Monday, December 24, 2012

Why do you clean your old NES games?

I bought Mike Tyson's Punchout for NES from High Teck Game Traders in Saskatoon - a buddy got me a gift certificate for Christmas.

This is why your old NES games don't work:

Before: 

After:

If you own NES games, go buy yourself some of this: 



Monday, December 17, 2012

Restored my NES!

A partial update to this post; a few days ago I finished completely restoring my Nintendo Entertainment System and all of the games for it. I followed this most-excellent guide for the basic steps.

In summary, I:
- Replaced the 72-pin connector inside the NES console;
- Dusted the inside of the console;
- Mr. Clean Magic Eraser'd the console and the outside of all the games;
- Polished all of the game connectors with Mother's Mag and Aluminum Polish;
- Replaced the CR2032 batteries in my two Zelda games (I & II).

After replacing my 72-pin connector, games loaded instantly about 50% of the time. After polishing all of the game connectors, games loaded instantly almost 100% of the time. I still almost can't believe it; it's like playing on a brand-new system.

Can't recommend the Mother's Mag and Aluminum Polish highly enough. I got a mirror finish in the copper on most of the game connectors:


Beauty. If anyone wants to come over and play RBI Baseball, Super Mario 3 or Ice Hockey, drop me a line :)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Q: Will a king bed fit in our new house? A: Google Sketchup (awesome product!)

Robyn and I were trying to figure out whether a king bed will fit in our new house. To answer that question I immediately downloaded Google SketchUp, which is an awesome (and free!) CAD/drawing application.

Using the blueprints of our new house (possession: January!) that we got when we signed the contract, I had a mockup of our top floor, down to the inch, in about 90 minutes. I could have stopped at the bedroom, but we also wanted to see if my giant desk would fit in a spare bedroom.

So, will a king bed fit in our new master bedroom, and will there be room for bedside tables and dressers? The answer is definitely yes:


In 2009, SketchUp also helped me figure out if I could fit a queen bed in my apartment bedroom, along with my huge desk (split in two) and a bookshelf. The answer was yes - barely:


If you've used any CAD programs before, you'll adapt to SketchUp quickly. There are also lots of SketchUp video tutorials and lessons for beginners. SketchUp is a VERY handy program that can always answer the question "will it fit?" - so long as you know your room/house/whatever's dimensions!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Biggest (Gaming) Mistake

After the Nintendo Gamecube was released, I packed up our N64 and all of our games and traded it all towards that stupid purple cube. So many classics gone: Goldeneye, Smash Brothers, Perfect Dark, Mario Party (and sequels), and a rare copy of Bust-a-Move. And Mario Kart 64! Holy crap, me and my siblings played a lot of Mario Kart. Could you hop over the wall in Wario's Stadium? I could.

We had an Xbox already, so I didn't see any reason to keep the N64 even though it was the first console we ever owned. Oh, young Brahm didn't know anything about nostalgia then.

Some years later I took that Gamecube into High Tek Game Traders and swapped it for another N64. Ahhh. That's better. I never bought all of the games back, but I nabbed the important ones. I won't make that mistake again.

--

Robyn recently got the urge to play Super Mario Bros on my NES. I didn't have an NES as a kid but my Uncle Bill and Aunt Erna had one. We'd go over to their farm and run to their bedroom, where it was set up on a little 13" TV. We loved it. In high school, I bought an NES, 2 controllers, the Zapper and about 8 games off my friend Curtis for an absurdly reasonable price (given their current resale prices) - can't quite remember what it was. A couple years later he asked to buy it back. Sorry dude, all sales final.

When Robyn and I unpacked the NES, the Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge was missing! And I know for sure that I owned it, because I have the Duck Hunt gun. We played Bubble Bobble instead.

Oh well. Robyn ordered Mario Bros on eBay. I also ordered River City Ransom and Duck Hunt, and I'm bidding on RBI Baseball. Woo!

I've got a new 72-pin connector in the mail so I can fix the finicky loading on the NES, and a gamebit so I can pop open the cartridges to clean the connectors. I'm going to take care of my sweet little NES and protect it... this is how I'll honour my fallen N64 and Bust-a-Move. Never Forget.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Passive-Mogressive Motes

Last year I complained to the internet about constant charitable fundraising efforts at my work. "Wahhh, I get asked for money too frequently" - me.

For the past three years I've been doing Movember, growing horrible moustaches and raising money for prostate cancer research and men's mental health initiatives. (it's a trap blog post! Donate to me here: mobro.co/bneufeld)

And for each year I've participated in Movember, the event grows. Like a big, beautiful moustache grown over thirty days, it grows. There are more people campaigning for donations, and some people get REALLY into it.

Some outstanding men at the Saskatoon office have taken up the Movember cause, and my email inbox has been a flurry of fundraising updates (hooray for email filters!). One of many events (seriously - there's a steak night too) is a Movember mini-golf tourney - each discipline in the office builds a hole, you pay to play, and the proceeds to to charity. Yay! Fun! Right?

I raised an eyebrow when I saw this email:
"The Movember mini golf tournament is slated to go this week.  I know that we are busy, and this tournament is going to be a fun event for a great cause.  We are not seeking elaborate results.  Rather something reasonably challenging that can be setup in during a coffee break.

"[Organizer Person] was seeking email from those planning to participate as a group; I am going to do the opposite. The groups that will be participating are identified below.  If your group is unable to participate, please provide me with a compelling reason as to why you cannot spare 20 minutes for charity." (NB: emphasis not mine! This was the actual email formatting) 
Oh boy. I support the cause, but come on - this email makes the event sound about as exciting as vacuuming the living room!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Coffee Trap

My sweet lady wife moved into my (our!) apartment right after our wedding. So far Robyn and I are pretty good roommates! We share the chores and are good at living together in a tiny space.

Since we pledged our eternal love for one another, Robyn has been setting traps. All over the place. Traps that didn't seem to spring up when my ex-roommate lived here. Items tumble out of cupboards, or fall off our tiny bathroom shelf into the toilet. Mmm, toilet aspirin.

She denies setting these traps but the evidence keeps piling up!

On Monday she set a trap that will be hard to top. Robyn covertly decided that our electric kettle needed cleaning because it supposedly had too much calcium in it.

Cloaked in silence, she filled the kettle (I can only assume, to the brim) with vinegar, boiled it down (I assume) to a thick vinegar syrup, and planted it in front of the sink for me to find during my morning routine.

The next morning my alarm went off at 5:00AM and I set about my automatic morning routine. Bathroom, shower, get dressed, grind coffee, fill kettle, boil kettle, pack lunch, put coffee & water in french press, eat breakfast, brush teeth, press coffee, pour in travel mug, add milk, depart for carpool.

In the carpool I sipped my coffee and was shocked wide awake. But not due to caffeine. Oh no. I thought my brain might be melting in those early morning hours, so I took another, smaller cautionary sip. I could ONLY taste acetic acid. This was alarming because I brew strong coffee. I thought the milk went bad. Very, very bad. But that didn't compute, because I had a glass of milk with breakfast.

When I got to work I poured my coffee down the sink. The bottom third of my travel mug was filled with a spongy disconnected mass of stinky curdled milk globs. It was super gross. Some people who saw (and smelled) what I was doing mug helpfully commented, "that's gross."

I texted Robyn and asked if she filled the kettle with vinegar, and if not, to watch out for the milk. She texted me her confession and apologized profusely, but I can only imagine that she was clasping her hands together, laughing maniacally and laying her next trap.

I have insider intelligence that she will be blogging her side of the story. I'll leave it to my discerning readers to evaluate the facts for themselves.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Bulletproofing" Apps: Preventing Android from Killing Processes (root)

 
I have been playing with my Android phone lots lately. I installed Cyanogenmod 10 (CM10) on my Galaxy SII and I feel like I've got a brand-new phone - all of my upgrade envy about the latest and greatest devices has evaporated (for now!).
 
I've also installed an app called Llama. Llama watches cell phone towers that I'm nearby, and performs actions based on where I am. You can program in any rules you'd like. I've got Llama set up to do the following:
  • Enable wifi when I'm at home, a buddy's house, or my parents' house;
  • Disable wifi when I leave any of those locations;
  • Turn my ringer to extra-loud when I arrive at work (useful on a construction site!);
  • Mute my phone between 9pm and 4:45am, ONLY when the phone is plugged in (ie, when I have it charging on my nightstand while sleeping).
There are a bunch of apps that can do the same thing, I just happen to like Llama.
 
One annoyance that I've encountered with Llama is that the Android operating system is really good at finding inactive processes and killing them. In other words, if it sees an app running in the background, and that app hasn't done anything in a while, it kills the app to free up the phone's memory to do other things. Often times this means that Llama dies at inopportune times. This results in my wifi staying on (battery drain) or my sounds staying muted (I miss calls!).
 
I finally found an awesome fix though - you can prevent Android from killing certain apps. For it to work, you need your phone to be rooted.
 
The fix can be found in this megathread on xda-developers, which is obscenely large and filled with an intimidating amount of rich text formatting. Don't worry, the fix pretty easy:
  1. Download the latest V6 Supercharger script from this xda-developers post and save it somewhere on your phone. The author has uploaded it as a .pdf (to get around upload size limits) so remove the .pdf extension after downloading (it is an .sh file).
  2. Make sure Busybox is installed on your phone. If your phone is rooted, Busybox is probably installed.
  3. Install Script Manager. This app can run the V6 script.
  4. Run Script Manager, enable the "browse as root" option in the settings.
  5. Open the V6 Supercharger script (that you downloaded in Step 1) in Script Manager, and be sure to run "as root" (the skull and crossbones icon turns green when you've done this right)
  6. Follow all the prompts and select the options you want. To learn more about the options, though... start reading that xda-developers thread.
To "bulletproof" an app and keep it in memory:

  • Select the "Bulletproof Apps" option in the V6 Supercharger script and follow the prompts.
"But... script!? I don't understand! Sounds hard" - you. No, it's easy. Let me calm your fears. When you run the V6 Supercharger script with Script Manager, here's what happens: You see text scrolling by DOS-style as the script runs, explaining what it's doing as it goes. Every once in a while it gives you a few options. You pick an option, hit enter, and the script keeps running. If you don't understand something, you can always choose "no". The script also saves your original settings so you can always revert back if something unexpected happens.
 
The first post in that big megathread has a ton of information on all the options, but you need to click the show/hide buttons to see it all.
 
It took me a LONG time to wrap my head around this fix and get it figured out. This is one of the perks of Android: you can hack it to get it running JUST the way you want it. :)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cast Iron Cornbread

Yummmmmmmmmm:


Crunchy, buttery outside, sweet tasty inside!

My favourite new toy is the cast iron pan that Robyn and I got for our wedding. I made this recipe from foodnetwork.com after work today, and YUM, I will be making it again.

Cast iron pans = AWESOME.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Speeding Tax


On the Friday of the September long weekend, I got a speeding ticket on Highway 16 while driving our company rental car home from our job site. I was driving 118 km/hr on a 100 km/hr road.
 
I was pretty embarrassed to be ticketed, because:
1. On the way home, we passed one speed trap (to which I said, "ha-ha!").
2. We then passed a SECOND speed trap, where I....
3. started talking about my perfect, fault-free driving record, when...
4. a THIRD cop car, driving in the opposite direction as us, U-turned on the highway, turned on his lights and pulled me over. He could have got the four speeders ahead of me, but no, he chose me.
 
Lest you think I'm an unsafe driver, on Highway 16 EVERYONE drives 120 km/hr to and from the potash mines when the shifts change. (if you're holding steady at 100 km/hr, you invite SEVERE tailgating from big trucks). And for my out-of-province readers, if you are unfamiliar with Saskatchewan highways, #16 is one of the straightest, and the flattest - in some spots you have 20 kilometers of visibility. But those aren't excuses that I could sell to a cop; I accepted the ticket without argument.
 
As I drove away, I took comfort in recalling my dad's philosophy on speeding tickets: as long as you're not being a dangerous driver, speeding tickets (and parking tickets) are kind of like randomly-collected taxes for the privilege of being able to drive however the hell you want.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

America the Beautiful


I'm totally smitten with US National Parks. On our last two vacations, Robyn and I have explored:

- Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
- Zion Canyon National Park, UT
- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
- Glacier National Park, MT
- Yellowstone National Park, WY

Glacier National Park

There's so many incredible scenes, geological features, and wildlife in the national parks it's stunning; you feel transported through time.

Old Faithful.

I'm halfway through a documentary series called National Parks: America's Best Idea, produced by Ken Burns. He dives into the history and modern-day challenges the parks face over 6- 2-hour episodes.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The history is incredible enough. In the late 1800s, industry was driving America's development, and it was moving at a whirlwind pace. Forests were being cleared for timber and grain fields, valleys were being dammed for drinking water and power, and known national wonders (like Niagara Falls) were bastardized and turned into horrible tourist traps. It was the foresight of a few dedicated conservationalists who pioneered the idea that some places are so beautiful that they must be preserved for future generations, at all costs.

Mud bubble caught mid-burst at Yellowstone

It was hard at first. After the US Congress established the first national park (Yellowstone), they didn't set aside any funds for it - the logic was that trees didn't need money to grow. Growing numbers of visitors were taking their toll on the parks, and three different brances of the army claimed some responsibility for "guarding" the parks. But as an increasing number of visitors was taking their toll on a growing number of parks, the National Park Service was created to protect and manage those resources.

Close-up of bacteria mat in a sulfur pool in Yellowstone

Knowing the history makes you appreciate the parks so much more. For instance, without a National Park designation, Yellowstone and others would have devolved into an ugly, casino-filled tourist trap much like Niagara Falls is today. Without the efforts of an EXTREMELY small number of dedicated humans, we simply wouldn't have publicly-accessibly nature spaces to enjoy! The land would be lost to development or gobbled up by wealthy individuals.

y helo thar! Bison at Yellowstone.

I hope I get to see many more parks, both American and Canadian. They're just special places that I feel like I need to experience.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Married!


Robyn and I got married a month ago: August 18, 2012 at the Berry Barn outside of Saskatoon.

The wedding couldn't have been more perfect. Everything and everyone looked amazing, most of all Robyn.


I started the day by taking my groomsmen out for breakfast at Jerry's Food Emporium. From there, we went to my parents' house where we changed into our tuxedos. Kudos to Devin for figuring out how to fold the silk pocket thingy.

We met up with the girls downtown - they all looked incredible - and started on our wedding photos. We took some shots by the river downtown, by the synchrotron, then a few more out by the Berry Barn before the ceremony. I drove alone to the Berry Barn, pumping myself up with some heavy metal.

Our officiant was the pastor from Robyn's family's United Church in Humboldt. She did an incredible job putting together the right ceremony for us: secular-leaning (with a couple multi-denominational prayers), and lots of beautiful language about love and commitment and our relationship. Robyn's dad (keyboards and vocals) and sister (vocals) were going to perform "The Rainbow Connection" during the registry signing, but it was so good at the rehersal that we said "play it, we'll sign the documents after the song is done". We hired a string quintet that learned Abba's "I Do, I Do, I Do" for the recessional. All the music was incredible!

The turnout was incredible, too - we invited about 120 people, and almost everyone made it (we'd read that we should expect 20% absenteeism). Almost every person from our four families was in attendance, plus many close friends. It was so great to see everyone there.

Cocktails were served right after the ceremony, then dinner, then speeches and toasts. Our friends and family really worked hard on their speeches - they were all funny, moving, well-prepared, heart-felt and emotional. A LOT of people commented on how good they were. And even though they lasted a while, no one seemed to mind.

At sundown, a bonfire was started in a fire pit. Those who didn't leave to escape the mosquitoes gathered to chat with each other. The night ended relatively early (10:30pm), which was okay with me and Robyn because we were exhausted.

We should be receiving our wedding photos soon! I'll share a few on the blog. It was such a fun and meaningful day; hard to summarize in blog form. Thanks to all of our friends and family for their love and support.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Best Mugs

Robyn's sister Allyson made us these awesome mugs for Robyn's wedding shower a few weeks back. I love them the most!!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cheesy As Can Be

Here's a video from the archives of me and my best pal Matt singing the "Ultimately As Cheesy As Can Be Song" at our Grade 12 Showcase (talent show thingy) in 2004. It was fun!


Monday, July 30, 2012

I Talk Gud


Robyn revealed to me a few weeks ago that I've been mispronouncing the word vo-cab-u-lary as VOL-cabulary for as far back as I remember. Possibly in the context of "my VOLcabulary is so big". Ughh.
 
Also, that one episode of the Simpsons where Homer says, "It's pronounced nuke-u-lar" has pretty much ruined the word for me, forever. This wouldn't be so bad if Robyn didn't work in the uranium industry. Now I saw "nu-" then pause and strain to remember what comes next.
 
Damn it.
 
(this reminded me of a funny story - I had a culinarily unadventurous friend in high school who would order chicken tenders at every restaurant. We'd gently tease him by asking the waitress, "What's this on the menu... can you tell me about your Chike-an Ten-dears?" Okay, maybe you had to be there)

Friday, July 27, 2012

Not Going Back to Non-Stick!


I recently posted about my roommate moving out, and how living alone kind of sucks.

One think that's FUN about roommates moving out is that both parties have to stock up on formerly-shared housewares. Actually, I guess this is only fun if you're financially able to stock up on housewares and you secretly love buying housewares. Hmm.

Anyway, I love housewares. In our apartment, I owned most of the pots, but my roommate owned most of the pans. Most of his pans had a Teflon non-stick coating, with the exception of one gigantic, brilliant, stainless steek wok.

After using that stainless steel wok, I am never going back to Teflon again.

My main beef with Teflon (and any other off-brand non-stick coatings) is not the remote health risks to humans and birds, rather, it's the fact that the coating is not permanent!! From pots to pans to George Foreman grills, everything with a Teflon coating is basically a ticking garbage time bomb waiting to find its way to the dump. My secondary beef with Teflon is that you have to worry about what utensils you use to stir and scrape, or risk accelerating the garbage time bomb.

It doesn't make sense to continue buying $30 Teflon-coated frying pans every 2-5 years. So when my roommate took his magnificent stainless wok away (along with his average Teflon pans) I bought two stainless frying pans and a wok from Home Outfitters for $170.

I'm not trying to say, "Ooooh, look at me, look at all the money I'm spending on pans." I'm just re-learning the same lesson I have to re-learn every few years: buy good quality and it will last a lifetime (see other post about my hunt for the perfect messenger bag). Good quality doesn't have to be TOO expensive. I spotted some pots and pans that cost upwards of $250 apiece - probably because it costs a lot of money to print Jamie Oliver's face on the packaging.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Roomies


My roommate moved out of my/our apartment last weekend. We shared the unit for about 40 months, although my primary residence was in Montreal for 12 of those months.
 
I think lots of people have roommates solely for financial reasons; someone to help pay the rent. I was pretty lucky that my roommate was a close friend. He was also about the same level of cleanliness and a non-crazypants. My sister once rented an apartment with a friend of hers, but the roommate relationship deteriorated quickly and they had to break our of their lease within 6 months of signing it. Having some common ground with a roommate makes a big difference. It's been fun coming home, making a quick supper then chillaxing with a beer over a Blue Jays game or a few episodes of Metalocalypse.
 
I love some aspects of living alone - organizing things however you want, postponing dishes as long as you want - but I miss the reliable human interaction already. Despite the benefits, I'm just not a fan of inhabiting a space by myself.  
 
I can survive alone just fine (as I did in Montreal) and Robyn will be moving in soon enough (yay!). I am looking forward to that. A significant other trumps a roommate in the sense that everything is "ours". There are still personal boundaries, but there is no "my room" and "your room", or no "my carton of eggs" and "your carton of eggs".
 
Of course, I hope we don't stay in the McPherson apartment for too long. It's just... crummy.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's New?


I haven't posted a blog entry for a long time.

I am busy working 50 hours a week (plus carpool time), so weekdays are tiring. My weekday evenings consist of eating supper, maybe seeing Robyn for a bit, watching an hour of TV then going to bed.

But work is interesting. Just last week we connected a 138,000 volt overhead line from SaskPower to a giant gas-insulated switchgear which feeds two brand-new transformers on our project site. The transformers transform the 138,000 volts into a more manageable 13,800 volts. After that, another pair of transformers step the voltage down to about 5,000 volts. For reference, your house outlets are 120 volts (your washer/dryer/dishwasher/oven might be 240 V).

This is our GIS.

What is a gas-insulated switchgear (GIS), though? The answer is interesting. Have you ever noticed a spark when you plug in an electrical appliance into a socket? You've just seen a tiny little electrical arc that bridges or "jumps" the air gap between two metal conductors. If you've been to a science centre and have seen a Jacob's Ladder or a Tesla coil, you've seen another kind of electrical arc. When you are playing with 138,000 volts, you don't get tiny fun arcs. You get humongous monster electrical arcs that can cause serious damage, injury or death due to burns or explosions. They can last for fractions of a second or several seconds.

Anytime you want to unplug from something that's providing 138,000 volts, you have to do it safely to minimize exposure to electrical arcs. One way to do this is to encapsulate the whole on/off switch (called a "disconnect") in an airtight, cast-aluminum enclosure and fill it with sulfur-hexaflouride (SF6) gas, a gas which is much heavier than air and naturally quenches electrical arcs. Arcs still form in GIS units, but are blasted with a jet of SF6 to disrupt and terminate them within milliseconds of them forming.

Fact: If you inhale SF6 gas, it has the opposite effect as helium gas - it lowers your voice! No, I haven't tried it.

Another fact: If the GIS leaks, it could fill the GIS building with colourless, odorless SF6 gas. This is an asphyxiation hazard (because it displaces oxygen), so we installed an SF6 detector that screams if the levels get too high, and automatically starts an exhaust fan to vent the building and bring fresh air in. So far, no leaks.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Best Shows: Summer 2012


Back in September I posted an admission: I love television. I love it among other things, of course, but I think one can love TV without being an antisocial cretin. There are just too many high-quality programs these days.

Here's a revision of my previous list - some shows have fallen off my radar completely (The Office, Dexter), and some other new shows have caught me completely off-guard as being awesome (Sherlock, Todd & The Book of Pure Evil).

My Absolute Favourite Shows - currently on the air
- Breaking Bad
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- Metalocalypse
- Todd and the Book of Pure Evil (easily the best new comedy on TV)
- 30 Rock (promoted from "well worth it" because Season 6 has been stellar)
- Sherlock (BBC)

Well Worth A Watch - currently on the air
- Game of Thrones (the show is incredible but the books are superior)
- Modern Family (still awesome, but demoted from favourites)
- Parks & Recreation (still awesome, but demoted from favourites)
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
- National Geographic's Drugs, Inc
- Eastbound & Down

Shows I Want To Start - when there's time
- Alphas
- Firefly (I've seen it before, but need to re-watch to fully appreciate)
- HBO's Veep
- HBO's Girls
- The Killing (Season 2 - I really enjoyed Season 1)
- The Wire

My All-Time Favourite Shows - now off the air
- Battlestar Galactica (SO GOOD - I recently re-watched the whole series again)
- The Sopranos
- Arrested Development
- Law & Order
- Law & Order: Trial By Jury (a one-season wonder that was better than most regular L&O episodes)

If you love TV and there's an awesome show you think lines up with my tastes, let me know. I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sound wall deflects sound, not vehicles

Behind my crappy apartment there is a sound wall. Behind the sound wall there is Idylwyld Drive. Apparently sound walls are not very good at deflecting cars.


That's what I found last Saturday when I walked out of my house. I sleep with my window open - I am surprised I didn't hear this. Nice big set of skid marks on Idylwyld to match, and the wall looks a lot worse on the other side.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

NASA's tips for revisiting lunar landing sites (someone at NASA has a sense of humour)


Last week I read a document called NASA's Recommendations to Space-Faring Entities: How to Protect and Preserve The Historic and Scientific Value of U.S. Government Lunar Artifacts.

Scientists at NASA wrote the 93-page tome due to interest by new organizations in visiting the moon. Some nations like China and the U.S. are planning lunar missions, but there's also private interest. For instance, the Google Lunar X Prize has 26 teams competing to get a robot to the moon by 2015, have it drive around for 500 metres (or more), and send HD imagery and video back to earth. Winning teams can qualify for $30 million dollars in prizes!

The NASA report - if you can get through all 93 pages - is fascinating. It has all kinds of recommendations for preventing damage to existing moon artifacts. For instance, lunar spacecraft should fly tangentially (aka, beside) existing lunar landing sites instead of over top of them, to avoid kicking up corrosive moon dust or spitting down unburned propellant - either of which could damage the sites and artifacts. Landing too close to a scientific site could cover LRRRs - Laser Ranging Retro-Reflectors - in moon dust. We bounce lasers off LRRRs from the earth and measure how long it takes for the laser to bounce back. This measures the distance between the earth and the moon, and also tests Einstein's Theory of Relativity. These experiments don't work with the mirrors covered in dust!

NASA says that sites of utmost historic importance (Apollo 11 and Apollo 17, the first and last manned visits of the Apollo era) shouldn't be visited at all - they are rightfully considered important milestones for humanity:

"Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in human history and humanity. It was the first instance in human history in which emissaries from this planet visited another body in the solar system. It represented the culmination of years of effort, the significant expenditure of life and resources, and the opening of a new age in human history. The site of that first landing requires preservation; only one misstep could forever damage this priceless human treasure."

NASA says it is permissible to visit the other Apollo sites (12, 14-16). In fact, NASA helpfully supplies a 20-page appendix of items they'd like new moon visitors to study, to determine how they've changed over 40 years on the surface of the moon: thermal paint, gears and dials, bags filled with food and human waste, even the nylon on the iconic lunar American flags. NASA also suggests some experiements, if visitors are so inclined. Here's where they hide their joke (page 52):

"Item J: Push biggest possible rock over edge of crater or rille
Tracks of boulders rolling down slopes have been used to infer geotechnical properties of the surface layer. The large boulder at [lunar site] A17 was sampled because a track implied that it had been part of an outcrop much higher up on the massif. A17 is also the site of an avalanche that is thought to be the result of an (hypothetical) impact on the far side of the massif. Soils that develop on slopes may well be metastable such that avalanches could be easily triggered. Also, it would be fun to push a big rock over a cliff. It is a question whether a rover could push a rock and also observe the descent, but it is worth thinking about." (emphasis added)

Lol, awesome. It's so cool all of this lunar stuff is happening in my lifetime.

NASA Report

Monday, May 28, 2012

Spotted in Utah


Was surprised to see that this was a California plate, not a Utah plate.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Geeky-Fun Wedding Invites & Website

Robyn and I finally got our wedding invites out the door a couple weeks ago. I wanted to design the invites  do something that reflects our personalities - fun, geeky, simple. But not TOO geeky.

That meant no flowers, no cursive text, no spelling out "two thousand and twelve at four o'clock in the afternoon". It also meant no Battlestar Galactica references even if we are both fans.

In the end I used a few pixelated Microsoft Paint "jellybean" doodles of us - I've these little jellybeans for a few years now. I used a ton of whitespace and some simple fonts, and simple text on the inside. (thanks Scott Borys for the font help and other feedback!)



QR code on the back! There is a heart inside. For LOVE.

We also put together a really simple, clean site in Google Sites: www.robynandbrahm.ca

With the website we wanted to do two things: 1) eliminate the need for invite inserts about registries, directions, hotels, etc and 2) match the aesthetic of the invite so that everything feels like part of one package. I think we did a pretty good job!

Oh, we also did a good job not spending too much money on this stuff.

Total costs:
Domain name (robynandbrahm.ca): $14/year
Adobe InDesign (free 30-day trial to do invite layout): $0
Invitations: $94 (I sent Saskatoon Fastprint a pdf and they printed 100 invites, cut and folded them).
Picture magnets (not pictured): $70

Total cost for invites and website: $178. Not bad!

I hope Robyn posts a picture of our guestbook from Shutterfly. It's really awesome.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Airplane Seat Recline Promise

I have never reclined my seat in an airplane, and I promise that I never will!

Not even if I'm on a super-long flight, like my 5-hour flight to Iceland last May! Not even if the seat behind me is empty. I just can't bring myself to do it. 

I cannot express the rage and frustration every time that seatbelt light goes off and the seat in front of me immediately snaps back with a ker-THUNK, stealing >20% of my personal space. 

As a BIG person (6'5" - I fill a coach seat snugly but don't "overflow") I go out of my way to make other people's flights as non-miserable as possible, because I know sitting near a big person sucks. When possible, I pay the extra few bucks for exit row seating so I'm not knocking knees with my neighbour. And my elbows are always tucked in beside my armrests to avoid jabbing my neighbour in the ribs or risk starting an "armrest war".

The seat-recline is the ultimate slap in the face to the person behind you, and it is never appropriate to recline your seat:
  • On ANY short-haul flight (less than two hours);
  • ANY time you are not sleeping on a long-haul flight;
  • ANY time you are a small child;
  • ANY time there is a big person behind you;
  • ANY time you recline, only to lean forward and stick your nose in a book (why!?!)

Small people and other would-be recliners: imagine, spatially, experiencing an airplane as a big person. Your knees touch the seat ahead of you no matter how straight you sit. You can't cross your legs or shift around. Your elbows have no lateral room - they stay tightly locked at your sides. Then to top it off, a seat reclines and puts a headrest in between your face and your meal tray. Oh, and the metal from your meal tray also slams into your knees. 

I want all you seat-recliners out there to think about something the next time you fly. There's a fair chance the person behind you will both hate you for reclining your seat, and be too polite to say anything about it. If you let your children recline their seats, well, you're a monster. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Secret Service and Yellow Tracking Dots in Printers


I was happy to receive an email today from freelance journalist Theo Karantsalis. Since 2010, he's been trying to get the US Government to fess up about which printer manufacturers they are in cahoots with.

Readers of my blog may recall an effort I made a few years ago to get Lexmark, the printer company, to fess up to using the tracking dot technology. It eventually worked - they admitted it.

Theo's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has revealed the other side of the story: the US Secret Service sent him an official list of ten manufacturers that have "fulfilled or agreed to fulfill document identification requests submitted by the Secret Service... using machine identification code technology".

The manufacturers are:

  • Canon
  • Brother
  • Casio
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Konica
  • Minolta
  • Mita
  • Ricoh
  • Sharp
  • Xerox
In other words, these manufacturers have helped (or have agreed to help, in the future) the US Government identify individuals through the near-invisible secret dot pattern that their colour printers print on every page. Lexmark didn't make the list, even though they have the dot technology enabled. 

For those of you keeping track: the government AND the manufacturers have finally fessed up: "yes, this tracking dot technology is a real thing and we use it". So it's not a secret anymore, right? Well... maybe with all the digital privacy issues these days, paper privacy issues don't get precedence. If we can't communicate privately on paper, how can we expect to communicate privately online? 

Brahm's Yellow Dots cross-post

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rising Service Costs at Eurotrend Cars in Saskatoon

I just swallowed a $1,000 service bill on my smart car - replacing a mirror, changing brake fluid, "annual service", and a software upgrade on the "sprintshift module" to fix a shifting issue. It was serviced at  Eurotrend Fine Cars in Saskatoon - that's the VWAG company that sells Mercedes cars and smart cars and as far as I know, the only place in Saskatoon that services smart cars.

Word of warning if you're buying a smart car or a Mercedes - the service costs are constantly rising. I just dug through my old service receipts and this is what I found for the per-hour servicing fee:

Spring 2008 $92
Winter 2008 $110
Spring 2009 $125
Spring 2010 $125
Fall 2010 $140
Spring 2012 $140


Given how quickly rates were raised though 2008-2010 I am surprised I was not paying $200/hour for this service in 2012.

I'm not complaining about the quality of the service (or anything else - overall I like working with Eurotrend) so much as the arbitrary servicing costs. I mean, a rate increase of 152% over three years would be alarming in ANY industry.

This is just another reason that I am a complete car cynic/pessimist. Cars eat up an absurdly high percentage of our annual incomes for the privilege of being able to drive around. Is it worth it? I really don't know. I loved being a pedestrian in Montreal and using the Metro system, but Saskatoon's public transit isn't as good.

I spend $100/month on insurance/plates, another $100 on gas (low for most Canadians I'm sure), then throw in a few hundred dollars for service and repairs - that's upwards of $3,000/year on my car. People who lease or finance spend much more. I'd sure love to take all of that money and just go on a fun vacation instead.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Soccer ID Win

Two ID cards running!

Awww yeah.

(Do I look like a creeper in the second one?)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Complaining Like A Pro


On Sunday Robyn and I returned from a whirlwind road trip where we visted Las Vegas (briefly), the Hoover Dam, Zion and Bryce Canyons in Utah, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

We rented from Avis (a Dodge Avenger, if you must know) and once we pulled out onto the highway, I was not impressed to discover that the windwhield washer fluid tank was bone-dry. This was especially annoying after being nickel-and-dimed on second driver fees, insurance fees, and all the other hidden fees in a car rental in 'Murka. After complaining aloud to Robyn for an hour, I bought a jug of washer fluid for $4 and shut up about it.

When we returned the car, the agent asked us how it went. I told him (in about these words) that "the rental was fine but I was totally unimpressed to find the washer fluid tank completely empty". I told him I spent four bucks on fluid and topped it off myself. He said "let me see what I can do" and when he came back he offered us a $25 credit against our rental.

You know what? I was totally content. I complained politely instead of making a fuss, and he made up for the small hassle in a respectable way. I also appreciated the fact that our first point of contact was able to issue that credit - we didn't have to talk to a manager, or a manager's manager.

Thanks Avis - I appreciated the hassle-free problem resolution! I'd definitely rent from you again, but I'll be checking my fluid levels before leaving the lot.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Awesome Beers

I tried these excellent beers when I was down in the states with Robyn last week. Maybe... MAYBE I only bought them because they had awesome names/bottles.




More posts to come soon! The olde bloge has been dormant for a few weeks but I have some content ideas knocking around in my head.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Obscure Fix: Blogger / Blogspot Posts Not Showing Up In Google Reader (or other RSS Readers)


The problem: You have a blog at Blogger (or Blogspot), and all of a sudden, new posts aren't showing up in your favourite RSS reader (like Google Reader). A few older posts may show up, but no new posts. New posts still show up on your main blog page, but your RSS feed remains stagnant.

Robyn's blog fell victim to this problem this month, and there were very few useful resources to fix it. Google's help forums are completely useless on this front because most of the search results redirect to the main Google Group for Blogger.

The check - this step will determine if my solution will fix your problem:
1. Go to http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/myfeeds when you're logged into a Google session with your Blogger/Blogspot account.
2. You should see the name of your Blogger or Blogspot blog under "Feed Title" - click it.
3. If you see a message anywhere that says "Error: Your feed filesize is larger than 576K", this solution can fix your feed.

What's broken:
Something is making your RSS feed WAY too big. What we found with Robyn's blog was that she was copying and pasting PNG images directly into the rich text editor from Windows instead of using Blogger's image upload tool. For some reason, these images were being encoded as raw data in her RSS feed, which takes up thousands of times more memory space than a hyperlink to an image on a Blogger server.

The Fix, Option 1:
1. Go through all of your recent posts with images.
2. Right-click on the image(s), save it to your computer.
3. Edit each blog post you downloaded an image from. Delete the image from the post. Re-insert the image using Blogger's image upload tool, NOT by copying and pasting it from Windows.
4. Save your posts and check your RSS feed - chances are it will suddenly start working.

The Fix, Option 2:
1. Go here: http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/myfeeds
2. You should see your blog title, click on it.
3. Click "edit feed details" just below your blog name
4. Replace everything in the "Original Feed" field with http://yourBLOGnameHERE.blogger.com/feeds/posts/default?maxresults=10 (if you're on blogspot, substitute "blogspot" for "blogger")
5. "Save Feed Details"
6. Check your RSS feed. If it isn't fixed, change the 10 in the above URL to a 5. This number tells Feedburner to grab fewer posts at once.

The Fix, Option 3:
Something is still making your blog feed WAY too big. You probably have accidentally encoded a huge file into your feed. Go back through all of your recent posts and remove any large embedded files. Tip: Start at the first post AFTER the last post in your RSS feed (does that make sense?).

Hope this helps, friendly internet strangers! Leave me a comment if it did :-)

(one helpful source was located here)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Misaddressed Emails: Volume II

Lots of people send emails to my Gmail account by accident. Presumably this is because I registered a premium Grade-A-For-Awesome account name back in 2004. Here are some more messages I have received over the past few years.

Full names have been blacked out to protect the privacy of those who don't double-check their email addresses before hitting "send".

TMI about someone's kidney stones:

A post-first date email from an infatuated ESL couple:

Nice photos of old people (I have received more than one from this sender):

A peek into the exciting world of Lutron Shading Solutions:

I like this one a lot - an invitation to a gathering of people who work for the United States Federal Election Commission:

 A depressing peek into someone's marriage separation:

YES!! Updates from the Masons. I like that when I pointed out he was using the wrong email address, he didn't believe me and said he'd have to double check.

Another person just refuses to believe that I am not the person they want to contact. When seeking a "therapist for riggers", Norm assumes us Neufelds must all know each other.

Review: LaCité Apartments in Montreal

I'm at the end of a 14-month lease at LaCité Apartments in Montreal, and wanted to jot down some notes my on my experience here - hopefully this can help a random Googler decide if they want to sign a lease here. 

Here's my pros and cons, anonymous internet friends! 

Pros
  • Awesome location. Close to McGill and the downtown core. It's a 20 minute walk to the Centre Bell, 10 minutes to St Laurent Blvd, and 10 minutes to Place Des Arts Metro station. 
  • Clean, well-kept, high quality units. I posted some pictures of my apartment here and here. As tenants move, I think they're replacing old ugly carpets with faux-hardwood like my unit - looks better, in my opinion. 
  • Amazing in-building services. The four LaCite buildings share an underground shopping complex with a grocery store, pharmacy, post office, barber, bank, liquor store, gym, cinema, and restaurants. 
  • Concrete walls & floors ensure decent sound insulation. You can't hear voices or footsteps, but you can hear your neighbours if they're pounding their bass, or dropping bags of glass marbles on their tile floors. 
  • The process to sign a lease is pretty straightforward, and the woman who helped me was very nice. 
  • Overall the building's administration was really great and helpful. Because the LaCite complex is so big (1,200+ units) they have to play by the rules - they're less sketchy than some smaller landlords might be. 
  • Underground parking is available (but I don't have a car, so I can't vouch for if it's good or not). 
Cons
  • Rent is more expensive than other buildings in the area, but you're paying for the convenience of the location, the underground services and the administrative overhead. 
  • The building administration slips a "Happy Birthday" note into your door frame on your birthday. Presumably they have this information from copying some form of photo ID during the lease-signing process. While this is a well intentioned gesture, I found it creepy because I didn't authorize them to use my personal information in that way. 
  • LaCite staff tell you they will never enter your apartment without your explicit permission. This is not true. Due to the size of the complex, they equate "slipping a notice under your door" with "receiving your explicit permission". Yearly smoke detector inspection notices are slipped into door frames that say (paraphrased) "someone will enter your unit some time next week, just FYI". The most stunning to me was when a LaCite agent let an interested future renter into my apartment without my permission while I was in Saskatoon for Christmas. Their justification was the two notices that they slipped under my door.... while I was out of town, unable to read them. When they saw the unopened notices, they didn't phone me to get my permission to enter - they showed my apartment to the stranger anyway. This is unacceptable to me - I don't think anyone would be comfortable with the idea of a stranger checking out their home without their knowledge. 
Would I rent here again? Yes, overall it's been a wonderful place to live. But I would have a second lock installed on my door (an option available to tenants) and not provide the administration office with a copy of the key. I'd be happy to leave it unlocked for smoke detector inspections, but I would absolutely leave it locked during long absences. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On Quebec


A few months ago - well into my stay in Montreal - I had an epiphany about Quebec: it exists, and a lot of people live here. In fact, 7.5 million people live here, which is 23% of the population of Canada, according to Wolfram|Alpha.

If you are/were like me (from Saskatchewan, and you've never lived out of province) your view of Canada is probably West-centric: you know a lot about BC and Alberta, a lot about the Centre of the Universe (Toronto), you hear rumblings about Ottawa, you know when the Red River in Manitoba floods, and you've heard of the Atlantic provinces. Of course I'm exaggerating, but in your daily thoughts about Canada-wide issues you probably forget Quebecers represent nearly 1 in 4 Canadians.

I don't pretend to understand all of the social, political, language and cultural issues that make Quebec unique. In fact, even by living in mostly-bilingual Montreal I am blind to a lot of issues that face Francophone Quebec. However, living here for the past year has made me recognize and appreciate what Quebec adds to Canada.

It's hard to explain this feeling. I suppose people who move to other countries experience the same thing, absorbing customs, language and culture. I think it's neat that we can have this experience within Canada, and I think there should be more opportunities for Canada to learn from Quebec and vice-versa, in areas like arts, culture, politics and social issues.

After this year I am not sure whether I'll ever live in Quebec again. But aside from the long-distance relationships, living here has been a great experience that's helped expand my definition of "Canadians".

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Butterflies

I met up with some family in Montreal today and visited the greenhouses at Montreal's Botanical Gardens! I took a bunch of pictures, here are some of my favourite ones. Click on them to see bigger versions.







Close-up of the above plant:

75 year old bonsai tree! 




The one on the right had silver leaves! 

Monster pinecone? 


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Real-Life, Feel-Good, Internet Karma


As a problem-solving tool, we often take our internet for granted. When we find a solution to our most obscure problems we breathe a sigh of relief - and close the browser window.

I want everyone to participate in real-life, feel-good internet karma (not the phony reddit kind!). The next time you discover something useful or incredible or solve a complex problem, publish your idea on the web. The next time you solve a problem thanks to some random web post, or enjoy some content that a small-time author has provided free of charge, send that person a thank-you! They won't be expecting feedback but they'll love receiving it.

Here's two obscure fixes I published, and some nice feedback that made the effort to publish worthwhile!

- - -

In January 2011 I encountered a problem with my smart car where the shifter gets stuck in park, preventing me from driving. The root cause of the problem is that temperature or dust/grime can prevent a tiny switch from moving inside the plastic box that encapsulates the shifter. Pry open the plastic, flick the switch, and problem solved! You can shift again.

I found the solution thanks to a helpful dude who posted a text-only explanation on an obscure automotive web forum {link}. I thought it would be easy enough to film the hack and put it online for other smartcar owners. Here's the 1-minute-42-second video.


Since it was uploaded about 14 months ago, about 9,000 people have viewed the video. Wow! Not quite a sensation, but 150 views/week makes me feel optimistic that a few people saved themselves a trip to the mechanic.

Here's a comment I received this week that made me smile:
This was a lifesaver dude! We had our sons smcar [sic] stored at our house outside for 2 years and this is exactly the situation we had. I could actually feel the little plastic switch with my finger. Flicked it and bingo! Thanks so much. My wife would give you a big kiss if she could! :)
- - -

In July 2008, in the middle of SCI-FI's summer camp programs, our old Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System 2.0 software stopped working thanks to a mandatory Windows update. The RIS 2.0 software was already ancient, but it seemed like Windows had finally killed it.

The SCI-FI team managed to figure out a solution to get the Lego software working again. I posted the solution to an obscure web mailing list where at least one other person was having the same issue, but didn't get a response.

Two and a half years later, in January 2011, I received this message:
Dear Brahm, we know we are not supposed to [send personal messages] on this forum, but we shall do it anyways because our gratitude towards you is more intense than just a 5 star rating. We have been trying to make our RIS 2.0 software and hardware work for many and many hours. Your tips , combined with other patches and apps, have finally led us to achieving our goal. We will now be able to power our insane robot project and be able to program it.
Many thanks from Montreal, Canada, and we wish you the best for 2011!
Felix and Laurent
I can just picture two exasperated students attempting to resurrect 12-year-old software when they shout, "FINALLY!!!"

Feels good, man!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Guitar Squeals

This weekend I learned a new technique on the guitar - some people call it a "squealie" and others call it a "Dimebag squeal" after the late Dimebag Darrell from the metal band Pantera.

I'm not close to mastering it but I wanted to post a video because I know my parents read my blog and will think this (and by proxy, me) is cool! Here is all 12 seconds:


To play squealies, you press on the whammy bar to loosen the strings (which lowers the pitch), flick the G string with your left/fretting hand (or any string, but G sounds the best), and immediately add a harmonic (again with the left/fretting hand) while pulling back on the whammy bar to tighten the strings (and raise the pitch).

In the video I play three squeals on the G string with harmonics on the fifth, fourth and third frets. I'm just using my crappy practice amp on low volume and my laptop mic with no effects, so it's not as deadly as I'd like... but the potential for deadliness is there!

Metal! \m/

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thoughts on the Job Hunt and the Internet

When I started my final year of engineering, I started thinking about post-University employment: The Job Hunt™. Having hired a few summers' worth of staff at SCI-FI, I had a pretty good idea of how to make a good resume but I hadn't actually applied for a job in years.

We now generally accept that there is a fair chance prospective employers will Google search or Facebook search their applicants. Conscious of this, I made a digital strategy for my job hunt:
  1. Use my homepage to supplement my resume;
  2. Keep my web presence as professional as possible, and
  3. Not post anything about the job hunt itself.
Regarding Point #1, my homepage is still more or less the same as it was when I was looking for employment (but is now updated to show that I am employed). Long resumes can be a drag for employers sifting through a big pile, but reasoning was that if an employer wants to know a few more things about me, they can follow links from my resume to find more details about my projects and experience. I also printed business cards (clean and simple) with my name, phone number, email, and website. Since few students have business cards, it was a differentiator. 

Something I'm happy about: brahm.ca and blog.brahm.ca are the third and fourth Google.ca result for "brahm" - a nice perk of having a unique name (thanks Mom and Dad!). 

For Point #2, my Facebook account (when I still had it) was always very private, and my Twitter account was mostly updates about SCI-FI and school. During the job hunt I always, always kept the tone moderate - I didn't post anything too crazy in the public eye. Not that I'm a wild child offline, but everything you do and how you do it communicates something about you. It's easy for anyone to interpret (or misinterpret) your attitude and professionalism based on the tone of your online comments.

For Point #3, I've always been baffled by people who post public updates about their job hunts on Twitter or Facebook. Here's my reasoning:
  • Your job interview is your first private interaction with your (potential) employer. They would never post their list of interviewees on Twitter, so why broadcast where you're interviewing? 
  • If companies are Googling candidates as the media suggests, and your public history is full of interviews and applications, is that company going to think you're really interested in working for them, or just looking for any place that will hire you?
  • If ABC and XYZ are competitors, what will XYZ think when you update your Facebook status to "rejected by ABC"? Will XYZ hire someone the competition passes over? 
I would LOVE to hear from you if you think I'm totally wrong about Point #3. Leave me a comment or shoot me an email. For the record, I'm not calling anyone out specifically... this seems to be very common behaviour, and who knows, maybe I'm overestimating the potential impact. 

Online presence is a small part of the job application process but because we live in The Future™ it's getting more important. Other factors can be much more significant in the application process, like your experience, education, resume layout and presentation, personality, interview performance, etc. But if you're applying for your dream job, why not ensure all of your bases are covered?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Huevos Motuleños

Robyn came to visit me in Montreal this past weekend (yay!) and we made the most labour-intensive, filling, delicious breakfast ever: Huevos Motuleños!

Robyn found the recipe here, and we modified it a bit by making our own cornmeal tortillas and refried black beans.

Take a gander (click for larger picture!):

The layers are, from bottom to top:

  • Homemade cornmeal tortilla
  • Re-fried black beans with sauteed mushrooms and onions
  • Two fried eggs (almost invisible in this picture) 
  • A reduction of pureed tomato, garlic and Serrano pepper (spicy!) 
  • A mixture of cottage cheese and feta cheese (a substitute for queso fresco, which we couldn't find)
  • Crumbled Italian sausage
  • Avacado
SO GOOD! We made the tortillas and the black bean mixture the night before, because we knew it would take a while to prepare and assemble everything. 

Here's a bonus picture of me rolling out cornmeal tortillas with a bottle of scotch (I don't have a rolling pin)





Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Accessible Encryption, Privacy & Security

Sometimes I talk to people about things like privacy, security, or data redundancy and they look at me like I'm a crazy person - why would anyone care about that? Do you have to be some sort of sick weirdo to care that much about those issues?

The reality is that my digital life is pretty boring, but it's important to me. I've had relatives have their emails "hacked" and I can only imagine how much it sucks to lose all of your correspondence and contacts. I've seen stories of people who bring their computers to a shop to have them repaired, and the creeps at Best Buy copy all sorts of personal files to snoop through later. I'm also extremely uncomfortable with the idea of people (internet service providers, governments) monitoring my web browsing habits, just like I'd be uncomfortable reading my physical mail and packages, or looking at my library history, or reading through my medical files.

Here's a few pieces of software that I use to keep myself safe and secure.

KeePass - free - www.keepass.info

One of the worst things you can do online is use the same password EVERYWHERE. If someone breaks into your email account, they can search your history to find all the services you subscribe to (Facebook, your bank, Skype, etc) then try your password on those sites. Odds are in their favour that it will work.

KeePass is a vault where you can store all of your passwords. You set a "master" password on the vault, then save all of your other passwords inside. KeePass also has a password suggester/generator which helps change all of your dumb passwords into awesome passwords. The file is highly encrypted (you generate entropy for the encryption by waving your mouse around the screen) and can't be accessed if you use a complex password. KeePass looks like this:

Generally I have a few unique passwords I remember, like my Gmail account. But everything else goes in the vault, and I randomly generate a 20+ character password for each account. If you asked me what my online banking password was, my honest answer would be "I don't know". I've been using KeePass for over four years and find it indispensable.


TrueCrypt - free - http://www.truecrypt.org/

TrueCrypt is free and open source hard drive encryption software. You can choose to encrypt your whole hard drive, create an encrypted "container" (like a folder) that you can encrypt and decrypt on the fly, or create a secret, undetectable hidden partition. Like KeePass, it uses extremely robust encryption to secure whatever you need away from prying eyes.

What would you store there? Ask yourself this question: If someone stole your computer, do you have any files that you'd never want to be shared with the world? Those are the files you'd encrypt with TrueCrypt. Maybe it's your tax return, maybe it's some bad Grade 8 creative writing that you can't bring yourself to delete, maybe it's your digital diary, who knows.

Or maybe someday you're going to have to cross a border into another country. Border security agents are getting more and more power to do things like copy your entire hard drive onto their systems for analysis. Imagine landing in London only to be immediately deported for having some pirated movies on your laptop. Forget asking whether they might find anything incriminating - do you think your personal data is safe with them?

Just how good is this encryption? Right now, there's a mortgage fraud case in the States where a judge is ordering a defendant to decrypt the contents of her laptop because the Feds can't break it.


Prey - free (for basic version) - http://preyproject.com/

Prey is free (for the basic version) and open source software that helps you recover your computer, phone, or tablet if its stolen. You install the software once, then write down your website username and password somewhere safe (how about your KeePass vault, backed up on your Dropbox account?).

If someone steals your computer and connects to the internet, Prey acts like a "good guy" Trojan horse - you can turn on the webcam, take a picture of the bad guy, and get information about where it's connecting to the internet from (without the thief knowing). You can take that info to your local police and they'll usually step in and get it back. Prey has a whole blog of success stories of people who recovered lost or stolen devices with Prey:
http://preyproject.com/blog/cat/recoveries


A VPN (I use WiTopia, which is $50-70 per year)

I just blog posted about this the other day - go read this post: http://blog.brahm.ca/2012/02/virtual-private-networks-and-why-you.html


Tor Browser - free - http://www.torproject.org

In my blog post about VPNs I give an over-simplified explanation of how VPNs work. Tor is a network of VPNs that obfuscates your location by encrypting your web traffic and routing it through multiple "Tor nodes" all over the globe. A super-detailed explanation can be found here.

I first heard about the Tor project a few years ago, when it was significantly less user friendly - it required a lot of end-user configuration. I just checked it out today, and wow, I'm impressed. It can be downloaded as a pre-configured instance of Firefox's portable edition that "just works". You start it up, wait a second as it builds an encrypted connection, and this is what you see:



If you're trying to access the internet from a country with a crazy dictator or want to take the simplest step possible to protect your privacy when you're travelling, install Tor Browser. Here's a list of who uses it, and why.

--

Make yourself and your data safe, and protect yourself from digital snoops!