you choose the “install Windows on a different computer” option in the Download Tool once you activate, to create a bootable USB drive. This installation media is smart. For my computer, it knew to ask for my Microsoft Live credentials; for a computer at work (another story) it didn’t even ask and “knew” it belongs to an institution*.
  • Windows 10 found my settings, such as my desktop wallpapers and color schemes, and restores them. These were probably saved to One Drive since I cleared my hard drive completely (including partitions) from the USB so now way it retrieved this information from there. As soon as I logged into my account during setup, Windows started with the same basic setting it had before the nuking.
  • Windows 10 creates a 500MB hidden partition (without a letter assigned) upon installation on the main C drive. Not sure what it’s for, probably for the sort of shit I just pulled off (anyone can fill me in on this?)
  • Cortana, One Drive, and whatever other mind tricks Microsoft is pulling are annoying. Even though I specified I don’t want Cortana, Windows’ express installation settings re-activate it. You have to chose “custom” during installation and uncheck everything again. One Drive requires a more sophisticated Group Policy change later on as well. These also help with Cortana. However, you need Windows Pro and up to have the group policy issues, otherwise you’re not admin enough for Microsoft and as a mere home user they think you must use One Drive and Cortana for your own good.
  • Windows 10 does have an imaging tool. First time I installed Windows on this machine I thought Windows backup and an image is the same thing… No! As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ll bother with a whole system-wide backup anyway. Instead, I created a new image as soon as I finished initials setups (like display drivers, Google Chrome as default, etc.) and stored it elsewhere. Here’s how you get to Windows 10 imaging tool: Control panel (right click Windows logo) >  File History > System Image Backup.

I did mention I set up Windows twice. Why? Because after the first time, I only knew one of the apps I installed contained the rootkit… After the second time, I knew exactly which one was it… See? Sometimes you learn the hard way.

* Pro tip: if you order Windows PCs for school/work and you know they come with crapware from the manufacturer, do yourself a favor and wipe it clean with this tool. It’s faster than trying to uninstalling each one individually. Better yet, of course, if you have an image…

Gantz:O

Last night I got to watch Gantz:O. It was a Netflix recommendation which popped up both in the Sci-Fi Horror and Adult Animation categories (thanks, Netflixcodes!). Here are some of my thoughts about it.

Good:

  • Great Animation. No really, if you’re a fan of animated films, take a look at these computer-generated models… It took me almost 30 seconds to finally decide that the actors are animated (OK, and the “adult animation” category also helped). I paused the movie a couple of times just to glance at the screen and appreciate the details. Check some of these awesome images for size.
  • Animation from a technical point of view aside, the richness of the monsters was another serious entertainment factor. With a nod (ok, more like a very much emphasized, enthusiastic, repeated nod) toward Japanese traditional lore, many of the creatures are very imaginative and interesting to behold, each one moves and attacks in different ways. Given, the movie is based on a comic, so I guess I can’t give it too much credit… but the execution of these… delicious.
  • Overall, this is the kind of movie you enjoy watching. It’s not too deep (actually, not too deep at all, that’s coming up below), doesn’t require much brain power, and is just fun to watch late at night with some snacks.

Bad:

  • “Because I’m a man, and I have to do what a man has to do.” This theme is projecting so powerfully from the movie, my eyes started hurting from rolling. The main character is a man who needs to save two women (one is not enough), and he totally kicks ass even though he is totally inexperienced and has no idea what he’s doing.
  • This movie should also come with a”this movie is aimed at teenage video gamers” warning sign. The two women in the movie are shown off in tight rubber suits with their breasts jiggling and their hips swaying. The guns and aiming system is heavily influenced by video gaming, as well as the scoring systems and the value of life (fuck the people who die, the score is all that matters). Oh yeah, the entire movie theme revolves around a game. That’s the point. Chances are that if you’re not into video games, at least somewhat, and you’re older than 20, you might get bored/annoyed fast. Me… I guess I was just impressed with said animations.
  • “That’s not a plot hole, he’s the one!” Eyeroll. Yawn. Kei, the main guy, is scared shitless when he’s thrown into the middle of everything at the beginning of the movie. Somehow though he is able to handle himself just as well, and soon better, than everyone else. According to the time that passes in the movie (and in real life), he turns from a scared kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing to a master fighter in about an hour. Not only that, guns that do jack shit to monsters in the hands of other characters seem to work for him. He also has this annoying “the chosen one” luck of having his ass saved repeatedly (while others die) and being spared by the evil boss when there’s no reason for him to be spared – just so he can finish off said boss later.

Conclusion

This movie is not meant to impress with a good plot. As long as you come with low expectation, and just the will to kill some time with good flashy action, this movie is actually quite good. I won’t watch it again any time soon, but I could recommend it to someone who likes anime and action.. just don’t take it too seriously.

 

 

Scaring you Into Using LastPass

When I posted the following on Facebook:

Make 2017 more secure: use LastPass.

LastPass is a password management app. It saves your passwords for you, so when you log into it, it fills the passwords for the sites you visit.

You could argue that saving passwords on the cloud is not the safest practice, however, statistically speaking, you are probably too lazy to change your passwords often and have a hard time remembering passwords your bank website asks you to remember. You know, the minimum 12 character, 2 special characters, two numbers, one capital letter and one jump in your chair for the hell of it.

LastPass can also change passwords for you and runs a test on your passwords to tell you what needs to be changed. Not only that, it can store your address, credit card information and more so you don’t need to take out your credit card each time you want to buy something on the web.
I’ve been using LastPass for the last 6 years, and it’s been my first extension to install on my web browser upon each fresh installation.

Also (did I mention?) it’s free.
It’s not only safer, it’s also easier. Do yourself a favor, protect yourself. There’s a lot of scary stuff out there.

I mostly got less than enthusiastic comments:

“This sounds like a bad idea. I think my brain is more secure.”

“And then, LastPass database gets hacked by some 15-year-old hacker from Indonesia?…nope, I’m still gonna stick to my IT girl guns and change my passwords every month. if you have too many passwords to remember, be responsible and find a secret place to write them down (that you won’t forget :p)”

These are two common excuses that must be purged from your mind as a new year resolution. I decided to go a bit more in-depth to explain what is so important about having a password manager. Let’s break this down.

“My Brain is More Secure”

First, we assume that what’s in our possession is safer than something in a data center somewhere. Unless you live in a locked room behind two or three high-security gates,  this is not true. Data centers have better physical security than your own home.

Second, the flawed logic that just remembering passwords is safer. This is tricky. In theory, one could argue that remembering passwords is safer than storing them somewhere. In theory. The problem is that in practice, we have too many passwords to remember. In 2007, studies showed that the average user remembers 6.5 passwords. While the number of websites we use every day increased since then, our brain capacity hasn’t. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say you remember 10 unique passwords. This means you have to reuse the same passwords 10 times for about 100 websites. According to LastPass, I stored well over 200 passwords over the last 5 years or so that I’ve been using the service.

Most passwords are not unique; people come up with predictable passwords. Most hacker tools come equipped with password dictionaries. These are files that easily store thousands of common passwords. Here’s a fraction of one such list which I found as I was writing this post:

Why yes, password lists look nice on Terminal.

Keep in mind, this is just a small fraction of the entire list in this file. This list also contains special-character passwords and other combinations. In total, this basic list contains over 3000 passwords. The biggest dictionary files contain tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of passwords. Besides, a hacker can use several dictionary files at once. Modern computers are capable of going through a whole list like the one you see here in a matter of seconds.

Common, reused passwords is every hacker’s wish. A wish granted far too many times. Databases with passwords get stolen every month. The worst one is pretty recent: December of 2016. That’s one billion hacked accounts alone. Most of these billion passwords are reused in other websites. Here’s a list of additional known data breaches from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia – List of data breaches

This is a list of only major, known and disclosed data breaches. Think about how many more breaches are out there that you have no way of knowing about.  As far as you know, one of the websites you use every day had a breach and your password is on some hacker’s thumb drive. That password will be shared to one of these dictionary files.

So, no. Your brain, which can’t remember more than 7 passwords on average, is not exactly secure.

“And then, LastPass database gets hacked? …I’m gonna change my passwords every month. if you have too many passwords to remember, be responsible and find a secret place to write them down.”

True, LastPass got hacked before. And it’s a good idea to change passwords every month and keep them in a secret place. But who changes passwords every month? All of them for all websites? As a matter of fact, that’s one good reason to use LastPass. Where else will you keep your 50 or so unique passwords so you have them with you? An “encrypted” notepad?

LastPass makes it much easier to change your password. You have a list of all your password in front of you, and now LastPass can change passwords for you if you let it.

OK. So let’s say LastPass gets hacked again and you need to change all your passwords. You use the list, go to the websites, and change your passwords. You can even export your passwords to a spreadsheet. Can you do that with the “safe place” where you store passwords if it gets stolen? Will you even remember all the websites you have a password for? LastPass encrypts your passwords twice. It forces you to create a unique password for your password storage. This is the only password you will need, so it could be something crazy like a 50 character sentence. By the time a hacker will crack that, LastPass will inform you and you will be able to change your passwords many times over.

There’s more to LastPass to like. Not only it makes it easy to change your passwords and create new complex passwords, it also tells you which sites have the same passwords, which have weak passwords (like the ones that might exist in the dictionary file above), and which sites are compromised (were hacked) with links to a proof.

LastPass gives you too much information and tools to care about, but that’s the point. LastPass is the kind of tool that shows us just how much work we need to put into our online security. Work that, lat’s face it, we never do. This is why it’s good to have it around to help us. It is not bulletproof, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Do yourself a favor and try it.

A final note. While this post was written almost as an ad for LastPass, there are other great password managers out there. KeyPass is a long time favorite among IT folks, and there’s also the excellent 1Password known best for Macs and iPhones. These last two work about the same way.

About Ideas and the Importance of Solitude

Ideas need an empty mind to grow. Vacuum. I find that the constant noise of other people can interfere with intuition and innovation. Opinions are all fine and good, but they can affect our fresh ideas and mold them into something, not ours, beat them into submission.

The groupthink threat is real. At the age of social media, there are many people we can relate to and agree with, and less of a need to come up with our own thoughts. Perhaps there’s nothing new under the sun, but the process of learning and discovery is necessary to shape a strong, creative mind.

When we constantly agree with ideas that are not our own our mental filter weakens. We are more remote and care less for opinions that are not our own. With time, we become lazy. We accept ideas not because we agree, but because we trust the source. The context matters less. Our ability to distinguish one situation from the next weakens as we apply the same judgment with a head nod.

As human beings, we constantly crave new things but remain unfulfilled. We stare at a wall. We know it’s a wall because we’ve been told it’s a wall, therefore, it must be true. We don’t even try to reach out to test it. We’re surrounded by borrowed concepts. We can’t make sense of these, so we just accept they are there. We decide we’re depressed. There’s something wrong with us because everything (any everyone) tells us we should be happy with what we have, but what we have is nothing.

My ideas are not better than yours. They are just mine.

My idea factory is my journal. A small place of private space where the only audience is me. My innovation happens best on long walks on cold days when the people I pass are few and far between. These are the best moments of clarity, where I find solutions to problems that have not yet come to pass. My sadness is my temple, where I am allowed to reflect on past inconvenient moments and adjust for a fulfilling future. My happiness is rooted in conquering these moments.

When my ideas are done, when innovation took its course, then it’s time to share. At this point, my ideas have grown enough in their solitude to stand against others’ opinions.

 

So, Snapchat?

I read an interesting article about SnapChat in NYT. Was thinking, am I getting too old for this? After all, I tried it before, and much like the article linked in the Time’s piece above, it made me feel old. All the new cool kids use it, and I work for a school, which makes it worse.

So I gave it another try. This time I managed to have a better understanding. On the surface, it looks like a silly App meant to just have fun. A teen app indeed. But SnapChat just feels good to use, natural almost. A silly app maybe, but it’s designed by smart people. I took a deeper look at the design intelligence behind it, and here is what I realized:

  • It changes the stickers you can add, based on location. It has it narrowed down  to a neighborhood, time of day, etc. Sure, that’s easy, any app can do it, right? But any app hadn’t just yet.
  • The lenses, the funny face filter, are pretty good at finding faces in pictures. Bonus: SnapChat, unlike any other social media app I used recently, assumes you want to take selfies. Whenever you want to take a picture, the front facing camera is the first one selected first. Now this is what I call thinking about small details.
  • The pictures taken with it have filters, stickers, labels, and can be written over. This is also available for videos. How come no other app I know have such an amazing capability for videos? This is super useful.
  • The “my story” feature is actually not half bad to capture your day in a visual way. It’s meant to share with your friends, and then it’s gone forever (more or less). Your boss won’t find out about how drunk you got on your sick day from your friends on Facebook. The only person who can save these stories is the only one who should: you. Simple. Smart. No other social network thought about this amazing privacy filter.

SnapChat has more gems to explore. I’m actually excited about trying to use it, but none of my millennial friends will use it. After all, we’re too “app snob” to use something so silly, right? “When I was your age, I used Facebook! and it was Da Bomb!”

The guys who made SnapChat know what they’re doing. I hope They won’t hurry to make SnapChat public. History shows this can be a kiss of death to innovation.

Just Jumping to the Heart of it

I don’t want to start with an introduction about why this blog is going to be awesome. I figure I’ll just go ahead and jump right into things. The flow here will make sense later on.

My Tech Wiki (SSTech)

SStech is my tech notebook and wiki. It’s based on the excellent TiddlyWiki wiki application. SSTech should essentially be just an export of my Tech category of my larger, personal Wiki. As I work on the personal wiki, I hope to update SSTech by simply exporting the “Tech” category from my personal Wiki. Each update will overwrite the existing one HTML file on this website. I could include a version number inside SSTech as well, so people could follow the updates. I could even include journal entries in SSTech discussing the entries I’ve added. I should find a way to automate this process so I can export all Tech-tagged entries with one step. This requires it will require research and some Q&A.

Anything outside of the Tech category in the personal wiki will not fit SStech well. Posts of personal nature, such as meditation notes or an about section, means extra editing inside SSTech. I am not sure if I will have the time or energy at this point, I will have to see later.

The New Blog

This is the new blog.

Journal-based content: I should base my posts on my journal in my personal Wiki. It’s a good idea to record issues I tackle at work so I have more content to work with. This first blog post is an example of such a journal entry.

Frequency: One of the things I made a point of right away is that I should write about once a week, no more, no less. This way I push myself to publish content on a regular basis while having some quality control.

The SOP rundown: Technically, I should keep the 5-paragraph outline method. I should also include pictures and screenshots that I collect through my day .

The above does not make sense. Because of the of how  I post, direct copy paste from my journal with editing, my entries are usually long. I don’t want to force a formula that might damage the content. The point, after all, is to create raw descriptions of my thoughts with light editing. Questions, if someone is curious, can always be asked. I don’t want to hold peoples’ hands.

Also, my posts here will go serious chopping with the Hemingway App. I hope this will help to keep the language simple.