Historical Communications Security

posted in: Art, Fun | 0

“Check your flaps and seals.”

If you’re a spy history buff, like I am, you’ll recognize that as an admonition to a fellow practitioner to make sure that their communication is secure and that they don’t have any “leaks” in their organization. When I was in high school, back before essentially all communication that mattered was digital, “tradecraft”, as it related to the spy game, was all about surreptitiously opening someone else’s mail, reading it, and then sending it along, possibly altered. The first codes go back to at least the time of Caesar and have been in use for centuries. In modern secure communications, we are often concerned with verifying that the sender of information is, in fact, the party who claims to have sent it and that it hasn’t been tampered with. In digital communications, both tampering and providing algorithmic checks to discover tampering are surprisingly easy to implement and use. Of course, most people don’t bother because, well, most of us don’t have to worry much about secure communications.
But, somewhere between the two extremes of ancient cyphers and modern digital encryption and verifications, between the 10th and 17th centuries, innovative letter-writers developed other ways to let their recipient know that the letter is from whom it claims to be and hasn’t been tampered with called letterlocking. I’d never heard of this, until I read Before Envelopes, People Protected Messages With Letterlocking. Now, I figure most of my readers will be familiar with things like wax seals and signet stamps to “secure” letters, but, like me, had never heard of “letterlocking”. It’s fascinating, the idea of folding and stamping and marking letters, mostly without envelopes, to try to ensure message security. It reminds me of my primitive note-passing in grade school. If I’d had access to the letterlocking dictionary, things might have been more interesting.

So, as I warned you earlier this year, I’d still post things on Friday, but I completely expect that they’ll be increasingly idiosyncratic and may not be “fun” or interesting to anyone else but me. But, also, I encourage you to write a physical letter and use the letterlocking dictionary to teach yourself one of the letterlocking methods there, just for fun. I may just start leaving love notes for my wife this way. Then again, I may not. Maybe if she reads this and mentions it to me, I will. Think of it as yet another method of verifying communication. (Also, don’t worry. My blushing bride has a pretty damn good sense of humor. She needs to be married to me!)

Come back next week to see what I come up with next!

Hilda Hoffman

Born December 8th, 2002. Departed March 13th, 2019.

At 11:25am this morning, the vet told Sharon and I what we already knew; Hilda had passed on from this world into the next. I got her when she was just barely four months old and able to be spayed, because I wanted to come home to someone who loved me. And, I never doubted that she loved me. She was always Daddy’s girl, even though she spent more time with Sharon the last several years of her life, and surely loved Sharon at least as much as she loved me. She was born to a rescue already, or as I liked to remind her when she occasionally got sassy, she was the foundling of an unwed mother. I told her she should be grateful, but it turns out I was the one who was grateful for her.
I named her, against the strong objections of my ex-wife and step-daughter, Hildegard, though we always called her Hilda for short. She was named after Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German saint, who was famous for being a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic and polymath. I thought my own Hilda deserved no less a significant name.
Although she looked like a very small Golden Retriever, her paperwork says that her mother was a Tibetan Terrier mix. We don’t know for sure what breed mix her father was, but based on the purple spots on her tongue, I always suspected he was a Chow mix. When anyone asked what kind of dog she was, I always told them, “Brown”. And, mostly that was true. She was just a good, brown dog. The kind of dog every boy hopes to have when he asks his parents for a dog.
She was always sweet-tempered, and neither Sharon nor I can ever recall her snapping at us, no matter what we had to do to her for health or grooming reasons. Though, I do understand in her later life, she was less patient with strangers at the vet’s office. I sympathized with her; I don’t care to be pawed at by doctors either, if I can help it.
I had her for sixteen good years. She saw me through my divorce. Even when my ex-wife conned me into letting her take Hilda to Phoenix, Arizona when we split, through strange circumstances, I managed to get her back. She came back to me via animal freight on a United Airlines flight and the inestimable kindness of strangers. She’d been crate trained until then, but after that adventure, she was a free-range pup. She spent most nights on the couch next to me and then in bed next to me. I think she was afraid she’d be kidnapped again if she didn’t.
She saw me through a very rough year of cancer treatment, too. Always patient with my lack of energy and just happy to be near me. While I was single after the divorce for many years, we had a regular ritual of driving to a pet store of an evening, then stopping at Jack-In-The-Box for 99 cent tacos. Years later, when Sharon brought her Jack-In-The-Box tacos, it was clear that she remembered them fondly.
And, then, when Sharon moved in and was having some difficult times, Hilda was always there, by her side, happy to give kisses and eat treats and french fries and chicken until Sharon felt better.
She also got very protective of our house and yard once Sharon moved in, as if she sensed that Sharon was important to me and needed to be kept safe, even if it just meant keeping her safe from deliveries and marauding kitty cats. It was also Sharon who came up with the idea of taking Hilda on rides in the car when she got too old to go for long walks the way she used to love to do. Hilda would lean her face into the wind, her nostrils getting a big as she could stretch them trying to gather in all the smells flying by. I truly think that those car rides brought her joy. I know for sure that having Sharon around to dote on her improved the quality of her life in her later years.
About two years ago, Hilda had a little scare with cancer, too. She had a very successful surgery which seemed to completely correct the cancer issue. And, it was at that point we decided that I would stop trying to get Sharon not to spoil Hilda so much and stop pretending that I didn’t spoil her just as much. At the time, we thought we’d only have another six months with her. We got more than two more years. Two bonus years of unconditional love and joy on four feet.
In short, Hilda was everything that a dog person could hope for in a companion, even, I think, converting Sharon from a cat person into a dog person. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, a very good dog.
And, now she’s gone and I’ll miss her. I know we’ll have other dogs, but we will never have one like Hilda again. She was one of a kind, and a true blessing for everyone who had the pleasure to know her.

You can see our collected photos of her here.

Archive Data

I don’t care what anyone says; you just can’t have enough data.

With storage being so relatively cheap, I don’t really get rid of any old data any more. It’s true. I have so much cheap storage around my house that I have literally hundreds upon hundreds of digital books, documents, photos and other files. I used to have a huge library in my house. Literally thousands of books. Books in virtually every room. The problem was, a lot of the books were horribly out of date. Or, I’d gotten them with the intention of reading them, but I was never honestly going to get around to reading many of them. Instead, they just took up space. So much space, in fact, that when my wife was getting ready to move in, I think she despaired of having room to fit! She really helped me realize that I didn’t need to keep all those physical books around. Though, I’m not sure she truly understands my personal obsession with data, or the brobdingnagian archive I have quietly lurking upstairs by the wifi router. I assure you, it’s epic. And, now I know that I’m not the only one, thanks to an article on Gizmodo this week.

My problem, though, is that I often remember some obscure bit of information that I read once on a website. Sometimes, I remember the site, but the page is missing. Or, the site is gone. Or, even worse, the site is still there, but it’s been taken over by domain squatters who are squeezing the Google pagerank to shill some internet snake oil of some kind. Then, I’m stuck trying to find that bit of data, that one reference that will take me to the promised land of information, often to no avail. Well, this week, while no doubt doing something totally unrelated, I stumbled across a Chrome plugin for the Wayback Machine. If you’re not familiar, the Wayback Machine is the search engine on The Internet Archive. And, it’s fantastic for guys like me, trying to dig up obscure and forgotten information. The plugin, according to its page, “[d]etects dead pages, 404s, DNS failures & a range of other web breakdowns, offering to show archived versions via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. In addition you can archive web pages, and see their most recent & first archives.” And, I assure you, it’s glorious. It’s also free, so well worth installing. And, if you, like me, use Firefox as much as Google Chrome, there’s a Firefox version as well!

So, go ahead, fellow data hounds, install those plugins and relive the days of data past!

A Second Act

posted in: Fun | 1

Mid-life doesn’t have to be your first crisis!

Maybe it’s because I just turned fifty recently, or maybe because it seems like all my friends are suddenly turning into old men, but second acts are on my mind. You know, like that career pivot late in life. I don’t know. Maybe it’s time for me to make a sharp right turn and reinvent myself as a mime or a writer or a comedian. Sure, it may be a big risk and, yes, there may be a hit to my economic status, but wouldn’t it be worth it to finally be living my best life?
Yeah, okay, maybe not. But, I can tell you Macaulay “Mack” Culkin is making a later-in-life pivot that looks pretty hilarious. Of course, I’m talking about his new website Bunny Ears. Imagine if The Onion had a GOOP-esque lifestyle site and you’ll have a good idea what Bunny Ears is all about. Except it IS a little blue. And by that I mean it may not be safe for work. It is, however, laugh-out-loud funny.
My favorite “articles” from the site so far are Moisturize Until You’re Frictionless And Entering The Speed Force and This Plant-Based Colombian Breakfast Will Give You All-Day Energy
Seriously though, it is the perfect parody of those jumped up wellness lifestyle sites that want to tell me how I’m not living my “best life” and which of their products to buy so I can be more spiritually connected. I hate them. But, I love Bunny Ears.
Go check it out. Seriously, it’s funny. And just what I need after the week I’ve had.

Enjoy! And, we’ll see you back here next week!

SEAL Training

Get into SEAL shape!

I’m too old to join the military any more, but I still hang out with guys who are or were active duty. I love these guys, and they’ll be the first to tell you that no matter how we romanticize military service, at some point, it’s like a lot of other jobs. Yes, there are some special requirements and goals are often a lot more dangerous than other jobs, but there’s nothing magical about the military. They do a hard job and the United States military does that job better than anyone else in the world, but it’s done by regular men and women. Even our special forces, which, again, are clearly the best of the best, are regular people who have just committed to working harder, training harder, and staying in better shape than other military forces. They do that with a combination of mental toughness and rigorous, scientific physical conditioning. I think the mental toughness is something that can be learned, and possibly taught, but the majority of us just aren’t willing to be that kind of tough. But, most of us, myself included, can be in better physical shape.
There are a lot of exercise programs out there meant to get you in to “fighting shape”. Some of them are designed to get you to a gym and buy a membership. Personally, I’ve always been more motivated when I didn’t have to convince myself to drive somewhere, change and interact with strangers, so I’ve always been more of a fan of things I can do at home. And, I’m cheap, so I prefer things that don’t need me to spend a lot of money on a piece of equipment, which means mostly body-weight work and inexpensive weights like dumbbells and kettle bells. Now, again, I’m too old to enlist, and I was never in shape to compete with the top echelon of the military operators by any stretch of the imagination, but I do okay for a fifty-year-old civilian. I’ve been in better shape, for sure, but every time I go through that climb back to fitness, I end up doing what is more or less old-fashioned calisthenics. No one does that kind of simple, effective workout better than the military. So, if you haven’t given up on your New Year’s Resolution to get back into shape, here’s some help for you and it comes directly from the Official Naval Special Warfare Website. Seriously. There’s only two exercises that need a machine more complicated than a kettle bell or dumbbell and the ones that need a bench can probably get done with a chair. Either way, you could do worse than following the Official Naval Special Warfare Website training videos. They’ve got an introduction that page, and also suggest checking out the forum post Strength Training: Start Here, but also, check out Get Your Body In Shape for BUD/S with the Naval Special Warfare Physical Training Guide.
Of course, be sure to consult with a physician before significantly changing your exercise routine to make sure you aren’t about to do any damage to yourself, but most of us can stand to be a little healthier. If you admire the brave men and women of our armed forces, let them inspire and motivate you to be better. Just remember, they’re human, too, just like you. They started somewhere and only got to where they are with determination and hard work. Don’t give up!

And, next week, I’ll have some other random thing from the internet that catches my eye.

A Change of Scenery

This time of year, a change of scenery is a good idea.

Even if you can’t afford to travel, because, let’s face it with rising costs and fewer raises, who can afford to travel much? Still, after being cooped up all Winter long, right about now, as things start to thaw out, I start to think about a different view than the same, grey city. I try to escape in a good book, but even the books I’m reading these days are a little grey and bleak. As a computer geek, that leaves me just a few options. The easiest is just changing my Windows desktop background.
Thankfully, in my old links, I found a desktop background changer that Lifehacker had recommended; Chameleon. You don’t need to install it. Just hit that link, download the 32-bit or 64-bit version and run it. Then, pop open the settings and choose your location and it will change your wallpaper based on your local weather conditions, or your battery life, or time of day or any of several more specific variables. Also, when you hit that link, be sure to grab the “wallpaper pack”. In fact, I recommend doing that no matter what. And, if you plan on using Chameleon, unzip them to a folder before you run the program. Then you can select the appropriate photos in the setup. It’s really pretty straight-forward. And, when you’re tired of it running, just close it. Nothing to uninstall or remove. Just exit the program.
Simple, free and a beautiful change of very local scenery that’s very welcome this time of year.
Enjoy!

Talking About Psychology

posted in: Deep Thoughts, Fun | 0

I can get lost in how complicated our brains are.

When I was in college, I minored in Psychology and, at one point, was on my way toward becoming a therapist. I ultimately decided to get into a field where I could actually solve people’s problems for them, but I still love understanding more about how our brains work. We confuse who we are with what we think and the other things that happen in that most miraculous of all organs. As you might have guessed, I don’t entirely trust brains, even my own, but they are still the best tools we have for running our lives and solving our problems.
And, of course, like many other denizens of the internet, I love TED Talks. So, I’ve been crazy busy this week and, frankly, I don’t have time or patience for more introduction than that, so I’m just going to point you to the 8 Great TED Talks About Psychology. And they are great. Totally fascinating, and a great distraction from whatever else may be going on this lovely Friday. Also? You may just learn something interesting or useful about your own mind. Maybe not, but I’m willing to take the chance that you will.

Enjoy and, hopefully, I’ll see you next week!

Chill Out Music

posted in: Art, Fun | 0

I could stand to be a little more chill.

Look, I don’t feel like going into a lot of detail about why, but I could have stood to have been a little more chilled out this week. The truth is, I’m stressed and exhausted and pretty well just done in. Frankly, I’m a bit embarassed that I let so much of my life get to me. My mother once told me, as an adult, that I always felt everything more than everyone else. And, trust me, she did NOT mean that as a compliment. I wish I weren’t that way, but, well, I am. I meditate for 20 minutes a day, five days a week, and pray more often than that. In fact, I actually work hard to try and stay non-reactive to the stressors in my life, but the very fact that I have to work hard at it kind of indicates that I’m not doing all that well at it.
Anyway, the upshot of all that is, when I see an article that claims to have The 10 Most Relaxing Songs, According to Science, Ranked, I pay attention, even if that list includes Coldplay. (Which, “spoiler alert”, it does.) The article has short snippets of the songs, but with links to the full songs on Spotify. It also has a little analysis of why each song seems to be so soothing. And, I have to admit, I listened to them while putting this blog post together and, well, they did seem to chill me out a little, so there may just be something to it.

In any case, it seemed like the thing to share on a Friday morning to help get everyone through the rest of the day and into the weekend. Like a public service. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Anyway, enjoy and maybe I’ll have something else a little more interesting for you next week. Who knows? Come back and find out.

Phishing Quiz

posted in: Fun, The Day Job | 0

No, that’s not a typo.

This month, I’ve been dealing with a higher than normal amount of phishing emails at work. For those of you not in IT, those are the emails you get that have links which look like legitimate links, say to your bank, but that actually redirect you to a compromised website that collects your username and password for a hacker’s later use. They’re worse than regular spam email, but not quite virus payloads. Either way, they cause me no end of grief. Normally, I don’t have a hard time spotting them, but even I have to admit, these cyber crooks have gotten really clever lately.
So, this week I’m bringing you something rather more important and educational than it is strictly “fun”. Still, if you bear with me, and follow the link, you’ll be helping yourself and endearing yourself to your IT Department. Trust me.
The link is to Google’s phishing quiz and it’s meant to both test your knowledge and skill at avoiding phishing emails. As an IT professional, I can tell you, it’s harder than it looks. Honest. The first time I ran through the quiz, I missed three of the eight questions, though, one was a “false-positive”, which means I was leaning more toward safety by the end of the quiz. In any case, after you answer each question, the site takes you through what was wrong, or right, about each email.

So, yeah, not the most traditionally “fun” thing for a Friday, but it is a kind of game, so I’m going to count it!
And, with any luck at all, by this coming Friday, I may be finally able to reveal one of the things that’s been keeping me from writing up better stuff for you on Friday’s the past month or so.

More Free Alternatives

I’m tired and lazy, but it’s Friday, so here’s a post for you.

The brave few who are regular readers here know I dig free software. I also have had aspirations of being a bit of an artist, writer and photographer. Sadly, I was more devoted to eating well and living comfortably than I was any art, so I didn’t get too far. But, as I get older, I also get cheaper and less willing to spend money on hobbies, which often leads me to seek out free software.
Anyone who’s done any serious computer graphics work knows that Adobe has some of the best software available. In fact, I actually subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan. I wasn’t a huge fan of the subscription model, but getting the latest version of Lightroom and Photoshop for $9.99 a month is actually a pretty good deal. Still, there’s a lot more that I wouldn’t use as often and therefore I’m not quite as willing to pony up the steep prices to get. For that, I’m back to my old quest for free software. Thankfully, David Murphy at Lifehacker has compiled the super useful 27 Free Alternatives to Adobe’s Expensive App Subscriptions. He’s done all the leg-work for you. I can’t vouch for all his choices, but for years I used GIMP instead of Photoshop, because it was free.

In any case, it’s been a busy week, for reasons I hope I can reveal soon, and I just haven’t had time to give you more than this simple link. Also, this week the link should actually work, unlike last week when Scrivener added some extra characters to the link code making an endless loop. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Scrivener for writing, but blog posts need clean code and text and until I figure out how to make that more seamless, I’ll use a text editor for blog posts before they go up.
Oh, and I did go back and fix those links from last week if you want to check out the incredible animated GIFs.

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