Diary of a Network Geek

The trials and tribulations of a Certified Novell Engineer who's been stranded in Houston, Texas.

4/11/2014

Super Planet Crash

Filed under: Art,Fun,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:01 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Gibbous

Another game this week.

This one takes a bit more time than the last one.  500 years, actually.

Okay, not five-hundred actual years, but five-hundred game years.  The game is called Super Planet Crash, but the goal is to not crash planets.  The idea is simple, design a solar system that will last at least 500 laps around the Sun.  You add in planets of various sizes and densities and let them go.  The more planets and more complicated your solar system,…
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4/8/2014

TurboTax

Filed under: Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is in the early morning or 7:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Gibbous

Another kind of weak Tools for Tuesday post, but, at least it’s better than nothing.

One reason I don’t have something better than this for you all this week is, well, taxes.  One of the many, many things I have to get accomplished with far too little time to get them all done, including the posts on my two blogs.   As I’m sure you all are aware, tax day is just around the corner and, even though I vowed to get it done early this year, I’ll be scrambling to get my tax returns filled out and submitted in time.  If not for TurboTax, I’d never get it done.

Of course, the real benefit comes from using it year after year, because it will pull your information from last year, reducing the amount of data you have to enter.  And, it will show you how you did, tax-wise, this year compared to last year, which is kind of nice to know.
This year, one feature that last minute users like me may find useful is that you can actually download this from Amazon.com and not have to wait for shipping or for the morning when a store might be open.  Again, I’m already busy enough without having to try and get out to a store to buy this at the last minute.  And, speaking of last minute, using the TurboTax software, I can submit my return digitally, which means having the ability to cut it a little closer than normal with a little less worry.  (And, okay, sure, it helps that my wife made a file for all the important 2013 tax information, so I have all that in one place instead of just shoved under my keyboard all year.)  In theory, though I haven’t actually done this myself, TurboTax can interact with Quicken, which I also use, and help me to maximize my deductions and get me the biggest return.   Since one of my goals for the year is to get into better financial shape, not just for myself but for my lovely wife, too, I’ll probably look into that sometime this year, too.  Financial health is a big deal and taxes are a big part of that.

Also, if you’re an iPhone user, there’s an iPhone app that will let you know how soon you’ll get  your refund.  You can download that and plug in the information from your TurboTax submission and the app will let you know when your refund arrives.

So, maybe not the sexiest tool, but one that I find pretty useful!

4/4/2014

2048

Filed under: Fun,News and Current Events — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is in the early morning or 7:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Crescent

No, not the year the world will end. I’m not that kind of crackpot.

No, in this case, I’m referring to the incredibly simple, but addictive game; 2048.
The premise is simple; just double the value of tiles until you reach 2048.  The tiles start out with either a two or a four on them and you just slide the tiles until they collide with another tile of the same value, then they add themselves together, doubling their value.  So two tiles…
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4/1/2014

Get Smart with KeySmart!

Filed under: Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is in the early morning or 7:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Crescent

I debated writing an April Fool’s entry for this week, but I decided against it since this feature was so new. Maybe next year.KeySmartAsShippedMyKeySmart

Also, I noticed that I seem to be obsessed with locks and keys this month.  Or maybe every month.  In any case, this week the tool I’m talking about is the KeySmart.  I’m not sure if you’d call it a “key chain” or a “key management system” or what, but, as you can see from the photos, what it’s meant to do is make your keys neater, easier to manage and take up less room in your pocket.  It does all those things admirably well.

This started out as a project on Kickstarter, which I backed.  And, let me tell you, I am so happy that I did!  These things are fantastic!  In the photo on the right, you can see my two “active” KeySmarts.  The blue one is for work, because it matches the blue in our logo and it’s easy for me to remember.  The black one is my personal set of keys.  You’ll notice a couple of differences.  First, on the blue one, I have a single 8G USB drive attached at the key fob holder.  On the black one, you’ll see that I have a couple odd-shaped keys and a tiny, LED flashlight attached with the key fob ring.  That may be the only real down-side I see to the KeySmart, actually.  Those odd, bulky keys just don’t work in the KeySmart itself.  But, they are doing just fine as I have them.  In fact, I’ve happily had them on that ring for several months now and that solution works just great for me, giving me access without adding too much bulk.
That being said, that little drawback is also why I don’t keep my car keys on the KeySmart.  Of course, it’s probably a good thing anyway, since the weight of all those keys would probably mess up my ignition eventually.  Besides, if I valet park somewhere, I’d rather not give them my house key and my car key at the same time.  I’m a little paranoid that way.
KeySmartInUse

There are actually two basic kinds of KeySmart, both of which come in a rainbow of colors.  The “standard” length or the EXT-style, extended length like I have pictured here.  I’m very happy having gotten the extended style because of how the longer keys fit together in it.  Everything folds down all nice and neat, with nothing sticking out to catch or snag.
The basic configuration of either length can comfortably hold four keys, two on each end.  However, you can get post extenders that will let you fit more keys on per side.  The expansion packs also come with small washer and rubber o-rings to take up any slack that you might have from an uneven number of keys.  Personally, I recommend trying to just make it work out right with an even number of keys.  After a bit of fiddling around, that really seemed to work best.  You can see what comes with the smallest expansion pack in the photo at the top on the left.  That little baggie has the posts, washers and o-rings that make it easier to fit additional keys in your KeySmart.  I tried one of the larger expansion packs, but I found that it really got unwieldy in my pocket to have anything more than the smallest expansion pack.  Your mileage may vary on that, but I carry a lot of keys and the small expansion pack did quite well for me.

The posts are small, as you can see, but they still fit most keys.  The website sells blanks that will all work with your KeySmart, but I, and many other Kickstarter backers, found that it was very little trouble to use a rotary tool to expand the opening on the few keys that didn’t fit.  I had a couple keys that I had to do that on, but it only took a couple of minutes to get them all sized right to work.

KeySmart offers a USB drive that fits into their product, available in a range of storage capacities, and it’s okay, but I have to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with it.  I ended up having to use several of the rubber washers just to make it fit right and not rattle loose or make the keys around it loose.  What I found worked better for me was getting a LaCie USB Key.  The model I have seems to actually be discontinued, but it fits great.  I suspect that the current model, which is shorter, would do just fine, too.  It just slips in there like any other key would, though it does take up just a little bit more room than a regular key in the KeySmart.

I have to say, again, how pleased I am to have backed this when it was on Kickstarter.  There are other key management solutions, but this one is elegant, simple and rugged.  Also, relatively inexpensive at roughly $17 for the EXT+ versions that I have, not including the USB drives and expansion kits.  Very much a good deal in my book.
And, everyone I show these things to has run out to buy one!  That’s about as good an endorsement as I can give!

3/28/2014

Psychadelic GIFs

Filed under: Art,Fun,Life, the Universe, and Everything,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Crescent

That’s pronounced like the peanut butter brand, by the way.

At least, that’s how the original creators pronounced it, back when Compuserve was a thing.  They created the GIF as a compressed graphic format to minimize data usage back in the “Days of Dial-up” for Compuserve when modems ruled the Earth.  But, I bet they never thought that their “little” contribution to computer culture would go so far.  For instance, when the GIF came out, it didn’t have animation as a…
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3/25/2014

Keyless Entry Tools!

Filed under: Fun Work,Life Goals,Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver,Review,The Dark Side,Things to Read — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is in the early morning or 7:21 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Crescent

RetirementPlanningKeyless entry tools may be a bit of a misnomer, but, technically, that’s what I’m talking about in this very special Tools for Tuesday post.

Actually, since I missed posting a tool last week, I’m going to mention several tools in this week’s post.  The difference is that these tools are all related.  Of course, all these things are related to lock picking, sometimes referred to as “lock sport” or “steel-bolt hacking”.
We’ve all seen this on TV or in the movies.  The hero, or anti-hero, needs to get into a room for some reason, only to be confronted with a locked door.  A locked door that would stop the average person, but not the hero of the story we’re watching.  Instead of being stymied by this apparently insurmountable obstacle, our hero, or heroine, simply pull out a set of lock picks with which they proceed to fiddle about with, often by the light of a flashlight held in their mouth, until the formerly locked door is suddenly, almost magically, opened.  Who among us has not wanted to be able to do the same thing?  How many times have we found ourselves on the wrong side of a locked door, wishing we had a set of lock picks with which to quietly gain entry to whatever is on the other side of said door?  And, perhaps more commonly, how often have we simply forgotten our keys, to home of office, and wanted to avoid the inconvenience of going to fetch them or find someone who could let us in?

Well, I have long wanted to be able to do all those things at one time or another.
In August of 2012, while attending DEF*CON 20, I finally got my initiation into the world of lock picking.  Or, as I more often prefer to euphemistically refer to it; keyless entry.  I spent several good hours at the Lockpick Village put on by TOOOL, The Open Organization of Lockpickers.  It was there that several very patient people taught me the basics of lock picking.  There were other opportunities to learn things like bumping and impressioning, as well as learning how to bypass locks other than the standard door lock or keyed padlock.  I haven’t had the time, or opportunity to explore those non-picking tools too much yet, but several of the tools in the photo above came from TOOOL.  TOOOL sells a fine starter’s set of lock picks and tension bars, which I bought at DEF*CON and can be purchased via their Equipment page.  You can see the two picks I use most often, and a tension tool on the right, resting on top of the TOOOL leather case.
I like these picks and tension tools because they’re light, but sturdy and relatively economical.  They also have nice sized grips which feel comfortable in my meat-hook-like hands.  It’s important that I feel like the tools I’m using to open a lock aren’t constantly in danger of breaking off in said lock, further complicating my opening of it.  These tools do that quite well, and look good while doing it.

The other thing in that photo which came from TOOOL is the progressive training locks, as they call them, though they’re really just specially prepared tumblers.  They’re in the large-ish grey thing near the middle of the photo, which I refer to as a lock picking vice, perhaps incorrectly, and which I’ll describe in a minute.  Actually, to be specific, the three training locks in the vice are the first three of a complete set of ten.  They start with a single pin in the tumbler and go all the way up to six pins in a tumbler, for the first, “normal” training locks.  The last four are a special spool-shaped pin, which is harder to pick, and go from one pin up to four pins in the “security” training lock set.  To get the entire set of ten ran me $120 before tax and shipping, but they are totally worth it.  In theory, I could have gotten ten of my own locks, stripped them down to just the bare necessities and pinned them out myself, but I can guarantee that they would not look as neat as these.  And, that’s assuming that I could find a source for the spool-shaped security pins for those last four.
I just got these recently, and I think it was just in time because my skills were getting pretty rusty!  I hadn’t touched my picks in a couple of months and found myself completely unable to pick a simple padlock that used to take me a couple of quick seconds to open.  It was mortifying!  I should note, these training locks are a little looser and easier to pick than a real-world lock, but that’s intentional.  The idea being, of course, that you need to get the feel for it before graduating to a real lock.  Incidentally, a standard padlock usually has four pins.  The average American door lock, like we normally use on houses, has five pins.  And, I’m told, that normal European door locks, like would be used on most residential doors, use six pins.  So, that’s why the training locks are pinned the way they are.  They make a logical progression of difficultly with real-world application.

When I found the Tri-Pik, as I call it, I was actually looking for something else, but I was thrilled.  The “Deluxe Adjustable Tri-Pik LOCK PICKING Holding Fixture“, as it is called on the website where I found it, is pretty fantastic.  In fact, I’d just about call it essential to my reintroduction to lock picking.
The basic idea is this; a real lock would be surface mounted in, say, a door, and would leave me both hands free to manipulate the tension tool and pick, and this tool lets you simulate that.  Without this, I would be holding the training lock in one hand, keeping tension on the cylinder via the tension bar with that same hand, while manipulating the pins with the pick in the other hand.  A fine way to learn, but not very realistic.  The Tri-Pik fixes that.  It is so named because it’s designed to let me mount up to three training locks in it at once, locking them in place via a hand-tightened set screw from below.  It’s quite a good system.  Simple, but effective, and reasonably priced at $35 plus tax and shipping.  I cannot recommend the Tri-Pik enough to someone learning how to pick locks.  It’s really, really fantastic.

Oddly enough, I found the Tri-Pik while looking for the fourth tool I’m mentioning today; the Southard Jackknife Lockpick Set.  I had seen this at DEF*CON, but I was a little hesitant to buy one, since I was flying back to Houston afterwards and didn’t want to have it mistaken for a knife and taken from me by a TSA agent.  But, now that I’m back, and it turns out the NSA has been watching all of us all along anyway, I decided to go ahead and get one of these little beauties.  Eventually, I’ll add this into my “every day carry”, so I’ll always be able to open doors, but first, I need to practice with it a bit.  Obviously, the idea is to fold it all up like a pocket knife and carry it with you, but the genius, in my opinion, is how they handle the tension tool.  It fits over the top of the folded-away picks, with one end sliding into a tight, narrow opening in the center of the main body of the tool set, using tension to keep it all together.  It works quite well and provides the amateur locksmith with a complete set of tools including; the tension tool, a long hook pick, a diamond-shaped pick, a half circle pick, a “snake rake”, an alternative rake and a diamond-shaped broken key extractor.  Add to that a really nice mechanism hold the picks in both a closed and “ready to use” position and you’ve got a great, portable toolset here for just under $40, before tax and shipping.  A fantastic deal in my opinion.

The last “tool” is really a book.  Namely, the very good lockpicking primer, The Visual Guide to Lockpicking.  I have to admit, even though I had this book long before I learned how to pick locks at DEF*CON, I found it just a little too intimidating and confusing to use before I had some hands-on experience.  Now that I do, however, I can see just how good a resource this is.  It covers the majority of mechanical locks that a self-taught locksmith might encounter and have to deal with, including tubular locks and locks with pins on both the top and bottom of the cylinder, which are both challenges I have yet to master.  While no substitute for a good teacher, this book really is a great place to start if you can’t get direct instruction and has fantastic illustrations explaining the entire process.  It’s well worth the $15 or so that Amazon.com is asking.  (And, yes, if you buy a copy from that link, I get a credit.  Thanks!)

Incidentally, if you can’t quite figure the connection between “network geek” and “lockpicking”, the answer is far simpler than you might imagine.  In the early days of computers, the best of the best were pretty much all at M.I.T.,where it is widely believed the term “hacker” originated, and, to get access to computer labs, and a place to crash while programs ran on the big, old iron that were computer systems back then, the hard-core computer geeks all became locksmiths so that they could get the tools to pick locks and never be on the wrong side of a locked door.  Or, at least, that’s what I read in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Stephen Levy back when I was just getting started in IT.
So, yeah, that’s a mess of tools for Tuesday this week and a peek into the crazy way my mind works.  I hope it makes up for missing last week!

3/21/2014

Fast Fiction

Filed under: Fiction,Fun,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Gibbous

In this case, really fast.

I’ll be honest, I’m not normally a huge fan of gimmicky flash fiction, but I do make exceptions.
The basic idea is to write a story with the fewest number of words possible.  According to literary legend, Ernest Hemingway did it with just six words; “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn”.  That was allegedly to win a bet with Ezra Pound, as I recall.  In any case, it’s still a gimmick and one that’s gotten a little…
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3/18/2014

Misfire!

Filed under: Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver,Personal,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Dragon which is in the early morning or 9:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Gibbous

Whoops! I just realized that it was Tuesday and I hadn’t written a “Tools for Tuesday” post!

I knew this would happen sooner or later, but I had planned on later rather than sooner.
Oh, well, it is what it is, I suppose.  In any case, don’t worry I have a lot more to write about, but the time to write it may be a bit more elusive than I had anticipated.

So, hopefully, next week, I’ll have another review of one of the many, many software or hardware tools I use on a regular basis.
Keep coming back to see what I review next!  (Even if that’s in two weeks not just one!  Please!)

3/14/2014

T-Shirts

Filed under: Art,Fun,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Gibbous

People who know me, know that I love my goofy t-shirts.

You know, it’s been a long couple of months and I’m pretty drained creatively, in part due to being super busy at my day job, so I’ve kind of given up sharing anything but purely fun links on Fridays for the next couple of weeks. Deal with it.

This week, it’s t-shirt sites.
Yes, I wear a lot of strange and interesting t-shirts from a lot of places.  I don’t remember why…
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3/11/2014

Systemometer

Filed under: Geek Work,Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Gibbous

A screensaver that monitors your server.Systemometer

This may not seem like much of a “tool”, since it’s pretty passive, but when you have a server that’s getting old and failing, being able to quickly glance at what its performance is like can be a real benefit.  And, for the past eight months, I’ve been running a server that, to be honest, was a little too old to be in production.  People would complain about it pretty much constantly, even, I suspect, when it may not have been the actual problem they were suffering from.  I’ve since replaced the server, but I kept running Systemometer on both the old server, which now serves as strictly a backup server, and the new, shiny, Windows 2012 server, just so everyone can see the difference.

But, let me be really specific about this; Systemometer is a configurable monitoring tool that shows system performance and resources in a spider chart. Seeing the varying shapes of displayed polygon, representing a visual pattern drawn based on normal, or critical, system states. Once you get used to it, this snapshot view helps to read the overall system status at a glance. Just looking at the screenshot in this post, which will enlarge if you click on it, you can see that a lot of information is displayed.  Notice, for instance, that there are 12 “CPU”s listed.  Since this is a modern, multi-core server, those are really just all the cores being displayed, with the current processor time in yellow and the average processor time in green.  If I wanted to, I can also set Systemometer to display the maximal processor usage, but as this is a new server, I haven’t bothered to set that.  The same goes for the number of processes the server is handling, as well as the number of threads.  Also displayed is the physical and virtual memory usage, total drive space used and the hard drive seek time.  Notice how almost everything falls well within that red circle on the display?  That’s because the server is new and being used well below it’s capacity, by design.  This is the second server upgrade I’ve done since I’ve been at this company, and I’d like to not have to do one again soon.  That’s also why the number of threads is reading like it’s in the red, even though it’s not.  The new server is so new that not all metrics have been calibrated to display correctly.
Also, notice that the two performance polygons are yellow and green.  The yellow is the current usage while the green is the average usage.  It may be hard to tell the difference between the two because I took this screen shot on a Sunday afternoon with minimal usage.  Of course, the server being primarily a file server and an Active Directory server, the average usage is pretty constant in any case.

It may not be obvious from the screen shot, but I’m running this as a screen saver, which is only one option for using Systemometer.  It can also be used as a kind of replacement performance monitor instead of using the built-in Task Manager for that function.  Actually, one way I validated the results I was seeing from Systemometer was to run it next to Task Manager and compare the displayed performance information.
Personally, I like running it as a screen saver because I can quickly check on my server as I walk past the screen into or out of my office.  Also, it seems to impress people who see it and can’t make heads or tails of what they’re seeing.  It’s not big, fancy monitoring system, but unless you really know what you’re looking at, the average person isn’t going to figure that out!

Finally, the other reason I use Systemometer is that it’s free!
Yep, that’s right, absolutely free.  Of course, it may not ever get updated again, but I’m okay with that, as long as it still works as it has been so far.

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