Digital Housekeeping

So when I changed my name on here to lmalianobles.wordpress.com, I decided I wanted to also write about tech. Have I done nearly as much of that as I have creative writing? Nope. But I did just find the draft document of ideas I had for tech articles. I was going to call my blog “Digital Housekeeping,” hence this title, but I decided to keep going the creative writing route.

This is an old one, 2017-ish, but edited in 2021.

There’s a saying that goes “If the service is free, you’re the product.” Sites like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat profit by serving its ad partners’ ads to you as often as possible. Your profile is a member of an audience that Google & co. are selling to advertisers.

While harmless ads are indeed harmless, personally, I don’t like to work for free.

Becoming entirely ad-free is something of a process when you consider cookies. Websites give you cookies to store where you’re going to go next (and next and next) so that they can sell your profile to advertisers.

There are a number of options today’s Internet users have to prevent this kind of tracking. The question then becomes, how free are you? And I don’t mean that in a liberation sense, not literally, (not slavery).

The following is a list of apps and some advice for those moments where you’d like to be ad-free.

  • Adblocker Plus has been my go-to on Chrome, as well as HTTPS everywhere and Disconnect
  • Like in the body, computer viruses are MUCH harder to recognize than the computer equivalent of a bacterial infection. Right now, 2021, I’m going to be using a free app by Avast
  • Consider paying for your e-mail service. I do, but it gets mail forwarded from a Gmail account
  • Consider getting a VPN to mask your IP address
  • Clear your web browser history and cookies
  • Review the data collected by your search engine
  • DuckDuckGo and Startpage are two Google alternatives I enjoy
  • Google’s Account Settings
    • You can turn off location tracking, search queue, YouTube history, etc.
    • At the time of my writing this originally, I claim that Gmail stores your emails to serve you better ads. “This seems to be an unnegotiable aspect to the account,” says 2017 me.
    • Empty the trash in your Gmail

Disappearing From The Internet

Many people have tried to “disappear from the Internet,” and many can attest that it can be a damn near impossible undertaking. People finding sites have addresses, phone numbers, names of family members, you name it.

Many people, understandably, don’t care what corporations do with their data. Those cringey messages you sent your ex that one time you blacked out in 2013? Why would anyone important – the CEOS, etc., and the governments they often work closely with – care about your data? Why not sacrifice “privacy for convenience”?

However, maybe you aren’t comfortable with everything you’ve posted online being publicly available forever. Do what you can to secure your information, and that comfort will come.

Games in Review: OFF

This was my review after I played it for the first time, in 2013.

For the last month or two, I’ve been on a serious indie video game binge, particularly of the RPGMaker variety. If you’re not familiar with with RGPMaker, it’s a free gamemaking program that a lot of cool, mega-creative people use to produce their own relatively simple, low-budget, independent video games; and a lot of these creators then distribute their free, role-playing and adventure games on the Internet, much to the pleasure and undying gratitude of broke college students everywhere, including myself.

If you’re like I am and lose patience pretty easily with long term, real time games, (I keep telling myself that one day I’ll sit down and trek through Skyrim, but that day is yet to come), then RPGMaker games might better suit your tastes.

My late introduction to indie games began when I stumbled upon a game called OFF, created by Mortis Ghost and Unproductive Fun Time. (And of course I found it in my favorite virtual place ever, Tumblr, where I now find all of my favorite things). Originally produced in French in 2007, and later translated into English in 2008, the game and it’s extremely well-written storyline are very eerie to say the least, unsettling even at times. “OFF” has a stoic, aloof, and almost cold protagonist-hero, numerous creepy adversaries that sometimes warrant your sympathy, an ambiguous plot and elements of horror that come into play unexpectedly, and a symbolism throughout that, when it reveals itself, packs a resonating punch. Just my type of story.

A summary of the game is best given very briefly, such as this one from one of the contributors:

In “OFF” you take control of a mysterious person called “The Batter”, who is described to be on an important mission. The Batter, and yourself as his controller, are dropped off in zone 0, the first of 4 zones in a perplexing, unknown world, about which you slowly find out more and more in the process of the game.

That’s about all you know for most of the time you’re playing. With only a few hints here and there as to how to proceed from a guide-like character called the Judge, you wander around the “zones” and purify them from evil, which you soon find out are plaguing little creatures and ghosts called Spectres. The lack of information as to why the batter has been chosen as the hero for this mission, and where he even came from, is what will end up keeping you engaged ’til the end. The battles are fun, (if you’ve ever played early-gen Pokemon games you’ll enjoy them), the zones and their backstories are intriguing, and the narrative’s even funny throughout. The funniest character in the game is the items-merchant Zacharie, who drops in occasionally and doesn’t just break the fourth wall, but blows huge, gaping holes through it, interacting with both the player and the batter.
The “old school” graphics, the basic controls, and the almost too-simple leveling-up method during game play are exactly that way for a reason: they don’t distract you from the narrative, and make you pay attention to what you’re reading whenever a character speaks. No line is out of place; it’s all going to be important in the end. Though the turn-based and menu-based combat can slow down the pacing a bit, (although your speed does get better the higher you level up, and there is an “auto battle” option for whenever you get lazy like I did), it seriously helps that all the little battles along the way are set to the catchiest song in the world. (I legitimately got excited whenever I ran into another at-random adversary ’cause it meant that I got to hear the song again. In fact the entire soundtrack is really, really creepy and cool.)

I think that what I liked best about this game was that it really required your mind in order to get through. You’re not just moving right along and pressing keys. There are puzzles along that you have to mentally work through in order to proceed: patterns to discern, codes to unlock, hidden messages to seek out, hints dropped by characters that you’d be wise to remember. You never know what you’re going to need to use in the end so you find yourself paying dedicated attention to everything, hanging onto every word, or at least I did.

The puzzles are just challenging enough that they won’t make you quit, and the pay-off for figuring everything out is rewarding enough that you stay put.

Each time you finish a “zone” and defeat each level’s final boss, a little bit more and more about the underlying story starts to become clear. But the more you know about the game you’re playing, the more your opinion and what you think is happening has to start forming and influencing your decisions; the game truly is nothing without the player. The different perspectives and allusions and possible conclusions that the game reveals are all yours to decide on, all yours to carry out.

I can’t say virtually anything about the way that it ends except that, if you were paying attention, it’ll seriously make you think about your life and your choices for a long time after you’re done with it. (It hit me like a ton of bricks, but that just may be because I get way too into these kinds of things–English major problems.)

I recommend OFF to video-game-players non video-game-players alike. It’s simple enough to grasp that I recommend it to everyone who has a few hours to kill, and who wants to play something that will challenge them, entertain them, impress memorable lines and characters on them, and remind them of one of life’s inevitable truths.

All that, and it’s free. You can’t really argue free.

If I’ve persuaded you enough to try this thing, the download link for the game is here (scroll down a little bit and you’ll see it; all it is is one zip file, and then you’re ready to go). OFF and the indie games like it that I’ve been playing just go to show that some of the most meaningful fictional stories of today can be told in simplest and most unexpected art forms. OFF may not have been sponsored or published for money, and it doesn’t seem to offer as much as it will at first, and it may just be a video game, but it’s now up there with all of the fiction that I ever spent cash on to read and play through.

Escaping from your purpose is impossible.
Art by Tumblr user @japhet-the-firebird

These Boots Are Made For Owning

In which SexyCyborg, a badass female hacker, designs 3D printed shoes that can break into computers and more.

From handguns to entire office buildings, 3D printing allows anyone, anywhere to design and build powerful engineering feats. Coders especially have utilized 3D printing in ways I’m a fan of, and one of these artists is Chinese hacker SexyCyborg, who created a pair of gravity defying shoes to give her a leg up in the pen testing field.

Penetration testing is like the chaotic good of hacking, wherein a hacker doesn’t just sell her independently researched exploit to the highest bidder from anywhere in the world. Many large organizations with vast data and IoT to protect will offer “bounties” for lone good guy hackers and private cyber security firms alike to compete for: if you can break into their systems, with proof, and show them how to nix the holes, they’ll thank you handsomely. The Pentagon once brought in a team of 1,400 individuals to find security vulnerabilities on their systems, and some were rewarded up to $15,000 each.

SexyCyborg is one of the many young people taking advantage of the opportunities in this industry. Working as an independent pen tester, she decided to get inventive with her method of sneaking tools onto a site. The more seemingly innocuous, the better. This led her to 3D print what she has dubbed her “Wu Ying” heels. “Wu Ying,” which means “shadowless,” is a name she derived from Chinese folk hero/martial artist Wong Fei Hung and his infamous “shadowless kick.”

On her Imgur, SexyCyborg details the build of the shoes and shares her blueprints so that other Printers can try them on for size. The block wedges holding her up would appear to be solid, but they’re hollowed out inside to fit a very specific set of tools. Each shoe’s removable portion works like a drawer. The coolest part? Even with all of that gear loaded, they’re lightweight enough for her to walk with ease. She says that she can stand on them without the heels in.

Wu_Ying_Shoe-Left-Size8_preview_featured

What she’s got inside:  an OpenWRT TL-MR10U wireless router, a USB keystroke recorder, a set of lock picks, and a retractable Ethernet cable. That small, harmless-looking router runs a software called Wispi, with which, as SexyCyborg states, “you can fake being a friendly/known WiFi access point and setup a fake login page to capture passwords.”

In a Q&A with vice.com, she explains why she specifically chose women’s shoes for her project. “Since most women’s clothing do not have pockets, if we lose our handbags or they get stolen, it’s really a huge problem. Shoes have a lot of unused space that’s not taken advantage of.”

Imagine your stashing phone, credit cards, and keys in the safety of your wedges the next time you’re out at a bar but don’t want to carry a purse but also don’t want someone reaching in for the valuables on your person when you slip them into the waistband of your pocket-less jeans for a second to hold your beer. (This happened to me. @ Mickey’s in WeHo, I love you, but your clientele is shady as fuck.) SexyCyborg also suggests using these shoes to store devices like LibraryBox, on which you can take ebooks, movies, music and more on-the-go.

On what it’s like to be a woman in her sometimes male dominated field, and on some of the backlash she received when her female-centric product went viral, she has some friendly words. The disclaimer at the end of her “Wu Ying” Imgur thread makes reference to one of the first times the Internet found her in a big way: Reddit, in true Reddit fashion, made some of the highest voted comments on her heel thread about her rack and whether or not they were fake, complete with edgy lines about “penetration” and what she was really distracting with. She doesn’t care.

“A lot of the doubt associated with my projects is a bit like people thinking about trees being cut down by burly men with axes,” she told Vice, “while dismissing the idea of a women cutting down trees because they are unaware that chainsaws have been invented.” Chainsaw away, sis.

“I have more ideas for 3D printable projects for young women that I’d like to do. It’s a good learning platform and I’d like to come up with a reason for girls to take an interest in it.”

True to her word, SexyCyborg has released her source files for free so that anyone can print shoes just as badass.

Your password might suck, but you can change that

In the digital age, making sure that your private data stays truly private is paramount. If you’re one of those people whose password is “password,” “starwars,” “12345678,” or anything on say, this list of most commonly used and compromised passwords, I have some news that you probably already know: Your password sucks.

You may be wondering why it matters, though, if you consider yourself a regular joe with nothing to hide on the Internet, and if the only people you know who might ever try to hack into your Facebook are your mother and your regretful ex.

However, your concern with your passwords should not be with the people you know, but with the people, and their botnets, that you don’t. I can’t be the only one who’s ever had a strange online credit card purchase appear on their statement, an onslaught of spam emails suddenly, or unusual activity on one of my social media accounts. Even if you haven’t, the likelihood that you will is increasing: according to SecurityWeek, 4.2 billion online records were hacked and released in 2016 alone. That’s up from 1.1 billion in 2013.

So what can you do to make your passwords as hack-proof as possible? I believe the best plan of action starts first with understanding just exactly how password s can get cracked. Sophisticated password-jackers don’t just sit in front of their computers manually typing guesses. They automatically spam the password fields on sites, servers, and routers with precompiled wordlists or “dictoniaries,” which offer guesses in the hundreds of thousands and millions. One of the most common ones, rockyou.txt, is so big that even just trying to read it as a simple text file nearly crashes my l’il laptop. (Also, for reference: if you’ve ever seen Mr. Robot, if you look closely, you can see Elliot using tools like this on Linux to hack his “friends”).

Equipped with enough processing power, a real hacker’s computer can file through these wordlists so fast, that passwords can be owned within a matter of hours. There are also ways of making the process even faster using terminal/command line utilities such as crunch. Crunch allows hackers to set up a rubric for the order or pattern they think the password will be in. For example, if you know there will be characters first, numbers second, and symbols third, you can specify this. Plus, this doesn’t include key words and numbers such as the birthday and pet’s name listed on your Facebook profile, that someone somewhere may’ve gathered about you via social engineering.

So, now that you know this information, what can you do to keep yourself safe? Here are some tips I’ve gathered, from personal experience and various readings across the Internet.

  • Use complex passwords, especially for banking and email.

Complexity is, for example: the more, characters the better, as many in the double digits as you can remember; a combination of alphanumeric and symbolic typing, such as AK&T!5V8F9; intentionally scrambling or misspelling dictionary words, so “cat” or “house” become tca and shuoe.

Check out this video in which Dr. Mike Pound of Computerphile gives his advice on how to achieve complexity.

  • Change your passwords often, and use different passwords on every site.

Even if you have the most obscure password on the planet, and even if the website you’re using encrypts your password as you type it, it doesn’t mean anything if the plaintext of your password has somehow become visible to hackers. One of the ways this can happen is if a hacker is able to steal raw data from a database, where the company keeps your password so the site can remember you.

While some companies willfully under-invest in their cybersecurity practices, there are many major corporations, some of the most secure in the game, who still fall victim to clever gray and black hatters besting them (I don’t think I have to tell you what we’ve heard about Yahoo! lately). In 2015, The New York Times released an interactive tool for people to check which major websites and services have had customer data leaked.

Most companies will inform their customers when breaches happen, but often times, breaches can go unnoticed by them for days, or even years. Because you never really know who’s able to get into what when, the safest way to play it is to make sure the data that someone hypothetically could have on you, is constantly changing and inaccurate.

  • Physically write your passwords down, or use a Password managing software.

Having unique complicated passwords, across multiple sites, means that you’re probably going to forget them often. Personally it has helped me to keep a list of passwords in a notebook, in a place where only I can find it of course. As of this date, there are no known ways that a computer can sift through a record I keep between a hardcover in a locked closet.

Password managers such as Lastpass and Roboform will generate hard-to-remember-passwords and fill them in for you when you log-in. Check out PCWorld’s comprehensive list for other similar helpful programs.

– L

Hello, world.

Have you ever wondered how much of you there is on the Internet? I have. My fellow millennials and I live in an age where employers use Facebook in hiring decisions, tweets can lead to violent protestnothing you do online ever really gets deleted, and games like Pokémon Go connect us in virtual real-time the way we’d only dreamed was possible (or at least I’d always dreamed, as a lifelong Pokemon fanboy).

It’s always been hard to imagine my life without the Internet, personally. I grew up living at a desk with my dad’s clunky IBM desktop on it. In 2003, in the good old fifth grade, I was using Windows XP to run America Online, which I had to do via dial-up, which meant that only one person in the house could use the phone or Internet at a time, which, as you can imagine, was first-world exhausting. By 2006 I was using Internet Explorer on Windows Vista, writing several Myspace, Xanga, and other dumb teenage angst blogs that I hope have faded into obscurity (but let’s be real, they haven’t) and torrenting with LimeWire (RIP).

Back then, creating HTML blog themes and finding obscure workarounds to download things for free taught me an important, now-lifelong lesson: no matter what censorship comes, the Internet truly belongs to everyone. But something that belongs to everyone can be edited and thus destroyed by anyone, and these days, it is: by some of the lovely humans out there who enjoy coding malware.

The thing that’s always fascinated me most about computers are their viruses. I’ll never forget the day I learned as a kid that Bonzi Buddy, a now well-known case of malware, was not a helpful search tool but was in fact a crime someone committed (and really f#cking annoying, too; if you had one you understand). I’m not glad cyber theft and crime exist, but it’s also humbling to know that a fifteen year old kid from the Netherlands with no name or money could hypothetically write a program powerful enough to shut down a government. I like the fact that online, there are no class boundaries. Code is the great equalizer.

I think it’s because of this that cybersecurity is a such fast-growing field of computer science. We spend 11 hours a day online and nearly 3 billion of us use a smartphone, taking up a virtual space that we now have to watch over. Sometimes our spaces are used to launch large-scale DDoS attacks without our knowledge, our video calls surveilled by governments and pervs. This website lets you view insecure webcam streams worldwide and god knows how many female celebrities (and females in general) have been hacked for nudes.

Humans must come up with complex cyberlaws and corresponding programs that determine, for example, whether or not the NSA should massively collect data and exploits, or where jurisdiction should be held when a criminal technically comes from nowhere, or what should be done about the environmental impact of tech on the Earth.

But where do the majority of us, and our iPhones with Instagrams of cat memes, fall into the grand scheme? What about the fun of it, the Snapchats and subreddits and vines (RIP)? Personally, I embrace our robot overlords – because at the end of the day, humans were behind them – and I appreciate the f#ck out of them being able to do things like drive by themselves, run like a cheetah, and dance in choreographed teams.

I started studying computers, hacking, cyber crime, robots, and social media trends about a year ago for hobby’s sake. Along the way here, I want to document what’s happening with surveillance technology in the U.S.: when the Internet is in our homes, watches, cars, and heart and baby monitors, is it always a good thing? Is there really too much information? This is a conversation I see happening all around me. I can’t wait to share more about what I’ve learned from the people having it.

It’s good housekeeping to take care of your digital house too.

– L