Saturday, October 19, 2013

Free Software Everyone Should Know About

The other day, a good friend asked me a question - one that I hear frequently. "Hey, Efpophis, my <relative> just got a nice new computer, what software do you recommend for <purpose>?"  So, I decided to compile a fairly comprehensive list of the miscellaneous software stuff I know is out there and use myself.  Why?  Well, because I'm a cheapskate when it comes to software, so most of what I use is open source and free.  Further, you'd be shocked at how much of that stuff is out there and what you can do with it.

So, without further ado, here is my list of personal favorites:

1. ClamWin - a free antivirus program for Windows. It works well, and it finds stuff that other commercial software doesn't. It's not intrusive at all, either - meaning it doesn't stop working every month/year and demand you pay its author more money, unlike some others out there.  You can find ClamWin at:

2. SpyBot Search and Destroy - a free anti-spyware program for Windows. It will let you search your computer for software that secretly tracks your movements on the internet and get rid of it if you like. It will also warn you if you're about to visit a site that has that sort of thing on it. You can find this at:

3. LibreOffice - a free office suite for Windows (and Linux and Mac) that is 100% compatible with Microsoft Office and even offers a few more features. I use this personally on all my computers where I require a word processor and/or spreadsheet, etc.. If you don't feel like shelling out big money for an office suite, just go download this from

Side-bar:  I always recommend that you NEVER use Internet Explorer as your default web browser. Microsoft has, at times, deliberately left gaping security holes in it in order to maintain "features" that no one really needs anyway. I strongly recommend installing a replacement and only using Explorer when nothing else will work.  This way, not only will you be immune to about 95% of the viruses out there, but you'll also enjoy a faster, cleaner internet experience.

4. Google Chrome - a free, screaming fast, and feature packed web browser from Google. If, like me,  you use a lot of google services like gmail, google+, blogger, etc., then this is the browser for you. You can get it at

5. Mozilla Firefox - the one drawback to Chrome is that Google does use it to gather information about your browsing habits so they can better serve you ads on their pages (but you can get rid of those - more on that later). If you're a paranoid privacy person, then use Firefox instead - it's the best rated web browser in terms of privacy and security on the market. Find it at

6.  If you use one of the browsers above, you'll want a couple of add-ons to make your browsing experience a little more safe and enjoyable. Web Of Trust, or WOT, is the first one. It will warn you if you're about to visit a malicious or unsafe web site. It features an extensive and set of controls allowing you to customize its behavior to your own needs, and allows you to post your own ratings of web sites you visit. Find it here for your favorite browser:

7. Finally, if you're annoyed by all those advertisements sprinkled all over the content you're trying to see, or if you have limited bandwidth and don't want them hogging up all your bits, you need AdBlock plus. Just install it and say goodbye to irritating ads. Find it at

This ends the basic list that I recommend for pretty much everyone when setting up a new computer. There are literally thousands upon thousands of other free, open source programs out there for just about every purpose you can imagine. If I haven't covered something you need here, feel free to drop me a line and I'll add it. In the meantime, enjoy your new computer - without breaking your bank any more than you already did when you bought it!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Where the Heck I've Been for 4 Months

Wow, have I really neglected my blog for that long?  Assuming I have any Devoted Followers(TM) left .. or that I had any to begin with .. I apologize.  There has been a LOT of life happening since last I posted.

A more recent picture of Isabel looking
somewhat sleepy
Certainly the biggest deal is that my newest daughter was born on July 29th this year. Isabel Scarlet arrived at 5:13 PM, weighing in at 5lb, 5.7oz, and 18.75 inches long. For you metric folks, that's 2.4kg and 47.6cm .. but I figure if God wanted everyone to use the metric system, we'd have all been born with 10 fingers.  Just let that sink in for a while.

We're all doing well and adjusting to having a newborn in the house. It's been pretty crazy, what with all the sleep deprivation and diapers and mayhem that goes along with having a family. As anyone who's ever been there can tell you, it's exhausting, frustrating, and completely worth it.

I've also re-kindled what is perhaps my longest-held hobby - Amateur Radio. I've managed to erect a set of home built antennas and resurrect some old equipment I had in boxes and have a more or less fully functional station set up. Now I'm starting to think about upgrading pretty much everything next time I have a big wad of cash I don't know what to do with.

That will be, as they say, an interesting day.

My martial arts training had to take a back seat from about a month prior to Isabel's arrival to this month. I started classes again the first week of October. Fortunately, this hiatus was much shorter than my last one, and I seem to be getting back into the swing of things.  Hopefully my next belt will come by the end of the year.  In any case, I am still learning a lot and I can tell I'm making progress. Even if the progress is slow, it's at least thorough, so I won't advance prematurely and miss something important.

So yeah, that's mainly what's been going on.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The NSA and You - Privacy in a Connected World

By now everyone has (hopefully) heard about the most recent scandal involving the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting data on everyone's "private" phone calls, emails, internet activity, etc.. While I do agree that this activity is illegal, a violation of our rights, and not to mention wildly inappropriate in a nation formerly known as "the land of the free," I am not in the least bit surprised. You shouldn't be, either.  Here's why.

The thing that makes the internet wonderfully awesome is that, at its core, it is really dirt simple. It's just a really great and (usually) efficient way of moving bits and bytes of data across networks of computers. It was never designed with security in mind - just simplicity.  It's that simplicity that has allowed it to be used for so many different things from email to streaming music videos to phone calls to shopping .. the sky's the limit, really. If it can be done by moving information from one point to another, it can be done on the internet. And the convenience and speed with which it can accomplish that simple task has become an inextricable part of our modern lives.

The thing is, we have also developed several unrealistic expectations when it comes to privacy on the internet. We expect our email and text messages, for example, to only be "opened" and read by the recipient - similar to when we send a letter via the US Postal Service. We expect our phone calls made over digital networks to be private, just like our old analog phones were back when you had to get a warrant and climb a telephone pole to establish a wire-tap. And for some reason that is incomprehensible to me, we also seem to expect information we post on public web sites like Facebook and Twitter to only be seen by people we want to see it and no one else. The thing is, these things just aren't so. Those of us who make a living in the computer industry and have been exposed to the internet and its internal workings for a long time know this, and it's about time the rest of the world did, too.

Your "private" email and text messages are not at all like a sealed letter going through the post office. They're more like postcards - able to be read, copied, archived, and even modified undetectably any time during transit. The protocols that handle these "letters" were not designed with security in mind - they were designed to be dirt simple and fast.  Security was to be the responsibility of the user, not the transporter.  And don't even get me started about your facebook and twitter activity - you might as well be publishing your information in a newspaper or yelling it through a megaphone on a street corner.

"Well, what does all this have to do with the NSA spying program," you ask?

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-- US Constitution, Amendment 4

Written as part of the original Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment pre-dates the internet by 2 centuries. However, it has been interpreted to apply to modern forms of communications like telephone calls, etc, and presumably also to internet communications. At this point, before you continue, I'd like you to followthat link up there and read the Wikipedia page on the Fourth Amendment.  Go ahead, read it. I'll wait...

So .. did you notice how much it's already been eroded over time by the courts?  Did you notice how the government can basically look at anything you say or do as long as they can show you had no "reasonable expectation of privacy?"  Did you notice how "reasonable" isn't clearly defined, so it can mean whatever they want it to?  So, how do you think they will argue when you say your un-encrypted email had a reasonable expectation of privacy?  What about your unencrypted text messages?

What you need to know is that there's a very good reason the NSA and other government agencies and even corporations are spying on internet users the way they are:  it's because it's so EASY, and because we let them in exchange for convenience.  That's right, when you sign up for a gmail or facebook or yahoo or whatever account, you usually agree to allow them to collect, analyze, and sell anything you do with that account.  You basically waive your "reasonable expectation" of privacy by agreeing to the terms and conditions for your shiny and very convenient google account. Don't get me wrong, I love the convenience these things offer - I even have 2 google accounts myself!  But, I harbor no delusions about privacy or security of anything I do online, because I know how the internet works. And now you have an idea, too.

"I don't use encryption because no-
one I communicate with uses encryption."
 -- Me
If you want the privacy afforded in the "snail mail" world by a "privacy envelope," then you need to use encryption, and you need to encrypt your stuff in files on your own computer before you type them into your GMail (or whatever web mail client you like) window.  You need to learn about public key cryptography and secure passwords and entropy and a host of other complex and scary-sounding words. You need to learn about SSL and secure data destruction as well, as well as all the shortcomings and vulnerabilities of these methods.  Did you know that, for example, anything stored to your hard drive can be recovered after being deleted?  This is true to the point that even so-called "secure data destruction" software isn't a guarantee. In fact, the standard FBI-approved method for secure data destruction involves melting the hard drive with a thermite bomb!

The thing is, encryption and security is HARD.  Certainly harder than it was in 1789!  Back then, if you wanted privacy, all you had to do was lock your papers up in your house, or talk to your buddy out behind the woodshed without anyone in earshot. Today, the "lock" is strong encryption .. the "secure envelope" is public key crypto with strong digital message signing and trusted public keys. And while some degree of anonymity and privacy can be had from Virtual Private Networking and projects like TOR, "Behind the woodshed" remains unchanged:  if you want real privacy in your communications, that's where you have to be - not on the internet and not through the mail.  I think the real purpose of these tools, rather than to actually keep your stuff away from prying eyes, is to allow us to reclaim some of that "reasonable expectation of privacy" in case we're ever taken to court over something we said in an email.  A lawyer could conceivably argue that the evidence, if seized without a warrant or probable cause (as in the case of NSA surveillance), was inadmissible if the user attempted to protect it with strong encryption.

Anyway, the whole point of this article is to shatter your illusions of privacy online, and provide you some search terms to check out if you're interested in trying to get some of those illusions back.  Meanwhile, one simple rule applies:  don't do or say anything on the internet that you wouldn't want Big Brother to know. Because if you think they're going to stop spying on us, you're even more delusional than I thought.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Harry Potter and the Zombie Apocalypse

Consider the following scenario.  You are a wizard or witch from the Harry Potter universe. You find yourself confronted with a horde of mindless zombies, like the ones found in The Zombie Survival Guide or World War Z (both by Max Brooks).  Armed with only your wand and your magical abilities, how do you eradicate the undead threat?  What spells do you use and when?  Hopefully, this post can help.

Avada Kadavra*
*not for use with zombies
Perhaps everyone's favorite spell is the unforgivable killing curse. When cast, it shoots a green bolt from the caster's wand that instantly kills whoever it hits. Like all spells, though, this one can miss its intended target, reflect off of objects with shiny surfaces, or strike something that's not alive with zero effect.  Therein lies the problem: zombies, by definition, are already dead.  Avada Kadavra all you like, you can't kill that which is already dead.

You can, however, set it on fire with an Incendio spell. While this particular charm can be very effective against a horde of undead, it can also backfire on  you, and therefore should be used only with the greatest caution.  A flaming zombie will still be able to move for a time, and it won't stop chasing you until it's brain is consumed by the fire. Meanwhile, it
Fire! Fire! Fire!
will set ablaze anything else it comes in contact with for even a second or two, including other zombies, curtains, trees, dry grass, wooden structures, and any unfortunate wizard who happens to trip while fleeing the conflagration.  While this is not to say that setting a zombie ablaze is never a good thing, one must be very aware of your surroundings when using Incendio in order to avoid being killed by their own firestorm.

At this point, let's take a breather and consider what we really wish to accomplish. From this article's perspective, we're looking for a spell to permanently end the zombie threat - in other words, to "kill" the zombie. We know from other sources that in order to do this, one must destroy the zombie's brain, therefore we will concentrate on that goal. While kinetic energy spells (such as levitation and/or push-back effects) may have their place in combat with the undead, simply throwing zombies around will not usually permanently destroy them unless you're fortunate enough to be able to levitate a zombie into boiling lava or something.

Reducto - to dust!
Perhaps the most effective counter-zombie spell, then, is the multi-mode Reducto charm. I'm told this spell can have several different effects, depending on what the wizard is envisioning while casting. These include shrinking the object, cutting it into multiple pieces, and an immediate incineration effect that reduces the target to ash rather quickly.

While examining the usefulness of each effect, one must also consider the tactical situation at hand and consider any unintended consequences.  For example, in a close-combat situation with multiple attackers, you probably don't want a cloud of burning hot ash obstructing your view, or landing on your skin. In this case, you may be better off with going with a vertical wand flourish and slicing the zombie straight down the middle. As long as the cut goes through the head, it will slice through the brain and destroy it, granting you victory. For multiple zombies, you might be able to accomplish multiple kills in one cast by using a horizontal flourish at about eye level. I wouldn't want to be the person to have to clean up that mess, though.

As for the shrinking effect, further research and caution is definitely required. We simply don't know yet if the zombie brain can still function after being reduced in size this way. If you're going to try it, be sure to shrink them to a size where they can be easily squashed under-foot, and be sure you're wearing strong shoes that can't be bitten through. The virus that causes zombification in the first place can almost certainly be passed through a puncture wound or bite to the foot, regardless of the size of the biter.

For longer range open-air combat, the obvious choice is the incineration-to-ash effect. The will probably work best if you're upwind of the zombie horde and atop a structure they won't be able to climb. You can simply perch up there and take them out one-by-one until all that remains is a giant pile of smoldering ash. Your only limitation is the range and accuracy of your wand, which we will now discuss.

Your typical wizard's wand is, at the very basic level, a handheld piece of wood infused with some sort of empowering magical core. All of the spells we've discussed need to be aimed by the wizard - there are no "fire and forget" charms or "smart spells" known to the wizarding world. It is also well documented that spells and especially curses can not only miss their intended targets, but also reflect off of certain surfaces and sometimes fly off in unexpected directions similar to a ricochet or stray bullet.  Therefore, in any magical combat situation, it is important to have a precise and accurate aim, as well as finely-tuned situational awareness.

Since your typical wand is held in a single hand, it can be assumed to have roughly the accuracy and accurate range of a typical handgun - about 6 or 7 meters. Of course, when the I first made this connection, a Jacob's Ladder of brilliant ideas began to buzz inside my backwoods, redneck-turned-engineer, firearm-loving brain.

At first I thought, why not fit a wizard's wand with some optics - a scope, for example. But why stop there?  Why not add a laser site?

Then, it hit me. What a wizard really needs for effective zombie combat is a long-range wand with an advanced tactical sighting system that can be extended and adapted to meet his or her individual needs as situations arise. What you need, young sorcerer, is an assault wand!

As far as I can tell, Wand Lore contains nothing to suggest that a wand must be held in one hand, or even maintain the traditional wand shape.  So, we could, theoretically, form-fit the wooden section of the wand to resemble, say, an AR-15, complete with rails, pistol grip, etc. Instead of a magazine, the magical core of the wand would be precisely aligned inside the "barrel" of this creation, allowing for precision long-range casting of any spell the wizard could conjure. Combine this type of wand with the Reducto charm, and you'll be disintegrating zombies from 300 meters or farther. Since spell bolts don't drop over distances like bullets, we wouldn't need to design a separate platform for those record distance shots from kilometers away - it simply becomes a training issue.

Alternatively, it may be possible to simply attach a wizard's existing wand as an accessory to a traditional tactical rifle. The best place for this would probably be on the forearm of the rifle since the wizard would then be able to maintain the physical contact with the wand itself that seems to be required for spell casting. Conveniently, this position also offers close proximity to the barrel and, therefore allows spells to be aimed just as precisely as bullets without having to adjust the rifle's sights.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Ninja's Progress

Someday, this will be me
I have finally passed an important milestone in my ninjutsu training.  After 2 or 3 years (I don't actually remember how long it's been), I have at last earned my next belt: solid green.  For many, this particular rank is just one more step along the way to black belt, and not even really worth mentioning.  But for me, this is a huge deal.

My Old Belts
In a Box
When I earned my green/white belt (my previous rank, for those who aren't familiar with our ranking system), I had been divorced for just over a year and had just started dating my wife.  At the time, I was only able to see my kids for an hour at a time under supervision, thanks to the vicious lies my ex had been spreading about me. I had also lost my home to foreclosure and had to move into a cheap apartment closer to work - 50+ miles away.  This made attending class at my home dojo in Ann Arbor on a regular basis somewhat difficult.  In short, life was happening all around me, and as I left Quest with my shiny new green/white belt, I just kind of ... knew .. I would have to find a different path if I wanted to progress further.  As it turns out, I wouldn't train again for a long time.

The intervening years weren't necessarily difficult. Like life in general, they had their ups and downs. I got married again, had a baby, moved a couple more times, and changed jobs. I've paid off most of my debts, including the ones left over from my previous marriage. I've fought and (mostly) won a drawn out custody battle in court and finally have something that resembles a fair arrangement for my kids. The court system seems to finally recognize that my ex has been lying to them all along (took them long enough, though), and I'm starting to finally see some improvement in my relationship with my older kids.  My wife broke her ankle a couple summers ago and had to recover from corrective surgery while caring for our newborn daughter - that was a trying time for all of us.  I still don't think "difficult" is the right word to use - perhaps "busy" will work.

During the whole time, I became frustrated with my inability to continue my training. I even tried starting over in a different martial art at a school close to home. It just .. didn't "do it" for me, and I quit after 3 months.  I struggled (and still do) with staying motivated and many times failed to make training even a concern, let alone a priority.  My health suffered, too .. I went from being in the best physical shape of my life to what is now probably the worst. I'm currently only 5 lbs down from the most I've ever weighed in my life. I feel like I'm getting old and perhaps nearing that "mid-life crisis" everyone talks about when a man reaches middle age - if I'm not already smack in the middle of it.

DING, level up!
Shout out to my awesome Sensei, too!
But .. a few months ago, I was able to start training again under my awesome sensei, Joel Iverson at the Art of Life Sanctuary in Detroit (shameless plug), and I've managed to stick with it.  As I've chronicled before, it's been tough at times. I've felt like giving up more than I'll ever actually admit.  I've had to overcome the frustration that goes with realizing I've forgotten so much of what I had learned before. I've learned the value of self-discipline the hard way - by not having any and reaping the consequences.  I still have a long way to go, too - 5 more belts before my first black belt, and I don't plan on stopping there.  Today, I will tie around my waist the first tangible token of my recovery and progress as a developing ninja - my first new belt in close to 3 years.

To me, this belt symbolizes many victories. It reminds me of everything I've had to overcome and adapt to over the last couple of years in order to earn it.  My sensei at Ann Arbor once told us how he was more proud of his white belt than any other (and he was a 3rd degree black belt at the time), because that was the one that started everything - that was the belt he had to overcome the most obstacles in order to earn. Today, I understand what he meant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fixing the Otterbox Echo Phenomenon

I recently purchased an Otterbox Defender case for my shiny new Galaxy Note 2 from AT&T. I like it a lot - it's durable, sturdy, and the holster doesn't break off all the time like those annoying $6 cases you can get from that site that begins with "Am" and ends with "azon."  But .. there's always a but.

As soon as I installed the case and made a phone call, the person on the other end complained that they were hearing a loud, obnoxious echo of themselves speaking. This basically rendered the phone useless for what is supposed to be its primary function: making actual phone calls!  So, I went immediately to Google to do some research.

It turns out, a lot of people experience this problem, not only with Otterbox cases, and not only with the Note 2. I read reports of the same behavior with the Galaxy S3, iPhone 5, Galaxy S2, Motorola Droid whatever, HTC phones .. the list goes on and on and on and on.  Sidebar:  That last bit is better if you sing it like a grunge rock song.

So, what to do about this?  Well, Otterbox says it's the fault of the phone and not their case, citing numerous users of the same product that don't experience the issue.  All the carriers are either silent, or say that, since the issue shows up when you add the case, it must be the case's fault. Neither is going to do anything about it except point fingers at the other and leave their customers hung out to dry.  Thanks.  Jerks.

Not satisfied with the corporate buck-passing, I decided to take things into my own hands. I'm an engineer, after all, I should be able to solve this problem. And indeed I have. In fact, this solution highlights the fact that I am a messed up combination of engineer, redneck, and former wanna-be musician.

The Earplugs
The idea is to acoustically isolate the primary microphone (the one you speak into) from the rest of the phone, and especially the earpiece speaker.  To do this, you'll need the following materials:

1. Some disposable foam ear-plugs. The kind you squash and stick directly into your ear. You can usually find them at your local shooting range, usually for free if you spend some time on the range (which I highly recommend).

2. A good, SHARP pocket knife. No, seriously - if it's not sharp enough to shave your arm hairs with minimal pressure, then sharpen it until it is - then sharpen it some more. If you don't have a pocket knife, a good sharp scalpel, art or surgical, will do.

First, use your sharp knife to slice off the wide edge of one of your ear-plugs, making the slice as thin as you can make it. A fraction of a millimeter is all it takes.  Actually, do this twice. In order to have uniformly sized slices, I used two separate earplugs. If the earplugs you find are not the tapered kind, you can use the same one twice. What matters is that you end up with 2 thin slices of earplug foam, which you'll use to surround the primary mic pinhole of your phone.

Next, use your sharp pointy thing to cut a very small opening into the very center of each slice. This opening needs only to be 1 to 1.5mm in diameter, and it can be square or whatever shape you end up with. You just have to make sure you actually physically remove some of the material - simply poking a hole isn't enough. The material has to be able to fully expand and retain the opening.  UPDATE:  I've found that a hand-held hole punch is perfect for this part of the task. It leaves a nice big hole making it much easier to align with the mic, too.

Hole poked and Applied to Phone
note the mic pinhole is visible
Now, take one of your perforated slices and fit it over your phone, leaving the hole over the primary microphone opening in your phone as shown.

Back in the hard shell. See the mic?
Pay no attention to the
weirdo behind the phone
With the slice in place, fit the phone back into the hard shell. Make sure you can still see the primary microphone's pinhole in the phone, otherwise no one will hear you when you make calls. I found that it took quite a bit of fiddling (and some cursing and swearing) to make sure the shell closed completely while leaving the microphone exposed. If you have a Note 2 like me, you can use the stylus to finesse the foam a little once it's closed in order to accomplish this. I presume some other pointy object like a pushpin could also suffice.

Everything back on. See the mic?
Yeah, me neither. I had to re-do it.
Now, take one of your slices and fit it to the bottom microphone hole on the inner (hard) shell of your Otterbox. I had to trim one side of mine because it ran up against the porthole for the USB charger. Again, you have have to make sure that the opening in your slice is over the opening of the hard case, which is over the opening of the first slice, which is over the primary mic's pinhole. With this in place, fit the outer rubber shell of your Otterbox onto your phone. Once again, this will be tricky and your profanity skills will likely be called upon. At the end of the process, you should still be able to see all the way to the primary mic pinhole.

Finally, you're done. Make a test call, preferably to someone who's complained frequently of the echo problem. If they don't hear the echo, you're done.  If they do .. well .. please post here and let me know, and feel free to try something different. Remember - it's more likely to work if you swear at it.
Just for Fun - the finished product*
*feel the swagger
Remember, this solution is specific to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in an Otterbox Defender case. However, the main principle should apply to any phone/case combination. If you're reading this post, you are probably smart enough to adapt it to your specific situation, so please feel free.  Good luck!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why I oppose "universal background checks"

The truth is, I really don't - at least not in spirit.

I can haz rifle?
I think it's a great idea to keep guns out of the hands of the violent and crazy people who would do harm with them. The NRA (of which I am a card-carrying life member) even agrees with that principle, and there is already a system in place that covers the vast majority of legal firearm purchases: the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System).  Check out the link to see the laws that are already in place, contradicting the popular misconception that "any nut can go buy a gun."

You'll note that private transfers don't require a NICS check .. so, if my dad wanted to give me his AR-15, for example, he could do that (hint hint, Dad ;)) - as long as I'm allowed to have it. Background check or not, it's already illegal to transfer a firearm to someone who is subject to prohibition (in addition to being a dumb idea to begin with).

I think it would be great if private individuals could run a background check on the person about to buy their gun. The problem is, we can't.  Currently, only a federally licensed dealer can do that.  Truthfully, I wouldn't even be that upset if it ended there, but it doesn't.  The devil, as they say, is in the details...

Because guitars are cool, too!
What I am actually opposed to is the other baggage that goes along with every NICS background check performed. A lot of people don't realize this, but a background check involves far more than a yes or no decision on whether a person can have a gun. Besides collecting personally identifying information, the serial number and model of gun is also collected, along with a record of who received it - name, address, social security number, etc.. The government, by law, is supposed to destroy these records, but frankly I don't trust them to do that.  The dealer, however, is required by law to maintain those records and to turn them over to the feds when/if he goes out of business. And these same feds are always looking for a good excuse to revoke anyone's federal firearms license and seize this paperwork.  This creates a de-facto registry, in the hands of the federal government, of every firearm purchase that involves one of these "background checks," and that is what I have a problem with. You can see my FAQ and FRO page for the reason why.

You want expanded background checks?  Fine .. open up the NICS system to anyone, not just FFL dealers, and do away with the back-door registration scheme.  I wouldn't mind at all calling up the NICS number, giving them my information, and the prospective buyer's information, waiting a few minutes, and being told "go" or "no-go."  But, that's all that's really necessary .. they don't need to know what kind of gun it is, or if (in the event of a "go" decision) I even decide to go through with it after all. This is fine, because, let's face it, a criminal isn't even going to bother to call in the first place.

As I asserted before, it's already illegal for me to sell or give a firearm to anyone who shouldn't have one - this idea just gives me another tool to help me make sure I don't run afoul of that law, and it allows me, a responsible gun owning individual, to help keep them out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

Unfortunately, that's not even close to what's being proposed in Washington and several states. What they're after is just the next step in a much broader agenda which, they hope, will eventually lead to the complete disarming of law abiding Americans - and God only knows what after that. This is yet another devil in the details that begs the question, "who gets to decide who should and shouldn't have a gun, anyway?"  But that's for another post, I'm afraid ...
NOW we're talkin'

My Pretty Awesome uVerse Setup

WARNING: technical content - may not be suitable for non-nerds.

So, I just moved to a new house and brought my AT&T uVerse service with me. I decided at the same time to upgrade my in-home network to gigabit ethernet and 802.11n wireless.  Both are up to 10 times faster than what I previously had.  There were a few issues, though:

1. The uVerse RG, or "residential gateway," is not compatible with gigabit ethernet or 802.11n wireless. Instead, AT&T seems to be stuck in the dark ages of 100-base-t and 802.11g.

2. The service typically doesn't jive well with setting up your own router behind the RG. It can be done, but you kind of have to know what you're doing.  Since I do .. well .. challenge accepted.

3. The tech who did my install was a pretty awesome guy. When I told him I wanted to have Gig-E in the house, he made sure to run all the connections for the TV and stuff so that they would be compatible with Gig-E. If you decide to duplicate this setup at some point, make sure your technician does this, too, or you'll be out of luck. Anyway .. the problem here is that the TV signal takes up a LOT of bandwidth, and all that stuff was getting re-broadcast back onto my LAN and strangling it. Even the wifi was constantly transmitting, and it was stuff that's useless to the rest of the devices on the network.

So, the first step was to buy a gigabit router with 802.11n. I chose the D-Link DIR-825 for this, and got a refurbished one from Newegg for about $50. This is a dual-band router with quite a few bells and whistles, and it ended up being the key component in this installation - in fact, I ended up using 2 of them.

My original plan was to run the DIR-825 (known as "the router" henceforth) as an access point in the living room and have the TV hooked into it on the wired interface. This resulted in problem #3, so no-go there. I eventually do want to have a wifi access point in the living room, though, so the way I got around this is important.

First thing I did was to flash the latest version of OpenWRT onto both DIR-825 routers. For those who don't know, OpenWRT is an open-source firmware that runs on a lot of commercially available wireless routers and access points. It's usually far more feature-complete than the "stock" firmware that comes on these devices, and lets you do a lot more with them.  You can find out about openwrt at

The end result
Red = internet
Yellow = tv
Orange = vlan trunk line
After that, it was a matter of configuring each one to give me what I wanted.  The one in my office, next to the uVerse RG, became the actual router, and the one in the living room became a dumb access point without any routing features.  I actually have 3 separate networks (called VLANs) running over the single wire between the office and the living room:  1 for the TV, 1 for my local network with internet access and access locally to my server, and 1 for guests who want to use my WiFi to get on the internet.  Each network is isolated from the others, and the guest network is even isolated from itself (meaning guest devices can't see each other, only the internet).  The TV signal stays out of the other networks, and everything runs really well.

Just for references sake, here are a couple of links that I found very helpful when configuring my routers:

For configuring VLANs with uVerse:

For using my own router with uVerse:

For OpenWRT stuff:

For testing your firewall:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

A very long time ago, I wrote a song. The lyrics are from the point of view of Roman soldier who plays an integral role in crucifying Jesus. Some good friends helped bring it to life with their musical talents that remain far superior to mine.  As the band grew, and I left on good terms to finish my computer science degree, the song eventually fell off the set list. It was never officially recorded or released - that I know of, anyway.  Yet, I've always wanted to do something more with it. I feel like it still has some potential.

So, today, I have taken it upon myself to re-write the lyrics a little, give it a new title, and who knows, maybe eventually it will get some new life. After all, new life is what this weekend is all about...

-= Centurion =-

You came to me
Like so many had before
Doomed to die
The crowd still shouting, "crucify!"

Crowned in thorns
Your wounded visage caught my eye
And looking past the blood I saw the love
The love that crowns and crucifies

And now I come to you
I plead the blood
I shed by my own hand
Father God, forgive me,
I knew not what I did

You left my whip
Beaten one lash short of death
I stripped your clothes and drove the nails

Darkness fell
My face turned pale, my blood ran cold
For dying on that cross I saw the Son
"My God, what have I done?"

Now I come to you
I plead the blood
I shed by my own hand
Father God, forgive me
I know well what I do

You rose again
Like no one had before
Over Hades' deepest grave

Redemption dawns
As you roll the stone away
Now looking in your face I see the light
And on my knees I pray..

Now I come to you
I plead the blood
I shed by my own hand
Father God, forgive me
I know now what I did

Not The End

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fighting with Your Eyes Closed

"Walk by faith, and not by sight." - 2 Corinthians 5:7

I had an interesting experience last week during my martial arts class. I've been struggling to teach my body the "wind" style footwork required for most of the techniques found at my level. It's completely different from what I learned before, or at least it feels that way. I'm used to moving from my hips, but wind moves from the shoulders. I'm used to 45-degree angles, but that's water - wind is more about circular motion while receiving energy.

Sensei says my problem is that I think about it too much instead of just doing it. My body knows what to do, he says, but my brain keeps getting in the way. I picture Morpheus during Neo's introduction to in-Matrix combat telling him to "stop trying to hit me and just hit me!"

To prove his point, he told me to do the technique with my eyes closed - a technique that begins with me getting kicked in the stomach!  That's crazy-talk, right? But, I figure there's a reason he's a sensei and I'm a student, so I gave it a shot.

I had to rely completely on sensing the energy of my opponent and waiting to feel the first sensations of the incoming kick, and then receive and redirect that energy. I had to know where my opponent was just by feeling it, and defeat him by moving into the right position relative to his, applying the technique, and all of this without the benefit of sight.

I felt the beginning of the kick on my abdomen, and began to move through the dark... And you know what? It worked! Sensei even said that was the best implementation of that technique he'd ever seen me do! Not only was it possible, but it actually worked better with my eyes closed and out of the way.

Now, for perhaps the first time, I understand the scripture I quoted above. Sometimes, we just have to close our metaphorical eyes and do what we know is right in the face of a challenge, purely on faith. This doesn't mean we do nothing and wait for divine intervention, but rather that we trust in what we've learned from the divine and apply it without being distracted by fear and an over-zealous need to analyze or be in control. At least try it ... you will probably be surprised at the results.