Bundling choices with Twine

Hey there my dusty old blog! It’s been too long since I last put some information out here. I am still actively involved with IAM at OU, still teaching at Liberty, and still doing things like watching Doctor Who and playing SWTOR. I was recently selected to be the Higher Education coordinator for the Identiverse 2018 conference in Boston and I am very proud to be making some efforts at getting presenters and content available. But what else have I been doing? Would you believe that I am writing programs again? Well… sort of.

For this to make sense, I want to back up just a few months. I have never been that avid of a mobile gamer. I have two phones (one for work and one for home) and certainly keep them on me frequently. I have a few fun time wasters like Subway Surf, SongPop, and Bejeweled Stars. But beyond a brief foray into Game of War: Fire Age (which I had to quit because it was an extensive waste of my free time), I really did not do much in the way of games. That is, of course, until an Ad in SongPop showed me a game called “Choices” by Pixelberry Studios. If you are old enough to remember the “Choose your Own Adventure” books where you read a section and then, decide to either turn to page 301 if you fight the giant or go to page 29 if you ran for shelter in the caves, then you will have a taste of what Choices is like. Basically, the game is really a meta game with many ‘stories’ included (many of which are frequently having new chapters added weekly) where you get to read text, make a choice, and the game reacts accordingly. Add the fact that you have some very nicely done artwork and cool (if somewhat predictable) music, and you have a game that is very interesting.

I started playing through the game “The Crown and the Flame” which is a medieval fantasy RP about a princess and her childhood friend who are attacked by an evil empire and ousted from their home. You play the estranged Princess (well, ahem, Queen) Kenna in parts of the story and in others you play her rough and tumble “person of unknown history”TM friend Dominic Hunter. There are some incidentals where you play other characters but these are usually short term. The story unfolds across 3 books that are at least 12-15 chapters each. I couldn’t get enough of this game because every choice I made allowed me to do new things and see this grand tapestry unfold.

After finishing the series, I jumped from “The Crown and the Flame” to “Endless Summer” which, by the cover art appeared to be a ‘spring break party’ story and ended up being what I lovingly call “Lost: The Video Game”. However, with its air of mystery, catchy soundtrack, and deeply troubling storyline, I was hooked hard core. I have since completed the entire Endless Summer series but was woefully unhappy that you can’t really ‘win’ the game if you aren’t willing to pay. Many games have ‘freemium’ features that are designed to make the game more interactive or fun, but they usually do not prevent you from completing the game. That is not the case in Endless Summer. I spent hours glued to the game trying different choices and occasionally opting for premium features, only to get to the Epilogue and find out that I can’t actually see the full end of the game unless I pay 60 credits to recover six items that are needed to see the full ending. I still haven’t paid this and I feel lied to. Now I am on to “High School Story” which is another two-parter but so far I have played through one book without any issues with the paywall.

So what does this all mean for programming? Well, as you all know, I have been an RPG fan for years, I even run a Retro Gaming Blog where I talk about various RPG’s from the Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Sega. However, I am also an avid tabletop gamer… or at least I was until my personal and professional life made time for tabletop gaming virtually impossible. I have created many different games in my years as a teenager and as a young adult that I played with my friends. In some cases, I even wrote an entire RPG system (called the Realm Wars system) connected to my original homebrew series, Realm Wars. I have also served as Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM) depending on your vernacular in popular systems such as BESM 2 and 3, Dungeons and Dragons 3rd, 4th and 5th Edition, Rifts, and several systems my friends created including the Super Anime Wars (SAW) system and many others. As if my nerd flag was not raised high enough, I originally created a nautical-themed Multi-User Cyber Kingdom (MUCK) with a nautical theme from which my original web server, Darkseas, earned its name. Even more? Yes… there’s more. I am also a closet writer who has created many stories, books, and poems over my life. I find that writing stories is extremely enjoyable work and I often viewed the various RPG’s that I ran with my friends as forms of creative story writing, just with a team of people instead of on my own.

Surely you see what this is leading up to… right? Well… I am bundling all that together (see the title). There is a neat program called “Twine” that I was exposed to as a technology used at my university employer to help “Gamify” learning material. It is basically a technology that allows you to create self-contained webpage games that let you… MAKE CHOICES! Ultimately, you can make your own adventures with a very simple language that includes elements of HTML (something I learned to hand code in my early college years). You can also make it very creative by either writing your own JavaScript modules/code to help you program things or use the built in functions of one of Twine’s built in languages (Harlowe, SnowMan, and SugarCube). If you know some Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which I learned enough to be dangerous with but never particularly excelled at, then you can make this game very shiny and interesting. That’s what I have started doing!

Now, I should say that I am still learning the more complicated aspects of Twine thanks to several awesome YouTube videos, but I can spin up a very basic game without much trouble. In fact, you can sample this by checking out my first full game that was a modified version of the Space Explorer game I learned to code on YouTube. I call it “Space Jump” and you can go out and give it a go if you’d like. As I get better at programming in Twine, I hope to take many game ideas in my brain and turn them in to fully playable Twine games. Maybe you’ll see one of my stories such as “The Meranite Chronicles” or “Osiris” turned into a Twine-based game. We’ll see.

That’s it for now! I am diving back into coding with Twine!

Finally! An IAM Certification

Today is a very exciting day! I was informed today that I have been accepted as a Certified Identity and Access Manager (CIAM) from the Identity Management Institute. This is a nationally recognized, vendor-neutral certification showing that I am qualified to design, build, manage and maintain an Identity Management program for any organization. It focuses on strict adherence to professional guidelines and best practices in the field with a strong focus on the security underpinnings of the technology.

I have always said that it would fantastic if there was a certification outside of vendor certifications and it finally happened! Very excited to add this credential to my title!

Minecraft Experimentation – Creative Mode Building Height

If you saw my recent post, you would see that I purchased an XBox One for my family as part of our ‘shared’ Christmas toys. Given that my kids have friends who have access to Minecraft and that they have played it with their friends, it only makes sense that it would be one of the first games that we purchased. We did purchase it and my two oldest kids have created their own worlds to build in. Given that I am a former LEGO master builder, I find playing the game to be very interesting and relaxing.

In both my oldest child’s world and in my middle oldest child’s world on the game, I attempted to create a house (building a house is one of the first things people do in that game it seems). I quickly found that it was very easy to build a house in Creative mode and then completely forget where it is as I was wandering the world. So, when I started my own Minecraft world, I wanted to build a house that I would have a REALLY hard time losing sight of on the map. So, I began to build a huge tower from the ground up and following a very OCD color scheme as I went.

As I built, I never thought much about the physics of the game but they were unimportant at the time. By the time that I had built a house about 45 stories above the world, I had started to make all walls out of glass so I could enjoy the view of my brick-like kingdom. It was here that I had a sudden thought – how tall will Minecraft allow me to build my house in Creative mode? I decided I wanted to build my own ‘tower to the heavens’ and see if I could somehow build above the heavens in the game. Luckily, the actual width of my first building is not that wide (I tried to squeeze it into a valley near the center of the map) so building it was not a herculean project but required about a week’s worth of time (in small, 1 to 2 hour blips).

By the time my house reached about 70 stories (with each story being about three bricks high), I was starting to get slightly fatigued and slightly frustrated that I couldn’t figure out where the limit was. I decided to take to the interwebs and found a few posts that indicated that the maximum height of a building in the game was approximately Y: 256 (256 bricks from the ground up). This would make my building about 85 stories high. I let my hand rest briefly and then continued building.

Unfortunately, I lost two dogs on the way (I had domesticated three). I had domesticated three dogs and a horse and let the dogs stay set to “Follow Me.” The game will do everything in its power to make the dogs follow you but I don’t think the logic was designed for people who use the “Free Fly” or “God Mode” in Creative. You see… my building was already about 80 stories up when I had my three dogs follow me up from the ground. I had taken a brief ‘fall’ to the surface and walked around a bit to make sure that my mammoth tower was visible clearly even in the highly forested area in which I built it. The dogs followed me back up, all 79+ flights of stairs. I would usually build the first level of a story while standing on the floor inside the tower and often would continue to use a floating stance to build the second level of the floor. By the time I got to the third level, I discovered that it was much easier to build this level by hovering outside of the building. My dogs would often “teleport” to the block area I was working on. Usually I could handle this by leashing them and then having them “sit” somewhere near me. But on a few occasions, they would teleport RIGHT when I dropped a block, this caused them to be forced outside of the wall. Dogs don’t enjoy free floating powers like humans and my dogs hit the ground with a loud “Splat”… eww. I lost Pooch 1 about floor 81 and I ultimately lost Pooch 2 at about floor 83. Yet I KEPT building.

It turns out that the game gives you a bit higher limit on the XBox than on the computer version of the game (which most of the players who announced the 256 limit used). The end result? You can evidently build to Y:260 before the game cuts you off. I wondered if I would get some weird glitch but that never happened. Basically, once I got to Y:260, I tried to place a block on what would have been Y:261 and I simply did not have a “place” option. I tried at least 15 different angles and zoom levels but the game simply will not let you do any building beyond that level. So that’s the level where my massive tower ended.

What next? Well, I had a vision that I wanted to create a sort of “Sky City” where I could build various towers at different locations around the map and connect them all with a ‘sky sidewalk’. So once I built the core tower in the virtual center of the world, I began building a skyway southward. I plan to build a tower as close to the “South Pole” of the game map that I can. I will then go back to my center tower and build out North followed by the other cardinal directions. I am not sure what I will do after that, but I want to try and build some “sky pastures” and see if I can convince any animals to be lead up there and take up a residency in a pasture that is very high up. Of course, I will try to build some good restraining walls so that they can’t just fall off the map and die as my dogs did. I also talked about building a mine cart ride between a few of the areas as something like a roller-coaster but I have not practiced much in building these yet. We’ll see how far I get.

Unfortunately, I lost Pooch 3 yesterday. I started building a 4×4 sidewalk southward. I would then come back after building the ‘floor’ of the sidewalk and then build the retaining rails to the end of the floor and then start adding another batch of sidewalk. Pooch 3 followed me but had (wisely) stayed back about 10 squares from my current ‘dead air’ zone. Unfortunately, as I built the last block of the retaining rail, the game decided to teleport him RIGHT as I placed the block. He made a whimpering noise and then a splat. Man… my character may have a hard time agreeing to have any dogs for a while. Luckily there is a huge world below with lots of wolves hanging around. I may eventually wander my sky city surrounded by a wall of dogs. LOL.

I see why people like this game so much!

Next Generation Gaming

It’s time for my obligatory, once per year post. (Just kidding but I do have a notable track record.) Life has simply been too busy for me to spend much energy on posting to my blogs. I would love to post more regularly but any brief pauses I have are usually times I try to rest before the next round. I am still making a good pathway as an IT Director in my current position and though it has had its ups and downs, it’s been a fun experience. I also have been continuing my efforts as a teacher with Liberty University and that’s been a fun and unique walk in of itself.

But this post isn’t about life, you can read that on my Facebook and other places. It is, however, about tech. As some of you might remember, I purchased a Nintendo Wii (original, not WiiU) about  6 years ago so that Mady could have a game system that was kid-friendly. It has served its purpose for some time and was even the first way we could ever watch Netflix. However, as our other children have grown up and want to play games, the Wii’s library of available games continues to wane and the game discs are starting to act up more and more. I noticed, over time, that Adrian spends his down time after church playing the Lego games on the church’s XBox 360 systems and seems to enjoy it. It was financially silly to purchase an XBox 360 given that it is on its way out and probably running older (or almost as old) hardware as the Wii. That being said, I finally broke down and purchased an XBox One as a late family Christmas gift.

I found it extremely humorous that the first thing it wanted to do when I set it up was download updates. That’s Microsoft’s mantra I guess. Even though our internet at home is getting better over time, it’s still maxed out at about 3.5 Mbps and a 4 GB update will take a LONG time. So, I brought it to my office and plugged it into the Student network to let it get the updates. It only took about 5 minutes to get the rest of the update that would have taken hours at my house. It then grabbed several new updates culminating in an hour long download cycle. At last it was updated and I used some of the bandwidth to download a few games as well.

I was initially concerned that the library of games available was highly limited for younger gamers (most games are E-10+) but there are a few games such as the ever so popular Minecraft, a few Lego games, and an interesting game called “Ori and The Blind Forest”. I sucked in the Megaman Legacy game (has all 6 of the Original Megaman games in one) and a “Family Game Night” at my sister in law’s suggestion.

This thing is pretty slick so far. Yes, my friends are mostly PlayStation gamers so I certainly got my fair share of comments at choosing the system that is not their favorite but I think the library for PlayStation 4 games that are kid friendly is even smaller – not to mention there is no Minecraft. I like the fact that it does an HDMI pass-through on my cable box so I don’t have to sacrifice the other devices connected to my TV’s shocking 2 HDMI ports nor do I have to reattach the HDMI switcher box as it was prone to forgetting when devices were connected. My wife, our exchange student and I had a great bit of fun playing Monopoly on the Family Game Night game and I had fun beating Mady at Scrabble. The kids have enjoyed playing Minecraft as well… or at least the bigger kids and our bonus kids.

Right now, I feel like this is a good piece of tech to purchase but we’ll see if I have buyer’s remorse after a few months.

Zounds! A New Phone?

 

Hello all! I know… I know… you probably got tired of waiting on me to update. Sorry, I have been busy with finishing a very challenging teaching term at Liberty, going through holidays and countless other things. I have not done a whole lot of tinkering around or techy things worthy of mention on my blog outside of installing three monitors to connect to my iMac in the DJ6i studio. However, something has happened that is useful. My wife was tired of dealing with her aging iPhone 4s and it made no sense to upgrade her phone and not upgrade mine. Her phone was running out of space and the camera was starting to lag compared to other modern tools. My phone was working relatively well but the camera never worked inside because of some bug in the Zoe software that caused all indoor pictures to have a purple/red hue. Considering that photos of my kids and photos as a whole are a vital part of of our lives, I wanted to replace my phone too.

In the end, she ended up going for a Galaxy S6. I thought I was getting an HTC One M9 (the direct successor to my M8). I ended up realizing later (because the case I ordered did not fit) that I had actually purchased the A9 which is even newer than the M9. I still have no Otter Box case for it (it is so new that no such case exists) but I found an acceptable case for the short term. That being said, I felt it would be fun to discuss my findings about this A9 phone. However, since the only thing I have to compare it to is my M8, forgive me if the review seems somewhat biased.

Hardware

The phone is almost the exact size of my M8, though the screen is bigger (mostly due to the fact that there is only one hardware button now instead of three so the screen is ‘stretched’ father than the old phone. It is about the same weight as my M8 but feels lighter since it is not in the Otter Box case that I am used to. One of the first things I noticed from the use is that the phone only has a single hardware button that is basically a ‘home’ button. No longer can I double tap my home button and get the display of all open windows. I now have a windows soft button on the left, a home soft button in the middle and a back soft button on the right. This lack of double tap home still confuses me even though I have had the phone for two months or more. However, with the inclusion of the soft buttons, it does seem that my apps tend to be much more standardized as far as which button does what and this is a great improvement over the old Android OS. There is still a hard ‘lock’ button on the right side of the phone and hard volume up/down on the right just above my lock button. This took some getting used to since my M8 (and almost every smart device I have had in recent years) had the lock button on the top. I still instinctively push the top and sometimes get confused when it does nothing but that’s getting better. Another ‘button’ interest that I found is the fact that the hard home button also serves as a fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone instead of the standard pattern lock that I am used to (though this is also still available as a backup). It took a few tries to get it to accept my fingerprints but in the end I got it working. This screen is BRIGHT, there is no doubt about it. Even if I set brightness at level 2 of 3 (instead of Auto which I found to be difficult sometimes with Android), it will freaking blind you in the morning when you are bleary eyed and trying to turn off your Sleepbot alarm clock (everyone uses that, right? If you don’t then you should!). I have the option of using a native flashlight app (better than the now questionable flashlight apps that appear to sell unneeded information to third parties) but I rarely have to because that screen will give you all the light you need (provided you use a lighter theme as I tend to). The multiple processors and improved onboard RAM make this a snappy phone in a performance test (see bootup and other stats in the Software section). Speaking of lights… holy cow this camera has a bright flash! I am very glad to see the much improved camera without the annoying purple haze but if you want to take a picture in the dead of night, that flash is likely draw moths to you for a few seconds. Don’t even try to take a dark picture on an unsuspecting photo subject, even if they are asleep, that flash will wake them right up, camera sound or not (not that I tend to take pictures like this other than my children if they are sleeping in a funny position).

About the only real negatives I have found thus far are the power plug type and the speaker. My old phone had two speakers, one on the top and one on the bottom which allowed for a ‘stereo’ sound when listening to videos or using speaker phone, etc. This new phone only has one speaker on the bottom. The main concern I have for this is that it makes audio harder to hear than my old phone. Granted, I am not the person who spends all day playing movies, games and music aloud on my phone; I prefer to use a headphone jack whenever possible and even then, I rarely watch anything more than a YouTube video here and there on my phone. I do play some video games on the phone and the speaker makes it somewhat harder to hear when I am not using headphones; it also seems to be a very small speaker as I have found that if I hold my phone with one finger horizontal along the bottom of the phone and another on the left side, perpendicular to my other finger on my other hand, the speaker is easily garbled or almost muted by my finger, a simple move of my finger slightly further back on the bottom fixes this but it is awfully strange. The power plug type itself, is also slightly different. I understand that almost all new phones are using the advanced microUSB because it makes charge time a lot quicker (from almost empty to full in about 4 hours). Yes, my standard microUSB plugs (which I have in great supply as I acquired them over the 3+ years I owned my old phone) do ‘fit’ and they don’t give me some message about charging slower because of the plug (charge itself is almost identical regardless of plug) but the fit doesn’t feel as ‘clean’ as it used to. The new plug on my phone tends to grip down hard on the charger you plug in (good to avoid spurious disconnects of power when accidentally bumping your phone) but it disconnects just as quickly with the ‘new cable’ that it came with. On my old plugs, this charger connection bites down on them like a rabid pit bull and a simple tug on the cord is no longer sufficient to disconnect. I have actually stripped the head off two of my old chargers by accidentally trying a quick disconnect on the new phone. The only thing that seems to work is to physically grip the sides of my charger by sticking my fingers in the small gap between the charge connector and the top of the charger, and gently pull it loose. This may not seem like a big deal but if you are rushing to get ready in the morning and forget to do this, you may kill a cable or worse yet, have a MicroUSB head plugged in to your phone but stripped from all wires that requires you to engage in cell phone surgery to remove.

Software

From a software perspective, there are a number of updates that I found interesting. One of the first things was the fact that it automatically encrypts the device after you have it established. I am actually very excited about this fact because my old phone did not do this without a considerable amount of effort and when I did so, it seemed to add 10 to 45 seconds on to the boot up process. With this native encryption, I do have to put my pattern in twice after a full power off cycle (once at the encryption stage and again to log in to the phone after boot), but it only adds about 5 seconds on to the boot up time and is considerably more secure to boot. Being an IT Security guy, this is a good thing. The actual boot time from completely powered off to fully operational seems to be no more than about 15 seconds which is pretty fantastic overall. The performance of Android Lollipop is greatly enhanced as well. There are a number of buttons and widgets that live in a different place now but I was able to restore most of the same functionality I had with my old phone and then some. My old friends were still readily available – HTC Sense, HTC weather, Facebook Widget, system icons (brightness, wireless on/off, bluetooth on/off and account sync on/off), and various others. I already shared the hard versus soft buttons and the new button locations so those bear no repeating. I will elaborate on the seemingly more universal button use now, however. Historically, a big complaint about Android devices is that the back and home buttons tended to have no universal standard for functions across the Play Store app library. Sometimes, hitting the back button would take back a screen (in your web browser or in a software application) and other times hitting it would kill the app completely and send you to the home screen. The ‘Home’ button would usually send you back to the home screen but might also return you to the main navigation page of the app you are in and of course, if you accidentally double-tapped it, it would give you a task manager. This has been changed (and improved overall) with the Lollipop. I now have three soft buttons, period, and they are always there in the bottom of my usable space. The back button seems to have finally gotten its act together and will universally send you back a page in any application you are in. If you happen to press it at the main page of an app, 95% of the time, the app will tell you that if you wish to exit, double tap the ‘back’ button. Yay! No more complete and total loss of data if you accidentally hit that button. Home, will always return you to your home page or essentially serve as a ‘minimize all windows’ type button. Of course, the ‘task’ button will always show other tasks you have open and simply allow you to close one but they have also included a nice feature that says “Clear All” which I REALLY like considering that I am OCD about closing all apps when not in use. Rarely do I find that I leave some battery sucking app open that does not wish to be turned off when I go to my Home screen. I hit the Task button and now I can close a single window or all of them.

I really don’t have a lot of bad things to say about the Android environment itself. As with any new change to the familiar way of doing things, I had to re-learn some ways that I do things but this was very minimal. I did not find many applications that didn’t work except my TaskManager Pro application that I bought back when I had my old M8 because I was tired of the aforementioned battery sucking apps. I can load the app and it still shows the list of applications that are running, but using the ‘force close’ option no longer does much but this doesn’t really matter because I can use the “Task” soft button and it will do this. I ultimately ended up uninstalling Task Manager Pro and I haven’t missed it. I did still run into some common errors such as the ‘Link Contacts’ issue wherein I can have a contact that is saved in my phone, I try to link them to a Facebook or LinkedIn only to find that the link refuses to work from time to time. Most of these issues are related to how the individual apps deal with linking rather than how the Android OS deals with it. In fact, Facebook even told me that the linking option on contacts was having issues but was being repaired. Unfortunately, I found that this option was removed by Facebook however, I found Sync.Me which seems to do the trick.

User Experience

The User Experience with the new phone, though much the same as the experience with my old phone, has certainly improved. As mentioned in the hardware section, this phone has a very snappy response and almost all of my apps are quick to open (though they may take a second longer if they have to use internet to validate something). I can seamlessly switch apps without issue and even having 10 to 15 apps open at once does not seem to hamper performance. The Swype keyboard (which has become a requirement for me anymore) still seems to struggle with interpreting my keystrokes when I go very fast but this is more of a Swype/finger state issue than with the phone itself. Of course, Android itself is pretty much Google OS so if you do not have a Google account to link to your phone, you will be high and dry. The phone does seem to allow me the distinction between a GMail account and a Google+ account but the differences between the two are relatively nonexistent anymore. The phone does still have a bit of an issue if you have three or four Google accounts connected at once but this is usually just limited to Google+ related things and these more or less work themselves out with account switching. My contacts from Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and G+ work really well and the inclusion of the Sync.Me application allows me to sync Facebook as well so my phone contacts are doing great.

The only main downside from a UX perspective I have found seems to be limited to the performance or registering of taps, double-taps and swipes on certain applications. The most prominent example of this is one of my obsessions, Subway Surfer. If you are not familiar with this, look it up, it’s a great 3D platform game available on Android and iOS and lets you run around and jump over subway cars while collecting coins. This game is something that is easily one of my biggest time dumps on my phone as I tend to play it when I am waiting on anything (like an appointment), when I am bored at home and other places. The game does suffer a little jitter on graphics when a new game is first launched after the game has been closed but otherwise performs great. However, I have found that because of the sensitivity of the A9 phone’s touch pad, sometimes I don’t do enough motion for the game to register which causes me to smash into an oncoming streetcar or miss a critical jump. I have found that I have to make my motions more pronounced (aka more distance between start and end points when swiping up/down/side to side) this usually goes away but it is highly frustrating when I am close to beating a top score and then the game suddenly fails to detect a critical motion because I didn’t move far enough. I have notified the game developer, though I do not know if I am the only person experiencing this or not.

Overall

When it’s all said and done, I am very happy with this new phone. It has a few minor annoyances but the overall performance and style is awesome! I just wish Otter Box was faster at developing a case. I keep thinking that the screen will shatter any time I drop the phone since the current case I have does not have a front screen protector. Otherwise, this is great!

Breathing Life Into Old Hardware

Hello friends, it’s been a little bit since I posted anything. As usual, I have been very busy with life. My new job has placed me in a rocket ship and is blasting me into outer space with all the things that I need to do. Couple that with raising kids, doing my Professional Development training for my teaching position and I have been very busy. However, I wanted to take a moment to update you on a fun little project that I started.

You might recall one of my very early posts discussed my frustration with updating the RAM in my AlienWare laptop. For several years (4 it seems based on the date of that post), I just lived with my laptop only having 8GB of RAM. By and large, this was not a major problem for a bit as I did buy a laptop in the higher register to make it last longer. Well, several years of updates to some of my favorite games to play on said laptop (namely World of Warcraft and The Sims 3), have caused my laptop to struggle a bit in the speed department. I usually run my games at maximum graphics level because I figure my laptop can handle it (well, that was NOT a good idea in Skyrim). Well, it finally got to the point where i have had to dial back some settings to make the games playable. Not cool Robert Frost! Not cool!

So I had a decision to make… I could either drop the $2K plus to buy a newer gaming laptop (my wife threatened to divorce me if I buy any more computers without getting rid of some) or I could live with what I had. After some research, I determined that my laptop could actually handle up to 32GB of RAM (4x8GB sticks). When I first looked at the cost of RAM back in 2011 on this laptop, the cost for 32GB of RAM made it a significant investment. Now, 8GB of RAM is commonplace and much cheaper so I went ahead and bought 4 8GB sticks (Crucial if you are wondering). I had previously updated the RAM in the laptop’s bottom compartment but I had not added RAM to the two extra slots because they required removing the keyboard which is always a pain in the crack on laptops. This time, I didn’t care. I disassembled the bottom section of my laptop and dropped the two 8GB stick there (doubling my current RAM). I also noticed that my laptop actually has a second drive bay that I was not aware of (this comes into play later). I moved on and finally removed the keyboard and got to the RAM and dropped the two new stick in there too… total RAM 32GB! WIN! I was also pleased to learn that even though I have not worked inside a laptop in over 4 years, I can still do it. Other than needing my wife to hold a flashlight so I could locate a tiny screw that escaped my screwdriver, I had no issues getting this computer back together. Boot up and SURE ENOUGH… 32GB of RAM.

However, this was not enough to bring the old beast up to modern(ish) standards. If you read my blog regularly, you will know that I purchased a massive Apple iMac to replace my studio rig about a year or so ago. That machine is definitely a monster but it is somewhat impractical for daily gaming because… well.. I can’t play it in the comfort of my armchair. The RAM increase to my Alienware has made it equal in RAM to the Mac but it has one other speed-limiting hardware – a standard SATA hard drive. The Studio Mac has a 1TB Fusion Drive which is a cool hybrid of SSD and standard platter drives (it stores the most frequently accessed files in your system to the SSD and then archives the less used files to the platter section of the drive. SSD has long been the standard for ridiculously fast hard drives and a must-have for gamers. But once again, the cost for SSD of any capacity has been crazy expensive for several years. A quick Amazon search revealed that although 2 and 3 TB HDs are available, they will set you back $300+. So, after doing some research, I found three different sites that spoke highly of the SanDisk PRO series SSD drives. I found a 250GB version for only $125. Sure, 250GB may seem small by your standards, but my plan is to simply ADD it to my Alienware. That means that I will keep the existing 500GB HDD (which I am only using about 10% of by last check) and just add 250GB of SSD goodness to it. My plan is to swap the hard drives such that the primary boot drive is the SSD one and I will install Windows 8.1 on there (hate on me all you want but I use it at work and it’s really fast and not that hard to navigate). Then, I can simply install the games that need speed on the SSD and leave the other drive as my ‘data’ drive. Besides, I have been letting Carbonite back up my system for years so its not like I would lose anything big IF the drive fails.

All this is to say that by only investing about $450 (as opposed to $2K) I have easily boosted my old Alienware laptop into the new digital age. The only thing I haven’t done is replace the ATI video card it has. I COULD do that but the hardware will only work with a certain range of cards and it’s a pain in the crack to figure out which ones. I MIGHT try updating to the latest drivers for it. I have been putting this off because the past several iterations of drivers have caused the video to fail when waking from standby. I was so frustrated by this that I completely wiped and reloaded the computer a few months ago because I had made the mistake of trying an update. If the Win 8.1 drivers still cause this behavior, I can always reload Win7 and the old drivers that DO work. After all, if I reload only a short while after the first reload, I didn’t really lose anything but time, do I?

I think that’s all for this ramble. Happy April!

Moving On Up

Friends, I have some great news to report. I was silent about it for a long time due to my situation but I can now freely discuss matters. I have been dealing with a number of professional challenges in my current position and have been searching for new employment for almost a year. The problem I ran into is that my current employer paid me quite well and I was having a very hard time finding anyone who would pay me anything comparable. However, that has finally changed!

I am pleased to report that as of March 9, 2015, I will be taking a position of IT Architect I – Security and Incident Response Team Lead with none other than the great University of Oklahoma (Boomer!). This is truly one of the best possible situations I could be in. Not only is this position clearly my first crack at IT Management as my actual career but also it is working with an IT Security team to build things from the ground up. Although the title itself reflects security and incident response, my actual duties will be more focused on building the Identity and Access Management system at OU from the ground up.

If you are not aware, my last great accomplishment at Chesapeake Energy before the evil Black Tuesday (where 640 employees including yours truly were released due to downsizing) was building their IDM system. I really enjoyed working in the world of IDM and found that I had a natural knack for figuring out how to make the systems we were connecting to ‘talk’ to each other and we could have done much more if the funding and resources had been there. In the case of OU, almost all of their IT Security initiatives can be easily linked to building a true IDM structure and figuring out how to streamline it. I could not ask for a better place to be.

As time goes on, I hope to occasionally scribble down my various thoughts about different adventures  I have in working with a brand new IT Security Team (the team has only been active for about a year or two and so it is really like working for a startup). Although I have to go back to wearing khakis, polo shirts and professional shoes instead of my current employer’s jeans, tennis shoes and polo shirts attire, I don’t mind it. I feel that one of the things that shows your professional acumen is your dress and when I am ‘dressed for success’ I feel more accomplished then when I am in casual comfort.

Stay tuned and I hope to offer new and interesting insights! Oh, and in case I didn’t mention it, I am also now listed as an Adjunct Professor of Cybersecurity with Liberty University Online. I am trained and ready to have my first class but the new semester does not start until May so I have until April to get used to my new job at OU before taking on classes as well. How I will balance both jobs given that I expect my OU position to be more time intensive than my current position is yet to be seen but I am sure I will be able to work it out.

Adventures in Ethical Hacking

Now that I have finished my Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity, I was pondering the next step for my future and decided that the first thing I needed to do is pick up some of those pesky certs that everybody thinks you have to have. I am not ready to take on the CISSP so I didn’t want to start there. I am still opposed to Microsoft certs as of the moment so I didn’t want to start them. After much pondering, I decided that I would pursue the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH). Thankfully, my current employer has a training program for free that will help me pursue that. It is a little outdated but I feel that the information should be close enough that if I go through the course, I can probably beat it. In fact, my co-worker and friend, Ben, said he attempted the CEH once without studying and only failed by about 3 questions. I might even be able to take the test now but I would rather wait until I train.

Well, for those that are not aware of CEH, it literally teaches you the art of hacking so that you can serve as a penetration tester or network security consultants among other options. In order to complete this exam, I basically have to know how to hack. Sure, I have learned my fair share of this through my MS program but to actually get my hands dirty doing some hacking against my own stuff will offer me exponential benefits. That being said, I decided that I would create a virtual network at home that I can use to carry out my various hacking projects such as getting better at reading SNORT, learning how to use Metasploit more effectively, heck, I even played with Nessus a little but never got too deep. So I created my own virtual network at home to serve as my CEH playground.

For whatever reason, I was feeling rather witty when I created the lab so I used many references from my current (and past) obsession, Doctor Who. First of all, I setup a Windows 2008 R2 Server on my old workstation at home. It only has 5GB of RAM but it will do the work I need. I named this server “Monitor” and it is part of a private domain “Logopolis” (check your Tom Baker Doctor Who).

Now that the main server is setup, I created my virtual environment. This environment consists of a Windows 2008 R2 server that I have named “White Watcher” (see the reference above). Then, I created an Ubuntu server that I have named “Harmony” (which is a much broader reference that you would know if you watch the show). Then, I created a Windows 7 workstation that I named “Polarity” (a reference to the Third Doctor). All of these things are virtual machines.

In order to facilitate communication between the various pieces of my lab, I have all of these devices connected to a single virtual network which I have lovingly named “Castrovalva”. As I type that name, I laugh again because I think that is probably one of the greatest jokes in the whole setup. You see, the first full Doctor Who serial to feature the Fifth Doctor, was called Castrovalva. In this story, the newly-regenerated doctor is trying to find a safe place that he can go to rest while he recovers from the regeneration cycle. He ends up going to Castrovalva which is supposed to be a place of rest. It turns out that Castrovalva is actually a complete virtual reality created by the Master and it exists within his TARDIS which he has conveniently materialized around the Doctor’s TARDIS. Once the Doctor enters the world, it is very hard for him to get out because it isn’t supposed to exist. Are you snickering yet? My entire virtual lab lives only within a single server and it really only works within itself. That’s funny if you are a nerd like me!

But it doesn’t end there… oh no. I took it a step further. The SNORT instance I created on my little Castrovalva network is named “Cloister” and the sound that it makes when it senses an anomaly?? A bell! If you watched Logopolis, you just laughed your head off. If you didn’t, then I will explain. You see, the thing that starts the Logopolis arc in the Fourth Doctor’s final season is that he hears the “Cloister Bell” in the TARDIS. When his companion (Nyssa I think) asked what it means, Baker replies “It means imminent disaster, a catastrophe of epic proportions”. So, if the SNORT instance on my virtual lab ever goes off, it means that someone has actually hacked into my real network, worked their way through my firewalls and IDPS, gotten into my virtual network and triggered something. Imminent Disaster indeed!

As I progress through my training towards my CEH, I will try to post random tidbits of information. The reality is that I mostly made this blog post to make myself laugh at how silly I can be and hopefully make you guys laugh as well.

The Value of a Good Employee

For the first time in my professional life I have had a situation where my employer made it clear that they wanted to keep me around because I am a good employee. If you follow my blog at all, you will know that I work as a contractor for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). This job is one of the best I have had in a long time. I get to wear jeans, a polo, and sneakers to work every day and that is the normal attire. The actual office environment (to me) is very relaxed and the people have fun doing silly things and engaging in silly conversations. However, the job, being a contract only job has no guarantee of permanency and I was concerned that with 2 babies on the way and a total of 5 kids, I would be in majorly bad shape if the contract was suddenly ended. I didn’t actively look at jobs but I did apply to a few internal positions and I entertained a few interviews from my recruitment friends.

Finally, about a month ago, I was contacted by a recruitment firm about a permanent position doing the exact same work that I did at Chesapeake. I did the phone interview and found that I would easily be able to fit in that role and it seemed like a pretty good deal. The following week, I did an in-person interview and made quite an impression on the team based off what I was told. I was starting to get anxious about a job change since I really didn’t think that I could get much better than my current role but I wanted that sense of permanency and I felt like it would be wise to take the position. Not long after that event, I was told that the company was so pleased with me that they were going to skip one of their screening stages (candidate interviewed by management). They moved me right up to the front and I let them begin doing my background check but I held out putting my notice in until an offer letter came.

On the very next Monday after I had went through the background check stuff, I received an offer letter for the new position and I created and delivered my 2weeks notice. I had gone out on a limb and risked a job I liked for a position that seemed more permanent and even prepared to give up some of my favorite coworkers whom I had begun to consider friends beyond work. Shortly after laying the letter on the manager’s desk (he was gone at the time), the second in command came by my desk and advised that he was very impressed with my letter style and professionalism. Only a short while later, the manager came by and said he wanted to talk to me about my letter tomorrow morning which I happily agreed to. I learned later that the second in command spoke to one of my friends here as they were leaving and he expressed that he was genuinely concerned about my desire to leave and my friend talked up my ability quite a bit.

The next day, I waited patiently for the meeting to come with the manager. He finally came by and brought me into the conference room with the second in command. Much to my amazement, they talked at great length about the quality of work I performed, how professional I was on a team that has not always been known for professionalism and countless other compliments. I had no idea how highly they regarded me as an employee. They made it very clear that my work was appreciated and they were willing to fight for me to stay. I told them the salary that I was going to make and they said they would try to match it. The meeting ended and I waited until my manager was ready for the next meeting.

By the end of the day, I was back in the room and offered a salary that matched my offer from the other company as well as the promise for opening up training in project management for my current company when the projects were closer to being viable. In essence, I got a raise and the potential for management stripes. Needless to say, it didn’t take me much thought to rescind my notice and go back to work.

The moral of the story is that you never know how much you are worth to your company until you ask. I wouldn’t suggest that people randomly put in notices in hopes of a raise but rather that you should not be afraid to ask your management what they think of you. I also think it speaks volumes to me that my employer cared enough about me to fight to keep me here. A company that is willing to do that is worth paying attention to!

My Roku2 Review

It has been a while since I last posted a review of any technology. Part of this is because I didn’t have the time to but the other part was that I simply didn’t have many new tech toys that I felt worthy of mention other than my new iMac which I discussed earlier. I wanted to change that because I finally got a Roku2 for my house and I don’t know why it took me so long.

For any of you that are not aware, my wife is pregnant with our first (and only?) biological children – yes, that is plural, we are having a girl and a boy. Because of her health and the fact that these are multiples, the doctor recently placed her on modified bed rest which means that she has to cut her daily activities by over 1/2. Since she was going to be spending more time laying in our bed, she asked if I could add some entertainment to our master suite. I first moved our old TV in there (the one I had used as my studio monitor before the iMac) and added a new HDTV cable box. However, one day while I was at work she told me that she really wanted Netflix in our room because she was getting bored with the daytime TV shows. I needed to get something in there but using the Wii would be needlessly complex and make it that much more difficult when the kids wanted to play. I didn’t want to move the Logitech Revue in there because I still use it when I am in there and it is one of the primary Netflix sources when the kids want to watch TV. So, after listening to the suggestion of one of my co-workers and doing some research, I ended up picking the Roku2.

When I first opened the thing, my impression was “this thing is tiny!” because it really is not much bigger than about 4 inches squared. The only connectors on this thing were an HDMI connector, what appeared to be RCA connectors (maybe RGB), and a port for the AC Adapter. It also came with a slightly unusual cloth tag with the word ‘Roku’ on it. The other piece of equipment this came with was the patented Roku remote with its built-in headphone jack and cleanly packaged earbuds. This thing is even smaller than my Logitech and it looks like the system casing is even more refined. I have not even hooked it up yet and I am already intrigued. With very little effort, I plugged it into the second HDMI slot on my bedroom HDTV and started the setup.

After a little learning curve getting to know the on-screen keyboard which you must navigate using it’s game-like D-Pad, I was able to get it on my wireless with no hiccups. I paused temporarily to activate a Roku account from my iPad and then link the device here in my home to that account and now it was time to customize my box. I added all the free channels I could find and went through the activation with some of the special channels (Disney, History Channel, etc.) to prove that I had a cable provider. Soon it was done and BOOM! What a machine!

After very minor setup I was able to link up Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Pandora. Not only was the setup more simplistic than the Logitech revue but also the speed is remarkable when you compare it to my Revue. The Netflix viewing environment is virtually identical to the one on my Revue though it is a little more snappy but the search features are massively better. The Amazon Prime video is massively improved over my Revue because it actually has its own app interface whereas the Revue literally opens a Chrome browser which is highly inefficient on a big screen TV. I think the Pandora interface is pretty much identical to the one on the Revue but it does seem to run slightly faster. I also like the way that YouTube works on the Roku. The Revue’s interface is similar to the Amazon video player, it is basically a Chrome browser which is still too annoying to try on an HDTV. But the Roku’s interface is clearly streamlined to work with your TV and provides crystal clear HD viewing for YouTube videos. Further success!

Going beyond the standard things I looked for on the Roku2, it offers other features that caught my eye. First of all, the News channel was very interesting. I don’t tend to be too much of a newshound but I certainly watch certain technology stories and big world-impact things like the Malaysian plane story. I have the News Channel on my Wii but as far as I can tell, this has never worked. I tried the News Channel on my Roku and was instantly able to watch news stories including the weird news channel which I thought was pretty cool. A large portion of the news articles came from a website called “Newsie” which I was unaware of prior to owning the Roku but that doesn’t make me dislike the channel. Overall, I found the interface fun and interesting. Another interesting thing about the Roku2 is that it has a few skins that you can apply to give the device different appearances. I stuck with a metallic gray theme but the defaults include a space age looking interface, a silly cartoon interface, a blue-sky interface and a few others. It is possible that additional skins may be available but I am not sure how one might apply them other than a ‘push’ from the Roku site. It seems like a silly thing but the fact that Roku actually had the foresight to include different skins shows that they were paying attention to the tiny details. I have yet to test the ‘private mode’ which allows me to listen to the Roku with only headphones and not disturb other people. If that function works, especially with different headphones, buying a second one of these boxes is in my very near future.

Overall, I am very pleased with this device. I can’t believe that I just now acquired one and evidently my friends agree. I am known by my friends as a techie guy who likes to play with new stuff and who also likes his movies and TV. When I mention to friends that I purchased the Roku2, they all seem to say the same thing “You JUST got one? Wow, I have had mine for a while”. Yeah, I am behind the times but now I see why these things are so popular. I am not regretting the money that was spent on it. Even if my wife does not use the one she has very much, it will get used.

Ratings:

  1. Performance – ✮✮✮✮ – This thing is cool and snappy in its performance. The setup is very easy and the thing runs extremely well. I can’t ask for a better performance out of my device.
  2. Features – ✮✮✮ – This thing is packed with features for the buck. The only thing I wish it did was allow the HDMI pass-thru like my Logitech Revue.
  3. Price – ✮✮✮✮ – Given the amount of features that this little thing packs, the price of approximately $75 is a good deal. My Revue cost over $100 when I got it and has nowhere near the features.

All this is to say, if you have yet to pick up a Roku2 and need a streaming media box, go get this one!