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:

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!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tasty Weekend Eats: Shredded Pork, Soup, Subs

This weekend I made some tasty food! 

On Saturday I cut up a pork shoulder into 1-inch cubes, threw it in a pot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil with a quartered onion, garlic, and cumin. After skimming the foam, I turned down the temperature and let it simmer for one hour. For shredded pork, you need to use the shoulder because nothing else has enough fat to stay tender during cooking. This is the result: 

After removing from the liquid and letting it cool, I pulled off the fatty bits and shredded it with my fingers, while I got my soup ready:

I added a big handful of the shredded pork to a soup I made with celery, carrots, onions, green onions and pasta: 

It turned out delicious! 

Tonight I took my leftover shredded pork, mixed in some BBQ sauce, ketchup, brown sugar, and some seasonings. I put the mixture into sub buns with some cheese and grilled them on my George Foreman grill: 

The sandwich was also delicious, and I made a second one for lunch tomorrow! Woo-hoo! 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Awesome Products: TimBuk2 Command Messenger Bag

After buying a few cheap messenger bags and having them fall apart, I began the search for the perfect messenger bag - I needed the best. The best resource for finding random product testimonials turned out to be reddit. There were several discussions for "best messenger bag", and one of the most commonly reoccuring brands was TimBuk2.

I ordered my TimBuk2 bag in June 2011, and 8 months later I'm still impressed.

TimBuk2 has a wide selection of bags and backpacks - something for everyone. You have the option of personalizing nearly every product in their inventory, or go with a plain design (my preference, since I don't want anything too eye-popping). Most bags come in multiple sizes; good for customers with laptops large and small.

On the online store, most products have an embedded YouTube video of someone from the company handling the bag/backpack for 60 seconds and opening the pockets, so you can gauge its size. This is a surprisingly useful thing! There are also tons of user reviews on the site - both positive and critical. Being able to see what other customers like and dislike about each bag helped me narrow down my choice (and the fact the company doesn't remove negative reviews adds credibility).

Everything is handmade in San Francisco and shipping was very fast!

My Bag - the Command Messenger
I selected the Command Messenger model for its laptop pocket and for its ability to fold flat for airport security (so you don't have to take the laptop out of the bag). After taking the bag on a few flights I found it was often faster to take the laptop out anyway, rather than explain to the screeners it was a TSA-compatible bag.

The laptop pocket is bright red on the inside and the fabric has foam padding bubbles inside of it!

Inside, there is a HUGE main pocket and a handful of smaller pockets, including a pen and business card holder that could be removed (velcro). Some of the inner areas zip closed, others are open for easy grabbing. There are four outer pockets - three hiding under the velcro cover flap and one accessible through the side (perfect for house keys).

There is a secret pocket on the bottom of this bag that's perfect for laptop power bricks - the tangles of cords stay out of your way while travelling.

The bag is near-flat when empty but seems to magically expand to hold whatever I need. It's a true man-purse: you can carry things like umbrellas, light jackets, and scarves just because you can. Since the laptop pocket is separate from the main pocket, carrying a laptop doesn't really reduce your carrying capacity. I'd be able to carry a laptop and two gigantic engineering textbooks with ease.

This bag is solid. Before purchasing, I read a few reviews where a small handful of customers had bad stitching, but TimBuk2 flexed their customer service muscles and fixed or replaced them for free.

With the main velcro cover flap, it's easy to grab stuff while you've got the bag shouldered. The strap is padded and adjustable and it's just comfortable.

The one feature missing on my bag is a comfortable carrying handle. It has a handle, but it's a one-inch piece of flat seatbelt material. If the bag is even moderately filled, carrying it with the handle can be uncomfortable.

With shipping and taxes I ended up spending about $150. It was expensive, but it was a planned, well-researched decision and I've been very happy with the result for the past 8+ months, and expect it to last a few years at least. If you're in the market for a new bag, Timbuk2 has my recommendation!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Virtual Private Networks and Why You Might Want One

On Tuesday I signed up for a paid Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. Why? In three words: privacy, security, and flexibility.

The internet is not a series of tubes as you may have been led to believe. It is a network of computers that all have to talk to each other. Sometimes it is not clear who owns what computer, if they are using it for good or for evil, or if it can access your private data.

Here's a simplification of how the internet works. Let's say you want to visit Wikipedia, so you type http://en.wikipedia.org into your browser. Your network traffic (requests you send to the internet, and the data that comes back) first passes through your local network. This is literally the network you're connected to - a router at home, a wifi hotspot at Starbucks, or maybe a computer lab on campus.

Next, the traffic passes through your Internet Service Provider's servers: SaskTel, Shaw, Rogers, etc. Finally, your traffic passes through more servers until it gets to Wikipedia's servers. Wikipedia's servers then sends information back to you the same way you received it. Anyone who is determined enough can snoop at what you're looking at - maybe someone sitting at the other side of Starbucks, or maybe someone who works at Shaw, or maybe some tricky hacker.

A VPN creates a highly encrypted and secure connection (a "tunnel") between your computer and a VPN server. If you type http://en.wikipedia.org into your browser when you're using a VPN, the VPN server "asks" Wikipedia for the info you wanted, then sends it on to you. Wikipedia won't know anything about you (unless you're logged into a user account) and it cannot tell you're using a VPN, and no-one between the VPN server and your computer can see what's going on, either.

Here's a diagram I made (all by myself!) that explains how VPN works. Click to enlarge:

It is virtually impossible for anyone between your computer and the VPN server to figure out what you're doing on the internet - whether it's paying your bills, submitting your tax return, typing a note to your sweetie, learning about dogs and cats, or watching a saucytime grownup film.

Privacy and security are good enough reasons to get a VPN - I'm confident that data I'm transmitting on my computer can't be intercepted by local hackers, my Internet Service Provider, the government, or whoever might be "listening" to internet traffic. But the coolest feature - at least for Canadians - is flexibility.

Lots of websites know roughly where you're browsing from, based on your IP addresses. It's why when you type "www.google.com" you're taken to www.google.ca. It's why Canadians can't watch lots of streaming videos, due to dumb licensing rules.

But with my VPN provider, I can pick a VPN server anywhere in the world, so my traffic looks like it's coming from anywhere in the world. I can pick a server in New York City and immediately start watching videos on ComedyCentral or Hulu (or others). Or I can pick a server in the UK and start watching BBC content.

I selected WiTopia.net as my VPN provider. They are very well-reviewed, and in my limited experience - great. They responded to a bunch of pre-purchase questions quickly and with lots of details. There are some free VPN providers out there, but it's easy enough for a 16-year-old hacker to set up a VPN server and make it look legit - so I'm paying for peace of mind. With WiTopia, you can pay by the day, month, or year, and there are lots of money-back guarantees. So check them out if you want to protect your online info and free yourself from the shackles of location-based internet!

Blog post: done. Now I'm off to watch full episodes of the Colbert Report!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mind-Blowing Connection Between Language and Colour

Here's a very interesting 8-minute clip from the BBC on the connections between language and colour.

In short, there's a strong connection between the words that we learn as children to describe colour, and the colours that we are able to perceive (did you know that infants are born mostly colourblind?).

A key group in this research is the Himba tribe in Africa. While "Westerners" (Brits, North Americans, etc) have about 11 major colour descriptors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, black, white, etc) the Himba tribe has five. When shown 12 squares of green - where one square is a SLIGHTLY different shade - the Himba can immediately detect the unique square, whereas Westerners would struggle and often guess (incorrectly).

However, when the Himba are shown 11 squares of green and one square of blue, they struggle and often guess (incorrectly). A Westerner would be able to immediately distinguish blue from green.

The scientists posit an extremely strong connection between language and colour perception. In the Himba vocabulary, "Western" blue and green are represented by the same word, and they cannot distinguish between "Western" blue and green.

Isn't this mind-blowing? We perceive the world the way we do - in part - because of the vocabulary that we've learned and evolved through language. Awesome!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Frozen Seared Steak

Robyn sent me a link to a new way of cooking steaks, promoted by molecular gastronomists - crazy chefs who come up with ingenious new ways of preparing food based on empirical observation and study, chemical reactions, and SCIENCE! It is these molecular gastronomists who have written the six-volume, 2,400 page set Modernist Cuisine,

This blog describes the frozen steak recipe and where it came from - a request for a few molecular gastronomy recipes that can be done at home with no special equipment.

Basically you sear one side of a frozen steak on a mega-hot frying pan, then immediately put the steak in the oven at 200*F for 30-60 minutes, until it's done to your preference.

Here's my attempt:

It turned out GREAT. So, so so delicious. The outside has an incredible seared taste/texture, but the inside is extremely tender and "buttery soft" as the Kitchen Konfidence blog describes. It was dead simple - no more complex than any other way of preparing steak.

Next time I will use a thicker cut of meat, then keep it in the oven for a bit longer. Everyone should try this method at least once, you'll be convinced!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Food For Thought: Cellular Data Roaming Charges

I spotted an article last week about a Regina man who incurred $10,600 in data roaming charges from SaskTel when he travelled to Phoenix, Arizona and let his grandkids watch Netflix movies over a mobile data stick for his laptop.

The man in the article was honest about his mistake and I'm not going to judge him. What I think is ridiculous is the extremely high data fees he incurred, and how they were dealt with. The article says:
"[The man] followed up with SaskTel which decided to take mercy on him and promised to reduce the $10,668.38 bill by $9,600."
That's good PR for SaskTel, but I think it highlights the worthlessness of data fees on mobile devices. While cellular carriers do incur expenses creating international roaming agreements with carriers worldwide, the $9,600 bill reduction demonstrates that data fees are mostly pure profit for telecoms.

In other words: SaskTel gave up $9,600 in pure profit to get some good PR by taking mercy on a grandfather, but their roaming data rates (and the rates of their competitors) will remain sky-high to scalp profits from ignorant consumers.

I'm not villainizing SaskTel - cellular carriers all over the world do this. So be careful with your smartphones, tablets, and mobile data sticks while travelling!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Required Reading for Acquiring a Sense of Awe and Wonder at the Universe

1) The 10,000 Year Clock

In a remote Texas desert, work is currently underway to build a 10,000 Year Clock deep inside a mountain that Jeff Bezos (of Amazon.com fame) purchased. Yes, Jeff purchased a huge parcel of land so that the Long Now Foundation - a group formed to foster long-term thinking and responsibility for the next 10,000 years - could design and build a massive, 200-foot-tall clock that only chimes one a year from deep inside a mountain.

The inventor is quoted as saying:
"I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks." - Danny Hillis
The project page is a fascinating summary of the philosophy and engineering principles behind the clock. For instance, virtually all modern methods of generating power - wind, solar, nuclear, chemical, geothermal, connection to electrical grid - become unsustainable over 10,000 years. So what's the best method to power the clock? Human interaction.
"To see the Clock you need to start at dawn, like any pilgrimage. Once you arrive at its hidden entrance in an opening in the rock face, you will find a jade door rimmed in stainless steel, and then a second steel door beyond it. These act as a kind of crude airlock, keeping out dust and wild animals. You rotate its round handles to let yourself in, and then seal the doors behind you. It is totally black. You head into the darkness of a tunnel a few hundred feet long. At the end there’s the mildest hint of light on the floor. You look up. There is a tiny dot of light far away, at the top of top of a 500 foot long vertical tunnel about 12 feet in diameter. There is stuff hanging in the shaft."
Once built, the clock will store enough mechanical energy to keep accurate time for the next 100 centuries, thanks to a gear mechanism and 10,000 pounds of hanging man-made stones. A solar alignment mechanism ensures the clock keeps correct time based on the alignment of the sun. However, if the clock is to sound a chime every year, humans (at least two or three) will need to make the pilgrimage to the clock to wind up the 10,000 pound weight.

The physical scale, timeframe of the project and forward-thinking engineering are astounding and they leave me in awe. This is absolutely a place I want to visit and participate in during my lifetime. The 10,000 Year Clock is our current civilization's mark on the future; it's our Pyramids of Giza, our Colosseum, our Great Wall of China.

Read more: http://longnow.org/clock/

2) Wikipedia's Timeline of the Far Future

While reaching about the 10,000 Year Clock, I stumbled across a Wikipedia page that summarized events that physicists, geologists and astronomists theorize will occur anytime between 10,000 years in the future and 1 trillion years in the future - and beyond.

For instance:

In 50,000 years, Niagara Falls will have eroded away the 20 miles of land to Lake Erie and will cease to exist. Also, the earth is projected to go into another natural ice age at this point, if humans don't have an effect on the atmosphere (which we know to be incorrect).

In 500,000 years, odds are sound that the earth will have been impacted by a meteorite of roughly 1km in diameter.

In 11 million (11,000,000) years, the moon Phobos will collide with the surface of Mars.

In 5.4 billion (5,400,000,000) years, the sun will become a red giant. This will destroy Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth (although it is certain that if Earth isn't destroyed, it will certainly not be habitable by this point).

In 50 billion (50,000,000,000) years, the Moon and the Earth (assuming they still exist in their present states) will become tidelocked, with each only showing one face to the other.

In 10^1500 (10 to the power of 1500 - this is a 1 with 1,500 zeros following it) years, all matter in the known universe will have decayed to the element Iron-56 (assuming proton decay doesn't exist, which we don't know yet).

When you examine our individual lives on the universe's grand scale of time, we wink in and out of existence so fast that ultimately we have no effect whatsoever on the universe's final fate. If you combine the last 40,000 years of human history with the next 40,000 (and however far we make it into the future), humanity will still have no effect on the universe. Absolutely incredible and unbelievable.

I don't find this the least bit depressing - in fact, it fills me with a sense of awe and wonder. We exist thanks to a series of extremely unlikely cosmic coincidences and I think it's a wonderful way to think about life: we're here, let's fill our lives with things we love and enjoy it while it lasts.

Read more:
Timeline of the Far Future
Graphical Timeline (of the universe) From Big Bang To Heat Death

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Software that is Awesome: f.lux (or Flux)

Stop what you're doing. Download and install this program on your computer right now: f.lux (for Windows, Mac and Linux)

Your computer monitor is designed to behave like the sun - blasting out a full array of bright colours. That's fine during the day, but at night, computer monitors can look WAY too bright and blue, which strains your eyes (or worse, gives you headaches and sleep issues!).

Flux reduces eye strain during evening computing sessions by matching the colours on your computer monitor to the lighting conditions in your room and the position of the sun. You install the software, tell it what type of lights you have in your primary computing location (incandescent/florescent), and tell it your geographic location. DONE. Flux does the rest, "warming up" the colours of your monitor in the evening.

At first, you might find this software incredibly annoying. You may be tempted to think "my computer practically looks orange at night". I urge you to try this software for at least two weeks if you use your computer regularly in the evenings, or a month if you're an occasional nighttime user. I hated Flux at first but now can't compute at night without it. Over time you get used to the software adjusting your on-screen colours automatically, and you even come to depend on it for sanity. I accidentally messed up my settings a few weeks ago, and dropped everything I was doing until I fixed it. I just can't compute on a brain-scorching bright blue display at night!

I absolutely recommend this nuisance-free, hassle-free software to everyone out there.