Busy times, crazy life.

May 24, 2010

It's been a really busy week or two so I haven't had time to write much. I realize that it's only common sense, but I still find it amusing that I have the least time to write about what's going on when the most is happening. Funny, how that happens. Anyway, once the opportunity presents itself I like sitting down to make an attempt at describing everything that's been happening. I've mostly been posting hit and run messages to Twitter lately (like everybody else on the planet these days) because I can do that without looking up from everything else I'm doing. It's a little like the Morse code of the twenty-first century in that respect. Twitter, however, makes it difficult to write elsewhere because of how seductively easy it is to use. You don't have to put a whole lot of thought or effort into writing something 140 characters or less in size. It also makes it easy to sound profound when in fact you're just talking about what you had for breakfast.

Last Monday night and early Saturday afternoon I trekked out to HacDC to work with a couple of folks on HacDC's entry to the Hackerspaces In Space competition this summer. We've been working on it for a couple of weeks but I haven't mentioned it because my day job (coupled with a couple of things at home) have prevented me from saying much about it. Suffice it to say that we've been putting it together module by module and are just now starting to think about integrating everything and building an airframe for the instrument package. For my part, I've been a) studying for my technician class ham license using the ARRL textbook and trying to teach myself how to set up an APRS receiver so I can track and receive status reports from the HacDC Spaceblimp (passively receiving signals doesn't require a ham license though transmitting does) when we finally do launch. It's easily one of the most difficult things that I've ever tried: I have a shortwave transceiver that I've used as a scanner for many years (an HTX-200 from Radio Shack operating on two meters, if it matters) jacked into a Byonics TinyTrak4 bridging the world of shortwave to Windbringer but I've yet to actually pick up anything, even in promiscuous mode. I've borrowed a pair of hand-helds from folks at HacDC but I've had limited success (read: I've figured out how to repair but haven't yet) with one of them and not tried the other due to its lack of a power supply.

At least I found out today that my J-pole antenna works pretty well...

I'm not sure what's up with my RF gear, to be honest. The going hypothesis is that my HTX-200 has a blown circuit someplace (possibly in the receiver) which is why I can't pick up any traffic through the jack. If I plug my borrowed HTX-202 in it effectively jams whatever frequency I have tuned by turning on the transmitter and broadcasting static (though the owner tells me that this happens when the batteries are going flat). I also don't have the slightest idea yet how to use Xastir, but that's another thing entirely.

It was also heartening to note that the RepRap we built last year is now operational. While I was at the 'space on Monday we could hear it buzzing merrily away to itself in the back corner printing out banana slugs, which is a sufficiently complex shape for a fabber to print that it serves as a good test. The sounds a RepRap makes when it's operating look neat (if you're a synaesthete, that is) - lots of forward loops of varying widths on the Y axis, kind of like amplitude modulation if you could look at the waveform in 3D. I didn't see any problems with the extrusion of plastic because it's using a pinchwheel extruder rather than a screw-driven one and the detail it can generate is pretty good also. There are still a couple of bugs that have to be worked out but it seems well on its way toward becoming fully operational.

On Wednesday night I gave my Tor presentation downtown for the folks at DCLUG. I'm glad that I budgeted two hours of travel time because rush hour traffic in downtown DC is, to put it mildly, hair raising. It's not a comfortable feeling to be stuck in the intersection when a delivery truck stops in the middle of the road, cars are parked along the kerb, and someone in a car that costs more than one's yearly salary decides to attempt to push ahead of you and nudge the delivery truck with its front fender to express frustration and displeasure. Getting lost on M Street NW actually made it easier to find parking because I came at the garage from the opposite direction and saw it from the road rather than in the rear view mirror. With time to spare I holed up in a coffee shop down the road and worked on my presentation a bit; I added a slide or two and reworked a few things to make the ideas more clear while tanking up, and probably freaked a few people out by practicing my presentation to warm up. The DCLUG crew asked a lot of excellent questions throughout my presentation, and some of them weren't easy to answer at all. All told, the meeting ran about three hours, and I'm quite pleased with how well it turned out. Something that needs to be said about security solutions of any kind is that you have to keep in mind what kind of problem your're solving. Not all security measures do the same thing, and it is unwise to assume that any particular product, package, or system will protect everything from everything out there.

I really need to get the DCLUG version of my Powerpoint notes put online, but I'll have to rework it a bit this week. I've been asked if I have a version licensed under the Creative Commons but unfortunately when I was putting it together I didn't pay attention to the licenses on the stock graphics I found (I didn't think anybody would be interested in downloading it) so, just to be safe, I'll have to track down new icons, rework the images a bit, and then I'll post it online. The text itself, however, is all mine, so that's not a big deal. After packing my kit up a couple of us walked down the street to Bread and Brew, a small pub which has decent coffee but excellent artisan pizzas for a late dinner. I wound up talking with a couple of folks who knew my boss when I worked at the Prometheus Group, which is always a pleasant way to end the evening. I also made the acquaintance of an individual who says that he's worked on compromised machines into which a BIOS rootkit had been installed. The machine, he says, was not booting from the hard drive per se but hacked firmware flashed into the hard drive's on-board controller, functioning much like a hypervisor. The BIOS rootkit then loaded the OS but subverted it at the level below which the OS has any assurance of running unmolested. He also mentioned working with a compromised box that had been altered to PXE boot from a server located somewhere in mainland China.

Certainly food for thought if you're doing incident response.

Also, because it seems as if a month can't go by without complaining about the wretched state of my teeth, I went in for a bit of work about two weeks ago that unfortunately wound up going a bit pear-shaped; more like peach- or apple-shaped. Many, many moons ago (when I first got dental insurance back in the summer of 2000) I had a long-shattered molar extracted from my upper jaw. As is wont to happen when you're missing a tooth the surface facing rear is tricky to keep clean and thus will assuredly begin to decay sooner or later. I'd been putting off 'later' for perhaps too long and went to have the cavity drilled and filled, which is about as standard a treatment as you can get. Enough of the tooth had been lost that my dentist built up a post and took an impression for a porcelain and steel crown (as if I don't have enough of those) but advised me to call back in the event that I started noticing anything unusual. Of course, two evenings later I started getting some pressure and heat sensitivity from that tooth and called my dentist.

After my dentist got back to me I made an emergency appointment with Dr. Suh a couple of days hence and following an initial consultation I was back in the chair for a two hour root canal. I'll spare you the details (gods know, I've written enough about it already) but I now have a shiny new crown cemented atop a first molar that's still giving me a little trouble. While the nerve was involved the degree of inflammation suggests that it was caught in the nick of time. It would appear that the temporary crown also caught something in the nick of time because it shattered when Dr. Suh was trying to remove it. I clearly recall feeling and hearing a loud snapping sound that may as well have been a gun going off in my ear. Good fortune was with me that day, however, and the post (and what's left of the tooth) are still intact. Temperature sensitivity isn't the problem but any sort of pressure just about sends me through the roof. Even something as simple as chewing on a leaf of lettuce is uncomfortably to say the least, though I'm told that this is not unusual following a root canal. It is, however, the first time I've ever experienced such a thing so it's disconcerting. I should also note that the discomfort has, in fact, begun to lessen since I started writing this post on Friday evening so I think I'll be in good shape soon. For what it's worth I was able to chew a bit tonight without a whole lot of pain though I didn't want to push my luck.

Almost as an afterthought, a few days later I went in to have the permanent crown attached and a filling put in. The crown was a bit of a pain but the filling was as anticlimactic as you can get: ten minutes from numb to done. You can't even tell it's there.

I spent a good bit of Saturday afternoon and evening re-writing the Eclipse Phase game I've been running for the usual suspects once a month. It's a sign of good players when they can take your scenario (and all of your plots, sub-plots, backup plans, and alternate scenarios) and blow them completely out of the water. Jade's character rolled incredibly well during the last game and the NPC her character all but decapitated rolled incredibly poorly which meant that the prime motivator for that part of the story was out of the picture, in terms of plot pacing, anyway. This meant that the players had to figure out what to do with what they'd gotten their hands on, and I had to figure out what to do with them. I wound up scrapping the idea of putting the ship under siege because it would have put the kibosh on some excellent in-character planning and socnet wrangling, but one never knows when a plot point could be re-purposed... we also had Amberite joining us over Skype that afternoon and unfortunately ran into problems keeping her on the link. I'm generally fed up webcams because I can never get them to work but Mika has better luck with them. However, the speakers on her netbook aren't the greatest so we had to scramble to provide Amberite with PA volume at the dinner table. Since I stopped using Leandra as my primary workstation a couple of years ago I somehow misplaced the power supply for her speakers, so Mika had too run home to get Hausfin's powered speakers while he was left in the kitchen baking an (awesome, I hasten to add) strawberry rhubarb pie that had all of us coming back for seconds.

I discovered something on Sunday afternoon: I don't really know how to run a weapons-grade asshole of a character. A while back I wrote up one of my favorite comic book characters, Spider Jerusalem, as an NPC, but as much as I'm a fan of Transmetropolitan I don't think that I can convincingly pull off his persona. Just trust me on this: while I may be a bastard by trade Spider Jerusalem is orders of magnatude out of my league. I kind of wish that I'd had time to front-load a couple of issues of Transmet before the game or had a copy of Hunter S. Thompson insult generator handy... making up for it, however, I was pleased that everyone found Victor 242 suitably creepy, and in fact cranked the paranoia level of the game up another couple of notches. It wasn't my intention, but I'll take it and definitely run with it. Remember, one of the reasons that AGIs in Eclipse Phase aren't trusted is because you can never tell what their motivations really are because they don't think anything like people...

Anyway, that more or less brings my ramblings up to the current date. I'm still alive, everyone.